Is ‘Climate-Positive’ Design Possible?

Cities are crucial to fighting climate change. They occupy only 2 percent of global land area but have an enormous climate impact, consuming more than two-thirds of global energy and accounting for at least 70 percent of carbon emissions.

There is a window of less than three years for big cities to deliver on the commitments they agreed to in the Paris climate agreement, according to C40, a coalition of 90 major cities committed to addressing climate change. That goal only became more urgent in October, when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the world is on track to heat up at least 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2030.

Just keeping this in check will require unprecedented actions. “To keep the Earth somewhat hospitable for humans, we have to make changes that most people would find unreasonable,” said Eric Corey Freed, an architect and sustainability specialist who works with cities around the world to curb their carbon emissions. “Cutting carbon in half is pretty straightforward,” said Freed. “What I have to do to get to the last 50 percent is harder.”

Some of Freed’s recommendations to clients in city governments: Ban the use of internal combustion engines within city limits, buy solar panels for every rooftop, take over your electric utility, buy every citizen an electric scooter.

And that’s just to reach carbon neutrality. The stage beyond that entails removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Can cities revamp their neighborhoods so they cancel out more carbon than they emit? Some designers and advocates are pushing for what they call climate-positive city design, which aims to go beyond zero emissions.

“We know that reducing emissions alone won’t get us there,” said Pamela Conrad, a landscape architect with San Francisco’s CMG Partners who focuses on carbon drawdown strategies. After she developed a carbon calculator to measure a project’s climate impact, Conrad said it became clearer how much landscape design could do to offset and reduce emissions. For example, trees, soil and other materials store (or sequester) carbon, and can offset a significant amount of what building materials emit during their life cycle.

Using alternative cement, smart glass, and other materials that curb energy consumption and emissions can also lessen a development’s carbon load, as can looking beyond the site level to consider users’ transportation patterns. The three variables that cities need to account for, according to Conrad: sources of emissions, such as the carbon used to produce the project’s materials; sinks, such as trees and wetlands, where carbon is stored; and costs, like carbon emitted during project maintenance.

Designing beyond net-zero impact is certainly possible. The International Living Future Institute can point to more than 60 building projects that generate more energy than they use. Ranging from an education center in Austin, Texas, to a farmhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the projects have met the “Energy Petal” threshold within its Living Building certification. This indicates that each generated at least 105 percent of its energy needs in its first 12 months of operations. A handful of buildings generated 200 percent of their energy or more.

Designers and planners “need to be holistic,” said Ryan Allard, a senior fellow at Project Drawdown, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, at a panel on climate-positive design at the Global Climate Action Summit in September. (Project Drawdown lists and ranks 80 measures that it claims, if taken together, could reverse global warming.) “As planners, you may come in and think of a development as an isolated project which is not fully connected with the rest of the city,” Allard said. But the connections are vital, and thinking on multiple scales is a necessity.

Making a neighborhood or campus climate-positive is less of a challenge in terms of technology than in policy, bureaucracy, and mindset. For the central SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco, the city has approved a redevelopment plan that calls for recycling stormwater runoff by channeling it to an underground tank and then using it for street cleaning. In Boulder, Colorado, Andrew Bush, a developer who specializes in highly sustainable buildings, says he can already build residential water systems that pull the heat from wastewater lines and transfer that energy to the drinking and showering water that tenants use. He’s now looking to tap into the heat generated from city sewer lines—but getting approval for that is complicated and takes time.

Given that transportation is now the largest source of emissions in the U.S., transportation systems need to be designed or refined to prioritize walking, biking, and mass transit over driving, said Lisa Fisher, San Francisco’s sustainability leader for city design, on the climate-summit panel. While building codes have become more stringent, and some cities have adapted their regulations to embrace carbon-reducing innovations such as gray-water recycling and microgrids, there must be a major shift in that direction quickly for climate-positivity to be feasible.

So far, progress has moved at a creeping pace.

