Is Local Self-Reliance Illegal? The Story of Waste Management, Inc. in California

Claims and counter-claims are being aired about the right of a city to choose a local hauler over Waste Management Inc., which has held the contract for the past 15 years in Carson, California. Waste Management, Inc. is in classic “sore loser” mode and challenging the bidding process for the award of a multi-million dollar waste collection contract to a local competitor.… Read More

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The State(s) of Distributed Solar — 2017 Update

Across the country, more states than ever are making solar energy—and distributed solar at that—a key part of their energy mix. But where have these gains been greatest, and what are the economic implications for residents from one state to the next? To answer these questions, an updated analysis of solar markets, using annual data from 2017, takes a closer look at the state-by-state share of distributed solar, highlighting which states have taken the lead to prioritize small-scale, local energy systems.… Read More

The post The State(s) of Distributed Solar — 2017 Update appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

A Loving Glimpse of an Aging Concrete Utopia

What happens to a city when the ideals that built it start to fade? This question lies at the heart of New Town Utopia, an affecting new British documentary released this month that charts the recent history of the model modernist city of Basildon.

Founded in 1949 roughly 30 miles east of London, Basildon was one of Britain’s first post-war new towns, a network of planned settlements that developed on the earlier Garden City model. Created by state development corporations in a spirit of practical idealism, these new towns sought to provide better homes and lives for mainly working class residents of Britain’s crowded, bomb-damaged cities.

In Basildon, the resulting city—green, rigidly-zoned, and almost exclusively state-owned housing—proved for decades to be a largely successful community. But as the film reveals through the words of Basildon artists, musicians, and creatives, the sense of vibrancy and cohesion the city fostered started to fray in the 1980s as the country’s government abandoned the social democratic values that underpinned the town’s creation.

Watching the film, it’s easy to see how heartening and radical towns like Basildon must have seemed after the war. Their creation was part of a wave that also introduced Britain’s first fully-fledged social security system and tax-funded National Health Service. The ideals that underpinned Basildon’s creation were humane, says New Town Utopia’s director Chris Smith. “The original vision behind Basildon was very noble—to create a place for people to live where they would be able to grow their communities,” he tells CityLab. “Where they would experience art and culture, where [there would] be a lot of green space.”

In keeping with urban policy of the time, this utopian setup involved rigorous zoning, landscaping, and architecture that mixed Modernism with updated versions of English suburban vernaculars. As such, its layout can now make it seem a little fragmented, but Basildon is a kind of test case for Mid-century urbanism.

Smith is nonetheless wary of either fetishizing its modernism or laying all the city’s problems at its door. “I’ve always been interested in Modernist art and design, but also aware of the potential conflict between that and the lived-in experience,” he says. “It’s all very well taking a middle class, aesthetic view of this kind of architecture, but those don’t mean much to someone living in the top of a tower that was freezing cold in winter, where their heating doesn’t work properly.”

Accordingly, the film criticizes its construction mishaps and poor layout more than any aesthetic flaw. Among the missteps, the film cites heating pipes being embedded in one building’s ceilings, while some low-rise project neighborhoods designed to shield residents from cars evolved into alienating labyrinths that risked shielding residents from any sense of life or vibrancy at all.

Planning glitches aside, the film is a love letter to the town. It’s not that it paints the city’s past as universally rosy, noting that the city developed a decidedly macho street culture where (not uncommon in Britain) walking into the wrong bar could get you in trouble. This is shown as counterbalanced, nonetheless, with a strong sense of social solidarity. With its decent housing on state-controlled rents, Basildon, the film notes, was once such a union town it was dubbed “Moscow-on-Thames.” With a publicly funded arts sector giving misfits a place to congregate, Basildon also developed a lively counter-culture in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. During that period, it fostered a music scene whose most famous product, Depeche Mode, still brings thousands of fans to the city as a site of pilgrimage.

And now? It’s not as if the city has faded away in recent years. High costs elsewhere in the London region still encourage people to move there in search of cheaper housing. In the mid 1980s, however, Basildon’s state-owned homes came up for sale to tenants as part of Margaret Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy scheme, and the inclusive ethos on which the city was based started to unravel as it changed from a city of tenants to one of owner-occupiers. As the city was handed over from a development corporation to the local municipality, the idealism on which the city was based was drained away as funding for community projects came under ever stricter scrutiny.

