Winter should be fun, not months of shoveling a car

Issue 121

Hey urbanists,

The state of emergency in St. John’s, Canada has finally been lifted. I wrote a piece about it for CBC, but it won’t be published until after this goes out. In the meantime, I wrote a bit below about how the snowstorm brought back some earlier thoughts about how to make cities better in the winter.

I finished reading Anna Wiener’s memoir “Uncanny Valley,” and I’d highly recommend it. She recounts a conversation with a tech bro interested in cities and concludes that “technologists’ excitement about urbanism wasn’t just an enthusiasm for cities […] It was an introductory exercise, a sandbox, a gateway: phase one of settling into newfound political power.”

In this issue, check out Jim Stanford on the future of work, Uber threatening Colombia, Peter Thiel’s politics, new U.K. trade unions, people treating cities like Airbnbs, Paris transport workers on strike, Australia’s emissions targets, and locusts in Africa.

Have a great week!


P.S. — Press the heart under the title or at the end of the email if you like the issue.

Winter could be so much better

Last week, St. John’s, Canada, where I’m currently located, got 90+ cm (3 ft) of snow, causing a state of emergency that forced cars off the streets, the military to be called in, and the city to be shut down for a week. The break with the status quo highlighted problems with a sprawling metro area like St. John’s, but it also reminded me of an essay I wrote in 2016 about winter, suburbia, and capitalism after visiting Helsinki.

Up until a few weeks ago, if you’d asked me what I thought of winter I’d have bluntly told you I hated it. […] The biting cold. The slippery roads. The cars constantly needing to be wiped and warmed. The driveways needing to be shovelled, then shovelled again after the snow plow passes. And the employer that doesn’t care if the weather makes it tough to get to work. […]

Helsinki showed me the beauty of winter I’d forgotten. The chill wind on my face became a joy instead of an annoyance. The light snows became a thing of beauty, not a sign of impending burden. The eternal gloom became a welcome escape from the sun. I realized that the way we experience winter matters. It’s why children love it, while many adults dread it. Children don’t have to worry about the obstacles winter places in the way of the efficiency of the capitalist system, but adults do. It’s for this reason that children are able to enjoy the pleasures of the season, while adults complain their way through it.

The problems I identified were twofold: suburban development and capitalist work structures. While suburbanites have to put up with constant shoveling and winter driving, urbanites “have to shovel less, or not at all, and if they take advantage of public transit, they also don’t need to worry about the inconvenience of the vehicle,” meaning “there are fewer issues caused by winter for urbanites to worry about than their suburban counterparts.” Further, unless the storm is really bad, employers — especially of low-income workers — can be unforgiving if the weather causes delays.

I concluded that “[t]he problem isn’t winter, it’s capitalism. And that’s something we have the power to change.” (As I explained previously, suburban development was driven by the capitalist profit motive, not residents’ desires.) But what might a different winter look like?

I’d argue that, for a relatively sprawled metro area like St. John’s (whose urban form is more common than not in North America), I feel like the aftermath of the snowstorm gave us some hints. With stores shut and everyone in the streets digging out, there was a renewal of community bonds that are choked out by sprawl and automobility. As Drew Brown describes,

You learn a lot about yourself and your community when ordinary life is interrupted. Thanks to five days without personal car travel or stores to find supplies, my normally soulless suburban street has become an actual neighbourhood. The first time we dug out the driveway, a man who’d lived up the road his whole life stopped to make small talk and filled me in on the whole history of the neighbourhood. We gave onions to the sweet Scottish lady next door so she could make some Burns Day haggis. Roving bands of Good Samaritans combed the streets digging out cars to speed the snow-clearing. In every way, it is a truly exceptional event.

Exceptional, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be the norm. I was captivated by the videos of people walking around the streets of the usually car-clogged downtown with not an automobile in sight, bringing back the days before cars took over. People went snowshoeing and skiing through their neighborhoods, and some even went snowboarding on downtown’s hilly streets — something that would have never happened if only 15-20 cm had fallen, letting cars back on the road in hours instead of days. Why couldn’t we give street space back to pedestrians, and make something fun like this a permanent part of our cities in winter? Why should winter be a slog?

In my 2016 essay, I also referenced a piece by Owen Hill, in which he reflected on what winter might look like under socialism. An integral part would be shifting from a car-based transport system to one designed for public transit, which would not only “reduce danger and waste, it would also transform the space taken up by cars — the roads and parking lots — into spaces for humans. Sites of danger would become sites of play, perfect places to build a snow fort or go skiing.” That just so happens to be what happened in the first couple days after the snowfall in St. John’s, while there was hardly a car on any street.

It’s not just transport and the urban form that should change, but also the way we organize work.

What if the time you spent shoveling or checking in on your neighbors after a snowstorm was counted as part of your workweek instead of being added on top of it? What if people didn’t get one paid snow day during big storms — much better than what most workers have currently — but got three? One day to help clear the snow, one day to check on your neighbors, and one day to play — to actually enjoy one of the earth’s greatest gifts.

It is also easy to imagine how northern cities could organize themselves around the principle of long, yearly vacations during the winter. Imagine if every person in Boston had paid time off not only for the holidays, but also got to choose between taking the whole month of January or February off.

Then imagine having the resources to use that time for a real vacation. Vacationers could take high-speed rail south — go all the way to equatorial states or the Southern Hemisphere, eat delicious food, and lay on the beach reading. Or they could go north, to see the Northern Lights and relish in the long dark, the still beauty of winter in its most extreme.

Is that really such a stretch? Maybe it is in Canada and the United States, where people are lucky to have 2-3 weeks of paid vacation, if any, and rarely get big December bonuses, while in Europe, people are used to a minimum of 4-5 weeks of paid vacation and some even get a ‘thirteenth month’ of pay around Christmas.

In the aftermath of the snowstorm, I was surprised municipalities prioritized getting cars back on the roads over buses, and let them loose before sidewalks were cleared for pedestrians given nine people were hit by cars in the first half of January. Then they let grocery stores reopen on limited hours for people to restock — prompting long, but civil lines — and people were expected to drive, walk, or get a taxi — there was no transit. I wondered why — this may not come as a surprise to frequent readers — they weren’t setting up meal halls in community centers and church basements and sending the military to deliver meals to the elderly and immobile instead of prioritizing those who get to a grocery store, stand in line for hours, and afford to pay.

I was heartened to see the carless downtown described as “quite beautiful and pretty romantic” — a far cry from how it might usually be seen. By putting the city on pause, people were able to see it through a different lens and consider how their experience of winter might be different. It provides people trying to make change with something concrete to reference moving forward, and it will be interesting to see if the storm helps to inspire broader changes that are desperately needed.


🤖✊ Jim Stanford challenges technodeterministic narratives about the future of work: “Today [workers] confront pervasive precarity, stagnant and unequal incomes, and an absence of voice in their work lives. These challenges cannot be fixed either by the automatic working of market forces or by the advances of digital technology. Instead, they demand quick and powerful responses from policy-makers and other labour market stakeholders.”

