The Seductive Power of a Suburban Utopia

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.”

A street in Serenbe features buildings with businesses on the ground floor and apartments above. (Courtesy of Serenbe)

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.”

A row of houses abut Serenbe’s 25-acre organic farm. (Courtesy of Serenbe)

But just steps from these agricultural activities, Serenbe residents can partake of urban-style cultural ones: Serenbe Playhouse stages family-friendly fare on outdoor sites around the community, and an artist-in-residence program brings playwrights, novelists, musicians, and painters from all over the country. In 2016, the Playhouse staged Miss Saigon here, with a real helicopter landing during a scene, and this summer it will offer a perhaps even more ambitious show: Titanic, complete with an ocean liner sinking in one of Serenbe’s large ponds.

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.

Ebenezer Howard published his treatise on “garden cities,” utopian communities offering a mixture of urban and rural life, in 1898.

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.

An aerial view of Selborne, the first of Serenbe’s three neighborhoods. (Courtesy of Serenbe)

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.

Serenbe’s homes that sit back from the street do not feature traditional lawns, to cut down on water use. (Courtesy of Serenbe)  

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.

Serenbe’s architectural styles run the gamut from modern to colonial to cottages inspired by those in England’s Cotswolds. (Courtesy of Serenbe)   

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.

“It’ll last at least two hundred.”

CityLab Daily: The Ragtag Resistance to Amazon HQ2

What We’re Following

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?

Andrew Small

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Take the A (or B) Train

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What We’re Reading

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What Murals Can Tell Cleveland About Itself

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.

Stanczak’s mural for the original Cleveland Canvases project: “Carter Manor,1973”

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.

Council Members, Kochs, and Socialists Unite Against Amazon

Updated: 2018-03-16

As cities draft incentive packages to lure Amazon’s second headquarters (HQ2), a diverse patchwork of foes to the bidding process have emerged. Economists, city council members, socialists, and even the Koch brothers are rallying against state and city leaders who have offered large economic incentives to the corporate giant.

Three city council members from HQ2 finalist cities released a joint statement last month, urging all lawmakers to decline authorizing these subsidies: Jared Evans from Indianapolis, Brad Lander from New York, and Greg Casar from Austin. It’s a symbolic move, but it could be the only one with teeth if Amazon were to pick one of their cities: In some, including Austin, city council serves the ultimate vote in approving local tax deals. Publicly professing an intent to vote “no,” as Casar has done, might inspire other members to follow.

The city council members are reacting to the billion- and million-dollar packages Amazon has already elicited from the cities that have made their bids public, with offers of everything from tax breaks to subsidized construction and training costs. But they are also reacting to the potentially vast pool of money that isn’t yet known. Only two sites have released unredacted versions of their proposals, and many others have obscured particulars. Not even the city council knows what’s in Austin’s bid, because while they do vote on it eventually, the Chamber of Commerce, not the city, does the actual bidding.

These lawmakers signed onto a pledge initiated by Richard Florida, co-founder of CityLab and Director of Cities at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, urging city leaders to refuse to offer Amazon any extra economic incentives. After the council members affirmed their support, councilman Philip Kingston from Dallas and Alderman Scott Waguespack from Chicago’s 32nd Ward added their names to the petition. “[W]e call upon you to forge and sign a mutual non-aggression pact that rejects such egregious tax giveaways and direct monetary incentives for the Amazon headquarters,” it reads. If all cities agree not to offer incentives, the reasoning goes, then no city will lose a competitive advantage and they’ll compete against one another on the merits of their cities’ attributes. By March, more than 15,000 people had signed it, mostly academics, economists, and business leaders.

Other lawmakers who have not signed onto Florida’s letter have found other ways to speak out about the bidding process. Fellow Austin council member Leslie Pool publicly called out the Austin Chamber of Commerce for its lack of HQ2 transparency.

“I know nothing about the Amazon bid. It appears none of my colleagues do either,” Pool said, according to the Austin American-Statesman. “I have been asking for some insight to what the proposal had, and I’ve been asking for six months. I find that extraordinary. It’s been mishandled by the Chamber. If they thought about it, they would have realized this would have been an issue for the whole town, and they should have talked to us about what they can negotiate.”

While Casar hopes the majority of Austin’s council, including Pool, will end up signing—and, later, votinghe says right now it’s more important to have broad representation across the 20 shortlist cities. The point of a non-aggression pact is that they mutually (and unanimously) disarm.

“Really, regardless of what’s in the Chamber of Commerce’s bid on behalf of the Austin area,” said Casar, “I believe that we would be better served if cities banded together and in unison decided to reject participating in what is a downward spiral at the expense of the public, for the private gain of Amazon.”

