We Need to Talk About the Far-Out Future of Cities

It has become almost cliché to recite the fact that for the first time in the history of our species, the majority of people live in cities. Rarely, however, do we fully investigate the challenges and opportunities emerging from this profound shift. In this critical moment in urban history, how do we envision the far-out futures of our cities? And how do we use our most affirmative visions to catalyze action, taking the steps needed to shape the futures that we believe in?

It is time to surface the questions that enable us to fundamentally reimagine the urbanist space. To that end, Longpath, an initiative focused on fostering long-term thinking and behavior, has convened some of today’s leading urbanists to broaden the aperture through which we explore city futures, examining the many rich historical narratives and possible scenarios that inform urban discourse.

Below are excerpts from Longpaths’ interviews with these mayors, thought leaders, and practitioners.


Longpath: Albert Einstein famously said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” What are some shifts in mindset that are needed to achieve your vision for the future of cities?


Set a goal of sustainable happiness

Gil Penalosa, founder of 880 cities

I think that we need to realize that the United States is going to grow by around a hundred million people in the next 50 years, and almost all of them are going to go to cities. So we are urban, and we need to create cities that are good for people. And I think the most important mindset shift would be for leaders in cities to become like guardian angels of the gentle majority: the children, the older adults, the poor.

Leaders should also think about how to have sustainable happiness. By sustainable happiness I don’t mean the happiness of the having more cars or more highways or bigger homes. At no time in history has the U.S. had as much wealth, but the index of happiness has not been very high. Countries like South Korea that have increased a lot of their per capita income are not seeing gains in the levels of happiness.

Reinject pragmatism into government

Sam Liccardo, mayor, San Jose

In the current political climate, we are so excessively polarized and everyone is constantly turning [to] ideological battles and we’re forgetting about the facts. The overwhelming majority of our residents just want buses to run on time, and they want schools that work for their kids. So we need to reinject pragmatism in governance. You generally don’t have masses of thousands of people marching in city hall saying “We’re moderates. We want political change…at a moderate pace.” But this is a period that critically calls for us to elevate our political discourse to moderate what we say and how we say it. And to start you have to recognize the importance of human relationships even with those who disagree.

A mindset that needs to change is what I call temporal myopia: the excessive focus on today at the expense of tomorrow. You know I mean I’m certainly not immune from those pressures. We all face election cycles, certainly, but I think it’s just important for all of us just to remind ourselves when we got into politics for. We’re all part of this common project of legacy-building. It’s really about those impacts you have in community that you may not see for a generation because we started a program to get, you know, a thousand low income teens in gang-impacted neighborhoods to jobs and a generation from now we might really see the benefit of that. But those are seeds you have to sow and water for a while before you’re going to see them bloom.

Diversify leadership

Toni Griffin, professor in practice of urban planning, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

The tables are not diverse enough to be quite honest. There are not enough people in leadership that are representative of their constituents, who are oftentimes least benefiting from the current growth some cities are having. And I just find that to be problematic because it limits the full understanding and scope of the challenge that we have.

Bridge the gap between “technologists” and “urbanists”

Dan Doctoroff, chairman and CEO, Sidewalk Labs

There are two camps who have to come together to integrate technology into the urban environment. One the one hand there are the urbanists, the people who plan cities, manage cities, think about cities. And on the other hand there are the technologists, the people who understand technology and who are capable of building new products and services. There’s a massive cultural divide between the two. They literally speak completely different languages. They operate in very different time cycle. For urbanists, the expectation is for things to take longer to get done, whereas the technologist is about the fast iterations, prototyping, getting things out in the market, testing very quickly. And getting those two camps to understand each other is a meaningful barrier to the integration of innovation into the urban environment.

Concentrate on the basics and don’t look for silver bullets

George Abbott, director, external Affairs, Memphis River Parks Partnership

We have to embrace the fact that there is no silver bullet solution. There can be a tendency to look at these big things like Amazon HQ, and think that it will solve all of our problems. But in reality I think you’re much better served by concentrating on the basics, figuring out how to use small-scale interventions that don’t need a huge amount of money to make your city a place that is more pleasant to live in. Focus on providing spaces where people like to be, providing a variety of housing options, providing good education, and good ways for folks to increase their economic opportunity. There are many small things we can be looking [to], but we go for a 10-year multimillion-dollar transformational development opportunity that may or may not exist. The resources you spend chasing that would be better expended doing little things well and having a vision that extends beyond your period of elected office.

Build stronger community institutions to counter corporate interests

Shelley Poticia, managing director, Healthy People and Thriving Communities program at the Natural Resource Defense Council

I think the corporatization of real estate [the prominence of large-scale developers concerned first and foremost with a strict adherence to the bottom line] has really contributed to some good things but it’s also contributed to people feeling left out of the economy. It also doesn’t reward long-term thinking. So we’re not really seeing the incorporation of the effects of climate change into corporate real estate. Instead of focusing so much on whether a project can pencil out for the banks, I think we need to also ask, ‘Will the people who live and work in these places thrive?’

I think that we need stronger community institutions that can really engage and demand that their viewpoint be taken into account in decisions about how neighborhoods change. We need new tools so that there’s more community ownership, particularly in the housing sector. And I think we need the public sector to really step up and have a stronger backbone to think about the long term benefits to the community rather than what I often see is cities scrambling for tax base.

Invest in people, not just infrastructure

Michael Tubbs, mayor, Stockton, California

Our mindset needs to shift from investing just in infrastructure and building, to really investing in people and improving their social capital. I always say the most pointed investment you can make is in our communities. That means especially investing in those who are the hardest to invest in: folks who may have criminal records, folks who may not have money, folks who have immigrated from another country.


LongPath: What do you see as the critical inflection point in the past 100 years of urban history—a historical moment or an event that has had lasting ramifications for the cities of today?

[Note: Almost all interviewees referenced the introduction of the automobile and auto-centric planning as the critical inflection point of the past century. Many also noted the power of federal legislation that impacted population flow and diversity in American cities.]


Jane Jacobs’ influence on optimizing policies for people

Michael Berkowitz, president, 100 Resilient Cities

Jane Jacobs and her opposition to development in New York, and her victory over traffic engineers was definitely significant and continues to be inspirational. She’s become sort of an emblem to the new urban thinkers now. Her work moved us beyond the thinking of the early 20th century where the industrial revolution was about creating silos for efficiency. The government took an engineering mindset that optimized for efficiency, but because of Jane’s work we view cities more holistically.  Now you have departments of transportation that are moving away from optimizing for car drivers to optimizing for people. The value of walkability has certainly changed.

When cars were given priority over pedestrians

George Abbot

The proliferation of the automobile in the 20s and 30s. I was at the NACTO Conference and they described the first moment when cars were given priority over pedestrians. For a long time these new automobiles and pedestrians shared the street. It was actually the car lobby that came up with the concept of traffic lights so that the flow of automobile traffic could be sped up. And that was kind of the first moment where the car took priority over the pedestrian. It just kind of spiraled from there. Those laws were adopted by other cities and then we see the legacy of that today. And you can even trace that to the proliferation of highways and the way the federal highway building program destroyed much of the urban fabric.

The Immigration Act, and the rise of cities

Bruce Katz, author of The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism

One critical inflection point was the Immigration Act of 1965 which basically opened up America’s borders again. That had a rejuvenating effect on cities because it brought a whole new group of residents into many parts of U.S. cities and metropolitan areas that were starting to depopulate.

