For Resort Towns, This Could Be a Cruel Summer

For Dan Dhooghe, a summer isn’t complete without family trips to the Wisconsin Dells. The self-proclaimed “Waterpark Capital of the World” has offered generations of Midwestern kids, including Dhooghe’s two boys, an enticing combination of water slides, fudge shops, duck boats, and kitschy entertainment, like Tommy Bartlett’s water ski and jumping boat thrill show.  

Dhooghe, a retired deputy police chief in Aurora, Illinois, and his wife, Linda, have made this central Wisconsin destination their annual vacation spot for the last 20 years. Sons Jason, 23, and Sean, 21, have long since traded amusement rides for golf courses, but they still look forward to spending a week or two unwinding at the family’s condo at the Wilderness on the Lake resort.

This year, the Dhooghes, like so many families, find their seasonal escape uncertain at best.

“It would be nice to be able to get away, but with this pandemic, you can’t go anywhere, no matter where your vacation home is,” he says. “It’s frustrating; you just can’t make any plans.”

The American summer vacation is in limbo, caught between a pandemic and a patchwork of policies attempting to balance sagging economies and public health risks. With spring gone and summer in peril, towns that rely on tourism dollars face an unprecedented economic challenge.

Emina Cardamone, director of forecasting for Tourism Economics, says she’s “never seen a decline like this” in the travel sector. Her firm’s baseline estimate for the U.S. travel industry is a 45% drop in business, or $651 billion in lost revenue. The American economy might be headed to a recession, but the travel industry is already in a depression, says Tori Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association. Last year, the industry employed more than 15 million people; by May 1 this year, this sector had already shed 8 million jobs.

Wisconsin tourism secretary-designee Sara Meaney says that the state as a whole has already lost $1.75 billion in tourism revenue this year. But getting the region’s vacation economy back on the road to recovery stands be more complicated than merely lifting stay-at-home rules. Governor Tony Evers’ orders closing businesses statewide had been set to expire May 26 but were struck down by the State Supreme Court on May 12, setting off a rush of planning by business owners to figure out how to, and if they should, reopen. (Some bars in the state opened immediately) Cases statewide have trended up since then, with 2,802 new cases in the week after the orders were lifted, with a new daily record of 528 reported on May 20.

For communities like the Wisconsin Dells, it’s far from clear when people will again feel comfortable in places like waterparks, theaters, and other attractions. Is an open sign enough? In the absence of clear government and health department orders, it’s been left to consumers to decide if it’s safe to load the family in the minivan.

Right now the Wisconsin Dells region, including the small city of Wisconsin Dells and towns like Baraboo, would have typically been coming off a busy spring break season, and gearing up for Memorial Day weekend. Within a few hours drive of cities like Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee, the area functions as one of the Midwest’s vacation engines. In 2019, the Dells posted its highest tourism earnings ever, $1.2 billion, according to Romy Snyder, CEO and president of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau.

“It’s become a generational thing,“ Snyder says, “Grandparents who came here in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s a real pleasure for them to bring their grandchildren and give them a glimpse of something they enjoyed as a kid.”

A woman slides down the Mt. Olympus waterslide at Wisconsin Dells, the self-proclaimed “Waterpark Capital of the World.” (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Instead, as Darren Hornby, executive director of the Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce, told a local paper, hotel occupancy is “close to nonexistent.” Chula Vista Resort plans to be the first to open its indoor water park on Friday, May 22, the start of Memorial Day weekend, Mt. Olympus Hotel and amusement park plans to welcome guests May 23, with others following in the coming weeks. Paul Schaller, a senior vice president at the Bank of Wisconsin Dells, which mostly serves the small mom and pop businesses that make up the bulk of the local economy, says they’ve already sent out $35 million in loans to 314 area businesses, via the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the federal government’s efforts to save small businesses.

“A full shutdown in an area like this is catastrophic,” he says. “Spring break is three to five weeks of business, which they won’t get back. We’re probably going to miss Memorial Day weekend, too. These are key, critical periods.”

The loss of tourism income ripples out across regions that depend on the industry, according to Chris Pike, an economic development analyst at Tourism Economics. When tourism shuts down, the businesses that serve those businesses — the bankers, printers, cleaners — all suffer. The combination of a loss in sales and lodging taxes, and a loss of income taxes, leads to a second wave of unemployment.

Rick Wilcox, owner of a popular magic theater and attraction on Wisconsin Dells Parkway, a main strip lined with other attractions, had to cancel his spring break shows, and hasn’t performed tricks publicly since businesses were ordered closed on March 25 (he’s been doing a daily magic show on the company website to entertain fans). “A lot of people are canceling their vacation plans, and I don’t blame them,” he says. “We really don’t know what’s going to happen yet. Most of the people living in this town run a tourism business, and if nobody comes this summer, a lot are going to go out of business.”

Even with the courts invalidating the governor’s stay at home order, he won’t immediately open his doors. He says he’s figured out ways to run a show in the 600-person theater by spacing out seating and eliminating any potentially dangerous audience interaction. But he needs potential customers in town to justify the cost.

“What business?” he says. “It’s a ghost town here.”

State tourism secretary Snyder says that Dells waterparks like Noah’s Ark and Kalahari, part of larger national chains, are working to deliver a safe experience to guests (neither would speak to CityLab), but it all ultimately depends on when families feel comfortable returning. A recent outbreak of coronavirus in a dorm meant for seasonal vacation industry workers didn’t inspire confidence.

“The Dells is the waterpark capital of the world for a reason,” says Meaney. “It’s a highly regulated industry, and all these businesses understand their livelihoods depend on protecting their customers.”

But state guidelines on reducing capacity and sanitizing rides between each use, along with policy suggestions put forth by the U.S. Travel Association, won’t bring people back to vacation towns if guests aren’t ready. Dhooghe and his family are wary, but he says he’ll rely on government guidance to decide if he should come.

“If the local authorities say it’s cool, we’ll head up there, as soon as we get the word to go,” he said a few days before the court’s decision. “We’ll wear masks and be socially distant, and as long as everybody else is doing the same, we’ll go on with the new normal.”

A family enjoys the beach at Silver Sands State park in Milford, Connecticut. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Plenty of other households that have made commitments to visit beach rentals and theme parks and other summer attractions are similarly clinging to their hopes. But the medium-term future of the family vacation remains deeply uncertain. And when summer destinations do reopen, they might well be transformed by the pandemic and the economic disruption it’s brought. Tourism Economics’s Cardamone says that any extended slowdown will threaten the colorful mom and pop retailers that define resort-town culture, potentially leading to consolidation. But there also may be an upside for lesser-trafficked destinations that can offer space and seclusion.

That’s the new pitch coming from Wisconsin state tourism, according to Meaney, which has changed its message to highlight the outdoors and the state’s natural resources, pushing the state’s forests, roughly 15,000 lakes, and outdoor recreation activities. The Dells region may benefit by pushing stays at nearby Devils’s Lake State Park. Camping revenue won’t come close to making up for lost dollars at theme parks, however.  

