Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Could Underground Tunnels Solve Houston’s Flooding Woes?

Downtown Houston during Hurricane Harvey (AP Photo/Jason Dearen)

The answer to Houston’s flooding woes may lie far below its notorious sprawl, officials believe. The Harris County Flood Control District “is exploring the possibility” of building several enormous, underground tunnels to whisk flood waters away from the region’s bayous and into the Houston Ship Channel, the Houston Chronicle reports.

From the paper:

The project — one of the most ambitious and costly proposals in the wake of Hurricane Harvey — could dramatically reduce the flood risk for thousands living along the bayous. The full project, which promises to cost billions of dollars and take several years to complete, would allow major Houston-area waterways to contain a “100-year storm” within their banks, said Matt Zeve, director of operations at the district.

“What the flood control district has been doing for decades doesn’t occur fast enough or it doesn’t have the benefits that the public really wants,” Zeve told the paper. “We’ve been challenged to try to think of new ideas and new strategies and this is an answer to that challenge.”

One long-time strategy employed by the district is a buy-out program, which pays homeowners with properties “hopelessly deep” in the floodplain to move. The program allows the district to “restore the land to a state that can actually help prevent future flooding — by modifying the terrain, for example, or by building parks,” Mark Dent wrote for Next City last month. In the roughly four months after Hurricane Harvey, the district received a total of 841 applications — a staggering uptick, since it’s received about 3,700 applications total since the mid-1980s.

But that kind of gradual reshaping apparently doesn’t have the same urgent appeal as a large capital project, especially because 40 percent of Harvey flood victims didn’t have insurance (because their homes weren’t located in Houston’s supposed flood plain).

The tunnels’ first step will include a feasibility study, since construction would necessitate sending machines 100 to 200 feet underground, according to the Chronicle. The study will be discussed by the Harris County Commissioners Court this week.

The paper reports that funding sources for the tunnels have yet to be solidified, but the district hopes to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Texas.


Seven Ways to Create Safer Streets

A graphic from the speed-reduction subcommittee report (Credit: City of Ann Arbor)

Officials in Ann Arbor, Michigan, have approved plans to move forward with a detailed list of pedestrian safety measures, including establishing Vision Zero funding.

The speed-reduction subcommittee of the city’s Transportation Commission released a set of recommendations last week, MLive reports. The Commission unanimously voted to accept the recommendations, so they’ll be moving to City Council for consideration. Their report recommends:

  • Establishing dedicated Vision Zero funding for safety improvements, including traffic calming measure, public outreach and traffic enforcement.
  • Adopting city policies requiring a “safe system” approach to roadway design and speed limits. Under such an approach, speed limits would be set “according to the likely crash types, the resulting impact forces, and the human body’s ability to withstand those forces,” according to MLive. The approach would anticipate human error in drivers — and not just pedestrians.
  • Increasing police traffic enforcement hours for speed limits and establishing a zero-tolerance policy on speeding.
  • Expanding public outreach and education regarding existing safety policies, like the city’s crosswalk ordinance and five-foot rule for cars passing cyclists and pedestrians.
  • Broadening the city’s current traffic-calming program, in which neighborhoods can request features like speed humps and raised crosswalks.
  • Lobbying for speed changes on roads overseen by the Michigan Department of Transportation.
  • Creating a new Vision Zero Task Force to with create a Vision Zero Action Plan for the city.

Ann Arbor announced that it would join Vision Zero — with a goal of zero traffic-related fatalities by 2025 — in 2015. But according to the report, that move lacked adequate financial backing.

“Currently, a significant barrier to safer streets in Ann Arbor is funding and resources,” it states. “Funding is needed to pay for: enhanced enforcement, capital improvements, programming, staffing and communications. Funding should be separate from and in addition to existing street reconstruction funds.”

The subcommittee had previously considered a citywide 25-mph speed limit, a key piece of other cities’ Vision Zero strategies. But the report does away with that recommendation, citing reasons including traffic volume and patterns, state and federal regulations, current street designs and surrounding land uses.


