A Lesson from Social Distancing: Build Better Balconies

From my living room on the fourth floor, I can see treetops swaying in the springtime breeze, and I can feel the warmth of the sunlight spilling onto my lap. The great outdoors and its surreal calmness (as if there isn’t a novel virus wreaking havoc across the globe) are right on the other side of my window, and yet in the age of social distancing, the obstacles to get there seem immense.

For those of us in apartment buildings, every leg of the journey, from the apartment front door to the outside world, could increase our chances of catching the virus. The narrow hallways and small elevators could put us too close to our neighbors and their germs; door handles and buttons carry yet more risk.

If only I had one of those, I mutter as I look over to my neighbors’ balconies. I daydream about sunbathing on the lawn chair one neighbor’s got set up, or eating lunch at their bistro table, surrounded by a tiny but lush garden. Maybe I’d hang a hammock from the railing like I saw someone do the other day on an errand run. On my darkest days, I even delight in an uninviting weather forecast that could prevent the use of those balconies. Misery loves company, they say.

It’s admittedly a trivial desire relative to the gravity of the pandemic and the economic consequences, especially for those who don’t have a home at all. But it’s one that’s shared by many other cooped-up city dwellers. On social media, those who live in dimly lit spaces vow never again to settle for an apartment without a balcony. And many people sheltering with at least one other person are getting more desperate for an escape from the rising tensions indoors.

Such yearning reflects the value and limited amount of private outdoor space — be it a patio, small yard, or even a fire escape built into multi-family housing in dense cities, where any kind of personal space is a precious commodity.

“There are a lot of benefits to balconies from the perspective of livability, lovability, mental health, and the enjoyment of living in urban settings — even before the pandemic,” says Vancouver-based city-planning consultant Brent Toderian. For one thing, “they connect homes in higher-density cities to the streets and to the outdoors.”

As people are weeks into their city and state stay-at-home orders, that advantage has become apparent now more than ever. Balconies symbolize new kinds of freedom — to embrace social isolation without feeling trapped, and to enjoy fresh air without worrying about breathing in the virus.

Globally, billions of people are under lockdown, including 95% of the U.S. population as of early April. They’re staying indoors for days, even weeks, at a time — and many are doing so alone. Most shelter-in-place orders still allow people to engage in solo outdoor activities like walks and runs, and that exposure is sorely needed as health experts predict that prolonged social isolation could take a toll on mental health. But leaving home is now a double-edged sword.

“Going outside is our only escape. But now that’s scary, too,” reads the headline of a recent Washington Post article. As governments opt to close parks and trails, people are cramming into narrow sidewalks within their neighborhoods. Some cities have closed streets to most cars to allow pedestrians and cyclists to spread out, but it can still be a challenge adhering to social distancing guidelines.

That means the once-casual activity of leaving your house now involves both physical preparation (Masks, check! Hand sanitizer, check!) and careful calculations (How wide is six feet, again?). Even then, you may go home anxiously wondering for days if the jogger who exhaled just a little too close to you may have gotten you sick. (Covid-19 symptoms can take up to 14 days to develop.)

But balconies are relatively scarce in many of the densest urban areas. Across the top 15 most populated metro areas, only 62% of renters have access to a “balcony, patio, deck, or a porch,” according to the 2017 American Housing Survey. In San Francisco, two-thirds of renters have such access, but those who spend more than half of their income on monthly rent make up just 20% of that group. And in New York City, those amenities are accessible to only a third of all renters — half of whom pay at least $1,500 in monthly rent.

Even then, not all balconies are big enough to actually be functional, Toderian argues. He says developers generally build them in three sizes. On the smaller end are Juliet “faux” balconies that are common in European cities but also found in U.S. apartments. They sit in front of windows, and are just big enough for one person to stand (perhaps looking for their own Romeo). On the other end are full-sized balconies that run roughly six feet deep and can comfortably fit tables and chairs, and maybe even a grill.

You can’t do much on these Juliet balconies. But you can talk to passersby on the street, as these apartment-dwellers are doing during lockdown in Madrid, Spain. (Paul Hanna/Bloomberg)

“And then there are the balconies in between that have space, but they almost seem for show,” he says. “They don’t have enough depth to put out a reasonable chair and sit on without putting your feet up on the railing.” In fact, these are not uncommon in Washington, D.C., where I live. A 2013 Washington Post article detailing the conundrum of decorating undersized balconies referred to them as a “D.C. real estate charm,” on which “nothing fits … not even the dreams you had for it.”

