Can Opportunity Zones Save the Country?

On April 9, the Treasury Department debuted the first details of a new and far-reaching community-based tax incentive. In 18 states, newly designated zones could see a wave of new investment under a little-known provision of the recent tax overhaul.

These Opportunity Zones are designed to lure investment to the nation’s poorest urban, suburban, and rural communities with a powerful tax incentive. By the accounts of some experts, the program could deliver a vital injection to areas that haven’t yet recovered from the Great Recession. Yet it could also fuel gentrification in those communities where too much opportunity, too fast, has led to rapid displacement.

Nightmare scenarios under the Opportunity Zones program would mean tax benefits flowing to the wrong places or paying for the wrong things: Amazon receiving sweeping federal tax benefits to build HQ2 in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, for example, or payday lenders expanding their already substantial profile in places such as Louisville.

Or Opportunity Zones could just be, as critics contend, more of the same: the latest in a long line of economic development incentives that have failed to deliver. It all depends on how it’s implemented.

“Amazon HQ2 could figure out a way to make this [incentive] work [for the company’s benefit], potentially,” says Brett Theodos, a principal research associate for the Urban Institute. “Which is why zone selection matters so much. If we get places that really need the investment, it’s more likely those benefits are going to accrue to low- and moderate-income people.”

Congress created the bipartisan Opportunity Zones program as part of the tax bill passed last December. It’s an effort to try to rip up the stagnant and uneven pattern of economic development across the country, conditions that are dark and worsening. Even as the Department of Treasury confirms the remaining zone designations—for 32 more states, the territories, and the District of Columbia—leaders are hammering out the terms for Opportunity Funds, vehicles that will allow investors to defer their tax liability by investing equity into a number of different kinds of assets within a community. Final nominations for Opportunity Zones were due to Treasury on April 20.

The test of this program may be two-fold: first, whether cities and states pick the right places to be Opportunity Zones; and second, whether their federal partners set the proper guidelines for transparency and accountability.

Opportunity Zone designations as of April 23. The final Opportunity Zone designations will be revealed in May. (PolicyMap)

Across the nation, a huge gob of census tracts were eligible to be designated Opportunity Zones—41,201 in all. (That’s a bit more than half of all the census tracts in the country.) State and territorial governors (plus the mayor of D.C.) were limited to picking just one-quarter of their eligible tracts to be Opportunity Zones. Unlike with Empowerment Zones, a more top-down Clinton-era predecessor, Opportunity Zones leave a great deal of discretion to state and local leaders as to where to steer the incentive.

“We don’t have a lack of capital in the U.S. We have a lack of connectivity,” says Bruce Katz, who until recently served as a scholar for the Brookings Institution. “We have a matching problem. This incentive might accelerate our ability to match up.”

Katz is not a disinterested observer. He recently teamed up with Jeremy Nowak—a fellow at Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and Katz’s co-author for The New Localism: How Cities Thrive in the Age of Populism—to launch a consultancy related to Opportunity Zones. This work is taking them across the country to talk with leaders and investors alike about the program. Consider them matchmakers.

In Louisville, for example, that might mean turning an under-used high school into a vocational training facility. That’s one idea for an investment opportunity in Louisville’s historically black, near-downtown neighborhood of Russell, where Katz says he talked about the possibility with a school superintendent. A program to boost on-boarding makes sense for Russell (and for Louisville, and for Kentucky as a whole, and really, for America). The idea is that new investments will work hand-in-hand with other factors—assets, existing programs, benefits, local conditions—to generate new jobs and also produce new skilled workers to fulfill those jobs.

Below is a map showing Louisville’s Opportunity Zones, courtesy of a tool built by Enterprise Community Partners. The Opportunity Zones designated by the state appear in orange. Russell, just west of downtown Louisville and across the highway that segregates the city racially and economically, is among the designated zones.


Other areas that meet the main criteria for eligibility but haven’t been designated are shown in blue. These are Low Income Community census tracts: areas with either a poverty rate of at least 20 percent or a median family income less than or equal to 80 percent of the area median income. Some tracts are eligible because they are adjacent to Low Income Community census tracts, even though they don’t have quite the same poverty profile; rendered in green, these contiguous tracts can make up only 5 percent of a state’s nominated zones. (Another 200 select tracts around the nation with especially high migration rates or low population levels were also granted special eligibility.)

In a month, Treasury will release the final Opportunity Zones. These designations will last a decade, meaning that decisions by state and local leaders will determine the fate of the federal program. That’s  key in differentiating Opportunity Zones from the New Markets Tax Credit: Local governments get say. Only one-quarter of eligible tracts will be open to Opportunity Funds. Local stakeholders’ decisions in choosing between qualifying tracts will be especially consequential.

“There’s a lot of variation in how much capital the qualifying census tracts are accessing,” says Theodos, who led a project at the Urban Institute to show where Opportunity Zones could do the most good (and where they might not). “That means that some places need the incentive more than others, and that ranges of course across place as well. The governors have a lot to choose from, and their choice matters quite a bit.”

The program’s authors say that Opportunity Zones can offset a tilted economy. At a time when inequality is practically a new national anthem, access to capital is especially skewed, geographically. Whole swaths of the nation have seen a decline in large banks lending to small businesses or opening new branches. Smaller and regional banks have struggled to keep up with the majors (or they’ve been absorbed by them). In some places, banking disparities are the result of racial discrimination, while other areas are just being left behind.

At the growth end of the spectrum, venture capital is highly concentrated in a handful of metro areas, and so is high-wage job growth. Sacramento, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Hartford have lost high-wage jobs to Austin, Nashville, and Denver. Growth in places hit hardest by the Great Recession—in cities such as St. Louis, New Orleans, Rochester, Columbus, and beyond—is mostly confined to low-wage sectors.

“Given the trends we’re seeing in the economy, this is the right time and a necessary time to be reevaluating the policy toolkit that we use to address economic disparity at the community level and the regional level,” says John Lettieri, cofounder and president of the Economic Innovation Group, the think tank that helped to write the legislation. “The toolkit we use now does not equip us very well to deal with the trends that we’re seeing, which don’t look anything like the trends we saw in the 1990s or 2000s.”

Here’s how the incentive works: Individual or corporate investors can defer their capital gains on investments in Opportunity Funds for a certain number of years (and in limited cases, permanently). The asset classes in Opportunity Funds are broad and flexible, with few set parameters: think affordable housing, real estate, infrastructure, and even transit. Cities, suburbs, rural enclaves, and regions can establish their own Opportunity Funds to identify needs ranging from hyperlocal (small businesses) to intra-state (transit).

The new tax incentive is not a strategy by itself, Lettieri says. The fact that states need to “down select”—or narrow down a list of many eligible tracts to final nominated zones—was baked into the legislation. The program will only work as well as local and state leaders plan it to work. There’s nothing preventing a state from parceling out its Opportunity Zone incentives to places that are already gentrifying, as appears to be the case in Cleveland.  

“The Opportunity Zone incentive is not a silver bullet,” says Steve Glickman, cofounder and CEO of the Economic Innovation Group.

