Immigration is one of the most contentious issue of our time, and research shows that simply fact-checking common misconceptions and myths about immigration—that newcomers bring criminality, snatch jobs from Americans, and are a drain on the economy—doesn’t seem to change anyone’s minds. But what if we replaced the current ideologically charged narrative with something else—something, well, kind of beautiful?
Northeastern University’s Pedro Cruz, John Wihbey, Avni Ghael, and Felipe Shibuya have created a striking visualization to do just that: They’ve depicted 200 years of granular immigration data as the colorful cross-section of a tree that thickens over time.
“I wanted to portray the United States like an organism that’s alive and that took a long time to grow,” said Cruz, an associate professor at Northeastern. ”[The visualization] also contains the underlying message that the country was built on diversity.”
In science, the technique of studying climatic and ecological change over time via tree rings is known as dendrochronology. The bigger, older, and mightier the tree, the more rings it has, and the more data can be extracted. The method has allowed researchers to place specifics dates on ancient environmental conditions going back millennia.
Here, the metaphorical mighty tree is the United States, and if you follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion, it has been made thicker and stronger by the waves of immigrants who have arrived over the decades. Each colored “cell” represents 100 immigrants; over time, the algorithm deposits them in concentric rings, with each ring marking a decade. The older ones encase the core, and newer ones wrap around surface. The colors and the direction of growth represent the origins of the immigrants. The yellow cells depicting immigrants from Latin America, for example, are layered by the computer algorithm towards the bottom of the circle—signaling that they come countries south of the U.S.; those from Asia grow outwards towards the left. (Cruz noted that while the trajectories of Native American and enslaved populations are also of course integral to the story of the country, but this dataset did not include information on these groups.)
Look closely at the mesmerizing data visualization, and you’ll start seeing trends reflecting the political and economic realities of America. Here’s Cruz in National Geographic:
These immigration “rings” expand during years when certain welcoming factors are prevalent, such as when American immigration policies become less restrictive and its economy offers greater opportunity. The “rings” tend to stay slim during years of war or economic upheaval.
For example, the tree trunk swells after the 1965 Immigration Act, which replaced previous policies that intentionally excluded immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Europe. That legislation helped shape the demographics of the country for decades afterward: The cells start getting more colorful, and the rings thicken more towards the west and south.
Cruz and his team has also replicated this idea for smaller geographies within the U.S.—a cartogram of states as a forest of trees, if you will. Here, the colored parts of the rings are the immigrants, and the grey ones represent the native-born population.
And here’s a close-up of immigration to four states that have been some of the key gateways:
Perhaps Cruz doesn’t explicitly intend for it, but one effect of this approach is that it makes the viewer see that immigration’s role in the country’s demographics is something natural and organic—a response to various environmental conditions, like the dry and rainy seasons that alternately limit and encourage the growth of a tree. It also reveals that, while immigration is not the only part of the historical process that fed America’s growth, it is essential. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, right down the very core.
Growing numbers of cities, utilities and governments are recognizing the benefits of smart lighting. In addition to energy efficiency, these advantages include reduced carbon emissions, improved public safety, improved data insights and more, leading more and more cities around the world to incorporate smart LED lighting into their automated ecosystems.
I went to college in Philadelphia—a city that I think is pretty underrated. It boasts neighborhoods with great personality, immigrant cuisine, and history. Also, now, Gritty.
Over time, my memory from my four years in the city gets fuzzier, except when I encounter a distinct sensory trigger. Like, the clickety-clackety fluttering of the Amtrak train information board at 30th Street Station. Then it all comes rushing back.
Amtrak wants to replace that beloved board with a snazzy digital screen for—to be fair—very good reasons. (It’s old!) The other “split-flap” displays in other U.S. train stations have all been scrapped. But Philadelphians weren’t having it. It wasn’t just the nostalgic value—this thing was a design icon! A cultural artifact! An object crucial not just to my memory, but that of so many others! And now, it may still live. I wrote about it here.
Are there objects, buildings, or other historical quirks in a city you’ve lived in that shape your memory of it? Let me know. And thank you to those who wrote to me last time. It’s always so nice to hear from you!
Also, we plotted the results of a poll asking folks to rate U.S. cities on a tacos vs. transit graph. Drumroll for the results please!!!!!
