The Experience Is Virtual. The Terror Is Real.

There’s a scene in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena that is meant to stop your heart. Several scenes, really: The project is a recreation of a showdown at the U.S. border, and it turns terrifying in flash. But the piece—part virtual-reality experiment, part immersive-spectacle video art installation—begins with a sequence that is meant to test your patience.

When visitors arrive at the former church in northeast Washington, D.C., where Carne y Arena (or “Flesh and Sand”) is being staged this summer, they are ushered into a holding cell. The space is cold and sterile, a gray pen with cement floors and a metal bench. Participants are instructed to take off their shoes and socks and put them (and any bags) into a pair of metal lockers. Instructions are piped into the room through an overhead speaker. Then the wait begins: a simulation of the detention that unauthorized immigrants and refugees experience upon their arrival to the border.

The processing for Carne y Arena lasts only a few minutes, but it’s long enough to wear thin. For the migrants who survive the deadly trek through Mexico, the real detention can run on for days, even weeks. In the installation, the anteroom works to slow viewers down, to detach them from their thoughts and phones, to disorient them. What follows—a virtual-reality film of a dangerous but commonplace encounter between a caravan of refugees and the U.S. Border Patrol—is also brief. Its six-and-a-half minute runtime goes by in an instant.

Iñárritu, the Oscar-winning director of Birdman, The Revenant, and Amores Perros, said in a talk at the that federal agencies had lost track of some 1,500 minors who arrived at the border unaccompanied by an adult—along with the Trump administration’s new policy of separating migrant children from their families at the border—have collided in a perfect storm of chaos and fear.

“When I started Carne y Arena, this administration was not in power,” the director said during his talk. “Things have changed very rapidly. Things have become more urgent. But it still was something that I have here in my bones and my soul.”

Alejandro González Iñárritu reenacts a border scene in the desert. (Chachi Ramirez/Legendary)

At the Phillips Collection, Iñárritu talked about building the piece. He first got the idea back in 2006, when he was making Babel, a drama that follows different border narratives around the world. For that film, Iñárritu interviewed more than 100 immigrants hailing from every Latin American country. It would take a while, though, for the technology to advance to the point that he could realize a film that immersed viewers in the border-crossing experience.  

“When I was exposed to virtual reality six or seven years ago, it looked like shit. But the idea of it was what I wanted,” Iñárritu said. “When I finished The Revenant, I decided I should explore it again. It still looked like shit, but it was better.”

Maybe the nighttime setting and other cinematic tricks disguise some of the limitations of the still-developing VR technology, as the director pleads. That’s hard to tell, though, when you’re walking barefoot through actual sand, in what feels like a true desert at twilight—a scene so convincing that I felt compelled to navigate around mesquite bushes that were not there. Shouting officers, barking dogs, helicopter rotors, and cries of anxiety all sound very convincing indeed.

Then there’s a point when the officers turn their guns on the viewer and begin shouting orders at the migrants, and anything goes. It is not a scene for the faint of heart or easily traumatized. I felt pushed to run but instead froze in place, aware that I was not following their orders to get down on the ground. Further down the brain stem, more dimly, and maybe only after the fact, it occurred to me that these weren’t real orders, or real officers.

Only after that tense scene melts—giving way to a dreamlike vision of a table, over which tiny figures row in a crowded boat—will it occur to some viewers that they are free to walk around the cavernous space to take in the scene from different vantage points. It’s not one film but many films, a limitless variety. Those who decide to test the medium, by walking directly into the space occupied by an officer or migrant, are treated to another surreal effect.

But that wasn’t me. I was always mindful that I was on a stage, watching a drama play out, until that drama turned on me. The symbolic value of Border Patrol agents turning their flashlight beams on the viewer won’t be lost on anyone, even if they see it coming. It’s less clear how to interpret a final scene of empty desert, with only a few bits of detritus left behind to mark the passage of the migrants. Did they make it? A pair of abandoned white shoes is a worrying sign. Here the film itself shines, capturing the serenity and loneliness of the vast desert. It feels shameful to admit, but this coda brings a sense of relief.

