Monthly Archive: November 2015

Earth’s Car Problem Needs a Strong Mix of Bike Activism and City Hall

(Credit: Bikes vs Cars)

About two-thirds of the way through Bikes vs Cars, a new feature-length documentary from Swedish director Fredrik Gertten, the film zeros in on a protest taking place on a busy avenue in São Paulo, Brazil. A large group of mostly young bike activists are marching and pedaling down the street in the pouring rain, blocking traffic in response to a horrific incident where a drunk driver hit a man on a bike, tearing his arm off in the process. The energy of their march — defiant, oppositional — is the central energy of the film. Bikes vs Cars is a story about the David and Goliath battle of bike activists hoping to curb driving’s global dominance. It feels at once dated and hugely relevant in a world where streets advocacy is increasingly moving from grassroots activism to establishment politics.

The documentary follows a slew of characters including bike activists, educators, drivers, car industry representatives, politicians and others in São Paulo, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Toronto, Bogota and Berlin. The three main characters laying out the case for bikes are Aline Cavalcante, a bike activist in São Paulo and one of the organizers of that Brazil march; Dan Koeppel, a writer and streets activist in Los Angeles; and Raquel Rolnik, an urban planning professor at University of São Paulo. Viewers also hear from Gil Penalosa, former head of Bogota Parks, an activist fighting against the car lobby’s influence in Germany and others.

To help illustrate driving’s stranglehold on transportation, Bikes vs Cars interviews a former car industry marketer, the deputy mayor of former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (who famously removed bike lanes from his city), a car salesman, a car commercial director and a Copenhagen cab driver. The cabbie scene is one of the best in the film. Rather than just show the thousands of cyclists everyone already knows fill the streets of Copenhagen, the film drives along with Ivan Naurholm who detests the cyclists, but is nonetheless incredibly cautious driving around them.

The film’s narrative will probably be familiar to the audience of bike riders and transportation nerds likeliest to go see it. It charts the fast and intentional rise of the automobile. Huge swaths of the population rode bikes for transportation until the car came along. Then, with the promise of autonomy and freedom and destruction of transit lines and safe biking routes, cars became king. Now as our roads fill with constant traffic jams and emissions poison the air, people are realizing that perhaps personal cars aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. But, because of the car industry’s economic dominance, the fight to shift the driving status quo is immense.

And though it’s fairly well-trod material, Bikes vs Cars does a great job telling the story. It is peppered with lots of notable facts: One cyclist is killed each week in São Paulo; 70 percent of land in Los Angeles is either roads or parking lots; the car industry is the top global spender on advertising; there were 1 billion cars in 2012 and there will be 2 billion by 2020; 7 million people die each year from air pollution.

Because there are so many characters and scenes, the film runs a little long, but that huge variety also helps keep things interesting. Gertten comes at this transportation problem from many angles and perspectives and it works.

One the most striking things from the film was how dated the São Paulo bike activism felt. Filmed just a few years ago, the scenes of young people on fixed-gear bikes organizing protest rides and installing ghost bikes with big ceremonies are reminiscent of the American bike movement in the 2000s. Thanks in part to the popularity of fixed gears, the bike movement had a major influx of young people. Those young people brought an activist energy to the bike movement with huge showings at critical mass and other confrontational protest rides, big reactions in the wake of traffic deaths, and more grassroots organizing for safer streets.

Certainly that activist energy still exists in some places in the U.S. (The film has a scene from L.A.’s Midnight Ridazz events, a grassroots monthly group ride that brings out as many as 2,000 participants.) But in big bike cities such as Seattle, New York, Portland, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, bike activism has largely given way to bike advocacy with a direct line to city hall. That insider politics is important and has led to huge gains in bike infrastructure and other bike funding, which has in turn helped bicycling continue to grow.

Last July, I interviewed longtime Seattle bike activist Davey Oil, who explained the problem with insider-only bike advocacy is, “we’re already starting from the middle of a left position and we have nobody expressing more than what we reasonable expect to get. Everybody has something to lose, so we don’t get anybody asking for more than they think they can get.”

