Housing Advocates Are Suing Ben Carson and HUD

Housing advocates plan to file a complaint on Tuesday against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its secretary, Ben Carson, in an effort to put pressure on the federal government to enforce fair housing law.

The challenge calls on HUD to fully implement an Obama-era rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing—a critical yet historically neglected policy established by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. In accordance with the rule, communities across the country had begun drafting and submitting desegregation plans over the last two years. In January, HUD effectively suspended the rule.

At stake is official guidance directing the way that billions of dollars in Hurricane Harvey recovery funds will be spent in Texas, where the plaintiffs are centered. A decision on the so-called AFFH Rule will affect how Community Development Block Grants and other funds are allocated to municipalities nationwide.

In Texas specifically, restoring the AFFH Rule would likely require jurisdictions that receive disaster recovery funds to demonstrate that they will rebuild communities that are less segregated than they were before the storm.

More broadly, the challenge seeks to put pressure on the federal government to resume working to reverse racial segregation—work that had only just begun during the Obama era.

“Because of housing discrimination and residential segregation across the United States, where you live has a huge impact on how your life unfolds,” says Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, one of the plaintiffs behind the challenge. “How much money you’re going to earn, your life expectancy, your health outcomes, the type of credit you can access, whether your children will graduate from a good school, whether your children are able to attend college—in America, place is inextricably linked to opportunity.”

The complaint—filed on behalf of the National Fair Housing Alliance, the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, and Texas Appleseed—casts the delay as an abrupt and unlawful violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act. The challenge argues that Carson and HUD failed to follow the proper notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures or give a reason for the delay.

HUD issued a guidance in January delaying the uptake of the AFFH Rule to late 2020. The rule requires recipients of federal housing funds to draw up an Assessment of Fair Housing, a diagnosis of local segregation patterns as well as a plan to begin to resolve them. With the submission date pushed back after October 31, 2020, most jurisdictions would not have to submit their fair housing assessments until 2024 or 2025.

A spokesperson for HUD explained in January that 17 of the 49 Assessment of Fair Housing submissions it had received were rejected initially and returned for improvement—a failure rate that the department deemed to be a burden on communities. However, the plaintiffs argue that revisions were to be expected, part of the process in finally living up to the fair housing obligations set by law in 1968 but largely ignored over the next 50 years.

“We have seen some progress in Texas over the last decade,” says Madison Sloan, director of the disaster recovery and fair housing project at Texas Appleseed, a justice nonprofit based in Austin. “What HUD has done [by delaying the rule] is both deprive jurisdictions of clarity and guidance that they have asked for and send the message to jurisdictions that they no longer have to take these obligations seriously. That’s a real blow to progress toward equity and equal opportunity.”

Texas Appleseed and the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (also known as Texas Housers) helped several Texas municipalities submit Assessments of Fair Housing, among them Lewisville, Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, and League City. For example, the plaintiffs worked with 19 jurisdictions and housing authorities in Hidalgo County to submit a regional Assessment of Fair Housing—which was rejected by HUD in December 2017 and returned with requirements for revision.

“Please note that this is only the first step in the process outlined in the rule and that you have an opportunity to modify and resubmit your AFH to HUD,” reads the rejection letter. That notice called for Hidalgo County to resubmit its assessment by March 12. In the meantime, though, HUD suspended the AFFH Rule.

“Getting localities in Texas to follow the Fair Housing Act has been a slog. There weren’t these tangible steps,” says Christina Rosales, Texas Housers’ communications director.

In March, Texas Housers filed another challenge against HUD over a longstanding complaint that the department has failed to enforce fair housing law in Houston. And in January—after HUD delayed a different rule that affected how federal housing aid is calculated—a coalition of housing advocacy groups successfully sued under the Administrative Procedure Act, forcing the department to adopt the more progressive aid formula (known as small area fair market rates).

In this case, too, the goal is to force the federal government to enforce federal law.

“The goal of the AFFH Rule is to eliminate housing discrimination and segregation in America and help ensure that everybody is treated fairly when they choose where they want to live,” Rice says. “Why HUD would want to stop that is beyond me.”

Workers of the World, United

Mary Joyce Carlson has spent most of her life fighting for fair labor practices. She is an attorney for the Fight for $15, a movement to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. While that platform may have once seemed a dream, through the dogged work of Carlson and others, it has turned into real policy in cities across the country. Carlson’s fight is not limited to the United States; she has developed partnerships in other countries to unite workers across national borders and apply global pressure to multinational companies.

On Tuesday, Carlson will be accepting the 2018 George Barrett Award for Public Interest Law from the Sidney Hillman Foundation to recognize the role she has played in advocating for workers all over the world. CityLab spoke to Carlson about the fight for wages domestically and internationally, successful organizing tactics, and how globalization has affected the labor movement.

How have you seen issues in labor practices evolve over your time in the field, both in the U.S. and abroad?

