Can Banning Privatization Keep Water Cheap, Safe, and Flowing?

Privatizing a city’s water system tends to produce a dual outcome: Pipes, once rusty, get sleek; rates get steep. When water went private in Bayonne, New Jersey, local ratepayers started paying an extra 28 percent for water; and in Middletown, Pennsylvania, privatization meant an 11.5 percent surcharge (and officials are suing the utility to stop it).

This November, amid fears that their city will meet the same fate, voters in Baltimore will decide on an initiative that would ban water privatization preemptively. They’d be the first major city to do it.

Aging pipes in Baltimore’s more than 100-year-old water and sewer systems require intensive maintenance help that leaks billions of dollars from the city. A consent decree served by the Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows by 2033 will cost the city another $1.6 billion.

“In Baltimore city we’re already at a crisis point with the affordability of water,” said Rianna Eckel, a Maryland organizer for Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Action. “Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of preventative and proactive maintenance done.”

For now, it’s Baltimore residents that are paying the price. In 2015, more than a third of the city was paying at least 3 percent of their household income to water bills, brushing against the United Nations’ suggested maximum threshold for water affordability. On July 1, 2018, another rate hike increased water and sewer rates by an average of 13.9 percent—and increases are projected to continue until 2023.

High water bills lead to unpaid water bills, which in Baltimore can put residents on the road to eviction. As CityLab previously reported, an old Maryland law meant that until last December, Baltimore residents who had outstanding water fines and failed to pay a tax lien could see their homes put up for tax sale. Since then, an executive order passed by Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh has ensured that water fines can’t be the single deciding factor in a tax sale—“a huge victory,” said Eckel, but it’s an impermanent one: The moratorium only applies on tax sales in 2018.

To improve public infrastructure in places like Baltimore—and, in the process, potentially reduce the inefficiencies that cause those mounting costs—the Trump administration has encouraged private companies to take the systems over. Research has shown that privately owned utility companies are more likely to make politically unpopular but critical investments, and that they comply better than public utilities do with federal regulations. But, critics of privatization say, they are less sensitive to the circumstances of low-income customers and don’t have an incentive to encourage water conservation.

Baltimore’s bill wasn’t responding to any one privatization offer in particular, says Lester Davis, a spokesperson for the city council president. But “the threat of water privatization is nothing new in Baltimore city,” Eckel said. Most recently, the private utility company Suez Environment has repeatedly approached Baltimore city council members and the mayor about leasing their water system, offering the city several potential contracts, including one that would bind the city to a 40 to 50-year lease. In return, the city would get much-needed modernizations of the system.

But advocates warn that the sweet deal they’re pitching also comes with a hidden cost. According to Food and Water Watch, a switch to a privately owned water company amounts to a 59 percent increase in water service costs, or $185 more per year, and an average water rate increase of 18 percent every other year.

Those rate hikes are necessary to offset the cost of investment cities have been putting off for years, says Rich Henning, a spokesperson for Suez Environment. “It’s difficult sometimes to put money in underground infrastructure because no one is going to see the improvement,” he said. Instead, they wait until it’s broken to fix it. But often, that’s too late.

“People say, ‘Oh my god, rates are going up because of them,’” Henning said, referring to a private company’s entrance into a municipality. “No, rates are going up because you’re investing in infrastructure… There’s going to need to be a day where you have to invest, because otherwise your system is going to fall apart.” Private companies charge what they charge to bring water systems up to code, he says, and to prepare the system for the future.

A tepid critique of the bill penned by the Baltimore Sun’s Editorial Board gets at the heart of this tension. Sure, pass the bill, they wrote—but that alone won’t solve Baltimore’s water crisis:

[W]hat we should not do is pretend that banning privatization actually solves anything. City rate payers are still being squeezed by the costs of infrastructure, billing is still haphazard, and conflict remains over this regional resource… Rather than worrying about a sale of the water system that nobody is advocating, Baltimore officials should use it as an entree into a broader conversation with the suburban counties over regional issues, from education to housing to public transportation.

But, says Davis, worrying about the sale now means they won’t have to worry later. If Baltimore voters pass the measure in November, they’ll be the first to have a ban written into their city charter, meaning it will be harder to undo. (Northampton, Massachusetts, passed an ordinance banning privatization in 2016.) “We wanted to close the door on this as far as it even being remotely possible,” said Davis. “The tax payers should not be subjected to the whims of the private sector.”

“Water is an essential element,” he continued. “If corners are cut or things are done wrong it can be a life or death situation.”

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CityLab Daily: Take a Trip to ‘Nostalgiaville’

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

The diner in Town Square. (Senior Helpers)

Soon, Glenner Centers plans to take the concept beyond the warehouse. Do fake towns like this betray how we’ve failed to build age-friendly cities in the first place? CityLab’s Amanda Kolson Hurley looks at what a fake town for dementia tells us about urban design.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

In Toronto, Ford Nation Strikes Back

Doug Ford, the brother of the late and disgraced former mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, has thrown a local election into chaos.

