In Paris, a Very Progressive Agenda Is Going Mainstream

Whatever you think of them, you can’t say the new promises from Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo of lacking ambition. Seeking re-election at the municipal polls in March, Hidalgo unveiled proposals this week that include a referendum on the role of Airbnb, a plan to make the city center “100 percent bicycle,” a new 5,000-strong municipal police force in which at least half the staff are women, and a vow to spend 20 billion euros on converting office buildings into affordable housing.

By international standards these are bold proposals. Other European cities may already be on the road to going further in similar policy areas: Madrid has already banned cars from its inner city, Barcelona has hit Airbnb with a fine of €600,000 for breaking local home-share rule infractions, and Berlin has approved a citywide five-year rent freeze. No other city is as yet going quite as hard as Paris, however, in trying to tackle pollution, congestion, and housing access and affordability simultaneously.

In an unusual Paris election season, however, what might seem ultra-progressive in other cities doesn’t set Hidalgo’s policy package drastically apart from the crowd. While she currently leads in the polls, her primary opponents have not necessarily been Green-skeptic conservatives as such, but other candidates occupying the center-left space who have equally forthright, broadly pro-green choices in their manifestos. As news magazine L’Obs puts it, Paris has “a municipal landscape where all the candidates are striving to green their program.” In that local context, Hidalgo’s plans do not seem especially radical.

If the current mayor is re-elected, some of these program promises may be relatively easy to deliver. A referendum on Airbnb, for example, has been in the cards for some time. The idea, the mayor insists, would not be to block possibilities for genuine home-sharing, but to allow Parisians to decide neighborhood by neighborhood exactly what local regulations they want placed on the sector. Slated to be held before this summer, the vote could still create some problems by introducing a hyper-local checkerboard of differing rules, with strict regulations in some places and a more laissez-faire approach in others, but it’s something that not even Airbnb itself could object to in principle. Other proposals, such as the plan to make inner Paris a bicycle-first city work well because they do not come with a specific timetable attached, and thus suggest a simple continuation of the tough car-removing policies with which Hidalgo has already made a name for herself.

The plan would see more express cycling routes, segregated with raised medians, and lane space allotted to bikes across the city. This space would be largely taken from current space allotted to cars, while a pedestrianization plan will continue to sweep motor vehicles away from major streets. Such changes are indeed within the mayor’s power, though they have been challenged (unsuccessfully) in the past by regional leaders claiming that they are unfair to suburban commuters.

Others, however, will require substantial funding and the mobilization of support. Hidalgo is setting herself the target of  starting construction on 30,000 new homes with rents at least 20 percent lower than market rates by 2026—a plan to be funded by a 50/50 split public-private partnership. Many of these units are due to come from converted office space, which Hidalgo believes is oversupplied and in less urgent demand than housing. And the plan would certainly be popular with the stretched middle class. Employers may nonetheless fear a loss of potential workspace, and “affordable housing” that hinges on market-rate prices can easily become unaffordable when private rents spike.  

What’s striking about Paris’ current politics, however, is not that these measures are being proposed, but that many of Hidalgo’s main opponents are proposing something similar. Benjamin Griveaux, candidate for President Macron’s centrist La République en Marche party, is also proposing to help middle-class renters—by helping landlords to renovate substandard-condition housing that is unrentable. He is likewise pushing for new segregated cycle paths that will ultimately be double the length of Paris’s metro. Popular independent Cédric Villani, a former LREM leading light who has launched his candidacy in opposition to official party candidate  Griveaux, wants to become “Paris’s first true eco-mayor,” cracking down on skyscraper construction on the periphery of the city, pushing for more Airbnb regulation, and introducing such measures as organic-only meals in school cafeterias. The Green Party candidate David Belliard is no less forthright, advocating that Paris follow Berlin’s example and instigate a five-year rent freeze. In a city where these four candidates together are currently polling over 65 percent of the vote share, Hidalgo’s proposals for the 2.2 million residents within her jurisdiction are clearly mainstream.

As you might expect, these candidates are highly critical of Hidalgo’s record. But these criticisms are not aimed at the mayor’s policies so much as the discrepancy between them and her actual record. Griveaux says the mayor is dawdling on her bike plans, with only 50 percent of the goals set in 2015 met. Villani has likewise criticized Hidalgo for failing to deliver yet on her goal of reining in the effect of Airbnb on the rental market, and of cynical links with developers constructing a controversial skyscraper on the Paris periphery. Hidalgo has defended herself around housing issues such as Airbnb’s pressure on rents by pointing out that 100,000 public housing units have been constructed in Paris since 2001, when her socialist party predecessor as mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, assumed power.

Green candidate David Belliard, meanwhile, has questioned Hidalgo’s green credentials, attributing her successes in sustainability to pressure from his own party whichto add a twist — currently holds posts in Hidalgo’s administration as a minor coalition partner in Paris’s municipal assembly. It may be hard to demonstrate that Green Party influence has been the shaping force in the administration’s sustainability goals, but the mayor’s reputation as trusted driver of green change has been somewhat damaged by a chaotic breakdown in the city’s bikeshare system last year.

Among the serious candidates, only Rachida Dati of the Republicans still declares herself against what is possibly Hidalgo’s most controversial policy, the pedestrianization of quays on the Seine’s right bank. Dati is likewise the only major candidate skeptical about the mayor’s pro-bike drive. “I don’t see myself going to work by bike,” she has said. “You’d only have to see the state I’d arrive in.” A reasonable objection to bike commuting, no doubt, but its rarity among candidates suggest that Hidalgo has won arguments over placing sustainable transit at the heart of the municipal program.

Does that mean she will also win the election? In a rather strange election season—a political climate that has changed dramatically in recent years—there is still much up for grabs. When Hidalgo was elected, France also had a socialist Party president. Since then, support for her party has plummeted nationally (much of it shifting to Macron’s LREM), making her highly vulnerable even if she enjoys much local support. In Paris’s two-round process of elimination system, she will still likely prevail as the candidate of the left due to disarray amongst her opponents. (If LREM’s supporters hadn’t been split into two camps due to the rival campaigns of Griveaux and Villani, Macron’s party could likely have won.)

But even if she still doesn’t beat her rivals, what isn’t nearly as vulnerable is an ambitious green agenda, as her sole major opponent on the right, Dati, currently has only minority support. With a slate of candidates backing similar policies to Hidalgo’s, the true victory seems to be for an urban politics that places sustainability at the heart of its policy choices—a position at center-stage that looks set to endure in Paris whatever the result of March’s elections.

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U.S. Mayors Say Infrastructure Is a Priority. But What Kind?

