Among road-trip enthusiasts, the Alaska Highway is a favorite. It runs more than 1,300 miles, dazzling travelers with tundras and sightings of eagles, caribou, and the like.
But if you want to take the road less traveled, a study by the GPS-company Geotab suggests you should go north to the James W. Dalton Highway, Alaska’s hidden gem. It runs 414 miles from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, and sees mostly ice road truckers, with few service stations and small towns in between. You would, however, be greeted by majestic snow-covered mountains and glimpses of the Yukon River.
In fact, it’s the quietest route in all of the United States. That’s according to the study, which crunches 2015 annual average traffic data from the Highway Performance Monitoring System to find the least traveled roads in each state, and in all of America. The results are highlighted in an interactive map. Click on a state, and you can get a virtual preview of each route via Google Street View. The site also offers the top 10 most scenic paths (starred on the map) from those listed, as ranked by the conservationist and photographer James Q. Martin, who collaborated with Geotab on the study.
Topping both lists—for the least traveled and most scenic— is Dalton Highway, which ferried an average of just 196 vehicles each day in 2015. (By comparison, the Alaska Highway saw an average of 344 vehicles per day, according to 2016 data.) Other least traveled roads include routes in Nevada, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Undoubtedly, the roads’ unforgiving terrain and remote locations are part of the reason why they don’t get many visitors. Just read this account by New York Times reporter Alan Feuer,who trekked through Dalton Highway in 2014:
Lost in a reverie about how Tolkienesque it seems, you might pass through a valley choked with blinding fog or skid across a sudden patch of washboard, that angry rutted surface that—chukka-chukka-chukka—buckets you up and down.
If you are up for the adventure, though, Martin has named it the most scenic off-the-beaten-path route. “It’s a road that reaches the top of the continent, and would literally allow you to see a polar bear in the right circumstances,” Martin said in a statement. In second place is the 335-mile stretch of U.S. 50—often dubbed ”America’s Loneliest Road”—that runs across Utah and offers scenic views of “the vast emptiness of the Great Salt Lake Desert.” That road sees a little over 1,000 cars each day. And if deserts or snow aren’t your thing, ranked third is Maine’s “Old Canada Road,” lined with lush trees that show off all shades of reds and oranges in the fall. It runsthrough several historic towns right up to the Quebec border.
Even as gas prices fluctuate, Americans have not given up on road trips. The latest “Portrait of American Travelers” report from the travel marketing agency MMGY Global, who interviewed 3,000 people, found that road trips represent 39 percent of vacations in 2016, up 17 percent from the year before. Thesustained appeal, according to the New York Times, is the practicality of it all. There’s flexibility in when and how the trip can be organized, and what people can bring with them. It’s also less costly than flying to another destination, and it bypasses the pain of airport security.
Yet, at least for some, the urge to hit the open road must have something to do with the chance to escape the crowds and find something new. And what better way to do that than by setting out with a curious mind for the places most other people are passing by?
In his speech at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, London Mayor Sadiq Khan cautioned the world about the perils of the ongoing tech revolution: Social media has helped proliferate fake news, popularized online hate speech, and created ideological silos. Tech companies seeking to disrupt the status quo have had negative, unintended consequences, he said.
“There’s been a dereliction of duty on the part of politicians and policymakers to ensure that the rapid growth in technology is utilized and steered in a direction that benefits us all,” he said.
He outlined his vision for a smarter, better-connected London. The city has had the Smart London plan in place since 2013, but what Khan laid out was Smart London 2.0. In this vision, the city will encourage and guide innovation and make public services more efficient, he said, but it will also guard the interests of the most vulnerable, and ensure that the benefits extend to all residents.
Four months ago, he hired the city’s first chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell charged with implementing its new vision.
At SXSW, CityLab caught up with Blackwell for a conversation, the highlights of which are below.
Mayor Khan read out some of the many hateful tweets he receives, as a way of making a statement about the dire need for digital protection. He also mentioned penalties Germany has imposed to get social media companies to remove hate speech from their forums. What role do cities play in the fight against internet hate?
The metropolitan police [in London] have invested quite a lot of resources into hate crime, but what Sadiq did … was that he showed digital leadership by saying to social media platforms that they haven’t been responsible enough. This is something Sadiq is reflecting from the parliament itself, which has looked into the issue and is clear how much it can do. We know that there are protocols with social media platforms where they take down, for example, images of breastfeeding and stuff like that or copyright infringement. So the question is: How have we drifted into a territory where it’s alright to basically threaten and intimidate people constantly and to break civil discourse without due consideration by these companies? That’s the question Sadiq was really asking.
Nations can decide laws around freedom of speech and around privacy. Cities have a special role to serve citizens in the diverse populations that we have. And so we do have a role, as those who provide services, and [London’s leaders] are under obligation to ensure good community relations. If we’re seeing something acting against that, also based out of our city, we have the moral duty to say, “Hang on just a second, you’ve got to check yourself on this.”
Are there specific plans you are excited about implementing?
In addition to the kind of traditional innovation around smart cities—things like smart mobility, sensors for air quality, which are being progressed in any case—there’s a need to link together innovation that happens to respond to things all across the city: better data sharing, better adoption of common standards across citywide services, and emphasis on service design.
We’re looking to design services around the needs of every citizen by bringing technologists in the room, using systems thinking, and agile approaches. Through that, we hope to make services that are much more respectful of the diversity of the city—in line with the themes that the mayor’s set out. His big campaign, Behind Every Great City, emphasizes the centenary of the first votes for women. Within the technology sphere, it means us working within our own public services and the tech community to ensure that the services that we design are not designed with one sort of consumer in mind, but designed around the diverse needs of our citizens. We think that’s a very important opportunity to use design principles to make our services available and responsive to everyone.
That’s no easy step—it involves investment in human beings, not just systems. We’re taking the concept of smart city away from the idea of these faceless systems designed by engineers to make dumb traffic lights smarter. We’re expanding it, and putting it into the debate about how we build the human capability for the use of data for civic benefits.