Florida Cities Fight State Control Over Gun Laws

Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum at the Florida Capitol in 2017. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)

It’s become an all-too familiar pattern: Blue-leaning cities pass a plastic bag ban or soda tax only to be preempted by red-leaning state governments. Florida’s cities-vs.-state fight for gun control, however, is the same story with a twist, and it could hold valuable lessons for other municipalities hoping to challenge their state legislators.

In Florida, the preemption came first. The original law to limit local gun control ordinances passed in 1987; lawmakers (backed by the NRA) gave it sharper teeth in 2011. As it stands now, the state forbids cities and counties from enacting their own gun laws, and officials who craft or enforce local gun legislation face a $5,000 fine and removal from office.

But cities are stepping up to challenge that law. Officials in Coral Springs, Weston, Miami, Coral Gables and, most recently, Tallahassee, have begun crafting ordinances and, in some cases, threatening to sue the state.

Mayor Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee last week asked his colleague to consider a resolution directed toward state and federal bodies “expressing our call for common sense gun reform and express again the argument we attempted to make legally with our disagreement with Florida Statute 790.33,” the Tallahassee Democrat reports.

“We need to work with our sister cities, the League of Cities and anyone else that wants to join us to push legislation next legislative session to remove that preemption because that preemption has got to go,” Tallahassee Commissioner Gil Ziffer, who is also president of the Florida League of Cities, recently told the Tallahassee paper.

And while crafting a resolution may seem like a symbolic gesture at most (especially considering the fact that Gillum is hoping to win the state’s Democratic nomination for governor), there could be power in municipal numbers. The city of Weston plans to sue the state over its preemption law and has invited other cities to join the lawsuit, according to Governing. So far, the cities of Miami Beach, Pinecrest and Miramar have passed resolutions in favor of a lawsuit. And the courts have shown some sympathy for cities that have clashed with the preemption law in the past.

From Governing:

In 2017 … Gillum, defended the city in a lawsuit the state brought over two ordinances banning guns in public parks. Gillum argued that because the city was not enforcing the laws, they were not violating state law.

The court eventually agreed with Gillum but declined to rule on the state law’s constitutionality since no municipal officials in Tallahassee had actually been removed from office. The court hinted, however, that a city official’s removal would raise constitutional questions.

The city-pooling approach mirrors Texas municipalities’ strategy in passing paid sick leave. As Next City recently covered, Austin Mayor Steve Adler has suggested strength in numbers could be key to defending the city’s new policy against the brewing preemptive legislation.

Florida’s recent push for gun control follows the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 students and teachers. In its wake, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed legislation to impose new gun regulations (although not the assault weapons ban that advocates and students had pushed for). He was immediately sued by the NRA.


Paris Mayor Floats Free Transit for All

(Photo by Joe deSousa)

Leaders in Brussels, Seoul and Salt Lake City have all experimented with free transit to curb air pollution on smoggy days. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo wants to take the practice one step further, and offer fareless service year-round. Reuters reports that Hidalgo announced this week that the city will conduct a feasibility study of free citywide transit.

“To improve public transport we should not only make it more extensive, more regular and more comfortable, we must also rethink the fares system,” she said in a statement.

Not surprisingly, she’s facing pushback. Conservative Valerie Pecresse, head of the Ile-de-France suburban region around Paris, has pointed out that ticket sales bring in about 3 billion Euros ($3.7 billion U.S.) a year, according to ABC News. She says if riders don’t pay, taxpayers will have to foot that bill.

Several other European cities do offer completely “free” transit, like Estonian capital Tallinn. As the Guardian has covered, Tallinn discontinued fare on its buses, trains and trolleys in 2013 — but riders have be registered as Tallinn residents. The municipal government collects roughly 1,000 Euros ($1,230.83 U.S.) from each resident’s income taxes annually.

The program has drawn more residents into the city, but depleted the surrounding regions’ tax coffers.

“An additional 25,000 people have registered in the city that previously had a population of 416,000,” according to the Guardian. “This is where the tension lies. The more money for the city of Tallinn, the less there is for the places they leave behind….”