Omer Rabin, a managing director for the Americas at Guesty, a global property management platform, has a guess as to what may happen to the traditional summer vacation. Like so many other events on the 2020 calendar, summer might just be pushed back a few months. His firm is seeing record-setting advance bookings for the winter holiday season, including a 40% increase for Christmas reservations. Families are booking big houses in places like the Catskills in New York, Tahoe, or Napa Valley — markets within driving distance from big cities — for two-to-three week blocks, hoping to get multiple generations together. The optimistic assumption: By wintertime, it might finally be safe to be a tourist again.

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How Car-Clogged Houston Could Be a Climate Policy Leader

April was supposed to be a big month for Houston city planning. America’s largest unzoned city was poised to host the American Planning Association’s national convention for the first time, bringing thousands of attendees to town. Walking tours were arranged; awkward cocktail mixers were scheduled.

Of course, with a global outbreak of the coronavirus, it wasn’t meant to be.

Undeterred, Houston quietly adopted the Bayou City’s first citywide climate action plan on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. If city leaders can pull it off, America’s sprawling oil capital could end up teaching a lot to more traditionally green urban strongholds.

Houston is no stranger to the extreme weather events believed to be associated with climate change. In 2017, the city was slammed by Hurricane Harvey, resulting in over $120 billion in damage and 68 lost lives. In the aftermath, the city moved to expand stormwater management infrastructure and aggressively control floodplain development. The recently passed climate action plan takes a more proactive approach, setting out ways that Houston, which is one of the largest per capita greenhouse gas emitters among U.S. cities, can minimize its impact on the environment in the first place.

The plan includes plenty of mainstay climate-policy prescriptions, including calls to electrify the city’s fleet of vehicles, switch to renewable sources of energy, and improve energy efficiency in buildings. But then things become rather unique. The city’s first bicycle master plan, adopted in 2017, gets a lot of play, as does the MetroNEXT Moving Forward plan, a widely lauded $3.5 billion push to overhaul mass transit in the notoriously auto-oriented city. The emphasis on mobility makes sense, since nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and Houston maintains one of the highest rates of automobile use in the country.

Toward this same end, one of the plan’s more innovative proposals calls on policymakers to eliminate minimum parking requirements by 2030. While Houston famously lacks zoning — meaning that it doesn’t segregate uses or restrict densities — it still enforces some conventional land-use regulations. These include minimum parking requirements, which mandate that developers build off-street parking for each project, regardless of actual demand. In Houston, this can mean up to two parking spaces for every apartment or four spaces for every thousand square feet of office space.

Thanks to the pioneering work of urban economist Donald Shoup, minimum parking requirements have lately come under fire from affordable housing activists and environmentalists. The former note that the construction of an underground parking garage can raise the cost of an apartment by as much as $34,000. The latter point out that mandating parking bakes in resource-intensive sprawl, foreclosing the possibility of a more urban, less car-dependent lifestyle.

Several cities — including Buffalo, Hartford and San Francisco — have already scrapped minimum parking requirements. And in 2019, Houston itself moved to increase the number of neighborhoods it exempts from minimum parking requirements, dubbed locally as the “market-based parking” area. But most neighborhoods along the city’s major new light rail lines remain subject to the requirements, potentially undercutting walkable infill development.

In pursuit of less driving and more energy efficiency, the plan also calls on policymakers to rally behind infill. With the proposed “Walkable Places Ordinance” and “Transit-Oriented Development Ordinance,” a blend of improved sidewalks and light design guidance could soon improve the pedestrian experience in Houston’s potentially walkable nodes, reducing the incentive to drive. With minimum parking requirements gone, small patches of walkable urbanism could soon take root among some of the Sun Belt’s most notorious sprawl.

Indeed, Houston’s infamous lack of zoning could end up being one of its greatest assets in pursuing climate goals. Without all of the anti-density baggage that comes with zoning — from apartment bans to an onerous approvals process — there is relatively little standing in the way of a rapidly densifying Houston and all of the environmental benefits it brings.

The city has a long way to go before it becomes anyone’s idea of an environmental exemplar. But if all goes according to plan, Houston could soon rank among those cities that have scrapped out-of-date parking requirements — a group that conspicuously doesn’t include progressive stalwarts like Portland and New York City. In a city otherwise famous for its supposed lack of planning, easing up on the right rules might just turn Houston green.

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‘Cancel the Rent’ Could Be Just the Beginning

Laura Rodriguez starts each day with a prayer and hopes that her kids don’t see the anxiety that she says she is struggling to control.

Rodriguez lives in Aurora, Colorado, where six of her seven children are hunkered down with her, sheltering in place. Her husband runs the family’s small business: He works as a painter, usually as a subcontractor. A company owes him payment for some recent jobs, but the office is closed, so the check isn’t coming — and so far, neither is any federal aid. Bill collectors are calling. The stress is mounting.

“We’ve got two disconnection notices already,” Rodriguez says. “We did pay April’s rent, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen with May and whatever other months we still have to cover until the pandemic is under control and we can actually go back to work.”

For the second time since the country started lockdown protocols to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic, the rent is coming due. In a crisis defined by grim slopes on alarming charts of infections and deaths, rent day marks an ominous recurring cliff, with millions of families going over the edge each month.

Rodriguez worries about becoming one of them. But she’s also taking action: She’s working with the nonprofit organizing group United for a New Economy to try to cancel the rent in Aurora and across Colorado. “I would like for [Colorado Governor Jared] Polis to be bold. Stop evictions, the foreclosures, stop the rent increases and late fees and disconnection of utilities,” she says. “To stop all that, to be able to get back on our feet, at least until this pandemic is over.”

Colorado’s governor has directed landlords, banks, and sheriffs to avoid evictions, but without the power of a state order, it carries all the weight of a polite ask. The state’s coronavirus-related tenant protections rank among the worst in the U.S., according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. “As soon as this pandemic stops, these people [who receive eviction notices] are still going to get evicted,” Rodriguez says. In fact, it could happen much sooner.

United for a New Economy is part of a national grassroots effort to compel leaders at all levels of government to level rents right now. This national movement — launched this week under the banner Our Homes, Our Health — brings together housing groups, community organizers, and tenant advocates to convince federal, state and local lawmakers to to suspend all rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic. No other approach will work, say the advocates with the National Housing Justice Grassroots Table, a coalition of groups that includes the Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, Partnership for Working Families, and Right to the City Alliance. Other supporters of the idea include New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as well as Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, who earlier this month introduced a bill to suspend rent and mortgage payments through this crisis.

The organizers behind Our Homes, Our Health are also pushing to make rents fairer and more affordable after the lockdowns lift. “Going back to the status quo of how things were working before the pandemic is not a solution for a lot of low-income families and people of color,” says Chris Schildt, a senior associate for PolicyLink, a national research and social justice group. “The status quo was a perennial crisis.”