Consider the Climate Positive Development Program, launched in 2009 by the Clinton Climate Initiative, the U.S. Green Building Council, and C40. It focused on advancing one major project per city. Eighteen cities around the world committed to achieve net-negative emissions through the program. Almost a decade later, only six—Sydney, London, Jaipur, Melbourne, Sonderborg, Denmark, and Oberlin, Ohio—have advanced to the second of four phases.

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CityLab Daily: Who’s Tracking Your License Plate?

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What We’re Following

Tag, you’re it: If you’ve ever received a speeding ticket in the mail, then you’ve gotten a taste of how much law enforcement has come to rely on cameras. The way the government found your address was likely through automated license plate readers, which scan plates and can log information in a central database that’s accessible by other entities. With a network of license plate readers, thousands of plates can be scanned each minute across an entire city.

Police can even put a criminal suspect’s plate on a “hot list” that will trigger alerts whenever a camera snaps a picture of it, creating what amounts to a real-time map of a suspect’s whereabouts. The cameras have produced a staggering amount of data, with 2.5 billion license plates scanned across 23 states in 2016 and 2017. While every driver on the road is fair game for traffic enforcement, civil liberties and privacy groups argue that the technology gathers too much sensitive information about people who have nothing to do with crime. Here’s how one researcher put it:

In a nutshell, it’s like face recognition—except every single face comes in a standard format and is directly linkable to a government identity record. It allows mass tracking, and because plates are issued by the government, we’re a bit desensitized to the idea that they’ll be tracked. It’s powerful stuff, and it’s not under control.

CityLab’s Tanvi Mistra has the story: Who’s Tracking Your License Plate?

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Just How Much of the World Is Urban?

Experts at the European Commission assess the world as more urban than experts at the United Nations or New York University do. We need to resolve this debate.

Richard Florida

What New Yorkers Really Think of Amazon HQ2

More than half of them welcome the tech giant, according to a Quinnipiac poll. But support varies by borough, and race.

Sarah Holder and David Montgomery

Rediscover the Gilded Age’s Most Famous Architects

McKim, Mead & White, Selected Works 1879-1915 highlights the nation’s defining classical structures from the late 19th century.

Karim Doumar

The Migrant Caravan Is Straining Tijuana’s Resources, and Patience

Facing deteriorating conditions in shelters, 6,000 Central American migrants and asylum seekers are stuck in Tijuana, and city leaders are getting frustrated.

Nidia Bautista

The Discrimination Muslim Women Face: Lessons for City Planning Outreach

It’s not just hate crimes. Muslim women in Dearborn, Michigan, say they face subtle and non-subtle discrimination while going about their daily activities.

Mehri Mohebbi


Goodbye ’Gramsterdam

(Yves Herman/Reuters)

After almost 15 years, Amsterdam’s famed “I Amsterdam” sculpture is gone. According to Curbed, the red and white letters were removed after a petition from a city councillor argued they attracted mass tourism for all the wrong reasons, saying in a statement, “This slogan reduces the city to a background in a marketing story.”

Last year, CityLab’s Mark Byrnes reflected on how the sculpture spawned the ’grammable city trend that has spread to cities around the world:

I don’t remember the faces or the surroundings, just the giant letters standing proudly in front of the Rijksmuseum, which I, an American Millennial, am doomed to forever identify as “the museum behind the ‘I amsterdam’ sign.” I’m not proud of that but I can only blame my then-fresh and empty brain so much. Why would a popular historic city tap into the worst urges of FOMO-poisoned outsiders?

The letters were installed in September 2004, just months after Facebook launched, three years before the first iPhone was sold, and six years before Instagram existed. These inventions have since helped stretch out the gaping portal to hell we dance around every day while the sign has only continued to grow in popularity.


