4 Strategies to Fix Citizen Engagement

As we strive to build Smart Cities, the need for strong citizen engagement has never been more crucial. Can a City really be described as ‘Smart’ if it makes changes without consulting with a diverse sample of the citizens affected by these changes before, during, and after projects are implemented? Will citizens adopt Smart Initiatives if they aren’t part of the decision-making process? Recent case studies suggest not.

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What’s Up With Seoul’s Pink Parking Spaces For Women?

On an early afternoon in Seoul, Kyung-jin Lee, walked out of an upscale shopping mall near Hanyang University and found her black Kia, which was parked in one of the South Korean city’s parking spots for women.

You can’t miss them: The spots are marked with pink borders, painted figures in mini-skirts, and overhead signs declaring “Female Parking First” in both Korean and English. They are usually lit well and closer to building entrances than other spaces, and often next to handicap spots. Some are longer and wider than other parking spaces; others are supposedly made with a material easier on high heels than concrete.

Lee, an office worker on a lunch break with a friend, is a big fan of these women’s parking spots, which began popping up in Seoul back in 2009. Stories about them have occasionally achieved a measure of international virality ever since. There more than 4,000 of them throughout the city, part of a $75 million push to make Seoul more accessible to women, which also included thousands of new public toilets throughout the city.

“It’s comfortable when we go to the grocery store,” Lee said. “We are close to the entrance, so it’s much easier to carry our bags.” She also said it’s easier for women to bring their children with them.

Honk if you object to gendered parking! ( Ian Baldessari/CityLab)

Seoul is hardly the first city to boast female-centric parking infrastructure: The concept emerged from Germany in the 1990s. (And, yes, of course there’s a word in German for it: frauenparkplatz.) Several cities in China and Indonesia also have spaces designated for female motorists. In Seoul, the spaces are prioritized for women, but men seem to be allowed to park there as well. On a recent afternoon, the number of men parked in the spots appeared to nearly equal the number of women drivers.

While international coverage of gendered parking tends to criticize the spots’ patronizing pinkness and larger scale (which suggests, to some, lesser parking skills), Seoul residents appear to be less scandalized by the idea. The #MeToo movement against sexual violence has taken off in South Korea, and the Korean government promised in March to reassess the country’s sexual assault laws. Many see women’s parking as part of a larger effort to provide safer spaces. Early this year, for example, Seoul Metro installed “scream sensors”—designed to automatically detect cries for assistance—in women’s bathrooms in several subway stations.

Jae-won Ko, a 35-year-old salesman who was on his way to lunch with his wife and 2-year-old son, said he thinks the spots are necessary to help prevent violence against women. “Anything we can do is great,” he said. But Ko couldn’t resist taking a shot at female drivers. “Some women’s driving skill is not the best,” he said.

Seok-hyun Kim, a businessman, dismissed the idea that the larger spaces suggest poor driving habits. He said the spaces are larger to help women with children or with lots of things to carry, not because women are bad drivers. “It’s case by case,” he said. “My wife is a very good driver.”

Walking to her car to head back to her office, Kyung-jin Lee, who has been driving for 10 years, agreed. She said many women (and men) are learning to drive in Seoul, which has a challenging driving culture, and haven’t quite mastered parking yet. “Not me,” she emphsazied. “But others.”

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Building a City-Wide Culture of Data in San Antonio

Community leaders across all different roles and settings value good data, and recognize that using it can make them more effective. But no single organization can do everything it takes to make a community good at using data. In San Antonio, progress toward usable, transparent data for all has only been achieved by gathering diverse stakeholders, and investing in the culture and processes that allow us to vision and plan as a community. Stakeholders are slowly coming to the shared recognition that building an online data repository is one important piece of the solution, but by no means the entire solution. Organizations across the community also need greater capacity to manage, analyze, understand, and use data, all grounded in a culture of valuing data to improve lives.

Interest in building a city-wide culture of data reaches back over two decades to the formation of the Alamo Area Community Information System (AACIS), a collaborative of over 30 public, private and nonprofit institutions that worked for years to democratize access to useful and neutral data. Over time AACIS transformed into today’s Community Information Now (CI:Now), which joined the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) in 2010.