In 2014, Boston University’s Initiative on Cities asked a group of 70 mayors across the U.S. to name the most pressing issues in their cities. That year, the bipartisan group from places big and small largely agreed the answer was infrastructure.

Last year, as part of their now-annual Menino Survey of Mayors, the university asked a bigger group of mayors a similar question: What issue related to cities did they hope would get talked about during the 2020 election cycle? Six years and one very different president later, their most urgent priority hasn’t changed.

Released this morning, the survey, named for former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, paints a picture of mixed urban progress. Mayors from 119 cities with more than 75,000 people participated in the survey. Representatives from the West and the South dominated the sample, with 69 percent of all respondents; their average population was about 230,000. Less representative of the country were the mayors themselves: More than half were Democrats, three quarters were male, and 81 percent were white. This doesn’t reflect a sampling error as much as persistent differences between the demographics of urban areas and their leaders; in the 15 largest cities, about a third are people of color, and three are women.

Because Amazon HQ2 and local economic development tactics dominated the headlines last year, 2018’s survey asked mayors to weigh the value of offering tax incentives to companies; they also debated how best to increase social mobility, and how much—and what kind of—housing to build. This year, instead of asking a few questions about more than a dozen policy issues, as they’ve done in the past, the researchers chose to zero in on “issues where mayors have a lot of direct influence,” said David Glick, an associate professor of political science at Boston University who’s been involved with the survey since its genesis. Infrastructure, transportation, pedestrian safety, climate, economic development, and the future of work made the final list, he says, because they’re “bread-and-butter local issues” that often involve weighing higher-stakes trade-offs. “They showed a general consensus on bigger-picture things, and then variations in terms of priorities,” Glick said.

The big takeaway: There are some trade-offs city leaders just aren’t very willing to make.

Though polarization is less stark among city leaders than it is in Congress—and mayors as a cohort typically lean more blue—nowhere was the partisan divide felt more clearly than on questions of climate responsibility. An overwhelming majority of Democratic mayors—92 percent—agreed that cities have some part to play in reducing climate change, “even if it means sacrificing revenues and/or expending financial resources.” But only a quarter of the Republican executives agreed. (This divide looked very similar in 2014 and 2016, the report notes.) Vehicles were identified as the biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in their cities by 66 percent of mayors (transportation emissions tend to have the largest carbon impact nationwide), and the majority of mayors agreed or strongly agreed that people in their cities were too “car-focused.”

This is where mayors’ commitment to changing those dynamics seems to stall. For example, while many transportation advocates cite the general overabundance of cheap parking in U.S. cities as a critical flaw that has incentivized car dependence, sprawl, and traffic congestion, few mayors seem to agree: Most survey respondents say their parking is just the right price, in just the right amount of places. (Democrats seemed more willing to cede parking space to electric vehicle infrastructure, however.)

Generally, pedestrian and cyclist safety was prioritized by many mayors—a reflection, perhaps, of the limited progress most U.S. cities are making on their efforts to reduce traffic-related injuries. New research shows that even as being a car passenger is getting safer, being a pedestrian is becoming more dangerous. Still, “majorities of mayors rate travel in their city as safe for all of the groups we asked about,” and only 22 percent of mayors ranked “pedestrian friendliness” as a top infrastructure priority, while 66 percent listed “roads.” Democratic mayors did full-throatedly commit to sacrificing car lanes and parking spaces to bike lanes, with 92 percent on board compared to Republicans’ 34 percent—a partisan divide that’s ballooned 30 points since the survey’s 2015 edition.

Vision Zero, the global movement to dramatically reduce pedestrian fatalities, may be a hot topic in transportation circles but it’s not exactly a national priority in America’s city halls: It’s tied for seventh place (with “lighting”) on a list of what’s been most important for pedestrian safety improvements. Based on CityLab research showing that Vision Zero efforts aren’t paying off fast enough in some of the U.S.’s largest participants, perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. As for other traffic safety measures, most mayors think their cities are doing enough. Despite global efforts to drop vehicle speeds inside cities, nearly three-quarters of mayors surveyed thought their speed limits were set at the “right level,” while only 15 percent thought they were set too high.

“Mass transit” ranked third on mayor’s top infrastructure priorities, behind roads and water. Notably, the survey’s pared down format didn’t inquire further into the specifics of what mayors wanted to do to upgrade public transportation. But even the most environmentally bullish mayors can do little to reduce car dependency unless they create other affordable, comprehensive ways to get around.

When urban leaders talk about the persistent need for infrastructure improvements, they often blame the federal government for failing to invest or care enough in local needs. But, as mayors are just as quick to tell you, there’s a lot of progress that can start in City Hall. If they don’t adjust their priorities to match the urgency of the crises they’ve identified, mayors might have no one to blame for stalled progress but themselves.

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An Urbanist Investor’s Table Stakes for Tech Leaders

Don’t let the WeWork, Uber, and Lyft implosions fool you. Hundreds of urban tech startups are thriving right now—and billions of dollars are still being invested in them. Venture capitalists and the entrepreneurs they invest in are more excited than ever about building new tech startups to improve urban life and governance. Richard Florida recently estimated in CityLab that between 2016 and 2018, urban tech investment totaled more than $75 billion, representing roughly 17 percent of all global venture-capital investment.

I encounter these urban tech entrepreneurs and their investors regularly: I’ve interviewed them on my podcast Technopolis, I’ve taught them in my Berkeley Haas class, and I’ve even joined a few of their advisory boards. Like any savvy venture capitalist, when I meet a new urban techie, I size them up to understand whether they’re a good investment—of my time. Most VCs assess for product/market fit, how well the founding team gets along, or how scalable their solution is, and those are all important indicators for success. But for me, there’s one indicator that is essential for the success of an urban tech startup: Are they civically engaged?

Sure, as the early Uber lobbyist Bradley Tusk suggests, every urban tech startup should invest in a smart government and community relations strategy. But, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the founder who boasts their startup will make streets safer, or the investor who boasts their portfolio companies will make cities smarter.

While they’re “solving” those issues for cities around the world, how much do they care about those very issues in their own backyards? Based on my conversations with hundreds of urban tech entrepreneurs and investors, I’d estimate that many don’t. How can I tell? I convene groups of tech leaders to talk about local politics regularly, and host ballot analysis events every election cycle. The attendees are sometimes well-versed in the high-profile ballot measures (eg. taxing Uber/Lyft) and top-of-ticket candidates (e.g. president, senator, mayor). But when I ask them what city council district they’re in and which local candidate they’re voting for, only about two out of ten of them have any idea. Many will then confess, quietly, that they usually leave that one blank.

