Barcelona Finds a Way to Control Its Airbnb Market

Barcelona’s efforts to rid itself of illegal vacation apartments could be the most effective crackdown on Airbnb yet. Last month, the city told the site to remove 2,577 listings that it found to be operating without a city-approved license, or face a court case potentially leading to a substantial fine. Then on June 1, Airbnb and the city launched a new agreement that gives Barcelona officials access to data about what’s being listed around town.

For the first time, city officials will be able to refer to host data that details specifically where apartments are located and who their registered hosts are, something that could previously require substantial investigation. They will be able to track these hosts ID numbers to verify that their linked apartments do indeed have permission—and it will be far easier to pursue rule-breakers and, if necessary, fine them.

Taken together, these measures have global significance for cities managing their own fights against out-of-control vacation rentals. Firstly, they provide a ready-to-go model that makes enforcing local rules not just feasible, but relatively easy. Secondly, they show that concerted pressure from local governments can indeed push Airbnb and other home-sharing sites to take real action. Because while Airbnb deserves credit for working with Barcelona, it has done so after a clampdown on its activities that’s arguably the most rigorous Europe has yet seen.

That clampdown has been a long time coming. Barcelona’s huge popularity with visitors has proved something of a poisoned chalice in recent years. Vacation apartments have spread across central neighborhoods, many of them from hosts who list more than one apartment. Meanwhile, the number of affordable long-term rentals available to locals has shrunk.

Parts of the old city have become tourist ghettos, where residents that remain are kept awake by badly behaved visitors, and increasingly find their local shops and bars taken over by souvenir emporia and coffee chains. The city has hit back, partly by halting approval for new hotels, but mainly by requiring all vacation apartment hosts to apply for a license—applications for which are rejected in areas too saturated with tourist accommodations.

Other cities have tried similar measures, but Barcelona stands out in its commitment to enforcement. In 2016, Airbnb was hit with a (still unpaid and contested) €600,000 fine for listing unlicensed apartments, following a more modest €30,000 fine the year before (that same fine was also levied against the website HomeAway).

Last year, the city’s new tourism plan stipulated that vacation apartments must pay the highest rate of property tax. And since last summer, investigations by the city have already led to 1,500 unlicensed apartments being de-listed.

This hasn’t made Barcelona a vacation-rental desert: The city still has 9,600 licensed listings available. But the push does seem to have spurred Airbnb toward a cooperative attitude, where the city now has meaningful tools for enforcing its own rules. And in the future, proposed changes to Airbnb’s Barcelona listings template may make enforcement even easier. One option being considered would have all hosts in the city submit their rental permit number to Airbnb before a listing goes live. If the box were left blank or filled in with a false number (instantly detectable by the system), the listing would not appear on the site.

Barcelona’s successes with enforcement are striking partly because other cities have struggled to implement their own measures. In 2016, Berlin introduced a blanket ban on renting entire apartments through Airbnb or other short-term rental sites, though individual rooms were still allowed. The ban had some success—2,500 apartments were released back to the long-term rental market in 2016—but due to the scale of the problem, so many apartments remained listed on the site that it seemed hard to believe there was any ban at all. Berlin ended up revoking the ban in March, replacing it with a license system and heavier maximum fines for rule-breakers. It’s too early to say how successful Berlin will be in policing the new rules, but it seems likely that they would seek some kind of data access in the vein of Barcelona.

It’s hard to think of a good reason why other cities couldn’t follow Barcelona’s example. While the city’s heavy fines against Airbnb may be unique, the company’s agreement to share host data is not. Airbnb has done so to some extent in other cities and regions, including San Francisco and Andalucía. A license system implemented through data integration seems like a great way of preventing saturation in certain areas. It could help vacation rental websites evolve into what they were originally meant to be: home-sharing hubs whose listings are not populated by multiple-property professional hosts but by people renting out spare space in real homes. Cities’ overall health would likely benefit from this—but it seems they won’t get it if they don’t push.

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Is It Time to Reconsider Traffic Stops?

While traffic stop interactions with the police may be shrugged off as brief inconveniences for whites, for black Americans, they can lead to humiliation, violence, and even death. This has become clear over the last few years, as videos have surfaced, hashtags have trended, and reports have been released—opening up the black box of negative interactions between the police and drivers of color for the world to see.

A forthcoming book, “Suspect Citizen: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tells Us About Policing And Race” adds to that conversation, taking an unprecedented, granular look at the traffic stops in one state.

In 1999, North Carolina became one of the first jurisdictions in the country to mandate data collection at traffic stops. The expressed goal was to suss out disparities in policing. The resulting dataset, which includes information about the demographics of the driver, the offense for which they were stopped, where they were stopped, and the outcome of the stop, was made public. But the state never actually released a comprehensive analysis of this information.

That’s where Frank Baumgartner and Kelsey Shoub at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Derek Epp, now at the University of Texas, stepped in. They took on this unfulfilled mission, analyzing data going all the way back to 2002 when the data-collection mandate expanded to include almost all police stops in the state. ”It is pretty much a census of every traffic stop,” Baumgartner said.

In the book, he and his colleagues lay out stark disparity in policing at North Carolina’s traffic stops, and unpack the reasons behind the trends they observe. CityLab caught up with Baumgartner to discuss these findings:

So who was being stopped?

There’s somewhere between a million and 1.6 million traffic stops in North Carolina each year and we [the state] have a population of about 10 million people. That gives us a baseline chance of being pulled over of about 10-15 percent per year. But we found the odds were significantly higher for blacks, than for white and even Hispanic drivers, compared to their respective population shares.

We also looked at a city-by-city comparison of the proportion of whites, blacks, and Hispanics who live in that town to the proportion that they represent in the traffic stop data. Again, we do this with caution, but still it shows that, on average, black drivers are much more disproportionately represented—about 60 or 70 percent more likely to be in that traffic stops data than in the population of that city.

But according to the [U.S.] Department of Transportation, white Americans are more likely to own or have access to a car than black or Hispanic Americans. So we think that the comparison of these populations is not really very accurate—it’s actually more likely to lead to an underestimate of any racial bias.

What about searches?

Our main focus in the book is who gets searched after a traffic stop because being searched is sign that the officer views you with suspicion. Hence the title of the book “Suspect Citizens.” I’m a white, middle-aged college professor, so the last time I was actually stopped for a traffic violation was 40 years ago, in 1974 … and I’ve never had my car searched after a traffic stop in my life. These things are quite rare for people of, for example, my demographic but they’re quite common generally.