Labor is in general under attack. There’s been a tremendous increase in the consolidation of corporate power and a weakening of unions in almost all countries—even those where there have been strong labor unions. If you’re an attorney who is dedicated to working people and [their] causes, you protect wages because such a large percentage of the workforce is not organized. Problems that would have been solved through collective bargaining are now more susceptible to resolution with mass action and the use of other employment laws such as wage and hour laws and anti-discrimination laws.

What do you think are some of the most successful tactics Fight for $15 used that other groups in the U.S. could learn from?

The most successful tactic I think in Fight for $15, is one that’s been successful for labor for a long time: the strike. Workers in the fast food industry have achieved an enormous amount since strikes began in 2012.

Since the first group of fast food workers went on strike, $15 per hour has been adopted as the official Democratic party platform. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have signed on to a bill calling for $15 per hour minimum wage; $15 has been passed as the minimum wage in Seattle, New York, California. The movement has also affected private sector employers: On their own, Facebook, Etna, Wells Fargo, and Duke University instituted a path to $15 voluntarily, because of the Fight for $15 movement and progress in politics and the progress in the public sector.

Alongside the European Public Service Union and the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions, you used a global strategy to pressure McDonald’s into enacting better labor practices in Europe. What results did that yield, and could similar tactics have success here?

The European system is quite different from the system in the U.S. In terms of working conditions, one that affects the workforce in Europe is what’s known as a zero hours contract, which guarantees the worker no work, and if the worker fails to appear [if suddenly called in] they can be removed from the job. The European parliament has a committee on workplace issues for Europe, and we filed a petition and asked to have hearings and an examination of zero hours. Hearings were held, there were quite a few findings around it, and one of the results was, at least in Britain, McDonald’s announced it was rescinding its zero hours contract—or it would only offer it to employees who wanted the flexibility of that contract.

I don’t know if that’s replicable in the U.S., because the current Congress has very little interest in hearing testimony on problems facing workers in the U.S. I think the concern for the lives of workers is very low in this country.

Has the interconnectedness of our world made it easier to put pressure on companies, and could that be applied to other companies?

Recently, on May 1st in Britain, there was a second strike of McDonald’s workers for 10 pounds [per hour, approximately $13.50 USD] brought by the baker’s union. Following that strike, which was highly publicized, I think McDonald’s will pay attention to some of the problems of its fast food workforce in Britain. U.S. fast food workers know about that strike. Now, what’s necessary is for workers to be connected and active in all the countries where a global company may operate.

Companies always say “we abide by the rules of the country we operate in.”At least Western Europe countries, with the exception of Britain, have a much stronger set of labor codes and regulations than the U.S. There are more incentives for compliance in Europe, and yet there are problems there like there are here. To the extent that workers pressure a company in all parts of the world [and] learn from each others’ tactics, I think the determination of workers does result in a company becoming more responsible to its workforce in all parts of the globe, and that would include here. But I don’t believe it’s necessarily related to globalization or a change in policy at the governmental level—I think it’s related to the strength in the organization that the employees can bring to the campaign or to the struggle.   

State preemption laws, where state legislatures pass laws that override those of cities, have been a primary roadblock to raising the minimum wage. Can you talk a little bit about the case going on in Birmingham right now?

The [Fight for $15] movement in Birmingham was quite active, and the city council was attempting to respond to the needs of poverty work in their city. It is quite a phenomenon when people to go work every day and yet they still live in poverty. They’re unable to pay a normal rent in this country, and have to make choices between transportation and food. Birmingham knew about that phenomenon and attempted to change it. At the time they passed a $10 an hour raise, there was no preemption in Alabama, and they had every reason to believe their wages would go into effect. Almost immediately after legislation was passed, the state enacted a preemption law. It was voted into effect with all African American legislators voting against it.

Since at that time Birmingham was the only city that had passed [a minimum wage raise] and is a primarily African-American city, the vote was aimed at Birmingham. The Fight for $15, along with other groups in Birmingham, filed a lawsuit against state of Alabama saying it was violating the Equal Protection Clause and section two of the Voting Rights Act—that preemption was unlawful and racially motivated. A district court judge dismissed the case, and we recently had an argument in the circuit court asking that the case be reinstated and remanded.

The case hinges on the argument of racial discrimination, and the fact that Birmingham is a majority black city with a state legislature that is predominantly white. If you win the case, how could you use that precedent in other cities where the racial component may not be that clear?

I don’t know about its usefulness is a non-minority city, but it would be an important precedent. Frankly, cities in this country that are blue, with progressive politics, are cities that are inclined to raise wages and enact fair scheduling laws. Cleveland, Ohio, which is a minority city, also attempted to pass a minimum wage law and was preempted from doing so. In those types of cities, and there are many of them, the case would have significance. It’s also worth noting, in Colorado the legislature repealed preemption. There’s already a movement aside from this to get rid of preemption laws that prohibit local solutions to address local needs of the population.