What we’ve been taking in:
“There is a faux-truism in America that LGBT folks do not fare well in the countryside.” (Boston Review)¤ The woman architect from Sri Lanka that history forgot. (The Guardian) ¤ When librarians rode through rural Kentucky on horses. (Smithsonian)¤ A cross-section of Damascus Road. (Synaps)¤ The dark side of the rehab empire built on selling cake. (Latino USA)¤ A typographic tour of Manhattan’s Chinatown. (Eye on Design)¤ Reimagining the Mexican game of Lotería. (Los Angeles Magazine)¤ Okra in Lagos. (Popula)¤ “The bombers that used to roost here are long gone, but the site is now home to the ceaseless song of skylarks.” (Places Journal) ¤
View from the ground:
@tlaloc1977‘s shot of London Bridge includes rare British blue skies. @d_veremchuk captured pointed architecture in St. Petersburg, Russia. @jedimindtricks59‘s picture of Hunters Point South Park in Queens features the sunset over New York City’s skyline. @kurgae reminds those in colder climes what the Miami sun looks like in summer.
Artist in Southwest D.C. And inside a Maine Turnpike rest stop in Kennebunkport, a 2007 mural depicts four of the silver-colored dogs with their heads tilted up. “But no one ever looks up at it,” the artist told CityLab.
When deciding what to create for the MTA, Wegman knew it would be a challenge to get straphangers’ attention. “When I go to these stations, I do look at the mosaics,” he said, “but maybe that’s because I’m an artist … typically, people are thinking more about where they’re going.”
Even though Flo and Topper had previously posed for French Vogue, Wegman decided to keep things simple on 23rd Street, presenting them as relatable, conventionally dressed figures seemingly looking for the next train. Despite that, the dogs will certainly attract noticeinside a station that had been devoid of anything worth absorbing up until its late November reopening. “The public already knows Bill’s work, so it’s like seeing old friends,” said Sandra Bloodsworth, director of MTA Arts & Design (the commission has selected artists for station works since its formation in 1985). The mosaics present instantly familiar work in a new light, leaving Wegman impressed with “how exceptional the shirts and coats look in stone and glass translation.”
“You can almost feel the moisture on the dogs,” added Bloodsworth.
Wegman’s addition to the New York subway is a delight for its users and a testament to MTA Art and Design’s ability to create moments of joy in a transit system otherwise known for its headaches. Like many other recently upgraded MTA stations, 23rd and 6th still lacks elevator access. New art, information screens, tiles, benches, and lighting are great, but nearly 30 years since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, this prewar station is no easier to access.
This week, tech giant Apple revealed a plan for nationwide job expansion, and announced that Austin, Texas will host its new, 133-acre campus. “Everything is bigger in Texas,” said Texas Governor Greg Abbott at a press conference reveal. “Today we can say Apple is bigger in Texas.”
Abbott says “bigger,” because in Austin, Apple was already big: The company employs 7,000 workers there—the most of any location besides Cupertino, where its first headquarters is based. The new campus would add 5,000 new employees, with the potential to accommodate 15,000 eventually, and construction is expected to take until 2021. “Apple is truly a part of our Texas family,” said Rebecca Clemons, the director of administration for Williamson County, where Apple’s new campus will be built—less than a mile from its existing facilities.
In fact, many of the locations Apple said it would now double down on are sites in which the company and other tech peers already have a large footprint. Seattle, San Diego, and Culver City will reach 1,000 Apple employees in the next three years, the company says, and Apple’s Miami campus will soon double in size.
That means Apple is the latest example of like flocking with like—tech companies choosing to settle in places they’ve already identified as talent centers. “This just reiterates that big tech siting decisions are continuing to concentrate on a very short list of sizable, well-established digital centers that are not losing share but are gaining share of the industry,” said Mark Muro, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “While some may view Austin as a rise-of-the-rest story, I think it’s a rich-getting-richer story,” he says—or whatCityLab’s Richard Florida calls “winner-take-all urbanism.”
In choosing not to locate at the heart of Austin’s downtown business center, Apple is also reinforcing another status quo: That of the isolated,suburban tech campus. The company’s Cupertino UFO has become the quintessential example of building an island of a corporate headquarters, largely disconnected from public transit and able to function as its own ecosystem. Apple’s planned 133-acre plot in Austin will be located more than 12 miles from the center of the city, adjacent to a highway. It’s sure to be a “sprawltastic, car-oriented project,” Yonah Freemark, an urbanist and the creator of The Transport Politic, wrote on Twitter. It will be an office park surrounding by office parking lots, and, according to Apple, “50 acres of preserved open space.”
