‘Dumb’ Vs. ‘Smart’ Cities: Two Paths To The Same Result

Building low-tech cities sans Big Tech still pushes the UN’s Sustainable Development agenda by degrading economic development and living conditions back into the 1800s. It’s the same destination but with different routes to get there. ⁃ TN Editor

Ever since smartphones hooked us with their limitless possibilities and dopamine hits, mayors and city bureaucrats can’t get enough of the notion of smart-washing their cities. It makes them sound dynamic and attractive to business. What’s not to love about whizzkids streamlining your responsibilities for running services, optimising efficiency and keeping citizens safe into a bunch of fun apps?

There’s no concrete definition of a smart city, but high-tech versions promise to use cameras and sensors to monitor everyone and everything, from bins to bridges, and use the resulting data to help the city run smoothly. One high-profile proposal by Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, to give 12 acres of Toronto a smart makeover is facing a massive backlash. In September, an independent report called the plans “frustratingly abstract”; in turn US tech investor Roger McNamee warned Google can’t be trusted with such data, calling the project “surveillance capitalism”.

There are practical considerations, too, as Shoshanna Saxe of the University of Toronto has highlighted. Smart cities, she wrote in the New York Times in July, “will be exceedingly complex to manage, with all sorts of unpredictable vulnerabilities”. Tech products age fast: what happens when the sensors fail? And can cities afford expensive new teams of tech staff, as well as keeping the ground workers they’ll still need? “If smart data identifies a road that needs paving,” she writes, “it still needs people to show up with asphalt and a steamroller.”

Saxe pithily calls for redirecting some of our energy toward building “excellent dumb cities.” She’s not anti-technology, it’s just that she thinks smart cities may be unnecessary. “For many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas,” she says.

Saxe is right. In fact, she could go further. There’s old, and then there’s old – and for urban landscapes increasingly vulnerable to floods, adverse weather, carbon overload, choking pollution and an unhealthy disconnect between humans and nature, there’s a strong case for looking beyond old technologies to ancient technologies.

It is eminently possible to weave ancient knowledge of how to live symbiotically with nature into how we shape the cities of the future, before this wisdom is lost forever. We can rewild our urban landscapes, and apply 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.

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Tempe, AZ Launches First No-Cars-Allowed Housing Development

Tempe, Arizona is the epicenter of Sustainable Development in the United States. The first ‘Culdesac’ development will house 1,000 people but no cars are allowed. Walking, scooters, bikes, and light rail are acceptable.

The Culdesac website clearly states its intentions: “Our goal is to remake cities all over the U.S. for people, not cars”  This is a model project of social engineering that epitomizes Technocracy. ⁃ TN Editor

The world’s first post-car real estate developer, Culdesac, today announced the company and its plans to build the country’s first car-free neighborhood from scratch in Tempe, AZ. Residents will not have private cars or parking, although the neighborhood will accommodate parking for visitors, and car-based modes of transportation, such as ridesharing. Unlike small-scale, incidental car-free communities—like old town centers or islands—Culdesac is the first developer to intentionally build a 1,000 person neighborhood-scale, car-free development from scratch.

Culdesac believes that real estate innovation has failed to keep up with fast-paced changes in mobility. Transportation has evolved beyond car dependency— real estate has not. Culdesac is changing this paradigm and today announced detailed plans for its first neighborhood, a $140 million project called Culdesac Tempe. The company also announced it has raised $10 million in venture capital funding to invest into its corporate operations led by Khosla Ventures, as well as Initialized Capital, Zigg Capital, Bessemer Venture Partners, and Y Combinator.

“The communities we are living in were optimized for the peak car era,” said Ryan Johnson, Co-Founder and CEO of Culdesac. “Culdesac is building spaces for the post-car era. Starting next year, residents of Culdesac Tempe will be able to live life from their doorsteps, rather than seeing it through their windshields.”

The Tempe project marks the nation’s first and only agreement between a city and a developer to build a neighborhood-scale community with zero residential parking. The plans for Culdesac Tempe show a walkable neighborhood directly on a light rail station and near a dense job center in downtown Tempe. In typical developments, the parking lots often dictate the design—and without this constraint, Culdesac Tempe is able to offer three times the average amount of green space, along with friendly courtyards and community spaces.

Because less land is needed to park vehicles, Culdesac Tempe will include a grocery store, coffee shop, coworking space, market hall, and other retail, in addition to rental apartments for 1,000 residents. To help bring this vision to life, the Culdesac team is working closely with renowned architect Dan Parolek, who popularized the term “Missing Middle Housing,” a concept for diverse housing options to create sustainable and walkable places.

When the 1,000 residents of Culdesac Tempe need to travel, they can choose their preferred modes of transportation. The development is centered around the mobility needs of residents, with on-site light rail station, a connective shuttle bus, dedicated rideshare pick-up zones, scooters with respective parking, carshares for off-site transport, and more. Culdesac will additionally serve as the neighborhood’s property manager, helping residents get the most out of their new community by enabling seamless access to transportation and amenities.

“We have found the Culdesac team to be true partners with our city council and its neighborhood communities, and we look forward to bringing the country’s first car-free community to life in our city,” said Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell.

The Tempe site was chosen for the first car-free neighborhood due to the city’s thriving job market, growing population, and land available directly on a light rail station. Additionally, local leadership has a reputation for being innovative, forward-thinking, and action-oriented. Culdesac is evaluating locations for additional projects, including in cities such as Dallas, Denver, and Raleigh-Durham.

“Because the power of transportation innovation is larger at scale, we’re considering 50-100 acre sites for our next project,” said Jeff Berens, Co-Founder and COO of Culdesac. “People are ready to leave their cars behind for the walkable and vibrant lifestyle that comes from living in a car-free neighborhood.”