Cities like Louisville have a few different kinds of urban markets to consider. There’s the medical district on the east end of downtown, which works like an innovation district. There’s the area of the city near the University of Louisville that has a strong engineering focus. The near-in but economically fenced-off west end is another typology—but it’s an area that the market has historically ignored or discounted or failed to appreciate.

The promise of Opportunity Zones is that self-selecting communities can identify their assets and signal their potential to investors. An Opportunity Fund that drives investment into small businesses and real estate into neighborhoods like Russell in Louisville could be a model for Opportunity Zones in other cities that are similar to Russell (and vice versa). The same way that innovation districts and anchor institutions resemble one another (as markets) from one city to the next, so will the to-be-determined opportunities in distressed communities—from South Bend to Louisville to St. Louis and beyond.

“[The market]’s going to begin to understand that the country has these typologies, has these categories, of different kinds of geographies and assets which then lend themselves to certain kinds of investment,” Katz says. “It’s not like, at the end of the day, we’re dealing with hundreds of radically different kinds of propositions. I think this is going to be a market that routinizes.”

Kentucky’s Opportunity Zones cluster in urban tracts in Louisville, Lexington, Bowling Green, and outside Cincinnati. But many more eligible tracts (and Opportunity Zones) fall in exurban and rural areas—places where the reach of banks is declining, job growth has fallen off, and home mortgages are more likely to be under water. Much more of the country looks like these places than like the white-hot markets of Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Kentucky: home of horse racing, bourbon, and more than 800 census tracts eligible to be Opportunity Zones. (Enterprise)

Whether the Opportunity Zones program can avoid the mistakes of Empowerment Zones and other place-based incentives depends on what places leaders pick. In Texas, for example, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg submitted 27 tracts for consideration to the state: a few downtown but most of them stretching further out into Bexar County. (Texas Governor Greg Abbott included 24 of them in the state’s final 628 nominations.) Knowing whether Nirenberg called it right means weighing a host of thorny factors related to race, class, blight, potential employment centers, and more.

Socioeconomic change red flags

For the Urban Institute, Theodos’s team charted various kinds of capital flows for every eligible Opportunity Zone tract out there. The project assigned each tract an investment score, a value based on four factors: commercial lending, multifamily lending, single-family lending, and small-business lending. Tracts with a high ratio of investment in one or all these categories earned a high investment score. At such a small geographic level, a high score can sometimes reflect a skewed reality: a concentrated share of low-income housing, for example, or a prison construction project.  

Theodos also generated a “socioeconomic change flag” as a measure of demographic change in every tract.

Put simply, it’s an indicator for gentrification. Tracts that earned a flag have showcased enough socioeconomic growth already that they don’t need economic stabilization. For these neighborhoods, Opportunity Zone designation could mean property tax shocks, luxury development, displacement, and all the other undesirable effects of geographic disparity that the program is trying to solve.   

In Louisville, the census tract that matches up with Russell—where investment might take the form of a new vocational school—has an investment score of 9 (out of 10). That means a high level of existing investment, mostly in small businesses (which may reflect the $29.5 million that the neighborhood received through another federal program, the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative). Only one of the eligible tracts for Jefferson County (i.e., Louisville) earned a socioeconomic change flag, the gentrification bat-signal in Theodos’s analysis. Kentucky leaders skipped this tract, although they designated almost all of its neighbors as Opportunity Zones.  

The highlighted census tract, centered in Louisville’s Russell neighborhood, has a high level of poverty. It’s the center of the city’s cluster of Opportunity Zones. (Healthy Louisville Metro)

In some urban areas, it may be hard to designate Opportunity Zones without running the risk of transforming the neighborhood. For example, nearly every census tract in Baltimore City qualifies as an eligible low income tract, but large parts of Baltimore definitely do not lack for private investment. By the Urban Institute’s measure, nearly 20 percent of Baltimore City tracts are already gentrifying. A tax incentive for investors to build up areas like Fells Point or Station North—the places where investors are happily building already— will do the opposite of what the program’s framers intended.

“Those communities that have experienced a lot of social change, it may well be that low- and moderate-income residents are not able to remain and benefit from the incentive,” Theodos says.

Treasury has not yet released Maryland’s designations. Same with Washington, D.C., a unique city-state with no rural areas within its 68-square-mile boundaries. Almost half of the District’s Opportunity Zone–eligible tracts got Urban’s gentrifying marker. The new tax incentive could carefully guide investment toward the parts of the city where it is still badly needed, or it could pour gasoline on a market that’s already white hot.

“I think it’s all over the place. I saw a few instances in which states seemed really sophisticated and knew what they were doing,” Nowak says. “They’re grappling particularly with what urban areas can grow, and really grappling with the rural issues, which are really hard. Then I saw other examples where states just said, ‘Give us your tracts, we’ll use those and see if we can get them all in.’”

A federalist approach

Even as the administration is still mapping out where the nation’s Opportunity Zones will go, policymakers and stakeholders are puzzling out what Opportunity Funds will mean to investors. Lettieri and Glickman say that the breadth of possibility for Opportunity Fund investments is critical to ensuring that it works as an incentive for struggling communities across urban, suburban, and rural settings. The same tax incentive might build workforce development in rural Appalachia or affordable housing in downtown Atlanta.

“If these projects are used broadly to accomplish social good, to build affordable housing, to create new businesses and help businesses expand, then this program will be able to create a new ecosystem of community development financial institutions and equity investors coming together to support businesses and developers to do work,” Theodos says.

“Alternatively, if it’s used by payday lenders to grow their payday footprint, that might have a different effect on the local community,” he adds.

But the upside is substantial, too. Nothing in the U.S. serves quite the same role as, say, Sweden’s Kommunivest, a consortium that enables municipal governments to raise capital by issuing green bonds. Done right, Opportunity Zones could serve an unfulfilled intermediary role between capital and places where capital has evaporated.

The problem is larger than a missed marketplace opportunity. Economic anxiety in America is linked to sincere systemic problems, from lifetime earnings gaps to lower childhood achievement gaps to higher suicide rates. “Worst of all, the longer the unemployment spell, the less likely the possibility of reemployment—and by extension the opportunity to escape these terrible costs—becomes,” reads a white paper by Jared Bernstein and Kevin A. Hassett. The Economic Innovation Group released the bipartisan paper in 2015 as its mission statement for Opportunity Zones.

Depending on what local and state leaders do with it, the program may exacerbate some of the problems stemming from growth in high-octane areas. But there are worse problems, and those are the ones that Opportunity Zones were designed to target.

“I think cities, counties, and states are grownups,” Katz says. “Let’s take [this program] at its word and see if we can—in a classic, American, federalist, distributed way—figure it out.”

Taxing Uber and Lyft to Fund Transit Isn’t Fair to Transit

Enthusiasm for congestion pricing reached a fever pitch amongst New York City’s transportation advocates earlier this year, but to little avail. The state’s political process once again delayed enacting structural changes that would address congestion and transit financing directly. Instead, Governor Andrew Cuomo enacted a surcharge on taxis, for-hire vehicles, and pooled rides, calling this “phase one of the congestion pricing plan.” The move was aimed at both easing traffic and creating a sustainable revenue source to fund public transportation improvements.

