United States of Anti-Muslim Hate

​​​​​In December 2015, a severed pig’s head appeared at the doorstep of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society. In September 2016, the police chief of Gurley, Alabama, posted a picture on Facebook of a box of bullets, with the note: “100 more bacon grease covered bullets in the box! This relaxes me so!!” In December that year, a man assaulted a 16-year-old Muslim boy in Brooklyn. When his mom, an off-duty NYPD officer who wears a hijab, came to his defense, the attacker called her an “ISIS bitch” and threatened to cut her throat. In January 2018, a Boise, Idaho, State lawmaker re-introduced a bill that banned “foreign law” for the third time. Originally, he had included supporting material with definitions of Sharia law to clarify his intent.

These are just a handful of the 600 anti-Muslim incidents that have taken place between 2012 and the present. They are all documented in a new data visualization project by New America—a non-partisan, nonprofit think tank.

The charts and interactive maps in the projects reveal some interesting trends, but perhaps the most striking one is this: While anti-Muslim incidents appear to increase after terrorist attacks, as previous research has suggested, the sharpest spikes have happened since 2015—“indicating political rhetoric from national leaders has a real and measurable impact,” said Robert McKenzie, a senior fellow at New America and director of this project.

He and his colleagues compiled the list of incidents using research tools like LexisNexis and LegiScan, and broke the sample down into five categories. The first one is “anti-Sharia legislation”—and includes bills that seek to ban Islamic law from being considered in U.S. courts. The second category includes “legislation or action by public officials that hinder the refugee resettlement process or voice opposition to the resettlement of refugees in a certain area,” the researchers explain. The third documents cases where local governments have rejected mosques, Muslim cemeteries, or schools in their communities. It’s essentially a count of cases where NIMBYism against Muslim structures has been successful. The next category lists incidents of anti-Muslim statements by local officials. And the fifth and final category draws from news reports of threats and violence to Muslim communities, including criminal acts and hate crimes. On their website, the researchers explain the criteria for these categories further, noting that they’ve taken a “conservative approach” towards data collection.

Arguably, the most revelatory chart based on their dataset plots incidents over time. The small dots are color-coded based on the category they fall in, and can be isolated by toggling that category from the legend at the top of the chart. Significant events that might affect the frequency of such incidents, such as terrorist attacks, are marked at the bottom. Here’s a snapshot of when all documented incidents took place between 2012 and today:

(New America)

Selecting just incidents in the first category (in yellow here) shows a clear trend: Anti-Sharia law legislation tends to pop up every legislative cycle, with some consistency. On the website, clicking on each circle pulls up a scrolling list with more details on that bill or law. This shows something striking: of the 147 instances of these bills being introduced, only in 11 cases have they become law. (Courts have struck down such legislation in the past.)

“The point is that there’s no place in the country that I’m aware of where Muslim communities are calling for Sharia law,” McKenzie said. “The purpose of [these bills] is really about ‘othering’ a faith-based community; it’s really about drumming up fear.”

(New America)

Then, my attention was pulled by the uptick in incidents belonging to the fifth category. Around 87 percent of these incidents have happened between mid-2015 and today, according to McKenzie. Within this time frame, two shorter periods stood out: November 13 to December 31, 2015 and November 8 to December 8, 2016. A striking 25 percent of all hate crime incidents occurred within this period.

On the other hand, these types of events after the Boston Marathon bombing and the Charlie Hebdo shooting were relatively scant. “While both of these attacks received significant media attention, they occurred before the 2016 presidential cycle was underway,” McKenzie said.

(New America)

The project also includes a neat interactive map, showing the geographical distribution of anti-Muslim incidents. Not surprisingly, California had the highest number of total incidents—it is the most populous state and home to the largest Muslim population (first map below). Maine, on the other hand, registered the highest number of per capita incidents (second map, below).

(New America)

The researchers behind the project intend to keep it updated as new numbers come in. Their goal is to make “it possible for a range of stakeholders to discuss anti-Muslim incidents with a shared set of facts. Is there an increase in anti-Muslim incidents? Where and when has anti-Muslim incidents been at its most pernicious and threatening?” the researchers write on their website.

Still, they caution that the database is not comprehensive. And beyond the numbers, it also excludes qualitative information on the impact of the incidents on Muslim communities in the United States.

“It makes them wonder: ‘Are they safe? Are they welcome here?’” McKenzie said. “[The project] does not capture the kind of fear each incident creates for the community.”

L.A. Bets That Equity Is the Path to Resilience

Wildfires, floods, mudslides, earthquakes, tsunamis—the list of natural disasters that haunt Los Angeles reads like the 10 Plagues of Egypt. What’s more, the city’s size and diversity mean that different neighborhoods are vulnerable to different events, and because of the city’s level of inequality, some residents are much better equipped to handle disaster than others.