Our Homes, Our Health combines a number of longtime leftist policy goals, like pushing for social housing, with protections specific to the Covid-19 crisis. To address the pandemic, the platform calls for canceling the rent for all kinds of rental housing and expanding emergency options for people who are homeless. Once the immediate crisis passes, they want to see freezes on rent increases and other rent control policies. They also argue for a right for tenants to be able to renew their leases. Many of the items on this wish list line up with Eviction Lab’s Covid-19 Housing Policy Scorecard — which currently gives few states passing grades.

Over the longer term, the Our Homes, Our Health platform recommends a mix of existing tenant protections (such as just-cause evictions and a right to eviction counsel) plus deeper structural changes (requiring or persuading banks and landlords to sell foreclosed properties to community trusts). A few of the proposals enter the range of the fantastical — such as using eminent domain to “target AirBnbs, luxury housing, and corporate landlords.”

Still, the campaign acknowledges the strain that a national rent holiday would put on landlords. To protect these property owners, many of which are small mom-and-pop operations that work on slim margins, the campaign calls on lawmakers to both forgive rents and forbear mortgage payments. (While this strategy could have unpredictable consequences for the banking system, the Federal Reserve has already promised to backstop mortgage-backed bonds.) The platform goes further, describing a suite of policies — “Buy-Outs Not Bailouts” — to purchase distressed properties from landlords and transfer their ownership to public entities. The idea is to make social housing, not corporate speculation, the most likely outcome of coronavirus-related market chaos.

“How do we think of recovery in terms of building a better and more equitable system that works for all? That is what’s necessary in this moment,” Schildt says. “In 2008, we did not do that, and we’ve seen the consequences — the highest levels of inequality that this country has seen in 100 years and an incredible crisis of evictions and housing instability, especially for communities of color and especially for African-American women.”

Other housing experts have said that the best way to avoid any potentially disastrous unintended consequences is to keep money flowing through the system — to have governments provide relief to renters, who in turn lift up landlords, banks, bond-holders, and other pillars of the economy simply by paying the rent. But socialist organizers who yearn to decommodify the housing market are more likely to see the current crisis as an opportunity for creative destruction — a ladder out of the chaos that both rescues tenants and fundamentally changes their disposition.

This age-old debate about housing and wages is no longer academic. Such sweeping ideas are necessary, since the current trillion-dollar pandemic response packages have failed the most vulnerable households, the advocates say. The federal stimulus simply isn’t reaching enough families in need. More than 88 million Americans so far have received their promised $1,200 stimulus payments from the federal government, but tens of millions of people are still waiting for their checks. Plus, the one-time $1,200 payment — which works out to about a month’s full-time wages at the federal minimum wage — isn’t enough money to pay rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country.

Jane Cutter, one of the organizers with the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), participates in a rent cancellation protest in Seattle, Washington, on April 25. (Jason Redmond / AFP via Getty Images)

And while the federal government has bolstered unemployment insurance benefits, state-level systems have buckled under the pressure. Epic call waits to understaffed agencies and constant timeouts on flimsy application portals have hampered the federal Covid-19 response. According to new research from the Economic Policy Institute, for every 10 people who successfully filed for unemployment over the last four weeks, three or four eligible workers couldn’t get through; another two people didn’t bother because the process was so difficult.

That works out to 8 million to 12 million workers who still aren’t receiving any unemployment benefits. Another tenant-turned-organizer, Roberto Rodriguez, finds himself lost in that gap. His wife was working as a school bus driver for Orange County, in Orlando, but she was laid off last month when schools closed. She filed for unemployment, but she can’t get through. The last paycheck she received was a month ago.  

“We call unemployment, we call the governor’s office, we call all the representatives — everybody who can help — and basically, they all say the same thing,” Rodriguez says. “The system is down. The system is broken. It’s not meant for this.”

Rodriguez was driving for Uber, but his doctor says that isn’t safe for him right now: He’s a cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, so he takes immunosuppressant drugs. He also can’t get the federal government’s promised unemployment aid for 1099 workers. But if he and his wife can’t find support soon, he says he’ll have no choice but to drive again.

For now, Rodriguez is pouring his energy into Organize Florida, a nonprofit grassroots group. Families in Orlando could manage for the duration on $1,200 stimulus checks, he says, but not if they have to pay the rent. The May rent alone will absorb nearly all of that money, leaving little left over for food, healthcare, or utilities.

Unaffordable rents were already the rule for poor families across the country. Even before the pandemic, more than 71% of low-income households were severely cost-burdened, meaning that they paid more than half their income to rent. Now those families are facing homelessness — even if they are not evicted immediately. The steps to protect vulnerable renters only delay mass nationwide evictions.

“We already knew that we were rent burdened before the pandemic and the shutdown happened,” says Pam Phan, a national field organizer for the Right to the City Alliance. “Now that folks in even larger numbers have lost their livelihoods, we’re in a much different situation. Action had to be taken.”

No doubt, the shape of the reform-as-rescue operation put forward by Our Homes, Our Health is radical. It would almost certainly face a court challenge. But supporters say that rent cancellation will pass legal muster: It’s not an unconstitutional “taking” under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Penn Central v. New York City. As an answer to the immediate crisis, rent cancellation is turning heads. Local governments in Denver,, Seattle, and San Francisco have passed resolutions calling on their respective states to take action. A spate of cancel-the-rent protests have swept several U.S. cities in recent weeks. And some buildings and tenants are taking it upon themselves to organize rent strikes, official policy be damned.

As evidence for what organizers hope to accomplish, Phan points to the eviction and foreclosure moratorium passed in Massachusetts on April 20. It’s one of the strongest such emergency laws in the country; indeed, Massachusetts now tops Eviction Lab’s national rankings. Phan says that the local advocacy group Homes for All Massachusetts was instrumental in making it happen: The group had already established the relationships between the legislature, governor’s office, and local leaders that helped to build support for an ambitious solution.

“States like Massachusetts, even a week ago or a month ago, did not seem to think that across-the-board moratoriums were a possibility,” Phan says. “The years of organizing and development set us up for a really strong moratorium. That’s not where we’re going to stop.”

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What a Coronavirus Recovery Could Look Like

Michael Berkowitz is a student of disaster, and a guru on how cities weather them. As the former executive director of the nonprofit consultancy 100 Resilient Cities, and now as founding principal at the similar Resilient Cities Catalyst, he has worked with dozens of local governments around the world to plan for hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, disease outbreaks, and other social shocks.

Now, as a global catastrophe unfolds in the form of coronavirus, Berkowitz is trying to think ahead as he shelters at home in New York City. He’s looking for signs of how communities will survive the aftermath, as well as for opportunities to strengthen resilience now in the face of social and economic disruption.

“The key is to think about linking various objectives together,” he said over the phone. “How can one particular intervention succeed in strengthening a city across a lot of different areas?”

