Tech bringing back the company town; NYC legalizes scooters; ICE raids; Canadian hypocrisy; & more!

Issue 91

Hey urbanists,

Google is investing $1 billion in housing, but tech companies’ increasing focus on housing and real estate presents reasons to be wary. Plus, interesting reads on NYC’s legalization of e-bikes and scooters, Uber’s misclassification of drivers, why an SUV is not an urban vehicle, what happens to the U.S.’s recycling, Canadian environmental hypocrisy, how a billionaire wants to surveil a city, and more!

Have a great week!


Bringing back the company town

Google announced it will make a $1 billion investment in housing in the Bay Area to aid in relieving the region’s housing crisis. What difference it will make remains to be seen, but one thing can be certain: this is not a donation or a gift, but a real estate investment that the company expects to bring returns.

Land currently zoned for office space will be turned into 15,000 homes, and the company will also provide “incentives” for developers to build another 5,000 units of “affordable” housing. Putting aside the issue of the definition of affordable for a moment, which is usually linked to average rents, not what people can actually afford, the company will not actually oversee the development of the affordable units, so there’s no guarantee they’ll actually get built.

Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs is under scrutiny for its proposed project in Toronto, which critics say is a real-estate play above all else — and that seems to be supported by the leaked plan in February which showed the company wants a portion of the development fees and taxes paid in the area it plans to develop.

Many of the major tech companies have already been criticized for trying to bring back the “company town” model, where almost everything their employees do is controlled by and oriented around the company — they live in company housing, shop at the company store, eat at the company restaurant, etc.

Google and Facebook have embarked on such projects in the Bay Area, while the Seattle Times called SeattleAmerica’s biggest company town” because of how Amazon has grown to control so much of the city’s real estate.

It’s hard not to see Google’s latest investment as an extension of this model, allowing it to gain more control over its workers’ lives by providing housing that it owns. At the same time, tech companies like Google are responsible for making work more precarious and denying many of its workers rights and benefits because more than half of its workforce are employed as contractors instead of full-time employees.

On the surface, this may appear to be a positive investment. But if we dig a little deeper, it appears much more insidious and is another example of creeping dominance by a smaller number of incredibly powerful corporations.

Around the world

🚨 ICE is planning massive raids in ten major U.S. cities to detain people from up to 2,000 families after tweets by Donald Trump

Transit and trains

🇩🇪 Berlin is making a major investment in its transit system, including improvements to trams, light rail, and the metro

🇨🇦 Streetcar priority on Toronto’s King Street should roll out to more of the city

🇳🇿 Auckland hit 100 million public transit trips in a 12-month period for the first time since 1950, so Greater Auckland looked at per-capita trips in a bunch of cities.

Bikes and scooters

🚲 New York state will legalize e-bikes and scooters, meaning low-wage delivery workers using e-bikes will no longer have to fear harassment, fines, or having their bikes confiscated by police. Scooter companies will also be allowed to operate everywhere by Manhattan, as long as they get the proper permits.

🛴 Scooters represent a tragedy of the commons in which how public space should be used is not decided collectively, but by tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley

🇬🇧 Scooter companies got a bad reputation for rolling out without permits. In the U.K., they’re banned under the 1835 Highways Act, but that may soon change.

🛴 A review of different scooter docking solutions. Worrying about them working for multiple companies won’t be an issue once they become a public service.

🇧🇪 Brussels’ bikeshare system will replace 1,800 of its 5,000 bikes with e-bikes

Cars and roads

👨‍⚖️ U.S. federal judge has ruled that Uber’s misclassification of drivers as contractors “could significantly harm competition and violate the spirit of antitrust laws.” It’s not the final decision in the case, but could further help the push for employee status.

🚙 “What is the best way of wrecking a city? Pour cars into it.” George Monbiot tears into Land Rover for positioning an SUV as an urban vehicle.

🚗 Uber and Lyft are trying to get drivers to contact California legislators to oppose the effort to make drivers employees, but that’s exactly what many of them want

🇪🇸 With a right-wing coalition taking power, is Madrid’s car ban in trouble?

🤔 Survey: Autopilot name causes consumers to overestimate its capabilities

🤦‍♀️ GM is bringing back the Hummer, but electric this time

Environment and climate crisis

♻️ U.S. “recycled” plastic actually gets shipped overseas, where much of it is mishandled, ending up in landfills, oceans, and incinerators. We need to significantly reduce plastic use and develop domestic recycling capabilities for what’s left.

🛢 Canada declared a “climate emergency” on Monday, then approved a new oil pipeline on Tuesday

🇮🇳 Chennai, India, home to 4.65 million people, is out of water as reserves were decimated in less than a year

✊ 17-year-old climate activist says the U.K.’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 is a sham that will still cause devastation in the Global South

🇨🇦 Permafrost in the Canadian Arctic is thawing 70 years sooner than predicted

🚶‍♀️ How many climate refugees are there, and is “refugee” the best term to use?


🏘 Housing is set to be a major issue in the 2020 U.S. election with Democrats presenting bold ideas, Trump poised to present the kind of pro-development plan you’d expect from a real-estate mogul, but there’s not much focus on public housing

🇩🇪 Berlin approved a five-year rent freeze to begin in 2020

What rights did tenants win in New York City, and what’s next?

🇺🇸 Cities across the United States are reconsidering single-family zoning to deal with affordability, environmental challenges, and to promote transit use

🇬🇧 New report suggests Britain focus on multigenerational and low-emissions homes

😞 Los Angeles’ homeless population increased 16% over the past year, and while the city is spending more, it will be tough to stop people from ending up on the streets until it addresses the city’s soaring rents

Other great reads

🏳️‍🌈 Canada’s “gayborhoods” are struggling, but queer pop-ups create spaces for people who don’t feel comfortable in bars dominated by cis, white gay men

👁 A billionaire wants to fund a tech entrepreneur’s plan to surveil a “high-crime municipality” for three years

🏙 New York City’s skyline is changing with 16 skyscrapers above 500 ft (152 m) are slated for completion in 2019

🇹🇷 Gazientep, Turkey has 1.5 million inhabitants and took in 500,000 Syrians fleeing war. Instead of turning them away, they embraced them and made life better for all.

💻 Should planners start considering the role of remote work in major cities?

🌳 Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has a new plan to add trees around city landmarks

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