Monthly Archive: October 2016

Elon Musk Unveils a Reimagined Solar Roof

Tesla CEO Elon Musk (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

The future of residential solar may have just gotten a sleek makeover. Tesla announced the launch of photovoltaic-embedded roofing shingles Friday, Inhabitat reports. So instead of a solar array bolted to an existing roof made of composite shingles of ceramic tiles, the roofing materials and solar panels would be one and the same.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the product is designed to appeal to homeowners who have been shying away from installing solar panels because of the cost of upgrading or replacing their existing roof surfaces. By combining the cost of a replacement roof and a solar array, Musk hopes solar will ultimately become the easier and more cost-effective option. Plus, they’re pretty good-looking.

“The goal is to have solar roofs that look better than a normal roof, generate electricity, last longer, have better insulation and actually have a cost that is less than [that of] a normal roof,” said Musk at a launch event at Universal Studios in L.A., where he’d outfitted several homes once used in the Desperate Housewives series with the tiles. “Why would you buy anything else?”

Musk also unveiled updated versions of Tesla’s Powerwall residential and commercial energy storage systems, which will store the energy generated by the solar roof. The entire eco-friendly homeowner package would include not only the solar roof and storage, but also a Tesla car charger. The solar roof is jointly branded by Tesla and SolarCity, a solar company that Tesla is in the process of acquiring.

Tesla and SolarCity will start installing the panels — which come in four different styles of glass tiles: textured, slate, Tuscan and smooth — next summer. Musk has said that aesthetics were a priority in the design, since the bulky nature of traditional photovoltaics limits their commercial appeal.

“It’ll be incredibly odd to have a roof that doesn’t generate energy in the future,” said Musk at the launch. “[I’m] quite confident [that] over time, if it’s done right, every roof will be solar.”

Austin Ride-Hailing App Will Let Users Request a Woman Driver

A driver for SheRides, a taxi company that hired only female drivers but has since folded (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

When Uber and Lyft abruptly exited Austin after a legislative battle over driving screening, data reporting and more, a raft of ride-hailing options sprung up to fill the need. Now one of them, nonprofit TNC RideAustin, is rolling out a new feature that aims to meet another demand: the app’s users will now be able to request a female driver, Austin Business Journal reports.

“The request for a female driver has come up, and there are potentially some people who do not elect to use ride-sharing today because they do not feel comfortable riding with a stranger,” said RideAustin COO Marisa Goldenberg.

Any passenger, male or female, can request a female driver, but drivers can reject those requests without negatively affecting their acceptance rate. That distinguishes RideAustin’s move from other ride-sharing apps, like SafeHer (formerly Chariot for Women) and See Jane Go, that cater to women only, as passengers and as drivers.

Each of these ventures has raised questions about civil rights violations and business viability. It’s a pretty niche customer base these apps are chasing: women who use ride-hailing apps but are concerned enough about their safety to download a female-only app that may be less convenient and cost a little more. SheRides, for example, a taxi firm by women and for women that launched in New York in 2014, seems to have folded.

RideAustin may be able to skirt some of the controversy because the platform will still welcome men and women as passengers and drivers. Still, a local radio host and others have criticized the concept as “needlessly progressive.”

“When you have a majority of drivers who are male, and they are sitting around doing nothing as the female drivers are running around pell-mell all over the city trying to catch all these rides,” said driver and conservative radio host Mike Allen during his Wednesday broadcast, “you are going to have a minority of female drivers in RideAustin just raking up all the rides while all us guys are sitting around going to other platforms because we have no rides.”

“We recognize that this could lead to some controversy,” Goldbenberg said. “We do believe that to push the future of ride-sharing, we have to have these debates.”

Wage Theft Hotline Hits Home With California Port Drivers

Containers are unloaded from cargo ships in the Port of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Reyes Castellano has been driving cargo in and out of the Long Beach, California, port for 15 years. The 58-year-old has always had to put a big chunk of his paycheck toward covering repair and maintenance costs for his vehicle, but ever since K&R Transportation, the company he works for as an independent contractor, asked drivers to switch out their diesel trucks for ones powered by clean diesel and natural gas, his expenses have gone through the roof.

“Since I’ve had that truck I’ve spent about $30,000 in repairs,” says Reyes, who’s listed as the owner-operator of his vehicle. Last year, he says he made $74,000, but after deducting all the expenses he put into his work, he brought home $24,000. “Filter gets warped, turbo goes out, repaired the transmission a couple of times — they get so hot in there, like there’s no insulation or nothing.”

But what gets him the most is that he’ll spend anywhere from eight to 10 hours some days just waiting for companies at the port to ready their shipments. That’s time on the job that he’s not getting paid for, and that’s why he and a few dozen other drivers decided to go on a two-day strike at ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles on October 25.