Tech dystopia

🇺🇸🛑 Executives from Sonos, PopSocket, Tile, and Basecamp appeared at a public hearing held by the House of Representatives Antitrust Subcommittee to explain how Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook abuse their market power to crush smaller companies. Jason Del Rey explained their six main arguments.

🔈🗑 Meanwhile, Sonos is under fire for building obsolescence into its products. “In the modern internet era, it’s increasingly clear that consumers no longer actually own the things we buy. Instead, we’re shelling out big bucks for products that can easily lose features or worse—stop working entirely on the whim of a corporation.”

🇨🇴😠 Uber is threatening to sue Colombia using the investor-state dispute mechanism (ISDS) in the United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement after the country blocked Uber. The provision “essentially gives a foreign company the ability to threaten to sue a nation for millions -- even billions -- of dollars if the latter brings in new laws or regulations that might adversely affect an investment.”

🇺🇸📚 When I read Matt Stoller’s “Goliath” on the history of U.S. anti-monopoly politics, some aspects felt off, but I didn’t have the historical knowledge to know what was being downplayed or misrepresented. Thankfully, Gabriel Winant explains how the attempt to frame history through the lens of monopoly leads it to be a battle of personalities, missing the class conflict that was key in driving many of the historical events Stoller covers.

📱🇸🇦 Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ smartphone was hacked after he received a video on Whatsapp from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. After opening the video, “his phone began sending unusually large volumes of data.”

👨‍⚖️ Four Facebook competitors are suing to have a judge force Mark Zuckerberg to sell his majority control of the company. They say Facebook is “one of the largest unlawful monopolies ever seen in the United States.”

😠 Peter Thiel’s authoritarian nationalist politics: “A strong centralized state can restore order, breed progress, and open up new technologies, markets, and financial instruments from which Thiel might profit. And as long as it allows Thiel to make money and host dinner parties, who cares if its borders are cruelly and ruthlessly enforced? Who cares if its leader is an autocrat? Who cares, for that matter, if it’s democratic? In fact, it might be better if it weren’t.”

🖼🎵 “Expecting more copyright to help artists beat a concentrated industry is like expecting more lunch money to help your kid defeat the bullies who beat him up on the playground every day. No matter how much lunch money you give that kid, all you'll ever do is make the bullies richer.” — Cory Doctorow

🇬🇧✊ In the United Kingdom, new trade unions are forming to represent precarious and on-demand workers. They’re using unconventional tactics and making gains for the workers they represent.

🇫🇷💶 France’s ‘tech tax’ has been delayed until the end of 2020 as it tries to make an agreement with the United States

🇺🇸🗳 Facebook executives are reportedly very nervous about a Democrat winning the U.S. presidency in November 2020

Critical urbanism

🇫🇷 Paris has a municipal election in March. Socialist Party mayor Anne Hidalgo is running for reelection on a platform of continuing the pedestrianization of major streets, adding more bike infrastructure, holding a referendum on Airbnb, creating a new municipal police force, and spending €20 billion to convert office buildings into “30,000 new homes with rents at least 20 percent lower than market rates by 2026.”

🏠 “[W]arped housing policies that date back to the second world war and which are intertwined with an infatuation with home ownership” have created a number of urban problems: “vibrant cities without space to grow; ageing homeowners sitting in half-empty homes who are keen to protect their view; and a generation of young people who cannot easily afford to rent or buy.” This Economist article doesn’t necessarily have the right solutions, but its core thesis that promotion of home ownership is a problem is spot on.

🏙👋 “When people treat the place they live as a giant AirBnB they can check out of after a few years working as a ‘creative lead’ at a mid-sized start-up before moving elsewhere, they become less attuned to local issues, specifically the problems faced by those outside their specific, transplant-y milieu.”

🇫🇷✊ Transport workers in Paris have been on strike for more than a month and a half to oppose President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms. 60% of the public is still on the workers’ side, but other sectors haven’t joined them, and they fear the reforms will end up getting pushed through.

🏢 “For the past eight years, I’ve spent every day of my professional life enabling an industry that is responsible for nearly 40% of global climate emissions. I don’t work for an oil or gas company. I don’t work for an airline. I’m an architect.

🇯🇵 In Japan, where fewer babies were born last year than since records began in 1899 and the number of single-person households has jumped from 25% in 1995 to over 35% in 2015, there’s a growing “‘ohitorisama’ movement: people boldly choosing to do things alone, the opinions of others be damned.”

🔋🏭 In Volkswagen’s estimates of the emissions footprints of its diesel Golf and e-Golf, it found that “due to the energy intensive nature of battery production, it takes roughly 120,000 kilometres of use for the e-Golf to have a lower emissions.”

🇺🇸🚌 Buses in Los Angeles will arrive more often as part of a new plan to reverse ridership declines

Climate crisis

🛍🤔 Emma Marris argues we need to stop getting caught up on personal consumption and focus on the system. “As long as we are competing for the title of ‘greener than thou’, or are paralyzed by shame, we aren’t fighting the powerful companies and governments that are the real problem. And that’s exactly the way they like it.”

🇦🇺 Australia’s right-wing prime minister Scott Morrison claims his government is acting on emissions, but Adam Morton shows he’s lying. “Emissions reductions stopped under the Coalition about the time the carbon price scheme was repealed in 2014,” it will only meet its 2020 targets with misleading accounting, and the Kyoto targets were only met because the 1990 baseline year had much higher emissions than average due to significant land clearing and deforestation.

🇺🇳👩‍⚖️ A landmark ruling by the United Nations human rights committee finds it is “unlawful for governments to return people to countries where their lives might be threatened by the climate crisis

📈 “The yearly rise in CO2 may be 2 per cent higher than it would otherwise be because of the wildfires that have been burning for months in Australia.”

🇨🇦🛢 Last year, Canada nationalized the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia. In an interview on Alberta Advantage, Robyn Allan explains that the government misled the public on the costs of the project, which will provide huge subsidies to oil producers.

🇪🇹🇸🇴🇰🇪 An invasion of desert locusts has become “the biggest in Ethiopia and Somalia in 25 years, and the biggest in Kenya in 70 years,” and “[i]f unchecked, locust numbers could increase 500 times by June, spreading to Uganda and South Sudan, becoming a plague that will devastate crops and pasture in a region which is already one of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world.”

🇦🇹 Austria’s new coalition between the People’s Party and the Green Party “is a right-wing, neoliberal project in its core, complemented by some cosmetic green measures, as well as individual progressive policies.”

🏫🚌 Some U.S. school districts are replacing their buses with electric models

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What will cities look like in the future?

Issue 120

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists!

As I write this on Saturday afternoon, I’ve just finished digging out from a record 91 cm (~3 ft) of snow that fell from Friday morning to Saturday morning. The roads are barely plowed (so there will be more snow-clearing to do when they are) and we’ll likely be under a state of emergency until Monday. It’s not all bad though — my home still has power!

This week I’m highlighting a series of essays published by Guardian Cities that I think you’ll enjoy. I read “Beyond the Valley” by Ramesh Srinivasan, which I’d only recommend if you don’t read a ton of tech news — though I did like the chapter on the communal telecom networks in Mexico. I also just started Anna Wiener’s memoir “Uncanny Valley,” so I’ll let you know how I find that next week.