In response to these challenges, last week the City of Los Angeles, in coordination with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, released a resilience strategy. Many of the 96 action items in the new plan follow tried-and-true formulas for mitigating the damage from natural disaster. More resources for seismic safety through the state of California’s “brace-and-bolt” program will help protect older buildings from earthquakes, while increased neighborhood outreach in the hills will complement brush-clearing efforts that prevent wildfires.

Some of the actions are already funded, and the mayor’s office is seeking funding for the rest, both from city funds and from outside partners.

The plan also treats environmental resilience and social equity as interdependent. “The ability of a city to survive and thrive in the face of disaster is as much about its social fabric and social footprint as it is about its infrastructure and its technical treatment of the big risks,” said Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities.

Some of the longer-term actions reiterate the city’s commitment to ongoing initiatives, such as its ambitious metro expansion and its plans to produce 100,000 new housing units by 2021 and cut homelessness in half by 2022. While these might not appear connected to climate or disaster resilience at first glance, they help create a stronger social fabric by improving the health, safety, and economic position of L.A.’s communities.

Currently, many of the city’s most vulnerable residents—as determined by health, economic, and demographic measures—are cut off from the city’s resilience infrastructure. The map below shows large concentrations of vulnerable residents living far from parks and green spaces.

(Resilient Los Angeles)

A lack of access to green space is not simply unfortunate for these residents—it actually affects their neighborhood’s resilience to climate change. The map above tracks closely with a map of urban heat islands, below. In neighborhoods where there are few trees and most of the built environment is paved, temperatures can be up to 10 degrees higher than if there were ample green space and vegetation.

(Resilient Los Angeles)

Urban heat islands, which disproportionately affect the most vulnerable Angelenos, will only get worse as the atmosphere continues to warm. In preparation for more days with extreme heat, the city plans to begin paving roads with “cool pavement” technologies; mandate that new buildings have reflective roofs; and expand a neighborhood cooling-center program. The city also intends to plant more trees in tree-poor neighborhoods in coming years.

Taken in sum, these small steps could add up to a cooler, more disaster-hardy, and more equitable city. The city is now trying to integrate resilience into more of its government operations. Los Angeles plans to add chief resilience officers to 28 major city departments, which would make it unique among the 100 Resilient Cities cohort, many of which have only one CRO whose position is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. (The Los Angeles city government will fund the 28 departmental CRO positions, and already funds the CRO position in the mayor’s office.)

To Berkowitz, L.A.’s resilience strategy represents a shift in mindset as much as it does a series of concrete goals. “This is a more institutionalized change as opposed to any one-off single initiative,” he said.

Despite these proposed steps, the path forward for Los Angeles, and other cities investing heavily in the physical and social infrastructure of resilience, could be a difficult one. The threat of “green gentrification” looms over some of the city’s marquee efforts, like the L.A. River revitalization. While it could produce major recreational and environmental benefits for underserved areas, that project has already been compared to Manhattan’s High Line, which sparked the rapid gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods. Improving a neighborhood’s access to high-quality public spaces without producing a real-estate bonanza remains a vexing problem.

Let the Mayors Lead

In the wake of the Parkland tragedy, mayors of Florida cities—and other local leaders across the nation—want to help protect children from gun violence by passing common sense laws, but in many cases, their hands are tied by state governments that ban local regulation of firearms.

Unfortunately, the use of state laws to stop or ‘preempt’ local lawmaking is not limited to guns.

Half of all states now ban local efforts to combat inequality through minimum wage policy, while 18 states have denied local governments the power to enact paid sick leave policies. States have shut down local LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances; halted efforts to protect immigrants; undermined efforts to advance environmental protection, and stifled innovation by preventing cities from having a say on high-speed broadband.

Not only do these measures place a wedge between the government and the governed, they constrict liberty.

The United States—as the name makes clear—is a collection of states that serve as the foundation of our federal system. It was founded with the intent that these ‘united states’ would work together to better our democracy, innovate and lift great ideas from communities large and small to inform national policy. Now, rather than elevating the best ideas, state legislators are using top-down tactics to tamp down local decision making and erode our democracy.

State-level preemptive tactics are overturning elections, limiting local anti-discrimination efforts, perpetuating racial and economic inequality, and systematically stripping local governments of their power to respond to local problems. These tactics are amplified via partisan divisions that have only grown as a result of strategic redistricting taking place in states nationwide–-solidifying and deepening political divides in statehouses.

These measures restrict the ability of all of us to make our own decisions reflecting community values and goals. Ground-up democracy—civic engagement, democratic participation, and a love of liberty—is essential to who we are as Americans.

Why did democracy take root and flourish in America when it failed in so many other places? That question drove Alexis de Tocqueville to travel and study the United States in 1831. He concluded that local government was the key because it functioned as a “school of democracy” where Americans learned to participate, take charge of their own affairs together, and expect accountability of public officials.