Berkowitz, who also served as deputy commissioner of New York City’s office of emergency management in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and has done global risk management at Deutsche Bank, spoke with CityLab over the phone on Thursday. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

First: Define this concept of resilience in cities. What is it, and how do you build it?

Urban resilience is the ability or capacity of a city to survive and thrive in face of disaster, any kind of disaster. It turns out that the capacities that cities — or states, or nations — need to survive and thrive in the face of all these different threats are pretty broad. It includes good infrastructure that promotes mobility and sustainable transportation. It’s also cohesive communities where neighbors check in on neighbors. It’s a diverse economy with a strong middle-class jobs base. It’s good governance with multiple stakeholders at a decision-making table. All of those things help communities overcome whatever the next crisis might be.

To build resilience, the trick is linking different goals together. When you’re doing economic development, how can you also make yourself better protected for floods? When thinking about mobility, how can you increase biodiversity or reduce exposure to extreme heat? When thinking about governance and community engagement, how do you build trust and confidence in elected officials so that in crisis situations people listen to and follow the advice of elected leaders?

What are the best examples of good governance you’ve seen so far in the coronavirus response?

Well, one observation is how governors seem to be having much more impact than mayors during this pandemic, because they’ve been able to have a remit across various administrative boundaries. In New York state, the first cluster of case was north of the city in Westchester County, in New Rochelle. By now, obviously New York  [City] has seen the majority of cases. But while the mayor has been important spokesperson, the governor has wielded much more power and has been able to unify the state around Westchester. It’s been the state that has acted more quickly around testing, setting up the drive-through testing sites, including one in the city.

So that’s been in an interesting example of state authority, which I never would have expected, by the way. In old East Coast cities, with their protocols and histories and legal authorities for public health emergencies because they dealt with smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, and other plagues of old, I would have thought that mayors would be in the driver’s seat with this. But it feels like governors are leading the charge.

How would you rate the resilience that the U.S. has shown so far?

Michael Kimmelman wrote this week in the New York Times about how pandemics are anti-urban because the things we value in cities, like density and connection, are the things that are least desirable during a pandemic. That’s true — but only in the response phase, which we’re in right now. The things that we need now are very particular: It’s public health surveillance and testing capacity. It’s the ability to innovate and produce therapies, whether those are vaccines or anti-viral treatments. It’s surge capacities in hospitals, whether it’s ventilators and masks or more beds. It’s the ability of the public to absorb and adhere to advice that we’re getting about protective measures to take.

But one way or another, in the coming months or later, we will break the chain of transmission. Then we’re going to look up and have our small businesses hurting or closed, our most poor and vulnerable people suffering, lots of people in the middle class who didn’t have safety nets or full-time employment looking for work, the stigmatization of various ethnic, racial, or demographic groups who we think might have done things to put us at risk — all of this is going to stress our society so significantly.

And when that next phase hits, that’s when we’ll see benefits of urban resilience — of neighbors checking in on each other, strong neighborhood institutions, diverse economies, good governance. Those things will pay off in ways that will let us rebound from this situation and hopefully let us build stronger communities.

The thing is, we’re still so early in. A week of staying at home feels like forever, but we’re just at the very tip of the iceberg in many ways. We’ll see which communities are more or less resilient in the next months and years to come.

What kinds of actions should communities take now to prepare for that second phase?  

I feel like it’s a little premature, since we’re still on a steep upslope of trying to flatten the curve and making sure our hospitals and medical system can make it through intact. But I will say that when Congress starts talking about delivering aid to people, institutions, and businesses, that’s when you start to think about the resilience-building opportunities we might have.

What might some of those opportunities be?

In the U.S., there is probably going to be a jobs stimulus. And that will likely come with a lot of new infrastructure that we build. That gives us this incredible opportunity to build more resilient infrastructure and to engage communities as we do it, since they’re going to live with it for generations. We should also talk about climate change mitigation and adaptation, because if we’re potentially going to get a whole new generation of infrastructure because of this pandemic, then we have to do it better than last generation. Meaning, like, no highways that segregate communities from economic centers.

We should also set new goals — we have the tools to think about economic development, public health, biodiversity, and flood control all at once. We have the beginnings of examples of what those types of projects look like, such as building large swaths of green infrastructure to protect cities from sea level rise, like the BIG U in Manhattan.

There will also be any number of different aid packages to promote economic development and community institutions, in and out of government. With the right guidelines we can make sure those investments work for multiple benefits. One example is how, after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans saw itself as overexposed to climate change as well as the petrochemical industry. Over the past five years, the city has tried to incubate a water management sector that the city could then export as a core competency, in the way the Dutch do. So how do cities diversify economies in a way that solves multiple goals, whether it’s racial justice or mobility or health.

One last idea — I haven’t thought too much about this yet, but it seems like we’re going to bail out the airline industry. Well, what if we took some of that money and dedicated it to high-speed rail? That’d be huge. And what if we used the bailout money to push airlines towards carbon neutrality sooner than they’d normally get there? They are a huge contributor to the climate crisis.

What a good idea. Congress, are you listening?

Right. I just know [U.S. Secretary of the Treasury] Steve Mnuchin is going to read this, call me up, and just get on this.

These are large-scale changes to improve the resiliency of infrastructure and economies — what about for individuals or neighborhoods? What can they do to strengthen our collective recovery?

Even action at really small scales can feel great and start to set an example of what is possible. You can imagine that if we’re in for a prolonged economic downturn our most vulnerable communities will feel that first and in the most pronounced ways. When these shelter-in-place or social distancing restrictions are lifted, people are going to come out in a real big way. Wouldn’t it be great if we harnessed some of that to improve what our streetscapes look like, in a way that adds greenery and reduces trash and just really improves things?

One example: There is great evidence about how taking small abandoned parcels of land and rejuvenating them can transform a community. A study published in JAMA from a couple of years ago surveyed people living near vacant lots that were cleaned up and replanted for just a really small amount of money. The researchers found a 41.5% reduction in people who reported feeling depressed, and a 62.8% reduction in poor mental health. That’s astounding. Small interventions can work. People taking initiative to make things better will be appreciated when this thing lifts.  

What are some other ways that individuals can help?

I do think that there is a lot to be said for patronizing local businesses and being intentional about that. Right now, Amazon is doing really well, and while I don’t want to talk badly about them, it’s worth thinking about the local small- and medium-sized enterprises which will be hard hit. And there might be some innovative ways to help them.

At 100 Resilient Cities, we had a really interesting platform partner called Colu, a cryptocurrency that lets you set up a local virtual currency as a way to reward different kinds of behavior. It let people get credits by participating in civic activities or volunteer work, and then they could spend that through local institutions. It was deployed in Tel Aviv. When we’re talking about depressed economies, that could be an interesting way of kickstarting things like civic participation, which I think will be really important.

It’s obviously true that more crises await us in the future — but one thing that is especially hard about this one is the total lack of certainty about the duration. It’s hard to imagine the future because the end of coronavirus — with all of its human, social, emotional, and economic costs — is so difficult to make out. As someone who has a lot of experience with disaster, do you have any advice or remarks for those of us struggling with the scale and uncertainty of all this?