But while community members have long been working bottom-up through AACIS and CI:Now to build San Antonio’s culture of data, new energy around that goal began coming from the top: the Office of the Mayor. Leilah Powell, then Chief of Policy in the Office of former Mayor Ivy R. Taylor, was among those people thinking about San Antonio’s data future. As Mayor Taylor put it at the April 2016 National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership meeting in San Antonio, “As a planner by training and a community development professional by practice…I know first-hand the importance of data. In order to craft effective policies, in order to measure the results we are achieving, in order to call attention to the issues our communities face or to our accomplishments, we need data.”

With support from the Mayor’s Office and the San Antonio Area Foundation, Leilah organized a visioning and brainstorming session around the question: “What would Data Nirvana look like in San Antonio?” Before the meeting, the Mayor’s Office and CI:Now came together to merge ideas and invite lists.

More than 50 people showed up for the session and raised incredibly varying challenges in accessing, sharing, and using data, as well as ideas about other people who should be at the table as we worked to address these challenges. As a starting point, those present thought there ought to be a table: a way to work together on a shared goal and challenges, some kind of structure and plan for driving San Antonio to its Data Nirvana.


We knew we couldn’t plan effectively with a group of over 50 people. A small group of volunteers were recruited to create a vision and a skeleton plan that could be further developed by a broader group of stakeholders. That small group established the Alamo Regional Data Alliance and later volunteered to serve as an Interim Steering Committee.

About half of the issues raised were technical in nature…But about half were not. They were values and principles.

It quickly became clear that the challenges this group needed to focus on were widespread and diverse. At the first meeting, about half of the issues raised were technical in nature, like “data privacy and security,” “data quality standards,” “data-sharing agreements,” “figure out the needed tools/services,” and “allow for multiple platforms.” But about half were not. They were values and principles: “Inclusion and transparency.” “Build on local assets.” “We must respect existing relationships.” “Minimize and/or work around turf issues.” “How do we build trust in our system?” “Remember that improving lives, not improving data, is the goal.”

These themes were built right into the vision, mission, guiding principles, and Charter of the Steering Committee. Perhaps more importantly, the Interim Steering Committee began to frame a new culture. Transparency must be genuine. Communication must be constant. The new culture must be re-established every time new people come to the table, and shored up when it takes a hit from conflicts and turf problems. While the shared vision is a reliable magnet and doesn’t require any selling, each new individual member and organizational partner must be “onboarded” both to ARDA’s shared Community Strategy and ongoing in-the-weeds operations.

The “right” way is the one that emerges when a wide range of people with different experiences and perspectives come together to work collaboratively on shared problems and opportunities.

Unspoken tensions have to be named and addressed. Some are inherent. They can be balanced day by day, but they cannot be solved once and for all. For example, some people prefer careful assessment and planning before any action is taken, while others lose faith in the initiative’s worth and viability if they don’t see quick and ongoing action. Some people want to see strong and directive leadership, while others distrust almost any degree of leadership. There is no single way to do this work right. The “right” way is the one that emerges when a wide range of people with different experiences and perspectives come together to work collaboratively on shared problems and opportunities.

While substantive decision-making and strategy rest with the Steering Committee and Workgroups, foundation-funded “backbone” staffing has been a critical support to these all-volunteer teams. Backbone staffing duties can vary, but for ARDA, lightening the burden on volunteers has meant handling meeting logistics and minutes, supporting internal and external communications, drafting policies and reports, and handling event planning and logistics.

Looking Ahead

ARDA is just getting started. The Steering Committee has 16 active members who were either democratically elected or subsequently appointed by that elected body. Four new workgroups launched in March 2018, with 25 to 30 people indicating interest in each one: (1) Engagement, (2) Local Data Sharing (including open data), (3) Data Use & Training, and (4) Ecosystem Assessment. The workgroups are focusing on meeting user needs, as expressed through “user stories” gathered over the past 18 months.“

In the meantime, an investment from the John L. Santikos Charitable Foundation, a fund of the San Antonio Area Foundation, ensures that ARDA has backbone staffing via CI:Now, equivalent to about one FTE throughout 2018. Steering Committee members see that many projects can be funded not just through grants and large cash contributions, but also through smaller partner in-kind donations of staff time, server space, meeting venues, supplies, and other needs.

