CityLab University: A Timeline of U.S. Police Protests

When a white police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck during an arrest on May 25, eventually killing him, the incident followed a longstanding pattern of unchecked police brutality toward African Americans. The civil unrest that has erupted in city after city is not unlike the protests that came after other high-profile police killings of African Americans such as Tamir Rice and Michael Brown in 2014, Freddie Gray in 2015, and Philando Castile in 2016 — as well as the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991. The following year, 1992, marked a turning point in calls for police reform, triggered by violent riots that came after the acquittal of the Los Angeles policemen responsible for severely injuring King.  

In the years since, however, change has been incremental. And as with the most recent demonstrations that began on May 26 in Minneapolis, past peaceful protests often gave rise to violence as police responded with brute force.

“What protests have been effective in doing is raising the public consciousness about the level of public violence that communities experience,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of African American history at Georgetown University​​​​​​. “They have also exposed the amount of money that has been spent on police forces and weapons, and have helped expose the level of brutality.”

The 1960s marked the beginning of an increased militarization of police forces, according to Chatelain. The U.S. government’s War on Drugs campaign was also used as a justification for increased policing, as was terrorism after the attacks of 9/11, she said. But the widespread use of mobile-phone cameras and social media now allows the public to witness more abuses firsthand.  

The following is a timeline of major protests in response to police brutality, especially instances where officers remained in their jobs or weren’t held accountable for violent or fatal arrests. These demonstrations are part of a broader movement against systemic racism in America, and don’t include the killings of people such as Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin by fellow civilians. Arbery was chased and shot in February by an armed white resident in Atlanta, and Martin was shot by neighborhood watcher George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida back in 2012.

This list also doesn’t encompass many others who were killed by police or while in police custody, such as Sandra Bland, whose death in jail was ruled a suicide after she was pulled over by an officer in Texas, in 2015. That officer was later put on leave, but never charged, prompting renewed calls for her case to be reopened amid the protests for Floyd.

Los Angeles, California

Rodney King (25 years old — died 20 years later) — March 3, 1991

Rodney King in Los Angeles, California, in April 2012, in front of the Eso Won bookstore, where he was signing his new memoir. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Events: Rodney King was driving away from police officers who were trying to arrest him (King was allegedly under the influence). When they finally did get him in handcuffs, the officers proceeded to beat him with their batons more than 50 times, leaving him with permanent brain damage, among other health problems. The beating was filmed by a bystander. The four officers involved were acquitted in 1992. King survived and died in 2012, at the age of 47 years old.

Protests: The footage of the beating sparked protests in Los Angeles, but after the officers were acquitted , they turned more violent. Over the six days of riots, more than 50 people were killed, 6,000 arrested, and thousands wounded. The violence of the protests fed upon the deep racial inequalities entrenched in the city, and the National Guard, U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps were summoned.

Aftermath: Two of the policemen who bludgeoned King were later jailed after federal prosecutors filed their own charges. President George Bush, who had called the actions of the officers “sickening,” opposed the riots that unfolded and called the actions of the protesters “revolting.”

In the wake of the beating, the Christopher Commission (also known as the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department), was created to examine the methods of the LAPD, including recruitment, training and the use of force. However, the impacts of the commission on LAPD operations were limited. Its most important achievement was perhaps that it ended lifetime terms for police chiefs — and Daryl Gates, the police chief during that period, resigned.

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New York, New York

Amadou Diallo (23 years old) — Feb. 4, 1999

Kadiatou and Saikou Diallo, parents of Amadou Diallo, address the press after the officers were found not guilty on all charges. (Will Waldron/Getty Images)

Events: Four plain-clothes officers shot Amadou Diallo near his home. They fired 41 shots, thinking he had a gun. It was his wallet. They were acquitted of second-degree murder.

Protests: Thousands marched down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan after the officers were acquitted, and protests were mostly peaceful, even though hundreds of police officers wearing helmets met the protesters in the streets.  

Aftermath: The Street Crimes Unit of the NYPD, of which the four officers were members, was disbanded in April 2002. The unit had been heavily criticized for stopping black Americans and Hispanics in high numbers, and was the target of a civil rights action. It was only years later that the city released hard data that showed the degree of racial disparities in police stops and frisks.

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New York, New York

Sean Bell (23 years old) — Nov. 25, 2006

A protester is arrested at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge in May 2008 following the acquittal of three police officers in the Sean Bell shooting trial. (Daniel Barry/Getty Images)

Events: A group of five police officers opened fire on Sean Bell and two of his friends in Queens, New York, a few hours before Bell’s wedding. The officers fired a total of 51 shots, killing Bell and wounding Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, who were with him. The two survivors were shackled to their hospital beds, which drew massive outrage. Charges were pressed against three out of the five officers, but they were found not guilty.

