Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

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Vox

February 2019

From the first time you encounter trainer Cory George in the gym, it’s immediately evident why he’s the one demoing the workouts. A 6-foot-3 former football and volleyball player from Grass Valley, California, the muscular 27-year-old looks like a personal trainer created by an algorithm (his unerring form during ab exercises and cardio-heavy warmups betrayed no hint of effort or exhaustion).

His form, in fact, is copied by hundreds of thousands every day, across the globe, most of whom he’s never met. George has become the body behind F45, a rapidly expanding Australian workout class that claims to be the globe’s fastest-growing fitness franchise, boasting 300,000 active members worldwide.

Every gym — from the first location, which opened in 2012 in Sydney, to the Venice, California, location where George teaches — plasters the walls with flat-screen TVs showing recordings of the trainer demonstrating that day’s routine, one of roughly 30 different sets offered by F45. George knows exactly how varied the constantly evolving routines can get; in 2017, he filmed every one of the then-3,800 exercises in F45’s repertoire over a 2.5-month period in an LA warehouse.

A 45-minute, high-speed series of punishing, “functional” exercises that engage multiple muscle groups — hence F45 — the Down Under export currently has 1,300-plus outlets across the globe, with 570 gyms active or planning to open in the US. For comparison, Pure Barre has roughly 460 US locations, and SoulCycle has 88 studios. I’ve attended F45 classes in the Venice studio and saw George’s face and form onscreen, modeling perfect burpees, effortless squats, and nonchalant hammer swings, before I met him in person.

The program feels a bit like a workout designed by a computer. Everything is optimized, from the ever-changing routines — which involve circuit training across a series of stations stocked with barbells, ropes, rowing machines, and more — to the curated hip-hop playlists that shake the room (Saturday classes feature a live DJ). During classes, the screens that catch George in an endless loop count down each and every second of each and every exercise. The constantly changing workout, George believes, motivates members, many of whom socialize over the latest F45 fitness challenge or via meetups outside the gym that George and other instructors organize.

“Nowadays, people lift in big-box gyms to look good,” George says. “It defeats the purpose. You should exercise to feel better.”

Taking advantage of a titanic shift in the fitness world

F45, as founder Rob Deutsch says via email from Sydney, succeeds by offering effective, and in many ways mindless, workout routines. Members are challenged as they exercise together in a team training scenario, but one of the big attractions for the mostly 21- to 35-year-olds who shell out $200 to $250 per month for classes are the preset routines, guidance from trainers, and ruthless efficiency.

“Everyone is time-poor these days, so the efficient nature of a 45-minute workout, where a member can just enter their studio and start, is a real time-saver,” he says.

Many workouts and fitness programs have, to varying degrees, tried to incorporate the personalization, tech, and community aspect of social media into a space long dominated by big-box gyms and crash-and-burn trends. As F45 expands to new cities this year, including Austin and Nashville, as well opening locations within colleges and universities, it’s seeking to be the more friendly, accessible, and tech-accentuated routine for the Fitbit generation. It’s also the latest concept, from CrossFit to SoulCycle, seeking to capitalize on an industry navigating a changing business and cultural landscape.

“Fitness is going through a titanic shift,” says Bryan O’Rourke, an industry veteran and president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council. “The idea of fitness just being brick-and-mortar locations that charge people for [gym] membership isn’t going to be the definition of the market anymore.”

“Think of what’s happening to music; consumers get what they want when they want it,” O’Rourke explains. “More and more, it’s about personalization, community, and convenience: F45 has done a good job of bringing together all these trends.”

The rise of HIIT

If F45 sounds like CrossFit, that’s because both are based on similar research and science, and can be categorized as the same style of workout: high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. As the name and acronym suggest, HIIT consists of a rapid-fire sequence of different exercises, which rotate through different muscle group and shock the body into shape.

CrossFit, which started in 2000, branded itself as a more extreme, exclusive version of HIIT training, offering classes in black, industrial-style gyms nicknamed boxes — critics complained of a cult-like atmosphere and strenuous and injury-prone workouts. F45 tries to sell itself as a more accessible style of communal exercise than CrossFit; not a lifestyle in itself, just an easier way to optimize the one you already have. As Deutsch says, the workouts are about “training smarter, not harder.”

Ryan Roth, the lead industry analyst for IBISWorld, a market research firm, predicts that the personal training segment of the fitness industry, which includes HIIT classes, will expand, due in part to the decreasing time Americans spend at the gym. Despite rising awareness and spending on a fitter lifestyle — one study suggests millennials spend more on fitness than on college tuition — the overall time Americans spend on leisure and sports declined over the past five years by 0.2 percent. It’s a small drop, but one that Roth says is indicative of the need for speed in such a time-sensitive culture.

Americas aren’t just becoming busier; they’re also trying to find connection within fraying social networks. The entire fitness world is trying to instill some feeling of community within their offerings, says Pam Kufahl, editor-in-chief of the fitness industry magazine Club Industry. CrossFit popularized the concept of fostering tight-knit groups that would cheer each other on. Now, boutique studios have tried to match that blend of intensity and teamwork — witness Peloton turning exercise bikes in living rooms into a link to a larger community — while lowering costs.

“CrossFit showed a way to do it cheaply,” says Kufahl. “That’s why you’re seeing these new studios pop up so much: They take less square footage, the rent is cheaper, and you don’t have as many employees. It’s a more efficient use of your money. There may be fewer members, but they’re all paying more money.”

“If I’m spending money at a studio or gym, I want to make sure I’m seeing my results and can track my workout, but if the instructor doesn’t know my name when I walk in, I’m not going to come back,” she says.

The company is also ruthless about efficiency (Deutsch was an equities trader before launching F45). Scripted-to-the-second workouts, with names such as Brooklyn, Abacus, and Wingman, aim to provide a sense of community to more members with more video guidance, just a handful of trainers per class, and lower expenses (labor is the industry’s biggest recurring expenses, per IBIS). No-frills locations without locker rooms make turnover quick, and the gear is relatively inexpensive, largely consisting of ropes, weights, and mats. The most expensive items are basic stationary bikes and rowing machines. The company’s recurring eight-week group fitness challenges, which combine workouts with diet recommendations, highlights this approach; F45 leverages community without adding much in the way of overhead.

My experience with the Venice location, at a modest 1,200 square feet, suggested it works; despite crowded classes (and a low ceiling) that forced you to be very aware of whoever was swinging a hammer next to you, every class covered a lot of ground and always left me exhausted.

Tech and the efficiency scale

Deutsch believes F45 combines elements of Apple and Amazon: the elevated look and style, merchandise offerings, and engaging interaction and experience of Apple, as well as the tech and efficiency focus of Amazon.

F45’s embrace of technology isn’t new for the fitness industry. In 2013, Anytime Fitness created Anytime Health, which enables users to track their fitness progress and compare with other community members. Orangetheory, another HIIT franchise with roughly 1,000 US locations, also uses video screens to remind users of routines and exercises.

What F45 does well is create a seamless experience, says O’Rourke. The best franchises and facilities are the ones that have simplified their technology in a way that makes it very efficient for the user. A club with 2,000 members that offers everything from classes and weights to cardio has a hard time with technological integration.

“While there’s nothing new with F45, it’s a great user experience,” he says. “One of the advantages of being a focused offering is that you can incorporate the technology in a meaningful way.”

Last year, F45 offered nearly 700 new exercises, as well as four new pieces of equipment, all sent to 1,300 studios around the world. O’Rourke says this year, they plan to add stretch-based sessions, as well as a similar number of new moves. He also hinted at a new form of gamification within F45 workouts but wouldn’t provide more details.

Franchises riding economic trends

Analysts believe F45 and its franchise model have room to grow, in terms of both expanding the workout routines and community engagement and making a bigger impact on the fitness landscape. IBISWorld’s Roth says there’s growing demand for franchise fitness locations, which allow a local owner to invest and open a business, as opposed to starting from scratch, capitalizing on industry growth and low interest rates.

It’s no accident the Aussie chain, which has recently made big inroads in Canada and the UK, chose red, white, and blue for its logo and gym decor (“We actually made it look Americanized because we always wanted to take it to the US,” Deutsch said in an interview). The company, and franchises, seeks to grab a larger portion of the US gym market. Gyms, fitness clubs, and fitness franchises comprise a $37.1 billion chunk of the United States health and wellness industry, according to IBISWorld research, with nearly 61 million Americans paying for membership.

Pete McCall, host of the All About Fitness podcast, compares the growth of these franchises to Howard Schultz’s strategy with Starbucks; spend on new locations, instead of advertising, and explosive growth becomes the story.

He sees reasons to be hesitant, with recent signals of a wider economic downturn hinting at a recession. But McCall has no doubt that F45, and studios and programs like it, will increasingly shape the fitness landscape.

“HIIT is going to be here for a while,” says McCall. “It’s effective, and there’s explosive growth. Adam Smith and Charles Darwin would have liked the fitness industry. It really does favor survival of the fittest.”

Curbed

November 2017

Small businesses and streetscapes, boulevards and bodegas: These aren’t the typical aspirations of up-and-coming architecture firms. But the self-described “scrappy Angelenos” at the helm of LA-Más, a nonprofit architecture and policy practice, see things differently.

The name alone—which translates to “Los Angeles more,” as in, amplify the characteristics, personalities, and businesses at the heart of this sprawling city—says it all. For LA-Más, what makes Los Angeles great isn’t big budget mega-projects and neighborhood makeovers, it’s what’s organically happening on the sidewalk.

A shaded seating and play area installed at the Lacy Street neighborhood park, part of the Go Ave 26 streetscaping project. 

“Beautification is a Band-Aid approach,” says architect and co-executive director Elizabeth Timme. “This city faces serious issues. Many people can’t afford to stay here. Pretty things aren’t good enough. We’re here to do something for those who don’t have a voice and deserve more.”

That work begins at a smaller scale, at home and at work. Since LA-Más opened its studio in the northeast Frogtown neighborhood in 2014, its has measured success one block—or small business—at a time, working on streetscaping, signage, and design for entrepreneurs and public projects, sometimes with four-figure budgets that would barely purchase a used car.

But LA-Más believes that working on a micro-scale can create sustainable change.

“It’s great to work with small-business owners because they are putting their heart and soul into delivering something the community needs,” says Helen Leung, a planner, policy wonk, and co-executive director of the studio. “They’ve been doing that work for decades. To be able to add something that reflects their investment is an incredible gesture.”

Timme and Leung’s diverse backgrounds—designing places, and creating the policies that do (or don’t) make those places possible—are at the heart of LA-Más’s street-level approach. Architecture thrives when cities provide a framework for experimentation and community involvement; regulations and rules need design to take shape—and make an impact—at street level. A holistic vision, ones that pushes back against bureaucracy and restrictive rules, makes all the difference.

Simple streetscaping, part of the Go Ave 26 Project near the Lincoln/Cypress Station on the Metro Gold Line, created a more pedestrian friendly environment. 

“We can all be NIMBYs if we don’t get to shape growth,” says Leung. “It’s not that residents of the communities we work in don’t want anything big done. It’s that they want it to benefit the people who are already here.”

The studio now numbers about a dozen, and includes architects, planners, fabricators, and part-time research fellows. They work out of a rehabbed building near the Los Angeles River—a former halfway house and weed dispensary that once served as a recording studio for James Brown—which now functions as an office and woodshop.