The sprawl is likely toinspire employees into car commutes—environmentally fraught, especially when there will soon be at least 5,000 more of them—but it can also reinforce urban inequality. “We have seen a resurgence of the centers of many of our cities, but as a share of regional employment, downtowns account for a far smaller share than they used to across the U.S.,” Freemark told CityLab. The geography of jobs varies by city, he says, but it often follows a predictable path: When campuses and corporations are placed on highways, wealthier people with access to cars also have easier access to employment, whereas other low-income or non-white people are more reliant on transit, and therefore shut out of the game in cities without comprehensive connections. “Essentially what these companies are saying when they’re choosing a location that is very inaccessible is that the question of equity of access is not really part of the equation,” he said.
These trends aren’t just Austin-specific—in a policy paper from the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which outlines a better way to develop corporate campuses, the authors lament the suburbanization of jobs in the Bay Area due to tech choices, too. “Notwithstanding policy efforts to shape the region’s growth toward a more efficient and sustainable form, recent expansion looks very much like the existing pattern, with familiar and disappointing results for the region’s performance on key planning, transportation and environmental measures,” they write.
This may not be the trend forever: Apple’s tech peers Amazon and Google have indicated a growing preference for developing downtown presences. Amazon’s first HQ is closely integrated with Seattle’s downtown; and while Google’s Mountain View HQ serves as an example of Bay Area office park culture, both companies have recently announced expansions in dense, transit-connected New York City.
And the unoriginality of Apple’s commitments does not negate their magnitude. If the company meets hiring goals in Austin, it could soon become the city’s largest private employer, superseding H-E-B and Dell. Across 50 states, the company already employs 90,000 people, according to a statement, and “is on track to create 20,000 jobs in the US by 2023”—points Apple is highlighting to counter President Donald Trump’s criticism of the company for its off-shore job creation.
Unlike Amazon’s competition for its second headquarters, Apple didn’t ask for a multi-billion-dollar tax break from local governments, but it will still collect: After a Tuesday vote in Williamson County, the state will officially offer $25 million in tax incentives contingent on job creation, while the county will offer a rebate for 65 percent of its property taxes, which could be worth tens of millions. Money will exchange hands, but the search for a second Apple HQ didn’t turn into a “beauty contest,” just as the company’s CEO, Tim Cook, proudly promised months ago.
And in Austin—whose population grew by 55,000 people last year—fears that Apple’s arrival will exacerbate housing costs might not be as urgent. “Apple … has placed its large new campus in a housing market able to absorb all the expected migration,” said Skylar Olsen, Zillow’s director of economic research and outreach, in a statement. According to Zillow data, Austin metro housing prices have risen 9.5 percent in the past year to reach $355,000, but zoning restrictions are limited, allowing developers to build more to meet demand. (Whether that new supply will be affordable or not is another question entirely.)
Still, both rungs of location decisions could also be missed opportunities, some critics say. As my colleague Tanvi Misra wrote after Amazon decided to settle in two economic powerhouses, “Just 2 percent of the country’s biggest, showiest metros have enjoyed the bulk of employment gains since 2008. The rest are largely languishing—unable to recover after repeated blows of de-industrialization and globalization.” That’s based on research from a Brookings Institution report that highlights the growing divergence between “superstar cities”—like New York and D.C., but also Apple’s other targets, Austin, Miami, and Seattle—and the left-behind.
Choosing winners, though, is also just a common-sense business decision, says Tom Stringer, a site selection expert—one that only further solidifies Austin’s role as a major tech hub. “In some ways it’s like Nashville,” a city Amazon will infuse with 5,000 new jobs soon, too, he says. “They’re two hip cities with dense urban cores, with unique politics as compared to the state. You’ve found the creative purple blend of politics and businesses, and that benefits a lot of folks.”
For similar reasons—access to tech-trained workers, cool urban culture—Apple also announced a few investments in so-called “junior superstars,” like Boulder and Portland, Oregon; and data centers in North Carolina, Nevada, and Arizona will be expanded.