Hidalgo has not said whether her proposal would cover the 2.2 million residents of Paris or all 12 million living in the city and the Ile-de-France. Regardless, as Next City has covered, she’s become famous — and infamous in certain circles — for her outside-the-box strategies in battling climate change. She’s proposed filling the city’s water fountains with sparkling water (to lure Parisians away from bottled water packaged in plastic) and building up dense developments on bridges over the Seine River. In October, she was also part of a multi-city pact to buy only zero-emission buses starting in 2025 and make major portions of Paris fossil-fuel free.


Birmingham Activists Score a Victory for Environmental Justice

Birmingham, Alabama (Photo by Andre Natta)

Birmingham’s history of environmental injustice was on full display at a City Council meeting Tuesday. Citing the need to correct patterns of disenfranchisement and pollution in the city’s black neighborhoods, officials voted to deny a scrap metal processors license to a company hoping to settle in the Acipco-Finey neighborhood.

“It just bothers me that always these types of facilities come to black communities,” District 9 Councilor John Hilliard, who oversees the neighborhoods where the scrap yard would be located, said, according to Birmingham Watch. “I’m for economic development, I believe in jobs and expansion, but not at the expense of my people … . We don’t want it in our community.”

Jordan Industrial Services is the company that had hoped to open a facility in the North Birmingham neighborhood, the paper reports. But a 2012 report by the Houston Chronicle found dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium (or Chrome VI) in the neighborhoods around five metal recycling facilities in the Texas city. “According to those reports, those high levels are the result of cutting and welding metal, which vaporizes metal particles and sends [them] into the air,” the Birmingham Watch states. And the residents who turned out to the meeting did not want another potential health hazard in their backyards.

“We’ve had enough,” one Acipco-Finley resident told the council. “We have too much in our neighborhood that we’ve had to encounter through the years.”

Several years ago, soil tests concluded that many properties in North Birmingham had been contaminated by the many by-products of the area’s industrial industries. The EPA attempted to intervene, but one state representative, Oliver Robinson, pushed back. Last year, he pled guilty to accepting corporate bribes (the vice president of a local coal-producing company was also indicted).

As Next City has covered, so-called “trash inequity” is a problem in most cities. Houston’s landfill distribution was the motivator behind Robert Bullard’s famous book “The Mountains of Houston,” which is often credited with kickstarting the environmental justice movement in the U.S.

As Bullard details in the book, he realized in 1979 that although “Blacks made up just over one-fourth of Houston’s population, five out of five city-owned landfills (100 percent) and six of the eight city-owned incinerators (75 percent) were sited in black neighborhoods.”

“Historically they were placed in the path of least resistance, which was low-income communities of color,” he told Next City in 2015. That created a zoning nightmare for those communities, because officials would then cluster new waste facilities near the old ones, citing proximity and convenience.

“Whenever a proposal for a new facility occurs, this always comes up, whether it be Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis or Los Angeles,” he said. “The policymakers are immediately confronted with: How can we move forward in a way that doesn’t build on past discrimination or injustice? It means trying to come up with a plan that minimizes the impact.”


Pa. City Doesn’t Want Its Financial Independence Back

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (Credit: Pollinator) 

State programs for bankrupt cities don’t always have the best reputation. Michigan voters have been particularly critical of their state’s emergency management program, especially after Flint’s water crisis, which occurred under the oversight of a state official.

“The words, ‘emergency manager,’ are almost too toxic,” a Michigan State University professor told Pew researchers in 2016.

Officials in Pennsylvania’s capital city, however, would beg to differ.

The Pittsburg Post-Gazette reports:

Years after the city nearly went bankrupt and fell under state control, Harrisburg is finally in a good place financially, state and local officials agree.

With balanced books, the commonwealth’s capital thus is primed to exit the state’s program for financially distressed municipalities — commonly known as Act 47.

Only it doesn’t want to, if that means giving up the program’s special taxing power.