We controlled for why you get pulled over, what time of day it was, what day of the week was that, what police agency was it, what month of the year—all of those things. We still saw these very, very significant, robust findings that young people, males, and people of color are much more likely to be searched after a traffic stop.

What were the outcome of these types of searches?

Strangely—and this might initially appear surprising—populations who are more likely to be searched are also more likely to be let off with a warning or no action. And white, middle-class drivers are more likely to get a ticket. It would seem counterintuitive to most readers, but if you’re objectively breaking the law—you’re speeding or you run through a stop sign—you deserve to get a ticket. The officers will only pull you over after they observe you clearly violating the traffic code in an important way. Then they’re going to give you a ticket and let you go on your way. And that’s typically what happens to white drivers.

Black drivers are more likely to get warnings, overall. That seems like a good outcome, but the question in these cases is why did he or she get pulled over in the first place? Perhaps the reason was just that the officer had a vague suspicion and a desire to do a little bit of an investigation. So they stopped the person based on some kind of pretext, they investigated by starting a conversation with the driver, and [since nothing turned up], they said, “Well, thank you for your time. I pulled you over because you were speeding by five miles an hour. I just wanted to let you know to be more careful next time.”

So you’re saying that in the cases of white motorists, it might be that they are more often given traffic tickets because there’s actually a concrete, observable evidence of a traffic offense. But in many cases of motorists of color, perhaps there is a less clear reason for the stop, so they may actually not end up being penalized through tickets.

Yes. There are two reasons for a traffic stop. One is a violation of the traffic law and the other, a desire by the officer to investigate a person because they they think that they might be a suspect. So if you’re a person like me, a white middle-class male, there’s no reason the officer is going to develop a suspicion. So the only reason why he might pull me over if he observes me violating an important part of the traffic code, like running through a stop. A traffic stop leading to a ticket is really what should occur if the traffic stop is being used to enforce the traffic code, not as a tool for a criminal investigation.

Around the 1960s and 1970s, police agencies around the country changed their style of policing from responding after the fact to crimes, investigating and trying to solve crimes, to being much more proactive and trying to disrupt the activities of people who might be about to commit a crime. And so that marked a very significant shift in the nature of policing the roads. It used to be once upon a time that you know the police will be targeting only those who were driving in a very unsafe manner such as speeding excessively or running through a stop sign or something like that. But today, really for the past generation since the War on Crime, police have used the entire vehicle code as an excuse to use their discretion to pull people over who might appear suspicious to them for whatever reason.

So you mentioned that you don’t fit the profile a patrolling police officer is looking for, but in the book, you explain that what they’re looking for can be different when the driver is black than when they are Hispanic.

For young, black men, the concern is whether they might fit a stereotype of being involved in criminal activity. And for Hispanics there are two profiles. There is the same profile that we see among men in general, but minority men, in particular—of being involved in crime. But there’s also the immigration focus. So if an officer is attempting to inquire into somebody’s citizenship status then it really doesn’t matter if they’re male, female, young, or old—as long as they’re Hispanic, they may be subjected to that kind of search.

What did you find about the rate at which contraband was detected at these stops?

In the War on Drugs or the War on Crime, the police have made clear from the very beginning, as one of the state troopers we quote in the book said, that, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.” The idea there is that it’s a numbers game, that you have to pull over and investigate maybe hundreds or thousands of drivers before you find anyone with a significant cache of drugs.

Unstated in that is that we’re going to deprive potentially very large numbers of people their right to privacy, their right to drive on the highway unimpeded, and their right to be a citizen without being a suspect—all in the hopes of finding a few drug couriers. And the Supreme Court has ruled consistently that that is OK, because it’s just, after all, a momentary inconvenience.

We want to simply point out that if you’re like Frank Baumgartner and you get stopped once every 30 years and it doesn’t result in a search, that is that’s probably fine—that calculation makes good sense. It’s worth it for all of us. But what we see are these patterns where people like me virtually never get pulled over and young men of color get pulled on a very, very routine basis. And it may not be so trivial—it can be humiliating, it can take a lot of time—and it comes up dry the vast majority of times. [According to the book, in most types of searches resulting from traffic stops, officers are much less likely to find contraband on black drivers compared to white ones.]

Overall, we see contraband hit rates that are on the order of 20 to 30 percent. But then when we look in detail at the contraband that’s found, we discover that it’s almost always a trivial amount. And so the math of this—using the vehicle code to search for contraband and criminal activity—is really bad. The odds are just not on the side of the police in this case. It’s a very inefficient use of police officers’ time.

How do policing stops vary by geography?

One of the biggest surprise in our data was a wide degree of variability in search rates or even the number of traffic stops in several ways. One is from year to year. Then, there are incredible amounts of difference from agency to agency. So the state Highway Patrol, on average, is a ticket writing machine. They write a lot of tickets, but they don’t search very many cars—just 0.6 percent of the time. Whereas in the city of Charlotte, there have been years when they’ve had a search rate of 12 percent. And, of course, those searches are targeted by demographic group, and they’re also targeted by neighborhood. We know that is true from some other more detailed data we’ve been able to gather. Policing is very focused on neighborhoods that the police think of as high crime, and it applies to everybody in that neighborhood, whether or not they’re involved in crime. And in low-crime neighborhoods, aka the white side of town or the middle-class neighborhoods, the police presence is much lighter, and also the police activity might be much less aggressive. So that means that we’re all subject to different forms of policing based on where we live.

If [a traffic stop] is a pretext and it’s the third time it has happened to you since you turned 16 years old and you got your driver’s license, and you’re only 17, you know that the officer is simply suspicious of you almost no matter what you’re doing. That’s going to make you upset.

The downside of all this is that they are consistently given the signal that they’re a suspect.

What did you observe about the places with very low rates of racial disproportionality in traffic stops?

We looked systematically across all the municipalities of North Carolina and we found that the biggest predictor of low disparity is having black representation on the city council. That is correlated with having a large black share in the population and having a large share of black voting in the most recent election.

Whereas when you look at a more typical community in North Carolina, that’s got very low levels of black political power, those are the towns where you see the highest rates of disparity. It indicates that the agencies of government do respond to politics.

Whenever a case comes up of a traffic stop gone awry—and there have been many showing shootings or excessive force or even deaths—there’s often a defense that the individual officers are “bad apples.” Do your findings support that hypothesis?

