“What we’re trying to do is help cities get a very clear perspective of how many people in their jurisdiction have what symptoms, and where they are. And we feel like if we can do that effectively, efficiently, rapidly and inexpensively, cities are in a much better position to deploy their resources appropriately.” – Kitty Kolding
With testing availability still limited throughout the country; cities, counties, and states need to find innovative ways to survey their citizens to better understand the spread of COVID-19 in their communities. Kitty Kolding’s company, Chrysalis Partners, has developed a new data collection tool called the Covid-19 Symptom Collector, which is designed to fill this gap. This interview was recorded on April 13, 2020.
Accenture analysts recently released a report calling for cities to take the lead in creating coordinated, “orchestrated” mobility ecosystems. Limiting shared services to routes that connect people with mass transit would be one way to deploy human-driven services now and to prepare for driverless service in the future. Services and schedules can be linked at the backend, and operators can, for example, automatically send more shared vehicles to a train station when the train has more passengers than usual, or tell the shared vehicles to wait for a train that is running late.
Managing urban congestion and mobility comes down to the matter of managing space. Cities are characterized by defined and restricted residential, commercial, and transportation spaces. Private autos are the most inefficient use of transportation space, and mass transit represents the most efficient use of transportation space. Getting more people out of private cars, and into shared feeder routes to and from mass transit modes is the most promising way to reduce auto traffic. Computer models show that it can be done, and we don’t need autonomous vehicles to realize the benefits of shared mobility.
In the early days of the U.S.’s coronavirus response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised everyone to steer clear of crowds and wash their hands more, urging “older adults” especially to stock up on food and medicine in case things got worse. The news from China was that Covid-19 had been more fatal among people who had underlying health conditions, and who were over 65 years old. The first wave of public health admonitions emphasized that strict social distancing measures were necessary to protect the vulnerable elderly.
Still, the lingering presumption that coronavirus is merely a disease of “old” people is having damaging consequences — witness, for example, the extremely poor social distancing adherence among Spring Breakers on the beaches of Florida this week. The calculus of pandemic suppression — and arguably, being a person in the world — means that everyone needs to be looking out for everyone, whether they’re old, young, sick or healthy. So far, the U.S. is failing this test.
CityLab spoke with Louise Aronson, the author of Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, to learn more about how the American relationship to age and aging is affecting the way we’ve understood the Covid-19 crisis, and how to recalibrate. Aronson is also a geriatrician and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
First, how are you? How is this crisis affecting you and your family?
So far so good. It’s just weird, it’s so weird — there’s both no time and more time and then you’re worried, but some things are totally normal. I guess that’s what they mean by unprecedented.
Are you going into work at UCSF anymore?
Basically they’ve said that everybody that doesn’t need to be in there doing stuff should go home. I am principally an out-patient clinician and I’m also an academic, so I work on a variety of projects. For clinic visits, the good news that came out today was that previously you couldn’t bill for telehealth visits for most patients because Medicare couldn’t cover it, but today they announced they’d cover it. Do you need a physical exam for some things? You do, even in this modern age, so some people may need to be seen, but a decent number of things hopefully we can manage well enough. What you lose sometimes in physical exam you might gain by not having more people not getting sick right now. It’s keeping the most vulnerable patients at home.
Public health agencies have recommended extra Covid-19 precautions for “older adults” and people with underlying conditions, who are more susceptible to a serious or fatal case of the virus. But we are seem to be seeing a lot of confusion about what that means. Can you help define what people mean when they say “old”? Both now, in the context of dealing with coronavirus, and generally?
As I’m sure most people know, this is a hotly debated issue. Among the youngest people, old is anybody over 30, of course, and among the oldest people, old is anyone over 85 or 90. There’s an old joke: “Old age is always 10 years older than I am.” I think a lot of people feel that way throughout the many decades of what I like to call “elderhood.” The way I’ve been thinking about it draws on human biology and changes in our physiology, in our risk factors, in our ability to handle drugs, in our immune systems, as well as by the way societies have legally and socially defined old age.
If you go back thousands of years and look at Iran or Egypt or Greece or Rome or China or Japan, “old” always comes in somewhere between the ages of 60 and 70. But if you tell most Americans in their 60s that they’re old, they’re going to say something along the lines of: “I’m still fully functional, etcetera, etcetera.”
Being old doesn’t mean you’re not fully functional. It doesn’t say anything about your function! All it speaks to is the number of years you have been alive and your biology. When people who are older — and they are the most likely group to do this, although some younger people do it too — and still functional say, “I’m still functional,” they are inadvertently contributing to the very ageism that leads them to make that denial.
What they’re saying is that when they — when we all — become less functional — which happens to anyone who lives into advanced old age, and most of us will — we no longer have value as human beings. We no longer deserve compassion and attention. And I strongly dispute that.
I don’t want to make this out like it’s a personal failing of anybody but it’s so universal. It is as universal as ageism itself, which we see in ebbs and flows throughout history and culture. I’m not blaming people, but I do believe we have a moment here. As our population shifts from one with lots of kids, fewer adults and almost no old people to one — barring disaster with this pandemic — that’s fairly equal people in all age groups, we have an opportunity to see old age more realistically.
People seem to be doing this for a couple different reasons. Some of them just don’t buy that this is a pandemic. There are certain news outlets and individuals who are perpetuating that myth, or have been. Based on where they get their info, they truly believe this is part of a plot by one party to oust the leader of another. They’re just misinformed — perhaps lethally misinformed, which is tragic.
And then there’s the other group, where if you don’t think of yourself as old and the restrictions are for old people, then going out almost proves your point.
Although the media is saying it’s “old” people, I know at my medical center it says “anybody age 60 or older.” That’s really based on the data from Wuhan, where we saw as late as January that the rates of death were very, very low in the young but that as your age goes up, so does your chance of dying — dramatically. With case fatalities of .2 to .4% in the young and nearly 15% in over 80-year-olds, the chance of death is around 50 times higher. So the risks are real, and yes if you’re more frail you’re more likely to die.
