The population in nearly all of the US' big cities is increasing, Seattle's mayor wants to reward streets that aren't just for cars, and a new kind of wood could change building design. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!
Photo by theirmind on Flickr.
Growing cities: New US Census numbers show cities continuing to grow, with 19 of the top 20 cities gaining population over the last year. Only Chicago showed a decrease. Smaller cities like Austin saw rapid growth, while Detroit continues to decline. (USA Today)
Seattle and the "war on cars": Seattle's mayor wants to rank streets based on how many single-occupant vehicles use them, and make development decisions based on the rankings. A Seattle Times opinion writer says there's no denying that the city is engaged in a war on cars, but a former mayor says designing places just for cars leads to an inability to walk places, struggling retail and housing, and more crime and blight. (Seattle Times, Crosscut)
Invisible wood: Scientists have created a clear wood that's stronger than normal. It could one day be used in place of plastic building materials or glass for windows, as it should help lower both heating costs and fuel consumption. (CNN)
Transit progress in LA: A new stretch of track, called the Expo Line, started running between Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles last week. This isn't just a new line for LA's rail network (though the 7 new light rail stations are nice). It's an approach to reconnecting the region that's built on the original transit system. (Los Angeles Times)
Revamping transit advocacy: The American Public Transportation Association, which advocates for transit all over the US, has come under fire lately; it even lost by far its largest member, New York's MTA. One way the organization can move forward: focus less on supporting transit at all costs, and more on transit that riders want to use. (TransitCenter)
In simple terms: Urban sewer systems and watersheds are complex, so the Center for Urban Pedagogy (n. the method and practice of teaching) created a diorama to explain them. The teaching tool won a national design award from the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt Museum, and is just the latest project from an organization that helps people, especially those who may not be able to read or speak English, understand the world around them. (Smithsonian Magazine)
Quote of the Week
"When I was 13, I built a very intricate Lego city that suffered a huge tragedy when it was accidentally hit with a vacuum cleaner. As I rebuilt the buildings I created memorials with plaques that I printed out on my dot matrix printer commemorating The Great Vacuum Incident of 1988. Legos didn't make me love architecture, but they gave my love of architecture a place to develop." - Renowned architect Mark Kushner discussing how adult architects play with Legos. (Fast Company Design)
I can’t build what the Comprehensive Plan requires, because the zoning won’t allow it? WTF???!
Warning! Planning Geek stuff ahead….
Most state have a law on the books that requires municipalities to adopt a Comprehensive Plan (called a General Plan in California) that will guide local investments in transportation, schools, parks, fire trucks, hospitals, and sewer plants. Once the Comprehensive Plan (Comp. Plan) has been adopted, the municipality is supposed to revise their local zoning codes and development ordinances to bring them in line with the goals and policies of the Comp. Plan. So the Comp. Plan is the big idea, the thoughtfully considered suite of policies that should guide the finer-grained rules and regulations that developers are required to follow if they want to build something.
Here’s a common problem. After going through a long string of cathartic public meetings, charrettes, visioning sessions, etc. to prepare the Comp. Plan, Downtown Master Plan, Corridor Plan, etc., the mere mortals that staff the local planning department or sit on the planning commission and the city council are kinda burned out. The unglamorous task of revising the zoning code tends to get delayed or forgotten. Sometimes there is just no money in the budget to get the zoning code revisions done.
If developer shows up proposing a project that is in line with the general policies of the new Comp. Plan but violates the specific rules of the old zoning code, the only path forward is some sort of Planned Development Permit (PD), Planned Unit Development (PUD), or some similar additional process designed to allow greater flexibility that is allowed under the letter of the zoning code. PD’s and PUD’s require require additional applications, additional review by the planning commission, and typically a public hearing. In the meantime, if someone wants to build some crappy project that violates the policies of the new General Plan, but is specifically allowed under the old zoning code, they could do that as an as-of-right project. That’s just bullshit. Imagine how local residents who participated in all those visioning workshops for the Comp. Plan are going to feel when they see that crappy project get built.
I think that putting this statement on the front cover of every Comp Plan to save people a lot of time, money and frustration:
“WARNING! This is a feel good scam. We have no intention of actually changing the rules to allow you to build any of it without special permission and a number of public hearings with local residents who have not read this document.”
If your community wants to see the vision of their Comp. Plan actually get built, get serious about changing your zoning code.
In DC's Ward 7, mostly east of the Anacostia River, former mayor Vince Gray is running to take back his old seat on the DC Council from Yvette Alexander. We hope voters will return him to the council.
Vince Gray (left) and Trayon White (right). Images from the candidates.
While ethical issues from his campaign marred his mayoralty and serious questions still remain, on the policy issues, he was very strong. He was the champion of DC's ambitious sustainability plan and the forward-thinking moveDC plan which called for bus lanes, protected bikeways, and much more. Under Gray, the DC government set ambitious goals for the future, ones we can only hope the District comes close to achieving.
Even before his term as mayor, he was an excellent councilmember and an excellent chairman. Having him back in the legislature will be a major win for DC. When he chaired the council, he charted a constructive course toward DC's zoning update and other long-term planning processes.
Gray was never shy about saying, loudly and publicly, that DC should reduce its reliance on private cars. He's also been adamant that DC needs more housing. In response to a question on the issue, he said,The District's zoning laws are arbitrary and impose a significant burden on further growth, especially for affordable housing. As mayor, I fought to change our height limitations in order to allow for the development of more high rise buildings to support more residents. As councilmember, I will support zoning changes to make building more affordable units easier and more straightforward.Yvette Alexander, on the other hand, has been a poor councilmember. She has shown little to no leadership in her ward to improve bus service, despite the fact that large numbers of her constituents ride the bus and transit to many neighborhoods is not what it could be. (Compare that to Ward 5's Kenyan McDuffie, who recently fought for and won funding for a new express bus line on Rhode Island Avenue.)
Alexander criticized bicycling at a rally about the bikeway on Pennsylvania Avenue and told Dave Salovesh that she wanted to keep being able to make U-turns across the lane (a very dangerous maneuver).
She responded angrily on Twitter when we reported her opposition, insisting she supported barriers on Pennsylvania Avenue, but refused to specifically state she supported them in front of the John A. Wilson Building, where the councilmembers park.
Having Gray back on the council would likely mean a big boost for good public policy. We hope Ward 7 voters will choose him in the Democratic primary. Early voting begins May 31, and election day is June 14. You can find out more about times and places to vote here.
This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington. To determine endorsements, we invite regular contributors and editors to participate in a survey about their preferences and opinions about upcoming races. The editorial board then decides whether to make an endorsement.
Carolyn Allen, left, a 69-year-old widow, and her roommate Marcia Rosenfeld were connected through a home-sharing program. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Seniors in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn are learning you’re never too old for a roommate, particularly if that roommate can help you stay in your neighborhood in spite of increasing rents. The long-running Home Sharing Program, which matches New York seniors in need of housing with a spare room, or seniors who have a spare room with a trustworthy renter, may be coming to Bed-Stuy, reports Kings County Politics. The program has already been connecting seniors in New York City neighborhoods for over 20 years, including Manhattan and the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay. Last week, about 30 seniors gathered in Bed-Stuy to hear about home-sharing at a forum sponsored by the office of City Councilman Robert Cornegy Jr.Related Stories
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- D.C. Bill Would Eliminate Property Taxes for Senior Homeowners
“Housing is an issue in the neighborhood, especially for seniors. A lot of seniors lost their homes to foreclosures, and a lot don’t rent out rooms because of fear,” said Stefani Zinerman, chief of staff for the councilman. She told Kings County Politics that an increasing number of seniors are struggling to afford rent in the neighborhood they may have called home for decades, while many senior homeowners are living alone after their children have moved away. In addition to the help with rent, research has shown that loneliness and social isolation negatively impact health. Over 12 percent of the city’s population are senior citizens. “Older people shouldn’t be in shelters or homeless,” said Zinerman.