Chris Bateman

Hurricane Florence Threatens Property Ties in Carolina’s Lowcountry

Thousands of acres throughout the flooded Carolinas are heir’s property, a form of land ownership that leaves residents vulnerable to speculators.

Laura Bliss

What Worker Wouldn’t Move to Scandinavia in America?

Chasing an HQ2 is a dying model. As the nature of working changes, U.S. cities that provide workers with the support that companies once did, will prosper.

Lev Kushner

Mapping Skopje’s Modernism

An earthquake hit the city in July 1963, killing over 1,000 people and leaving 200,000 homeless. The inventive, vernacular-influenced designs behind the rebuild are worth celebrating.

Feargus O’Sullivan

Teacher Wages Are Lower Than Ever

It’s not just that paychecks are shrinking. It’s that the advantages teachers once had are reversing.

Sarah Holder



What We’re Reading

Hurricane Florence’s surge is expected to hit homes that already cost the government millions (ProPublica)

Vision Zero: Has the drive to eliminate traffic deaths lost its way? (The Guardian)

Why the trial of the Chicago officer who shot Laquan Mcdonald matters (New York Times)

Meet the twist-and-turning streetlamp of the future (Curbed)

How local government became the hottest trend in fashion (GQ)


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 hello@citylab.com.

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In Toronto, Ford Nation Strikes Back

It didn’t take long at all for newly-elected Ontario premier Doug Ford to plunge Canada’s largest city into a political and constitutional crisis.

Since winning a majority for the Progressive Conservative party just over three months ago, ousting the long-time incumbent Liberals, Ford has been squarely focused on practically just one thing: halving the size of Toronto’s city council.

That itself is not entirely surprising. Though he didn’t campaign on the issue, Ford believes in small government and, in a very, very small way, reducing the number of councillors from 47 to 25 could potentially save the City of Toronto a little bit of money.

The timing of Ford’s decision is what’s most problematic. Ford announced his plan to slash council after a 47-ward election had already begun. Candidates for mayor and city council had already put their name on the ballot and started campaigning. In an instant, Ford threw an election in Canada’s largest city into chaos.

For a brief moment it seemed as though cooler heads would prevail. His government’s Bill 5, named the “Better Local Government Act,” became law August 14, but it was struck down as unconstitutional by a judge September 10. Instead of backing down, Ford chose the nuclear option, invoking a controversial and seldom-used provision in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—the “notwithstanding” clause—that allows a government to temporarily circumvent some rights protected by the charter. That Ford would spend the early weeks of his fledgling premiership battling to reduce the size of one local government against the wishes of the city’s bureaucrats, political experts, and even the basic rights of its people says a lot about Ontario’s new right wing populist leader.

So how exactly did many in Toronto find themselves once again battling a member of the Ford family?

Doug Ford is the older brother of the late Toronto mayor, Rob Ford. When Rob became mayor in 2010, Doug was elected a city councillor in Rob’s old Etobicoke constituency in the suburban west end of Toronto.

Throughout his brother’s tempestuous mayoralty, which was dominated by the infamous crack cocaine scandal, Doug was Rob’s chief defender, but he also became ensnared in drug controversy himself.

In May 2013, the Globe and Mail published a story that detailed Doug Ford’s years as a hash dealer in the 1980s. Though he vigorously denied the allegations, calling the story “an outright lie,” he didn’t formally challenge the reporting.

As city councillor and mayor, the Ford brothers fought against what they saw as government waste and overspending. Their tenure was marked by widespread budget and service cuts, in addition to the cancellation of a major light rail network for the city. They had little regard for convention and caused numerous council meetings to descend into utter disarray.

When Rob was diagnosed with cancer in the lead-up to the 2014 election, Doug took his place on the ballot, but ultimately lost to incumbent mayor John Tory. Following the defeat, Doug returned to run the family business, Deco Labels, with his brother, who died in March 2016.

It would take three years for Doug Ford to mount his political comeback. In January, a window opened when PC leader Patrick Brown resigned in the wake of accusations by two women of sexual misconduct. In the resulting leadership contest, Ford narrowly and controversially beat lawyer and two-time PC leadership candidate Christine Elliott to victory. Ford rescinded much of Brown’s prepared election platform but did not publish one of his own. On the campaign trail, he pledged to reduce the cost of gasoline by 10 cents a liter, scrap a carbon cap-and-trade program introduced by the Liberals, privatize the legal sale of cannabis, and reduce the minimum price of a beer from $1.25 to $1.00. (By reducing the legal minimum price of a beer to $1, Ford expected to increase competition in the market and gee-up his supporters. Many brewers, however, say the price doesn’t make business sense.)

At no point did he discuss slashing the size of Toronto’s city council, which had just been set following an exhaustive review at 47 councillors, an increase of three from the previous election. The new wards—three downtown and one in the city’s north end (one ward was also removed)—were added to ensure the average ward population didn’t creep above 61,000 people.