This actually is a teaching moment for geriatrics: In geriatrics we don’t deny that chronological age matters, but we also know that in terms of health risks and health outcomes, that age is one part of a complex formula that also must include your functional abilities, like can you walk a mile, can you go up and down steps, how strong is your grip. We know that these are tremendously strong predictions of health in old people, unlike in adults and kids.
A lot of people who think of themselves as healthy have high blood pressure, or have a little bit of heart disease but it doesn’t really influence their everyday life; they’re thinking, well, I’m not like a sick person with heart disease. But if you get the virus, you still have a 68-year-old heart.
I think our ageism is such that it’s putting people in a position of feeling the need to prove themselves. It’s almost as if, if they’re not out there doing things, then they’re one of those old people that doesn’t count. We have created that cultural reality, so shame on all of us.
On the other side of the spectrum, many younger Americans — at least at the beginning of the crisis — were less cautious. One theory is that they figured they were safe because they had a lower fatality rate. Was our response to this modulated by our perceptions of elderly people?
Maybe in some ways. Today I was just tweeting about this headline that said “Not just older people: Younger adults are also getting the coronavirus.” When you say “just” older people, it sounds like, well, it’s just killing old people, they’re all dying anyway. Which isn’t true. These are people working and living lives!
We say that the average life expectancy of an American is 79 years — there are huge differences by race and sex, but that’s the average. And if you look at the medians, half of Americans currently live past age 80. Which is a lot. If you’re a pretty healthy 85-year-old woman, chances are you’re going to live another decade. Most people would see an 85-year-old and say, well she’s on her way out anyway. But she had another decade of life.
I firmly believe that if we do more planning population-wide — but also are smarter about older people and target them in ways that aren’t just diminishing but are empowering, as we all want to be targeted — maybe we can prevent some of the illness and not get to the point where we have to take these draconian measures.
Some of the most shocking reports out of Italy came from hospitals where there weren’t enough ventilators for everyone, so doctors had to start triaging patients — making hard choices about who should get further care and who wouldn’t, based on their condition and often, their age. How do you think U.S. hospitals will approach a situation like this?
We’ve rarely done it, except for in war, and some people would consider it quintessentially un-American.
At the same time, we’ve been pretty slow to respond. There were clear messages from the people who can do modeling of epidemics and who understand viruses; the sorts of scientists and experts who have been routinely devalued in recent years. Had we listened to them — and had we still had an office in the federal government that dealt with this, instead of having certain leaders lying about the threat — that action would have made the sort of rationing we consider un-American not necessary.
Are there still steps we can take? Yes, and I think a lot of brave leaders are taking steps. We’re all sheltering in place [in San Francisco], and not everybody’s listening to that, but we should all as citizens be doing everything possible. In every family we can probably find people — not just older people — who are at risk. Because once you start devaluing people based on one characteristic, then you have precedent with which to devalue other people.
How should we be looking out for our communities right now, regardless of age?
In San Francisco, homelessness is in every single neighborhood now. The income inequality is blatant — and that’s before this. I think there are lots of groups we’re looking at here.
There are levels of things you can do: There’s showing support and care, which frankly has been proven to make everybody healthier, strangely. There’s actual practical support, like people in apartment buildings can knock on the door of the older neighbor and say, “Hey can I do anything for you?” I’m seeing interesting things online about being at stores and finding either poor families or older people who can’t afford their groceries and paying for them — if you can afford to do that, it’s a lovely thing to do. We can keep the social distance and still be helping out.
Totally. Think of creative ways to be supportive. There’s pretty good data that people that behave that way are happier than people who are mean. It’s kind of a win-win.
Also: If you’re out and about, because you feel that you’re safe to do so, you should be cleaning. Clean door handles! Wash your hands those 20 seconds with hot water and soap! Most of us have someone in our families who is old, and most of us will become old. We are right now creating our futures by our behavior.
In the past two days alone, two African-American NBA basketball players have tested positive for coronavirus, and several cases have turned up among native populations in both African and Carribbean countries, puncturing any theory that black people are immune to the disease. Yet the memes persist.
So NONE of these Corona Virus cases have been black people?! LEMME FOUND OUT WE IMMUNE. It’s the least God can do after slavery.
Statements like this one are surely made in jest. But there are at least some instances of actualscientific or medical arguments, which outlets including Reuters and Politifact have already debunked. While some may argue that the jokes, at least, are harmless, U.S. history evinces how unsubstantiated claims about race-based resilience to disease have led to devastating outcomes, particularly for African Americans. The impacts of such beliefs still affect how people of color are medically treated — or not — today.
The 18th-century yellow fever outbreak in the Americas is instructive here. In the 1740s, yellow fever had overtaken coastal port cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, driving people into delirium, endless vomiting, hemorrhaging, and eventually death. The physician John Lining recorded his observations about the diseasein Charleston after inspecting slave ships and their cargo —including captive Africans — finding that it was almost exclusively white people who were succumbing to the disease. These observations helped reinforce already-stirring beliefs thatAfricans had some kind of supernatural inoculation to some of the deadliest diseases floating along the American coast.
Lining’s medical briefs became the reference manuals for another physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, when in 1793 a yellow fever outbreak took hold of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which at the time was the nation’s capitol. Close to 20,000 people — half of the population — fled Philly that year, while many African Americans actually stayed in the city at the request of Rush, who wanted to train them to nurse, care-take, and dig graves for the thousands of people dying of yellow fever.
Rush was operating on the belief that black people were immune to the disease, and black Philadelphians believed him when he told them that they were. Rush not only was an outspoken abolitionist, but also friend of the black clergymen Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, founders of the African Methodist Episcopal church, and two of the most influential African Americans of the time.
Jones and Allen helped convince black people to stay behind to assist Rush, telling their congregations that it was their Christian duty to help care for the lives of white Philadelphians. But Rush was wrong. Many of the African Americans in his medical camp contracted the disease. Hundreds of them died. Allen became afflicted and almost died himself. While Rush was a highly respected doctor — the American Psychiatric Association would later title him the “father of American psychiatry” — he was relying onfaulty claims about race and health conditions that proved fatally wrong. The Philadelphia massacre became an abject lesson in what happens when race gets bandied about amidst the rages of a major health maelstrom.