Starting in 2019, New Yorkers can expect to pay an additional $2.75 on for-hire vehicles that are booked through apps or over the telephone such as a single ride Gett or Uber, $2.50 for yellow and green taxis that are hailed on the street or via an app, and $.75 for pooled rides such as a Lyft Line or Via with multiple passengers that enter Manhattan south of 96th Street. When all of these fees are added up, we are told, they will create $400 million per year for the MTA on an ongoing basis.

Based on what Cuomo has emphasized, the fees seem to be mostly about generating new revenue for transit. At that, it seems they will be effective. But the mechanics are worrisome: Yoking transit funding to a newly created “congestion fee” severs transit from the regular budgeting process and existing tax revenues. This puts transit at a further disadvantage when it comes time to negotiate budgets or face off against street pavings, highway widenings, or bridge maintenance.

First, though, will these fees have much of an effect on congestion? “The experts will say, to handle the congestion you really need to charge tolls for cars that are coming from the outside,” Cuomo recently told NY1. But while surcharges on taxis and for-hire vehicles may address a portion of the congestion problem in New York, they aren’t enough to manage it effectively over the long-run. According to Charles Komanoff, one of the principal analysts behind Move NY, an earlier congestion-busting plan, the new fees will boost travel speeds by just 3 percent. While every mile per hour counts when sitting in traffic, in practice these fees will translate to less than an extra half-a-mile per hour.

Furthermore, Komanoff argues that there will be an undesirable side effect: Driving personal vehicles will become cheaper, compared to taking a taxi or slogging through today’s congestion, because the surcharges will create some space on the road by diverting cabs and for-hire vehicles. As traffic recomposes over time, this will mean more private cars and fewer taxis because drivers will avoid the additional costs imposed on taxis and for-hire vehicles. No wonder cab companies are protesting the surcharges. Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, are pushing for a complete congestion pricing plan that applies to all vehicles.

Then there is the matter of fundraising. New York isn’t the first city to introduce per-ride fees on app-based ride services like Uber, Lyft, Gett, and Via. Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Washington D.C., and Boston all levy per-ride fees on these types of rides in order to pay for a variety of initiatives, such as transport infrastructure improvements, wheelchair accessible vehicles, financial assistance for “traditional” taxi operators, and administrative costs for regulating these services. Both Chicago and D.C. have either enacted new fees or are considering new fees that will be used to help fund transit directly. In Chicago, it is expected that a new $.15 fee will raise $16 million in 2018 and another $30 million in 2019 that will be used to fund the Chicago Transit Authority. As D.C. finalizes its budget, it, too, sees fees on app-based mobility companies as a source for about $18 million to fund the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The scale of these programs, however, pales in comparison to the $400 million New York anticipates collecting annually. This $400 million is already earmarked for the Subway Action Plan, an $800 million plan to stabilize and modernize the existing subway system through the replacement and repairs to existing tracks and signals. As the MTA attempts to maintain and improve its existing infrastructure and rolling stock, it will also dedicate resources to more frequent station cleanings and greater attention to keeping tracks clear of passengers’ litter that sparks track fires and slows down service.

Clearly, transit needs all the funding it can get. But there is a more structural issue here: Why does transit have to rely on levies? This stands in contrast to road projects and improvements for cars. There always seems to be room in the municipal budget for those. Elected officials and public policy researchers often repeat the mantra that budgets reflect priorities. When we examine road construction financing versus transit financing through this lens, it is impossible not to see that roads are a priority: They receive funding without protest or debate, while transit improvements are seen as exceptional and something to be taken on a case-by-case basis. A clear evocation of this difference in prioritization comes in the form of general obligation bonds that are routinely issued by cities and states to pay for key projects, such as road widenings or new bridges and even transit-related improvements on occasion.

For example, in Washington, D.C., the $1.4 billion, six-year capital program to fund the Department of Transportation’s Capital Projects is largely paid for using debt financing, such as general obligation bonds. These bonds are secured by “the full faith and credit of the District.” In the event that the full faith and credit of the District is unable to pay back the interest and principal spelled out in the initial offering, the Special Real Property Tax, which is uncapped, will increase to cover shortfalls. Some key projects covered by this program include $275 million for the “preservation, maintenance, and repair,” of 528 miles of roadway in Wards 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Another $150 million will go towards the “rehabilitation, reconstruction, and maintenance” of 364 miles of D.C.’s alleyways. Despite the heavy tilt toward road improvements, this package also includes $100 million for a streetcar connection. Rather than use this money to plug WMATA’s budget shortfall and address existing maintenance and operations issues, capital dollars are being used for shiny new capital projects.

Back in New York, the city has already committed to
spending $14 billion repaving roads and maintaining bridges over the next 10 years. The bulk of this money will also come from general obligation bonds. There is no expectation that these improvements should go through the same tortuous and uncertain funding process that the current Subway Action Plan has endured. Looking over different capital plans from around the country, it’s clear that repavings and road improvements are normal while transit repairs and expansion to legacy systems are exceptional. This helps explain why New York has struggled to add new capacity to the subway network.  

Even if New York could find the money to pay for the Subway Action Plan, we still need to spend our money more responsibly. The continuous pattern of cost overruns by the MTA and the region’s commuter rail systems poses a serious threat to our transit system by limiting our ability to maintain and expand the system in a timely and cost-effective manner. If New York is serious about managing congestion and raising revenue for transit, Cuomo’s surcharges on Uber and taxis are a small first step towards that comprehensive transportation plan. But ultimately, they’re a flawed solution.

CityLab Daily: Vehicle Attacks Are Not Inevitable

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What We’re Following

Toronto attack: Monday’s sidewalk attack in Toronto follows a pattern of vehicular terror that further demonstrates how traffic threatens lives, and the need for safe streets. As CityLab’s Laura Bliss wrote after a truck driver plowed through a New York bike path in October, vehicle attacks don’t have to be inevitable:

Not every street will ever be lined with concrete barriers, and in a crowded city, all vehicles can be weaponized, intentionally or not. … Banning cars and trucks [from pedestrian-heavy areas] would not only make acts of vehicular terror far harder to execute, it would ease the quotidian bloodshed of fatal crashes. And then, those walking and riding through their cities would actually be safer, instead of just feeling that way.

What’s your password? Atlanta’s ransomware attackers demanded about $50,000. The aftermath has cost the city more than $2.6 million, Wired reports. It’s possible that city officials never even had a chance to pay the ransom after the attackers took the payment portal offline, but the expenses, ranging from tech consulting to crisis communication services, have proved far more costly. CityLab context: The Atlanta cyberattack could have been much worse.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

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The Strange Case of a Black Mayor’s 75% Pay Cut

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Can We All Get Along?

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A Pennsylvania Town Finds a Way to Save Its ‘Other’ Train Station

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Dutch Cities Don’t Love Weed

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Map of the Day

Types of residential buildings in the Upper East Side and Harlem. (Taylor Baldwin)

Mapped in Manhattan: Open data does it again. This new interactive map of all the buildings in Manhattan, created by software engineer Taylor Baldwin, combines the city’s publicly available 3-D building models and PLUTO tax lot data to sort the borough’s buildings by age, building height, or residential building class.