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World Economic Forum: Why Your Next Car Is A Bike

Whoever disbelieves that the global elite Technocrats intend to pry you out of your car onto a bike or scooter, you just aren’t paying attention. The WEF concludes, ‘cities should also manage citizens’ expectations’ so that they can be ‘healthier and more sustainable.’ ⁃ TN Editor

On the window of a bike shop in Copenhagen, a sign reads: Your next car is a bike.

More than 62% of Copenhageners cycle to work in one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, and the municipality is actively investing in new bike lanes and green light waves to allow seamless commutes in the morning traffic. In recent years, new types of bikes, such as cargo and electric bikes, have also reduced the need for family cars.

But these trends aren’t unique to Copenhagen. Around the world, cities are witnessing the emergence, and sometimes the demise, of smarter, healthier and cheaper transportation tools and systems, and they are attempting to integrate them into existing mobility patterns.

Paris pioneered one of the first city bike schemes, the Vélib’, and projected it onto the global stage. The system took advantage of innovations in smart cards in the early 2000s to deploy a fleet of around 15,000 bikes, accessible by the hour, to residents and tourists. It soon became a refreshing new mode of discovering the city’s leafy boulevards, away from traffic jams and crowds. The system was very successful and inspired similar schemes across the globe: Milan in 2008, London in 2010 and even NYC in 2013, which, to the surprise of many, has raced ahead on the path to becoming a bike-friendly city.

Bike sharing

The next wave of innovation came from the East. Chinese startups Mobike and Ofo and Singapore-based oBike took advantage of GPS tracking. If you know where a bike is at all times, why do you need docking stations? And dockless systems were born, with clear advantages in terms of usage for customers and deployment for cities. Before spreading to many other cities in 2017, these companies raised billions of dollars in funding and became known as Chinese bike “unicorns,” Silicon Valley jargon for companies with a valuation of $1 billion or more.

Then, the issues started.

First, quality. Many bikes required constant maintenance and were often out of service.

Then, vandalism, as bikes freed from docking stations were much more vulnerable to improper usage. They were drowned in Amsterdam’s canals, and they eventually ended up in urban bike cemeteries around the world, giving rise to pollution concerns and prompting cities to get more stringent in granting licenses.

Finally, the business model came under pressure. At the beginning, new deposits by customers financed the deployment of new bikes, but market saturation soon threatened this strategy. As of now, several dockless bike startups have gone bankrupt, and Mobike – the remaining largest player – is considering selling most of the stakes of its European arm.

Yet, micromobility addresses important urban issues, and as such, it will certainly have a role in tomorrow’s cities. Of all trips in the United States, 80% are under 12 miles, and in New York City, most don’t exceed 2 miles. This is precisely where the car is not particularly competitive – and where micromobility is handy. Micromobility is more energy and space efficient, and safer if accompanied by dedicated urban areas.

Besides, why use a five-seat, 2,000-pound SUV to move what is often less than 200 pounds? If you can access one the vehicle that best suits you at the touch of an app, it would be better to go for a two-seater, when moving with a partner, or when alone, a single-pod car, bike, or even dockless electric scooter, which are now deployed by companies like Bird, Lime, Bolt and others. These scooter companies have attracted investment from big ride-hailing operators such as Uber and Lyft, and they’re probably just the first sign of a richer biodiversity (or bike-diversity?) in mobility.

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No Cars Allowed: ‘Superblock’ Urban Revolution

The global push to ban cars from city-centers continues as progressive urban planners around the world flock to the latest fad. The new design meme is called a ‘Superblock’, and is gaining in popularity. ⁃ TN Editor

On weekends, Calle de Postas in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, feels like a never-ending block party. Cyclists share the magnolia-shaded street with off-leash dogs and teetering toddlers. There are bustling cafe tables and families on benches eating ice cream. That’s life in this city of 200,000 in the Basque Country, where nearly half the streets have been converted into car-free zones over the past decade.

“This city is my test case,” says Salvador Rueda, a Spanish urban planner known for overseeing large-scale pedestrian conversions in Barcelona and Buenos Aires, among other places. Vitoria-Gasteiz, he says, is his “laboratory,” a city whose history as a center of auto manufacturing—it’s home to factories for Mercedes and Michelin—makes it an unlikely showcase. “If we can do something here, others can see it and replicate our results.”

Rueda, 66, is known as the world’s leading proponent of “superblocks”—in which groups of commercial or residential streets are barred to through traffic, crisscrossed by pedestrian walkways, and carpeted with grassy malls. Thanks to his work, Vitoria-Gasteiz has 63 of them, with plans for 48 more. “It’s a revolution,” Rueda says as we ride bikes down Calle de Postas. “A cheap revolution, where you don’t have to demolish a single building.”

The idea of large vehicle-free blocks, which has been around since the 1920s, has been applied, often with underwhelming results, to the design of corporate campuses and public housing. But nobody has used superblocks as extensively or as successfully as Rueda. In parts of downtown Vitoria-Gasteiz, he and his team have reduced the number of cars on the road by 27%, leading to a 42% reduction in the city’s carbon dioxide emissions. A full 50% of residents walk as their primary mode of transportation, and 15% bike. In September the United Nations named Vitoria-Gasteiz the global Green City of the Year, citing its commitment “not just to sustainability but to citizen equality, security, happiness, and health.” Cities in the U.S. and Latin America are considering adopting its model.

To make a superblock, Rueda and his team typically start with nine square blocks totaling about 40 acres. Then they extend the sidewalks, plant trees, add bike lanes, and install benches. Cars aren’t entirely forbidden—in Rueda’s Spanish projects, residents and delivery vehicles must abide by a speed limit of 10 kilometers (6 miles) per hour, the equivalent of a jog—but through traffic isn’t allowed. Cameras clock cars’ speeds and routes, and rule breakers are fined €200 ($223) for each violation. “Everyone here follows the rules,” Rueda says, dismounting from his bike and pointing slyly to a closed-circuit camera on a building. “But just in case they don’t, we keep an eye on them.”