What We’re Reading

More lawmakers are looking into banning cashless restaurants (Next City)

This course helps former prisoners learn the tech they missed in jail (Fast Company)

Down with “studentification”: How cities fought for their right not to party (The Guardian)

Amtrak, keep the mod flipboard sign. It’s part of your heritage (Philadelphia Inquirer)

George H.W. Bush’s final ride: A train that connects him to a long presidential tradition (Washington Post)


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

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What New Yorkers Really Think of Amazon HQ2

Updated: 2018-12-06

More than half of New Yorkers view Amazon’s plan to open a headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, in 2019 as a blessing, not a curse. That’s according to a new poll from Quinnipiac University, which surveyed more than 1,000 people registered to vote in New York City from all five boroughs between November 27 and December 4. Perhaps more surprising to the many vocal opponents of the Amazon selection process: Only 26 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the project.

People were more evenly split on the question of whether Amazon should be receiving the tax incentives—nearly $3 billion of them—that the city and state offered to lure the company, with 46 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed. It’s not clear whether that level of support is enough to push forth the brewing movement to shrink the tax breaks or halt them entirely. “While New Yorkers give the thumbs up to Amazon moving one of its new headquarters to Long Island City, they are divided over the sizeable carrot offered,” said Mary Snow, polling analyst for the Quinnipiac University Poll, in a statement.

By borough, residents of the Bronx—a predominately Hispanic area—were most excited about the move, with 64 percent approval and 21 percent disapproval, for a net approval of +43 percent. It’s nearly as popular in Staten Island. Queens, whose population is almost half foreign-born, and which will actually absorb the physical Amazon office space, was also enthusiastic—even about the subsidies. Manhattan residents were most skeptical, with only 54 percent supporting the move and a net disapproval of the subsidies of minus 15 percent. The chart below shows approval minus disapproval for the project and its subsidies in each borough:

That geographic breakdown may mirror where the benefits of Amazon jobs and economic bump could be most powerful—at least if Amazon finds ways to hire the local residents who need the jobs most. Manhattan’s unemployment rate was a low 3.5 percent in October, its Wall Street-driven economy is flush, and its residents make a median income of $75,000, meaning residents there, arguably, have the least to gain. Queens’ unemployment rate is lower even than Manhattan’s, at 3.4 percent, but the median income there is about $60,000. And the Bronx, which enthusiastically supports the deal, has the highest unemployment rate of the five boroughs at 5.4 percent.

When analyzing overall responses by race, too, the tension is clear. Across all of New York City, it’s white New Yorkers who support the project least, while 63 percent of black and 65 percent of Hispanic New Yorkers surveyed say they approve. And it’s black and Hispanic residents who experience poverty at greater rates across New York City. Below, a comparison of black, Hispanic, and white residents’ relative approval of the project (there were only three races listed in the survey results):

Many who have criticized Amazon’s impending move to Queens point out its potential for increasing inequality in the region. The Amazon headquarters’ planned location adjacent to Long Island City’s Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the country, has been described as extraordinary “synergy” by Mayor Bill de Blasio and extraordinarily troubling by others.

But not only do New Yorkers approve of the deal; when asked if they had any concerns over Amazon’s entrance, 54 percent of respondents said no. For the 41 percent percent who did report concerns, the anxiety centers on housing and transportation, in a city with median home sales costs nearing $700,000 and rents of $2,900 according to Zillow, and a subway system besieged with delays. Young people are especially concerned about housing prices, for the obvious reasons; and older people are more concerned with changing quality of life.

Perhaps to mitigate these city-level pressures, New Yorkers want more local control of the deal as it moves forward. The brunt of the private dealmaking was led by Governor Andrew Cuomo at the state level, and the bulk of the incentives will be offered by the state, too. The city council never voted on the project, and didn’t see the proposal before it was signed. Seventy-nine percent of people agree: New York City should be more involved in the process.

All this positivity exists in spite of, not because of, trust in policymakers: Just 43 percent of respondents approve of Mayor Bill de Blasio, versus 40 percent who disapprove. Even 33 percent of Democrats disapprove of the way he handled the Amazon deal (versus 36 percent approving.)

“While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are often at odds, they do share something in common. Both receive low grades for their handling of the Amazon deal,” Snow said. “One asterisk: Roughly 30 percent of respondents say they don’t know the details enough to give them a grade.”