It’s a little clunky (best viewed in Chrome on desktop), but that last option is worth the load time, turning the city’s residential zoning into a Fruity Pebbles array of walk-ups, condos, hotels, and more. (h/t Curbed NY)

What We’re Reading

Amazon wants to drop its junk off in your trunk (The Verge)

A new kind of city tour shows the history of racist housing policies (Fast Company)

Traffic safety data company finds more drivers using cell phones (Streetsblog)

“Architecture fiction” is the design world’s clickbait (Quartz)

Sean Hannity is just another corporate landlord (Slate)

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

Making Products With Crop Waste Could Improve India’s Air and Water

BANGALORE—Last fall, near the southern Indian city of Bangalore, Kurian Mathew received an earnest call from a local silk farmer. “Every month, tons of mulberry leaves are left over from our pruned plants,” the farmer said. “Would you like to use them at your factory?”

Along with two partners, Mathew runs a pilot plant for a German company called Bio-lutions, which uses agricultural waste to create eco-friendly food packaging. So when the farmer called, he agreed to try mulberry stems and leaves as raw materials. “A week later, sacks full of mulberry leaves were delivered at our doorstep,” he recalled.

Kurian Mathew (left) and partner George Thomas at the pilot factory (Priti Salian)

The leaves were shredded and dried for two days in the front yard of the small factory. They were then cleaned, mixed with water, and converted into self-binding fibers in a patented machine. More water and centrifugal force turned the fibers into a pulp, which was then passed through a forming machine and a hot press—and voilà, packaging trays for vegetables and fruits were ready.

Mulberry leaves are just one kind of plant material that Bio-lutions can turn into packaging. Wheat and rice straw, sugarcane leaves, banana stems, pineapple leaves, and tomato plants are all processed in its factory using just 3.7 to 5.3 quarts of water for slightly more than 2 pounds of product, no added chemicals, and very little energy. Since only water and plant residue go into them, the products biodegrade easily.

“Our products are like leaves: They biodegrade in three months,” Mathew said. “We’re just giving another life to agricultural residue by converting it into something usable.”

India’s plastic waste is a big contributor to pollution, and not only within the country. A 2017 study found that of the 10 rivers that drain more than 90 percent of the world’s plastic debris into the oceans, three flow through India. At the same time, stubble-burning by farmers is so pervasive that it is responsible for an estimated 90 percent of Delhi’s pollution during the fall and winter months. Bio-lutions is addressing two of India’s big environmental problems at once, producing a biodegradable alternative to plastic and utilizing crop residues that would otherwise be burned.

An Indian farmer burns husks after a harvest in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh. (Kamal Kishore/Reuters)

India generates some 15,000 tons of plastic every day, equivalent to 9.1 million tons per year. (By comparison, the United Kingdom generates 3.7 million tons annually, and in 2010, the United States produced about 31 million tons of plastic waste.) Of those 15,000 daily tons, only 9,000 are recycled. The rest goes into landfills and water. India’s rules for plastic waste management, which mandate clampdowns on unlicensed plastic manufacturing, are poorly enforced.

Bangalore produces about 3,500 tons of garbage, including plastic, daily. “Being a resident of Bangalore, I have seen enough garbage all around, and wanted to contribute in some way,” said Mathew. So when Eduardo Gordillo, the Hamburg-based founder of Bio-lutions, raised the idea of opening the company’s first plant in India, Mathew grabbed the offer.

Mathew has relatives who own farms in southern India, so he was aware of stubble-burning. Farmers across India burn significant amounts of agricultural waste to clear their fields for the next crop.  Although there are numerous uses for that waste—it can be plowed back into the ground as a nutrient or used as roof thatching, for example—farmers rarely use it except as animal fodder or mulch.

Jessica McCarty, a geographer at Miami University in Ohio who has studied stubble-burning in India, said that most farmers don’t know of other options, and if they do, “[they] also need to be cheap or subsidized for the farmers to switch their management practices.” Bio-lutions pays farmers for their crop waste.

Since early 2017, the company has supplied its packaging (which is approved by India’s food standards authority) to online grocery stores. Bio-lutions’ products are only marginally more expensive than the plastic variants, and have found a ready market. With a five-year, interest-free loan from a German bank, the company is preparing to manufacture tableware as well.

Next month, Bio-lutions is moving into a new, larger factory in Mandya, an agricultural district near Bangalore. Being closer to farmer sources will reduce its transportation costs and carbon footprint. The new factory will employ about 60 people and has already received enough orders, Mathew said, to give the company an annual turnover of 2.5 million Euros.

The forming machine in the pilot factory (Priti Salian)

The company hopes to begin setting up factories elsewhere in India next year. A shortage of crop waste won’t be a problem: “We [would] need to set up at least 10 factories in just one agricultural district of Punjab to consume all their residue,” Mathews said.

This model is a good alternative for agricultural waste management, according to McCarty. But she warns of perverse incentives: If manufacturing from crop waste really takes off, farmers might be tempted to abandon agro-ecology practices like improving soil fertility to sell all their residue. “So, be careful what you wish for,” she said.

What Manhattan’s Land Is Worth

Our biggest urban problems today—growing inequality, rampant gentrification, housing unaffordability, and increasing segregation—all have roots in the staggering cost of urban land. Nowhere is this as true as in Manhattan, home to some of the world’s most valuable real estate.

While the city has long been a global capital, the value of its land has traveled an uneven path. Back in 1626, the Dutchman Peter Minuit “bought” Manhattan, “the island of many hills,” from the Lenape people for $24 worth of trinkets. Since then, most of the hills for which it was named have been flattened, some new land has been created, and the island has become one of the priciest places in the world. Determining just how valuable that land is, however, is a tricky proposition.

A new study by economists from Rutgers University tackles this question with a methodology that not only provides an estimate for the current value of the land, but also its growth in value over time.

The forthcoming paper in Regional Science and Urban Economics estimates that in 2014, the developable land in Manhattan—excluding parks, roads, and highways—was worth between $1.54 and $1.95 trillion, for an average of $1.74 trillion. That figure is significantly larger than the combined market capitalization of the world’s three largest corporations that year, and similar to the economic output of Canada, the world’s 10th-largest economy.

The researchers (Jason Barr, Fred Smith, and Sayali Kulkarni) arrived at that number by analyzing the prices of vacant parcels of land in Manhattan. This enabled them to avoid the problem of disentangling the land value from the value of the structure that sits on top of it. Using data on all vacant land transactions from 1950 to the first quarter of 2015, they built a land value index that represents the change in Manhattan’s land value over time, adjusted for inflation.

The graph below, from the study, charts the land value index over those 65 years. (The Y axis is compressed to show the massive scale of the index in a reasonably-sized graph.) Over that time, the value of Manhattan land grew at an annual rate of 5.5 percent, adjusted for inflation. But, as the graph shows—and as anyone familiar with New York City knows—the rise of Manhattan’s land value has been far from linear. Indeed, the study identifies three major real estate cycles in Manhattan.