The program, state- and city-funded and run by the New York State Foundation for Senior Citizens, links prospective “hosts” who have a spare private bedroom with an adult “guest” in need of a place to stay. One of the matches must be 60 years old or over. The program also serves adult hosts aged 55 or over interested in sharing their homes with developmentally disabled adult guests who are capable of living independently.
Social work staff at the New York State Foundation for Senior Citizens run the confidential screening and matching process, which is based on factors like employment, medical and mental health history. Staff also assist with negotiating the living arrangements. Hosts may ask guests to help cover up to half of what they pay in monthly housing costs, but no more. Everything else is negotiable. Matching services are free, and hosts must give 30-days notice to ask a guest to leave.
“Bedford-Stuyvesant takes pride in its status as an age-friendly neighborhood and our goal is to insure that seniors can age in place. In today’s economy, many seniors in the community live on a fixed income and cannot afford the increasing rents,” said Councilman Cornegy. “By implementing programs such as home-sharing, we create more affordable housing options in an environment that addresses the socioeconomic needs of seniors, contributes to their overall quality of life and improves our community as a whole.”
Fifty short-term apartments for homeless residents are likely coming to Idaho Avenue in upper Northwest DC. At a community meeting last night, some residents showed just how much they think the poorest people in DC need to stay far away from their exclusive enclaves.
Helder Gil posted this flyer on Twitter, which people anonymously circulated at a community meeting Thursday night on a proposed homeless shelter next to the police station on Idaho Avenue, between Cleveland Park and Cathedral Heights.
It includes the astoundingly offensive phrase, "Homeless lives matter; the lives of community homeowners matter too."
What's being proposed
Mayor Muriel Bowser set a very laudable goal of spreading out homeless shelters across all eight wards of DC. It's not best for homeless residents to all be concentrated in one small area, and puts the burden entirely on one neighborhood.
Most people expected people in some wealthy neighborhoods to fight the idea of any homeless people coming to their communities. But the flaws in how the Bowser administration executed on this plan, with seemingly too-high payments to property owners, some of whom were campaign donors, overshadowed any such debate.
Recently, the DC Council revised the plan to place all shelters on public property or land the District could acquire. In Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, the new site is the parking lot of the police station on Idaho Avenue. And now that the legitimate problems with the plan are past, some are indeed attacking the very idea that upper Northwest has to play any part in solving the need for homeless housing.
Many of the usual arguments against any project have come out in full force: the zoning doesn't match, our schools can't afford it, what about neighborhood security, this will up the traffic and down my property values.
Greetings from Ward 3 meeting on DC Council's plan to put a homeless shelter in police station parking lot. pic.twitter.com/i0IsUQbnf8—Helder Gil (@hgil) May 26, 2016
The anonymous flyer says, "We fundamentally oppose the Mayor's plan of equal distribution of homeless population—to build a shelter in each ward regardless of land availability and economic soundness." (The land seems to be quite available, actually, and economically, DC has to spend nothing to buy a parking lot it already owns.)
The letter, and people at the meeting, alleged that a shelter would harm property values. DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson disputed that:
Q: (Very long question about cost)
Mendo: There's no evidence of impact on reduced prop values from a well-run shelter.
"There are plenty [of] empty public buildings in the city which can be renovated and used as shelters," the letter also says. First off, not really; second, this really is pretty much empty public land. What they mean is, "there are plenty of public buildings in someone else's neighborhood."
Talking about how the statements are wrong on their face is beside the point. The statements are morally wrong. Many people of DC's fancier neighborhoods, even ones who identify as Democrats ("liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets") believe all of the city's need for housing, whether for homeless residents, the working poor, young college grads, or anyone else, should be solved somewhere else where "there's plenty of empty land."
Never mind that all of those other neighborhoods "over there" have people in them too, people who might be okay with some shelters or halfway housing or other social services but understandably don't want it all. Why should one part of the city get an opt out just because it's the richest part?
Q: Why this location & not another city-owned property?
Cheh: We all have social responsibility & Ward 3 needs to step up as well.
While officials assured nervous residents that this would be temporary housing and the people in the shelters would not do things like enroll in the local public school (John Eaton Elementary) in large numbers, actually integrating some homeless or formerly homeless people into the Cleveland Park/Cathedral Heights area would be a good idea.
Zeilinger: Based on statistics, only single-digit number of shelter kids would enroll at Eaton.—Helder Gil (@hgil) May 27, 2016
As researchers Raj Chetty and Eric Chyn discoveredM.a<, low-income children who grow up in mixed-income neighborhoods make 16% more over their lives than those in entirely low-income areas.
People were complaining because Eaton is full and needs renovation (the answer, of course, being to renovate and expand it), but if a school has a small number of very low-income students -->
Not all residents of the area are hostile to the less fortunate: Q: How can we help w/tutoring and welcoming new neighbors?
Cheh: Thank you.
People were complaining because Eaton is full and needs renovation (the answer, of course, being to renovate and expand it), but if a school has a small number of very low-income students -->
Not all residents of the area are hostile to the less fortunate:
Q: How can we help w/tutoring and welcoming new neighbors?
Yes, to whoever said that, thank you.
A video of a bus that skirts traffic congestion by literally driving over cars has made its way around the internet this week. It's a bold idea, but it raises the question: Why simply deal with congestion when we can just get rid of it?
Chinese engineers debuted a scale model of the Transit Elevated Bus at last week's High Tech Expo in Beijing. The vehicle would carry over 1000 passengers, and effectively form a tunnel above cars, moving forward regardless of what's happening below.
Other purported perks of the "straddle bus" include that it would have its own right of way (the un-used air above the cars), and that drivers couldn't get stuck behind it—sensors would alert drivers if they drift too close to the bus, or if their vehicle is too tall to travel underneath it.
But is this really worth building? And would it really help streets function more efficiently? While it might first seem like the elevated bus would solve the problem of congestion, this idea is implicitly treating congestion as though it's here to stay, and that we might as well just try to work around all the cars on the road rather than find ways to give people other ways to travel.
Traffic jams aren't a given
The thing is, congestion isn't guaranteed; it's far more fluid than it appears, and it comes and goes depending on how we manage traffic.
This is evidenced by the growing list of cities that have started getting rid of their highways—even when some predict chaos and gridlock because there won't be as much space for cars, things work out just fine.
Locally we're seeing the same with road diets and roads that have gotten or will get bike and transit lanes.
We don't need the straddle bus to get rid of congestion. The solution already exists: Rather than building an eight-lane highway and running a futuristic moving tunnel with seats on top over it, let's just give two of those lanes to regular buses and watch congestion go down.
We already have the technology we need
It can sometimes be far too easy to forget about the tools we already have at our disposal, instead pushing for new inventions and technology to revolutionize how we travel. The hyperloop will supposedly get us across California in 30 minutes, and Personal Rapid Transit will apparently be devoid of all the pitfalls that doomed the Columbia Pike Streetcar.
But we already have what we need. We can build bus lanes and bike lanes, and do more to encourage people to drive less rather than give them options for driving more. We don't have to become the Jetsons to solve the problem.
