Crisis funding for public parks

I spoke last week to Adrian Benepe, former commissioner for the NYC Parks Department and currently the Senior Vice President and Director of National Programs at The Trust for Public Land.

We discussed a lot of things – the increased use of parks in the era of COVID-19, the role parks have historically played – and currently play – in citizens’ first amendment right to free speech and protests, access & equity for underserved communities, the coming budget shortfalls and how they might play out in park systems.

I wanted to pull out the discussion we had about funding for parks and share Adrian’s thoughts with all of you, as I think it will be most timely and valuable as we move forward with new budgets and new realities.

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Londoners Have Become Afraid of Public Transit

Seventy percent of Londoners no longer feel comfortable with the idea of commuting to work via public transport. So says a poll released this week, which also found that 35% of the surveyed U.K. residents said that going back to a traditional office environment would have a negative impact on their mental health.

The poll was compiled by the accountancy and consultancy firm Theta Financial Reporting, which surveyed 2,000 adults online last weekend. It’s a small sample of the city’s workforce, but it lays bare the concerns and anxieties many city-dwellers are feeling as they contemplate a return to pre-pandemic routines.

Right now, London is, with the rest of Britain, tentatively emerging from lockdown. Shops open on June 15, when schoolchildren between the ages of 14 and 18 will also start receiving some part-time in-person teaching again. Zoos and safari parks, of all places, are reopening, while socially distanced outdoor gatherings will be allowed for groups of up to six people. As some familiar patterns return, so are fears about crossing paths with contagion. But are those worries underpinned by actual risks in places such as the public transit network?

It’s still too early to provide a definitive answer. Figures for May from Japan and France found no coronavirus clusters emerging on public transit in those countries — although this result could reflect less a total absence of transmissions than the difficulty of linking multiple cases to transmission taking place in a particular vehicle at a specific time. The path the virus has taken in London, however, has created some alarming death rates among the city’s public transit workers: So far, at least 37 Transport for London employees have died from Covid-19, with 28 of those fatalities occurring among bus drivers.

At this stage it’s not possible to confirm precisely when and how these workers were infected, but the government’s initial failure to provide adequate PPE was likely a factor. Bus drivers may have especially high rates of illness because they come into close proximity with passengers on London’s front-boarding buses (and work in some vehicle models that are notorious for their poor ventilation). Across all transit modes on the network, mask-wearing by passengers has been patchy — perhaps understandably so, given that it only becomes compulsory across the U.K. on public transit on June 15.

On London’s trains, ventilation quality varies considerably across the network, as the map in the tweet below clarifies. The surface-level Overground network of trains feature doors that open to above-ground stations, so there is likely a good level of air exchange. London’s four “sub-surface” lines, created by cut-and-cover methods just beneath the path of pre-existing streets, also have airier single cars, plus tunnels wide enough to accommodate full air conditioning systems. Lines on the so-called “Deep Tube”— excavated far below surface level — are another story: Their tunnels are too narrow to be air conditioned, and have generally poor air circulation on platforms too.

This still doesn’t automatically mean London’s public transit poses a high coronavirius transmission risk for passengers. Unlike drivers, riders aren’t seated in the same vehicle for hours on end as a huge volume of potentially infected people file by. Indeed, French and Japanese public health data suggests — without explicitly confirming — that enclosed spaces such as health facilities, offices or bars, where people remain in close contact for hours at a time, often speaking, offer conditions far more conducive to contagion-spreading than vehicles in which people remain only for short periods, observe some social distancing and talk little.

But places such as London’s Tube still feel deeply unsafe for many Londoners, especially those with fresh memories of being packed tightly into rush-hour cars full of commuters every morning. In a sense, the coronavirus anxiety that lingers over public transit use is an extension of the broader disdain that many urbanites have for a mode of travel that (especially in the U.S.) is often dismissed and dirty and unpleasant. Hanging out in a bar might pose a worse risk, but it’s also fun — and drinkers know they can walk out the door at any moment if they feel things are getting too crowded. If you’re deep underground aboard a subway car, it isn’t necessarily easy or swift to remove yourself.

Those crowds are not returning anytime too soon, however. As things stand, regular commuting by public transit remains a distant prospect for many Londoners. As this hard-hit city gears up to resume its pre-pandemic habits, TfL’s action plan for restarting London rests substantially on encouraging people to walk and cycle for as many journeys as possible. As in several European cities, London has made many central streets car-free and created temporary cycle highways. The Tube, by contrast, will only be permitted to carry 10% to 15% of its pre-pandemic capacity during the recovery period.

In pre-pandemic times, half of all journeys in London were carried out by public transit — and roads are already too congested to absorb more cars, even if Londoners all owned private vehicles. In the weeks ahead, a substantial number of people will have to either cycle to work or stay working from home, even if they don’t want to. Those Londoners who remain anxious about commuting on public transit can thus take heart: There’s no room for them now anyway.

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The Battle for Public Space Plays Out in Trump’s Backyard

The Battle of Lafayette Square is over. After a week of largely peaceful protests against police brutality near the White House, the troops summoned to Washington, D.C., are departing. The U.S. Department of Defense issued an order to stand down while the mayor said that her city doesn’t want to quarter these soldiers any longer. On Thursday night, as a major thunderstorm soaked the District of Columbia, out-of-state troops could be seen leaving the city by the caravan.

The next phase of the standoff in D.C. already looks like a siege. Facing more protests over the killing of George Floyd and others by police, the Trump administration took steps to dig in on Thursday. Crews erected a black fence barrier stretching from the White House north around Lafayette Square, where federal law enforcement officers fired tear gas on protesters on Monday evening to clear the way for President Donald Trump’s notorious photo-op at nearby St. John’s Church. The perimeter of the new fence extends south to Constitution Avenue, encompassing the entire Ellipse, a park area previously open to the public. This is an escalation in a long-running effort by the Trump administration to fence off the pedestrian areas around the White House. The plaza between the White House and Lafayette Square in particular is one of the most vital public forums in the country, where people gather every day to petition the government (and take selfies). Now it’s sealed off behind a security barrier.