Nowadays, in a country where living standards are falling for people on lower incomes, many of Basildon’s shops and art venues have been shuttered or demolished. The city has developed a stigma as a place outsiders tend to assume is rough and crime-ridden. Smith says that partly stems from “the demonization of working class people, because these environments were designed for them.”

That doesn’t mean the city’s future is inherently bleak. New planning guidelines are softening the city’s formerly rigid zoning, while the influx of new citizens from elsewhere provides potential for future transformations. Watching the changes charted by New Town Utopia, it’s still hard not to reflect on what has been lost in Britain when it comes to providing a good life for people with few resources.

CityLab Daily: Inside the Massive U.S. ‘Border Zone’

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What We’re Following

Bordering on: While the weight of border patrol operations is felt heaviest along the southwest border of the United States, immigration agents possess expanded search and seizure powers in a wide swath of the country known as the “border zone.” The zone, which hugs the entire edge of the United States and runs 100 air miles inside, includes some of the densest cities—New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago—and is home to around 75 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population, according to a CityLab analysis based on data from location intelligence company ESRI.

(ESRI/Madison McVeigh)

Inside this space, agents can enter private property and set up highway checkpoints; and have wide discretion to stop, question, and detain individuals they suspect to have committed immigration violations. CityLab’s Tanvi Misra reports on what it’s like to live or travel within the massive border zone—and how towns and activists are challenging the checkpoints that have become borders themselves.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Chicago’s South Side Gets Dockless Bikeshare

A pilot program on the South Side aims to expand beyond the reach of the city’s docked system. But will lock-to requirements and other regulations allow for enough bikes to be useful?

Andrew Small

Boston Wants People To Build Tiny Houses In Their Yards

The city is showing off a prototype for “pop-up” affordable housing—and easing rules on accessory dwelling units.

Anthony Flint

Britain Wants to Protect Its Postmodernist Architecture

Following an announcement by Historic England, 17 buildings, the youngest of which was designed in 1991, will be preserved. It’s not hard to see why the newly listed buildings caught conservationists’ eyes.

Feargus O’Sullivan

The Abstract D.C. Metro Maps That Might Have Been

A series of modernist transit design gems were discovered last week inside Massimo and Lella Vignelli’s archives.

Mark Byrnes

The Defense That Failed White Nationalists

Marchers from last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville who attacked a black counter-protester made a claim that has often worked for police officers: They acted in self-defense.

Adam Serwer


West flight story

(Teralytics)

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, nearly 400,000 Puerto Ricans left the island, and found shelter in Florida, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Now, we know more precisely where people went because a New York-based tech company called Teralytics harvested data from 500,000 cell phones to track migration patterns after the storm.

Using that data, CityLab’s Martín Echenique and Univision’s Luis Melgar look at where Puerto Rico’s residents went after the storm—and when they came back.

The map above is just a snapshot of that post-Maria diaspora logged from September 2017 to February 2018. The streams of red show the exodus from the island territory, followed by waves of returnees in blue.

What We’re Reading

The future of transportation is the bike… (Wired)

… also, the future of transportation is the bus (The Verge) #BusToTheFuture

How could D.C. absorb Amazon HQ2 if it can’t handle housing and gridlock now? (Washington Post)

Black Oakland throws a big cookout to protest where a white lady called the cops (The Root)

These 95 apartments promised affordable rent in San Francisco. Then 6,580 people applied. (New York Times)

Reasons for Living With Parents Differ by Race

So, why are more and more young adults living at home—and for longer stretches than ever before?

“The economy, duh!” is, indeed, the right answer. But it’s not the complete answer.

The 2000s have been rough, and the recovery after the Great Recession has has been sluggish and uneven. But economic forces triggered by the downturns during this time have manifested differently for young people of different races, a new study out of Johns Hopkins University finds. While white people got stuck in their parents’ homes because of job-related concerns; for black ones, the biggest obstacle was housing.