Under the 25-seat model, the average Toronto city ward would have a population of more than 110,000 people—larger than the Ontario cities of Thunder Bay, Guelph, Kingston, and Waterloo, which have between 7 and 12 councillors in their local governments. Toronto, which has a population of 2.4 million people, has only one level of municipal government. Under Ford’s plan, a single person would be responsible for representing the interests and addressing the day-to-day concerns of the population of a mid-size city.

In his decision to overturn the Ford government’s original bill last Monday, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba cited the potential lack of effective political representation in Toronto. “If there was a concern about the large size of some of the city’s wards,” he wrote, “why impose a solution (increasing all ward sizes to 111,000) that is far worse, in terms of achieving effective representation, than the original problem? And, again, why do so in the middle of the city’s election? Crickets.”

Belobaba also found Bill 5 “undermine[d] an otherwise fair election and substantially interfere[d] with the candidates’ freedom of expression.”

At this point, Ford could have taken a step back and waited for the next election in 2022. Instead, he invoked the “notwithstanding” clause and suspended the people of Toronto’s charter right to freedom of expression in municipal elections. Until last week, the clause had never been used in Ontario and it had only been used a handful of times since the charter was introduced in 1982.

Ford’s decision drew widespread condemnation from former prime ministers, both Liberal and Conservative, former Ontario premiers, big city mayors nationwide, even Amnesty International. Yet still his government continues to push the bill through because a 25-ward council would likely lean conservative. Ford has expressed a desire to weigh in on the development of Toronto’s waterfront and transportation issues, like construction of the controversial subway to Scarborough and the rebuilding of a section of elevated expressway.

During the first reading of the new “notwithstanding” version of the bill, several people, including an elderly woman, were hauled from the public gallery of the Ontario legislature for protesting. Almost all of the opposition MPPs from the New Democratic Party were removed from the floor by the Sergeant-at-Arms for banging on their desks and yelling “No!” in an effort to delay proceedings.

The legislature briefly sat on Saturday and convened again at midnight last night to hold a vote on the bill. “We are proving that we are here for the people, that we will do whatever it takes to get the job done,” Ford said in the small hours of this morning. “Tonight we stood up against the people who said this couldn’t be done.”

Amid all of this, Toronto is still—supposedly—holding a 47-ward election. Nominations have closed and the city clerk is working to make sure people can vote on October 22. However, should Ford get his notwithstanding version of the bill passed Thursday, the shape of the election could would change in an instant. Toronto city clerk Ulli Watkiss, whose job it is to administer the election, has already warned a free and fair vote of any kind is now in jeopardy and has retained her own legal counsel. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already suggested his government will not use its powers to invalidate Ford’s bill when it passes.

From here on out, Toronto, Ontario, and Canada are in uncharted territory.

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Mapping Skopje’s Modernism

Skopje, one of Europe’s lesser known capitals, is an unlikely battleground for an internationally debated architectural clash. In recent years, the capital of what is still (but may not for long be) called the Republic of Macedonia has developed some notoriety as the location of a new set of extremely bombastic, neo-historicist buildings and monuments that supposedly pay tribute to a hazy and heavily contested regional past. As a new publication points out, however, this steroidal historicism is only part of the city’s architectural story.

A new map guide from Blue Crow Media, Modernist Skopje, highlights the city’s avant-garde architecture from the 1960s and ‘70s—buildings that were mostly born in tragedy. In July 1963, an earthquake hit the city, killing over 1,000 people and leaving 200,000 homeless. The shock destroyed 80 percent of the city’s buildings, leveling many neighborhoods. The knot of old lanes at Skopje’s heart was one of the few to survive.

Orce Nikolov Secondary School, designed by Nikola Bogachev and Aleksandar Smilevski. Vase Amanito for Blue Crow Media.

Bucking the usual narratives about the Cold War period, the international response to this disaster was surprisingly swift and bipartisan. It brought together countries from both of the world’s two major power blocs: first to clear up and provide emergency shelter, and then to rebuild the city.

The earthquake was taken as an opportunity to bring the city back to life and replace its destroyed structures with a better way of organizing urban life. Following a master plan by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, an international team worked to create a modern city that functioned well and overcame the divisions inherent in Skopje’s historic layout. As Owen Hatherley notes, a major, only partly realized part of this was an attempt to create a more integrated relationship between the left and right banks of the river Vardar, which had historically separated Skopje’s Muslim and Christian communities.

The Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts, designed by Boris Chipan. (Vase Amanito/Blue Crow Media)

The resulting buildings that stem from this master plan remain divisive. Many of the major edifices will never win over anyone who is convinced concrete is an abomination, but the best of them challenge many assumptions about Modernist architecture.