The study’s margin of error was +/- 3.8 percentage points, though as with all polls, the margin of error gets larger when comparing answers by subgroups such as race or borough. And interpreting the poll’s results may differ depending on where you stand on the issue. Amazon opponents Jimmy Van Bramer, a New York City councilmember, and Michael Gianaris, a New York State senator, say that the half who don’t approve of incentives should serve as confirmation that the tech giant isn’t worth subsidizing. “New Yorkers are making clear they agree that too much inequality exists in our communities and giving billions of taxpayer dollars to trillion dollar corporations makes things worse, not better,” they said in a statement. “It is also clear that the more people learn about the deal, the less they like it.”

But the quiz also nudged New Yorkers into some healthy self-reflection with a question on their own spending habits. Yes, the state wrote a hefty check to Amazon in exchange for their business, but how often do New Yorkers themselves shop on the site? The answers are hardly surprising: Numbers differ by socioeconomic level and racial identity, but overall, 35 percent of New Yorkers are pressing that Buy button one or more times a week.

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Just How Much of the World Is Urban?

It may be the one data point most commonly cited by urbanists: We live in a world that is over 50 percent urban. We crossed the majority threshold in 2008, and have since grown to 55 percent today. The world is projected to be 70 percent by 2050, and ultimately top out at around 85 percent or so a century from now.

But a new report released by researchers at the European Commission (EC) says the current level of global urbanization is much higher: It estimates the world to be 84 percent urban already. The EC research team, led by Lewis Dijkstra, used satellite images to assess the share of the world’s population that is urban. While traditional estimates from the United Nations and elsewhere find Asia to be 50 percent urban, the EC team’s analysis of satellite images finds it to be 90 percent; while the UN estimates Africa’s urban population at 40 percent, the EC research team finds it to be 80 percent.

The European Commission research team contends that these discrepancies stem from the ways the data is traditionally reported. The 55 percent figure comes from data that is self-reported by nations. The rub is that different nations use different definitions to identify what is “urban.” According to the EC group, about half of countries define urban based on a minimum population size threshold—85 percent of countries use a threshold of 5,000 people or fewer but other countries have dramatically higher requirements, like Mali’s 30,000, Japan’s 50,000, or China’s 100,000. Only a few countries use population density as a measure of urbanization.

Other definitions are even more detailed and highly specific. India classifies places as urban if less than a quarter of working-age men work in agriculture. And in some nations, political considerations muddle definitions further. For example, in some countries, once a place is classified as urban, there are requirements that it must host certain facilities, like courthouses or police stations. Governments may therefore avoid classifying places as urban simply to avoid shelling out for these upgraded public services. Take the case of Egypt, which has said that it is 43 percent urban every year since 1986, despite significant urbanization since then.

But, at least one other leading team of urbanists is not so sure about the EC’s numbers. A report by Shlomo Angel, a leading expert in global urban expansion at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management, finds the 84 percent figure to be far too high, and contends that the conventional 55 percent figure is more on target.

Angel believes the density thresholds the EC team used to interpret the satellite images end up incorrectly classifying broad swaths of rural farmland as urban. Angel and company further ask how 84 percent of the world’s population is urban, when 37 percent of the world’s labor force is employed in agriculture. Angel believes the most effective way to gauge urbanization is not through population or density per se, but by looking at contiguous built-up areas of 100,000 or more people. The group plans to create its own new estimates of global urbanization in the future.

The EC team sees things somewhat differently. Dijkstra believes that Angel and company’s method of looking at built-up areas is skewed toward richer, more developed countries. “The amount of built-up area per capita is much higher in cities in developed countries than in less-developed countries, by a factor of 5 to 10,” Dijkstra wrote in an email. “As a result, this method has a big, built-in, rich country bias.”

The way we estimate global urbanization is not just a debate among researchers, it has huge import for strategies and policies we will use to address urban challenges in the future. If the world is 55 percent urban, the challenge may be to build new and better cities to accommodate the billions of new urbanites, as well as to retrofit and upgrade existing ones. If the world is already almost 85 percent urban, building new cities would seem less efficacious and the priority would fall to upgrading existing urban centers and settlements where people are.