D.C. is settling in for the long haul, too. The local government is looking to draw a sharp contrast between the bunker mentality at the White House and what the city would like to present about its core values. Before dawn on Friday morning, with help from some protesters, city workers began painting “BLACK LIVES MATTER” across 16th Street in enormous letters spanning the road. Broad and underfoot, the phrase is designed to suffuse the approach from the city to the president’s house. The city wants to use the street itself to broadcast a message, much as cities and police departments in New Jersey have painted a blue line down main streets as a reference to the “thin blue line” cop flag. In D.C., both the street and the text terminate at Lafayette Square, in front of St. John’s Church, a block that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed on Friday as “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

(Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images/Assisted by City of DC)

Huge letters in bright street-paint yellow render “Black Lives Matter” as a notice or warning. It’s the color of civic infrastructure, a warning of an emergency happening on our streets. The text on 16th Street — where demonstrators have been writing messages of hope and anger in paint and chalk all week — leads directly to the White House, casting not a little blame on its current occupant for exacerbating tensions, but also indicating where the buck stops, period. The president won’t be able to avoid the message if he ever leaves the White House by the front door again. Trump finally built his wall; his critics painted around it.

Some of his critics are Bowser’s critics too: The Black Lives Matter chapter for D.C. wrote in a tweet that Bowser’s art installation was a “performative distraction” designed to “appease white liberals while ignoring our demands.”

To keep with the symbolism of the moment for a minute, though, it is no surprise that government recalcitrance to take action on this criminal justice crisis has devolved into the crude tactics of building walls and fences. Washington was designed with ideals about democratic participation in mind. Pierre L’Enfant borrowed the plan for the District from Baroque-era estate-planning concepts, which called for broad radial avenues fit for hunting on horseback through dense forest. In the L’Enfant Plan, many of these radial avenues terminate at the Capitol and White House, “emphasizing the foundational concepts of the state,” according to Thomas Luebke, secretary for the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts and the author of the book “​​​​​​​Civic Art.”

People have long argued that Washington was designed to intimidate foreign powers. When Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris in the mid-19th century, he used broad avenues to cut through dense urban city in order to facilitate military movement and thwart insurgent barricades. It’s unclear how much this thinking also informed L’Enfant’s design principles.

Yet on Tuesday evening — with a curfew of 7 p.m., nearly two hours before sundown, on the day that National Guard soldiers and federal troops and military police first arrived in the District — lofty questions about design and tactics weren’t historical or theoretical anymore. When the curfew arrived, the city felt silent in a way it hadn’t even during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. On street corners all around downtown, soldiers stood, looking mostly bored, standing guard by military materiel previously used in Afghanistan.

This week, soldiers secured an expansive cordon of downtown D.C. with the White House at its epicenter. The empty streets on the outer edges of the federal lockdown felt alien and hostile; the protests at the White House were totally different, charged with a feeling of communal energy and a sense of righteousness.  

When dusk gathered during the curfew, the emptied streets revealed the civic genius behind the L’Enfant Plan. Cutting through downtown, it was possible to peer at the Capitol from many blocks away, or catch sight of the White House plaza from damn near across the city. The protesters who gathered at Lafayette Square this week came to fulfill that plan. The city was designed so that it was always clear to people where to go to sue for their rights. But that has not always been possible for disenfranchised Americans. For a majority-black city without representation in Congress and its own problems with police, drastic change is needed inside and out.

Police made no arrests at the protests in D.C. on Wednesday night — zero arrests, despite the fact that 5,000 protesters gathered near the White House and marched through the streets; zero arrests, despite the baseless claims from the White House that agitators had previously stashed glass bottles, baseball bats, and metal poles in hidden caches; zero arrests, despite the countless and unidentifiable active-duty soldiers, federal prison guards, and other out-of-state men with guns stationed in the District.

Rain arrived late this week in time to cut the already-intense summer heat and wash off the lingering scent of chemical burn downtown. The White House captured some of the city’s public space behind a gate, so the city deputized a street to take its place. The siege resumes on Saturday, when the biggest protest yet takes place, with the president fortified behind a wall and demonstrators determined to be heard through it.

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The Toxic Intersection of Racism and Public Space

That Christian Cooper is still alive should not be taken for granted. His encounter with Amy Cooper in Central Park could have ended in any number of ways. Arrest. Injury. Gunfire. We don’t know whether Amy Cooper, a white woman, considered any of those outcomes when she called the police on Christian after he admonished her for refusing to leash her dog in a bird garden, per park rules. But in the viral video of the encounter, we can hear malice in her voice.

The way she says, “I’m going to tell them an African American man is threatening my life,” — when Christian was armed with nothing but dog treats — gives a clear indication that at the very least, she believed referencing his race would matter in the police response. By identifying Christian as an African American man when calling 911, she was dialing it up to mark her call urgent.

Fortunately, neither of the Coopers were still in the park when police arrived on the scene. Had they remained, the situation had high potential for escalation, especially given that Christian Cooper visits the Ramble bird garden frequently. He is a birdwatcher and invested in protecting the Ramble bird habitat from an influx of dog-walkers spurred by Covid-19 social distancing guidelines, even though the habitat is clearly marked as prohibiting unleashed dogs.

After a heavy dose of Twitter-shaming, Amy Cooper apologized for her actions. (She also gave up her dog and was fired from her finance job amid the backlash.) But the casual encounter between the white and black Coopers raises questions about who and what are considered to be deserving of protection when it comes to public spaces. Urbanists have been calling for more green spaces and open streets where cars are limited or prohibited, to encourage walking and biking. Many cities have answered this call at least temporarily during coronavirus lockdowns. Study after study shows that more parks and green spaces in cities can yield positive mental health benefits — something especially useful in the current pandemic.

But policies intended to foster feelings of safety and liberation can also invite more anxiety for black people so long as they are viewed as threatening, or, at best, with suspicion in public spaces. This becomes more magnified under the mandate of wearing masks, which under any other circumstance would invite an even more prejudiced view of black people.

“Contact with nature reduces precursors to crime like stress and aggression, making people feel happier, and less inclined to engage in criminal acts,” wrote researchers Lincoln Larson and S. Scott Ogletree for CityLab. “And when people gather in parks and other green spaces, it puts more ‘eyes on the streets,’ exposing criminals to constant community surveillance.”

Those kinds of observations must be tempered by the day-to-day realities of those who don’t have the cheat codes of whiteness to help them avoid racial harassment, especially from police. The Jane Jacobian idea of “eyes on the street” very easily becomes “eyes on the black people” — which is why some African Americans disengage from public spaces like parks altogether. These peaceful green spaces just as easily induce anxiety and trauma for black and brown people, especially when they know the cops can be called at any moment.  