What tactics are you considering to combat preemption laws if the court doesn’t rule in your favor?

We’ll have to think about what to do depending on the circumstances, but there are groups across the country strategizing on this because it is such an artificial barrier, and a stall to making progress locally on behalf of people who are really in need of a raised wage, or fair scheduling act, or a stronger housing or workers commission that would address a lot of workplace issues for local people.

There was a young man who spoke at a press conference in Birmingham who works two minimum-wage jobs in order to take home $300 a week, and out of that he pays $125 to a caregiver for his disabled mother. And that leaves him very little money for transportation for food, for gas, for utility bills.

The $7.25 minimum wage is simply a poverty wage.

The Kids Trying to Green One of L.A.’s Most Polluted Neighborhoods

Among the homes, schools, daycare centers, and churches of Los Angeles’s Wilmington neighborhood, hundreds of pumpjacks extract oil, their dinosaur-like heads bobbing up and down.

A predominately working-class and Latino immigrant community of 58,000, Wilmington sits atop the third-largest oil field in the continental U.S.

But for 16-year-old Samantha Montes, Wilmington is just home: She calls it “the best neighborhood I could have grown up in,” because of its close-knit community. “You never feel like you’re left out of it.”

Montes just signed up to work with a local nonprofit, SBCC Thrive LA, that’s trying to clean up streets and create more green spaces in Wilmington, which might be the Los Angeles area’s most environmentally challenged community.

Pumpjacks extract oil from the Wilmington oil field. (David McNew/Reuters)

The problems in Wilmington begin with air pollution. Car and truck traffic from the two freeways that sandwich the neighborhood mix with emissions from cargo ships and refineries. According to the California EPA, Wilmington’s census tracts have a sky-high “pollution burden,” with scores in the 80s and 90s (100 is the worst); just five miles away, in the Palos Verdes Peninsula, scores were as low as 5.  

Wilmington’s pumpjacks emit noxious odors and pollutants like diesel particulates, methane, and carcinogenic benzene. Many of the pumps are surrounded by simple fences and sit only dozens of feet from buildings and spaces where children live, learn, and play. (Research shows that a building should be at least 2,500 feet from an active oil or gas well to minimize the effects of toxic emissions.) Children are even more susceptible, since they absorb higher levels of toxins and contaminants than adults do.

Not surprisingly, Wilmington has one of the highest cancer rates in Southern California and some of the state’s highest rates of asthma. Its residents also complain of headaches, nosebleeds, and other symptoms and diseases likely caused or exacerbated by the pollution.

Kids play only dozens of feet from an oil refinery. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

While whiter, wealthier areas of Los Angeles are also situated near active wells (though not quite as near as in Wilmington), those wells are often fully enclosed in structures made to look like office buildings, mitigating harmful effects. They also generally use electric rigs rather than diesel rigs, reducing pollution.

But change has been slow to come to Wilmington. Local activists—many of them young people—sued the city in 2015 for the discriminatory treatment of their communities; the city settled and implemented some changes, such as environmental impact studies and hearings for residents when companies propose expanding drilling sites. (The California Independent Petroleum Association, an oil and gas trade group, countersued.)

More recently, Ashley Hernandez, 25, a community organizer who grew up in Wilmington, worked with a coalition of more than 750 groups to launch a campaign that pressures Governor Jerry Brown to stop granting new permits for oil and gas extraction. “We deserve equitable neighborhoods, we deserve a right to clean air and clean water, and we need to make sure we move away from antiquated ways of energy,” she told the Huffington Post.

However, it’s not easy to get locals—both young and old—to support the efforts of Hernandez and her fellow activists to crack down on industrial pollution. After all, the refineries and the port are the major employers for many of Wilmington’s families. “Wilmington’s residents don’t necessarily see the industry as something negative,” said Liza Rivera, Director of Innovative Economic Initiatives at SBCC Thrive LA, the nonprofit working on green projects in Wilmington. “It’s part of their reality, and it allows many of them a roof over their heads.” Other residents are afraid to speak up about the pollution because of their undocumented status.

With this tension in mind, SBCC Thrive LA doesn’t try to directly take on the industries that families rely on. Instead, it aims to build goodwill among Wilmington’s residents and encourage them to care more about the neighborhood. With support from Raising Places, an initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation whose goal is to create healthier environments for vulnerable kids and families in U.S. communities, Rivera and her colleagues canvassed the neighborhood to find out what was most needed and desired.  

The biggest request: open, green spaces where kids and families can can gather. Wilmington only has a handful of parks, and most homes are not within walking distance. The project will convert nine vacant, trash-filled lots into spaces for dog walking, urban farming, playing music, cooking out, and the like. “The idea is that anyone in Wilmington would be able to walk to a green space within 10 minutes,” Rivera said.  

Details and additional funding are still being worked out, but Rivera says whatever the spaces turn out to be, some should ideally serve teens. In addition to a lack of physical space to gather, Rivera noted that funding cuts to Wilmington’s schools have eliminated programs like art, music, shop, and home economics, taking away opportunities for teens to create.