Rather than being boxy and lumpen, landmark buildings such as the Orce Nikolov Secondary School (designed by Nikolai Bogachev and Alexandar Smilevski) are in fact delicate and intricate in their silhouette, with its triple tier of lancet windows and shady arcade. And while Modernist buildings are frequently accused of looking like they could have been built anywhere, there’s a clear vernacular influence to Boris Chipan’s Macedonian Academy of Sciences, whose ribbed roof, overhanging eaves, and canopied, veranda-like façade show clear echoes of traditional houses in the region.

Skopje’s Archaeological museum, built as pat of the Skopje 2014 reconstruction project. (Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters)

Contrast this to the new buildings put up as part of the astronomically expensive Skopje 2014 project. Intended to create a grander face for the city’s center, the glossy and self-consciously butch results aspire to recreate a fantastical vision of the country’s past. But their architectural vocabulary in fact bears little resemblance to anything already built in the republic.

These new buildings seem less inspired by architecture than set design, an aspiration underlined by the government’s yen for recladding many modernist survivals with neoclassical details so that they look like housing projects dressed up as Mussolini-era stations for Halloween. Understandably, this doesn’t sit well with the designers behind Skopje’s 20th-century rebuild—a period that should be remembered for its inventive, vernacular-influenced designs. As architect Slavko Brezoski told the publication Balkan Insight just months before his death in 2017: “It hurts when I see how the life’s work of many architects of my generation has disappeared under a Styrofoam tent.”

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What Worker Wouldn’t Move to Scandinavia in America?

At some point in the next year or so, a city is going to be announced as the winner of the Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes. That city will pay a steep price for that victory, and, whatever its contributions are, they will be substantial, they will be hard to track down, and the costs will be spread over decades. But worst of all, that victorious city will be spending money chasing an economic development strategy that is outdated at birth. The winner will, in effect, be the toast of America circa 1995.

Chasing corporate headquarters and throwing money at them, reflects a great-man theory of economic development that reflects deep civic insecurity: only a corporation can save a city from its struggles. But corporations aren’t the civic heavyweights they used to be. For starters, employee loyalty has plummeted. The percentage of workers engaged in “alternative work arrangements” (freelancers, contractors, on-call workers and temp agency workers) grew from 10 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2015. And job growth in that sector far outpaces growth in salaried jobs. Tech companies are leading the charge: For example, about half of Google’s employees aren’t salaried.

Cities should reprogram the incentive money and use it to position themselves as safe havens for the new freelancer. They should hunt for the workers themselves.

This period of change, when workers are being decoupled from their traditional employers, is a huge opportunity for cities. They should look to fill the vacuum created by receding corporations.

Some locales are trying innovative ways: The State of Vermont just announced that it will be offering $5,000 per year for two years to any worker who moves to Vermont and works from home as long as their employer is out-of-state. It’s a fantastic idea to reduce the barriers to entry for people who might be willing but hesitant to give living in beautiful but remote Vermont a try. But, while the direct subsidy makes sound economic sense, it falls short of forging a relationship with workers because it doesn’t address their day-to-day needs. To make that connection, cities have to put themselves in the shoes of freelancers and understand their most pressing problems. Being a contract worker offers freedom and control, but at what cost? They’re flying without a net.

A robust unemployment insurance to fortify existing plans would create a very attractive safety net, attracting workers, incentivizing entrepreneurship and risk, and encouraging freelancers to put down roots, which has the added benefit of stabilizing your community. Or look at healthcare. If a city is willing to offer $5 billion over ten years in subsidies to land the Amazon HQ2, how far could that money go towards subsidized healthcare for freelancers? Pretty far. San Francisco’s Universal Health Care costs the city $236 per member per month. Using that figure as a rough guide, that would allow a city to reprogram the $5 billion Amazon subsidy to cover more than 175,000 people per year for those ten years.  

Or think of family life. Freelancing quickly becomes financially and psychologically taxing once familial responsibilities materialize. By reducing some of these burdens, and being early to the gate to do so, cities could position themselves as forward-looking and welcoming to this changing workforce. Families are increasingly abandoning major cities, but, if a city offered families with children under a certain age a childcare subsidy, similar to what Swedish families receive, more families might come, and better yet stay. And to make a more equitable city, it could be adjusted higher for lower-income families.

Redirecting huge corporate subsidies to a workforce-focused economic development strategy has five benefits: First, it mitigates the risk of becoming a one-company town that loses its one company. Second, by pursuing the talent and not the company itself, your city is stocking up on what the companies themselves pursue. Why chase one company when you can make them all come to you by supplying cheaper, subsidized talent? Sure, Amazon brings its elite workforce with it, but why pay the middleman? Third, in paying the subsidy directly to residents, your city sets up a public benefits program that improves social equity.

But it’s the last two reasons that are most important, since they combine to tell a compelling and unique story about a city and cement a relationship between place and people. Redirecting corporate subsidies to residents is a bold values statement that underpins a city’s reputation as confident and forward-thinking. And finally, these approaches align city government with its residents and strive to make them feel supported by their hometown, a result that engenders loyalty, not to a corporate employer that may come and go with a varying economy, but to the city itself.

