Would Top Census Officials Hand Over Citizenship Status and Data?

Amidst news that the U.S. Department of Justice is considering possibly challenging the confidentiality mandate for census data, retired Census Bureau Chief Demographer Howard Hogan wants you to understand the culture among Census Bureau staff. There are three things that bureau staff prioritizes, according to Hogan: accuracy, confidentiality, and nonpartisanship.

Lecturing at the University of Pittsburgh last week on how the census measures race and ethnicity, on the confidentiality question Hogan was, well, confident that this would not be breached.

“We take confidentiality seriously,” said Hogan. “The senior staff at the Census Bureau would resign in protest before they turned over the names. We have perhaps the most sophisticated group of mathematicians and statisticians in the world analyzing how to protect the confidentiality of the data. I’m not going to speak for the administration in question, but as someone who spent 40 years in the Census Bureau, I will speak for our culture: We are still dedicated to protecting everybody’s confidentiality period. No exceptions.”

Hogan doubled down on that when CityLab spoke with him after the lecture, but that was last week. That was before NPR national correspondent Hansi Lo Wang exposed an email from the Trump administration revealing that it might consider challenging the confidentiality protections of the Census Bureau. Those protections guarantee by law that no one’s individual data could be turned over to any other federal department or agency, and particularly not for law enforcement purposes.

However, the memo shows, if nothing else, that the current U.S. Justice Department is leaving open the question of whether or not another law, like maybe the Patriot Act, could override those census confidentiality legal protections. The leak of these deliberations comes at a time when the Census Bureau is pushing to include, for the first time since 1950, a question about citizenship, which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced earlier this year.

There are several lawsuits currently pending to keep Ross from making that happen, with many of the plaintiffs arguing that asking about citizenship would undermine the official census count. Many immigrants, both naturalized and yet-to-be naturalized, would avoid filling out the census, the plaintiffs argue, out of fear that their information could be turned over to law enforcement agencies for deportation or other punitive purposes.

“The Justice Department’s failure to confirm that guarantee is cause for great alarm,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference Education Fund in a press statement. “At every turn, the Trump administration has politicized the 2020 census. The addition of Steve Bannon’s unnecessary citizenship question, along with these other fearmongering tactics, is part of a ploy to derail the count.”

Hogan addressed such fears in Pittsburgh mainly by saying that people could skip the citizenship, race, ethnicity, and even the name questions and still get counted for the census. He acknowledged that people are required by law to fill it out completely, but said the Census Bureau had neither the resources nor the desire to enforce something like that.

The Justice Department, which does have enforcement power, though, is another story, and as Gupta indicated there is plenty of reason to believe that some DOJ officials might very well pursue something like that, given the department’s current mission to ferret out people they consider non-citizens. The documents uncovered by NPR’s Wang might be evidence of that. Despite those documents, Hogan doesn’t believe the Justice Department would take that route.

“I would find it inconceivable that [the Justice Department] would have the resources, the inclination, or would want the public relations disaster of arresting someone for not answering [the citizenship] question,” said Hogan. “I do know that the leadership of the Census Bureau, the Federal Statistical system, and the American statistical community would all be united against any use of census information for any non-statistical purpose.”

Still, that certain DOJ officials might even be contemplating trying to access census information for non-statistical purposes could be enough to intimidate people, namely newly arrived Americans, out of completing the census, which would have major implications for post-2020 redistricting activities. Congressional, legislative, and even municipal districts are drawn based on census accounts, which is why it is essential that the census data is as accurate as possible. Census data also affects how federal funding is apportioned across political district lines.

People like Ross who support including a citizenship question are claiming they need to do so for Voting Rights Act purposes. However, conservatives have been attempting to use census data as a way to exclude non-citizens in the count to apportion congressional and legislative districts, which is against the Constitution.

In the case Evenwel v. Abbot, plaintiffs tried to argue that districts should only be drawn by counting people who were eligible to vote, primarily by age and citizenship. The U.S. Supreme Court shot that argument down in 2016, however, saying districts may be drawn using total population—including children, the incarcerated, and yes, even non-citizen immigrants—as has been the norm throughout history.

It’s because of such cases that voting rights advocates are suspicious of any motives to include questions about citizenship in the census, especially when using a Voting Rights Act rationale. And the law around who can be counted in redistricting cases and how, is far from settled when considering the many gerrymandering lawsuits that are still pending. Hogan said that the Census Bureau prides itself on being nonpartisan, and he counts the Bureau staying out of redistricting debates as part of that.

“We do not get into political fights and how states do redistricting is strictly politics,” said Hogan. “We leave that to the Department of Justice and to the states. We provide the data and we let them play with it. Each side has their own statisticians that help them. We just say, ‘Here’s the data and everything we can explain about the data, but how you draw your boundaries is between you and the Department of Justice.’”

However, it seems like the possible misuse of census data that could lead to undercounts or gerrymandering might be one place where the census would want to take a stand—not on partisan grounds, but on grounds of making sure the federal government is simply following the law.

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CityLab Daily: Is Everyone Driving This Week?