Manhattan Land Value Index, 1950-2014

(Barr et al./Regional Science and Urban Economics)

The index begins in 1950 with a value of 100. The value of Manhattan land was relatively flat during 1950s and ‘60s—the period of the great suburban boom. It then plunged during the dark days of New York City’s fiscal crisis in the mid-70s, reaching a low point of 43 in 1977. Over the course of the first real estate cycle, from 1950 to 1977, land values actually shrank at an annualized rate of -3.1 percent.

Land values were back over 50 by 1980 and then increased steadily to a high of 572 in 1988, until being leveled by the economic downturn of the early ’90s, which was also when the city’s crime rate peaked. During this second cycle, which ended in 1993, land values grew at an annualized rate of 6.5 percent.

Since the mid-1990s, the value of Manhattan land has surged upward, passing 1,000 before the economic crash of 2008. It then dipped slightly during the Great Recession but surged to 3,384 by the end of 2014. During this third and most recent complete real estate cycle, from 1993 to 2009, the value of Manhattan land grew at 17 percent annually, a substantial increase in growth in land values over the previous two cycles. Manhattan land is now in the midst of fourth cycle, which, so far, has shown similarly high growth rates.

Of course, not all land is created equal—or, as a real estate professional would say, “location, location, location.” Corner lots are significantly more valuable than mid-block lots, according to the study, and lots in close proximity to Broadway, which runs the length of the island, also have higher values.

So what is driving these substantial changes?

The recent surge is often attributed to the outsize compensation and bonuses on Wall Street. But the study does not find any significant connection between the performance of the S&P 500 and the land value index.

What seems to matter more is the overall employment rate in New York City. This would, in turn, seem to be a proxy for the recent back-to-the-city movement of jobs and people. Over the past two or three decades, Manhattan has seen increased demand for its land as affluent people and large corporate headquarters moved back into the city, as well as startups and more established tech companies.

Today, Manhattan trails only San Francisco as a location for VC-backed high-tech startups. Google has become one of the largest landowners in Lower Manhattan. And, of course, the past decade or so has seen a tremendous influx of foreign capital into Manhattan real estate, which is now viewed as a safe vehicle for storing capital, much like gold.

Manhattan Land Value Index and Total NYC Employment

(Barr et al./Regional Science and Urban Economics)

For New Yorkers, and those who aspire to be New Yorkers, the study provides empirical data for what you already know: Manhattan real estate is expensive, and it has gotten even more so in recent years.

Perhaps the 1960s and 1970s, the period so romanticized by New Yorkers and others as an era of tremendous creativity fueled by cheap real estate, was the exception. With increasing demand from businesses and people for limited space, it has now become prohibitively expensive for all but the affluent to live in Manhattan, contributing to the sorting by class and geography that is dividing our cities and our nation.

London’s Latest Exhibit: Horrendous Pollution

Standing in the middle of London, you can get a taste of Beijing’s air.

In fact, it tastes and smells like the aftermath of a house fire, at least if an installation outside London’s Somerset House is to be believed. Built for Earth Day by artist Michael Pinsky and Danish air filtering company Airlabs, the exhibit recreates the smell, heat, and haze of four notoriously polluted cities: London, New Delhi, Beijing, and Sao Paulo.

Simulating each city’s noxious air inside plastic-clad geodesic domes, the exhibit contrasts them with an additional dome recreating conditions on the pristine Norwegian island of Tautra. The results are a mix of predictable and unexpected. For a Londoner, at least, what you can’t see or feel in the domes is as disconcerting as what you can.

The polluted atmospheres evoked in the geodesic domes are, as you might expect, unpleasant. There’s a strange vinegary saltiness to the air in Sao Paulo’s dome, apparently mimicking the effects of the city’s widely used ethanol-based fuels. Meanwhile a line of electric radiators in the New Delhi section makes its dome’s air feel sultry and as thick as syrup. Beijing’s dome comes as the greatest shock, however. With a small smoke machine pumping fumes into its narrow space, the whole space smells charred, with a headache-inducing bitterness hanging in the air.

By contrast, the dome representing Norway’s Tautra island—through which visitors enter and exit the exhibit—has an herby, almost buttery smell of cut grass, its air cleaned thanks to filters installed by Airlabs. There’s a niggling sense that some of the effects may be created by the heat of the sun on the domes’ plastic cladding, but the shift from exhaust pipe wheezing to pastoral freshness is striking enough.

It’s all safe, of course, as the domes simulate—rather than reproduce—the actual air conditions of its chosen cities. Highlighting the dangers and effects of ozone or sulphur dioxide pollution is one thing; actually exposing people to them is another entirely.

There’s also a surprise. Walk into London’s dome and you notice…nothing at all. That’s as it should be. The conditions within the dome are supposed to be recreating those that all visitors have walked through in the city at large, so there shouldn’t be any dramatic shift. The result is still unsettling: We know that in places London have dangerously high levels of toxic nitrogen oxide (NOx) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which reaches such saturations in some places that some streets commonly reach their maximum safe levels for the entire year within the first week of January. The U.K. government itself estimated in 2015 that nitrogen oxides contributed to the premature deaths of up to 23,500 people annually.

Pollution Pods by Michael Pinsky at Somerset House for Earth Day. ((c) Peter MacDiarmid for Somerset House)

The problem with nitrogen dioxide, however, is that it has no taste and creates no visual disturbance. Difficult as it may be to push for political action, it’s easy to deplore the barbecue-accident-flavored air of Beijing’s pod because it’s so intrusive. Fine particles may cause concern in London, but it’s perfectly possible to go about one’s business there without registering their presence, until asthma or bronchitis hit.

Seeing grime or smelling something like char on the wind rightly causes city-dwellers to worry—but some of the urban atmosphere’s worst pollutants can kill without ever signaling their presence.

The Strange Case of a Black Mayor’s 75% Pay Cut in Mississippi

In June of 2017, Ryshonda Harper Beechem, 38, became the first black mayor of Pelahatchie, Mississippi, a small town just over 25 miles east of the state’s capital city, Jackson. She is also the first black mayor in the entire surrounding majority-white county.

In a no-runoff election with a turnout of 442 people in a town of about 1,300, Beechem won with a slim 12-vote margin, beating out the two other white women candidates.

But things haven’t gone smoothly for Beechem working with the Pelahatchie Board of Aldermen—the town’s legislative authority, which operates much like a city council. While some might assume Beechem’s difficulties stem from racial tension, the board is diverse: It is comprised of one white woman, two black men and two white men. All were elected or re-elected to four-year terms at the same time as Beechem’s election; three were incumbents. The board has hastily announced rule changes and salary cuts, presented new hires without consulting the mayor, and has often overridden her vetoes of their decisions. (The board can either accept or override a mayoral veto.)

But it’s the slashing of her pay that has garnered the most attention.

On February 5, the board of aldermen cut Beechem’s salary by 75 percent and halved their own salaries. The mayor and the board now make the same salary: $250 per month. The mayoralty in Pelahatchie is a part-time position that previously earned a salary of $12,000.