People make use of oddly sized balconies during lockdown in Paris. (Mehdi Taamallah/NurPhoto via Getty Image)

Small, impractical balconies are often the result of restrictive zoning laws, according to Toderian. In some cases, cities set maximum size limits for private outdoor spaces in multi-unit buildings. More commonly, cities don’t impose limits but have zoning laws that discourage developers from building bigger balconies. “Many cities have a maximum amount of space that developers can essentially get ‘for free’ for balconies,” he says. These laws allocate some amount of space that developers can use without being charged per square foot, or that doesn’t count toward the site’s maximum density, if there is one. Theoretically, this allows developers to build more useable balconies. The problem is, that free space can be quite small, which means there’s a trade-off for making a balcony any bigger than that.

“If you build bigger balconies, it means you would have to build less internal space, and almost no developer would be willing to make that trade,” says Toderian. “Hence you get small balconies.” Or none at all.

Some developers may offer, instead, common outdoor spaces that are larger and designed as gathering places for all building residents, like access to rooftops, terraces or courtyards. According to the National Apartment Associations, these are among the top amenity offerings that property owners added or upgraded over the past few years in a survey of several U.S. cities.

As Vancouver’s former chief planner, Toderian helped tweaked the city’s bylaws to incentivize bigger balconies when they could also serve other goals. Under the reformed rules, developers could expand the amount of exempted balcony space if they could show that their design improved three characteristics: the home’s livability, the building’s architectural interest, and the property’s green performance. On that last point, balconies can help lower energy use by providing “passive shade” that can naturally cool down homes. The result, he says, was better development proposals: “You didn’t have to hire a starchitect; you just needed to put some thought into it.”

As urban planners ponder how to adapt cities to the post-pandemic future, including reshaping streets and making them more resilient to disasters, there’s room for a discussion on improving building designs to make cities more livable.

“The two most obvious things that this pandemic has revealed in the little details of city living are sidewalk widths and balcony depth,” Toderian says.

Whereas cities and developers might have once only seen balconies as an amenity to raise market value, the pandemic has shown that they serve greater purposes.

Especially in neighborhoods where street-facing balconies are common, they’ve also become platforms for community resilience and social connection. As in many cities across the globe, some Vancouver residents engage in nightly cheering for health care workers from their balconies. Neighbors also sing and dance together, and entertain each other through makeshift art galleries, impromptu performances, and even workout sessions (which are especially beneficial for older adults). Even several stories into the air or across wide avenues once filled with cars, they can build connections with their neighbors from the safety of their own home. In Naples, Italy, they’ve brought back the old tradition of lowering “solidarity baskets” filled with food from their balcony to help feed fellow the homeless.

In heavily polluted cities, some balconies are also becoming pleasant living spaces for the first time, thanks to drops in air pollution in part from plummeting car traffic. India-based photographer and writer Shrikkanth Govindarajan recently wrote about his experience of hanging out on his sister’s balcony — a space that he said usually served as a drying rack for laundry before the pandemic — on the site Scroll.in:

In the last couple of weeks, though, stepping into the netted balcony has served as a brief escape from the tedium of quarantine. The amusement of seeing an empty road with deafening silence, only filled with sounds of chirping birds.

At least some of the changed uses of balconies may live on beyond just the next few months, raising the possibility that the demand for, and benefits of, balconies could only increase in the coming years.

“The question is, are we ready to rethink our old assumptions about whether balconies are good idea or not, says Toderian, “and how to do them well now that we’ve had this learned experience from being forced to stay home?”

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Is There a Better Way to Measure Wildfire Risk?

Driving through California’s Sonoma County, the remnants of last year’s fire season—and the season before that—are impossible to ignore. Blackened trees still line the highway. A sign, one of many like it in the county, reads, “From the ashes, we will rise.”

Indeed, new homes in various states of construction are rising in neighborhoods that were recently reduced to cinders by the 2019 Kincade Fire, which destroyed more than 350 structures on 77,000 acres in Sonoma County, and the 2017 Tubbs Fire before it, which was smaller but .

Consumer Watchdog, a group that advocates for consumers, wrote a letter to the CDI’s Lara in August, encouraging him to pass emergency regulations protecting policy-holders from rate hikes by limiting the use of so-called “black box” risk models such as FireLine without clear disclosures about how they work. “These models use algorithm-based projections of wildfire losses generated by third-party vendors to support massive rate increases,” they wrote. “Emergency regulations should bar the use of any models that lead to excessive or discriminatory rates.”

While AI-driven models profess to be more clear about the breakdown of risk factors, the consumers’ access to information is still granted at the insurance company’s discretion. (Consumer Watchdog did not respond to a request for comment.)

Wildfire doesn’t discriminate, says the Insurance Information Institute’s Ruiz. But it does reflect the geographic disparities of California real estate. Coastal properties with high property values are most at risk, and are more expensive to insure and rebuild—Sonoma County, for example, is wine country, full of expensive second homes and vineyards. Meanwhile, research in the science journal PLoS ONE shows that, though “fire-prone places in the U.S. are more likely to be populated by higher-income groups,” low-income households are still more vulnerable overall, with fewer resources to pay for fire prevention tools before an incident, and, later, rebuild. In California, residents of higher-poverty exurbs in fire-prone areas would find it harder to afford the mitigation strategies that bills like Gonzalez’s would reward.

