CityLab Daily: San Francisco Gets a First

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What We’re Following

London calling: After a nail-biting election, London Breed is set to become San Francisco’s first black female mayor. The city’s ranked-choice voting produced an incredibly close race, with Breed’s opponent, Mark Leno, appearing to take the lead on election night. But by the weekend, mail-in ballots pushed Breed into the lead on the too-close-to-call contest, and on Wednesday, Leno conceded.

Breed now joins the ranks of the mayors of 15 largest cities in the United States; she’s the only woman currently in that group, and the fourth person of color. If you expand the selection to the top 20 cities, she’s got some company: Charlotte, Seattle, Fort Worth, and D.C. all have women leading city hall. But Breed pushes the number of women mayors in the top 100 U.S. cities up to 21, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. CityLab context: In City Halls, There Are More Women Than Ever Before

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Move to Wisconsin, Millennials! (Just Don’t Forget Your Car.)

As the state spends millions to lure under-40 workers from across the Midwest, local transit riders are stuck in place.

Laura Bliss

Domino’s Pizza Is Fixing Potholes Now, and That’s Fine

Pizza delivery and infrastructure repair go together like ham and pineapple.

Andrew Zaleski

Seoul’s ‘War Preppers’ Are Still (Sort Of) Expecting the Worst

As fears of North Korean attack wane, some residents of the South Korean capital are finding it hard to maintain their emergency preparations.  

Matt Neuman

Lessons From the Raccoon That Scaled a Skyscraper

The critter that climbed a 25-story building in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a reminder: We could design for cohabitation between humans and urban wildlife.

Linda Poon

The Costs Behind Hockey’s Return to Long Island

A “privately financed” venue for the New York Islanders has been touted by Governor Andrew Cuomo as a “win-win-win.” But it comes with open-ended public costs.

Norman Oder


Mistake on the Lake

(Balloonfest/The Atlantic)

In September 1986, a nonprofit staged a fundraiser where it released 1.5 million balloons over the city of Cleveland in an attempt to beat Disneyland’s Guinness World Record for the most balloons released simultaneously. It did not end well.

Balloonfest, a short documentary by Nathan Truesdell, depicts the helium-filled spectacle as the colorful orbs wrap around Cleveland’s Terminal Tower. But a storm brings the balloons down and they wreak havoc on the city, litter Lake Erie, and, tragically, impede a Coast Guard search and rescue mission for two missing fisherman. Using archival news footage from local television station, the awe-inspiring and haunting film is a sobering reminder of the short-sightedness of humankind.

Watch The Balloonfest That Went Horribly Wrong on our sister site, The Atlantic.


What We’re Reading

The true value of controlling the curb (Curbed)

Elon Musk’s Boring Company will give Chicago a lift to the airport (Chicago Tribune)

Did Donald Trump really cause America’s tourism slump? (Quartz)

Young families typically leave cities for the suburbs. Here’s how to keep them downtown. (Vox)

How much can Democrats rely on suburban liberals? (New York Times)


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Why Domino’s Pizza Is Fixing Potholes Now

Residents of Milford, Delaware, might have come across a peculiar sight on their streets in recent weeks: asphalt patches emblazoned with the unmistakable logo of one of America’s largest pizza chains, and the phrase “Oh yes we did.”

Fire your advertising departments: Domino’s Pizza, a business that devised the name “bread twists” for its appetizers of twisted pieces of bread, just dunked on all of you.

The pizza chain’s expansion into infrastructure is part of a campaign called Paving for Pizza: Over the course of this year, Domino’s will dispense grants of $5,000 to up to 20 locations across the U.S. to help fill potholes and repair cracked roads. Along with Burbank, California, Athens, Georgia, and Bartonville, Texas, Milford played the part of pilot city for the project. Customers can go online to nominate future cities for road repair grants.

In return for this modest investment, the corporation is enjoying a feast of national media coverage and spicy takes, as Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times observed on Twitter.

Consider us guilty of piling on. But we also snagged a copy of the legal agreement that Athens, one of the pilot cities, signed with Domino’s, confidentiality clause be damned. (Private companies, take heed: Once you partner with cities, that stuff becomes public record.) In it, we learned that the $5,000 grant from Domino’s included several stipulations: having repairs completed by the end of May; photographing before-and-after pictures of the repair sites and giving the images to Domino’s; and a promise from Domino’s that any reference to the cities and their pizza-chain-connected paving efforts “will not portray [them] in a negative light, nor will the Materials suggest that [they have] difficulty repairing roadways or [have] an excessive amount of roadways in disrepair.”

According to Milford public works director Mark Whitfield, Domino’s sprung for 40 pothole repairs and provided Milford with a stencil, which the city agreed to spray-paint on top of each of the potholes it fixed. And, no—no pizzamakers were directly involved in the roadwork.