As Dr. Rana Hogarth wrote in her book Medicalizing Blackness about the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia: “The idea of innate black immunity placed an undue burden on the city’s black inhabitants. For those black people who did stay behind to help, it meant buying into a belief that at its core defined their bodies as being distinctive and unequal to whites.”
This is why Hogarth bristles a little every time she sees memes fly by on Twitter or Facebook pointing outfewer documented cases of coronavirus in Africa, or fewer deaths of African Americans, as indications that black people are somehowimpervious to the disease. Such statements, whether made literally or comically, are rooted in racist beliefs that hearken back to the 18th century yellow fever disaster that almost decimated black Philadelphia.
“I can understand the idea of saying black people as a group have suffered so much, particularly if we look at medical history, that we’re going to flip the script,” said Hogarth. “But let’s just pump the brakes on this because there were very real moments in history where African Americans were believed to be immune or were peculiar in some way, and it wasn’t seen as a bonus. It was actually seen as, ‘OK, now you have to stay behind and put your lives at risk because we just assume you won’t get this,’ and that’s the part where I kind of pause and say, OK, this is not good.”
Medical theories about black immunity persisted after the Philadelphia yellow fever outbreak, refortifying political and economic justifications for keeping Africans enslaved. The thought was that black people are best suited for chattel labor because of their ability to fight off attacks on their health, even though the Philadelphia case disproved that. Some medical authorities attempted seemingly savvier takes on black immunity, adding that this superpower was linked not just to race, but to proximity to certain geographic locations and climates, mainly in the tropics. Those takes ended up as part of the Confederate South’s arguments for preserving its plantation and slave-based economy.
The climate-based argument was that certain deadly diseases couldn’t survive in warmer temperatures, which happens to be the same argument that a cruise ship line made recently about coronavirus, to convince people to keep booking trips with them. As the Miami New Timesreported on March 10, Norwegian Cruises ordered sales workers to give customers scripted lines such as: “The coronavirus can only survive in cold temperatures, so the Caribbean is a fantastic choice for your next cruise,” and, “Scientists and medical professionals have confirmed that the warm weather of the spring will be the end of the coronavirus.”
There is no scientific evidence that coronavirus is vulnerable at any temperature, just like the claims of earlier centuries that diseases like yellow fever can’t survive in tropical conditions or in tropical people were either overblown or flat-out false. The only thing that inoculated a person from yellow fever back then, says Hogarth, was actually contracting the disease and being lucky enough to survive. Since yellow fever originated in mosquitos native to West Africa, the black-immunity truthers of the time didn’t take into account how many Africans may have died from the disease in their native lands. Today, almost all cases of yellow fever (90%) occur in the tropical areas of Africa and South America.
Beyond climate and geography, ideas about race and health powers continued to flourish throughout the 18th century among white medical professionals, taking as gospel declarations that black skin was thicker than white skin, which emboldened doctors to experiment on black bodies. One major medical idea percolating back then was that black people feel less pain and suffering than other races — an idea that became the underpinning for the surgical experimentations that Dr. James Marion Sims performed on black women in his quest to perfect procedures for fixing incontinence and reproductive problems. Today he is considered the “father of gynecology,” though monuments of his likeness have recently been taken down in recent years.
For Hogarth, the way race was treated inhealth matters back then informs how we talk about both today, and not often in ways that illuminate the actual impacts of particular diseases on black people.
“So for example, you know when people say, ‘Oh the black women’s maternal mortality rate is appalling — a much higher rate than for whites,’? It’s good that we recognize that, but can we not make it about there being something wrong with black women?” said Hogarth. “Can we say that maybe black women are more likely to be discriminated against, to not be taken seriously, to have their complaints ignored than white women?”
Race, or rather racism, and health have also spelled doom for Chinese Americans. Unlike black people, they have not been deemed uniquely indestructible, but rather uniquely susceptible and contagious when it comes to disease. In the early 1900s, Chinatown was burned down in Honolulu out of a belief that the neighborhood was spreading the disease.
“Personally I find the xenophobia and anti-Asian responses very troubling because the quick move from epidemic control to racist or otherwise discriminatory practices of public health has a long history and we seem to be on the precipice of writing a new chapter in that history,” said Alexandre White, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University also affiliated with the university’s department of the history of medicine. “That should be a concern not just for people of Asian descent, but any group that has been marginalized or oppressed for any reason. We can today see a lot of commonalities around racist discourse around Covid-19 and broader ideologies of racism throughout history.”
Much of that racist discourse was incubated during that 18th century medical era response to the yellow fever outbreak. Race was used to formulate policies around who should and shouldn’t be exposed to a deadly disease, and then race was weaponized in the disease’s aftermath to determine who was responsible for it.
“In Philadelphia, [they] did what [they were] supposed to do, and look at what they get in return,” said Hogarth. “Their work is part of this long history of exasperation among African Americans who are saying that we are tired of trying to be part of this society even when we are excluded deliberately, and what we get is a minimizing of our suffering, and then blamed when things don’t go well.”
TULSA, OK — Obum Ukabam sits suctioned to his laptop in the middle of an open-plan coworking space, quietly typing. With its vaulted ceilings, rows of elbow-to-elbow workbenches and a Spotify-Chill playlist, the office exudes a vibe you might find in many a major U.S. city. And Ukabam could do his job from any of them.
This particular office, though, happens to be in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That’s where Ukabam and his wife moved last spring, sight unseen, after 10 years in Southern California.
The transition wasn’t made on a whim. Ukabam is a member of the first inaugural class of Tulsa Remote, an initiative launched in November 2019 that pushed people untethered by office jobs to pack up and move to Oklahoma. Those like Ukabam who work remotely and got through the competitive application process were promised $10,000 in installments over the course of a year, plus cheap housing and an upgraded social infrastructure.