Helsinki bicyclists (Photo by /kallu via Flickr)
Earlier this month, Helsinki launched a new bike-share program wholly integrated with the rest of the city’s public transportation system — including streetcars, a subway, commuter trains, buses and ferries. According to a statement from the city, all modes of transit, including bike-share, are now included in a regional transportation planning app and can be accessed using the Helsinki Travel Card. The app will point users to the optimal route from point A to point B using any and all modes, alerting them to the location of bike-docking stations and sharing how many bikes are currently available. The smartcard serves as payment on all of the cities’ transportation services, and for registered bike-share users, can serve as identification to unlock a bike.Related Stories
- What’s Missing From New York’s Reported Citi Bike Deal
- Seattle DOT Takes Over Bike-Share, Plans Major Expansion
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- Vancouver Bike-Share Gears Up for Summer Launch
Bike-share is not always considered a form of public transit in the U.S. Earlier this year, U.S. representatives introduced the Bikeshare Transit Act, which would officially designate bike-share as public transportation, thereby opening up a path for cities and towns to access federal funding for equipment and servicing. Five cities’ bike-share staff are already organized under the Transport Workers Union, and the TWU plans to continue expanding efforts to other cities.
On a technical level, cities like Philadelphia are also looking for ways to better integrate payment and wayfinding technology to make bike-share use easier to combine with public transit. Travel planning app Moovit already gives users the integrated view of public transportation that Helsinki’s system offers, allowing users to see the location and availability of bike-share bikes as part of planning trips that may also include other forms of transportation in over 110 cities around the world.
Helsinki’s bike-share program launched at the beginning of May with 500 cycles and 50 docking stations. In 2017, it will expand to 1,500 bikes and 150 stations. The stations are powered by built-in solar panels, and the program is not available in winter.
1. Last month, we released the Storefront Index, a report that catalogued the nation’s retail clusters and provided a window into the spatial organization of an important part of Jane Jacobs’ famous “sidewalk ballet.” This week, we lifted the curtain a bit to explain how we built the index, hoping to give others who might wish to repeat or modify our methodology for their own research purposes a head start.
2. The growing economic strength of city centers is one of the most important facts of life in American urban policy today. This week, we updated our previous report, “Surging City Center Job Growth,” with three years of additional data that was unavailable when it was written. Our findings: although outlying areas have improved their standing since the depths of the recession, the pace of job sprawl has declined considerably in this economic expansion compared to the previous one.
3. We’re not the only ones finding strength in urban cores. Two other recent studies, in addition to our own, point to the same conclusion. The Washington think tank the Economic Innovation Group found that just 20 counties—all large urban counties—accounted for fully half of the country’s new business formationbetween 2010 and 2014. They also accounted for a disproportionate share of all new jobs. That’s a reversal from previous decades, when relatively smaller counties grew faster than larger ones. In addition, the Brookings Institution finds that urban core cities have continued to close the gap in their population growth rates with outlying parts of metropolitan areas.
4. A new affordable housing proposal in California is shedding light on some of the dynamics of housing politics in that state. Governor Jerry Brown has floated allowing developments that contain at least 20 percent below-market units and meet existing local zoning requirements to bypass an additional, only-in-California level of local discretion, called CEQA. But local governments and even some affordable housing advocates have come out against this fast-tracking of affordable units, because it reduces the bargaining power of local interests. That lines up with previous research that we’ve highlighted showing that regions where states exert more control of the development process are less segregated than places with more local control.The week’s must reads
1. The share of new people in the rapidly growing Houston metropolitan area in the city proper has increased from just 12 percent from 2000 to 2010 to 28 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to Rice University’s Urban Edge blog. Of course, the city of Houston includes everything from burgeoning 21st century urban townhouse and apartment flat neighborhoods to classic late 20th century suburbia, so it won’t be clear exactly where these new residents are going until we have better tract-level data. But as Houston Tomorrow points out, there are payoffs even just to more centrally-located sprawl: the average person in the Houston metro area drives nearly 23,000 miles per year, as opposed to just over 19,000 in the city proper. In denser inner neighborhoods, that drops to 14,000 miles.
2. More from Texas: At D Magazine, Patrick Kennedy uses our Storefront Index to correlate downtown destination density with parking prices. Not surprisingly, the more downtown storefronts, the higher parking prices are. Kennedy finds similar patterns for job and residential density. Does that mean places with lots of people, jobs, and stores need more parking? Kennedy says no—it means that their land is valuable, and reserving lots of it for car storage doesn’t make sense.
3. A while ago, we highlighted an Orlando suburb that became the first municipality in the country to subsidize ride-hailing apps, like Uber, as a kind of transit service. Now, a much larger city, Philadelphia, has announced a limited-time partnership with Uber to solve the “first and last mile problem,” with discounts of 40 percent for trips to and from several regional rail stations. If the pilot is successful, it could be extended and expanded. This may be another sign that predictions from Yale Law professor David Schleicher about the inherent incentives of local governments to promote ride-hailing services as a public good were prescient.New knowledge
1. The Seattle-based Frontier Group released a report this week, “A New Way Forward,” on the possibilities of a zero-carbon transportation system. It would rely on electric vehicles powered by renewable energy; more urban patterns of growth that allow for more trips to be taken without powered vehicles; more reliance on public transit; better pricing of transportation options to reflect their real social costs; and a suite of other measures.
2. School test scores in Washington, DC are up. Kristin Blagg and Matthew Chingos at the Urban Institute ask whether that’s just a consequence of changing demographics, or if there seems to have been genuine improvement. The answer: demographics can’t explain all of the test score improvements. Because their analysis only looks at district-wide changes, it’s less clear if the improvements might be tied to the benefits of integrated schools, or whether even schools that have remained racially and economically segregated have seen gains as well.
3. A new paper from Karen Chapple and Miriam Zuk at UC–Berkeley looks at the relationship between housing production—both market-rate and below-market—and low-income displacement in the Bay Area. They find that both types of housing are associated with reduced displacement, with below-market housing having roughly twice the per-unit effect as market housing. They also find that both kinds of housing appear only to work as anti-displacement measures at relatively larger geographies, which they suggest is a result of the incredibly intense housing pressures at smaller, block-group-sized neighborhood levels. While the authors position the paper as a counterpoint to an earlier report from the CA Legislative Analyst’s Office that emphasized the importance of market construction, Zuk and Chapple do reaffirm the importance of more market housing as part of the solution to the Bay Area’s housing problems. One issue: their models only manage to explain less than 20 percent of all the variation in displacement, suggesting other major unobserved factors that need to be sought out in future research.
The Week Observed is City Observatory’s weekly newsletter. Every Friday, we give you a quick review of the most important articles, blog posts, and scholarly research on American cities.
Our goal is to help you keep up with—and participate in—the ongoing debate about how to create prosperous, equitable, and livable cities, without having to wade through the hundreds of thousands of words produced on the subject every week by yourself.
If you have ideas for making The Week Observed better, we’d love to hear them! Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or on Twitter at @cityobs.
Photo by Alex Guerrero on Flickr.Police part with DC: DC's police force is shrinking. Why? Chief Lanier says it's just officers, hired during a spree in the 1980s, retiring, but many say they left out of frustration with policies, compensation issues, and a culture they say doesn't support proactive police work. (City Paper)
Fewer black cops: In DC, black officers now make up just 55% of the police force, compared to 67% in 1998. Is it a problem? Some say it fits the city's changing demographics, but others worry white officers will struggle to effectively patrol black neighborhoods. (Washingtonian)
Courts on Brookland density: DC courts have rejected plans for a six-story, 200-unit apartment building near the Brookland Metro, saying it's too big for the location, even though the ANC, Office of Planning, and Zoning Commission support it. (WBJ)
DC's most dangerous intersections: DDOT wants to make changes at its five most dangerous intersections, including repainting bike lanes (14th St and Columbia) and changing traffic rules (Firth Stirling Ave and Suitland Pkwy). (WTOP)
MoCo hikes property taxes: Montgomery County property taxes will increase by 9% this year to help decrease overcrowding and close the minority achievement gap at county schools. (Post)
Sports facility for more housing: A Loudoun developer will build an indoor sports facility for the county in exchange for approval to build nearly 700 more residential units at its huge mixed-use development in Ashburn. (WBJ)
Subways show their age: As city populations boom, subway systems in New York, Boston, and DC are struggling to keep overcrowding and delays at bay, thanks to years of lacking investment in rail infrastructure and maintenance. (NYT)
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The Brooklyn Central Library
A little over a year ago, Brooklyn Public Library patron Kim Best received the shock of her life. She was, for all intents and purposes, an illegal immigrant — terrifying news for the mother of a nine-year-old son. Related Stories
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She had lived in New York City since her family immigrated here in 1981, when Kim was only six years old. In the United States, foreign-born children of immigrants are eligible for derivative citizenship through a parent until the age of 18. But Kim’s mother waited until 1996 to complete her own naturalization, when Kim was an adult and no longer covered under the law. So while Kim had always thought herself a citizen, she was not.