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Why a ‘Memory Town’ Is Coming to Your Local Strip Mall

On August 13, a brand-new town in Southern California welcomed its first residents. They trickled through the doors of a generic beige warehouse on a light-industrial stretch of Main Street in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb. Then they emerged in Town Square®—a 9,000-square-foot working replica of a 1950s downtown, built and operated by the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Centers. Unlike the businesses around it hawking restaurant supplies and tires, Town Square trades in an intangible good: memories.

The imitation town (which I wrote about previously in The Atlantic) is the biggest U.S. investment so far in what eldercare specialists call reminiscence therapy. In reminiscence therapy, caregivers encourage people with dementia and age-related cognitive impairments to talk about past events and their own life experiences, often aided by old photos, music, and other prompts that stimulate memories. Studies have shown that reminiscence therapy has positive effects on the mood, cognition, and communication level of dementia patients.

Our strongest, most enduring memories tend to be the those formed in adolescence and early adulthood, from roughly the ages of 10 to 30. Reminiscence therapy targets this age range, and for those Silent Generation members now in their 70s and 80s, that means the 1950s. (A person who is 80 in 2018 would have been 12 in 1950.) So the design of Town Square is intended to evoke the years between 1953 and 1961. It’s decked out with touches like a rotary phones, a 1959 Ford Thunderbird, a classic jukebox, portraits of period Hollywood stars, and vintage books and magazines. As the years go by, these will be replaced by more recent, period-appropriate prompts.

The city hall at Town Square, facing an astroturf park, is a replica of San Diego’s 1938 county-administration building. It was constructed by the San Diego Opera’s scenery studio. A newsstand with 1950s-era newspapers is seen on the right. (Senior Helpers)

The faux town has 14 different storefronts, including a diner, a movie theater, a pet store, a park-like square, and even a city hall (modeled on San Diego’s real county-administration building). Participants—the term that Glenner staff members prefer to the medicalized “patients”—rotate around with an aide in small groups, usually visiting five or six storefronts in a day and doing tailored activities in each one. Most of them have early-to-moderate-stage Alzheimer’s disease, and they’re assessed in advance to determine whether they’re likely to benefit from the experience.

“Every storefront lends itself to reminiscing” at Town Square, said Scott Tarde, CEO of the Glenner Centers. “In the library, they’ll do everything from puzzles to having storytellers come in. In the pet store, animal therapy.” There’s also a sports pub, where Tarde has spotted some octogenarian pool sharks. (“They can absolutely still shoot pool,” he said.)

One month in, Town Square has about 40 frequent inhabitants. (Its population is capped at 75 by the fire code.) “The interest level has been extremely high,” Tarde said—and already, satellite cities are in the works.

Glenner has partnered with the home health-care giant Senior Helpers, which employs some 25,000 caregivers around the U.S., to build Town Squares around the country. Version 2.0 is under construction near Baltimore, in a former Rite Aid in White Marsh, Maryland. Seniors Helpers will own and run that facility, expected to open in early 2019. But franchise sales are under way, and Peter Ross, the company’s CEO, is bullish.

“We’d like to get between 10 and 20 sold the first year,” he said. “We think it’s going to go very well. The sky’s the limit.” The third Town Square (that is, the first franchised location) is likely to be in the Chicago area, according to Ross. Each location will cost $1 million or $1.5 million to build, Ross estimates.

A major difference between the original Town Square and the Maryland one is the setting. Whereas the Chula Vista warehouse is in a light-industrial area, between a tire store and a metal recycling yard, the White Marsh outpost is in a conventional suburban shopping strip.

“We always thought we’d be stuck doing these light-industrial, big warehouse buildings,” Ross said, but “we’re now finding places we thought we could never touch. … We’re in what I would consider a suburbia kind of area, that has its own building with its own signage on a major road.”

The high land prices in Southern California influenced the choice of the Chula Vista location. But as Ross notes, the commercial real-estate market has weak spots. “There are a lot of these 10,000-square-foot facilities that are empty,” Ross said. He expects many of the franchises to open up in places like White Marsh.

If Ross’s confidence is well-founded, dozens of faux “memory towns” will sprout around the U.S. in coming years. Amid a retail meltdown, the malls where teenagers used to hit up American Eagle and Orange Julius could morph into escapist domains for the elderly. It’s not what advocates of retrofitting the suburbs may have had in mind, but it’s a logical outcome of the graying of America, and of suburbia in particular.

The share of the U.S. population that is 65 or older has risen from 12.4 percent in 2000 to 15.2 percent in 2016, and is expected to hit 20 percent by 2030. Suburbia is shaping up to be ground zero for the uptick of the median age: The 65-and-older population in the suburbs has increased 39 percent since 2000. And it’s likely to keep growing. According to the AARP, most Baby Boomers say they want to “age in place.”