How can someone genuinely care about solving city problems if they don’t care enough to vote for city council?

That’s why I’ve come up with five Urban Tech Table Stakes. (Table stakes, according to Urban Dictionary, is “the minimum amount required to play a hand of poker. Also, the minimum amount of effort your lazy ass needs to expend to compete at work, in relationships and basically all facets of life.”) In other words, if you want to be an urban tech entrepreneur or investor, here is the bare minimum you should do to be civically engaged—and credible:

Join a neighborhood group

I confess, I avoided this for a long time. As someone who’s been engaged in local politics and on the boards of local policy organizations, I thought that relatively powerless (and oftentimes NIMBY) neighborhood groups wouldn’t be a good use of my time. I was wrong. Joining my neighborhood group has connected me with neighbors I’d never have met and helped me understand different perspectives on urban policies I’ve worked on for years. It’s also helped give me a more visceral comprehension for how how grassroots politics impacts decision-making in city hall (in a city like San Francisco, that impact is huge). And the best part is, I now know more about what’s going on around my corner and when that new restaurant will finally open.

Attend a public meeting

It can be both inspiring and depressing to see our local democracy in action. Sometimes public meetings show the best of our cities: when elected officials demonstrate their diligence and diplomacy, advocacy groups fight for their values, and citizens from all corners of the city have a chance to chime in. Alas, public meetings are usually more mundane or dysfunctional than that. And in many cities the “STPs” (same ten people) show up to every public meeting (because few citizens have time time, or care, to attend) and have a disproportionate impact on decision-making for everyone. That is exactly why we should still participate. And while your neighborhood group might help you understand the perspectives of folks who live near you, a public meeting can help you get out of your neighborhood bubble and understand the perspectives of different communities.

Read—and subscribe—to your local news outlet

CityLab is fantastic, but it doesn’t cover your city as closely as your local paper will. Your local paper can not only help you be a more informed voter, it can help you stay up to date (and more involved) in local policy issues. Reading your local paper is good for you, but subscribing to it is good for your city. Many have documented how local papers act as watchdogs to keep municipal budgets in check, increase voter participation and the number of people running for elected office, and decrease partisanship. Subscribing or contributing helps keep that paper in business.

Know who represents you in city hall

Mayors are high profile and I’ve found that most urban tech leaders are familiar with the executive branch of their city government. But the legislative branch (eg. the city council) is just as important if not moreso. In some cities, council members can be like mini mayors, with huge sway over what happens in their districts. In others, city councils hold far more power than mayors. So, don’t just vote for the top of the ticket. Learn about who your local representatives are and what their voting record is on issues you care about. Your vote—for or against them—can have a significant impact on how your city funds and regulates those issues (particularly when voter turnout is low).

Vote

While we’re all focused on the top of the ticket this primary season, many municipalities have local officials on the ballot too. And those elections can have as much, if not greater, impact on your city than a presidential election. Unfortunately, voter turnout is abysmal for local elections. CityLab’s Kriston Capps recently documented that in 15 of the 30 most populous cities in the U.S., voter turnout in mayoral elections is less than 20 percent. So, I’ll make this easy for U.S. voters: register here.

Some of these stakes might feel like time-consuming distractions to busy urban tech leaders. They’re building global businesses that improve millions of lives around the world, they’d say. No time for the pettiness of local politics. I’d respond that being civically engaged in your own city can give you insights that help you build a more effective, and successful, urban tech business. And I’d also remind them that while the private sector may be an important lever for change, public policy is the greatest lever for change in our cities. So if you genuinely care about the future of cities, learn how to pull the policy lever, not just to benefit your company, but to benefit everyone. And start in your own backyard.

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Out of Darkness, Light Rail!

When San Diego opened its light rail system in 1981, Mayor Pete Wilson declared it “a good idea whose time has come again.’” The bright red train cars, known as “the Trolley,” harked back to the urban railway that spanned 165 miles across metropolitan San Diego until 1949. As in so many North American cities, that streetcar system was ripped out as the automobile era dawned.

But the San Diego Trolley was built with a different spirit and purpose than its predecessor. It was light rail. And from San Diego, the new mode would spread across North America. Far cheaper to build than a subway, faster than a streetcar, and perhaps more alluring than a bus, light rail was seen as the answer to congested highways, growing populations, and civic fantasies of a dozen U.S. cities in the 1980s and early ‘90s.

In practice, the success of these systems varied quite a bit. But the ideas that set their shiny cars in motion remain today. Public transit funding hasn’t gotten much better since the 1980s, and cities are still living in that material world.

To understand the light rail boom, it helps to know how poorly the heavy rail systems of the 1960s and 1970s were perceived at the time. Washington, D.C’s Metro, Atlanta’s MARTA, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system were all born of that earlier era, a time of hearty federal funding for “urban renewal”projects with a futuristic bent. But the construction of these systems ran significantly over budget, and several experienced serious technical problems early on, like when a BART train in Fremont ran into a sand embankment five months into service, injuring passengers. “There was a backlash to heavy rail,” said Jeff Brown, a professor of urban planning at Florida State University who has written extensively on the history of light rail.

Yet local leaders in mid-sized cities still wanted—and needed—public transit. Highways were becoming more congested as urban growth patterns sprawled to the suburbs and downtown centers emptied out. In the 1970s, Edmonton, Alberta had been the first in North America to adopt light rail technology, which had started in Germany as a hybrid of tram-grade cars and rapid-transit-grade tracks. (Be warned: The term “light rail” is distinct from “streetcar,” although the difference between the two modes is murky; the latter usually—but not always—refers to historical urban railways that run in mixed traffic, with shorter routes, slower speeds, and more frequent stops.) Light rail seemed to have many advantages: It could run in existing rights-of-way, didn’t require digging tunnels or building aerial supports, and the technology was much less complex than heavy rail. “It’s more like an amusement park ride,’” an executive at the American Public Transit Association reportedly quipped at the ribbon-cutting of the Trolley.

But the lack of sophistication was also an advantage. After San Diego built its system in a few short years and for less than $6 million per mile—a fraction of what BART had cost, for example—Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Sacramento, San Jose, and Portland would all open their own light rails by the end of the decade, too. “There was so much excitement at that point among policy people,” said Shelley Poticha, a managing director at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the former executive director of the Congress for New Urbanism, a nonprofit that advocates for walkable, transit-oriented communities. “They thought, ‘Maybe this is the thing that’ll get people out of cars.’”