Not knowing where to turn, Kim came to the library. There, she discovered free classes, study guides and legal advice that help hundreds of immigrants pursue U.S. citizenship every year. With the support of her son, who quizzed her nightly on American history, and after participating in an 11-week workshop at Central Library, Kim became a naturalized citizen on Oct. 14, 2015. It was one of the best days of her life.
Only a generation ago, the advent of the digital age seemed to bode ill for libraries. Who would need them, these bricks-and-mortar artifacts of a simpler time, with so much information accessible at the click of a button?
Yet the digital revolution has proved not to be the demise of libraries, but their rebirth — and today, they are more relevant than ever to the people and communities they serve. Many patrons come to us as generations before them did, in search of good books and helpful research materials. Others, like Kim, pass through our doors determined to change the course of their lives. Taken together, their stories signal a bright future for our society’s most democratic institution.
Libraries are serving more people in more ways than ever before. At Brooklyn Public Library, our 60 branches logged nearly nine million visits last year, and 928,000 people attended our 47,000 public programs and events — all of which were, like everything libraries do, presented free of charge.
In New York City, the digital divide persists. With one-third of city households lacking internet access, families turn to libraries, the largest providers of free WiFi, to get and stay connected. Library computers are equipped with software and databases that freelancers, job seekers and students would not otherwise be able to afford. And free technology classes, job search and résumé assistance, and drop-in computer labs help New Yorkers find their way in a complex, knowledge-based economy.
As anyone who has visited a neighborhood branch recently will attest, the experience of being in a library is not what it once was. The era of shushing is long gone. Today, libraries are home to programs for patrons of all ages and backgrounds, alive with the energy of people from so many walks of life coming together under one roof.
Meanwhile the printed page, for centuries the foundation of library service, is alive and well. As of this writing, our catalogue holds 3.9 million items, the majority in print. In fact, thanks to increased investment from the city and help from private donors, we’ve increased our collections budget to its highest level since the recession.
As for Kim Best, her first year of American citizenship has been dizzying. On April 19, she proudly voted in a presidential election for the first time. Now Kim and her family are planning to travel internationally — perhaps to Guyana, where she has not been since she was a little girl.
But first, she will visit the White House on June 1 to help Brooklyn Public Library accept the 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor for libraries. It will be Kim’s first visit to the nation’s capital, and she will gather beneath those stately marble columns with library supporters and patrons — her fellow citizens — from all over the country.
And then, another door will open to her.
Portland Harbor, a Superfund site (Photo by Travis Williams/Willamette Riverkeeper)
This week, Portland is expected to become the seventh West Coast city to sue Monsanto, alleging that the corporation should be held liable for costs related to the cleanup of contaminants in Portland Harbor — though the corporation never had a manufacturing presence in Portland, nor on the West Coast, for that matter. The cases, all being tried separately, rest upon a singular premise: that Monsanto can and should be held financially responsible for the environmental damage wrought by PCBs, a chemical manufactured in the U.S. primarily by Monsanto from 1935 until 1979. PCBs were used in coolants, electrical transformers, paints, adhesives, caulking, even paper, until the EPA banned their manufacture in 1979 because of their toxicity to humans and animals, and the persistence and ease with which they contaminate natural environments. Internal documents uncovered by attorneys have proven that Monsanto knew about the dangers of PCBs as early as the mid-1960s.Related Stories
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“Given the evidence of what they knew and when they knew it, the city believes [Monsanto] and not the public should pay for the costs of responding to the continuing risks of PCBs in our waterways,” said Portland City Attorney Tracy Reeve, who anticipates filing the formal complaint this week. San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, San Diego, Spokane and Seattle have already sued.
At issue in Portland is Portland Harbor, a 10-mile stretch from the northern tip of downtown almost to the Columbia River, which became a Superfund site in 2000. Over a century of chemical manufacture, sewage overflow, ship building and decommissioning, and other industrial uses have left the water and riverside land contaminated with a range of chemical pollutants. Chief among them, as far as risks to human health, are PCBs. Travis Williams, executive director of nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper, says that’s because of the way the contaminants accumulate in fish tissue, posing a health hazard to humans who may consume them. If you’re fishing for and eating smallmouth bass on a regular basis, for example, your cancer risk increases, says Williams, “and you can dial that right back to PCBs.”
The city of Portland is just one of 150 “potentially responsible parties” who will be expected to pitch in on cleanup costs because of its role in the contamination. Already, the city has spent $62 million on studies and reports. The EPA’s final remediation plan for Portland Harbor, expected to be released soon despite several delays, will cost between $790 million and $2.5 billion. If this were a simple scenario in which a company knowingly disposed of dangerous pollutants in public waterways, the case would be clear. Cities could sue under the Superfund law, and if found responsible, the polluters would pay. But the Superfund law only applies to the owners or operators of sites, or to entities that arranged for the transportation or disposal of a hazardous substance.
“What’s happening is the cities in many of these cases are the owner and operation of the site,” says Noah Sachs, a professor at the Richmond School of Law who specializes in toxic substances and hazardous waste. “They own the land where the contamination has come to rest. And so what’s happening is the state and federal agencies are requiring the cities to pay for cleanup costs. And that has prompted the cities to turn around and seek a source of funds for this.”
What makes the cases novel is their application of state nuisance laws. They’re alleging that the company’s knowing manufacture and distribution of a hazardous product constitutes a nuisance to public health. There’s some precedent for this. The Supreme Court just refused to hear ExxonMobil’s appeal of a $236 million verdict in a case brought against the company by the state of New Hampshire, which sued over the company’s use of the chemical MtBE. Cities, towns and private entities have also sued lead paint manufacturers, but almost all of those cases were tossed out of court: The product was legal at the time; plaintiffs could not prove which manufacturers were to blame because paint is almost always layered, and nuisance law was intended to apply to public, not private property. The one exception was California, where a $1 billion dollar verdict is on appeal now. “If that’s upheld, I think it would be a hugely helpful precedent for the plaintiffs in the Monsanto cases,” says Sachs.
The cities are suing for damage to public properties, including waterways, harbors, recreational fishing and swimming locations. “It’s certainly a novel theory, and a novel use of nuisance law,” says Sachs, “but I think given the circumstances they do have a case and if the cities can get by a motion to dismiss and actually present this case to a jury, I think the juries will be very sympathetic.”
If they can present it, he notes, because Monsanto has filed motions to dismiss in several of the cases already. Reeve says she would “not be surprised” if the same happens in Portland. A public statement from Monsanto states, “The speculative legal theories being advanced have no basis in the law, and should ultimately be rejected by the courts. The facts are clear: There’s no evidence that Monsanto discharged a single PCB molecule into these waters. Any PCBs that may exist were introduced by unidentified third parties or by the cities themselves. Monsanto takes seriously its own environmental responsibilities. But in this case, there is no valid claim against Monsanto. If a city wants to deal with these PCBs, it should seek out those who allowed PCBs into the water.”