White people can weaponize the police against people who aren’t white, and that power only flows in one direction. The way Amy Cooper reacted in the video shows that she was aware of that power dynamic. All it took was for a white person to send a bat signal — or in Amy Cooper’s case, a racial dog whistle — to make a garden unsafe for a black person. So long as people of color, and black men in particular, are seen as a potential danger, the issue of racial equity in parks and other open and public spaces goes unresolved.

Acknowledging Christian Cooper’s bird-watching mission in this, the National Audubon Society released a statement:

“Black Americans often face terrible daily dangers in outdoor spaces, where they are subjected to unwarranted suspicion, confrontation, and violence,” said Audubon SVP for State Programs Rebeccah Sanders. “The outdoors — and the joy of birds — should be safe and welcoming for all people.

But it doesn’t really matter that Christian Cooper is a card-carrying Audubon Society member, or that he is a Harvard grad. Here’s Christian Cooper discussing birds for a video last year with Topic:

These titles have no sentinel function for black people if they have no reasonable expectation of equal protection under the law. With just one sentence and a phone, Amy Cooper was able to unfurl a whole U.S. history of police — and police wannabes — apprehending, hunting, and killing black people in open parks and streets to remind him that this was a space that he was not entitled to be in, unlike herself. The park rules? Those were for the birds.

Christian Cooper did not run when she unholstered this history; he stood his ground.

“I am not going to participate in my own dehumanization,” he told The Washington Post.

Had he run, there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t have been chased down by anyone in the park who believed their whiteness deputizes them by birthright to police black people out of any public space. There was no guarantee that if police showed up that they wouldn’t have acted just as they did with Eric Garner — or with George Floyd, the latest unarmed African American man to die while being restrained by police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

Just as with Garner, Floyd was killed by police on a public street with dozens of people watching — “eyes on the street” were of no help to them.

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How Nextdoor Courts Police and Public Officials

Charles Husted, the chief of police in Sedona, Arizona, couldn’t contain his excitement. He had just been accepted into the Public Agencies Advisory Council for Nextdoor, the neighborhood social networking app.

“You’re the best!!! A great Christmas present,” he wrote in a December email to Parisa Safarzadeh, Government Relations Manager for Inc., obtained by CityLab through a public records request.

As part of the chosen group, he would be flown to San Francisco on President’s Day, along with seven other community engagement staffers from police departments and mayor’s offices across the country. Over two days, they’d meet at Nextdoor’s headquarters to discuss the social network’s public agency strategy. Together, the plan was, they’d stay at the Hilton Union Square, eat and drink at Cultivar, share a tour of Chinatown, and receive matching Uniqlo jackets. All costs — a projected $16,900 for the group, according to a schedule sent to participants — were covered by Nextdoor. Confidential information was protected by a non-disclosure agreement.

The all-expenses paid trip for these eight public officials is one of the ways Nextdoor has been looking to promote its network of online communities to government agencies. It reflects a trend that’s worrying to civil rights and government accountability experts: that local law enforcement and other types of government officials are closely collaborating with private companies whose interests don’t always align with the public’s. Corporate NDAs also have the potential to limit the transparency of those relationships.

Nextdoor and the public agencies it works with say that close ties between the social media platform and the government can help them both do their jobs better. The Public Agencies Advisory Council was convened to give input on Nextdoor features, by providing “a forum for [public agency] partners to share their expertise and experiences with each other and our product development team,” Nextdoor said in an emailed statement.

“As we look to build a product that best serves all of our customers, it is critical to engage with them and gather direct input to inform our product development decisions,” the statement said. “Nextdoor greatly values this best practice and, as part of that, we work closely with experts such as academics, community leaders, and sociologists as they bring diverse perspectives and advise on important areas of Nextdoor like civic engagement, neighborhood vitality, and member experience.”

Since its launch in 2012, Nextdoor — an advertising-supported social network of hyper-local online groups where neighbors post real-time updates — has acted as a sort of digital “neighborhood watch” for its users, and a megaphone for the public institutions that serve them. On neighborhood feeds, municipal agencies can share urgent alerts and community events, just like they might on other sites like Facebook and Twitter. Unlike other platforms, though, Nextdoor allows agencies to geo-target their posts to reach particular residents who have verified they live in the area.

Husted says that leaning on social media — not just Nextdoor, but also Facebook or Twitter — in the line of duty is an inevitability of the current age. “It’s naive to think as public safety folks that we can keep doing our work the same as we have for years and years,” he said. “We have to evolve with the times, and the times have to do with social media: That’s where our communities are at. We have to find a way to be there too.”

The concept of city agencies trying to build trust with their communities is not new, nor is a police department’s impulse to tap into local eyes on the street. What’s different is that these communications are circulated within a more limited online group, and being facilitated by a private company.

The platform shines in times like the present pandemic, by connecting isolated people with resources, solidarity, neighborly advice and updated health information: Since the Covid-19 crisis began in the U.S. at the beginning of March, Nextdoor says the volume of posts by public agencies has tripled. Along with his daily press conferences, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been posting occasionally on the site as part of Nextdoor’s new partnership with the National Governors Association. On a local “Help Map,” users offer free assistance to immediate neighbors, such as grocery runs or phone check-ins.

But in calmer times, Nextdoor has also been a hotbed of racial profiling and tattling. Its “crime and safety” pages host unverified speculation about wrongdoers prowling outside, sometimes accompanied by photographs or doorbell videos taken without a subject’s knowledge; though the company rolled out an algorithm to spot racist language on the site, coded assumptions still proliferate. Now, these issues are more coronavirus-flavored: Descriptions of package thieves (“tallish dark skinned male”) appear next to arguments about whether 5G wireless technology caused Covid-19 (it didn’t) and photographs of rude joggers.

Pursuing relationships with local governments, especially police departments, has become a key part of many tech companies’ playbooks, says Brian Hofer, the chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission and the executive director of the nonprofit group Secure Justice. Motherboard has chronicled how Amazon’s Ring doorbell camera service courts local cops with parties and discounts, encouraging them to use the video surveillance product themselves and to push it on people their jurisdictions; Buzzfeed reported that Clearview AI, which has created a repository of images that can be searched using facial recognition, has credentialed users at “hundreds of local police departments.”