“I always worked hard my whole life, always worked hard, never depended on the government for nothing, always worked hard but then never asked for anything. Never been on food stamps, or welfare,” he says. “I’m hoping … they can be responsible for the repairs on the truck, and so I can get some free time and some holidays and paid vacations, and get a little break from all of these non-paid hours.”

On the same day these drivers took up picket signs, fair wage advocacy group Good Jobs Nation debuted the first-ever national hotline for federal contract workers like Reyes to call and report wage theft violations. Workers who call 1-844-PAY-FAIR are prompted — in English and Spanish — to leave a message detailing their contact information, where they live, what company they work for and why they think they’re a victim of wage theft. Good Jobs Nation will verify that the named companies are in fact contracted by the federal government, get in touch with the worker and start an investigation to see whether or not the wage theft claims hold water in court.

And Castellano was one of the first workers in the country to give the hotline a call.

Paco Fabian, an organizer with Good Jobs Nation, says the idea sprouted from a complaint his organization filed to the U.S. Department of Labor in 2013 that alleged a great irony: Some low-wage workers employed by eight contractors within Washington, D.C.’s most prestigious buildings were getting below minimum wage, and the companies were avoiding paying out extra for those who worked overtime.

“If this is happening in places like the U.S. Senate and Ronald Reagan Building and Smithsonian building, right under the nose of the lawmakers that are supposed to be enforcing these laws, then [it’s] probably happening everywhere, and probably on a large scale,” says Fabian. An estimated one out of every three of the 2 million workers employed by federal contractors are victims of wage theft, according to the National Employment Law Project. Among 567 federal contract workers interviewed by that organization, three out of four reported earning less than $10 an hour, and 58 percent received no benefits at all.

There are approximately 15,000 port truck drivers in California, with the vast majority of these working at the Los Angeles and Long Beach port systems that make up the largest port complex in the country. Only 20 percent of the drivers working at these ports are contracted as full-time employees. Those who aren’t have gone on strike at least 14 times over the past three years, with the hope that getting federal departments like the Department of Defense to recognize wage violation claims against its contractors will help set a precedent for contractors working with federal offices across the country, according to Barbara Maynard, a labor consultant who runs Maynard Consulting Services.

“It’s been known for decades that these workers [in the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports] are misclassified, and how that has been handled is that episodically a worker would submit a wage claim to California’s Department of Industrial Relations, and they would come in and say ‘Hey, your workers are actually employees, you gotta reclassify and pay these taxes,’” says Maynard. “But there was no change that came from that. A lot of companies in some respects thought it was just cheaper to pay the fines than to change their business model.”

There have been movements at the federal level to try and shift this structure. The most recent one was President Barack Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order, which was signed in 2014 and took effect Oct. 25.

Part of the order, however, was blocked last minute by an injunction led by a Texas judge and plaintiffs with the Association of Builders and Contractors, a major trade association. They took issue with the order’s requirement that businesses disclose past wage theft allegations if they want to qualify for federal contracts worth more than $500,000.

Allegations need only be allegations, and Judge Marcia Crone said that stipulation “violate[s] the due process rights of plaintiffs’ government contractor members by compelling them to report and defend against non-final agency allegations.”

The order’s requirements that business owners submit detailed hourly earning reports for each of their workers will still come into play. As the Department of Labor prepares to appeal the ruling, federal contract workers like Castellano are hopeful that tools like 1-844-PAY-FAIR will bring their voices a bit more into the political atmosphere in Washington, D.C.

Being able to clock those extra hours for a wage would mean a world of difference for his son, his wife and her aging grandmother. “They help out with bills because they see I work so hard, and say ‘Oh I’m going to pay this bill’ or ‘I’ll get it this time’ — toilet paper, laundry, soap, all that stuff’s expensive, you know,” says Reyes. As they struggle to pay bills, he says his contractors are “using me to fill up their pockets with money, while all the money I make — I just have to put it back into my truck.”

On the market: 1960s Serge Binotto-designed circular property in Mirepoix, Ariege, south west France

You might not know the name of the architect, but a much bigger name looms large over this 1960s Serge Binotto-designed circular property in Mirepoix, Ariege, south west France. The house is a fascinating one and a property we think has been on the market in the recent past in slightly different form. In fact, […]

New HUD Rules Plan for Future Flooding

At least 40,000 homes were damaged and 11 people killed in a thousand-year flood in Louisiana earlier this year. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)

Drawing on lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy, HUD proposed new standards last week that aim to increase the resilience of its properties. Under the proposed rule, properties seeking HUD assistance or FHA mortgage insurance would need to be elevated two feet over the site’s base flood elevation. “Critical” properties, such as hospitals, nursing homes and fire stations, would be even higher: three feet above base flood elevation.