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***

What We’re Following

Turkey trot: It seems to come earlier each year. No, I’m not talking about the Christmas music that’s piped into the mall. I’m talking about the pilgrimage to the Thanksgiving table. More people are expected to travel this year than in any of the past 13 years, according to AAA. It looks like peak Thanksgiving traffic is coming earlier, too: An estimated 48.5 million people will travel by car, and Tuesday is increasingly becoming the worst day for Turkey Day traffic in many American cities. Meanwhile, only 1.48 million people will travel by train, bus, or boat.

The roadside assistance organization also finds that more people (about 4.27 million total) are flying this year, citing increased disposable income for travelers. While Wednesday is still the biggest flight day of the holiday week, it’s actually bit of a myth that the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest flight day of the year. That honor belongs to summertime, somewhere around July 14 or August 7, depending on the year. Either way, you better get going. Here are some tips to help you out: Avoid Thanksgiving Traffic, With Science


More on CityLab

Amazon’s HQ2 Decision Was Always About Transit

In the end, New York’s MTA and D.C.’s Metro were the only transportation networks capable of handling such an influx of new residents. But both cities will have some work to do.

Laura Bliss

The Skyscraper Dividing Quebec City

Le Phare would stand 65-stories high in Sainte-Foy, an old, low-lying suburb of the historic city.

Tracey Lindeman

The Case for Deconstruction

Builders must imagine at the beginning of a structure’s life what will happen at the end of it.

Rex LaMore, George H. Berghorn, and M.G. Matt Syal

Why Drivers Are Leading a Protest Movement Across France

The rapidly developing “Yellow Vest” movement took over streets and highways to oppose rising gas and diesel taxes. It might also be a proxy for frustrations about rising costs and falling living standards.

Feargus O’Sullivan

Stop Complaining About Your Rent and Move to Tulsa, Suggests Tulsa

In an effort to beef up the city’s tech workforce, the George Kaiser Family Foundation is offering $10,000, free rent, and other perks to remote workers who move to Tulsa for a year.

Sarah Holder


Next Stop: A Better Bus Network

(Alon Levy, Eric Goldwyn)

Brooklyn’s bus system is careening into crisis: Ridership has declined by 20 percent over the last decade and one in four buses arrives off schedule. Still, the network is worth rebuilding. The buses serve nearly 190 million rides per year, and it’s a cheap way to take advantage of the already high-quality road networks in the city.

Redesigning a bus network to harness the power of the bus with priority and frequency is typically the domain of transit planners and consultants, but Eric Goldwyn and Alon Levy of NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management have offered up a new map for Brooklyn, gratis! Read their perspective and see their interactive map: A Fantasy Map for Brooklyn’s Bus Network that’s Grounded in Reality


What We’re Reading

What can Washington do to fix the geography of opportunity? (Politico Magazine)

Do rents really go down in the winter? (Curbed)

Airports cracked Uber and Lyft—time for cities to take note (Wired)

Inside an Amazon warehouse on Black Friday (Vox)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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Amazon’s HQ2 Decision Was Always About Transit

Like an extra-long, extra-schlocky season of The Bachelor, the signs were there from the start.

Those who tuned in from the very first episode of Amazon’s hunt for an HQ2 may recall one telling element of the initial bid for its next quarters outside of Seattle: The tech giant wanted good transportation. Wherever Amazon landed, direct access to trains and buses, in addition to highways and airports, would be critical. So in that sense, this season’s twist ending—it picked New York City and the Washington, D.C. suburbs—was no surprise. These are two of the best-connected transportation cities in the United States.

Few other cities on the shortlist of final contenders could have reasonably absorbed the influx of 50,000 workers on their existing transportation networks—which is why the news of transit’s primacy came as a reality check for otherwise strong candidates. “I felt like the region performed strongly on all of the criteria,” one booster in Raleigh, North Carolina, which made it to the last cut, told the News & Observer in the distant universe of September 2017. “And then you get to transit and you think, well that might be our weakness. Because we don’t have a mass transit system in place yet.”

In Dallas, which also made it to the final round, critics pointed out that Amazon was unlikely to be hornswoggled by such empty amenities as the “the longest light rail system in the nation.” Atlanta, we know now, thanks to the after-the-fact release of cities’ once-shrouded benefits package, proposed devoting a special car on its MARTA system for Amazon employees only, plus 50 free parking spots and an exclusive airport lounge reserved for executives of the ‘Zon. That remarkable dowry perhaps spoke to the city’s insecurities around its lack of reliable options outside clogged highways.

New York City was barely mentioned in early mumblings about where HQ2 was going to make its final landing, maybe because it seemed a little too obvious a choice. No other town has such a high reliance on transit, because no other city has the breadth and depth of public transportation options. It’s true that—like D.C.’s Metro system—the NYC subway has been struggling of late. But its bones are great. And the costs to upgrading both systems to better accommodate tens of thousands of Amazonians pale compared to the expense of creating or expanding new transit systems in other shortlist cities.

From a mobility perspective, the company also chose its Gotham location wisely. It will settle in one million feet at 1 Court Square in Long Island City, a formerly industrial section of the Queens waterfront that has undergone a rapid condo-fication over the past decade. It’s well connected to the 7 train, one of the few lines that have benefited from partial automation and other recent upgrades, and also the G, which runs more reliably than other lines. The E, M, F, R, N, and W are all nearby, too.