SBCC Thrive LA’s other youth-centered project provides such an outlet. Later this month, high-school juniors and seniors, including Samantha Montes, will gather trash from Wilmington’s streets—tires, shoes, chairs, boxes, bathtubs—and decorate them. They’ll then plant flowers in them and sell them. “I’m looking forward to helping Wilmington become a more beautiful and cleaner place,” Montes said.

Sara Cantor Aye, project director of Raising Places, acknowledges that this small-scale beautification won’t change the bigger issues that the community faces with industry and regulation. But it shows young people who grow up in Wilmington that there are greener ways to make money than what they see in their immediate environment—an awareness that may serve them well as California aims to advance renewable energy, as well as jobs that go with it.

Katie Harr, a research fellow with Raising Places, agrees: “Though the planters and green spaces are small things, there’s a lot of intentionality behind them,” she said. “We’re playing a long game. We’re planting seeds for the future.”

Montes appears to already be on board. She speaks of how she’d like to see Wilmington’s community become more involved in making it a cleaner place to live, and she’s looking at a future that doesn’t involve working with the oil industry.

“I’d like to write young adult novels,” she said.

CityLab Daily: Bus to the Future

What We’re Following

Round and round: As traffic congestion gets worse in cities around the U.S., shiny solutions abound, from light rail to gondolas to autonomous vehicles. But there’s already a cheaper, more flexible option that doesn’t get the love it deserves: the bus.

Now arriving: our Bus to the Future series. Though there’s a nationwide downturn in bus ridership, the basic model—a big container of people moving along a set route—has never stopped working. And cities are tinkering with new tools, from road-space policy to new-age technology, to make riding the bus better. Introducing the series, CityLab’s Laura Bliss writes that this underdog of transit needs a lot of love—but it’s also never held more heroic potential.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

There Will Be No Exit From California’s Housing Hell

SB 827 may have been great economics, but it was poor politics.

Joe Cortright

Why Do Londoners Identify With Their City More Than Their Country?

Residents report a preference to be considered a Londoner over British, English, or European.

Feargus O’Sullivan

The Case for D.C.’s Flat Skyline

Some Washingtonians complain that the city’s height limit has resulted in lookalike, boxy buildings. But creativity can emerge from constraint, a West Coast critic argues.

John King

How to Survive a Police Shooting When You’re Black

Pittsburgh activist Leon Ford explains in his new book, Untold, how to get lifted up, and how to lift a city up, even after being shot by its police.

Brentin Mock

In Hawaii, Neighborhoods Are Being Displaced By Lava

Volcanic eruptions like this can have a long-term—and sometimes permanent—impact on the communities that live there.

Robinson Meyer

Jail, Mapped

The United States’s incarceration rate has fallen to its lowest level since 1996—with a nationwide rate of 860 prison or jail inmates for every 100,000 adults, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That number was once as low as 310 inmates per 100,000 people, in 1980, before a sharp rise peaked with 1,000 inmates per 100,000 from 2006 to 2008. The map above from the Pew Research Center shows how the U.S. incarceration rate (notoriously the highest in the world) compares to other countries based on a slightly different measure, from the World Prison Brief, which includes inmates of all ages.

ICYMI on CityLab: Is America ready to rethink incarceration?

What We’re Reading

How Republicans are undermining the 2020 census, explained in a cartoon (Vox)

Is there a chance for another Nashville transit plan? (Next City)

New York’s ferry plan will be delightful. It’s also a mistake (New York)

A handy guide to the 2018 primary season—including deadlines for voter registration, early voting, and mail-in ballots  (Politico)

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

The Stark (and Hopeful) Facts About Bus Ridership

Any frank conversation about building better bus service in American cities must address one fact at the outset: Ridership is in free fall across the country.

Numbers released last month from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database show a 2.5 percent decline in total transit ridership from 2016 to 2017, with bus ridership leading the way with a 5 percent drop. This nationwide decline in transit ridership has been

These troubling trends demand the attention of transit agencies who need to honestly assess where service improvements are needed most. Fixing the decline will also require political will from elected officials to give priority to buses on city streets where transit ridership and traffic are both in ample supply. Luckily, there are some examples of how to do this.

But first, the harrowing numbers. Only four of the country’s high-ridership regions saw an overall increase in transit use (across trains, buses, and other modes) in 2017: Seattle, program, a city-wide effort to improve bus service. These effective plans stand in stark contrast to the absence of comprehensive bus service improvements in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago—cities whose largest transit agencies together comprise 40 percent of all bus ridership decline since 2008.

(TransitCenter/Madison McVeigh/National Transit Database)

There are plenty of strategies at transit agencies’ disposal that are proven to get buses moving faster. In addition to dedicated lanes, cities can design streets with “bus bulb-outs” that allow buses to pick up passengers without blocking traffic, and optimize traffic-light timing using “transit signal priority” to help buses catch lights before they turn red. Transit agencies can allow riders to board through all doors, and install 21st-century fare payment technology to reduce the time buses spend at bus stops.