“I’m telling you point blank we can’t have a balanced budget without it,” Mayor Eric Papenfuse told the paper.

The city could leave Act 47 this fall, but officials are lobbying the legislature to extend its taxing privileges — an exception recently made for Pittsburgh. Under Act 47, cities can raise taxes beyond the limits normally set by the state. Harrisburg has brought in about $11 million from higher rates on the local services tax on commuters and earned-income taxes on residents, the Post-Gazette reports.

Seventeen other cities throughout Pennsylvania are also in Act 47, and before the law was amended in 2014 to include an exit deadline, some cities simply stayed in the program long-term. One city, Clairton, took advantage of the taxing exception for nearly 30 years.

As Next City has covered, Pennsylvania’s approach to city distress differs somewhat from the method applied in Michigan and other states. Emergency managers tend to be unpopular in cities because they’re both “extremely hands on” and “in and out” of the city, Chicago attorney James Spiotto told Pew for a 2016 survey. The 2014 amendment to Act 47 also included a provision to appoint “recovery coordinators” — outside consultants that advise the city, but don’t completely take over its day-to-day financial operations.

Regardless, the law appears to have created something of a dependency for Harrisburg, where much of the real estate is either owned by the state or tax-exempt, and many of the workers are commuters who use city resources but don’t pay taxes.

“A lot of places will have a hard time, because what they are relying on is the thing they have to give up to get out,” Gordon Mann, director of the Philadelphia-based financial firm Public Financial Management (PFM), told the Post-Gazette. “The question will be how they’ll do once they’re out.”


Exhibit Showcases the Architecture of Urban Latin America

"The City of the Future: Hundred Story City in Neo-American Style" by Francisco Mujica, from "History of the Skyscraper (Paris, 1929)" (Credit: The Getty Research Institute)

The architectural shifts of six Latin American capitals between 1830 and 1930 tell a complex story of post-colonial identity. From the Spanish grid layout — mandated by Carlos V and Felipe II of Span and arranged around a central plaza, cathedral and town hall — to a brand of urban planning that scraped away all vestiges of colonialism with clean, European-style civic spaces, to motifs that both uplifted pre-Hispanic art and playfully subverted “Mission”-style structures, that story is told in the upcoming exhibit “The Metropolis in Latin America, 1830–1930,” opening Monday at the Americas Society in New York.

The exhibit is part of “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA,” an “exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles,” according to the Getty Research Institute, where “The Metropolis in Latin America” was formerly displayed.

The six capitals featured include Buenos Aires, Havana, Lima, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Santiago de Chile. Between 1830 and 1930, those six cities “transformed from provincial seats of power in the Spanish empire to full-fledged republican capitals,” the Architect’s Newspaper reports.

“The cities of Latin America maintained most of their colonial structures until the mid-nineteenth century,” according to the paper. “The gradual adoption of modern architectural repertoires, coupled with massive rural migration to the cities, encouraged the removal of colonial-era vestiges in favor of new civic buildings, burgeoning residential quarters and centers of industrial production.”

With that industrialization came wealth — for a few, at least. As the exhibit’s co-curators Idurre Alonso and Maristella Casciato point out in a detailed Getty article, an urban bourgeoisie emerged, and their disposable funds “propelled the growth of outdoor spaces for leisure such as promenades, public parks, and botanical gardens.” Meanwhile, hoping to incorporate more “wild” landscapes into the cityscape, urban planners “created largescale projects that reshaped nearby natural features such as Rio de Janeiro’s Corcovado Mountain, Santiago de Chile’s Santa Lucía Hill, and Mexico City’s Chapultepec Forest,” Alonso and Casciato write.

(Credit: The Getty Research Institute)

Eventually, planners turned away from Europe and toward their countries’ indigenous histories — and also toward idealized versions of colonial architecture.

“National pavilions designed for the Paris (1889), Panama-California San Diego (1915), and Ibero-America Seville (1929) expositions showcased how Latin American countries called up native architectural idioms in order to foster their identities,” according to Alonso and Casciato’s article.