Timme, a third-generation architect, moved to LA from Houston in 1994. During her time as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design—and, later, during formative experiences working in Rwanda and Liberia on hospital projects as a development officer for MASS Design Group—Timme reveled in the possibilities of low-budget projects unconstrained by onerous rules.

Leung is a second-generation Chinese-American who grew up in the William Mead Homes, a public housing project near LA’s Chinatown, as well as Frogtown, and has seen gentrification’s impact firsthand. She worked in then-councilmember, now-mayor Eric Garcetti’s office for community projects, focusing on neighborhood outreach. During a successful effort to open a community garden in Hollywood, she began to appreciate the numerous players and people involved in a seemingly straightforward effort, and how complex issues like affordability and accessibility can’t be solved with pretty park space alone.

During the Watts Community Studio project, LA-Más helped redesign signage for small businesses on Wilmington Avenue in Watts. 

Many of LA-Más’s early projects focused on signage and street redesign in underserved neighborhoods. During a project in Watts, LA-Más interviewed store owners along a central artery in the area, Wilmington Avenue, to create engaging new hand-painted marquees.

Faded block lettering and plastic banners became eye-popping images of pinatas, bike chains, and deli meat. A bodega in MacArthur Park beamed with an interior and exterior paint job, highlighting the fruits and vegetables available through the citywide Healthy Neighborhood Market program. A flashy redesign of the menu and facade at El Atacor #8, a Mexican restaurant in Montebello, that helped emphasize the restaurant’s healthy options made the owner literallycry with joy; finally, a facade that showcased his values.

Their efforts went beyond skin-deep cosmetic change: LA-Más worked with council members and local officials in Watts to integrate design with impactful business assistance. The Wilmington Avenue project helped them realize that businesses also need to redesign their websites, navigate the permitting process for new signage, and feel empowered to demand more attention. Accordingly, many of the group’s subsequent projects include education and training components—so community members, not the firm, become the hubs of knowledge.

For Hollywood Pop, LA-Más installed custom-built cartoon-like structures at an empty lot at Selma and Ivar avenues. 

“We want to combine design expertise with common sense,” says Timme, “to give people the ability to [claim] more power. This is where we get into issues of displacement. Small business owners aren’t just competing with Amazon and big -box stores. They need to have a voice to talk to councilmembers.”

The same approach, marrying policy changes and proactive, pedestrian-friendly design, has informed their public realm projects like art walks in Frogtown and sidewalk redesigns on Reseda Boulevard that added furniture, new awnings, and repainted sidewalks to illuminate a commercial strip.

The recently completed Go Ave 26 streetscape project, which remade a desolate stretch of sidewalks near the Lincoln/Cypress Station on the Metro Gold Line, added wayfinding and safety features to help improve access, navigation, and pedestrian safety. This low-cost effort to take back the environment for pedestrians took policy and political muscle, since numerous agencies and local groups, like Caltrans, needed to be brought on board.

This redesign of a family-owned bodega in MacArthur Park drew attention to healthy food options, part of a larger effort to highlight healthier diets in underserved neighborhoods. 

LA-Más continues to seek out knotty intersections of policy and the built environment where they can make a difference. Currently, the firm is focused on Welcome to Western, an effort to improve public space on a stretch of Western Avenue between Melrose and 3rd Streets, working with an array of Korean- and Latino-owned businesses and community members. They’ve also been pushing for local legislation that would allow for accessory dwelling units, backyard additions they believe can help existing homeowners expand households without having to move, or make more money renting out part of their property.

“Growing up in LA, we’ve heard a lot of promises for the city,” says Timme. “We’re pragmatic idealists, and we want to see a future for LA that’s inclusive and progressive. But we’re not interested in any bullshit.”

Curbed

December 2019

Enrique Jaime moved to Bloomington, California, in 2008 seeking something different. The 75-year-old retiree was sick of the traffic and pollution that came with living in Lynwood, near the ports, freeways, and refineries of Long Beach, and decided to move with his wife, Carmen, 64, to this more peaceful and rural area in San Bernardino County, about 50 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

“We wanted to enjoy a better life, with no traffic hassles,” he said.

Everything was good until the warehouses came. In the last decade, as the rapid growth of e-commerce has created a seemingly insatiable demand for logistics facilities, this portion of Southern California has become one of the nation’s largest hubs for warehouses. Even though it measures just 6 square miles, Bloomington already has four large warehouses within its boundaries, and plans were approved in 2017 to build a 680,000 square-foot facility 260 feet from Walter Zimmerman Elementary School.

Last September, the county approved construction of the Slover Distribution Center, a 334,000-square-foot facility set on 17 acres of re-zoned residential land at the corner of Slover and Laurel avenues, 550 feet from a high school and 50 feet from the property line of nearby homes, including the Jaimes’. “With this particular warehouse,” Jaime says, “our health will be diminished because of the diesel fumes.”

“There’s no bigger hotbed for this issue than the Inland Empire area of Los Angeles, which has seen a massive proliferation of warehouses,” says Adrian Martinez, a staff attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm. “There’s an appetite for more and more warehouses, taking more and more cargo. It’s under the guise of adding jobs, but if you look under the hood, it’s exacting a big toll on communities, and changing the landscape of the area.”

On October 26, 2018, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors on behalf of the local Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, alleging that the review process for the Slover project, specifically the 292-page environmental impact report, doesn’t meet the standard of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and didn’t properly factor in air pollution and traffic impacts. On December 2, 2019, Cyber Monday, environmental groups and residents will stage a large protest at an Amazon facility meant to push the company, rumored owner of a new $200 million air cargo logistics center at the nearby San Bernardino International Airport, to sign a legally enforceable Community Benefits Agreement that will help reduce pollution.

The lawsuit—which was settled earlier this year, without being able to stop construction of the Slover facility—and the cargo center protest highlight how, in a retail economy increasingly dictated by e-commerce and home delivery, the downsides can often be out of sight, and out of mind. The quickening pace of warehouse development—an additional 16.8 million square feet of warehouse space broke ground nationally during the third quarter of 2019, according to Cushman & Wakefield—and increased truck traffic, is often concentrated in smaller, rural areas, especially those near large metro areas.

“This will be one of those things, part of the shifting landscape of American consumerism,” says Martinez. “People often don’t think about, how does this package from Amazon, or rug from Target, get here. All along the way, there’s places where toxic pollution is essentially poisoning communities. There’s a growing frustration that this industry isn’t doing enough to clean up its act.”

Just like the Bloomington Industrial Facility, seen here, the Slover Distribution Center will be close to homes and schools. 

How the warehouse boom is impacting rural communities

According to San Bernardino county’s public information officer, David Wert, logistics activity is a big factor in the county’s recent job growth. In Southern California, nearly all the fulfillment centers serving the e-commerce industry are in San Bernardino, he says. in 2017, the county’s logistics centers added 12,000 new jobs, a steep increase from the 4,500 added the year before, with a median pay of $48,000. The county has added roughly 84,000 jobs in the warehouse and logistics industry in the last decade, reshaping the local job market. Real estate brokerage CBRE said land costs in the county rose 35 percent in 2018 due to high demand.

The developer behind the Slover project, JM Realty, told the San Bernardino Sun that the project will generate $6 million in general fund revenue for the county by 2029 and create 290 temporary and permanent jobs.

Wert also says these new projects bring much-needed infrastructure upgrades to an unincorporated area with few sidewalks aging streets, and no sewer system. Every project is responsible for street improvements, landscaping, as well as intersection improvements and traffic control improvements.

According to Anthony Victoria-Midence, communications director for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), the local group that was party to the Slover lawsuit, that’s not enough.

“This is not pioneer development, this is polluting development,” he says. “The pollution outweighs the economic development. We don’t think it’ll provide any benefit. It may bring a couple new sidewalks or pave a couple new roads, but it won’t provide any real solution, it’ll provide more issues.”

Opponents of these warehouses point to the dangers of diesel pollution from a constant stream of trucks coming to and from these large facilities. Health studies have shown that children who live near heavy traffic, and are exposed to particulate pollution from heavy trucks and diesel engines, develop higher incidences of health problems such as asthma. Some physicians have gone so far as to call areas near distribution centers and highways “diesel death zones.” The Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Slover Project, which will have 162 truck docks, predicted the distribution center would add more than 1,000 trips per day to and from the busy I-10 and I-60 corridors. Victoria-Midence’s groups has gone so far as to ask for pollution caps for facilities and the electrification of delivery vehicles.

The Inland Empire is far from alone in feeling the effects of this industry’s rapid expansion. In Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, and Miami, the number of warehouses has grown by 20 percent since 2003. Due to their size and cost, there’s great economic incentive to locate them in less desirable, more inexpensive, suburban or rural areas. According to a study of warehouse locations in the greater Los Angeles area by Quan Yuan for the Union of Concerned Scientists, “low-income and medium-income minority neighborhoods contain a vast majority of warehouses and distribution centers.” A Brookings Institution report found that despite recent growth in the region, “a series of economic booms and busts have left the region with more residents but fewer good jobs.”

Bloomington has been hit particularly hard by the warehouse boom, according to Victoria-Midence. Warehouses have sprouted up in nearby Rialto and Fontana, serving companies such as Amazon, Target, and Walmart, which bring in increased truck traffic. Between San Bernardino and nearby Riverside County, Amazon has 14 large facilities in the region—the most of any metropolitan area in the U.S. In a region with scattered farmland and horses running through fields, these large warehouses are taking root close to schools and residences.

These areas have some of the worst air pollution in the state, so increased road usage, as well as idling diesel engines at warehouse facilities, contributes to an already-serious problem.

Bloomington residents who are against the warehouses—a 2017 survey by local economic development group IE2030 found that 75 percent of residents don’t want warehouses near homes—also argue they aren’t being fairly represented. Since the town is located in an unincorporated part of the county, which lacks a mayor or city council, land-use decisions are made by the County Board of Supervisors.

The region’s state representatives, Senator Connie Leyva and Assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes, agree, writing in a op-ed in the Inland Empire Community News that “the approval of the proposed warehouse in Bloomington by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors will further erode our quality of life and have serious health impacts on the hardworking community that will be most directly impacted by this project.” Local school board member Abigail Medina wrote an op-ed last week that “It is time for us to demand better for our schools, our children, and our community.”

“The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors acted with inconceivable neglect by approving a warehouse project that fails to consider the health and safety of Bloomington families,” Ericka Flores, senior organizer at CCAEJ, said in a statement. “Land use decisions should be made to benefit working class communities, not harm them.”

Bloomington residents protesting outside the San Bernardino County Government Center in February 2018. 

The side effects of e-commerce

The Slover facility represents just one project in the region’s continuing logistics boom. UPSstarted operating five cargo flights a week out of San Bernardino International Airport (two package handlers were killed in a tragic accident at the facility last week), and Ontario International Airport will allow service from Frontier and international carrier China Airlines, developments expected to fuel future growth. The forthcoming Eastgate Air Cargo Logistic Center and will add at least 24 around-the-clock air cargo flights and 7,516 vehicle trips daily, including 500 daily truck trips, according to estimates from CCAEJ.

A coalition of community groups, under the banner of San Bernardino Airport Communities, are asking for, among other things, soundproofing, air filters and double-paned windows for schools and residents, zero-emission delivery trucks, and limits on truck idling to reduce pollution.