Globally, the the most important thing that’s happened in the last 100 years is simply the rise of cities. The organizing geography of civilization is shifting. It’s ubiquitous. The question is how do you manage that, how do you enable cities to be more livable and higher quality? The United States is essentially a metropolitan nation. You know half of people who live in rural America actually live within metropolitan areas because our metropolitan areas have sprawl and have decentralized in such a profound way. So when we talk about the urban and rural division, we almost never mention the word metropolitan, which is odd. The divide is not as pronounced as people think. What we need to do, I think, is create a new narrative to enhance the linkages between the core the peripheral.

The U.S. in particular tends to focus on a singular policy fix. Or perhaps the charismatic almost celebrity political leader. And what I focus a lot on in my work are institutional structures that are able to unlock capital, large amounts of capital for investments in the future. We need different kinds of 21st century institutions.

Longer life expectancies

Gil Penalosa

About a hundred years ago, people were dying because there was no clean water and sewage and vaccination. All of a sudden we’re living much longer. That has had many many ramifications and implications. About a hundred and fifty years ago we didn’t have any country in the world that had a life expectancy above 45. Today we don’t have any with a life expectancy below 45. So it has been totally transformational.

The invention of the car and redlining

Carol Coletta, senior fellow of American Cities Practice, Kresge Foundation

I think the invention of the automobile allowed us to spread out in ways that I think in hindsight have proven to be not very smart from a convenience or delight standpoint, not very smart from a climate standpoint, not very smart from a resource standpoint. Also, not very smart from a trust standpoint. There are lots of reasons why that ended up being a really unfortunate development. I wouldn’t want to go back to a time before cars, but I also don’t think we adjusted to that technology appropriately.

Another major moment for cities, was redlining. This was the institutionalization of inequality and separation. The way it reinforced inequality and reinforced separation was a really bad thing. We’re a society that needs everybody contributing, and we need no waste whatsoever, including in terms of people and their talent. So redlining was just stupid. Now we’re in a place where we’re trying to rectify it.

The decline of urban public school systems

Jonathan Rose

First the advent of rail and streetcars and then the advent of the automobile. Then post-World War II the growth of the suburbs and the decline of cities as a place for middle class, which occurred simultaneously with that the decline of urban public school systems. Schools are a really important part of making a city work for families.

Industrialization brought a whole lot of jobs to cities and help really dramatically expand them but also brought pollution. And so also what you saw in the 60s, 70s, and 80s was this confluence of the decline of the public school systems and the rise of the urban and the loss of jobs at the same time. And that hit cities really hard. So 100 years ago you had all these trains which were moving people to cities and then 50 years ago you had these trends which were moving people away from cities. Now that’s reversing.

The Civil Rights Act and its aftermath

Toni Griffin

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed, giving greater access, opportunity, and rights to African-Americans in this country, they began to dismantle the decades of federal policies and programs. But you can’t dismantle racial segregation. That manifested itself in cities all across the U.S. through racially restrictive covenants, blockbusting policies, redlining, Federal Highways Act—all  programs that were designed to exclude and separate African-Americans from other populations. In turn, it also deeply divided cities—by class, in addition to race. Through the 60s and 70s the struggles really began to operationalize. The Civil Rights Act was pretty pivotal.

The decision to invest in highways instead of transit

San Liccardo

I think many urbanists like myself lament that we didn’t get city building done before the automobile came along. If I could go back, I would encourage the Eisenhower administration to reinvest all that money that went into the interstate highway system and double down on transit. I don’t pretend that anybody in the 40s or 50s could have seen that. Newly constructed highways would divide communities, lead to suburban sprawl, and increase social isolation and alienation. I think it’s our task now to see how we can retrofit the city. In my work in San Jose, I want to transform a city that was built for cars into a city for people.

The steam engine, the electric grid, and the automobile

Dan Doctoroff

I actually think we’ve had three big innovations over the last 200 years that have fundamentally shaped the modern city. One being the steam engine in the early part of the 19th century, the second being the electric grid in the latter part of the 19th century, and then the automobile and its widespread adoption in the early part of the 20th century. I would argue that they haven’t changed a whole lot. The way we get around is essentially the same, the way we get our energy is the same, the way we get our water is basically the same, the way our buildings are built is essentially the same, the way we do government functions is largely the same. That’s the whole thesis behind Sidewalk Labs. When Google and I got together, we shared a belief that we’re at what we would call the fourth urban technological revolution. This is a combination of digital technologies all based on the Internet, the fact that everyone is connected or will be within a relatively brief period of time.

The power of advanced computing sensing, the whole idea of social networks, as well as sort of new design and fabrication technologies can build off of a lot of these other digital technologies. Our whole thesis underlying Sidewalk Labs is that the convergence of these technologies at this moment in time actually heralds sort of a fourth technological revolution that will play out over the course of the next generation or two. We actually sit at the very early stages of that. We’re only beginning to glimpse it, and I probably use the word glimpse as maybe even a slight overstatement.

Jim Crow and the war on drugs

Michael Tubbs

Three for me. The backlash after Reconstruction in the 50 to 70 years of Jim Crow. Just the terrorizing effect of it. Also, the advent of open markets and international trade and the declining manufacturing and semi-skilled labor. And then the third thing would be the war on drugs. The war on drugs is part of the rise of the prison incarceration state where you have whole ecosystems and economies and billions of dollars in prison stocks traded on Wall Street. It created a profit motive where we’re locking people up for nonviolent offenses while not necessarily corresponding with the decreasing crime. Doing that ravages communities of color. And you see the ripple effects today.

Interviews were conducted and compiled by Longpath City Fellow Chad Rochkind.

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Fortress ‘Black in America’: Closed to Africans?

“Black in America” is like a fortress that is all at once forbidding and inviting. As an African arriving in America, I took it for granted that I would gain access to that fortress of black belonging by virtue of shared ancestry. How mistaken I was. When I moved from Kenya to New York City, my reception baffled me: The racist ridicule I got was mostly from black people, an experience many Africans in America tell me they have shared.

I was living with relatives in Briarwood, Queens, then a mix of Asians, whites, Latinos and some blacks, while pursuing graduate studies at a college in Manhattan and working as a teaching artist. In these classrooms of mostly-black students, I played a word-association game: I would write the word “Africa” on the board, and the volley of uncensored words the students contributed were all negative.

I was careful not to make the singular examples represent the whole because I could also see black people who embraced their own self-fashioned African identity with fierce pride. But one thing seemed clear to me: We African immigrants and our African identity were troublesome for many blacks. I would also come to learn that the black identity was equally troublesome for many Africans. It seemed to me we reminded blacks of an identity they had been taught to be ashamed of.

Back in Kenya, studying American literature in college and getting to read the works of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, the poetry of Paul Dunbar and the Harlem Renaissance greats, never educated me on what it feels like to live as a black person in present-day America. I learned my accomplished book knowledge of the black experience was as worthless as a sack of cowry shells in a bank account.

One day I mentioned to a friend that I was going home to watch “Murphy Brown” since it was one of my favorite shows. I used to watch it in Kenya, I said. “You watch what?!” My friend was a black student. She asked this with a mixture of disdain and confusion. My education into being black in America was just beginning.  Why would I watch a show of mostly white people? Yet while growing up in Nairobi and Mombasa, we watched it all. But watching “Murphy Brown,” and even “Good Times” or “The Jeffersons,” could not teach me about the complexities of American race relations. We watched the shows for their entertainment value, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of the tragedy that carried black comedy. The tragedy of race and racism was always there in those American sitcoms I had watched in Kenya, but I was not a black person. I was an African immigrant. And that too was a designation that took some learning.