Nick Allain, a spokesperson for Zesty.ai, shared results of an internal analysis that showed no correlation between property value and “Z-FIRE” score. Still, less-precise maps that spread similar insurance premiums across a wide area help spread the costs of disaster preparedness more evenly. Critics of leaning on technological advances say collecting more information—however accurate—may inevitably result in wider cost disparities between homeowners.

Ruiz says that’s just how the insurance industry works. Buildings that are in danger of being destroyed year after year deserve to be assigned higher risk scores, she says, regardless of who lives within.

But she says that having more granular information may compel painful—yet practical—decisions. “If you’re living on the edge of the cliff and it’s falling apart, you have to decide whether you can afford that.”

If insurers and state insurance departments want to protect vulnerable neighborhoods, they should take a more proactive role in funding fire prevention, Cape Analytics’ Farzaneh added. “It’s kind of like vaccines,” he said. “If you have a community that’s done mitigation community-wide, it makes the entire community safer. … Hopefully having more granular data will help that happen.”

A 10,000-year simulation shows where wildfires might ravage California in the future. (Courtesy Zesty.ai)

As the planet warms, the stakes of these decisions will grow graver. Though Toth paints a more optimistic picture of current wildfire risk than existing models do, he echoes scientists in saying that higher temperatures and intensifying dry seasons are already making the state’s wildfires larger. Looking further into the future, the company recently prepared a 10,000-year simulation showing where wildfires might one day burn across California. The southeast part of the state is predicted to keep its low frequency of wildfire events, while parts of the middle of the state and the coastline (shaded yellow, orange, and red) could see more ignitions.

“[It’s] very much directionally aligned with ignition history over the past 100 years,” said Toth. “But given more vegetation growth, and more urban development within the wildland urban interface, we expect that these events are going to create higher losses in the future.”

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Turkeys Are Getting Better at Living Around Humans

Earlier this month, residents in in Toms River, New Jersey, were calling for help. The state is home to some 20,000 wild turkeys, and about 40 to 50 of them, residents say, are terrorizing their Holiday City neighborhood. The birds have become so bold that they’re knocking on doors looking for food, according to a recent New York Times report, and so menacing that they’re trapping residents in their homes, local news outlets reported. The birds also block streets and peck at cars, one of which belongs to baseball player Todd Frazier, whose tweet sent reporters flocking for the scoop.

Ruthless rule breakers that the birds are, “they cause traffic problems,” Holiday City resident Don Kliem told CBS. “People blow their horns at them, and they don’t pay attention to them. It means nothing to them.”

The “invasion,” as some residents have described it, came weeks before Thanksgiving, but similar stories of humans clashing with wild turkeys pop up year-round and across the country. There are between 6 million and 7 million of the gobblers across the U.S. today, and while they generally live in parks and forests, they are increasingly finding their way into the built environment.

“The suburbs have been marching out into the countryside and into the turkey’s natural habitat,” says David Curson, the director of bird conservation at National Audubon Society’s Maryland-D.C. office, where he also serves as the interim executive director. “Especially where there are green corridors alongside rivers and streams projecting into the cities and suburbs, turkeys will follow those, and come into built areas.”

The encounters have played out more dramatically in some areas than in others, and residents are finding it hard to coexist with their 20-pound feathered neighbors. Sometimes the birds get aggressive, as in the case of the Holiday City birds. In Waukesha, Wisconsin, one bird has been stalking a local postal worker “for months.” Other times, they’re just in the way. Wild turkeys have come crashing through the windshield of a big-wheeler in Sarasota, Florida, and through the windows of a two-story home in Elk Grove, California. In Moro, Oregon, and Oxford Township, Michigan, earlier this year, the birds were responsible for two fatal collisions on the highway.

It wasn’t so long ago that these kinds of human-turkey interaction were uncommon—even rare. Unregulated hunting and habitat loss from logging and urban development rendered wild turkeys almost extinct in the U.S. Before Christopher Columbus set foot in the Americas in 1482, there were an estimated 10 million wild turkeys, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, a citizen-led group that advocates for sound hunting policies. By the early 1900s, numbers dwindled significantly—varying estimates put the population lows at 30,000 or up to 200,000.

