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Craig Dalton, a professor of geography at Hofstra University, looks for maps that complicate conventional views of the world. He studies and creates “counter-maps,” a term for cartography that reveals the realities and knowledge of marginalized groups in society.
“Mapping has been the tool of empires and governments for 500 years,” Dalton told MapLab, pointing to the days of Columbus and other Western explorers who used geographic tools to colonize civilizations around the globe. “What happens when maps get into hands of people who’ve been victims of cartographic sleights of hand?”
Examples abound. Indigenous people from , a non-profit doing homelessness outreach via maps in London wound up exposing their clients’ identities to the British Home Office, which then deployed the information to deport non-U.K. citizens among them. “Sometimes no map is the best map of all,” Dalton said.
Still, he thinks the practice of counter-mapping can play a crucially subversive role, especially now as the use of maps for commercial gain has exploded. “So many of the maps we use today are for the purposes of consumption, whether it’s Google or Facebook serving you ads, Uber finding you rides or food, or Tinder finding you a date,” Dalton said. “But counter-maps are different. They’re not about monetary exchange—it’s about something that needs to change in the neighborhood.”
How a writer remapped his painful early memories
In the latest essay for The Maps That Make Us, CityLab’s ongoing series about the power of maps in our personal lives, the transportation expert and author Steven Higashide writes about how using MobRule—an throwback Web 1.0 site where mappers track the U.S. counties they’ve visited—helped him uncover joyful memories of childhood, after years of stinging reminiscences.
I didn’t expect how, through a zeal for completion, I would surface so many happy buried memories—and how, as a result, I came to understand my life as being much more vivid and full. Over time, the fears and anxieties of my youth have become less important. I have been to 334 counties; my worst childhood experiences are held by just two: Cook County, Illinois, where I spent half of my youth, and Middlesex County, New Jersey, where I spent the rest. And as my world expands, those two tiny points on my map grow even smaller.
) ♦ A new exhibit at the Boston Public Library traces the upheaval and transformations of the 19th century. (Boston Globe) ♦ For the map lover at your holiday celebration: a review of some of the best recent map anthologies. (New York Times) ♦ Humanitarian mappers are taking college campuses by storm. (Washington Post)
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At Living Cities, we believe collective action is the framework through which we can achieve change at a systems level. Most recently, we decided to approach narrative change through a collective action framework with the belief that it will help us shift consciousness and values to match those of racial equity and inclusion (REI).
We have been working over the last year and a half to build a cross-sector collective action infrastructure with members and partners in the field to help push forth new narratives that center racial equity. A key theme in our work over the last year and a half with our Narrative Change Working Group has been the power that collective action holds and the ways in which that power grants us the possibility of creating large-scale change.
The power in collective action is the agency it gives to those who are at the table. In our own experiences, we’ve seen people use their roles to truly make a case for the work they’ve been charged with as members of a Living Cities working group. Participation in working groups like the Narrative Change Working Group has shown members the value in diversity of thought.
While it can be daunting to be surrounded by so many powerful peers, the learning and growth that takes place in these settings are priceless. They have allowed members of our working group to show up and lead with authenticity and engage in racial-equity focused conversations that aren’t usually had in their 9-to-5 jobs. Although it shouldn’t be, discussing race and equity at any company is risky. Being at a table where everyone is committed to embedding equity into all operations is empowering and equips those present with the courage necessary to effectively create change.
We each have the power to use our roles, both as people and professionals, to advance REI in a number of ways. Acknowledging the skills and power a group holds is necessary to truly understand how to best harness those skills and power for the goal of the collective. Some ways in which skills and power manifest and can be used to move work forward are:
Personal passion and leveraging identity: As we’ve learned, the personal is professional. This is especially true for collective action work. Each working group member approaches collective action work from a different perspective based on lived experience. Acknowledging the differences in those perspectives is just as important to the work as the differences in our professional roles. It’s also critical to have people in this work who are passionate. For some, that passion stems from a personal stake in the success of the work. For people of color specifically, REI work embedded in collective action feels that much more critical and essential. And it is critical to the work to have white people around the table who are equipped to use their power to educate and help other white people along their own journey. This leads us toward a better more equitable whole committed to social impact and change.
Influence based on role: In our experiences, we’ve seen members use their roles to influence their institutions and thus influence broader systems. Influencing through your role can look different depending on where you sit and what power you hold. Some use their role to influence culture internally, using lessons from external contexts to change the systems they are in. Some members are asking the investors they work with about the role of REI in their work; this tactic puts the onus on the investor to assess the ways in which REI shows up for them. Others who are in leadership positions can use their power to put REI spark plugs (anybody who fiercely advocates for racial equity in the workplace) into leadership positions. Actions like these may seem simple but are transformational steps that many aren’t willing to take due to the associated risks.