A university survey of Mississippi mayoral salaries shows that in some similar-sized cities with part-time mayors and a board of aldermen, mayors make more than the aldermen, with salaries as much as 120 times more than Beechem’s. There are even a handful of towns of fewer than 500 residents with part-time mayors earning more than Beechem. There are also towns in Mississippi where aldermen make more than part-time mayors, but these tend to be the exception.

When in February, one of the aldermen surprised Beechem by proposing the pay cut, which was not listed on the agenda at the outset of the meeting, the other board members sided with him unanimously, citing a need for budget cuts.

Beechem is an accountant by training, and she and her husband run an accounting business, an academy for children, and a media company. She says the budget was fine without such extreme pay cuts.

Beechem said that the mayor making the same as the aldermen does not make sense to her because the mayor is “superintendent-control over the town, which requires more time being spent to run the town,” she said. The aldermen meet for monthly board meetings and make the legislative decisions that the mayor ensures get executed day-to-day.

Beechem wrote a veto of the pay cut of her salary, laying out her finding of “no confidence” in the board and its financial dealings because of an ongoing state auditor’s investigation of Pelahatchie for alleged misappropriation of funds, an investigation that began as early as late 2017. The three town clerks resigned in the first three months of 2018, with two walking out one afternoon in March while Beechem was out of the office, she said.

Beechem’s first and only appointment has been an interim town clerk this March, only after the board tried to appoint its own choice without consulting her, she said. The board later accepted Beechem’s veto of the board’s choice for clerk and approved a different interim clerk, a woman Beechem brought over from clerking at the police department after the two clerks walked out. The board of aldermen budgeted for two permanent clerks who have not yet been appointed.

Beechem’s relationship with the board has turned hostile during the past months. Since she began her tenure, the board almost always votes in a unanimous bloc, with Beechem often writing vetoes she now publishes on a Facebook page, only to have the board frequently overturn them in the following meeting. Residents of the town avidly debate Pelahatchie politics online, some questioning the town’s financial dealings, others calling the mayor unprofessional, some citing racism in the board’s treatment of Beechem.

At the same meeting where Beechem’s salary was cut, the board voted to ban cellphones at meetings, which the mayor also vetoed, writing, “If disruption of meetings by cellphone usage is the legitimate concern, there are numerous other ways to go about preventing such disruption, without depriving citizens their right to record everything which takes place in our public forum.” This veto was upheld by the board later that month.

No aldermen returned calls or voicemails by press time, and the ones who did answer the phone hung up at the mention of Beechem.

Pelahatchie is part of the Jackson metro area, which has seen dramatic white and economic flight into the outer counties like Rankin County, where Pelahatchie is located. Jackson went from around 100,000 white residents in 1980 to 30,000 in 2010. Meanwhile, the outer metro area, which includes Pelahatchie, saw white residents increase by around 50,000 in that same time frame.

Inside the town hall, a middle-aged white man approached Beechem as he came in to pay a utility bill.

“Are you surviving all this stuff you have to go through?” he asked the mayor. Beechem said she was “hanging tough” and sticking to the laws.

“You hang in there…I just want you to succeed and be the best mayor we’ve ever had,” the man added before leaving town hall.

Purple banners with the town’s slogan, “A Place to Prosper,” hang on every third utility pole with American Flags on the others. Beechem wants to provide what those banners proclaim, but not at her expense.

“I just believe everyone should be treated fairly—including the mayor.”

What Cities Need to Understand About Bikeshare Now

At the beginning of April, the ride-hailing giant Uber acquired the bikeshare company called Jump for $200 million. Jump vends and operates its neon-red electric bicycles in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and, soon, Sacramento; it’s the second skin of a firm called Social Bicycles, which had by 2017 seen its dockless smart-bike equipment deployed in over 40 cities.

The rebranding of Social Bicycles as Jump signified a few things. A company that had previously only sold bikeshare equipment was vertically integrating to both own and operate it, and it was committing to e-bikes as a differentiator in the increasingly crowded field of personal mobility devices. The purchase of Jump by Uber, which shakes out to about $13,000 per bike, revealed a few more things, like that short trips in cars are miserably unprofitable.

But most notably, to me, the acquisition signaled that bikesharing in America, which has with a few exceptions eked out an existence via a patchwork of public grants and private sponsorships, is now big business.

It’s easy to forget how young and unformed this transportation mode is: The first modern municipal bikeshare, Paris’ Velib, launched in 2007, and the first programs in the U.S. appeared in 2010. In 2017, the field changed dramatically with the introduction of dockless equipment—primarily manufactured, distributed, and operated by Chinese companies—to U.S. markets.

Dockless bikes, which can be rented and returned without the constraints of a docking station, represent a radical departure from existing “legacy” systems, which look stable and institutionalized in comparison. But what most urbanites often don’t see is that the funding, implementation, and operation of bikeshare, docked or otherwise, has never been consistent. Now that dockless bikeshare and shareable electric bikes (and scooters) have entered the lexicon of cities—and major players like Uber are jumping into the game—it’s a good time to give city leaders and residents a primer on what we’ve learned about bikeshare, what it can and can’t do well, and how it can exist harmoniously in our public spaces.

The consistent inconsistency of bikeshare systems

Bikesharing arrived in the U.S. with an enormous promise: to connect communities, to ease last-mile trips, and to provide and expand transit options in American cities, where many destinations are too far to walk but too close to drive. So how much closer has it come to satisfying those big-picture goals?

To begin to answer that question, we need to go a few steps back—not to the dawn of bikesharing (that would be 1963, in Amsterdam, where an anarchist collective made white-painted bikes publicly available for free), but into the rooms where the decisions about what comes to exist in the public right-of-way are made. Readers who work in or adjacent to the public sector may be familiar with such spaces; for my part, I witnessed some of the behind-the-scenes wrangling of bikeshare as the general manager of UHBikes, a 250-bike, 29-station system owned by Cuyahoga County and deployed within the city of Cleveland.

Most legacy bikeshare systems, like UHBikes, were procured by their host cities: These programs were kickstarted by putting out requests for proposals for equipment, operators, or both. But beyond that common denominator, nearly every city’s model is different.

The variations start with the bikes themselves. There are many vendors of bikeshare equipment—among them PBSC Urban Solutions, B-Cycle, Zagster, Social Bicycles. Historically, that equipment has been dock-based, requiring riders to start and end trips at designated docks; the docks themselves are the “smart” pieces of equipment, collecting trip data. Since 2013, Social Bicycles has manufactured a GPS-enabled “smart bike” with an integrated lock that can be left anywhere, though the company and those that operate its equipment implore users to lock up to bike racks and sign poles. Payment systems are similarly all over the map: Some systems have kiosks at which users can register; others require apps.