I haven’t been through a big public health emergency like this before, but yes, I’d say a couple of things. One, we know there can be an amazing bond among people who survive things like this together. The sociologist Enrico Quarantelli found that in disasters and immediately after there is a lot of good will and community spirit. As many of us are seeing now and hearing anecdotally, people are smiling more and helping each other. This sense that we’ll get through this together is really important.

I’d also say that, again, I do think we’re going to have an amazing opportunity to transform ourselves, our communities, and our economies with all the stimulus that is likely coming. But ironically, and painfully, we might be least prepared to do that. In most disasters I’ve seen, which have been physical, there is just not the ability to think strategically in that way. Too often after a hurricane or a big earthquake, where communities have a real opportunity to think more holistically about how to rebuild, they just can’t — it’s just human to just put things back like they were and not make them better. In Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, or in Christchurch following their big earthquake, and in New Orleans after Katrina — in all of those cases, initially there was not the bandwidth to think about things more strategically until like five years down the line. Initially, there are just too many people hurting.

So that will be a big question. Will we have the strategic gumption to make things better?

That is the $1 trillion question right now for our leaders. So let me go back to a smaller scale. How can individuals prepare to hold their elected officials accountable to that kind of change?

After this crisis in particular, where transmission is person-to-person and your neighbors are potentially the ones getting you sick, it will be important not to just retreat behind our screens and phones. We know that cities with the strongest and most robust civic networks pull through the best in disaster — the more you know your neighbors and understand your community boards and really can get engaged, the stronger and more resilient you are.

If we can get engaged with each other, we can be more prepared for the next thing that is coming. Thinking really intentionally about how to build more resiliency with every intervention we take is going to be critical to taking this crisis and turning it into an opportunity. Just because we’re focused rightly on this incredible thing does not mean there are not more crises waiting for us. Because, look, hurricane season starts in June.

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

This is the second segment of a two-part Q&A with economist Jonathan Rothwell. Read the first part here.

In his new book A Republic of Equals, Gallup senior economist Jonathan Rothwell traces the forces driving the dramatic rise in inequality in the United States. In the first half of our conversation, we talked about how elite professions in the United States perpetuate inequality, both now and historically, and how this contributes to inequality and low productivity in the U.S. economy.

In this part of our interview, Rothwell addresses how unequal educational opportunities in the United States contribute to inequality, and he explains how a more just society would reward people for productive or otherwise socially valuable contributions while also taking care of the poor and those unable to work. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

In the book, you revisit territory associated with the controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve. You parse the connections or lack thereof between IQ or intelligence, education, skills, opportunity and economic outcomes. Tell us about this.

In The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray argued that IQ is important to many outcomes in life, that IQ is mostly determined by genes, and that racial differences in social status may be at least partly genetic. I criticize these views in the book in some detail, because I think they are untrue—especially the last two points—and have been detrimental politically and culturally.

We now know that IQ—which basically means how people perform on tests of literacy and numeracy—is relevant to the labor market and the sorts of occupations people enter. But we also know that other skills are roughly as important as IQ to the labor market. These include things like conscientiousness, extroversion, integrity, and emotional stability.

As for the genetic component of IQ, modern scholarship and actual analysis of genes has resulted in greater appreciation for the importance of environmental factors, which are now deemed the dominant source of individual variation in IQ and educational attainment. The most compelling evidence has come out since The Bell Curve was published.

We know that IQ and other measures of cognitive performance are strongly linked to the quality of educational experiences that people have—not just what students learn in a classroom but also what they absorb through their interactions with their parents and their communities and even in their neighborhoods. There’s now very compelling evidence that neighborhoods matter. When children are more or less randomly assigned to different neighborhoods, they have much different economic and educational trajectories.

Likewise, evidence from adoption studies suggest that growing up in more educated households where the parents are regularly reading to the children has a big effect on cognitive performance when they become teenagers and young adults. And evidence from immigration shows that when children from countries with very poor performing school systems come to the United States, if they come at a young age, they move up dramatically in terms of cognitive performance and IQ measures. But if they come, say, after age 10 or in late adolescence, the effect is much more muted. The obvious explanation there is that they’re benefiting from the higher quality educational experiences and exposure to the native population’s culture and resources to a greater extent when they spend more years in that country. All of that is pretty powerful evidence that cognitive ability is a very mutable outcome.

When it comes to groups, there really is no evidence to suggest that genetics has any role in explaining differences. I revisit the history of group averages in IQ scores and show that group scores have changed dramatically over the last 100 years. African Americans raised in the north before Jim Crow had higher scores than European immigrants—and, by the way, were heavily involved in coming up with inventions during the Industrial Revolution. Groups that, in recent years, have showed above-average performance on cognitive tests spent decades with relatively low performance, and there is no genetic explanation for how these patterns and reversals could have occurred.

Likewise, international evidence makes it clear that there are no groups of people who consistently outperform others. This is consistent with scientific evidence that genetic differences between ancestry groups are basically trivial and matches what we know about how social and political factors created opportunities for some, while suppressing opportunities for others.

So how much does education factor in here, and by that I mean unequal access to education?

Studies that allow for comparisons across school districts and communities certainly suggests that African American and Hispanic children and lower-income children generally go to schools that perform worse. We know that there’s a large gap there. And we also know that using more sophisticated measures, such as teacher quality, reveal large gaps. I find large racial differences in exposure to the highest quality classrooms in preschool. We also have very strong evidence that randomly assigning children to higher-quality classrooms or higher-quality teachers has a large effect on learning and on their cognitive performance on standardized exams.

To what degree is our access to education determined by location, where we live?

I’d say the first order problem in educational inequality is unequal access to neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are separated by zoning laws and the types of homes that are available. And that creates many other ancillary problems, the most urgent of which is unequal access to education. The consequences are that African American children in particular, and lower-income children generally, are stuck in the neighborhoods with the lowest-performing schools. And not just low-performing schools, but worse public goods and services on every dimension, including policing services.

If you’re African American, you’re far more likely to be arrested or incarcerated for committing a crime than someone living in a white neighborhood who commits the same crime. Policies like “stop and frisk,” which target African Americans and African American neighborhoods, create dramatically different enforcement than the what you find on college campuses: If you went to a fraternity party on any U.S. college campus you’d find high rates of drug use with nobody getting punished.

In a very intriguing chapter in the book, you talk about the need for merit-based egalitarianism. Can you tell us a little more about what you mean when you say that?

Skills and competencies do differ across people for a variety of reasons, but the variation is much less dramatic than the variation in income that we see in the United States. If people were paid based just on their productivity, we’d have inequality roughly like that of Sweden.

I think we can have a society that rewards people for productive or otherwise socially valuable contributions while also taking care of the poor and those who can’t work. If people were paid based on performance and we removed the political advantages that certain professional elites have carved out for themselves, we’d be much better off in terms of both inequality and economic growth.