Ultimately, though, putting transit ridership back on an upward trend will require a sustained political commitment to improving local bus service. This is not a problem that our elected leaders can solve solely through technological innovation or big, shiny infrastructure projects. Instead, transit agencies and city leaders should work together to leverage transit’s most important competitive advantages—capacity and dedicated right-of-way—by giving priority to transit in the places where ridership and congestion justify it. Municipal support and coordination with transit agencies will define the destiny of urban transportation’s most underrated workhorse: the local bus.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this transit ridership chart incorrectly showed passenger trips in millions, not billions.

Why Do Londoners Identify With Their City More Than Their Country?

Londoner first, Briton second. That’s how London residents responded when asked how they identify themselves, according to a new report from the Centre for London, a British think tank.

In fact, the proportion of Londoners reporting a strong sense of identity tied to their city comfortably exceeded those who strongly feel themselves to be British or English—and overwhelmingly exceeds those who report a strong sense of European identity.

These findings come during a period of identity flux in London and Britain as a whole. The Brexit referendum highlighted the regional divides in the U.K., and London’s relationship with Europe and the rest of Britain is up for a fraught process of redefinition. There has even been—largely fanciful but still telling—discussion of a separate, post-Brexit visa system just for Londoners, a move that would heighten the sense of disconnect between London and the rest of the country.

At the same time, Britain, along with the rest of Europe, is experiencing a resurgence of nationalisms (the plural is intentional). This is apparent not just in the drive for an independent Scotland, but in intensified Welsh and English nationalisms that leave a collective sense of British identity looking somewhat threadbare.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a receding national identity is being replaced by a metropolitan one—the available data isn’t conclusive. But it does throw up some interesting trends that suggest why a strong sense of London identity may be so resilient.

For one thing, recent arrivals in the city develop some sense of local identity quite quickly. This sense of identity cuts across class, race, and age boundaries far more evenly than English identity, according to the data. And despite Londoners’ increasingly demonizing media portrayal as metropolitan elites, a sense of local identity is actually stronger among the working-class than higher up the economic scale.

There are several possible reasons for this moderate but still clear inverse relationship between social class and London identity. The city’s working-class identity still gets plenty of exposure in British culture—and it’s more explicitly linked to a sense of place and local community than that of wealthier residents. The working class Cockney identity, which was strong in the mid-20th century, may have waned as well. Nowadays you’re more likely to hear a classic Cockney accent among older people, or out in Essex, than among young Londoners, who are now more likely to speak some form of the more internationally rooted sociolect Multicultural London English.

It’s also true that the cultural identification points of working-class London, including football and popular music, remain strong and nationally influential. This continues to be the case even as it becomes more difficult for lower-income Londoners to remain in the increasingly expensive areas where they grew up.

But things are different for middle- and upper-class Londoners. That’s because the city’s affluent metropolitan culture sees itself as national rather than local. It dominates Britain’s media and cultural industries, erroneously presenting itself as a voice speaking for the entire nation. Thus, while affluent Londoners dominate much of Britain’s public discourse, they are perhaps less likely to perceive their own voice as specifically local, and thus have a weaker sense of London identity.

Source: Queen Mary College/YouGov, via Centre for London

The pull of a London identity nonetheless seems pretty strong across the board—stronger than that of a national British identity. Among respondents cited in the report, the assertion of a sense of belonging to London is pretty resounding. On a scale of 1 to 10, 63 percent of Londoners polled in September 2017 placed their strength of local identity at eight or higher. By contrast, a comparably strong sense of British and English identity was felt by 59 percent and 50 percent of respondents, respectively. It seems it’s somewhat easier (and possibly more attractive) for newcomers to become Londoners versus becoming British.

As a Londoner, it’s not hard to guess why: Non-white and non-British people born in London face very real barriers and discrimination elsewhere in the country. As a newcomer or minority, it takes far less time to be accepted as a Londoner than it does as a Briton. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Britain as a whole. Large, powerful sections of the country’s national media, even though they’re based in London, are jingoistic and xenophobic. Through a mix of promotion and demonization, they adjudicate loudly over who can and can’t be deemed British.

But London itself is too heterodox and shifting to submit fully to this rhetoric. Most lifelong Londoners have grown up with friends and neighbors from elsewhere, and this has become part of their identity. It’s relatively welcoming and flexible compared to, say, Paris, where you can spend half a lifetime and still be considered an outsider.

There’s a more sobering side to the primacy of London over British identity, of course. In an increasingly polarized, fragmented and unequal society, the rest of Britain can seem very far away. Many Londoners restrict themselves to the city and the more photogenic parts of its rural hinterland. When they leave London, it is frequently to another country. This trend figures into the frustrations of other British regions, which sense that decisions are made in a city that, despite being nearby, looks at them through a long, blurry telescope.