One big discussion that’s happening—certainly among American cities—is about privacy of vulnerable populations in the data revolution. How are you thinking about that?
There’s a really interesting debate going on in U.S. cities, which have a different approach to data and they have different national data laws. In Europe and the U.K., we’re about to introduce new data laws, that are going to come in on the 25th of May. They include things like the right to be forgotten, getting consent for data maintenance from companies, new rules for sharing with third parties, and new rules for privacy by design and new technologies. There’s really interesting safeguards that we’re building into the systems.
So, it’s right that we talk about privacy. But what I’m concerned about to some extent is that criticisms of smart cities that happen in one jurisdiction don’t leach into another that has a different set of laws [alluding to the differences between the U.K. and the U.S.]. And there’s an element of hypersensitivity to privacy [by smart city critics], which I think needs to be addressed by city leaders. Cities are, after all, big bundles and agglomerations of data which could be used for civic benefit. If we only adopt the approach which has the precautionary principles because we are afraid of corporate takeover or those arguments, we miss an opportunity for the full use of data to benefit the most vulnerable in our society.
As Sadiq said in his speech: If you’re a political leader and you sit on your hands during the digital and data revolution, you’re letting your citizens down. We need to have a full and active role for government—oversight, accountability, transparency and the delivery of services. It’s not just the private sector creating products for consumers, it’s us serving our citizens. So we have the role to explain the benefits of what people can do with their data.
It’s almost like: When we create something from Londoners’ data, it’s made by London. But we want to make sure that that concept is morally owned by Londoners. It’s their data; and they can see the benefits of it when we make sure the health care system is better or the transport system is better.
One aspect of Mayor Khan’s vision is an investment in digital skills and workforce development. Could you talk about that?
We can’t talk about how a city can be smart unless we first talk about investment in skills for those people who are left behind. That program, in particular, is aimed at minority groups and women. We start off with a substantial investment in digital talent. And that’s just the start. We also want to work with schools on their new computing curriculum, so that kids get immersed in an exciting curriculum from an early age. One of the main challenges, of course, is that girls in particular because of the way they were taught were turned off from computer science from the age of 10 or 11. We need to make sure that we teach the curriculum, we invest in pedagogy, we work with the tech sector to really make the way we teach subjects as inclusive as possible.
There’s also a demand from our other city leaders. They see these big companies and start-ups happening, and they think, well, ‘how can our kids get access to those jobs?’ So our deal with them is to start with investment in skills. And on that basis, we win trust and consent to talk about issues that we think are important as well: common standards, design—things that are really important business-to-business characteristics of a smart city. But we’ve got to start with something which is really important to Londoners first, which is access to jobs.
Mayor Khan talked about the role of London in the post-Brexit world as a city open to talent and innovation. How do you see your work contributing to that vision?
Look, it’s well known that during Brexit, London and Scotland voted in an outward fashion and the other areas of the country voted in an inward fashion. Other cities also voted in an outward way, and some lost only narrowly. Nevertheless, London is a source of a major amount of economic growth for the country—it needs to be open. Because smart cities for public services rely on international talent—the health service, universities, which have a large number of non-U.K. European nationals and internationals.
To maintain our status as a world hub, the traditional view would be that you can go offshore and you can have lower taxes, but with the tech community, that doesn’t quite land. Because if you want to make good products, you go, “great, I want to create a world class team.” If you can’t create a world class team, people will start voting with their feet. The number one issue is access to talent. The tech community has told us [this] and it’s something that we’ve told the government. We know they’re listening, there’s obviously a moment of negotiation to happen still. But London’s future relies on that.
I would also say to the tech companies, and this is really really important: Their investment in London is a vote for maintaining openness. They also have a role to play in our journey to make sure that London remains open. Being here, being with London, is also them exercising their own agency to basically say, “Yeah, We’re pointing outwards to the world.”
In the future, we’re going to have increasing tie-ups with what I call the great technology cities of the world: San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, New York, London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin. These cities, especially in Europe and North America, will increasingly work together. The disputes between nations that happen at conferences with prime ministers will not play out with those [city leaders] charged with the actual delivery of public services and growth. We have a different agenda, and it’s much more collaborative.
Mayor Khan emphasized the role of local regulations in the gig economy. How do you see that aspect of a city’s relationship with tech companies?
We’re the creator of new rules. When we talk about the creation of common standards, we don’t think about it in abstract terms: We’re just basically saying, the great innovations of the world happen both because they’re disruptive, but they’ve also happened because someone sat down and went, “We need to have some basis for innovation.”
Sometimes I think in the tech community, we get too carried away almost with the neoliberal idea of “regulation must be disrupted, the state is standing in my way.” No doubt, some old rules need to be changed. The alternative view is that active government andthe active role of the state to create those discussions around common standards will be the fuel for future innovation and growth. So, instead of letting a thousand flowers bloom and waiting for one to grow into a massive tree and block out all the shade for everything—to use a terrible analogy—you’ve actually got a situation where you create a competitive market, with products that can compete for the customer or citizen’s attention to serve them better. So it’s not disruption to create dominance, but disruption to create competition, choice, and public service.
Cities have a really important role to play in those things by developing standards. People are talking about autonomous vehicles; those won’t happen without smart streets. And smart streets won’t happen without having sensors that can securely share information in a way that is useful. And those things will come from people thinking about rules. We have a really important role to create the framework for the digital revolution to truly be a public benefit. Increasingly, the role of the chief digital officer in cities is to talk about that agenda.
In Batgirl: Son of Penguin, Gotham City’s favorite daughter must confront a new threat to the neighborhood: change. Ethan Cobblepot, the son of the notorious Bat-villain, the Penguin, has arrived in Burnside, the hip, transitional Gotham neighborhood where Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl) lives. Cobblepot Jr. represents a force even more sinister than his waddling father’s collection of lethal umbrellas: He’s a major tech mogul, a disruptor to put Elon Musk to shame. The tech incubator that he launches in Burnside could transform life for the worse in Gordon’s neighborhood, which is growing less affordable by the minute. Cobblepot would be a major irritation in her world—if he weren’t kind of cute?