According to Victoria-Midence, this isn’t just a Bloomington or San Bernardino issue. Areas such as Fresno have also seen rapid growth in logistics and warehouse facilities.

“We’re not pushing back against logistic workers and those involved in the industry, because it does provide a lot of jobs in our community,” he says. “At the same time, a lot of decisions have been made that aren’t responsible, the jobs aren’t as stable as promised, and the community hasn’t been consulted.”

When asked about the traffic impact of the warehouses last fall, Wert said the county would normally order order traffic studies on a project-by-project basis, so they’d have information on what would be needed to mitigate impacts, such as wider streets, altered traffic signals, and new freeway interchanges. But the county was currently in the midst of a massive update to the general plan, and is currently reviewing the entire road networks, warehouses and all.

“Short answer: We don’t have data that measures that, but we’re working on it,” he wrote.

Victoria-Midence says that the Jaimes aren’t alone; a number of Bloomington residents moved there from the LA area in search of a quieter lifestyle. The Jaimes specifically asked about the big, empty lot next to their home when they purchased their current house, the future site of the Slover project, and were told a home would be built there in the future.

Carmen has found that the traffic and pollution irritates her, and she has trouble breathing. Now the Jaimes are considering moving.

“When we lived in Lynwood, the traffic from trucks and trains and refineries had a huge affect on my respiratory health,” she said through a translator. “Once we moved to Bloomington, I was able to live and breathe better, and the environment is more peaceful and nice. That’s why I’m fighting hard against the warehouses in the community. It’s coming to the point where I’m going to have to choose to live in an area with cleaner air, or breathe in this toxicity.”

Curbed

August 2019

Like many American cities, Houston is encircled by rings of highways—nine major radial freeways, three ring freeways, and a 180-mile fourth outer ring on the way.

But Houston isn’t just encircled by roads, it’s symbolically, and literally, being choked by cars. It’s consistently ranked as a top city for traffic congestion, ninth-worst for ozone pollution according to the American Lung Association, and a tragic nexus for deaths from car crashes. The annual death toll, according to the Houston Chronicle, is equivalent to “three fully-loaded 737s crashing each year at Houston’s airports, killing all aboard.”

According to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the solution is more roads, specifically, a multiyear, multibillion dollar project to widen and expand the city’s highway infrastructure in an attempt to ease persistent bottlenecksthat clog downtown traffic.

This isn’t a small upgrade: in the name of accelerating commutes, the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP) will widen and rebuild nearly 25 miles of highways in the city’s downtown, expanding some to be as wide as the length of two football fields. In addition to years of construction, the “Texas-sized” expansion would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 homes, 1,067 multifamily units, and 331 businesses that account for just under 25,000 employees, impacting mostly people of color in low-income neighborhoods.

It would add more impermeable concrete and asphalt infrastructure, plus future maintenance costs, to a city that is still recovering from some of the worst floods in recent memory. Resilience is a serious concern post-Harvey, and as flood maps are updated as flood risks evolve, the addition of concrete to the landscape could make the next storm’s impact worse. Houstonians still recall how highways became channels of water that cut off neighborhoods from aid during the worst of the flooding.

To critics, the I-45 project, named after the main highway that will be impacted, is an urban renewal reboot, a modern version of the freeway expansion projects that wrecked neighborhoods and divided cities in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Why would more urban highways and lanes of traffic—especially at a time when many cities are actively removing or capping their highways—be a foregone conclusion in any effort to mitigate Houston’s serious congestion problem?

Why a “highway boondoggle” is business as usual

Transit and community activists have painted the project as a symbol of all that’s wrong with transportation planning, and a sign of how focusing on cars instead of more efficient, affordable ways to move residents across the Houston area, will cost the city in terms of air pollution, congestion, affordability, and even resiliency.

The Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, a nationwide nonprofit declared the project one of its annual “highway boondoggles,” projects that define needless and wasteful spending. This highway project will not only not solve the problems it claims to solve, the group claims. Additionally, since it doesn’t includeright-of-way costs (paying property owners for the right to travel through or above their land), the $7 billion price tag is simply a best-case scenario.

Houston recently became a poster child for what’s called induced demand—a transportation planner term that basically means if you add more roads, cars will fill them. The $2.2 billion widening of the Katy Freeway, making it one of the biggest in the world, ended up increasing average commute times for roughly 85 percent of drivers who used the 23-lane road.

“It’s ludicrous to me that with such a perfect case of induced demand sitting right in front of them, they’d come back to the same idea and think that would work better,” says Bay Scoggin, a member of Texas PIRG.

Recently, however, the project received a major vote of confidence. On July 26, the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s (H-GAC) Transportation Policy Council (TPC) approved a $100 million down payment to begin to rebuild Segment 2 of I-45, which runs from I-10 to North Loop 610. Despite this green light for redevelopment, community groups still believe they can push back against the plan and make needed changes to the infrastructure change, and make their voices heard at community meetings across Houston this summer.

“The community needs to know this isn’t going to improve Houston’s transportation, it is going to make the air worse, and it is going to displace families,” says Scoggin.

Houston highway interchanges. 

Putting cars first

A big reason for the I-45 expansion is the philosophy behind TxDOT. The agency didn’t answer Curbed’s questions about the project, but has released a wealth of information and held numerous public meetings throughout the project’s long life, which dates back to 2002.

The agency has underscored that the project came about after an unprecedented amount of public engagement and meetings, including coordinating with local governments and transit agencies since the early 2000s.

It’s part and parcel of how TxDOT views transit in Texas. Agency studies suggest that 94 percent of Texans use a car as their predominant mode of transportation. Therefore, addressing all forms of road congestion, via the anti-congestion Clear Lanes Initiative, is the priority. If I-45, one of the 15 most congested highways in the state now, needs relief—average Daily Traffic (ADT) volumes are projected to increase along this already heavily traveled corridor by up to 30 percent by 2040, and the city’s population will double by 2050—why not build more lanes? The I-45 project also seeks to address safety concerns by straightening out some sections of roadway, and allow for more bike and pedestrian connections around the highways.

It’s the transit version of if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When the incentives are geared toward building roads, that’s where the money tends to go, according to Leah Binkovitz, the senior editor at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. In addition, many local politicians don’t want to lose their opportunity to get funding to tackle the highway issue. As TxDOT moves ahead with its larger vision for regional transportation, Houston can’t risk losing billions, even if it’s billions with strings attached.

“We have to vote on it now so we don’t lose our place in line for TxDOT dollars,” says Binkovitz. “What would we do without these dollars? That kind of imagination just isn’t there.”

Sylvester Turner@SylvesterTurner

As our population grows, so does the time spent in traffic. It’s simple: we can’t build a city for the future if we don’t start transforming how our city moves. I’m hopeful that we can get it done and provide more public transportation for Houston. https://usa.streetsblog.org/2019/06/05/houston-has-a-rail-solution-to-traffic/ …Houston Has a Rail Solution to TrafficHouston, we have a solution: Rail.usa.streetsblog.org3787:30 PM – Jun 13, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy110 people are talking about this

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who after entering office gave a 2016 speech where he called for a paradigm shift away from highway expansion, says that he supports going forward with the proposal. He has directed the city’s Planning Department to “elevate community concerns,” and recommend ways to improve the project: “It is TxDOT’s responsibility to design a project with positive impacts for the community, the City of Houston, and the greater region,” he recently wrote to the regional planning council. “We will, without hesitation, not support the project if these items are not accomplished.”

TxDOT says the project does include pedestrian and cyclist-friendly aspects, and points to a proposal to potentially cap part of I-45, creating a new neighborhood greenspace. But Binkovitz say that without including funding for the park in the budget, it’s not clear whether this will be built.

“It’s still a park between lots of fast-moving lanes of traffic,” she says.

What’s perhaps most frustrating to transit advocates is that so much money will be spent without a significant transit component, even as mass transit in the famously sprawl-centric region has seen some big recent victories. A 2015 bus realignment won plaudits nationwide for its effectiveness, and Metro Houston will vote on its plan for future expansion later this year.

For example, the project will add new lanes on I-45 includes new high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in the middle of the highway. TxDOT, which has been a huge proponent of HOVs as a cheap way to cut down solo car trips, says the entire project is about multimodal solutions: “It is NOT based on a debate whether Houston needs more highways or transit or cars & buses over bike and pedestrian facilities. Houston needs it all,” writes Quincy D. Allen, TxDOT Houston District Engineer.Others look at lanes that could have potentially been used for a bus rapid transit system or even a rail line, and instead, see a project that locks in more highways, more emissions, and if history is any indication, even more congestion.

“These high-occupancy vehicle lanes are being sold as commuter rail on two wheels,” Oni Blair, executive director of Link Houston, a regional transit advocacy group, says of the new high-capacity lanes. “But a highway does not equal transit.”

How opponents plan to make I-45 better

A coalition of community groups formed the Make I-45 Better Coalition and plans to continue to push to change the project. They see a few major issues with TxDOT’s current plans, in addition to relocation and displacement.

TxDOT’s own Draft Environmental Impact Study says the highway expansion “would cause disproportionately high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” A Health Impact Assessment by Air Alliance Houston found that the expansion would bring at least 26 existing school and daycare campuses within 500 feet of the highway, “a distance that research has associated with increased risks of asthma, impaired lung development, and childhood leukemia.” The concentration of benzene, a carcinogen, would rise 175 percent for some of the impacted schools.

This plan will also lock the region, and more residents, in a car-centric future, Blair believes, which will exacerbate the housing crisis. Affordable units are increasing located far from jobs, and living in those areas, without public transit options to reach work, puts extra strain on low-income Houstonians. The AAA estimates it costs $8,000 a year on average to own and operate a car; for someone making $30,000 a year, that’s a significant investment.

“The challenge with investing in highways is that it requires a vehicle to utilize them,” says Blair. “We could be potentially making an investment in affordable things like transit to enable a better quality of life.”

Advocates plan to continue to challenge city government. Since the mayor has ordered regional transportation groups to come up with their own plans for the project and submit recommendations, it’s not clear what happens next if those recommendations conflict with TxDOT’s blueprint, which will be finalized by 2020.

This project represents a significant investment in Houston’s transportation future, as well as how it thinks about issues like flood resilience and climate change. The city’s leaders may talk about multimodal transportation, resilience, and cutting climate emissions. But it’s budgets and where resources are allocated that tell the full story

“We’re becoming more urban, and this is a good indicator of whether or not we’re changing how decisions get made, and the types of decisions we’re making,” says Binkovitz. “We’ve talked about flooding, worsening storms, climate change, and resilience every day since Harvey. But what does it mean if we’re making decisions like this?”

Curbed

December 2017

Dallas is a booming city within a booming region. The epicenter of the Metroplex—a constellation of cities, including Fort Worth, that saw its population grow 35 percent between 2000 and 2014 and added 717,000 jobs—Dallas, and its surrounding cities and suburbs, is swelling with new arrivals from coastal cities and other countries. The region is constantly evolving and reinventing itself.


But Dallas is also, as Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster describes it, a “Paradox City.” A survey conducted by the Congress for the New Urbanism found that 68 percent of Dallas residents want to live in walkable neighborhoods with clusters of stores and other amenities reachable by foot—but only 4 percent of the metro area’s geography qualifies.