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New Urban Agenda

The World Pants After UN’s New Urban Agenda

The UN’s drive to transform cities into hubs of Sustainable Development (aka Technocracy) is global in nature and the world’s 193 nations are fully supportive. Thus far, the U.S. offers little resistance. ⁃ TN Editor

At the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), in October 2016, the New Urban Agenda was unanimously adopted.

It serves as a new vision for our cities and municipalities for the next 20 years. According to UNDP, it demonstrated its full support to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda with the official launch of its Sustainable Urbanisation Strategy.

It further stated that it a year later, it welcomed its Strategic Plan 2018-2021 with the endorsement of Member States, providing strategic guidance to UNDP’s policy and programmers for the next four years. The new plan sets out the direction for a new UNDP to support countries to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality and achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

This UN New Urban Agenda was a document that has been approved by 193 countries and was branded a positive trend that creates values including socio-economic, agglomeration economics, innovations, social advancement among others. The Agenda was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly at its 68th Plenary Meeting of the 71st Session the 23rd December 2016.

“The Plan recognises that rapid urbanisation and changing demographic patterns are challenging conventional thinking on development pathways, and that addressing urban challenges requires cross-cutting, integrated applications of expertise and investment, customized for each country and circumstance and driven by global best practices and international standards.”

Through four out of the six Signature Solutions of the Strategic Plan, UNDP sees unique opportunities to scale up its offer of services on sustainable urbanisation, outlining Signature Solution 1 – that keeps people out of poverty, which involves a mix of solutions that improve rural and urban livelihoods, strengthen gender equality, build social protection and provide basic services.

These are equal strategies embedded in our national development blueprint and we hope that The Gambia as it steadily moves towards implementing its development blueprint between 2018 and 2021, will surely be successful.

 Sustainable Development Goals and targets, including Goal 11 of making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable is vital, however, the New Urban Agenda equally acknowledges that culture and cultural diversity are sources of enrichment for humankind and provide an important contribution to the sustainable development of cities, human settlements and citizens, empowering them to play an active and unique role in development initiatives.

The New Urban Agenda further recognises that culture should be taken into account in the promotion and implementation of new sustainable consumption and production patterns that contribute to the responsible use of resources and address the adverse impact of climate change.

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UN-Habitat Chief Praises China For Its Urban Innovation

As a maturing Technocracy, China is praised and held up as a model for its innovation in urban innovation and development. Conveniently overlooked is ubiquitous surveillance, citizen oppression and religious persecution. ⁃ TN Editor

The executive director of the UN-Habitat Maimunah Mohd Sharif on Friday lauded China for using innovation to transform its cities and making them more habitable and friendly to citizens.

Sharif, who was speaking in Nairobi ahead of the first UN Habitat Assembly that kicks off next Monday in Kenya, said that China has transformed most of its polluted areas especially in Beijing and Xuzhou into greener areas.

“The secret to transforming the mining areas into green areas is innovation. In China, the model is that people give proposals on making cities better to the government, which uses technology to implement them,” she said.

Working together with the community, according to her, has seen China build high tech buildings and villages that use solar power, have free internet, health facilities for children, and cater for everybody’s need.

She further applauded Beijing for involving retired people into the country’ productivity, bettering their lives and making them part of the new urban agenda.

Sharif noted that seamless transportation in Chinese cities, for instance, from Beijing to Xuzhou and Shanghai by train has made life better for people.

“Good effective transportation increases productivity for people. I took the train across the three cities and found it systematic and punctual,” said Sharif, who made her first official visit to China last month.

During the trip, she met several Chinese officials, including mayors, she said, adding that she was encouraged by the willingness to enhance partnership with UN-Habitat.

The UN-Habitat chief lauded the Belt and Road Initiative, noting that it encompasses transportation in cities and towns.

“This is part of the reason UN-Habitat signed Action Plan with China. We looked at policy connectivity of the program. It is integrated with planning of cities, connecting all networks to make cities right,” she said.

As part of the UN-Habitat Assembly, a book on the transformation of Shenzhen city in southern China will be launched to enable other countries to get lessons from the story.

“The book tells story of how the city transformed from mining area to cleaner tourist town, where villages are thriving amid urbanization,” she said.

“Other cities need to adopt the style. They will share challenges and opportunities at the assembly,” she said.

Sharif noted the Nairobi assembly will be the first for the UN-Habitat and its theme is “Innovation for Better Quality of Life in Cities and Communities.”

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‘Unsustainable’ Single-Family Housing Declared ‘Racist’

The UNs’ Agenda 21, 2030 Agenda and New Urban Agenda policies intend to end private property rights altogether to flip capitalism and Free Enterprise into Sustainable Development. This attack is intensifying throughout America. ⁃ TN Editor

One of the main indicators used by economists to measure the health of the nation’s economy is housing starts – the number of private homes being built around the nation. In 2018 housing starts fell in all four regions of the nation, representing the biggest drop since 2016.

While many economists point to issues such as higher material costs as a reason for the drop in housing starts, a much more ominous reason may be emerging. Across the nation, city councils and state legislatures are beginning to remove zoning protections for single-family neighborhoods, claiming they are racist discrimination designed to keep certain minorities out of such neighborhoods. In response to these charges some government officials are calling for the end of single-family homes in favor of multiple family apartments.