Son of Penguin is one of the best storylines so far in Hope Larson’s run on Batgirl, a comic that looks beyond the Bat Cave to find a more familiar, lived-in world within Gotham City. Larson, an Eisner Award–winning comic-book writer and New York Times best-selling graphic novelist, has won over readers of gritty Bat books and charming indies alike through her vibrant world building.
CityLab caught up with Larson after SXSW, where she spoke at the brand new Cities summit about graphic novels and designing utopias and dystopias in fiction. The author talks about exploring gentrification in Batgirl’s world, realizing her own version of A Wrinkle in Time, and capturing the frustration of waiting for someone to text you back in her new graphic novel, All Summer Long.
Tell me please about Burnside, the neighborhood in Gotham City where Batgirl lives. How is it different from Gotham? How is it different from Williamsburg?
Burnside is basically the Brooklyn of Gotham City. It’s across the harbor. It’s basically the younger, hipper Gotham, where the stakes are not quite so high. The fate of the world is hanging in the balance a bit less. The stories in this world are focused a bit more on Barbara Gordon’s personal life than they would be if it were a Batman book.
To kick off your story arc, you took Batgirl out of Burnside for a series of adventures. What happened while she was gone?
It was actually my editor’s suggestion to send her on this backpacking trip. It was a really good idea, in my opinion, to do a palette cleanser arc between Beyond Burnside—which was the arc before mine, and very Burnside focused—and the rest of my run.
One of the things that changed in her absence is that she had founded this company, Gordon Clean Energy, as Barbara Gordon, before leaving. She left it in the care of her two friends, Alexia and Frankie. They’ve been running this company in her absence. When she returns, she is seeing the side effects of opening a huge tech and energy company in a cool hipster neighborhood. It’s basically a lot of gentrification happening. Her favorite coffee shop closed. I wasn’t allowed to kill anybody, but I could kill the coffee shop. That was going to be my move that says I mean business.
In one sequence, Barbara Gordon meets up with some friends at a club that’s shaped like an enormous fishbowl. She overhears people complaining about unsightly homeless people. It’s a scene you can easily picture happening in, say, San Francisco. What does this conflict mean to Batgirl?
She is a traditional superhero, out there fighting in the streets for good. She’s basically up against newcomers who want to influence a lot of change in Burnside, but they do it at a remove. The issues that you’re mentioning, with the homeless population—somebody has created an app for that. If you see indigent people on the street, you can use this app to get them “help.” And you never have to be there. You can just push a button, and that’s it.
And the way you’re saying it, this solution is horrifying?
I find it horrifying. In that story, it turns out that a supervillain is scooping up these folks on the streets and experimenting on them. Because there’s no oversight.
Batgirl’s got the traditional rogues’ gallery, with punch-’em-up bad guys like Clayface or Harley Quinn. But her main enemies might actually be tech and gentrification. Can you tell me about how these threads came together in Son of the Penguin?
Where I was coming from as a writer, on this arc: I’m a person who has basically only lived in gentrifying neighborhoods in her adult life. I was drawing from things I was seeing in my day-to-day life in Highland Park in Los Angeles. And before that, in Silver Lake. Now I live back in my home town of Asheville, North Carolina. Even here I’m living in a gentrifying neighborhood. As someone in her 30s, who is still up and coming a little bit, at least financially, these are the places I can afford to live. I’m always having to grapple with the idea that I am an affluent white person moving into a neighborhood that might be a Latino neighborhood, for example. I’m part of that wave of folks who are coming in and changing things. It’s not a great feeling all the time to know that I am part of that system.
So in a way Batgirl’s conflict is the conflict you’re experiencing.
Yes, exactly, but writ large.
I want to know what else about urban life Barbara Gordon experiences. Does Batgirl have to deal with street harassment?
I may have written a little bit of that. I can’t remember. The cool thing about Barbara Gordon is that if somebody messes with her, she can deal with it. It’s not like she needs to smile and walk away and hope that she doesn’t get followed.
Gordon has an eidetic memory, which manifests in these vivid, three-dimensional crime scenes. Does writing these scenes out change the way you think about space or look at the built environment?
I’m always thinking about space when I’m writing comics, because it’s kind of like film-making, you have to be thinking in three dimensions. That’s actually the skill that took me a really long time to develop and feel comfortable with, having this spatial awareness of fictional environments and building them in your brain so you can move characters around inside them and manipulate them.
I guess you could say that Batgirl’s eidetic memory is kind of like that, but to the nth degree. She can mentally transport herself back to any place that she’s ever been and walk around it in three dimensions and reexamine details that maybe she didn’t notice at the time—but they’re all just locked in her brain. Which is a pretty amazing skill to have. It also ties into her history of being a librarian. She’s a human computer, a human catalog.
That’s right—so why does Barbara Gordon need a library science degree?
We wanted to bring that back to her character. She’s historically always been a librarian. This character goes back to the early ‘60s. One of the things that is so cool about librarians is that they’re really involved in their communities. It’s not just that you’re dealing with books and research. You’re also helping out folks who may not have any other resource for computers, how to deal with stuff like taxes, small-business stuff. Libraries are really a community resource. I wanted her to be thinking about other ways she could be helping to build up her community, other than being just a crime fighter.
Speaking of thinking like a film-maker, you wrote A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, an illustrated adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s book. How does your depiction align with or depart from Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation?
It’s totally different. This book came out in 2012. We thought there was going to be a movie coming out in 2012. The graphic novel was supposed to coincide with that release. The movie ended up going back into turnaround. It wasn’t for a while that Ava DuVernay got attached to it. It’s pretty cool, because I got to do my little version in isolation, and she got to do her totally different version. Which I think is pretty fascinating. There are a lot of cool smart choices in there that maybe I appreciate more than other people do because I’m so familiar with the source material at this point. It was pretty brave to update the movie, set it in Los Angeles, ground it in the real world of right now as opposed to ‘62, when the book came out. My version was totally faithful to the adaptation. All of the dialog is in there. I didn’t take any liberties, I didn’t make any big changes. Ava actually does go in and make a lot of changes and I totally respect that. It’s such a weird book. It’s hard to structure for a movie. I think they did a pretty good job.