We define a “bad apple” as an officer with a very high rate of disparity across the races, in terms of their search. We can identify many, many hundreds of them across the state. But when we isolate the bad apple officers, we still see that over and above that, there remains a systemic pattern of racial disparity. So that means that while we do identify some bad apples, that by itself can’t explain the disparities that we observe. These are broad systematic, institutionalized, culturally normative practices and they’re just part of almost every police department almost.

We’ve also looked beyond North Carolina. We find that North Carolina is not an outlier—it’s quite typical of these patterns, nationally. I feel like the professor who drives a bulldozer through a door that’s already open—to try and demonstrate that yes, there are racial disparities in traffic stops, everybody! No, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody, but is it a 3 percent disparity or a 100 percent disparity? We show that black drivers are about twice as likely to be pulled over. And then once they’re pulled over they’re about twice as likely to be searched. So that’s a 400 percent disparity; that’s pretty shocking. It’s not just a small thing, it’s a really, really big difference in lived experiences for whites and minorities.

So do we have to rethink traffic stops? What are the solutions here?

Go back to the original purpose of a traffic stop, which is to keep the community safe by maintaining safe-driving habits. Focus traffic stops on people who burn through stop signs, and don’t focus the traffic stops on things like expired registration tags, cracked taillights—things that might be technical violations of the law, but really amount to “poverty crimes,” which poor people are more likely to be caught up in than middle class and wealthy people.

I do feel like the police are given an almost impossible mission sometimes: to be clairvoyant, to know ahead of time who is carrying drugs, who’s involved in a crime, and who is preparing to commit a crime. They’re given a lot of authority to use their judgment, and legally speaking, they’re not required to pay much attention at all to the frustrations that they generate among those who they stop and investigate. If we could instill in the culture of policing a recognition that each time there’s a fruitless investigation, that they slightly alienate that individual, then that would be very useful.

So a broader reckoning with the costs of predictive policing…

Yes. By deciding that they need to investigate somebody just because of the way they appear, or what neighborhood they might be in, rather than an observed violation of the law, they’re sending a signal to that individual that they’re suspects. That’s costly to all of us. These people won’t call 911 when there’s a crime because they don’t trust the police. People who feel that they’re not treated fairly by the police are more likely to develop an aversion to police and that translates into an aversion and a hostility towards government, because the police of course are such a visible representation of the government. And so voting rates may go down.

The War on Crime and using the traffic code and the vehicle code as a way to investigate people more broadly has not given very great benefits in terms of crime reduction, but it’s had an unintended and unnoticed consequence: It has made people feel like they don’t have full citizenship. They walk down the street and they’re suspects.

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The Case for ‘Sanctuary Cities’ for Endangered Species

Her name was Lola. No, not “L-O-L-A, Lola,” from the Kinks’ song, but a Mexican Redhead.

Well, actually, not that either, it turned out.

“We don’t really say that anymore,” the avian veterinarian said as he helped Lola out of her carrier. “She’s an Amazon. A green-cheeked Amazon, Amazona viridigenalis. That’s what the scientific name means. Though most people just call them red-crowned parrots.”

That was my introduction to a bird species, one of whom I adopted 10 years ago from a friend of a friend, as these things go among people who live with pet birds. But it was only after I moved to Los Angeles that I found out about her feral cousins, the large wild flocks of red-crowned parrots that live in the San Gabriel Valley, just northeast of Los Angeles.

Red-crowned parrots interact at a rescue center in Jamul, California. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Parrots, of course, are not uncommon around Los Angeles: More than a dozen different species have established wild populations in the area, descendants of pet birds that escaped at some point and managed to make a home for themselves in some part of the sprawling metropolis. But for the red-crowned parrots, Los Angeles is more than an additional habitat. The city is a sanctuary for this endangered species.

In the 1970s and ’80s, tens of thousands of chicks and adults were poached from the red-crowned parrots’ original habitat in northeastern Mexico, in the states of Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosí, and brought to the United States to be sold in the pet trade. Because of the poaching and habitat loss from deforestation, their population dwindled in Mexico, and red-crowned parrots are now listed as an endangered species in Mexico and by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

In the meantime, however, their pet cousins in the United States escaped or were let go by owners who realized too late that wild-caught parrots make terrible pets, and that even tamed ones are demanding and noisy. Red-crowned parrots established sizable wild populations in Florida and California. In the Los Angeles area, there are about 2,000 to 3,000 individuals, a number that could at this point rival or exceed that of the remaining wild population in Mexico. Feeding largely on non-native nut and fruit trees, red-crowned parrots started to breed and became a permanent feature of the greater Los Angeles landscape over the course of the 1980s and ’90s.

In 2001, the California Bird Records Committee added them to the list of California state birds, where they joined species such as house sparrows, rock pigeons (the ones that perch on every urban power line), and starlings: species that are not native to the state, but have become integrated into California ecosystems over the last century.

I feel a small sense of wonder every time it strikes me that two of the birds who live with me are members of an endangered species whose members have become “naturalized citizens” of California. And I’ve been overcome with awe every time I’ve gone to see hundreds of red-crowned parrots come in to land in one of their night roosts in Pasadena.

Watch “Urban Ark Los Angeles,” a documentary short by KCET and UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS)

But the implications of these parrots’ presence in the city goes beyond emotion and aesthetics. It makes me wonder, could Los Angeles become a sanctuary for other endangered species—even those who are not native to Southern California?

Some ecologists think so. Brad Shaffer, a biology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that cities not only destroy habitat, but also create new living spaces for animals and plants. Some of these spaces work well for native species, while others don’t. Some of these modified landscapes could offer refuge to species that are struggling to survive in their original habitats elsewhere.

In the past, some of the new ecological niches that have been created in cities have been occupied by non-native species through sheer serendipity, by plants or animals like the red-crowned parrots that happened to land in town and know how to take advantage of the niches they found.

But what if we deliberately offered sanctuary to endangered species in our cities—those that are native, of course, but also those that are not?

Shaffer suggests that spotted turtles, for instance, which are endangered on the East Coast of the United States, might thrive in Los Angeles. Endangered geckos might find an ecological niche on and around parts of our buildings that are currently unoccupied by any native lizards.