“They gave us $5,000 toward the purchase of materials, but we actually did the work,” Whitfield says.

Delaware was clobbered by severe cold snaps this winter, which led to a bumper crop of potholes in Milford. Poor water drainage, freeze-thaw cycles, excessive heat, and wear-and-tear all contribute to forming them, and in northern climates, good road fixes  can really only be undertaken in the warmer months. “More permanent repairs take place later because the temperature of the asphalt has to be high,” says Russ Klettke, principal writer for Pothole.info, the online clearinghouse for anything you might want to know about potholes.

Milford city manager Eric Norenberg first got wind of the Domino’s campaign last winter and submitted an application. The $5,000 supplement to the public works budget represents a significant bump for this small town of about 10,000: As Norenberg wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, Milford only has $30,000 to cover street repairs for the entire year. “It didn’t pay for everything, but it certainly was a nice help,” says Whitfield. “Having three employees work full-time for six weeks doing nothing but fixing potholes, obviously you rack up a pretty good bill in labor alone.”

In Athens, Georgia, the agreement between the city and Domino’s unfolded in a similar way, although instead of multiple pothole patches, the $5,000 was put toward repairing a stretch of road “that gives us fits,” according to transportation and public works department director Drew Raessler. “It was an area where we had constant traffic running over it. It would distress the pavement, which would get pretty cracked up,” he says. Athens has a $7.4 million budget for its paving program, but like Whitfield, Raessler said the free cash from the pizza giant was much appreciated, as well as an “opportunity to do some good within the community.”

As CityLab has often reported, potholes have long been the focus of creative advocacy efforts: Citizens have made them impromptu hot tubs, festooned them with profane graffiti, and planted flowers in them in an effort to draw attention to road repairs that are seemingly never made. But Paving for Pizza adds a Trump-era twist to this formula. Having a fast-food corporation fill potholes as a branding exercise struck some observers as a particularly cartoonish variation on the kind of public-private partnership the White House’s “Infrastructure Incentives Program” is supposed to encourage, with its emphasis on “attracting significant new, non-Federal revenue streams dedicated to infrastructure investments.” But should basic maintenance of public roads be handed off to corporations for marketing stunts? Is this, as Popular Mechanics claims, “a delicious indictment of the country’s infrastructure problems”?

In his Washington Post piece, Milford city manager acknowledged this concern, and then pointedly brushed it off. “A lot of basic services can’t be funded by grants,” Norenberg wrote. “[T]he basics—plowing the snow, collecting garbage, the regular stuff that makes a city function—no one gives you a grant for that. Taking $5,000 from a pizza chain to repair our roads was not a difficult decision.”

And there’s a certain logic in having Domino’s, whose drivers rack up 12 million miles each week in the U.S. alone delivering extra-cheese pies, providing funding to fix potholes. The company, after all, bears some responsibility for the sorry state of the pavement, as well as a business imperative to wanting to see the streets fixed. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the cost of bad roads to American businesses between now and 2022 will be $240 billion. ASCE estimates that fixing the country’s crumbling infrastructure—potholes and cracked roads included—will cost upwards of $4.5 trillion over the next decade. That’s a lot of pizza.

“We might need more Domino’s,” says Klettke. “Think about it: If a hundred companies did it, it might make a dent in the problem.”

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Move to Wisconsin, Millennials! (Just Don’t Forget Your Car.)

MILWAUKEE, WI—In January, the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission launched a $1 million campaign asking Chicago’s Millennial transit commuters to consider a move to the Dairy State.

“Catch the train or catch some air?” reads one advertisement plastered inside Chicago Transit Authority trains. A haggard young straphanger, sweating under his collar, was shown side-by-side with a grinning snowboarder taking a jump. “Rush hour or happy hour?” reads another ad featuring an assembly of rooftop drinkers, mid-chuckle. “Bump elbows or bump on the court?” asks another centered on a lakeside volleyball match. The tagline: “Wisconsin: It’s more you.”

Wisconsin wants “more you” because it has a labor shortage. Since 2010, outmigration has outpaced natural births and new arrivals. The number of working-age young people is growing at a snail’s pace. With the unemployment rate at a historic low of 2.9 percent, employers are struggling to fill roles across industries and skill levels as job openings grow in healthcare, IT, service industries, and construction. Wisconsin’s department of workforce development estimates that by 2024 there will be about 45,000 open jobs without workers to fill them, the Wall Street Journal reported this year.  The state recently approved $6.8 million to expand the “more you” campaign to lure veterans, University of Wisconsin alumni, and under-40s in other Midwestern cities.