These preferences are reflected across a range of tech companies. Muro offered CityLab a sneak peek at forthcoming research, which he says will “show that only nine U.S. metros increased their share of the nation’s digital services sector in the last several years.” That tiny subsection of the country enjoyed “a whopping 42 percent of the sector’s employment growth over the period and 44 percent of its total employment.”
So perhaps it was inevitable that Apple would choose Austin, the metro area, over others in the country. But choosing Williamson County, the suburb, could further a more local equity divide. Austin’s public transit is under-utilized, and is especially ill-equipped to combat these issues. The city has tried and failed twice to move forward on plans to build a light rail line, which would connect the downtown and the suburbs. In 2020, Austin will get another chance to vote on a revised version, according to the Austin-American Statesman. Apple’s planned expansion may compel the political will to pass it.
It’s not all on Apple to have gone urban, though. “It’s easy enough to critique a corporation for pursuing a specific location,” said Freemark. “But the reality is much of it is in the control of public policymakers.” The state could have tied incentives to specific locations, for example. If the more detailed agreements between the state and the company are revealed next week, perhaps they’ll include commitments to transit investment, as Virginia’s with Amazon did.
But besides implications for increased pollution and decreased mobility access, locating outside of the city center also means fewer opportunities for community engagement, says Freemark. “Is Apple likely to be a better community citizen there, or downtown where they have to be involved with the cities’ issues on a day-to-day basis?”
Uber’s IPO is expected to be the largest ever for a tech company—currently valued at $70 billion, the firm’s market cap is projected to swell to $120 billion upon going public. But while its revenues have ticked up on an annual basis, the company continues to shed money. In the third quarter of 2018, Uber lost $1.07 billion. It lost $4.5 billion in 2017, the year Travis Kalanick departed as CEO after months of negative press on a range of company practices. The smaller, U.S.-focused Lyft is also reportedly burning through cash. And with growth slowing at both companies, some market analysts warn that an early stock bonanza could fizzle in short order.
But the future of ride-hailing could be also bolstered by local policies and partnerships that reflect broader shifts on the transportation landscape, experts say. In particular, congestion pricing—attaching a user fee to roads in high-traffic urban centers, fluctuating at different times of the day—could be a boon for the companies, because surcharges on single-occupancy driving could encourage the use of less-expensive carpool offerings.
“I think it’s relevant to think about that strategy as a substantial game changer,” said Susan Shaheen, the director of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center.
London, Stockholm, Singapore, and other cities around the world successfully implemented congestion pricing plans to positive effect, but no U.S. city has followed suit yet.
But a broader-based fee on all types of vehicles has gained the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who recently called it the “only realistic option” to generate the revenue needed to fix the subway. Uber and Lyft both openly support the policy of congestion pricing as a means of getting the upper hand on their greatest competition: the private car. After all, if more people had an economic incentive to ditch their vehicles and split the cost of transportation, that would be good business for shared mobility offerings of all kinds.
“What if New York were to start to do this?” said Shaheen. ”What kind of signal could that send?”
Congestion pricing has recently gained traction in other cities with less of a history of engagement. Transportation leaders in Los Angeles support a plan to toll highly congested roads as a way to mitigate delays, reduce transportation-related emissions, and pay for transit ahead of the 2028 Olympic Games.
To that end, while growth may be slowing for Uber and Lyft’s traditional on-demand rides, both companies have invested in a range of other mobility offerings that go beyond that baseline service over the past year. Lyft purchased Motivate, the largest bike share operator in the United States. Uber has invested in (and is rumored to be considering acquiring) Lime, a dockless scooter and e-bike purveyor, after acquiring Jump bikes. It also has a partnership with Getaround, a car-sharing firm.
An expanded range of service offerings could not only boost commuter dependency on these two companies, but it could also improve their pitches to public transit agencies. Already, both Uber and Lyft have partnered with local transportation providers in cities around the U.S. to offer “last mile” connections in areas where bus service is scant or where routes have historically underperformed. They’re also seen as a cheaper substitute for paratransit services.
If these pilots could be scaled up in certain markets, tax dollars from public transit agencies looking to rethink their offerings could be a boon for the cash-bleeding companies. “That suddenly opens up a different way of getting funding,” said Sandra Phillips, a shared mobility industry strategist.