Of course, any experiment along these lines would have to be carefully planned and closely monitored—both to protect the introduced plants or animals from being exposed to new risks, and to prevent them from becoming invasive and causing harm to native species we want to conserve. So a great deal of scientific, legal, and educational work would need to be done to make cities function as something like “urban arks” in our current era of a possible sixth mass extinction caused by humans.

This idea might seem counterintuitive. After all, aren’t introduced species, moved around by humans, one of the root causes of ecological crises? From eucalyptus trees to ring-necked pheasants and zebra mussels, introduced species often compete with native flora and fauna for habitat and food. In some cases, they outcompete native species and become “invasive”—a label we give to species that spread and cause harm to native ecosystems.

Examples leap readily to mind: Feral cats have eaten their way through much of Australia’s native fauna. The brown tree snake has driven at least half a dozen bird species to extinction on the island of Guam. Kudzu—an East Asian arrowroot originally introduced for erosion control—turned into “the plant that ate the South” in the United States.

These striking examples of environmental harm tend to make one forget that the majority of introduced species either disappear quickly, or integrate into existing ecosystems without triggering ecological disaster. And imagining an “urban ark” would not be the same as introducing new species into wild areas that retain intact native ecosystems, but instead into environments that are already fundamentally transformed from their earlier states. Cities are in effect largely novel ecosystems that offer quite different ecological opportunities—as well as risks—than the ecosystems they replaced. An “urban ark” would seek to take advantage of these opportunities rather than letting them occur by accident, as they usually do.

Biologist Brad Shaffer suggests that spotted turtles, which are endangered on the East Coast of the United States, might thrive in Los Angeles. (David Duprey/AP)

The fact that urban landscapes, like many agricultural landscapes, are such new ecosystems—complex patchworks of native and introduced species, some desirable, some not, some invasive, some not—has led to something of a split among ecologists today.

Restoration ecology, the effort to reconstruct ecosystems that existed in a place at a particular time in the past, and to get rid of species that did not form part of the landscape in the past, remains an important project, especially in areas that are not primarily designed to sustain human populations.

But other ecologists have suggested that where a species comes from matters less than how it functions in its contemporary environment, especially in human-designed habitats such as cities.

From this perspective, the most important question for thinking about urban biodiversity in a city such as Los Angeles is not “What species used to be here?” Instead we should ask, “What animals and plants should form part of our environment in the future?”

That question can’t be answered without taking into account the city’s social and cultural as well as biological diversity. Along with solid scientific research, we need forums for discussing what I like to call “multispecies justice”: the relationship between what it’s right to do by other people, and what it’s right to do by other species.

Multispecies justice aims to create better urban habitats for both humans and nonhumans—sanctuaries that encourage both biological and cultural diversity.

Some discussions are already underway on how we might translate such a vision into reality. We could reintroduce native oaks and sages, for example, while providing space for community gardens, full of plants brought to Los Angeles from around the world. Respect for the lives of feral cats ought to be reconciled with the protection of urban birds. The need for more affordable housing should be balanced with the desire for more green spaces in urban areas that don’t have enough of either.

Turning the city into a multispecies sanctuary should be part of these discussions, not only because the city is already functioning in this way for species like the red-crowned parrots, but also because humans and nonhumans might need our “urban ark” in the future.

This essay is presented in partnership with KCET and the Laboratory for Environmental Strategies (LENS) at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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The Hidden Forces That Shape Cities

Why is London’s public transit thriving while New York City’s is struggling? It might be tempting to ascribe the difference between the two cities as one of social and political culture—high European public spending versus American agnosticism about the state. According to Ricky Burdett, professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics and director of the LSE Cities research center, the real difference lies elsewhere—in the way the two cities governments are structured.

Citylab caught up with Burdett in the run-up to his keynote address at the reSITE 2018 ACCOMMODATE conference in Prague on June 14. (Like last year, CityLab is a media sponsor of this event.) He’ll be discussing LSE Cities’ latest research and the group’s upcoming book, Shaping Cities in an Urban Age, which is due to be launched this September at the Venice Biennale. The final installment of a de facto trilogy, the book showcases the latest research by the Urban Age, an international co-project examining the connection between the political and the social in today’s cities. In conversation, Burdett picked up on this knot of themes, emphasizing that time and again, a city’s growth or transformation is defined not necessarily by individual plans or leaders, but shaped by political and administrative institutions themselves.

London and New York, for example, are broadly similar in population, educational base and GDP per head. But the two cities have been going in different directions on public transit progress. London’s governance has shifted since the office of the mayoralty was established in 2000, ending a strange interregnum stretching back to 1986 when no elected body or leader oversaw the city as a whole. Since 2000, London has introduced a congestion charge, created the highly successful Overground train network through a combination of renovation and new construction, and come close to completing the new Crossrail heavy rail link between Central London and its furthest flung eastern and western exurbs. It has also launched a bikeshare scheme and—belatedly—started creating a segregated bike lane network, extended the light rail system in its former docks, and created a successful streetcar line in the city’s southwest. During the same period, New York’s progress has been less positive, though it did open a modest extension to the Second Avenue subway and launch its own bikeshare (with somewhat fewer bikes than London). Transit ridership and service quality have been tumbling.

The main factor powering this difference, according to Burdett, is that London Mayor Sadiq Khan has a big say in his city’s transit provision and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio doesn’t. “The governor of New York State sitting 130-odd miles away up in Albany is responsible for New York City’s mass transit,” says Burdett. “The decisions of what to invest there have to be always compared to spending elsewhere in the state.”

London’s great fortune is that, since 2000, the city’s mayor has been chair of Transport for London (TfL), the body overseeing all transit in the city. “I had no idea at the time how important that would be,” Burdett says. “It’s important because he can bang on the door of the Prime Minister and say, ‘If you want London to compete globally and bring jobs, then we really need money to build Crossrail.’”

But just as London’s governance structure has helped it get the edge over New York City on public transit, it has also hindered it from successes elsewhere—notably with housing, over which its political brief is far more limited. Since 2000, rhetoric about increasing the volume of affordable housing has been a staple for three of London’s mayors. Much of this rhetoric has gone no further than that, says Burdett.  

“What Khan is saying now, and what [former mayors] Johnson and Livingstone also said, is that they would build affordable housing at a rate of 35 percent [as a proportion of all new builds],” he says. “If it’s going to be done via the private sector, however, then it just won’t happen. A developer’s instinct is to build as little affordable housing as possible to keep prices up.”