The program reflects a new economic development strategy that Tulsa is among the first to pilot. Traditionally, cities looking to spur their economies may offer incentives to attract businesses. But at a time when Americans are moving less frequently than they have in more than half a century, and the anticlimactic race to host an Amazon HQ2 soured some governments on corporate tax breaks, Tulsa is one of several locales testing out a new premise: Pay people instead.
Similar programs are being tried in Vermont, northwest Alabama, and most recently Topeka, Kansas, each with their own variations.
Funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, an influential Tulsa-based philanthropy, Tulsa Remote is designed to put the small city on the national map, and shock it with a jolt of new energy, pulled from the outside in. It’s yet another step in Tulsa’s recent quest for self-improvement, as the erstwhile oil boomtown tries to boost its population and plant the seeds of a new generation.
Some of Tulsa’s most prominent updates are visible in the city’s aesthetics and infrastructure: In the past 10 years, a mix of public and private dollars has helped build the sprawling $465 million Gathering Place park, a new Bank of Oklahoma convention center, and a revitalized Arts District. There’s a plan to build out more parks on the banks of the Arkansas River. A sprinkling of new breweries has appeared, emboldened by a recent relaxing of strict state liquor laws.
Much of this new developmentseems engineered to look like a Millennial playground. The problem, says Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, is there just aren’t enough people to play in it. After peaking in 2016, recent census data showed Tulsa lost population in 2017 and 2018, evening out at about 400,000 residents today.
Tulsa’s change in population mirrors Oklahoma-wide trends of slowing domestic migration and increasing out-migration for the past three years; almost all of the exodus is made up ofpeople who are highly educated or of prime working age.
“The last few years have been the slowest population growth [in the state] since the late ‘80s, early ‘90s,” said Chad Wilkerson, branch executive of the Kansas City Fed’s Oklahoma City Branch office. “A good amount of it driven by the downturn of the energy sector in 2014 and 2015, and people seeking jobs elsewhere.”
As brains drain statewide, Tulsa is trying to plug the holes.
“The citizens of Tulsa have invested substantial public funds to build the types of things that we believe make Tulsa a more appealing place for a new generation of workers,” said Bynum. “And the Tulsa Remote program is really a great way to introduce the very kinds of workers that we’re hoping to appeal to, to the city that we’ve been building for the last decade to appeal to them.”
Convincing taxpayers of an experiment like this is easier because they aren’t being asked to foot the bill, Bynum says. The George Kaiser Family Foundation has used millions in private dollars to buoy the transformation, giving the foundation its own incentive to lure its pick of folks in.
“Mayors come and go,” said Ben Stewart, who works on childhood education for the George Kaiser Family Foundation. “But we’ve been a stabilizing force.”
If the lifestyle doesn’t draw thesepotential newcomers, the home prices might: Though the market is hot, according to Zillow, the typical home still sells for about $150,000, and the typical apartment rents for under $1,000.
A year after Tulsa Remotelaunched, the first participants — a mix of expats from expensive coastal cities, wanderlusty young adults, and those with roots in the region — say they’ve found many ofthe things they were looking for: a more comfortable and affordable quality of life, new neighbors they like, enough of an economic cushion to ease the stress of buying new furniture, and a fresh start. Many say they’ll stick aroundpast the end of the one-year program. More than that: Some of them tell stories of positive personal transformation that are so dramatic, they might appear too perfect, almost canned. But after checking in with participants over the course of eight months, I found that many of them remained just as effusive. Maybe it’s something about Tulsa. Or maybe it’s something about Tulsa Remote.
When he lived in California’s Moreno Valley, Ukabam said he was slowly getting “beat down by life.” He’d sit at his computer, developing webinars for a company based in Los Angeles, about 60 miles away. Only brief calls to coworkers broke up the solitude of his workday.
Then he moved to Tulsa. He still did the same remote work. But because of the flexibility of that work, the rest of Ukabam’s life started to change. Now he’s directing, writing and acting in plays. He coaches a high school debate team. He helped open a new local branch of a national nonprofit, and is starting a new organization focused on empowering youth of color, which he plans to run right out of the coworking space, 36 Degrees North. He’s thinking of starting a family, something that was so expensive in California, it seemed selfish. He goes multiple places a day — work, Walmart, the Tulsa Ballet — and doesn’t have to worry about traffic!
“I feel alive again,” he said, ebullient under the fluorescent lights of the office.
Remote workers like Ukabam make upone of the fastest-growing employment sectors in the country. According to an analysis of U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the remote work consultancy Global Workspace Analytics and Flexjobs, telecommuting grew more than 150% between 2005 and 2017. This year, the American Community Survey found that the fastest-growing commute was no commute, as work-from-home arrangements become more popular everywhere.
“It used to be that talent went where the jobs were,” said Aaron Bolzle, Tulsa Remote’s executive director. “That’s shifting.” Now, he says, it’s the responsibility of cities to create a community that someone would want to call home, and make sure people know to move there.
Data show that’s easier said than done. In 2018, fewer than 10% of Americans had moved in the previous 12 months, changing residences at the lowest rate since 1948. The kind of money Tulsa is offering isn’t enough to convince most people to pull up stakes, either: As a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found last year, “the average American perceives not moving as worth a sacrifice of more than 100% of income.”
To find the more mobile-than-average workers, Tulsa Remote cast a wide net. The only requirements: Applicants had to be over 18 years old, work remotely for a company based outside of Tulsa, and be eligible to work in the state. But given the high level of interest—“you have better odds of getting into Harvard or Yale than you do of getting into the Tulsa Remote program,” Bynum said—the selection committee, which didn’t include the mayor, could afford to be picky.
As Bolzle sifted through the 10,000 applications he received last year, he looked for a very particular kind of person. Someone who’d make a “positive impact.” Someone who’d be an “intentional participant in the community.” And most of all, someone who’d stay.