Nextdoor is following this lead: Robbie Turner, a senior city strategist with Nextdoor, wrote to Husted that when expanding Nextdoor’s reach to Canada, the company was using “the same strategy we used when we first launched in the U.S. — recruit the major Police Departments and have them help us grow membership and engagement quickly.”

The stakes of asking people to buy a $100 Ring doorbell are different than nudging people to use a free online service that public agencies say helps keep cities more connected. Ring is a novel surveillance tool; Nextdoor can be a platform for the video footage that cameras like Ring helps neighbors take. But both partnerships raise questions about how private companies can push officials to conflate private gain with public interest.

“Police are supposed to be impartial civic servants,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital civil liberties. “You want a police officer who has the best interests of their specific community at heart. You don’t want a police officer who’s brand loyal.”

“Most Connected Neighborhood”

Husted first started using Nextdoor during his time as an officer in Sacramento, California, where he said the app helped reinvigorate apathetic people who may not have otherwise reported crimes, and enhanced community trust of the police. When he started his new gig in Sedona last year, he hurried to get the department signed up for the app.

“I am a paid employee as of tomorrow (4/22), and I’d like to get a jump on setting up an agency Nextdoor page for Sedona P.D. I’m SO excited about this!!!” he wrote in an email in April. “I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the fabulous ‘N’ Team, and seeing how we can expand community connectivity in Sedona, and beyond.”

Throughout last year, Husted supported the company’s outreach efforts. In November, he organized a local Nextdoor event where he gave out “neighbor and neighborhood awards,” like “Most Engaged Neighborhood” and “Most Connected Neighborhood,” based on Nextdoor metrics. Husted also expressed a desire to hand out Nextdoor-branded bags to the more than 90 attendees of a Women in Law Enforcement Celebration, but Turner said they didn’t have enough swag. “If we had enough, we would have definitely sent them to you,” she wrote. They connected in person at the 2019 International Association of Chiefs of Police. (Nextdoor declined to make Turner or Safarzadeh available for comment.)

Other police officers were called upon to serve as references for departments interested in using the app. In October, Joseph Porcelli, Nextdoor’s public agency lead and ambassador of community, asked Major Ed O’Carroll, a commander in Fairfax County Police Department’s Major Crimes Bureau, if he would talk to a Canadian police department about his experience with Nextdoor. After the conversation, emails show, O’Carroll updated Porcelli: “Very positively received.”

The Public Agencies Advisory Council appeared to have recruitment efforts as its goal, too. To qualify for the invite-only group, officials were asked in December to fill out a questionnaire gauging participants’ willingness to promote Nextdoor publicly. “We look to you as influencers in your industry,” one of the questions read. “Are you comfortable referring agencies or colleagues to begin using Nextdoor?”

Another asked each member if they could commit to writing one blog post “showing how you/your agency is using Nextdoor.” Members of the group could be asked to participate in regional conferences on Nextdoor’s behalf, join calls with Nextdoor staff quarterly, and meet in person at least once. “[W]e know that peer-to-peer yields a stronger approach and more credibility,” wrote Nextdoor’s Safarzadeh in an email to Janelle McGregor, Tampa Bay’s community partnership manager and the former spokesperson for the city’s police department.

The advisory council’s February meeting included discussions with Nextdoor’s marketing team, according to the agenda sent to members: Day two included sessions on “product vision” and “product marketing best practices.”

Nextdoor’s broader objective was to earn the trust of more public agencies, and to eventually pitch a paid version of the app. “As we continue to build out a monetized, ‘premium’ version of Nextdoor for Public Agencies, the feedback we will receive is critical to our strategic product roadmap and brand positioning,” the plan read.

In the application, Nextdoor also asked if any endorsement policies would prevent their cooperation, and if there were any ways the company could recognize officials’ efforts that weren’t in violation of their agency’s policies.

Several public officials who were part of the Public Agencies Advisory Council say that the trip didn’t conflict with any city policies. Lara Foss, a corporate communications marketing consultant for the City of Austin, told CityLab that since the trip was work-related, it did not violate the city’s gift policy. Sedona’s Husted also said there were no endorsement regulations that prohibited him from participating. Katie Nelson, social media and public relations coordinator for the Mountain View Police Department in California, said that because the city’s policy prohibits taking paid trips on clocked time, she took a few days off from work to participate in the San Francisco meet-up. (She also did not receive plane tickets, since she lives within driving distance of San Francisco; instead, she took a Lyft and was reimbursed by Nextdoor.)

Greg Licamele, who directs external communications for Fairfax County, Virginia, joined the group to discuss the “tenor and tone” of conversations shared in the county, and to share his perspective on how Nextdoor could be improved as a resource for governments. “It’s up to the team at Nextdoor to consider that feedback and implement changes (or not) as Nextdoor sees fit,” he said in an email.

For Nelson, being asked to be join the council is part of the reason she appreciates the platform so much: Nextdoor is the only social media company that cared enough to include her in its decision-making processes. “Being able to have that voice and a seat at the table, not only as a public official but as a woman in a public role,” she said, was a “breath of fresh air.”

Nelson said that though the team met people from the marketing department during the February meeting, they were not instructed to market any of Nextdoor’s products. “I would say that if you don’t have it, and if your community is not on it, you are perhaps losing out on a huge opportunity to have your voice heard and be a primary source of info,” she said. “But I never felt like I had to go out and tell everybody that.”

Signing the NDA

Before convening, the group was also asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement — a contract that plunges the relationship between Nextdoor and city officials into murkier ethical territory, says Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law who specializes in government ethics.

Tech companies are notorious for serving NDAs to everyone from lunch guests to City Hall officials, particularly during corporate real estate negotiations. During Amazon’s search for a second headquarters, for example, NDAs signed by bidding officials allowed governments to dangle large tax incentives without public oversight; when Google worked with San Jose to buy space for a new campus, the local labor organization Working Parties USA found that 18 city employees had NDAs barring them from discussing the deal. NDAs between the FBI and local police departments shrouded the details of officers’ use of StingRay cell-phone trackers.

In the terms of Nextdoor’s NDA, advisory council members are not allowed to release public statements about the partnership without the consent of Nextdoor, nor are they able to follow a court order to disclose any information deemed confidential by Nextdoor without alerting the company first. The document is the same one it gives to all business partners, the company said, and is meant to protect confidential information like product ideas.

