Nextdoor Wants to Be a One-Stop Shop for Police

In September, a man carrying a machete and a crowbar walked into the Chapel of the Holy Hill in Sedona, Arizona, and started destroying things. He turned out to be a follower of QAnon, the far-right conspiracy group behind the 2016 “Pizzagate” shooting, as The Daily Beast later reported. His vandalism rampage was captured in photos and video by tourists; hours after the incident, the alleged attacker was arrested by police.

How did the cops close in so quickly? Sedona police chief Charles Husted credits Nextdoor, the neighbor-to-neighbor social-media platform. Within 20 minutes of the incident, Husted posted an “urgent alert” with a photo and description of the suspect on Sedona’s Nextdoor account. That post swiftly circulated through the city as neighbors shared it, reposted it on other social media platforms, and sent it to their friends. Soon, a shopkeeper who’d been sent the post by her mom realized she’d seen the man in questionand called 911. “It was perfect,” Husted said.

This wasn’t the first time Husted leaned on Nextdoor in his police work. As an officer at the Sacramento Police Department from 2013 to 2019, he’d used the platform to keep the community informed and build trust. When he moved to Sedona last year, he immediately pushed the department to create a Nextdoor account, he says. And a few months ago, he started beta-testing the company’s newest product: a mobile app tailored for local governments.

That’s how Husted posted his Sedona-wide alert for the machete-wielding QAnon assailant—right through his smartphone.

The new Nextdoor for Public Agencies app, which launched publicly on February 12, enables police and fire departments, public schools, and City Hall agencies to post updates, push out alerts geo-targeted to reach specific neighborhoods, and read their messages on the go. “It allows the public agency folks to be in the field, be engaged in an incident, and share info quickly as needed,” said Husted. He calls the new app a “game changer.”

For Nextdoor, the feature brings another tool to what has proved to be one of the social network’s most compelling use cases: crime monitoring. Launched in 2011 as a Facebook-style social network built on actual physical proximity and real-world relationships, Nextdoor is a variation on neighborhood listservs and homeowners’ groups, offering a digital stage for the holiday celebrations, sidewalk sales, lost-dog alerts, and the random grievances of urban and suburban living. City agencies equipped with public Nextdoor accounts can also publish community event alerts, deliver extreme weather warnings, and launch public education campaigns. But the site is also well known as a clearinghouse for neighborhood drama: Nextdoor’s many eyes-on-the-street fill the site with reports of car break-ins, suspicious characters, and other local-level threats.

Such citizen reports are increasingly being directed to the responsible municipal agencies. Nextdoor’s “Forward to Police” feature, for example, was introduced in 2016, allowing users in participating jurisdictions to send crime and public safety reports directly to law enforcement.

With the launch of this new app, Nextdoor is making its alignment with public institutions more explicit. “Neighbors turn to Nextdoor every day to find trusted, relevant information about what’s happening where they live,” said Tatyana Mamut, Nextdoor’s head of product, in a statement. “Now, our agency partners can send information to their constituents with the tap of a button anywhere and anytime—even when they are away from their desk, after hours, or in the field.”

For years, public agencies using Nextdoor requested such a feature, Mamut told CityLab. The company’s new partnership push also reflects a broader and more controversial trend: Private tech companies are forging stronger relationships with police departments.

Nextdoor is already a valuable social media ally for public agencies, Mamut says. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, agencies don’t have to first collect followers to get their message out, and Nextdoor allows them to target their posts to specific neighborhoods. Site members are prompted to confirm their address via postcard or landline, so agencies have more assurance that they’re sending and receiving relevant info to and from real people who live where they say they do.

Updates about development projects, safety, and preparedness get a lot of engagement on the site, Mamut says, along with missing person alerts, community meeting times, and school closing announcements. But it’s hard to ignore the overall prominence of public safety chatter. Yesterday, for example, the first post on the Crime and Safety page for San Francisco’s Noe Valley described an encounter with a man who rang her doorbell “under the guise of looking for someone named ‘Wendy,’” who she felt was “casing the house.”Another post stoked suspicion about a man strolling up the street, “taking photos of all the license plates of the parked cars.” There’s a blurry picture of a guy with a backpack, and a question: “Any idea what he’s up to?” Some neighbors accompany their posts with photographs of suspects or video clips from Ring doorbells, and pleas to call 911 if the perpetrators are spotted again.

As a recent Atlantic feature by Lauren Smiley detailed, Nextdoor can inspire informal neighborhood watch groups: The story recounts how several San Francisco homeowners banded together via the site to nab an alleged package snatcher. But Nextdoor has played down the role its crime-spotting features play. Sarah Friar, Nextdoor’s CEO, told Smiley that only 5 percent of posts are slotted into the app’s Crime and Safety category. Mamut says Nextdoor’s intent is to facilitate the sharing of “positive, engaging” good news, not just reports of local misdeeds.