This is a car-centric city, with 11-story interchange ramps, the infamous Mixmaster exchange, and the Texas Doughnut, the name given to a common housing development that’s basically a multistory parking garage wrapped in apartments. Dallas is also a mercantile city on a large scale, shaped by big-name developers such as Trammell Crow and run by the business class, “the headquarters of corporate headquarters,” Lamster says. How quickly can a Metroplex built to be big embrace small-scale, incremental urban development?

“Dallas is especially confusing and contradictory,” Lamster says. “We’re making efforts to change it, but it’s hard to turn around an ocean liner.”


Outsiders taking stock of Dallas focus on stereotypes and size—the city’s tourism slogan is “Dallas Big”—and easy symbolism like the gargantuan new Cowboys stadium. The city alone takes up 340 square miles. But they miss the ways Dallas has come to reflect the rest of the country, via an influx of immigrants, growth in families (it has had the highest growth in its child population of major U.S. cities), and the increasing numbers of its Hispanic population, part of growing diversity in the Metroplex. An amalgam of cities and metros connected by ribbons of roads, the Dallas metro area has a profile akin to Los Angeles, without the movie stars and sky-high real estate prices. (An average home here costs just$265,000.) The middle-class, family-friendly “American Dream” is alive and well here relative to other cities.

“It doesn’t hurt to have an economy that’s booming and a lot of land to develop,” says urbanist Joel Kotkin. “It allows Dallas to innovate and create a variety of housing that people in their 20s and 30s actually want. Compare that to California. You have people living with roommates at 35 who just turn and leave. Product just isn’t there at an affordable price.”

Another surprise to those who think of the city as spreading ever outward are the pockets of increasing housing density.

“People who don’t follow these things closely don’t see what’s happening,” says Rik Adamski, principal of local planning and design firm Ash + Lime. “It’s an exciting time to be in Dallas.”

He counts off numerous places where development is different. New high-rises and hotelsare helping the booming Design District go vertical. Places like Uptown are becoming rivals to downtown. And there are plenty of suburban examples as well. Draw a 50-mile radius from Dallas, and you’ll hit 83 downtowns, many of which, like Garland, are starting to recognize their potential.

Dallas will build the second-most apartment units of any major city this year, 24,000, just behind New York’s 27,000. Paradox City is changing. But how fast, and for how many?

“There’s not a silver bullet that can get you better neighborhoods overnight,” Adamski says. “It’s about getting a lot of the little things right.”


Incremental isn’t in Dallas’s DNA. Because it’s set on flat plains in North Texas, no mountains or waterways block the city and region’s sprawl, and for decades, it favored low-slung, single-family development. Caught up in the same highway-first urban renewal fever as the rest of the country, the Dallas-Fort Worth area was christened the Metroplex in the ’70s, after the federal government defined the region by building a single airport for the spread-out area. Since then, the growing airport, lax regulations, and corporate relocations have helped the city bloom.

“Dallas is always chasing the chance to be a modern, cosmopolitan city, and not to be thought of as a small country town,” says Jason Roberts, a local urbanist. “We tore down our building stock and pushed modernity. There’s always been a desire to be seen as a player and force on the world stage, along with a lack of self-awareness.”

Downtown symbolized this type—or lack—of urbanism. Candy Evans, a real estate writer who runs a local site called CandysDirt.com, recalls that when she moved to Dallas in the early ’80s to work at a local TV station, she was amazed at how the city rolled up its sidewalks at night. Everyone got in their cars, hit the highways, and went home to single-family residences throughout the Metroplex. Even during the day, there wasn’t much there there; writer Norman Mailer once described the city’s skyline as “a collection of Kleenex boxes standing on end.”

“Dallas evolved at the whim of developers—just buy land and plop a building down here and there,” she says. “They got whatever they could wrestle out of the city. Downtown struggles with that.”

Attempts at remedying the sprawl have had mixed results. DART, the regional rapid-transit and light-rail system that started construction in the ’80s, famously boasts that it has the most miles of rail, 93, of any comparable agency in the country. But, spread out over the 13 cities that contribute funds for DART, it’s a mixed bag, with stations far from housing, low ridership, and holes in the service map where municipalities have refused to participate.

“Transit is just miniscule in this city,” says Kotkin.

The overwhelming architectural response to the city’s current growth spurt, according to Lamster, is “terrible, five-story brick-and-stucco beige things.” They’re not unique to Dallas—most cities have no shortage of similarly uninspired structures—but in a flat, spread-out city, where there’s so little connectivity and walkability, they stand out, and not in a good way.

“The good news is that more of these are going up, and two standing next to each other look better than one,” Lamster says.

While many developers have continued these bad habits—local developers can get “moderately rich” with mediocrity and low expectations—a counter-current has begun to slowly reshape parts of Dallas. A wave of urbanists and more socially conscious developers have, over the last few decades, helped bring a small-bore, nuts-and-bolts approach to designing the city. One of the places this started was the former warehouse district of Deep Ellum.


Established at the end of the 19th century, Deep Ellum, a warren of warehouses and music clubs, emerged as a commercial district for immigrants and African Americans. The neighborhood was the site of a Model T factory, hosted blues and jazz clubs for decades, but the I-45 highway, finished in 1973, cut it off from downtown. White flight and suburban expansion soon emptied it out, and artists and musicians took over in the early ’80s, turning it into a nightlife and gallery district.

Deep Ellum neighborhood.

Dallas has a long history of destroying its history, but entrepreneur Brandon Castillo saw promise in the brick boxes of Deep Ellum, one of the few places in the Metroplex that held onto its stock of old buildings, classic signage, and tree-lined sidewalks. In 2010, he opened the Deep Ellum Outdoor Market, a showcase for local makers and businesses, to give the neighborhood more activity than bars and clubs.

“When I opened the market at 8 a.m., there was nobody on the streets,” he says. “I’d pretty much be the only person out other than wedding photographers doing engagement photos. They intrinsically knew it was just a cool place, but nobody else was there.”

Seven years later, others have followed Castillo’s lead. New businesses are flourishing; multifamily projects, such as the Case Building and the $250 million multi-use project the Epic, are under construction; and one of the neighborhood’s largest landlords, 42 Real Estate, plans a pedestrian-friendly makeover with new public plazas. A proposal to tear down the adjacent I-345 would be a developer’s dream. Touted in tour guides and popular with young renters, it’s become a walkable, desirable place to live and work—a towering, $25 million, 7-story mixed-use project is about to break ground—and an inspiration for other developers and neighborhood advocates. But as far as Castillo is concerned, real repetition is rare.

Stores in Deep Ellum.

“Much of what’s going on now is ugly concrete slabs, like Soviet apartment buildings,” he says. “Just because you market them as live-work-play doesn’t mean you’re creating the street life that Jane Jacobs would appreciate.”

For Castillo, translating the desire for more Deep Ellums into a true development strategy means starting small.

That’s Roberts’s approach. Roberts, founder of tactical urbanism non-profit the Better Block, is most famous for helping spur more street-level development in his neighborhood of Oak Cliff in 2010, including painting DIY bike lanes and pushing for walkable streets and a trolley line under the rubric of the Oak Cliff Transit Authority. Now, when walking (or riding) down Zang Boulevard, Roberts says the impact is immediately apparent. New businesses have opened and cranes swing overhead, helping assemble apartment buildings.

While Roberts’s block has taken shape, and he’s seeing dense, walkable, mixed-use development happening, it’s too slow to meet the need and demand (others have said the same about the streetcar line, which cost $50 million for a rail line that covers the equivalent of four bus stations). His work has helped inspire the city and its Complete Streets Manual, which has embarked on a number of trial projects in an effort to create more sustainable, healthy, and walkable transit options.

Other big U.S. cities have it easier. “New York and San Francisco have great bones,” Roberts says. “But in Dallas, we have to fix the bones, too.”


Monte Anderson, who run Options Real Estate, says he’s simply a “South Dallas guy with a 10th grade education doing it out of desperation.” A former motocross racer, he got into construction and eventually real estate when he couldn’t get financing for a motorcycle store he wanted to open. But for many urbanists in the city, including Castillo, Roberts, and Adamski, he’s a forward-thinking folk hero.

Tyler Station, coworking village.

Instead of gentrification, Anderson believes in what he calls “gentlefication,” or creating affordable projects that offer local entrepreneurs and business owners the chance to build capital and succeed. In a city known for developments with million-dollar swimming pools and entertainment districts, his portfolio stands out.

At Tyler Station, a transit-oriented development at the Tyler/Vernon DART stop in Oak Cliff, he gutted the old Dixie Wax Paper Company factory to create what he calls a coworking village. Inside are dozens of community-based businesses, from yoga studios and wedding planners to a brewery, with cages separating offices instead of walls. Anderson once turned a Kmart into a tortilla factory, and planned to add trailers to mall parking lots to create a denser, more active commercial space.

“We’re way too wasteful when we tear down buildings,” Anderson says. “And we can’t afford to do it. Instead, I just add dividers and create a bazaar-like space. It’s a way of repurposing the big boxes.”

Other developers have found success with similar projects, creating new types of communities near transit hubs. Zad Roumaya, a former tech investor who runs Buzzworks, just opened a new development called Digit 1919, a transit-oriented development on South Akard Street at the Cedars DART stop, in the middle of a burgeoning neighborhood of the same name.

Squarely aimed at high-income millennials, the “young managerial” types that come with corporate relocations, units at Digit 1919, which start at $1,200 a month, are smart home-enabled. But this place doesn’t boast the typical high-end amenities of traditional Dallas developments. The building has a bike share and a coffee roastery across the street, as well as online parcel management for residents shopping on Amazon.

“This isn’t about the traditional amenities,” he says. “People don’t care. That’s for institutional investors. The magic sauce here is bringing all these craft purveyors to the area. You see people walking back and forth, and the knitting of a neighborhood starts to occur.”

Urban infill, focused on the millennial move-ins who want to be close to bars, restaurants, and amenities, is a big draw. Carl Anderson, a partner at Larkspur Capital, says that’s the inspiration behind their new townhome project on Elsbeth Street, 16 three-story units with rooftop decks near the Bishop Arts District, a small cluster of old homes and shops 10 minutes from downtown.

“Two years ago, this was barely on the citywide radar,” he says. “People on the other side of the Trinity River wouldn’t even come here.”

Bishop Arts is what Evans is calling one of the city’s new “depot” areas, a flowering of stores, small businesses, and multifamily buildings around Dallas’s major intersections. After artsy shops and local restaurants and bakeries set the stage, multifamily projects have moved in, such as the $57 million mixed-use development by Alamo Manhattan. Anderson credits these changes to new form-based zoning, the improved accessibility created by the addition of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge over the Trinity River, as well as the extension of the streetcar line.

“What’s driving development is increased accessibility,” he says.


What should Dallas do as a city to feed the hunger for more walkable, urban lifestyles?

“It doesn’t come without density,” says Roberts. “Single-family homes don’t make it happen. We don’t have the land use to support that kind of infrastructure.”