We have a tremendous amount of work to do. But the fundamentals are falling into place: people are working together to generate ideas, dismantle barriers, solve problems, and – in time – to realize a vision of a better quality of life for our community, where data-informed decisions and actions somewhere along the way just became our “business as usual.”

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MapLab: The Watchdog of Gerrymandering

Welcome to the latest edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox and others have wondered] is speculation, because it wasn’t a very transparent process. There was not much rationale given for why the map looks the way it does.

So I thought that this was a great opportunity to once again take the knowledge that I’ve gained and to share it with others, as the state contemplates reforming the process and making improvements for the next set of maps.

What do you hope to see emerge from the U.S. Supreme Court cases looking at gerrymandering in Maryland and Wisconsin?

I’d hope that they’re able to refocus on drawing maps with respect to municipal boundaries because they don’t change over time and they’re not subject to the whims of partisan politics. They’re there to guard against what we’ve been seeing with gerrymandering.

Tips for redistricting reformers in other states?

Don’t assume that someone else is going to say something. Speak up. Be persistent, practical, and persuasive.

Orient yourself: The Border Zone

Last week, in an enterprising story filled with maps, CityLab’s Tanvi Misra examined the “100-mile border zone,” a swath of land hugging U.S. boundaries where Customs and Border Protection agents have elevated search and seizure powers. You might be surprised to find that you live there. For MapLab, Misra writes:

Using ESRI’s rich trove of location data, we mapped the population density and the concentration of minority population in the zone. We found that the 100-mile zone is home to 65.3 percent of the U.S. population and 75 percent of the Hispanic population. That’s crazy, considering CBP has the authority to use race and ethnicity to stop and question folks on trains, buses, highways, and domestic flights anywhere in this region.

The 100-mile border zone where CBP has extended search and seizure powers, showing the share of minority population. (ESRI/Madison McVeigh)

Mappy links

Syrian refugee camps are geographically complex. Thanks to their residents, now some of them are mapped. ♦ What did Palestine look like before Israel? An open-source map archive reveals villages destroyed or depopulated since 1948. ♦ Where have Puerto Ricans emigrated since Hurricane Maria? The U.S. Census doesn’t keep track, but cellphone records do. ♦ Want to get really angry about London’ s new tube maps? This journalist did. ♦ The maps of the new Ebola outbreak in Congo are deeply inaccurate. Cartographers are racing to fix them. ♦ A ship carrying sorghum has been zigzagging through the Indian Ocean, caught between tense U.S. and Chinese trade relations. Bloomberg caught it on map.

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As Michigan’s Municipal Water Crisis Drags on, its Bottled Water Industry Booms

Michigan recently approved Nestlé’s request for permission to pump 400 gallons of water per minute from a well in the rural town of Evart, about 80 miles northeast of Grand Rapids. State environmental authorities approved this 60 percent increase despite poor timing and unprecedented opposition.

Public outrage is still simmering, partly because the private company pays relatively little in exchange for its ability to profit off what many Michiganders see as a public resource.

Based on a decade of water law and policy research, I believe that Michigan should either collect taxes on companies like Nestlé that harvest water or significantly raise the fees water bottlers must pay.

Water wealth

Michigan, the “Great Lakes state,” sits in the middle of one-fifth of the Earth’s surface freshwater. It has a higher percentage of surface water than any other American state.

But even in water-rich places, long-term groundwater pumping can harm wetlands while dangerously decreasing the amount of water in rivers, lakes and streams—diminishing water supplies.

Nestlé pays Michigan a pittance in exchange for the 4.8 million bottles of water a day the multinational company bottles at its Ice Mountain factory there: a $200 annual permitting fee for each of their groundwater wells. Nestlé does purchase water from the town of Evart municipal water system at other locations, which generates $313,000 in local revenue.

But Michigan does not tax bottled water production. State Representative Peter Lucido, a Republican, has introduced a bill that would charge Nestlé and its competitors like Absopure, Coca-Cola and Pepsi a 5-cents-per-gallon tax on the water they harvest. Lucido estimates that Nestlé would have to pay $20 million in taxes if his legislation were to become law.