London’s boroughs are trying to improve the affordable housing situation, but they don’t necessarily have the land to build on—and the state’s position as a major landowner has been substantially ceded to the private sector. Contrast this to Singapore, where 85 percent of residents live in state-built social housing.

“Singapore, as a city-state, owns the land and builds housing through something called the Housing and Development Board. If you or I were living in Singapore we would be living in social housing—it’s just a different level of what social housing means.” The city-state’s substantial holdings and financial commitment to housing most of the population in state-built accommodation means it has been able to ensure a level of affordability and stability absent elsewhere. “You need the Singaporean way of saying, ‘We own the land, we will control supply and demand by building the housing stock.’ That generates a completely different approach to affordability.”

Simply telling cities to “be more like Singapore” isn’t giving advice that’s necessarily easy to act on, of course. But the role of a research center like LSE Cities is to remind cities of options, not to enforce them. “Change may be difficult, but then that’s what politicians do” says Burdett. “Our project is to put these things on the table so that they don’t just remain abstract and theoretical.”

Urban planners and architects might be inclined to agree that decisions about the shape of a city are inherently political. But how can they engage with questions of governance when they have no control on that aspect of their commissions? It’s vital to “have evolution written into a city’s planning DNA,” Burdett suggests. “Too many designers think about the reality of the built environment at one moment in time—that you create an instant city.”

But examples of successful from-scratch neighborhoods are rare, and even the ones deemed successful, such as at Canary Wharf, a business district constructed in London’s former docklands, lack the qualities that define other quarters of the city. “It’s all perfect, highly policed, very controlled—and alienating,” Burdett says. “Cities that work are much richer than that—they adapt. There’s a resilience, a grunginess that becomes attractive. Understanding that process of change is essential.”

Neighborhoods that prove to be resilient in the face of change tend to have flexible spaces, both private and public, that adapt well to new uses. Thus, the (perhaps unintentionally) fluid planning of late 19th- and early 20th-century tenement districts such as, say, Manhattan’s Lower East Side or Berlin’s Kreuzberg, has enabled them to transform gradually from sites of light industry to highly desirable residential and commercial areas without entirely losing their mix or character. It’s by focusing on this that architects and designers can create spaces that don’t quickly become arid or obsolete, and that can weather shifts in governance.

“You have to allow enough elbow room for things to actually happen. Neighborhoods that have remained open, literally—connected, porous—are the ones that are more likely to have that layering of complexity.”

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Auditioning Not for Broadway, but the Subway

On Monday, in the culmination of a four-month long process, MTA MUSIC announced the newest members of the MTA Music Under New York program that gives official sanction to New York City subway musicians.

It may come as a surprise that some, but not all subway performers in NYC subway stations, have passed a rigorous audition process.

By a March deadline this year, MTA MUSIC received 309 applications with audio samples and selected 82 finalists to audition. On May 15, the 31st annual auditions opened in Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall, a passageway from the station to 42nd Street. On that morning, the hall, with its 48-foot ceilings and five chandeliers, was filled with a myriad of musical scales: Behind a black felt curtain, cellos, French horns, a Kurdish hammered dulcimer guitar, and vocalists, were warming up. One of the finalists, the all-female a cappella group Mezzo, took to the stage.

The women of Mezzo launched into “Dreams” by The Cranberries. They had just five minutes to prove to the judges that they deserved the right to serenade people in the subways.

Since 1985, the MTA Arts and Design program, of which MTA MUSIC is a part, vets musicians to find the best subway-appropriate performance groups to enhance New Yorkers’ commutes. MTA MUSIC Senior Manager Lydia Bradshaw says the judges look for quality, musical variety, cultural diversity, representation of the culture and people of New York, and appropriateness for the transit environment.

Mezzo and the judges at the 31st annual auditions for MTA MUSIC. (Claire Bryan)

Each group had five minutes to perform in front of about 30 judges, which included music industry professionals, current MTA MUSIC members, and MTA staff. From those, 28 were selected to join the approximately 350 other musicians and groups who have the right to book a place at one of 30 of the most popular spots in New York City subways.  

“The thing about it in the subway is you have no stage, you have no backline, you have no stagehands, you must just create the space right here,” said Sean Grisson, a Cajun cellist who has been in the program since 1987 and a judge since 2013. For Grisson, whether or not performers are chosen comes down to if the performance is something that “you would want to pause and make you reflect as you go about your busy New York existence.”

Once admitted to the program, musicians must call in and book slots. They request the locations and the hours of performance, and those requests are granted for a two-week period, on a first-call, first-serve basis. Among the most popular are, in Manhattan, Grand Central Station at 42nd Street, Times Square at 42nd Street, 14th St-Union Square, and the Fulton St. Station. In Brooklyn, musicians often vie for the Atlantic Avenue-Barclay Center Station. Performers receive a personalized banner with their name and the MTA MUSIC bright magenta logo. Musician’s names and contact information also gets added to MTA MUSIC’s website—a feature that can help groups land events.

But anyone can play in the subway as long as they follow MTA’s Transit Rules of Conduct. These include not performing on platforms that block traffic or within a certain distance of Transit Authority offices or station booths. All performers are also forbidden from using amplification devices or creating noise that exceeds 85 dBA. MTA MUSIC’s 30 locations are not specified as exclusive in the Rules of Conduct, so, technically, the police can’t enforce it as such.

Kenneth Brown is a clarinet performer without MTA MUSIC status who has being performing at the 34th Street station and in subway cars all over the city since 1993. “It is so strict,” Brown said. “I did two auditions and they didn’t even let me in, so I’m like you know what, forget y’all. It is a good program for someone who wants to be controlled. But as a musician I want to be able to do what I want to do.” According to Brown, there is little difference between him and the MTA MUSIC members. “I’m not begging, I don’t ask anyone for any money, I ask for help, I say I’m trying to get to the next level with my music.”

Brown said he has been arrested many times for performing in subway stations. “Because they call it panhandling, whatever they want to make up a law and do it and fine us and put us behind bars, they’ll do that,” Brown said. “As times changed and time went by, the authorities don’t arrest me like they used to. It has changed for the better.

Kenneth Brown and his clarinet at 34th Street station. (Claire Bryan)

But MTA employees and music performance groups believe that registered groups deserve their spot. “One of the benefits of being in the program is sort of having that permission to book and be at more visible spots,” Grisson said.

Which doesn’t mean that non-sanctioned performers can’t play— they just aren’t afforded the security and institutional support MTA MUSIC performers receive.