“Our nation is faced with mounting and compelling evidence that future flooding events will be increasingly costly and frequent,” said HUD Secretary Julián Castro in a statement. “If we’re serious about protecting people and property from flooding, we have to think differently than we did 40 years ago. Today we begin the process of aligning our regulations with the evidence to make sure taxpayer dollars are invested in the most responsible and resilient manner possible.”

The proposal has its roots in a 2013 requirement by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force that all federally funded Sandy-related rebuild projects take into account the risk from worsening extreme weather events and sea level rise. In his Climate Action Plan and subsequent executive orders, President Barack Obama directed that federal agencies scale up this policy nationwide so that federal funding isn’t wasted on the same ill-fated structures disaster after disaster. This year alone, the U.S. has experienced two thousand-year floods.

The proposed HUD rule would also require that the ground floor of new or substantially renovated single-family homes in public housing developments or with FHA mortgages be elevated at least two feet above base flood elevation.

BRIT awards announces zaha hadid-designed 2017 trophy

  the BRIT awards — the UK’s annual pop music prize ceremony — has announced that its 2017 statue has been designed by the late zaha hadid. since hadid personally accepted and began working on the brief in january 2016, the project has been led by maha kutay, director at zaha hadid design, alongside niamh […]

The post BRIT awards announces zaha hadid-designed 2017 trophy appeared first on designboom | architecture & design magazine.

On the market: Wilkinson King-designed modernist property in Esher, Surrey

The people behind this don’t get a mention on the listing, but a bit of research reveals this place to be a Wilkinson King-designed modernist property in Esher, Surrey. It looks brand new, but actually dates from 2004, a contemporary modernist build in the international style and very much about light and open space. You’ll […]

10 Things I Learned & Loved This Weekend

Happy Monday, friends! How was your weekend? Despite a random day of 75 degree temps yesterday (we’re now back to a more seasonal 51 degrees!), Autumn has well and truly arrived in New York City. I love this time of year because the city comes alive with fall color! From quiet brownstone lined sidewalks to the breathtaking beauty of Central Park, every corner of the city is awash with auburn, copper, red and yellow hues. It certainly looks very different to this series of summer golden hour photographs I captured earlier this year in Central Park, or my winter snowstorm in NYC images! I spent Sunday working (I was shooting a Holiday commercial for HP, which I’m super excited to share the results of soon!) but I managed to take some time off on Saturday to go color hunting. Here are my highlights… 1. An Autumn stroll through Central Park led me to this stunning ombre tree! I was wearing my Topman bomber from last spring, Club Monaco striped crew neck and Cuisse de Grenouille chinos. So comfy! 2. I loved how my favorite shoes paired with nature’s natural palette on Saturday.3. So excited to see the festive feel and […]

The post 10 Things I Learned & Loved This Weekend appeared first on Bright Bazaar by Will Taylor.

Marching Slow for Fast Municipal Broadband in Seattle

(Photo by Josh Cohen)

Last Wednesday, a small group of activists took to the Seattle streets to protest Comcast’s internet service and call for the city to implement a municipal broadband network. The 10 protestors marched slowly through the pouring rain and downtown lunch crowds from Comcast’s Seattle headquarters to City Hall holding signs decrying slow internet and poor customer service. The slow marching speed — it took an hour to cover the mile-long route — was meant to illustrate the frustrations of slow internet. The group had to stop a few times en route to “buffer.”

The march came just days after Council Members Kshama Sawant and Rob Johnson proposed an amendment to the city budget to fund a municipal broadband implementation plan. If it passes, it will provide $300,000 to create a 10-year implementation plan and fund a new full-time employee to spearhead the work. In September, the city council also amended the city’s 20-year comprehensive plan to include a commitment to “study and potentially implement a municipal broadband system” as part of Seattle’s growth strategy.

“Public broadband is important as a public utility. We deem water, electricity and gas to be public goods, but leave internet to private corporations,” says Devin Glaser, director of Upgrade Seattle, the activist group leading the push for city-run internet in Seattle.

Comcast refutes the marchers’ claims of slow speeds. “We understand the importance of our services in the daily lives of our customers and are working hard to create a best-in-class experience for them every day,” says Walter Neary, a Comcast spokesperson in Seattle. “In the last six years, we have increased speeds four times and have invested $1 billion in Washington to upgrade our reliability and capacity and to prepare for new gigabit services.”

The municipal broadband conversation isn’t new for Seattle. The city has funded seven feasibility studies over the years. The most recent one found that municipal broadband would cost between $463 million and $630 million to implement and need at least 43 percent of Seattle single-family households to sign up in order to pencil out. For Mayor Ed Murray and Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller, that signaled municipal broadband would be too pricey and too risky in a competitive market. (Comcast, CenturyLink and Wave all sell internet service in Seattle.)