To my mind, this debate illustrates the pressing need to develop better, more robust, more comparable, and more systematic data on cities and urban areas across the world, something I have pressed for for a long time. As an urbanist, it is troubling to me that our existing science cannot identify whether the world is 55 percent or 84 percent urban. This is a very, very large difference. I spoke to a wide range of experts on global urbanization about this discrepancy. They all believe we lack the data to make an accurate assessment to resolve this debate, and thus are unwilling to take sides. They suggested that we need new and better data, and that regardless, we should continue to develop strategies for upgrading and densifying existing cities and metro areas and for building new ones.

The research, data, and urban science we have on the world’s cities and urban areas is troublingly inadequate. If building better, more resilient, more sustainable, and more prosperous cities is key to our future global well-being, it is critical that we do much better.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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Who’s Tracking Your License Plate?

Over the last decade, cities have increasingly embraced the crime-fighting potential of automated license plate reader (ALPR) technology. These camera systems are now ubiquitous

A map of all the agencies EFF has requested data from on their deals with Vigilant Solutions. (EFF)

So, if you’re a law-abiding motorist, how worried should you be about this technology—and what exactly should you be worried about?

One big concern, says EFF’s Maass, is data security. Sharing such sensitive information across state lines makes it harder to conduct appropriate oversight because the data and privacy laws in one place may differ from another. It also makes that information more susceptible to breaches. “Every time you create an access point to your data, that’s another vector where it can be used gain information on people,” Maass said. “If you’re the city of Sacramento and you’re sharing with 800 agencies, that’s 800 points of vulnerabilities.”

If hackers get a hold on what is essentially a geotagged map of your movements, they could sell that stalkers, robbers, or other individuals who wish you harm. Or, a large trove of that data for multiple people—law enforcement officials or political leaders, for example—could fall in the hands of foreign adversaries.

Vigilant Solutions advertises this technology to law enforcement as a much-needed modern upgrade to scribbling down license-plate numbers by hand. “The technology in use today basically replaces an old analog function—your eyeballs,” Chris Metaxas, then-chief executive of Digital Recognition Network, a subsidiary of Vigilant Solutions, said in 2014. “It’s the same thing as a guy holding his head out the window, looking down the block, and writing license-plate numbers down and comparing them against a list. The technology just makes things better and more productive.”

Law enforcement officials seem convinced. But how effective is this tool? The “hit ratio”—the total number of “hot list” license plates detected per the total number of scans—is one useful metric. This number has been minuscule in past examinations—often less than 1 percent. In this new trove of data, too, EFF found that on average, the hit rate was 0.5 percent. In other words, law enforcement cast a very wide dragnet, for a very tiny catch of suspects.

The exact number of crimes ALPR technology has helped solve is unclear. Vigilant believes it’s a lot. “[T]he success stories are so frequent, I can’t even keep up with them all,” writes Tom Joyce, a retired NYPD officer who works at Vigilant Solutions, on the conpany’s website. Police officials who defend this technology despite the low hit ratio also highlight individual cases that were assisted by ALPR investigations: a shooting suspect in Cincinnati, Ohio; a U.S. postal service robber in Alexandria, Virginia;

In the dataset, the Kansas City Police Department in Missouri stood out with an abnormally high hit ratio—7.6 percent of the 37 million license plates it scanned in 2017. Maass doesn’t know what’s going on there, but guesses that it may be because they keep a large hot list based on very broad criteria. “I can only speculate that it could be related to court fines or proof of insurance,” he said. “It’s alarming that they’re keeping such close tabs on so many people.”