Meanwhile, the spread of Mission Revival style through Southern California influenced Latin American architects, and stucco facades and curved archways began appearing throughout the Latin American capitals.

(Credit: The Getty Research Institute)

“Through opposing experimental positions, the metropolis in Latin America became a laboratory where scientific planning mingled with a romantic attachment to natural environments,” Alonso and Casciato write.

The exhibit will run until June 30. The full Getty article is available here.


Guided Bike Tour in Seattle Helps Locals Reckon With the City’s Legacy of Redlining

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Like every other U.S. city touched by New Deal housing policies, Seattle’s neighborhoods were once color-coded by supposed credit risk on a scale of green to red. Red areas — areas that were, literally, “redlined” — were considered “hazardous” or “declining” (rather than “desirable”) because they were home to high numbers of black and immigrant residents.

Like so many other forms of structural racism, redlining is often discussed as an ugly leftover of the past, rather than the force that shaped the U.S. housing market as it is today and continues to influence patterns of disinvestment, blight, crime, gun violence, poverty, educational inequity and gentrification. But it’s not often discussed that way by white people.

Cyclist and Seattle Central District resident Merlin Rainwater wants to change that — from her bike. The alternative transportation advocate leads neighborhood “slow rides” to acclimate older women to urban cycling, KUOW reports, and she recently began offering bike tours of the red lines that once segregated Seattle, and continues to be visible in the city’s fabric.

A display at her neighborhood library sparked the idea. It contained photos and documents from Seattle’s notorious open housing battle in the 1950s and ’60s.

“And as I looked at it, I thought, you know, this is information that really ought to be in Laurelhurst. It should be in Broadmoor,” she told the station. “Because black people in the Central District, they know this history. It’s the white folks in the segregated white parts of the city that need to know that there was a struggle for open housing in Seattle.”

Rainwater decided she wanted to bring that history to the mostly white people who accompany her on bike tours.

“Then I came across an article about the historic maps of redlining, the maps that were created by the Federal Housing Authority,” she told the station. “I looked at the map of Seattle online and, you know, a map and a line? That could be a bike ride!”

As Next City has covered, the maps from FHA and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) were intended to help the federal government boost a housing market as a way to recover from the Great Depression. But they were deeply segregationist, and graded each neighborhood on their perceived investment risk, with much lower “grades” going to neighborhoods inhabited by people of color. Rainwater’s ride highlights how those maps shaped the Central District, according to the KUOW — both in the leftovers of federal (and, then, city) disinvestment and, more recently, gentrification.

“White people were the actors that developed and implemented the policies that led to segregation,” she says. “And it’s really inappropriate to, say, segregate those aspects of history that black people suffered under, and label those ‘black history’ as if they weren’t relevant to the rest of us.”


Arizona Takes Soda Taxes Off the Table for Cities

Demonstrators show their support of a tax on sugary beverages outside of City Hall in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, file)

Count another win for state preemption laws, and another loss for cities. Last week, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill barring cities and counties statewide from enacting soda taxes. The legislation, from Republican Representative T.J. Shope of Coolidge, doesn’t actually mention soda — but it does state that all foods and drinks should be taxed equally, Fox 10 reports.

“What this bill says is in the state of Arizona, we are going to treat all food the same. So if you want to raise taxes on sugary items, you are going to have to raise taxes on all other food items at the same time,” Rep. Shope said, according to Fox 10. “Others have [tried] to outright ban sugar taxes and stuff. We didn’t want to take that approach. We didn’t want to come down on cities that may tax foods. Some cities tax food, others don’t.”

But while the bill makes a pretense of simple food equality, it’s obviously targeting soda taxes, according to the Arizona Daily Sun. Tim McCabe of the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance told the House Ways and Means Committee members last month that it wasn’t the government’s role to influence consumer behavior with taxes, and legislators apparently listened closely.