On another side of the ideological spectrum is Generation Opportunity, an organization of young conservatives backed by American Prosperity, which is in turn backed by the famous conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Last month, the group launched a digital ad campaign geo-targeted directly to millennials in the 20 finalist cities, calling on them to help cities end “sweetheart deals.”

“Winning Amazon’s second headquarters will look more like losing for many Americans,” reads the ad, a torrent of urgent yellow and white words, dramatic music, and screenshots from cities’ video appeals.

While Florida’s letter focuses on local action, Generation Opportunity has also launched a national appeal to Congress. “Corporate Welfare is a Loss for Taxpayers and Young Entrepreneurs,” a pop-up on their homepage reads, urging millennials to sign their own petition, calling on the federal government to promote economic fairness and eliminate tax incentives.

Council member Casar says that the issue should ultimately be federally regulated. “But since it’s not being addressed, my hope is that as we build networks and connections amongst progressive elected officials, we would be able to harness the collective power of cities to match the huge corporate power of an organization like Amazon,” he said.

That collective power extends all the way down to the grassroots, as local branches of the Democratic Socialists of America organize their own targeted attacks.

When it became clear that the D.C. metro area was a front-runner among the finalist cities, the Metro DC DSA, Jobs for Justice, and the Fair Budget Coalition banded together to launch #ObviouslyNotDC—a play on D.C. Mayor Bowser’s hashtag campaign for HQ2, #ObviouslyDC. “Let’s prioritize DC communities, not the world’s richest man,” their website reads. (Jeff Bezos has a net worth of $112 billion, superseding Bill Gates on Forbes’ just-released Billionaires list.)

“There are already a lot of structural issues with DC,” said Margaret McLaughlin, the chair of Metro DC DSA and an organizer of ObviouslyNotDC. “We have a lot of homelessness that a lot of people pay lip service to fixing, but don’t actually do anything about.”

That D.C. has offered upwards of $100 million in tax incentives makes that lack of action “just entirely disingenuous,” she says. “This money could be used for fixing the huge deficit in WMATA funding that is only going to grow.” The offer is intended to create new jobs in the district, but McLaughlin predicts most of those will be filled by people moving from “the Bay Area, from Seattle, mostly white, and very well-educated.”

As D.C. residents gathered outside a recent budget forum hosted by the mayor, ObviouslyNotDC projected their logo above the front door. “Alexa, Go Away!” protestors bellowed. “What are the incentives, Mayor Bowser?” they asked. Bowser waved them offstage.

But ObviouslyNotDC’s campaign isn’t meant to antagonize Bowser specifically. “She doesn’t care, and she won’t care about a little socialist organization. It might be a thorn in her side, but she’ll continue what she’s doing. Same with the governors,” said McLaughlin. “We want to get more people aware of what’s at stake and what the consequences possibly could be—because that’s where the power lies, in the people.” EmpowerDC, a grassroots advocacy group for low- and middle-income DC residents, is harnessing that people power in the form of a localized petition, much like Florida’s. It calls on members of the D.C. council to affirm their commitment to withholding local incentives from Amazon, by issuing a public statement to that effect.

Petitions and protests might sway public opinion, but the impetus to stop a bidding war like this ultimately rests with Amazon and the cities vying for it to keep their proposals incentive-free. “Amazon is using their political and economic muscle to force cities to undermine the public good,” said Casar. “And the only way we can counter that isn’t city by city but actually by those cities working together.”

No city leader of a shortlist site has signed a mutual nonaggression pact, nor have they expressed interest in doing so. But, asked for their positions on incentives at a panel on local power at South by Southwest this week, both New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Austin Mayor Steven Adler rejected the notion of “excessive incentives,” a concept that hasn’t been precisely defined.

“Excessive incentives … or paying money to buy a company to come, that’s not something that we would do,” said Adler. “But I’m not going to preclude having the conversation about how in a new paradigm a company could weave itself into the fabric of a community or come into a city in a way that benefits that city. That’s a conversation that I think we would have, if Amazon would like to engage in that conversation.”

De Blasio has been firm from the start that it is not in the interests of his own city to offer incentives, but stopped short of weighing in on what others should do. (A bid on behalf of New York City offered by the state has not been made public).

“We respect all the other cities and their approaches. Everyone’s gotta figure out what works for them,” he said. “We don’t like the old paradigm. The old paradigm used to be a bunch of localities competed against each other to give the most money possible to a big company. We think that is a bankrupt concept.”

6 Ideas for a Better New York Subway

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) wants to know if anyone, anywhere, can figure out how to fix New York City’s beleaguered subway.

With the hopes of solving problems such as persistent overcrowding, train delays, and crumbling physical infrastructure, the MTA launched a Genius Transit Challenge in June. Offering as much as *$1 million for the best idea, nearly 500 groups hailing from 23 different countries sent in submissions. Now, the final results are in.