Roberts does see some important steps forward, focused on the street-level work that needs to happen for walkable, mixed-use development. Since Dallas became one of the last big cities to get bike share, dockless bike-share systems have become a hit. The DART board, for the first time, finally has some people who use public transit: Patrick Kennedy, an urbanist famous for his blog, “Car Free in Big D,” about living in Dallas without a car, is now helping shape city policy. Mark Brown, the city planner behind the city’s Complete Streets push and a future traffic-calming manual, says more protected bike lanes are on the way, one of many transit and streetscape programs trying to make it easier to live car-free. And the city’s new manager, T.C. Broadnax, who comes from Tacoma, Washington, has been hailed for a no-nonsense approach not beholden to traditional political alliances.

“We’re learning the wrong lessons from the examples of success in our city,” says Castillo. “Deep Ellum and Bishop Arts are successful; we need to build on top of it. But in Dallas, it seems like the bigger and more expensive always get the attention.”

In fact, slowing—and scaling—down may be the best solution.

“If you lift, you lift from the bottom up,” says Monte Anderson. “Is it a world-class city if you have a big, shiny building or bridge right next to a neighborhood where kids don’t have a basketball court to play on, or where somebody can’t afford health insurance? I don’t want to fix it fast. I don’t want to run the drug dealers off. I want to help them become entrepreneurs.”

Curbed

February 2020

Bernardy and Tiblanche St. Fleur have seen a lot from their perch on Miami’s Second Avenue, where they have run a modest grocery store for the last 25 years. Down the block from the famed Mache Ayisyen, a marketplace in the center of the city’s Little Haiti neighborhood, the couple sells food and beauty products that offer immigrants links to their Caribbean birthplaces.

But a short walk from the St. Fleurs’ front door, another community is set to radically change the look of their neighborhood. Magic City, a planned billion-dollar commercial and residential district targeting startups and entrepreneurs, got the go-ahead from city commissioners to break ground last June. The 18-acre mixed-use development was, as of last November, mostly just purple signage, a few scattered office buildings, and a warren of old warehouses. (Magic City’s developers have said no residents or existing businesses will be displaced.) But over the next 15 years, MCID Developers plans to erect buildings as tall as 25 stories, along with a pop-up theme park designed by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté; one of the developers told the Miami Herald in 2018 that it can “be the engine that pulls the Little Haiti train.”

“We have nothing against the developers,” says Bernardy St. Fleur. “Maybe it brings more business, maybe rent goes up. There’s been lots of activity, but we’re not anxious yet.”

The shifts coming to Little Haiti fit the traditional big-city displacement narrative, and commercial rents and home prices have already risen sharply in recent years. But activists and advocates see another force at play: a rising tide of climate gentrification.

A term popularized by a 2018 Harvard study of Miami real estate transactions that found rising property values in higher-elevation neighborhoods, climate gentrification has become a rallying cry for activists in Miami neighborhoods such as Little Haiti (which is 7 to 14 feet above sea level), Liberty City (the backdrop of the film Moonlight), and Allapattah, traditionally disinvested areas with large populations of black and Latino residents which also happen to be on higher ground. Activists nationwide have used the concept to frame conversations about how a new era of natural disasters has a disproportionate impact on the poor, including in fire-ravaged parts of California. Miami’s City Council, which has to plan for as much as 2 feet of sea-level rise by 2060 per city estimates, even passed a resolution in 2018 to examine the impacts of climate gentrification.

“People won’t say climate change is the primary reason developers are buying in Liberty City or Little Haiti,” says Meena Jagannath, cofounder of the Community Justice Project, a local nonprofit that focuses on legal aid in service of racial justice. “But it’s increasingly becoming a major factor.”

A man wearing a black cap holds up a sign at a protest against a new development in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.
Felton Pierre marches during a rally against the proposed Magic City Innovation District, Thursday, June 20, 2019, in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami. 

But documenting the cause and effect of climate gentrification⁠—linking the flow of money and investments to the flow of water onto our coastlines⁠—is a much knottier proposition. Little Haiti, for instance, borders Wynwood and the Design District, glitzy areas filled with hip restaurants, boutiques, and Instagrammable graffiti murals. Jesse Keenan, a researcher on the Harvard study, tells Curbed that “developers aren’t necessarily making decisions with climate change as a first-order consideration.”

Either way, Miami neighborhood activists are sounding the alarm about development pressure. “Gentrification is coming forcefully: developers buying the major corners, raising the rents, forcing renters onto month-to-month leases,” Haitian playwright, activist, and Little Haiti bookstore owner Jan Mapou recently told Hyperallergic. Miami has the most cost-burdened renters of any major American city; half of renters pay at least half their monthly income for housing, and the city’s tourist-driven economy keeps wages low.

“Gentrification is a cycle that’s been around before I was here, and will be after I’m here,” says Kilan Ashad-Bishop, a biomedical scientist and a vice chair of the Miami Climate Resilience Committee. “I want to talk about how we prevent the most vulnerable among us from becoming more vulnerable.”

“Profit and equity have a very hard time co-existing”

Climate gentrification is one predicted result of what many analysts say is a coming coastal real estate crash. A 2018 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that most coastal real estate in the U.S. doesn’t factor future flooding risk into its present value. That’s terrifying for two reasons: By 2045, increased flooding is expected to lead to $135 billion in property damage and force 280,000 Americans to adapt or relocate; and two, property that floods, or is seen to have a significantly higher flood risk, will eventually become unwanted, unsellable, and uninsurable, a stranded asset weighing down investors and the national economy. (Some have used the term blue-lining in discussing this new rash of flood-prone properties that won’t be able to get insurance.)

Climate gentrification, therefore, is about not wanting to be left holding coastal land when the music stops. While it’ll be years before we get a better sense of the speed at which cities and markets will react to this phenomenon, Keenan says the first sign will be how soon banks stop offering mortgages and development capital in flood-prone areas and start fleeing to higher ground, and how quickly insurance rates rise due to climate instability.

“I’ve been telling members of the business community to sell low, buy high” says Philip Stoddard, an environmental activist, biology professor, and mayor of nearby South Miami, in reference to land elevation.

As that shift takes place, Keenan says, local governments, many of which are already facing financial pressure, have to make tough choices. Can they replace tax revenues that formerly came from pricey coastal homes? What’s the best place to invest limited infrastructure money as some neighborhoods become untenable, and would building expensive sea walls in effect bail out rich property owners? What’s the best way to assist marginalized and displaced people, either from flooding or the flood of new inland investment? In a perfect world, Keenan says, cities would take advantage of the crisis to upzone and densify on higher ground to create “defensible urban corridors,” with blocks of new affordable housing connected with better transit. For instance, Miami has created a $400 million Forever Bond program to invest in infrastructure and housing for a climate-impacted future, with $100 million set aside for affordable housing, part of the 12,000 total affordable units the city plans to build by 2024.

A map of the Magic City development in Little Haiti.
A plan for Magic City Innovation District is shown in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami. The billion dollar mixed-use development will take up to 17 acres of land, is set to be built in this historic neighborhood and has inspired hope and fear among the residents.

But making that shift quickly enough is a challenge, especially for Miami. Florida doesn’t allow local personal income taxes, so property taxes make up the bulk of local budgets, leading to an overreliance on real estate revenue to fund the city’s budget. That has resulted in a developer-friendly economy and political climate that will be hard to change.

“The rule of thumb is, let developers do all they want, to be honest with you, so it’s hard to have a forward-thinking conversation about this,” says Ashad-Bishop. “Developers are thinking of profit, and profit and equity have a very hard time coexisting.”

Is climate gentrification changing Little Haiti?

Projects like Magic City send signals to the larger development community that there’s opportunity in the neighborhood, and eventually force current homeowners and commercial tenants to compete against developers who believe they can bring in a wealthier set of tenants.

“I think there’s a lot of quiet buying taking place right now in areas around Magic City,” Jagannath says. “From 2017 to 2019, there was a considerable jump in commercial prices around Magic City, and homes in the area are being advertised as being great investment properties.”

Jagannath’s own firm found that numerous real estate listings last summer that referenced Magic City and used the phrase “this opportunity won’t last,” “huge investment opportunity,” and “the best opportunity in the area.”

Her group has represented retail tenants who don’t have enough business to keep up with increasing rents for their stores. She believes it’s the first wave of displacement as the neighborhood becomes more popular and landlords feel they can charge higher rents. (Down Second Avenue, a newly opened food hall, the Citadel, represents another big development that seems aimed at the Wynwood crowd.)

A study of land-use patterns by the University of Miami Office of Civic and Community Engagement bolsters the case that investors are sensing opportunities in immigrant neighborhoods. According to senior program manager Jorge Damian de la Paz, one in every five homes or duplexes in Little Haiti is owned by investors via limited-liability corporations or other business ventures—business entities that can make tracing ownership complicated—with names like World Dominations Enterprise LLC, Strictly Profits LLC, Premium Elevation LLC, and Vulture Property Investments.

Similar patterns are seen in Little Havana and Liberty City. Allapattah, named for the Seminole word for alligator, has been dubbed “the next Wynwood.” Long home to Latin American immigrants and industrial warehouses⁠—the average income is $22,600, 77 percent of households are renters, and roughly a quarter of residents are undocumented immigrants, according to the Biscayne Times⁠—Allapattah has rapidly become a target for developers. Last March, the city commission gave the go-ahead to transform an old produce market into a 1.4-million-square-foot development featuring thousands of coliving and apartment units designed by Dutch architect Bjarke Ingels, and the Urban X Group is in the midst of completing a $425 million River Landing apartment complex. Developer Lyle Stern envisions the area ”transforming from industrial to trendy,” like Chicago’s Fulton Market or New York’s Meatpacking District. A Colliers International South Florida study found that land prices rose from $58 per square foot in 2014 to around $275 per square foot in 2018.

But even some climate activists aren’t ready to say it’s all just climate gentrification at play.

“The fundamental question is, what is the main driver of that gentrification?” says Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of the CLEO Institute, a Florida nonprofit focused on climate change education. “Some say climate and sea level rise, some say it’s purely gentrification.”

“It just so happens that communities of color sit at a slightly higher elevation than the coast,” says Robin Bachin, who runs the University of Miami Office of Civic and Community Engagement. “But to say right now that we see evidence of climate gentrification that’s absolutely clear and you can distinguish that from any other form of gentrification, that’s not clear.”

Bachin and her team do see this as the right time to start building policy solutions to address gentrification of all types. For instance, while mapping out land-use patterns, they discovered areas where unused city, county, and school board property sit adjacent to each other. An overlay with transit maps shows areas where different governments could, by combining or swapping land, create real estate holdings ideal for dense affordable housing near transportation. In effect, it provides a roadmap for transforming areas like Little Haiti and Allapattah in ways that would promote equity and opportunity.

“We need to focus on everything you can do to protect equity in a neighborhood like Little Haiti so it doesn’t become a Disneyfied version of Little Haiti,” says Bachin. “There are real people who live there.”

How investors view climate gentrification

If climate gentrification is taking place, it would follow that local developers and builders would be consulting flood maps and long-term forecasts before making deals. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Jorge Perez, a billionaire South Florida developer known as “the condo king” who built an art gallery in Allapattah recently, told journalist Jeff Goodell that he doesn’t think about sea-level rise on a daily basis. “In 20 or 30 years, someone is going to find a solution for this,” he says. “If it is a problem for Miami, it will also be a problem for New York and Boston—so where are people going to go? Besides, by that time, I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?”