What’s the story with your latest project, All Summer Long?
It’s coming out in May. It’s the first of three graphic novels. The next two will be sequels, but stand-alones. It’s set in Los Angeles right now, contemporary. It’s about Bina, who is an aspiring musician, and her best friend, Austin. The two of them are 13 about to go into 8th grade. For the first time, they’re drifting apart, and their friendship is strained. Bina is trying to understand what’s going on and how she can reconnect with her best friend.
I’m reading it right now, and I’m at the part where Bina winds up breaking into Austin’s house. Inside she runs into Austin’s mean older sister, Charlie, who Bina idolizes. Charlie just got doored on her bicycle, and she seems pretty irritated about it, and then Bina surprises her, but Charlie is uncharacteristically cool to Bina. It’s a whole thing, so, of course, Bina texts Austin everything. And he won’t text her back. Why do they never text back?
I can’t tell you why not because that’s one of the central bits of the book! I don’t want to spoil it. It’s one of the hardest, most brutal things as a kid, or anyone, really. You’re reaching out to someone and they’re just ignoring you. It’s the worst.
Is that where this story stays? Is there action coming, or is this a smaller scale, human story?
It’s a very grounded, slice-of-life story. It’s been a lot of fun to work on something like that because I have been writing Batgirl and bigger action-packed things for a couple of years. It’s a nice break to slow it down, just focus on the day-to-day. The feelings these kids are having are very big, but their problems maybe look small on the outside.
Finally, and I’m sorry, this question is from a Facebook parlor game: What were your first five jobs?
I was a cashier at a pet-supply store, then a video clerk, back when that was a job one could have. After that, I made the jump to comics. I did some lettering and illustration as well, to pay the bills, before the graphic novel thing took off.
Earlier in my career I learned the hard way that you can never ratchet expectations above the baseline you set in those critical early moments of a project or initiative. People and organizations very quickly settle into the level of performance that they deem acceptable to you.
In 1748, the French philosopher Montesquieu published The Spirit of the Laws, a survey of political systems that argued for the separation of powers and citizens’ rights to due process. It was quickly translated into multiple languages, and Montesquieu’s ideas about liberty had a strong influence on the framers of the American Constitution.
In the book, after discussing taxes and before considering slavery, Montesquieu set out a theory that climate differences help to shape human societies. Based on pre-modern medicine, Montesquieu believed that cold air constricts the body’s “fibers” and increases blood flow, while warm air relaxes those same fibers. “People are therefore more vigorous in cold climates,” he wrote. “This superiority of strength must produce various effects; for instance, a greater boldness, that is, more courage; a greater sense of superiority… .”
More than two centuries after Montesquieu, the notion that climate molds character is getting some support from modern science. A report published in November in the journal Nature Human Behaviour claimed that ambient temperature (that is, the temperature of the surrounding environment) is a “crucial” factor associated with an individual’s personality. The paper—by a team of psychologists based in China, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—found that, compared to people who grew up in areas with more extreme temperatures,
individuals who grew up in regions with more clement temperatures (that is, closer to 22°C) scored higher on personality factors related to socialization and stability (agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability) and personal growth and plasticity (extraversion and openness to experience).
The report concluded that as global climate change continues, “we may also observe concomitant changes in human personality,” with the caveat that the extent of such changes “await[s] future investigation.”
Why would the outdoor temperature influence our personalities? The hypothesis seems almost too simple: In comfortably warm weather, we are more likely to go outside, where we encounter other people and engage in a wider range of activities. But in cold or very hot weather, we tend to stay indoors, where our social interactions and activities are more limited.
“It’s kind of an intuitive finding,” acknowledged Jason Rentfrow, a social psychologist at Cambridge University and one of the authors of the report. “But I think the reality is that only recently, with the advent of the internet and academic researchers’ reliance on it as a method for gathering large amounts of data, were we able to begin to empirically examine some of these ideas.”
To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers ran two separate studies assessing the personalities of subjects in China and the United States. In the first one, 5,587 university students from across China completed a personality survey online. In the second, 1,660,638 Americans filled out a survey in return for a customized personality evaluation.
They also collected meteorological data on the 59 home cities of the Chinese participants and, in the U.S. study, for the 12,449 ZIP codes where participants had grown up. After controlling for age, gender, population density, GDP per capita, and other factors—even humidity and wind speed—they found a “robust” connection between enjoying a balmy hometown temperature in childhood and being more agreeable and extraverted as an adult.
Brad Bushman, a social psychologist at Ohio State University who was not involved in the study, called it “a significant contribution to the literature” in an email.
“The fact that the basic findings replicate in two different countries”—one collectivist and the other individualistic—“is impressive,” he wrote. “The theoretical [rationale] for predicting personality differences is convincing.”
They drew a psychological map of the U.S. with three distinct—but not always geographically contiguous—regions: “Friendly and Conservative,” stretching from the Great Plains to the Deep South; “Relaxed and Creative,” comprising the West Coast, the Rockies, and parts of the Eastern seaboard; and “Temperamental and Uninhibited,” in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and, interestingly, Texas. No one who’s seen a New Yorker chew out a stranger on the street would be surprised by that last one, but fewer of us associate the state of barbecue and rodeos with mercurial tempers. (“Sometimes the stereotypes do hold up with data, sometimes not so much,” Rentfrow said.)
The recent study in Nature Human Behaviour is in the same genre, but has a narrower focus. The connection it makes between an ideally pleasant temperature (22 degrees Celsius, or 72 degrees Fahrenheit) and a pleasant disposition has a neat symmetry to it, which is probably one reason it has generated a considerableamount of press, much of it with an upbeat spin.