  • Minneapolis, Minnesota: the city council is moving to remove zoning that protects single-family neighborhoods, instead planning to add apartment buildings in the mix. The mayor actually said such zoning was “devised as a legal way to keep black Americans and other minorities from moving into certain neighborhoods”. Racist, social injustice are the charges
  • Chicago, Illinois: So-called “affordable housing” advocates have filed a federal complaint against the longtime tradition of allowing City Aldermen veto power over most development proposals in their wards, charging that it promotes discrimination by keeping low-income minorities from moving into affluent white neighborhoods. Essentially the complaint seeks to remove the Aldermen’s ability to represent their own constituents.
  • Baltimore, Maryland: The NAACP filed a suit against the city charging that Section 8 public housing causes ghettos because they are all put into the same areas of town. They won the suit and now the city must spend millions of dollars to move such housing into more affluent neighborhoods. In addition, landlords are no longer permitted to ask potential tenants if they can afford the rent on their properties.
  • Oregon: Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives Tina Kotek (D-Portland) is drafting legislation that would end single-family zoning in cities of 10,000 or more. She claims there is a housing shortage crisis and that economic and racial segregation are caused by zoning restrictions.

Such identical policies don’t just simultaneously spring up across the country by accident. There is a force behind it. The root of these actions are found in “fair housing” policies dictated by the federal Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD). The affected communities have all taken HUD grants. There is very specific language in those grants that suggest single family homes are a cause of discrimination. Specifically, through the HUD program called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), the agency is taking legal action against communities that use “discriminating zoning ordinances that discourage the development of affordable, multifamily housing…”. The suits are becoming a widely used enforcement tool for the agency.

To enforce its social engineering policies HUD demands the following from communities that have applied for or taken HUD grants:

  • First, HUD forces the community to complete an “Assessment of Fair Housing” to identify all “contributing factors” to discrimination. These include a complete breakdown of race, income levels, religion, and national origin of every single person living there. They use this information to determine if the neighborhood meets a preset “balance,” determined by HUD.
  • Second, HUD demands a detailed plan showing how the community intends to eliminate the “contributing factors” to this “imbalance.”
  • Once the plan is prepared, then the community is required to sign an agreement to take no actions that are “materially inconsistent with its obligation to affirmatively further fair housing.”

Americans who have grown up experiencing private home ownership as the root to personal prosperity must quickly learn of the threat of the HUD/AFFH program. They must fully understand why cities like Chicago, Minneapolis and Baltimore and states like Oregon have suddenly announced actions to eliminate single-family home zoning. These cities have already taken the grant poison and must now comply. The ultimate government game is to reorganize our cities into massive urban areas where single-family neighborhoods are replaced by the Sustainable/Smart Growth model of “Stack and Pack,” wall-to-wall apartment buildings.

To the frustration of those Sustainablists determined to change our entire economic system, the legal protection of private property rights and ownership have proven to be a roadblock for implementation. New York Mayor William DeBlasio best expressed the frustration of those driving to control community development when he was quoted in New York Magazine saying, “What’s been hardest is the way our legal system is structured to favor private property. I think people all over this city, of every background, would like to have the city government be able to determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it and what the rent will be.”

Most importantly, HUD and its social engineering advocates have sold these so-called sustainable policies using the well-worn excuse that such programs are simply to help lower income families to succeed. In fact, these programs are actually at the very root of why many of them are NOT succeeding.

Tom DeWeese, President of the American Policy Center, an internationally recognized private property advocacy groups says, “The immediate result of eliminating single-family homes and in turn, destroying private property rights, is to degrade the property values of the homes so many have worked to build. It used to be called the American dream. Now it’s labeled racism, discrimination, and social injustice.”

DeWeese continues, “Eradicating poverty is the most popular excuse for the expansion of government power. Yet, it’s interesting to note that not a single government program, from the federal to the local level, offers any plan for eradicating poverty except the well-worn and unworkable scheme of wealth redistribution. After decades of following such a failed policy the only result is that we have more poor.”

Today, as demonstrated in Oregon, Minneapolis, Baltimore and Chicago, we hear the claims that there is a “housing crisis” and so government must take a dramatic step to solve the very crisis is has created. As economist Thomas Sowell has said, “The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”

Concludes DeWeese, “It is interesting to note that, as private property ownership shrinks under these misguided policies, so too does the nation’s wealth. Sustainable policies are at the root of nearly every local, state, and federal program. Each step diminishes individual freedom, personal and national prosperity, and the destruction of the hopes and dream of every American. The American Policy Center is determined to lead the fight to end this misnamed and disastrous ‘Sustainable’ course for our country.”

Julia Unwin: Why We Need To Build Social Capital In Cities

This is a lecture given by Julia Unwin at the Human Cities Institute’s sixth Annual Lecture in Leeds, UK. It epitomizes the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda Pollyannish view of city living in the future. This sentiment is seen globally in identical format. ⁃ TN Editor

If growth is to be genuinely inclusive then we need to tackle some of our current obstacles to building strong social capital, says Julia Unwin.

Why cities matter

Cities are central to the development of our world. By 2030, urban areas are expected to house 60% of the world’s population and generate up to 80% of global economic growth. Over the last 50 years, the percentage of people living in cities has increased from 34% to 54% and is believed to rise up to 66% by 2050, according to a report published in 2014 by the UN.

In the UK 61% of growth is generated by city regions. Nearly half the UK population live within the largest 15 metropolitan centres and, if the UK’s top 15 metropolitan centres were to realise their potential, it is estimated they would generate an additional £79bn growth.

Cities are powerful and dynamic engines of growth. They are growing in importance and impact. They can be the sources of innovation and creativity, bringing people together in new and unexpected ways and spawning the cultural quarters, the digital invention, the start-ups and connections that enable modern growth. They can be places where independence flourishes, where identity can be reinvented, where people can flourish and grow. Our very recent history has seen the cultural renaissance of Birmingham, the regeneration of central Bristol, the retail revolution of Leeds. It has witnessed the flowering of Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast, and the impact of the City of Culture in Hull and in Derry.

Across the UK cities were physically remodelled in the 1990s and early part of this century. They were bashed and damaged by the global financial crisis of 2008, and now they enjoy (if that is the right word) the prospect of changes to the administrative, legislative and political architecture.