The industry hasn’t changed how it operates in response to climate change, according to Jennifer Wollmann, the president of the Miami Association of Realtors. Her organization and others, including the Army Corps of Engineers, have pushed for investments in resiliency and protecting land and investments (it’s the focus of a recent issue of the organization’s magazine). But she points to robust sales figures in December—the sale of $1 million-plus condos was up 48 percent, month over month—as a sign of healthy interest in waterfront property. There are lots of investors seeking opportunities in South Florida, she says, which is why there’s been so much interest in building new apartments lately.

“I haven’t seen any issues with 30-year mortgages in at-risk areas for flooding,” she says. “We’ve been hearing about the market changing in reaction to climate change for years, but we just haven’t seen it yet.”

Sebastian Jaramillo, a partner with the Miami-based boutique firm Wolfe Pincavage, which focuses on real estate, has been surprised by the industry’s lack of foresight around climate change. Not only doesn’t he think investors are picking Little Haiti because of its elevation, he worries that they aren’t factoring the issue in at all.

“Lenders haven’t been acting at all when it comes to giving 30-year mortgages for properties that potentially could be heavily affected by rising sea water in the next decade or two,” he says.

For developers, a project timeline from conception to selling a building usually takes two to five years, meaning there isn’t as much incentive to look far into a future altered by climate change. If the lending and financing part of the industry doesn’t step back and caution buyers, it’s business as usual, Jaramillo says. Only once a large storm hits will buyers get a preview of what the future may hold.

Katie Walsh works for the risk analysis firm CDP, a nonprofit that examines climate risk for hundreds of local governments and corporations across the globe. She says she’s starting to see more awareness of this issue among municipal bond investors, who are making bets on 50- to 100-year time frames and are less eager to invest in cities with substantial climate risk. One of her main concerns is that cities already facing budget crises aren’t moving fast enough to address climate change risk.

“There have been so many cuts to their budgets,” she says, suggesting cities won’t have the resources to invest in new infrastructure, resilient buildings, or any large-scale adaptation plans. “They’re already in such a constrained situation to just provide basic services. Adding climate vulnerability further exposes them.”

How climate justice and housing justice go together

Regardless of how much gentrification is due to flooding fears, our climate future is increasingly shaping thoughts about urban policy.

Ashad-Bishop wants the city to create a better framework for research—which currently isn’t a strong suit for Miami’s local government, she says—so that committees like hers can create more integrated, holistic policy recommendations. Bachin’s colleagues at the University Housing Resiliency project are working on creating new designs for the city’s most common affordable housing designs that factor in resilient features, such as better cooling and elevated living quarters, so new buildings can withstand a changing environment.

One of numerous murals around the Little Haiti neighborhood.
“We need to focus on everything you can do to protect equity in a neighborhood like Little Haiti so it doesn’t become a Disneyfied version of Little Haiti.” 

Keenan points to the Green New Deal for its recognition that climate gentrification, inclusionary zoning, affordable housing, transportation, and resilience—the idea that buildings and landscapes can be redesigned and fortified to better cope with rising waters and changing weather patterns—are all linked.

“Everything going forward is about trade-offs,” says Keenan. “By promoting this idea of resilience, that we can engineer our way out of this, are we delaying the inevitable need to move, are we delaying in a way that traps people? Resilience isn’t a perfect good.”

Jagannath thinks that inclusionary zoning can be a useful tool to create more resilient communities. In the future, Miami will need denser housing in high-elevation areas—flipping the current landscape, with its small homes inland and high-rises on the beach—and those larger projects need to be open to different income levels and built sustainably.

Magic City has a community benefits agreement which will see the development pay $40 million, including $31 million in community benefits that will be overseen by a trust composed of local residents and $9 million in impact fees. Jagannath, who did some early analysis for the agreement with community groups, but was ultimately left out of the final negotiations, believes it lacks the foresight and fairness to set an example for future agreements (an initial plan to require 550 units of affordable housing was scrapped during the final negotiations). Last summer, the Community Justice Project sued the city to block the development on behalf of a local renter and activist, Warren Perry.

“Very little in that agreement looks at the climate vulnerability of Miami,” says Jagannath. “If it did, it would have been more specific about including more workforce and affordable housing directly on site.”

Bachin says the issue is bound to shift how politicians think about environmental issues, and that there’s broad consensus that affordability and environmental risk are significant regional problems (though Miami’s Republican Mayor Francis Suarez told CNN last summer that “we haven’t seen any direct evidence of [climate gentrification] yet”).

“Political leaders are making affordable housing and climate resilience a centerpiece of their platforms this year, which they never have before,” she says.

Ideally, centering climate policy on climate gentrification, and the issues it raises, would not only create a city that can better react to environmental change, but one that can call itself more equitable.

“What I care about is not only that you’re taking people away from their neighborhood and their neighbors and where their kids go to school, it’s that when you do that, you put them in harm’s way,” says Ashad-Bishop. “This is climate change. We don’t have the time to try and fix it, do it in a flawed way, and troubleshoot and do it again.”

Curbed

February 2020

ANAHEIM, CA – APRIL 26: Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray, left, and Anaheim mayor Tom Tait, right, listen as Bellflower resident and pro-Trump supporter Wes Parker sings, “It’s a Trump World After All” during the Anaheim City Council meeting on Tuesday, April 26, 2016 where the council will be considering a Kris Murray sponsored resolution condemning the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the violent actions of his staff and supporters. ///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Anaheim.Trump √ê 4/26/16 √ê LEONARD ORTIZ, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER – _DSC0583.NEF – A “WE LOVE TRUMP RALLY” outside Anaheim City Hall is slated for Tuesday after Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray called for a resolution condemning the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the violent actions of his staff and supporters (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

If you think you have meeting fatigue at the office, try attending a public meeting. Last September in a Brooklyn church basement, a meeting over new bike lanes spiraled out of control when cycling advocate Doug Gordon was shoved by a guest speaker and filmmaker. In October, during a hearing over a proposed homeless shelter in Queens, one frustrated resident said of the shelter, “I hope someone is going to burn the place down.” At a Seattle hearing on affordable housing development last February, one resident, priced out by rising rents, attacked the “tech trash” who have been “strip-mining Seattle.”

The public meeting has become enshrined in this nation’s local politics as the conduit for the opinions of the common citizen and an essential part of grassroots democracy. Roughly 97 percent of local governments utilize some form of local meetings, according to a 2004 article by Harvard professors Abby Williamson and Archon Fung. They trace the origins of these gatherings back to the town meetings held in colonial New England as early as the 1630s, when informal assemblies of adult males used such meetings to govern themselves.

In many ways, the public meetings we hold today to discuss local zoning policy, approve a proposed development, or otherwise shape the evolution of our neighborhoods haven’t shifted very far from that original format. Sadly, that includes the part about older, white males, especially homeowners, tending to have outsized power in these settings.

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A 2018 paper by a trio of Boston University researchers quantified the feelings many attendees have about modern public meetings: They’re simply not very reflective of the public. The paper “Racial Disparities in Housing Politics: Evidence from Administrative Data,” which analyzed records from such meetings in nearly 100 Boston-area communities, found that while 80 percent of the area population is white, an estimated 95 percent of meetings attendees were white. Another of the team’s studies found that the vast majority of comments delivered during public meetings opposed new housing projects: 63 percent of attendees said no, whereas just 15 percent said yes (the rest were deemed neutral). The researchers concluded that “the incentives to show up and oppose new housing are far stronger.”

Katherine Einstein, a member of the Boston University research team and author of Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis, says the overrepresentation at these meetings of those who espouse an anti-development, NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality is a national issue, especially since white participants were much more likely than black ones to oppose new housing. (Her team’s research found that the difference couldn’t be explained away by differences in homeownership rates.) See the infamous “zucchini-gate” example from Berkeley, California, where a homeowner argued the shade cast by a two-story building would (gasp) harm her vegetable garden.

Part of it comes from the way the benefits and downsides of a development are distributed. The benefits of, say, a new affordable housing project may help a citywide housing shortage, but downsides such as increased local traffic are concentrated in the immediate surrounding area, galvanizing neighbors to make their voices heard. As Williamson and Fung noted, this leads to meetings dominated by special-interest groups and those with an immediate stake in the project. That means local land use decisions, fundamental to shaping neighborhoods, don’t properly reflect the will of those who live there.

“You can find neighborhood defenders everywhere,” Einstein says. “Anywhere you go, you’ll find people in privileged places fighting against new housing.”

Empowerment within messy direct democracy

The problem of misrepresentation at public meetings, neighborhood councils, and other such hyper-localized public forums stems from their design. While the United Kingdom and Australia have similar issues around public meetings, representation, and locals pushing back against development, says Einstein, the U.S. has “unusually strong local control,” and the passage of sunshine laws, which mandated meetings be public, has resulted in more opportunities for local voices to be heard.

Held at times of day that can make it hard for many people to attend without missing work, usually without day care options, and sometimes in locations not favorable to those with disabilities or who rely on transit, these meetings already exclude many groups before they even start. Then there’s the matter of format: Experts and officials typically sit behind a table and give speeches and make presentations, with a microphone set up to take comments from neighbors who can spare the time to spend hours waiting for a few minutes on the mic. No surprise that a Knight Foundation study from 2010 found that attending a public meeting didn’t make residents feel more or less connected to their communities.

An activist speaks out during the comment period of a local meeting.
Homeless advocate Kenneth Batiste, with the group Housing is a Human Right, gets angry during the public comment time of the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ meeting in Santa Ana on Tuesday, Mar 27, 2018.

“The dynamic is just so unproductive,” says Sara Aye, a designer and executive director of Greater Good Studio in Chicago, which focuses in part on improving public engagement. “It’s just asking for your opinion and encourages you to think for only yourself and advocate for only yourself. This is a format that rewards the squeaky wheel, rewarding those who are comfortable making grand, sweeping statements.”

As much as the already privileged tend to benefit from meeting scenarios where they’re stopping a project from moving forward, the opposite tends to happen when marginalized groups want their voices heard. Neighborhood activists pushing back against new developments, afraid a new project might encourage gentrification, often end up feeling ignored. As Harvard researchers Williamson and Fung noted, local governments have been accused of using meetings to “decide, announce, and defend” instead of actually getting feedback and altering plans in response.

“The spatial arrangement of these meetings, with experts and government officials in the front, just subtly says, ‘We, the outsiders with power, know best,’” says Aye, especially when those in the audience are of people of color or renters. “It makes residents feel like they’re only here to listen, and if they didn’t show up, it wouldn’t make a lot of difference, because they’re anonymous.”

The power imbalance at public meetings is hard to ignore. And yet, Einstein, Aye, and others believe that’s not really the root problem that needs to be addressed.

“Not holding your meetings at noon on Tuesday, providing childcare, and working to get a gender and age diverse audience, I applaud those efforts,” says Einstein. “Reducing the cost of participation is key. But that isn’t helping people get interested in politics. That’s the other problem. A more convenient time isn’t going to solve the interest part of the equation.”

“Meetings can often become one of two nightmare scenarios,” says Damon Rich, an urban planner and co-founder of Hector, a design studio in Newark, New Jersey. “One is when a small group of people talks too much, and the other is when the public is there and engaged, but it becomes an empty formality. If there’s one trend we’re seeing, it’s creating even more manicured mechanisms to supposedly gather people’s opinion. Citizen engagement is an industry today, and it’s often trying to hide antagonism, and put it under the rug.”