“Perhaps, in this warming world, we will all become a little more agreeable and a little more open,” wroteThe Washington Post’s Angela Fritz when summarizing the findings. A public relations firm touted the study before Valentine’s Day with the headline, “Climate Change Could Explain the Personality of Your Significant Other.”
It’s tantalizing to think that climate change could smooth out our personal rough spots, or that rising temperatures will gradually turn gruff New Englanders into laid-back Californians. But don’t count on it. Rentfrow is careful to qualify the report’s prediction of possible personality impacts. “Any changes that might happen as a result of climate change would probably end up being over generations,” he said. And perhaps more significantly, “not all places are going to become warmer,” he added. “Some places will experience harsher winters, while others get hotter and drier.”
This is why Bushman finds the implications of the research not at all cheery, but “frightening.” He wrote in an email, “As climate change makes temperatures more extreme, people should become less sociable.” His own research predicts that global warming will increase crime, on the theory that living at lower temperatures, with more seasonal variation, requires groups to focus on the future and exercise more self-control, which in turn inhibits aggression and violence.
Not every social scientist is convinced that the link between climate and personality is so dramatic. And there is reason to be cautious about reading too much into it. Montesquieu, you’ll recall, argued that cold weather made people more vigorous. The corollary was the exact opposite: That hot weather made them listless and passive.
“The heat of the climate may be so excessive as to deprive the body of all vigor and strength,” Montesquieu wrote. “Then the faintness is communicated to the mind: there is no curiosity, no enterprise, no generosity of sentiment; the inclinations are all passive.” Referring to India, he noted that “the inhabitants … have much greater need than the European nations of a wise legislator” because of their heat-induced torpor.
The belief that people raised in hot climates were lazy, and generally inferior to inhabitants of cold climates, spread throughout the West. It was deployed to help justify colonial rule in Africa and chattel slavery in America. To be clear, research that findsa correlation between friendliness and balmy temperatures is a far cry from scientific racism. But the possibility of “climate determinism” being used for destructive ends has not gone away.
Andrew Mathews, an environmental anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, expressed skepticism about some of the recent study’s assumptions. He pointed out that China and the U.S. are big countries, and each is culturally diverse. So it’s possible that cultural differences may underlie some of the personality differences recorded. And a “psychophysiological comfort optimum” of precisely 22 Celsius or 72 Fahrenheit is too narrow, he said.
“We are animals, and we do have a physiological response to temperature, but we change our behavior and our clothing in order to respond to our environment,” said Mathews. “We have a rather broader range of comfort zones than this [optimum] seems to imply.”
Ultimately, he argued, the question of how average temperatures affect people who stay in one place is not as interesting—or as relevant—as how people respond to changes in their climate. “Within a particular society,” he said, “it’s pretty clear that the differences in responses to climate change are where the real political questions are.”
In other words, as climate change makes weather less predictable and resources scarcer, knowing how people respond to a climatic average will not get us very far.
In a different report published last year, the American Psychological Association and two environmental nonprofits outlined the effects of climate change on mental health. Those effects are both acute (stress and distress in response to pollution or an extreme weather event, such as a storm or flood) and chronic (a sense of loss amid changes to one’s home, or a feeling of having lost control).
One of this report’s contributors, psychologist Ashlee Cunsolo, has studied Canada’s Inuit communities as they cope with melting sea ice. For them, less ice means less opportunity to hunt and fish, which threatens their self-worth and food security. Cunsolo wrote that community members report emotions of sadness, fear, anxiety, distress, and frustration due to the changes in their environment, describing those changes as “devastating,” “scary,” and “depressing.”
The Inuit are now on the front lines of a warming world, but before long, even the agreeable, extraverted folks in more temperate zones will find it impossible to ignore. Climate change, then, is more than a mood booster or anger trigger: It’s “a real transformation in society and culture,” Mathews warns. “The future is going to be radically strange.”
To honor Xcel Energy’s successful introduction of legislation to give itself a “blank check” for its anticipated Prairie Island nuclear power plant retrofit, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and Community Power today released a video to tell the truth about what’s really in the “red box” that’s prevalent in Xcel’s widespread televised advertisements. For more information about Xcel’s power plant bill and where decisions will be made about it, visit ilsr.org.… Read More
Minneapolis lawmakers are weighting a proposal to change the city’s zoning regulations governing the construction of fourplexes—small apartment buildings with four units. As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported, this would be “a historic rewriting of the zoning rules that would allow property owners to build fourplexes on any residential property in the city. The city’s current zoning prohibits them from roughly two-thirds of Minneapolis and more than 80 percent of its lots.”
The coming referendum on the character of the city has pro-density YIMBY activists who support the proposal ready to rumble, as the below video makes clear.
You see, the guy in the white undies is the city’s current zoning regulations, and the guy in the black pants is the YIMBY movement. When pants guy smashes undies guy, the result is “4PLEX.”
The video goes on to explain how fourplexes could help relieve the affordability crisis in Minneapolis by providing housing for four big-time-wrestling-dude families instead of just one. These kind of buildings already exist throughout that Upper Midwestern metropolis, but new ones can no longer be built in most neighborhoods, due to “decades of downzoning.” What’s more, fourplexes are almost always cheaper than single family homes or downtown high-rises—for wrestlers and regular Minnesotans alike.
The video comes from an upstart sardonic hyperlocal news-and-advocacy entity known as Wedge LIVE, whose mission is to “cover the the issues that are sending longtime residents over the edge.” Wedge LIVE’s creator, John Edwards, is also co-founder of the Minneapolis activist group Neighbors for More Neighbors, which is currently mobilizing around the fourplex proposal. (We reached out to Edwards for comment on the video, and will update if we hear from him.)
In a matter of years, this movement has gone from a rag-tag group of activists to a bona fide political movement, represented by powerful politicians like Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and California State Senator Scott Wiener. Whatever the YIMBYs are doing, it seems to be working.
CHATTAHOOCHEE HILLS, GEORGIA—On a recent drizzly morning, I tromped through pine needles and mud past a couple of glowering llamas and through a wildflower meadow until reaching Selborne, one of three neighborhoods in Serenbe, a 1,000-acre intentional community southwest of Atlanta. Around 600 people live in Serenbe’s 350 homes, and plans are afoot for many more.