Local democracy, Tocqueville wrote, also taught Americans how state and federal democracy should work to promote the common good. But local government, and its role at the heart of our democracy, is in peril in many states.

Local governments and policymakers are facing increasing hostility. Whether it is a legal attack on “sanctuary cities,” in order to compel municipal governments to ‘deputize’ local police as immigration officers, or even the seemingly innocuous question of whether communities can regulate dockless bikeshares on their sidewalks—these local decisions are being disallowed by disconnected state legislators.

And again and again, state legislative bodies have sought to stop cities that want to raise wages, even though, across the country, large majorities support it. Numerous states have preempted cities from passing restrictions on gun owners, despite vast support for laws banning high-capacity magazines and bump stocks.

So far this year, state lawmakers have shown a growing focus on interfering in local government, rather than finding solutions for the problems Americans collectively face. It’s no wonder that a recent survey from Boston University found that both Republican and Democratic mayors were very concerned about state government preemption. Fifty-seven percent reported much less, or less than average autonomy from their state governments, an increase of 10 percentage points since 2016.

The weakening of local authority and community decision-making has immediate consequences on the health, safety, and economic wellbeing of residents, but the rise of state preemption also has long-term significance for our democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville’s prescient ideas on local governments as schools of democracy continue to hold true today.

Local leaders are not sitting idle in the face of this threat. Mayors and city councils across America are actively contesting the rise of state overreach and will continue to fight. The ability for local leaders to solve problems and protect their residents—including schoolchildren—is too valuable to lose.

With the life and death issues we all face, we cannot wait as the federal government and state governments dither or, in the worst cases, actively stand in the way of progress. Local leaders are focused on solutions.

It is clear that cities cannot stand alone. The collective impact of engaged local citizens is essential. Without it the loss of local democracy could cost us the only still-functioning form of government left.

The Shadowy Side of LED Streetlights

Blinking down at passersby in traffic intersections and lining dark alleys, sleek, energy-efficient LED streetlights have begun to replace old-fashioned, glitchy ones. It’s part of a wave of smart city initiatives sweeping the country: Already, LEDs are strung above parts of places like Baltimore, San Diego, Kansas City and Bethlehem. Now, Portland, Maine, is in a race with Schenectady and several other cities to become the first to convert their entire light grid.

But as more communities adopt government-funded, eco-friendly LED lights as an environmental measure, some worry that the eyes on these bulbs may be a bit too literal. As they illuminate the streets, they could be watching—and recording—what happens below with attached cameras, microphones, and other devices.

The biggest appeal of LEDs is their efficiency and cost-saving potential: They aren’t designed specifically to surveil. But the bulbs’ complex wiring and strategic positioning make recording devices an easy addition. When LEDs started brightening the halls of Newark Liberty International Airport in 2014, and malls across the country soon after, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and community members were unsettled to discover that hidden inside some of them were cameras. Others, microphones.

“I think rather than call them smart bulbs in smart cities I’d call them surveillance bulbs in surveillance cities,” said Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy council for the ACLU. “That’s more accurate.”

In Portland, 6,100 LED streetlights will spray across the city over the next two years, reducing light pollution and potentially saving the city $1 million in annual maintenance fees the local utility once charged to fix up old light fixtures. Touting Portland’s plans, city manager Jon Jennings calls the city “very progressive” on climate change.

Jennings says the city provided opportunities for community input before the LED conversion plan commenced, and that the city is not at all interested in outfitting the smart lights with cameras right now. But in Portland, as in many cities across the U.S., there are no laws in place ensuring that residents have to be alerted if (or when) they do add cameras or other surveilling equipment. The city council would have to approve the line item in the budget to fund them, but their installation will never put up to a vote.

The ACLU has launched a national campaign called Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS), encouraging cities to build public oversight into decisions about smart city technologies with surveillance components. Laws have been passed in Seattle, Nashville, Somerville, and Santa Clara County, according to the ACLU’s website, and are under consideration in other cities like New York, St. Louis, and Oakland. Bills were introduced in Maine’s last two legislative sessions that would have applied the CCOPS model to every state agency, but they were denied both times. No municipal-level laws have been passed in the rest of the state.

Language in Portland’s proposal leaves the door open for future installation of “environmental sensors, [and] video cameras installed in strategic locations.” Scarborough, a town to the south of Portland, is installing LEDs too, and Scarborough Public Works Director Mike Shaw told the Portland Press Herald that theirs may also include “other technology such as cameras.”

Other cities have been less oblique about their intentions. In the upstate New York community of Schenectady, mayor Gary McCarthy is still in the process of lobbying the city council to free up funds to convert all 5,000 streetlights to LEDs. First, LEDs will be implanted with optical sensors that could pick up infrared signals, get traffic counts in intersections, and take pictures of the street surfaces to more effectively plan pavement maintenance.