Buffalo’s Metro Rail system, which opened in 1984, boasts another benefit to local commuters: It’s (partially) snow-proof. (John Normile/Getty Images)

Certain people, in particular. Planners believed that light rail could draw a new market of riders. Car-owning commuters who lived in suburbs but might be interested in alternative transportation options were seen as the natural light rail constituency. Buses carried a stigma—a racist, classist stigma—but trains had cachet. “The idea was that if you provided a reliable, high-quality rail service, that might appeal to those individuals,” Brown said. That’s why virtually all light rail systems followed a “hub and spoke” layout, with long arms reaching out to the suburbs rather than focusing on the city core.

Compared to “captive” riders who relied on transit as their primary mode, these “choice” riders—terms have since fallen out of fashion in transit lingo—were generally better off and able to pay higher fares. Multiple studies have since proven that light rail systems do indeed recoup more revenue from passenger fares than buses do—in fact, the San Diego Trolley still boasts one of the highest “farebox recovery ratios” in the U.S.

All of this was important to 1980s planners. President Ronald Reagan cut federal support for transit by 32 percent in his first year in office, and later tried to slash operating subsidies and capital investment by another two-thirds. His characterization of Miami’s heavy rail metro in March 1985, which was just 10 months old and falling short of ridership projections, is a good snapshot of his views. “In Miami,” Reagan told a conference of county officials, “the $1 billion subsidy helped build a system that serves less than 10,000 daily riders. That comes to $100,000 per passenger. It would have been a lot cheaper to buy everyone a limousine.”

As the federal government withdrew support for transit projects (and for just about every type of public benefit, especially within cities), light rail was a comparatively modest ask by local governments, one they could pay more for themselves.

But as the spindly systems spanned out across the land, most fell short on attracting significant new crowds of riders or shifting commuters away from their cars. “They were sold on the idea of reducing congestion, and that didn’t happen anywhere,” said Brown. In Sacramento, San Jose, and Pittsburgh, transit’s overall mode share has declined since the early 1990s. San Diego’s has stayed flat. Even Portland, which probably has the most fleshed-out light rail network in the U.S., has gained only a couple of percentage points in its portion of commuters using transit since its MAX opened.

Meanwhile, while cities have continued to invest in light rail, it has often come at the expense of bus service, thus disadvantaging poorer riders of color.

“It’s not like [light rail systems] are unused,” said Jonathan English, a doctoral student at Columbia University (and CityLab contributor) who specializes in the history of urban transit in North America. “But after dozens or even a hundred kilometers of light rail, the effect of these transit systems as transportation has been pretty marginal.”

Part of the problem was the alignment of many light rail systems. Constrained by strict federal funding requirements, planners often laid their tracks along freeway medians and busy arteries to save money; that means riders often had to trek across multiple lanes of speeding traffic to board, and stations often had to be sited far from walkable residential areas. There was also little integration with existing bus networks, or vice-versa. “It’s good if you can walk to the light rail station, but even in cities with extensive networks like Portland, only a tiny percentage of the region’s population can do that,” English said. Fast, frequent bus networks could feed more riders to these stations, but few cities have focused investment in buses until very recently. English likens such unsupported light rail systems to “skeletons without a body.”

But the hottest mode of the 1980s was successful in other respects. Those early systems—which were soon followed by at least 12 more in the 1990s and 2000s—helped revitalize hollowed-out downtowns, with property values increasing around stations in virtually every city that built one. They helped anchor walkable, transit-oriented communities in many cities, with Portland as the poster child. Cities like Phoenix and Salt Lake City have more recently taken a page out of Portland’s book, building light rail with local sales tax measures to support placemaking and economic development efforts downtown. Sacramento, San Jose, and Los Angeles (which opened its first light rail line in 1990) have undertaken major bus network redesigns to better compliment rail systems and serve core riders. “I don’t think light rail policy is fully fixed, but we’re in a much better place than we were in the 1980s,” Poticha said.

All told, the legacy of the era’s light rail fever is mixed. But from a transportation perspective, it was a more practical trend than the more recent mania for downtown streetcars. The dinky little lines built in gentrifying sections of Detroit, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and other cities in the last decade make basically zero pretense of serving transit riders; these short loops of notoriously slow conveyances are instead built to drive up property taxes. Nothing wrong with that on its face. But as greenhouse gases from vehicles rise, and as the federal government continues to starve transit funding, streetcars are an uncomfortably old-fashioned look—and use of local tax dollars.

By comparison, light rail systems—the flawed children of Reagan-era compromise—seem a lot more rational. They might not have been able to lure Americans out of their cars, but their time may yet come.

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Bernie Sanders Wins Endorsement From the Internet’s Premier Urbanist Meme-Makers

When Juliet Eldred launched a Facebook group called New Urbanist Memes For Transit-Oriented Teens in 2017, she figured it might last a few months. Sharing irreverent memes about public transit, mixed-use housing, and other city planning fodder was just a way to blow off steam with friends as a geography major at the University of Chicago.

But NUMTOT lasted well past her graduation. Fueled by attention from increasingly influential media organizations, the group now counts more than 180,000 members worldwide. And they’re making their presence known in the offline arena of national politics. On Wednesday, Eldred and the group’s other top administrators, Jonathan Marty and Emily Orenstein, posted an official endorsement for Bernie Sanders in his run for president: “As transportation and housing professionals, as well as urbanists who are deeply invested in the social and economic welfare of our communities, we are committed to Senator Sanders’ vision of peace, equity, and justice,” they wrote.

Today, Bernie sent some love right back, in a statement posted to his campaign Facebook page: “Thank you NUMTOT for your support of our campaign, and for all you are doing to create the lasting and fundamental change our country needs.” Alongside the message of appreciation was a photo of Sanders boarding a bus—pure NUMTOT catnip. The comment section went wild, in its web-parlance way: “I’m s h o o k e t h,” wrote one member.

Although NUMTOT’s administrators state in their endorsement that they do not “purport to speak for the group as a whole,” Eldred sees many of Sanders’ specific policy ideas as aligned with the group’s founding ideals. “Proposing to build 10 million units of affordable housing, national rent control, working on dismantling the legacies of redlining, $300 billion for public transit—that’s all attractive to us from our particular point of view,” she told CityLab.

Still, some readers may be wondering why a hyper-niche Spongebob-meme-swapping forum would be endorsing anything, or why this is news at all. For Eldred, the answer lies in the increasingly powerful platform that the NUMTOTs command. Over the years, the group has gradually shifted away from urban-y riffs on Galaxy Brain and Distracted Boyfriend and more towards vigorous policy debate. (Recent topics: Should cities ban cars? YIMBYs—foes or friends to affordable housing? Henry George—genius or super-genius?) All kidding aside, the group’s composition alone indicates its get-out-the-youth-vote potential.