Merit-based egalitarianism gives everyone opportunities to acquire valuable skills throughout childhood and eliminates the market privileges that come from uneven political power. Because the vast majority of people are perfectly capable of contributing to society when given a chance, this arrangement will result in an egalitarian society. There would still be rich people—because of extraordinary ideas, contributions, or luck, but their fortunes would be seen as essentially fair. Extreme inequality is unfair because so much of it is not based on merit. Low to moderate inequality could be fair and merit-based.

When most urbanists today talk about zoning they talk about zoning restrictions that limit density and make urban centers more expensive. But you say there’s another, more insidious side of zoning—exclusionary suburban zoning, which denies low-income and minority people access to better schools that white professional people have access to. Seems like this the bigger problem?

I’m much more worried about the exclusionary suburbs. Most cities have more relaxed zoning laws and obviously they are denser, so there are wide swaths of most cities that permit housing of any type. So they tend to have more poor people and low-income people and they’re used to accommodating diversity of economic buying power potential. The biggest problem is the suburbs. Upper middle-class people wanted to preserve their social distinction and so they moved out to the suburbs, carved out new jurisdictions, and made it very difficult for lower-income people to move there, by essentially closing off housing markets. That legacy is still very much with us.

What should we do to limit inequality and get out economy back on track?

A lot of the proposals being offered to reduce income inequality are focused on a 1950s version of the economy, where major U.S. multi-national corporations were dominant and their executives comprised a very large share of the rich. Now we’re in a world where there are fewer corporations than there used to be, and the types of people who have become rich include a wide range of professionals and people involved in finance as well as CEOs and managers of Fortune 500 companies. So we shouldn’t design policies that act upon the mistaken impression that the only rich people are leaders of multinational corporations: We also have to deal with the power of professional interest groups and industry interest groups.

The subtitle of your book is “A Manifesto for Just Society.” How do we do get there? What are the foundations of a truly just society?

Plato essentially said that a just society is one where people do what naturally suits them. To do that, you need equal opportunities for education and for skill development. They can’t be restricted by race or ethnicity or gender. You have to give everyone the chance to reveal their own talent. That requires a commitment to invest in everyone.

John Rawls argued that we need to prioritize the welfare of the least-off. Income inequality should be allowed to the extent that it benefits the least-off. To my mind, this is not is a critique of capitalism or of markets, but an empirical question about whether a market-oriented society can raise the long-term living standards of the least well-off. I believe the evidence suggests that it can, and a politically equal market-based society would create a more productive and less unequal economy, and a more just society.

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The Downtown Highway That Could Drive Hartford’s Comeback

HARTFORD, Ct.—If Connecticut’s capital city was looking to adopt a theme song, Elton John’s hit single “I’m Still Standing” would be a fitting anthem.

Battered by population loss and the departure of manufacturing and corporate anchors, Hartford has been on the brink of bankruptcy for several years. In response, the city has taken a sophisticated multi-pronged approach in plotting its post-industrial future: It’s implemented a series of zoning and land-use reforms, encouraged adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and improved mobility with new transit and better facilities for bike riders and pedestrians.

But in an illustration of how a mid-sized legacy city can work smart and still face existential challenges, Hartford finds another monumental task in its way: a crumbling piece of 20th-century infrastructure, a stretch of the Interstate 84 viaduct adjacent to downtown that is well past its expiration date. Completed in 1965, the elevated thoroughfare was part of the national urban-renewal campaign to ram freeways through downtowns, and it did extraordinary damage to Hartford’s urban fabric. The ideas for what to do with it now range from a plain-vanilla rebuild to a tunnel system more elaborate than Boston’s Big Dig.

Optimists might argue that the viaduct dilemma represents an opportunity for city-building on a grand scale. But most are unhappy—even resentful—about being stuck with this problem; it’s like working hard to rehabilitate a sore shoulder, then being told you need an expensive hip replacement.

Ultimately, the choices ahead will hinge on how much the state, and even more so, the federal government, is willing to invest. It will also be a test of the belief that a megaproject will truly save the day—or whether a more frugal and incremental solution would be the wiser path.

Interstate 84, shown under construction in 1964, cut a broad swath through the center of the city. (Hartford Public Library/Hartford History Center/Connecticut Digital Archive)

Hartford’s story is painfully familiar, of glory days giving way to poverty, crime, and abandonment. Founded in 1635, Hartford lays claim to a number of American firsts—the nation’s oldest continuously operated public art museum (Wadsworth Atheneum), the oldest publicly funded park (Bushnell Park), and the oldest continuously published newspaper (the Hartford Courant). Mark Twain wrote many of his treasured works while a resident there.

Through the turn of the last century, manufacturing and innovation was robust—Hartford gave the world firearms, typewriters, sewing machines, bicycles, and one of the nation’s first electric cars. The city also surged in the finance and insurance industries, earning the sobriquet as “the nation’s filing cabinet.” But the hard times arrived in the postwar period through the 1960s to 1990s, with a real estate collapse, a restructuring in finance and insurance, and a downsizing of defense contracts that accelerated manufacturing decline.

The exodus of tens of thousands making healthy salaries led to an inevitable hollowing out; the original G. Fox & Co. department store closed; the beloved Hartford Whalers NHL team left town. Aetna insurance—an important employer and symbol of local commerce— announced its departure to New York City in 2017 (though more recently promised to stick around a little longer).

Despite 11 years of economic expansion nationally, unemployment remains stubbornly high—11 percent at last check. Property tax revenue—the foundation of municipal fiscal health—has declined as the cost of city services increased. Hartford considered filing for bankruptcy in 2017, saved by effectively a state bailout on some debt. More support is unlikely as Connecticut struggles with fiscal woes, exacerbated by the departure of major companies like General Electric, which is moving from Fairfield to Boston.

Orchestrating a comeback has taken different forms. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Cities Challenge promotes worker retraining and education to develop appropriate skills in the transition to a more technology-based economy. City leaders also tried some standard economic development pump-priming—a César Pelli-designed science center that opened in 2009, a small reclamation of the Connecticut River, a convention center and hotel. In the late 1990s, Hartford almost became home to the New England Patriots, but the team withdrew its proposal and got a new stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

In the past few years, however, the thinking has shifted away from such silver-bullet schemes and more towards laying the foundation for more incremental, entrepreneurial development.

Led by planning chair Sara C. Bronin—wife of Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin—the city’s zoning code was completely overhauled, bringing down confusing and unnecessary regulatory barriers. (In one example of bureaucratic red tape, Hartford had different rules for factories making rice versus vermicelli.) Special areas were created to encourage adaptive re-use of abandoned industrial properties for small-sized “maker spaces.” Incentives were thrown in to reward energy efficiency and composting, and the city encouraged everything from hemp to beekeeping. Absurd minimum parking rules that required two or more spaces for each new residential home were replaced by parking maximums, plus guidelines for encouraging bikes and electric vehicles. Building is mostly now “as of right,” under a form-based code that does away with outdated rules separating uses.