According to Bradshaw, musicians who are not in MTA MUSIC are generally familiar with the program and know that the organization’s performers have priority to the reserved locations. MTA Press Officer Amanda Kwan said that if an MTA MUSIC group calls in, signs up, shows up, and there’s a non-MTA MUSIC group there, the issue is often resolved between the musicians.

At the Atlantic Barclays Center station, Rich sings with Nu-Millennium—a four-man a cappella group that sings Street Corner Harmony or Doo-wop genre old favorites. “We always carry our paperwork with us, this is not a thug business. We contact the transit police and identify the fact that we are authorized to be there,” Rich said. “The freelancers want to do their thing, but they have to step back when we show up with paperwork. We are respectful of other artists and we don’t crash other people’s programs. This is kind of an unwritten rule of some level of respect but sometimes people are a little bit crude and a little bit thirsty.”

Once a group is admitted to the program, they can stay in, barring unusual circumstances: Nu-Millennium was selected about 10 years ago but then went several years without performing before picking back up.

Do the commuters notice the hard-won official status? Jeannie Joshi has been commuting in New York for 25 years and never once noticed an MTA MUSIC sign or logo. At the Fulton Street Subway she stopped to listen to Oliver Dagum, a guitarist and singer who joined the program in 2015, play “Stand By Me.”

“Normally I don’t stop. I noticed it here, one because this is a cleaner station. It’s not as crazy, and I thought well that is kind of nice that he gets to put a sign up for his own name,” Joshi said.

However, in Grand Central Station, Serrice Holman has been commuting her entire life and is a big fan of the MTA MUSC program. She said she is compelled to stop and listen more when she notices the MTA MUSIC sign. “I guess in the back of your mind you are thinking that they are not getting paid like a regular salary to do this and they have to be dependent on tips,” Homan said. “What they earn is what we are giving them, so yeah, it makes you want to stop and support.”

In the Union Square station, at 14th Street in Manhattan, Robin, who has also been commuting her entire life, had never heard of the MTA MUSIC program, but stops to donate to an MTA MUSIC group. “I did not notice the pink banner,” Robin said, “but I could just tell that [the performer] was exceptionally good, and whenever I see something that is obvious how much work has gone into it, I like to give a little something.”

“This is sort of a genre [a capella] that doesn’t always reach everyone,” Mezzo member Liz Chapman said. “Being able to sing in this context we would be able to reach tons of people who normally wouldn’t ever get to hear this music.” And Mezzo members say the physical space of a subway enhances a group’s sound. “The acoustics are really great for vocals and for harmony to be able to hear that blend,” said Reynetta Sampson of Mezzo. “We have a lot of harmonies that go on as well as the percussive sounds and some other sounds, so I think it’d be pretty great for us to be able to display all of that with that kind of echo and reverb that would be happening all around us.”

This was Mezzo’s first year auditioning and MTA MUSIC affiliation is important to them. “I’ve seen a lot of people raise their own profile as artists and actually find more work or more opportunities as a result of it,” a Mezzo member said.

When the list of winners was released on Monday, Mezzo’s name was on it.

Grissom, the judge who has also been performing in the subways since 1983, said the competition to enter the program is challenging and he has come to appreciate the MTA MUSIC program much more.

But he adds: “I’ve never had issues [with the authorities] believe it or not. I always feel that street performing or subway performing is kind of Darwinism at its best.” Grissom said. “You are either going to figure out how to make this work for you or you’re not.”

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Will Future Streets See More Cars on the Road?

“Transformative change ultimately came when the implementation of a particular policy also enhanced governmental capacity to plan and make transport policy change by involving many stakeholders over a variety of territorial scales,” Davis says. The interactive dynamics of the process of stakeholder involvement and the relationship between governing authorities and transportation policy advocates are key to making transformational change beyond just the paper success of policy change.

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Rest In Peace, Ikea Bike

In the end, the Ikea bike wasn’t tough enough for the streets. The Swedish furniture company announced last week that it’s recalling all of its Sladda bicycles due to safety issues and canceling all production. Them’s the breaks.

Marketed as the “the perfect bike for urban mobility,” the flat-packed Sladda stood in as a muse for the company’s sustainable vision for city living. At $399 it was relatively inexpensive for a new bike, and easy enough to imagine hopeful shoppers picking one up alongside dressers and bookshelves after moving to a new city.

When it launched in Europe in late 2016, a feature on the Sladda’s designers in Ikea Today pitched it as a practical, everyday vehicle designed to “break down barriers” for would-be urban cyclists. Ikea emphasized the “big picture” of getting more people riding bikes as an alternative to cars in our increasingly urbanized world—even if there was some assembly required. But in retrospect, even as the home furnishing company celebrated the Sladda as “a Scandinavian bike for the world,” Ikea was appropriately down-to-earth about its prospects as a bike maker:

IKEA will never be a bike company but it can use its principles of Democratic Design—form, function, sustainability and low price to influence behavioural change. For IKEA, this is an investment in the future.

Ultimately a flawed drive belt did the commuter bicycle in. The company said in its recall statement that it has received 11 reports of the belt snapping, with two incidents resulting in minor injuries, adding that “a well-established component supplier” advised them to recall the bike.

The belt drive in action. (CityLab)

That belt drive was originally a selling point, chosen over a conventional metal chain to eliminate maintenance needs and make bike ownership a little easier for the novice. But that choice also made it impossible for Ikea to simply swap in a chain on the bike, which won awards for its design. Fast Company reports that Ikea sold about 4,900 bikes in the United States.

Ikea is offering a full refund on the bike and the accessory racks, panniers, and utility cart that promised to turn the two-wheeler into a convenient car-replacement vehicle for cargo. (When I reviewed the Sladda last year for CityLab, it managed to pull an Ikea dresser safely on an attachable trailer.) So raise an Allen wrench in tribute to mark the shelving of the Ikea Sladda—you were too fragile for this world.

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Watch Immigrant Prosecutions Spike to Their Highest Level Under Trump

In early April, Jeff Sessions instituted a “zero tolerance” policy mandating that U.S. district attorneys located at the Southwest border prosecute every person who entered the country without proper authorization—to the maximum extent of the law.

According to data gathered by TRAC, the policy is likely having an immediate and discernible impact: Immigrants are being prosecuted more than ever before under the Trump administration. April saw 8,298 immigrants being prosecuted for a federal crime, a 30 percent increase since March.

