Electric Double-Decker Buses Are Coming to L.A.

North America’s first electric double-decker transit bus is pulling up to Southern California in 2019. These two-tiered buses will cross between the San Gabriel Valley and the city of Los Angeles, with the intent of alleviating the region’s infamous traffic by doubling passenger capacity with a lighter environmental footprint.

Bus manufacturing company Alexander Dennis will pair its towering Enviro500 model with Proterra’s record-breaking E2 battery: Last September, the company set the world record for driving the longest distance, over 1,100 miles, on a single charge of an electric vehicle. For day-to-day use, the double-decker will be able to drive between 160 and 200 miles per charge. Electric single-deck buses can typically drive between

Foothill Transit tested the buses along the prospective routes and didn’t face any clearance issues, though it will need to alter its bus washing station to accommodate the extra height. Since the agency currently owns single-deck electric buses, it already has charging stations, though it plans to add extra stations in downtown L.A.

Proterra, the largest U.S.-based manufacturer, is promising more seats, less noise, and even on-board WiFi. The back of a diesel bus can be as loud as 90 decibels, said Popple; meanwhile, electric battery buses are incredibly quiet.

“That’s a major change. The riders and the drivers and the mechanics appreciate the fact that they don’t have to be around these roaring diesel engines,” said Popple. “They’re a much better experience for transit passengers.”

The electric battery is especially beneficial, considering the American Lung Association rated Los Angeles as one of the most polluted regions in the country. Popple estimates these models will have an 80 to 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas impact compared to diesel.

Amidst California’s struggle with “super commuters,” defined as traveling more than 90 minutes each way to work, the state is pushing for more accessible and eco-friendly public transportation. The California Air Resources Board approved a $663 million plan last December to incentivize low-carbon vehicles. The following month, 16 California mayors signed a letter to support the proliferation of zero-emission buses.

Though Foothill Transit is the first to feature double-deckers in the United States, electric buses are growing in popularity: More than 60 percent of states have battery-electric bus programs either operating or in the works. Currently, less than 10 percent of Foothill Transit’s fleet is electric, though the agency aims to transition to a fully electric fleet by 2030.

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A Patriotic Museum Meets Suburban Resistance

It isn’t often that architect Moshe Safdie is sent back to the drawing board. But that’s exactly what happened earlier this year when his soaring vision for the National Medal of Honor Museum clashed with a local height ordinance.

In late January, the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation was shocked when the planning commission in the Charleston suburb of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, unanimously denied its Safdie-concieved proposal because it would exceed by 75 feet the elevation limit on land zoned for no more than 50 feet. The decision was forwarded to town council for review with a recommendation to disallow. Suddenly this picturesque community, defined by shrimp boats and sprawling marshes, was steeped in controversy over the fate of a hugely significant edifice with limitless potential as a tourist attraction.

The planned site for the museum is Mount Pleasant’s Patriots Point, a military-themed landmark abutting Charleston Harbor that spotlights the USS Yorktown, a mammoth World War II aircraft carrier with a storied history. Safdie’s concept revolved around a 90,000-square-foot concrete and glass pentagon, tinted gray-blue to complement the Yorktown. Gallery and exhibition spaces would surround a dramatic daylit great hall. The museum would showcase the heroic deeds of the nation’s approximately 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients, from the Civil War to the War in Afghanistan.

All concerned parties stood their ground. Safdie argued that the height was appropriate for a museum of national magnitude. Bill Phillips, the foundation’s then-CEO, raised the heat by asserting that since $3.5 million had already been invested in Safdie’s design it was too late to start over. He urged the planning commission to make an exception for this one project, adding testily that if Mount Pleasant didn’t approve the plan, the museum could go anywhere in the country.

A view of Patriots Point with the proposed National Medal of Honor Museum seen from across Charleston Harbor. (Safdie Architects)

The town council resented what it perceived as the foundation’s “my way or the highway” attitude, reiterating that it must comply with the height ordinance. Expressing a sincere desire to have the museum in Mount Pleasant, council voted on April 2 to give the foundation 60 days to make significant changes or come up with something new. Under the leadership of newly appointed CEO Joe Daniels, the foundation opted to withdraw and start over.

Ultimately, it all came down to a lack of communication. What has transpired in Mount Pleasant underscores the importance of builders engaging in community outreach before submitting a formal plan for public property. Safdie’s design was unveiled in 2015, but it was mainly confined to the foundation’s website.

“They didn’t consult with town council or residents,” Councilman Joe Bustos tells CityLab, “so they were surprised when they were told that their design didn’t fit. Most developers sit down with staff to discuss their plans.”

Daniels, whose background is highlighted by his nearly 12-year tenure as president and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, has gone a long way in assuaging a contentious impasse, giving his assurance that the foundation has “learned its lesson” and is committed to working closely with Mount Pleasant’s town council and the community at large in creating a revised plan for the museum. A series of public hearings, which will include Safdie, are scheduled over the summer.

“We decided to take a pause so that we could involve all the stakeholders in this project,” Daniels tells CityLab. “I think it’s been less about the height of the museum and more about the community feeling left out. With the planning of the 9-11 memorial, it was clear how crucial community input was. Not only did we meet with major donors and the people who lost loved ones, but we also listened to the concerns of residents in lower Manhattan—how the memorial  would impact their lives.” He adds, “We don’t want an Us vs. Them situation. There will be zero surprises this time.”

A serious back-and-forth is expected before a compromise on the height issue is reached. Safdie defends the extra height by emphasizing the specialness of the museum. “It shouldn’t be treated as just another commercial building,” he tells CityLab. “It should have a powerful presence because of what it represents. The 50-foot limit is not on the table. The zoning may be for 50 feet, but other buildings around the site are 80 feet or taller, so there’s a precedence for more height. Some apartment buildings in that area are up to 95 feet.”

Actively involved in the foundation’s current dialogue with the Mount Pleasant community, Safdie explains that he is “evolving two radically different plans.” One is a scaled-down version of the original design, while the other is a village-like concept with multiple buildings. “We’re doing a number of studies and looking at options,” he says.

“It has to be site-specific. I don’t do preconceived packages,” says the architect. “The design reflects the museum’s proximity to the Yorktown, whose control tower rises to a comparable height. A building must blend in with the site and local culture.”

Daniels agrees with Safdie about the importance of the museum having a presence that befits the stature of Medal of Honor recipients. “We may request a variance pertaining to height by going through the right channels,” he says. “I know that Moshe’s design will be incredible and iconic.”

Bustos, however, flatly states, “I think a shorter building would have just as much impact.”