That itself raises a huge red flag about hot lists: Police departments have wide discretion in creating them, which may leave a lot of room for abuse. EFF has previously found that Vigilant has been incentivizing local police departments in Texas to focus on debt collection. Free Vigilant technology would alert police when people with pending court fines drive by. After they pulled the driver over, they could offer two choices: Go to jail, or pay the fine … plus a 25 percent “processing fee” that Vigilant largely pockets. In 2016, Buzzfeed found that Port Arthur’s sheriff used similar technology to shake down black and brown motorists who owed the city money. Remember that exploitative practice of squeezing the poor for municipal revenues that came to light after the Justice Department’s investigation of Ferguson, Missouri? These practices were high-tech variations on the same idea.

Then, there’s also the fact that ordinary citizens with potentially nefarious motives can often obtain this license-tracker data through a public records requests in some places, or by having the police give it to them as favors or in exchange for bribes. They may then use it to target violence survivors, political organizers, journalists, or abortion-seekers.

Police and other government agencies have a long track record of disproportionally surveilling populations of color, immigrants, and the poor, and ALPR offers another means of pursuing that practice. In 2015, EFF mapped how ALPR was used in Oakland. Police cars equipped with cameras would patrol low-income neighborhoods, snapping up more plates in these areas. That meant the residents of these neighborhoods were more likely to end up in the ALPR system—even though their neighborhoods weren’t necessarily correlated with higher crime.

ALPR scans (blue) correlated with Hispanic and African-American population (red). (EFF)

Surveillance tools like ALPR are often first used against vulnerable communities. But those who aren’t used to being singled out because of their skin color might want to remember that every driver on the road is fair game for this technology. To reduce the potential for abusing ALPR, advocates suggest purging the scans that do not generate a match on the hot list immediately, or at least after a few days. But underlying it all is the question: Should police have access to this kind of data at all?

”The government makes us put license plates on our cars,” Maass said. “They have a responsibility not to exploit it.”

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How Community-Funder Collaboratives Can Build Regional Power

Foundations are notorious for creating their own funding strategy without any guidance from the communities they seek to support, imposing their strategy on grantees, and expecting them to achieve pre-determined outcomes that support those strategies. Within the Collaborative, we ask that funders listen to and trust the grassroots leaders and organizations, who we know are best positioned to propose the most effective solutions for their communities.

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After 20 Years, Three Regions Confront Their Divisions

This piece is co-authored by MarySue Barrett, President of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC); Tom Wright, President and CEO of Regional Plan Association (RPA); and Gabriel Metcalf, President and CEO of SPUR.

The New York region, San Francisco Bay area and metropolitan Chicago are magnets for technology and innovation, creative young talent, and global investment. The buzz around New York’s High Line, San Francisco’s new five-acre rooftop Salesforce Park, and Chicago’s Riverwalk paint pictures of vibrant, dynamic cities where unemployment is down and many are succeeding. But the story is starkly different for many regional residents who are disconnected from the dynamic parts of the economy, face crushing cost of living burdens and are falling further behind. Despite a resurgence in the urban centers of many U.S. cities, persistent and growing income and wealth gaps lay bare our collective failure to properly share prosperity.

Each of the three of us have helped steer our respective regions’ leading independent urban planning organization for more than 20 years. We understand the power of bold ideas, major public investments, compelling data, and strong and diverse partnerships. When Chicago’s government and business and civic leaders decided to transform railroad tracks in the middle of the Loop into Millennium Park in the early 2000s, few predicted the ripple effect on nearby real estate values or the civic pride that this cultural gathering spot would spark. When the dot com bust led to hundreds of thousands leaving the Bay Area for more promising regions, few predicted that a second tech boom (since ~2010) would be even larger, fueling a major shift in employment to the transit-rich core of San Francisco. And in the aftermath of 9/11 and then the Great Recession, even as the Big Apple pulled together to rebuild Lower Manhattan and diversify its economy, few predicted that New York City would add 750,000 jobs in less than a decade.