Police officers are unable to view any of these posts through their department view of the site, which means they can’t scan the platform for public safety concerns like a mini-blotter (unless they they make personal accounts). But there are other ways of getting in touch. Police departments can receive direct messages from users, and non-emergency numbers and the street address for the local police department are prominently featured on many communities’ Crime and Safety pages. When users post about a crime on the platform, neighbors are usually quick to encourage the poster to formally report it, Mamut says.

With the help of Forward to Police, it’s easier for users to heed those suggestions. In neighborhoods where the feature is activated, any post uploaded onto Nextdoor’s Crime and Safety tab can be sent directly to a local police department’s Nextdoor message inbox—but only by the original poster. The platform’s new Public Agencies app expands the Forward to Police feature by allowing departments to access these messages from mobile devices.

“This feature is just streamlining all of that and allowing, with a very simple ‘click click,’ to forward that post to the police,” Mamut said. “We take the approach that proactive safety and preparedness and positivity is a better way for law enforcement to engage with local communities than just reactively, when something bad happens.”

Mamut wouldn’t share how many police departments in the 1,000-plus cities and 11 countries worldwide in which Nextdoor operates are currently using Forward to Police. All departments are eligible, and several California jurisdictions, including Ventura, Chico, Glendale, and Los Altos, appear to have activated the feature; so have Mobile, Alabama, and Richmond Heights, Missouri. DCist reports that Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department formalized its relationship with the app in January.

Emily Graves, a community outreach specialist for Ventura’s police department, says that she checks the agency’s Nextdoor inbox frequently and usually receives one to two messages per day. Most concern suspicious activity or loitering, and she rarely sends officers to the scene just off of a Nextdoor complaint. “If someone were to send us a message in reference to loitering or a homelessness issue, we’d give a few tips on how to respond and then encourage them to call the non-emergency number,” she said. “We do follow up on everything people send us.”

The effectiveness of Nextdoor’s use in community policing isn’t clear. In its marketing materials, the company draws a correlation between department platform use and crime reduction. “In just one year, [the Sacramento Police Department] grew their Nextdoor membership from 10,000 to over 20,000 residents, which was accompanied by a 7.7% reduction in crime and a 30% decrease in shootings,” a case study document reads. The stat appears to come from a 2013 article, in which Sacramento’s then-chief of police Sam Somers said that the crime drop “is partly a result of new crime-prevention programs that began this year,” including Nextdoor. Carl Chan, the Sacramento Police Department’s Public Information Officer, said this week that Nextdoor serves a valuable public engagement role. “In general, our crime stats, they’re fluid, and there’s a lot of things that affect them,” he said. “It would be hard to say it’s solely because of Nextdoor.”

Civil rights and privacy advocates have expressed concerns that Nextdoor’s growing integration with law enforcement could fuel more “broken windows”-style policing, spurred by amateur police reports that use the language of a social media post and reflect a skewed vision of a city. Despite efforts to tamp down on racial profiling using algorithmic moderation, Nextdoor is still criticized for facilitating vague, racially coded, or racist posting.

Streamlining the process of crime reporting down to a click can also end up escalating minor complaints that wouldn’t otherwise be deemed worthy of police involvement, says Rachel Thomas, the founding director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisco. As routine police checks can turn deadly, the stakes of calling even a “non-emergency” law enforcement hotline can be high. “I’m concerned about the general trend of these murky or opaque private-public partnerships with police or other core government services that were traditionally more publicly managed,” she said.

Chris Gilliard, an English professor at Macomb Community College who researches digital privacy, makes a similar point. “Surveillance often encourages ‘solutions’ that far outstrip the level of the infraction,” he recently wrote in Urban Omnibus. “[T]he existence of footage—the fact that people have potentially actionable evidence they feel compelled to use—turns a minor instance of vandalism into a situation involving law enforcement.”

Such concerns have been fanned by news that Amazon’s Ring doorbell camera service has partnerships with more than 750 police departments across the country. In August 2019, Vice reported that Amazon has been helping officers view Ring footage without warrants. Amazon makes it easy for police to ask Ring owners to send along recordings, GovTech reported, regardless of whether the subjects being filmed have offered their consent.

“When we get into the private world … Fourth Amendment protections might disappear,” said Brian Hofer, the chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission and the executive director of the nonprofit group Secure Justice.

Clips from Ring doorbell devices are a Nextdoor staple, but the company has no plans to develop its own camera hardware, Mamut says. “We take our members’ privacy very, very seriously,” she said. “We are committed to making sure that neighborhoods are strong and resilient and that neighbors get to choose what info they share.”

Husted says that he understands the worry that using Nextdoor might encourage the over-reporting and enforcement of smaller crimes. During his time in Sacramento and now in Sedona, he saw how the platform helped restore confidence in local law enforcement among residents who were “tired of calling dispatch and having officers take a long time to get there, if at all” in response to quality-of-life crimes.