Cross-sector insights and dot-connecting: The ability to glean insights and make connections across sectors is also a powerful tool in this work and can break down silos. The ability to convene powerful people to pursue a common goal and further connect dots is critical to this work. Collectively, we are thinking about how to push past tendencies that reinforce barriers and discourage risk-taking. This work requires us to organize as a collective with different areas of expertise and perspectives; otherwise, we won’t see progress.
It can be hard work to materialize the potential of collective action, but our working group members have learned to suspend disbelief. Collective action is as good as the action that each individual in the collective manifests. The power in the collective is that together, the group works through office and company politics that dictate how far they can push on certain issues, where and when they can push on them, and with whom. As you navigate these nuances, there’s a collective action table behind you, guiding you, supporting you, and sharing tips and tricks from their own experiences in navigating these risks to push this work forward.
In the process of pursuing collective action, you’re combining the collective competencies of your group; that is what equips you to solve the issues you’re tackling. Often, especially with work that relates to social change, the goals and process can feel ambiguous. The key is to be comfortable with the idea of falling and failing, with the intention of always growing into a better collective. A clear understanding of the challenge is always necessary and present but the plan to get to the end goal isn’t always clear. It is incredibly important to be open to what the work could be. This work requires that we imagine new possibilities and new realities different from our own because what we need and require does not yet exist – we need to create it, together.
All inputs, insights and lessons were gathered directly from Living Cities’ Narrative Change Working Group Members
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What We’re Following
Candle in the wind: Much of the California Bay Area was blacked out yesterday, in a move that the state utility said would head off the risk that high winds could spark a deadly blaze. It’s being called a “preemptive blackout.” But what does that really mean? Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) started shutting down parts of the electricity grid for safety purposes last year after its fragile and poorly maintained power lines helped ignite the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California. But this shutdown could last a while—as much as five days in some areas. An estimated 2.4 million people could be in the dark, although the most urbanized parts of the region should be left mostly untouched.
Elected officials and citizens are criticizing the utility for creating the conditions that made this shutdown necessary. PG&E is already under state investigation for last year’s wildfire, and the utility filed for bankruptcy in January, facing billions in liability and possible criminal charges related to its safety record. CityLab’s Sarah Holder has story: The Fears That Shut the Power Off in the Bay Area
Oops: We apologize for a typo in the subject line of yesterday’s newsletter. It should have read: “The Cities Where Emissions Are Already Falling.” You can still check out our story here.
More on CityLab
What We’re Reading
The most detailed map of auto emissions in America (New York Times)
Trump’s trillion-dollar hit to homeowners (ProPublica)
In France, elder care comes with the mail (New Yorker)
The climate crisis in 2050: What happens if cities act but nations don’t? (The Guardian)
What happens when your tweet becomes a subway ad (OneZero)
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In an effort to avoid sparking deadly wildfires—and to protect itself from future liability—California utility company Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) shut off power to much of the Bay Area on Wednesday afternoon. The cause: high winds that were forecast to rake the region in gusts of up to 70 mph on Thursday. To preemptively reduce the chance of a downed line sparking a blaze, an estimated 800,000 utility customers in 34 Northern California cities like Berkeley, San Jose, Chico, and parts of the Sierra Nevada foothills will have their electricity service cut off over the next few days.
The most urbanized parts of the region, like downtown San Francisco and parts of Oakland, should be mostly untouched, but the scope of the disruption is massive: 800,000 utility customers translates to about 2.4 million individuals who stand to be left in the dark. The first 500,000 customers—many concentrated in West Marin County near Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais, the dry hills of Lake County, and wine-country counties like Napa and Sonoma—lost power on Wednesday.
(Map courtesy of Mercury News)
“We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire,” Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of Electric Operations, said in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle.
PG&E began the practice of preemptively shutting off its electricity grid during high-risk periods in 2018, after the utility’s fragile and poorly maintained power lines, surrounded by untrimmed trees, helped ignite the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California. More than 80 people were killed in the wildfire, and thousands of homes turned to ash.
Over the past year, four similar planned safety outages were held, says Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group that has been critical of the PG&E shutdown. But those affected primarily Napa and Sonoma counties, and lasted only about 24 hours at a time. In 2013, San Diego Gas & Electric became the first California utility to cut power during dry conditions, according to the Wall Street Journal; its largest shut-off only affected about 20,800 people.