I want to recommend the pieces on science fiction’s visions for 2020, how Barcelona could inspire a new approach to tech, the Silicon Valley economy, free transit, EV sales estimates, a green public works boom, and Australia’s weather system. I also have a piece in the climate section on Elon Musk’s false solutions to climate change.

Finally, I’ll be in New York, Montreal, and maybe Toronto in early/mid-February if anyone wants to chat, have a get together, or has any recommendations for things I should check out. Feel free to drop me an email. I’m also soliciting feedback on what to call my podcast on Twitter.

Have a great week!


P.S. — Press the heart below the headline or at the end of the newsletter if you like the issue!

What’s next for cities?

Guardian Cities editor Chris Michael made the unfortunate announcement this week that the vertical would be coming to end after not having its funding renewed by the Rockefeller Foundation. To finish it off, the site published several opinion pieces about the future of cities for readers to reflect on, and I think they’re worth sharing here.

Cory Doctorow writes about the smart city — specifically, how they’re currently “a largely privatised affair designed as a public-private partnership to extract as much value as possible from its residents,” but could be reimagined as sites that provide residents with useful, essential information without tracking their every move. If there’s going to be a smart city, that’s more along the lines of what I’d want.

But Amy Fleming goes a step further and emphasizes that we don’t need technology for everything. Instead of the smart city, she makes a case for building fantastic dumb cities which harness “low-tech ecological solutions to drainage, wastewater processing, flood survival, local agriculture and pollution that have worked for indigenous peoples for thousands of years, with no need for electronic sensors, computer servers or extra IT support.” This is honestly more along the lines of what I find attractive right now.

That’s not all though. Harriet Grant and Chris Michael make the case for considering the design of cities and housing through the lens of children, because they’re the “canaries in our coal mine: when they find it hard to play freely, it means we are building division into our cities.” And Oliver Wainwright explains the environmental impact of new construction: we not only need to preserve and retrofit existing buildings, but when they do need to be demolished, their materials should be catalogued for reuse whenever possible. I’m not so sure about treating materials as a temporary service, as one of his interviewees suggests, however.

Finally, Dan Hancox makes the case for (re)municipalization of public services, noting that there have been “more than 1,400 cases of remunicipalisation since the turn of the millennium, in more than 2,400 cities across 58 countries.” Taking services back into public ownership not only allows them to be run more efficiently, cheaply, and in residents’ interests, but “it aims to increase participation in decision-making, boost local democracy and civic energy, and make services fairer and more accessible.”

This week in the news

📚🔮 Tim Maughan, author of “Infinite Detail” (which I loved) reflects on how the science fiction of the 1980s and 1990s imagined the 2020s, often through the lens of cyberpunk, and how there was a lot it got right. But he also emphasizes that predicting the future isn’t the point.

Making accurate predictions about the future is not only an impossible task for science fiction but also one of its least interesting aims. It’s never really about the future, but the present, is an oft-repeated mantra for good reason: It’s impossible to remove art from the time in which it was created, and as such, stories about the future will obviously reflect the aspirations, concerns, and fears of the period in which they were first told.

Tech dystopia

Ben Tarnoff writes that if tech capitalism is an extension of the industrial capitalist model that took root in Manchester in the nineteenth century, the worker self-management that dominated Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War could be a starting point to come up with a new approach

😈 Slate spoke to journalists, academics, and activists to rank the top 30 most evil tech companies. There are a lot of names you might not recognize unless you’re really up on this stuff, and some that might initially leave you wondering why they’re on the list, but I was thrilled to see Amazon ranked #1.

🇺🇸 “[T]he gig economy interacts with other trends in California and forces unleashed by Silicon Valley—rising housing costs, choked infrastructure—to make life hell for those who live at or near the epicenter of America’s technology industry. Together, they constitute a nightmare vision of what the world would look like if it were run by our digital overlords, as they sit atop a growing underclass that does their shopping and drives their cars—all while barely able to make ends meet.”

🥘 Meal kit delivery services are booming because people are overworked and exhausted. While shorter hours, higher wages, and paid vacation are necessary solutions, would publicly provided communal meals — as I’ve been musing about the past couple weeks — be a collective solution to the immediate problem?

📱 “‘There’s an app for that’ means that there’s less steady, reliable work for traditional employees […] only a broad-based fight for fair treatment and lawful classification can dismantle the ideology of labor built into Uber and its ilk: that all workers should be as productive and loyal as lifetime employees, and expect nothing in return.”

🛑 NHTSA may launch a formal investigation into the “sudden unexpected acceleration” of Tesla vehicles

👁 Amazon’s Ring surveillance doorbell company blamed hacked customers for using the same password, but a new lawsuit suggests that was a lie

🇺🇸 U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for polling. The gig economy platform notoriously pays workers far below minimum wage, yet Buttigieg has tried to brand himself as a pro-worker candidate.

🇪🇬 Egypt’s competition authority approved the Uber-Careem merger, with a number of conditions. It was the most important necessary approval, as it has a history of acting against the ride-hailing companies.

Critical urbanism

🚌💸 Around 100 cities currently have free transit, and the idea is catching on in the United States. Previous experiments were “were viewed as unsuccessful because there was little evidence that they removed cars from the road […] But in another sense, they were successful: They increased ridership right away, with rises between 20 and 60 percent in the first few months. That statistic accounts for its revival among a new wave of urban progressives, who see transit as a key factor in social and racial inequality.”

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿🇬🇧 Edinburgh will ban cars on some streets and extend its tram network, while Birmingham will limit drivers’ ability to drive through the city center

🇺🇸💰 Once transport costs are factored in, Miami, Detroit, and Phoenix — three of the poorest U.S. cities — are actually the most expensive places to live because even poor people have to own a car

🇫🇷🚲 From September 2018 to 2019, the number of people using bikes in Paris increased by 54%. Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s policies to restrict cars in favor of transit and cycling are working, and they provide an example for other cities around the world.

🇺🇸🛴 After Lime pulled out of a bunch of U.S. cities, Bolt has done the same. It looks like the company will now only be operating in South Florida.

🚗🔋 ARK Invest thinks U.S. EV sales will hit 37 million in 2024 from just 2 million in 2019, but people in the know think it’s just a move to boost Tesla’s stock price. FT Alphaville writes, “perhaps the global EV market, due to a lack of infrastructure, worries over range and a drying up of various subsidies/ incentives, is much smaller than most imagine it will be in the future.” Edward Niedermeyer also notes that people “assume that the autonomy story depends on regulatory support but actually it’s the EV growth story that depends on government action. From the US to China, from Hong Kong to Ontario, we see EV sales plummet when subsidies are rolled back.” And remember, those subsidies are usually going to rich people.

🖼 Cities around the world are pushing back against advertising and its negative effects, given “swathes of studies link advertising with selling unhappiness, making us want things we do not need.” Grenoble removed a bunch of adverts in 2014, and made up for the lost revenue by reducing allowances, such as official vehicles.