And then there’s the money matter. Town council has conveyed concerns about the foundation’s seemingly sluggish fundraising efforts. So far, about $19 million has been raised for the $100 million project, 80 percent of which derives from private donations. Earlier this year, Bustos vented his dissatisfaction with the status of the museum’s financing, telling Charleston’s Post and Courier, “They keeping saying ‘Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it, we’ll have the funds.’ But we have to worry about it, because if we rezone that area to allow for a 125-foot building and it’s not built, we would have a serious problem.”

Daniels, whose team raised $450 million for the September 11 memorial, is confident the foundation’s funding goal will be met. “This is very valuable public land and they want to be certain that we can carry out our mission,” he says. “It helps that we have the community behind the project. Donors don’t want to give to a project that has any controversy around it. It also helps that this museum and what it stands for is one of the few things this country can rally around today. For sure we’ll raise the money.”

As for the opening of the museum, targeted for March 2023, Daniels envisions a spectacular, star-spangled event “attended by every living president, every Medal of Honor recipient, legions of veterans and flag-waving Americans.”

On that day, the museum will likely have a towering aura, whatever its actual height.

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CityLab Daily: Uber Dramatically Scales Back on Self-Driving Car Testing

What We’re Following

Pitt stop: On Wednesday, Uber laid off more than 100 employees who piloted its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The move signals a dramatic scaling back of the company’s autonomous vehicle testing, coming four months after one of Uber’s AVs struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. Testing is set to resume on much more limited routes in August; in Pittsburgh, sources say the AVs will only operate autonomously on a suburban test track and along a set route to HQ.

CityLab’s Laura Bliss has the story on what this means for the future of autonomous car testing: Uber Just Laid Off Its Pittsburgh Autonomous Car Drivers

Andrew Small

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Room to Grow

(Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters)

Are you a parent? Have you lived in a city? Then you can help CityLab with a new reporting project. We’re starting a new series, called Room to Grow, all about raising small children in cities. For the rest of the year, we’ll bring you stories from around the globe on local issues that affect early childhood development. And while we’ll be speaking with experts, we also want to hear from parents themselves.

Help inform our reporting by taking a few moments to complete a survey.

What We’re Reading

Elon Musk pledges to fix Flint’s water problems (Governing)

Why Charlotte is one of Ben Carson’s models for HUD’s work requirements (NPR)

Space in New York’s cemeteries is getting scarce and expensive (The Guardian)

The Baltimore City Fire Department is getting heated about bike lanes (Streetsblog)

The cautionary tale Detroit can tell Silicon Valley (Fast Company)

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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How Cape Town Got to the Brink of Water Catastrophe

This story was originally published on Circle of Blue. Travel funding for this story came from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

CAPE TOWN—This what a water panic looks like in a major global city.

People hoard water. They queue for hours, well into the night, to fill jugs at natural springs. Like mad Christmas shoppers, they clear supermarkets of bottled water. They descend on stockers before they can fill the shelves.

Restaurants, malls, and offices shut off bathroom faucets and install hand sanitizer dispensers. Exhortations to conserve water are plastered throughout buildings. Above one toilet stall at the University of Cape Town, a paper placard with a hand-turned dial indicates the number of uses since the last flush. “Be A Wee-Wise Water Warrior. Only Flush After 4 (No. 1’s only),” it reads.

Many office buildings, restaurants, and hotels in Cape Town shut off water to bathroom sinks during the water crisis. (Brett Walton)

Panic. Residents in South Africa’s second-largest city repeatedly used that word to describe the weeks after January 18, when Mayor Patricia De Lille proclaimed that the day the city would run out of water, what was called “Day Zero,” was fast approaching. The declaration hit like a blast wave.

City workers knocked holes into sewer lines so that underground water would seep in to compensate for low flows. Wealthier residents frantically drilled boreholes on their property to access groundwater and move a portion of their water use off the city grid. Well drillers reported being booked for months.

On February 1—the height of summer in the southern hemisphere, when water demand is greatest—the city clamped down, harder than any city in the world with its living standards. Officials set a target of 50 liters (13 gallons) per person, per day, for all domestic uses: cooking, bathing, toilet flushing, washing clothes. Watering lawns and scrubbing cars with city water had already been banned for months. “The abuse of water means that we will all suffer,” De Lille had warned.

The most visible symbol of the water crisis was Theewaterskloof Dam, the main drinking water source for Cape Town. The big dam and its five sister reservoirs in the Western Cape system not only supply water for drinking but also for farm irrigation. After three years of drought, the reservoirs dropped so rapidly six months ago that city authorities warned that they would shut off water to homes and businesses unless residents embraced strict water-saving practices.

The goal was to keep the reservoirs from being completely drained, which would unleash a catastrophic scenario—a major city starved of water, an economy constricted, millions of residents hauling daily water rations from sanctioned collection points, the potential for disease outbreaks and violence.

In those terrifying months earlier this year, turnouts along the R45 highway, an hour east of Cape Town, became vantage points to view the calamity. Theewaterskloof Dam, and its largely empty reservoir, lay below. Steady winds raked the empty plain on a warm April afternoon, lifting up curtains of dust. A herd of oryx grazed warily, while songbirds flitted among dead trees, their branches bleached and spiky like fish bones.

An area normally submerged at Theewaterskloof Dam turned into a dusty plain. (Brett Walton)

As of July, Cape Town looks to have evaded a water catastrophe, at least for this year. Residents are using substantially less water. Severe water supply restrictions instituted on agriculture and city dwellers alike, and a heroic, last-ditch conservation effort, halted the swift drop in reservoir levels.

Winter rains are now providing some relief. The amount of water stored in the reservoirs more than doubled in the last month, and rivers in the Western Cape swelled in downpours. Snow graced the mountain peaks. The start of the wet season this year is more promising than any of the last three.

The near-death experience, though, is revealing for the gorgeous seaside city at the southern tip of Africa. And it offers lessons in the immense challenges that fast-growing and drought-prone cities all over the world face in making adequate supplies of water available in the era of intensifying hydrological disruption. Other big cities also contend with severe water shortages, some that prompt civic violence. They include Beijing and São Paulo; Chennai, New Delhi, and Bangalore in India; Karachi, Amman, and Mexico City.

The Western Cape drought and the subsequent receding of Cape Town’s reservoirs exposed individuals and businesses to months of hardship and anguish. It laid bare the inadequacies of institutions, laws, and leadership to recognize and respond quickly enough to severe water shortage. The drought magnified the city’s racial and economic divides, which are legacies of apartheid.