The community’s founder and developer, Steve Nygren, has built Serenbe over the past 15 years. At 71, he easily outpaced me on our two-hour walk around the town he made. Along the way, he proudly pointed to the variety of styles among Selborne’s tidy, well-appointed houses: A modern, boxy structure abuts a classic bungalow, and a colonial is a few doors down. Townhouses mix with single-family homes, and a few buildings feature apartments on the second floor and shops below. Each of Serenbe’s three neighborhoods boasts a central, downtown-like area with a smattering of retailers—a bakery, a salon, a dog grooming outfit.
“We wanted a mix of architecture so that all the buildings don’t look the same,” said Nygren. “That’s the difference between building a town and a development.”
Nygren conceived of Serenbe—the name is an amalgamation of “serene” and “be”—in 2000, after he saw bulldozers taking down trees near his property line. In the 1990s, Nygren, a successful Atlanta restaurateur and real estate developer, had moved with his wife and three daughters to their weekend home in Chattahoochee Hill Country, a largely undeveloped rural area of rolling hills, farms, streams, and woods. The expansive white clapboard farmhouse sat on 40 acres of land about an hour’s drive from downtown.
“Our retreat to the country was understanding the need to find balance through a relationship to nature, which we weren’t experiencing in the urban center,” said Nygren.
The bulldozers alarmed Nygren: He feared that Atlanta’s signature suburbanization was poised to encroach on his bucolic idyll. To preserve the land around his property and fend off sprawl, he decided to found a development based on balanced growth—one in which 70 percent of the land would be protected and 30 percent would be filled with comparatively dense neighborhoods of homes, shops, restaurants, schools, medical offices, and the like.
For inspiration, Nygren drew on New Urbanist tenets of design that emphasize walkability, public green spaces, and mixed use development. He was particularly keen on emulating older European villages—small towns, he said, where multiple generations lived close together and had more of a connection to nature and each other, creating the conditions for a balanced and fulfilling life. Serenbe would be simultaneously a rural and urban utopia: Residents would be surrounded by nature, but would enjoy a tight-knit community with urban-style amenities.
The Nygren’s original farmhouse is now an upscale inn and restaurant whose dishes feature ingredients grown on Serenbe’s 25-acre organic farm. Most residents pick up a weekly share of the fresh veggies; the week I visit, beets, kale, collards, arugula, and more were on offer. The llamas I passed and other beasts—pigs, chickens, goats—hang out nearby in the “Animal Village.”
The development also boasts an array of amenities to rival any gentrified urban neighborhood: a spa, a yoga studio, a coffee shop, a Montessori school, and a small Whole Foods-esque grocery. Most of Serenbe’s residents opt to live there full-time; less than a third use it as a weekend retreat. Those who are permanent fixtures are a mix of retirees, teleworkers, and Atlanta commuters.
And those bulldozers? They were prepping the area for a small airstrip. Nygren subsequently bought the land and planted the wildflower meadow I walked through.
A modern twist on the 19th-century utopia
There’s a long history of similar efforts to get away from the city without leaving the benefits of city life behind. Early 19th-century French philosopher Charles Fourier argued that the ideal number of people for a community was around 1,600, and that they should live communally in a U-shaped structure and work in jobs based on their desires and interests. He saw this as a means of escaping the industrial revolution and the chaos and filth of the cities in which it thrived. He wrote of his vision:
“The idea was to move away from the metropolis and begin again,” said Keith Murphy, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Irvine, who teaches a course on utopias. “Serenbe is similar in its promise that a life away from the city and in proximity to nature provides a fresh start and a better existence.”
Fourier’s ideas inspired now-defunct intentional communities in France and the United States, places like Utopia, Ohio, and La Réunion, Texas. Such settlements were precursors to the “garden cities” conceived by late 19th/early 20th-century British urban planner Ebenezer Howard, which, like Serenbe, aimed to give their residents the best of both the country and the city.
Howard’s plans involved circular cities of around 30,000 people on 6,000 acres with all the necessities and pleasures of urban life—shops, residences, parks, and even industry on the outskirts—densely situated and surrounded by a wide rural belt. Garden cities proliferated around the world, with Greenbelt, Maryland, perhaps the most well-known in the United States. “Over 100 years ago we have a similar vision to Serenbe,” said Deborah Cowen, a University of Toronto geography professor who specializes in cities, suburbs, and social justice. She calls it “a different kind of suburbanization.”
Designed for your best life
Ebenezer Howard’s plans for his garden cities were meticulous in their attention to detail, but Steve Nygren may have him beat. He’s been almost obsessive about Serenbe’s design in his quest to make the village as pleasant, green, and convivial a place as possible.
As in the pioneering garden-suburb plans of Frederick Law Olmsted, Nygren ensured, for example, that the neighborhoods’ streets do not follow a straight line but instead follow the contours of the natural landscape, helping to reduce the look and feel of artificiality from which many New Urbanist developments suffer. Though it’s difficult to make a new development feel like it’s been around a long time, Serenbe does feel more organic and less contrived than counterparts like Seaside, Florida—the planned community that served as the set for the movie The Truman Show, in which the protagonist discovers his entire life is a television program.
The dwellings themselves are rarely gaudy—the homes range from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet, with nary a McMansion in sight. Trash and recycling cans go in a hole in the ground next to one’s house, so as not to visually pollute the premises. A golf cart “concierge” fetches them once a week, cutting down on noise pollution as well.
Strategies to reduce the settlement’s environmental footprint abound. The 30 percent of Serenbe’s land that may be built on is done so more densely than Atlanta’s usual sprawl model, resulting in 20 percent more housing per square mile compared to other suburbs. Houses do not have traditional lawns, but rather sit right on the street or, if set back, feature swaths of pine needles and ground cover that doesn’t require excessive watering. The energy-efficient homes cut utility costs by 35 percent; in the future, the use of more geothermal energy will, said Nygren, reduce costs by another 30 to 35 percent.