We might assume that, in an era where cities are widely reported to be on the rise, this sense of being a Londoner first and a Briton second might be growing—but the data doesn’t really exist to confirm or refute this hypothesis.

Source: Queen Mary College/YouGov, via Centre for London

While data on ethnicity on London identity is tantalizingly absent, it’s clear this sense of belonging holds true across age and political boundaries. When asked to rank the strength of their identities on a scale of one to 10, “a Londoner” scored higher than 7 across the board, including Conservative and Labour voters, Leave and Remain voters, and all age groups and class groups. Labour supporters were somewhat more likely to report a strong sense of London identity, as were less wealthy Londoners (from classes C2DE), compared to their counterparts in classes ABC1. In no group, however, was a sense of London identity notably deficient. London may be developing a reputation as an exclusionary citadel of wealth, and as a relatively left-wing island in a more right-leaning region, but this doesn’t seem to be chipping away at any particular group’s sense of belonging.

While Londoners’ bonds to city, nation, and state seem relatively strong, there’s one area where bonds are weaker: with the rest of Europe. Most Londoners (64 percent) acknowledged some sense of European identity, but it was only strong for 29 percent of them. This is perhaps to be expected—European ties come after local and national ones across the E.U. Londoners still seem to fit in to a U.K.-wide pattern of low identification with Europe compared to citizens of other European countries, with a national average of 33 percent in the U.K. compared to a high of 77 percent in Luxembourg. Even Europskeptic Greece posted a 44 percent rate of European identification.

Again, as the figures Centre for London cites are arranged on a scale rather than as a binary, this is not comparing like with like. It nonetheless suggests that London’s longstanding (and now waning) role as one of the unofficial capitals of Europe has not sparked an especially passionate swell of European self-identification among its citizens.

The Case for D.C.’s Flat Skyline

Farragut Square in Washington, D.C., is one of many crossroads in the nation’s capital where, architecturally, all bets are off.

A stone office building from 1926 with neo-Gothic airs is flanked by a perfunctory punched-window office building from 1963 and a relatively sleek metal-clad model of recent vintage. Across the way, there’s a heavy-looking concrete crate at one corner, an icy blue cube at another.

What the five buildings have in common with each other, and with the five other buildings that frame Farragut’s pleasant green, is that they’re all around 130 feet, or 13 stories, tall. And since they can’t go any higher, the newer ones tend to fill every foot of airspace that they can.

No pop-ups here: The level roofs of buildings on D.C.’s Farragut Square (John King)

This flat-topped skyline is a local given, and it drives many urbanists crazy. But after several months in Washington, I’ve come to see this feature as one of the city’s defining physical traits—in a good way, not bad.

Call it the virtue of architectural monotony: a relentless horizontality where commercial canyons recede into the distance. One stretch of cliff might be granite, another one concrete or tile or glass. But as the city’s core has filled up in recent decades, the materials have come to serve as seemingly interchangeable wrappings for squat containers of leasable space.

The result? An awkward yet oddly endearing terrain where, absolutely, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The culprit, so to speak, is a century-old zoning ordinance that ties building heights to the width of adjacent streets and “reflects the preeminence of our democratic institutions, now and into the future,“ according to the Height Master Plan done by the National Capital Planning Commission in 2013. In most cases the formula translates to a maximum height of 130 feet, with another 20 feet for mechanical equipment and a penthouse. By comparison, the Washington Monument is a commanding 555 feet. Chicago has five buildings over 1,000 feet—with a sixth, Jeanne Gang’s Vista Tower, on its way to reaching an eventual height of 1,191 feet.

Some architects bridle at the rigidity, saying it thwarts design innovation. Some economists and planners say the rules induce sprawl by forcing new development to more height-friendly locales outside the District.

All of which may or may not be true (I have my doubts). But there’s no denying that the rigid status quo prods architects to make the best of a confining situation. And yes, some rise to the challenge.

Around the corner from Farragut, for instance, a taut glass box from 2009 at H and 17th Streets NW is sculpted with right-angled precision in such a way that the result forms a quintet of abstract 10-story columns above the base.

Kevin Roche’s Lafayette Tower at 801 17th Street NW (John King)

This regally subversive office building was designed by Kevin Roche, the 1982 recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The chiseled recesses of the “columns” mean less leasable office space, but Roche was quoted in a 2012 article shrugging that the trade-off penciled out, since “lawyers love corner offices.” Whatever the rationale, it’s fascinating to see a major architect find ways to work within the dictates of restrictive zoning and produce something distinctive.

I’m also a fan of District Center (1995) at 555 12th Street NW. It takes cues from older styles, with pressed-metal bays and a rectangular form where the facade is tailored to suggest an old-school base and crown. But the architectural firm, Florance Eichbaum Esocoff King, understood that thoughtful craftsmanship endures, and this exercise in careful historicism has aged much better than chronological peers that relied on clumsy allusions to the past.