A young man in a black jacket fills out a form providing feedback for a neighborhood design initiative.
An ideas meeting in Hudson, New York, part of the Raising Places Initiative to encourage communities to design their own health programs. 
A woman in a gray shirt fills out a form providing feedback for a neighborhood design initiative.
An ideas meeting in Wilmington, California, part of the Raising Places Initiative to encourage communities to design their own health programs.

If you want authentic responses, starting with the event isn’t the right approach, according to Aye. Officials need to convince people their voices will actually be heard. And the architects and designers need to connect with the community before such an event to truly claim they have community buy-in.

“It’s not going to be possible to convince people who have been let down so many times that this initiative is different, that they should place their trust in this event and get their hopes up that they’ll have real power to change their community,” she says. “It’s a real barrier everywhere, especially places that have experienced gentrification and disinvestment.”

To make a meeting work, you need to get started before the event

Aye’s own experience designing public input processes suggests that effective public engagement can’t begin with who shows up at the event. In 2018, she and her team at Greater Good Studio designed designed a public engagement plan for Raising Places, an initiative by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to enlist community members to design their own programs to promote healthy childhoods.

Greater Good approached the project like organizers. They reached out to the community, held lots of one-on-one conversations, and enlisted community groups to take leadership roles and help with outreach. The nine-month outreach program focused first on diagnosing and understanding the issues, with weeks of events focused on observation, immersion, and the discussion of root causes with the community, as well as framing goals. For instance, Megkian Doyle, a representative of one of the groups, the Bighorn Valley Health Center in southeastern Montana, an organization that serves a large Native American population, told Curbed they felt they were reaching new people, and going beyond formalities to having deeper conversations about providing health care with community members. All this interaction took place before a single meeting dedicated to solutions. So far, of the six groups that participated in 2018, Aye says, five have already successfully launched community-developed programs.

“The message this format says is we’re going to listen to you,” she says. “That’s why you talk to people, so they can understand the message loud and clear. It’ll be different because we’ll listen to you.”

Damon Rich and his firm Hector had a similar experience designing neighborhood plans in Detroit. When they started working last year on a framework for a new neighborhood plan for Cody Rouge and Warrendale neighborhoods—basically a planning document for what comes next—they started by employing a team of teenagers two days a week to work with the design team.

“These 13- to 18-year-olds led the event, and were on the mic from the jump,” says Rich. “The city wasn’t necessarily comfortable with it.”

Ellen Schelling speaks during a public comment at a city council meetingin Longmont, Colorado, Tuesday, July 23, 2013.

Greater Good Studio has also experimented with meetings that turn what’s normally a staged, one-at-a-time conversation into something more freeform. As part of ideas workshops around health care policy they staged in five California cities for the state government, Greater Good organized feedback events into something more akin to a science fair. Different stakeholders and local coalitions set up at tables spread around the room, and community members circulated around the stations all night, chatting and delivering feedback and having conversations.

“The power was distributed around the room, so anybody can engage with them,” she says. “This reinforces the message it’s a project the community owns.”

Is local control a good idea in the first place?

There’s another school of thought that says the best meeting may be not having a meeting at all. If the benefits of building certain projects are diffuse, says Boston’s Einstein, it means assembling a supportive coalition at a neighborhood level may be too high a bar to set. Maybe the better process is setting more policy at the city or even state level, to allow more projects to move forward to benefit the community as a whole.

This is one of the arguments in favor of the recent wave of upzoning legislation in states and cities across the country; if the dense, affordable housing projects the city needs keep getting shot down by neighborhood councils and legislators, should we change the rules so they don’t have the power to stop those projects?

“We found that so many people who shoot down projects at meetings complained about parking, yet the evidence suggests we have an oversupply of parking in nearly every city,” she says. “I wish more cities were serious about eliminating parking minimums.”

Of course, losing that kind of power looks a lot different if your neighborhood was the victim of urban renewal, or fears gentrification and displacement. This is one of the reasons California’s transit density bill, SB50, which sought to supercede local control over zoning near transit lines, was defeated for the third time last month. Some neighborhood groups from low-income areas feared losing the power to push back against unwanted developments, and having their voice shut out.

A teach-in held in downtown Newark, New Jersey, the educate locals about zoning practices.
As part of a teach-in organized by Homes for All in Newark, New Jersey, Hector created a citizen’s guide to zoning to educate locals on the process.

Einstein believes there should be more public participation focused on the citywide level, not just local decisions. Having a meeting on every two-level building going up will just attract certain stakeholders. Getting people to come out to a city-wide event focused on building more housing via zoning reform might get more participation.

“California and Los Angeles have had a tough time with this since taking away local control in Beverly Hills also means taking away control in less privileged areas,” she says. “Those areas may still want to use local control and there are very good reasons for them to want this. They’re often the same areas that were railroaded during urban renewal and see local control as a protection against developer and government overreach.”

“There’s a lot driving the narrative about pushing back on local government,” says Rich. “People are co-opting Jane Jacobs, saying it’s us the people against big government, not that we’re the government.”

Meeting the public where they are

Some cities have begun to overhaul their systems for taking public feedback: Pittsburgh is one that has instituted a participatory budgeting process, to provide more grassroots input on city spending, and Seattle broke up its Neighborhood District Councils in 2016, which were seen as dominated by activist homeowners, replacing them with a Community Involvement Commission and Seattle Renters Commission, aiming to get more diverse voices engaged in local planning decisions. But amid the constant battles, one success story about a city reform effort showed the potential of getting cities to see the value in better public outreach.

Minneapolis just passed its 2040 plan, a progressive vision for land use that upzoned the entire city, which supporters believe will create more density and affordable housing, and have spillover effects on transportation, sustainability, and equity. The plan was passed by a progressive city council. But what really made it possible, and what gave the council the backing and support to enact such a big shift, was the constant grassroots support generated by the city’s extensive public outreach plan, masterminded by planner and city council member Lisa Bender.

“Minneapolis decided to do engagement in a different way,” says Janne Flisrand, part of the Neighbors for More Neighbors civic group that supported the plan. “They made it a point to go to communities that tend to be underrepresented—less educated, parents, people without cars, immigrants, young people, and people of color. They made a real effort to provide many different ways to engage.”

There were the standard “shouty meetings,” says Flisrand. But there were also events at city festivals that met people where they were, instead of the other way around. The city hired artists to attend and organize events to gauge citizen feedback; poets would summarize someone’s response at a meeting, or improv crews would host game shows, asking contestants to answer trivia soliciting their thoughts about what Minneapolis should look like in 2040. The city also launched an easy-to-use mobile site to garner feedback, asking for anonymous comments that made people feel comfortable expressing their ideas. The main thrust of the program was values; residents understood how values informed policy, and vice versa, making it easy to see the value in specific policy.

Most importantly, says Flisrand, the city provided a space for advocates to get involved.

“We as advocates needed the city to give us space to show up, and I would argue the city needed us to organize to show everyone that there was broad support for a city where all citizens could thrive,” she says. “The city recognized there were processes that helped those who were already being served, and designed something for everybody else.”

Curbed

April 2018

Ask Carlos Morera about succulents and cactuses, and their current dominance of interior design and social media, and he’ll talk to you about the planters at weddings.

Morera’s reflections on this particular cultural moment—”everyone’s become a treehugger, or, I guess, a cactushugger”—matter, because many see him as a trendsetter. Along with fellow plant geek Max Martin, his uncle John Morera, and others, Carlos opened the Cactus Store, a minimalist storefront in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood, in 2014.

The “little shack full of cactuses” found a fervent audience by assembling an eclectic collection of rare plants and taking a studious approach to the subject. In January, Martin and Morera released a book on hardcore cactus collectors, Xerophile, and their successful pop-up in New York City last year will return this summer.

Morera has seen these eclectic plants shift from misfits to big business, becoming the new hot houseplants. Restaurants and stores are draped in “succulent art.” The obsessed have created succulent-inspired haircupcakes, even “Instagram plant porn.” To Morera, mass appeal—whether it’s succulents as wedding decor or placing a stray cactus in a storefront window to symbolize “California cool”—is a mixed blessing.

“Infantilizing these creatures that are so insanely resilient isn’t our style,” he says. “The trend toward succulents as decorative houseplants, or people wearing emoji cactus T-shirts, is not something we’re stoked on.”

Reams of trend stories and social-media posts suggest that these resilient plants are having a renaissance, and have become a decorating staple in boutiques, restaurants, offices, and apartments.

The Cactus Store in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood

There’s no easy way to break down sales by species in the $13.6 billion U.S. plant and flower industry. But growers have seen increased interest from young adults—37 percent of millennials grow plants indoors, as opposed to 28 percent of baby boomers—and sales have been booming. Altman Plants, the country’s largest grower of succulents and cactuses, has for the last decade posted double-digits gains each year. A recent Garden Center magazine survey of independent retailers found that cactus and succulent sales had risen 64 percent since 2012.

Morera blames California. It’s a product of the drought-motivated embrace of water-conscious horticulture, sustainability, and an obsession with the lifestyle evoked by the idea of getting lost in Joshua Tree on a weekend. Like avocado toast, a cactus is an attainable object of affection and obsession, a stereotyped symbol of the Golden State, what Morera calls the “mecca for wellness, natural living, and floppy hats.”

Industry experts and large growers see more practical reasons for the plants’ proliferation. Ingeborg Carr, the director of marketing at Altman Plants, points to larger societal shifts. Millennials, bouncing between smaller apartments, want something low maintenance. As Jazmine Hughes wrote for the New York Times magazine, raising houseplants “makes us feel grown-up” when the traditional symbols of that stage of life seem out of reach.

“We’re living in smaller homes, with smaller gardens, and there’s not space,” Carr says. “But there’s always room for a small pot on the windowsill or end table.”

It doesn’t hurt that their atypical shapes, odd profiles, and bright colors look great on social media. Cactuses and succulents are easy to care for and offer maximum aesthetic rewards for minimal effort. Forget infantilizing the plants; perhaps it’s more about infantilizing their owners.

“Nature’s Infinite Variety” Cactus Beds in the Gardens of Hotel Monte, Monterey, California, in 1906

Cactuses and succulents may be succeeding because they’re resilient enough to withstand a home environment that’s become more hostile to many houseplants—owners today are more mobile, and they’re shorter on time and attention. But Americans have always been attracted to these fantastical flora, especially those from Southern California and the deserts of the Southwest.

Nearly 20,000 varieties of succulents, roughly defined as plants that contain water-storing tissue to survive arid conditions, have been documented. Cactuses, which have spines—mostly dead tissue for shading and protection that’s sort of a horticultural equivalent to fingernails—are a type of succulent. Present on six continents, including some of the most inhospitable places on Earth, these species represent what New York Times writer L. H. Robbins called in 1935 “the best illustration in the world of the dauntless resolution of a species to survive.”

The informal names given to these plants speak to our fascination with their otherworldly colors and shapes: baby toes, living stones, crown of thorns, blue elf, blushing beauty. In the New York Times piece, Robbins talked about how the great variety of cactuses, with “spines that resemble any wounding thing, from a stiletto to a fish-hook,” have “played a big part in the human history of the romantic southwest.” It was unwise, he wrote, to “monkey with nature’s buzz saws.”