🇩🇪 Feargus O’Sullivan has a fascinating look at the Mietskasernen tenements in Berlin, their history, and growing popularity.

One-hundred years ago, living on the top floor of a Berlin tenement might have been something to hide, a sign of being so poor that you had to accept hauling your groceries and winter coal up six flights of stairs. Nowadays, if you concealed from casual inquirers that you live on a tenement’s top floor, it would  more likely be to avoid exposing yourself as a gentrifier.

🇺🇸🥵 “In a study of 108 urban areas nationwide, the formerly redlined neighborhoods of nearly every city studied were hotter than the non-redlined neighborhoods, some by nearly 13 degrees.”

🏙🐦 “[G]lass buildings are responsible for up to one billion bird deaths in the United States each year. At a time when two-thirds of North American birds are in danger of extinction from climate change, it’s no exaggeration to say that glass architecture is a threat to life on Earth.”

🇺🇸👷‍♂️👷‍♀️ “Nearly every giant infrastructure project suffers from massive delays and cost overruns, when they aren’t shut down altogether. The US has become terrible at building big things, and negligent in even maintaining our existing infrastructure. […] If we allocated funding and streamlined approvals for clean energy and climate adaptation projects—through the Green New Deal or some other legislation—perhaps we could spark a modern, sustainable public works boom. We could put people to work building smart grids, wind farms, solar plants, EV charging stations, mass-transit lines, high-speed rail, and more.”

Climate crisis

By Paris: “Elon Musk Is Planning for Climate Apocalypse” (Jacobin): “Musk has a lot of power to get people to pay attention to particular issues and to push politicians to consider various policies and projects. At best, he wastes it on frivolous toys and unnecessary spats. At worst, he actively hampers the creation of a truly sustainable world by opposing high-speed rail, ridiculing transit, making people believe his tweaks are all we need, and even sending money to the Republican Party.”

☀️🌎 2019 was the second warmest year on record, at 0.98ºC/1.8ºF above the baseline average

🇦🇺🌦 Umair Irfan has a really interesting explanation of the factors which contribute to Australia’s volatile weather system, how that’s made it more susceptible to the effects of climate change, and why other parts of the world should be paying attention because they’ll experience similar volatility in the near future

🌊 Apparently the oceans are warming as is five Hiroshima bombs were dropped in them every second — whatever that’s supposed to mean. I don’t know who comes up with these comparisons, but it does absolutely nothing to make it clear for me. This is a bit better: “Between 1987-2019, ocean warming was 450% greater than during the earlier time period.”

🐦🌡 A severe heat wave in the Pacific Ocean may have killed a million sea birds

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Cities for profit or for people?

Issue 119

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists,

Thank you for your responses to last week’s essay on communal spaces and public luxuries. There will be more as I think through these questions for myself, and I’m also interested in your feedback.

I’ve been working a lot on my Master’s thesis these past couple weeks, and I’ve started reading the “Some Thoughts…” collection of short contributions inspired by the conversations that have been had about Sidewalk Labs’ project in Toronto. As usual, I’ve been tweeting my thoughts. I haven’t had any new pieces published this week, but you’ll find the video of the talk I gave at Mobilizing Justice in Toronto on the implications of having transport systems designed by elites at the end of this issue.

Let me know what you think, and have a great week!


P.S. — Press the heart below the headline or at the end of the newsletter if you like the issue!

Cities for profit or cities for people?

Last month, Garrett Dash Nelson wrote a long essay about Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward,” the utopian novel first published in 1888, and the effect it had on urban planning and left-wing politics in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the book, “[p]rivate residences are well-appointed but relatively unimportant, since meals are taken at community clubs scattered throughout the tree-lined neighborhoods, and domestic tasks like laundry are performed in public facilities,” reflecting Lewis Mumford’s observation that Bellamy “wanted private life to be simple and public life to be splendid.” It’s George Monbiot’s call for “public luxuries,” but over a century ago.

Nelson explains that Bellamy’s writings inspired a strand of municipal socialism that was less interested in the class politics of Karl Marx and more in the role of the planner to make life better for people through changes to the urban form and provision of services. And while he believed in the power of technology and science to better humanity, “he also knew that technical advances would not lead to social progress if they were not set in a political economy that prioritized shared benefits above individual gain.” If only the tech bros had cracked it open before moving fast and breaking everything.

In the United States, it helped to inspire a move to rein in industrial greed through regulation on the federal level — antitrust enforcement was one aspect of it — but on the municipal level, “there was a much sharper appetite for the outright acquisition of public services,” which included “municipalizing everything from streetcars to electricity to natural gas, while expanding their role in furnishing public amenities like parks and libraries.” We still benefit from some of those decisions today, but the past several decades have also brought a privatization and defunding of certain services, paired with suburban living that has left us more disconnected than ever. The public luxuries imagined by Bellamy have given way to private luxuries for the few, and little for those who can’t afford to buy those amenities themselves.

But why has that happened? After beginning to reflect on these questions last week, I got a considered response from subscriber Sverrir Bollason, who writes:

The communal system is quite alive in Danish communities called “bofællesskab” which are varyingly communal arrangements, some cater to old people and others to younger people with children. These are quite often in suburban settings. But even in central Copenhagen you have a venue like Folkehuset Absalon which is like a community center for all ages and has communal meals and events. 

But this sort of thing is deeply ingrained in Danish society, through decades of grassroots work and a penchant for democratic decision making at all levels of community. Hence, you won’t see the same eagerness for these things in neighbouring countries: Sweden or Norway or even here in Iceland, a former Danish colony. These types of arrangements need to be grounded in the right culture. Also, for me as a cooking male in my household, the solitary part is one of the perks of kitchen work, not a downside.

The other thing is that I’ve often been perplexed by the scale and quality of private ameneties in American McMansions and other suburban housing that should surely be part of the public domain. There are home movie theaters, home bars with TV screens to watch sports, pool tables and darts, home gyms with all types of equipment. I always get the feeling that these rooms have probably never seen any guests or at least not nearly as many as the owner envisioned when building them and furnishing. I can’t help but think how many rounds could be bought at the local pub for the price of a home bar and how spending that money there would benefit community better. The people invited to these homes surely also have their own home bars anyway, so why should the ever leave the house? 

I appreciated Sverrir’s email for the reflections on culture and the private amenities of American suburbia. I don’t believe a culture shift in the U.S. and other English-speaking Western countries will happen overnight, and I wonder how much of the shift that has occurred over the course of decades of suburbanization is the result of a material change in the way we built cities, rather than inspiring that change in the first place. The result is people who are less community oriented and more physically distant, which makes community spaces less accessible and increases the desire for individual spaces to fill the void. Thus, larger homes with rooms serving needs that would have once been served by communal spaces.

But why did that change occur? As I argued in my recent presentation at Mobilizing Justice in Toronto, the shift toward automobility and suburbia was driven by elites and served particular (white and well-off) groups of people. It was initially fought by urban dwellers who used the streets, but they lost to the power of the state, the police, planners, and corporations that would benefit from an automotive, suburban future.