District Center (John King)

If District Center is a product of its time, so is the 11-story infill building designed by Gensler at 2112 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Still under construction, it’s skinned in glass—the too-predictable material of choice in urban America—but with a fuzzy unexpected twist: fritted glass fins seem to ripple across the facade, each fin cut diagonally to add the illusion of movement.

The angled fins deflect afternoon sun, an energy-conserving gesture that’s also touted as “a unique architectural statement” on the building website. Sustainable and stylish: how better to market “an office building built for the next generation”?

These aren’t isolated examples. Once you start looking at the terrain in terms of material style, instead of asking, “Why is everything the same height?,” the structural aspirations of postwar Washington unfold like a stocky accordion.

Next door to 2112 Pennsylvania is a concrete slab owned by George Washington University with the gridded depth of 1960s institutional Modernism, and I suspect it looks better in hindsight than it did at the time. Across the way, its 1997 neighbor couldn’t be more different: a block-long behemoth that’s home to the International Finance Corporation.

The headquarters of the International Finance Corporation, designed by Michael Graves (John King)

This building is by Michael Graves, who for decades before his death in 2015 brought postmodernism to the masses. Often he went to cartoonish extremes (see his Disney office building adorned with the Seven Dwarfs), but here he opted for a succession of oversized, faintly Tuscan bays clad in subdued gray and red masonry. Detractors are put off by the unfriendly base (the occupant is a branch of the security-conscious World Bank). Me, I like the rhythmic gravitas that turns a long block into a procession of emphatic facades.

Some parts of downtown are in danger of becoming as glassy as a mirror showroom. And for every District Center, there’s a 600 13th Street NW, a pompous exercise in peach-toned classicism by Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

Is all this subjective? Of course. Because all these are variations on a theme, they let you ponder what architectural values you hold most dear.

Whatever your style of choice, or how you balance looks and craft, too many of the buildings boxed in by the height limits are not very good. Some are earnest but incompetent. Some have an air of desperation (let’s put a cupola at the corner! Let’s pop out a glassed-in bay!). Some ooze cynicism, where the architects and their clients were happy to package maximum square footage in a marketable and non-controversial way.

But this would also be the case if heights hadn’t been capped since 1910. For evidence, look at every other large American city where the skyline is in flux. Attention-seeking developers would hire big-name architects to do something “different.” The mediocre glass boxes, meanwhile, would be 25 or 40 stories instead of 13 stories tall.

That’s the real reason that Washington should embrace its low-slung skyline, caveats aside.

Consider: this is a moment in our culture when authenticity is valued above all else. Cities tout any element that sets them apart, any rooted sense of place, any hint of local flavor. Idiosyncrasy is where it’s at.

Which is exactly what downtown Washington offers—a global city predicated on the notion that a predictable march of uniform forms is a virtue. Politicians come and go, the political skies may darken, but the nation’s capital is memorable because of its democratic landmarks and the spatial grandiosity of wide boulevards and a central mall. The architecture defers to the setting.

Put another way?

Washingtonians, relax. You don’t need to grow up to show off.

How Reclaiming the U.S. Infrastructure Advantage Will Help Bridge the Urban and Rural Divide

If the United States invests in strengthening its infrastructure, it can restore the critical bonds that allow Americans to freely and efficiently move goods, ideas and workers through every type of community. The U.S. equipment manufacturing industry understands this better than most. We support 1.3 million jobs across the United States, and maintain manufacturing facilities across every corner of our great nation. You can find our member companies’ equipment hard at work everywhere from construction sites in major cities to corn fields in the Midwest.

Love the Bus, Save Your City

Consider the bus. What comes to mind? For many Americans, it’s the grumbling, clattering, stuck-in-traffic, when-will-it-come, car’s-in-the-shop mobility mode of last resort. You might not ride it, and if you do, you might not like it.

That’s why we need to talk about it. The bus has rarely needed your love more. And the underdog of transit has never held more heroic potential.

With urban populations and travel on the rise, transportation is now the top contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly 90 percent of commuters in this country drive private cars, and in many urban areas traffic congestion—i.e., wasted time, gas, and money—is getting worse. Cities are searching for ways to move people around in fewer vehicles and leave a softer impact on the environment, with light-rail referenda, ride-hailing partnerships, autonomous shuttle pilots, dreams of aerial taxis, and more.

All of these modes have a place in the urban present and future. (Except maybe the helicopters; we can leave those to Die Hard.) But too many cities are ignoring what is arguably the cheapest and most flexible general-purpose option, which happens to be available already: the bus. Buses can carry large numbers of people in a compact amount of road space. They don’t require special rights-of-way (though that’s sometimes ideal). They can be deployed and rerouted as needed. Across modes, they’re the most affordable to cities in terms of capital costs, and often in terms of operations.