This is an even more dramatic increase from the first four months of last year: In January to April of 2017, prosecutions accounted for 14,785 apprehended individuals; compared to 24,794 new cases during the same period in 2018.

After Sessions’ zero-tolerance announcement in April 2018, criminal prosecutions increased in all five federal judicial districts along the Southwest border: Texas South, Texas West, New Mexico, Arizona, and California South.

But New Mexico saw the sharpest proportional increase of 110 percent between January and April: Prosecutions jumped from 536 in January to 1,181 cases in April. In raw numbers, the district of Texas West––which includes the cities of Austin, Del Rio, El Paso, Midland, and Pecos/Alpine––saw the highest spike from 1,357 in January to 2,767 in April.

Arizona, by contrast, did not see a significant increase in the number of prosecutions. But one of its cities, Tucson, has long had one of the highest rates of prosecutions. In April, despite the increases elsewhere, Tucson had the greatest share of new initiated legal proceedings of any southwest border city, at 1,392, followed by Las Cruces, with 1,095.

Federal District/Seat Total Jan 2018 Feb 2018 Mar 2018 Apr 2018
Southwest Border 24,794 5,191 4,937 6,368 8,298
Arizona
       Phoenix 511 97 94 157 163
       Tucson 4,495 1,065 896 1,142 1,392
       Yuma 649 262 123 145 119
California, South
       El Centro 575 115 166 166 128
       San Diego 1,582 315 304 374 589
New Mexico
       Albuquerque 182 26 31 39 86
       Las Cruces 2,992 537 555 805 1,095
Texas, South
       Brownsville 646 159 124 140 223
       Corpus Christi 336 75 52 80 129
       Houston 5 1 3 0 1
       Laredo 3,025 552 741 971 761
       McAllen 2,736 625 557 713 841
      Victoria 11 5 1 1 4
Texas, West
       Austin 84 12 15 13 44
       Del Rio 3,115 584 570 937 1,024
       El Paso 2,751 706 596 555 894
       Midland 3 0 1 2 0
       Pecos/Alpine 1,096 55 108 128 805

April marks the highest rate of criminal prosecutions in the Trump administration. But in the last 11 years, there have been four other months with even greater numbers, all of them during the Obama and Bush administrations. The month with the highest number of prosecutions was September 2008, with 9,893. In second, December 2012 with 9,268; and in third September 2014, with 8,857.

This isn’t the first time the federal government has instated a zero-tolerance policy for unauthorized border crossings. The first one was enacted during George W. Bush’s administration under the name of “Operation Streamline” in December 2005, which continued to be an official policy under Obama.

According to TRAC, Operation Streamline––along with an increasing number of recently hired border agents, apprehensions, and pending court cases––added a large number of new proceedings to several courts seated along the Southwest border, which were already flooded with unattended, unprocessed, and pending cases.

Even though criminal prosecutions under Trump still remain lower than those under Obama or Bush, experts at TRAC expect a progressive increase as the zero-tolerance policy continues to go into effect. “[Prosecutions] could well continue to build as the policy is more fully implemented,” the report says.

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The Paradox of Prosperity at America’s Universities

Leading research universities have played a central role in America’s dominance of high-tech sector after high-tech sector. From software to biotech, the technology and talent streaming out of these universities have been crucial to the startups that have powered innovation and local economic growth in many regions.

Silicon Valley is unimaginable without Stanford University. The innovation ecosystem of Boston and Cambridge turns on MIT. And research universities have played a key role in reviving cities and neighborhoods hollowed out by crime and deindustrialization. Pittsburgh’s revival, for instance, has been spurred by technologies pioneered at Carnegie Mellon, such as robotics and autonomous vehicles.

But even as universities have driven so much innovation and economic growth, they have also played a role in increasing urban inequality and economic segregation. It’s not just happening in the expensive bedroom communities surrounding universities like Stanford or the gentrifying neighborhoods near New York University, either. As I point out in The New Urban Crisis, college towns like Austin and Boulder also have extraordinarily high levels of inequality and economic segregation.

This dual role of the university is the focus of a new study that I co-authored with a colleague at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School, Ruben Gaetani. The study, which is forthcoming in a special issue of Managerial and Decision Economics, takes a close empirical look at the dual role of the university in innovation and inequality across U.S. cities and metropolitan areas.

Gaetani and I look at the effects of more than 300 leading U.S. research universities on innovation and economic segregation since the year 2000. We consider the role of these universities using detailed data on innovations (based on patents) and venture-capital-financed startup companies, and on income and occupational class. Our data enable us to look at the paradox of prosperity that universities bring within as well as across metros.

The university and innovation

Universities play key roles in innovation (based on patents) and local entrepreneurship (based on startups). Metropolitan areas with a research university have 62 percent more patenting (that is, patents registered within the metropolitan area) than those that do not. This association is even stronger in metros with at least one research university that ranks among the world’s 100 leading universities, with about 121 percent more patenting. Metros with universities that are highly ranked in science and engineering—particularly medicine, computer science, and electronics—tend to produce even more patents.

But university-driven innovation is highly uneven. The San Francisco metro is far and away the leader, generating 6.9 patents per 100 students. Baltimore is next, with 3.3 patents per 100 students, followed by Boston (2.3), Durham–Chapel Hill (2.3), and Los Angeles (2.1)—all noted tech hubs. Conversely the metros with the lowest rates of university innovation generated just 0.1 patents per 100 students.

The correlation between number of patents and the presence of a research university, or a research university in the top 100 (Ruben Gaetani)

But patents can be picked up and used anywhere; they do not necessarily translate into more local innovation. Indeed, there is even greater geographic variation in how university knowledge is picked up and used by local industry.

To get at this, we look at the rate at which local academic papers are cited in local patents. In the Boston–Cambridge metro, for example, local patents cite local academic research at a rate of 7.6 citations per 100 local academic papers. San Diego comes next, with a rate of 6.0, followed by San Francisco (3.6) and Austin (3.0). On the other hand, in the metros that use the lowest levels of local knowledge, the rate is just 0.05.

Interestingly, we find a strong correlation between local and non-local use of university knowledge. In other words, universities in some metros are much better at generating technologically useful knowledge than others, not just for their own communities, but for companies and inventors nationwide.

There is also considerable geographic variation in how universities contribute to venture-capital-backed startups. Metros that are home to at least one research university have nearly 50 percent more venture-capital investment in startups than those that have none. And metros with universities that are ranked among the 50 leading universities in the world have 200 percent more venture-capital investment, even after controlling for population.