It also unveiled the precarious risk calculations that local and national authorities charged with safeguarding Cape Town from just such an emergency had to make. Those authorities and their agencies have been aware for years of vulnerabilities in the Western Cape water system. They even drew up careful plans to address weaknesses. Yet after more than a decade of planning, and regular meetings to discuss drought-related risks, they determined that they could keep delaying the date at which they needed to invest in new water supplies. As it turns out, they waited too long. Severe drought took hold and the Cape Town region slid to the brink of catastrophe.

“The planning’s been there. The planning’s been there for a long time,” explained Kirsty Carden, a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute. “But in reality, water resources managers plan for nothing more than 98 percent assurity”—or a 2 percent chance of a water shortfall—“so they’re not planning for anything that’s going to take them out of the normal planning regime, because there are other priorities for spending for local and national government, particularly in a country like South Africa.”

A city on edge

Three police vehicles pull into a shopping center parking lot in Wynberg, a leafy, middle-class district of Cape Town.

“This is a place we always monitor,” says Warren Brandt, a take-charge officer on the lookout for water waste. Yes, water waste. Brandt says that the parking lot is a known depot for taxi washing, which is now illegal under city bylaws. In dystopian futures, this a scenario that sci-fi authors envision.

Leading the convoy, Brandt’s vehicle pulls up next to a minibus. A man in a knit cap and orange reflective vest peers sheepishly from beside the vehicle, a bucket at his side. “This is not the first time we’ve fined him,” Brandt says while another officer writes a R500 ticket (roughly $35).

Police officers issue a warning to a Cape Town resident for not displaying a sign that his borehole is registered with the city. (Brett Walton)

The law enforcement department stepped up its policing of water waste in January, when the water crisis in Cape Town reached a crescendo. “I mean, that was really the crisis point at which panic set in,” Ian Neilson, the city’s deputy mayor, told Circle of Blue during an interview in a City Hall conference room.

The Day Zero announcement prompted panic, but Mayor De Lille’s authority did not last long after it. The following day, owing to unrelated charges from her party of mismanagement and corruption, the city council revoked her responsibility to oversee drought response, and Neilson took command.

Neilson said he had two immediate tasks: to drive down water use, which was the only response the city could muster in the short term, and to improve communication with residents. Hopes of a “quick win”—rapidly boosting supply from a fleet of small-scale desalination plants—proved to be illusory after consultation with World Bank experts, Neilson said. Acquiring, delivering, and installing the plants would have been too expensive, too slow, and useless over the long-term because the cost per unit of water was so high.

Day Zero did not mean no water would flow into Cape Town; it meant the city would dramatically reduce demand by controlling the points at which people could access water. That was to be achieved by cutting off households and requiring them to queue at more than 200 public collection sites. It was conservation by extreme rationing, with a goal of cutting city demand to 350 million liters (about 92 million gallons) a day. If it had to be implemented, the Day Zero plan would have extended supplies by three months, buying time until the return of the rainy season, which runs from May until September.

That made communication all the more important. Sending clear messages was necessary to keep residents aligned with the water-saving mission. For Neilson, it meant putting out as much information as possible on dam levels, water consumption, and the progress of infrastructure projects that will, eventually, bring new water to the city.

Day Zero was always a moving target. City officials dutifully updated the projections each week based on the previous week’s consumption. Use less, and Day Zero retreated. Use more, and it moved forward.

“People will say, ‘I’ve had enough. I want a decent bath again,’” Neilson said, explaining the need to reinforce the conservation gospel. “We have to keep the message up. We have to keep them on board. The only way I see that can be achieved is that we have to be open and frank and truthful. We put out the information, good or bad. The fact that consumption went up 5 percent this week [in April], we put it out, we said it.”

After the January panic, the Day Zero date began to move farther and farther into the future. Demand, which had been stuck around 600 million liters a day, fell closer to 500 million as restrictions and higher water rates started to bite. If residents didn’t adhere to water-use limits on their own, the city put them on a leash. Between October 2017 and May 2018, city workers installed more than 46,170 “water management devices” that throttled the flow of water into homes that used more than 10,500 liters (or about 2,800 gallons) a month.

Then at the end of February, the farm sector, which was allocated one-third of the water from the Western Cape system, reached its limit. With farms not drawing from the reservoirs anymore, the pace of decline slowed.

Cape Town also received an unexpected bonus. The Groenland Water User Association, a farmers’ group, announced in early February that it would release water from its own dams into city reservoirs. That donation amounted to roughly two weeks of municipal demand.

‘Everything relies on’ reducing demand

Ensuring that the Day Zero scenario never came to pass was the task of a group of local, provincial, and national government officials who began detailed discussions about water supply in the Western Cape more than a decade ago. The need was obvious: The Cape Town metropolitan region was growing by more than 65,000 new residents annually. And climate change scenarios forecasted that the region would steadily get drier and warmer.

On September 20, 2007, the Strategy Steering Committee (SSC) met in the Cape Town office of Ninham Shand, a South African engineering consultancy that provided technical analysis to the group. Seventeen people were present at that first meeting, but attendance at later gatherings would grow to roughly 30 as more agencies became involved.

The SSC’s purpose was to guide the region’s response to findings from the Reconciliation Strategy Study, an influential report published in 2007 that projected supply and demand from the Western Cape Water Supply System through 2030.

The assessment found that under a low-growth scenario, considering population and economic development, the system would need an infusion of water after 2015. In the high-growth scenario, that date moved forward to 2011. The study also acknowledged a fundamental risk for the region’s water supply: It was too dependent on reservoirs and thus vulnerable to a long drought, especially if climate change resulted in less rainfall.

In its eight years, the committee would wrestle with two main questions: When would the Western Cape system need to be augmented? And what would was the best way to do so? The options under consideration were largely the same suite of choices that Cape Town is evaluating today: tapping groundwater basins, allowing rains to soak into aquifers, cleaning municipal wastewater for reuse, diverting additional water from rivers, clearing invasive plants from mountain catchments, and removing salt from ocean water to make it potable.

A crucial variable was Cape Town’s demand. Because the city accounted for roughly three-fifths of the system’s water use, a large increase or decrease in urban demand would dictate the speed with which new sources of water were needed.

“Everything relies on this,” Paul Rhode of the Cape Town Water Department said at the September 2007 meeting. Tracking changes in demand was labelled an “urgent action.”

After seeing the results of the strategy study and as part of a deal with the national government over a just-completed reservoir in the Western Cape system, Cape Town authorities pledged, in 2007, to slow the growth in water demand and, if possible, reduce it. They aimed to do so by patching leaks, installing new meters, reusing wastewater, and decreasing pressure in the distribution pipes, which would cut the flow rate to household taps.

The approach was partly a matter of picking low-hanging fruit, but also a way to delay as long as possible the need to build expensive infrastructure projects like desalination. Thriftiness was seen as a virtue.