The lawmaker is calling for the state to spend this new revenue on water infrastructure, a long-neglected spending priority, as the Flint water crisis illustrates.

The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave Michigan’s infrastructure a D+ grade, estimating that the state underfunds drinking water systems by as much as $563 million per year. Governor Rick Snyder says Michigan should invest $4 billion more each year to fix decaying infrastructure of all kinds, including roads, bridges and waterworks.

Yet the state’s leaders have not adjusted tax rates accordingly.

Public resource, private use

When state authorities sought public feedback, more than 80,000 Michiganders called on the state to deny Nestlé’s permit and only 75 people said they supported it.

This unusually high number of comments surely owed something to do with the Flint water crisis and Detroit municipal water shutoffs, which have raised awareness regarding the importance of abundant clean water. The state acknowledged that public sentiment was strongly against the permit application, and then granted the permit anyway, citing its laws and regulations that provide limited grounds for denying this type of permit.

At least one nonprofit group intends to mount a legal challenge.

This contentious permit probably sparked more public outrage than it might have had the state not granted it the same week it announced that it would stop providing free bottled water to Flint residents impacted by a water crisis. The government there harmed tens of thousands of people by distributing lead-tainted water, a problem compounded by insufficient oversight and an inept response to the disaster.

Seeking to help, and perhaps sensing a public relations opportunity, Nestlé belatedly announced plans to supply Flint residents with 100,000 free bottles of water every week.

Taxing water bottles

Should Michigan’s leaders become ready to take action, they would have several options to consider in addition to Lucido’s proposal.

Other states like Connecticut and Maine collect fees for bottled water production. The revenue collected from these states and others are minimal, however.

Another approach would be to tax bottled water sales. Chicago has done that since 2008, collecting 5 cents for each bottle of water retailers sell. Chicago’s tax, designed to reduce plastic pollution by discouraging bottled water sales, generates about $10.5 million in annual revenue for the city and offers a model other communities may want to replicate.

Michigan already collects a severance tax from oil and gas production and runs a Natural Resources Trust Fund derived from those royalties. This fund helps cover the cost of public outdoor recreation opportunities across the state. I contend that it’s a great model for what the state might do with revenue from a similar arrangement with water bottlers.

Michigan water law attorney Jim Olson has also suggested creating a water ombudsman’s office. This new ombudsman would carefully study the potential water conservation and revenue generation benefits from taxing bottled water.

As long as private companies are selling Michigan’s water, I believe, the state should at least tap portion of their profits to fund public water infrastructure improvements and wetland restoration. Taking this step might also discourage bottlers from endangering the public, wildlife, and Michigan’s farmers by harvesting too much water.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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An Artist’s Serious Devotion to the Subway

When Phillip Ashforth Coppola first started his detailed renderings of New York City subway stations, MTA officials dismissed him as a “foamer” (the derisive term for fans who “foamed at the mouth” with their transit-oriented enthusiasm).

But Coppola is no ordinary fan. He is an artist and an archivist, and for nearly four decades he has carefully sketched the mosaics, ceilings, staircases, and plaques of New York City’s subway stations. In a new book, One Track Mind: Drawing the New York City Subway (Princeton Architectural Press), Ezra Bookstein and Jeremy Workman have compiled Coppola’s drawings and added notes to give viewers a detailed look at transit gems that often overlooked. Some of stations lovingly re-created on the page no longer exist, lost to time or refurbishment: the City Hall subway station, with its glass skylights and viridian tiles, can now only been seen via special tours or Coppola’s loving re-creation on the page.

Princeton Architectural Press

Coppola began to draw subway mosaics in 1978, after noticing that tiles in the Bowling Green subway station and Cortland Street station had been destroyed during renovations. He consulted books, maps, dictionaries, newspapers, and remaining station walls, to record the past and present of the subway’s artisanship. Coppola self-published the first iteration of the project, called Silver Connections, in 1984—it has since expanded to six volumes. Thus far, he has covered 110 of the 472 existing stations. Coppola is 70 years old now, and hopes to finish his project sometime after 2030.