“Economic factors do not operate the same for everyone,” says Scott Holupka, one of the authors of the study. “Whenever we do these generalizations, we are missing a lot of the action.”

Using a rich, longitudinal household survey, he and his colleagues examined the conditions young adults faced in their metro areas with respect to rents, employment, and earnings between 2001 and 2013. That economically tumultuous period had wide-ranging effects across the American landscape, and so was a particularly intriguing one to study the effects of macroeconomic events on behaviors.

After controlling for the relevant factors, the researchers expected to find some evidence showing that parental wealth had a bearing on the propensity of young adults to live independently—especially since blacks of all ages are more likely to live at home to begin with. Surprisingly, the study detected none.

“We looked at income and wealth of parents compared to economic climate and we really thought we would be looking at a horse race between those,” says Sandra J. Newman, the lead author of the peer-reviewed study published in Journal of Housing Economics. “Intriguingly, parental income and wealth had no effect on either blacks or whites—but what influenced blacks was very different than what influenced whites.”

For black adults who were between 18 and 24 during the time period examined, a $100 increase in rent was likely to trigger a 5 percent drop in what the authors call “household formation”—the tendency to leave the nest. For whites, it only led to a 1 percent decrease. Put another way, blacks appeared to be five times more sensitive to rent, as a factor in their choice to move out of their parents’ home.

The housing crisis essentially turned America into a renter nation, triggering a steady upwards climb in rents. Young black adults, on average, made less than their white counterparts. And they tend to live in “segmented housing markets”—racially and economically segregated metro areas with more expensive housing markets that just got more expensive over time. All of this made the burden of moving out of their parents’ house and into a rental much greater for them.

“Locationally, when you look at where young adults lived, whites were kind of distributed across the country, blacks were more concentrated in particular areas,” Newman said. “Blacks do not have access to all locations and that’s the historical, structural legacy.”

The effect of the labor market panned out differently. According to the study, the unemployment rate and the increase in staying with mom and dad went hand-in-hand for whites: A 1 percent drop on the first front led to a 1 percent increase on the second. For blacks, though, a 6 percent decline led to just a half-percent increase in living with mom and dad—a virtually insignificant blip.

The economy is improving and unemployment is at a historic low, so it’s likely that young, white people will move out of their parents’ home in greater numbers (non-economic factors not withstanding). What’s clear from this study’s findings, though, is that because the cost of housing keeps climbing higher, the same may not be true for their black counterparts.

“There’s really no sign that increasing rent increases are abating any time soon,” Newman said. “So it’s a cloud with no silver lining for blacks, because that still is a very big obstacle for them.”

The D.C. Metro Almost Had a Very Cool Abstract Map

Jennifer Whitlock is the lone archivist at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Every day, she pores through through boxes upon boxes of artifacts from the careers of legendary graphic designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli. The couple donated 60 years worth of their papers—covering everything from subway maps to shopping bags and airline logos—to the western New York school in 2010 (Massimo died in 2014, Lella in 2016).

Whitlock has been documenting her discoveries on the Vignelli Center’s social media accounts as she unpacks, and last week, she made a remarkable find: Massimo’s delightfully abstract concepts for a Washington, D.C. rapid transit system map. “I’m pretty sure I did a little dance and let out a little scream of joy,” Whitlock says of her latest discovery.

(Vignelli Center for Design Studies, RIT)

In 1968, Massimo—working for the design firm Unimark at the time—was asked to design the signage system for WMATA’s stations. According to Cameron Booth, the graphic designer behind TransitMaps, Massimo put a separate bid to design the system map after he left Unimark to form Vignelli Associates with Lella. Booth estimates these designs were made around 1973, one year after his polarizing New York City subway map debuted.

WMATA ended up turning to Lance Wyman to come up with the map that’s still used by the system today, although it never adopted the station icon system originally proposed. “I wanted to, after the experience of seeing how effective [icons] were in making the city visible in Mexico [City’s subway], do that again,” recalled Wyman in a 2014 CityLab interview. “But we had to use an approach that Massimo… mandated when he did the signage system, and that was to use more of a diagrammatic map like the London Underground.” Wyman’s final concept, however, maintains non-Vignelli features like sections of green that correspond with popular park space and icons that identify landmarks.