And there’s even a wild-card mode in the mix: Long Island City would be along the path of the proposed Brooklyn Queens Connector, a $2.7 billion streetcar project proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to run a low-capacity, low-speed light-rail line from Red Hook in Brooklyn up to Queens* along the two boroughs’ formerly industrial, now heavily gentrifying waterfronts. Amazon’s HQ2 siting has thrilled the Friends of the BQX, since the project has been considered all-but-dead for the past year.

Meanwhile, D.C.’s Crystal City—aka Alexandria and Arlington, aka “National Landing”—is already hooked up to the Blue and Yellow lines* on the WMATA. The agency has plans to upgrade stations in the vicinity, in addition to building a pedestrian bridge from Reagan National Airport and a bus-rapid-transit corridor. Some of the cost would come from the half a billion dollars that Virginia and Arlington County have pledged to spend on their new beau, including $223 million for transportation. As Faiz Siddiqui pointed out in the Washington Post, the addition of thousands of new commuters riding the District’s rails (and buses) could be a welcome addition to the system, which is currently enduring a cycle of ridership declines, declining fare revenues, and service cuts.

The immediate HQ2 transit implications for New York City are a bit cloudier: This is a city whose transit agency has actually blamed riders for an alarming decline in on-time performance over the past several years. Routine breakdowns and signal mishaps during the weekdays, plus drawn-out maintenance routines cutting into weekend and nighttime service, have combined to generate a proper state of crisis for the country’s largest transit provider.

While New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has injected $1 billion into an emergency action plan for the subway, riders haven’t seen noticeable improvements. He has proposed using revenues from a congestion pricing scheme to fund the MTA’s ambitious 10-year, $40 billion subway action plan, released in May, but it’s not clear when congestion pricing will become politically palatable or if it would raise close to enough money. Ridership is also declining on this system, in spite of population growth and booming tourism. The authority is at perhaps its lowest point in a decade, financially speaking, and plans to raise fares in March; meanwhile, New York has promised $1.5 billion in incentives to Amazon.

Will New York City pull out the stops to revamp transit to meet 25,000 new tech workers? Will it run longer trains on the G line, add service on the Long Island Railroad, improve station entrances and platforms on the nearest MTA connections? Based on a joint Cuomo/de Blasio press conference last week, trains don’t seem to be leading the region’s Amazon welcome wagon. The mayor and governor mostly talked about the ferries, the swanky and heavily subsidized boats that have expanded service under de Blasio’s administration. These are fun novelties and useful transit for a handful of commuters, but probably not for 25,000 workers.

“So, despite the fact that Long Island City is fully capable of coping with HQ2’s transit challenges, I am deeply worried about Long Island City coping with HQ2’s transit challenges,” the transportation writer Aaron Gordon (also a CityLab contributor) recently wrote in his subway-focused newsletter Signal Problems. “The very reasonable—and pretty cheap!—answers are there right in front of us. Yet, our elected officials steadfastly ignore them in lieu of fantasy solutions that pose more questions than they answer.”

In Seattle, Amazon helped fund the construction of a streetcar line. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

To see what an Amazon-fueled transit boom might look like, it’s useful to look at Seattle: The Emerald City has become a poster child of what meaningful investments in public transit can do to keep a booming city population moving in an era where other cities seem to be giving up. And Amazon played a part in that transformation. The company spent $5.5 million building a one-mile streetcar through its South Lake Union neighborhood; like most modern urban streetcars, its transit utility for the city at large is low, but it’s a LaCroix-level perk for HQ1 workers.

More broadly useful has been the million or so Amazon kicked in to help local transit agencies overhaul the Seattle bus system—and to remarkable success. About one-third of Amazon’s SLU commuters take public transit to work, while nearly 20 percent walk. Seattle’s transit improvements, some argue, came not from the company’s commitment to civic goodwill, but as a response to the crushing traffic created by Amazon’s growth over the past decade—to buy Seattle’s silence,” as the local alt-weekly The Stranger put it.

If Amazon opened its corporate coffers a bit to help fix the MTA, they’d buy more than that in New York—they might purchase the attention of the beleaguered agency’s political minders. Few other cities embody the disconnect or apathy among elected leaders towards transit as much as New York City. The subway brought Jeff Bezos to town; he’ll probably expect it to function properly once his employees show up.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the route of the BQC and the Metro lines that serve Crystal City.

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The Skyscraper Dividing Quebec City

Since its founding in 1608, Quebec City has gained a reputation as one of the most beautiful cities on the continent. Its gothic-style Château Frontenac stands on the edge of a cliff, looming over the chilly St. Lawrence river. The imposing building, together with the city’s cobblestone streets and a centuries-old hilltop fortress, are the closest North Americans can get to Europe without crossing an ocean.

But soon, Quebec City might have a new calling card: A 65-story skyscraper in the nearby suburb of Sainte-Foy—and not everybody’s happy about it.

“I hate it. It’s an ugly design. It’s a way of seeing the city that is totally outdated,” says city councillor Jean Rousseau.

The $755-million (CDN) building project is named Le Phare, the French word for “lighthouse” or “beacon.” The name, and the project’s placement, are intentional: It’s meant to be the first thing people see as they approach Quebec City from the west and over the main bridge. By the time it’s built in 2030, it will be the tallest Canadian building east of Toronto.