Protests: The acquittal of the officers involved in the case sparked peaceful protest. Civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton addressed the press during the demonstrations, saying: “Some in the media seemed disappointed, they wanted us to play into the hoodlum, thug stereotypes. We can be angry without being mad.”

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St. Louis, Missouri

Anthony Lamar Smith (24 years old) — December 20, 2011

The third day of protests in St. Louis, Missouri, in September 2012, after the acquittal of Jason Stockley, who shot Anthony Lamar Smith in December 2011. // Scott Olson/Getty Images

Events: Anthony Lamar Smith was shot dead by police officer Jason Stockley, after Smith tried to run away from him — Stockley suspected him of dealing drugs. Stockley wasn’t charged until 2016 after a recording of him surfaced saying he was “going to kill this motherf—er.” He was acquitted of first degree murder in September 2017. Stockley said he saw a gun before he opened fire, which in the eyes of the law, was enough to justify the shooting.

Protests: The decision to acquit Stockley sparked days-long protest in St. Louis, with police forces responding in riot gear after “agitators” started “throwing rocks and breaking windows,” according to the police forces on the ground. Demonstrators marched toward the house of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and were stopped by police in riot gear. The officers used rubber bullets on the crowd, and made hundreds of arrests.

Aftermath: Though Stockley never faced jail time, the St. Louis police settled a wrongful death lawsuit in 2013 with Lamar Smith’s family for $900,000. In 2018, a judged allowed the family’s lawyer to reopen discovery in the civil case after learning the defendants had withheld DNA evidence that indicated Stockley had planted a gun in Lamar Smith’s car. A year later, the family was awarded an additional $500,000.

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New York, New York

Eric Garner (43 years old) — July 17, 2014

Demonstrators hold a “die-in” in Grand Central Terminal protesting the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Events: Undercover police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Eric Garner in a prohibited chokehold — quite similar to Floyd’s death —  after accusing him of selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner repeated that he couldn’t breathe, and was pronounced dead a few hours later.

Protests: Peaceful protests erupted after after the grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo. They lasted several nights, with thousands congregating in Times Square, carrying fake coffins and chanting “I can’t breathe.” Protesters also held “die-ins” in public spaces, often moved by police forces wearing riot gear. Some demonstrators flooded highways and bridges, effectively shutting down traffic. Protests were also held in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Aftermath: Pantaleo was fired five years later, in 2019, after a trial that was started by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). This trial was the first opportunity for public testimony in the case, after both a Staten Island Grand Jury and federal prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo. On June 8, 2020, the New York Assembly voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill named after Garner that criminalizes the police use of chokeholds — more than five years after the first version of the bill was drafted in response to Garner’s death.

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Ferguson, Missouri

Michael Brown (18 years old) — August 9, 2014

Police officers in riot gear and National Guard troops in Ferguson on November 28, 2014, during protests after officer Darren Wilson was acquitted. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Events: Police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown as he was leaving a convenience store, in which a security camera had recorded him stealing small cigars. He was unarmed. Wilson fired 12 times, and was never charged for Brown’s murder. A grand jury decided not to indict him, citing the lack of a probable cause.

Protests: A wave of violent protests erupted after Brown’s death, and after the grand jury decision. The police used particularly violent methods to repress protesters, from tear gas to an extended arsenal of military weapons received through the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, created to give surplus military weapons to local law enforcement agencies.

The protests over Brown’s killing gave rise to a new generation of young black political activists and to the cry, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” They also led to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had initially begun as only a hashtag on social media following the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin.

Aftermath: In March 2015, legal reforms were started in Ferguson, after the Department of Justice started an inquiry. And as the police use of military weapons increasingly came under scrutiny, President Barack Obama canceled the 1033 program, ending the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments, in a move to demilitarize the police. (President Donald Trump fully restored the program in 2017 through an executive order.)

In 2015, Black Lives Matter activists launched “Campaign Zero,” a platform detailing policy proposals to limit the police use of force.

Not long after Brown’s murder, two Cleveland policemen approached Tamir Rice in a park, where one of the officers shot and killed him under the belief that the 12-year-old was wielding a weapon. That weapon turned out to be a pellet gun, and when Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty announced in December 2015 that both officers would not be charged, he called the incident “a perfect storm of human error.” That didn’t sit well with the community, which led a peaceful protest of more than 100 people to McGinty’s home demanding his resignation. He didn’t resign, but in the 2016 elections, Cleveland residents voted him out.

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Baltimore, Maryland

Freddie Gray (25 years old) — April 12, 2015

Protesters marching in Baltimore, on April 30, 2015, after Freddie Gray died in police custody. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Events: Freddie Gray was arrested by police officers for the illegal possession of a “switchblade” — though his attorney said he had a legal-sized pocket knife — and thrown into the back of a van. Police then subjected him to a police practice known as a “rough ride”: Cuffed at the hands and feet but not put in a seatbelt, Gray slammed into the walls of the van when drivers suddenly braked. He died a week later from a severe spinal cord injury.