In Kenya, racism was a concept that existed only in books and never in conversation. Tribalism is what we lived with daily. Our identity was and still is ingrained in ethnicity, not in skin color. It explains why most Africans experience being called “black” or “African” for the first time when they come to America. Neither “black” nor “African” are conscious identity markers for Africans in Africa. One is a Taita, Igbo, Shona, etc. So any jokes or reference to racism in the black-American sitcoms flew right over our heads. The tiny population of Kenyan whites left over from a colonial past are mainly cocooned in their own enclaves and any effects of post-colonial white supremacy remain very different in an African country where black people run their own political affairs.

New York was overwhelming after my home in Taita, a county a few miles from Mombasa. It was the most-densely peopled city I’d ever been to, and the most intensely lonely. The perks that come with African extended family bonds are profusely underrated. I certainly could never have afforded New York rent, which explains why many African immigrants who land in New York leave soon after for more affordable cities. After I moved to Washington, D.C., I began to fit into my African-in-America identity. D.C. is a slower and more deliberate city than New York. You get to pause and attempt real human connections. I felt more at home there. In D.C., I found kindred spirits in the activists and black intellectuals steeped in the smarts and grits of politics and position.

In Washington, I finally felt I might have a better chance at being stitched into the black identity that I was beginning to find rich and alluring. But I soon found that I couldn’t just claim the Sistah identity. I was treated with respect and regarded as a comrade in art and struggle by other blacks, but without expectation that I would, or could, share the conversations that only people with a shared historical and cultural experience understood.

My place has been as one hovering somewhere around the outer rim of the inner sanctum of blackness. I watch and learn and laugh the loudest when I catch that one joke that almost got away, just to make up for all the others that went right over my head.

Many Africans in America find little value in identifying with Blackhood. They resist being identified with blacks once they become aware of the American caste system that puts melanin-rich humans at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Africans in America have this false hope that being an immigrant saves them from classification on that totem pole. They check the box “Other.” When they make it, most buy homes outside the city, as if American cities and their inner-city component haunts them with a certain stigma of failure.

This reticence about bonding with blacks has made Continental Africans miss out on some of the most amazing inter-personal relationships possible. This claim will undoubtedly be met with derisive laughter by fellow Africans in the U.S. who say they cannot handle the aggression of black people in relationships. Unfortunately, the angry black person is a stereotype; one as dangerous and misinformed as the ugliest stereotypes about Africans held by black people.

The black American has been actively engaged in emancipation on the Motherland since most notably, Marcus Garvey. In the ‘60s through ‘90s, Congressional Black Caucus members and TransAfrica Forum (now TransAfrica) were responsible for fighting the American legislative and corporate anchors that propped up an oppressive white supremacist reign in South Africa. Through the Aughts, Friends of the Congo, a black initiative, has been fighting genocidal neo-imperialism in the Democratic Republic of Congo by confronting American corporate greed in Africa.

Clearly, African immigrants have a natural ally in their Black siblings in the US. To ignore this factor is myopic and self-defeating. This has left most African immigrants weak in agency, splintered as a people, and visionless in a foreign country. They either keep to themselves and thrive as individuals or form collectives around ethnicities, not as Africans. They will also form pockets of small professional and investment blocs. These splintered efforts keep them advancing at their lowest potential.

Pew Research statistics estimates Africans in the U.S. at about two million. This is likely a very conservative number in light of the fact that many African immigrants who have multiplied within the U.S. do not participate in the census.

Although a 2018 National American Economy report notes that “African immigrants boast higher levels of education than the overall U.S. population” they remain a population that seems completely uninterested in the incredible possibilities that come with rising as a monolith.

The story in these statistics is that African immigrants are not going anywhere, and they will remain recognized as black people within the socio-economic stratification of American society. Some Africans have fought for Africa Desks in local governments, arguing that socio-culturally and politically, they are unique enough to warrant a separate recognition from African Americans. Forming lobbying power as Africans for African interests is fine but attempting to form separate recognition on the tapestry of black is delusional.

As a resident of Baltimore, exploring black Baltimore has brought me closer to a Nairobi experience than any other city I’ve known. From fighting for healthy communities to promoting black business patronage, capturing fiery post-Freddie Gray activism, and lobbying for a black arts district, that feeling of being stitched into the tapestry of the black identity is now coming full circle.

Melanin identity goes beyond skin. It courses through our separate histories and through a collective unconscious that causes blacks to reach out across continents for each other. It is wise for Continental Africans to figure out how to become black politically and economically in America. Socially? Love will find a way.

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More Routes = More Riders

Noticing a smaller huddle at the bus stop recently? You’re not crazy. Transit ridership

But the strongest determinant of ridership’s rise and fall may not be the lure of another mode—it’s service cuts on bus and train systems. According to a new study by researchers at McGill University’s department of urban planning, transit agencies are repelling riders by shrinking routes and schedules on buses in particular. “The more service a transit authority provides (measured as the number of kilometers driven annually by public transit vehicles—VRK), the more transit trips it will attract,” the authors wrote in an article summarizing their research, which was presented at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C., last January.

The researchers gathered data on transit ridership, fares, and operations, between 2002 to 2015 for 25 large transit agencies in the United States and Canada, from the National Transit Database and the Canadian Urban Transit Association. Operations were measured in terms of vehicle revenue kilometers—which is the distance traveled by vehicles available to the public with an expectation of carrying passengers, according to the American Public Transportation Association—for buses, trains, and the two modes combined. The researchers performed an analysis to find the strongest relationships between these and more than a dozen additional factors related to the 25 service areas, including gasoline prices, GDP per capita, geographic and population sizes, the portion of households without a car, and the presence of Uber and bike-sharing.

Gas prices did have some statistical bearing on ridership, the analysis shows, but it was fairly weak. Much stronger were the factors that transit agencies and cities themselves control. Transit service drove ridership more than any other factor: A 10 percent increase in VRK was associated with a roughly 8 percent increase in ridership, with all other variables constant, they found.

And buses, the backbone of mass transit for the vast majority of North American cities, were the primary driver. New light-rail and streetcar segments have popped up in several North American cities over the past 15 years. The researchers found that a strong uptick in rail service between 2002 and 2007, during which time bus service remained stable, had a positive relationship with overall ridership. But between 2011 and 2015, transit agencies saw a decline in ridership as they slashed bus service by about 14 percent, even as they continued to build out rail as steadily as before.

Boisjoly, G., Grisé, E., Maguire, M., Veillette, M., Deboosere, R., Berrebi, E., & 43 El‐Geneidy, A. (2018). “Invest in your riders: A longitudinal analysis of the determinants of public 44 transport ridership in 25 North America cities.”

Fares also mattered: Conversely, a 10 percent increase in fare was associated with a 2 percent decrease in ridership. Not significant: the presence of Uber or bike-sharing.

Like all studies, this paper has its limitations—namely that the factors the researchers studied were constrained by the data that was available for all 25 agencies. And there may be local factors at play that complicate the one-to-one relationship between ridership and service hours that the study implies. “I think the issue is nuanced,” Yonah Freemark, a transit consultant and Ph.D. student in urban planning at MIT, said in an email. “Just expanding the number of bus hours, but in the wrong corridor, may not bring many people on board.” And the lack of counterfactuals in these types of analyses is always tricky. Some cities that have increased bus service, such as Baltimore, have still seen declines in ridership.

Still, this study suggests that transit agencies struggling to keep passengers on board needn’t look too far for explanations. What seems to determine whether people ride transit is how well it compares to other options, in terms of cost, frequency, reliability, and connectivity. Uber is not killing off the bus in every city in North America, at least not by itself. Cash-strapped transit agencies have been sabotaging themselves.

How to stop? The pithy title of the McGill study might say it all: “Invest in the ride.”