Current plans for Le Phare describe a “one-of-a-kind vertical neighborhood” featuring four towers of varying heights (17, 30, 51, and 65 stories) that will include condos, apartments, hotel rooms, seniors’ residences, offices, commercial space, restaurants, a daycare, and a performing arts center. Its tallest tower will be a glittering glass column inspired by the skyscrapers of Chicago and Dubai.

“It’s presented as vertical life: Live, work, and play. That’s the old utopia of Le Corbusier that we’re rehashing here, in a part of town that is in dire need of being better organized,” says Rousseau.

Quebec mayor reverses direction 

Ste-Foy–Sillery–Cap-Rouge (or colloquially, Ste-Foy) is one of six boroughs in Quebec City, a suburb with just over 100,000 residents. The Université Laval campus is the anchor tenant of the neighborhood, and most of the housing stock is comprised of single-family homes and apartment complexes under five stories. In Rousseau’s words, “Quebec City is very horizontal—a very flat city.”

During the long winters it’s also also a very cold, windy city. The wind tunnels produced by Le Phare would make Ste-Foy even more inhospitable, says local resident and retired astrophysics professor Serge Pineault. ”I don’t envy the people who are going to live near it.”

The skyscraper would be an anomaly in Ste-Foy, where new buildings are currently limited to 17 stories. The Quebec City administration, led by longtime mayor Régis Labeaume, wants to change the zoning bylaws to accommodate Le Phare’s height.

The move would be an about-face for Labeaume, who 10 years ago argued against raising building heights in Ste-Foy, especially in the Sillery area where he lived. A 2008 article in Quebec newspaper Le Soleil quoted the mayor as saying (in French): “I’m sure that if I was a building promoter, I would hope for 50-story buildings. It’s more lucrative. We can’t blame them. But 17 stories is profitable.”

Labeaume also said in 2008 that developing Laurier Boulevard would cause major traffic problems and create unfair competition by luring businesses away from other boroughs. He expressed these concerns in relation to a 20-story building proposed by promoter Michel Dallaire.

Fast forward a decade, and Le Phare is being built by Michel Dallaire’s company, Groupe Dallaire, on the corner of Laurier Boulevard and Lavigerie Avenue.

Since the 2008 Le Soleil article, traffic congestion in the area has only gotten worse. And although the current plan is to extend Quebec’s forthcoming tram project to Le Phare, the project would still add more than 3,000 underground parking spaces to the area.

The city and Groupe Dallaire both declined to comment for this article, citing ongoing consultations.

Changing the rules of the game

Le Phare threw a wrench in a pre-existing special urban planning program for Ste-Foy known as a programme particulier d’urbanisme (PPU) in French. In some situations, PPUs allow Quebec municipalities to circumvent usual zoning laws to permit special projects.

The Ste-Foy redevelopment PPU was authorized in 2012 after extensive public consultations. The revitalization plan included a series of new buildings no higher than 29 stories along the area’s main arteries.

The plan for the 65-story Le Phare was first unveiled in 2015, to many residents’ surprise and dismay. Through a sleight-of-hand maneuver, the municipal government tacked it on to the already-approved PPU and then passed two amendments to try and make it fit. “I think [residents] were fooled,” Rousseau says.

The last nail in the coffin will likely come next month. That’s when city council is supposed to vote on an amendment to its charter that would let it set aside borough zoning laws for buildings with more than 25,000 square meters of surface area. The deal is as good as done, says Rousseau; of the 21 officials who sit on council, 16 are members of mayor Labeaume’s team.

Playing to Quebecers’ emotions

Architect and Université Laval professor François Dufaux says Le Phare doesn’t make geographic or economic sense. Quebec City may be the provincial capital, but Montreal is by far the bigger economic center.

The sibling rivalry between the two cities is a tender point for older generations, and Dufaux says that Dallaire “is playing to the emotions of the people of Quebec City and their pride, their ambition.” Even the size of the tower is a dig at Montreal, he says. “They want to be bigger and better than Montreal.”

He questions whether the demand for Le Phare’s living, office, and commercial spaces will meet projections. He suspects the government will gradually decommission buildings in other parts of the city—including downtown—and stack workers into Le Phare. “A lot of bad buildings have been saved by being rented by the federal or provincial government,” Dufaux says wryly.

Economist and consultant Jean-Marc Bergevin thinks the outlook isn’t as dismal as others may believe. “Is there a market for it? The answer to that one rests very much with Dallaire and his group. If they’re investing $800 million in this, it’s because they feel strongly there’s a market for it, and I see no reason to believe they didn’t do their homework.”

But recent history would suggest that Quebec City hasn’t done well with the build-it-and-they-will-come approach. Just three years ago Quebec City opened its brand-new 18,000-seat Videotron Centre in hopes of landing an NHL team. That hasn’t happened. The city has already lost $5.8 million on the arena

A vision without a plan

This isn’t the vision younger generations have for Quebec City. Simon Parent, a 28-year-old Master’s student in architecture urban design at Université Laval, thinks the original PPU would have made Ste-Foy a more sustainable, pedestrian-friendly place to live. He says Le Phare is out of joint with the surrounding neighborhood and modern urban design principles. “It’s a vision, but there’s no plan.”