The conservation movement at the turn of the 20th century proved beneficial to the birds. “The big successes were the public conservation laws that brought in hunting regulations and a system in which you buy a permit to hunt,” Curson says. In the 1940s and 1950s, state governments and the turkey federation worked to enact hunting restrictions and require licenses. The fees were put toward hiring staff to manage wildlife population, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Local conservations, meanwhile, worked to reestablish the turkey population by trapping birds from forests where they were in abundance and reintroducing to other suitable habitats, like abandoned farmlands reclaimed by nature. (They learned the hard way that farming turkeys and placing them in the wild didn’t work, as the barnyard birds proved to be far less efficient at foraging and escaping predators.) The strategy took decades, but eventually the population started bounce back.

In Maryland, “they expanded enormously in the last 30 to 40 years,” says Curson. Once restricted to the western, more rural areas, they’re now found all over the state. “Wild turkeys have been translocated to new areas if they’ve adapted very well,” he adds.

Indeed, turkeys are a generalist species that adapts well to new environments because they don’t need specialized food or a particular vegetation to survive. A 2017 study by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources found that wild turkeys don’t require vast forested landscape, which means they are more flexible with where they’re able to live. The researchers studied female turkey habitat selection between forested areas and open agriculture fields, and found that they preferred the edges in between the two landscapes.

So as suburban and urban development threaten the turkey’s more vulnerable predators—bobcats, coyotes, and such—the birds have been better at living among humans. They’ve thrived on food put out by humans, like those found in bird feeders or unsecured trash. That’s allowed them to flourish in the New England region, where the wild turkey population is at a record high, the National Geographic reports. Sometimes environmental disasters push them into residential areas. In Northern California, for example, last year’s wildfires pushed the birds into the nearby cities. Even as the some returned to the burn areas, many are staying put in their new habitat where there is food readily available and fewer predators, according to the Record Searchlight.

That combination can help embolden their lack of fear toward humans. Curson says wild turkeys aren’t naturally aggressive creatures. “Naturally, wild turkeys are a very wary bird; they tend to hide, they don’t like to be near people,” he tells CityLab. “But if they are in an environment they are free of predators, it’s possible that they could become quite more confident.”

Curson expects that turkeys will become an increasingly familiar sight in backyards, and, to a lesser degree, in cities. Many states continue to impose hunting regulations to keep the local population in check, though in recent years the national number has slowly fallen, likely due climate change and continued development that disrupt habitats. (Turkeys may have been good at adapting to developments, but they are not immune.)

When the birds become aggressive, officials tend to remove them as a quick, though temporary, response. After multiple complaints from Holiday City residents, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife finally set up bait stations and installed net traps around the neighborhood last week to relocate the gang of disruptive turkeys. Meanwhile, officials are warning residents to assert dominance over the turkeys if they do seem aggressive and scare them away with tools like brooms or garden hoses.

To some people, though, wild turkeys remain a curious sight. Earlier this year, an “extremely regal-looking wild turkey” was spotted in Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, likely having wandered away from the nearby Rock Creek Park. And in this case, the turkey was the one who was followed by residents delighted with its rare and almost majestic presence in the city.

If you see one near your house, and it isn’t bothering you, “enjoy watching it,” Curson says. ”Usually, there’s nothing to worry about.”

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Is There a Better Way to Police Public Transit?

In a video posted on Twitter by New York City subway rider earlier this month, a tearful woman is seen surrounded by four NYPD officers.

“What’s she doing?” Sofia Newman, the rider, asks.

The woman was selling churros—she’s one of several vendors with carts who sell the fried pastries to riders in the city’s subway stations. “It’s illegal to sell food inside the subway station,” the officer replies. “We warned her multiple times, and she doesn’t want to give it up. That’s it.”

“Can’t she just go outside, and keep her stuff?” Newman asks. No, the officers say. Eventually, the officers handcuff the vendor and take her cart away.

The churro vendor’s arrest, followed by the arrest of another vendor, Maria Curillo, in the following days, was retweeted by the advocacy organization Decolonize This Place and quickly went viral, leading to demonstrations at Broadway Junction, one of Brooklyn’s busiest subway stations, last week. That capped off what has been a spate of attention given to policing America’s largest transit system. The MTA has launched a new campaign to combat fare evasion, which the agency claims cost them $300 million this year in lost bus and subway fares. That has been coupled with the hiring of 500 transit officers underground—which could cost the system more than it saves in recovered fares. With the new cops came viral videos of “hyper-aggressive” tactics they used. In late October, thousands of riders jumped the turnstiles en masse in a protest against the stepped-up police presence underground.

But New York City is not the only city whose transit systems have become theaters for protest. In Chile, more than a million people took to the streets of Santiago in October after a fare hike sparked larger discontent with the ruling party, with many demonstrators attacking the subway stations themselves. Hong Kong protesters and authorities alike have focused their attentions on the city’s vaunted Mass Transit Railway system. And in London, the climate-crisis protest group Extinction Rebellion made a controversial effort to disrupt subway service last month. Talk of cracking down on fare beaters is on the rise here as well.