Thus far, ride-hailing companies have scored billions in round after round of venture capital funding. And they are leaving their marks on cities around the world—not all positive: A growing body of research implies that the rise of ride-hailing has contributed to increases in congestion and emissions on American roads, while their inexpensive fares and carpool services in particular are drawing riders off of public transit. Much as urban policy could influence the future of these companies, so will these companies continue influence the shape of the cities in which they operate.
Now, in the event of successful IPOs, at least one observer is anticipating an effect on real estate in the city where Uber and Lyft (in addition to Airbnb, which is also anticipated to make its stock market debut next year) are headquartered. “Think SF is expensive now?” Jeremiah Owyang, a tech industry analyst with a focus on the sharing economy, tweeted this week. “Both Lyft, Uber, and maybe Airbnb to IPO in 2019.”
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Night moves: If you’ve heard of “night mayors,” you might imagine a dream job that finally puts your “work hard, play hard” mantra to good use. But it’s not the party you think it is. For one thing, you’re nothing like an actual mayor—hence the preference for toned-down titles like “director of the office of nightlife.” The gig is decidedly bureaucratic, dealing with noise complaints, business licensing, congested corridors, parking challenges, rats… the list goes on. But as more U.S. cities are seeing value in that kind of job, we wanted to know: What, exactly, does it take to be a successful liaison between nightlife and city hall?
“What the night mayor does is actually city planning after dark,” says Mirik Milan, Amsterdam’s former night mayor, and the world’s first. But ultimately, the job’s key qualification is being a good listener, and understanding how to help the community and its regulators speak the same language. CityLab’s Linda Poon spoke with several nightlife officials around the U.S. about what it means to oversee a city after dark. Read her story: So You Want to Be a Night Mayor?
Through the organization Architecture for Children, Hong Kong architect Vicky Chan has taught urban design and planning to thousands of kids. Here’s why.
In Monday’s edition, we asked readers to weigh in on the quality of their cities’ tacos and transit, based on what started as a silly idea on Twitter—and, well, you delivered. With more than 1,000 responses, CityLab’s David Montgomery graphed how CityLab readers feel about these two critical metrics of a strong city. The results for cities that received more than 10 votes are shown above. Who knew people felt so good about their cities’ tacos? Transit… well, that’s another story.
In his first week on the job, Shawn Townsend wants to be clear about his title.
“I am not the night mayor,” he says. “I am the director of the Office of Nightlife and Culture.”
And yes, it’s an important distinction: Positions like Townsend’s are colloquially referred to as “night mayor” or even “night czar,” but there’s good reason to avoid making it sound too mysterious or powerful.
“I don’t have any regulatory authority. I don’t have any enforcement authority. I’m leaving that to the regulatory agencies,” he says. “I’m looking to serve as a bridge builder, a liaison between nightlife businesses and these government agencies that currently exist.”
Townsend started his job Monday, after Washington, D.C., created the office earlier this year. He was selected, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a statement, for his experience in local government, including with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, plus some past experience as a bar manager in Charleston, South Carolina.
Jobs like his are gaining popularity in American cities: New York City created its own office of nightlife last year, and Pittsburgh, Orlando, and others have their own versions as well. The job postings tend to garner a mix of skepticism and enthusiasm about what it means for a city to take a more active interest in its nightlife industry. What, exactly, does it take to make the position more than just hype?
For one thing, enthusiasm isn’t enough. In D.C. alone, the nightlife scene generates $3.8 billion in revenue, so there is a lot at stake. Townsend already has a list of issues to tackle, right after he hires his team. He says he wants to carry out the mayor’s vision of making the city’s nightlife “socially inclusive and culturally diverse.” He also wants to address noise concerns and streamline the licensing process for businesses and pop-up events. Then there’s D.C.’s notorious rat problem, congested corridors, parking challenges… the list goes on.
“What the night mayor does is actually city planning after dark,” says Mirik Milan, Amsterdam’s former night mayor, and the world’s first. (And yes, that actually was his title.) In Milan’s vision, cities would bring the same rigor and seriousness to solving challenges in the nighttime economy as they do during the day.
“When there is a problem at night, the first reaction from cities is always to say, ‘Hey, we have to stop this now,’” Milan says, “instead of bringing all the stakeholders together like how we do during the day and try to solve it.”
Townsend says he expects his biggest challenge will be getting people to see eye-to-eye. That concern was echoed among several current and former nightlife officials that CityLab spoke to for this article—and some say that alone justifies the need for such a position. “You need to speak the same languages [as them] to get something done,” Milan says. “A person who can only speak the nightlife language will have a difficult time getting their voice heard in city hall.”