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Navigator: Summer Readin’

I have a long summer reading list that I keep ) ¤ The forgotten women of the Bauhaus movement. (ArchDaily) ¤ Hanoi, after the war. (The New York Times) ¤ The anatomy of a food truck. (Washington Post) ¤ The queer history behind the movie A League of Their Own. (Narratively) ¤ When a photographer gave cameras to rural kids around the world. (New Yorker) ¤ An animated guide to never getting lost. (Atlas Obscura) ¤ The Mumbai man who mastered the American crossword. (Narratively) ¤

(Emma Darvick)

This week’s bonus recommendation comes from CityLab contributor Lyndsey Gilpin, who curates a great weekly newsletter about ecology, justice, and culture in the American South:

Despite how it’s often portrayed, Appalachia is complicated, nuanced, and diverse. I loved episode four of NPR’s Embedded: Coal Stories, which dug into the history and complexities of race in the region with a simple story: how two young best friends—one black and one white, one a Trump critic and one a Trump supporter, one a coal miner and one struggling to find a steady job—are navigating the immense changes happening here.

Finally, I’m going to leave you with something that’s apparently trending: brutalist home goods! Garden gnomes! Tetra Soaps! Cuckoo clocks that resemble famous buildings! I know where CityLab’s Mark Byrnes and Kriston Capps are spending their pocket money this summer.

View from the ground:

@vickophoto showed us a cyclist tackling stairs in Quebec, @alisonawtrey captured Newark Penn Station after hours, @jklou1996 shot Pyeonghang from above, and @storiesfromdna photographed the architecture of Russia’s Petrogradsky District.

Tag us on Instagram with the hashtag #citylabontheground.

Over and out,

Tanvi

@Tanvim

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One Year After Trump Left the Paris Agreement, Who’s Still In?

When Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement last June, cities and states promised they’d fill the environmental vacuum. If the U.S. would no longer deliver on its commitment to lower carbon emissions 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, as the international agreement had stipulated, local leaders would. “We’re going to do everything America would have done if it had stayed committed,” said former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg at the time.

A full year has passed since that commitment was broken and another was made. And while states and cities have taken climate action on the ground—banning hydrofluorocarbon pollutants (California); divesting pension funds from fossil fuel companies (New York State and several cities), and levying harsher-than-ever emissions regulations (California again)—it’s been difficult to measure their collective progress toward fulfilling the accord, which traditionally does not accept members other than countries in its ranks. So to mark the June 1 anniversary, states and cities have set themselves a new raft of green goals.

Starting today, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the ex-mayor’s charitable foundation, is holding an American Cities Climate Challenge. In October, the foundation will give away $70 million divided up among 20 “Leadership Cities”—those that propose the most compelling projects to reduce emissions in the building and transportation sectors, or that are already climate leaders in their states. Any of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. that have publicly pledged to uphold the Paris agreement are eligible to compete. More than half of those large cities have already signed the joint document We Are Still In, but the remaining cities have until June 19 to add their names. Cities’ applications are due on July 18, and the program will span two years.

“We hear from mayors all the time that they want to do more, that they want to push farther on buildings, push farther on transportation,” said Jim Anderson, head of the government innovation program at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “But we also recognize that they need some help.”

The U.S. Alliance on Climate Change also announced eight new initiatives this week, focused on sustainable infrastructure, renewable energy, carbon storage, and clean transportation. Created by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, California Governor Jerry Brown, and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee in the days after Trump’s Rose Garden announcement, the Alliance has grown to include governors from 16 states and Puerto Rico. Together, this group represents 40 percent of the U.S. population and has a collective economy worth $9 trillion.

These tandem announcements themselves represent little more than a commitment to future action, and, in the case of some of the Alliance’s initiatives, a commitment to start a committee to then plan for future action. Next steps for both groups will be announced at the Global Climate Action Summit in September. But the announcements are a signal to the rest of the world that although nationally, the U.S. has broken from global consensus, citizens on the ground are dedicated to lowering emissions.

The moves are far from purely symbolic, insisted Antha Williams, head of environmental programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies. She expects the challenge to foster a range of local-level projects—from “no-brainers,” like buying more renewable energy or removing permitting barriers for solar on municipal buildings, to transformative policies, such requiring building energy efficiency retrofits or adding parking charges to encourage public transportation use.

Focusing on the building and transportation sectors is a shortcut to progress, she said, because together they’re responsible for almost 90 percent of the emissions from U.S. cities. “The great news is that mayors have a ton of authority over those two sectors,” Williams said. “So by working in cities and [in] the biggest, most polluting cities on carbon and transport, we can get pretty far, pretty fast.”

The Alliance’s efforts, meanwhile, are targeted at the state level. They include a solar soft-costs initiative to drive down permitting, installation, and other non-hardware costs of solar, and offset some federal tariffs. With the help of NY Green Bank, the group is looking into opening new green banks, which work with private-sector investors to fund sustainable infrastructure projects. Following California’s lead in phasing out hydrofluorocarbons, it’s launching a super-pollutant challenge to reduce short-lived climate pollutants. And it’s rolling out an initiative to get more electric vehicles on the roads, while pushing back against any federal weakening of a clean car standard.

Setting these goals as a team allows for valuable information-sharing, said Julie Cerqueira, the executive director of the U.S. Climate Alliance. California is holding webinars on how to inventory and set policy around HFCs; New York and Massachusetts have spent $1.5 million on a climate-change clearinghouse filled with state-specific climate data tools, a database model that could be duplicated elsewhere. Broad buy-in is also necessary to compel market-level innovation and lower costs, especially for states that have fewer resources. To deploy more EVs, faster, “whether or not through some kind of coordinated procurement across the states, they can also help to move the market, thereby reducing the cost of those vehicles to make it more affordable to a larger number of states,” said Cerqueira.

These initiatives are meant to fill federal gaps, but not all of them can be filled by localities, Cerqueira says. “There’s a ton that states and cities can do, and we’re seeing this incredible groundswell,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it’s not an excuse for the federal government to continue to cede the leadership on climate change.”

Bloomberg’s team was more sanguine. Between the city-level initiatives and Beyond Coal, a campaign with the Sierra Club to close down coal-fired power plants, Williams says they could tackle up to 65 percent of the reductions by 2025. “The experts tell us we can get there, and we don’t need to wait for action from Washington.”

Still, even when you add them together, these coalitions don’t make a quorum. The Alliance has representation from less than half of the states in the U.S., and of the three Republican governors who’ve joined, all of them represent blue states: Vermont, Maryland, and Massachusetts. While the big cities that have signed onto the Paris accord and are therefore eligible for Bloomberg’s challenge are more diverse, many are Democrat-led.

Research indicates, however, that despite a small conservative showing in these sorts of public coalition groups, support for climate resilience policy is more bipartisan than it seems. According to an analysis by the Boston University Initiative on Cities, while Republican mayors “shy away from climate network memberships and their associated framing of the problem,” they do “advocate locally for policies that help advance climate goals for other reasons, such as fiscal responsibility and public health.” Open climate leadership by some states and cities could encourage quiet, policy-driven support from others.

The real test will come in September, when city and state leaders across the country gather in California for the global climate summit. There, they will announce the level of U.S. emissions recorded in the past year—and how much lower it’s really gotten—and leaders of the initiatives spearheaded by the Alliance will outline more specific action plans. In October, Bloomberg Philanthropies will announce its 20 winning cities and they’ll embark on the two-year program.

“When we look around the world right now and we think about the real climate standouts, you might think of Oslo or Stockholm,” said Williams. “But we think there’s an opportunity to be thinking of cities like Pittsburgh or San Diego among those ranks.”