“We have 115,000 members in the U.S. and 90 percent of them are under the age of 34,” Eldred said. “That’s a big demographic of people who are not known for voting in high numbers, and in terms of numbers, it’s comparable to other progressive organizations that have put out endorsements.” In the run-up to November, she hopes to use her administrative powers to distribute voting guide information and remind people to stay engaged, regardless of their political preferences.  

The lovefest with the Sanders campaign isn’t the first time NUMTOT discourse has turned into real-world action. The group’s members have attended public meetings, run for public office, changed college majors, and even tied the knot.

Eldred hopes their combined powers will help push urban issues further into the national spotlight, and she sees signs that they’re moving in that direction, from the past year’s focus on affordable housing among Democratic candidates to the New York Times’ recent story about experiments in free public transit. “These topics aren’t at the forefronts of everyone’s minds, besides occasional references to crumbling infrastructure,” she said, in reference to the Democratic candidate debates of the past six months. “But it seems like there is starting to be more momentum on that front. They’re not hot-button issues like healthcare, but they’re getting closer.”

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Before Paris’s Modern-Day Studios, There Were Chambres de Bonne

Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series on the home designs that define four European cities: London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris. Read the collection here.

Many of Paris’ grandest buildings hide a secret. The main facades of the city’s avenues may charm with their wrought-iron balconies and honey limestone. Inside, they may contain grand, high-ceilinged apartments on their main floors. Under the roofs and up the back staircases, however, it’s a different story. These buildings, largely constructed as part of Baron Haussmann’s mid-19th century remodeling of the city, have, despite their grandeur, long housed some of the city’s poorest residents.

Called Chambres de Bonne—“maids’ rooms”—these tiny bedsits initially intended for domestics are packed into Paris’ garrets and still number more than 100,000 across the city. Usually built without bathrooms or running water, the floorspace of these units can be as small as 85 square feet, often making them legally unrentable today. The construction of such spaces may be long passed—and most Parisians live in more spacious conditions—but Paris’ Chambres de Bonne have still done their bit to shape the city’s contemporary living culture. They have helped to combine different classes under a single roof, by stacking poor residents above wealthy—and have helped to drive down local assumptions about exactly how small a living unit can be.

(Josh Kramer)

Given their small size, it might seem incredible that when Paris’ Chambres de Bonne first surfaced as an urban phenomenon they actually represented an improvement for many. Until the mid-19th century, it was common for French domestic servants to sleep on mattresses wherever space could be found in their employers’ homes. As wealthier families moved into apartments in Haussmann’s new buildings, however, the domestic servants they needed were finally given their own (tiny) spaces: right under the roof dormers accessed by a service staircase. With only shared water pumps, these rooms were often freezing in winter, but they at least offered their tenants some privacy.

The Parisian public has nonetheless always been aware that the rooms’ conditions were bleak. As far back as Émile Zola’s 1882 novel Pot-Bouille, writers have been deploring them and, even as their original servant tenants were replaced with other low-income groups, they developed a reputation as louche, shady places whose seclusion placed them outside regular social control. As sociologist David Lepoutre put it in 2010:

This presence of a poor population on the sixth floor … perpetuates in renewed forms an old vertical urban segregation. It induces practices that make the top floor a place of weak social control where marginal lifestyles and an illegal economy can develop: midnight move-outs, un-authorized sublets, squats, wild electrical connections, warehouses of furniture and objects of all kinds in the corridors.

The city has tried to regulate the rooms for over a century. As early as 1904, the city banned maids’ rooms of less that 8 square meters (86 square feet) from being rented, a limit extended in 2002 to a princely minimum of nine square meters (97 square feet). While  maids’ rooms can be more than double that size, that 9-square-meter legal threshold still meant many  were left legally unrentable. As of 2016, up to 85 percent of Paris’ 113,000 maids’ rooms were either empty or let illegally.

That doesn’t mean that the rooms have necessarily retired from the scene. Some have a second life as Airbnbs for guests who are happy to trade cramped conditions for a good price and location. And shadowing North American design publications’ obsession with tiny homes, Parisian media commonly celebrate revamped maids’ rooms, made habitable by ingenious fold-down furniture and inventive storage.

A former maid’s room repurposed as a modern apartment, in 2016. (Thomas Sampson, AFP, via Getty Images)

Meanwhile the city is trying to bring them back into the fold. The municipality adopted a policy in 2016 of combining maids’ rooms to make small public apartments. So far, plans have been very modest—the city has set itself the target of creating just 500 new public homes from combining attic rooms. But the location of many of these units in prosperous western Paris will help promote the city’s goal of encouraging more public housing in wealthier areas.

While maids’ rooms are steadily being converted, the shadow they cast still shapes the Parisian view in a city where people still tend to live in small spaces. As of 2014, the average size of a flat within Paris’ Peripherique beltway was just 43 square meters (463 square feet)—minuscule compared to 70.4 square meters in Berlin and 74 square meters in Amsterdam. The average Parisian would no doubt balk at squeezing into a single attic studio, but in a city whose cultural image has, from La Bohème to Ratatouille, celebrated both the squalor and freedom of garret living, the maids’ rooms still shape expectations. A Parisian might find their tiny one-bedroom apartment claustrophobic but, they may reason, at least they aren’t squeezed tightly into an old servant’s room under the eaves.

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What Happened to Baltimore’s Harborplace?

On a Sunday afternoon in November, downtown Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is abuzz. It’s day three of

Surendra Chaddha, part-owner of smoke shop Tobacco ETC, says business is down 35 percent from when his store opened in the Pratt Street pavilion nearly a decade ago. He blames years-delayed and poorly executed interior renovations, as well as the constant drumbeat of news about crime happening nearby, which he says discourages visitors. ”Foot traffic is getting, every day, lower and lower and lower.”

Harborplace’s dying-mall vibe is no secret to Baltimoreans, but it’s still a shocking reversal for an attraction hailed as an urban game-changer and a national model when it opened in 1980. The brainchild of developer James Rouse and architect Benjamin Thompson, Harborplace was the Rouse Company’s first scratch-built festival marketplace, following their successful transformation of Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall into a retail attraction in 1976. Supported by a controversial 1978 ballot referendum and federal funding for an adjoining hotel from HUD’s Urban Development Action Grant program, the $20 million waterfront shopping plaza debuted on July 2, 1980, at a celebration reportedly attended by thousands featuring a live performance from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and fireworks to boot.