All homes have front porches or sitting areas just outside the front door to encourage interaction among neighbors. (Garages are often tucked out back.) Mail is collected from a communal space, similar to what you’d find in an apartment complex, with rows of individual boxes—another trick to design in more neighborly conversation. And multigenerational interaction is encouraged; single-floor homes geared for those looking to age in place, or remain in their houses as they grow older, are found throughout the community.
Lorrie Thomas Ross, a working mother in her 40s who runs a marketing business from home and has lived in Serenbe for more than two years, said she particularly appreciates this multigenerational aspect. That night, she told me, she was having cocktails with an 80-year-old girlfriend, and is also close with her older neighbors. “I don’t have parents anymore, so I’ve created a family here,” she said.
Ross and I went to meet her six-year-old daughter, Edyn, at The Children’s House, Serenbe’s Montessori school. Edyn was looking at bugs outside with her classmates when we arrived, and then ran off to jump on a trampoline with them and some parents across the street. Ross accompanied me to the nearby bookstore, keeping an occasional eye on Edyn through the window. “I know who she’s with, so I’m not worried,” she said.
Nadine Bratti, who runs the grocery store next to the school, said this feeling of safety is one of the things she likes best about living in Serenbe. “My 13-year-old daughter can spend the night at a friend’s and then they can walk to a café for breakfast,” she said. “I don’t need to go with her or take her. She has freedom she never would anywhere else.”
Serenbe’s design does seem to encourage the behaviors Nygren is aiming for—walking, healthier eating, sociability, children’s independent play. At the same time, it offers a panoply of high-end goods and services that the average rural or suburban area might lack. In some ways, Serenbe is like a less-gritty version of a gentrified urban enclave, one that’s surrounded by woods instead of less-affluent neighborhoods.
And, just like those polarizing bubbles of urban inequality, Serenbe is not immune from difficult questions about inclusion, diversity, and the perils of self-segregation.
Inside a seductive bubble
Serenbe bills itself as a wellness community, and its newest neighborhood, Mado (still under construction), is particularly focused around this idea. Mado’s streets are already lined with blueberry bushes that residents can pick from at their leisure, and more green areas filled with edible and medicinal plants are planned. Mado will also host practitioners of both Western and Eastern medicine. “It’s about vital living instead of treating sickness,” said Nygren.
Wellness communities are big business, according to a recent Fast Company article that profiled Serenbe. Wellness real estate, the article reported, is worth $52.5 billion in North America alone, and is growing 6.4 percent annually. Serenbe’s homes run upward of $700,000; the most affordable is $359,000. Some smaller homes and apartments are available for rent; the day I checked the listings, a furnished two-bedroom loft was on offer for $3,800 per month, and a one-bedroom carriage house was listed for $1,900. Serenbe life doesn’t come cheap.
Cowen of the University of Toronto said it’s this element of profit that needs a critical look. She likened Serenbe to a post-industrial company town, one in which the commodity being sold isn’t made in a factory, but the real estate itself—as well as the fantasy and narrative that accompany it.
“Serenbe is intended to be environmentally oriented, but it’s also creating land as a scarce commodity through preservation, which makes it a lucrative enterprise,” she said. “It’s a great business model, but I’m not sure it offers anything in terms of future urban development.”
The community is indeed a showpiece of certain progressive urban ideas—its comparatively dense building stock, energy-efficient homes, and emphasis on local agriculture certainly distinguish it from Atlantan suburbs like Marietta or Stone Mountain. But it largely leaves untouched the broader issues that are at the center of the contemporary urban and ecological crisis, including racial justice, income equality, and the severe lack of affordable housing.
“We’re in such a fraught urban moment, whether we’re looking at the environment, extreme concentrations of wealth, the corporatization of the world, or deepening racial segregation,” Cowen said.
In this context, a place like Serenbe seems to offer a progressive twist on a familiar pattern: Wealthy and mostly white urbanites fleeing cities in the face of potential catastrophe, whether environmental or social. “Serenbe feels like the creation of a largely white community as shelter,” said Murphy of UC Irvine.
Added Cowen: “It’s a question of the defensive futures being built by those who can afford to escape.”
This is also a critical distinction between enclaves like Serenbe and the utopias of Charles Fourier and Ebenezer Howard, which were envisioned as ways to give the working classes an alternative to the misery of their industrial urban lives. In this early 21st century model, utopia is a more exclusive proposition.
Serenbe told me it doesn’t keep demographic data on its residents. Its website and marketing materials show a few people of color among a solidly white community, and that’s an impression that mirrored my own after spending the day there. The larger community in which Serenbe sits, Chattahoochee Hills, is almost completely white, compared to the suburb next door, Palmetto, which has a large African-American and Latino population—as well as twice the percentage of people living in poverty. (For a detailed account of the complex racial dynamics of suburban Atlanta, see my colleague Brentin Mock’s recent CityLab series on the area’s “cityhood” movement.) Easy access to the town is also limited to those with a private car; it’s about a 30-minute drive to the nearest MARTA stop.
Nygren counters that Serenbe can serve as a model for how to more thoughtfully build communities to benefit people from all walks of life. Some elements of the development—such as its emphasis on giving residents more time immersed in nature or promoting socialization among neighbors—can be implemented in any community looking to improve the general well-being of its citizens, without excessive cost. “While Serenbe’s model cannot solve all of the major societal issues currently impacting our country, we do not shy away from confronting complex issues and having an open dialogue about them,” he said. “We value diversity and everyone is welcome within our community.”
Serenbe’s housing prices are comparable to the Atlanta market, he added, and overall home prices are becoming increasingly affordable as more builders adopt environmentally responsible methods, driving down construction costs. Nygren has also worked to diversify housing options to attract buyers across price points, offerings lofts, work/live units, and smaller cottages while also increasing the number of rentals.