He stresses that Nextdoor is good for more than just calling the police. He’s been able to use it for fostering better community-police relations, and for better inter-community relationships. ”Not all things that get reported as problems in the community have to be a police response: There are other strategies that can be brought to bear,” he said. “It’s really empowering people to take some ownership in their space.”

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Raleigh Wants to Raze and Rebuild the Community Meeting

In 1974, Raleigh, North Carolina, created a new way for residents to directly influence the direction of their neighborhoods.

The city had just elected its first black mayor, Clarence Lightner—a historic milestone in this majority-white Southern city. Lightner was ushered into office by a coalition of voters concerned about the city’s rapid growth, and his administration responded with a novel means of giving voters a bigger say in future development. Called Citizen Advisory Councils, their mandate was to work on three broad problems—housing, transportation, and governmental accountability. City records from 1974 proclaim that CACs were “designed to involve all areas of the City in a formal citizen participation structure … whereby City government might use this avenue as one means of involving citizens in the decision-making process.” Instituting the CACs would also help the city win federal community block grants, Lightner believed.

The city never got those grants. But the network of 18 neighborhood CACs became “entrenched in Raleigh’s political landscape,” as local newspaper Indy Week reports. A more institutional form of community meeting, the councils are assigned to geographic regions and led by chairs chosen by the CAC members. At monthly gatherings, police officers show up to offer crime reports, the parks and recreation department announces new initiatives, transportation planners give presentations, and community garden plans are unveiled. The CACs real power lies, however, in zoning decisions: When developers or neighbors come in to present construction plans, the group votes on whether to approve them. Though the opinions shared in CAC meetings are non-binding, they do carry weight: Raleigh’s planning commission looks to the CACs to inform their own zoning suggestions. So does the city council.

Since 1974, Raleigh has used a network of 18 citizen advisory groups to help shape local planning decisions. But no longer. (City of Raleigh)

Supporters of the councils say that CACs offer valuable opportunities to share public information, defend against over-development, and engage diverse swaths of the community in municipal decision-making. But critics have long complained that the councils function largely as a stronghold for Raleigh’s NIMBYs—throwing up not-in-my-backyard impediments to the city’s efforts to build affordable housing. Two mayoral administrations have attempted to overhaul or revise the system in the past decade, only to come up against immovable opposition.

But a new crop of progressive lawmakers swept into power in Raleigh’s last election, and these reformers have found an opening: In a tense meeting this week, city council members signaled they wanted to move to legalize denser housing development in some districts, and voted 6-2 to dismantle the CAC system entirely.

“As we start a new decade and look to tackle the most difficult challenges our city has ever faced, it is ever apparent to me that we must reinvent and reinvest in where we show up, how we show up, and for whom we show up,” said Saige Martin, a council member elected in 2019 who is now leading the charge against CACs. “Further, we must actually build processes and commit to systems that work for all of our residents. We need a city where all are able to participate.”

Martin introduced a series of measures aimed at razing the CAC system. One repeals the 1974 decision that created it, cutting off city funding to the community groups and mandating that no more zoning cases will be heard at a CAC after 45 days. Other measures require the city to hire a consultant to help create an Office of Community Engagement to develop new forms of participatory democracy. The city’s Planning Commission will continue its role in approving new development, and the city was instructed to add an additional public hearing for bigger rezoning votes.

Several local CAC chairs were blindsided by the vote. Martin’s measures weren’t included on the public city council agenda, and while all but one of the city councilors were informed of the vote, city residents had not been briefed. “I’m beyond furious,” Robert Rice, chair of the Glenwood CAC, told CityLab. “It was a secret vote, embargo on the press, no room for any kind of comment. This isn’t how government should be working at all.”

It’s ironic that a measure meant to preserve community engagement happened without any community engagement at all, said Ana Pardo, who was elected chair of the Hillsborough-Wade CAC during her senior year of college and led the group for six years, until 2011. “They made the decision not only in near-secrecy, but they did it without a plan for how to proceed,” she said. “They have this vague promise for how to replace the city’s only explicit method for citizen engagement.”

Martin says that the city tried for years to include the public in CAC reform, without success, and while he understands the frustration, desperate times call for desperate measures. “We’re in this moment when the most critical choices, the most challenging issues we face as a city—affordable housing, increased rapid growth, gentrification—are happening more or less overnight,” Martin said. “We have a system in place that perpetuates that, and we don’t have the luxury of waiting for another year or two for a consultant to tell us what we already know.“ He says the city needs to free up the resources the CACs took up—$1,000 a year to each of the 18 councils, and a dozen-odd city employees dedicated to helping them run—to build something else.

“The bottom line is, we know we can do better,” Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin told CityLab before the vote. “The system that we currently have now dates back to 1974—a lot has changed since 1974.”