In New York City, blue Citibikes are now a familiar sight. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

Likewise, there’s tremendous variation in who owns, operates, funds, or sponsors any given city’s equipment. For example, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare is publicly funded and publicly owned, but privately operated by Motivate, a firm that also operates Divvy in Chicago and Citibike in New York City. Divvy, like CaBi, is publicly funded, whereas Citibike is publicly owned but funded through sponsorships from Citibank and Mastercard. Denver B-Cycle, meanwhile, is operated by a nonprofit set up to manage the system; while Philadelphia’s Indego is operated by Bicycle Transit Systems, which also oversees programs in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Oklahoma City.

The bikeshare system that I managed is operated by a for-profit company, Cyclehop; owned by Cuyahoga County; and was funded with federal dollars, passed through the state to a regional planning authority to the county. Further, private dollars from foundations, nonprofits, and individual donors composed a required 20 percent local match.

In short, docked bikeshare systems have typically been a sorta-public, sorta-private mishmash, procured through whatever process a municipality has in place.

Enter the age of docklessness

Dockless bikes are fundamentally different: Ofo, Mobike, Limebike, Spin, and Jump are entirely private operators that own their equipment. And that equipment, of course, is self-locking and free-floating (though Jump ostensibly requires users to lock to public bike racks or sign poles, in the same fashion as SoBi’s non-electric bikes). What users might not realize that the bikes themselves are also vastly cheaper, compared to traditional equipment. Each dockless bike costs its company about $200; traditional bikeshare bikes—the PBSC tanks, SoBi’s pre-Jump “smart bikes,” B-Cycle’s cruisers—are all north of $2,000. Each. The hardwired, kiosked “smart” docks at which most of those bikes are required to park are even more expensive.

The high cost factor is important, because it affects the size and shape of a city’s network—a topic of great interest among those concerned about equity issues. The National Association of City Transportation Officials guidelines recommend that bikeshare stations be no more than 0.4 miles apart. At that density, most cities simply can’t or won’t fund bikeshare systems at the scale required to have truly comprehensive, equitable networks well-integrated with common destinations and existing transit.

In Cleveland, for example, there are only 250 bikes and 29 stations to cover a city of 385,000 and 82.5 square miles. Even when we dropped all out-of-hub fees and allowed people on all membership plans to lock our bikes anywhere for no additional cost (an early attempt to simulate one of dockless’ most convenient features, enabled by Social Bicycles’ lock-anywhere smartbikes) we weren’t able to extend the coverage into the city’s less-affluent neighborhoods in a meaningful fashion. It was also difficult to conduct traditional forms of outreach, like lunch-and-learns and tabling at events, because our bikes were such a limited commodity.  

Even systems that are robustly funded and popular, as in New York, Minneapolis, and D.C., leave big swaths of their cities without access to bikeshare.

Critics may fear that the cheaper, more unruly dockless bikes now appearing in in D.C. and elsewhere herald a second, more-intense wave of begriming the public realm. But it’s the first real hope the industry has had to meet either the demands of users who are hungry for expansions, or the cultural standards leveled at bikeshare (to be equitable, to be accessible, and to be available on-demand—often at a profit).

Early data from D.C.’s dockless pilot program has indicated that not only are people riding dockless, ridership on Capital Bikeshare is up as compared to this time last year. In other words, access to bikeshare seems to feed a demand for more bikeshare, and the easiest way to achieve that in more cities is with dockless equipment, or a mix of the two models.  

What cities can do next

The future of this shared transportation is more likely to be a melange of mobility devices, including bikeshare, than a single type of equipment procured by a municipality, then operated by a third party. Uber’s acquisition of Jump isn’t so much a story about bikesharing, but a milestone for the rise of urban electric bicycles specifically. Rival company LimeBike is also introducing the motor-assisted cycles, which arrive with specific implications on public space and, as New York City’s debate over e-bike regulations shows, public safety. Dockless electric scooters are cropping up in L.A., San Francisco, and D.C., and cities should figure out how to work with whatever wacky idea—actual hoverboards? Tricycle share? Flying broomsticks?—comes next. This requires a commitment to concepts—however broad—rather than specific operators, equipment, or modes.

There are things cities can do to use their regulatory capacity to encourage this process. In places with constrained space, planners and administrators will need to stand up for what all that data is telling them—that it’s time to take space away from cars to create more space for bikes and bike parking. It would be politically unpopular for D.C., for example, to address the complaints about dockless bikes “cluttering” the sidewalk by removing one parking space per block to install bike racks. But that’s not a reason not to do it, especially now that dockless is showing the latent demand for new ways to move around.

No, not like this. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Just because dockless is a surefire way to get more bikes to more people doesn’t mean it should get off scot-free. Cities should fastidiously demand companies share their ridership data, and should hold operators to key performance indicators to keep bikes balanced and accessible. But shaping the behavior of bikeshare operators is, once again, incumbent on creating a built environment that makes more sense than ours do now.

After installing all those hypothetical bike racks, for example, a city could reasonably demand of an operator that a certain percentage of their fleet be balanced to public, on-street bike corrals at any given time. (This would have the added benefit of forcing operators to compete more directly with each other.) Fees per bike could fund the public-sector staff time dedicated to coordinating and overseeing dockless companies. While users seem to have little issue downloading and using multiple apps for multiple operators, a city could require app integration among operators if it felt it was an issue.

For now, cities are the only bodies that can redistribute space away from people in cars to people on bikes, on foot, on scooters, or on whatever strange micromobility device that we can’t yet imagine. Dockless bikes should, rightfully, force a referendum on who we say our streets are for through how we design them.

Can We All Get Along?

Is your subway car packed like sardines? Does your city feel like a shopping mall? Is your community, well, not all it could be? Richard Sennett has some answers.

Sennett is a designer-scholar, eminent in both the built-design world and academia. Currently the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, he’s advised the United Nations on urban issues for decades and worked as planner in New York, Washington D.C., Delhi and Beijing. Sennett’s writing often revolves around the interplay of work, strangers, and cooperation, but he always returns to cities: how to plan them, adapt them, and live in them. Doing that well—as either a planner or a resident—means celebrating complexity and accepting diversity: “Experience in a city, as in the bedroom or on the battlefield, is rarely seamless, it is much more often full of contradictions and jagged edges,” he writes in his new book, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City.

The book offers microhistories of Barcelona and Paris, exegeses of Heidegger and Arendt, and tours of Medellín and Songdo. But through it all, Sennett is asking a pretty simple and pressing question: How do we live together now? How does cosmopolitanism survive in an age of both populism and urbanization—and what can we do in our streets, parks, and cities to help?

We put on our walking shoes, dusted off our German philosophy, and caught up with Sennett recently to learn more; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity

You celebrate the complexities and oddities of cities, and you offer some helpful comparisons that can make cities somewhat more understandable. For example, you make a distinction between “space” versus “place.”

You move through a space and you dwell in a place. It’s a distinction for me that has to do with speed and automobiles. When people start driving at a certain speed, they lose awareness of where they are. They are just getting through it. And when you dwell in a place, you have a slower relationship to it. It’s a difference that is founded in our bodies. When you are moving very fast, your peripheral vision, for instance, is very weak. When you bike or you walk, your cognitive field is much bigger because you’re taking in much more from the sides.