Because the situation in each city is different, each case will go to court separately though the cities are being represented by the same counsel and are sharing some information. That means any one city could win or lose the suit without it bearing on the others. Sachs says California’s case law is most favorable to winning this particular case. And he says there’s good reason Monsanto is fighting these claims so hard. “There’s no reason why these suits would be restricted to the West Coast states. If one of them succeeds, you could see any of the 50 states or cities within those states bringing action.”
UPDATE: This post was edited to clarify that Monsanto was the primary manufacturer of PCBs. Also, the current Monsanto is a legally different company from the Monsanto that manufactured PCBs.
Sara Zewde’s design for the African Heritage Celebration Historical and Archaeological Circuit (Credit: Sara Zewde)
The cavernous medieval warrens of the Arsenale, a complex of former armories and shipyards that powered the Venetian navy, will make way for a 21st-century battle over the next six months. “Reporting From the Front”, the theme of the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, asks how shaping the built environment can improve the human condition. Don’t expect navel-gazing exercises in postmodernism or starchitect monuments to ego, but rather projects highlighting architectural social responsibility and equitable urban design, even planning projects with little design aspect.Related Stories
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This year’s biennale, which runs from May 28 to November 27, was curated by Pritzker-winning Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, principal of the firm Elemental. His “half a good house” concept reimagined social housing in the developing world by offering the skeleton of a solid house, which families could adapt and build upon to suit their needs.
“‘Reporting From the Front’ will be about sharing with a broader audience, the work of people that are scrutinizing the horizon looking for new fields of action, facing issues like segregation, inequalities, peripheries, access to sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortage, migration, informality, crime, traffic, waste, pollution and participation of communities,” Aravena wrote in his curator’s statement.
The U.S. pavilion has taken its inspiration from Detroit, the once and future city of America’s innovations in industrialization and new technology — from Fordist factory floors to paved roads to suburban shopping malls to techno. In all its faded glory and promised phoenix-like rise from the ashes, the Motor City has been the subject of seemingly endless thought experiments in urbanism, many of them on display in Venice, even as the city must contend with a resource-draining roster of vacant land and emerging from municipal bankruptcy.
Brazil, meanwhile, makes an assertive case that socially relevant architecture must exist in the urban context and respect the people that inhabit workaday neighborhoods. The country’s exhibit, “Juntos” (Together), even argues that rudimentary planning tools like street signage and bike lanes deserve lofty recognition because of the way they empower everyday citizens, especially in marginalized communities. Curator Washington Fajardo, president of the Rio World Heritage Institute, selected 15 projects nationwide (though with a hometown tilt toward Rio) — some of which don’t involve buildings at all.
While Rio’s overblown stadium projects will occupy the media limelight during the Olympic Games in August, those visiting the Venice Biennale will instead see much less flashy but far more lasting grassroots efforts by nonprofits, like a project in the Maré favela to install street signs in the absence of municipal recognition. A multiyear effort by the Rio office of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) to plot bike routes in the city’s resurgent downtown rewards as much the process — intensive consultation with the cycling community — as the product.
“I believe Ciclo Rotas [Bike Routes] was selected primarily for its activist nature,” ITDP’s Brazil Director Clarisse Linke says. “[It] created the possibility for activists, cyclists or not, to become urbanists.”
Other innovative selections include a methodology for assessing the urban design quality of Brazil’s new wave of public housing — notorious for plunking people down far from jobs and transit — and a park with an urban garden in Rio’s Vidigal favela. Both projects were predicated on intensive collaboration with local residents.
More traditional “architecture,” Vila Flores in Porto Alegre is renovated industrial-era worker housing that has been transformed into live-work space for artists as part of an effort to revitalize the ailing 4º Distrito.
“Participating in the Venice Biennale is a unique opportunity to share the experience we are having in Porto Alegre,” say architects João Felipe Wallig and Márcia Braga, the latter of whom currently lives in Vila Flores. “It involves the understanding of architecture as a process arising from new social and cultural demands alongside historic preservation.”
But Fajardo saved his highest accolades for two “protagonists” out of the 15 projects. Both from Rio, they emphasize the city’s Afro-Brazilian heritage, which Fajardo has staunchly defended through his preservation work and public advocacy. In March, he went so far as to call for the upcoming Summer Games to be the “Black Olympics” in a March op-ed (Portuguese only) so that visitors to Rio would come away with a deeper appreciation of the city’s strongly African influence.
The two lead projects are Madureira Park, a lavish public space in an underserved, historically black neighborhood, and the African Heritage Cultural Circuit, a proposed network of historic sites and design interventions to highlight the history of the largest slave port in the Americas.
“The two projects have parallels, and I hope the momentum from the biennale brings attention to the pressing need for capital investment in the African Heritage Cultural Circuit,” said project designer Sara Zewde, in a Next City profile last year. One of the key sites along the circuit, the Valongo Wharf, has been recommended for UNESCO World Heritage status.
While Zewde is thrilled with the recognition, Fajardo intentionally gave equal credit to the architect and the “social agent” that helped make the project a reality. In this case, a city-sanctioned working group of black activists and scholars. The approach underpins the exhibit’s “Together” title, Zewde said, “suggesting that all three are authors, of works that are incomplete without referencing the other.”
(Photo by Ana)
Building more market-rate housing in the Bay Area may reduce displacement pressure at the regional level, but building subsidized housing has over twice the impact, according to researchers at UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project. In a report released this week, they note that at the level of San Francisco blocks, neither market-rate nor subsidized housing production has a significant impact on displacement though, likely due to “the extreme mismatch between supply and demand.”Related Stories
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Miriam Zuk and Karen Chapple wrote the new report in response to one from California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), which in February drew from the Urban Displacement Project’s public data to argue that market-rate development is the most effective way to prevent the displacement of low-income residents. The LAO report suggested that areas with high rates of market-rate construction saw less displacement, regardless of whether those communities had inclusionary zoning policies mandating new construction include some affordable units. Rather, argued the LAO, even luxury apartments “filter” through the housing market, becoming more affordable over time. In other words: All housing development can be good housing development.
Zuk and Chapple take issue with that interpretation. In “Housing Production, Filtering and Displacement: Untangling the Relationships,” they say that filtering is not a dependable displacement intervention. While the production of market-rate housing did result in lower rents in later decades, they found that units filtered down to low-income households more quickly than rents decreased, so even if they were available to low-income renters, they represented a higher housing cost burden. The authors also cite other research that found places with rapidly rising housing prices to have slower filtering rates. In the Bay Area, they estimate, the filtering rate is approximately 1.5 percent per year. At that pace, if most developers are building for people at the area median income (AMI), it would take about 15 years for those units to filter down to people at 80 percent AMI, and closer to 50 years for households at 50 percent AMI.
Their report also notes that a new appreciation for older, architecturally significant housing disrupts the filtering process, since some housing becomes more desirable as it ages. A higher share of housing stock built before 1950, a college-educated population in 2000 and a low-income population in 2000 all predict a higher likelihood of a census tract experiencing displacement.
Consistent with the LAO report, Chapple and Zuk did find that new market-rate units built from 2000 to 2013 predicted a reduction in displacement over that same time period. But they also found that the production of subsidized housing units, built with low-income housing tax credits and other state and federal subsidies, had a greater protective effect than market-rate units. They were about twice as effective in preventing displacement: For every one subsidized unit, two or more market-rate units would need to be built to achieve the same effect, they say.
“We agree that market-rate development is important for many reasons, including reducing housing pressures at the regional scale and housing large segments of the population,” they write in the report. “However, our analysis strongly suggests that subsidized housing production is even more important when it comes to reducing displacement of low-income households.”