Inside the archives at the Vignelli Center. (Jennifer Whitlock)

Besides these latest discoveries, the center has a photocopied version of the WMATA signage manual, some preliminary sketches by Massimo for the manual and signage system, and 35mm slides of the final manual and signage in real life. Whitlock still has plenty more to uncover: She tells CityLab that there’s a whole summer’s worth of large cardboard portfolios to go through related to WMATA.

And in case you happen to have some Unimark or Vignelli relics laying around, she says the center is still collecting.

Inside the Massive U.S. ‘Border Zone’

Arivaca is a small, unincorporated community in Pima County, Arizona, around 11 miles north of the Mexican border. The closest big city is Tucson, 60 miles northeast. The town itself is barebones—a smattering of old buildings, some dating back to the 1800s. It is surrounded by swathes of yellow grassland.

To get groceries or cash a check at the bank, residents often have to drive north to Green Valley, or even further, to Tucson. And to do that, they have to pass by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoint, where they’re inevitably asked if they’re U.S. citizens.

“It sometimes feels like they’re trying to create a no man’s land,” says Arivaca resident Peter Ragan. “All the people who are living here, and may have lived here for generations, are now part of the problem because they’re in the way.”

While the weight of border patrol’s operations is felt heaviest along the southwest border of the U.S., the “no man’s land” Ragan is talking about actually extends much further into the country. In the “border zone,” different legal standards apply. Agents can enter private property, set up highway checkpoints, have wide discretion to stop, question, and detain individuals they suspect to have committed immigration violations—and can even use race and ethnicity as factors to do so.

That’s striking because the border zone is home to 65.3 percent of the entire U.S. population, and around 75 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population, according to a CityLab analysis based on data from location intelligence company ESRI. This zone, which hugs the entire edge of the United States and runs 100 air miles inside, includes some of the densest cities—New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. It also includes , Border patrol operations led to 97 deaths over the last 15 years—some 160 miles from the border itself.)

But even if that worst case scenario doesn’t materialize, activists and residents near the border see the mere presence of these checkpoints as cruel and inhumane. For undocumented or mixed-status families, they create impossible, Hobson’s choices. Should an undocumented Texan woman exercise her already-restricted right to have an abortion, if there’s a checkpoint on the way? Should undocumented parents take themselves and their kids to get crucial medical treatment if there’s a checkpoint on the route to the hospital? Or, should they stay home and risk the consequences of not getting help?

“These checkpoints? They’re borders themselves—they separate families; they separate communities,”said Jorge Rodriguez, an ACLU organizer in Southern New Mexico.

*It’s worth taking all the numbers provided by CBP with a grain of salt because the GAO also found “inconsistent data collection practices at checkpoints.”

Finding, Measuring, and Addressing Urban Equity

How urban innovators and social entrepreneurs define and measure progress has profound implications for how those committed to improving their communities – businesses, governments, nonprofits, and residents – allocate resources. Urban innovators and social entrepreneurs are the changemakers of tomorrow – they hold the key to how cities will overcome the most pressing social and economic challenges we face today.

As one of the largest social enterprises in the nation, Enterprise Community Partners is working to advance an opportunity framework – including the introduction of a new platform for identifying and addressing community strengths and challenges, Opportunity360. Advancing this framework is intended to strengthen the “ground game” of the growing field of social innovators and entrepreneurs interested in cross-sector collaboration as they work to advance better outcomes for people.

What is Opportunity?

Opportunity is the set of circumstances and neighborhood characteristics – what Enterprise calls pathways – that make it possible for people to achieve their goals, no matter their starting point. Any serious attempt to define, measure, and expand opportunity must include both the outcomes people achieve, such as their educational attainment, health, and income, and the pathways that affect the attainment of those outcomes, like quality schools, convenient transit, and access to healthy foods.