The question is, more who? While some ads focus on housing, comparing Chicago’s cramped walk-up flats to Wisconsin’s affordable three-bedroom homes, much of the campaign makes hay of Wisconsin’s average commute time—a mere 22 minutes. According to the logic of the ads, driving a short distance beats taking transit, since your longer commute on the El could presumably be better spent enjoying Wisconsin’s distinctly suburban pleasures.

That seems to leave little room for people who take public transportation because they like it, as many Chicagoans do, based on the indignant response in local media outlets earlier this year. Nor does it leave room for the many riders for whom transit is the only option. That seems to be a fair description, too, of how Wisconsin has approached public transportation for people who already live there: Transit ridership in Milwaukee County, where the vast majority of the state’s impoverished population lives, has steadily declined since 2001, counter to national trends. That has tracked closely with dramatic cuts to service. Milwaukee also saw the greatest dip in ridership between 2016 and 2017 out of 35 major U.S. metros, according to a TransitCenter analysis.

I traveled to Milwaukee last week for a conference, and to see what was going on. I found a lakefront city with a pretty historic core, walkable nightlife strips, and new construction on the rise. Downtown, tracks are being laid for a new streetcar; there are coffee shops and river cruises and a spectacular Santiago Calatrava-designed art museum with “wings” that flap at noon. And the region’s job market is growing. Thanks to $4 billion in tax benefits from Governor Scott Walker, the Taiwanese LCD screen manufacturer Foxconn is setting up a plant in neighboring Racine County, with the promise of 10,000 construction jobs and 13,000 permanent ones.

In spite of all this, poverty is on the rise in Wisconsin, and it’s increasingly concentrated in its largest metro. Milwaukee is also consistently ranked as the most racially segregated city in the United States. Just 6 percent of Wisconsin residents are black; Milwaukee County is home to nearly 70 percent of that entire population.

Borders, internal and external, define the metro of 1.5 million. There’s the 16th Street Viaduct that divides north and south Milwaukee—a span that goes from “Africa to Poland,” according to a longstanding racist joke. There’s 60th Street near North Avenue, which draws a line between the 90 percent white suburb of Wauwatosa and the city proper. There’s Holton Street, which separates the gentrifying lakeside area of North Point, with its Whole Foods and arthouse cinema, from Harambee, a neighborhood with ties to the Civil Rights movement that is almost exclusively black. In a core North Point ZIP code, about 9 percent of families live in poverty; in a core Harambee ZIP code, nearly 38 percent of families do, according to census data.

Poverty makes it a lot harder to maintain a car and all of its trappings, so while you don’t see many people walking around here, ownership rates are relatively low. “There are people in the inner city who do not have cars, or they might have cars, but they don’t have insurance,” said Linette Tillmon, a 51-year-old cafe worker who has spent her entire life in Milwaukee, bouncing between neighborhoods in its northern reaches. I met her on the job as a cook at a downtown museum café. “What are they supposed to do get to all those new jobs?” she said.

Tillmon was pointing out something academics and activists here have long mapped, studied, and fought against: the profound spatial mismatch between where jobs are in Milwaukee, and where the workforce that needs jobs the most already lives. Unemployment may be low across the state, but it’s much higher in Milwaukee and much, much higher among African Americans. As Willie Wade, the chief marketing officer at the county workforce development board, told the local publication Urban Milwaukee: “2.9 percent [unemployment] means that every white person in the state has a job.” As of 2010, “barely half” of Milwaukee’s black men were employed, according to a 2012 report from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, compared to 85 percent in 1970, when factory jobs kept the city’s workforce busy.

One of the drivers in the decline in black employment, then, has been the loss of manufacturing; a string of hollow warehouses and factories along the Menomonee River speaks to that loss. But the suburbanization of Milwaukee’s employment opportunities has driven what jobs are available out of reach for workers in need. According to another 2015 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study, Milwaukee lost 27,858 jobs from 1994 to 2009, while Washington, Ozaukee, and Waukesha Counties gained some 56,271. Nearly all of the metro region’s job growth since the 1980s has taken place in suburban counties, where few working-age black men live, and where transit links are scarce.

The high-profile Foxconn deal is an example of these disconnects, as Susan Nusser recently reported in Next City. Racine County is south of Milwaukee, while the long-term effects of redlining and discriminatory mortgage practices have kept most of the area’s black residents in the northern part of the city. Some of these neighborhoods are still bordered by disused industrial strips. Yet Foxconn didn’t locate there. Most of the hiring mandates attached to the project are tied miles away to Racine County; just ten percent of the construction jobs could possibly go to unemployed residents in Milwaukee County. What’s more, it’s not clear how car-free workers would be able to get there: In April, Matt Maroney, the state’s director of strategic economic initiatives, told Urban Milwaukee that the state had no set plan for providing public transportation to the project site. Local officials are pressing for it.