City council expressed a similar feeling last year: They voted 6-2 to reject a $5 million municipal broadband pilot project in the 2015 city budget. There are four new council members as of 2016, so activists are hoping they might now have the majority they need to approve the 10-year implementation plan.

Upgrade Seattle points to Chattanooga as evidence that municipal broadband works. More than 50 percent of households have signed on to such service in the Tennessee city since it launched there in 2010, and it’s been credited for everything from an economy boost to downtown revitalization and narrowing the digital divide.

“Faster internet might seem like a boutique problem, but it’s a social justice issue,” says Brett Hamil, a Seattle comedian and activist and one of the organizers of last week’s march.

Municipal broadband proponents say with job applications, city information, homework, banking, shopping and nearly every other facet of modern life online, internet access is an equity issue. A 2015 study found about 15 percent of Seattle homes do not have internet access.

“There is a strong argument to be made that internet is a utility like any other city-owned utility,” says Council Member Johnson, who met with the slow marchers at City Hall along with Sawant. “As a city that’s so technologically focused with so many people working in high-tech or working from home using technology, this is a critical infrastructure investment to keep us economically competitive.”

Sawant is optimistic that Seattle residents and small businesses want and will support municipal broadband, but recognizes it will take a big push to implement it.

“We’ve come this far because the wider community in Seattle is demanding it, but that will also be necessary going forward,” she said on Wednesday. “We know the pilot program can work. We know Chattanooga has succeeded in doing it. We can do it in Seattle. But in order to do so we will need to keep building the movement.”

The city council will vote on the budget in late November.

When Telling The Story of Changing Neighborhoods Becomes Part of the Story

The Philly Block Project (Photos by Hank Willis Thomas and Wyatt Gallery)

Some people call it North Philly, others Old Kensington. Sarah Gearhart just gives cross streets: north of Girard, west of Sixth, east of Front and south of Berks. When Roi Greene moved in 15 years ago, he knew it as the border of the Badlands. Now, condos are popping up on either side of his house.

For the purposes of the Philly Block Project, it’s South Kensington, rendered in photographs new and old. The Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC), along with conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, curator Kalia Brooks and others, spent a year both collecting residents’ photos into a neighborhood archive and photographing roughly three blocks as they exist today. The project culminated in two shows: one of archival images and another of contemporary photos, many blown up into life-size images within PPAC’s gallery, as though the block had been recreated indoors.

An exhibition and education space inside a larger arts complex, PPAC had been around six years when executive director Sarah Stolfa decided to embark on a project that would address a tense reality for many arts organizations: They’re often disconnected from the neighborhoods they inhabit, even as they contribute to shifts in demographics, development and — it pains me to say it — neighborhood “brand.” Locals largely weren’t coming to PPAC, and when they did, there was little evidence it was a space for them.

Stolfa felt PPAC faced a choice: “Do we want to be a passive bystander in this process, or do we want to become active as a community member, as a neighbor in the space that fosters communication?”

She went with the latter, reaching out to Thomas, a New York-based artist with Philadelphia roots, and bringing on Philadelphia photographer Lori Waselchuk as project manager. Educator and artist Tim Gibbon was hired as a community organizer. “The project is as much about the process of making the project as it is about the exhibitions,” says Stolfa. Throughout the project, PPAC held community meetings where people could ask questions of the photographers, providing feedback and guidance. The team spent several months just reaching out to different blocks, looking for one that would welcome the photographers on and off for a year.

Sarah Gearhart was outside her house on Cecil B. Moore Avenue when Waselchuk came around knocking on doors. A 12-year resident of the neighborhood and lover of photography, she was all in from start. “I was really excited, I was like, you should do our block,” she says. Ultimately, PPAC did, as well as adjacent parts of North Third and Bodine Streets. “I’m an optimist, and I was a little overly optimistic about how much people would participate,” Gearhart says.

So were Waselchuck and Stolfa. The contemporary photography aspect of the project required people to open themselves up to Thomas and the four other photographers he brought on board. But the archive turned out to be the real challenge. PPAC hosted events at local hubs where residents were invited to bring their photos of the neighborhood to be scanned. They scanned at restaurant El Principe, at Islamic school and mosque Al-Aqsa, and at Rosa’s Deli, the first Puerto Rican pretzel bakery in the city.

Rosa’s Deli (Credit: the Philly Block Project)

There, Gibbon wedged himself and the scanner between refrigerators and the deli for hours, but as with the other public scanning events, few people came. “They didn’t know what it was,” says Frances Rosa, co-owner of the deli with her husband Herb for four decades. But she was happy to share newspaper clips marveling over the city’s first Puerto Rican pretzel bakery and a photograph of the German owner they’d bought it from. Not everyone was so willing at first.