The authors also point out that the effects of both types of development work differently at regional and neighborhood scales. While the production of luxury condos may reduce housing pressure for the region, on a neighborhood level they could change the perception of an area, signaling to developers that a neighborhood is safer or more desirable for wealthier residents, increasing demand for more luxury development. The report also includes a comparative case study of two San Francisco neighborhoods that experienced high levels of market-rate and subsidized development since the 1990s, but saw very different rates of displacement.
To generate their new report, the researchers say, they reanalyzed “data, correcting for some modeling errors, and adding information on subsidized housing.” Zuk, who posted a good breakdown here, wrote that “We’re already envisioning the Urban Displacement Project 2.0 to better assess development impact and incorporate new sources of data to improve our predictive ability.”
There's no doubt about it: Vincent Orange should not continue as a DC councilmember. There are two people vying to unseat him who would both make excellent councilmembers. In the Democratic primary on June 14, we urge voters to pick the one who has the best chance to win, and that is Robert White.
Robert White is a good candidate
For a race as important as this, there has sadly been little press coverage and other attention. If you haven't been hyper-engaged in the race, you may know little or nothing about Robert White, which is a shame, because he is a strong supporter of the issues that matter to the Greater Greater Washington community. We endorsed him (along with Elissa Silverman) in the general election two years ago.
White has said he supports rezoning areas such as Georgia Avenue NW, Rhode Island Avenue NE, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE to add housing. He wants to ensure that costs don't spiral out of control for middle-class families. "We have to look at all ways to increase housing options in order to push down the cost of housing," he told Edward Russell.
He's spoken in favor of adding more bus lanes, for expanding the bike lane network, and strengthening Metro, including with more funding as needed.
He has considerable public policy experience through working for many years in the office of Congresswoman Norton and then for DC Attorney General Karl Racine. He will understand how to get things done and involve residents effectively in the political process.
White has won the support of the DC Sierra Club, DC for Democracy, the JUFJ Campaign Fund, and councilmember Mary Cheh.
No to Orange
Vincent Orange, the incumbent, simply is not a constructive force on the DC Council. He introduces legislation that is simultaneously overly specific and poorly thought through.
He introduced sloppy (and likely illegal) legislation to stop creation of new housing. Then he jumped on the "tiny houses" bandwagon with a "gimmicky" piece of legislation. He even submitted two conflicting bills about Airbnb.
Maybe it's because we're wonks, but we'd like our elected officials and their staffs to actually be thinking about a policy issue and trying to solve it. Orange doesn't seem to.
Robert White (left) and David Garber (right) images from the candidates. Base balance scale image from Shutterstock.
What about David Garber?
The third candidate in the race is David Garber. We like him a great deal. In fact, he has been an active part of the Greater Greater Washington community in the past. A number of our contributors are his personal friends. He has a strong grasp of policy issues and good values about them.
While an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the Navy Yard area, he consistently supported adding more housing while also fighting for more affordable housing. He posted a really smart series of tweets about this issue recently, which sound just like what we might say.
On transportation, Garber has cheered efforts toward dedicated bus lanes. He told Edward Russell, "I think it's really important that we invest in things like better dedicated bus service and 16th Street NW is a great example of that."
He would make an excellent councilmember, and if he were in a head to head race with Vincent Orange, we would eagerly endorse him.
However, the fact of this race is that there are two candidates who are very strong on our issues. There is little actual policy difference between David Garber and Robert White; meanwhile, Robert White has an advantage on experience and, most importantly, likelihood of winning.
When should you vote strategically?
In the past, there's been considerable debate among our readers, contributors, and editors about whether to vote for the person you like the most, or the one who's most likely to beat a bad alternative.
During Vincent Orange's last race in 2012, Sekou Biddle almost beat him, with 39% of the vote to Orange's 42%. But Peter Shapiro, whom we endorsed, ended up with 11%. If enough of Shapiro's supporters had gone to Biddle over Orange, Biddle could have prevailed.
Other times, "vote your heart" has had value. Sometimes a candidate doesn't win, but getting more votes positions him or her for a later run. In a 2013 special election, we supported Elissa Silverman. She didn't win (Anita Bonds did), but her strong performance positioned her well for the following year's at-large independent contest, where she won a seat.
This contest, however, is somewhat different from 2012. Robert White is genuinely a good candidate, not a distant second best. Some allied groups that supported Shapiro in 2012 are now enthusiastically behind White. There are both fewer (if any) reasons not to support White, and a stronger accumulating consensus in his favor.
In giving their views on the race, several contributors said they liked Garber, but simply didn't know White that well; many said that if White seemed to have the edge, they'd rally to his side. We wish there were a good, independent poll to help people decide (it's very unclear whether to put any stock in this one).
We actually had a whole post written about how we weren't quite yet ready to make up our minds. After more endorsements for White rolled in and evidence mounted that he had the strongest chance to beat Orange, our editors and many contributors agreed that voters would do best to support Robert White.
Early voting begins May 31, and election day is June 14. There is no contested race for any party other than the Democrats. You can find out more about times and places to vote here.
This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington. To determine endorsements, we invite regular contributors and editors to participate in a survey about their preferences and opinions about upcoming races. The editorial board then decides whether to make an endorsement.
On Tuesday, we posted our eighty-fourth challenge to see how well you knew Metro. I took photos of five Metro stations. Here are the answers. How well did you do?
This week, we got 29 guesses. Twenty of you got all five. Great work to the winners!
Image 1: King Street
This week, all of the stations featured are stations that are adjacent to active railroad tracks. The first picture was taken along the walkway to the Commonwealth Avenue entrance at King Street. This entrance was added long after the station opened, and it's far enough north that the platform had to be extended. But the extended platform doesn't serve trains (they still stop in the original location), so fences along the tracks keep people back from moving trains.
The presence of this fence, plus the three-track railroad bridge in the background are both clues that this is King Street. Nearly all of you (26) got this one right.
Image 2: Brookland
The second image shows ancillary rooms at the north end of the Brookland platform, viewed from the Michigan Avenue bridge. The main clue here is that the Metro tracks are straddled by a single freight track on either side, which happens only along the Red Line between Brookland and Silver Spring. That means that this could only be one of four stations.
At Fort Totten and Takoma, there's no way to get a view like this, since there are no bridges nearby. At Silver Spring, there is a bridge over the southern end of the station, however, from that bridge, the MARC platforms would be visible, as would many tall buildings, since Silver Spring is so urban.
One final clue is the cleft in the blockhouse at bottom right. That cleft is home to the base of a bridge support from the older Michigan Avenue Bridge. That bridge was still in use when Brookland station was constructed, so the ancillary rooms were built around the bridge support. However, the current Michigan Avenue bridge was constructed and opened shortly after Brookland station opened to passengers. The old base still exists, though.
Twenty-one of you knew this one.
Image 3: Rockville
The third image shows the view northward from Rockville station. Given that many Metro stations are next to railroad tracks, this one was harder to narrow down, but there were some clues. One is the new platform pavers, which are present now at most Red Line outdoor stations, but few stations on other lines.
The buildings around the gentle curve in the distance also may have helped you narrow this down. The one closest to the station is 401 Hungerford, home to Montgomery County's Department of Health and Human Services. Another clue is the adjacent railroad bridge over Park Road, which is fairly distinctive.
Twenty-one figured this one out.
Image 4: Minnesota Avenue
The fourth image shows a view westward from the platform at Minnesota Avenue. There are a few clues. The most distinctive is probably the bridge over DC 295 at center. That bridge leads to a long ramp down to the station's mezzanine, the top of which is visible as well.
A second clue is the catenary masts with missing catenary. The railroad line between Landover and L'Enfant Plaza (via the Virginia Avenue Tunnel) was electrified just like the rest of the Pennsylvania Railroad between Washington and New York. Back then, not only were passenger trains hauled by electric locomotives, so were freight trains. For that reason, electric wires ran above this freight bypass of Union Station, all the way south to Potomac Yard, where the Pennsy handed off freight trains to the Southern Railway and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P).