Why does public transit so often play a starring role in protests? And how do questions about who gets to access it collide with gentrification, police violence, and racial disparities? To find out, I reached out to Alexis Perrotta, a lecturer at the City University of New York at Baruch College who studies the intersection of public transportation and equity in cities around the world. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

We know that transit is linked to traditional means of equity, when we think of access to jobs, leisure, and social inclusion. What else did you find in your research that specifically links transit to equity?

The experience of using transit—where we all feel like we’re in it together—is quite different from the experience of driving in a car independently. There’s an egalitarian aspect to being on a subway car, or on a bus; you are in community automatically with the people around you in a way that is unlike any other way. It’s a public space, but it’s a special kind of public space that everyone has opted into. In the sense that a community is a team, it’s an immediate team that has been built up.

This community aspect is often overlooked when we think about transit, so it doesn’t surprise me that we see uprisings around transit issues in places where there are deeper problems around equity and poverty. Transit is the place where we can actually come together. To threaten transit with a higher fare or service cuts will immediately spark a kind of community-driven anger.

In Chile, we saw subway fare hikes serve as a trigger for protests. In New York, viral videos of aggressive enforcement have led to demonstrations, most recently after the arrest of a churro vendor. But what conditions lead to this? What do you think is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back here?

Any incursion into the space of transit is going to feel like an affront to people for whom that it is an important space. [The subway] is an important space for everyone who uses it, but I think in a way it’s an even more important for very low-income people or people who are outside of conventional communities. Cops entering into that space presents a feeling of exclusion. Raising the fare presents a feeling of exclusion.

There’s a lot of other issues in Chile that are obviously much more salient than just the subway fare. But I’m not surprised that it was the fare that was that straw; it was immediately galvanizing, because that’s a place where we actually come together.

A part of the fare evasion issue in New York may be a sense that the social contract has been broken—the subway is no longer reliable, and therefore riders may feel less inclined to pay for it. But do you need that context for protest?

No. When I talk to people about fare beating, I find that there is the occasional person who feels justified in fare beating because the level of service is so low. But for the most part, that’s an anomalous reason. It’s generally people who are in dire straits, who are in a rush and can’t get the money together. And it’s also broken equipment, frankly.

Putting cops in that space highlights a problem not with transit and level of service, but rather the police themselves, and police-community relations. We have a major problem with police in New York City; it’s an institution that has a very poor reputation, and people are afraid of the police. We also have a policy, equity, and poverty problem. People often find themselves without enough money to even get the $2.75 together to ride the subway, but still need to go where they need to go, so they’re beating the fare. That is a problem that is not appropriately solved with weapons of any kind. That’s precisely why the police’s reputation has declined over time: outsized uses of force. It’s happening in the transit system, but I think it’s a problem with police-community relations.

That, of course, marks a lot of the sentiment towards a potential presidential run by Michael Bloomberg, New York’s former mayor, and recent statements by Governor Cuomo regarding a supposed lack of safety underground.

I think the impetus for this policy may have come from a fear of our system returning to what it had been in the 1970s and ’80s. When we see unsheltered people down in the subway system, there’s an immediate visual trigger that might happen to people of a certain age. They might say, ’Oh, this is the type of system that we had in the past. We need to prevent this from happening again.’

But it’s 2019, and we’re not going back in time. There’s no reason why we can’t have an improving subway system, with cleaner stations, better-working fare machines, shorter headways, and a city that’s still growing. Sometimes there will be unsheltered people sleeping in stations, and they need mental health help and homelessness assistance. Just because they’re there doesn’t mean that suddenly there’s going to be, like, Guardian Angels and graffiti. It’s not like 1975 is going to happen again.

I’m concerned that urban policy in New York City, and urban areas everywhere, is produced because of a fear of a declining inner-city, when that has not been the reality for at least 20 years. People are poor now for different reasons, and in different ways.

In your research, you interviewed a wide spectrum of riders about how they pay for transit. What is the perception you found that is held by low-income individuals towards accessing transit, and who can be a transit rider?

[For those who sometimes evade paying the fare,] it’s ‘I need to go, I’m going to get there, but I don’t have the cash. I know what the risk is, and I can take the risk.’ It’s a woman who gets on the back of a bus with her kids so she can get them to school on time, who didn’t have the fare that day. It’s someone whose family member took their MetroCard, and they still have to get to work or else they’re going to lose their job. They’re looking at that moment in their lives, and they’re assessing the risk versus the benefit. It’s a rational decision, and a frightening and terrible decision that you have to make because you are poor. What do you do? You still have to continue living. Being able to move around the city is just being able to continue living.