That means striking a balance between the community and the regulatory world—and that can be tricky. Some cities, in trying to find someone who can truly connect with the night crowd, have plucked a representative straight from it. London’s “Night Czar” Amy Lamé was a DJ and co-founder of a performance artists collective. New York City’s Senior Executive Director of the Office of Nightlife Ariel Palitz was a bar owner and community board member.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, chose more of an outsider with related experience: Allison Harnden, who serves as the city’s night economy manager, was the former vice president of the Responsible Hospitality Institute, which advises cities on creating a vibrant nightlife.
And by day in Iowa City, a college town of 76,000people, Angela Winnike is the chief of retail operations for a local coffee shop. But even before her dayshift ends, she’s fielding calls from business owners asking about liquor licenses, from police representatives, and from students and staff at the University of Iowa. She’s also dialing into phone conferences with other nightlife officials across the U.S.
“I think I’ve always been a pretty good listener, but I’ve learned to be a better one,” says Winnike, who has been Iowa City’s “nighttime mayor” for the past year and a half. As part of the downtown district board, Winnike stresses she has the interests of businesses in mind. But she’s also not afraid to “stand toe-to-toe” with the owners.
What’s clear about the differences between a night mayor and a real mayor is that the former rarely, if ever, wields legislative or regulatory authority. When tension arises, Winnike says her job is to get the two sides to talk to each other. Over the past year, she has organized forums between bar owners and the police to discuss issues like an ordinance banning anyone under 21 from being in bars after 10 p.m. It was a controversial attempt by the city to fight underage binge drinking, but it has also been credited with an uptick in the use of fake I.D.s. Bar owners worry that it’s easier for police to target the dozens of establishments rather than the thousands of potential underage drinkers.
“Really I’m there to be someone who translates how people talk,” Winneke says. “I’m not a decision-maker in the room, but I’m hoping the ones who are [will] understand each other.”
Yet being able to change legislation, or at least lobby for those changes, is what Milan envisions for nightlife officials as more cities adopt the position. Their power is currently limited, says Milan, who now runs VibeLab, an Amsterdam-based company that advises cities on their afterdark economy.
“When people hear ‘night mayor,’ they think this person has the power to change legislation, and when a borough, like in London, decides otherwise, there is the possibility for people to lose trust,” he says, referring to the backlash London’s night czar received in July after a new licensing law imposed curfews on new bars and pubs.
In truth, the issues go beyond just bars and clubs, and nightlife officials’ work will likely involve various social issues, including women’s rights, racial equity, and public transit, to name a few.
“I’m using the term ‘life at night’ a lot more than ‘night life,’” Pittsburgh’s Harnden says. “It’s also about everybody having access to social options in their city on a timeframe that works for you, if you work on a different schedule other than 9-to-5. So how does that change the way we do city government?”
For Milan, nightlife officials can even offer a chance to demonstrate the value of local institutions.“This is the moment where a lot of young people, and also older people, are super engaged with local politics,” he says. “And I think [this position] can be a really strong tool.”
In 2017, the average cost to rent an apartment in Toronto was $1,300 CAD a month. In Vancouver, it was $1,297. But in greater Montreal that number was $766.
It’s a startling difference for a city that requires little quality-of-life compromise to live in. Montreal has an enviable vibrancy and cultural richness and one of the highest rates of restaurants-per-capita in North America. It is smaller than Toronto but larger than Vancouver, the two hottest real estate markets in Canada.
For a point of context, the internet heaped derision earlier this year on a $750,000 CAD listing for a central Toronto fixer-upper that, as the Huffington Post accurately put it, “looks like it came out of a horror movie.” The Toronto Real Estate Board reported rents for a one-bedroom rose 10 percent from 2016 to 2017, as vacancy rates fell below one percent.
In contrast, Montreal’s real estate market looks like an enviable model. But it’s also shaped by a combination of factors difficult for other cities to replicate.
Founded in 1642, it’s an early North American city with a dense urban fabric in many neighborhoods and a housing stock that skews older. The classic Montreal triplex, which typically rents for less than modern homes, is a low-rise without elevators and other expensive amenities to maintain.