“It’s just a big ask to ask people to share their personal, intimate stories and to share their photographs,” says Gibbon. “That flimsy piece of paper might be the only memento that you have from your grandmother, and there’s so much wrapped up in that, and then sharing it with a total stranger.”

A photograph of Donna Marie Greene from the 1970s, submitted by Roi Greene (Credit: the Philly Block Project)

Others couldn’t picture the end goal. Artist and researchers salivate over archives, laughs Stolfa, but a lot of residents didn’t understand where their photos would end up. Some were skeptical of the whole premise. One woman told Waselchuk she wanted nothing to do with it. She saw the project as part of the churning mechanism attracting more people to the neighborhood and driving older residents out.

“We wanted to create a project that instead of reimagining a newer, hipper neighborhood, we wanted to visualize and entrench the landscape that is here. We wanted to really root the people’s lives and the people’s histories that are here right now,” says Waselchuk. “It can solidify their place here and honor their place here, and acknowledge that they are the neighborhood, not all the empty lots that all the developers have their eyes on.”

What role newcomers should play in honoring and preserving what came before — and what’s here now — is a fine line. Gentrification is often seen as an economic phenomenon, but it’s also a social one, a failure to acknowledge current residents and their cultural contributions to a neighborhood. “Gentrification, commercialization and development has never been kind to building neighborhoods and histories and communities,” says Waselchuk.

I’m implicated here too. I moved into South Kensington this summer, and within a week three neighbors had already told me they plan to cash out on their buildings and move on when a luxury apartment complex opens on our block in the next few years. Most bought their buildings for less than $30,000. They’ll make more than 10 times that when they decide to sell.

And Gearhart acknowledges that because of the history of this neighborhood — large swaths of which remain vacant, particularly where the city called eminent domain around American Street in a faltering bid to maintain an industrial corridor — residents have good reason to be distrustful. She sees the archive as a valuable resource, but says it’s a thorny question: “whose story is it to tell, the neighborhood’s story?”

Sarah Gearhart (Photo by Hank Willis Thomas and Wyatt Gallery)

For skeptical neighbors, PPAC made an effort to open as many doors as possible. The project also included arts workshops and the creation of a small outdoor event space. One of Gearhart’s neighbors had no interest in the photography aspect, but she was all in for the concrete planter workshop. In the end, Gearhart is glad the archive will exist. “As the neighborhood changes and people move out and older people pass away and their kids don’t keep the memories, keep the photos, keep the house, all of that’s disappearing,” she says. “I think it’s good they collected it when they did.”

As people bought in, the project “kind of grew by its own momentum,” says Gibbon. In the end, nearly three-quarters of the photos in the archive were gathered not at public events but in people’s living rooms. As the project’s community organizer, Gibbon lugged a professional-grade scanner the size of a bloated suitcase all around the neighborhood, knocking on doors and sitting for whole afternoons as people pulled out their boxes of photographs and their decades of stories. By the end of the year, over 1,500 photos were gathered from neighbors, and another 1,500 from institutional archives.

For the contemporary photographs, the original plan was to photograph all the way around four sides of a block, as Thomas had done in an earlier project in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, but the photographers ultimately expanded to photograph sections of three blocks. The photos pasted to PPAC’s walls are almost unilaterally sunny and larger than life.

‘We were very conscientious about the doom and gloom, because that’s expected,” says Brooks. “There’s a lot of ruin porn, there’s a lot of urban blight, and we didn’t want to tell the same story. We wanted to make sure there was brightness, there was life as a part of the project.”

For the archival photos, the plan was to stick to the boundaries recognized by the South Kensington Community Partners neighborhood association: Girard Avenue to Berks Avenue, and Front Street to Sixth Street. But in the end, “we opened up a little wider because it felt necessary to take that kind of creative license to open up the context a little bit more,” says Brooks, who curated both exhibitions.

Sometimes photographs from outside those boundaries could still illuminate the neighborhood’s history. Many Puerto Rican residents, for example, had previously been pushed out of the Spring Garden neighborhood; some of their photos from that time made it into the archive.

Now some of Frances Rosa’s long-time customers are getting pushed out of this neighborhood, too. She’s watched four or five changes pass by over the last 40 years, but this is the largest, she says — the young people and urbanites, as she calls them, moving back into the city from the suburbs. Just up the block, both sides of the road are fenced off while condos sprout behind them. When they’re finished, there will be nearly as much new construction on this block as old. Now she and Herb are selling the shop again, and she says it’s not young people looking to buy like they once were, it’s developers. At the opening of the archival show — where some of her newspaper articles were blown up and hung — she saw neighbors she hadn’t seen in years.