So why are so many people being left behind? The reasons all stem from structural racism, unequal investment, and a passive tolerance of the status quo. Despite having raised its minimum wage, required employers to provide paid sick leave and other local labor policies, San Francisco’s housing costs are the highest in the nation and the income gap is starkly racialized: African American households in San Francisco earn less than $30,000 annually while the average white household earns over $110,000. Chicagoans cringed when confronted with the true cost of segregation: $4 billion in lost African American income annually, 83,000 fewer bachelor’s degrees, 30% more homicides. New York City’s unequal property tax system burdens homeowners in communities of color neighborhoods with tax bills that are up to four times the rate of those in predominantly white communities.

The data from comprehensive regional plans on growing inequality are similarly damning. Metropolitan Chicago stands alone among the 10 largest metros in losing population between 2016 and 2017. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s new ON TO 2050 Plan highlights that population gains since 2006 have been almost exclusively among high earners. When you consider that low- and middle-income families now must spend 67% to cover the basics of housing and transportation in Chicagoland, the loss of 60,000 African Americans from the city sadly starts to make sense.

The Regional Plan Association spent the last five years preparing its Fourth Regional Plan, unpacking regional economic and demographic trends and identifying challenges to future prosperity. Over the past generation, the average cost of renting an apartment in New York City has gone from just over one-quarter to almost one-third of household income, severe overcrowding of rental apartments has doubled, and the number of people experiencing homelessness has tripled. Homeownership, which was once widely accessible to the middle-class, is now completely out of reach to two-thirds of families in the region.

Inspired in part by the work of the RPA, SPUR has launched a Regional Strategy for the Bay Area – to develop a comprehensive vision for solving the most urgent problems faced by the Bay Area, and a road map for making that vision real. SPUR’s early scenario planning warned Bay Area residents that current trends point towards a “Gated Utopia” future where only the wealthy benefit from the region’s strong economy and quality of life. 
 
All three regions have seen a tsunami of suburbanizing poverty. Between 2010 and 2016, suburban Chicago residents living below the poverty line increased by 270,000 people, representing a 54% increase. In New York, while the city grew economically since 2009, actual median incomes declined in every one of New York’s suburban counties. And the Bay Area and portions of adjacent San Joaquin Valley were the epicenter of the country’s foreclosure crisis, with Stockton among the largest cities in U.S. history to declare bankruptcy. Growth in suburban poverty coupled with long commutes, limited nearby employment and diminished public services has cut off hundreds of thousands of residents from the booming economy. Caught in a death spiral, many suburbs are too small in scale to deliver quality services and too fiscally stressed to compete economically.

What we often hear back from those we work with in city and suburban governments is a plaintive plea to emphasize strengths, like Chicago’s impressive gains in the number of residents over 25 with college degrees, now the highest of the top U.S. cities. San Francisco is similarly proud of nearly 55% of its residents having a college degree. New York City has added 178,000 people with graduate degrees in just five years, fueled in part by a rapidly growing tech sector.

Yes, we should celebrate strengths, and then must harness them to solve pervasive problems. Problems such as utilizing the 15,000 vacant parcels in Chicago or fixing New York’s aging subways and commuter rail networks. But we can’t afford to be blind boosters, bragging about rising incomes and ignoring deepening poverty, pretending that we can solve deep racial disparities with race-neutral policies.

What holds cities back from attaining their potential as places where a person can move up the economic ladder and where social cohesion can take root? Harvard’s Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren have documented the lifelong income gaps that result from the “punishing reach of racism” for black boys, whose experiences are dramatically different than white boys and even black girls. Too often, black communities have faced utter neglect or exploitative investment that leaves individuals and families strapped for resources or displaced altogether.

The shared benefits of upending this reality come to life in the story of Skyler Dees, a resident of North Lawndale on Chicago’s West side whose lifelong dream was to be a chef or caterer. His breakthrough came in 2017 when Skyler was among the first recipients of a grant through the City of Chicago’s groundbreaking commitment to linked development. The Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, capitalized by fees on developers of buildings in the central area, is a dramatic example of an on-ramp to prosperity. It has generated $47.8 million in its first 18 months and has secured commitments totaling $203 million and growing. “I want to break down that stigma that black people don’t want to eat healthy,” said the founder of Skyler Dees Catering Company. He’s doing that, and much more.