***

Many neighborhood community boards like Raleigh’s were created in the immediate wake of the “urban renewal” era, in an effort to atone for the development sins of the past, says Katherine Levine-Einstein, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University who’s done research on community meetings. “We gave way too much power to developers to do whatever they wanted, and they bulldozed over existing neighborhoods, often working-class and communities of color,” she said. The federal government made more funding contingent on official neighborhood planning processes, and cities worked to readjust that power imbalance. Places like Raleigh delivered.

“In a lot of cities there was this movement to say, ‘Let’s empower our neighborhoods,’ which sounds really good,” Levine-Einstein said. “And then they say, ‘Let’s empower our neighborhoods by empowering these neighborhood councils’—which turn out to be empowering a very specific subset of the neighborhood.”

At a typical CAC monthly meeting, turnout is low, says Joshua Gill, one of Raleigh’s youngest CAC chairs and the vice chair of the Raleigh CAC, the broader governing body that oversees the 18 neighborhood councils. The biggest district covered by one council is 80,000 to 90,000 people; of that population, maybe 10 or 20 people will attend each gathering, he said.

Glenwood CAC chair Rice disagrees: He’s seen 100 to 200 people show up to his meetings when discussing high-profile zoning cases. ”This idea that the power resides in only a few people that show up to the CAC meetings is disingenuous,” he said. “Anybody that wants to come is welcome to come, and they do.”

To boost turnout, Pardo says she spent her years in charge of the Hillsborough-Wade CAC knocking on doors, starting listservs, and speaking to community leaders—and she found some success. Both she and Rice agree, though, that the city could do more to extend outreach. “Most people who live in Raleigh aren’t even aware that the CACs exist, and the city does absolutely nothing to go out and spread the word,” said Rice.

Indeed, a 2018 Community Survey found that nearly 70 percent of Raleigh residents surveyed had never attended a CAC meeting in the past year; another 6 percent said they didn’t know if they had.  

Diversity among participants is another sticking point. Gill says that CACs attendance skews towards older, white homeowners who are free in the evenings and have an interest in advancing their perspectives. Rice says that while his CAC reflects the demographics of his district, so, too, do the six CACs that cover predominantly African-American Southeast Raleigh, and other parts of the city that were historically segregated. Pardo, a Latina woman who was in her mid-20s at the time she was in leadership, said her biggest outreach was to tenants organizations and local renters.

Nationally, researchers like Levine-Einstein have found that those who speak at community decision-making convenings tend to look less diverse than the full electorate, and they are more likely to be homeowners. “The really thorny issue with direct democracy when it comes to land use planning … is we have seen time and time again that it’s way more advantageous to opponents of new housing than supporters of new housing,” she said. “Because if you’re an opponent, you have this more intense incentive to show up.”

Though it pales in comparison to some other coastal metros, Raleigh has its own burgeoning housing affordability problem: Prices climbed 4.2 percent in the last year, according to Zillow. The city is also dealing with gentrification and its unequal impact on historically black neighborhoods, along with the rise of speculative home-flippers. The city is weighing an affordable housing bond for November’s election, which proponents say would inject between $50 and $75 million into things like homeowner assistance, Low-Income Housing Tax Credit gap financing, and transit-oriented development. But current zoning rules mean that building a townhome is illegal in 80 percent of the city, Baldwin says; without the go-ahead to get things built, such efforts are unlikely to be as effective.

Gill says concerns about speeding and traffic undergird many CAC votes against new housing. “A lot of the language ends up being, ‘Preserve what we have and not welcome new people,’” he said. Other decisions are more subjective: A developer with a slick presentation managed to get CAC approval, Gill recalled, while a Latina woman who wanted to build a duplex in her backyard for her sons was rejected. “That broke my heart,” he said. “We want our neighbors taking ownership of the land they live on.”

In a city where voter turnout is low, CAC vetoes are taken seriously by the city council. “Their main power lies in the voice that they’re given,” says Zainab Baloch, a 28-year old Raleigh community organizer who ran for mayor in 2019 and city council in 2017. “Because people don’t engage in local government as much, these are the main people that councils will hear from. … They’re the ones who will be most likely to vote in the next election.” (Baloch is also the founder of an app called Young Americans Protest, or YAP, which aims to get young people involved in community actions.)

Mayor Baldwin says that she’s not afraid of political blowback, though she knows it’s coming; she’s more excited about legalizing duplexes and triplexes. “We have to change the way we think about housing and housing affordability, and how we provide a spectrum of housing so there’s something for everyone,” she said.

In this goal, she has lots of company nationwide. Raleigh’s effort to reimagine CACs is part of an often painful conversation about how community meetings enable restrictive policies, and what should take their place. Two other cities with similar networks of powerful neighborhood organizations, Seattle and Minneapolis, have taken steps in recent years to prevent institutionalized committees of vocal homeowners to make broad development decisions. Seattle’s system of volunteer Neighborhood District Councils was defunded in 2016, Minneapolis started a slower process of transforming its 70 neighborhood organizations last winter, requiring the groups to meet “minimum performance standards” for outreach, or lose city money.