Protests: The Department of Justice opened a civil rights case into Gray’s death, and protesters led a peaceful march in Baltimore. Those demonstrations turned more violent after his funeral, on April 27. The police started using pepper spray and tear gas on the crowd, and policemen in riot gear were deployed. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared a curfew, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, and the Maryland National Guard was deployed. The police arrested more than 200 people. Protests eased as local authorities brought charges against the six policemen involved — ranging from second degree murder to reckless endangerment — but three officers were eventually acquitted while the other three had their charges dropped. When the DOJ refused to bring civil rights charges against the officers in July 2017, it lead to more protests, though they were mostly peaceful.

Aftermath: According to Samuel Sinyangwe from Campaign Zero, police brutality has decreased slightly in Baltimore, but progress has been slow. The police department followed some of the recommendations from the DOJ, after an investigation into the police department’s methods. President Barack Obama said after Gray’s death that “it isn’t new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.” Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was fired, and Rawlings-Blake abandoned her re-election campaign as criticism mounted over her handling of the protests. The unrest after Gray’s death also gave rise to Baltimore’s social activist community comprised of young black leaders who have largely kept the current protests over Floyd’s death peaceful.

Read more:

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Alton Sterling (37 years old) — July 5, 2016

Protesters in front of the Louisiana Capitol, after Alton Sterling  was shot to death by officers from the Baton Rouge police department, in July 2009. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Events: Two white officers from the Baton Rouge Police Department pinned Alton Sterling to the ground after an anonymous caller reported Sterling for selling CDs outside a convenience store. After shouting that Sterling had a gun, one of the officers shot him dead. The officers claimed that they felt threatened by what they believe was Sterling reaching for his gun, but videos of the shooting showed Sterling seemingly immobile before the killing.

Protests: The weekend after the shooting, non-violent protests erupted in Baton Rouge, where multiple protesters were arrested. They confronted heavily militarized police. The protests led to one of the most iconic photos of anti-police protest: the arrest of a lone woman, with her calm demeanor and flowing dress juxtaposed against the line of officers in riot gear in front of her.

Aftermath: The DOJ opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting. The officers were not charged in the killings. But Blane Salamoni, who shot Sterling, was fired from the police department. Barack Obama spoke out about the shooting and Philando Castile’s (Castile was shot dead the day after.)

Read more:

St. Paul, Minnesota

Philando Castile (32 years old) — July 6, 2016

Protesters in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 16, 2017, carrying a banner commemorating Philando Castile, after the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, who killed Castile in July 2016. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Events: Philando Castile, a school nutritionist, was driving in the St. Anthony suburb of St. Paul with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter when police officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled the car over and asked him for his license and registration. In complying, Castile alerted the officer that there was a gun — one that he was licensed to carry — in the glove compartment where his documents were also placed. As Castile reached over, Yanez shot him multiple times. Reynolds live-streamed a video of the aftermath on Facebook but it wasn’t enough to convict Yanez of manslaughter. In 2017, he was found not guilty on all charges.

Protests: The first round of protests started soon after the shooting, bringing out teachers and children, and spreading across the U.S. They escalated in the Twin Cities as demonstrations spilled onto the highway and blocked traffic, with projectiles thrown, police injured and multiple arrests. Castile’s family and members of the Black Lives Matter movement denounced the violence. A year later, protests resumed after Yanez was found not guilty. Once again, they started in St. Paul, spreading to Minneapolis, New York, and across the country.

Aftermath: The U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was starting a review of the police department of St. Anthony in December 2016. According to the police department, all officers went through additional training starting January 2017, and put together additional plans for increased data transparency, body cams for all officers, and banned a controversial police training that encouraged officers to shoot if they felt threatened. However, even though the Justice Department drafted objectives for the police department in March 2017, “it never followed through with recommendations on ways to improve the police force,” according to the Star-Tribune.

President Barack Obama gave a speech after the shooting, sending his condolences to Castile’s family and calling the police violence an “American” issue. “These are not isolated incidents,” he said. “They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”

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Minneapolis, Minnesota

George Floyd (46 years old) — May 25, 2020

A portrait of George Floyd on a streetlight pole, in front of the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during a protest on May 27. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Events: When convenience store employees called the police on George Floyd for using a counterfeit $20 bill, Derek Chauvin and three other now-former officers quickly escalated the situation in trying to arrest him. The full eight minutes and 46 seconds of Chauvin pinning Floyd to the ground with a knee to his neck played out in several videos recorded by bystanders watching in horror. Before he died, Floyd repeated that he couldn’t breathe, and when Chauvin and his team did not relent, he pleaded for his late mother.