Cavalcante and her fellow activists aren’t asking for the middle ground. They’re demanding the safe infrastructure cyclists need so they’re not dying once a week in São Paulo. (At the end of the film, they get a piece of it in the form of a new protected bike lane.) Given that over 740 cyclists still die each year in the U.S. and our best bike infrastructure networks are disconnected patchworks of bike lanes and trails, maybe we moved too quickly from activism to advocacy in the American bike movement. It’s not to say that mainstream advocacy isn’t critically important, but as Bikes vs Cars reminds viewers, the problem is enormous so maybe we shouldn’t limit the tools we’re using to solve it.

Bikes vs Cars begins its limited U.S. release on December 2nd. It might not open your eyes to an unfamiliar issue, but it’s an entertaining way to remind yourself of just how serious a problem cars have become.

BIKES vs CARSOFFICIAL TRAILER from WG Film on Vimeo.

AUDI gets ready for 2016 endurance racing circuit with fundamentally re-designed R18 hybrid

the ‘R18’ will compete in the le mans 24 hours and in the FIA world endurance championship features innovative aerodynamics and includes a modified hybrid system with lithium-ion batteries for energy storage.

The post AUDI gets ready for 2016 endurance racing circuit with fundamentally re-designed R18 hybrid appeared first on designboom | architecture & design magazine.

Shop Houzz: Cyber Monday Rug Deals (79 photos)

Since Amir Loloi founded his company in 2004, Loloi Rugs has been known for innovative designs. The rugs in the company’s collection range from affordable machine-made rugs to carpets made by hand using old-world techniques.
Sale prices valid now through December 1, 2015.

Cyber Monday Rug Deals (79 photos)

Since Amir Loloi founded his company in 2004, Loloi Rugs has been known for innovative designs. The rugs in the company’s collection range from affordable machine-made rugs to carpets made by hand using old-world techniques.
Sale prices valid now through December 1, 2015.

Talking the Wall Street Talk to Increase Community Investment

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

There are upwards of $60 billion in impact investments under management as of 2015. They span the globe, financing everything from solar power to sanitation to smallholder farming and more.

Meanwhile, just in the U.S., banks made nearly $75 billion in community development loans in 2014. Some of that went to organizations that in turn provide capital to neighborhoods and populations that banks continue to leave behind, like in Baltimore where banks lent twice as many mortgages to whites than blacks in 2014, despite the city’s black population being twice as large as its white population.

What might attract more jet-setting impact investors to putting their money into places in their own backyards? That’s the question at the heart of a recent report, “Scaling U.S. Community Investing: The Investor-Product Interface,” from the Global Impact Investor Network (GIIN) and the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy. (Ford Foundation and MacArthur Foundation funded the report, and both are also Next City supporters.)

“Through discussions with members over the years, we received a lot of feedback that there’s a need to conduct research on U.S. community investing sector, in particular the challenges of how to scale community investments,” says Abhilash Mudaliar, research manager at the GIIN.

The report bases its definition for community investing on that from U.S. SIF, a trade organization of social investors: a focus on marginalized areas or communities that conventional market activity does not reach; a focus on enabling the delivery of explicit social benefits (affordable housing, economic development, provision of needed goods and services at affordable rates, healthier outcomes) to those areas or communities; and a financial product available for investment that can be managed in terms of risk and return.

The meat of the report maps out a landscape of community investment opportunities (largely CDFIs) and community investors, current and potential. The authors also identify seven key themes around the gaps and opportunities to scale up community investment as part of the impact investing field.

(Credit: GIIN)

“Despite the fact that there are a wide range of actors in play, there are several factors that constrain scale in the industry,” Mudaliar says.

The biggest factor? Liquidity.

“We talked to a whole bunch of investment advisers and managers, and they find community investment so hard to do. It’s all one-off deals, every one is different, they can’t be bought and sold. They do them because their investors want there to be some,” says Michael Swack, who co-authored the report with Eric Hangen. Swack is faculty director at the Center on Social Innovation and Finance at the Carsey School of Public Policy. Hangen is with I Squared Community Development Consulting.