Those two cities also happen to be at the forefront of zoning reform efforts: Seattle loosened the zoning code in some transit-oriented districts and started prodding developers with incentives to build affordable housing in 2019; Minneapolis became the first city to abolish single-family zoning after Mayor Jacob Frey proposed a desegregation and densifying measure in 2018.

“This isn’t just a Seattle issue or a Minneapolis issue or a Raleigh issue,” said Baldwin. “This is a national crisis. I think that people are finally waking up and saying, ‘Wait a minute, we have to do things differently.’”

***

Instead of unilaterally deciding to eliminate the CACs, the city council could have pursued a more measured reform of the city’s approach to community engagement, defenders of the system say.

Two city councilors who opposed the measure at Tuesday’s meeting, Corey Branch and David Cox, raised concerns that the disadvantaged communities first protected by Lightner’s 1974 mandate would be most threatened by its repeal. They also worried that there wasn’t a clear plan to fill the gap in community engagement left when the CACs disappear. “The universe does not allow a void,” Branch said.

Already, changes were in the pipeline: With the help of the Raleigh CAC, chairs are hoping to redistrict the 18 regions, making their populations more equal, for example. “The CACs aren’t perfect, sure. We’re happy to work on making this better,” said Rice. “But doing it this way is not productive.”

To reach a broader share of residents in his CAC district, West, Gill says he’s tried to livestream meetings. He’s also planning to use city funds to buy ads on Facebook and has considered more online surveying. But technical difficulties plague him and other members of the group. His goal of meeting people where they’re at is starting to feel incompatible with the CAC structure, and he supports starting over.

“You can only keep doing something the same way for so long if you’re not getting the results,” he said. ”It is difficult to see an institution I love and support disappear in a day, but if a hard restart is what it takes to to improve citizen engagement, I think it is necessary,” he added in a text after the vote.

This weekend, the leaders of Raleigh’s CACs will be going on a (previously scheduled) weekend retreat; Rice says they’ll spend that time strategizing a comeback plan. “My goal would be to get this asinine decision completely reversed,” Rice said. At Tuesday night’s meeting, the Raleigh News & Observer reported that 40 people stood in support of the CACs; one attendee reportedly “compared the council to President Donald Trump and the impeachment process.”

Even those that oppose CACs agree that what happens next will be critical. “I don’t think you have to cause a fire or a conflict purposely without having a means to put it out,” Baloch said. “Our goal is to engage more people, [not fewer.]”

Martin says it’s incumbent on the city council to “fill that void,” and stop leaning on self-appointed chairs. And Levine-Einstein suggests that existing citizen engagement mechanisms should be enough to hold officials accountable and shape public policy. One of the strongest community engagement processes, for example, is voting.

But Baldwin says Raleigh’s outreach will be more innovative. Starting now, she says they’ll be bringing community engagement to the people—at the dog park, the playground, the bars; outside their front doors.

“This isn’t about taking things away—this is about doing it better,” said Baldwin. “While change is scary for people, we are committed to inclusion. That’s how I hope they see it.”

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CityLab Daily: Why Paris Wants to Tax Amazon Deliveries

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***

What We’re Following

Boxed in: It’s officially the holiday shopping season and that means more delivery trucks on city streets brought on by e-commerce. In the United States, millions of daily packages have not only brought about a delivery truck boom; they have inverted the dynamics for collecting the sales and property taxes that fund state and local governments. Globally, the convenience of the one-click e-commerce model has helped Amazon weave itself into the life of cities. And now, Paris wants to fight back.

Writing in an open letter in Le Monde, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo called Amazon a “creator of precarity, congestion and pollution” and “an ecological disaster.” To rein in the negative effects of urban shipping, she proposed a plan that would charge a fee to e-commerce vendors, and limit delivery times and volumes in certain neighborhoods. While Paris’s share of the global Amazon market is limited, the proposal could become a model for other jurisdictions. The question is: Would city leaders be able to handle it if companies decided to pass such taxes on to their customers? CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan takes a look: Why Paris Wants to Tax Amazon Deliveries

Andrew Small


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The museum will only purchase artwork made by women in 2020. That won’t do much, if anything, to change the balance of representation in its collection.

Kriston Capps

‘The Other Apartment’ Offers a Portal Between the U.S. and Iran

An artist’s apartment in Tehran was meticulously recreated in Pittsburgh, inviting Americans and Iranians to inhabit the same space, half a world apart.

Laura Feinstein

What the ‘Battle of Seattle’ Means 20 Years Later

The 1999 WTO protests shut down Seattle and brought new attention to the effects of global trade. The event looms large in the activist imagination today.