Jake Laperruque, a senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, says that if applied appropriately, such an NDA would be used to protect trade secrets. “Of course it’s normal, in the sense that within [the tech] sector there are NDAs all over the place,” said Clark. “It doesn’t mean it’s appropriate in that sector … or appropriate with regards to government officials.”

Husted, McGregor, Foss, Nelson and Licamele confirmed that they had signed the document. David Hicks, a sergeant with Montgomery, Alabama’s police department who runs the department’s social media, declined to confirm whether he had, but confirmed that he is a member of the Public Agencies Advisory Council, for which signing the NDA was a prerequisite. (The police department declined to respond to a public records request.) Warren Kagarise, the digital engagement manager for King County, Washington, also signed the NDA, according to a CityLab review of the documents, but did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Foss and Nelson said they didn’t think the agreement was unusual for a software company that has proprietary information it wants to protect, and said they have not signed NDAs with any other tech company. McGregor said that the NDA did not preclude her from being transparent about their partnership. Francis Zamora, the director of external affairs for San Francisco’s Department of Emergency management — the last member of the advisory council — did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Though there are few rules prohibiting them from signing such a document, the practice could help shroud government decisions from the public, says Guariglia from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And the NDA’s “heads-up” clause could give agencies the leeway to alert the company before complying with freedom of information act requests.

After CityLab requested public records from Husted’s department, he alerted Nextdoor spokesperson Edie Campbell-Urban, though he said that he wasn’t doing so because of any terms of the NDA. When CityLab requested similar records from Kagarise, the county’s Office of Risk Management services informed CityLab that it was delaying its answer, in part because they were busy dealing with Covid-19. They said they would also be informing Nextdoor Inc. of the public records request, pursuant to a state law protecting third parties from information “not in the public interest” that would “substantially and irreparably damage” the third party or the government.

“There are compelling reasons for transparency around the activities of public employees in general, but the need for transparency is at its height when it comes to law enforcement agencies,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney for the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It would be quite troubling to learn that police officers were investigating and arresting people using data from private companies with which they have signed an NDA.”

Privacy advocates say that alone, Nextdoor isn’t the most powerful surveillance tool out there, but there’s a growing “mosaic of apps” police departments and local governments are relying on, Guariglia says. And together, these doorbell recorders, surveillance cameras, and virtual neighborhood watches are affecting the sense of public safety in some communities.

“Our entire country — and California, and the Bay Area specifically — we’re at a 40-year historic low for violent crime … and yet people are walking around like we’re living in the most violent place in the world,” said Secure Justice’s Hofer. “These vendors are doing a really great job of creating a sense of fear.”

Forward to Police

As coronavirus creeps through communities, real fears are not in short supply. And as the radius of public life for many people shrinks down to their zip codes, Nextdoor has become a lifeline.

These days, scrolling through the platform offers heartwarming reminders of the power of neighborhood ties: Informal barter systems have cropped up, along with mask donation banks, words of support for essential workers and updates on favorite local restaurants’ delivery policies.

For its part, Nextdoor has risen to meet the coronavirus crisis with new features and rules. To stop people from using stigmatizing or stereotypical language when talking about the pandemic, the company rolled out a new speech policy. To limit misinformation, searching for coronavirus-related terms prompts a pop-up with a CDC and WHO-sourced tip sheet.

Nextdoor also makes it clear that users cannot file an official police report through its platform. But while police officers can’t monitor conversations on private groups, a feature launched by Nextdoor in 2016 called “Forward to Police” allows users to send copies of their posts directly to the officers monitoring the account. Every police department in a city using Nextdoor is eligible to activate the feature, but the company wouldn’t reveal how many departments currently use it; a cursory review by CityLab showed at least 30 departments had announced they were using the feature, from California to Virginia. On Feb. 12, the company released a new app designed specifically for cities and police departments, allowing them to access the site on a mobile platform, streamlining the communications between citizens and authorities even more.

Nelson clarifies that Mountain View, which has used Forward to Police for years, does not use any social media platform to generate a call for service. “If someone were to send us a DM or message or Forward to Police … that’s to alert us that there is a conversation happening in our community that they would like us to be aware of,” she said.

Still, the company’s Public Agencies product marketing materials draw a causal link between crime decline and Nextdoor adoption in neighborhoods: It claims that by doubling Nextdoor users in Sacramento, crime fell by 7.7% in a year, with no proof of correlation. (A Sacramento official contacted by CityLab in February said it would be hard to make that connection.) The platform also claims responsibility for six arrests for break-ins in Phoenix, and stopping a local crime spree in Nashville. Presenting these case studies echoes Ring’s strategy: Amazon says that Ring’s entrance into a neighborhood is associated with increased public safety, but an NBC News investigation showed that footage “rarely led to positive identifications of suspects, let alone arrests.”

Making the process of small reporting crimes even easier — and asking people to do more of it — could lead to over-policing in areas of high Nextdoor usage, Rachel Thomas, the founding director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisco, told CityLab in February. Paired with users’ propensity for racial profiling, these effects might be felt more acutely among black and brown communities.

Montgomery’s Hicks sees increased reporting as a valuable byproduct of the platform. The department has 32,000 people in its network. “If they see suspicious activity in their neighborhood, or someone in a yard they shouldn’t be in and they know the neighbor, they call us,” he said. “We’ve built that relationship.” And in Sedona, Husted says Nextdoor helped apprehend a machete-wielding vandal last year.

In Mountain View, the Silicon Valley city home to Google, Nextdoor adoptions is already high: 45% of city residents use the platform, Nelson says. “This is the audience that matters most to us,” she said, referring to those who live within city boundaries.

The kind of widespread agency and neighborhood adoption Nextdoor is pushing for will benefit the public by increasing civic engagement and getting more accurate information out to the public, proponents say. “It is conceivable that a company might want government officials to know about a service that is available,” said Clark, the government ethics professor. “And the benefit to the public might outweigh any concern of a private benefit to a public official, like receiving a trip for an educational program.”

Before coronavirus, Foss told CityLab that it would help if more neighboring agencies signed up for Nextdoor to share information about disasters like wildfires, which don’t know city or county boundaries. Neither do infectious diseases.