An independent autopsy would later show he died of “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.” Though a separate report from Hennepin County Medical Examiner attributed his death to underlying heart disease, it concluded his death was a homicide. All four officers were fired.

Protests: The protests came swiftly, spreading from Minneapolis to dozens of cities across the U.S. as the public called for the officers to be arrested. But as demonstrations continue, they have evolved into a national uprising over police violence and the lack of police accountability. They’ve also included a cry for justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT whom police shot after forcibly entering her home in Louisville, Kentucky in March. Protesters have taken to cities, to major highways, and even out in the suburbs, shouting, “No Justice, no peace.”

The protests began peacefully, with several demonstrators urging police to take a knee in support of the movement. But some intensified as cities enacted curfews and officers enforced them through the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and — in an escalation of events in the nation’s capital — a heavy military presence. Meanwhile, some people began looting and rioting, injecting confusion and disorder into the early days of the demonstrations.

Protests have spread to all 50 American states, bringing out people of all backgrounds. They’ve even reached global cities like London, Sydney and Paris. The demonstrations have been multi-racial in a way we haven’t seen before, according to Louis Hyman, a historian of work at business at Cornell University. “White people are starting to get that their experience is so different from black people’s experience,” he said. “Whether you’re a wealthy African American or a poor African American, you’re still black in the eyes of the police.”

Aftermath: These protests come at an unprecedented time, when the U.S. is in the midst of a highly charged election year and an active pandemic that has disproportionately affected black and Latino communities. The ongoing threat of coronavirus has complicated the voting process as election dates are pushed back and as states consider the use of mail-in ballots. But on the local level, officials have started promising some changes. In June, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to cut as much as $150 million from the local police department’s budget and invest it into programs that benefit black communities. And in the city where the protests began, the majority of the Minneapolis city council has pledged to disband the police department. Meanwhile, all four former officers involved in Floyd’s death have been arrested and charged; Chauvin with second-degree murder and the other three with aiding and abetting murder.

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Now What?

The unfolding of the George Floyd protest feels familiar to those that precede it. And while it’s not uncommon for these events to spread across multiple major cities, it is worth noting that the scale of the current demonstrations is unprecedented. By the third week, they had spread to more than 650 cities across all 50 states — including small, majority-white towns, according to the Washington Post.

That’s an optimistic progression for protesters who are not only demanding justice for Floyd, and police reform in Minneapolis, but a complete overhaul of America’s justice system. They want the police to be disbanded, and for their funding — which often takes up the bulk of cities’ total budget — to be diverted into black communities. They want to replace President Donald Trump and his administration, which has flatly denied the existence of systemic racism in the U.S.

The similar timing to this year’s presidential election, as well as the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression due to Covid-19, hold some promise that the demonstrations could have far-reaching effects in U.S. policy. At the same time, racial attitudes have shifted over the last four years, reports the New York Times: According to a new study from Monmouth University, 57% of Americans believe that police are using excessive force against African Americans, compared to just 34% of registered voters in 2016 after the police shooting of Alton Sterling.

And while killings of African American men have sparked the most protest, it’s important to note women haven’t been spared from police violence either — most people know the stories of Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor, but there are many more, including Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis and Shelly Frey. The hashtag #SayHerName has been sprouting up across social media to draw attention to these women and make sure their deaths don’t go unnoticed and unpunished. That said, men of any color are far more likely to be killed by police, with black men, American Indians and Latinos the most at risk, according to research released last year.

It is perhaps too early to say for sure what happens next. Deep-rooted racism requires policy changes across the board, from housing to transportation to food security, which some advocates argue is still low on America’s priorities. But the current momentum offers hope that maybe this time really will be different.

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CityLab Daily: Cities are for People

Make Little Plans

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

At CityLab, the idea that people can create cities for everybody guides how we do our journalism, too. What makes cities lively, exciting, and innovative is the capacity for change. As research and history show, the budgets, buildings, and blocks that citizens fight to build today define the paths that others will walk tomorrow.

This week, we featured reflections on the last decade from some of the people responsible for planting CityLab’s roots, our alumni. It is a fitting moment to be revisiting the decade: It was almost ten years ago that CityLab launched in 2011 as The Atlantic Cities. And in the coming week, as we enter 2020, CityLab is leaving its home at the Atlantic to head over to Bloomberg.

As part of that transition, a few members of the CityLab team are saying goodbye, yours truly included. Today is my last day as the daily guide on your CityLab journey. But I walk away from this experience knowing that what we’ve built together already will provide a great foundation for what is yet to come.