Gregory Scruggs


What We’re Reading

Watch four decades of inequality drive American cities apart (New York Times)

Why tech company headquarters are now tourist attractions (CNBC)

The “Amazon effect” is flooding a struggling recycling system with cardboard (The Verge)

Malls are dying. The thriving ones are spending millions to reinvent themselves. (Washington Post)

Why shade is a mark of privilege in Los Angeles (New York Times)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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Why Paris Wants to Tax Amazon Deliveries

The French don’t celebrate American-style Thanksgiving. (Or the Canadian one, for that matter.) But that doesn’t mean they entirely miss out on the magic and hysteria of Black Friday sales: There is a huge spike in reduced-price deliveries at the end of the this month throughout France.

Which makes this a very good time for Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo to open a new front in her ongoing campaign to mitigate the damaging effects of 21st century capitalism. In an open letter published in Le Monde, Hidalgo announcing proposals intended to make sure that e-commerce firms such as Amazon pay for the ills they are unleashing. Amazon, she wrote, was a “creator of precarity, congestion and pollution” and “an ecological disaster”; along with other services such as UberEats, the company should be charged a fee for its urban deliveries to offset the problems it causes.

Action was essential, the letter said, to avoid the kind of problems that New York City faces: Manhattan has “become a huge delivery area where anarchic shutdowns block all traffic,” and if nothing was done, then a situation like New York’s, where 1.5 million packages are delivered daily, would become “the nightmare that awaits us.”

The language used here is certainly strong, but Paris City Hall, which would likely re-propose the suggestions in more concrete form if Hidalgo and her administration are reinstated at March 2020’s municipal elections, is indeed picking up on a problem that’s rolling out globally. American cities are scrabbling to manage the sharp rise in retail freight that e-commerce has brought to its streets. In London, which since 2003 has employed a pioneering congestion pricing regime in the city center to control traffic, has seen its streets become even more congested than in the days before the charge, because private cars have been replaced by commercial vehicles, including delivery vans.

On average, Amazon now delivers around 250,000 packages a day in Paris, a number that rises tenfold in the days around Black Friday. Hidalgo’s proposal would limit deliveries to inner Paris neighborhoods to specific times, with a maximum number of deliveries capped for each area. Each of these deliveries would come with a surcharge payable by the company who sold the item delivered. If Amazon and other companies decide to pass this burden on to their customers—and it would be hard to prevent them from doing so—city leaders could be blamed for making shopping less affordable in what is already one of the worlds’ costliest cities.

The Paris City Hall proposals came out the day after the campaign group Attac, which lobbies for more stringent tax controls on multinational companies, released a report on the downsides of Amazon’s French operations. The report, supported by environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth and trade union Solidaire, details a litany of undesirable economic and environmental impacts associated with the company. The group claims, for example, that Amazon has made 57 percent of its French gross revenue untaxable, for example. Its overall global operations create more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire nation of Portugal, the report says, and the company’s ability to suppress competing businesses means that its American operations destroy two jobs for every one they create. The French report joins several new stories about Amazon’s labor practices and worker safety record in the U.S. that also focus on the price that we really pay for the convenience of online shopping.

Amazon has challenged the Attac report, saying that it is “contains many factual errors and [much] unfounded speculation.” Their own figures show that the company will have created 9,300 jobs in France by the end of 2019. While the company didn’t directly refute the report’s criticism of their emissions record, it nonetheless highlights its Climate Pledge, which aims for carbon neutral deliveries by 2030 and carbon neutral operations by 2040. Amazon also says that its current global order of 100,000 of electric delivery vehicles is the largest yet made by any company.

Such progress still lags behind that of some more-proactive companies currently working in France. The French postal service, for example, is already in the process of switching to electric and natural gas vehicles and bikes for the final mile of its deliveries, and by 2024, La Poste promises that its deliveries within Greater Paris will be entirely carbon neutral.

How important will political pressure from the city of Paris be when it comes to influencing the business practices of a retail goliath like Amazon? The company accounts for 17.3 percent of France’s e-commerce market and earned €6.6 billion ($7.3 billion) in revenue in the country in 2018. That falls short of the market dominance the company enjoys in the somewhat less populous U.K., when its income for the same year reached £10.9 billion, or in larger Germany, where it earned €16.9 billion. When compared to the enormity of of Amazon’s global operations, Paris’ proposed taxes would be like a gnat bothering an elephant, especially when you consider that Mayor Hidalgo’s policies only cover the 2.2-million-person historic nucleus of greater Paris.

What makes Hidalgo’s proposal of greater potential concern for online retailers is the possibility that it serves as a model for other jurisdictions. Based on media coverage so far, that could happen. One can easily imagine a similar call to tax e-commerce deliveries in the U.S. sparking a flurry of objections; in France, however, the Paris pushback was generally reported with subtle but implicit favorability. The right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro for example, had its own report this week on the higher prevalence of accidents in Amazon’s U.S. warehouses. If the company has influential cheerleaders in France, they’re currently keeping pretty quiet.