So why are they building it?

The simplest explanation may be the right one: Leadership wants to redefine Quebec City as a modern, world-class economic hub, and it believes it needs a landmark to do it.

It makes Dufaux think back to a comment made by renowned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels after seeing an early video promoting Le Phare. During a 2015 visit to Université Laval’s school of architecture, the Dane told students he’s seen it many times before: Cities build fancy towers to get themselves on the map.

“[He said], all these towers are like little perfume bottles you buy at the airport. They all have weird shapes, and they stand on the shelf in your bathroom—but you’re not an international person because you bought them at the duty-free shop,” Dufaux recounts.

Le Phare may become the international beacon the city wants, but it seems more likely to be a sore thumb that locals hate.

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Appetite for Deconstruction

Detroit has been demolishing about 200 vacant houses per week since December 2014, with a goal to take down 6,000 houses in one year. Much of the demolition work is concentrated in about 20 neighborhoods where the blight removal is projected to have immediate positive effects of improving remaining property values and clearing land for future development.

While Detroit may be an extreme example, economic decline, disinvestment, racial segregation, and natural and human-made disasters have left other American communities with unprecedented amounts of structural debris, abandonment and blight, too.

As scholars who focus on understanding the complex circumstances that have led to blight, we also have some ideas about potential solutions that could prevent this cycle the next time around.

We’ve coined the term domicology to describe our study of the life cycles of the built environment. It examines the continuum from the planning, design and construction stages through to the end of use, abandonment and deconstruction or reuse of structures.

Domicology recognizes the cyclical nature of the built environment. Ultimately we’re imagining a world where no building has to be demolished. Structures will be designed with the idea that once they reach the end of their usefulness, they can be deconstructed with the valuable components repurposed or recycled.

Thinking about the end at the beginning

The U.S. reached a record high of 7.4 million abandoned homes in 2012. When people leave homes, the local commercial economy falters, resulting in commercial abandonment as well. The social, environmental, and economic consequences disproportionately affect already struggling communities. Abandoned buildings contribute to lower property values and are associated with higher rates of crime and unemployment. Due to the scale of the problem, local governments are often unable to allocate enough resources to remove blighted structures.

Vacant homes in Northeast Detroit. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

All human-made structures have a life cycle, but rarely do people embrace this reality at the time of construction. The development community gives little thought to the end of life of a structure, in large part because the costs of demolition or deconstruction are passed on to some future public or private entity.

Currently, publicly financed demolition and landfilling are the most frequent methods used to remove abandoned structures, but these practices generate a huge amount of material waste. Upwards of 300,000 houses are demolished annually, which generates 169.1 million tons of construction and demolition debris—about 22 percent of the U.S. solid waste stream.

Here’s where a shift to a new domicology mindset can help. Unlike demolition, deconstruction is a sustainable approach to systematically disassembling buildings, which can result in up to 95 percent material reuse and recycling. This method, however, may increase time and cost, while at the same time potentially creating a vibrant reuse market for salvaged materials.

Domicology’s comprehensive paradigm shift from landfill-dependent demolition waste streams to sustainable construction, deconstruction and material salvage will affect both methods of construction and the materials used. For example, in design and construction of structures, modular components tend to be easier to dismantle than “stick-built” methods. Construction techniques that rely more on connectors like screws instead of glues or nails mean dismantlers can remove materials with less damage, increasing the value of the salvaged material.

On the materials side, using salvaged wood products to create new structural wood products can reduce reliance on virgin timber, which has recently experienced shortages and price fluctuations. Salvaged concrete can be used as aggregate in new construction. In some cases, even roof shingles can be melted for asphalt road surfacing. In the Midwest, where there are substantial numbers of abandoned properties, an underground “scrapper” economy has emerged that salvages copper and other valuable metals from structures.

What needs to change?

All of this requires forethought in recognizing that structures have an end of life. There is value in planning, designing, and building in such a way that when a structure reaches the end of its usefulness, people can maximize the salvage of the materials removed from these structures. Creating a value in the end of life of a structure also decreases the likelihood of walking away from these valuable resources—reducing private-sector abandonment in a community experiencing distress.

Governments can help by putting in place policies, incentives, and regulations to prevent abandonment and facilitate removal. Domicology will depend on figuring out the best processes and technologies for safe removal. Deconstructors will need to hire differently skilled laborers than for a standard demolition. And for domicology to work, there will need to be a way to take the removed material to a place where it can be given a second life of some kind.

As with any paradigm shift, the most challenging issue is to change current mindsets. People need to leave behind a “build it, use it, demolish it” perspective and replace it with a “plan it, design it, build it, use it, deconstruct it, and reuse the materials” view. Builders must imagine at the beginning of a structure’s life what will happen at the end of it.

Economics do add up

Our domicology team recently tested the economic feasibility of using deconstruction practices rather than demolition as a way to reduce blight. We also wanted to explore how feasible it would be to establish a deconstruction-based repurposing economy.

Our findings suggest that the central collection, reuse, and repurposing of material from legacy cities in the Great Lakes region is feasible with the help of specific policies, practices, and targeted economic development strategies.