I’ve been reflecting on the role of capitalism and profit in the transformation a lot this week, especially after receiving Sverrir’s email. Everyone owning their own home and plot of land generated more profit for developers than if they lived in apartment units. That extra space also needed to be filled with more commercial products, fueling the expansion of a consumer economy. And the distance between everyone forced them to buy cars, which created more profit than if people relied on transit and bikes. The expansion of suburbs and shift to auto-oriented development provides many more opportunities for private profit than a denser, walkable, more transit-oriented way of life.

In last week’s essay, I linked to Angie Schmitt’s essay, which reflected on this through more of a feminist lens, but looking at suburbanization, the privatization of services, and the greater degree of individualism that was promoted through the lens of profit and capitalism is essential. Suburban living, automobility, and the defunding of public and community services so people have to procure their own private alternatives is more profitable, even if it doesn’t increase the quality of life that people experience. And, with the United States being the “heart of capitalism,” as Parasite director Bong Joon Ho observed after winning Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, it makes sense that it’s the place where this more profit-centered form of life was most fully implemented, with the negative social implications that have developed now that the state’s ability to keep subsidizing it is eroding.

Instead of prioritizing private profit, we need cities that put people’s wellbeing first. That means bringing people closer together so they can benefit from having shops, essential services, people, community spaces, and public luxuries within a reasonable distance so they can enjoy a richer — socially, not monetarily — life. But that also means throwing off this false notion that leaving things to ‘the market’ and allowing people to access them if they can afford them is acceptable. It simply is not, and many of the things currently left to private companies should be brought under public ownership and community control.

There are people who will respond negatively to any attempt to reorient people around community and public luxury rather than their privatized, individualized existences — and that should be expected. Just as suburbanization took a little while to change the culture and bring most people on side, so will reurbanization and reconnecting people with community. In the most recent episode of Daniel Denvir’s The Dig podcast, he spoke to Thea Riofrancos and Daniel Aldana Cohen about the Green New Deal. At one point, Aldana Cohen noted that when the Workers’ Party took power in Brazil under Lula da Silva, its initial base was the middle class, but after taking power the poor and working class became its biggest supporters because of the policies the government implemented to help them. I wonder if we might see a shifting coalition with policies aimed at recentering urban life.

This week in the news

🚗 Elon Musk’s Boring Company project in Las Vegas “is being publicly dubbed as the “first underground people mover,” what’s being built appears to be more of a mechanism for giving one-minute test rides in Teslas.” He originally promised 16-passenger vehicles going 155mph on tracks. Now the plan is for Tesla Model 3s going 50mph on underground roads. These are car tunnels, not public transit.

Tech dystopia

✊🎮 Communications Workers of America, one of the largest unions in the U.S., is launching a new campaign to unionize video game and tech workers

🙃 “[T]he Victorian-era used to be thought of as an anachronism, a societal structure we’d rather not to return to. Well, as it turns out, we don’t mind turning our clocks back a century or so, as long as a few Y Combinator graduates get rich.”

Amazon workers pushing the company to adopt more ambitious climate plans say they’re not deterred after leadership threatened them. “Pissed off, maybe, but not deterred.”

📱 Uber made a number of changes to its app in California to try to avoid classifying its drivers as employees

👁 Ring, the Amazon-owned home security/surveillance company, fired employees for watching customers’ videos against company policy. Meanwhile, it’s adding new lightbulbs and a “privacy dashboard.”

🚜 Midwest farmers are buying up tractors built in the 1970s and 1980s because they last much longer than new, high-tech tractors and are much easier to repair

☕️ Starbucks is offering free subscriptions to a meditation app to help workers with their mental health. Workers say that won’t address the root of their problems: understaffing and low pay.

Critical urbanism

🚇🛣 “American cities added more than 1,200 miles of new and expanded transit lines between 2010 and 2019, spending more than $47 billion in 2019 dollars to do so,” but is also “added an estimated 28,500 new lane-miles of arterials […] This is infrastructure hostile to pedestrians and transit users—and likely to reinforce patterns of automobile dependency and sprawl.”

📱🚌 Las Vegas’ transit agency becomes the latest to hand its relationship with the customer/resident to Uber by allowing it to sell bus tickets. Instead, transit agencies should become the ‘Amazon for transportation’ and control the interface.

💥 The California Public Utilities Commission keeps ride-hailing accident reports confidential, but an investigation by the San Francisco Public Press finds that Uber is not doing its duty to keep the public safe and keeping those reports secret is allowing dangerous drivers to stay on the road. They further found that the provision to keep the reports secret was inserted after heavy lobbying by Lyft, and their lobbyist was later fined for not even being a registered lobbyist.

🏙 Manhattan has 7,050 unsold luxury condos that could take up to six years to sell, while working class people struggle to afford their rent and there’s a homelessness crisis. But sure, leave housing to the private market, developers clearly have everyone’s best interests in mind.

🛴👋 Lime is laying off around 100 workers and shutting down its operations in 12 cities: Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego, and San Antonio in the United States; Bogota, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Lima, Puerto Vallarta, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo throughout Latin America; and Linz, Austria.

🚽 Companies at CES want us to put surveillance devices in our bathrooms. Fuck that.

🏘 The U.S. state of Maryland is considering two new bills to encourage denser housing and put a lot more money into social housing

🚁 Uber unveiled its flying taxi thing yet again at CES. Why does it feel like they reannounce it every few months??

🙄 GM is bringing back the Hummer as an electric truck. With all the mining required to make its battery, it should never be considered ‘green’.

Climate crisis

📚🔮 “Science fiction reflects back current events and current fears and aspirations, and then the world turns some of those fears and aspirations into reality, which in turn sparks new science fiction. […] I make no claim to predicting the future. I make up stories. Stories are better than predictions: predictions tell us that the future is inevitable. Stories tell us that the future is up for grabs.” — Cory Doctorow

🇦🇺🔥 Lizzie O’Shea explains the political angle of the Australian bushfires, and why it should force the opposition Labor Party to get serious about an export ban on coal and gas and a just transition for workers. Meanwhile, smoke from Australia’s bushfires has made it all the way to South America.

🇦🇺🦘 The World Wildlife Fund estimates 1.25 billion animals may have died in Australia’s bushfires. South Australia will also be culling 10,000 camels because they threatened the water supplies of remote communities.

🇨🇦🛢 Imperial Oil, Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary, knew about climate change decades ago, but covered it up and kept drilling.

The cache of documents shows that as far back as the 1960s, Imperial had begun hiring consultants to help them manage a future public backlash over its environmental record, as well as conducting surveillance on its public critics. The documents also show that, as the company began to accept the implications of a warming planet, instead of acting decisively to change its business model, it began considering how a melting Arctic might open up new business opportunities.

🇺🇸☀️ Alaska recorded its hottest year ever recorded in 2019. The “average temperature was 0.1 degree Celsius (32.18 degrees Fahrenheit) in 2019, above the long-term average of -3.3 degrees Celsius (26.06 degrees Fahrenheit).”

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On communal living and public luxuries

Issue 118

Paris Marx

Happy new year, urbanists!