But McCarthy says eventually, he envisions more sophisticated recorders lining the streets. The city already has a comprehensive wireless camera system, used specifically for police surveillance; and cameras in front of city hall. Adding more video streams would provide valuable business and traffic intel, McCarthy says. “The actual surveillance, if you’re really deploying it correctly, is a very small component of the potential application,” he said. “The pavement management, sequencing and traffic control devices are more practical.”

Portland and Schenectady’s conversion projects come on the heels of several other cities’ switches to greener lighting technology. Many LED grids are outfitted with smart sensors that can track noise modulations, traffic patterns, and environmental pollutants. “The lights might be a ubiquitous presence,” but each city, and each neighborhood, can add and subtract certain extras, said Jim Schriver, director of innovation at TEN Connected, the smart city technology company spearheading Portland and Scarborough’s conversions.

As the menu of data collection options for cities increases, so too does the trepidation from privacy advocates that’s been building for decades. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with LED lights,” said Fred H. Cate, Senior Fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity at Indiana University. “It’s that they’re a signpost on the way to more particularized, more granular sensors.”

Portland’s Jennings argues that smart city technologies will vastly improve urban quality of life, if only worriers stopped worrying, and intervening. The lights’ intricate digital coding means they will soon fit into Portland’s larger smart city plan—to equip the growing downtown and beyond with responsive traffic signals, universally available wireless internet, high speed fiber, and mapping infrastructure for autonomous vehicles.

As for the ACLU’s resistance, “that tends to be somewhat of a hysterical reaction to trying to move the city forward by the use of innovative technology,” he said. “We’re not looking for data collection on our residents or city—we’re looking to do things that make sense to move a city forward in the 21st century.”

Traffic flow data can be crucial for increasing Department of Transportation efficiency, for example. But, the ACLU notes, indiscriminate AV streams also capture conversations, habits, and interactions. Two friends sitting in a park, discussing their plans to attend a Black Lives Matter rally later that day. A woman leaving a mosque, joking with her husband. In the wrong hands, those private moments can be used for future persecution. And eventually, with city approval, police might want to look at footage to track crimes like speeding or illegally parked cars; to stop street violence; and to identify suspects.

That might start happening soon. By May, San Diego, California, will convert 14,000 of its 40,000 streetlights to LEDs, and expand its network test of 50 smart lights to 3,200. San Diego’s deputy chief operating officer told IEEE Spectrum that the city’s new sensor-enabled lights could eventually be hooked up to the city’s ShotSpotter network, helping to identify the source of gunfire and “automatically alert police to dangerous situations” by picking up audio from the ground. The sounds of violence are defined as breaking glass and shots fired, but it’s not hard to imagine that raised voices could be linked to real people, and draw similar scrutiny.

“We think streetlights are the place to do this because they have power, ubiquity, and the perfect elevation to capture a lot of important data,” Austin Ashe, smart city technology company Current’s general manager for intelligent cities, told IEEE Spectrum.

The operation of these automated data collectors can’t be divorced from the human decision-making patterns that govern all police actions, though: There are choices driving where to start deploying cameras; whether to equip them with audio or video collection, or both; which to maintain—and, most significantly, which to check. Civil liberties advocates fear that the personal biases that seep—insidiously or innocently—into police enforcement will grow more heads, and be allowed to flourish in new venues that never used to exist.

“If it’s anything like surveillance technologies we see around the country, the bulbs in communities of color or lower income communities or that happen to be on a corner where a Mosque is located—those are going to be the bulbs subject to maximum monitoring,” said Marlow. “Whereas those in the white upper class segment of town aren’t going to be watched.”

These use cases may sound far-fetched in a place like Portland, which is largely liberal and relatively small. But already in Oakland, a sanctuary city, the seemingly routine data collection of license plate identification information ended up aiding ICE in their hunt for undocumented immigrants. The data passed from the city’s transportation department into a Fusion center, and from there into ICE’s hands.

“[Portland] should not call itself a safe city. Safe from whom?” said Marlow. “I would say that installing these light bulbs makes your city a less safe city, especially if you happen to be poor or a person of color.”

Outfitting a city with unregulated, government-controlled “dragnet surveillance,” as Marlow calls it, opens up more privacy issues than some of the cameras that already watch shopping malls and gas stations: Police need to obtain a warrant or permission to get ahold of the privately owned tapes, but not necessarily the city-owned ones. Any such project “should at a minimum [be] subject to public hearings and strict regulations from outside auditors,” said Marlow.

Before CCOPS legislation is passed in more places, and absent a U.S. privacy commissioner, it is up to city planners, managers, and mayors to formulate responsive public policy surrounding what kinds of data will be collected, how long information will be retained, and who can gain access to the information once it exists.