A crucial support would be a strong supply chain for salvaged materials. In Europe, California and the East Coast of the U.S., deconstruction firms can more easily acquire the material from blighted structures, access a skilled deconstruction labor force, and use low-cost modes of transportation to move salvaged materials to processing facilities. All these advantages make deconstruction cost-competitive in those regions against demolition and disposal.

As a result of the work done so far, we and our colleagues have begun to incorporate the concepts and practices of domicology in targeted courses for students. By introducing this emerging science in the classroom, students here at Michigan State University are helping to pioneer a new 21st-century conception of a sustainable built environment.

As these ideas take hold and spread through planning, design, financing, and construction industries, the goal is to prevent another blight epidemic like the one we see today in Detroit.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Building a ‘Greenfields’ Smart City in Australia

The Sunshine Coast is growing from a series of regional villages and towns, with a large beautiful rural hinterland, to a mature urban decentralised city-state region. To complete the transition to a modern 21st century “city”, the region required a contemporary urban city centre built on digital foundations.

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Voices of 100%: Abita Springs Fights for Community Solar in Louisiana — Episode 64 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Nearly 100 U.S. cities of different sizes have made formal commitments to 100 percent renewable energy. In our sixth episode of Voices of 100%, a multi-part series of Local Energy Rules, we feature the small town of Abita Springs, the first city in Louisiana to set such a goal. LeAnn Magee, who chairs the grassroots, volunteer-led Abita Committee for Energy Sustainability that helped pass the town’s resolution, speaks with co-director of ILSR and Energy Democracy initiative director John Farrell about the motivations for and approach to Abita Springs’ commitment — starting with municipal buildings and advocating for community solar.… Read More

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French Drivers Stage a Nationwide Protest Against Fuel Taxes

France may have a tradition of boisterous protest, but this weekend’s mass demonstrations against gas tax increases have still managed to take the country by surprise.

On Saturday and Sunday, at least 280,000 protesters took to the streets in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the country, burning cars, blockading highways and fuel depots, and engaging in battles with police and motorists as they demonstrated against planned rises in gas and diesel taxes. So far, over 400 people have been injured in the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement—so named because the protesters are wearing the high-viz vests that French drivers are obliged to carry in case of emergencies. On Saturday, one was even killed after being run over by a panicked driver. The movement shows no signs of letting up, however, with protests continuing Monday and more major protest days planned for later in the month.

People wearing yellow vests, a symbol of French drivers’ nationwide protest against higher fuel prices, block the Paris-Brussels motorway in Haulchin. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

It’s not just the protests’ fierceness and geographic spread that have taken the country by surprise—French media reported more than 2,000 separate rallies occurring across the country. Unusually, the Yellow Vests is a grassroots mass protest movement with no explicit wider political agenda or links to existing groups. Having organized themselves via social media since May (when the movement was sparked by an online petition), the Yellow Vests have arrived somewhat out of the blue.

There is also no clear media consensus as to what they are protesting beyond the cost of gas. To some observers, the protesters are primarily angry about what they see as President Emmanuel Macron’s apparent indifference toward tough conditions for working people. To others, the movement is evidence of a middle-class backlash. Meanwhile, it’s not automatically easy to say whether the protest cleaves more to the left or the right.

The core issue that the Yellow Vests have rallied around is clear enough, at least. Earlier this year, Macron announced tax increases on fuel, due to be introduced in January. If the plans go ahead, gas taxes will rise by €0.029 per liter ($0.12 a gallon) and taxes on diesel—a fuel once heavily promoted in France that is now being proactively phased out—will rise to €0.065 a liter ($0.24 a gallon). These taxes come on the heels of already steep rises in fuel costs over the past few years, leaving the government open to accusations that it is squeezing already stretched workers in a way that shows indifference to their living conditions.

The tax rises appear to fit within a pro-Green agenda espoused by Macron’s government, in a country where attitudes to road transit and carbon emissions are changing fast. Macron has already pledged to ban all gasoline-fueled cars by 2040, and it seems that local authorities are getting on board with the changes needed to meet that goal. This month, most of the Paris region pledged to start phasing out all but the newest diesel and gas-fueled vehicles.

A cross-party consensus seems to be developing on these issues, but in protesting the government’s planned tax rises, the Gilets Jaunes have avoided an explicitly anti-Green stance. They have pointed out that, while the rises are being presented partly as a form of carbon tax promoting a shift toward cleaner energy sources, only 20 percent of the tax actually goes toward supporting the country’s transition to cleaner energy. The fact that France’s fuel taxes are not the highest in Europe, and are actually lower than Germany’s, doesn’t change the widely felt impression that drivers are being squeezed by a government that is not entirely practicing what it preaches.

Police form a line as people wearing yellow vests block the motorway in Antibes, France. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

Given the scale of the protests and the speed at which the movement has grown, there’s still likely more powering the anger of the Gilets Jaunes than just the cost of fuel alone. The group doesn’t seem to be an obvious worker’s group. It has gained the support of both leftist presidential hopeful Jean-Luc Mélenchon and some representatives of the right-wing Republican Party, for example, but has not yet been endorsed by any of France’s labor unions, or by truck drivers. And while the protesters have grouped around a single issue, there seems a risk that the movement’s lack of explicit politics could place it at risk of being highjacked. Already people taking part in some protests have engaged in ugly racist and homophobic abuse against passers-by that, while still atypical of the demonstrations as a whole, suggest a whole cauldron of other tensions bubbling under the demonstrations’ surface.