Look at the maps below, which show the clustering of VC investment (darker shares of blue identify higher levels of investment) around research universities (the red star) across selected metro areas. You can see the concentration of investment around Stanford in the Bay Area; around the University of Texas in Austin; and around Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh.

Concentration of VC investment and the location of a major research university (Gaetani)

Physical proximity is indeed a key factor in the connection between universities and high-tech startups. Doubling the distance from a university ranked in the top 100 in the world decreases the amount of local venture-capital investment by about 45 percent.

The university and urban inequality

At the same time that leading universities help spur local innovation and startups—and perhaps because they do—they also contribute to increased local inequality. Metros with at least one research university have considerably higher levels of income segregation than those with none. And income segregation is roughly 10 percent higher in metros with a research university that is ranked among the top 100 in the world.

We see a similar pattern when we look at occupational segregation—the segregation of highly paid knowledge workers from lower-wage, blue-collar industrial and service workers. Occupational segregation is roughly 12 percent higher in metros with a major research university that is ranked among the top 100 globally.

Universities are, by definition, magnets for knowledge workers. They have long attracted faculty and researchers to live nearby. More recently they have served as magnets for knowledge workers and members of the creative class who are not associated with the university—a consequence of the amenities and quality of place they provide.

The maps below show the concentration of knowledge workers (darker shades of blue indicate a higher percentage change in the number of knowledge workers) around major research universities (again indicated by a red star). Note the substantially higher concentrations of advantaged knowledge workers around MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, around the University of Washington in Seattle, around UCLA, USC, and Caltech in L.A., and around Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

Change in the proportion of knowledge workers in relation to major research universities (Gaetani)

Many neighborhoods that house or are close to major universities, like Westwood around UCLA or La Jolla around the University of California, San Diego, have long been affluent communities. That said, ZIP codes that are adjacent to major research universities have seen significant inflows of knowledge workers between 1990 and 2010. Indeed, doubling a ZIP code’s distance from a top 100 research university leads to a 1.1 percentage point decline in the change in knowledge workers over that period.

The increasing concentration of knowledge workers in and around major universities has, in effect, pushed out less advantaged residents, leading to rising segregation over time. This is magnified by the fact that many urban universities have been located in and around distressed urban neighborhoods. As knowledge workers have increasingly flowed back to these areas, such as the neighborhoods surrounding NYU, USC, Johns Hopkins, and other institutions, these divides have become magnified.

Universities and inclusive prosperity

Universities have played a key role in propelling innovation, in generating powerful high-tech companies, and in galvanizing the urban revitalization of many cities and urban neighborhoods. It is now time for universities, as signature examples of urban anchor institutions—institutions that literally “anchor” their neighborhoods and communities—to turn their attention to generating more inclusive and broadly shared prosperity. They can lead in this effort and encourage other anchor institutions, including tech companies and real estate developers, to join them.

Many research universities provide housing assistance to enable their faculty to live in expensive, superstar cities; they can extend this to their own service workers and neighborhood residents. They can invest in shared community amenities and public spaces. They can increase the pay for and upgrade low-wage service work on and around campus. They can forge community benefits agreements that help ensure more broadly shared prosperity for workers and residents. Universities must commit to using their own talent base to conduct research that identifies the most effective strategies for forging more inclusive prosperity.

Ultimately, as a key institution of knowledge-based urban capitalism, the research university both reflects and contributes to the core contradiction that sits at the heart of the New Urban Crisis. By drawing in talent and clustering innovative activities, universities also exacerbate the divisions that increasingly vex our cities and communities. Instead of just reinforcing winner-take-all urbanism, it’s time for them to lead the shift to a more inclusive urbanism for all.

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CityLab Daily: Is LEED Tough Enough?

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

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What We’re Following

Silver and gold: In the past 20 years, the LEED rating system has reshaped architecture and real estate in the United States. The environmental building certification is now expected for high-end offices, and it’s available for virtually any type of construction, including entire neighborhoods and cities. While it has inarguably changed the course of the building industry for the better, there’s ongoing debate about how much energy it really saves and if stricter standards are in order. On CityLab: Is LEED Tough Enough for the Climate-Change Era?

‘Burb watching: Eight states hold primary elections today, and the future of the House may be decided in the suburbs, according to a roundup by The New York Times. That’s especially true in New Jersey, which both parties have called “the most suburban state in the country.” Democrats have a plausible shot at all five House seats currently held by Republicans in the state.

Voters also go to the polls today in San Francisco’s closely watched mayoral race. Read CityLab’s coverage on what the unusual race says about the city’s progressive soul.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Post-Olympics Pyeongchang Is a Ghost Town

Three months after the Winter Games, the crowds are gone and residents wonder about the future.

Sam Weber

Taxi-Driver Suicides Are a Warning

Technology has pushed a vulnerable, largely immigrant, population into an economically precarious situation—even as its prospects of upward mobility dwindle.

Reihan Salam

This Is the Last Straw

It’s time to crack down on single-use plastic drinking utensils, the world’s most disposable product.

Kriston Capps

In Search of the ‘Just City’

Toni Griffin, one of the leading black women in architecture and design, is leading her students at Harvard in envisioning and designing the “just city.” And it looks different in Boston than it does in Rotterdam.

Brentin Mock

Building a Community in Brooklyn’s Backyards

In 1983, neighbors on an unusual block agreed to create a more open, shared space behind their homes. What they built remains a special slice of nature in a bustling city.

Hannah Frishberg


Gone Solo

You don’t need an app to escape the digital rat race—just go outside. The chart above shows how Americans spend leisure time pretty poorly: a large majority goes to television, and I’d bet phones are eating into a lot of those other activities, like socializing and reading. Researchers from two North Carolina colleges recommend a better way to relax: by going on solitary expeditions in nature. That kind of solitude can help people improve their engagement with their work and community, and help them clear their minds. Read how alone time in nature is good for your mind and soul.


What We’re Reading

White flight returns, this time it’s from the suburbs (Governing)

An urbanist guide to children’s books (Streetsblog)

The rogue world of one of New York’s major trash haulers (ProPublica)

You can now wear the MTA’s masterpiece on your wrist (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.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this newsletter misidentified the affiliation of the researchers recommending outdoor alone time. They are from two colleges, not Outward Bound.

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