Last week, an expert panel selected six winners, awarding them a total of nearly $2.5 million in prize money. They present new ideas for train control signals, subway car design, data management, and tunnel maintenance. Below, a video from each team explaining their proposal:

Train Control Signals

The subway’s current signalling system is woefully out of date and a major cause of delays and overcrowding. Currently, all lines except the L employ a fixed block signalling system. This system divides lines into “blocks,” preventing two trains from being on the same one at once. While effective for maintaining safety, the fixed block system prevents trains from running as close to one another as more modern systems. The MTA plans to install more efficient signalling systems known as Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) on many of its lines, and is nearly finished upgrading the 7.

But the process is time consuming and expensive. Two MTA Genius Transit Challenge winners propose cheaper and faster methods for installing state of the art train control systems:

Robert James and Metrom Rail propose installing wireless communications devices along the track that require much less hardware and installation labor than current methods for installing CBTC technology.

Ansaldo STS and Thales’ proposal also cuts down on hardware and labor by implementing CBTC technology with cameras and sensors on the front of each train.

Subway Cars

Craig Avedisian, a New York City lawyer, proposes increasing capacity by adding more cars to trains, without having to build longer platforms. This would be done by creating “A” and “B” sections of trains, corresponding to A and B stations.  At an A station, only the A section car doors would open, and vice versa. The intervention could theoretically increase train capacity by 42 percent.

The Chinese train builder CRRC MA plans to invest $50 million to develop New York City’s subway car of the future. Its key features would be lighter materials, greater energy efficiency, and a modular design that would make it easy to upgrade as new technologies become available.

Data Management

CSinTRANS (or CSiT) proposes to centralize the data coming to and from transit vehicles, allowing for for MTA staff and passengers to be aware of problems in real time. The system is also intended to help reduce maintenance costs by spotting breakdowns before they become severe.

Tunnel Maintenance

As one of the world’s few 24-hour systems, New York’s subway has very little time to make repairs. Bechtel Innovation’s proposal hopes to make that process more efficient by providing the system with a tunnel maintenance robot that can perform routine repairs. The robot, similar to those already in operation in the U.K., could help lower costs and improve worker safety.

Whether these “genius” ideas will be implemented remains unclear. If they are, the MTA’s notoriously glacial pace of progress means it’ll still be a while before riders would experience their benefits. Still, after last summer’s countless delays and hellish hiccups, any effort to think outside the box should be a sign of encouragement.

*Clarification: This story has been updated to better explain the initial and final prize figures.

An ‘Instant Bridge’ Collapses Near Miami, and Many Questions Remain

Updated: 2018-03-16

On Saturday, officials at Florida International University in Miami-Dade County celebrated an “engineering feat come to life”—a 174-foot pedestrian suspension bridge designed to link the vast FIU campus with the neighboring city of Sweetwater, where many students lived in off-campus housing. Spanning eight lanes of traffic, FIU-Sweetwater UniversityCity Bridge was supposed to give students a safe way to cross a busy roadway—an FIU student was killed by a car while crossing Southwest Eighth Street last year—while also providing a new campus amenity. Plans called for the wifi-equipped structure to boast a shaded deck, benches and seating, and plazas at either end.

“Not only is it a bridge, it’s a place,” Robert Herrada, Sweetwater’s director of operations, told the Miami Herald in August. “This is place-making.”

It was also a showpiece for new and innovative construction methods—the first bridge in the world to be constructed entirely of self-cleaning cement, as well as the largest bridge ever to be moved by Self-Propelled Modular Transportation—or atop platform vehicles—according to an FIU press release. The $14.2 million project, initially funded in 2013 and slated for completion in January of 2019, was being built using “accelerated bridge construction,” or ABC, a technique where prefabricated pieces can be installed in a day, rather than months or years. Think modular construction, but for bridges—“Did Someone Order an Instant Bridge?” one New York Times headline read.

“This project is an outstanding example of the ABC method,” said the chair of the university’s acclaimed civil and engineering department, Atorod Azizinamini, in a statement on March 10.

But just five days after the bridge was installed, tragedy struck. On Thursday, the main span collapsed onto Southwest Eighth Street’s mid-afternoon traffic, leaving at least six people dead, at least ten people injured, and several cars crushed flat under the 950-ton weight of the bridge’s deck. More victims may still be buried in the rubble, the Washington Post reported on Friday afternoon. In a statement, university officials said they were “shocked and saddened about the tragic events unfolding at the FIU-Sweetwater pedestrian bridge.” The street will be closed indefinitely, according to the Herald.