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When the Water Came for Me

If I have any takeaway from nearly drowning in the flash flood that swept through Ellicott City, Maryland, last Sunday, it’s that reality feels like it’s falling apart around you. Standing five doors down from the apartment I rent above my mother and sister’s kitchen goods store, I watched parked cars weightlessly slide down the street. Water that had been ankle high when I’d gone out to move my car up the street quickly rose to my thighs and, eventually, my waist. A police officer who had been blocking off traffic was standing next to me one second, yards away booking it up the street the next. I ran and banged on doors until I found an unlocked apartment building entrance, next to a cute shop that sells bathbombs and scented soaps. I slammed the door shut and watched transfixed as a wall of water bore down on the other side of two inches of wood and glass.

It only took about two hours for rain to turn Ellicott City from a quiet anytown Main Street into a raging torrent of mud, water, and garbage. I watched the flooding from the second floor of a stranger’s apartment, my hands trembling as sidewalks and store interiors were carried off by the waters. Some of the gutted buildings had been freshly renovated and re-opened as recently as a few months ago. A Buddha head statue from the neighborhood psychic bobbed down the impromptu river as this horrific multi-block bathtub filled and churned and finally drained. Later, after digging through debris and squeezing my way outside, I noticed a little frog hopping at my feet, just as confused by my presence as I was at his.

I’ve lived in Ellicott City, a small historic burg outside Baltimore, for a little over a year. I grew up in the neighboring suburb of Columbia and, after four years in New York City, the call to come back home became too strong to ignore. To know this town is to love it; it’s the kind of place where everyone turns out with their lawn chairs for weekly outdoor movies in the summer and neighbors pay you in cheesecake when you shovel snow from out in front of their businesses. Babe Ruth was married here a lifetime ago. We have enough haunted houses and assorted weird history to support a thriving mini-industry of ghost tours. A two-mile trail that once played host to a trolley line extends from the edge of town into Baltimore County. On Saturday mornings, I’d walk my dog there and listen to the trickle of stream water. After what’s happened, I’m not sure I’ll ever hear that sound without tensing up.

Water built Ellicott City: The nearby Patapsco River powered the grist mills that the three Ellicott brothers, Joseph, Andrew, and John, established here in the late 1700s. But as beautiful and picturesque the tributaries that flow in and around Main Street are, they also hang over our head like a guillotine blade waiting to drop. This is the second devastating flood to hit Ellicott City since 2016—to say nothing of floods that came through in 1817, 1837, 1868, 1901, 1917, 1923, 1938, 1942, 1952, 1956, 1972, 1975, 1989, and 2011.

The big difference, however, is that while most of these events are credited to the nearby Patapsco River overflowing following sustained heavy rains, often from tropical storms, the 2016 and 2018 floods are different beasts entirely. They swept in following relatively brief but very intense thunderstorms, as billions of gallons of precipitation flowed down the hillsides that surround the town, turning streets into wild rivers of runoff. Harvard atmospheric science student Matthew Cappucci, who writes for the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, put it best in a tweet the evening after the flood:

In a follow-up, Cappucci estimates that the sheer volume of water from the flood was equivalent to “7 billion gallons, 118 million bathtubs [or] 11,000 Olympic swimming pools.” In the days that follow, I will think about how preposterous and impossible those comparisons feel, even if I know logically that they must be accurate.

When we talk about climate change, we think of things like melting glaciers and homeless polar bears, or exotic islands vanishing beneath rising oceans. But now my neighbors and I, residents of an artsy small town that Money dubbed a “best place to live” in 2010, are climate refugees, too. A warming atmosphere holds more moisture, and leads to more extraordinary events like the “training thunderstorms” that pummeled the town with at least six inches of rain over a few hours on Sunday afternoon.

Another exacerbating factor in the 2016 and 2018 floods is the long-term consequences of excessive land development. As a historic district, Ellicott City is unique in that property owners are extremely limited in the kind of major changes they can make to buildings, some of which are over 200 years old. So developers have gone around the town, peppering the surrounding hillsides with condominiums and apartment complexes. Forested land has been replaced with slick concrete and impervious surfaces that deflect runoff. Rainwater that was once absorbed naturally by the environment has nowhere to go but down.

You don’t think about any of this, by the way, when water that hits hard enough to move tons of concrete and steel is rushing through your legs. Survival mode kicks in and you think “I’m going to die if I don’t get out of this.”

I’m writing this article at a coffee shop two miles from the disaster zone, and it still feels like a dream. And I don’t mean that in the trite “Oh, how could this happen?” way, but in the way that dreams are made up of familiar elements that don’t make sense jammed together. There is a four-foot moat where the sidewalk in front of my apartment used to be. Bags of pasta that filled the store window above it are most likely floating somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay. My car, a used 2010 Camaro I parked up the block, is miraculously unharmed, protected by some kind of muscle car magic.

My week has been strange, to say the least. In a journalistic fugue state during the flood, I recorded and uploaded photos and video of the storm to my Twitter and Facebook accounts—images that would end up on nearly every major news outlet. An instinctive “fuck off” to a verified Fox News account asking for permission to use a video snowballed into thousands of retweets, and a lot of arguing over intellectual property laws in my mentions. It’s too much—it’s months, a year, five years packed into less than a week. Ellicott City’s iconic town clock, recently rebuilt and reinstalled after the 2016 storm, is gone. It only follows that time feels fundamentally broken, that things aren’t supposed to happen this fast.

Trauma is a funny thing. My interactions with people feel like they’ve been shot with a weird camera filter; I have difficulty remembering mundane details from the last week and I’ll catch myself telling the same stories over again. In my quieter moments, I remember that a National Guardsman eating dinner at the Mexican restaurant up the block from my home was washed away trying to rescue my friend Kate—Kate, my sister’s friend, who I buy dog treats and kibble from. Sgt. Eddison Hermond was announced as missing after many of us had concluded, prematurely, that at least no one had been killed or seriously injured. His body was recovered in the Patapsco two days later. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who ran his 2015 campaign on repealing a stormwater management fee he dubbed a “rain tax,” honored him by ordering that the Maryland flag be lowered at half mast. I didn’t know Eddison but I know he didn’t deserve to die alone, swept up in a flood that could have been averted, or at least planned for.

When Ellicott City flooded two years ago, there was confusion. This time, there’s anger. Anger that our homes and businesses are gone again. Anger for Eddison and his family. I can’t speak for my neighbors, but when you look in their eyes, you can see how exhausted they are. Many businesses that had been destroyed in 2016 had only reopened within the last year and a half. The proprietor of Bean Hollow, Ellicott City’s homey coffee shop that served as a school night refuge for local high schoolers, has announced that they will not be returning. My neighbor Jason, who owns a toy shop and who gained some measure of fame in the last flood after rescuing a woman from her car, released a statement on Facebook that while he wants to re-open he cannot in good conscience do it in a location that puts his employees and customers in harm’s way. And can you blame him? Three people have died between the 2016 and 2018 floods. “Insult to injury” is too kind to describe watching your store windows burst with flood water while you’re still repaying a loan from the last time this happened.

A town with two catastrophic floods in three years has a problem that can’t be fixed with new windows and restored utilities. I hope this is a wake-up call—the kind of intervention you’d throw for a friend with drinking problem, but on a national scale, if not a global one. The tragedy that has unfolded in Ellicott City is not unique or even particularly remarkable when compared to the thousands who died in New Orleans over a decade ago, or the thousands more who appear to have lost their lives in Puerto Rico less than a year ago. The story of humanity is adapt or die, and it’s time to decide if we’re going to make the kind of serious infrastructure changes this new world demands, so that the neighborhoods, towns, and cities in harm’s way can survive. There is no third strike for Ellicott City, or the Ellicott Cities we all call home.