Where this gets reflected in urbanism is the more we create spaces where people move fast, the less they understand about what those spaces are. I’m a big fan of walking, but this applies also to cycling. At about 28 or 30 mph people moving through an urban environment stop being in a place and are in space instead. This is one of the horrible things about automobiles. They’ve cut down on the kind of cognitive data that people have about where they are.

Another distinction that you draw in the book is the one between green spaces—what you call a “gregarious park” like New York City’s Central Park, versus a “neighborly” one.

This is Frederick Law Olmsted. He wanted to mix blacks and whites together in a place that they both enjoyed. The neighborhood park is a space where you feel comfortable with people who are just like you, whereas Central Park is a park in which you mix with strangers—you’re enjoying being in a space like the Sheep Meadow or skating on the big skating pond with lots of different kinds of people. Different kinds of public space enable a different kind of sociability.

Can you explain one more distinction—what’s the difference between a “prescriptive” smart city and a “coordinating” smart city?

The prescriptive smart city just tells you the best way to do something, the best route. It does your thinking for you. Whereas the coordinating smart city expands your realm of choice—it gives you data about the whole city that enables you to think about the question, what should we do here? Think about Google Maps—you get the little options at top for driving or using public transportation or walking, but the algorithms are usually set to give you the shortest possible distance. You can’t ask Google Maps what’s the most interesting way to get from A to B. It’s prescriptive.

Le Corbusier had that famous line about donkeys meandering, with their little brains, and humans walking in straight lines. But some of us like to meander like a donkey in the city.

He sort of figures as a villain in my book.

You’re speaking not just to urbanists, planners, designers and architects, but also to city residents. The day-to-day choices we make in a city can be ethical. And not just where we live, but how we move around, how we look, talk and listen.

This is grounded for me in the work I’ve been doing for the UN for the past three decades on urban planning. There are relatively few mixed neighborhoods in big emerging cities. If people are rich, they live segregated from the poor, and vice-versa. So the question is, they’re living in a relatively economically homogeneous space, but how do they live socially? With their neighbors?

In Delhi, where I’ve done a lot of work, the ethical question is: Will Muslims and Hindus be able to share the same space? Do they hang out at the same street corner? Do they use the same tea shops? Do they shop for food in the same places? These ethical questions aren’t about being a law-abiding citizen or respecting somebody else’s property rights—they’re really social questions about how people who are different can get along together.

Unfortunately, in a lot of developing cities they don’t get along very well. That’s why I’m interested in the fuzzy boundaries between, say, work and school—it’s in those complicated areas that people either mix or don’t mix.

Urbanites have choices, then, and the urbanist or planner also has choices about how to build or design to enable or encourage mixing. How does the planner look at it?

The great error that urbanists made in the 20th century was to separate parts out functionally. There’s one place to live, one place to shop. There’s a town center and highways or big roads connecting it all. Those spaces tend to compartmentalize people’s lives. So if you’re in school, you’re removed from people shopping, or going to a hospital. You don’t see adults. You’re only in that one specialized space.

The ultimate in this is the gated community, which is for one thing only: to keep people or activities unlike you out. For urbanists and for planners, [the trick is] how to create spaces for interaction and integration rather than spaces that are so segregated.

I’ll give you an example. People in Colombia have been experimenting with how to take apart highways, which are insulated from living in places like Bogotá, and make them more alive at their edges. You create a street where before there was only a traffic artery. And that’s something we as planners have got to do more. We’ve been building too much segregated, separated zones of activity in the city. It’s one reasons cities go dead—there’s no interaction between the functions of what people are doing.

The city dweller does not merely act out preconceived roles according to the built environment, of course. The way they walk, look, and listen matters too.

Once you’ve got a street, people have choices about whether to use it or not. And they’ll use it in surprising ways. Nobody expected the boulevards in Paris to become the sociable places they were. But people chose to use them that way because they wanted to see what was happening out and about in the city. That sort of curiosity—if the space enables it—tends to overcome people’s fear in the long run.

Mumbai has high levels of violence, except in big public spaces where people can look at other people. Even if they never talk to each other, they see people unlike themselves. Those tend to be the most peaceful places in Mumbai, whereas the little intimate streets and alleyways—all populated by people who know one another—are crime zones. It’s a kind of basic rule of urbanism—remember “eyes on the street.” But they’re not eyes in apartment buildings looking down on the street, they are eyes in the street, on the street. I think there’s a kind of urban ethics that some kind of spaces will enable people to let their curiosity balance their fear of others.

Think of the stairways and streets of Elena Ferrante’s Naples. Everyone’s always watching, but there’s plenty of violence.

Very intimate. Very violent. Elena Ferrante’s novels are a great example of that. I mean it’s counterintuitive that a big public square should be less violent.

For me, since I started working within the UN, I’ve seen a lot of incredibly bad planning. The worst ways of planning a city in the West would be imported into these new huge cities of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The notion that the whole city should be connected by transport rather than public space is a horrible thing that was exported straight from Corbusier to Beijing. Being stuck in traffic on the highway is somehow more advanced than walking slowly. It was the first thing they imported [from the West]: How can we be more efficient? How can we privilege transport over other forms of experience?

Another way of thinking about this is scale. Brutalism has become trendy again, and I get the impression there is a return of the appetite for big planning. But must we go big and, if so, can it be done well?

We have to, particularly in the non-Western world, because those cities are growing to huge sizes. If you were a follower of Jane Jacobs, her prescriptions for small, slow growth are way out-of-sync with the reality of cities that add a million in population every year, like Delhi. Or that, like Beijing, are nearly 60 miles across. In the developing world, the issue is there are very few resources at your disposal. You can’t put a high school within walking distance of everyone. You can’t think locally. You have got to think at this urban scale. At the public level, you don’t have enough resources to go around.

That’s particularly true in housing. Places with unregulated development, like Mexico City, where people live and where they work can [require] even three hours a day of commuting. You can’t just say, let’s put all those factories locally to solve this problem—that’s just not possible. Cities are getting bigger so much faster; Jacobs’ notion of slow growth doesn’t make any sense. It’s not the world we live in today.

This has been declared an urban age, and everybody loves to point to the demographics. But we also quite clearly live in an age when figuring out how to live together is of increased importance. It’s a question that is being tackled by philosophers, planners and political scientists alike.

If you spent times in the corridors of the Obama Administration in HUD and places like that, people were always talking about strategies of how people could cooperate better using the web. It was a placeless idea of getting along well with other people.

The problem with that is that the thing that makes people really get along with each other is physical comfort in the presence of others. Online, whenever you don’t like something, you just press a button and you’ve left. In cities, people don’t have that option.

If people feel bodily comfort, I’ve come to feel that that’s enough. That is what makes people more peaceable, less aggressive, less prone to violence. Going through verbal hoops and mutual understanding and common shared purpose, and so on, to me, that’s a lot of bullshit. The almost lawyerly emphasis on being with other people is so divorced from the physical experience of feeling comfortable with someone who’s not you, who’s unlike you.

That’s a difference I have with Hannah Arendt, who had a very verbalistic understanding of the city as a place where people interact. A lot of the urbanism in my book is focused on the non-verbal, on the bodily.