Early on, the committee was concerned that Cape Town’s demand management program was not succeeding. Then, as so often happens with long-term planning that occurs without immediate urgency, other tasks took priority and the committee went on hiatus for two years.

When the committee did meet again, on August 28, 2013, there was even less urgency. Circumstances had changed: Cape Town’s efforts were starting to bear fruit. Total water use in the city had slightly decreased in the last two years, thanks in part to above-average rainfall.

According to the minutes, Peter Flower, then the Cape Town director of water and sanitation, concluded that “there is enough time to make decisions regarding the next intervention. It is not as tight as it was in 2011.” Committee members looked at the data and projected that new supply would not be needed until 2019.

Confidence in the demand-management program strengthened when Cape Town water use, after consecutive wet years, ticked down nearly 2 percent in 2014. By the April 2015 meeting, consultants working with the group were projecting a 2022 target for the next supply project. That year, Cape Town won an international award for its water conservation work from C40 Cities, a coalition of major metropolitan areas focused on addressing climate change.

Then Mother Earth got serious: The weather took a dry turn. According to the South African Weather Service, 2015 and 2017 were the two driest years in the Cape Town region since 1921. Three consecutive outlier years were more than the system could handle, not without severe restrictions.

Inflows to the Western Cape system reservoirs in 2015 were 54 percent of average. Cape Town residents responded to dry conditions by using more water. Demand rose by nearly 9 percent, wiping out the conservation gains. In 2016, inflows were 66 percent of average. In 2017, the year that nearly broke the system, just 40 percent.

“What happened here was that the three years and particularly the third year, 2017, as the lowest ever on record for us in Cape Town, really caught them out,” Kirsty Carden, the University of Cape Town researcher, said.

A crisis—for the middle and upper classes

In the depths of the Day Zero panic, politicians started pointing fingers. There was blame and mismanagement aplenty, driven by distrust.

Western Cape and Cape Town are governed by the Democratic Alliance, the opposition party, which controls one of South Africa’s nine provinces. The DA leadership faulted the ruling African National Congress for delaying a disaster declaration and not ensuring the adequacy of water supply to cities, which the country’s constitution deems a national government responsibility.

In parliament, ANC politicians countered that the Democratic Alliance was grandstanding during a crisis.

“I’m sick and tired of giving you money and you do nothing and you blame the national department,” Pamela Tshwete, deputy minister of water and sanitation, said at a March 8 hearing.

Close observers said the accusations were a distraction and did not reflect years of on-the-ground cooperation that was evident in the SSC meetings and continued today. Trevor Balzer, who was leading the Department of Water and Sanitation’s drought response, said that at a technical level, national, provincial, and local leaders collaborated closely. “It feels like a team effort,” Jane Reddick, a water sector analyst at GreenCape, a green business NGO, said.

Mike Muller, a former director of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, also dismissed the narrative of political discord as a diversion. Muller instead pointed to a water-supply planning process that he said was well-intentioned but misguided. He argued that relying so heavily on controlling demand was inappropriate for a rapidly growing city dependent on rainfall.

Cape Town boomed in recent decades, adding 1 million people in the last 15 years. And not everyone in this economically divided city has water service at home. Some 12 percent of households—those on the periphery in what are called informal settlements—have to collect water from a community well.

Could Cape Town have pushed harder for a water supply project or invested in its own?

“Clearly, we could have,” Neilson said. “If we’re doing it now, we could have done it earlier, too. The question was whether there was appropriate perception that they were needed at this time.”

Muller said that the city’s confidence in its demand management sent a clear signal to the national government that it did not need to fast-track a supply project for the Western Cape system.

“In a sense it was the city saying, ‘No thanks, we don’t want it.’ It was a very strong statement from Cape Town,” Muller told Circle of Blue.

If Cape Town was not going to campaign for additional supply, the national government was in no position to do so either. Carden said there were too many other spending priorities for a country in which one in six people do not have clean water piped to their homes.

At the same time, the Department of Water and Sanitation, which operates the Western Cape system, was coming under scrutiny for mismanagement and unjustified spending. A report in 2017 from the South African auditor general described a department whose leadership had taken it off the rails. The report noted poor planning, inadequate financial management, a breakdown in spending controls, insufficient monitoring of project spending, and a lack of accountability.

The department also did not enforce water-use restrictions in 2016-2017 from the Western Cape system. Rashid Khan, regional head of the Department of Water and Sanitation, said that the department did not prosecute because “the city was trying its very best to bring use down.”

Then in February of this year, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, a parliamentary body that investigates misuse of public funds, opened an inquiry into the finances and management of the Department of Water and Sanitation. Themba Godi, the committee chair, said that the investigation will not focus on the response to Cape Town’s drought. That crisis, he said, is a problem for the wealthy, echoing the argument that there are people in South Africa who have never had running water.

“It’s always isolated as this problem in Cape Town that needs to be looked at, scrutinized, analyzed,” Godi said. “And yet the similar situations that do not affect the rich are almost irrelevant. So I become an accessory in reinforcing and sustaining that outlook that says that things that affect the rich should become headlines. Our engagement with the department has nothing to do with how its ineptitude has led to some of the challenges that are affecting Cape Town. It is much, much broader than that.”

In some ways, the crisis both amplified and collapsed the economic and racial gulf between black and white South Africans, a lingering anguish of apartheid. Homeowners in upscale and largely white Constantia and Newlands were not immune to the harsh restrictions on use of city water. They took 60-second showers while standing in buckets, and let the yellow mellow. Living on 50 liters a day “raised awareness in a lot of people who ordinarily would not have any concept of how a person in an informal settlement lives,” Carden said. Those wealthy homeowners, though, also could afford to drill boreholes to keep their gardens green.

There was panic in the city, but it was not evenly distributed. In informal settlements and townships on the edge of the city center, the home of poor black South Africans, Day Zero had little resonance for people who collect water from community wells. “As a black person, the water restrictions are not that different,” said Loyola Nyathi, a third-year student at the University of Cape Town who is from Khayelitsha, one of the most well-known townships. Others in the city noted that this was a crisis for the middle and upper classes.

Working toward water security

Though life under the Day Zero warning may not have changed for people in Khayelitsha and the informal settlements, damage elsewhere was widespread.

Farm employment in the Western Cape was hit particularly hard: an estimated 7,000 job losses in the first quarter of 2018 compared to a year earlier, and a wine harvest that dropped 15 percent. The tourism sector, too, was pummeled, with bookings down 10 to 15 percent during the summer. Because pools were drained and unwatered rugby pitches had the cushioning of a sidewalk, recreational options for Capetonians were limited.