You can already see this this demographic shift in the spread of dialysis centers across the landscape. Today, some 468,000 Americans are on dialysis for kidney failure, a nearly 47-fold increase over four decades. As patient numbers have risen, treatment has moved out of hospitals and into office parks and shopping centers. The two biggest U.S. dialysis providers now “operate about 3,900 locations nationwide—roughly the same number of Target, Best Buy, and Publix Super Market stores combined,” according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

Similarly, adult day-care centers have boomed. As of 2014, there were 4,800 nationwide, with about 282,200 participants. The service that Glenner provides at Town Square—and that its franchisees will offer—is a form of adult day care, but in an unusually elaborate, cheerful, and spacious setting. Part of the sales pitch is that family members of people with dementia can feel good about leaving their loved ones for the day to give themselves a needed respite. (Not surprisingly, the extra reassurance comes at a premium; Town Square costs $95 a day, while the average rate for adult day-care centers is $61.)  

The Glenner Thunderbird is parked next to an old-fashioned filling station and across from a boutique where participants can try on clothes. (Senior Helpers)

Reminiscence therapy has been tried in older people who don’t have dementia, with some evidence of mood improvement, and Ross hopes to bring it to a larger market through Town Square. “Any senior who is looking for an interactive program to make their day” might visit one of the future faux towns, he wrote in an email. “They could be dealing with other chronic illnesses as well as just wanting to engage with others during their day. We believe a lot of seniors in their late 70s and 80s will see value in participating in Town Square.”

Ross likened Town Square to Disneyland, a more revealing comparison than it may at first seem. Disneyland, too, is an artificial environment steeped in nostalgia that many people dismiss as cheesy. But it is also a place where Americans can leave their cars behind for a while and explore a traditional “town” on foot (or by wheelchair). In his famous essay “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” published in 1965, architect Charles Moore described Disneyland as a private version of the urban public realm that the country was losing, and that it clearly missed:

The assumption inevitably made by people who have not yet been there—that it is some sort of physical extension of Mickey Mouse—is wildly inaccurate. Instead, singlehanded, it is engaged in replacing many of those elements of the public realm which have vanished in the featureless private floating world of southern California … Curiously, for a public place, Disneyland is not free. You buy tickets at the gate. But then, Versailles cost someone a great deal of money, too.

The onward march of private or semi-public “nostalgiavilles” (retiree-only communities such as the Villages, Florida, are similarly engineered to evoke vanished small-town life) raises the question: Do people respond to these places simply because they remind them of their youth, or does their form matter, too? After all, millions of Boomers grew up in postwar sprawl, but Town Square isn’t designed to mimic that.

Instead, as Tarde noted, it “really replicates [a] kind of urban experience. You’re going to a movie theater, going to a library, a department store. Engaging in these activities that may not be accessible to these individuals any longer. But they are in Town Square, and it’s safe.” In other words, the principle behind Town Square is the dense concentration of different services, as in a city (although adapted for a vulnerable population).

Visitors look down Disneyland’s 1890s-style Main Street from the railroad-station platform in 1955, the year the theme park opened in Anaheim, California. (Ellis R. Bosworth/AP)

It’s a sad commentary on our real, full-scale communities that they are so anti-urban by comparison, and so unsafe for the old and frail. Most of the elderly participants strolling these franchised memory lanes will have to be driven to the suburban shopping centers that host them. The recipe for age-friendly cities is not that difficult: walkability, accessibility, plenty of outdoor space, good transit, opportunities for social connection. We shouldn’t have to dodge traffic on an eight-lane road just to get to a simulacrum of an inclusive urban place. The problem is not too much Disneyland thinking—it’s not enough.  

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Hurricane Florence Threatens Property Ties in Carolina’s Lowcountry

On Monday, Sheldon Scott flew from his home in Washington, D.C., to Pawleys Island, South Carolina, where his mother and sister live. He was on an evacuation mission: With Hurricane Florence bearing in, he needed to get his family members to safety.

The decision to leave the island was not easy. “It’s the only home my mom has ever known,” Scott, an artist and performer, said by phone from D.C., where his family is now, too.

Pawleys Island is a narrow, 4-mile long barrier island south of Myrtle Beach, connected to the mainland by a pair of causeways. The land Scott’s mother lives on was part of the rice plantation where their family members were enslaved more than 150 years ago, he said. Her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother all lived on the island—and generations before that, too. That’s the story of the Gullah/Geechee nation, an estimated 200,000 people living on the barrier islands of the Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coast. They carry on a distinct culture rooted in West Africa, where many of their ancestors were enslaved by British traders in the colonial era.

The low-lying islands are frequent targets for hurricanes and tropical storms, but historically, the Gullah/Geechee people have resisted evacuating their land, due to deep ties, a respect for tradition, and economic limitations. Many have stayed in the face of Florence, too. “We are people of faith and that is the reason that people do not just leave,” Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine, the elected Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, told CityLab via email. “Our souls are tied from the land.”