Over and out, and on your left,
Andrew Small


A note to readers: Tomorrow, January 1, CityLab is becoming part of Bloomberg Media. In the coming weeks, you can expect to continue receiving this newsletter, and the journalism that comes with it. But we need a little time to make this transition. After today’s edition, we’ll be on hiatus until Tuesday, January 7. You can find out more about Bloomberg‘s information practices by reviewing their privacy policy and you can visit your accounts page to unsubscribe or update your preferences. See you in 2020.


More on CityLab

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Turning a Vast, Post-Industrial Wilderness Into a Park in Pittsburgh

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How Valuing Productivity, Not Profession, Could Reduce U.S. Inequality

In this second part of an interview with economist Jonathan Rothwell, he explains that a just society wouldn’t reward different professions so unequally.

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Your Fitness Resolution Might Be Easier If You’re Rich

The availability of exercise venues reflects broader divides of class and geography.

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CityLab Daily: The Decade the City Became the App Store

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

***

What We’re Following

Get smart: The smartphone—and the millions of apps that followed it—will go down as one of the most transformative technologies of the 2010s. And one of the primary agents for that transformation has been the city. Some of that change is plain for the eye to see: Companies like Uber, Instagram, Google Maps, and Airbnb have reshaped how we travel through and experience cities. Some of it is by its very nature hidden: Seemingly every object on the street can be made “smart” simply by gathering digital data to crunch, while the phones in our pockets tell companies where demand could go next.

CityLab’s Laura Bliss reflects on how the 2010s became app-addled and optimized: This Was the Decade That the City Became the App Store

Andrew Small


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The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History

From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes.

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How ‘Vasectomy Zoning’ Makes Childless Cities

Municipalities shouldn’t block or raise the cost of things young parents need, like day-care centers and two-bedroom houses or apartments.

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How Poor Americans Get Exploited by Their Landlords

American landlords derive more profit from renters in low-income neighborhoods, researchers Matthew Desmond and Nathan Wilmers find.

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We Mapped ‘the Midwest’ for You, So Stop Arguing

We surveyed more than 12,000 people (and counting) about the most contentious border question in the U.S. to reveal the true geography of America’s midsection.   

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Another’s Treasure

(Courtesy of NYC Department of Sanitation/Group Project)

In use since the 1930s, New York’s 23,000 steel litter baskets are ubiquitous but not without real problems: They can get heavy and their aesthetics are not to everyone’s liking. Earlier this month, New York announced a new design for public waste bins following its year-and-a-half-long “BetterBin” competition, which drew more than 200 submissions.

The competition’s winning entry, shown above, is sleeker, with a heavy-duty plastic bin partly nestled inside a metal stand. There are still a few tests that need to take place before you’ll see these new bins on the corner, but could this be the urban trash can of the future? CityLab’s Linda Poon takes a look: New York City Unveils a Next Generation Trash Can


What We’re Reading

A decade of urban transformation, seen from above (New York Times)

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Welcome to the era of the post-shopping mall (New York Times)


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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What Defined the Decade Since CityLab Launched

It was almost a decade ago, in 2011, that this very website was launched, at the time dubbed The Atlantic Cities. The conceit, then as now, was that “to understand cities is to get a handle on how most of us live, work, and play,” as CityLab editor emeritus Sommer Mathis wrote at the time.

Now, an even greater majority of the world’s population lives in a town or a city. And cities have increasingly become the places where some of the most pressing issues of our time may be decided.

So as we enter the new decade, we consulted some of CityLab’s esteemed alumni to get their take on the concepts, changes, innovations, and unfulfilled promises that have defined the decade in cities.

Multimodal transportation finally went mainstream

We launched as The Atlantic Cities in 2011, which just so happened to be the year that Uber expanded to The Atlantic‘s home base of Washington, D.C. The year before, the District of Columbia debuted Capital Bikeshare, then the largest and most ambitious bikeshare system in the U.S. Yes, ride-hailing isn’t perfect, and some bikesharing systems have struggled or failed. But the proliferation of both types of services over the past decade has helped millions of city dwellers around the world experience multimodal transportation choices for the first time. This was the decade when technology finally made it possible to imagine a future, particularly in North America, where driving yourself alone in a car doesn’t have to be the default.

An unanswered question

Over the past decade, I have come back over and over to the same question that I still don’t think we have the answer to: How do cities ensure that the people who have long lived in disinvested neighborhoods benefit from their revival? In Chicago, Richmond, Oakland, Atlanta, and Baltimore, historically neglected neighborhoods have attracted new parks, new grocery stores, new development, new residents. That is, in theory, good news. But that investment is so often accompanied by fears of rising rents, displacement, and exclusion. What would it look like to have urban redevelopment without those fears? The question feels increasingly urgent.

Are rich neighborhoods the real problem?