Harborplace joined a cluster of waterfront elements that the city’s leaders were assembling around its U-shaped harbor, a grim landscape of rotting wharves that had fallen into disuse since World War II. A science center and the I.M. Pei-designed World Trade Center office tower were already in place; an aquarium and the first of several downtown hotels were on their way. Nearby were a new convention center and the Charles Center complex—the city’s 1960’s-era urban renewal centerpiece. “This is the missing ingredient that makes it all work as one,” declared Martin Millspaugh, the head of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management and an architect of the city’s postwar revival. “Instead of a series of attractions, we’ll have one massive attraction: the shoreline.”

Opening day for Harborplace in July 1980. (Gerald Martineau—TWP/Photo by The The Washington Post via Getty Images)

It worked, brilliantly. Harborplace collected 7 million visitors—its projected total for the first year—within three months. In the New York Times, critic Paul Goldberger praised the pavilions as a “stunning success.” James Rouse landed on Time magazine in 1981, his beaming face beside the ebullient coverline “Cities Are Fun!” Baltimore was celebrated—and copied—in cities across the country for blazing a path to post-industrial resurgence, one paved in tourist dollars: Harborplace went on to inspire a slew of other festival marketplaces around the country, from Toledo’s Portside to New Orleans’ Riverwalk.

“They created the demand. There wasn’t this phenomenon of festival marketplaces at the time,” says Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which sponsors programming around the Inner Harbor and cares for its public spaces. “It was a very unique feature that created a curiosity and interest and excitement that drove people to the Inner Harbor, both tourists and locals.”

But 40 years out, the festival marketplace party is over—and not just in Baltimore. A few cities—including Tampa, Miami and Norfolk (which did demolish part of its original Waterside complex)—have given these facilities new life by working with developers to rebrand and update them. Others have succumbed to the wrecking ball. In Richmond, Virginia, the failed 6th Street Marketplace was razed in 2003, and the land reopened to pedestrians and traffic. In Jacksonville, Florida, crews recently demolished the Jacksonville Landing marketplace to replace the complex with, well, nothing, after the city agreed to a $15 million settlement to acquire it from its now-former owner.

Harborplace remains, for now, but it faces a deeply uncertain future. Last June, a city circuit court judge placed the property under receivership, putting New Jersey-based IVL Group in possession of the buildings and wresting control from New York City’s Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation. Ashkenazy had purchased Harborplace—also acquiring its lease of city-owned property running through 2087—for nearly $100 million in 2012. A recent Baltimore Business Journal investigation noted, among other discoveries, that Ashkenazy did not pay ground rent on the property since July 2014 under a now-finished rent abatement deal with the city.

Tourist vessels of all shapes and sizes dock outside the Light Street Pavilion (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

IVL Group, whose website says it specializes in “distressed asset and property management,” is managing and leasing Harborplace on behalf of Deutsche Bank Trust Co. Americas, the trustee for UBS-Barclays Commercial Mortgage Trust, which holds the mortgage on the property. The receivership opened the door for a potential sale of the troubled plaza, though IVL Group’s plans remain unclear. Asked about the pavilions’ future, the firm’s president, Ian Lagowitz, responded via email, “at this time I have no comment.”

Last summer’s receivership news and sluggish foot traffic prompted plenty of concern about the fate of the struggling pavilions. Baltimore Mayor Jack Young opined at one point that they should “be torn down and redone” (comments he later walked back, sort of). The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board suggested a “a partial tear-down and rebuild,” among other ideas.

Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Baltimore leader to suggest taking a wrecking ball to the city’s marquee attraction. But now the groundbreaking shopping center that saved the city is fighting for its own life.

***

Harborplace was never supposed to just be just a mall. Its initial strength was its locally made goods and food, says Jimmy Rouse, a Baltimore artist and one of the late developer’s two sons. He recalls his father bringing them to the Lexington Market and North Avenue Market—outposts of Baltimore’s network of public markets, the nation’s oldest—when they were growing up. The crowded, chaotic sheds full of vegetable stands, fish stalls, and lunch carry-outs provided the kind of urban vitality that the elder Rouse tried to inject into the shopping malls and planned communities he was known for.

“He loved the idea of having a meat purveyor, a cheese purveyor, a produce purveyor, all these separate, individual merchants,” Jimmy Rouse says. “When he started Harborplace, part of the vision was to recreate that, have an independent meat and cheese dealer… produce, flowers, all these individual merchants in there, along with retail that was impulse buying.”

When the New York Times ventured back to Harborplace for a food review in 1983, writer Marian Burros found dozens of vendors selling everything “from crabcakes to kielbasa,” and cited Indian, Greek, Chinese and other options, plus indigenous favorites like cheese bread from Ms. Desserts, lemon sticks, and coddies. A mainstay of the early Harborplace was The Fudgery, an aggressively fun candy vendor known for its exuberant young staff of singing fudge-makers. (The R&B group Dru Hill began their careers there.)

The throngs of visitors inside Harborplace in 1981, one year after it opened. (William Smith/AP)

It’s hard to overstate how transformative Harborplace was for Baltimore’s sense of itself in the 1980s and ‘90s. Even locals who shunned the twin pavilions as cartoony tourist traps often found themselves drawn to the waterside, especially when hosting out-of-town visitors. Baltimore held plenty of more “authentic” haunts, but it was Harborplace, and the circuit of Inner Harbor attractions it anchored, that dominated every television ad or visitor’s center brochure.

As time wore on, however—and cookie-cutter festival marketplaces popped up in dozens of other cities—the facility’s charms began to seem less distinctive. What was once a one-of-kind attraction became just one of a network of glitzy waterfront shopping emporia. The homogenization was internal, as well, as national brands began to replace the local merchants. “Chains dilute local flavor of Harborplace,” read a headline on a 2002 Baltimore Sun story that noted a troubling loss of independent retailers at the water’s edge.

Joshua Olsen, an executive vice president for D.C.-based developer Monument Realty and author of a 2003 biography on James Rouse, says Harborplace and other festival marketplaces “were victims of their own success.” Big names like Starbucks, Hooters, and UNO Pizzeria saw the retail spaces’ popularity and moved in, and smaller, locally owned retailers were priced out of leases.

Even the ownership lost its local flavor. Harborplace changed hands in 2004, when the Rouse Company was acquired by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which at the time owned or managed 178 regional shopping malls in 41 states. New York-based Ashkenazy acquired the pavilions from GGP in 2013.

Ashkenazy had planned to modernize the pavilions in 2016 and 2017, including updating the facades and interior retail spaces and adding a marketplace on the second floor of the Pratt Street side. But the work lagged and, based on previously presented designs, never fully materialized. And the exodus of tenants quickened.  