(Princeton Architectural Press)

The book is filled with tidbits about the ideas behind the station designs. The beaver plaque at Astor Place, for example, is a nod to the station’s namesake, John Jacob Astor. He established his own trading post in Oregon and sold beaver pelts for his initial fortune before turning to real estate and becoming “the landlord of New York.” Some pages later, an illustration of circle strip beams at Columbus Circle lead into a story about class. The beams, it turns out, were modeled off of the decorative molding on ceilings popular in upper-class homes at the time. Rich people preferred their own carriages over the subway—so artists George C. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge put in decorative strips along the ceiling beams to bring the middle- and lower-classes a taste of architectural finery in their own transit space. The book also includes lead-stained pages from Coppola’s notebooks, complete with notes in looping cursive.

(Princeton Architectural Press)

Coppola’s work revels in New York’s Gilded Age, when the subway was still considered groundbreaking and its artistry was something marveled at openly. In the book’s introduction, Workman and Bookstein write that they hope it “can also remind New Yorker and visitor alike that there is beauty all around us. You just have to look.”

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Mapping the Segregation of Metro Atlanta’s Amenities

CityLab’s series on metro Atlanta’s cityhood movement follows how new cities have been forming across that region, mostly from unincorporated areas—land that falls under county governance, but doesn’t belong to any particular city. In most other regions of the U.S., unincorporated domains are usually found in rural or exurban areas. But in metro Atlanta, these unincorporated parts are often heavily urbanized communities that barely differ from the cities they neighbor. One of the newest and most controversial cityhood cases involves a city south of Atlanta in Henry County—Stockbridge. Some of its wealthy communities are looking to break off to form a new city called Eagle’s Landing.

The boundaries around these new cities are often drawn along race and class lines, usually encompassing neighborhoods of majority-white populations that also represent the wealthier portions of a county. This describes DeKalb County, the focus of most of CityLab’s cityhood series, where since 2008, communities of wealthier and whiter gentries have incorporated into cities, allowing them to shelter some of their tax revenue for their own use.

The segregation that, in many ways, defines metro Atlanta’s topography makes it easy for communities to indulge in this kind of municipal sorting. Most of DeKalb County’s whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods are in its northern stretches, and that’s where most of the new cities have been formed. The majority-black city of Stonecrest, which formed last year, is in what’s considered “South DeKalb,” which is where most of the county’s black families reside.

But the segregation is not just exclusive to the county’s residential patterns. When it comes to commercial properties—restaurants, hotels, retail, and other businesses—those also are segregated, the bulk concentrated, once again, in the north. South DeKalb, meanwhile, has far less commercial real estate, meaning far fewer opportunities for its residents to eat, shop, and entertain themselves at venues close to their homes. This is why a contingent of South DeKalb residents has been lobbying the state for the right to form their own city called Greenhaven, so they can appeal on their own behalf for better economic prospects on their horizon.

It’s not just DeKalb County on that apartheid diet, though. The bifurcation between race, income, and real estate can be spotted across the entire metro Atlanta, including the city proper. The farther north you go in this region, the more businesses and the fewer people of color and lower incomes you’ll find; the farther south you go, the more you’ll find the opposite.

A new project from real estate company Trulia and the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) uses Yelp and Census data to map this segregation, beyond just the surface economic and racial divides. This project takes a more granular step to show what that segregation means for people’s access to what the study calls “amenities.” Looking at the maps, you can see how access to banks, medical centers, grocery stores, and parks are clustered across the upper half of metro Atlanta, and found more sparsely and scattershot across its lower half. The disparity is even more emphatic in Atlanta’s suburban counties.

The maps are divided by census tracts, each of which represents white populations in shades of green—the darker the tract, the fewer white people that live there. The first map, below, shows the distribution of “traditional financial institutions”—banks, credit unions, and mortgage lenders—represented by yellow dots. Many of the dot clusters are found in center-city Atlanta, as expected, given it is the capital of Georgia, but the other clusters are far more often located in the lighter green tracts across the north. The large dark section circled in pink shows south DeKalb County, which has only a sprinkle of dots.

Traditional financial institutions, metro Atlanta

(Map by Truliaecon)

While reporting from south DeKalb County earlier this year, one of the areas visited was the Sugar Creek Golf Course Park, which includes tennis courts and a recreation center. Much of it has been neglected by the county and state and is in heavy disrepair. However, according to the map below, there are few other places one can go in south DeKalb for fitness and outdoor activities, defined by Trulia/NFHA as parks, playgrounds, senior centers, day camps, and fields and courts for sports (represented by green dots on the map).