Iñárritu said that he hopes that Republican lawmakers see the piece while it’s up. (A few Democratic leaders, among them Senator Cory Booker, have been in the audience so far.) But he doesn’t mean to prescribe any specific political agenda.

“I’m not attached to any land,” Iñárritu said. “I’m attached to humans.”

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How to Create Age Friendly Cities

Age-friendly cities–also called livable, or lifelong communities – have much to offer. As defined by the World Health Organization’s Global Network for Age-friendly Cities and Communities, age-friendly features include good walkability, transit, and mobility; affordable, accessible housing; employment and volunteer opportunities at every age; well-coordinated health and social services; and more inclusion and intergenerational connection.

You’ve probably noticed that this could just as easily define a Millennial’s wish list for the perfect place to live.

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MapLab: Machines Are Transforming the Map

Welcome to the latest edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox here.

Orient yourself: The map is an Ourosbouros

Google Maps, Waze, Uber, Yelp, and every other smartphone-based service you use to get around involves a fairly intricate map. That map may be interactive, offer navigation assistance, store your preferences, or connect to a network of users.

But fundamentally, it serves the purpose maps always have: to liaise between the reader and the world. Just as you must match a Thomas Guide or a subway map to your surroundings before making a move, digital maps still require people to glance up, compare screen to street or sidewalk, and make the next move.

Lidar mapping in action. (Voyage)

Now, as the mapping industry booms alongside the development of autonomous cars, that model is changing. To brake, steer, and slow the car, autonomous vehicle software requires 3-D maps of the surrounding roads. What’s more, the machines are also generators of map data. Every time an AV is out for a drive, its sensors gather information about lane lines, curbs, and stop signs that are fed back into the master map.

Humans can incorporate inaccuracies and mismatches in the map as they chart their course. But now, “that ‘human as join’ model of maps is breaking down,” Young Hahn, the chief technology officer at Mapbox, told a keynote audience at Locate, a mapping and location data conference in San Francisco last week. Whereas “humans can look at the world and make the map work,” machines can’t, Hahn said. So that means that the data they gather had better be highly accurate, highly detailed, and at scale.

What the car sees. (Voyage)

But what does it mean for a machine to draw and follow its own map of the world? Would the result be, eventually, a map that is impervious to inaccuracies and bias? Or is that pure “technochauvinism”? After all, the computer still has to match its map to the world, similar to the way that humans do. The artificial intelligence that “learns” the map could still be confused by minor changes, like a sparkly sticker on a stop sign. That could easily cause an accident or pedestrian injury—more easily, in that instance, than it would with a human driver.

In that case, what’s the purpose of a map that reads itself? And what potential subjectivities could still work their way in? These aren’t questions that you don’t hear asked much at tech conferences, but they’re ones that I’m pursuing right now. What do you think, readers? Let me know.

Compass points: Blockchain for good

Speaking of tech: Last week on CityLab, Sarah Holder and Linda Poon reported on how mapping apps and blockchain are helping cities tackle the growing homelessness crisis.

The “Counting Us” app. (Point In Time)

Holder writes for MapLab:

Conceptualizing the magnitude of the homelessness crisis in America is hard; curing its root causes is harder. But mapping its population, at least, is getting easier. In Spokane and Houston, a GIS-based “Counting Us” app allows the city to link its count of the unhoused to the real-time geographic location where they’re found. Patterns can emerge—where do people cluster during the winter, or after storms?—and care can be targeted.

Austin’s homelessness innovation resembles a map less in the traditional sense, but it does offer a way for people to keep track of themselves in a world categorized by impermanence. A blockchain-based database (crazy, I know) could soon hold a digital copy of homeless residents’ identity documents—important for getting a job, housing, or medical care—even without a physical home base.

For further reading, check out every county in the U.S. that has an affordable housing crisis. (Hint: it’s all of them!)

And here’s my 2017 profile of a formerly unhoused Portland, Oregon, entrepreneur tackling the worst of the housing crisis with a PadMapper-esque app specifically for the homeless.