But as climate change brings more dangerous hurricanes and rising seas, and as the Gullah/Geechee network expands with younger generations living away from home, that connection may be fraying. Many neighbors in the small village where he grew up did leave this time, according to Scott. And they did so with the understanding that their ancestral homes face a double threat—the hurricane itself, and also a vortex of laws that imperil residents’ property rights.

If Scott’s mother’s home is damaged or destroyed, she could face huge barriers to rebuilding or receiving FEMA relief. Worse, a speculator could buy up the land from beneath her. That’s because the land is classified as “heir’s property,” a legal condition that leaves it particularly vulnerable, especially in a disaster. “It’s a constant conversation, but it becomes more sensitive and heightened during times like these,” Scott said.

Like many Gullah/Geechee people, Scott’s mother does not have a clear-cut deed for the land where she lives. Though she owns the trailer on it, pays property taxes and utility fees, and has demonstrably deep connections to the land, the property has never been probated in a will that specifies the exact owner. So her interest in the land is subdivided between a large number of family members who descended from the original holder, centuries ago.

This form of land ownership, called heir’s property, became prevalent through the South after the end of the Civil War, when African Americans freed from slavery bought or were deeded property. Though a comprehensive survey has never been done, one academic study from 2001 estimated that 41 percent of African American-owned land across the Southeast could be classified this way. According to a survey by the Center for Heir’s Property Preservation, a legal aid nonprofit, more than 108,000 acres between 15 counties in the South Carolina Lowcountry—home to many low-income black communities now threatened by Hurricane Florence—are likely heir’s property. “And we know that is an underreported number,” said Jennie L. Stephens, the organization’s executive director.

At any given moment, heir’s property is an unstable form of property for a number of reasons, said John Pollock, the founder and coordinator of the Heirs’ Property Retention Coalition, an Alabama-based nonprofit devoted to protecting the rights of ancestral low-income landowners. For example, when one heir’s property owner wants to build or rebuild on the land—or get a home loan or mortgage—every other heir has to agree. “All of those owners have certain rights to property,” said Pollock.

It can be an incredibly difficult to get consensus, especially when all parties might not even be in touch. Without the ability to finance their home, heir’s property owners can often wind up land-rich, but cash-poor. Many of the beautiful barrier islands in the Carolinas and Georgia where the Gullah/Geechee live have come under immense pressure from real estate and hotel developers in recent years; they’re home to golf courses, waterfront resorts, and vacation homes. Some heirs who don’t live on the island may be more interested in cashing out on their connections to this valuable property, selling the land rather than building it up themselves, Pollock explained.

More concerning, selling the land can be fairly easy to do. Any heir has the right to go to court and “partition” the property, or divvy it up into parcels, but without the consent of other heirs. In practice, courts will often simply partition the property by selling it at auction, divvying up the proceeds, even if most of the heirs oppose it, according to a 2018 case study of heir’s property issues by the legal scholar Gabriel Kuris.

Unscrupulous speculators are another threat. Outside buyers who’ve identified an undervalued heir’s property can prey on unwitting heirs, buying up one of their interests at a low price, obtaining a partition sale in court, and then purchasing the entire property for themselves—since, often, the original heirs do not have the capital to afford it themselves. Developers have been doing this to Gullah/Geechee beachfront since the 1970s, and it’s a pattern throughout the South, where African American property owners have lost millions of acres over the past century.

“All the owners, including the ones who’ve been living there for decades, get forced off,” said Pollock. “It’s a dramatic and draconian situation.”

So far, 10 states, including South Carolina and Georgia, have passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, a law partly crafted by Pollock’s group that slows down the process and makes these types of sales harder for developers to achieve. But that protection does not exist in North Carolina, where heir’s property is also extensive, and where Hurricane Florence is now claiming lives and causing catastrophic flooding. One real estate data company estimated the storm’s worst-case scenario could cost $170 billion in damage.

In the midst of a natural disaster, these dynamics can leave heir’s properties uniquely threatened. When an owner goes to apply for disaster relief for her damaged home, but discovers her name isn’t on the deed, she will likely struggle to meet deadlines for state and federal assistance. Approximately 20,000 heir’s property owners were denied FEMA or HUD assistance following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, because they weren’t able to show clear titles to their property, according to a 2017 study by the USDA.

It is possible for heir’s property owners to gain control over their land, but it requires legal action—and that demands financial resources that many heir’s property owners do not have. Stephens’ organization, the Center for Heir’s Property Preservation, extends pro-bono legal assistance to families who must go to court to prove ownership. It generally takes a minimum of six months, and sometimes several years, to get everything in order—perform title searches, find heirs, pay for a land survey. “Usually FEMA has a window in which you can apply for relief funds,” Stephens said. “You can’t resolve heir’s property in a matter of weeks. So what does that do for a family who can’t access those funds?”