Regardless of its utility in the public realm, the Project on Government Oversight’s Laperruque says that an endorsement by a public official can easily cross a line. “It definitely troubles me when you see any sort of situation where a vendor is not just being treated by someone who has a product to sell, but as a collaborative partner they might lean on,” he said. “The interest of a technology company is to their bottom line, it’s not to the public welfare.”

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The Chilling Effect of the ‘Public Charge’ Rule

Late in April, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request from New York and several other states to block a new Trump administration rule from taking effect. The revised federal rule prohibits immigrants who receive food, health or housing aid from getting green cards, an expansion of the 19th-century “public charge” rule blocking immigrants deemed liable to rely on the state due to poverty or disabilities.

This latest decision followed a contentious period of public comment and litigation. The court had already ruled by a 5-4 decision in January to allow the rule to proceed; the majority was unmoved by the states’ request to reconsider the rule due to the coronavirus pandemic. Immigration advocates fear that the new public charge rule will dissuade families with mixed citizenship status from applying for aid during an economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression.

Those fears are borne out by new research that shows that the public charge rule has had a major chilling effect on households that are eligible to enroll in public benefits — even those that would not be subject to the rule. One in three adults in immigrant households with a member who is not a permanent resident avoided applying for benefits in 2019, according to the Urban Institute.

“Going into the crisis when needs are very likely to increase, there was a lot of reluctance or fear to take part in programs that parents or children might really need,” says Hamutal Bernstein, principal research associate for the Urban Institute. “There is a real concern that families are not going to take part in whatever supports they or their children might be eligible for, even if there’s a great need.”

Latino and Latina households in the U.S. continue to suffer disproportionately from the coronavirus pandemic. In four states — New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Utah — Latinos make up between 13 and 19% of the population but account for between 30 and 38% of Covid-19 cases, as of May 13. In Maryland, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and other places, this population has the highest incidence of coronavirus infections. Compounding the threat, mixed immigration status families are more likely to be uninsured, especially lawfully present non-citizens (23%) and undocumented immigrants (45%), per the Kaiser Family Foundation (2018). So the need is indeed great.

The Urban Institute’s research draws on a survey conducted in December 2019, two months before the new public charge rule took effect, as well as results from the year prior. Last year, more than one in seven immigrant families steered clear of non-cash benefit programs — including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — a level similar to that of 2018, when the rule was first proposed.

For families most likely to be affected by consequences for future green card applications, the chilling effect was statistically significant: In 2018, 22% of households were avoiding benefits; a year later that figure jumped to 31%.

The annual survey, which looks to assess how low-income families interact with the safety net, features on over-sample of immigrant families (those with one or more foreign-born members), so researchers were able to ask specific questions about avoiding public benefits for fear of the repercussions for visa applications. The Urban Institute also found that a substantial share of households declined to participate in several programs that are not at all touched by the new public charge rule — including health coverage through the Obamacare exchanges, food aid via the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, and even free or reduced-price school lunches.

“A lot of our concern is what these chilling effects portend in the current crisis,” Bernstein says. According to another study from the Urban Institute on Hispanic non-elderly populations, more than two-thirds of Hispanic adults in mixed-status families have reported a loss of employment, hours, or income due to the pandemic; 54% of families with mixed immigration status say they are experiencing food insecurity, forgoing medical care, or struggling to pay bills.

Even while immigrant families are suffering across America, they are also single-handedly supporting the nation’s food infrastructure. Undocumented immigrants make up more than half of the agricultural workforce, and they are woefully, massively exposed to outbreaks in meat-processing plants and packaging warehouses. Immigrants are essential workers at every point in the food chain — from farm hands to food processors to grocery clerks — yet they are rarely afforded the same dignity, heraldry, support, or basic health protections as other front-line workers.

Despite the pandemic, the zeal by White House advisor Stephen Miller and others in the Trump administration to restrict legal immigration continues unabated. Historically, the use of disaster relief aid by immigrants has not been a factor under the public charge rule, according to The National Law Review — but using public benefits during Covid-19 may very well affect visa applications. The research shows that families who yearn for permanent status in the U.S. are willing to endure hardship and sacrifice to get it.

The federal government has indicated that seeking Covid-19 testing or treatment specifically would not be considered a strike against visa-seekers, according to Bernstein. But for many immigrant families, fear of seeking help has already been locked in. “It’s not clear if that’s enough to reassure families to take advantage of the health services they need or other programs that they or their children need, given the extreme amount of fear and uncertainty around the rule that has built up,” she says.

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A NYC Councilmember’s Plan to Save Public Transit

The New York City subway has been a convenient target for pandemic blame, demonized as a vector of disease that spread the coronavirus poison through the veins of the city. The evidence for this theory is weak and largely advanced by opponents of mass transit and urban density. But it has plenty of New Yorkers worried.   

As the city begins to contemplate when and how to reopen, many New Yorkers are understandably very hesitant to get back on the subway, where we typically stand uncomfortably close to fellow riders from every corner of the city. Unlike the rest of the country, most New Yorkers don’t own cars, and only 27% use them to commute. Some city residents are now contemplating — often reluctantly — purchasing a car to get to work. But there’s just no way New York City can function with many more people driving to work.

The critics’ image has one thing right: Mass transit is the circulatory system of our city. If it’s not healthy, the patient won’t survive. The city’s growth, development, economy, and psyche are built around the subways. Transit is how we get to work, to school, to our friends, to Broadway, to the beach. We simply won’t be able to reopen our city’s economy without it.

The fundamental necessity of transit is being demonstrated right now. Even with ridership down sharply — over 80% on the subways, 70% on the buses — roughly 1 million public transit trips are still being made every day as nurses, grocery clerks, building service staff, and other essential workers take subways and buses to their jobs, often traveling more than 45 minutes in each direction. We owe it to them to make sure the system keeps working.

But not just to them. The subway is also one of the few public systems shared by New Yorkers across lines of race and class, where janitors and home health-aides ride side-by-side with bankers and lawyers. That’s what makes it so quintessentially New York, and why it’s always managed to pull together enough public support to survive past crises.

New York’s MTA was already facing dire financial and operational straits before the Covid-19 crisis. Now expenses have spiked as fare revenue has collapsed. Operating the system with sufficient social distancing and cleaning is a gargantuan task.    

But there’s no choice. For us to start coming back to life in the short term, and to have a vibrant, diverse, and sustainable future for years to come, we need to keep New York’s circulatory system pumping.

Here’s how we can do it.