One “Remoter,” as they’re called in the Tulsa program, is a Harlem Globetrotter. Another runs an online finance site, helping people maximize their credit points.Others work in education, and online marketing, and consulting, and media. Of the 100 participants who were originally selected, 70 accepted Bolzle’s offer, and two left within a few months of arriving to the city.Forty percent of those selectedwere people of color, Bolzle says, though only 30% of those who chose to move were. The gender breakdown is closer to 50/50.
Among them was Christina Springer, a behavioral analyst for an educational platform who grew up in Northern California but has extended family in Norman, Oklahoma, who had been trying to get her to move back to the region for years. She’d settled in Louisville, Kentucky, and “pretty much avoided Oklahoma” until her aunt nudged her to apply.
Joanna Schreck, an operations manager anda proud member of the Yelp Elite for her ardent restaurant-reviewing habits, had already left a big city (New York) for a smaller city (Indianapolis), so she decided to do it again.
Paul Gavin, a 29-year-old who creates online compliance training videos, applied after seeing a post about the program on Hacker News, and completely forgot about it until he got invited to interview. By May, he’d decided to leave L.A.
It was too expensive for Daryl Misrac and Dennis Howell to move in together where they met in L.A., but in Tulsa they found a three-bedroom, two-and-a half-bath for $1,200 a month. (Howell is the one who’s technically a Remoter, but the couple both work remotely.)
The endgame of Tulsa Remote is that these residents will help build a flourishing new economic ecosystem in town; they’ll start families and launch start-ups and tell their friends to come join them. There’s a “multiplier effect” expected of a project like this, even if the workers aren’t employed by Tulsa-based companies, said Pamela Loprest, a senior fellow and labor economist in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “They’ll create other jobs and [draw] other people into that area.”
On a warm Thursday night before Halloween, dozens of families cuddled up to watch a screening of Hocus Pocus on the sloping grass lawn of the Guthrie Green, a George Kaiser Family Foundation-funded park project in Tulsa’s Arts District. On one corner sits the Woodie Guthrie Center, marked by a mural of Guthrie holding his guitar that reads “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Its entrance is framed by Lime scooters, and the street beside it is torn up with construction. Nearby, there’s a bar called Valkyrie, which invites patrons to order by reciting a collection of taste adjectives that are translated into a bespoke beverage. By Saturday morning, the families on the Green are replaced by a couple of homeless residents who wander the block, asking for change.
The scene reflects the city’s contrasts — and its growing pains. Tulsa is still known nationally for the Race Massacre of 1921, which tore the city’s once-vibrant Black Wall Street apart. It left 300 black residents dead at the hands of a white mob, and up to 10,000 homeless. Symbolically, the city is attempting to grapple with its violent legacy with grace. It has convened a Centennial Commission to memorialize the lives lost in 1921 and honor Tulsa’s rich black history. And after decades of denial, local schools have brought those stories back into their curricula.
What Tulsa hasn’t yet repaired is the economic damage born from years of racial animus and the lopsided legacy of urban renewal. The city is still one of the most highly segregated in the country, with 41% of its black residents and about 20% of its Hispanic residents concentrated above Interstate 244, which severed the city to create the majority-minority neighborhood of North Tulsa when it was built in 1967. Those tracts are also home to the poorest Tulsans, according to Human Rights Watch, with 35% of its residents living in poverty compared to the citywide rate of 17%.
At its current scale, a project like Tulsa Remote is designed primarily to solve an economic and reputational problem, and doesn’t claim to have a chance of resolving those deeper tensions. More ironic is the program’s emphasis on domestic migration, as the Oklahoma legislature seeks to ban sanctuary cities in the state, and Tulsa debates its Sheriff’s Office agreement to turn over undocumented immigrants to ICE.But collecting a group of coastal wanderers may inevitably have political ramifications in a purple city that could affect what policy changes are possible.
Bolzle says he isn’t necessarily trying to get a bunch of liberals to move to Tulsa and turn the city blue. But the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s other citywide projects—early childhood education facilities, a vast manufacturing and industrial business park planned for the predominately black North Tulsa, and public housing renovations—more explicitly take equity as their goal. “After the 2016 election,” a lot of people were filled with this sense that “I don’t know my country,” said the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s Stewart. What better way to know it, he suggested, than to move to the middle of it?
The implications of moving to Oklahoma worried a few of the Remoters I interviewed, especially those who were concerned for their reproductive rights in a state where 96% of its counties have no abortion clinics. Ukabam, who is African American, said he had “PTSD” from his experiences with racism growing up in the Midwest, and feared it would follow him and his wife here. (It hasn’t, he says.)Kate Wilson, who works for Cornell University as an enrollment advisor, told me that she was expecting something smaller, more conservative, and less cosmopolitan.
But the prospect of spurring “social change” was attractive. Bynum, a Republican who starred in a TED Talk about the power of dismantling partisan rhetoric through data, ran for mayor only 10 years after moving back home to Tulsa, and says the tight-knit nature of the city makes it an especially easy place to make waves.
There’s disagreement over what kind of transformative impact any small group of out-of-towners can — or should — have on a community with an identity of its own. “Tulsa Remote isn’t the ‘hail Mecca’of people coming in and saying, ‘Let me fix this city,’” said Wilson. “Tulsa is not that broken.”
One Friday night, a group of Remoters squeezed onto a bench under a vaporwave-tinted tent, gripping beer pints. Corralled by the inexhaustibly affable Bolzle, they’d all traveled to Tulsa’s annual Oktoberfest celebration via school buses, sitting two by two. The couples do-si-doed and conga-lined, and sang along to Dorfrocker, a German band flown in for the occasion.
The program is set up to foster this kind of curated collegiality from the start: Bolze and his team organize happy hours and trivia nights and outings to citywide celebrations. There’s a Slack channel and a newsletter and constant group texting.To facilitate interaction with the rest of the city, Bolzle started a Facebook group with the Tulsa Remote crowd and about a hundred local friends and acquaintances, hand-picked to offer authentic recommendations.