A banner at the University of Cape Town commits the campus to water conservation. (Brett Walton)

“The government says that we’ve done really well, and yes, we’ve brought water use down. But it’s come at a very high price,” said Rene Frank with Save Our Schools, an organization that works to keep water flowing at schools during the drought.

Others criticized the tone of the city’s drought communication, and the panic it induced.

“The concept of Day Zero was very successful in terms of reducing demand, but at the same time it had an impact on business confidence,” said Reddick of GreenCape.

Cape Town is building back its supply in stages as it prepares for a future that climate scientists expect will be drier. Another surface water project—to draw surplus winter flows from the Berg River—is due to start construction in 2019 and be ready to deliver water by the end of 2021.

At the same time, the city is undertaking the diversification that was recommended more than a decade ago in the Western Cape water supply assessment.

The first step, as recommended by World Bank consultants, is to drill for groundwater. The city is investigating three aquifers, the first of which, the Cape Flats Aquifer, is expected to produce water for drinking by September.

The second step is to reuse waste water, a source with massive potential that other coastal cities such as Los Angeles are starting to embrace. Currently Cape Town recycles only 8 percent of its water. The rest goes into the ocean.

Third is desalination, the most expensive option per liter of water. Three tiny units producing 16 million liters a day combined (4.2 million gallons), like desktop toys compared to the need, are going into service this year. Longer-term, the city is thinking larger, a facility in the range of 120 million to 150 million liters a day (32 million to 40 million gallons). It is reliable water, but it is costly.

Desalination, reliable but costly, is one way that Cape Town is planning to diversify its water supply. (Brett Walton)

And, adds Christine Colvin, a freshwater specialist with WWF-South Africa, it uses a lot of energy. In South Africa, that means coal-fired power, which produces 90 percent of the country’s electricity and is a huge consumer of water. Desalination “is the biggest carbon footprint of water and biggest cost of water,” she told Circle of Blue.

Combined, these projects could increase the city’s supply by 350 million liters a day by 2021.

More options are on the table. Some, like trapping rainwater in backyard tanks, are small in scale and already saw widespread adoption during the drought. Others take more coordination and money. WWF-South Africa argues that non-native vegetation in the mountain catchments should be cleared. Gum trees, pine trees, black wattle and other species brought by European settlers suck up as much as 7 percent of runoff, a percentage that will grow in the coming years if not addressed. “It’s not a problem we can ignore because if we ignore it, it will get worse,” Colvin said.

Underlying those supply-side interventions is a renewed discussion about the city’s needs and the cost of achieving more secure water supplies. Residents proved they could get by with only 50 liters per day. But it was not comfortable, and according to Neilson, not sustainable.

“Clearly, across the board, there are consequences of having less water,” Neilson said. “We have to get back to a stage where there is more water available. We cannot stay like this forever. This is a crisis situation. We all pulled together to get through the crisis, to make sure our dams do not run empty. But we cannot be there forever. We have to progressively, within our financial means, build the city’s water supply capacity back to something more suitable.”

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America’s Robot Geography

Robots, it seems, are everywhere these days. They clean our floors, mow our lawns, make many of our industrial products, and are even being trained to give hugs and serve as pets. As robots increasingly become a part of our daily lives, a growing chorus of commentators warns that they may take away our jobs and further damage the once great Rust Belt cities that once powered the American economy and served as the backbone of the middle class.

But which cities and regions will house the robot revolution? Will the rise of robotics correct or reinforce America’s growing spatial inequality?

A new paper published in the journal Regional Studies dives into the geography of the robotic revolution to identify America’s leading robot metros. The study, by Nancey Leigh and Benjamin Kraft, uses both Census data and data from industry sources such as the International Federation of Robotics and the Robotics Industry Association to identify and map America’s leading centers in the robotics industry.

Leading robotics regions

The table below lists the 30 leading robotics regions in the United States, ranked in order of the numbers of robotics industry firms or establishments they house.  

Establishment and employment counts for robotics regions (Leigh and Kraft / Taylor & Francis)

Detroit tops the list, a tribute to its long legacy as a world-leading automotive hub—robots have long been used in automotive production. Indeed, its 66 establishments make Detroit a substantially bigger hub then Chicago, which has 42 robotics establishments. Next in line is Boston, a center for robotics research and technology around MIT, followed by Los Angeles and New York.

All in all, half of the top 30 robotic regions are Rust Belt metros. In addition, the study points out that some additional smaller metros—such as Akron, Ohio; Iowa City, Iowa; and Fort Collins, Colorado—have high concentrations of robotics employment for their size, even though they do not rank among the top 30.   

Robotics clusters

The map below charts the America’s broad robot geography, mapping the location quotients (or LQs) for robotics industries for U.S. metros. An LQ is basically a simple ratio that compares a metro’s share of something—in this case, a metro’s share of robotics-related industries—to the national average. An LQ of 1 means that a metro’s share is the same as the national average; an LQ lower than 1 means that the concentration is less than the national average; and an LQ higher than 1 means that it is more than the national average.

Robotics-related LQs for core-based statistical areas (CBSAs) in the U.S. (Leigh and Kraft / Taylor & Francis)

By this measure, there is a distinct Robot Belt around the Great Lakes, running across the great mega-region that runs from Chicago through Detroit and Cleveland and over to Pittsburgh. This dense Midwest cluster of robotics reflects the fact that robotics-related industries tend to co-locate with manufacturing-based industries, such as auto manufacturing and machinery manufacturing, that use their products, according the study.

There are also robotics industry clusters across the New York-Boston-Washington Corridor on the East Coast; on the West Coast, in and around Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles; and scattered throughout the Sunbelt.

The two types of clusters

America’s robot geography breaks down into two distinctive types of clusters, according to the study. One set of places specializes in the design and development of robots. These robotic supplier regions include established high-tech centers like Boston and San Jose; superstar cities like New York and Los Angeles; and specialized Rust Belt centers like Grand Rapids (with its large office furniture cluster), Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Birmingham.

Supplier-integrator ratios for CBSAs with at least 600 robotics-related employees (Leigh and Kraft / Taylor & Francis)

The other set of places are robotic system integrators, which focus on designing and implementing robotic systems. The leading metros for integrators include Kansas City, Iowa City, Milwaukee, Seattle, Cleveland, Houston, Detroit, and Chicago—many of them old Rust Belt manufacturing hubs.

Today’s robotics industry is dominated by integrators, which employ more people and sell more technology than suppliers by a margin of about two to one. But as new and even more automated and easy-to-use robotics technology is developed in leading tech hubs, there may be a real risk to integrator clusters and regions. If that happens, the current, more dispersed robot geography may evolve into the increasingly familiar winner-take-all pattern that increasingly defines America’s economic geography.