And for people who live on the outskirts of a city, for example, and who have to travel considerably in order to get to work, it’s not an option to just go ahead and walk. Although I also spoke with people who do that: people who will spend their last couple of dollars or fare-beat to get where they need to go during the day, knowing that they’ll just be walking for hours and hours that night so they don’t fare beat again, and don’t have the money.

So what should the role of enforcement be in transit systems?

Those same people I spoke with said that every person should have to pay the same, and nobody should be in there without paying. People get angry, for example, when they see a bus driver go ahead and let someone on the bus, even though they didn’t pay, after they just went ahead and spent the fare. They like the procedural fairness of everyone having to pay to enter.

But there are ways to enforce fare differently, without bringing in an institution like the police. Those 500 officers, for example, can be trained in community relations and procedural fairness, and then practice that underground. They can stop every 20 people on Select Bus Service [express buses], and explain that they’re the twentieth person and that’s why they’re stopped, to check their tickets. That’s a nice way to get training of procedural justice into the police system, which is not something that I know they do right now. Instead, when an officer approaches you, you feel targeted, and put down by the situation, as opposed to, ‘Hello, sir or ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but you’re the tenth person that has come on the bus, and that’s why I’m checking for your SBS ticket. OK, you don’t have it—let me get your information, in case you do have it later.’ There are no guns, no threats, and no getting kicked off or anything like that.

It’s also worth thinking about the rest of our transportation system. The 14th Street Busway, for example, is working so well because there are human beings standing in the middle of 14th Street telling cars that they can’t turn down there. That’s one thing that those officers can certainly be trained to do easily. There are plenty of other places to put uniformed officers. The subway stations need to be safe places, and that may sometimes involve removing unsheltered people who are using the space inappropriately, but none of this has to involve guns. You can definitely police these spaces; they’re not public in the sense of a park, with a gate and curfew. They’re quasi-public: There’s a fare, not everyone can go in, and there’s a reason to be there. Enforcing that is appropriate. But there’s a way to do it that is actually for the public safety, as opposed to terrifying the public.

In Hong Kong, we see an inverse scenario—highly reliable service, but protests focus on larger structural issues with the Chinese government and society. Same can be said about the Extinction Rebellion protests on the London Tube, to a certain extent. How does that fit into the equity conversation?

It’s not surprising. Again, it’s the public square in many ways. It’s where people gather because they all have to, and not because of any particular agenda. You don’t always go to Trafalgar Square or into the middle of the Sogo Mall [in Hong Kong] or whatever city you’re in; you go to the transit system because that’s where public attention is. For groups who are trying to gain attention to make a point, it makes sense.

Of course, destroying those places disrespects those places as public spaces. But if those spaces have been managed in the way that New York’s are starting to be, then those otherwise public spaces are managed in such a way where people think they’ve been taken from them. That they’re no longer really public—they’re just instruments of a police state, or some kind of oppression. And people will absolutely fight back against that.

I’m not surprised that they’re starting to do that. That’s pretty much the case with Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, those stations are funded by real estate development, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the protesters there are quite aware of that. They’re state-owned, and sort of global capitalist statements.

What implications do these protests hold for the future of mass transit, and cities?

Gentrification is sometimes defined as the production of urban space for increasingly affluent users. By making a transit system more amenable to people who don’t want to see the homeless, or people who don’t fit in what their idea of what the public ought to be, by removing those people and putting in cops who make some people feel comfortable and not others, you are taking a space that was once egalitarian and public and making it for more affluent users. It’s the gentrification of a subway system.

We’ve seen it happen in other public spaces, like parks and sidewalks in some neighborhoods. I think this is the next step of gentrification, in transit systems—to create those spaces for people who have more affluent sensibilities. And I think it’s inappropriate.

But I think they say something more about cities. The voices of people in the face of oppression can be difficult to hear when we’re too far apart from each other. Where’s the place that we all have to go in cities? We all have to go underground at some point, or on public transit. We all kind of work around each other, and that becomes unique to our own city, and our own bit of a subway line, sometimes. That’s special. And that’s us doing it. We’re creating it ourselves.

The prospect of that being taken away, or overpoliced, or the fare going up, can really arouse deep-seated anti-oppression sentiments that are there for other reasons. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re going after my family. You’re going after my community; a place where I am me, where I have the support of everyone around me.’ It can really feel that way. And anything that gets in the way of that, basically gets in the way of what a city does well.

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To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story

Preparing humanity for a carbon-neutral future is a daunting task. And based on our progress, we’re not doing a great job.

As the effects of climate change become more impossible to ignore, public understanding of the crisis is rising. Across national borders and political ideologies, a growing number of people accept the fundamentals: We need to make radical changes in our daily habits if we are to have a sustainable future—or, to put it frankly, even a survivable one. In Europe, public support has long been secured for the current E.U. commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels (though there’s also a growing awareness that this will not be sufficient). In the U.S., even as the Trump administration pulls out of the Paris Agreement, the number of people supporting aggressive action to combat climate change has risen to nearly 70 percent.