As time goes on, debates about Serenbe’s diversity and inclusivity may fade or fundamentally change. Utopias aren’t static: Greenbelt, Maryland, and other towns inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement—places like Reston, Virginia; Jackson Heights, Queens; and Chatham Village, Pittsburgh—eventually became either run-of-the-mill suburbs or were folded into nearby urban neighborhoods. Others have succumbed to shifting economic tides and changing tastes. Even the dream towns of developer-visionaries eventually escape their creators’ grasp. Add a century, and Serenbe may share a similar fate as its predecessors.
I asked Nygren what he thought Serenbe might be like in a hundred years—should the community last that long. He laughed.
An instant bridge collapses: Last Saturday, a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in Miami was being hailed as a placemaking achievement, giving students a safe way to cross a busy highway. On Thursday, it collapsed and left at least four people dead and nine injured. The tragedy raises questions about whether the streamlined “instant bridge” construction techniques were to blame—but it’s still too early to draw any conclusions. John Surico and CityLab’s Laura Bliss have the developing story and will be updating as more details come through.
A ragtag resistance: Nobody knows where Amazon’s headquarters will go or what the winning bid will look like, but we do know that the HQ2 sweepstakes has made some strange political bedfellows. Economists, city council members, socialists, and even the Koch brothers have advocated through petitions and protests against generous tax incentives, but it would ultimately be up to Amazon and cities to keep their proposals incentive-free. Are they listening?
Three Akita dogs guide you through their home city of Odate on Google Street View.
Take the A (or B) Train
Last June, the Metropolitan Transit Authority launched a Genius Transit Challenge in hopes that somebody, anybody, could figure out how to fix New York City’s beleaguered subway. Now the results are in, and this week, the agency announced the six winners, with videos from each team explaining their proposal. The GIF above demonstrates a plan to add more cars to trains, without having to build longer platforms. The secret? Trains with “A” and “B” sections that could stagger at stations and theoretically increase train capacity by 42 percent.
What We’re Reading
This guy really wants you to stop blocking the bus lane (New York Times)
These photos will change the way you think about race in coal country (Yes! Magazine)
Ride-hailing apps now pick up more rides than taxis in New York (Recode)
Downtown Cleveland was in a state of upheaval in the 1970s. “It was a period of severe decline,” said Fred Bidwell, who was a college student in the city at time and now serves as the executive director of the Front Exhibition Company. Employers were deserting downtown. Retail was on the way out, too. “It was a really rough time in the history of the city, and the downtown was devastated by that,” Bidwell said.
In an effort to help combat blight, Cleveland created the City Canvases program in 1973. Through the program, a dozen murals by local artists appeared on the blank exteriors of downtown buildings. Most have since been painted over or razed.
Now, work based on the original program will be on display during FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. This triennial art show will launch in July, and the exhibit “Canvas City” will feature a re-creation of one of the original murals as well as works by new artists. Instead of combating blight, these murals will speak to a place experiencing what Bidwell sees as an urban revival.
“Rather than blight remediation, this is a way to take a city fabric that is changing—primarily in a positive way—and [ask] how can we make it more interesting, more intellectually challenging?” said Bidwell. Artistic Director Michelle Grabner, along with Bidwell, conceived Canvas City while visiting the home of Julian Stanczak, an artist who created one of the murals for the original Cleveland Canvases program. Stanczak was a Holocaust survivor who later immigrated to Cleveland, where he taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He died in March 2017.
Grabner was drawn to the possibilities of Stanczak’s abstract mural. Most modern murals in the public space are very narrative driven, Grabner said, and she started thinking about how meaningful it would be for a city to take on art that left more to the imagination, where viewers would have to interpret what the colors and geometry in front of them had to say about their surroundings.
“With narrative-driven murals, you read them and understand,” said Grabner. “Abstract works demand an active viewership and changing one’s mind.”
Furthermore, the evolving nature of understanding abstraction works well with the longevity of a mural. “The beautiful thing about these large-scale murals is they stay up for a long time,” Grabner said, “and your understanding can shift as the city shifts, or as your circumstances shift.”
Grabner chose artists who she felt took on abstraction as a social responsibility, in everything from motifs to color to composition. “It’s not just formal, but about order,” she said. “When one thinks about order it’s always political, even if you’re having squiggly lines on a building.”
The Canvas City exhibit opens in July and runs till the end of September; for most of the initial exhibit, new artists will only have proposals for their murals on display. This is intentional, as the works are part of a triennial exhibition that will pop up in another three years. Between this exhibit and the next, Grabner and Bidwell plan to have the new murals populate buildings to form what Grabner termed “a connective tissue.”
One of the artists tasked with painting a new mural is Kay Rosen, a painter who works with typography. Rosen said that public art, “beautifies… because it becomes like this skin of art over the façades of certain buildings and calls attention to the architecture.” Rosen also remarked on the complexity of creating a mural: a challenge born partially out of the scope of the canvas.
When it comes to blank canvases, Cleveland is in many ways a muralist’s dream. Back in the 1920s, during a period of significant growth in the city, many new buildings were built with long, empty walls—the city intended for more buildings to come up alongside them shortly. But, Bidwell said, the boom ended after the Great Depression and others were later torn down, revealing “these big, blank walls which are now a part of the historical fabric of the city.”
Some artists are giving a good deal of thought to how their work will connect to that fabric. Odili Odita, an abstract painter who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, used to regard Cleveland as “the big city,” but said that now he reflects on both its grandeur and its decline. “I look at Cleveland as this grand old palace with [a] previous dynamic that may not be there in that fashion, but has the potential [to] re-shape itself,” Odita said. He believes that abstraction is language well-suited for examining a city: it opens up a space to tell residents a story about the place they call home.
Bidwell hopes the murals will alter Cleveland’s skyline and create conversations about its past, present, and future. He said that through Canvas City he hopes to create “a living museum of contemporary abstraction.”
Though Bidwell was still a newcomer to Cleveland when the initial murals appeared, he remembers feeling that they were a gesture towards vitality. A sign, he said, that even “when it was a bit of a depressing time for Cleveland and a lot of Americans,” someone still cared about the city and what it could become.