The bridge’s failure comes at a time of growing popularity for both pedestrian bridges and the usage of the ABC method, which the Federal Highway Administration has called a “paradigm shift” in how we conceptualize and construct bridges. Besides lifting pedestrians out of harm’s way, the span was built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, according to a fact sheet, and supposed to last over a century. Its collapse represents one of the worst U.S. bridge accidents since the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in downtown Minneapolis in 2007, killing 13. And it may call the safety of streamlined bridge construction methods into question.

So, what happened?

Workers were conducting a “stress test” immediately before the collapse, which may have been a factor, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Bridge engineering and safety experts have also observed from images of the aftermath that the bridge appeared to have no central tower in place. Such columns are typical of cable-stayed suspension bridges, and architectural renderings of the FIU bridge showed it would have one. “When the bridge collapsed, the main tower had not yet been installed, and it was unclear what builders were using as temporary supports,” the Times reported.

The National Transportation Safety Board has launched an inquiry into the cause of the collapse. Chairman Robert Sumwalt stated on Thursday that the missing central column would be “part of our investigation.”

There’s rarely one single factor explaining most bridge collapses, said Sam Schwartz, the former chief engineer of New York City’s Department of Transportation. Instead, a butterfly effect of deficient parts or designs tends to lead to systematic failure. “There’s often a lot of safety built into bridges, and that’s why they don’t fail in large numbers,” he said. “When they do fail—with the Minneapolis bridge collapse, as the most famous recent case—there were many things done wrong, and [that has] a cumulative effect.”

With the Interstate 35W Bridge, which crossed over the Mississippi, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that it was, in fact, a design flaw that ended up bringing the bridge down—not age or sustained neglect, as many critics had thought. The gusset plates that held the bridge’s steel beams were simply not thick enough. In addition, repair work being done on the bridge helped precipitate its collapse, as the weight of the construction equipment applied more pressure onto the plates, leading to eventual failure.

What makes the collapse of the FIU Sweetwater UniversityCity Bridge different—and, perhaps, more worrisome—is that it has only been standing a few days, without any additional weight present to even stress the structure. (The I-35W bridge had opened in 1967, and at the time of catastrophe, carried 140,000 vehicles daily.) Furthermore, Miami’s “instant bridge” was supposed to be Exhibit A for a technique specifically designed to greatly reduce the risk of this very thing happening.

While it is too soon to know the cause of the Miami collapse, bridge experts have warned in the past that speed can come at the cost of quality assurance when performing ABC. “The quality/speed of construction trade-off can be problematic,” Ted Zoli, the national bridge chief engineer at HNTB Corporation, stated at a 2013 FIU webinar on ABC implementation.“[T]he best strategy is to ensure the critical path of the project does not go through some difficult to inspect and to construct component that invites poor execution.”

Schwartz believes that the ABC method itself is not at fault in Miami; the technique, he says, is “not as new as people make it out to be,” and prefabricated bridge panels have been in use for at least 30 years in New York and elsewhere. Transit engineers and architects favor the technique because materials can be designed and built faster, safer, and more effectively. “Often the quality of the work is better, because it can be done under very controlled circumstances, as opposed to out in the field,” Schwartz said.

In the case of the FIU bridge, another key advantage was the lack of disruption to traffic below during construction. According to the press release, the eight lanes “saw little disruption to traffic” over the weekend, and actual assembly only took several hours. This is, in fact, one of the promises of ABC—that it does little to impact the surrounding environment during construction, as opposed to other construction techniques. On the other hand, because it requires a concentrated effort by construction crews, the technique can be pricier than others. “We pay a premium each time we use ABC, so in the end that means less money to address other bridges using conventional building methods,” Greg Penny, a Pennsylvania DOT spokesperson, said via email.

Before critics jump to any conclusions, Schwartz says, details surrounding the bridge’s construction process must first come to light, and many questions will need answers. “Did they install it improperly? Was it a failure in a joint?” he said. “Was it a failure in the midspan, because the bridge couldn’t support its own weight? Was it a design issue? Was there any damage while moving the bridge?”

Meanwhile, CBS has reported that two of the construction firms involved have a history of safety complaints.

The question other observers may have is how this happened at Florida International University, and what the incident might mean for the school, which has notably partnered with the U.S. Department of Transportation to study innovations in bridge-building techniques and civil engineering, with a track record of industry-transforming research. CityLab has reached out to DOT and FIU experts and will update when more information becomes available.

CityLab will have more on this story as updates become available.

I Have Seen the Future of Urbanism and It’s a Scooter

Hold onto your glasses, nerds: The scooters are here.