I hope you had a good holiday. I enjoyed some time with family, worked on my Master’s thesis, and have been thinking about my plans and goals for 2020. In short, more writing, finally launching a podcast (if I can decide on a name!), and hopefully getting a book deal later this year.

I’m switching things up a bit with today’s issue, with a short essay on communal kitchens and public luxuries. I might do a bit more of this in 2020 — we’ll see.

Have a great week!


P.S.— No war in Iran.

Thoughts on communal living and public luxuries

I’ve been thinking a lot about communal kitchens and food preparation lately. What kind of benefits would arise from making meals a communal, rather than a private activity? Not only would it remove a burden that typically falls more on the shoulders of women than men, but it could allow more opportunity for socialization and community building if people in a neighborhood or community converge in the same place multiple times a day.

As I was thinking about this, Angie Schmitt (formerly of Streetsblog) happened to be tweeting about them from a slightly different perspective, which she expressed in a 2018 piece. Schmitt explains that “single family houses — and even apartments each with their own kitchen — help make domestic labor which overwhelmingly falls on women, like cooking, isolating.” Apartment buildings could have been designed with communal spaces where mothers could have socialized and shared the burden of domestic labor, but instead capitalism prioritized a model of everyone having their own private spaces. Schmitt quotes Alexandra Lange, who says “more private space doesn’t make a better life-style. Think about what you really want access to and how you want to spend your time. It’s more fun for kids to play together on a big lawn than alone on a little lawn.”

I would argue that goes beyond children. We’re living in a time when loneliness is a crisis and, despite social connections being easier to maintain than ever because of social media, community seems to have been largely eradicated. We’ve been alienated from one another, and the design of our cities contributes to that separation. As Schmitt writes, “[a]ll sorts of ideas about the heteronormative ideal family life — and the role of women — have been codified in zoning laws. When they are challenged they are often met with intense resistance.”

But what might a more communal alternative look like? I’m a big proponent of what George Monbiot calls “public luxury”: “magnificent parks, playing fields, public swimming pools, urban nature reserves and allotments sufficient to meet the needs of everyone.” In effect, the prioritization of great public amenities and services rather than expecting to have their own private versions of each because “[t]he expansion of public wealth creates more space for everyone; the expansion of private wealth reduces it, eventually damaging most people’s quality of life.” We’ve retreated into our own suburban, private environments where many people only have good amenities if they can afford them. This needs to be reversed.

I’m in the process of reading Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” (tweeting about it here) and I’m always struck by how I find myself yearning for aspects of the anarchist society she describes on the barren desert moon Anarres. That’s not to say it’s perfect — she did, after all, call it an “ambiguous utopia” — but there’s much to be desired: the lack of title and surname, the communal eating, the DivLab which distributes labor to those who need it, and even the notion that “excess is excrement.”

Sure, some aspects of the society are a bit extreme — they live under extreme scarcity, unlike the unevenly distributed abundance of Earth — and even the main character, Shevek, acknowledges “[o]ur society is practical. Maybe too practical, too concerned with survival only.” But when Le Guin writes the following, I can’t help thinking there are things we can learn from it:

Everybody had the workshop, laboratory, studio, barn, or office that he needed for his work; one could be as private or as public as one chose in the baths; sexual privacy was available and socially expected; and beyond that privacy was not functional. It was excess, waste. The economy of Anarres would not support the building, maintenance, heating, lighting of individual houses and apartments.

Should we abolish houses for dormitories? No, I don’t think we’re under such scarcity that such an extreme move is necessary. But as we rethink how our societies are constructed for a more sustainable and enjoyable way of life, I think we need to start thinking about how we can not only live closer together, but make more of our tasks and society shared and communal instead of private and individual. Maybe we have our individual living spaces and bedrooms, but we have shared laundries, cooking areas, dining areas, outdoor spaces, etc.

Maybe these ideas are more palatable to me than most because my living situation since 2013 has been rather uncommon. I’ve spent years of my life living in hostels — dorm rooms, shared kitchens, communal living spaces, etc. — including nearly half of last year. Privacy is a luxury, and often I own little more than what can fit inside a carry-on bag, naturally leading to appreciation for minimalist and even ascetic ideas that are in opposition to the rampant consumerism that dominates many of our societies.

In 1973, André Gorz wrote that cars “are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people.” The value of a car, its ability to allow one to get where they’re going faster than anyone else, “has been devalued by its own spread. But this practical devaluation has not yet been followed by an ideological devaluation. The myth of the pleasure and benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread its superiority would be striking.”

Given the link between automobility and suburbia, I think we’re starting to accept the same about the latter: it’s fine for some rich people to have plots of land and mansions on the outskirts, but when everyone has their own plot of land with a house and yard, the utility eventually breaks down. Now we find ourselves with governments that struggle to maintain suburban infrastructure, and people who are lonely, atomized, and with little free time as they have to try to work, sleep, take care of themselves, and drive their ever-longer commutes to unnecessarily distant places they must visit. But the ideology of suburbia hasn’t been diminished, or at least not as quickly as its real-world benefits, and it seems the only way we will transform it is with a state project the likes of which was necessary to make auto-oriented suburbia a reality, and I feel the Green New Deal offers the opportunity to build it.

Tech dystopia

🚨🗳 “More than 100,000 documents [from Cambridge Analytica] relating to work in 68 countries that will lay bare the global infrastructure of an operation used to manipulate voters on ‘an industrial scale’ is set to be released over the next months.”

😬 Ross LaJeunesse, former Google Head of International Relations, wrote a piece about how the company changed between 2008 and today by putting aside the mantra of “Don’t be evil” to pursue profit at any cost. He’s particularly concerned with the company’s stance on human rights abuses in China and Saudi Arabia, and called out the company for workplace discrimination:

Senior colleagues bullied and screamed at young women, causing them to cry at their desks. At an all-hands meeting, my boss said, “Now you Asians come to the microphone too. I know you don’t like to ask questions.” At a different all-hands meeting, the entire policy team was separated into various rooms and told to participate in a “diversity exercise” that placed me in a group labeled “homos” while participants shouted out stereotypes such as “effeminate” and “promiscuous.” Colleagues of color were forced to join groups called “Asians” and “Brown people” in other rooms nearby.

In each of these cases, I brought these issues to HR and senior executives and was assured the problems would be handled. Yet in each case, there was no follow up to address the concerns — until the day I was accidentally copied on an email from a senior HR director. In the email, the HR director told a colleague that I seemed to raise concerns like these a lot, and instructed her to “do some digging” on me instead.

📦 “Time after time, internal documents and interviews with company insiders show, Amazon officials have ignored or overlooked signs that the company was overloading its fast-growing delivery network while eschewing the expansive sort of training and oversight provided by a legacy carrier like UPS.” That included vetoing driver safety training and shooting down plans to give drivers longer rest breaks or capping the number of packages they would have to deliver. Such decisions may have contributed to the death of Joy Covey, Amazon’s first chief financial officer, when one of its delivery vans struck and killed her while cycling.

🖕 Amazon threatened to fire employees that pushed for more aggressive climate action. Sounds like it’s time to unionize!