Given Amazon’s global market share, Paris’ plans hardly pose an existential threat. But in a climate where the environmental and economic effects of e-commerce are coming under increasing scrutiny from both legislators and the public, the city could be a trailblazer in the movement to rein it in.

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Berlin Wants to Freeze Rents for 5 Years. Can It Really Do That?

Berlin’s planned five-year rent freeze might be popular among locals, but the city may have trouble navigating a legal minefield to protect the law when it takes effect in January.

That much was confirmed Saturday when newspaper Berliner Morgenpost dropped a bombshell by publishing emails from Germany’s interior ministry to the Berlin head of Angela Merkel’s CDU party. In those emails, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer expressed his belief that the rent freeze is illegal, as it would “distort” national laws.

In a relatively inexpensive city whose housing sector is dominated by rental units— 80 percent of residents rent their homes—the plan has found broad support. The law, approved in October, caps rent increases at 1.3 percent per year (to account for inflation) for all homes built before 2013, while owners of newer homes, including those recently built and buildings planned for the future, are able to raise rents as they see fit.

The minister’s objections paint the issue as a turf war between national and regional powers. The rent freeze won’t fly, Seehofer says, because it would mean the State of Berlin overstepping its jurisdiction under Germany’s constitution. Federal legislators make Germany’s real estate laws on a national level, and a decision confined to only the State of Berlin could risk distorting that national legislation.

The rent freeze, Seehofer’s October 31 email says, would unfairly ban landlords from factoring rising maintenance costs into the rates they charge tenants. What’s more, while rents for new contracts have been galloping higher in the city, not every Berlin landlord has raised their rents to the maximum level. This group would now be prevented from raising rents even though their tenants are now paying substantially below-market rates.

These objections are a problem for the State of Berlin. They aren’t necessarily a nail in the law’s coffin, however, because the national government doesn’t itself decide the law’s legality—and as a body dominated by the right-wing CDU, it tends by default to look askance at policies forged by Berlin’s ruling center-left coalition. Furthermore, as CityLab previously reported, these issues were not entirely unforeseen. Any ruling would be up to the courts if (or, more likely, when) landlords legally challenge the law.

Seehofer’s emails are, nonetheless, a warning sign that courts might rule in landlords’ favor, and will certainly heat up a debate over the law, against which the backlash is particularly fierce. This month, a developer withdrew from a project to build 900 new apartments on the edge of the city, citing the rent freeze. These apartments would not have been subject to the freeze, but the developer claims that rent freezes at its other properties would reduce the amount of cash it had for further investments, and thus make the development unviable. Sections of the media have also gone on the attack. A representative of the center-right party FDP, writing in the business publication Handelsblatt, recently damned the law as an example of “German envy culture,” motivated more by a vindictive attitude toward wealth than a desire to improve market conditions. Others have accused the city of trying to “rebuild the wall.”

That view is not going unchallenged. As an article in left-leaning newspaper Tageszeitung points out, the abuses the law seeks to remedy are real enough. It cites as an example the Swedish landlord company Akelius, which has relied on the legal loophole of  “modernization” as a justification for hiking rents on its 14,000 Berlin apartments. These rent increases can happen even if the actual quality of the supposed modernizations is poor and does nothing to improve living conditions. Meanwhile, other sections of the business media are asking if, rather than being an example of Berlin radicalism, the city’s new laws might become a template for action across Germany.

The debate isn’t over, and it may just be heating up. For now, Berliners are left in a curious position. They can’t be certain that the rent freeze will genuinely make the city more livable. They also can’t be certain, at this point, that it will come into force at all.

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Oslo Wants to Build the World’s First Zero-Emissions Port

The edge of Oslo’s Ekeberg Hill gives quiet, unobstructed views of the Nordic city’s islands and bustling port. At the Sjursøya container terminal, cranes swing around, stacking multicolor containers in neat rows and columns. On the other side of the port, ferries load and unload passengers. A massive cruise ship idles while its inhabitants wander around the city.

The Port of Oslo receives between 50 and 70 calls a week and 12,500 containers a month, and the ships and shore equipment help produce 55,000 metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions a year. That last figure is what Oslo is trying to change. By 2030, the port aims to make an 85 percent reduction in its emissions of carbon dioxide, sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter, with the goal of becoming the world’s first zero-emissions port.

“It’s very ambitious, but at the same time it’s what is necessary if we are going to reach the Paris Agreement,” says Heidi Neilson, head of environment for the Port of Oslo. The port’s 17-point climate action plan includes refitting ferry boats, implementing a low-carbon contracting process, and installing shore power, which would allow boats to cut their engines and plug into the grid when docked.  