Schenectady Mayor McCarthy wants to allow businesses that might want to locate in the area to access information on traffic patterns and daily counts, to set up a public webcam showing pedestrian traffic through a bustling farmer’s market as a marketing tool, and to allow local news stations and papers to view past recordings through public records requests. But he says he will work to develop clear policies surrounding retention and access before cameras are installed.

Portland is working with TEN Connected to anonymize the data LEDs will collect, says Schiver. “It’s very disappointing to have entities call into question or create conspiracy theories,” said Jennings. “We’re not looking to spy on our people, but some people are never going to believe that.”

Portland’s LED conversion plan is too far gone for the ACLU to legally intervene. They can only step in to defend people if data is used to violate their civil liberties. Marlow says the ACLU is not suspicious of the city leaders’ intentions, but believes that the cost-benefit analysis they’re making is misguided. “There are certainly other methods for dealing with urban issues like traffic and trash collection that do not pose a significant of a threat to civil rights and civil liberties,” he said.

It’s part of a broader consciousness shift city-dwellers are starting to have to grapple with. “We’ve built up most of our privacy laws around reasonable expectation of privacy: That if you do it in public you have no reasonable expectation of privacy,” said Cate. Of course, we often don’t act like we believe that to be true: We have personal conversations in parks; on the street; and in cars, windows down.

“This bright line rule—if it’s in public we can do anything—it both doesn’t make sense, and we’re starting to see it crumble,” said Cate.

The Ticking Time Bomb for Suburban Retail

Thanks largely to the rise of e-commerce, chains like Macy’s, Toys “R” US, and Best Buy are shuttering faster than analysts predicted even a year ago, with at least 24 major retailers planning store closures in 2018.

According to some forecasters, there’s an even larger retail apocalypse on the horizon. As overbuilt malls, corporate mergers, and autonomous vehicles converge, “the ingredients are in place for major disruption,” said Rick Stein, the founder of Urban Decision Group, a Columbus, Ohio-based planning consulting firm.

Speaking on a panel in Portland, Oregon, on Monday, Stein made the case for which commercial areas will suffer most from new consumer habits mingling with technology: car-oriented suburban retail.

Already, American retail is overbuilt by about 50 percent, according to Stein. With about 24 square feet per capita, the U.S. has by far the most retail space of any country in the world, with about 25 percent more than the next closest country, Canada. (That’s data from the publicly traded real-estate group GGP and the financial blog Zero Hedge.)

While megamalls and luxury shopping centers in more affluent areas have fared better, mid-sized to large “regional” retail centers and strip malls, of which there are about 7,500 across the U.S., are struggling most with vacancies and declining profit. States like Nevada, Arizona, Virginia, Ohio, and New Jersey have some of the most overabundant big box and strip mall properties, and they’re increasingly overexposed as more Americans shop online and take advantage of fast delivery speeds.

Those speeds are getting faster. Already, Amazon offers a two-hour “Prime Now” delivery service for about 25,000 retail items to Prime subscribers in at least 30 U.S. cities. In some of them, including Columbus, customers can pay for delivery speeds of one hour and faster. “One-hour delivery, for every U.S. market, is inevitable,” said Stein, and possibly within a few short years.

Which online retailer will be the first to standardize blink-of-an-eye delivery? First to mind is Amazon, especially with its recent acquisition of Whole Foods giving it a real-estate foothold in nearly 500 locations near affluent households. Or maybe it’s Walmart, with its 5,000 locations and strong presence in more rural communities. “Their reach is absolutely insane,” said Stein, speaking at Urbanism Next, a conference about autonomous vehicles, e-commerce, and the sharing economy hosted by the University of Oregon.

Maybe Amazon won’t be the first to crack lightning-speed deliveries. (Stein/Sudy/Robbins)

Or perhaps it’s CVS. Some 82 percent of the U.S. population lives within a 15-minute drive of its 11,000 locations. With the trend for corporate mergers and acquisitions, companies like these (and many others) are gaining real-estate footholds at a rapid clip. What if, for example, Amazon absorbed CVS as its widely anticipated move into pharmacy business? Such a prize would also set the company up with a convenient “hub and spoke” network for snap-of-the-finger deliveries in virtually every U.S. urban market. Stein illustrated the notion with a slide of the Columbus region.

Imagine the delivery speeds a company like Amazon could achieve with more acquistions. (Stein/Sudy/Robbins)

This is all theoretical. But, no matter which corporate giant flips the one-hour switch first, or when, real-world retail is likely to suffer a major blow once it’s that much easier to shop from home. Working with Jason Sudy and Justin Robbins, two other Columbus-based planning consultants at Side Street Planning and OHM Advisors respectively, Stein developed a working model that predicts the developed commercial properties most vulnerable to revenue loss and closures. Using data from InfoGroup, Price Waterhouse Coopers, and Forbes, the model weighs several factors, including location, the mix of retail in the area, population density, homeownership rates, income, the age of the structure, amount of parking, and household expenditures in metros around the U.S.