Language is a soft barrier, further limiting housing pressure in the only Canadian province in which French is the official language. It is possible, but awkward, to get by speaking only English in Montreal. That helps limit the number of Canadians moving from other provinces to take advantage of its relatively affordable housing and makes it less appealing than a city like Toronto to many immigrants who speak at least some English. (On the other hand, it has attracted 70,000 immigrants from France, sometimes blamed for creating upward pressure in desirable neighborhoods).
Maxime Roy Allard, spokesman for the housing committee of the Petite Patrie neighborhood, says not to underestimate the role of decades of strong activism in slowing rent increases as well. “There are stronger and more rooted social movements in Quebec that are better-organized than in the rest of Canada,” he told CityLab.
But perhaps most significantly, Montrealers have less purchasing power. The average household income in Toronto is $78,373 CAD, putting it squarely between Sacramento and Los Angeles. In greater Montreal, that number was $61,790, more in line with the Miami-Fort Lauderdale and Tampa regions.
Allard and other housing advocates also argue affordability is overstated in a city with lower incomes and a high concentration of low-income households.
“There are 86,990 households that pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing,” said Céline Magontier, an organizer with a social advocacy organization called FRAPRU. She also noted that neighborhoods in the center of the city and even the ring around them have become dramatically less affordable in the last decade.
Montreal’s vacancy rate fellow almost a full percentage point in 2018 to 1.9 percent, well below what’s generally considered a healthy rate for a city’s rental market of 3 percent. Vacancy rates are even lower for two- and three-bedroom apartments, noted Magontier. “In particular,” she said, “Montreal is facing a problem of a shortage of housing large enough for families.”
The city has become noticeably preoccupied with the gentrification of areas such as Mile End, Parc-Extension, and Saint-Henri which have become substantially less affordable in recent years. In the space of two weeks this fall, there were no fewer three panels on the topic of artists and their role in the gentrification of urban neighborhoods.
Rents in gentrifying areas rise much more quickly than the city average, with the largest increases occurring between tenants, forcing people who may have wanted to move to a different apartment within their own neighborhoods to go elsewhere.
In 2016, Luis-Gaylor Nobre helped launch an initiative to try and bring greater transparency to that process. The website he and his partners created, monloyer.quebec is a crowd-sourced effort that asks people to submit the rents they have paid along with the address and year.
Nobre, who is from France, faced the problem when he moved to Montreal 10 years ago of trying to figure out what apartments should cost in a new city full of unfamiliar neighborhoods. Later, living in a neighborhood in the midst of gentrification increased his interest in the issue of gentrification.
“Suddenly the [one bedroom] that you could rent for $650 [CAD] is $900, almost $1,000,” Nobre said. “This [increase] is hidden because basically I think it’s one borough at a time and some of that data is not easy to get.”
For now, monloyer.quebec has only a few thousand entries, too few to analyze for emerging trends. The provincial association of property owners (PORPIQ) has criticized the site as presenting unverified and unreliable data. However, the site’s co-organizers plan to increase their outreach efforts to collect more information in the coming months.
The city of Montreal unveiled a plan this spring of subsidies and tax rebates for home-buyers, with up to $15,000 (CAD) available to families.
Nobre hopes the city will also pursue more efforts to support renters. “Montreal is not in a terrible state but I think we really need now to think what we want for the future,” he said.
The idea, unsurprisingly, came from a place of hunger. Carter Rubin, a mobility and climate advocate at the National Resources Defense Council, was flying back to Los Angeles from an East Coast trip talking about urban transit when he started salivating over one of his hometown’s culinary staples: tacos.
So Rubin tweeted out a silly idea: He draw a very crude graph and asked people to place their cities on a grid based on the quality of their tacos and transit. (Los Angeles, for example, he rated as having excellent tacos and mediocre transit.)
“I know how passionate people are about transit and tacos,” said Rubin. “It just seemed fun to pick two completely unrelated metrics and start plotting where we all fell.”
Here at CityLab, we are on the record as supporting both tacos and transit, two of the great amenities of urban living. And while Rubin’s Twitter experiment got a lot of replies, we thought we could take the idea even farther. So we set up a simple survey and got more than 1,000 responses from readers rating their own cities’ tacos and transit on a scale from 1 to 10.
Here’s where America’s major cities landed.