🇦🇪📱 ToTok was promoted as “an easy and secure way to chat by video or text message with friends and family” in light of Skype and Whatsapp being banned in the United Arab Emirates. But it was actually used by the government to spy on users.

🇨🇦 What if we created public alternatives to dominant digital platforms? Daniel Joseph examines what such a proposal might look like if implemented in Canada.

💰 Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire who’s spent more than $100 million on television ads in less than a month and paid for prisoners to make phone calls for his campaign, is putting millions into a secretive tech firm called Hawkfish to provide digital services to his campaign. He began putting the company together earlier this year.

✊ 2,300 Google cafeteria workers have unionized to address issues of overwork, low wages, bullying, and casual racism

🛢 How tech companies are boosting the oil industry

Critical urbanism

🇳🇴😁 There were no traffic deaths in Oslo in 2019, and no children under 15 died in traffic accidents in the whole of Norway. But how could this be possible without autonomous vehicles?!

🚗 Aaron Gordon writes about what he learned about cars and car culture while writing for Jalopnik

🇫🇷 “When you walk down the street, how can you feel happy if you’re constantly being reminded of what you don’t have? Advertising breaks your spirit, confuses you about what you really need and distracts you from real problems, like the climate emergency.” Residents in France are pushing back against digital ad screens.

🇺🇸 Ride-hailing costs are rising in New York City, and fewer people are using it as a result. “Close to 556,000 Uber rides were taken in New York City in March. By October, that number had declined to 468,000.”

🚙 “In ‘06, Hummer ran an advertisement that focused on a man buying tofu and vegetables at the grocery store. He notices that the man behind him is buying massive piles of meat, clocks a Hummer ad on the back cover of a magazine next to the cash register, and races to a Hummer dealership after completing his purchase. […] The Hummer succeeded by making itself look like the obvious choice for heterosexual men.”

🚌 Helsinki, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Singapore, and other major cities have been experimenting with on-demand buses, often called ‘microtransit’. But they never seem to work out.

🇺🇸🙃 “What American Dream offers is alienation-plus. […] it is not a mall. It’s a performance piece ruminating on the corporate takeover of nature and society.”

Climate crisis

🇦🇺 Yes, Australia’s always had bushfires. But the ongoing fires are unlike anything it’s ever experienced before: fueled by drought, destroying vast residential areas, and destroying rainforests and marshlands. And while the death count is currently low, the number of premature deaths will grow as a result of the particulate matter people are breathing.

🌅 Everyone’s paying attention to the bushfires in Australia, but the ocean is also warming at an unprecedented rate. Off Tasmania, the ocean is warming at four times the global average, killing 95% of the giant kelp in the area. And it’s an effect being repeated around the world. Maritime heat waves are also becoming more common. There’s a Texas-sized area of water off New Zealand that was recently 5ºC (9ºF) warmer than average.

🇳🇿 Glaciers in New Zealand turned brown after smoke from the bushfires in Australia blew across the Tasman Sea, and that could make them melt faster

💰 NATO is a threat to the climate. To slash emissions, we must slash military spending.

🧊 Visualizations of lost sea ice over the past decade, especially in the Arctic, are quite shocking

🚧 “Increasing demand for the world’s most-used natural material, sand, is fuelling mining in fragile natural habitats and prompting a growing number of countries to ban exports.”

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Making surveillance cool, free transit, internet's carbon footprint, Australia burning, & more!

Issue 117

Hey urbanists!

The past year has been fantastic. I traveled to four continents, got to meet a bunch of really nice and inspiring people, I’m on track to finish my MA in April, and the number of subscribers to Radical Urbanist doubled. Thanks for joining me on this journey, and I have some great plans for the new year!

This week, a big focus on surveillance by Ring doorbells and your smartphone, and why we should be looking at free fares on transit. I also really liked the pieces on the environmental footprint of the internet, Amazon’s growing shipping business, the state of streaming, the divergence between the London Underground and NYC subway, and the fires in Australia.

I’ll be taking next week off for the holidays, but if you’re looking for something to keep you occupied, I listed some of my favorite books from 2019 below.

Happy holidays, and I’ll be in touch in 2020!

— Paris

Favorites of 2019

I usually try to read read 52 books a year. I’m still a few short this year, but hoping to make it up in the next week. If you’re looking for something to read, I highly recommend any of these. The first three were published by Verso Books and are currently 50% off.

Tech dystopia

👁 Evan Greer makes a compelling argument to “avoid diving headlong into a nightmarish future” of constant surveillance that’s being marketed to us by companies like Amazon with their smart speakers, doorbell cameras, and other devices that ensure we’re constantly under surveillance so they can generate more data.

[O]ur self-surveillance devices have already begun to betray us. Take Ashley LeMay, who bought an Amazon Ring surveillance camera because she thought it would keep her family safe. Instead, a grown man hacked into the camera she had placed in the bedroom of her three young daughters. He used it to stalk the children and even spoke to 8-year-old Alyssa through the camera, saying “I’m Santa Claus. Don’t you want to be my best friend?” […] Amazon claims that these chilling incidents were not caused by a security lapse on the company's end. But that’s just not true. The company sells cheap, insecure, internet-connected cameras knowing full well the dangers associated with these devices.

👁 Meanwhile, journalists at Vice took a look at Ring’s security features and found they’re terrible:

[R]ather than implementing its own safeguards, Ring is putting this onus on users to deploy security best practices; time and time again we've seen that people using mass-market consumer devices aren't going to know or implement robust security measures at all times.

Ring is not offering basic security precautions, such as double-checking whether someone logging in from an unknown IP address is the legitimate user, or providing a way to see how many users are currently logged in—entirely common security measures across a wealth of online services.

👁📱 “The greatest trick technology companies ever played was persuading society to surveil itself.” The New York Times got its hands on a ton of location-tracking data from the phones of more than 12 million Americans that’s usually sold by data brokers. They had no problem identifying military officials, cops, journalists, musicians, and more. “If you could see the full trove, you might never use your phone the same way again.”

🛑 Google fired another of its workers, Kathryn Spiers, for creating a pop-up letting coworkers know about their rights and linked to an official Google post if they visited anti-union websites. Four of the five workers fired in the past few weeks have been LGTBQ — maybe that should go on the diversity report.

🇨🇩 “Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla have been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Washington DC by human rights firm International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 parents and children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The lawsuit accuses the companies of aiding and abetting in the death and serious injury of children who they claim were working in cobalt mines in their supply chain.”

▶️ Variety has a great recap on the state of the ‘streaming wars’ heading into 2020

In the core film and TV arena, ownership of major studio and network assets is more consolidated than ever among six major conglomerates: Disney, AT&T, Comcast, ViacomCBS, Sony Corp. and, to a lesser extent, Lionsgate. […]

“There’s massive change happening right now at every level,” says Tony Vinciquerra, chairman-CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who likens the atmosphere today to the early 1980s, when cable began to boom. But this time around, the combatants have deeper pockets and the playing field is far more cutthroat than it was in the era when cable operators enjoyed local monopolies on multichannel service offerings. […]

This evolution has bifurcated the largest studio conglomerates into two types of companies: those marshaling content armies (Disney, AT&T and Comcast) and those who aim to be content arms dealers (ViacomCBS, Sony Pictures, Lionsgate).