Inside Harborplace today, vacancies abound. (Ethan McLeod/CityLab)

Jimmy Rouse has watched as all this misfortune descended on the pavilions his father built, and he’s convinced that they could be be revitalized by simply going back to the original formula that made Harborplace such a hit in 1980: a renewed focus on local. His ideal restoration would “emphasize small merchants, not big national chains that the previous owners have tried to bring in there and that didn’t work. You need made-in-Maryland, made-in-Baltimore.”

It would also ideally be managed by an invested, Maryland-based owner, not an outside firm with an entire national portfolio to manage, Rouse says: “It needs an owner that cares. It’s had two really bad owners in a row, both from out of town.”

But the customer base is there and untapped, he argues, pointing to newly built high-rises and conversions of offices into apartments around the harbor. “There are more residents living downtown than at any time in Baltimore’s history,” Rouse says—not to mention the still-vigorous stream of visitors drawn by other Inner Harbor attractions like the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center. In neighborhoods beyond the harbor, freshly minted food halls are packing in hungry crowds; by returning to its 1980s roots, Harborplace could jump aboard a very hot urban dining trend.

“I think there’s a grand opportunity there,” Rouse says. “And I’m sure if my father were alive, he’d see it as a grand opportunity.”

***

But saving Harborplace might not be that simple: Changing consumer demands, design considerations, and even rising sea levels may all be working against the future viability of the two pavilions.

“They fall into the period of malls being social places of gathering,” says Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect and urban design blogger. “And the mall is obsolete now, and the mini-mall on the waterfront is obsolete as well.”

The toast of the city when it opened in 1980, Harborplace now awaits its revival. (Ethan McLeod/CityLab)

Harborplace’s connectivity to the city is also hampered by street design, Philipsen notes: It’s ringed by multi-lane thoroughfares feeding the two interstate highways, I-95 and I-83, that penetrate the city. Pedestrians coming from downtown need to cross thick spans of traffic to reach the shopping areas. To facilitate better walkability, he suggests eliminating lanes on Pratt and Light streets, to “make these highways less highway-like and more like a city boulevard.”

Another local architect, Adam Gross of downtown architecture firm Ayers Saint Gross, which prepared a comprehensive Inner Harbor master plan for the Waterfront Partnership in 2013, blames the pavilions themselves: While they collected many design awards in their time, they have “dated horribly, architecturally,” he says. “There’s just way too much ill-defined space.” Many of the pavilions’ tenant spaces have entryways facing busy streets, not the water nearby, and have exposed loading docks. “I would strip it back to the raw concrete, at a minimum, and just make them glass pavilions,” Gross says.

Business leaders have called for addressing the market’s subpar street-level access and compromised views for years. A spokesperson for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit that represents downtown neighborhoods’ commercial and residential interests, noted its 2008 Pratt Street renewal plan recommended better screening of mechanical equipment and loading docks, among other aesthetic improvements. (The organization otherwise declined to comment on Harborplace’s future, saying its territory ends north of the waterfront, and deferred to the Waterfront Partnership.)

Randy Sovich, a North Baltimore-based architect, says for both pavilions, “the existing building shell would lend itself to other uses or configurations” like city-owned public makerspaces and marketplaces. Design-wise, he similarly envisions more transparent structures, offering New York City’s Pier 17—a recent transformation of another early waterfront Rouse project—as an example.

“I’m picturing a new expanded roof structure/platform that would be a public space,” he said via email. He also suggested the Pratt Street pavilion’s second level may be superfluous and could instead be made into “an open elevated park space.”

Sovich is co-editor of the architecture zine T3XTURE, which collaborated with the AIA’s Baltimore chapter and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation in 2019 on a design competition that challenged designers and architects to rethink the harbor’s edge. While a number of the 13 finalist proposals retained the pavilions, some of them proposed replacing one or both with green or public space. Many included ambitious plans to better connect waterways flowing into the harbor, or providing for more softscape and natural elements.

One, designed by University of Maryland landscape architecture students, proposes reforesting the area where the Light Street pavilion now sits to create a new softscape canopy. Another, from Murphy and Dittenhafer Architects, suggests using repurposed dredged material in the Inner Harbor to mitigate storm surges.

Architects Kelly Danz and Amanda Ganginis submitted a design that Danz says is “based around recreation, not shopping like it is now.” The current Inner Harbor, she says, includes “too much hardscape. It just needs to be more green, and I think it could be more open.” Their idea centers around carving out inlets to let water flow from the harbor to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Maryland Science Center, and other nearby inland areas. It would also add waterside recreational spaces and install permeable surfaces, parks, and green roofs to better manage stormwater runoff.

A post-retail Harborplace plan, “Permeable Futures,” from Kelly Danz and Amanda Ganginis, would remove one of the mall’s two current pavilions. (Courtesy of AIA Baltimore, the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, and T3XTURE.

Yet, even while removing the Light Street pavilion, they opted to keep the Pratt Street one in their vision. “We should have some sense of history,” Danz says. “We didn’t want to completely disregard the entire existing fabric.”

Repurposing the property for noncommercial use like a wetland park would take more than just re-engineering the space: It would almost surely require changing the city charter. The document, which serves as Baltimore’s local constitution, says the city-owned land where Harborplace was built “shall be set aside” for use as “eating places and other commercial uses.” Any changes to the charter must be passed by the Baltimore City Council, and then approved by voters via ballot referenda.

As Danz suggests, there’s also an argument to be made that the buildings are too culturally valuable to simply erase from the map. Approaching their 40th birthday, the pavilions represent the nucleus of a successful revitalization campaign for a post-industrial wasteland where few locals (and even fewer tourists) once wanted to set foot.

Olsen, the developer and Rouse biographer, says “to some extent, the structures are historic—with a little ‘h’—in terms of the role they played in remaking Baltimore and the city as a whole.” But “just because a design had an impact 30 years ago doesn’t mean it’s the right design for today,” he says. “Those pavilions were always designed to disappear to some extent.”

The harbor itself may have its own role to play in that erasure. A 2017 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report found the Chesapeake Bay area is the third most vulnerable area to climate change in the United States. Projections published last year by researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science predict that  so-called nuisance flooding days in Baltimore are likely to continue growing annually to 100 per year on average by 2050; flooding could occur almost daily in the Inner Harbor by 2100.

One graphic from their report shows the pavilions surrounded by water in 2100 following a potential one-two punch of a powerful hurricane storm surge and sea-level rise. Residents got a taste of this already following Hurricane Isabel in 2003, when the Inner Harbor promenade submerged under four feet of water.