The history of housing discrimination and segregation has given us the unequal urban geography we see in the U.S. today. Over the last decade, some of the go-to strategies have advocated breaking up, “deconcentrating,” or “integrating” low income neighborhoods. But in doing so, perhaps inadvertently, these tactics designated poor communities of color as problems that need solving—and not as culturally valuable, reasonable, and knowledgeable communities that can advocate for their own interests. A question that I am seeing asked more frequently: Should we, while respecting and empowering less resourced communities, be focusing our research and solutions instead on the role of highly privileged neighborhoods in maintaining the status quo?

The wrong way on walking

One of the most disappointing, and ultimately tragic, trends of the past several years has been the steady rise of pedestrian fatalities around the United States. Even as other traffic deaths have declined, and even as communities around the U.S. have begun to see the value of streets designed for humans and not cars, the number of pedestrians killed by drivers went up 35 percent between 2008 and 2017, according to a recent report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. The pattern shows no sign of reversing: In 2018, 6,227 pedestrians died on the nation’s streets, the most since 1990. Some of the toll, the report’s authors say, can be attributed to the rise in popularity of SUVs, which are more likely to kill people that they hit. Those big trucks are another depressing, energy-hogging trend that Americans are embracing in defiance of the need to devote fewer resources and less space to personal motor vehicles in the age of climate change.

The unfulfilled public transportation promise

The story I wrote for the 2011 launch of The Atlantic Cities included a reference to the Kardashians, like any substantive piece on public transportation should. Both were having a moment. Transit was rising across American cities; by mid-decade, ridership would reach levels not seen since the 1950s. But from there it fell, and hard. There are many reasons for this unfulfilled promise: service cuts, car-first street designs, artificially cheap parking and driving and hailing, no political will to deploy congestion pricing as a reliable source of transit funding. But the common theme is that cities have not been effective car-dash-ians. That’s made it harder for people to reach jobs and get places—you might say, to keep up.

The Rise of the YIMBYs

The 2010s began with the affordability crisis, but will be remembered for the rise of the YIMBYs. As America continues to build fewer homes per capita than at any time since World War II, this new wave of activists, embracing the acronym for “yes in my backyard,” has taken up the central question of fair housing advocates going back to the 1950s. Why are apartments banned from most of the land in most American cities and suburbs, anyway? And what can we do about it? In just a few years, the Overton window on this issue has permanently shifted: California has legalized accessory dwelling units and is converting garages into housing by the thousands; Minneapolis has ended single-family zoning; Oregon has liberalized zoning statewide. Many other changes appear to be close behind. Two trends will stoke more changes in the 2020s: More millennials will confront their (bad, overpriced) housing options as they start families, and boomers will begin to age out of huge, car-dependent houses and yearn for alternatives.

Growing city literacy

This decade has seen a spike in what I’d call city literacy. More people are thinking and caring and debating about cities. There’s more scrutiny on the dynamics of neighborhood change, the promise of big tech in cities, and the role urban design plays in shaping lives and livelihoods. It’s now widely (or at least sort of widely) understood that outdated zoning has worsened housing shortages, that more parking leads to more driving, that maybe we don’t actually need so many freeways running through our cities. When the site launched and I was its sole staff writer, opening up these topics to a “mainstream” audience felt a little daunting, if overdue. It’s been gratifying to see the conversation evolve over the years, thanks in no small part to CityLab and its talented pool of writers and editors.

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CityLab Daily: A Test for California’s New Gig Work Protection

What We’re Following

This month, San Francisco employees at the Ford-owned electric scooter company Spin voted to join Teamsters Local 665. For this emerging industry, it represented a historic milestone—the first unionization of the dockless e-scooter workforce.

It was made possible in part because of California’s new bill to protect gig workers, which will become a law on January 1. CityLab’s Sarah Holder has the latest on what the union victory means for the micromobility industry—and the evolution of the gig economy: The First Scooter Company to Unionize Tests California’s Gig Work Bill


Most Popular CityLab Reads in 2019

The Hidden Horror of Hudson Yards Is How It Was Financed

Manhattan’s new luxury mega-project was partially bankrolled by an investor visa program called EB-5, which was meant to help poverty-stricken areas.

Kriston Capps

What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

Brentin Mock

Carefully, Japan Reconsiders the Trash Can

The near-absence of public garbage bins in cities like Tokyo is both a security measure and a reflection of a cultural aversion to littering.

Allan Richarz

How Bad Is It to Let Your Cat Outside?

Your adorable house cat is also a ruthless predator. A conservation biologist makes the case for keeping cats indoors, or at least on leashes.

Andrew Small

White Americans’ Hold on Wealth Is Old, Deep, and Nearly Unshakeable

White families quickly recuperated financial losses after the Civil War, and then created a Jim Crow credit system to bring more white families into money.


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CityLab Daily: Why Do Christmas Movies Hate Cities So Much?