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San Francisco’s Race for a Mayoral First

“Why did the political establishment oust San Francisco’s first African American woman mayor?” The words are splayed across a wall of gilded portraits of San Francisco mayors past on the cover of a political mailer. The visible portraits are black-and-white shots of white men. In the bottom right corner, a young girl stands in the foreground, a shattered portrait at her feet of London Breed, San Francisco Board of Supervisors president, recently ousted acting mayor, and now mayoral candidate. The girl’s curly brown hair is divided into pigtails, and her skin tone matches Breed’s in the photograph below. Above her, a portrait of the current acting mayor, Mark Farrell, hangs to match the rest.

Breed’s biography—from a child raised in San Francisco public housing to, potentially, the city’s first African American woman mayor—makes for a compelling political narrative. But she isn’t the only candidate who would be a “first” for San Francisco. The other two leaders in the polls for the June 5 special election, Mark Leno and Jane Kim, would be the city’s first openly gay mayor, and first Asian American woman mayor, respectively. In the nation’s most progressive big city, where all the major candidates are liberal Democrats with similar policy prescriptions (clean the streets, combat homelessness, and build more affordable housing), identity stands out as a key differentiating feature. “There are no real ideological differences between the candidates, but each is a proxy for something larger,” Corey Cook, a political science professor at San Francisco State University told the Washington Post. Other non-policy factors, like each candidates’ perspective on super PAC money, and their strategy with regard to the city’s unique ranked choice voting system, have also played a major role in the election.

Attempts by Leno, Kim, and Breed to differentiate themselves have played out in the mailers and video ads that have flooded San Francisco residents’ mailboxes and consciousnesses over the past several weeks. These promotional materials, many of which are at once idealistic and cynical, paint a telling portrait of San Francisco in 2018, a city whose wealth and compassion exist in a tenuous balance, and whose values are in desperate need of a vessel, however symbolic.

Breed, the front-runner, might be the best embodiment of these complicated aspirations. The mailer depicting her shattered portrait was paid for by a super PAC called “It’s Our Time, SF Women for London Breed,” whose lead donors include Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and famed San Francisco socialite Dede Wilsey. Its message harkens back to December, when Breed was dubbed acting mayor after former Mayor Ed Lee died of a heart attack. About one month later, Breed was ousted by the Board of Supervisors, presumably to level the playing field for the upcoming special election, in which it was known she planned to run. However, many of her supporters saw this as an act of prejudice, especially in light of the fact that her replacement, Mark Farrell, is a white venture capitalist.

“Let’s return a strong and independent woman to the Mayor’s Office!” the words on the back of the pamphlet read. Below them, Breed’s portrait is restored to the wall, and the young girl tilts her head back to look up at her, a camera pressed to her face.

(It’s Our Time, SF Women for London Breed/Jurate Raulinaitis)

Kim and Leno are positioning their campaigns in opposition to Breed—so much so that they’ve allied themselves against her. They paint Breed as an extension of the city’s longstanding political power structure, and more importantly, as the only candidate who hasn’t rejected or discouraged super PAC spending on her behalf.

According the San Francisco Ethic’s Commission, independent expenditure groups that support Breed, but are technically unaffiliated with her campaign, have raised about $1.3 million, compared to around $422,054 for Kim, and just over $173,788 for Leno, over the past 85 days. Many of Breed’s super PAC donors are anonymous, but others are among the biggest names in the tech industry, including Williams, venture capitalist Ron Conway, and his wife Gail Conway. This money funds pamphlets and television spots that attest to Breed’s independence, her disadvantaged upbringing, and her leadership qualifications.

The extent to which big money interests have mobilized around Breed has become a huge part of both Leno and Kim’s campaigns. For Kim, who is currently polling in third place, her identity as a candidate during this phase in the race is closely tied in to her affiliation with national progressive movements. She is the only candidate to be endorsed by Bernie Sanders, and is the top choice of the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter. The home page of her website is dominated by the slogan “The Resistance Lives Here,” and one of her mailers prominently features the phrase “Our city is ready to lead the resistance. Jane Kim will lead the way.”

Kim and Leno are attempting to jointly combat the money flowing into the Breed camp through an unusual political machination. The two are encouraging their respective supporters to vote for the other in the number two spot on San Francisco’s unique ranked choice ballot, which allows voters to select up to three candidates in order of preference.

The advertisement that announced the alliance does not mention Breed specifically, but rather the money being spent on her behalf. “The city belongs to us,” Kim says, “not the billionaires,” the two continue in unison. Their shared ideology is the stated purpose of the alliance, but detractors view it as a petty political tactic for two candidates who are trailing in the polls. The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board, which has endorsed Breed, said the move “projects an element of desperation.”

As The Atlantic’s Russell Berman reports, this is the first time in the history of ranked choice voting in San Francisco that two serious candidates have teamed up. The system was initially adopted to increase voter participation and save public money by eliminating the need for a run-off election. It works like this: If no candidate wins an outright majority of first choice votes, the lowest vote getters are eliminated one by one. The voters who selected losing candidates will then have their second choice votes added to the totals of the remaining candidates until one of them wins a majority. Ranked choice voting is supposed to be game-proof because second and third choices only count if a voter’s first choice candidate is eliminated.

Kim and Leno’s alliance could backfire, though. Breed’s campaign is spinning it as yet another instance of Breed being ganged up on: “Leno and Kim’s one-two strategy was announced to the world the day they orchestrated London Breed’s removal as mayor,” Breed spokeswoman Tara Moriarty told Berman. Breed has encouraged her supporters to vote for her in the one, two, and three spots, even though the latter two would not be counted.

The Leno-Kim alliance could also make the two candidates look the same to voters, a slippage the Breed camp is hoping to exploit. In one of its mailers, Breed’s campaign attempts to undercut Leno’s popularity as an erstwhile state senator by painting him as weak on crime because of his alliance with Kim, who is perceived as being the candidate furthest to the left.

(London Breed For Mayor 2018/ Jurate Raulinaitis)

To further distinguish herself, Breed has adopted a San Francisco-friendly version of “law and order” messaging in the campaign’s final days. In addition to criticizing Kim’s—and, by association, Leno’s—somewhat more permissive views toward tent encampments and policing, Breed has outlined harsher stances on these issues. In a 30-second TV ad, Breed connects her own journey from poverty to public office to her agenda on homelessness: “I know for me, tough love and a roof over my head made all the difference in the world,” she says.

Breed has pledged to end long-term tent encampments within a year of taking office, crack down on outdoor drug use, and add 200 officers to the police force. She has also championed conservatorship laws, which give the government more power to force people with mental illness to accept medical care or the supervision of a guardian. Kim and Leno have also supported such laws, but have been less vocal about them in their campaigns. By contrast, Breed has seemed almost intentionally provocative on this issue. “Taking away someone’s civil liberties is not something that I take lightly, but if we want to see a change on our streets we have got to do something different than what we’re doing now,” she said in a recent campaign speech. “I plan to introduce the kind of solutions that in some ways can be quite controversial, but are necessary.”

Leno has made his homelessness policy a point of distinction from Breed. One of his mailers is headed by the phrase, “London Breed on homelessness: a repeated record of inaction and empty promises.” The mailer cites Breed’s failure to create as many shelter beds as she promised this winter, her prior support of pro-landlord legislation, and the fact that, as a member and then president of the Board of Supervisors, she presided over a 10 percent increase in the city’s homeless population. (Kim was also on the Board during that period.)