Cities good and bad

In short, cities can be the place we become our best selves, the place where our human ingenuity and our capacity to support each other flourishes.

They can be places of sanctuary, providing warmth and a place for new and different identities to flourish. Look at the ways in which some cities have absorbed, welcomed and celebrated the arrival of immigrants with distinctive cultures, cuisines and capabilities. Look at the confidence and security of the ‘gay quarters’ of the 1990s, providing safety and support, and so often also supporting creativity and cultural reinvention. Cities can be places where we can be ourselves, liberated from some of the more stultifying aspects of small town life, and even, occasionally, our own families.

But cities can also be places of isolation, of poverty, and of misery. They can become places where innovation and creativity are driven out. Where the bonds of social engagement are attenuated and where solidarity is fatally eroded. They can become places where poverty is locked in. Places where progression and development is prohibited. Places where people without the support of family find alternative social networks impossible to access. Places which, while not actively hostile to the incomer, afford them so little welcome that in effect they remain for ever the stranger.

Why social capital matters to cities

It is the depth and the breadth of social capital in cities that distinguishes the creative, lively, bonded city, from the miserable dystopia I have painted. Cities where everyone is too busy to interact breed loneliness and despair. Cities where automation has made every interaction a soulless one, driving out human contact in the interests of speed and efficiency.  Cities where the more vulnerable are shunned and ignored are cities of fear, not to mention huge potential costs. And cities where one of the very many people in the early stages of dementia receive no neighbourly support, and can only turn to A&E and the police, are cities that will be expensive to run.

Cities need the skills and assets of all their citizens. If people with money desert the city centre because of violence and danger, those centres will never thrive. If people as they reach retirement age leave the cities in which they worked, the city loses wisdom, and civic leadership. If cities are unaffordable for young people they lose economic potential. And if the nature of the return to growth simply locks poverty into particular areas, those cities will never become the engines of sustained growth and prosperity that a poverty-free UK demands.

Social capital is not an optional extra for a city. It is as fundamental as the financial capital and the skills base of any successful city.

The language of cities and the language of social capital

When we talk about cities we talk about the physical infrastructure, we talk about inward investment, skills matrices and the role of powerful institutions. When we talk about social capital we talk about kindness and generosity. We talk about families and neighbours. We talk about affinity and belonging, of liveability and about happiness and love. When we talk about cites we use the skills of economics and of physical planning. When we talk about social capital we learn from neuroscience and from behavioural economics. As so often these days I end up looking at Canada and the pioneering work of Charles Montgomery on what makes people happy, and therefore makes their cities successful.

It’s high time we talked about these things together.

What do we mean by social capital?

I identify three layers of social capital that are as essential in big cities as they are in tiny villages.

First there is the largely unexplored world of everyday kindness which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation examined in a neighbourhood in Glasgow. Community participants were asked to list the everyday, often unacknowledged favours, bits of help and mutual help. Rather beautifully one described it as ‘spraying water on a spider’s web’ and some were amazed both at the strength of this apparently fragile web, but also its breadth and reach. Equally, others noted quite how thin their webs of support were, and how desperately isolated they were. This essentially reciprocal and vital layer of social capital needs nurture and care. It does not happen by accident and there are steps we can take to preserve and grow, just as surely as we can destroy.

We know that neighbourhood responses to poverty always start at this level. It is the shared fiver that circulates in so many families and social groups, the short term mini loans. It is the offers to babysit and the introduction to possible job starts, the offer of a sofa for a teenager that stops her from becoming homeless. Word of mouth and social networks are, and always have been, the front line defence against poverty.

The second layer involves the many organisations, groups, associations and businesses which contributed to help happening in a place – what sits between the very informal, person-to-person helping relationships and formal help and care.

The middle layer has an important role to play in creating the conditions for ‘ordinary kindness’, simply by encouraging social interaction. Groups, organisations and associations draw people together through shared interest or purpose; and they provide spaces within which interaction can happen. As such, they serve as junction boxes, connecting diverse strands of community and social networks. These networks and groups are worth fostering.

While there may be an apparent fit between the community sector and notions of everyday help and support, ‘ordinary kindnesses’ are evident in corporate or commercial settings too – whether a supermarket, café or corner shop. For example, in one area of Glasgow, the local supermarket was a place where interactions of kindness and help happened. In another area it was the local café that served as a meeting point and a source of help for local parents with children.

It is often when individuals transcend their formal or scripted roles that there is the greatest scope for small acts and relationships of help and support to emerge.

The third layer is the institutions that govern, as well as serve, the city, the neighbourhood. They are the ones that frequently absorb the available resource and talent. The anchor institutions, the housing associations, the local authority, the hospital, the university, and the funded voluntary organisation. How much do these bodies foster social capital? Are they providing services to customers, or are they building the strength and resilience of the communities they exist to serve?

Perhaps even more crucially, how much are these institutions and economic systems enabling the pre-conditions for strong social capital?

The pre-conditions for strong social capital

Social capital is not formed in a vacuum. What happens is shaped by our external environment, and what is happening around us is different from that faced by previous generations of city leaders.

Social Capital is in real peril. Our labour market has changed, and changed fundamentally. At the bottom end of the labour market our current economy produces part time, insecure and poorly paid work. People doing multiple jobs just to get by is becoming the norm, and increasingly the much vaunted ‘gig economy’ is actually producing a group of people who, while technically self-employed, seem to me to have many of the working conditions of the 19th century casual labourer.

At the bottom end of the labour market people lead poor and insecure lives, faced with higher costs and constantly managing debt. Work is undoubtedly for many of us the best route out of poverty. If the work is insecure, and has no progression (and four out of five people starting in low paid work are still low paid 10 years later) it does not provide a secure route.