Will our voices, joined with others, amplify the message that, across race and class we’re interdependent, that reducing inequality for some ripples through the economy and benefits us all? This will only happen if every institution — governments, foundations, businesses, and yes, our own — adopt a racial equity framework that sets clear targets for change. Solid research, inspiring stories, and our combined six decades of experience have convinced us that we must tackle rising inequality with courage, to ensure that no one falls behind.

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MapLab: A Map’s Best Storyteller

Of the handful of writers who treat maps as subjects, it’s not hard to name favorites. Rebecca Solnit’s . (It was originally called “Map Lab” when it started at ) ♦ The most fragile map: American masculinity. (Washington Post) ♦ Porsche is guessing its drivers have time to “explore.” (Wired) ♦ The ACLU is making Ohio Republicans turn over redistricting data. (Courthouse News) ♦ The diverse geography of France’s gilets jaunes protests. (CityLab) ♦ America’s best and worst transit systems. (CityLab)


What’s more warming than a newsletter about maps? Sign up your friends for MapLab here. And don’t forget to say hi.

Laura

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CityLab Daily: When the Big Box Moves Downtown

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.

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What We’re Following

Assembly required: Anyone who’s ever had an argument over furniture in one of IKEA’s suburban megastores might be surprised to hear that the retail giant is planning to set up shop in Midtown Manhattan. Surely, there’s no way to flatpack that massive blue-box footprint? But in a tumultuous time for the retail sector, the Swedish company is starting its own back-to-the-city movement, planning to open five “city center” stores in the U.S.—including Los Angeles, San Francisco, D.C., and Chicago—and a handful more around the world.

The move could reveal a lot about the state of retail today: Even leading brands with established e-commerce operations are rethinking how they get in front of people. As it turns out, Millennials and Gen-Zers like to browse in real life just as much as anybody else. One survey found that 63 percent of shoppers between 21 and 36 still want that in-store experience when shopping for furniture. And when it comes to attracting car-free customers in the urban core, IKEA hopes that centralizing and scaling down the big box can keep it competitive. CityLab’s Linda Poon has the story: Why IKEA Wants to Move Downtown

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Why This Republican Mayor Spoke at Bernie Sanders’s Climate Town Hall

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Fighting for Water and Life in Mexico City

The Mexican metropolis is a city of vast inequality, and access to water reflects that.

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‘Big Fun Art’ Spreads to Phoenix

A risqué art exhibition housed in a 16,000-square-foot commercial building stands out among the typically more cheery immersive “museums” spreading in 2018.

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What the Ultrarich Really Want

There’s a reason many aren’t satisfied with the wealth they already have.

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Mapping the Gruesome Murders of Medieval London

Using coroners’ records from the 1300s, Cambridge researchers reveal what violence looked like in a dangerous city with little law enforcement.

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Why So Many People Hate Winter

Science suggests that there are two types of people who tolerate the cold well. Sadly, I’m neither.

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Bezos’s Backyard

Amazon’s HQ2 already split the share of jobs between New York City and the D.C. region, but planners in and around the capital will also share responsibility for absorbing the growth it brings across jurisdictions. With a regional housing affordability crunch and a transit system that spans Maryland, Virginia, and the District, Amazon’s arrival presents planning challenges and opportunities beyond any strict sense of city limits.

For AtlanticLive’s summit on infrastructure and transportation, CityLab editor Nicole Flatow sat down with Katie Cristol, the chair of the Arlington County Board, and Jeff Marootian, the director of the District Department of Transportation, to discuss what it all means for the region. You can spot some highlights in this Twitter moment or watch their full conversation here. CityLab context: Amazon’s HQ2 decision was always about transit


What We’re Reading

“The Nutcracker,” but for urban planning (Next City)

Why do all new apartment buildings look the same? (Curbed)

America is poorer than it thinks (Bloomberg)

New York’s vanishing mayor (New York Times)

Waymo’s self-driving taxi just launched, and the future is already boring (Fast Company)


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