As cities around the U.S. still try to figure out what dockless bikesharing is, a leader in that nascent industry is betting that some urbanites are already ready for the next big thing—scooter-sharing. LimeBike, one of several firms operating docklessly in Washington, D.C., unleashed a fleet of electric-assist scooters in the nation’s capital this week, marking the scooter-share’s East Coast debut. (They first hit the streets last month, in San Diego.)

“Cities are craving solutions to downtown congestion,” LimeBike’s strategic developer Maggie Gendron told me as we rode on some of D.C.’s quieter streets. “It may be a bike for one, a scooter for another, but we are trying to create opportunities for residents to commute or reconnect to their downtown.”

For at least some people, it might help that they connect to a bit of the past, too. The new scooters look like a souped-up electric version of the folding Razor kick-scooters that were a wild fad in the early aughts, and remain tremendously popular with the first-grader cohort. This grown-up version boasts solid rubber tires, a kickstand, and—perhaps most importantly for adults—an electric-assist throttle on the handlebars, which allows riders to zip alongside their pedal-driven brethren at speeds of 10 to 15 mph. A smartphone app handles location, unlocking, and payment.

It’s with a mix of novelty and familiarity that companies like LimeBike, Bird, and Waybots hope to usher in a gritty and grown-up reboot of the 2001 Toy of the Year. They have a hunch that the market goes beyond Millennial nostalgia, and in a boom time for mobility innovations, they might be right. Adults might not be buying these next-generation electric scooters in droves (the consumer versions retail for about $400), but maybe they’ll shell out a buck or two for one they stumble upon on the sidewalk.

As LimeBike chief program officer Scott Kubly tells it, this could be an important step in the goal of more multimodal cities. Having a new toy on the block might lure customers out of their cars, he says, and they just might surprise you and become “complete streets” constituents along the way.

“[Scooters] could end up changing what people think of as a ‘bike lane,’” says Kubly, who was the director of Seattle’s Department of Transportation until last month. “The bigger the constituency you have, the easier it is to get infrastructure like that installed.”

Even on a short ride, it’s not hard to see how this fills a gap. The electric glide’s stand-up stance is easier on business attire, compared to a traditional bicycle. Comfort feels less tied to the weather, with electricity lending a hand against the heat or wind. Before joining LimeBike, Gendron worked as staffer with Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. “I couldn’t imagine biking to work with my old job wearing a dress, but I can definitely see it on a scooter,” she says.

Taken together, that could all make it a real contender to solve everyone’s favorite mobility cliché: the first- and last-mile problem.

But does it have an image problem to overcome? Does a grown-ass man on a scooter look any more or less foolish than one on, say, a Segway, an electric unicycle, a “hoverboard,” or any of the other comical conveyances that the 21st century has foisted on us? It’s too early to tell if scooter-shares will be conspicuous. On my own trial run, passersby turned their heads as I rode by, but I have a feeling it’s because it’s brand new; it didn’t feel like virtue or fashion statement like an early bikeshare, or even my old Razor scooter. There’s less room on the frame for the flashy colors that make dockless bikeshare stand out; it even feels a little camouflaged by design. Personal scooters aren’t nearly as common as bikes; it seems the more this quiet vehicle says “this is easy” instead of “this is my dork-mobile,” the better its chances for scaling up.

Screenshots of scooter usage in the LimeBike app.

LimeBike is pulling some of its 400 dockless bikes that have been rolling around D.C. since September as part of a trial by the District’s Department of Transportation. The company says it will replace some of them with scooters, to somewhere between 50 and 100 by the end of this week. (DDOT confirmed that Waybots, another scooter-share, is authorized to operate in the city, though they have very few scooters online so far, and haven’t responded to requests to comment.)

LimeBike doesn’t have useful scooter ridership numbers yet, but its scooter-only competitor, Bird, claims to have logged about half a million rides on more than a thousand scooters in less than six months of operating in parts of Los Angeles. A very generous, but admittedly rough estimate would put those scooters at an average of 2.7 rides per day. Compare that to findings by the app Transit that calculated 1.6 daily trips for D.C.’s dockless bikes, or 5.3 daily rides for Capital Bikeshare bikes since the dockless trial began. Bird hopes to launch in 50 markets, including Washington, D.C., this year, after raising $100 million on a $300 million valuation.

“We think electric vehicles can help solve this chicken-and-egg problem [of road space], because we know cities don’t necessarily want to carve out lanes to take away from cars,” says Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden. “But if we see massive adoption, now there’s evidence for cities to make an investment to make more bike lanes now that there’s another mode. Making dedicated lanes is easier than boring tunnels underground.”

Kubly, who also worked for DDOT back in 2009, says the closest feeling to the current optimism and skepticism about dockless bikes and scooters was when D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare launched out of the very small 10-station SmartBike pilot.