Hartford’s downtown core is showing new signs of life. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

“We’ve really felt within the city we have to take matters into our own hands,” Bronin told me in an interview for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s Land Matters podcast.

Zoning reform is just one part of a broader planning effort. The city recently kicked off a new comprehensive planning process called Hartford 400—a reference to Hartford turning 400 years old in 2036. Surveys posed big questions to the citizenry about what the city should look like by that time. The Capitol Region Council of Governments, representing 38 communities and a population of nearly 1 million in the metropolitan region, started using the cutting-edge practice of scenario planning—making multiple projections into the future, to manage uncertainty and be more nimble in setting policy prescriptions or plunging ahead with physical interventions.

Amid all that earnest activity, however, the nagging question remains: what to do with the two-mile section of I-84 just outside downtown, which in an ironic reference to past glory is known as the Aetna Viaduct. Its projected lifespan ended in 2005, and engineers are now worried about catastrophic failure.

Replacement options under consideration include just fixing the viaduct so it is in a state of good repair ($2 to $3 billion), or lowering the highway with a series of decks ($4 to $5 billion). A study commissioned by the city calls for a more artful integration of the urban streetscape and the area’s existing rail and bus rapid transit system, known as CTfastrak.

From there, things get more creative. Connecticut Congressman John Larson seeks to bury not only I-84 in a tunnel, Big Dig-style, but also I-91 just to the east of downtown, in the process reclaiming waterfront property along the Connecticut River. The estimated price tag: at least $10 billion.

Yet another proposal would take the need to rebuild I-84 and combine it with the ultimate in big plans: a re-routing of Amtrak’s Acela through New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, and Worcester. Linking those post-industrial cities to New York and Boston via the Northeast Corridor’s popular high-speed rail service would open up economic development opportunities all along the way. Vehicular and rail traffic could be combined in a multi-level tunnel through Hartford, similar to Boston’s never-built North-South Rail Link, which was proposed to be bundled with the Big Dig.

That solution is found in the Rebooting New England initiative, a University of Pennsylvania studio led by Robert Yaro, president emeritus of the Regional Plan Association. The plan was inspired by the U.K.’s Northern Powerhouse scheme for the north of England, which includes $100 billion in infrastructure, downtown regeneration, applied research, skills training, and governance reforms to revitalize a similar set of older industrial cities from Manchester to Newcastle.

High-speed rail has great potential to link proximate hot-market cities, inherent in the proposed Cascadia route providing a speedy trip between Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia (and plainly seen in high-speed rail connections that have long been in place in Europe and Asia). A new rail route through New England would benefit not only New York and Boston, but all the left-behind places in between, Yaro argues. Planners need to look at these larger collections of cities as megaregions, he says—broader geographies that open up all kinds of possibilities as agglomerated housing and labor markets. Those priced out of Boston and New York could find more affordable housing in places like Hartford—as long as they have 21st-century transportation infrastructure to get to work.

“We all know cities are where young talent wants to live, and these cities in Connecticut have great bones,” Yaro says. Re-routing Acela through Hartford could cost up to $100 billion, and combining the rail with the I-84 reconfiguration would require billions more. But the payoff, he believes, would be activating a megaregion to its utmost potential. “The combined economy of New England and the New York metro region is $3 trillion—making it the fifth-largest economy in the world, larger than California’s. If the U.K. can afford to make this investment to rebuild its infrastructure and economic potential, why can’t we?”

Earlier this month, Connecticut officials announced that they will put the brakes on all plans to consider the bigger picture of the region’s transportation challenges.

All the while—and amid doubt that massive investment in infrastructure is forthcoming—momentum is growing for yet another idea: getting rid of the highway altogether and replacing it with surface boulevards—a feat accomplished in cities like Portland, San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Rochester. A similar process is underway for the Sheridan Expressway in New York City and under consideration for New Orleans’ Claiborne Expressway and in Syracuse, New York, to name a few.

The Congress for New Urbanism’s Highways to Boulevards database calls out the Hartford I-84 stretch as the perfect place for such a dramatic conversion. Backers of this approach say the surface boulevards could be designed to accommodate the roughly 175,000 vehicles using the current interstate system every day—and would avoid spending billions on an elaborate reconfiguration. “It’s time to stop doubling down on expensive urban planning mistakes and kick I-84 out of downtown Hartford,” wrote Connor Harris, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

So go big with a transformative megaproject, or find creative ways to make more incremental progress, similar to the successful efforts in zoning reform? That is the decision confronting one legacy city in its ongoing quest for regeneration. Planners are going to have to bring their best game to study the scenarios and keep the hope alive.

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How AI Could Change the Highly-Skilled Job Market

When most people think of the connection between technology and jobs, they think of robots and automation taking over relatively unskilled jobs like factory work. And thus, the biggest toll from these technological advances would be on already hard-hit manufacturing regions of the Rust Belt. But a new wave of developments in artificial intelligence may have a greater effect on high-skilled jobs and high-tech knowledge regions.

That’s the key takeaway from a new study out today from the Brookings Institution. The study by Mark Muro, Jacob Whiton, and Robert Maxim takes a close look at the potential of artificial intelligence—or AI—to automate tasks that until now have required human intelligence and decision-making. As they put it: “Unlike robotics (associated with the factory floor) and computers (associated with routine office activities), AI has a distinctly white-collar bent.”

The Brookings study bases its analysis on a set of “exposure scores,” developed by Michael Webb, a doctoral student at Stanford University, which essentially gauge the potential effects of AI on different jobs. In fact, Webb uses AI to study AI, using machine learning to search all U.S. patents to identify the capabilities of AI, and to connect that data to jobs and tasks that could be taken over by AI technology—tasks like certain medical diagnoses that doctors perform today. Brookings, in turn, uses those scores to assess how AI will affect occupations and places. In doing that, Brookings’ analysis quantifies degree of potential exposure but not whether it will be positive or negative.

What does the Brookings study find? First, while A.I. will likely affect a wide array of work and jobs, its largest effects will be confined to a much smaller segment of jobs. Overall, AI will, in some way, influence more than 95 percent of jobs. As the study notes: “Fully 740 out of the 769 occupational descriptions Michael Webb analyzed contain a capability pair match with AI patent language, meaning at least one or more of its tasks could potentially be exposed to, complemented by, or completed by AI.”

But, as the chart below shows, less than a fifth (just under 18 percent) of U.S. jobs, 25 million or so, are threatened by high exposure to AI. Roughly a third (34 percent or 48 million jobs) face a medium level of exposure; and a little fewer than half (48 percent or 67 million jobs) face low or no exposure to AI.

Share of jobs by AI exposure, 2017

But, AI is different from automation or robots in that it is more likely to affect higher-skilled work. This can be seen in the chart below, which shows that while AI is likely to affect manufacturing and agricultural work, it is much more likely than robotics or automation to affect higher-wage, higher-skill occupations done by college graduates, and people with advanced or professional degrees.

