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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