But there the consensus ends. What, exactly, does a survivable future look and feel like? And why have we so far proved unwilling to adapt our lifestyles and demand the policies that are needed to achieve it?  

In part, this represents a failure to communicate. The scientific community may understand the mechanics of greenhouse gases, but for those without backgrounds in climate science, it can be hard to connect a planet-scale atmospheric calamity with the reality of daily life. An ambitious new project in Sweden is nonetheless developing an unexpected tool that could enable the public to grasp the practical steps that would lead to more sustainable societies: storytelling.

Viable Cities is a strategic innovation program now working with nine Swedish cities—including the three largest: Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo—to help them reach their goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. Such an ambitious target will be hard to meet unless all citizens are actively invested. To make this possible, the program hired writer Per Grankvist to fill the unusually lyrical-sounding role of Chief Storyteller.

Telling tales might seem an odd priority in a fast-transforming climate but, talking to CityLab by telephone, Grankvist insisted that such an approach was vital, for the simple reason that facts alone are not something people engage with. “We need storytellers because generally when scientists come up with conclusions, they are very non-personalized,” he says, “When you take research out into the public and you want people to connect with it, you have to involve an ‘I,’ a ‘we.’ My job is helping people to emotionally connect. When they emotionally connect with an issue, then they engage.”

Grankvist is in a pretty good position to know about this connection. The author of four books (including one translated into English) on civic engagement and technology, he been billed as “a Scandinavian Malcolm Gladwell” and is a fixture across Swedish media. Accessible, narrative-driven engagement, as Grankvist explained in this recent Medium post, is needed if we are to move away from broad-brush portrayals of a carbon-neutral future to something more anchored in ordinary people’s current day-to-day experience. “Stories have the power to engage people in a way scientific facts seldom can,” he writes. “To reach the program’s mission, storytelling is believed a key to get people engaged enough to change their behaviour and norms.”

To Grankvist, that doesn’t mean pushing fanciful renderings of utopian post-carbon cities as a counter to the catastrophism of the prevailing climate narrative: Such futuristic visions aren’t necessarily a helpful way to make people think about what they need to do, right now. “When you look at how the future of cities is often portrayed, you have all these sketches that come from architecture firms: elegant drawings where everyone is slim, and there are lots of cars swimming around,” he says. Instead, he counsels “keeping focus on the human experience of a what a sustainable city will look like.”

When it comes to saying exactly what that is, Viable Cities is still in beta mode, developing individual solutions for each participating Swedish city. The ultimate vehicle for their storytelling plans could be interactive campaigns on social media, outdoor exhibitions, or even through traditional publishing. But they will all be grounded in practical solutions and existing technologies.  

“You can use approaches such as [portraying] the story of someone’s day—something pretty normal, like taking your bike to kindergarten, dropping your kids off, and then jumping on an electric bus to work,” he says. “When you look closer, however, there’s a whole bunch of sustainable, climate neutral solutions going on. That tells the inhabitants of Malmo that the future isn’t entirely frightening. We won’t have flying cars. It will be fairly similar, even though we have to make some fundamental changes.”

That needn’t mean giving the impression that business will continue as usual: “We also don’t want to give the impression that things will happen sort of automatically, that people don’t have to change their lives. [But] a few people are already living this kind of [carbon-neutral] life, and it doesn’t look like a horrible one. We should have the same quality of life, although our way of life will be different.”

The key, Grankvist says, is to be aware that while we all have to move forward, personal climate action will mean different things to different people. “You have to connect to what people want, their reasons for getting engaged. Some people passionately want to save the planet. Others are concerned, but still want to continue driving and eating some meat. We need storytelling to address both those groups. If you have a city website simply stating, ‘Everyone should stop driving and eat plants instead of beef’—that isn’t storytelling. That’s advertising, which doesn’t work any longer.”

Such an emphasis on continuity may be reassuring for urban Swedes, but then they generally already live in well-insulated homes, in relatively compact cities that are well connected by public transit; it’s easier to emotionally connect with a future lifestyle whose contours still remain broadly similar. Would the same approach prepare a citizen for the future in places that require more drastic adaptation—say, the sprawling, car-dependent, and thirsty cities of Arizona?

Grankvist believes so: The trick, he says, is to make your climate adaptation storytelling as specific to each setting as it can possibly be.

“All stories have to be locally anchored. You can’t show someone the story of Malmo and expect it to work in Phoenix. It might not even be right for Stockholm. At the same time, there are many people in Phoenix who already drive round in Teslas or electric BMWs, or want to, and who buy organic food and live sustainable lives. It’s about finding those people, and then building a story around that.”

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Want Better Streets? Just Add Paint.