Average standardized AI exposure by education level, 2017

The next chart drills down further into the more fine-grained categories of jobs that will likely be affected most by AI. A number of lower-skilled occupations rank highly, like farming, manufacturing, mining, and construction. But also exposed are high-skill jobs like professional, scientific and technical services; information; and finance and insurance.

“High-tech digital services such as software publishing and computer system design—that before had low automation susceptibility—exhibit quite high exposure, as AI tools and applications pervade the technology sector,” the study points out. The jobs that are least exposed include educational services and arts and entertainment, alongside lower-skilled jobs in retail and accommodation and food service, that are personal services.

AI is also more likely to affect male, white, and Asian-American workers, because of their over-representation in professional and technical occupations, as well as prime-age workers (25-64), according to the study.

Average standardized AI exposure by sex, age, and race-ethnicity; 2017

AI is likely to hit hardest at a combination of leading tech hubs and older manufacturing regions. San Jose—the heart of Silicon Valley—tops the list of metros that are most exposed to AI. Seattle is fifth; Salt Lake City is eighth; Ogden, 10th; and Durham in the North Carolina Research Triangle, 12th.

Smaller high-tech hubs like Boulder and Huntsville, Alabama, are also highly exposed. Manufacturing metros like Detroit; Grand Rapids; Louisville; and Greensboro-High Point, North Carolina, face a high level of exposure, as well as smaller manufacturing centers like Elkhart-Goshen, Indiana; and Dalton, Georgia. And the Sun Belt metros Nashville, Atlanta, and Charlotte have high levels of AI exposure due to the significant presence of management and finance occupations, as well as some manufacturing.

Service economy and recreational metros—both large ones like Las Vegas; Cape Coral-Fort Meyers and Deltona-Daytona Beach, Florida; and smaller ones like Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Ocean City, New Jersey; and El Paso and McAllen, Texas, have among the lowest levels of AI exposure. AI is significantly less of a threat to smaller and more rural places than other forms of automation and robots, the study notes.

Top 15 and bottom five metro areas and NECTAs by average standardized AI exposure, 2017

History shows us the introduction of new labor-replacing technology does not occur in a vacuum. Not only is it typically associated with increasing worker anxiety, but also with a potent political backlash. In the early 19th century, the introduction of machinery in British factories fueled the Luddite revolution. The last wave of robotics and automation technology hit hardest at manufacturing jobs and regions, helping to fuel the populist backlash that elected Donald Trump.

The coming widespread use of AI could extend the kind of fear and anxiety felt by lower-skilled manufacturing workers and regions to more affluent and educated professional and technical workers living in many leading tech hubs. These workers and places have, to date, largely been spared by the previous wave of automation and robotics. Might an even larger political earthquake be in the offing?

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Instead of the Big Apple, NYC Could Have Been La Grosse Pomme

How would it have been if America’s most populous city had not been called New York, but something completely different? Such is the question explored by a new documentary being screened in the city itself this month.

While many people are aware of NYC’s earlier incarnation as New Amsterdam, few know that New York City’s future site was, in the early 1500s, already given a previous European title by the explorer Giovanni Da Verrazzano—the French name Nouvelle-Angoulême (“New Angoulême”). Screening November 12 in New York’s French Cinema Week, the film If New York Was Called Angoulême featuring historian Florent Gaillard, glances briefly at this tantalizing, largely forgotten connection between France and New York. It invites the viewer to think a bit about how things could have been, if both the French name and the French themselves had just tried to linger a little longer.

This early French encounter with New York was brief, but striking. Verrazzano became the first recorded European to enter the Upper New York Harbor in 1524, on an exploratory voyage up the East Coast from Cape Fear. Anchoring somewhere within the Narrows that separate Staten Island from Brooklyn on his 50-man ship La Dauphine, Verrazzano told of how he was greeted by Lenape people, and described their territory as the “most pleasant that can be told, suitable for all kinds of crops: wheat, wine, oil.” As for the Lenape themselves, Verrazzano found them beautiful people “[who were] very generous and give everything they have. We have made a great friendship with them. … they live a long time and are rarely sick.”

These words—poignant with little hint of what would be Native Americans’ subsequent experience of conquest, warfare, expulsion, and death by epidemic related to European colonists—were addressed to the French King Francois I. For while Verrazzano was from Tuscany, La Dauphine was a French ship, sent across the Atlantic with funds from the city of Lyon. Sailing under French colors, the explorer thus baptized Manhattan “Angoulême” in honor of Francois, whose title before his coronation was Count of Angoulême, the name of a small city in Western France that still retains a good measure of historic beauty.

While such dedications were common at the time—New York also got its later name in honor of an English duke and later king—it still seems like a bit of a slap in the face to the deep-pocketed burghers of Lyon. Francois himself probably never read the letter, anyway, because when Verrazzano dispatched the news to France, Francois was busy languishing in prison in Madrid after being beaten in battle by his arch-rival, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

After this flurry of activity, the newly named land of Angoulême largely falls from history, with later chronicles of New York tending to prioritize Henry Hudson as a proto-founder. The English explorer sailing under Dutch colors tends to get star billing mainly because his 1609 voyage up the Hudson was actually followed by Dutch settlement in New York State five years later—though in days gone by, the fact that he was a WASP may also have helped promote his official recognition over a Catholic Italian. Indeed, it’s arguable that, until the naming of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in 1964, Verrazzano’s great contribution to global geography was a mistake—namely his mis-recognition of North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound as the mouth of the Pacific Ocean, a misconception that endured in Europe for over a century. His imprint on New York is certainly slight to non-existent: the documentary has to make do with the carved stone fleurs-de-lys and salamanders—symbol of Francois I—that cover the front of Seventh Avenue’s Beaux Arts-style Alwyn Court.

Still, New York’s earliest European name lingers on somehow, as a tantalizing “What if?” What if Verrazzano had not just planted a flag, but actually founded a French outpost? What if the name he affixed to it had stuck? As French power in America’s northeast was extinguished in the mid 18th century, imagining a Francophone Grosse Pomme continuing up to today might be a bit of a stretch. But what if the French had chosen to settle and had held on to territorial control in the city for as long as the Dutch did? When they relinquished power in 1674, the colony of New Netherland had scarcely 4000 Dutch people in it. New York nonetheless ended up with a substantially Dutch-descended elite, a heavy scattering of Dutch place names, and the spoken language lingered on in greater New York City as late as the 1920s. If the French had been in place for as long a time, they might have likewise left the city with a distinct Gallic tinge, at least among its upper crust.

For the sanity of Americans living elsewhere in the U.S., it may be no bad thing that they didn’t—and that America’s Angoulême faded from memory. In the country that coined the term “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” to describe the French and invented the Freedom Fry, imagine how much more New Yorkers would be resented if they were not just considered pushy and brash, but also a little bit French.

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