Different development patterns are more susceptible to vacancies and flipping than others, the model shows—especially when layering on the eventual arrival of autonomous vehicles. Self-driving technology stands to drastically reduce parking needs, cheapen delivery costs, and easily convey shoppers to locations they actually find desirable, such as walkable downtown areas where shopping feels like more of an “experience.” Those are the kinds of commercial areas that will likely weather this coming retail storm, according to the model. Worst off are car-oriented suburban strip malls and big-box stores, with huge swaths of these properties devoted to parking.

“In markets like Columbus, which are already ready to deliver tons of stuff fast, overbuilt retail space might not die out in a slow atrophy,” said Sudy, who co-presented at the panel. “It could be a calamitous collapse.”

That could mean a lot of highly visible retail blight right along suburban highway corridors. And, more importantly, it paints a worrying financial picture for communities that lean on retail for badly needed tax dollars—not only from the lost stores themselves but also from the potential devaluation of surrounding properties. In the Columbus metro region, roughly four percent of gross leasable area is in the “most vulnerable” category—i.e., the easiest to flip to vacant (or something else), according to Stein, Sudy, and Robbins’s estimates. In their maps, shown below, red is most susceptible, and green is least. If all of those properties flooded the real estate market at once, land values would be flipped on their heads. “Already, we don’t collect enough taxes to pay for fire service, the infrastructure, and all the stuff we have to do,” said Sudy. To take an even worse-off city, in Atlanta, six percent of GLA is ripe to flip.

Commercial vulnerability in Columbus, Ohio. Red is worse, green is better. (Stein/Sudy/Robbins)

Stein, Sudy, and Robbins’ presentation focused mostly on Columbus where they are all based. And their model is just that: a model. It’s based on an imperfect mix of data, and a number of assumptions about the future—for example, that AVs will be uniformly adopted at all, without other interventions from transit agencies or other technologies. For example, drones could be an equally disruptive force as autonomous vehicles. Also, one-hour delivery might not be as close as Stein believes. “We don’t really know what the next five years will look like,” said Kelly Rula, a panel co-presenter who recently took a job at the Seattle Department of Transportation to work on new mobility, climate, and urban freight issues, after working on last-mile delivery for Amazon Prime.

Even without AVs, though, it’s pretty clear that a storm is brewing. With taxable land already over-allocated to retail and parking, changing shopping habits, and ever-faster delivery, self-driving cars will only accelerate the changes already happening. And communities aren’t necessarily prepared for what’s here, let alone what’s ahead: more empty buildings, a harder economic punch from the lost retail, and heavier road impacts of increased goods delivery.

At the very least, new developments should be future-proofed against blight and hits to tax revenues, said Robbins. “Don’t build any parking garages you can’t adapt to other uses,” he said. “Create internal grids and roadways on large new developments, so that you can fill in as things change.” To ease transportation impacts, Rula said, cities could follow Seattle’s lead by studying goods movements, testing dedicated loading zones and sensor-enabled curbs, and looking at road pricing to mitigate added deliveries, in addition to human trips.

Communities might also start considering how to reuse all that vacant retail space coming online. The sprawling malls of suburban America are turning into graveyards of its former retail kings—big grey boxes with ghostly logos etched onto the front. Could they be turned into housing? Data centers? Museums of a time before Amazon?

If nothing else, Stein said, cities anticipating and preparing for the future are more likely to come out as winners. Those who aren’t—perhaps by dint of their economic inability to plan ahead—could be choking on the fumes.

“Technology is like water,” said Stein. “If you don’t channel it to where you want it to go, it spills all over the place.”

The Unhelpful Ways Cities Talk About Bike Helmets

American cyclists have long been beset by a paradox: Despite wearing bicycle helmets at one of the highest rates in the world, they also have among the highest rates of cycling accidents and fatalities. There’s no doubt that city officials spend a lot of time talking up the safety benefits of helmets. But could the way they communicate that message actually be undermining overall bike safety?

That’s the question geographer Gregg Culver of the University of Heidelberg set out to answer in a recent study. There’s already plenty of evidence that helmets aren’t key to preventing injuries and deaths. Countries like Denmark and Germany, where very few cyclists wear helmets, have proven that building separated bike infrastructure, reducing car speeds, and attracting large numbers of cyclists (the “safety in numbers effect”) are the most effective ways to keep cyclists safe. But since helmets obviously do prevent some injuries, and it’s cheap and easy for a city to say so, that often becomes the focus of bike safety efforts. So Culver looked at how that message is getting across, and why it’s not working

“We’re obsessing over helmets, but we’ve already sort of skipped over the problem,” Culver said. “The actual problem is people getting hit by cars.”

The study begins by describing discrepancy between helmet use and cycling safety.