Specifically, Swack and Hangen conducted 34 in-depth interviews for the report, half with investment managers and advisers (such as banks, foundations, pension funds, investment advisers to high-net-worth individuals, family offices, and other professionals facilitating investment in community development funds) and half with product managers (private equity funds, community development banks and credit unions, and CDFI loan funds). They also conducted a less intense survey of 33 investors.

In the environmental space, Swack says, impact investors can find a healthy menu of investments in standardized forms, notes, bonds and shares. They look and feel like a more typical investment. Most importantly, they’re liquid.

Historically, liquidity hasn’t been an issue for attracting capital into the community development space. The current community investment field began to take hold in the 1980s, after the 1977 passing of the Community Reinvestment Act, a landmark legislation that drove huge volumes of bank lending to community development organizations (without having to subsidize it with tax incentives). But times have changed.

“Thirty years ago, it made sense to say ‘we’re different,‘” Swack says. “Being able to talk more of the Wall Street talk doesn’t mean we aren’t fulfilling our mission, it means we’re maturing in terms of our ability to access more capital to do that.”

For community investment managers who can get past the history of being “different,” the next challenge then becomes marketing. As Mudaliar says, “The field needs coordinated and comprehensive marketing and communication efforts to educate players about what community investing is, and what its benefits are.”

The disconnect between the social/impact investing world and the community investing world can be quite frustrating.

“At a recent impact investing conference I attended, hardly anyone there had heard of CDFIs. We’ve got a marketing issue here,” Swack says.

To further illustrate, Swack mentions TIAA-CREF’s social investment options for retirement plans. When he filled out his plan investment form at University of New Hampshire, he picked the one social investment option he saw. He later got a chance to look at the prospectus.

“If you read it, you wouldn’t know it was a social investment fund,” Swack says.

The top five holdings in TIAA-CREF’s Social Choice Account, a $13.7 billion family of funds that claims to give “special consideration to certain social criteria”? Google, Johnson & Johnson, Berkshire Hathaway, Procter & Gamble and Disney.

“A tiny bit of it is in CDFIs,” Swack says.

Given the utter lack of marketing and awareness for community investment, he adds, “What that $13.7 billion tells us is, among other things, there is actually a huge appetite for community investments. If people knew about it and could do it easily, they will do it.”

On the market: 1960s Reginald Gale-designed midcentury property in Barnstaple, Devon

I’m guessing you haven’t seen a living room quite like the one in this 1960s Reginald Gale-designed midcentury property in Barnstaple, Devon. Big thanks to Nick for the tip off. It is the first time on the market for Blindwell, which was designed and built by Reginald Gale in the late 1960s for his own […]

What Urbanists Can Learn From Foodies

This feature is an excerpt from Democratic By Design. Donate to Next City and receive a copy of the book.

“Architects and urbanists frequently look with envy to the foodies for their huge cultural accomplishment. They have not only created a new American cuisine of amazing quality, but they have had an impact on the supermarket, where decent produce and tasty, nutritious products are much less of a rarity than they used to be.” — Dan Solomon, in Global City Blues

Those of us who spend our lives working to change cities would do well to learn from social movements that have come before — the sustainable food movement, for example. The analogy between cities and food is clear: in both cases, the changes we are trying to bring about require us to remake an entire industry while at the same time changing deeply held cultural tastes.

We are used to thinking about what it takes to make cities more ecologically sustainable and socially just – the whole nexus of city regulations and engineering codes, design practices and business models. But the sustainable food movement has faced just as much complexity in trying to change the way Americans eat, attempting to transform every step in the farm-to-table process, from agricultural techniques to restaurant menus.

In researching my new book, Democratic by Design, I looked at food and cities as case studies of how social movements bring about change — specifically as an approach that emphasizes directly creating new models, with the hope of proving them and ultimately scaling them up. This approach of building alternative institutions is very different from more commonly known progressive strategies like community organizing, policy change, or political campaigns. But in my survey of social movements from the agrarian Populists of the 1890s to the early affordable housers to organized labor, I found that the attempt to create working prototypes prior to political or regulatory changes was a recurring feature of American progressivism.