Conrail stopped running electric-hauled freights in the mid-1980s, so the wires are long gone. But the supporting masts survive. These wire-less masts run alongside the Orange Line between Cheverly and Minnesota Avenue. So that should have helped you narrow this down.
One more clue that may have helped narrow this down is the parked coal hopper. This stretch of track leads into CSX's Benning Yard, where many of the coal hoppers bound for the Morgantown Generating Station and the Chalk Point Generating Station are stored. Parked coal trains are a common sight on this portion of the Orange Line.
Twenty-two got the right answer (dontcha know).
Image 5: Landover
The final image was taken looking south from Landover station. From this vantage point, you can see the electrified Northeast Corridor. Since it's impossible to tell whether the catenary here is still present (due to the foliage), this could be any Orange Line station between New Carrollton and Minnesota Avenue.
With the Amtrak corridor to the right of the image, this must be a picture looking south. It can't be Cheverly, since that station has side platforms. At New Carrollton, the Amtrak/MARC station would be visible at right and there's a bridge within sight of the southern end of the platform.
Additionally, the southern ends of New Carrollton, Deanwood, and Minnesota Avenue have blockhouses with ancillary rooms (like seen in image 2 at Brookland), so the view to the south is not possible. Minnesota Avenue and Deanwood also have freight tracks on both sides of the platform, which aren't visible here.
That leaves Landover, which twenty-two of you were able to correctly deduce.
A taxi in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
For the first time, hungry office workers in Washington, D.C., can order lunch through a delivery app — and have it brought by an official D.C. taxicab driver.Related Stories
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The non-exclusive partnership between the D.C. Taxicab Commission (DCTC) and Delivery.com is thought to be the first of its kind. On the consumer side, the new partnership works much like UberEats or Postmates: a few clicks (or taps) and the food is on its way. On the driver side, DCTC chairman Ernest Chrappah says the partnership is just one way that the commission is using technology to level the playing field for cab drivers.
The DCTC-Delivery.com pilot partnership was officially announced last week after a few months of quiet testing. It targets restaurants that don’t have their own dedicated delivery staff, offering them a pool of licensed drivers that are available at the tap of a button.
“What we are effectively doing is providing the glue,” says Chrappah. “We are not in the business of creating apps to compete. We are in the business of exposing assets, our drivers, or our process, or a licensed vehicle, to smarter entrepreneurs who have a business model. … We are exposing assets through APIs, so if another delivery company wants to come to D.C. they don’t have to start from scratch [developing a driver fleet].”
“Providing the glue” in this case means allowing Delivery.com to tap into the DCTC-built e-hail app. Drivers already using the app — there are 5,500 licensed cab drivers in D.C. and “thousands” using the e-hail app — can, after going through a training program, opt to receive delivery requests through the same app.
The modest pilot has already been through a few iterations, Chrappah says. “Initially, we had a broader [delivery] radius. One of the things we learned was that may not necessarily be the best fit for our drivers who … like to be in the downtown area, drivers who get the bulk of [their fares] from short distances.” So for now, only customers within a mile of the participating restaurants can order. (They can also order from one of Delivery.com’s many other restaurants — but only seven are using D.C. cab drivers as delivery vehicles.)
It’s tempting to see this as a shot in the arm for the city’s cab drivers, who have historically not been fans of e-hail apps like Lyft and Uber, to allow the taxi drivers to compete with the newer, nimbler kids on the block. Chrappah says that attitude is old-fashioned.
“The misconception is that cabs and Uber or Lyft or private vehicles are natural-sworn enemies. That’s simply not true,” he says. “We have drivers who do trips for Uber and Lyft and do deliveries for Postmates. This is about income. It’s about expanding economic opportunities. We at the commission want to ensure that consumers have choice, [and] drivers get a fair shot at making a decent living.”
Besides, there are bigger challenges on the horizon. “Next year, it’s not going to be a driver competing with a driver. It’s going to be about a driver competing with an autonomous vehicle,” he says.
For a cab driver with no passengers in the back seat, delivering lunches could be a small cash infusion.
According to Chrappah, Delivery.com pays drivers a minimum of $5 for up to a one-mile delivery, and the average customer adds a $4 tip. Five lunch deliveries per weekday at $9 each, 40 weeks a year, is $9,000, not insignificant in the taxi industry. But that assumes that every driver who wants to can make five lunch deliveries every weekday.
Whether that is possible remains to be seen, but there are a few things in the idea’s favor. First, if the pilot goes well, DCTC and Delivery.com may increase the types of things cab drivers can deliver — “there is potential for laundry, alcohol, we’ve had conversations around packages,” Chrappah says. Further, when you have packages in the trunk that aren’t lunches quickly getting cold, that frees up the driver to pick up another delivery or even a passenger, which could result in a doubling-up of fares and a set of environmental and traffic benefits to boot. Nobody wins when a driver is cruising with an empty car. Last year, Eric Spiegelman, president of the Los Angeles Taxicab Commission, said that in L.A. at least drivers spend 60 percent of their time with an empty cab. Chrappah wouldn’t share specifics in D.C. but said that drivers have “excess capacity throughout the day in different scenarios.”
Another point in the DCTC partnership is it’s not exclusive. Already the commission is working with other companies — that Chrappah declined to name — to increase the number of opportunities available to D.C. cab drivers.
The existence of a cab driver — or any driver part of D.C.’s “gig economy” is a precarious one. The city’s Office of Revenue Analysis crunched the numbers late last year and found that the number of District residents who claim to be self-employed has declined in recent years, even as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb have entered the scene and transformed the city as they have across the world. That led the office to conclude that either people are not reporting their income from these side sources, or “that the District’s gig workers — the Uber drivers, the Amazon flex folks, the Taskrabbits — are not District residents, just like the many District workers who receive minimum wage [and] do not live in the District.”
“It’s expensive to be in D.C.,” Chrappah agrees.
The new partnership “is not just about technology,” Chrappah insists. “It’s about reinventing an industry and giving people a fair shot to the middle-class.”
DC's population is growing, and it's likely to surpass the all-time high in the next decade. It's also getting whiter overall, and seeing more international immigrants and childbirths. These are some of the key takeaways from a population trends study that the Office of Planning published in April.
DC will likely surpass its all-time high population within the next decade
Between 2000 and 2015, the District's population grew by approximately 100,000 people. This meant a reversal of a downward trend in population, which had been happening since the 1950s, when the city's population peaked at around 800,000.
There aren't any signs that population growth will slow down. In fact, the study projects the District's population will exceed the old high of 800,000 within the next ten years.
DC will continue to become whiter and more affluent
Since bottoming out in the 1980s, the District's white population has grown steadily, with a sharp increase around the turn of the century. Conversely, the rate of the black population growth has steadily declined since its peak in the 1970s.
As DC's white population continues to increase, wealth and affluence will likely increase as a corollary. Currently, pockets of wealth and affluence are unevenly concentrated in Wards 1, 2, and 3. By contrast, Wards 7 and 8 contain a disproportionate amount of poverty when compared to the other wards.
International immigration and child births fuel population growth
Between 2000 and 2007, more people migrated out of the District than migrated in. Since 2007, though, the migrant population in the District has consistently remained a net positive - more people are migrating into the District than out of it.
It is worth noting that even before 2007, the influx of international migrants remained consistently positive despite the overall trend of people moving out of the District.
When taken into consideration relative to the overall migration trends of the 2000s, international immigration has accounted for a significant portion of the population increase in the city.
As more immigrants move into the District and start or expand their families, they account for an increased proportion of the population growth in the city.
The number of school-aged children will boom in the next 10 years
Between 2000 and 2010, a specific subgroup - youths aged 5-10 years old - saw a steep drop off in population, accounting for 36% of the overall youth population loss. But this same group saw a 16% population increase between 2010 and 2014.