In 2012, it was estimated that 29 percent of American adult cyclists always wore a helmet, while another 15 percent occasionally did. By comparison, only 1 percent of cyclists wear helmets in the Netherlands. Yet the fatality rate is four times higher per kilometer traveled for American cyclists compared to their Dutch counterparts, and three times higher than for German and Danish cyclists, who also wear helmets at substantially lower rates. What’s more, these countries have seen much more significant improvements in bicycle safety in recent years. The Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark saw cycling fatalities decrease 60 to 80 percent between 1980 and 2008. The U.S. saw only a 10 percent decrease over that period.

The persistence of America’s bike helmet fixation, despite its apparent ineffectiveness, could be tied to how embedded it is in the official discourse on cycling. As the association between helmets and bike safety is reiterated and reinforced by trusted authorities, it becomes “common sense knowledge that we never question and think about,” Culver said.

Culver analyzed the cycling sections of the official city websites for 25 American cities. These include the core cities of the nation’s 12 largest metro areas and 13 additional cities selected to provide regional diversity. Out of these 25 cities, 24 specifically include information on bike helmets. (While he has not done a formal comparative analysis, Culver has anecdotally found that “almost none” of the German city websites he has visited mention bike helmets).

However, some of the cities seem to promote helmets in a more constructive way than others. Culver identifies four tones in the official discourse on bike helmets: suggestion, enticement, admonishment, and the threat of violence. The last two might have the effect of discouraging cycling, by making it appear even more dangerous than it is, and stigmatizing those who would prefer not to wear a helmet. “If you keep talking about danger, eventually, people in their heads associate it with danger, so maybe fewer people cycle because of that,” Culver said.

A particularly egregious example comes from Phoenix, whose city government site includes a series of graphic novels on bicycle safety, the first of which is about the importance of wearing a helmet. It’s a gruesome tale, as the comic’s cover demonstrates:

(City of Phoenix)

While few major cities actually require adults to wear helmets, a number of the cities analyzed make it seem like cyclists have no choice. On Philadelphia’s bike FAQ webpage, the response to the question, “Do I really need to wear a helmet,” reads, “Yes. Everyone should wear a helmet on every ride, no matter how short the trip is.”

The depiction of helmets in these official documents can also reinforce stereotypes related to what cyclists look like. A number of cities primarily depict lycra-clad recreational cyclists—a vision of cycling that is neither financially attainable nor particularly appealing to a great many city dwellers. By contrast, other cities depict cyclists of various races and genders in street clothes, some wearing helmets and others not. Culver cites the following promotional image from Minneapolis as a positive example of cyclist representation.

(City of Minneapolis)

While this poster from Minneapolis emphasizes shared responsibility for cyclist safety, the way cities talk about helmets often has the effect of foisting the onus of bicycle safety on cyclists and their decision whether to wear a helmet. However, in reality, other, systemic measures would be much more effective. “To solve this problem is really easy: just build more bike infrastructure everywhere and take it seriously and reduce car speeds… That’s easy to do, technologically speaking, but it takes a whole lot of political and cultural will to do it.”

Admonishing cyclists to wear helmets, on the other hand, is cheap, and serves as the path of least political resistance by reinforcing the auto-centric status quo. This abdication of responsibility is “akin to debating whether mandatory bullet-proof vest laws for city-dwellers would reduce the severity of gun violence in U.S. cities,” Culver notes in the study.

Besides this metaphor, there are other reasons why the language around bike helmets is particularly relevant today. Neither docked nor dockless bikeshare is conducive to helmets, yet they have proven to be safer than traditional bikes, perhaps because of their ability to produce the safety in numbers effect. The growing popularity of these new cycling technologies could be contingent on the continued normalization of riding without a helmet. If the cycling scene is really on the brink of a revolution in the U.S., planners, advocates, and city leaders will need to watch their words.

What the DOJ’s Lawsuit Could Mean for ‘Sanctuary’ Laws

Jeff Sessions has launched his most potent attack yet in his salvo against so-called “sanctuary” policies—escalating the attorney general’s ongoing war against the Golden State.

“California, we have a problem,” Sessions said Wednesday in remarks delivered in Sacramento. “Contrary to what you might hear from the lawless open borders radicals, we are not asking California, Oakland, or anyone else to enforce immigration laws…We are simply asking California and other sanctuary jurisdictions to stop actively obstructing federal law enforcement.”

That demand has been formally lodged in a lawsuit his Department of Justice filed Tuesday in federal court that argues three California laws hinder the capacity of federal immigration authorities to capture and deport unauthorized immigrants living in the area. “These provisions are preempted by federal law and impermissibly discriminate against the United States, and therefore violate the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution.” the complaint states. This latest move has the potential to affect hundreds of cities and local governments across the country that have sought to limit how they assist federal immigration enforcement—loosely and sometimes-misleadingly termed “sanctuary” cities.