The result is a built-in community that, for those who choose to embrace it, makes moving across the country a bit like going to college, or summer camp.
“You’ll be sitting there, talking to someone — maybe you’re talking about going apple picking or something, and somebody on the other side already has it planned,” said Wilson. “The responsibility probably has fallen on all of us in our own social circles to be the organizer, whereas here it’s, you can literally sit back and say, plan it. And everyone does.”
Despite efforts to burst the remote-worker bubble, a few have remained trapped inside it. Most days, Gavin, the one who moved from L.A., posts up at a coffee shop and works. At night, he tinkers with his burgeoning cryptocurrency start-up or meets up with friends he knows through Tulsa Remote to go bowling or get a drink.
“I wouldn’t say that I made friends with local Tulsans and I would like to, for sure,” he said.
He senses that there’s a real optimism here for what’s to come, but right now, Gavin says Tulsa feels like a blank slate. “It’s not really the South. It’s not really in the Midwest,” he said. “It’s kind of a little of a cultural void — that’s what it’s felt like to me.”
Springer disagrees, touting Tulsa’svibrant music scene and its deep sense of local pride. “People from Tulsa say they’re from Tulsa,” she said, “and people from Oklahoma just say they’re from Oklahoma.” But her local-ish roots have helped her make more Tulsan friends, and she’s more perceptive of the ways people receive her and the program in town. About 70% of the people she meets “are like, ‘yay,’” she says, but another 30% are resentful. “Nobody paid me $10,000 to live here,” they say.
Some Reddit commenters share those concerns. “I get what this program is about, but it’s [sic] kind of rubs me the wrong way. All this program tells me is we don’t like native Oklahomans we only want coastal elites moving here,” wrote one user, who added that they grew up in Tulsa and moved back after college. “[I] currently work remote, and am considering leaving again. 10k would have went a long way in convincing me to stay.”
Though it puts them at a significant advantage in a city where the median income is $45,894, Bolzle says the $10,000 is just meant to take down the barriers to moving, not let them jump income brackets. And it helps that the program is funded by a philanthropy, not taxpayers.
There are other perks involved, too. All of the Remoters get a free one-year membership to the coworking space, though others prefer to work at home, perhaps because for some of them, home is a luxury apartment building downtown where they receive subsidized rent — another part of their welcome package. They’ve been granted a group meeting with the mayor, and have an ally in Bolzle, who acts as a quasi-case manager.
“If you come to Tulsa Remote and tell them you want to be a circus clown, best believe they’re going to find a way for you to be connected with the circus clowns of Tulsa,” says Ukabam.
Bolzle spent his childhood in Tulsa, but during stints in the music and tech industries, he lived in Boston, New York City, and San Francisco. By April of 2017, he had moved home. It’s permanent, he says; he just bought a house in town.He’s part of the city’s burgeoning Boomerang Club, a group of mostly Millennials who grew up in Tulsa and came back. “There’s an incredible stickiness to Tulsa,” he said.
Educational work-away programs, like Teach for America (TFA) and City Year, have thrived here: Though Tulsa is often ranked at the bottom of the list of preferences for post-grads who have their pick of schools across the country, it also ends up having one of the highest retention rates of all the TFA cities. This winter, a Tulsa branch of the Holberton School coding academy opened as a joint venture with the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Though Libby Wuller, the branch’s executive director, says she wants a mix of local and outside applicants, the Kaiser Foundation is paying back a greater percentage of tuition for those who choose to stay after the program is over, and offering living-expense stipends. By 2025, Wuller says there will be 7,000 open tech jobs in the city for the coders to fill.
Where the real test of programs like these will come, Bolzle says, is whether people end up leaving, and when. Measured that way, their impact could take a decade to mature. For now, he’s pushing property ownership numbers as evidence of success:At least 25 participants from the first Tulsa Remote cohort have purchased property in the city, he says. One bought a $700,000 house.
In November, the George Kaiser Family Foundation launched an expanded application process for the second phase of Tulsa Remote. Even before the application went live, nearly 12,000 people had signed up for the wait list. By January, 5,000 had applied, the first had started arriving, and ten had bought homes. Instead of 100 roamers, Tulsa will officially accept at least 250; Grant Bumgarner, a Tulsa Remote staffer, told me that number could be closer to 500.
In the end, the stickiest thing about Tulsa for participantscould be the web woven by the program. Of the 10 peopleI talked to for this story, the majority said they wereplanning to stay in the city after the program is over.
Ukabam now works as the Holberton School’s marketing manager (though he’s no longer technically remote, he’s still part of the program until his term ends in late March). Ukabam’s wife, who was working in Panera when they lived in Southern California, is now working as a culinary manager at the Gathering Place. “She’s finally getting to use her gifts and talents the way she always wanted to,” he said.
Springer,the Californian who has family in Oklahoma, says she’s staying “indefinitely.” Schreck had convinced her company to hire another employeealready living in Tulsa to work by her side, but decided (“with tears”) to move back to Indianapolis, closer to family and snowy weather and the Eastern time zone.
Even a few participants who had initially told me they wanted leave when the program ended have now changed their minds.Howell was always firm about wanting to stay past the 12-month mark, because he joined a volunteer program that requires a year of training before he can start serving on the board. But backin October, his partner, Misrac, confided that she would rather be a snowbird, cycling through a few cities each year. By February, she had a better reason to remain:Bolzle had hired her to be Tulsa Remote’s community manager.
Wilson was once explicit in her desire to leave. “I cannot live through another summer here,” she said when I asked her this fall; for months, the temperature hovered between 90 and 100 degrees. But byFebruary, she was effusive in describing her decision to renew her lease. “I like the people, the vibe, the energy of Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Wilson said. “It has everything I’m looking for.” As for the heat, “it just is what it is,” she said.
Gavin, who self-identifies as chronically unsure, wants to trailer camp in Oregon and Nevada this summer and hasn’t thought much about what comes next. But even without an incentive to stay, the lack of incentive to leave wields its own power. ”I would not have moved to Tulsa if I had been pinned to a full year in Tulsa,” he said. “The fact that I’m still here when I could have left whenever I wanted says something.”