📦 Amazon is on track to deliver 3.5 billion packages globally in 2019, leading to concern it’s dominating yet another sector of the economy. For comparison, UPS delivered 5.2 billion packages and documents in 2018. To me, this signals that some of Amazon’s businesses need to be broken off, the main platforms need to be nationalized, and its logistics operations could be integrated into the United States Postal Service.

🏭🖥 Kevin Lozano looks at the environmental footprint of the internet, where “streaming one hour of Netflix a week requires more electricity, annually, than the yearly output of two new refrigerators.”. What might the tenets of a ‘green internet’ be? “Advertising is bad, the growth of video streaming must slow, web pages are too bloated, and corporate surveillance has to end.”

✊ “Leftist TikTok creators are booming on the platform, putting out content in just the last month that has collectively amassed hundreds of thousands of views and sparked conversations with other users about leftist movements. For some, creators told BuzzFeed News, TikTok is just an entry point to combat what they see as a battle between the populist left and right for the next generation of voters.”

🏫 “Silicon Valley’s vigorous promotion of ‘ethical AI’ has constituted a strategic lobbying effort, one that has enrolled academia to legitimize itself. […] the majority of well-funded work on ‘ethical AI’ is aligned with the tech lobby’s agenda: to voluntarily or moderately adjust, rather than legally restrict, the deployment of controversial technologies.”

💰 Travis Kalanick has sold $2.1 billion in Uber stock since early November

🇫🇷 Google was fined $166 million by France’s competition authority over inconsistent and arbitrary application of its ad policies

Critical urbanism

🚇 Instead of hiring a bunch of new subway cops that will cost more than the amount of fares they’re expected to recoup from the investment, more people are calling for the New York City subway to be made free for all — and don’t worry, they have plenty of ideas for how to pay for it.

Firefighters don’t demand $2.75 before they extinguish burning homes. Teachers don’t collect $2.75 from their pupils before they’re admitted into their classrooms each morning. One way of looking at the MTA’s fare is as a regressive tax that hits those who can least afford it the hardest. Rider swipes cover about 40 percent of the MTA’s annual operating budget, which comes to nearly $18 billion in 2020. Taxes and subsidies make up the bulk of the rest, and could make up much more. One-sixth of the authority’s operating budget goes to pay off past debts owed to bondholders. Instead of giving money to Wall Street, the MTA could take money from it.

🍺 New study finds that Uber and Lyft’s entry into a city is associated with higher alcohol consumption. “The connection is even more pronounced in larger metros and in metros that were served by Uber early on. And ride-hailing leads to considerably larger increases in drinking in cities and metros with weak public-transit systems. In these places, the researchers find UberX to be associated with a roughly 20% increase in binge drinking.”

🇬🇧🇺🇸 The London Underground and New York City subway serve similar populations, but one is recognized as the best in the world and the other declared a state of emergency. What happened?

🇨🇦 It’s becoming more common for cities to have tunnels connecting different buildings, and the largest seem to be in Canada. However, Toronto’s PATH network of underground tunnels, which has 75 connected buildings and 1,200 stores, is also described as a terrible place to be. As one retail worker described:

I would cry in the washroom a lot. It feels like a classist dystopian hellscape. As a service worker you’re essentially ignored by the business people. But there is a solidarity. We traded food and drinks with other businesses. Janitors are assigned one hallway that they mop all day long, so you get to know them really well and build a bond because they’re also mistreated or invisible. In the winter I would go down when it was dark and leave when it was dark and wouldn’t see the sun.

☠️ 80% of fatal crashes in NYC since 2018 were caused by male drivers, 41% of which were driving SUVs or pickup trucks. According to the city’s DOT Commissioner, “The popularity of SUVs and light trucks are contributing to the increase in roadway fatalities in New York City and nationally.”

🇨🇦 New report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives encourages Vancouver to build 10,000 units of public housing a year at a cost of $2.5 billion to address its housing crisis

🇺🇸 Disney cold the Town Center of its planned community in Celebration, Florida to a private equity firm in 2004. The company took residents’ money, then let the town fall apart. Now they’re suing.

🇳🇬 People keep moving to Lagos, Nigeria for work, leading to uncertainty about the actual population (15 to 26 million, according to different groups), but the luxury homes being built don’t address the crushing housing crisis

🇩🇪 Uber is effectively banned in Germany after a new court ruling

🇬🇧 As part of its series on homelessness, the Guardian posted a series of tributes to homeless people who’ve died across the country

🚲 The electric vehicle that’s going to transform cities in the 2020s isn’t the car, but the humble (yet speedy!) e-bike

Climate crisis

👎 Ben Ehrenreich explains why so little came of the COP25 climate conference in Madrid: “this was a place for the wealthy and powerful […] dissent would only be indulged if it played by the rules.”

Climate advocates had hoped this year’s COP would produce a strong agreement to return in 2020 with new and ambitious commitments to lower emissions. (Only 80 mainly small and poor countries have thus far announced plans to enhance their NDCs.) If they couldn’t do anything this year, in other words, at least they could promise to try harder next time. Yet, even that modest goal was elusive. On the final Friday, with only a few hours left before the summit was scheduled to end, a negotiating bloc that had dubbed itself the High Ambition Coalition called a press conference. Grenada’s environment minister warned that, although everyone understood “what needs to be done … there are a few voices dictating the agenda to the many.” His counterpart from Costa Rica took the rare step of naming them directly: “Australia, Brazil, and the US.”

💥 An Exxon Mobil well exploded in Ohio last year. New research shows it discharged methane, a greenhouse gas “84 times more conducive to global warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period,” “at a rate of about 80 tons an hour and lasted for nearly 20 days. The end result was more methane in the air than the oil and gas industries of France, Norway and the Netherlands emit over a 12-month period.” There’s no mention of any punishment for the company.

🇦🇺 On Tuesday, Australia broke its temperature record, with an average maximum of 40.9ºC. Then it broke it again on Wednesday, hitting 41.9ºC (107.4ºF). On Thursday, a town in South Australia recorded a temperature of 49.9ºC (121.8ºF). A state of emergency has been declared in New South Wales, the largest state where nearly 100 bushfires are still raging which have caused 28 days of ‘hazardous’ air quality in Sydney in the past two months. Meanwhile, right-wing prime minister Scott Morrison is on holiday.

🇦🇺 Good history of the massive fire burning near Sydney: “The Gospers Mountain fire has now destroyed an area seven times the size of Singapore - more than 444,000 hectares from the western border of the Blue Mountains to the Central Coast hinterland, north to the Hunter Valley and south to the Hawkesbury and past the Bells Line of Road. Three weeks ago it combined with several fires to form a vast complex that has been dubbed ‘the mega fire’. To those living in its shadow, it is known as ‘the monster’.”

🇩🇪 The number of people taking domestic flights in Germany is down 12% as rail journeys are soaring, a trend compared to Sweden’s ‘flight shame’ movement

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