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For Walkers, The Last Six Inches are Important

It is no surprise to those of us in the walking advocacy world that making bus stops accessible and linked to neighborhood sidewalks can increase bus ridership and reduce the number of para-transit trips that are called for. This is a logical outcome of thinking about how people make real life choices about how to get around. What this research demonstrates is an amazing win-win-win for walking and transit advocates. It shows how we can shift trips from autos to transit; give more people more independence by making it possible for them to use regular bus service rather than setting up special, scheduled para-transit trips (some of which require appointments to be made at least 24 hours in advance and only for specified purposes); and save money for transit systems over the long run.

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Uber Just Fired Its Pittsburgh Autonomous Car Drivers

More than 100 Uber employees who piloted the company’s nascent self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and San Francisco were laid off on Wednesday afternoon, four months after one such vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona.

The layoffs are the latest scale-back of the company’s autonomous vehicle testing program, following other cuts that collectively have slashed the number of autonomous vehicle operators from roughly 400 to 55. Former and current employees expect future testing to follow much more limited routes.

Wednesday’s layoff came during an all-hands meeting at Uber’s Strip District headquarters in Pittsburgh, where the vast majority of the company’s autonomous vehicle operators had been based. The 100-plus affected employees have been given the option of either taking severance or applying for one of 55 new, more specialized positions involved in AV testing, an Uber spokesperson confirmed.

Vehicle operators in Pittsburgh and San Francisco had been on paid leave since March 18, when an autonomous Uber and its distracted backup driver failed to stop the vehicle from fatally colliding into a homeless woman crossing a Tempe road.

The layoffs came as a surprise to some workers in Pittsburgh, who had expected to hear a solidified timeline for when they would get back to monitoring the wheel. Since March, vehicle operators had been receiving regular email updates from managers informing them that they wouldn’t be needed at work until further notice. But according to affected employees, the general expectation was that they would eventually return, especially after an internal memo in June that outlined a plan for improved testing safety practices indicated a return to the road by August.

“We expected to be retrained,” said one worker affected by the layoff, who declined to be named in order to protect his future employment opportunities.

Others had an inkling. Uber had already dramatically scaled back its testing program, which had employed about 400 operators in about 200 vehicles in five North American cities at its peak earlier this year, following the fatal crash. Arizona blocked Uber from testing on its public roads almost immediately afterward. At the end of March, the company decided not to renew its autonomous vehicle testing permit in California (a spokesperson says it still intends to eventually seek a new permit there, however). At the end of May, Uber officially laid off all backup drivers based in Tempe and Phoenix.

Likewise, testing on public roads in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto has been at a standstill since the crash, while the company undergoes internal and external reviews of its testing practices and of the crash itself. Preliminary findings by a National Transportation Safety Board investigation found significant technological errors factored into the collision that killed Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old homeless woman who was crossing a multi-lane road by night. But, a subsequent police report found, the crash would have likely been prevented had the backup driver, Rafaela Vasquez, not been distracted. Counter to her job requirements, Vasquez been looking at the road and had her hands away from the wheel seconds before the crash. Police found that she had been looking down and streaming “The Voice” on a personal cellphone.

Workers affected by the layoff Wednesday now have the opportunity to interview for a newer, more advanced AV testing role, called “mission specialist,” an Uber spokesperson explained. The job will focus more on testing vehicles under far more rudimentary conditions on test tracks and some public roads. Mission specialists will also be tasked with providing more direct feedback to vehicle developers and engineers.

Once testing resumes in August, however, the routes that Uber will be piloting are likely to be significantly scaled back from the expansive “loops” it started on in the fall of 2016. According to two anonymous Uber employees, one current and one former, the company intends to test on public streets in manual mode only, and only a predetermined route between its headquarters and a suburban test track. It will operate vehicles in autonomous mode only on that test track as well as on a short circuit between the two buildings that comprise the Pittsburgh headquarters.

An Uber spokesperson said that the exact routes, and the exact number of vehicles used, will be determined once testing resumes. “Our team remains committed to building safe self-driving technology, and we look forward to returning to public roads in the coming month,” she said.

To improve its testing safety practices in the wake of the March crash, Uber has sought the advice of external experts and consultants; the narrowed focus of the operators who will now man the vehicles may signal a “back to basics” approach that some critics of the old program might applaud.

But one current Uber employee who is unaffected by the layoff said that he’s not so sure the right people got the boot. For months, vehicle operators said they complained to managers about arduous, tedious, and solitary testing conditions that cultivated complacency and exhaustion. Yet the leadership structure at the top of Uber’s Advanced Technology Group remains unchanged. And none of the engineers who might be responsible for the faulty technology that killed Herzberg have been let go, either. “As long as we have the same leaders, we’re going to have the same problems,” he said. ”If we need all this external advice about safety, then we don’t really know about safety.”

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What It Means to Be From Brett Kavanaugh’s Washington

Donald Trump has found his U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Brett Kavanaugh, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has lived a life within Washington’s conservative legal elite, and therefore a life far removed from the pathological political forces that have come to dominate some parts of the country. His life has also been removed from these forces because—like many elite conservative lawyers—he has embraced Washington, and Washington has embraced him. How Kavanaugh navigates the Washington of old and the Washington of Trump will go a long way towards predicting what Kavanaugh will do if he joins the Supreme Court.

The conservative legal elite in Washington are a tightly connected group of professionals. The fact that the most important legal and policy jobs are overwhelmingly concentrated around the District of Columbia means many of these lawyers spend all or large portions of their career living and working closely together in the same metropolitan area. And the fact that a clear minority of the elite legal profession is conservative means that there are fewer conservative lawyers to get to know in town.

Several institutions in Washington make a point of bringing and bonding these elite conservative lawyers together. The law firm Kirkland & Ellis had a 16-year period during which all 22 former Supreme Court clerks it hired had clerked for conservative justices—including Kavanaugh, who worked there for several years. Organizations like the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation—both centered in Washington—bring together conservative lawyers with sufficient frequency to make sure they are united together.

The Washington conservative legal elite have met over the past decade to express misgivings about the anti-intellectualism or the bigotry that started to spread on the right during the Obama Administration. So-called “birthers” were largely pilloried rather than praised by this Washington crowd, and birthers could be ignored because there were not many of them anywhere close.

During the presidential campaign of 2016, the conservative legal opposition to these political forces became more organized and obvious and less subtle and silent. One collection of conservative constitutional lawyers with a major Washington presence criticized the “character, judgment, and temperament” of Trump.  John B. Bellinger III—a high-ranking lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, and a graduate of Washington’s elite St. Albans School—organized a letter of Washington-centric national security professionals predicting that Trump would be the “most reckless President in American history.”