When it comes to their plans on homelessness, however, the two candidates’ platforms are fairly similar. Leno’s pledge to end “street homelessness” by 2020 sounds a lot like Breed’s promise to clear tent encampments by 2019. There are rhetorical differences, but in broad terms, both plans include accelerating the production of affordable housing, building more navigation centers that connect the homeless to social services, expanding shelter access, and beefing up mental health services. The campaigns for Kim and Breed did not reply to Citylab’s request for comment on their homelessness policies.

Kim is popular amongst the most progressive San Franciscans for making issues like eviction and subsidized housing key causes as a supervisor. But her platform looks nominally similar to her challengers’, too. In a TV ad, Kim states that her top priority is cleaning up the city’s streets—a goal that both her opponents have embraced—and her plan to “heal” homelessness in the city also includes more public health services, and expanding shelter access.

In the midst of these similarities, it seems the real difference between the candidates has more to do with their identities—and not just their race, gender, or sexual orientation. This is woven into Leno’s slogan, “A New Direction For San Francisco,” as well as his campaign materials, which not only point to flaws in Breed’s record on homelessness, but also seeks to paint Breed as a member of the old guard political establishment. “Homelessness is out of control. The status quo has failed us. We can’t afford any more empty promises,” one mailer reads.

(Mark Leno for Mayor 2018/ Jurate Raulinaitis)

While Breed’s supporters hold her up as an independent political operator with the odds stacked against her, Leno and Kim are sending the opposite message. As the heir apparent to Ed Lee, who was appointed by the previous Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was himself championed by his predecessor, Willie Brown—all of whom were moderates in San Francisco parlance—Breed looks to many as anything but the “change” candidate.

The question is, do San Francisco voters really want change, or do they want tangible improvements to their daily lives? Or perhaps a symbol of uplift and resistance in the Trump era? More than likely, any of the three could play those roles. San Franciscans, rank your choices.

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In Search of the ‘Just City’

The Chouteau Greenway competition in St. Louis called for proposals for an urban design project that would connect the 1,371-acre Forest Park, in the city’s west quarters, to the city’s famous Gateway Arch, on the city’s east edge by the Mississippi River. This line acts as an equator of sorts for St. Louis, dividing the city in half, and also by race and income—whiter and wealthier neighborhoods are located south of it; mostly African-American and less-wealthy communities to its north. This was a line worth crossing out, thought Toni Griffin, who, as part of the Stoss Landscape Urbanism design team, submitted a proposal that includes streets and pathways that zig north and zag south across the east-west greenway corridor path, as a way of connecting historically marginalized locales to neighborhoods.  

(Stoss Landscape Urbanism)

While the jury for the competition stated that the “focus of the Chouteau Greenway project should be the main east/west connection,” Griffin was concerned that that kind of focus might only calcify the city’s dividing line and further entrench the inequities above and below it. The jury, in assessing her team’s project, considered the north-south ribbons a weakness of the proposal, but still picked it over three other entries as winner of the competition. Griffin’s team is now the lead designer for the greenway project.

As an urban planning professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, specializing in spatial and racial justice, Griffin is well aware of the historical role of design in perpetuating segregation in U.S. cities. She also knows St. Louis, a city already made infamous by its pioneering of red-lining policies, could not afford to now become a pioneer in green-lining—using a greenway to reinforce the line separating the city. Griffin’s disruptive approach to the Greenway project criteria is consistent with her ideas around designing “just cities”—a concept she’s been developing since she was a Loeb fellow at Harvard in 1997.

The “just city” concept infuses social justice concerns throughout the planning and design process. It’s a style Griffin has been honing over nearly two decades while practicing as an architect, designer, and urban planner, leading major civic projects such as the Washington Nationals Ballpark District in D.C. and the Detroit Future City master plan. She has formed a pedagogy from this as well, drawing on her field experience to become the founding director of the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York in 2011.

When black students in the Harvard Graduate School of Design decried a lack of courses dealing with race and design back in 2015, Griffin told them that she had a bunch of them at her school in Harlem. Instead, the students brought her back to Harvard (she had previously taught there from 2006 to 2011), where she now serves not only as a professor, but also as director of the Just City Lab, which continues the practicum she began at City College.

(Harvard University Graduate School of Design)

Griffin’s arrival at GSD comes as activism among the design school’s African-American students is ascendant. Since 2014, the GSD’s African American Student Union (AASU) has produced several programs, including two “Black in Design” conferences. At the most recent conference held last October, Griffin premiered some of the work from her Just City Lab project, which includes a toolbox for helping cities build out an equity framework for growth. The students also worked with Griffin to convert that work into an installation called “Design and the Just City” which was exhibited at the GSD building this past spring. Harvard’s Black Graduation Committee honored Griffin with its Richard Theodore Greener Academia Award, named for the first African American to graduate from Harvard, at its recent commencement to honor this work.

That Griffin’s team also won the Chouteau Greenway project in St. Louis using the “just city” framework is evidence that there is an appetite for this kind of justice-minded design work. Which means, while Griffin has been doing this work, in one form or another, for the better part of two decades, the “just city” party is finally taking off. CityLab spoke with Griffin about her work in more detail, and how it could come to your city next.

Your proposal for the Chouteau Greenway competition in St. Louis in some ways disregarded the rules to produce a more just outcome. Were you concerned this might disqualify you?

We recognized that continuing to move the greenway east and west reinforced a legacy of racial segregation in the city. It could potentially further send a signal that the amenities that are being produced in the city are not for everyone. They [the amenities] spatially are not located in places where those communities could really feel a meaningful sense of ownership and participation and inclusion in those amenities.

So our scheme intentionally breaks the grid and suggests that there are in fact assets north and south of the city, and that a greenway could really reconcile some of the spatial and economic divides throughout the city.

I use that as an example to say designers, even when we’re given a design brief, if we’re really interested in meaningfully dismantling conditions of injustice, I think it’s incumbent upon us to challenge proposed strategies in ways that we feel might have more meaningful and readily beneficial impacts for dismantling injustices. This was an opportunity for us to physically break the grid of the project and make connections that we thought would add more value and authenticity to the project.

How can other cities engage with your Just City Index—do you go out and promote it, to recruit cities for enlistment, or is there a way for them to come to you?

Our intention for the index, which is 50 values that we think promotes greater justice in cities, is as a tool that we want communities and cities to use to craft their own manifesto for what justice means to them. We created this because we often saw that frameworks around sustainability and resiliency usually have a set number of principles that suggest, no matter what context you’re in, you have to achieve these principles in order to be resilient or sustainable. We think that a just Boston is different from a just Rotterdam, which is different than a just Gary [Indiana], or a just St. Louis, and that given those different contexts, those communities should actually put forward values and principles that are most meaningful to them in the moment of time they’re in and given their specific conditions. To date we have used the tool with designers, but it’s our intention to use it with a broader set of community neighborhood groups, civic leaders, government, and philanthropy to help create a shared vision for the city, believing that if we start from a values-based approach then we might advance a greater urban justice.

(Harvard University Graduate School of Design)

There are several organizations and programs that purport to do something similar to what you just outlined for cities. What sets yours apart?

One is, we’re specifically interested in the way design planning practice as a strategy and as a discipline affects conditions of urban justice. We think equity is just one of many values that communities and cities are looking to advance and achieve. And often equity is thought of in a more distributive model where you’re trying to distribute material goods. We’re also interested in the distribution of non-material goods, such as power, rights, and decision-making. You have to think about representation, and accountability, empowerment, and trust. And those are values for which the way in which you would create metrics or indicators for them is not something you can sit at your desk and get quantitative data on. These are things that have to be measured qualitatively, which means using the experience of people on the ground as data points.