The attraction and retention of households with children is projected to grow in the years to come, which means the population of school-aged children will likely continue to increase.
What are the policy implications?
As the District looks to the future, population growth and demographic projections clearly highlight opportunities for more sustainable growth.
Wealth and poverty are distributed unevenly in distinct sections of the city, and policy decisions have the potential to affect a shift in this reality as the District prepares for future population expansion.
With a projected increase in school-aged youth and retention of families, education and housing policy specifically could present a significant opportunity for reversing the trends towards an increased opportunity gap.
In a recent Facebook post my friend and colleague Steve Mouzon, author of Original Green, posed an important question:
“Why is it that when there is an attempt to recover a lost tradition, that which is built is not the tradition but rather a cartoon of that tradition –have we lost the ability to see clearly?”
I think our habits of building are fractured and out of sync. We can’t seem to capture the rhythm of the mechanics of design and construction well enough to transcend a stilted mechanical approach. The people who built the traditional houses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had habits of building that were reasonably intact. We try our best to be fluent in a language that, if not dead is at least seriously wounded. While some struggle to produce drawings that communicate well, others struggle to read them well and then launch ahead sure that they’ve “got it”. We trust our brains when we probably have little reason to. Everyday tradeoffs in building present themselves with reliable frequency. We are not wired to be obsessive or hyper-vigilant when performing carpentry or ordering lumber. At some point, you believe that you have a handle on the task at hand. Even hearing someone explain that “We do this because…” can feel abstract and a somehow disconnected. Skipping over the surface of a tradition feels pretty profound, so you don’t know that you are supposed to be diving deep. We are thrilled at building something that seems darned good compared to today’s usual habits of building, so we can’t see a more sublime experience just a few steps away.
Imagine that you are a housewright in 1889. You spent the winter producing window sashes, doors, moldings in your barn with the collection of hand planes and the Asher Benjamin handbook you inherited from your dad. In the spring you lay up a stone basement and start framing a house. When it comes time to install those windows, doors and trim your grasp of to how the pieces go together makes so much more sense than someone setting windows and coping trim today. Whether in the design studio or the field, it is rare for us to get Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 Hours in on the full arc of the work, on the habits of building. So, yes, Steve we have lost the ability to see clearly. These days we see as if through a glass darkly. We need the discipline and structure of craft and habit to recover our sight. Today the flow that emerges from that discipline and structure is not available to most. On a good day some talented people provide us with some well-intended choreography of a dance few of us have ever seen performed by someone with real mastery.
A family is evacuated from their Houston apartment building in April. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Last month, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had to postpone his first State of the City address, which was scheduled to include the appointment of the city’s first flood czar — on account of historic and catastrophic flooding. The “Tax Day” flood that struck on April 18 was the second hundred-year event to affect the city in less than 12 months, flooding about 2,000 homes and causing the deaths of at least eight people. That crisis threw Houston’s stormwater management weaknesses into stark relief, but they weren’t news to Stephen Costello, a former at-large Houston council member and an engineer who has worked on stormwater management his entire professional career. Turner appointed him to be chief resilience officer earlier this month, but because the mayor wants to launch his position with a focus on flooding and drainage, Costello’s been cast as the “flood czar” for now.Related Stories
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“Flooding has a tendency of people forgetting very quickly,” says Costello. “The simple fact that we had two pretty severe floods less than 12 months apart, that were non-tropical related, which means they weren’t related to any hurricane, tended to get everyone’s attention that this is a real issue and it’s not going to go away.”
Houston’s flood risk is impacted by a number of factors: It’s a flat region experiencing rapid development in an area with naturally impervious soils, vulnerable to storms of increasing ferocity. Overall, climate predictions for Texas estimate the state will become hotter and drier by the end of the century, but the storms that do come may intensify. Already, the state climatologist’s records show that since 1986 there’s been a significant increase in the number of years Harris County has experienced 8 inches of rainfall or more in a single event. The Tax Day storm beat the Houston record: 9.92 inches in a single day.
Rainfall, of course, is not the same as flooding. The city has many tools at its disposal to deal with stormwater more effectively. Costello says one of the biggest roadblocks to addressing those weaknesses to date has been a lack of coordination among multiple agencies responsible for flooding and drainage. The city of Houston is in charge of neighborhood drainage, creating the systems that will convey water to the network of 10 bayous that traverse the city. Then a sister organization, Harris County Flood Control District, is responsible for conveying the water, via the bayous, out to the Gulf of Mexico.
“We try to collectively work together yet we have distinctly different responsibilities,” Costello says. A major part of his role will be to coordinate efforts of the city and the flood control district, plus other entities whose work bears on stormwater and drainage, like public street paving and private development.
Stephen Costello (center) as a Houston council member in 2013 (Aaron M. Sprecher/AP Images for National Council on Aging and Sanofi Pasteur)Houston developers are required to mitigate for the stormwater impacts of their projects, which cannot increase or redirect water to adjacent properties. Where public drainage is considered adequate, they can route stormwater into the public right-of-way. Where it isn’t, developers are required to use detention basins and green stormwater infrastructure to deal with stormwater onsite. But the Houston Chronicle has questioned whether developers are actually fulfilling their obligation, and many critics in the city, which is infamous for its lack of zoning, have blamed rampant development of wetlands and other natural areas for worsening floods. Even where developers did build retention ponds, the Chronicle notes, they just aren’t as effective as the green spaces they replaced.
“We’ve expanded the flood plain by building on some of our biggest natural sponges,” says Jaime González, community conservation director at the Katy Prairie Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust working to preserve the habitat and ecosystem benefits of the Katy Prairie, just northwest of Houston. He’s concerned that the development impeding on this natural area is making flooding in the city worse. “If we stopped developing completely on the Katy Prairie tomorrow it wouldn’t solve all of our problems, that’s for sure,” says González. “[But] the Katy Prairie and natural landscapes in general really do help to mitigate the flooding damage.”
From his perspective, these recent flooding events are going to “necessitate us revisiting our notion of growth and development,” looking to infill the already urban areas rather than spraying subdivisions across currently open spaces. For his part, Costello says he understands why residents believe development is to blame for increased flooding, but he “[doesn’t] necessarily agree with that.” As flood czar, he says he will reevaluate development standards, though, particularly for redevelopment.
He may also look to change the way Houston distributes funding for drainage improvements. “What we’re going to have to do is take a look at where the severe flood plain areas are and see if there’s a better way to reallocate resources,” he says. Every year, when preparing the capital improvements budget, the city council distributes funds evenly for the city’s 11 districts. “Maybe we need to take a different view of that, and if we have several districts that have severe repetitive flooding, maybe we need to take a look at allocating more resources directly to those areas.”
Many areas that flooded over Memorial Day weekend 2015 also flooded this Tax Day. One neighborhood along a bayou — which is being improved for greater capacity through a federal project — was flooded by waters overtopping that bayou. The improvements to Brays Bayou softened the blow, but that project should have been done years ago, says Costello, but because the costs are being split 50-50 local and federal, and because the local sponsor is getting repaid by the feds on reimbursable contracts, the project has been done in stages and continuously delayed.
But the bayous have a lot of potential to help. The Bayou Greenways Project has been envisioned as a way to improve stormwater retention, while also creating more open space and an improved active transportation network. A number of ongoing city and county projects also include creating regional basins, what Costello calls “open excavated areas.” They’ll be dual use basins: soccer fields, baseball diamonds and parks when it’s dry, holding ponds when it isn’t. When they’ll be completed is a funding issue, he says.
But past experience suggests, if possible, now is the time to act. Both on actual improvements, and on communication with the public, another facet of Costello’s job. “We have to just not let the moment slip,” says González. “People’s memories are fairly short.”