Transportation gaps run deep in a city where roughly 18 percent of the population does not own a car and, crucially, where regional connections are nonexistent. Famously, one of Scott Walker’s first moves upon taking the governor’s office in 2011 was to return $810 million from the federal government that would have gone to building a high-speed rail connection between Milwaukee and Madison. His aversion to transit goes way back: Serving as the executive of Milwaukee County, Walker told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2007 that “he wanted to grow the economy so much that poor people would be able to buy cars and leave the bus behind,” according to Streetsblog.

Milwaukeeans are indeed leaving the bus behind, but not because they’ve all grown wealthier. It’s largely because of service cuts. Between 2001 and 2011, service reductions and fare increases under then-county executive Walker resulted in a 22 percent decline in bus route miles by the Milwaukee County Transit System. According to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study from 2015, that led about 1,324 fewer employers in the region to be served by transit than would have been the case if the old transit system were still in place, adding up to as many as 41,828 jobs no longer served by transit.

Some of that lost service has been recovered, thanks to a lawsuit by two Milwaukee civil rights organizations against the state of Wisconsin over a $1.7 billion freeway project that, they argued, only served suburban dwellers. A $13.5 million settlement in 2015 provided funding for two additional bus routes to connect nine ZIP codes in northern Milwaukee to industrial jobs in the suburbs. But that was for a limited time only; funding for the JobLines buses will expire in December. Roughly 1,000 workers who take the buses every day to work could be stranded if the routes are dropped. “They don’t have ways to get to places. They can’t do Uber. They can’t do Lyft,” Marilyn Miller, a local Lutheran pastor and community activist, told a local CBS station in April. If and when that happens, according to one of the UWM studies, the transit system could be about as lacking as before.

Community advocates say that it’s hard to raise support for better transit in a city where the majority of riders are profoundly reliant on it, and where transit is viewed as more of a social service for the poor than as a shared amenity—unlike, say, roads (though Wisconsin’s roads are also in terrible shape). A proposed bus rapid transit line is supposed to connect the city from east to west, but it’s unclear how rapid it will be since the city is restricting its use of dedicated lanes. The streetcar project—a two-mile starter line that wings out to neighborhoods near downtown—has promise, but it doesn’t connect the areas where most of Milwaukee’s transit riders live, said 34-year-old Nick DeMarsh, an organizer with the Milwaukee Transit Riders Union. Like many modern streetcar lines, it’s aimed more at tourists, plus the people DeMarsh calls “Millennial downtown workers” living in the gentrified Third Ward, a neighborhood featured in a “More You” ad.

That’s the thing about those ads, DeMarsh said. There’s nothing wrong with trying to attract more workers to the state of Wisconsin, but why does it have to be at the expense of transit riders? Likewise, he said, if the city is going to build a streetcar, shouldn’t it connect the neighborhoods where people need ways to get around? “It often seems like when terms like ‘Millennial’ are bandied around, it’s regarding one type of Millennial, oftentimes a white Millennial,” he said. DeMarsh views the ads with a cynical eye—essentially, as a piece of would-be Walker campaign material, pandering to voters with a distaste for urban settings and public transport. “In a city as segregated as Milwaukee, that’s definitely part of the puzzle,” he said. “It’s city versus suburb.”

Yet public transportation tops the list of what some of Wisconsin’s young movers and shakers would like to see in their state, and not just the transit advocates. Corinn Ploessl, the 29-year-old event manager at the Madison Visitors Bureau, is passionate about Wisconsin and would never choose to live anywhere else. But if she were governor, transit would be the first item on her agenda. “If we don’t tackle the transportation issue sooner rather than later, we’re going to have an issue if we do bring in more talent,” she told me last Thursday on a stroll down State Street, the capital city’s walkable shopping corridor. Ploessl has a brother in St. Paul, Minnesota who can walk two blocks from his front door to the Green Line, the new light-rail corridor that’s bridging job gaps and connecting neglected neighborhoods in the Twin Cities. That makes her envious.

Back in Milwaukee, I met for coffee in the Third Ward with Angela Damiani, the 32-year-old president of NEWaukee, a “social architecture” firm that hosts events designed to bridge Milwaukee communities. She, too, looked wistfully to Minnesota, whose economic recovery since 2010 has outpaced Wisconsin’s by almost any measure, thanks in large part to the growth of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Those cities have their own equity challenges. But whereas Wisconsin’s state leadership has slashed taxes, shrunk government, and disenfranchised unions in recent years, Minnesota has boosted the minimum wage, tightened the social safety net, and ramped up investments in infrastructure and education. It seems to show.

“I don’t think public transit should only exist for those who can’t afford to have a car,” Damiani said. “When you invest in those sorts of shared amenities, doesn’t everyone benefit?”