“I remember a friend saying, ‘No way, those crappy bikes that nobody uses?’” he says. “It might be the same with the scooters—until you experience it, it’s hard to figure out how big it’s going to be. But once you’re on it and you realize how fun it is, you think, ‘Why didn’t we think of this before?’”

Take a Virtual Tour of Japan With 3 Very Good Boys

First, the sheep of the Faroe Islands took the world on a virtual gallop of their picturesque archipelago. Then felines gave us a cat’s eye view of the Japanese city of Onomichi. But perhaps no creature is more constitutionally fit for the job of tour-group leader than the domestic dog: Man’s (actual) best friend possesses a curious nature, impeccable wayfinding skills, and an innate determination to never leave you behind.

Which brings us to Asuka, Ako, and Puuko. The three furry Akitas have been tapped to bolster tourism in the northern Japanese city of Odate, said to be the original birthplace of one of Japan’s most popular canine breeds. With 360-degree cameras strapped to their backs, the trio have created a Google “Pup-View” tour of local attractions in their home prefecture, giving each location a dose of cuteness.

On Google Street View, peer beyond the pups’ bushy tails to take in the vastness of Odate’s snowy mountains. Or join them as they admire the various shrines and statues erected in their honor. You can also virtually enjoy their companionship at an outdoor hot-spring foot bath or inside the Akita dog museum.

The city’s four-legged ambassadors have some work to do, as the Akita prefecture trails behind the six other prefectures in the Tohoku region when it comes to attracting foreign visitors. According to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, the Miyagi and Aomori prefectures attracted more than 100,000 visitors in 2016, while Akita only managed to bring in a little under 57,000 tourists. That’s when city officials began promoting its best-known local heroes, including a famed dog named Hachiko.

Hachiko was an Odate-born Akita who eventually moved to Tokyo with its owner. As the story goes, Hachiko became a symbol of loyalty in the early 1900s after waiting patiently every day at a rail station in the Shibuya neighborhood for his owner’s return, a vigil the animal maintained for almost ten years after his owner’s death. In fact, the bronze Akita dog statue that you can visit via Google Pup-View pays homage to Hachiko.

Past the pup’s poofy head is a statue of Odate’s most famous former Akita resident, Hachiko. (Screenshot/Google Street View)

Today, new homegrown stars have emerged. Siblings Asuka and Ako were appointed last year as “tourism promotion stationmasters,” whose job was to greet visitors outside the Odate rail station. They took on 30-minute shifts on the weekends, beginning at 9:45 a.m. sharp. “I have heard that they (Akitas) are better known than Mount Fuji outside Japan,” Takanori Nara—the human stationmaster—told Asahi Shimbun last year.

Now they can tack “virtual tour guide” on their resumes, and don’t worry about them being overworked. Based on the accompanying introductory video, it looks like they very much enjoyed frolicking and burrowing their snouts in the snow.

Nor’easters Expose Climate Weak Spots in Boston

Trendy restaurants, $3 million condominiums, and upscale hotels line the waterfront of Boston’s fashionable Seaport District. Many of them were built in just the past 10 years, with sea-level rise already an acknowledged threat.

But when two destructive nor’easters slammed into Massachusetts Bay early this year, streets and stores flooded, cars drowned, and water poured into a Blue Line subway station.

“The storms served as a wake-up call,” said Mia Mansfield, program manager for Climate Ready Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh’s resilience initiative. “People really didn’t expect to see flooding to that extent and to see how vulnerable the city is to storms and storm surge.” Because sea levels around Boston rose through the 20th century, storm surges and high tides now start from a higher baseline, and more areas are prone to flooding than before.  

Much of Boston’s land didn’t exist when the Massachusetts Bay Colony was settled in 1630. Over the centuries, fill turned tidal marshes and shorelines into neighborhoods, now low-lying areas susceptible to flooding. That includes the Seaport as well as more socially vulnerable communities in East Boston, Charlestown, and South Boston.

By 2070, with a three-foot sea level rise—the low end of current projections—those areas could be inundated at high tide every month, according to a 200-page report issued by Climate Ready Boston in December 2016. That will put 88,000 people at risk of flooding and could knock out major rail and road corridors. The report estimates that such a scenario would result in $1.4 billion in annual costs from structural damage, business and property losses, and related factors.

Mansfield herself is no stranger to high water. She grew up in New Orleans and experienced the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It showed her that climate change is real, she said, adding, “It can happen to the place where you live, your home and your neighborhood.”

On January 3, a winter cyclone dramatically deepened over the Atlantic in a process that meteorologists call bombogenesis. The next day, it dumped more than 13 inches of snow in Boston during a full moon, with winds in excess of 60 miles per hour, setting a new record high tide. Two months later, on March 2, another nor’easter brought winds and waves that created the third-highest tide ever. (Two more nor’easters followed in quick succession, and yet another is in the forecast at the time of this writing.)