And there is no inherent reason why buses must be bottom-shelf transportation. We’ve just treated them that way. Nationwide, federal, state, and local budgets have long systematically prioritized cars over mass transportation. Service cuts that tore up bus networks across the country during the recession haven’t been made up for. That’s largely why bus ridership declined in 31 out of 35 major metros last year. Even some cities on rail-building bonanzas, such as L.A. and Denver, are watching transit ridership decline across the board, in part because investment in buses has trailed so far behind the commitment to trains.

Meanwhile, as the transportation consultant Jarrett Walker often points out, the hype around on-demand apps like Uber, Lyft, and Via fuels the notion that the future of transportation is one where traditional transit has ceased to exist. Where we’re going, we don’t need buses: We’ll take flying Ubers or subterranean Teslas or something even newer and shinier. The venerable bus—which has been around in some form for centuries—is exquisitely vulnerable to the end-is-nigh narrative. Suburban communities in Florida, Texas, California and beyond are replacing old bus routes with subsidies for demand-response services and hoping for the best. Cities like San Francisco and New York are watching 8- to 12-seat, semi-flexible “microtransit” shuttles follow routes almost identical to popular bus lines.

Part of the downturn in bus ridership has been attributed to the rise of ride-hailing, as fewer Americans who can afford other options choose the bus. Who could blame them? In so many cities, buses are painfully slow. They arrive with big gaps or all bunched together. Their routes and schedules can be byzantine and inscrutable, and riders’ ability to track them in real time is woeful. They break down a lot—more than 17 percent of the country’s bus systems have fallen out of good repair, according to the most recent Federal Transit Administration report. In spread-out, unwalkable cities, you’ll usually get there faster if you choose another mode.

Who’s left? The individuals riding buses—to jobs, to shopping, to medical care—tend to be poorer than the average commuter. They are disproportionately people of color, reinforcing the racial stigma associated with the bus in many cities. Some bus riders can’t tap into Uber-ish services because they can’t afford to, or because they use a wheelchair, or don’t own the necessary technology. If your transportation options are limited, you need the bus now, maybe more than ever.

But even if you’re not a regular passenger, you need it, too. It’s not hard to see how the trend of deprioritizing buses will harden in the age of on-demand door-to-door rides for all. The problem is, your streets can’t fit them. If you care about how well your city moves, how your local economy is faring, and indeed about the future of your planet, then you care about your city bus. And you care about making the bus better. You want to see your bus as a piece of social infrastructure that your whole city can take pride in—a sign of prestige, not decay.

Because it turns out that when rubber-tired fleets are treated as a mighty social good, people willingly hop on. See the Minneapolis “A Line,” where buses are essentially held to the standards of rail service: They get first-go at traffic lights, accept boardings at every door, and stop every half mile, rather than every block. Look at all of the cities following the example of Houston, which overhauled its bus route network in 2015 and saw a 15 percent Saturday ridership spike in the first year; Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York City are all taking their cues. And look, perhaps most of all, at San Francisco, Phoenix, and Seattle, the only major cities where bus ridership meaningfully ticked up last year. All have city-wide plans to fund and improve service. What’s been missing in most cities is this type of attention.

That’s why CityLab is launching Bus to the Future, an ongoing series that puts public coaches at the center of the transportation future. Most of all, we plan to look at what’s working on bus systems in the U.S., with the belief that there is no inherent reason that buses cannot be great. Which cities are winning the battles to prioritize road space? Where is the gold standard for frequent, fast, and reliable transit being set by buses? And how might that change our understanding about what the real future of urban transportation is?

We also plan to look at how technology can improve bus fundamentals. Automation is coming to transportation, and it could transform surface transit, too. Sharper GPS and smartphone tools can make riding (and waiting for) the bus a happier and more predictable experience. And electric buses could banish the grumble and smoke of the diesel era. The idea is not to be anti-Uber or any other emerging mode. On-demand rides are here, and they won’t be banished, nor should they be. But the bus is also here to stay.

After all, it’s telling that, even while transit agencies are being told to be more like Uber and Lyft, Uber and Lyft are increasingly mimicking buses. Both companies now have “shuttle” or “line” services that operate along preset routes with preset stops during peak commuter hours, just like a bus. It’s existential to their futures, after all, that they eventually stop subsidizing high-end solo rides and instead cram in the maximum number of riders per vehicle—in order words, a bus. The basic model—a big moving container of people on a fixed route—has never stopped working. It’s time to make it work much, much better.

Working Partner Update: Environmental Paper Network

The State of the Global Paper Industry: Shifting Seas – New Challenges and Opportunities for Forests, People and the Climate is a civil society review of the social and environmental performance of the paper industry. The 2018 report’s assessment is structured according to the goals of the EPN’s Global Paper Vision, informing on trends in consumption, recycled content, social responsibility, responsible virgin fibre sourcing, greenhouse gas emissions, clean production and transparency. … Read More

The post Working Partner Update: Environmental Paper Network appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.