“Climate change has and will have a greater impact in the years to come,” notes Schwartz of the Waterfront Partnership, “so that’s got to be incorporated into any plans as well.”

Whatever happens to Harborplace—whether it gets reborn as an eco-friendly park or as a bustling urban market more in line with its creators’ vision—many locals are hoping that it can cater to the wants and needs of different kinds of users.

Standing outside the Light Street pavilion in early November, Alice Kennedy, visiting with her daughter for the day, says her ideal revamped Harborplace would boast more family-friendly entertainment, and pivot more towards what Baltimoreans—not just tourists—want.

“Building a space specifically just for tourism, I don’t think benefits us as a city as a whole,” she says. “The local is not looking for a Boh shirt. It’s about finding that balance between what can help and drive the tourism economy, but what can be captured by our local economy as well.”

Schwartz thinks that answering the question about what to do with Harborplace will require “serious research and conversation” with those who will spend time there. It should also account for landscape and programming changes already planned, she said, like the forthcoming first phase of renovations of Rash Field—a somewhat neglected waterfront park space at the southern end of the Inner Harbor—or the National Aquarium’s $14 million floating wetlands project.

The existential question is thus about “not just that one property,” but the broader area, she says. “It’s a very, very different environment now than when Harborplace opened… It is time for a new look at the Inner Harbor. It is 40 years old. I think it could use some new thinking.”

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Community Choice is Just One Strategy for a Sustainable Westchester — Episode 95 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

In this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Sustainable Westchester’s Nina Orville and Dan Welsh. The three discuss the benefits of the organization’s many efforts in New York, which include a community choice aggregation program, a sustainable heating initiative, and community solar projects.… Read More

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Why Amsterdam’s Canal Houses Have Endured for 300 Years

Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series on the home designs that define four European cities: London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris. Read the collection here.

Amsterdam’s canal houses may be beautiful, but we shouldn’t assume that they were always sites of a leisured, easy life. Look closely at the appearance and layout of these skinny, extremely photogenic buildings, laid out across the city’s canal belt during the Dutch Republic’s 17th century peak, and there are telltale signs that they were built not solely for living: Cranes projecting from their gables; deep, murky plots; and internal staircases almost as steep as ladders. Indeed, these houses may still be impressive, but when completed, their uses were a little different from what we might associate with a “house” today.

(Josh Kramer)

“The canal houses were from the outset combined residences, storage units, and places of business,” says Wouter Van Elburg, architectural historian and Ph.D. candidate at Amsterdam University. “Taking their form in the 17th century, they reflect the Dutch mercantile spirit of the time that said, ‘if we can sell it, we’ll use it’.”  Their distinctiveness—few other standard European urban home types still around today had their character fixed as early as three hundred years ago—reflects Amsterdam’s particular history.  In the days when Amsterdam was Northern Europe’s dominant port, “there was a different wealth distribution than in most European countries,” says Van Elburg. “While at the time most countries were still controlled by kings, here there was a substantial amount of wealth among the bourgeoisie.”

At a time when most European states’ wealth was still concentrated in the hands of a tiny landed gentry, that broader Dutch bourgeois clientele created a different template for urban architecture. Master builders sought to display the aspirations and wealth of their occupants, but also to create buildings that functioned as viable quasi-commercial units.  

Houses along this Amsterdam canal, the Egelantiersgracht, were built mainly for artisans, and would have contained workshops, storage, and possibly multiple families. //AP/Margriet Faber

Many goods spent some time being warehoused in buildings along the city’s canals. Up to 50 percent of canal house space was used for storage, says Van Elburg, with households buying up less perishable food at times when it was cheapest and storing it or re-selling it throughout the year.

That doesn’t, however, mean that people were necessarily living in smelly, dirty spaces sleeping cheek-by-jowl with barrels of salted herring. “Looking back in traveler commentaries from the period,  there is one thing that crops up time and again,” says Van Elburg. “They all point out this idea of Dutch houses being so palatial. There’s a sense of little palaces standing everywhere in the country.” Calvinist mores tended to mean the greatest displays of opulence were concealed inside the building, and even households with just two or three rooms might sleep together in one to retain the best room for representational display purposes.

Once you understand its past, the canal house’s character starts to make a lot more sense. A typical example has a gable (or in 19th century examples a cornice) that is equipped with a crane. With goods being taken up regularly to attics for storage, residents needed an easier route to get goods (or furniture) to the upper floors than heaving it upstairs, so houses came equipped with an easy-to-use winch.

With this crane in place, internal staircases became extremely narrow and steep: Nothing heavy necessarily needed to be carried up them and doing so freed up more commercial space for warehousing. Meanwhile, the extremely deep plots canal houses were built on, which sometimes allowed space for a small courtyard garden and a “back house” behind it, mattered less if dingy rooms at the rear were used for something other than living in. (Indeed, it was the depth of the plot that made it possible for the Frank family to shelter in relative concealment in the “back house” of a 17th- and 18th-century canal house on the Prinsengracht)

This mix of wares and people in the canal houses remained constant until the 19th century, when French occupation saw Napoleon demolish the guild system that facilitated small-scale warehousing. A fast-rising urban population not yet matched by a construction boom, meanwhile, meant that by the 19th century people were becoming more profitable occupants for basements, attics, and back rooms than goods. By the end of the century, altered building regulations and more international influence meant Amsterdam moved on to newer (albeit not necessarily better) forms of apartment housing. Nowadays, canal houses have largely been converted into apartments, and even those in former working-class areas are highly sought after. They often make great places to live, but they have their quirks—not just steep staircases but also attic bedrooms with such sharp-angled walls you can only fully stand up under the roof’s ridge.

The tall, skinny layout and slant-walled attic bedrooms of Rotterdam’s 1970s Cube Houses shows the residual influence of the canal house layout. (AP/Bas Czerwinski)

The move away from canal houses to apartment housing doesn’t mean that their influence has necessarily been lost, says Van Elburg. Indeed, they have still heavily influenced future layouts. “Later Dutch housing still has the typical long corridor going the length of the building from the front to the back door.” Another thing that was retained was the idea of keeping one “good room” sealed off and used only for special occasions. Even today, you might find yourself in a contemporary Dutch building with a staircase almost as steep as a ladder.

Meanwhile, modernist icons such as Rotterdam’s Cube Houses might seem a thousand miles away from the Old World charm of the Amsterdam canal belt but nonetheless echo their predecessors in the vertical layout and angled walls. Even as materials and aesthetics have shifted, characteristics of the canal house are still alive and well in the Netherlands, even if they’re breathing inside a different skin.

In the next piece in this series, we’ll look at the Paris’s Chambres de Bonne.

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