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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