The idea is to create living examples of a better society. These projects can then be seen, studied, improved on, and copied. People can join them or support them. If the alternative institutions are good enough at what they are trying to do, they will expand and multiply. Eventually, some of them will actually begin to out-compete the mainstream institutions that they stand alongside.

But while alternative institutions represent a distinctive social change strategy, what I found is that the most successful social movements are able to bring different approaches together, integrating institution-building with more other forms of activism encompassing organizing, electoral campaigns and even legal strategies. The sustainable food movement is, to me, one of the most successful at this.

Many of the key moments in the modern food movement were also key moments of broader cultural change: the victory gardens during World War II; the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962; the founding of the union that would become the United Farm Workers, also in 1962. Changing the way we eat would eventually become one of the signal contributions of the lifestyle changes that spread from the counterculture in the 1960s.

The movement grew from the network of early health food stores and vegetarian restaurants to become a major force that ultimately would change the way Americans eat, at least for the middle and upper classes. In 1960, supermarkets had almost no fresh (much less organic) produce, and what they did have was often flavorless and wrapped in Styrofoam trays. Today, any corporate grocery store has an array of healthy food, from produce to cereal, coffee to dairy. The counter-cuisine became mainstream.

I marvel at the success of the food movement partly because it required so many changes in different parts of the food system. Farmers have had to grow their crops differently; stores and distributors have had to start offering different food for sale; new recipes had to be discovered or invented; and ultimately millions of individuals have changed the way they eat.

I also think it’s interesting that many of the key actors and institutions were entrepreneurs and small businesses. It wasn’t just activists, it was the people writing cookbooks, it was restaurants and grocery stores, farmers and manufacturers all contributing to a lasting transformation.

Many of the cultural changes were led by chefs – people like Julie Child, Alice Waters and Mark Bittman, who have an enormous reach into popular culture, far beyond anything celebrity architects have been able to attain.

All of this has implications for our efforts to make cities better. We too are going to have to bring together many different strategies, and we too are going to have to pull the pieces together to transform the entire industry of city-building, from traffic planning to finance to design.

The sustainable food movement contains lessons that could apply to many other social movements.

First, it did not require agreement about end goals. Some people were motivated by moral reasons, believing that sustainable food is better for the earth, while others were motivated by personal health reasons. The movement did not founder on questions of which motivation was the right one.

Second, it spoke to people’s self-interest in a way that appealed to a broad range of Americans. The sustainable food movement, perhaps uniquely among social movements, has a strong claim to be a path for direct, immediate personal benefit in the form of better eating. So we should acknowledge the power of self-interest in making the offerings of this movement appealing to people who are not necessarily politically engaged.

This observation may also suggest a limiting factor for this strategy: ultimately, the sustainable food movement will not be able to fully displace unsustainable food production simply by providing a better product, if for no other reason than the fact that healthy food is more labor-intensive and therefore more costly.

Many consumers, especially people with less money, continue to choose cheaper, less healthy, less sustainable options. The only way to make our entire food system sustainable will be to win in the realm of politics, by changing regulations on farming and food processing. But now that the model of healthy food has proven itself and created a constituency, this is an argument that will be easier to make. Indeed, with food, as with so many other issues, the alternative institutional model of change works best as part of a broader set of strategies that includes political and regulatory change.

Finally, the idea of working to transform an industry as the right “unit of analysis” is interesting. It suggests that working at the level of industries or sectors of the economy, where progress on one piece mutually reinforces other pieces, could be extremely productive. The leaders of the sustainable food movement were not trying to change the economic system; they were trying to change the food system. This sectoral approach is a very promising way for activists to connect their projects to big, broadly transformative agendas.

We shouldn’t overstate the accomplishments of the sustainable food movement. While most Americans eat better than they did half a century ago, only a small portion of farming uses organic practices, the price of the healthy food is often so high that only the relatively well-off can afford it and many farmworkers continue to endure harsh working conditions. Nevertheless, it’s an important example of a social movement that managed to use many different strategies to bring about some significant changes.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.