The now-$8 million “More You” campaign isn’t meant to be in lieu of serious state investments, leaders at the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission assured me. The ads are a playful provocation, a way to get young-ish people thinking that a state associated mostly with cheese, football, and farmland could be a dynamic place to change careers or start a family. “Even if our ads are hitting you, and it’s not the right time to make a move, we want to make sure that your perception of our state is correct, so that now that you’re thinking of it, we’re in your consideration,” said Kelly Lietz, the vice president of marketing and communications for the WEDC.

Yet the perception that Wisconsin’s leaders have been hostile to transit—and more accurately, transit riders—appears to be correct. Chicagoans may resent the ads on CTA trains, but you can bet transit-dependent Milwaukeeans are the ones feeling the pain.

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Lessons From the Raccoon That Scaled a Skyscraper

The latest face of urban exploration—the kind in which daredevils scale structures of dizzying heights—belongs to a furry masked bandit with sharp claws and beady eyes, who found herself atop the 25-story UBS building in St. Paul, Minnesota early Wednesday.

It all began Monday when maintenance workers from a nearby building spooked a raccoon raiding a pigeon’s nest. Rather than climbing down, the critter scampered next door to the 305-foot UBS tower. And so began a harrowing ordeal that lasted more than 24 hours as the #MPRraccoon—so named after public radio reporter Tim Nelson started live-tweeting the spectacle—clawed her way up the concrete walls.

She reached the 23rd floor before stopping on a window ledge to do some grooming, stretching, and napping, unaware that she had much of America and beyond rooting for her safe ascent. By the time she reached the rooftop and was rescued by wildlife management, the MPR raccoon had captivated an entire nation in ways that perhaps no (human) climber has.

Her perilous journey also caught the attention of Joyce Hwang, architect and director of the Buffalo-based firm Ants of the Prairie, which studies how to incorporate wildlife habitats into city structures. “The fact that you have a raccoon basically climbing a skyscraper in and of itself is a really kind of phenomenal feat,” she said.

Phenomenal, yes. But was it unusual? We won’t necessarily see a surge of daring raccoons racing to the top of skyscrapers, but in an increasingly urbanized world, we can expect to share more of our structures with the urban wildlife. “It really says a lot about how buildings participate in the larger ecosystem,” she said. “There is a web of multiple species that are interacting with those structures, so because of the pigeons’ nest nearby and the raccoon wanting to raid that, it escaped to this [taller] building.

So how should cities prepare?

The MPR raccoon wouldn’t be the first to find refuge in the built environment: Just days before, a Londoner found a fox sunbathing on the rooftop of his warehouse-turned-housing after it had climbed up the fire escape. And in 2015, a coyote that found its way to the rooftop of a bar in Queens, New York, managed to escape police officers by hopping onto the roof of a nearby building.

In fact, the MPR raccoon isn’t even the first of its kind to scale a skyscraper. In 2016, a baby raccoon named Scoop spent days stuck on the 4th floor window ledge of the Toronto Star offices in Canada before firefighters finally rescued it. Though baby Scoop didn’t make it all the way to the top, the entire operation elicited the same kind of nail-biting suspense that MPR raccoon did.

And those are just the extraordinary cases. Animal interactions are already an integral part of urban environments. In the future, we’re likely to see even more animals transforming everything from buildings to bridges into their habitat, according to Hwang.

The thing is, animals are opportunistic. And they don’t care if a structure is meant for them or not. In the cases of the terrified raccoons, they find higher ground to feel safer. “If a building has a kind of surface that’s climbable, if it has ridges or if it’s made out of material that can be hung onto, the animal won’t necessarily see the difference between that and a tree,” said Hwang.

By the same token, it wouldn’t be uncommon to find birds nesting in buildings of varying heights, like in the case of that pigeons’ nest. “Even if a building is too high for the raptors, they’ll just nest at a level that they’re interested in,” said Hwang. “I don’t think the height matters [as much as] the kind of building material, and the temperature, humidity, and physical condition of  that particular space.” And human presence—or rather, the lack of it. “If a building or landscape is not maintained,” she added, “the default condition is that animals will inhabit it.”

Meanwhile, bats will take up residence in anything that has crevice-like spaces that create a cave-like environment. That sort of behavior is what leads to one of the most spectacular wildlife sighting in Austin, Texas, in which  millions of bats from the world’s largest urban colony would fly out from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge at sundown.

For cities, that means there are opportunities to better incorporate wildlife habitats into the built environment, rather than designing structures to keep animals away. (Think bird spikes and glass structures that animals can’t grip onto).