Fitness and outdoor activities, metro Atlanta

(Map by Truliaecon)

In terms of places to eat, residents of south DeKalb County complained that there are few dine-in restaurants in their neighborhoods. Kathryn Rice, one of the primary advocates for incorporating south DeKalb into a city called Greenhaven, took CityLab on a tour of the area’s massive landscape, showing how along one stretch, one could drive almost 15 miles before finding a grocery store. Meanwhile, fast-food stops and take-out wing spots were abundant. Not that there’s anything wrong with wing spots, but there were few other alternatives along the way, and even fewer grocery options for those wanting to cook meals at their homes. The blue dots in the map below shows the distribution of healthy options.

Healthy food options, metro Atlanta

(Map by Truliaecon)

“In Atlanta, majority-white tracts have 25.3 health care providers [per 10,000 people], compared to 9.8 [per 10,000 people] in majority-black tracts,” reads the Trulia/NFHA report accompanying the maps. South DeKalb suffers from some of the highest rates of premature deaths, diabetes, and low birthweight births in the region according to this report from the Atlanta Regional Commission. Unfortunately, compared to the rest of the region, it also suffers from having fewer healthcare facilities, as represented by the purple dots in the map below.

Healthcare services, metro Atlanta

(Map by Truliaecon)

Zooming in on Stockbridge, where some residents want to break away to form Eagle’s Landing, you can also spot similar instances of segregation of amenities. The area circled in the map below is the part of Stockbridge that would become Eagle’s Landing if the attempt isn’t blocked in court. The purple dots show how health care services are mostly clustered in the proposed Eagle’s Landing footprint.

City of Stockbridge healthcare facilities

(Map by Truliaecon)

The same holds true for banks, credit unions, and other traditional financial institutions, represented by the yellow dots below.

City of Stockbridge traditional financial institutions

(Map by Truliaecon)

The Trulia/NFHA project also looks at three other metros—Detroit, Oakland, and Houston—where they find similar spreads of segregation. Across all four metros they found that census tracts where people of color are the majority have 35.1 percent fewer traditional banking institutions, twice as many alternative banking establishments (check-cashing and pay-day loan centers), 38.4 percent fewer healthcare facilities, and 33.9 percent fewer fitness and outdoor amenities, when compared to majority-white tracts.

There are some nuances between the metros, the report found. For example, in Oakland, census tracts that have majority-Asian populations actually had more healthy food options than all other races, including areas where white people are the majority. In Detroit, there is no significant statistical difference between any of the races when it comes to outdoors and fitness amenities. But among the four metros, the report found no tract where African Americans are the majority, that enjoys more of these services than other races. The issue of segregation is not just about people of various races living apart from each other, it’s also about access to goods and services essential for quality living.   

“If you live in a community of color, your chances of having a grocery store, bank, park, doctor’s office, hospital or recreational facility in your neighborhood are slim,” said Lisa Rice, president of the NFHA. “The drastic disparities represented in this research are possible because of persistent segregation which was caused by government and private market policies and practices.”

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London’s Big Push for Better Design

This month, London launched a scheme to put good design back at the heart of public planning. A new social enterprise called Public Practice, supported by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, is embedding experienced architects and urban designers in 17 local authorities in and around the U.K. capital, for year-long but potentially open-ended placements.

These planners—chosen from over 200 applicants—will take on major briefs that range from developing blueprints for new garden cities to seeking ways to streamline the homebuilding process. Part of a cohort due to be replenished in a second round next year, this year’s associates are, according to Public Practice’s own estimates, forecast to build, expedite, or improve 17,000 homes and 19,000 square meters (roughly 18,300 square feet) of public realm, accelerate the delivery of £26 million ($35 million) of public infrastructure, and engage more than 3,400 people in communities in planning over the next year.

Compared to what London needs, this is only the tip of the iceberg. While by many metrics the city could be said to be booming, London is consistently falling far short of the housing targets it needs just to manage its projected population growth—let alone render its notoriously expensive market more affordable. What does get built is often developer-driven and fails to fully reflect the needs of the surrounding communities—especially in the case of people on lower incomes or minorities who often have less direct access and dialogue with the authorities that govern them.