In the coming weeks, Stephens expects an uptick in requests for help from heir’s property owners affected by Hurricane Florence. On Monday, when her team returns to the office, they’ll be blasting out notices about their services on social media.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina shone a light on how many heir’s properties there are in the Southeast. Nearly 25,000 residents in New Orleans lacked a clear title to their home, according to a 2012 report by the Appleseed, a network of public interest legal service centers in the U.S. and Mexico. Because it was so challenging for these largely low-income owners to qualify for FEMA and long-term recovery aid for storm repairs, many of them stopped paying taxes on their homes, and then lost them at public auction—another way that heir’s properties wind up slipping out of the hands of occupants. “It’s common to see a cascade of issues for low-income disaster victims,” said Laura Kuggle, the executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. “Everyone gets impacted by flooding, but not equally.”

Hurricane Katrina awakened legal reformers to the extent of heir’s property issues through the Gulf Coast and up through the Southeast. As a result, FEMA is no longer quite as strict about the type of documentation owner-occupants must show to prove their right to the land. Several states have relaxed their disaster relief qualifications, too. Once state and federal relief funding packages are released for Florence, Pollock said, heir’s property owners will have a better sense of where they stand.

And in a few states, thanks to the Uniform Partition act, it has become harder for unscrupulous speculators to buy out family members and flip their land. “There’s been a lot of legal reform work to reduce that kind of abuse,” said Heather Way, a law professor and the director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the University of Texas. Way pointed out that heir’s property issues also affect historically black neighborhoods in Philadelphia, the colonias of the Texas border, and many other predominantly low-income, minority communities nationwide.

But recent reforms designed to protect these property owners have not completely eliminated the risks. Pollock said he would not be surprised to see speculators grabbing up storm-wracked heir’s properties along the prime Carolina coast in the wake of Florence, if they manage to acquire interests in it.

And heir’s property owners affected by Florence may face a long and difficult road ahead; 13 years after Katrina, Kuggle said, her clinic still gets new cases related to the storm.

Scott described the potential loss of his family’s land on Pawleys Island as a distinction between a house and a home. “Most people evacuate with some assurance that, even if the house is gone, the home would still be accessible,” he said. For his family, Florence’s damage could be worse than that. Their ancestral land—their home for generations—could be gone, too.

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Photographing America’s Toxic Wastelands

There are currently 40,000 EPA-monitored toxic waste sites that blot the landscape across the United States. Nearly 900 are regulated under its “Superfund” program, which aims to clean contaminated sites.

That’s the subject of a Waste Land, a new book that comes out September 25th. In the late 1980s, photographer David Hanson traveled to 67 of these Superfund sites to capture the deep scars they have placed on the landscape. The resulting exhibit showed some of the more dramatic examples.

Bridgeport Rental & Oil Services, Bridgeport, New Jersey, 1986 (David Hanson)

The book, however, is the first time Hanson’s entire set of photos is being published in one place. “When all 67 of the Superfund sites in my Waste Land series are seen together, they begin to have a cumulative effect,” Hanson writes in an email to CityLab.

Atlas Asbestos Mine, Fresno County, California, 1985

Another reason Hanson thinks it’s important to publish the full set now—30 years after he first took the photos—is that not much has changed.

The EPA claims a few success stories through the Superfund program, like in California Gulch, where a recreation area and park sit where mining waste once destroyed the landscape.

California Gulch, Leadville, Colorado, 1986

But Hanson claims that most Superfund sites are too contaminated to ever be completely clean. The requisite technology doesn’t exist. But even if it does, he notes, it would be too expensive for government officials to use.

The photographer mentions Rocky Flats Park as an example. Health officials insist that plutonium levels in the park are safe, but others aren’t convinced.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will cut the ribbon on the Rocky Flats Park and Wildlife Refuge this month. Twenty miles northwest of Denver, the refuge sits on land that once housed a Cold War-era plutonium trigger plant. A group of activists wants to keep the park shut, saying that visitors will kick up plutonium-contaminated dust that could raise cancer risks for the entire region. A lawsuit filed by activists claims that EPA officials skipped a key study on plutonium exposure. Meanwhile, crews in Idaho responsible for cleaning a nuclear waste site just resumed work after radioactive sludge oozing started oozing out of a ruptured drum. Years ago, that drum arrived from Rocky Flats Park.

Smuggler Mountain, Aspen, Colorado, 1986

This mistrust with government officials over the safety of nuclear sites dates back years. One of Hanson’s goals is to point that out through his work.

Each page of the book contains a triptych with an aerial photograph, the EPA’s description of the site, and a map that shows the site’s exact location and proximity to humans.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Adams County, Colorado, 1986

The idea, Hanson says, is to “illustrate the bureaucratic nature of hazardous waste regulation and reveal some of the elaborate legal strategies that corporations and individuals have used to avoid responsibility for the contamination and the cleanup.”

Northwest 58th Street Landfill, Hialeah, Florida, 1986

The photographer thinks Superfund sites aren’t going anywhere. With a half life of 250,000 years, Plutonium could be mankind’s most permanent legacy.  Says Hanson, “These poisoned landscapes are tragic monuments to our carelessness, greed, and deceit.”

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