Despite the remarkable height of the UBS tower, it’s no match for the incredible climbing skills of this particular raccoon. Raccoon grips in general are amazingly strong, and their natural instinct will tell them to eventually climb back down—though it seems like the rescuers’ initial plan to wait for the raccoon to do just that proved fruitless. Also, had it involved a younger critter like Scoop, who could barely reach the fourth floor of the Toronto Star office without coming dangerously close to falling, the story could have ended tragically. From an architectural standpoint, said Hwang, a designer may want to make tall buildings more “porous at multiple levels.”

“Maybe there’s a way to rescue it from the mid-level if there had been, say, a balcony,” she said.

For animals that fly, better design doesn’t necessarily mean more green roofs atop highrises, as the lack of careful planning may result in hurting the animals instead. Hwang pointed to Toronto, where a local wildlife rescue group is often stretched thin from having to rescue hundreds of ducklings and gosling from falling to their death from rooftop gardens shortly after hatching.

Rather it’s more about being mindful, about designing structures in such a way that humans, who still largely see urban wildlife as pests, can gradually get comfortable with the idea of sharing their space with their four-legged and winged neighbors as cities spread out further into the natural landscape.

Take the example of parks, where humans inevitably share the space with birds. “If you design something in a way where there’s ledges above a picnic area, you can be sure that there will be birds up there, which becomes a problem for the people,” she said. “But what if … the habitable space is off to the side, [above] a garden or something that might actually benefit from bird droppings as fertilizer?”

Cohabitation between humans and urban wildlife may be inevitable, and rather than ignoring that, Hwang said, the key is to ”choreograph” the design of our built environment so that people don’t see their new neighbors as a nuisance.

Perhaps then, all the love for MPR raccoon is a good starting point.

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States vs. Hospital Monopolies, Cities vs. Bitcoin Miners, Here Comes Free Transit, and more

This week’s Weekly Picks details the myriad fights between cities and distant, consolidated industries such as investor-owned electric utilities, immigration and customs enforcement (ICE), and cryptocurrency miners. Other stories detail what localities can do in response to China’s ban on U.S. recycling scrap as well as how to build a smart city.… Read More

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North Carolina Legislature Sides with Big Cable Providers, Foreshadowing Future Fights

Rural Pinetop residents are getting a glimpse of  the treatment they are going to receive from Suddenlink, even before the ISP has started offering service in the small North Carolina community.  According to locals, Suddenlink subcontractors are busting water mains, connecting fiber without homeowner permission, and spreading lies about the Town’s favored community-broadband provider, Wilson’s municipal network, Greenlight Community Broadband.… Read More

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Why Bogotá Should Worry About Its Water

Colombia’s capital Bogotá relies on a unique ecosystem called páramos for its water. The tropical plants and moss in the páramo act like a sponge, trapping moisture from the foggy air, storing it in the soil during the dry season, and releasing it gradually.

One páramo, in Chingaza National Park east of Bogotá, provides the city with 70 percent of its water. The remaining amount is from the páramos named Sumapaz, to the south of the city, and Guerrero, to the north.

Chingaza’s water is naturally filtered by the páramo, meaning that it needs minimal filtering for human consumption. It is stored in the Chuza Dam; from there, it flows through an underground aqueduct to the San Rafael Reservoir, located in the municipality of La Calera. In case of drought or other incidents, the reservoir holds enough water to supply the capital city for three months.

Although the ecosystem, which is only found in Central and South America, has quenched the thirst of the people of Bogotá for decades, it is now under threat due to farming, coal mining, and climate change. And according to environmental advocates, there’s no back-up plan.

A general view of Bogotá. The 11 million people in the metropolitan area depend on the páramos for water. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

“An increase in temperature will generate changes in the structure and composition of the fauna and flora in the páramos,” said Patricia Bejarano, the land-use planning manager at Conservation International Colombia. “When this happens, it will put the availability of water at risk. To date, there are no other options to provide Bogotá with water.”

Colombia is one of the most water-rich countries in the world, with nearly 50,000 cubic meters (or 1.8 million cubic feet) of water available per person, per year. But according to the OECD, because of a mismatch between where the population is concentrated and available water, more than one-third of the urban population already lives under water stress.

“It’s worrying how highly vulnerable the páramos are,” Bejarano said. “If action isn’t taken now, the consequences will be incredibly difficult. And it’s not something the citizens of Bogotá are even aware of.” Bogotá has 8 million residents and 11 million people live in the urban area.

But Empresa de Acueducto y Alcantarillado de Bogotá (EAAB), the public authority in charge of Bogotá’s water supply, said there is no cause for alarm. When asked what the future of Bogotá’s water looked like, spokesperson Maria Fernanda García replied: “It looks fine.”

“We have various systems of reservoirs that are used to regulate the sources,” she told CityLab. “These are used to supply water for the city, so in terms of quantity, we are not worried.”