But it wasn’t just the storms that flooded Boston streets. The water also came up from below: backflow from storm drains. Some drains have tide gates, but “there are many privately owned storm drains that allow the water into the neighborhood,” said Richard McGuinness, deputy director of climate change and environmental planning for the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

It’s not that the city hasn’t been aware of the issues confronting it. Boston published its first climate action plan in 2007 and updated it in 2011 and 2014. A 2013 report by the Boston Harbor Association outlined the risks of rising seas, increasing precipitation, and stormwater flooding. The U.S. Department of Energy cited Boston as a “climate action champion community” in 2014. Many regard the city as ahead of most on recognizing and planning for the risks of climate change.

But planning is one thing; action is another.

“Although we’ve spent a lot of time planning and analyzing these impacts, we’re really at a point where we need to move more quickly into implementation and into action,” said Deanna Moran, director of environmental planning at the Conservation Law Foundation.

The next step for Climate Ready Boston is a neighborhood-by-neighborhood assessment. It started with East Boston, a community of 40,500 people, a third of whom are low income. Already subject to flooding, parts of this neighborhood could see five feet of water with sea-level rise. The climate initiative recommended a $100,000, seven-foot-high moveable seawall across the Greenway, under Sumner Street, as a counter-measure. The city is funding that, along with a project of $2 million to $3 million to raise Main Street in Charlestown, through existing department budgets. Mansfield called these “smaller things that we can do that have a big impact.”

East Boston is also home to one of Boston’s four major port areas. Boston Harbor is a vital part of the economy for both the city and the larger region. It generates $4.6 billion in economic value and sustains some 50,000 jobs. And it’s an area of risk largely overlooked in the city’s planning. The harbor includes a major container port, a 10,000-vehicle automobile processing facility, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, large petroleum and fuel storage tanks, and a road salt depot.

It wasn’t hard for four undergraduate students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to find the weak spots at some of these facilities.

Conley Terminal in South Boston, which has seen high growth in shipping volume in recent years. (Dan Zukowski)

Their study, completed last year, looked at 18 of 60 randomly-sampled industrial sites, finding 88 percent vulnerable to a five-foot sea-level rise. Just six had coastal protection structures, and, touring the harbor by water taxi, the students found the high-water mark on at least two of these to be less than five feet from the top. They also identified nine toxic materials used at port facilities, including ammonia, formaldehyde, liquid nitrogen, coal, petroleum products, and LNG.

“There’s been limited planning and thinking about the vulnerability and the hazards associated with port industries,” said Seth Tuler, who was the academic adviser on the project. He also expressed concern regarding “how little information is available about the emergency planning.”

Boston Harbor Now, a nonprofit advocating for the waterfront, sponsored the vulnerability study. “We don’t know what the private companies have put in place, and they’re understandably reluctant to share that, yet the impacts are huge,” said Kathy Abbott, the nonprofit’s president.

A recent post-mortem on the two big storms, organized by Mayor Walsh, identified additional risks: street flooding impeding emergency response vehicles; storm damage exposing toxic-waste sites; and the vulnerability of older buildings to flooding. McGuinness said there is a need to focus more on retrofitting these structures. Both zoning regulations and building codes will have to be looked at and updated, a process to be completed in the next five years.

One big, expensive idea being studied is a moveable sea barrier to close off the harbor during storms. But Abbott prefers a “greener rather than grayer” approach. She envisions “a system of parklands and public spaces that can absorb water, provide access, and protect from storms.”

Those are still just ideas: It will be at least five years before bigger projects can begin, according to the citywide Climate Ready Boston report. And that will be dependent on funding and political will.

Boston’s population grew from 618,000 in 2010 to 673,000 in 2016, and is expected to reach as high as 724,000 by 2030. While the city grows, the sea is retaking land. Meanwhile, construction continues unabated in low-lying, flood-prone areas.

Despite being an affluent city that has planned for the risks ahead, Boston is under pressure to shift into action mode. Deanna Moran believes the city must: “This is the time, we are at the moment, and we have the urgency.”

Where Hate Groups Are Concentrated in the U.S.

Hate in America is on the rise. There are currently nearly a thousand known hate groups in the United States—an increase of 4 percent just this past year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). At the cusp of this are white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, which have surged the most, according to the most recent data. Furthermore, there is evidence that hateful acts have proliferated since Donald Trump began his presidential campaign.

How can we make sense of this growth in hate across the country, as well as the cultural, political, and economic factors that underpin and influence hate groups?