In this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Dan Orzech, General Manager of the Oregon Clean Power Cooperative. Farrell and Orzech discuss how a renewable energy cooperative operates, the importance of local energy for Oregon, and how this model can spread beyond the state’s boundaries.… Read More
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.
Host Stacy Mitchell is joined by Sanjukta Paul, law professor and antitrust and labor expert. They delve into how antitrust laws have been used to hamper the efforts of workers and unions while corporations get a blank check.… Read More
It is well-established that the lower a family’s income, the more that family will pay for lighting and heating the house, running appliances, and keeping the wi-fi on. Such outcomes would suggest that this is a class problem or a function of rational markets. But according to a new study, all low-income households are not equally yoked: Residents of poorer, predominately white neighborhoods are less energy-cost burdened than people in predominately minority neighborhoods of similareconomic status. Race matters.
Residents of minority neighborhoods who make less than 50 percent of area median income (AMI) are 27 percent more energy-cost burdened than residents from the same wage bracket who live in white neighborhoods. This is one of the findings from the study, “Energy Cost Burdens for Low-Income and Minority Households,” recently published in the Journal of the American Planning Association and conducted by New York Universityurban planning researchers Constantine E. Kontokosta and Bartosz Bonczak, and University of Pennsylvania urban planning professor Vincent J. Reina.
The research team analyzed energy consumption data from an estimated 13,000 apartment buildings across five cities—Boston, Cambridge, New York City, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.—taking advantage of energy disclosure ordinances in those cities, across census blocks and even at the individual building level.
At the census block level, they found energy cost burden disparities between white and minority neighborhoods not only for the lowest-income families, but also for households whose incomes fall within 51 to 80 percent of AMI and 81 to 120 percent of AMI. In these brackets, families inminority neighborhoods are more energy cost burdened by an average of 24 percent. In New York City and D.C., researchers found that residents of minority neighborhoods were more cost-burdened even at middle-class incomes, or 121-to-150 percent of AMI.
“Regardless of income, if that disparity exists, then if nothing else, it’s just a consistent statement of the fact that it’s race,” says Reina. “We care from an environmental perspective about all of our consumption levels, but from an energy justice perspective, we particularly care about the lowest-income households because those have the least agency in making decisions that can actually affect their consumption levels.”
The findings confirm other studies that energy burden inequities are driven in part byracial segregation, such as work from the Urban Energy Justice Lab, which drew similar conclusions when looking at Kansas City and Detroit. They also confirm studies, such as those done by the American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy, that show that the poorest families are paying a larger share of their income than wealthy families: Reina’s research shows that lower-income households are spending between 10 and 20 percent of their wages on energy bills in these cities compared to wealthy families who pay on average between 1.5 and 3 percent of their income on energy.
The metric to understand here is energy use intensity, or EUI, which is the amount of energy a household uses per square foot. While white households consume more energy overall, black and Latino households have higher EUI, usually as a result of segregation where minority families dwell in neighborhoods with older housing stocks and smaller units.
Reina’s team found that households from both the lowest and highest income brackets had the highest EUIs in the cities they studied, but the reasons differed. For wealthier households, high EUI was a function of their own behavior—having more appliances and electronic devices with heavier usage of each, or even just leaving lights and the heat on because they can afford to. Energy efficiency programs and technology could bring down their EUI, but these households could also just modify their behavior or their consumption habits for reductions, as well.
On the other hand, poorer households could modify their habits all they want and would still have high EUI, because for these households, EUI is often a function of having larger families or more people living within a relatively small unit, like an apartment, with inefficient heating and lighting infrastructure. Although this demographic is often told to change their behavior, much about their EUI is out of their control. Reina’s study shows how using data from energy audits and energy disclosure laws can help city officials better craft energy efficiency policies that target the buildings and families who most need them.
Yet higher EUIs among lower-income households are also an outcome of how government regulates their living situations. It’shousing policies that are the problem, particularly when it comes to subsidized and public housing. The financing structures for government-subsidized affordable housing are set up so that they don’t incentivize the developers and owners of affordable housing to make energy efficiency investments, according to earlier research from Reina and the New York University Furman Center.
In a previous study, Reina and Kontokosta compared data from 4,000 subsidized housing and market-rate units throughout New York City, finding that the low-income units had “statistically significant” higher EUI levels than similar market-rate units. They compiled energy data from several kinds of subsidized housing: public, Section 8 or rental voucher, and low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) financed. Of the three, public housing, which is generally owned and operated by federal and local government housing authorities, had the highest EUI—15 percent higher than market-rate homes. Section 8 voucher housing’s EUI was9 percent higher, and LIHTC-funded housing’s was 7.6 percent higher than market-rate units.
These results are not surprising given how the housing subsidy arrangements work. For public housing and Section 8, the federal government mostly funds the owners of the buildings—local housing authorities and landlords, respectively—through rent subsidies, which includes utility allowances to help cover electric bill costs. There is no real incentive for these building owners to invest in energy efficiency upgrades because the federal subsidies will at some point adjust to cover whatever increases occur in tenants’ electricity costs. Meanwhile, both are limited in how much they can increase rents: They can’t simply increase rent to cover whatever expenses come from installing new energy efficient equipment.
As for the tenants, when their electric bills go up, their rent goes down, so there’s little motivation there for them to conserve. Building owners could sub-meter their units, so that tenants had meter readings for their own unit and were responsible for paying for their own individual electricity use, as opposed to one meter covering the entire building. That way tenants would be motivated to conserve energy. But again, the federal subsidy project doesn’t give building owners a lot of reason to go that route. Reads the report:
HUD does not provide a benchmark for determining what a reasonable utility allowance is, and there is no feedback mechanism for what one’s utility consumption “should” be. In aggregate, this utility allowance adjustment system shields households from the repercussions of overconsumption, and in doing so reduces their desire to reduce energy consumption or shop for a more efficient unit (if they could). The owner receives the same overall amount for rent plus utilities, regardless of the utility allowance amount, which also makes them indifferent about making energy efficient investments. Combined, these factors mean that in the Public Housing and Project- based Section 8 programs there is no pricing incentive for the landlord to increase the efficiency of the unit, or for tenants to reduce consumption levels.