Manage commuting demand

The first principle must be to reduce crowding on the subways, so they can function safely for those who need them. That means clear rules and incentives for businesses with substantial commuting workforces to continue telework, to shift employees to every-other-day schedules, and to utilize time-altered shifts to reduce peak demand. The city and state government should require employers to develop and implement transit management plans and help to coordinate them.  

We’ll need to do even more to reduce traffic demand, since it won’t work to have returning workers flood the city with cars. Traffic engineer Sam Schwartz has laid out a smart plan to place a surcharge for solo drivers on the three currently-free East River Bridges, higher during peak hours, to ease traffic and raise revenue for other parts of this plan. That’s a good bridge toward comprehensive congestion pricing, which the state legislature voted to adopt last year, and which we must not delay.

A cleaner, safer subway

Daily cleaning of the entire subway system is a necessity, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to implement overnight closures is a reasonable accommodation to make it possible.

That means a commitment to existing MTA workers — especially the cleaners, who are some of the lowest-paid — and recruiting many more. Almost 100 transit workers have now died from coronavirus. Transit workers must all be well equipped with protective gear, with special caution taken for workers who come into regular contact with the public. After a bad start, conditions have improved, with more PPE available; transit workers who were sick or stayed home as a precaution are coming back to work. Like other front-line workers, MTA workers should receive bonus pay, especially the lowest-paid ones.

Obviously the MTA should require all riders to wear masks, stay six feet apart, and not touch subway or bus surfaces unnecessarily. That will require quickly scaling up of a Public Health Corps to help enforce the rules, provide hand sanitizer, and conduct public health education.

Because the subway serves as shelter for many hundreds of homeless New Yorkers, addressing homelessness is also a necessary element of the transit plan. Governor Cuomo called cars full of homeless New Yorkers “disgusting,” as though they could be disinfected from the system. A more humane and practical solution is housing homeless New Yorkers in hotels or other safe locations (the CDC has cautioned against congregate shelters, and many homeless New Yorkers understandably don’t want to go to them). Mayor Bill de Blasio has resisted the idea, even though FEMA will pay for the empty hotel rooms.

Open street space for buses and bikes

One silver lining to the dark Covid-19 cloud: With traffic light, buses are providing unprecedentedly good service. To keep it that way, the MTA and DOT must work together to roll out an emergency network of physically separated bus lanes, prioritizing busy routes to help reduce crowding. Essential workers were 30% of bus riders before the crisis, and a much higher percentage now. We owe it to them to keep buses moving when vehicular traffic resumes.

We should also support those who decide to bike instead of taking transit or driving to work. The DOT should build on existing plans to rapidly implement a network of bike lanes connecting to key destinations and institutions, as so many other cities around the globe have been doing.

The city of Paris, for example, is setting an example we should follow: They are rapidly implementing emergency bus and bike lanes known as “coronapistes” to give people more commuting options. And Mayor Anne Hidalgo has made clear the transformation will be for the long term.

Fight for federal funding

All this is going to cost a lot of money. It’s estimated that the MTA needs an additional $4 billion dollars just to keep operating through the end of 2020. In the longer term, congestion pricing is critical to the survival of mass transit in New York City. But in the short term, we need to stop getting short-changed by the federal government. Although New York’s MTA carries 39% of all US transit riders, it received only 14% of CARES transit funding.

Amid all the grief and stress of this crisis, one small bright spot has been experiencing a glimpse of what this city can look and feel like when it’s not choked with cars.

In recent weeks many New Yorkers have noted the ability to see and hear more birds, and see stars in the night sky. This is not just about aesthetics or lifestyle preferences. Air quality throughout the city has measurably improved. There’s good evidence that air pollution disproportionately causes negative health impacts in low-income communities of color, and is correlated with higher death rates from Covid-19.

Functional subways and buses, more commuting options, reduced traffic, and cleaner air are the only way we’ll be able to open our city back up safely, and to manage the next phase of this crisis. And they don’t seem like a bad idea, even after that.

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In Praise of Flyovers, the Public Spectacle of the Pandemic

Supersonic planes screamed across the skies of Texas on May 6 in a display meant to buck up front-line workers who bear the greatest risk from coronavirus. Ten jets flying in perfect formation streaked over Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston, with an afternoon pass over New Orleans, giving the beleaguered workers and residents below a moment’s reprieve from the pandemic’s ongoing onslaught.

The Pentagon recently launched this “collaborative salute” from the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, the aerial demonstration squads for the Navy and the Air Force. The two-week-long series of flyovers, dubbed “Operation America Strong,” is being billed as a morale-booster for front-line workers like the staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who cheered in their PPE as the jets thundered over Baltimore on Saturday. Another wave of military aircraft demos with a similarly chunky name is now in progress — “Operation American Resolve” — featuring fly-bys from Ohio to Oregon.

Worldwide, these flyover exhibitions have already become a staple of the pandemic lockdowns. Back in March, a video of a 2019 aerial display by the Italian Air Force’s Frecce Tricolori team (scored to Puccini, no less) went viral, and the squad has since flown over a shuttered Rome to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Italy’s liberation from fascism in April. Aerobatic teams in India and Canada have performed aerial salutes, too.

What makes these displays so riveting — or at least, what has national and military leaders so convinced they are? In the era of coronavirus, the best entertainment going is not a sourdough starter or a set by DJ D-Nice or takeout from the local izakaya. It’s a public spectacle: a shared activity, a communal not-quite-gathering. And for the part of the world taunted by the arrival of spring, a flyover offers a way to be outdoors together while apart. Right now, a safe public spectacle only comes courtesy of these elite squadrons of fighter jet pilots.  

It’s a stunt appropriate for social distancing, since there’s no screen or stage to crowd or rush toward. Those under the flightpath only need to look up. On another level, the flyovers also serve as a reassuring reminder of the power of human ingenuity. A pilot flying an F/A–18 Hornet at speeds nearing Mach 1 is bending the curve of sound. Surely a species that can master aviation can accept the science of staying home!

Not every spirit, however, has been lifted by these sights and sounds. Streetsblog NYC described the New York flyover as “anxiety and pollution wrapped up in the flag.” Others dismiss the displays as jingoistic, empty gestures by a federal government whose response to the viral threat has otherwise been disastrous; indeed, President Donald Trump wasted little time dropping a clip of the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds arcing over Washington into a campaign ad praising his administration’s handling of the pandemic. Above all, critics complained that the lofty costs involved with mustering jet squadrons — at least  $60,000 per hour — are an unjustifiable diversion of funds at a time when government dollars are desperately needed for just about everything else.