A robust and growing body of research tells us that the availability of these opportunity pathways is as crucial to an individual’s success as motivation and work ethic. In other words, where you live affects the life you have. Stanford researcher Raj Chetty and his colleagues have shown clearly that simply moving to better neighborhoods leads to substantial “increases in children’s earnings as adults, increases in college attendance and reductions in out-of-wedlock births.”

Interconnected Challenges Require Interconnected Solutions

Cities in the U.S. and around the world committed to improving opportunity face a variety of interconnected challenges. A person with poor access to transit often also finds it hard to reach areas with good jobs; someone with a poorly maintained home is more likely to suffer from health issues like asthma, made worse from triggers like mold and pests.

Making progress on interconnected challenges requires interconnected solutions, which in turn requires multisector collaboration. For example, organizations providing affordable housing can locate homes in areas that offer quality education, can work with before- and after-school programs to provide lower-income students with the enrichment and support they often need, partner with health systems to help provide access to quality healthcare, and design resident services to provide job training. However, effective collaboration requires a shared understanding of the problems and the assets in each community.

Harnessing Technology to Enhance Multisector Collaboration

In the U.S., the data revolution has made possible a variety of tools designed to measure opportunity measurement tools using a myriad of indicators. Each tool has its own evaluation lens, points of emphasis, and methodology – all intended to contribute to better informed policies and programs.

Yet each has limitations that have prevented any one tool from establishing itself as a shared reference point for urban innovators and social entrepreneurs – be they investors, philanthropists, planners, researchers, developers, advocates, activists or, most importantly, residents. While they all come with different skills and goals for their work, they all need a tool that enables them to:

 Use a framework that integrates a people, places, and systems perspectives to encourage a multisector, collaborative approach to identifying solutions;
 Differentiate opportunity pathways, like school quality and transit options, from opportunity outcomes, like educational success and income;
 Engage residents and other stakeholders as co-creators in community development plans so that policies and projects aid those who need it most and do not lead to further challenges;
 Provide data at the neighborhood level, because opportunity can shift block to block;
 Offer data that covers a greater depth and breadth of indicators and displays them an easy-to-use form; and
 Enable them to see impact and change over time to understand how investments are affecting outcomes.

A New Way for Urban Innovators to Understand and Address Community Challenges

Opportunity360 is a new platform that responds to those needs. It is a free, fulsome approach to analyzing and addressing community challenges using cross-sector data, sophisticated measurement tools, and creative community engagement techniques.

Drawing on more than 200 indicators, Opportunity360 helps provide answers to key questions facing those committed to improving communities and does so at the census tract level. To what extent do people in a given place have access to the resources, institutions, and services that create opportunity? How do residents fare in five categories fundamental to well-being: housing stability, education, economic security, health and well-being, and mobility?

The suite of tools and resources in the platform provides a comprehensive view into a neighborhood, enabling partners in urban development to work from common knowledge. With this insight, they will be better positioned to transform cities by creating collaborative solutions, by making smart investments, and by facilitating a strategic, asset-building approach to community development. The ability of Opportunity360 to collect and compare data over time can help us better understand how our systems and policies affect the outcomes of low-income people.
As investors, philanthropists, planners, researchers, developers, and advocates, we must do more to create collaborative, cross-sector solutions that incorporate people, places and systems. By informing our work with multisector data and the knowledge of peers in other fields, Opportunity360 can help urban innovators offer more thoughtful solutions to our shared challenges and build stronger, more resilient communities.

California’s Landmark Solar Homes Mandate Lowers Cost of Home Ownership

Starting January 1, 2020, every new home built in California will sport solar panels. The landmark ruling of the state’s Energy Commission is expected to lower the monthly cost of home ownership by $40, but it will also have significant benefits for the local economy and the electric grid.… Read More

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Listen: ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell Talks Amazon and Antitrust on the Majority Report with Sam Seder

ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell recently joined host Sam Seder to talk Amazon and monopoly power on the popular podcast, “The Majority Report.” Sparked by Stacy’s recent cover story on Amazon in The Nation, Stacy and Sam’s conversation covers Amazon’s role as an infrastructure company, the dramatic shift that occurred in U.S. antitrust policy, and six proposals to rein in today’s monopolies.… Read More

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