Roi Greene and family (Photo by Hank Willis Thomas and Wyatt Gallery)

Roi Greene is thinking of cashing out too. A self-described ham, he liked participating in the project because “I just wanted to be a part of something motivational and positive,” he says. The exhibition of contemporary photographs — on display at PPAC until November 30 — includes many of Greene. The hundreds of photos in the show are tiled like bricks or blown up like doors and windows, to suggest the neighborhood is, in fact, made up of people, not development opportunities.

The installation (Credit: Philly Block Project)

“You can never get a complete picture of what the neighborhood is because it’s so complicated,” says Gibbon. “And it’s amazing how one geographic place can mean so many things to so many different people.”

Stolfa hopes after the exhibition comes down in November neighbors will still feel welcome at PPAC. She and Waselchuk are still figuring out what should become of the archive. They want to keep collecting. Temple University has offered to house it in their online library, but PPAC wants to make it more readily accessible to people too. “The whole project, we have to remember, is not just about the curation and grabbing of these photographs,” Stolfa says. “It’s also about creating relationships.”

This article is part of a Next City series focused on community-engaged design made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Four Counterintuitive Things the Next President Needs to Do for Cities

This feature has been adapted from City Power. Donate to Next City and receive a copy of the book.

In the early to mid-20th century, American cities were the engines of opportunity and mobility in the industrial United States. Economic growth was synonymous with city growth. By contrast, the second half of the 20th century witnessed the precipitous decline of the industrial city, the rise of the sprawling suburban metropolis, and the racial and economic fracturing of metropolitan regions around the country. The processes of deindustrialization and suburbanization have reinforced the socioeconomic distance between the haves and the have-nots. Opportunity is hugely uneven within and across metropolitan areas and old-line cities still struggle with deeply entrenched poverty.

Despite this reality, we have seen some formerly declining cities do better in the last few decades. New York and Chicago are increasingly desirable places to live and cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are seeing their populations and property values stabilize after a long period of relative decline. This nascent urban resurgence should remind us that cities have always been engines of economic creativity, ingenuity, and opportunity. Cities are huge generators of wealth. But for cities to do what they do best — turn working-class people into middle-class people — the resources that are generated by cities have to be plowed back into the kinds of public goods that benefit everyone, not just a narrow slice of the already favored. At midcentury, cities provided the basic services like schools, housing, transportation, health care, parks, and playgrounds that gave working-class people the resources to move into the middle class. President Franklin Roosevelt famously partnered with New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to provide funding for these projects. Cities can provide those goods again. The next president can help them do so.

The way to empower cities is not to adopt a raft of new urban economic development policies. The last 75 years of urban policy have mostly been a failure. Instead of an urban policy, the next president should adopt a city power policy. To do so requires the new administration to take four steps:

  1. Acknowledge the systemic failures of national and state urban policy.
  2. Stop the industrial subsidy race and rein in wasteful interstate and interlocal tax base competition.
  3. Provide revenue support so that cities have the capacity to provide basic public goods.
  4. Get out of the way. Cities are already doing a great deal to address economic inequality. National and state policy makers should encourage those policy experiments and step aside.

THE FAILURES OF URBAN POLICY

The first step is to acknowledge the failures of federal urban policy. After the riots of the 1960s, the Kerner Commission sought to promote an “urban Marshall Plan” — large, sustained federal investments in inner-city neighborhoods. That plan never materialized. Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 and the general abandonment of the War on Poverty brought an end to inner-city efforts. Instead, federal funds were and continue to be directed toward highway building, urban renewal, and other forms of urban economic development. These funds benefit developers, downtown business interests, the construction trades, and other interest groups without demonstrably improving the condition of depressed urban neighborhoods, and oftentimes make the residents of those neighborhoods markedly worse off. Ethnic and racial minorities were particularly hard hit. For African Americans in the mid-20th century, urban renewal was known derisively and bitterly as “Negro removal.” Across the country federal funds were used to displace poor blacks, tear down their neighborhoods, and replace small businesses with larger ones.

After the riots of the 1960s, the Kerner Commission sought large, sustained federal investments to inner-city neighborhoods but those funds never materialized.

These federal expenditures did not prevent urban decline in large part because the underlying theory was mistaken. Urban economic policies have consistently failed because they have sought to shift people around the metropolitan area. The basic idea has been to encourage middle-class suburbanites to return to the central city or to encourage poor inner-city residents to move to the suburbs. Cities have been repeatedly told that to become economically viable they must attract and retain the “creative class,” the middle class, or the luxury class. Urban renewal was itself a massive effort to remake the city by replacing one set of residents with another. It didn’t work. And it continues to fail.