This is why federal affordable laws should be changed to require subsidized housing to have sub-metering, a 2015 working paper from the NYU Furman Center argues: so that tenants are responsible for their own unit’s energy consumption. HUD could still provide utility allowances for tenants, but it would need to be right-sized to ensure that its covers the costs of the individual tenant, as opposed to the average energy costs of a whole building, as is currently practiced. The Furman Center also recommends that HUD do more to incentivize building owners to make energy efficiency investments in the properties.
Last week, New York U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled the “Green New Deal for Public Housing Act,” which would splurge on energy retrofits for mostly federal public housing developments, to the tune of $180 billion. The goal is to address the energy justice issue that Reina’s research identifies, while also making the greenhouse gas reductions needed in buildings to curb climate change.
Several other presidential candidates have released multi-billion dollar plans for affordable housing—including most recently, a bill from U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar to invest a $1 trillion in new top-grade public housing.
Many of these plans take into account that the poorest and non-white households are carrying the heaviest energy burdens. However, more cities and states need to adopt energy disclosure laws like the ones passed in Boston, Seattle, and New York City, so that housing authorities can better understand how energy is consumed at the building and housing unit level, and so those investments can be best allocated.
“We wanted to provide a more nuanced kind of estimate of energy cost burdens and to highlight the importance of disclosure data laws,” says Reina, “and how you can use that data to identify these phenomenon.”
Fewer concepts are trendier in urban mobility circles right now than the idea of “Mobility as a Service” (MaaS). Boosters of the concept hail it as a means of weaning commuters off privately owned automobiles via technology platforms that allow them to easily book and plan trips across an array of urban transportation services—including transit, bikeshare, ride hail, e-scooters, and more. If you can make MaaS platforms painless to use, the story goes, people will happily ditch private cars, leaving our cities cleaner and safer.
That’s a laudable goal. But is technology alone capable of achieving it? Without the support of a mix of policy carrots and sticks, it’s hard to see how.
To understand why, please join me in a quick thought experiment. Think of a friend who drives herself to and from work every day (this shouldn’t be difficult; more than three of every four Americans do) but who could feasibly switch to another mode if she chose to.
Got someone in mind? Good.
Now, which of these four options would be most likely to compel your friend to stop driving to work? 1) Doubling the frequency of public transit in her city; 2) creating new protected bike lanes for the length of her commute; 3) doubling the cost of parking permits at home and work; or 4) launching a new app that lets her plan and pay for trips across all available transportation services (other than driving).
I’ve asked this question to many of my own friends. Their choices vary, but I have yet to meet anyone who picks the fourth option.
It’s not that MaaS apps like Transit App, Whim, or Berlin’s Jelbi aren’t helpful in nudging people away from driving—they are. It’s annoying to have to flip between apps to find the cheapest or most convenient way to get between two places; by removing that hassle, MaaS platforms lower one barrier to living a car-free lifestyle.
The problem is that this particular barrier isn’t the highest one. After all, seamlessly choosing across transit, e-scooter, and bikeshare isn’t that helpful if the bus only runs once an hour, or you have to ride that scooter or bike on a street shared with cars and trucks zooming by at 45 miles per hour.
“You can’t create the mode shift cities are looking for without repurposing infrastructure,” says Jeff Marootian, director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation, which has been adding dedicated bike lanes and micromobiltiy corrals in the nation’s capital. He supports the MaaS goal of reduced car dependence—but “technology alone won’t get us to [the vision of] MaaS.”
Still, most MaaS discussions to date revolve around the technology, not the asphalt and rails that these mobility services rest upon. One framework attempts to define levels of MaaS sophistication, culminating in Level 6, where “inputs and outputs of any journey will help feed and derive other dynamic interfaces.” The model makes no mention of transit service levels or street infrastructure. Neither does the description of MaaS offered by the MaaS Alliance, an industry-supported advocacy group, though it does note the “new business models” MaaS could launch. Indeed, it’s understandable why software and logistics companies might see more market potential in integrated mobility platforms than in new bike lanes or expanded transit service. Such incentives may explain some of MaaS’s technocentrism.
Politics also nudges MaaS conversations toward technical solutions. After all, no one “loses” when it becomes easier to travel across urban transport services; drivers’ commutes are unaffected. That wouldn’t be the case if public officials took a step like the third choice above: removing subsidies for workplace parking. Such a move would be a powerful MaaS enabler—making car trips more expensive implicitly makes other modes relatively cheaper—but it would likely be a tough sell for an elected official.
The first option, increasing transit frequency, has a different but comparable problem: It requires new taxpayer funding. But the experience of Seattle suggests how powerful an effect transit expansion can have on vehicle ownership, a key MaaS goal.
Few metro areas can marshal the billions of dollars Seattle invested over the past decade. But there are plenty of cheaper policy options that can nudge people away from cars. Cities can construct the kinds of protected bike lanes and dedicated micromobility parking that D.C.’s Marootian referenced, and they can follow the lead of New York and San Francisco by closing central thoroughfares to personal vehicles while leaving them open to other modes. Transit agencies can remove policies that prevent riders from bringing bikes on board trains and subways, and they can build micromobility parking at their stations. Cities could even raise revenue through their MaaS strategy: Suddenly doubling parking costs may be politically infeasible, but a gentle upward drift in the price of resident parking permits might not be.
And, of course, cities can support the MaaS technology platforms that bring together all the various modes and services. Indeed, these services could entice people on the margins to leave their car parked in the driveway, and one day they might accommodate fleets of autonomous shuttles and taxis that futurists anticipate. But we should be realistic: Without supportive policies and investment decisions, the smartest MaaS technology in the world won’t be able to liberate cities from our reliance on automobility.