Public Practice could help to rectify this. Aimed at helping London build more inclusive spaces and kickstarting smarter solutions to the housing crisis, the first class of 17 in the program is also unusually diverse by British standards—over 70 percent are women, and around a quarter are black and minority ethnic.

Their collective involvement couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as London’s and Britain’s planning has been going through a pretty bleak period. Once a proactive, city-shaping force, the planning profession in Britain has, as Public Practice’s CEO Finn Williams told CityLab, “come to be seen nowadays as stopping things from happening.”

When looking for the reasons why British planning has gone awry, the smoking gun is not the failures of local authorities per se. It’s really the result of nationally imposed austerity policies. Public spending has been hit in Britain since the 2007 financial crisis. Faced with budget choices, many municipalities increasingly restrict themselves to statutory functions, pushing many vital but not legally required design-related considerations down to the bottom of lists. This has meant not just a tendency towards uninspired, mediocre design, but an attrition of the planner’s broader role towards a sort of developmental and aesthetic firefighting. In London, the results have been a combination of uninspired construction, sclerotic approval processes, and—when it comes to major projects—planning departments too disempowered to hold developers to their promises.

One locally notorious example of this: the redevelopment of public housing in Elephant and Castle, South London. Here, the vast Heygate Estate social housing complex was demolished in 2014, with developers of a replacement property promising to hit affordable housing quotas and create shared public space. Those plans were hugely diluted in the years between approval and construction, with only belated resistance from the council halting some aspects of the demolition following intense public pressure. This messy, complicated situation is partly a result of an austerity-hit local authority not having the resources, expertise, and will to match the capabilities of an extremely well-resourced developer, reducing its role to that of gatekeeper—and not an especially effective one at that.

This de facto shrinking of the planner’s remit has another strand to it. British local authorities have also almost disappeared as actual commissioners for new construction. In 1976, when British municipalities built public housing in large volumes, 49 percent of the country’s architects worked in the public sector. Now, in the aftermath of 1980s policies that made public housing development extremely difficult, that figure is less than one percent. While no mainstream political force is as yet expecting the U.K. to return to its very high 1970s level of investment in public housing, there is a growing acknowledgement that something along those lines is desperately needed. Mayor Khan recently launched a plan to create 10,000 more public housing units in London by 2022 (which would be delivered by boroughs rather than London’s City Hall). Public Practice’s new associates could help their municipalities get this public housing developed, finding ways to streamline processes and developing briefs that inspire better, more harmoniously planned proposals from architects.

Planting more design professionals in decision-making bodies could have other positive impacts. As Public Practice co-founder Pooja Agarwal told architectural magazine Building Design: “Many of the most critical decisions about schemes—from the viability of providing affordable housing, to the amount of public space—are made without architects in the room.”

That can limit their abilities to shape projects, even before the design process begins, leaving the profession, as Agarwal says, “in the position of reacting to ready-made briefs, rather than proactively anticipating and shaping new development. The result is a dilution of the quality of the built environment, with its social impact a secondary consideration.”

Some examples of Public Practice’s attempts to turn this situation around are already underway. Hounslow, a relatively low-density outer London borough located just to the east of Heathrow Airport, is a case in point. The area is under intense pressure to develop new homes, as middle- and low-income Londoners flee the unaffordability of inner London. Prior to Public Practice’s involvement, Hounslow’s planning department didn’t possess an effective design capacity to oversee development. The Public Practice associate, planner Kathy MacEwen, will act as a sort of design czar overseeing borough-wide construction, creating a design award to recognize the best work from builders in the area.

Elsewhere in the city, the city’s transit body, Transport for London (TfL), has a large volume of brownfield land suitable for homes, much of which it is already developing. TfL’s new Public Practice associate, planner Sheeba Shetty, should be able to provide a more design-focused eye to the developments they are considering.

On its own, placements like these will not be enough to fully restore the planning profession’s public role after years of underfunding and reduced standing. But in showing what’s possible, they might help start to turn the tide in the right direction.

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CityLab Daily: So Much for the Urban-Rural Divide?