The Food Marketing Alliance is a powerful player in Arizona state politics — and has a history with preemption laws. After the city of Bisbee enacted a plastic bag ban in 2012, the alliance lobbied for legislation to overturn it and ban bag bans throughout the state, according to Governing. In 2015, it was successful. Such bans have also been enacted at the state level in Michigan, Missouri, Idaho and Wisconsin, among others, as Next City has covered.

Voters in Berkeley, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oakland, Boulder and Albany, California, (but not Santa Fe) have successfully passed soda taxes, meanwhile. But Washington — where Seattle also recently passed such a tax — may be next for the state preemption treatment. On Monday, the Associated Press reported that a group backed by the American Beverage Association (including The Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc.) had submitted language for a statewide initiative barring cities and counties from imposing taxes on sugary drinks.


Can Cities Offer Corporate Tax Breaks Without Compromising Inclusivity?

Amazon's Seattle campus (Credit: Amazon)

When Amazon announced its HQ2 RFP last year — asking cities up-front how they would offset the $5 billion investment — officials found themselves trapped in what Brookings calls a “classic prisoner’s dilemma.”

“They know that they would all be better off simply competing on their natural advantages, not by offering incentives,” a new report from the institute theorizes. “But because many cities will use incentives, all feel they must.”

And Amazon is only the tip of the corporate welfare iceberg, Joseph Parilla and Sifan Liu conclude in “Examining the Local Value of Economic Development.” Driven partially by a political climate that rewards legacy-building (i.e., the ribbon-cutting effect) and partially by an economy that’s stagnated for the bottom 50 percent of earners, corporate subsidies have become a big business in U.S. cities, costing the public somewhere between $45 and $90 billion in 2015.

But while most of the academic literature that exists finds that such incentives don’t always create more jobs (particularly jobs targeted at the communities most in need), the Brookings paper takes an aspirational approach. How could incentivizing certain businesses work for cities — even if it doesn’t always work now? Using transactional-level data from four cities over five years (Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City and San Diego), the paper outlines how the public sector can target incentives based on several core principals of so-called “inclusive economic development.”

The four cities are, of course, very different — both in their history (manufacturing shaped the midwestern cities, unlike their southwest counterparts) and their preferred method of incentivizing industry. Salt Lake City officials prefer tax increment financing (TIF) programs; Leaders in San Diego and Cincinnati spring for tax credits; and Indianapolis politicos tend to like a mix of TIFs and abatements.

(Credit: Brookings)

Still, researchers were able to outline four key principals cities could work with to further the end-goal of such incentives, and measure how each municipality aligned with those principals.

The principals include:

  • “Grow from within” by prioritizing firms in advanced industries that drive local comparative advantage and wage gains.
  • “Boost trade” by facilitating export growth and trade with other U.S. and global markets in ways that “deepen regional industry specializations and bring in new income and investment.”
  • “Invest in people and skills” by “incorporating workers’ skill development as a priority for economic development.”
  • “Connect place” by syncing up local communities with regional jobs and housing.

The cities’ alignment with those principals varied. All four invested heavily in export-related industry.

“The export intensity of industries that receive economic development incentives — that is, the share of local output accounted for by goods and services exports — across the four cities is more than twice as high (25 percent) as the economy as a whole (11 percent),” the paper concludes.

But that last principal is decidedly lacking in several of the municipalities.

From the report:

Many cities focus incentives on addressing blight and distress in communities of concentrated poverty. Cincinnati and Salt Lake clearly display this focus, but it is less apparent in Indianapolis and San Diego. The average poverty rate of a neighborhood in which a business or redevelopment receives incentives is nearly 30 percent in Cincinnati and 18 percent in Salt Lake, compared to jurisdiction-wide poverty rates of 18 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

And while the incentivized industries generally paid their workers more, black and Hispanic workers were under-represented in those industries, furthering regional inequality across all four metros.

(Credit: Brookings)

(Credit: Brookings)

One final takeaway from the report, which Next City has also covered: City leaders need to be more transparent about the public funds they’re giving to private companies.

“Localities must commit to making incentives information publicly transparent,” Parilla and Liu said in a statement. “And then rigorously evaluate their impact on firm outcomes to determine what works.”


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