What We’re Following

Love, actually? If you spent any time this week watching television holiday rom-coms, you may have noticed a pattern: The city is no place for love. CityLab’s Linda Poon explains:

You don’t have to watch many of these movies to see the bad rap that cities get. Before our protagonist (usually a single woman) gets enchanted by twinkling lights and prop Christmas trees, she must first flee the grey, cold-hearted metropolis that leaves her feeling some combination of lonely, overworked, and grumpy. And leave it to the residents of some weirdly Christmas-obsessed small town that she finds herself in for some reason—a baking contest! a secret inheritance! supernatural forces!—to teach her the True Meaning of Christmas.

What gives? Read Poon’s take: Why Do Christmas Movies Hate Cities So Much?

And enjoy a few of our favorite archive holiday links below.


More on CityLab

Last Exit to Pottersville

What the 1946 Christmas movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ says about small-town America in 2016.

David Dudley

Bringing Christmas Back Downtown

Shoppers once flocked to the centers of American cities during the holidays. Today, boosters are using the season to spur urban revival.

Jessica Leigh Hester

The Rise and Fall of New Year’s Fitness Resolutions, in 5 Charts

The January gym spike is real, but it drops off just a few weeks later, according to data from location and fitness apps.

Linda Poon

Navigation Apps Changed the Politics of Traffic

In an excerpt from the new book The Future of Transportation, CityLab’s Laura Bliss adds up the “price of anarchy” when it comes to traffic navigation apps.

Laura Bliss


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CityLab Daily: Inside the Virginia Bill to Allow Denser Housing

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What We’re Following

Up on the housetop: All they want for Christmas is zoning reform. With a new majority in the statehouse, Virginia Democrats are eyeing a wish list of housing bills. The proposed new measures would legalize duplexes and accessory dwelling units, and give local governments more leeway to build affordable housing, ahead of the arrival of Amazon’s second headquarters in Arlington. But rents are also rising in cities such as Richmond and Charlottesville. See how Virginia’s ideas compare to recent upzoning legislation in Minneapolis, Austin, and Seattle. Kriston Capps has the story: With New Democratic Majority, Virginia Sees a Push for Denser Housing

Programming note: The newsletter will be taking a holiday hiatus on Tuesday and Wednesday. See you Thursday.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

The Downtown Highway That Could Drive Hartford’s Comeback

The Connecticut capital has been using zoning and transit reforms to stage a downtown recovery. But there’s one big thing in the way: an aging interstate.

Anthony Flint

Why Some Hawaiians Are Fighting a Massive Flood-Control Project

A flood could devastate the tourist zone of Waikīkī in Honolulu, but a federal plan to fortify the Ala Wai Canal has met with strong local resistance.

Timothy A. Schuler

The Book That Captured Mid-’70s Paris

Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris documented the tumult, traffic, and street life of the French capital over three days in 1974.

Ian Klaus and Daniel Levin Becker

How Ride-Hail Companies Can Help, Not Hurt, Cities

A veteran of municipal transportation regulation advises ride-hail companies on how to make cities into friends, not foes.

Dawn Miller


Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

(Seth Wenig/AP)

This weekend, Eddie Murphy reprised his classic Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood sketch on Saturday Night Live. It’s been 35 years since we’ve seen Murphy’s character, a satire of Mr. Rogers’ neighborly schtick. In this version, he sang about how New York City has changed since we last saw him: “I was gone for a bit but now I’m alright / My neighbors were all black but now they white.”After the song, Robinson gives a particularly blunt definition of “gentrification.” But we won’t spoil the joke, you can watch the full sketch here.

CityLab context: The gentrification of Gotham and how Mr. Rogers shaped the way a generation thinks about neighborhoods


What We’re Reading

The French cities trying to ban public advertisements (The Guardian)

One-day deliveries are breaking our cities (Fast Company)

Science explains why we should all work shorter hours in winter (Wired)

Verizon hits goal of launching 5G in more than 30 cities (The Verge)

Black, homeless, and burdened by L.A.’s legacy of racism (New York Times)


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CityLab Daily: A Plan to Remake Downtown Brooklyn

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More on CityLab

For Renters, a Powerful New Tool to Fight Eviction

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio expands tenant protections, a pair of U.S. senators introduce the Eviction Crisis Act to help renters get legal help.

Kriston Capps

Does Free Transit Pay Off? This City Will Find Out

The Missouri city is the first major one in the U.S. to offer no-cost public transportation. Will a boost in subsidized mobility pay off with economic benefits?

Laura Bliss

How Can We Combat Inequality and Build a More Productive Economy?

In this interview with Jonathan Rothwell about his new book, A Republic of Equals, he explains how U.S. racism helped create elite, highly paid professions.

Richard Florida

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

Weeks after opening near San Diego, a model town for treating dementia is set to be replicated around the U.S.