People in poverty are also leading extremely crowded lives. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation makes it clear that the only possibility of escaping poverty for a couple with two children is for the family to at least have 1.6 incomes. This leaves precious little time for the creation of social capital – the support for neighbours and family, the engagement with others that is one element of the vital fuel for the growth of social capital.

The second element of this social capital fuel is security. There is good and compelling evidence, if we didn’t already know it from the personal experience of each of us, that a secure home is the necessary foundation for a route out of poverty, the best way of building a life, raising a family, and contributing to your neighbourhood. Our modern housing market increasingly lacks security. Life on a six month tenancy in the private rented sector or life on a short-term conditional tenancy in the social sector does not create the pre-conditions for contributing to strong secure neighbourhoods.

I have rarely been to a regeneration scheme and not encountered the (usually very angry) grandmother whose drive, persistence and commitment to improving the area has forced landlords, local authorities and investors to change. Home owners threatened by repossession, or playing the game of riding the current turbo charged housing market, are equally unlikely to develop those deep and sustained roots that are essential for social capital. Time, security – a sense of sufficiency – these are vital elements. But they are not the only ones.

Public services can support the formation of social capital, and they can just as readily destroy it. Evidence from across the UK makes it clear that there is no linear relationship between the support given by the state and other institutional providers. But at a time of huge reductions in local expenditure:

  • What we know is that very hard pressed communities are damaged by the current erosion of the basics of public service to communities – if you are struggling to survive the capacity to support others is jeopardised.
  • We know from Joseph Rowntree Foundation funded research that some of the programme of austerity has hit the poorest places in the UK hardest, and we also know that improved targeting of services – inevitable when resources are tight – will leave many needs unmet.
  • And we know that internationally as research from CIVICUS shows us the places for civic life are disappearing, and in this country, and in this city, the threats to libraries, cultural venues, and other places where people can meet, threaten and undermine participation and engagement.

Our interest in growing social capital for the good of our cities must take into account these real threats – the insecurity, shortage of time, and pressures on public finance.

Social capital in cities – a historic view

A bit of history about what we know of social capital in cities.

It was the Industrial Revolution that transformed the notion of a UK city. People moved from lives of grinding poverty to the new industrialised jobs of the 19th century; swapping back-breaking, poorly rewarded work on the land for back-breaking poorly rewarded work in the mills and factories of the rapidly transformed England. This created opportunity, but also massive challenge. Living lives of unimaginable squalor, for the first time free from the constraints of family, village and church life, the experience of people in the newly industrialised cities of the UK has been described in vivid and horrific details by George Gissing, etc. What we would now call a moral panic gripped the nation, and commentators, authors and politicians all weighed in – in a way that is all too familiar for those of us who have lived through similar panics. ‘Something must be done’ was the cry.

As ever, observing the actions and not the words pays dividends.

This was the time of the biggest explosion of ‘social capital’ we have probably ever seen in response to this unprecedented upheaval. Churches and chapels sprang up in the heart of the newly populated cities. Girls and Boys Clubs, friendly societies and working men’s clubs were formed. Mutual aid and trade unions began. The pioneering charities like Barnardo’s, the hospital funds and the prison reformers. The new profession of housing management, led by women, created the cornerstones of our current housing association movement and laid the foundations for the council housing of which we should all be so proud. Social work developed as a profession. Workers’ education institutes, reading rooms and political discussion sprang up in the newly crowded, and deeply divided, cities.

Of course this activity contained within it both what is good and what is bad about social capital. Of course some of it was patronising and ill thought through. We read about Mrs Jellaby in Bleak House and cringe. We look at the advice given by the Charities Organisations Society and from our comparatively privileged positon allow ourselves a smug grimace. Of course dreadful things were done in the name of social capital. Children sent to Australia, horrific abuse took place in the laundries of Belfast, extortionate rents were undoubtedly charged for squalid housing, and predatory lending has a long history. But we also see the great strengths of self-organisation and mutual support, the creation of new institutions for different times. The development of networks of support, and the engagement of those with privilege in genuinely, if occasionally misguidedly, seeking to improve lives for their fellow citizens.

As Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation you would not expect me to get this far without talking about the enlightened progressive capitalists of this period and the ways in which Rowntree, Cadbury, Titus Salt and others, worked, making a lot of money, for sure, but also developing approaches to employment practice that still resonate today. Taking responsibility for their workforces and housing people who would otherwise live in the slums of York, Birmingham and Bradford in beautiful, well designed and green environments.

And of course the great civic leaders who built our city halls, improved public health, built and managed vital housing, were born from just this energetic social capital, connecting back through the ballot box to the needs of populations which were changing, and facing new and entirely different problems.

Social capital takes many forms and is never an unequivocal good. But the Industrial Revolution witnessed the way in which the power of financial capital, the demands of human capital combined to generate enormous social capital which still shapes the social architecture and engineering of our big cities today.

Some of the pre-conditions that we now possess would have been beyond the imagination of our nineteenth century predecessors.

First we have the people. Our ageing population is so often described as a ‘burden’. In the calculation of social capital the fact that we will all live longer, hopefully healthier lives, brings wisdom, knowledge and capability to addressing some of our most pressing social problems. Our much more diverse, much better educated population also contains the skills and the abilities to foster real reciprocal, creative and innovative social capital.

And secondly we have the technology. The digital revolution has changed and continues to change so much of what we do, as well as how we do it. Open data, generously shared, is a vital tool for the development of the social networks and connections that create capital. Communication, at the press of a key, enables communities of interest to be formed, enfranchises those without a voice and enables far more of us to engage in a genuinely pluralist debate. Of course there is a darker side – the internet can reinforce loneliness, generate hate and exclude as much as it can enable. But the optimism and drive that transformed this city can harness the power of digital to enable genuine, productive engagement.