This completely unscientific survey produces a few inescapable conclusions:
U.S. cities are generally good places for tacos
No major U.S. city rated worse than 5 out of 10 in tacos. Even lowest-rated Boston, which is on few lists of can’t-miss Mexican cuisine destinations, managed to scrape out an average rating slightly above 5. A surprising number of respondents—around 20 percent—gave their city an improbably high score of 10 out of 10.
Survey respondents largely limited their answers to U.S. cities, and Rubin speculated that an international version would fill up that left side of the chart with plenty of taco-poor European and Asian cities. (And—perhaps needless to say—towns and cities in Mexico itself should handily defeat all U.S. comers.)
Americans are much more ambivalent about their cities’ mass transit
Plenty of respondents rated their local transit system below-average, unsurprising given America’s rocky relationship with mass transit. The major city with the highest-rated transit system was Chicago, which scored around 8 out of 10. Overall, just 6 percent of respondents gave their city a 10 out of 10 on transit.
Californians and Texans really love their tacos
Houston, San Antonio, and Austin all received average taco scores above 9 out of 10. So did Los Angeles and San Diego. Not too far behind were cities like Dallas, Sacramento, and San Francisco. Both California and Texas have robust taco cultures, and their fans spoke up. A full 75 percent of Houstonites and nearly 60 percent of Los Angelenos rated their cities tacos a 10 out of 10.*
“I’ve definitely had good tacos in Houston,” said Rubin, from Los Angeles. “I’m willing to believe that that’s how Texans feel about their tacos.”
Chicago may be the best of both worlds
If you demand superior tacos and effective public transportation, your options in the U.S. are decidedly limited.Many of the cities with the highest-rated tacos got mediocre scores for their transit systems. Despite its much-ballyhooed bus system revamp and improving ridership, Houston’s transit system averaged 3.6 out of 10. San Antonio got a 3.1. Los Angeles, 5.5.
Meanwhile many of the best transit cities are burdened with unremarkable tacos: New York City scored a 6.8 for its tacos, as did Philadelphia, while Washington, D.C., got a 5.5.
The lone exception to this rule was Chicago, which paired a survey-best 8.1 rating for its transit system with a very solid 8.2 taco score—slightly better than San Francisco.
“My biggest takeaway is that the taco environment in Chicago is much stronger than I realized, and Chicagoans are very passionate about that fact,” Rubin said.
Chicagoans weren’t quite as passionate about their tacos as Angelenos or Houstonites, but one-third of respondents rated Chicago’s taco scene a 10 out of 10. They also are proud of the L, with about a quarter of Chicagoans giving their transit system a 10 and well over 80 percent rating it an 8 or higher.*
Some cities can’t agree
Most residents of San Diego largely agree their tacos are great, just as people from St. Louis overwhelmingly rate their transit system a subpar 4 out of 10. But other cities showed no such consensus in our survey. For example, is D.C.’s taco scene an 8 out of 10 or better, as 20 percent of respondents thought? Or does it rate 4 out of 10 or worse, as 37 percent claimed?*
Similarly, the about as many New Yorkers rated their tacos 10 out of 10 as rated them 4 out of 10.*
Metros like Boston, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Seattle all had pretty broad disagreement about the quality of their taco scenes.
What, if anything, does this exercise prove?
As Rubin admits, the relationship between these two metrics is flimsy, but perhaps not technically nonexistent. “A lot of the larger cities in the U.S. with good transit systems are also fairly diverse, international cities with good representation of people from Latin America,” Rubin said.
And perhaps there’s a broader lesson to be gleaned here. Good food is an essential element of urban life—and so is a good way to get to that food. Even if some cities don’t quite live up to urbanist hopes and dreams in their tacos or their public transit, the fact that so many residents think highly of their cities’ efforts on these critical fronts is a sign of hope.
Find out more
CityLab also received hundreds of responses from residents of smaller cities, from Akron, Ohio (two votes, averaging a 2.5 on tacos and 4.0 on transit) to Yakima, Washington (one vote, 7 out of 10 on tacos and 1 out of 10 on transit). To continue teasing out the nuances of the understudied relationship between taco and transit quality, we’re leaving our survey openand will check back in a few weeks to see if new votes warrant an update. If you have a strong take on your city’s tacos and transit, let us know.
In the meantime, here’s a chart of every single metro area to get votes, with some of the smaller cities highlighted:
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article had incorrect numbers for the distribution of votes in certain highlighted cities, which overstated the share of people giving high ratings.