Newspaper Le Monde may have come closest to the truth by tagging the phenomenon as a lower-middle-class protest movement, one for people who are mainly in work but feel let down by President Macron’s reforms. These are people “who earn too much to get any state aid or tax breaks, but too few of whom earn enough to live comfortably. All of them live in places where public services are thin on the ground and [as a result] they no longer quite see the benefit of paying taxes.” Fuel taxes are thus both a meaningful weight on this group’s daily expenses and a proxy for more general frustrations about rising costs and falling living standards.

This interpretation might still be too heavy a weight of meaning to place on a chain of anti-tax protests. It will be instructive to see what, if any, direction the Gilets Jaunes will take once the immediate issue they have assembled to fight fades from view.

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A Fantasy Map for Brooklyn’s Buses That’s Grounded in Reality

Brooklyn’s bus system is careening into crisis: Ridership in the New York City borough has declined by 20 percent over the last decade; one in four buses in Brooklyn arrive off-schedule. As researchers and academics at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management who study, teach, and write about transportation, we decided to apply an evidence-based approach to redesigning this struggling transit network with the goal of speeding up vehicles and rebuilding ridership. We took on this project with the belief that Brooklyn is still a place where the bus can serve as a critical public utility. A good redesign has the potential to add millions of bus trips back to the network every year. We took this challenge as an exercise that could inform a real future revamp.

Among the reasons behind Brooklyn’s bus crisis are growing congestion and demographic change in the area—but also the system-wide service cuts that began in 2010. We aren’t the first to recognize this problem. Advocacy groups like Riders Alliance, TransitCenter, and the Straphangers Campaign have been beating the drum for a network redesign and other improvements for years. Even Nobel Prize winners understand how critical the bus is for connecting commuters.  

The MTA seems to be listening. It recently announced that it will reimagine the entire bus network across New York City, starting with the Bronx. Traditionally, redesigns are the domain of consultants and transit agency planners. We chose to add our plan to this process so that there is more than one vision for elected officials, planners, and Brooklynites to consider.

When we decided to put forward a plan to fix Brooklyn’s bus network, we collected detailed land-use and transit data about Brooklyn, but also examined evidence from other redesigns and analyses of transit data to figure out how to rebuild ridership on a system that has seen decline for more than a decade.

Why rebuild the bus? Because Brooklyn’s buses serve nearly 190 million rides per year. If we can figure out how to get people back on the bus in Brooklyn, perhaps there are lessons we can apply to the nation, which is also shedding bus passengers at an alarming rate. And while subways and light rail systems may be splashier forms of transit, mayors and city councils looking to quickly improve the quality of life don’t have the option of giving those fixed-rail networks a swift makeover.

We also focus on the bus because it’s cheap: American cities already have extensive high-quality road networks—the city of New York will spend $14 billion over ten years repairing bridges and repaving roads. Since we’ve built this elaborate street network and are committed to maintaining it, we really owe it to ourselves to take full advantage of them. The same cannot be said for subways or light rail systems, which both require brand-new infrastructure just to get up and running.

Underlying our redesign is a belief, based on data, that faster, more frequent buses will attract more riders; thus, all of our recommendations are geared towards speeding up vehicles and pumping more of them through the redesigned routes. As a sanity check, we constrained ourselves to the existing service hours that the MTA currently allocates to bus service in Brooklyn. Then, we translated best practices from other cities into the Brooklyn context.

Here are our recommendations. You can explore the proposed route map we built here, or in the interactive map below. The colors correspond to frequency, with blue routes as the most frequent, followed by green and red.

Don’t put the bus in front of the bus lane

It’s true that buses can operate on existing roads. Other users, however, impede the bus. Double-parked cars, delivery trucks, and taxis, to name only a few, all contribute to congestion that slows down the bus and makes it unreliable.

In order to ensure that buses are able to move in congested cities, elected officials and planners need to stand up for infrastructure like center-running lanes to keep the bus separated from traffic. That generally requires taking a lane away from traffic or parking, which is politically difficult, because the streets with the busiest buses also tend to be the most popular with other drivers. In Brooklyn, the most congested streets also tend to also be narrower. For example, two of Brooklyn’s top bus corridors, Nostrand Avenue (for most of its length) and Church Avenue, are not wide enough for parking lanes, moving lanes, and bus lanes in both directions.

A system that encourages transfers allows for exponentially more possibilities than one that doesn’t.

Any redesign that doesn’t account for the delay created by existing traffic will fail. There are no win-win solutions to the problems facing the bus. People disdain the bus because it is poky and unreliable; talking to bus riders, we have recurrently heard complaints that a bus that is scheduled to come once every 10 minutes will instead have three buses bunched together every 30.

We need to prioritize the bus by installing bus lanes on all major bus roads, even at the expense of on-street parking. Transit passengers need to see that the bus is as important as new light rail, and a crucial component of this is giving buses priority on congested streets and at intersections.