In discussing social change we often end up talking about data, its power, and its resilience. We believe as technocrats that clean, well marshalled data can solve everything. But the real data that powers social capital is often messy. It involves a close and detailed understanding of the web of relationships that keeps any neighbourhood alive. We know that it is vitally important for the police and security services to understand in fine detail the operation of community networks and relationships. We accept that the big commercial service providers know more about us than our closest family.  And so those of us concerned with the fostering of social capital need to harness just this data to understand and support the very real networks of mutual support that make this city tick, and make survival possible.

Knowledge – real, informed, current knowledge – is vital to the development of social capital. Interventions that are rooted in how people really live – the ethnography of neighbourhoods – are part of the modern skill set. Social capital comes from within.  Top down announcements of new ways of engaging lack this fine grained knowledge, will be based on anecdote, generalisation and stereotype and have the capacity to destroy real and important social capital.

Social capital today

Today, we face a revolution as profound as anything the nineteenth century pioneers had to contend with. We live in a globalised world in which the pace of change, and the sheer volatility of it all, sometimes simply feels too much. A world in which a decision in Mumbai can change the lives of communities in the West Country overnight. A world in which it is sometimes easier to feel connected to events in the Kashmir than the events in your own neighbourhood. A world in which work is becoming faster, more demanding, and frequently much less secure. A world in which housing is a fragile asset, not a platform on which to build a secure life. A world in which mass movements of people can both enrich and strengthen, but can too often be experienced as threat and division. A world in which the distance between generations can seem overwhelming.

In this world there is more need than ever before for the conscious fostering of social capital. For our cities to thrive and prosper, we need the sort of social capital that enabled people to survive seismic social change in the last centuries.

But we cannot replicate what went before. Modern social capital will need to look and feel different, but it will have all the same qualities of human warmth and reciprocity that we need to live truly prosperous lives in cities.

Modern social capital will need to foster skills for living as well as for working. It will enable and encourage the small acts of kindness that enable us all to survive. But it will also connect people across generations, and across faiths and nationalities. It will be built on the power of relationships, not on transactions.

It will almost certainly be made up more of networks than of organisations. The architecture of the 19th century was mirrored in the settlements and big institutions of that era. A more adaptive and digitally informed social capital may look more like a set of movements than an institution.

It will be more democratic, providing a platform for the dispossessed as much as tending to their needs. It will not be afraid of anger and of division – because social capital is messy, just like social change.

It will bring together surprising friends – cultural organisations, with those who feel furthest away from the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It will cross boundaries, finding support in the corner shop as much as in the funded voluntary organisation. It will not look for permission, but instead will make demands.

But this active, new energetic social capital will be the reason that cities like Birmingham flourish into the next century. It will bring resilience and capability. It will enable innovation and sustainable growth. And it will make sure that our cities are places where people want to live, not dread destinations into which they are forced.

But without a concerted, conscious effort to build inclusive growth, there is a risk that the poorest people and places will be left behind. Our newly developing prosperity risks benefitting the better off at the expense of the poorest people and places. It risks creating cities which are at their heart unsafe and unsustainable because they contain within them places where people are dispossessed, insecure and overlooked. These divided cities will never contribute to a new prosperity.

That is why the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has committed so heavily to understanding both through research and through practice, what good growth can look like in cities. In the Leeds City Region we are working in partnership with local authorities, business and the anchor institutions to identify the steps that can be taken to make that growth truly inclusive. But we are also working with the Young Foundation to understand the details of what is happening in neighbourhoods. Through our support and engagement with the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission we are also doing what we can to make sure that the voices and experience of people experiencing poverty are heard clearly and effectively in the places where decisions are made. And city leaders can use their powers to create a rebalanced economy in which there are far greater opportunities for the people and places previously left behind. The test of city leadership will not be judged only in improved gross value added. It will also be in the extent to which damaging poverty and isolation are conquered.

It is only by this conscious commitment to building social capital in cities that we will see the emergence of a city economy fit for all our citizens in the 21st century.

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Everybody Rides: Bicycles Key To Safer, Healthier, More Vital Cities

Sustainable Cities will do whatever it takes to get you out of your automobile and onto public transportation. If you want a personal transportation device, you will get a free pass to acquire a bicycle to get some exercise and lose some weight at the same time. Technocrats always seem to know what’s best for you. ⁃ TN Editor

Frustrated by the obstacles to urban cycling in North America, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett traveled with their two kids from Vancouver to the Netherlands in 2016 to take a deep five-week dive into places that do cycling better. Traversing cities in the Netherlands by bike, they found that cycling is not just a better way to get around; when done right, it leads to healthier, safer, more vibrant, more family-friendly communities. They wrote it all up in their new book, Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, which provides a guide for cities and communities that want to do cycling right, and for urban cyclists and families who want to learn the keys to cycling as a way of life.

I spoke to the Bruntletts by phone earlier this month about what they’ve learned and about what cities and people in the United States and Canada can learn from the cycling lifestyle in the Netherlands. Our conversation has been lightly edited for space and flow.

Why did you decide to go to the Netherlands and start cycling like the Dutch?

Melissa: We lived so long experiencing cycling in Vancouver and telling a lot of great stories about what building cities for cycling can do. We felt that in order to really tell that story, we needed to go to the place where that is what people enjoy throughout the country and learn what has made them so successful.

Sometimes critics of cycling say it’s about “yuppies,” “hipsters,” and “the creative class,” and a force for “gentrification.” But your book talks more about the role of cycling for families and in building stronger communities.

Chris:  Cycling plays a tremendous role in how we now look at cities for families. If it’s not safe enough for our 8-year-old son, then it’s just simply not good enough. I think for far too long in North America, we’ve made cycling acceptable for the “fit and the brave” that are willing to suit up and get on their bikes, but there are entire segments of the population that are completely ignored.