All of which might be true — except for the part about costs. Pilots need flight hours to stay qualified in their jets, and that includes the active-duty Naval and Marine aviators who make up the Blue Angels as well as the Air Force pilots behind the Thunderbirds’ F-16 Fighting Falcons. The costs of aviation displays and hospital equipment aren’t mutually exclusive, and the flyovers are already paid for. As Stinger says in Top Gun, “You don’t own that plane! The taxpayers do!”  

Of course, with Covid-19 case counts and deaths steady at a high plateau (and climbing alarmingly outside of major cities), many Americans are in no mood for a celebratory demonstration of any kind. According to polls, most in the U.S. disapprove of the administration’s handling of the pandemic, and state leaders have gone to drastic resorts to secure life-saving medical gear on their own. As Jonathan Capehart writes in The Washington Post, the day after the Pentagon announced its first flyover for New York, Trump suggested that coronavirus could be cured by injecting disinfectants into the body. It’s understandable why so many people might find the “Mission Accomplished” vibe of federally-funded aerial theatrics distasteful right now.

Yet even a stressed-out public still needs to find ways to come together while we are apart. And jet planes are freaking awesome! Flyovers are incredible feats. Before engaging in jet-scolding, go ask any child if they are cool. It was heartwarming to see health care workers taking a minute off to get the ‘gram.

Having witnessed this spectacle first-hand when the squad flew over Washington, D.C., on May 2, I can confirm that fighter jets still own. I caught the Blue Angels’ first pass while I was on my bicycle, and the sight of jets soaring over the National Gallery of Art frankly took my breath away.

Too many people love the Blue Angels, it turns out. Appreciative fans in the District did the one thing that local leaders asked them not to do: Crowds gathered on the National Mall for the best views. When I biked to the Mall to see if the public demonstration would turn into a public menace, two friends who rode with me bailed at the sight of so many people. Photos of the crowds were a little misleading: Most of the households and families who gathered were standing more than six feet apart from one another’s camps. Still, plenty of people couldn’t be bothered to wear face masks, and when it came time to leave, social distancing turned into an ordeal on downtown sidewalks.

It would be a horrible irony if a demonstration meant to honor front-line workers instead turned out to be a super-spreader event. Yet it would also be characteristic of the U.S. response to the pandemic for Americans to ignore the safety precautions urged by medical experts. The hope is that this risk is unlikely, based on what little we know about outdoor versus indoor transmission. The scene on the Mall notwithstanding, displays of aeronautical finesse by the Blue Angels might be the safest excuse to go outside and join others in a shared experience. It’s the Blue Angels or Animal Crossing.

Summer is nearly here. Will Americans be able to gather for cookouts on Memorial Day or fireworks on the Fourth of July anywhere? Will anyone want to? Based on how these flyovers have been received, jubilant displays of earnest patriotism could have a fraught place in the pandemic, a war that America appears to be conspicuously losing. A flock of F-16s can’t do much to defeat a virus, and such scenes might feel too partisan for those who fret that conservatives have already hijacked the flag and the national anthem. National symbols belong to all of Americans, though, and public spectacles — like fireworks and fighter jets — are performances that reinforce what those they mean. The public part matters, even when we’re failing, and maybe especially then.

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Need More Outdoor Public Space? Maybe Cities Already Have It.

Late last week, London’s walking and cycling commissioner, Will Norman, teased out impending initiatives to prepare the British capital for “phase two” of the Covid-19 pandemic. City Hall and Transport for London (TfL), he said, expect a ten-fold increase in cycling and a five-fold increase in walking over the next few months, as travel patterns remain resolutely local. That means the shape of the city will need to change.

“We need to come out of this crisis in a radically different way,” Norman said.

Around the world, cities are scrambling for more space to accommodate an indefinite period of face masks and social distancing: Bern and Vilnius are converging downtowns into open-air cafe; Milan is casting the reallocation of street space as a long-term growth strategy; and a host of cities, from Paris to Oakland, are going big on pop-up bike and pedestrian infrastructure in streets and parks.  

But where else can cities find open space relatively fast and cheap to help keep residents a few feet apart? There are a few other options at hand.

Liberate the golf courses

Calls to reclaim golf courses for other uses long predate Covid-19, thanks to the land-hungry sport’s falling participation. Cities in desperate need of housing have a lot of developable real estate locked up in greens and fairways.

During the coronavirus lockdowns, new demands to liberate this space for a more worthy public use have focused on urban golf courses, many of which have temporarily closed. Golf courses sit idle in parks that are filled to the brim with people. City officials in San Francisco took notice, opening up nine public golf courses to the taxpayers who pay for their upkeep. In other cities, clandestine back-nine jaunts have taken place on their own.

Cities have a ton of these lying around. Jonn Elledge, of CityMetric, wrote recently that one acre for every 30 in London is given over to golfers, much of which is controlled by local councils. (A petition to open them nationwide has gathered nearly 7,000 signatures.) Perhaps nowhere is this golf gap felt more acutely than in the Bronx, which has the highest per-capita Covid-19 cases of the five boroughs. The 120-acre golf course in Van Cortlandt Park, the second-largest park there, is temporarily closed, like the rest of the city public greens.

A grave new world

When I asked the Twitter hive about out-of-the-box ideas for finding urban space, Kendra Hurley, an urban affairs writer (and frequent CityLab contributor), replied that she was suiting up for a family trip to Green-Wood Cemetery, a historic 478-acre graveyard in Brooklyn. The cemetery has seen a rise in visitors in recent weeks, so much so that the park had to issue a warning against potential rule-breakers. (That message seems that have gotten through, as Gothamist recently reported.) But it follows a national trend.

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How Public Transit Agencies are Responding to COVID-19 & Official Recommendations

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA), and the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) have all released recommendations to help agencies during the COVID-19 outbreak. Agencies have had to act fast to protect riders and staff, and make difficult decisions to adapt to evolving conditions.

Here, we present APTA, CUTA, and UITP’s recommendations and a window into what they look like in practice, by looking at survey results from Transit, which received information from more than 60 transit agencies on what policies they are putting in place to safely ride out the pandemic

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