While it is not surprising that Washington’s conservative legal elite have embraced one another over the years, it is surprising how much Washington’s overwhelmingly liberal elite institutions have embraced them as well. The conservative legal elite largely did not try to create alternative basketball teams or schools for their kids, but integrated within Washington’s existing networks. We are all influenced by our neighbors, and the neighbors of the conservative legal elite are often progressives—and certainly not “birthers.”

Many have decried these connections between elite conservative lawyers and establishment Washington precisely because they move conservative lawyers away from the extremes. One conservative Washington federal judge popularized the idea of the “Greenhouse Effect.” This idea, named after reporter-turned-columnist Linda Greenhouse, suggested that receiving praise from other elites like their Washington neighbors moved justices to the left. Scholars have produced evidence to validate a version of this hypothesis.   

Kavanaugh’s time in Washington has been a perfect example of the networks that dominated the personal and professional lives of conservative legal elites. He has been a Republican and a Washingtonian simultaneously, without always having to choose between those two identities. He clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy, worked in the White House for President George W. Bush, and as a federal judge has given important lectures at conservative institutions like the American Enterprise Institute.

But rather than living in the traditionally more conservative Republican suburbs in Virginia—such as McLean, once referred to as “GOPtopia”— Kavanaugh spent large parts of his childhood in suburban Maryland. He attended a private school in North Bethesda, Georgetown Preparatory School (as did Justice Neil Gorsuch), that has featured its share of future Democratic Party leaders as students (from future members of Congress to a member of the Kennedy family). Kavanaugh’s father Ed was a lobbyist known well to leaders in both political parties. When Kavanaugh had his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2004 on his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, one senator remarked that “[w]e all know Ed.”

As an adult, Kavanaugh has resided in Chevy Chase, Maryland (around a mile from Chief Justice John Roberts), an area featuring not just many Democratic voters but many Democratic donors and staffers. His wife serves as the town manager of Chevy Chase Village Section 5. A college friend of Kavanaugh’s, Doug Gansler—the former Democratic Attorney General of Maryland—said “he’s a guy that does not live in a conservative bubble.”  

In the Washington of Trump, though, is it possible for Kavanaugh to remove himself from the pathologies of Trumpism that have infected our country—and our capital? Trump has been hostile to Washington’s conservative economic and foreign policy elites, but he has embraced its conservative legal elites. Since taking office, the conservative legal network in Washington has seen many of their best and brightest receive important positions in the Trump White House or in his Justice Department, or to be nominated by him to the federal bench. Some of them—like Bellinger—have continued openly to refer to Trump as a danger to the Republic, but more and more of them have become part of Trump’s political world rather than separate from it.  

One notable example of this was the implausibly pro-Trump statements Kavanaugh made at the White House Monday night. Kavanaugh said Trump has an “appreciation for the vital role of the American judiciary.”  He also praised the process Trump used to select him, saying, “[n]o president has ever consulted more widely or talked to more people from more backgrounds to seek input for a Supreme Court nomination.”

As Kavanaugh is pulled into a different conservative Washington, will this push him away from the establishment Washington that also raised him? Washington insiders have not usually treated ideological opponents differently at the supermarket or at school, particularly the elite conservative lawyers who often operated at the highest reaches of Washington’s intellectual life. Kavanaugh’s neighbors, though, have a completely different attitude towards Trump and those affiliated with him. It is hard to imagine Bethesda or Chevy Chase looking the same at a Justice Kavanaugh at his daughter’s basketball games if he says a sitting president cannot be indicted.

Kavanaugh is likely to have many decades of service on the Supreme Court. How he handles those decades will be affected by how much he is a justice of the Washington where he was born, raised, and lived, versus how much he is a justice of Trump’s Washington.  

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CityLab Daily: What Stands Between Millennials and Homeownership

What We’re Following

Millennium outcomes: It’s easy to speculate about why Millennials aren’t buying homes. In 2015, about 37 percent of Millennials owned a house—that’s about eight percentage points lower than Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers when they were the same age. While there’s no shortage of theories about why this is happening, it’s more difficult to quantify potential causes. But a new report by the Urban Institute actually puts some numbers behind the factors that make homeownership less likely for this generation.

People born between 1981 and 1997 are notably putting off some big life moves that affect when they buy a home. For example, if marriage rates were the same as in 1990, homeownership would be 5 percentage points higher, the study suggests. Student debt weighs heavily, too, with highly educated Millennials falling 5 points lower than the two previous generations on homeownership. Combine that with higher rents and lingering racial disparities and you get a fuller picture of what’s going on.

But it says just as much about the economy as it does the age cohort, because location plays a root cause. The study shows that as high-skilled jobs have drawn people to high-cost cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., homeownership has grown further out of reach, making it more difficult to build wealth and reduce inequality in the future. And moving to cheaper cities doesn’t have the bang for its buck that it once did, leading to what CityLab’s Richard Florida refers to as the Great Divergence.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

The National Zoo Shouldn’t Fall for Security Theater

A proposal to ramp up security at the National Zoo would undermine a historic design that weaves nature into the lives of Washingtonians.

Kriston Capps

A ‘Carnival of Resistance’ Awaits Trump in the U.K.

Except for a brief stay in London, the president will mostly avoid Britain’s cities. But protesters plan to gather across the country—and he’s far from their only grievance.

Feargus O’Sullivan

How Your Neighborhood Private Immigrant Prison Influences Its Members of Congress

A new study finds that lawmakers hailing from districts with private immigration jails are more likely to introduce harsh immigration policy.

Tanvi Misra

What Footage of a Bike Race Can Tell Us About Climate Change

Never mind who’s winning—keep an eye on the trees and shrubs.

Cara Giaimo

Life in a 1960s ‘Averagetown’

According to David Brinkley and a supercomputer, Salem, New Jersey, was the most typical place in America leading up to Lyndon Johnson’s reelection.

Mark Byrnes


A theater in downtown Brunswick, Georgia. (City of Brunswick, Georgia)

Yesterday, we asked for your thoughts on this great idea for a city makeover show à la Queer Eye, and readers delivered. From Brunswick, Georgia, Anna Ferguson Hall writes that her port city of about 16,000 people could use a “shiny new glow” to draw in tourists beyond the city’s old-timey Fourth of July celebrations and an Elvis tribute festival:

Historic Downtown Brunswick, to outsiders, is often seen as, for lack of better words, run-down, impoverished, crime-ridden and dated. This is far from the truth. Hence, how the empowered women makeover show is a huge draw for me…

Essentially, this fabulous downtown could use more glitter, more glow, more yaasss and less no. … #BabesBuildingUpBrunswick has a nice ring to it, no?