What could this lawsuit mean for these “sanctuary” policies in cities and states? It’s not entirely clear at this point. But if nothing else, it is likely to be another test to the local-federal balance of power on immigration that may wind its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, legal experts say. Most at risk is likely California’s immigrant workers bill that extends protections beyond those of most other sanctuary policies.

At the heart of Tuesday’s lawsuit are complex and deeply crucial questions about the relationship between the federal government and the state—answers to which have defined the balance between local, state, and city power in America. They ask: What is the scope of government’s control over immigration? What is the extent to which state or local governments can regulate their own affairs? What are the exceptions in both cases? How the two sides approach these questions will be played out as the case works its way through the judicial pipeline.

“Essentially, what’s going to happen is that the federal government is going to argue that…anything related to anything immigration is within the field,” said Rick Su, a professor of local government and immigration law at the University of Buffalo. “And essentially, the state is going to argue, ‘You can’t read it that broadly, because the would preempt all—or too much—of the state’s regulatory sphere.’ And, ‘You should also recognize that what we’re doing here, although tangentially related to immigration is really connected to a legitimate state interest.’”

This tension between state and local has come up before—in the Obama era, the Reagan era, and all the way back before the Civil War. Most recently, it came up in Arizona v. U.S., when Arizona tried to implement an extremely stringent local immigration laws. Several parts were struck down, but the Supreme Court affirmed the state’s ability to ask local police to collect information about immigration status. Ironically, the politics in that state-versus-federal dynamic are flipped in this lawsuit.

The DOJ, in its lawsuit, has attacked three California laws. The first is S.B. 54, which passed late last year, enraging Sessions. It limits local law enforcement from detaining, questioning, and sharing certain information about unauthorized immigrants—unless they’ve committed certain serious crimes. (Several courts have questioned the legality of holding immigrants for ICE without a warrant, prompting a rise in such laws around the country.) Next up: A.B. 103, a law that requires state oversight of conditions at immigration detention facilities in its jurisdiction and a moratorium on renting out jail beds to ICE. And third: A.B. 450, which requires that a warrant be sought for inspecting employee records and asks that employers notify staff before ICE’s workplace raids. This third law may be most susceptible to legal challenge, in part because it puts private individuals in between the state and federal tug-of-war. In addition, “a court grappling with this claim may have to decide whether it is unreasonable to expect ICE to issue a subpoena or obtain a judicial warrant,” said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver who studies the intersection of criminal and immigration law.

The DOJ lawsuit argues that these laws violate federal statutes, and cites the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which says that federal law trumps state law, in cases of conflict. “There is no nullification. There is no secession. Federal law is ‘the supreme law of the land,’”said Sessions, who himself is named after two leaders of the Confederacy. “I would invite any doubters to Gettysburg, and to the graves of John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln.”

That’s a particularly striking position, because it appears to subvert the long-held conservative embrace of state and local rights, said Hernández.

“The irony of the Trump administration’s main legal claim is remarkable,”said Hernández. “Turning back from conservative legal principles stretching back to the states’ rights era of anti-integration battles, the Justice Department is trying to force California to do what it very clearly does not want to do.”California, likewise, is taking the opposite position historically held by conservatives.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, responded at a press conference Wednesday by insisting that the state’s laws worked “in concert” with federal ones and that the 10th Amendment puts limits on federal power over states’ rights. “In adopting the Values Act, the State has exercised that right to define the circumstances where state and local law enforcement may participate in immigration enforcement,” Becerra said. “We’re not enacting immigration laws, we’re enacting public safety laws; We’re not getting into their business, they’re getting into our business.”

Cape Town May Not Run Out of Water

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

On Wednesday, officials in Cape Town, South Africa, which is in the midst of a water crisis caused by a three-year drought, finally delivered some good news to residents: Day Zero, the day the city’s reservoirs fall bellow 13.5 percent and residential taps would be turned off, may not come this year after all.

The city’s Executive Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson says that Day Zero has been pushed to August 27—which is well into rainy season, when city officials hope enough rain can fill up the six Cape Town reservoirs. “Provided we continue our current water savings efforts, Day Zero can be avoided completely this year,” Neilson said in a statement.

For the last several months, the city of 4 million people has been living with severe water restrictions. As of February 1, each person is only allowed to use 50 liters, or roughly 13 gallons, per day. By comparison, the average American uses between 80 to 100 gallons. Cape Town residents have been taking two minute showers, using hand sanitizer instead of water and soap, and using recycled gray water to flush toilets.

Earlier this year, city officials estimated that Day Zero would occur on April 22. At that point, the city planned on setting up water checkpoints, where each resident could collect water for daily use. Many residents were left wondering if there would be enough checkpoints and how the sick and elderly would get their daily water.

The city still isn’t in the clear yet. “If winter rainfall this year is as low as last year, or even lower, ” Neilson said, “we are still in danger of reaching Day Zero early next year.”