Mappy links

Find all the bottles: a delightful map of Chicago’s Prohibition-era “ganglands.” ♦ Visit Milwaukee for the bratwurst, the lakeshore sunsets, and the country’s largest cartography collection outside of the Library of Congress. ♦ Not everyone gets arrested when they commit homicide in America. And not in every neighborhood. The Washington Post gives disturbing stats a compelling treatment. ♦ Useful new term alert: the “friction of distance” keeps people from economic opportunity. ♦ Mapped: why the impact of climate change will hurt poor countries most.

Don’t hog MapLab all for yourself. Send this to a friend and sign up for this biweekly newsletter here.



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CityLab Daily: Will San Francisco’s Second Choice Become Mayor?

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


What We’re Following

Who’s on first? San Francisco’s mayoral race was sure to deliver a “first” to City Hall, but the election might be historic for much wonkier reasons thanks to the city’s unusual ranked-choice voting system. London Breed, president of the city’s board of supervisors and the frontrunner leading up to the special election, outperformed her competitors by nearly 10 percentage points on first-choice votes, winning a 35 percent plurality.

But as the city tallies up second-choice votes, former state senator Mark Leno now narrowly leads Breed, 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports. An alliance between the two runners-up payed off for Leno—he received the majority of second-choice votes from supporters of supervisor Jane Kim. The winner might not be announced for days, but if Leno wins, will San Francisco voters be upset that the candidate with a clear lead in first choice votes did not become mayor?

Other primary-night updates:

  • Democrats turned out in New Jersey’s suburban primaries (NPR)
  • A Native American candidate in New Mexico gets closer to making history (ThinkProgress)
  • Thousands of voters were left off primary day rolls in Los Angeles (New York Times)
  • Voters recalled the judge who sentenced Brock Turner to six months in jail for sexual assault, but the vote has raised questions about the wisdom of politicizing the decision (Vox)

Benjamin Schneider and Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Is It Time to Reconsider Traffic Stops?

What researchers found after analyzing data gathered from 20 million stops in North Carolina.

Tanvi Misra

The Paradox of Prosperity at America’s Universities

As they churn out the talent and technology that drive economic growth, universities also shape deepening urban inequality.

Richard Florida

The Hidden Forces That Shape Cities

It’s not always big leaders with big plans.

Feargus O’Sullivan

Barcelona Finds a Way to Control Its Airbnb Market

The city’s latest move to limit vacation rentals could come in handy for other cities trying out their own regulations.

Feargus O’Sullivan

Rest In Peace, Ikea Bike

The Sladda bicycle was an attempt to help city-dwellers ease into life without cars. Now a sweeping recall is bringing the product to its demise.

Andrew Small

The Great Wave of Mascots

(Chris Carlier)

In Japan, cities have their own mascots. Thousands of gotōchi-chara, or “regional characters,” enliven posters and street signs, promote tourism, and are a source of regional pride. Like local sports teams or favorite regional dishes, these weird, lovable characters are now an indelible part of the identities of a generation that can’t imagine their hometowns without them. On CityLab: The Strange, Enduring Charm of Japan’s Civic Mascots.

Correction: In yesterday’s item about the benefits of spending time alone outdoors, we misidentified the researchers’ affiliations. They work at Montreat College and West Carolina University, not at Outward Bound.

What We’re Reading

U.S. house prices are increasing at twice the speed of pay and inflation (CNBC)

Where homicides go unsolved in cities, mapped (Washington Post)

The hidden women of architecture and design (New Yorker)

As California’s largest lake dries up, it threatens nearby communities with clouds of toxic dust (The Verge)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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Barcelona Finds a Way to Control Its Airbnb Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is It Time to Reconsider Traffic Stops?

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

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

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

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

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

So who was being stopped?

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

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

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

What about searches?

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

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

What were the outcome of these types of searches?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do policing stops vary by geography?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So a broader reckoning with the costs of predictive policing…

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

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

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The Case for ‘Sanctuary Cities’ for Endangered Species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hidden Forces That Shape Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Auditioning Not for Broadway, but the Subway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Future Streets See More Cars on the Road?

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

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