And reader Stephen Power suggests a city-block explainer show called Block by Block: “The host should hate Starbucks, gentrification, and Robert Moses equally.”

Thanks to Anna and Stephen for writing in! Don’t be shy and send us your thoughts any time at hello@citylab.com.

What We’re Reading

How higher wages for Uber and Lyft drivers could cut traffic (Streetsblog New York)

The history of a city, told through its trash (Fast Company)

Border Protection says NYC mayor crossed border illegally (AP)

The future could be dockless: Can a city really run on “floating transport?” (The Guardian)

How this Philadelphia neighborhood is gentrifying without displacement (Next City)

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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The National Zoo Shouldn’t Fall for Security Theater

There are plenty of tourist traps in the nation’s capital, but the National Zoological Park isn’t one of them. Tucked into a residential part of northwest Washington, D.C., it’s a cherished local amenity. Folks who live close to the zoo in the neighborhood of Mount Pleasant fall asleep to the sounds of lions roaring. Residents of the District—who follow the sex lives of the zoo’s giant pandas as if they were the stars of a telenovela—were collectively dismayed to find out last week that the giant panda Mei Xiang was only pseudopregnant.

But most of all, they enjoy the zoo as one of the city’s best parks. So it came as a shock to locals when the Washington Business Journal reported that major changes might be headed to the National Zoo. On Thursday, the Smithsonian Institution will bring a proposal before the National Capital Planning Commission to bolster its security apparatus by adding perimeter fencing. The Smithsonian aims to radically scale back the zoo’s current pedestrian entrances (from 13 to 3). Eventually, security checkpoints will feature magnetometers for screening every visitor.

The news touched off widespread criticism from residents who have always lived with a zoo that’s open to the city—indeed, one that’s woven into the fabric of northwest D.C. According to the report, visitors would only be subject to screenings at the new security checkpoints on days when there are large numbers of visitors. Greater Greater Washington, the city’s urbanist wonk blog, called bunk, launching a petition to nix the proposal.   

“This is an example of what people call the ‘one-way ratchet’ theory: security measures only get increased, and are never decreased,” Matt Dickens wrote on the site.

Free and unrestricted access to the zoo is something locals treasure. But the significance of the site—and the nature of the change that the Smithsonian is proposing—goes further than cutting off a beloved running route. The National Zoological Park is part of the larger national Rock Creek Park system, and sequestering the zoo would interrupt both. The zoo is much more than a Smithsonian facility. It’s an urban gateway into nature, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted to amplify the landscape setting. Security theater would suppress the National Zoological Park’s distinguishing historic features.

A topographic map of the National Zoological Park created in 1899 (Library of Congress)

Congress established the National Zoological Park in 1889. William Temple Hornaday, who was the Smithsonian Institution’s curator for the “Department of Living Animals,” needed a permanent home for the 170 or so creatures he kept in a popular display near the Smithsonian Castle: bison, bears, vultures, vipers, you name it. To build the first federal zoo, Hornaday worked with then–Secretary of the Smithsonian Samuel Langley as well as Olmsted, who had designed New York’s Central Park (with Calvert Vaux) half a century earlier.

At the time, the idea to build a zoo inside a park would have been utterly novel. In fact, the concept of a national park itself was still new. The nation established Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first wildlife preserve, just a few years prior, in 1871. Rock Creek Park didn’t yet exist when Olmsted designed the National Zoological Park. But his son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., helped to realize his father’s vision for a preserve for the Rock Creek Valley. Olmsted Jr. served as a member of the Senate’s turn-of-the-century McMillan Commission, which considered the zoo to be part of the larger parks movement.

“Although regularly open to the public as a place of recreation, the purpose of the park is distinctly specialized, namely, to preserve and exhibit a collection of living animals under agreeable and natural surroundings,” reads the 1902 McMillan Report. “The health of the animals and the convenience of the public in seeing them must be the controlling considerations” in the park’s development.

Map of the National Zoological Park made by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1914 (Library of Congress)

The Olmsteds designed the National Zoological Park to be the meeting-place between the city and the sylvan. The city grew up around the National Zoological Park; the park’s many pedestrian entrances were designed to be seamless points of contact between urban life and nature, and they still serve that function today. “The Zoo was not meant to be an isolated element in Washington’s development,” reads its 1969 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Neither Olmsted could have predicted the modern threats to public space today. But the “controlling considerations” that they outlined have worked well for the National Zoological Park for more than a century.

The Smithsonian notes that most visitors already use the three primary entrances. (At this time, the only plans up for review before the National Capital Planning Commission involve the installation of fencing.)

“Limiting the number of ways people enter the Zoo will enhance security and safety year-round,” the Smithsonian said in a statement. “For the past four years during high visitation days or when there has been an increased threat level, security at these entrances has included bag checks and additional screening. The Zoo will continue this practice. On most days, visitors will use these three entrances as they do now.”

The Smithsonian’s specific security concerns are not public. But it’s far from clear that creating bottlenecks at the park’s entrances would deter an awful episode, since a determined agent could terrorize tourists waiting in line just as easily as inside the zoo.

Back in 2014, a 14-year-old shot two other teenagers in an alleged gang altercation just outside the zoo’s main entrance. The zoo began mulling new security features the following year. “Everybody is used to [having] their bag checked going into a museum,” D.C. Council member Mary Cheh told a local broadcast affiliate at the time.

The Smithsonian plans to eliminate all but the three primary entrances to the National Zoological Park (depicted here as the larger circles). (Smithsonian Institution)

While that’s true, it’s nothing to brag about. And in any case, the worst crime that’s ever happened inside the zoo is embezzlement. In ratcheting up park security, the Smithsonian may be responding less to any specific prospect for violence and more in keeping with security theater across Washington. Metal detectors and bag checks are a drag at museums and ballparks. It’s worse at airports, where security theater is a damper on national productivity and not even particularly effective.

At the National Zoological Park, though, security theater runs contrary to the whole point of the zoo-as-park. Placing a natural preserve so close to the city was always meant to draw crowds, and as far back as the McMillan Report, mitigating those crowds has been an evolving concern. But the concern has always been to preserve the park’s openness—since the whole point was to inject nature into people’s lives, not under glass and at a remove.

Langley, the Smithsonian’s third secretary, wrote that the zoo “is intended to have in connection with other and remote national parks in the West a representation of all our North American animals . . . and it is situated in the national capital to serve as a constant object lesson of what Congress may do.”

Adding controlled checkpoints to the National Zoological Park would be a different lesson. For more than a century, the zoo has invited visitors (and District residents in particular) to experience nature inside the city. Its informal entrances are part of that experience: a reminder that the natural world is close, and it is our responsibility. There are already too many barriers to that understanding.

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