The effort is part of the city’s mandate to cut overall emissions by 95 percent by 2030—a decree that spares no person nor industry. The city’s climate budget and strategy is an all-hands atonement for the oil industry that made Norway into a very rich country.

The Sjursøya container terminal, and beyond it, cruise ships docked near the city center. (Port of Oslo)

“To reach the targets, all sectors have to reduce their emissions. Hence, the port and the maritime industry in Oslo must decarbonize at the same speed as the other sectors (i.e. energy supply, heating, construction, waste and combustion, road traffic),” writes Oslo Climate Agency Director Heidi Sørensen in an email to CityLab.

In August, the port signed a contract with Norwegian NGO the Bellona Foundation to move full speed ahead on cutting emissions—whether its users like it or not.

Freight’s big decarbonization challenge

According to the UN’s International Maritime Organization, between 80 and 90 percent of the world’s trade by volume is transported by sea on high-sulphur fuel oil—the dirtiest fuel there is. That’s about 94,000 vessels carrying 10 billion tons of crude, chemicals, corn, and cargo, to the tune of $4 trillion a year and nearly 4 percent of global GHG emissions.

In Oslo, container ships aren’t the only problem. Ferries running to Denmark and Germany are responsible for nearly 40 percent of port emissions, while local ferries account for 12 percent, and onshore handling and transport equipment accounts for 14 percent. To address local ferry emissions, the port awarded a contract to Norled, which is currently tasked with electrifying three of 10 existing passenger ships. When all three of these heavily used ferries are outfitted with batteries, Norled estimates the transit authority’s port emissions will decline by 70 percent. Norled delivered the first electric refit in September—a job that took 150 workers a combined total of 25,000 hours. MS Kongen now has the equivalent of 20 Tesla batteries on board.

Progress is slower when it comes to bigger ships. Cruise and cargo ships still can’t cross an ocean on battery power alone because of the cumbersome size and weight of the required batteries. Hydrogen is gaining traction as an environmentally friendly option compatible with long-haul shipping. The fuel emits water and can be produced with renewable electricity. Unfortunately, it’s also prohibitively expensive at this early stage in its maritime-sector development.

“Hydrogen is, I think, the only energy carrier that is completely CO2 free and able to power ships on longer sailings. If you need to get the ship to sail from Rotterdam to New York, you cannot do it with batteries. You can only do it with hydrogen,” says Alex Ruijs, a senior consultant with Royal HaskoningDHV who works on electrical power and energy in the maritime and aviation sectors. However, he adds, the fuel is still 10 to 15 years away from being commercially competitive. Technologies to reliably produce other synthetic fuels are also not yet economically viable.

The Bellona Foundation’s maritime senior advisor Christina Ianssen says shore power is a key element to maritime decarbonization that can be implemented right now. It would enable refitted ships to keep their lights, cooling systems, and other systems and equipment on by plugging in to the hydroelectric grid rather than running the engine. It would also power equipment like cranes, which normally run on diesel. “Even though [shore power] doesn’t solve all our problems, it helps push for a shift that is technically feasible today,” says Ianssen.

As with hydrogen, shore-power compatibility hasn’t reached the critical mass required to become economically attractive. So, getting shipowners on board may take both the carrot and the stick: Lower port fees and electricity costs to reward compliant ships, and revise contracting processes to command terminal builders and shipping companies to obey low-emission rules. “It sort of forces the shipowners to start investing in technologies they haven’t thought about before,” says Ianssen.

The green port movement gains steam

A handful of other ports around the world—in, for instance, Los Angeles and Long Beach, Auckland, the Spanish city of Valencia, Ecuador’s Guayaquil, and Baku in Azerbaijan—also have carbon-neutral and zero-emission dreams. In October 2019, the Port of Los Angeles unveiled two new battery-electric top loaders. Rotterdam, which is Europe’s biggest port, is using zero-emission port equipment.

But cutting maritime emissions is not only a local measure. The problem with solitary ports taking a firm environmental stance is that ships can simply head up- or downstream to a competitor port and unload their wares there. Then, the containers get driven around on land instead, defeating the purpose of a zero-emission policy. To counter this effect, Sørensen from Oslo’s climate agency and Neilson from the port say other Norwegian ports have to come on board.

Finding that common ground with local and international partners—and sometimes competitors—is essential to the green port movement. Neilson points to the collaboration between the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which are technically competitors. “In Los Angeles, they have fierce competition in regard to the different terminals … but at the same time they say, ‘We don’t compete on security and we don’t compete on environment.’”

If ports in the Oslofjord and across the region can band together to do the same, Neilson is confident Oslo won’t lose business. But, if becoming zero-emission does mean losing customers in the short term, that’s a price the city is willing to pay. “I think it’s a powerful message that this is possible here, and it’s not just [possible] because we have a lot of funding,” says Neilson. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the right development we need in many port cities around the world.”

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