An 3.5-million-square-foot Packard car plant remains abandoned in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

Instead of thinking about the city as a product that needs to attract low-cost, high-tax-paying residents, we should think about cities as engines of economic opportunity in their own right. Giving existing working-class residents the tools to become middle class in place should be the goal of the next administration — not moving residents hither and thither in an attempt to cobble together a sustainable tax base. Instead of treating cities as passive jurisdictions “competing” for resident-users of public services, we should understand them as engines of economic development and upward mobility.

American cities played and continue to play a significant role in creating an urban middle class, both by creating wealth and by providing public goods. Consider that in a 40-year span in the middle of the 20th century, New York City built thousands of units of working- and middle-class housing; hundreds of schools, libraries and parks; and thousands of miles of roadways, bridges, tunnels and subways. The Roosevelt-LaGuardia partnership was essential to these developments and the basic infrastructure built by the newly emergent industrial cities raised living standards for the rural and urban poor alike. Those goods helped produce a robust urban middle class at midcentury. In many places these urban goods continue to provide the working class, the poor and newly arrived immigrants resources for upward mobility. Those resources are basic and obvious: security, education, transportation, health and shelter. The new president should think of cities as agents of economic mobility. Instead of dictating policy from above, the administration should work with cities to generate economic growth from below.

STOP THE SUBSIDY RACE

A second problem distracts cities from the effective provision of basic goods: the intermunicipal competition for industry and business. Urban redevelopment policy has been focused on creating jobs by inducing business relocation, but here again, the influx of federal dollars mostly upends communities instead of supporting them. In a regional or national employment market, bringing more jobs into a city does not mean that those jobs will be filled by local residents or that more jobs will reduce poverty among the existing needy. New jobs are just as easily filled by better-educated in-migrants. An influx of industry could also increase local unemployment, as more job seekers migrate into the jurisdiction.

The interlocal competition for jobs is a result of a federal system that encourages competition for tax base. States compete for industry. Cities compete for regionally valuable investments. Providing location subsidies to large employers has been and continues to be a standard tool of city economic development offices. According to some estimates, each year, state and local governments spend close to $80 billion, or roughly 7 percent of their total budgets, on tax incentives, breaks and outright cash payments to attract corporate investment and relocation.

Urban redevelopment policy has been focused on creating jobs by inducing business relocation, but here again, the influx of federal dollars mostly upends communities instead of supporting them

These subsidies are mostly wasteful, however. There is strong evidence that subsidies do not ultimately alter business location decisions and that cities do not get back what they put in, either in the short or long term. The stories of failure are commonplace. Reporting that five years after locating there, IBM fired most of its employees in Dubuque and Columbia, Iowa, despite a combined $84 million in tax breaks, the author of a Bloomberg News story noted that this scenario “has played out often across America: Big company comes to town, provides boost to the local economy and then leaves.” It is reported that the subsidies provided by Michigan cities to the automobile industry over the years could have easily wiped out all of Detroit’s debt.

Smokestack chasing is difficult for state and local government officials to resist. “Shoot anything that flies; claim anything that falls” captures the attitude of state and local politicians and development practitioners. City officials feel the need to do something — anything — to prove that they are pursuing economic growth.

The fracturing of metropolitan regions into hundreds of independent, local jurisdictions does not help. Most metropolitan areas are unified economic regions, but each local government is encouraged to pursue tax base — enhancing policies, regardless of the effects on neighboring jurisdictions. Local governments compete with each other for retail developments, office parks and other tax-generating commercial projects. At the same time, local governments want to avoid regionally necessary but disfavored uses and anything that generates costs but not tax revenue. Thus, local governments avoid providing low-income or multifamily housing. The result has been an affordable housing crisis — especially on the coasts. In addition, because of the lack of low-income housing in the suburbs, low-income workers in the city face a “spatial mismatch”: They often live far from the jobs that are increasingly located in the far-flung suburbs.

Federal help could solve these regional collective action problems. First, the new president could encourage Congress to stop the interstate subsidy race by proposing legislation that bars state and local tax incentives and subsidies that “poach” productive enterprises from other jurisdictions. Second, the new administration could reduce the incentives for local governments to engage in fiscal races to the bottom by directly providing more education and other social welfare dollars. The national provision of monies for basic social services would help mute interlocal tax competition.

EMPHASIZE FISCAL STABILITY

Reducing interlocal competition will allow cities to redirect their efforts toward providing basic public goods. The federal government can further encourage these efforts by helping to stabilize local government finances, and the new president can adopt this as a first-year policy goal. Cities’ revenue-raising capacity fluctuates with the booms and busts of the larger economy. American cities in the latter half of the 20th century have lurched from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis. Cities cannot print money and state constitutions usually prevent them from running deficits. In lean times, this means that cities have to cut back on their spending, often when economic theory would counsel doing the opposite. The result is that local fiscal policy exacerbates economic downturns while cutting services to the most vulnerable.