In answer to whether the levels of water in the páramo had decreased in recent years, García said “no,” and added: “We cannot extract a bigger volume of water from the reservoir than what the water basin produces.”

Since 2009, Conservation International has been working with local communities and government officials on implementing a strategy to preserve the páramos. Another project, The Nature Conservancy’s Bogotá Water Fund, seeks contributions to conserve the tropical forests that line the watershed and filter the water.

“Over the long term, if we don’t try to stop the threats the páramo is facing, the land will be destroyed for agriculture and not preserved for providing water,” said Alejandro Calvache, the water strategy coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in Colombia.

Cultivation of potatoes and cattle ranching are two culprits in páramo loss. Conservation International estimates that 50 percent of land has been lost in Guerrero, and says potato farming is encroaching on Sumapaz. Guerrero has also been affected by coal mining. Bejarano said the quality of its water is declining: “The treatment the water from Guerrero needs in order to be drinkable is now 15 times more expensive than what we spend on treating Chingaza water.”

Although Chingaza is officially a protected area, in reality, resources to enforce that are scarce, and little is done to punish offending farmers.

“If nothing is done, the city’s water quality and quantity will be increasingly threatened, and if we lose the páramos completely, in the next 30 years we will run out of water, and we will have to import it from somewhere else,” Calvache said.

García, the EAAB spokesperson, said the only concerns the authority has with the water supply are regarding quality, because sources “are being contaminated with domestic and industrial wastewater.” She said the agency’s Plan B, if the water from the páramos were to run out, would be to use water from the Bogotá River. “Besides the water coming from the páramo system, we produce water from the Bogotá River, which is also regulated by a system of reservoirs,” she said.

The Bogotá River in Tequendama, southeast of the capital. The foam is a result of pollution from industrial chemicals, farm run-off, household detergents, and human waste. (Lucy Sherriff)

The Bogotá River is considered one of the most polluted waterways in the world. The average dry-season flow in the river before entering the city is 12 cubic meters per second, and Bogotá discharges an additional 22 cubic meters per second of wastewater, with only a fraction of that undergoing primary sewage treatment.

Calvache highlighted the lack of scientific data available on the city’s water quality, and said Bogotá’s local government has not been consistent in providing support for the páramos. “We need a renewed commitment from the mayor … and we cannot be successful without their support.”

If climate change affects the páramo’s almost year-round rainy season, the consequences could be devastating. Less rain would mean less moisture in the air to be absorbed by the flora, so the water levels in the reservoir would eventually decline, and the páramos would not produce as much water.

“Despite what the EAAB says, there is no Plan B,” Calvache said. “It is our water factory, and if we don’t protect it, we will have no water to drink.”

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The Costs Behind Hockey’s Return to Long Island

Last December, as New York State officials weighed two proposals for state-owned land at Belmont Park in western Nassau County, New York Islanders superfan Patrick Dowd, known as 85 percent of the Islanders from Wang with the team valued at $485 million. By 2016, after one season as second-class tenants in Brooklyn, the Islanders were might be impossible.

“I would assume that, with enough money and enough political will, anything is possible,” says Pally, who adds that “highways around Belmont are significantly congested” at the time weeknight games would start. One question is cost-sharing. Contributions by NYAP haven’t been discussed publicly, but Pally believes the arena builders must contribute. The question is how much. (Builders of Barclays spent $72 million to upgrade the adjacent subway station.)

No wonder watchdog group Reinvent Albany has asked the state to reveal the project’s “full cost to state and local taxpayers, and the value to the businesses building [it].” The state agency’s Draft Scope, a first step in the project’s year-long environmental review, promises the study “will include independent estimates of the [project’s] economic benefits.” It’s unclear if it will address costs.

A twisting path for arenas

One lesson from recent New York arena projects: expect wild cards. The Barclays Center has proven far more prominent than profitable. The revamped Coliseum lacks an anchor tenant after initially being promised a minor league hockey team. So another line in Cuomo’s press release raised eyebrows: “New York State will negotiate with the New York Islanders to ensure they will play as many games as possible at the Nassau Coliseum while the state-of-the-art arena at Belmont is being built.”

That was pushed by Prokhorov’s company, eager to fill dates at the Coliseum and wriggle out of a bad Barclays deal. Indeed, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, perhaps at the urging of BSE, oddly bid a local team good riddance, tweeting, “There’s only one #Brooklyn team for @BarclaysCenter and that’s the @BrooklynNets. We wish the @NYIslanders well on their journey to Belmont and they should consider Nassau Coliseum in the interim period.”