A new paper published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers takes a deep dive into the geography of organized hate groups around the country. To do so, the paper’s authors—Richard Medina, Emily Nicolosi, Simon Brewer, and Andrew Linke, all of the University of Utah—use data on organized hate groups from the SPLC. In 2014, the year their study focuses on, the SPLC identified 784 organized hate groups. Previous studies, including my own, have tracked the geography of hate groups, but a key contribution of this research is that it tracks them across U.S. counties.

The geography of organized hate in America is at once significantly concentrated and considerably spread out. On the one hand, hate groups are found in slightly more than 10 percent of U.S. counties (340 of 3,142), according to the study. But on the other, hate groups span the entire country, and can be found in every single state. While the heartland—stretching from the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Nebraska to Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas—has among the highest levels of hate groups, the East and West Coasts have a high density of these groups as well, as the map below shows.

Originally published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers © Taylor & Francis Group 2018 (Design by Madison McVeigh/CityLab)

The study finds that, not surprisingly, the geography of organized hate is shaped by factors like race and ethnicity, education, poverty, religion, and political conservatism. Organized hate is concentrated in places that are poorer, less educated, less diverse, and whiter, more religious, and more conservative. But the precise extent to which these factors affect hate differs somewhat in different parts of the country. The maps below chart the connection between hate groups and these variables for the 340 counties that are home to hate groups.


Race plays a considerable role in the geography of hate. The map below shows the connection between hate groups and the white share of the population. As you can see, there is a stronger connection between race and hate in some areas of the country than others, with it being more pronounced in the heartland and on the West Coast than along the East Coast.

The association is stronger in areas where there are concentrations of white people, while non-white people are more spatially diffuse. This, the paper notes, can cause immigrants or minorities to be perceived as threats. On the map below, dark red represents areas where the influence of white populations on hate groups is the strongest, while lighter pink indicates weaker associations between the two.

Originally published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers © Taylor & Francis Group 2018


Hate also tends to track with poverty. Here, the connection between poverty and hate is most pronounced in the center of the county and on the West Coast. On this map, dark red counties again show places where the correlation between hate groups and those living at or below the federal poverty level is strongest, while pink indicates places where the association is weaker.

Originally published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers © Taylor & Francis Group 2018


Hate groups tend to crop up in areas with lower levels of education. But now we see a slightly different pattern: The connection between lower education and hate groups is strongest in the South, especially parts of Texas, as well as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. On the map below, the darker blue areas represent places where the lack of college-educated people over 25 years of age has a greater effect on hate groups—though this is a common trend throughout the U.S. Light blue indicates places where this connection is the weakest.

Originally published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers © Taylor & Francis Group 2018


Although hate tends to be connected to religiosity, the connection between religion and hate groups varies around the country. (The study measures religiosity based on the number of people in religious congregations compared to the number of people living in a county.) A higher number of religious people is associated with more hate groups in parts of the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast. But there is a negative relationship between religion and hate in the West, from California and Oregon to Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. On the map below, red and pink indicate places where religion is positively associated with hate, while shades from light to darker blue indicate places where the correlation is negative.

Originally published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers © Taylor & Francis Group 2018

Political Conservatism

Hate groups track to politically conservative areas, but the effects of political conservatism are also mixed across regions, in ways that are similar to religion. (The study measures political conservatism as the estimated share of Republican voters.) In the map below, dark red shows places where hate is more closely correlated to political conservatism, while lighter pink indicates places where the correlation is weaker. Gray areas are ones in which political conservatism doesn’t have an effect.

Originally published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers © Taylor & Francis Group 2018

Political conservatism and religion appear to reinforce one another when it comes to organized hate in America, according to the study. But this relationship fluctuates around the country: In the Midwest, Southeast, and parts of the Northeast, religion seems to have a greater impact on hate-group activity where there is a higher degree of political conservatism. In the West and Mountain regions, the two do not interact as much.


The study shows that while organized hate groups are concentrated in U.S. counties, no geographic region is immune to hate. Indeed, hate in America has a long, distressing history that cuts across America’s major geographic regions. The Midwest was a hotbed of white supremacy before the Civil War and is home to the Michigan Militia. The South and Southwest have long been centers for the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups. The Northwest saw a striking rise in white-supremacist groups in the 1980s. And the Northeast has had its share of organized hate as well: In the ‘30s and ‘40s, a wave of anti-Semitic and racially motivated violence hit what we now think of progressive states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York.

In fact, the study argues that geography and place play a fundamental role in organized hate in America. Identity is strongly rooted to place, so hate can be understood as a reflex to defend a place from a perceived threat or “other.” Powerful local groups can mobilize around just such a defense when they feel “their” community and “their” values are under threat. In this way, hate is organized differently, and takes on different expressions, depending on the place. This sounds a lot like stories we’re hearing in the news from across America today.