Our model takes into consideration that oftentimes those are the most important values, other than just the equitable distribution of transit, or parks, or investment. The third component is allowing communities to really co-create their own shared narrative around what justice means to them. And I do think justice is different than equity. I think justice requires equity, and perhaps you can say the same thing the other way around. But there are cities, communities, and individuals who feel that there has been a great injustice—a sense of something not being quite fair or quite balanced. So we intentionally wanted to be a bit more provocative, foregrounding that there are conditions of injustice, and unfair treatment, and unfair access.  

Is there a racial justice goal in this work, producing outcomes that privilege people of color, or even African Americans or Latinos in particular? Or is this something that is meant more to transcend race?

I think it potentially transcends race. There are a number of marginalized communities that are commonly deemed as “other” or feel as if they are the “other” in cities. There are moments in time when that’s women. There can be moments of time when that’s African Americans broadly, or Latinos, immigrants, foreign-born population, LGBTQ communities. If you’ve watched the news the last several months, there is an assault that’s happening on any one of those populations at any given time and space in these cities. This is why it’s important that each city and each community has its own principles and values of justice as it relates to how those who are on the margins and who are not fully participating in the most healthy and vibrant ways of the city, are able to do so on a more level playing field.

We’re also in this moment when white lower-income communities feel like they are suffering from injustice and they’re voting and influencing policy accordingly. How would the Just City project address those communities?  

Well, I think to the extent that you’re dealing with populations in poverty on the lower end of the economic spectrum in communities that are in cities that have not seen real investment in many decades, or have declining economies, certainly they too have a need for greater justice as it relates to their environment and their conditions for healthy living. So, yes, it could possibly be used in those contexts. I think with any of these frameworks, any group can argue a rationale for itself, as we’re seeing, and it’s creating really polarizing conversations. So I think that the other thing that’s been interesting as we’ve been looking at this work is the ways in which forms of justice happen at different scales. You could have a set of metrics and indicators that say a city as a whole is more just or most sustainable or resilient, but then you can go to 10 different neighborhoods within that city and likely get very different readings of some that are just, and some that are not so just. That’s a really interesting nuance, which may never be fully rectified, but it suggests that there’s always unfinished work to be done in cities and in communities to strive for more just, equitable, sustainable, and resilient outcomes.

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America Isn’t Ready for Disability Disaster Response This Hurricane Season

The 2018 hurricane season starts on June 1st. According to the nation’s leading experts on disability and disaster response, we’re not ready. In fact, thanks to changes at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and clashes between disability groups and the American Red Cross, we might be even less prepared than we were a year ago. Meanwhile, for many disabled people in Puerto Rico and the southeastern United States, last year’s hurricane season never really ended.

Every natural disaster quickly becomes a story about disability. The worst cases from last year—the elderly trapped in a nursing home in Texas or dying in a Florida nursing home; a Puerto Rican baby who needs a ventilator to breathe and had to flee the island then fight for health care on the mainland—all reveal the ways that extreme weather exacerbates pre-existing vulnerability. Behind these dramatic stories, as we reported at Pacific Standard last year, disabled people routinely find themselves turned away from shelters and unable to access emergency messaging, or else they just generally find that emergency responses weren’t designed with the needs of disabled people in mind.

Meanwhile, we’re just beginning to understand how terrible last year’s storms were. A new report from The New England Journal of Medicine estimates that, although officially only 64 people died in Puerto Rico owing to Hurricane Maria, the actual death toll is at least 4,600. Of these, the authors estimate that at least a third died from “interruption of medical care”; they note that this finding for Maria is consistent with the aftermath of other natural disasters in the U.S., including hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017. The authors write:

Nursing home residents and those dependent on life-sustaining equipment were disproportionately affected. Growing numbers of persons have chronic diseases and use sophisticated pharmaceutical and mechanical support that is dependent on electricity. Chronically ill patients are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in basic utilities, which highlights the need for these patients, their communities, and their providers to have contingency plans during and after disasters.

Beyond the grim death toll, struggles continue for disabled Puerto Ricans who survived. In an overview of health outcomes in post-Hurricane Puerto Rico, researchers for the Kaiser Family Foundation argue that “children, elderly individuals, and people with disabilities have been particularly affected and face ongoing challenges, including loss of support as family members leave the islands.”

Given the failures in Puerto Rico and hardships experienced by disabled survivors throughout the hurricane season, how are governmental and non-governmental organizations preparing for the coming months? FEMA divides the country into 10 regions, each of which is supposed to have a disability coordinator. Currently, three such positions lie vacant, including the disability coordinator role for Region IV, which includes Florida and much of the southeastern U.S. FEMA also has three Incident Management Assistance Teams, which are the first groups dispatched to the scene of any disaster. Each team currently has a disability inclusion adviser, but, according to Paul Timmons from Portlight and Marcie Roth from the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies—two experts on disability inclusion in disaster response—all three of the IMAT advisers have received notice from FEMA that their positions will be terminated. As Timmons tells me over the phone, “[FEMA’s] plan is to push the center of gravity in disaster response back to the states.” He’s worried for himself, too, as a disabled man living in Charleston, South Carolina, which Timmons calls “a city at risk for a landfalling hurricane. If the IMAT team gets deployed in here early, there’s no [disability inclusion] coordinator at the region; who am I supposed to talk to?”

Roth notes that ongoing disasters, such as the volcano eruptions in Hawaii, demonstrate the need to prioritize disability expertise at all levels of disaster response. In Hawaii, she says, “Folks who are deaf haven’t been provided with video phones, so are not going to shelters.” Instead, they are staying in their homes, despite the risk of toxic air quality. “Additionally, lots of folks with disabilities are being diverted from the shelters into personal care homes … which are nursing homes.” Now, according to Roth, disabled Hawaiians who were living independently are being institutionalized with no clear plan to restore them to their former status.

FEMA seems to take a much more positive view of the situation. Over email and phone, FEMA spokespeople tell me that they plan to hire coordinators for the vacant regions, while providing me with vague language about the importance of disability inclusion and collaboration. When pushed on specifics, though, they did not offer any detailed information but instead referred me to the 2018-2022 FEMA strategic plan. These boilerplate responses have not allayed my suspicion that the calls for reducing the “complexity of FEMA” reflect a goal to cut federal services even when they are necessary, a pattern we have seen play out repeatedly during the Trump administration.

When government fails to get the job done, non-profits can pick up the slack. In fact, the American Red Cross has a Congressional Charter empowering the organization to provide disaster relief. Here, too, I have found a discrepancy between a positive message from the Red Cross and the concerns of the disability disaster inclusion experts. The Red Cross, through a spokesperson, touts its relationships with “regional and local disability stakeholders.” But multiple disability experts and organizational leaders, including Roth and Timmons, feel that their relationship with the Red Cross has never been worse. Roth tells me that the Red Cross is trying to choose which disability organizations they’ll talk to, rather than allowing disabled leaders to take the lead. She says that she’s reconsidering the whole model in which, she tells me, “responsibility for the civil rights of people with disabilities is relegated to volunteers.”

“It is unacceptable that people with disabilities need to rely on the kindness of strangers to get their basic needs met, when in fact they have unwavering civil rights protections,” Roth adds.

Two things should be clear. First, last year’s death toll in Puerto Rico reflects a colossal failure of our disaster preparation and response system. Second, if the experts from the disability community are worried, we all should be worried. Hurricane season 2018 is coming. Our systems must improve to prevent the needless loss of life before the next round of storms hit, but things seem instead to be going backwards. It may already be too late.

This story originally appeared on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine in print and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.

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