This Bay Area outage will be much longer: PG&E estimates some areas will be without electricity for up to five days. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told reporters he encouraged residents and businesses to prepare for up to seven. Even after the high winds dissipate, utility workers must inspect each power line, ensuring it isn’t broken or left on the ground, before turning it back on. (Gas service will not be affected, PG&E said.)
“The worst nightmare would be if you started a fire by turning on the power,” said Toney.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of this massive rolling blackout, affecting 2.5 million people. People rely on electricity for their medicine, their food & their livelihoods. This is a completely unacceptable state of affairs. We can’t let PG&E normalize these mass blackouts. https://t.co/H8DYpplwRi
— Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) October 9, 2019
The historic safety shutdown is proceeding as PG&E is dealing with the largest utility bankruptcy in U.S. history. After the Paradise tragedy and other recent safety mishaps (in 2016, for example, a gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed eight people), the California Public Utilities Commission launched an investigation into PG&E’s liability last year, threatening to break the company up or have the public take it over. On the hook for an estimated $30 billion in wildfire damages, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January. Late on Wednesday, amid the first night of blackouts, a judge stripped the company of exclusive control over its restructuring.
But in taking this unprecedented move to reduce the threat of a fire crisis, the embattled utility may be creating another, man-made one. Classes at many local universities and schools were canceled on Wednesday. Mothers are scrambling to save their breast milk. Wine shops are looking for ways to chill their stashes. Grocery stores are reporting shortages of supplies like batteries and water; fresh food could be left rotting on the shelves by the time the week is over.
Mobility is also being affected. Bay Area Rapid Transit trains are up and running, but with traffic signals out, vehicle travel is dicey. (PG&E tweeted that cars should be treating all traffic lights as four-way stops.) A blackout hit the Robin Williams Tunnel in Marin County on Wednesday afternoon, but traffic was still circulating through. Caltrans employees worked through the night to get the generators set up in Caldecott Tunnel, which connects hundreds of thousands of commuters into the East Bay, avoiding potentially crippling jams.
Residents who are disabled, or who depend on power to charge medical devices, refrigerate diabetes medication, and run oxygen machines, are most at risk in an outage like this, said Diana Hernandez, a Columbia University assistant professor who studies issues related to energy justice—how the vulnerable communities that shoulder the burden of producing energy face barriers to accessing it. While hospitals in the blackout zones have generators running, many outpatient clinics and urgent care facilities don’t.
“Ultimately, people have worse health outcomes” during a blackout, she said. “In the worst kind of situations, they may die.”
Update, 3:30pm Wed: If you are power-dependent for medical reasons and in a potential shutoff area, please use your own resources to relocate to an unaffected area. If unable to relocate and power loss will cause immediate life threat, call 911 for transport to an Emergency Room. pic.twitter.com/JtR2EIY06g
— City of Berkeley (@CityofBerkeley) . This is what one of them looked like on Tuesday night:
A PG&E Resource Center set up tonight at Oakland’s Merritt College parking lot B. When/if the power goes out, people can come here for “restrooms,” charging stations and water. #abc7now pic.twitter.com/ryHttwn0Nq
— watkowski (@watkowski) October 9, 2019
There is only one per county. They’re open only during daylight hours.
Are mass power shutdowns likely to become a new fixture of California living as climate change continues to exacerbate wildfire conditions? That depends in part on the future of the state’s energy infrastructure. PG&E spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian told ABC7 that the utility has been overhauling its safety procedures, doing things like “strengthening and hardening our system,” and installing weather stations and weather cameras in service areas.
Moline, from the California Municipal Utilities Association, says PG&E has also shown a commitment to getting its wild vegetation under control. “It’s going to be many years until they catch up, but I believe they’re investing whatever they can.”
But environmental advocates and utility experts have suggested that the scope of this fire season’s power crisis should speed the state’s efforts to rethink its electrical infrastructure entirely, by investing in microgrids and distributed solar generation, creating a new network of publicly run utilities, or just completely retrofitting PG&E’s existing gear.
In a way, there’s a leveling effect to a blackout like this, Hernandez says, and the discomfort it causes can be instructive. The affected power-outage areas span some of the most unequal communities in North America, from affluent Silicon Valley suburbs to remote pockets of rural poverty. But briefly, everyone is equally subject to the whims of a corporate entity; everyone is living in the same fear of their power going off. “We can all be vulnerable,” she said. “But for other people, it’s an everyday experience.”
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