Cuomo made it happen. Ensuring that the Islanders will split their time between Brooklyn and Nassau over the next three seasons, the governor offered $6 million of ESD funds to renovate Coliseum locker rooms, install cabling, and other upgrades. Even the Long Island newspaper Newsdaygenerally supportive of the Islanders’ return and owned by Patrick Dolan, whose family controls MSG—opined that the team and/or arena operator should have paid.

***

The Islanders have experienced their own hockey-related drama in the meantime. After a mediocre season that provoked fans to buy billboards urging General Manager Garth Snow’s departure, team owners recently hired front office legend Lou Lamoriello to head hockey operations; he swiftly fired Snow and head coach Doug Weight. The team will pick 11th and 12th overall in next week’s Entry Draft and will try to re-sign star center John Tavares, the league’s top free agent.

For now, an awkward relationship continues with Barclays, which, when controlled by arena developer Bruce Ratner, agreed to guarantee a payment to the Islanders in exchange for running the business operations. “They were like a rent-a-team,” Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark told an interviewer in February. “This team never really embraced Brooklyn, unfortunately.” Yormark, arena CEO from the start, immediately faced pushback regarding Barclays policies that alienated hockey fans, including restricting ticket-holders from watching warmups, introducing a new goal horn, and encouraging those in obstructed-view seats to consult their phones.

***

Cuomo, who counted the Belmont arena announcement among his numerous 2018 State of the State proposals, has faced little downside. His publicity bump— “Thank you, Governor Cuomo,” read Dowd’s sign—offers momentum for a third term and a potential higher profile nationally.

The local arena opposition has been vocal but small, using the creative hashtag, #TIMBY (Transparency in My Backyard). They recently seized on the abysmal performance of the Long Island Rail Road during the Belmont Stakes on June 9, wherein 20,000 racegoers—albeit far more than would take the train to a 19,000-seat arena—were stalled for at least an hour because of signal problems.

Taxpayer support for the LIRR’s Belmont upgrade has not become a major issue, given the lack of clarity. It’s a good bet that the ever-savvy Cuomo will keep any alarming price tag from surfacing until after the election.

Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that the Belmont Park LIRR station only operates one day a year. It is open for event days.

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CityLab Daily: What You Have to Earn to Rent a Modest Two-Bedroom

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***

What We’re Following

Buckeye voting: On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold a voter purging practice in Ohio, which drops voters from registration lists after missing just one federal election. The places most affected by the voter roll clearing will be the Buckeye State’s largest metropolises of Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus.

But the state’s mechanism for checking up on voters who skip an election—by mailing documents to the registered address to confirm the voter still lives there—raises the stakes especially for voters who get evicted or displaced. The decision in Ohio opens the door for other states to craft their own residency-based purges, jeopardizing the votes of people of color, of low income, and people who live in cities, all of whom are more likely to change their address between elections. Read more from Brentin Mock on CityLab: Ohio’s Voter Purging Process Is About Disenfranchising Cities.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

What You Have to Earn to Rent a Modest 2-Bedroom, Mapped

There isn’t a single state, city, or county in the U.S. where someone earning federal or state minimum wage for a 40-hour work week can afford a two-bedroom home at fair market rent.

Tanvi Misra

The Precipitous Fall of Seattle’s ‘Amazon Tax’

The city’s ambitious plan to fund affordable housing by taxing corporations had a very short life. What happened?

Sarah Holder

Venezuela’s Biggest Airport Is in Free Fall

Since 2014, more than a dozen airlines have stopped operating from Maiquetía airport in Caracas because of the country’s political and economic crisis.

Martín Echenique

When Caribbean Culture Meets Gentrification

Camilo José Vergara takes his camera to Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood.

Camilo José Vergara

San Francisco Still Doesn’t Know Who Its Mayor Will Be

Ranked-choice voting has produced the closest citywide election in decades, as the race between London Breed and Mark Leno remains uncalled a week later.

Russell Berman


Eyes on the Tweets

(Evan Frost/MPR News)

This little raccoon transfixed Twitter’s attention as it climbed more than 20 stories yesterday up the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota. Less than a block away, Minnesota Public Radio quickly branded the skyscraper daredevil as #MPRraccoon—and after a night of intense internet drama, the critter was captured safely by animal welfare, MPR reports. Urbanists latched onto this little urban climber for good tweet fodder. Here are a few highlights:

CityLab’s Linda Poon will have more soon on what we can learn from this masked city wondercritter. In the meantime, enjoy CityLab’s coverage of urban citizens of all species in our Animals Week series from last summer.


What We’re Reading

Trump administration looking to erect tent cities for unaccompanied migrant children (McClatchy)

What happens when a rural town loses its only school? (New York Times)

Here are the cities that will be hosting the 2026 World Cup (Business Insider)

Persistent Silicon Valley billionaire earns ballot spot on splitting California into three states (Washington Post)

Can underpass reuse redeem urban freeways? (Slate)


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