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What We’re Following

Same diff: Pundits may have exhausted nearly every “urban-rural divide” explanation for the gulf revealed by the 2016 election. But a new survey by the Pew Research Center finds we might not be so different after all. While place can predict people’s political leanings, the everyday problems of urban dwellers and rural residents look a lot alike—from the opioid crisis to the economy.

What’s more surprising is how similarly people feel about where they live. No matter if respondents reside in a big city or a small town, they report the same tenuous connection to their community, the same unfamiliarity with their neighbors, and the same emo belief that they’re misunderstood. CityLab’s Tanvi Misra covers the brooding findings from this survey of a moody America: Rural and Urban America Have More In Common Than You Think

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Who Owns LOVE?

Just days before Robert Indiana’s death, an offshore shell company filed a copyright suit against him over his beloved public artwork.

Kriston Capps

The ‘Barefoot Doctors’ Serving America’s Cities

Since it took root in the U.S. during the Gold Rush, Chinese medicine has served marginalized communities, from immigrants to Black Panthers to sex workers.

Mary Wang

Reverse Migration Might Turn Georgia Blue

More black people from the Northeast and Midwest are moving to Atlanta. That could help elect the nation’s first black female governor.

Alana Semuels

Arne Duncan Is Very Serious About a Massive School Boycott

The former education secretary thinks parents need to take radical action on gun laws.

Adam Harris

This Estonian Town Just Made the Cannabis Leaf its New Logo

Kanepi, Estonia’s new symbol is pretty dope.

Feargus O’Sullivan

The Kids Are All Bike

(Matthew Bennett)

It’s graduation season, and that means it’s time for senior pranks—dockless edition. In Rockford, Illinois, seniors graduating from East High School deployed dozens of LimeBikes under the cover of night to fill their school’s parking lot with the dockless shared bikes that launched in their city early this April. Assistant principal Matthew Bennett snapped photos of the stunt in the morning, tweeting “Class of 18 strikes again.” The scene, perhaps inadvertently, demonstrates just how much space cars take up versus other modes. CityLab context: Study up on the complete taxonomy of bikeshare… this will be on the final exam.

What We’re Reading

Why do Americans stay when their town has no future? (Bloomberg)

How suburban architecture may have encouraged the kids game “The Floor Is Lava” (Quartz)

Amazon has been generous to a Seattle homeless shelter. Why is its generosity such a pain? (Slate)

Trump made an immigration crackdown a priority. Jeff Sessions made it a reality (Vox)

Why would a conservative policy group get involved in a Chicago affordable housing dispute? (ProPublica)

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The Mobilization Fund Study: First Year of Capital Access in New Orleans

The Mobilization Fund helps Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs) overcome barriers with financial security used to support public contracting and to successfully deliver on contracts in New Orleans. In the short term, the objective of the $1.54 million pilot fund is to increase capital access to DBE contractors, supporting their current financial health and capacity. In the long term, the fund is intended to strengthen disadvantaged businesses’ ability to bid and deliver on a pipeline of public contracts, access roles as prime contractors, and over time, build wealth among those business owners and their employees.

Beginning in late 2016, the fund is structured as a public-private partnership (PPP) between Living Cities, the City of New Orleans, and NewCorp Inc, a mission-driven Community Development Financial Institution based in New Orleans, Louisiana. The fund builds on NewCorp’s long history of community lending to test ways to increase DBEs’ access to capital.

This public report contains the findings of RTI International’s interviews with fund recipients and the fund’s PPP partners and stakeholders to characterize initial outcomes. Those results range from improved financial outlooks for DBEs and the ability to deliver on their current public contract to reduced personal stress and increased business finance savvy. Findings are described in terms of:

  • financial outcomes
  • contract delivery outcomes
  • business ownership outcomes
  • loan process and management outcomes
  • fund partners’ outcomes

This assessment revealed important lessons learned for replicated or scaled funds in the future, including aspects of the pilot fund that worked well and areas of opportunity.

Primarily, the lessons apply to the fund design itself and the environment in which it operates. Overall, these findings highlight the early successes created by the existing PPP and demonstrate the importance of continued collective action across the public, private, and social sectors.

The Mobilization Fund Study: First Year of Capital Access in New Orleans


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