What can the next president do to give cities the ability to provide quality local services even in economic downturns? One answer is revenue sharing. In 1972, Richard Nixon ushered in an era of federal-state-local revenue sharing that lasted until 1986. Nixon’s program transferred much-needed funds from federal coffers to state and local governments, helping to stabilize local budgets. The money came with few strings — local governments were empowered to decide for themselves how to use the funds. The program was popular. Democrats welcomed much-needed aid for struggling cities. Republicans saw revenue sharing as a way of devolving political authority to local communities.

Instead of thinking about the city as a product that needs to attract low-cost, high-tax-paying residents, we should think about cities as engines of economic opportunity in their own right.

The new administration can help to stabilize local finances in other ways too. Consider federal housing and transportation policies. Since the Great Depression, the federal government has encouraged home ownership by underwriting the home mortgage system. Securitization and deregulation of the mortgage industry, however, ultimately led to overlending and economic collapse. The foreclosure and eviction crisis that followed the 2008 recession continues to cause a great deal of local fiscal stress. Cities cannot stabilize their populations or tax base when they are glutted with foreclosed homes. The federal government needs to regulate the mortgage industry, but also to adopt programs that keep people in their homes. Preventing predatory lending practices before they occur is essential.

The uncertainty of federal transportation budgeting also exacerbates urban difficulties. For cities needing to repair and replace aging infrastructure, there is often either too much money or not enough. Large-scale highway projects absorb too much money. Meanwhile basic maintenance on existing roads is neglected and alternatives to automobile-based transportation are often ignored. Again, stabilizing local finances and helping cities provide basic services should be a first-year priority for the next president.

GET OUT OF THE WAY

Once state and federal governments create a stable fiscal environment, they should get out of the way. Cities are capable of promoting economic opportunity and mobility if we just let them.

Consider the number of cities that have now adopted living wage legislation — a policy that has been shown to reduce poverty significantly. Cities are also adopting family leave, health care and labor-friendly legislation — addressing inequality in the absence of state or federal regulation.

Economic theorists often assert that the minimum wage and other forms of social welfare regulation have to be pursued at the national level. Conventional wisdom suggests that municipal regulation will prompt businesses and residents to flee.

But that is not what has happened. Millions of Americans are now living in cities with minimum wages that will reach at least $15 an hour. The efforts by mayors and city councils in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Santa Fe and hundreds of other cities have also induced some states to adopt higher minimums. Cities have been the first movers in regulating low-income service work and in providing much-needed support for low-income laborers.

Indeed, the primary barrier to cities addressing economic inequality is state and federal interference. State legislatures regularly adopt preemptive legislation that prevents cities from acting. Federal law also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for cities to adopt regulations that directly regulate labor rights or mortgage lending. Cities need more room to maneuver. The new administration can give them this policy space by avoiding unfunded mandates, by directing federal agencies to permit local flexibility in applying social welfare programs, and by providing resources directly to cities, bypassing state legislatures. Preemptive federal laws should be modified to permit cities more room to regulate in areas like labor and employment, banking and insurance.

The primary barrier to cities addressing economic inequality is state and federal interference.

When cities have the authority, they can do a great deal. In analyzing local social welfare policy, urban theorist Michael Craw found that even when constrained by limited fiscal capacity, many local governments “still have a significant degree of independence in reacting to local policy preferences when it comes to decisions on providing social welfare services and participating in federal and state intergovernmental grants.” He concludes that rather than “simply being ‘junior partners’ to federal and state governments, some local governments possess considerable autonomy in addressing local poverty.” Political scientists Chris Tausanovitch and Christopher Warshaw recently found that “liberal” cities have higher taxes, less regressive tax systems, and spend over twice as much per capita than do “conservative” cities on social welfare.

Despite conventional economic theory, cities are addressing inequality, and doing so aggressively. City residents are willing and able to pay taxes for redistributive social programs. And the wealth being generated in cities is being plowed back into city services.

CITY POWER

A city power policy should encourage these trends. The benefit of a federal political system is that it permits local jurisdictions to pursue ends that are responsive to local constituencies. For a long time, federal urban policy treated cities as needy dependents — as problems to be solved or ignored. Urban policy often overlooked the ample resources already existing in urban neighborhoods or took advantage of those resources to enrich real estate or downtown business interests. The new administration should reject past failed developmental policies, stop the interlocal subsidy race, give cities a modicum of basic fiscal stability and then get out of the way. Cities can be instruments for advancing economic opportunity and mobility. The next president should recognize and respect that fact.

This essay was originally published as part of the First Year Project, an initiative of the nonpartisan Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

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