More frequent than you’re thinking

Now that we have cleared some space for the bus along the busiest streets, we need to make sure they arrive as frequently as possible. In Brooklyn, we made the decision to stick to existing resource constraints and schedule a bus every 6 minutes or better from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. On some routes, this doesn’t change much, but on others that see a bus every 10, 20, or 30 minutes between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., this will radically transform what is possible and how Brooklynites view the bus network.

Our model for this was Nova Xarxa bus network in Barcelona, Spain. Looking at this city’s system, which was redesigned several years ago, we were struck by how often bus riders were now transferring from one bus to another. Prior to the redesign, buses arrived on average every 12 minutes, and only 13 percent of bus trips involving transfers. By 2015, midway through Nova Xarxa’s implementation of trunk routes coming every 6 minutes on average, this figure had risen to 26 percent. In contrast, in New York City, only 3 percent of bus trips involve bus-bus transfers.

Snow may always impede speedy bus service, but smarter routes would help throughout the year. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

By trying to design bus routes that serve complete trips, we end up with zig-zagging trajectories that are impossible to understand by just looking at the route map. These types of routes slow down service and penalize all passengers. A system that encourages transfers, however, allows for exponentially more possibilities than one that doesn’t. Barcelona’s bus ridership rose from 180 million in 2012, on the eve of Nova Xarxa’s implementation, to 202 million in 2017, and the trend in the first half of 2018 remains positive, with 1.4 percent increase over the first six months of 2017, as the final few trunks of Nova Xarxa are put into place. Over the same period of time, metro ridership has been stable; the buses neither cannibalized subway riders nor benefited from a general increase in transit usage, but instead induced more trips through better service.

Walk the walk

As politically expedient as it is to install a bus stop to satisfy constituents in a certain neighborhood, the outcome of trying to address every demand is a bus network that zigs and zags and puts a stop on every corner. When planning routes, transit agencies should think on a systemwide basis rather than on a rider-by-rider basis. When we examined the spacing of more than 1,500 bus stops in Brooklyn while carrying out our redesign, we found that the average distance between stops was 720 feet. When we compared this to cities in Europe and Asia, we found that those cities installed a stop every 1,300 to 1,800 feet.

If we double the distance between stops, Brooklyn buses would be able to travel at a higher speed for a longer period of time, which speeds up the overall trip and moves passengers more rapidly. With fewer stops, it is easier to equip every bus stop with a bus shelter where people can take a load off. Additionally, we were careful not to cut bus stops when nearby subway stations weren’t ADA-accessible. The more accessible the transit network is to all users, the easier it will be for everyone to access it, including those with balky knees, parents pushing strollers, and people who use wheelchairs.

When coming up with the optimal spacing between bus stops, we thought about the range of bus riders’ preferences. A non-disabled rider who is chiefly interested in minimizing travel time and does not mind walking is best served when stops are spaced every half mile. People who use wheelchairs travel more slowly, and all kinds of people may be willing to spend more time on a bus if it means less walking or less waiting. The stop spacing we recommend tries to average out these different needs, in contrast with most North American transit agencies, which have preferred to deal with heterogeneity by running local and limited buses on busy corridors. This has had the effect of reducing frequency for everyone.

All together now

Making the bus great again is not a simple task. It requires multiple, interconnected trade-offs. While we would like to see our ideas for Brooklyn adopted all at once, we also believe that changes can be phased in incrementally. By installing bus lanes and eliminating the delays created by traffic and by scheduling more bus service on fewer routes, New Yorkers will be able to count on the bus as they use it to get to work, school, or a doctor’s appointment. Better buses are critical to improving outcomes connected to equity, transportation benefits, and the environment, since the subway system cannot go everywhere even if it is expanded.

Our redesign in Brooklyn was in part a technical exercise. But a real bus network redesign would call for an equal dose of diplomatic adroitness. Fortunately, there are political forces willing to commit to better buses: for one, the Transportation Workers’ Union, which represents Brooklyn’s bus operators, understands that if buses keep bleeding riders, there won’t be work for bus drivers. Cities around the country need mayors and elected officials who will embrace a bold vision for change, and spend political capital to execute. Indeed, the lessons we have drawn upon for Brooklyn are relevant in all cities. By improving the bus network, it can be a service for everyone rather than the option of last resort.

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CityLab Daily: Stitching Together a Town to Escape Poverty

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Mary Margaret Pettway hand-stitches a replica of one of her mother Lucy T. Pettway’s best-known quilts in the corner of the seniors’ nutrition center and Gee’s Bend Welcome Center, the only new facility in Boykin. (Alexandra Marvar/CityLab)

Despite that global fame, if you want to visit Gee’s Bend, you’ll have plan your visit well. The collective sits 40 miles from the nearest hotel, supermarket, or conventional restaurant, so it doesn’t get much foot traffic. In fact, Boykin isn’t even considered a town, and it’s deeply impoverished. But the community wants to change that by incorporating as a municipality. It’s a move that could get the 300 or so people of Boykin new access to resources, and offer a political agency that they’ve never had before. Today on CityLab: Could incorporating as a town save Gee’s Bend, Alabama?

Andrew Small


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