Amanda Kolson Hurle


What We’re Reading

“It feels almost like prison”: the developers building homes with no natural light (The Guardian)

Philadelphia has found a zoning tool to encourage hiring people of color in construction (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Twelve states and the District of Columbia introduce a plan to cap tailpipe pollution (New York Times)

Share Now, formerly Car2Go, is leaving North America (The Verge)

Stocking stuffers: 15 brilliant new books on design and cities (Curbed)


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CityLab Daily: The Maps That Made You, Dear Readers

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A hand-made map of an imaginary city, created by Pedro Bastos at 16 years old. (Courtesy of Pedro Bastos)

CityLab series editor Laura Bliss, and our audience team, Jessica Lee Martin and Gracie McKenzie, selected a few of the more than 100 submissions that spoke to the diversity of responses. Some wrote in about maps of bulldozed neighborhoods, essential workday plans, or fictional walking routes. Others just filled us with wonder, making us long for the sea or to learn about the paths of birds and bees. On CityLab: The Maps That Made You, Dear Readers

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

New York City Unveils a Next-Generation Trash Can

The winner of the BetterBin design competition is easier for sanitation workers to lift and deters bulk trash-dumpers. It could replace the ubiquitous green litter basket.

Linda Poon

What Have We Done to Lunch?

From the Automat to Sweetgreen Outpost, grabbing a bite during the workday has long sacrificed human contact and flavor to value and efficiency.

Sarah Holder

Why Dead Brands Live on in Japan

Cultural cachet, licensing deals, and density explain why Toys ‘R’ Us, Tower Records, Barneys, and other faded U.S. retailers remain big across the Pacific.

Laura Bliss

You Can’t ‘Open’ a Dive Bar

Hole-in-the-wall spots need time to evolve.

Naomi Tomky



What We’re Reading

You might be buying trash on Amazon—literally (Wall Street Journal)

The tax break for children, except the ones who need it most (New York Times)

Forget electric cars—e-bikes will be the top selling electric vehicle in the next decade (The Verge)

Trump’s plan to let big banks get a piece of the stadium scam (New Republic)

Among the world’s most dire places: This California homeless camp (New York Times)


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CityLab Daily: Trump’s Plan to Criminalize Homelessness Is Taking Shape

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What We’re Following

Wake-up call: On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case about whether local and state governments can make it a crime for people to sleep outside. That leaves intact a lower court ruling that deems such laws unconstitutional.

But the White House is still gearing up for its own aggressive approach to homelessness with a prominent role for law enforcement. Advocates say that they expect an executive order on homelessness that would assign new funds for police departments to remove homeless encampments and even strip housing funds from cities that tolerate these encampments. The order would be part of a broader federal strategy on homelessness. CityLab has obtained a list by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that narrows the federal government’s focus to 24 cities and states, all of which have large numbers of unhoused people living outside. CityLab’s Kriston Capps has the story: Trump’s Push To Criminalize Homelessness Is Taking Shape

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

The Maps That Made You, Dear Readers

From CityLab’s mailbag: Here are the personal stories about how maps shaped your lives.

Laura Bliss, Jessica Lee Martin, and Gracie McKenzie

Has the Rise of Uber Led to More Heavy Drinking?

New research suggests that ride-hailing is associated with increases in drinking behaviors in U.S. cities and metro areas.

Richard Florida

A City Map Made for (And by) Kids

“Growing Up Boulder” is the nation’s first printed kid-friendly city map, designed to help parents and children find their way in the Colorado city.

Mimi Kirk

What Does This Street In Zürich Mean?

If you see how cars, streetcars, bikes, and pedestrians use this Swiss street, you can better understand what’s wrong with so many other urban thoroughfares.

Norman Garrick


Reindeer Games

(Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

This month, a new Banksy work appeared in Birmingham, England, featuring a bench getting pulled by two reindeer like a sleigh. The anonymous artist posted a video to their Instagram featuring a homeless person sleeping on the bench. Banksy wrote:

God bless Birmingham. In the 20 minutes we filmed Ryan on this bench, passers-by gave him a hot drink, two chocolate bars and a lighter – without him ever asking for anything.

The Guardian reports the original street art did not include the red noses, as shown above, which appeared the Monday after Banksy’s posting. The new mural is now being protected from further vandalism.

From the CityLab archives: Why Banksy Is (Probably) A Woman


What We’re Reading

Inside Pete Buttigieg’s years-long, and often clumsy, quest to understand the black experience (Washington Post)

Detroit, the blackest city in the U.S., is facing an environmental justice nightmare (OneZero)

After a public housing fire, a lack of federal funding comes to light (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

How bike sharing became this decade’s biggest transportation success story (Curbed)

New York City suburbs lure millennials with luxury digs, ax-throwing bars (Bloomberg)


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