If you’re frustrated with the slow speed of efforts to make streets safer, perhaps you should grab a paint brush.

During New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, the city reclaimed 180 acres of road space, creating 60 park plazas in large part by rerouting traffic and simply painting the surface of the road. The effort transformed many city streets from something other than the “sea of gray” that urban corridors tend to be.

“Reclaiming these streets gave us a huge canvas for vibrant art and safe-street designs,” Janette Sadik-Khan, Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, said at the CityLab DC conference on Monday. “But these projects are more than eye candy. They can deliver significant safety benefits for pennies on the dollar.”

Now Sadik-Khan and Bloomberg want to help more cities—especially small and mid-size cities—do the same thing. Bloomberg Associates, in collaboration with Street Plans Collaborative, announced the Asphalt Art Initiative on Monday in an effort to spur more roadway and pedestrian interventions on a blacktop canvas.

Along with the new street guide, Bloomberg announced a competition: Ten small and mid-sized American cities can receive up to $25,000 each to implement their own arts-driven transportation projects to be completed by the end of 2020. Cities with anywhere between 30,000 and 500,000 residents are eligible to apply. Applications are due Thursday, December 12, 2019.

Pearl Street Triangle mural by David Ellis. (Photo by David Ellis and Chris Keohane)

“Blacktop can become a backdrop for new public spaces,” Sadik-Khan said.

Colorful designs can have traffic-calming effects on roadways, identify space for pedestrians, or even simply make underpasses and road barriers less of an eyesore. Projects like this can also be an avenue for community engagement within a changing city.

“We used Paint the Town not just to enhance safety and aesthetics, but to do what we call place keeping,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at the event. Place keeping is much different than place making. Place keeping is about engaging the people that already live in a space and allowing them to preserve the stories, the culture.”

Last year, for example, OakDOT partnered with the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, one of the city’s largest affordable housing developers, as part of revitalization efforts near West Oakland’s historic California Hotel.

A painting project played an important role in signaling that change was coming to the once derelict hotel and the area around it that was dominated by a freeway. The murals depicted piano keys, musical notes, and a hall of fame that lists performers like Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles, who came to one of the first venues to welcome African Americans in Oakland. With new ground-floor uses to the hotel’s former music venue, the painting signaled that music and business were coming back to the corridor.

Paint the Town mural by East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), Oakland, CA. (Photo by City of Oakland DOT)

Asphalt art can also be personal for the people painting it. They can commemorate lives lost to road violence or other tragedies. Schaaf told a story about how street art became a way to memorialize one of the co-founders of Oakland’s Scraper Bike Team, who was killed by a stray bullet. “This was their way to grieve and memorialize their friend,” she said.

Tony Garcia, the co-founder of Street Plans, said asphalt art provides a new outlet for regular street activists to push for change. “I think people are hungry for another way of being involved that is not going to council or voting or writing letters,” Garcia said.

While an effort to permanently make dramatic changes to a street can provoke pushback, the temporary paint installations can be a conversation starter for the community. Garcia helped design a temporary street design at Coxe Avenue in Asheville, North Carolina. He said one woman in the area initially resisted the project. “She’s yelling at us, ‘I know what you people are doing. You’re defacing the street. This is graffiti. I’m gonna call the police,’” he said.

But then she started asking more questions out of curiosity, and Garcia explained how the street painting would mark the street festivals that happen there. “When we started doing some of the butterflies, she was the biggest advocate.” She asked if the installation was going to be permanent or expand to more streets, which Garcia said shows the success of these temporary street-tattooing projects.

“I said, ‘If you really like this, call your mayor and say that you support it.’ That change is what we’re looking for.” He said other asphalt art projects have also been delivering slower speeds from cars.

Coxe Avenue mural by Sound Mind Creative, Asheville, NC. (Photo by Justin Mitchell)

Unconventional crosswalks are opening up a gray area for local transportation planning, as the Federal Highway Administration has been asking cities like Ames, Iowa, to remove the colorful street markings to comply with its strict federal safety guidelines. Asked about this, the Asphalt Art team recommended cities take a “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” approach.

A lot of times nobody’s paying really a whole lot of attention,” Sadik-Khan said. “There’s been no data that shows that colored crosswalks are any more dangerous. The fact that we have 40,000 people dying on streets of this nation every year should probably be the focus.”

By painting a street, people may begin to feel safer and also begin to interact with their roads and their city in a new way.

“Generally, people do not have a joyous relationship with their roads,” Schaaf said. “It’s where they hit potholes. It’s where they get parking tickets. Roads are usually the most negative engagement that you have with your government, and so it has been wonderful to transform that into positivity.”

Hiring local, less professional artists provided another opportunity, too. “I was worried it might look kind of janky,” Schaaf said. “But you actually get tremendous beauty when you trust your community.”

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