M: What people overlook in those conversations are the people that can’t drive. For anyone that is not of driving age, cycling is an independent means of transportation, so they don’t need to rely on an adult or a bus. When we get older, there is a certain point when we may not be legally allowed to drive anymore. A lot of the conversation in terms of the elderly population is around aging in place. But it also includes the ability to still feel connected to their community, being able to go outside and travel comfortably even with limited mobility. Bicycles play a key part in that. It’s less stress on the joints. It also affords elderly people a way move around the places where they have always lived and where they want to continue living. By saying that the infrastructure and the investment in cycling is only for the “fit and the brave” is to completely ignore entire swaths of our population and not afford them the same rights that we afford able-bodied people in their 20s and 30s.

I remember when I was a boy growing up in New Jersey, my brother and I rode our 10 speeds everywhere. LeBron James recently said the thing that most affected his youth growing up in Akron, Ohio, was the ability to ride a bike everywhere. How can cycling help kids get a sense of the city or even a sense of freedom?

C: The Netherlands ranks as having the happiest children in the world. That’s not by accident. That’s because they give them safe places to cycle and they trust kids to get from place to place without adult supervision. They don’t quite have the stranger danger that we have. It’s also because their streets are traffic-calmed, there’s fewer cars, they’re going slower. Kids are given a free reign to get around the city, whether it’s by foot, bicycle, or bus.

M: A lot of kids are getting less and less physical activity. And that simple bike ride to school is one of the easiest ways to build in 15-30 minutes of physical activity in a day and help them be a little bit healthier. The Dutch are one of the only advanced countries to reduce their obesity rate. It’s not because they have the healthiest diets. It’s because they have built exercise into their day-to-day activity.

I had a colleague from Sweden who visited Toronto and she said she wouldn’t ride in Toronto or let her kids ride there, not just because of cars and inadequate bike lanes, but because the cyclists ride too fast—like they’re in the Tour de France is how she put it. But as you point out in your book, cyclists in the Netherlands ride at a slower pace. Why is that important?

C: I think that’s an indication of how you build your streets. If you build hostile streets, people are going to want to keep up with car traffic and armor themselves up with protective equipment. There’s a differentiation in the Dutch language between a sports cyclist and a utilitarian cyclist; the two phrases loosely translate to “walking with wheels” versus “running with wheels.” The “wheeled walkers” make up the vast majority of people that bike in the Netherlands because they’ve created these conditions that aren’t as hostile, so anybody feels like they can do it.

Another point you make in the book that’s so important is about the different kind of bikes Dutch cyclists ride.

M: They’re upright, they’re a little bit slower but they’re meant for utility. They’re meant to get them comfortably, without any complication, from point A to B, hauling some goods along the way or hauling children. Those utility bikes mean a lot in terms of simplifying the trip. They don’t overcomplicate it. The bikes already come with all the gear, you don’t have to worry about buying lights or a bell separately. They’re meant for day-to-day transportation.

Why is the bike shop such an important part of the cycling environment?

C: In Vancouver, the cycling shops were still very sport-focused. The staff weren’t trained to sell bikes, they usually only have one or two collecting dust in the corner. Because the vast majority of people riding bikes in North America are doing it for sport and recreation, the retail industry is still playing catch up. It’s almost become this chicken and egg scenario where they don’t see a large market for transportation bikes so they’re not putting many resources into developing that market. Bike sharing has kind of changed this a little bit, because people are riding these more upright utilitarian bikes. But if they ultimately want to invest in one, they have a real job on their hands trying to find one.

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Cities Urged To Reject Federal Government, Go It Alone

The future of globalization and Sustainable Deveopment is seen in cities, not nation-states. The rise of autonomous cities is seen throughout the world, and global interests are whispering in the ears of U.S. mayors to effectively secede from the Federal government. ⁃ TN Editor

The mayors are coming. In recent months, City Hall occupants in Tallahassee, Nashville, and Tuscaloosa have won Democratic primaries for their state’s gubernatorial races. Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro are rumored to be considering White House bids in 2020. City leaders seeking higher office are banking on the idea that voters will respond to what cities embody today: innovation, diversity, and progress.

In the Age of Trump, some experts have been urging cities to declare independence from the federal-level chaos in Washington. Others herald local power and local actions as antidotes to national dysfunction. Across the country, corporations and philanthropies are pouring millions of dollars into city initiatives, attracted by the notion that solutions in urban areas—on issues like economic development, clean energy, and resilience—might bubble up to the national level.

I understand the impulse. From the perch of a national think tank on cities, I see cities mounting promising responses to big problems like climate change, housing affordability, and criminal justice. At the Brookings Institution, we help local and regional leaders accelerate solutions to global competitiveness and shared prosperity.

But city boosterism can also go too far: Urging city leaders to go it alone celebrates a deep dysfunction in federalism—and it normalizes a self-destructive shift in politics and governance.

For instance, the Trump administration is using the narrative of increased local capacity to justify draconian cuts to federal supportfor cities, from transit programscommunity development financing, to the entire Economic Development Administration. The president’s 2019 budget notes that it “…recognizes a greater role for state and local governments and the private sector to address community and economic development needs,” signaling abdication of a longstanding federal role in those areas.

Further, federal policies do matter, whether city leaders like it or not. Federal deportation forces are striking fear into city and suburban immigrant communities. The new tax law imposes a limit on state and local tax deductions, making it more economically and politically costly for city governments to raise revenue. Tariffs are threatening companies and jobs across all kinds of communities but the Trump administration proposes to protect farmers from those effects with billions of dollars in subsidies provided by urban and suburban taxpayers. City-by-city actions can’t overcome national policies that broadly undermine urban America.

And as Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has observed, extolling the virtues of localism papers over the dark history of “local control” in America, where deference to local decision-makers has yielded persistent racial segregation and the active suppression of minority voting rights. “We should not romanticize localism,” Ifill wrote, responding to the recent New York Times column on “The Localist Revolution” by David Brooks. “It has often been brutish, oppressive & violent.”

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