“The variety is so incredible; Both the colors and textures, and their resiliency,” says Bob Reidmuller, a horticulturist at Altman Plants. “They can dry up to almost nothing, and when the rainy season comes, boom, they’re back again.”

Altman Plant’s headquarters in Vista, California.
Altman Plant’s Oasis facility in Escondido, California, where the company grows some of its many cactuses and succulents.

The growth of the cactus and succulent market has not only changed the way they’re sold, but also how they’re grown. A visit to the headquarters of Altman Plants, in Vista, California, outside San Diego, offers a glimpse of just how massive the market has become, and how aesthetics, and social media, shape our perceptions of these plants.

Set on rolling hills, Altman’s Vista facilities are perfect for growing plants year-round, owing to its moderate, Mediterranean-like climate. One of 45 commercial growers in the San Diego area that specializes in cactus and succulents, Altman’s operations spread over multiple sites in San Diego County and cover roughly 500 acres, including 2 million square feet of greenhouse space.

It’s the seat of the empire for one of the country’s largest commercial growers, with distribution centers in three states and wholesale nurseries in four states raising perennials, roses, and just about any type of plant that’s not a fruit tree. The company even uses robots on some of its fields to speed up production, and sells tens of millions of plants a year (the company wasn’t forthcoming with specifics).

The highlight is the cactuses and succulents, the plants that inspired company founders Deena and Ken Altman to start the business. Two self-described Berkeley hippies who met while Deena was attending Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, the couple grew plants as a backyard hobby in the early ’70s.

Today, cactuses and succulents account for a significant portion of the company’s annual revenue, especially best-selling varieties such as hairy cactuses, jade plants, aloe vera, and Senecio serpens, or blue chalksticks, which are popular in landscaping. Altman counts Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart as long-time customers.

Deena Altman at the couple’s old greenhouse. 

The Altmans have always had a knack for plants, and also for marketing and storytelling. The company once promoted a kid’s line, called Spiny’s Friends, and developed trays with plastic handles so buyers could pick up small cactuses without getting stuck. Today, many of its plants, including succulents, are marketed in specific product lines, including Smart Planet and Oasis, which promote their water-saving and sustainable nature.

The company also employs two full-time breeders, or succulent plant development managers, Kelly Griffin and Renee O’Connell, who are famous in plant-nerd circles. They cultivate new hybrids, with their own colorful names, to meet customer demand.

That means cross-breeding for specific characteristics, including the ability to grow with less light, to accommodate the rising demand for houseplants, as well as more varied, striking colors. Since these hybrids can take from three to 10 years to bring to market, Altman began patenting the new varieties, obtaining seven years of intellectual property protection to guarantee return on investment.

At Altman’s Oasis facility and sales center, a short drive from the company’s headquarters in Vista, the incredible diversity of cactus and succulents—as well as the scale of Altman Plant’s ambitions—come into focus. Every inch of growing space is utilized; colorful clusters of plants cling to the hillsides and acres of small succulents grow under large shade houses in seemingly endless rows. It’s like a Costco for plants.

The company’s latest custom creations are also on display. You can see flats of the new hybrids patented by Altman, including the popular Aeonium Mardi Gras, featuring long leaves with ruby tips; Aloe Blizzard, a bundle of spindly leaves with frosted tips; and Echeveria Crimson Tide, a lettuce-like plant with reddish-pink rims. Some of the newer creations include even more evocative nicknames: Mint Truffles, Black Diamond, Arctic Ice, and Flambeau.

Aeonium Mardi Gras

Naming these new hybrids is just another aspect of marketing and storytelling. As Deena Altman once said in an interview, “you can’t just sell a succulent, you have to sell that it’s a stone or an old man or a brain.”

As a tour bus of gardening enthusiasts left the site, pots and plants in hand, Stephen Rubin, a marketing communications specialist, explained that creatively named hybrids by Griffin and O’Connell, who specialize in aloe and Echeveria plants, respectively, are particular fan favorites.

There’s sort of an internet feedback loop between the plants, growers, and patrons, he explains. New, exciting colors and patterns drive sales and online attention. Rubin runs the Altman social-media accounts, and often can’t post new Griffin and O’Connell creations because they don’t have enough inventory to meet expected demand, or because they’re not yet available to sell online.

“We enjoy spotlighting them because we want to tout what’s new and especially cool,” says Rubin, “but we still grow and sell an awful lot of “regular,” straight (non-hybrid/non-proprietary) species.”

Morera argues that the current flood of succulents and cactuses comprises more archetypes, as opposed to the collector’s gems that entranced superfans of past generations, including members of cactus clubs and mail-order gardeners. Instead of rare varieties, plants like echeveria and prickly pear (Opuntia) dominate.

“The trend today is cactuses that look like stereotypical cactuses,” he says, “or those with pretty features, or a certain aesthetic.”

But, as this breeder-and-buyer feedback loop demonstrate, isn’t this just another example of evolution at play?

It recalls a theory Morera often cites about our relationship with succulents. Call it a coexistence with cactuses. These ancient, resilient plants are adapting to our presence, and using us to proliferate.

“While habitats are being decimated and global warming has a huge impact on the survival of these plants, people have become deeply obsessed with them,” he says.

The California drought may have helped inspire a sustainability-minded turn toward cactuses and succulents. But they’re a much more potent symbol of our warming planet than many realize. In 2015, a group of researchers found that due to habitat loss, especially the expansion of agave plantations for tequila and mezcal production, nearly a third of cactus species were at risk of extinction, making them one of the most threatened types of plants on the planet.

“The further we get into climate change and drought, the more glaring it is,” says Morera. “Using plants that can take the heat is not only going to become more in vogue, it’ll become impossible to grow so many other things.”

Perhaps the commodification of cactuses, and their slow expansion into our homes and retail spaces, is just the latest adaptation by these rugged plants to a harsh environment. These plants aren’t just Instagram fodder; they’re spiny survivors.

Curbed New York

March 2020

Concerns over contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus have changed how New Yorkers get around—and, according to Uber and Lyft drivers, present serious challenges to their income and livelihood.

The ride-hailing industry, which employs roughly 80,000 drivers in New York City, is grappling with how to care for drivers and help those who are sick, as well as whether financial stimulus measures may be necessary in the event of a prolonged downturn that decreases ridership.

Uber and Lyft have reacted to public health concerns with plans to help drivers stay safe, such as offering supplies to disinfect cars as well as medical help and financial assistance to those who contract coronavirus. Those companies also have internal teams in contact with local and national health officials, waiting to update operations when needed.

But many drivers, who feel they’re on the front lines of the pandemic, say the plans don’t do enough. They already struggle to earn enough in the gig economy, and feel the threat of less business—and even the extra added expense of buying additional sanitizer and disinfectant—will quickly make it hard to pay bills, rent, and mortgages in the coming weeks.

Henry Chen, 27, an Uber driver from Flushing, told Curbed that fear among drivers around catching coronavirus is rampant, and that Uber does not have a clear procedure to help drivers if they become sick.

“It’s not just myself alone, every single driver out there has the fear of catching coronavirus, especially picking up passengers from an airport or hospital,” he says. “The fear is real, the threat is there, and the company is not helping in terms of minimizing the fear.”

In a March 9 email, the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) noted that “COVID-19 is not known to transmit through the air or casual contact, such as riding in the same elevator or car.” But that hasn’t reassured some drivers.

Tina Raveneau, 39, who drives for both Uber and Lyft and lives in Crown Heights, says that, as a single mom with a son, getting sick would impact her ability pay rent and feed her child. “App companies have to at least ensure that if I pick up a rider who is infected and need to go home and self-quarantine myself, that my bills will be paid,” she says.

Representatives of the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG), a union of Lyft, Uber, and Via drivers, says those services haven’t provided enough details around sick pay and telemedicine screenings to ensure that drivers get tested. Drivers do have access to a telemedicine service via the Black Car Fund, a state nonprofit, but the guild wants better and easier access, like an in-app option for accessing telemedicine services and sending in documentation for sick pay. It also wants to make sure those who test positive have guaranteed income if they can’t work.

“The best-intentioned traveler with COVID-19 must get home to self-quarantine,” Brendan Sexton, the executive director of the IDG, said in a statement. “But first, they need to get home, and Uber, Lyft, and Via drivers are the way they often do that. We know drivers will get sick. Uber, Lyft, and Via must work with us to ensure these drivers have the ability to stay home.”

Sick pay has become especially important to drivers, says Chen, because demand and business have decreased in the wake of widespread working from home, the closure of public spaces, and the cancellation of events. Roughly two weeks ago, Chen says, demand spiked as New Yorkers started avoiding the subway; but over the last two weeks, he’s seen demand and business decrease. Meanwhile, 70 to 80 percent of the drivers he knows are staying home out of a combination of fear of coronavirus and lack of work.

A sudden drop in business could be devastating to workers in the ride-hailing industry. According to a 2018 poll of drivers in New York, “an 85 percent majority struggle ‘to make their monthly payments like rent, utilities, car payments and other bills,’ and if unable to drive due to illness or car trouble, 70 percent would run out money within a month.” Harry Campbell, a ridesharing industry expert who stated The Rideshare Guy site, says that due to the financial situation of many contractors, he thinks it’s important Uber, Lyft, and other services provide all the cleaning supplies drivers.

“If drivers are responsible for sourcing and paying for these items, you can bet only some are going to do it since they don’t earn much and are responsible for all expenses,” he says.

An in-app message sent to Uber drivers informing them of the closures of Greenlight Hubs across the country.

Both Uber and Lyft have released updates in the last few days in light of the fast-moving situation in New York City and across the country. In a March 10 email, Uber told drivers that it would distribute disinfectant for vehicles, prioritizing cities with the greatest need. Another email sent on March 11 and signed by CEO Dara Khosrowshahi reiterated that drivers who were diagnosed would get financial assistance. Uber also confirmed Friday morning that it was closing driver hubs across the U.S. and Canada through April 6.

Uber has said it will provide financial assistance to drivers with proper documentation showing they have been “diagnosed with the coronavirus, or if they are placed in individual quarantine, asked to self-isolate, or removed from the app for up to 14 days at the direction of a public health authority. “

“Drivers and delivery people in these situations will receive financial assistance for a period of up to 14 days,” says Andrew Macdonald, senior vice president of rides and platform. “This has already begun in some markets and we are working to implement mechanisms to do this worldwide. We believe this is the right thing to do.”

Lyft also promised to help drivers diagnosed with the illness. In a statement, the company said, “we will provide funds to drivers should they be diagnosed with COVID-19 or put under individual quarantine by a public health agency. This helps support drivers financially when they can’t drive, while also protecting our riders’ health.” The company also said in a March 7 email it would distribute more than 200,000 bottles of sanitizer and disinfectant nationwide at rider hubs across the country “in the coming days,” which as of Friday morning are still open.

But Chen says, with the national and local backlog in testing, drivers aren’t sure who to go to for such tests, and how to get that documentation.

“The other drivers I talk to don’t understand how to get tested and how to get sick pay,” Chen says. “The concern is they don’t know who to go to. Uber does not make it clear.”

Raveneau is also concerned that these services also haven’t stopped group or pool rides. Uber confirmed that it’s still offering this option; according to a spokesperson, “we are currently not limiting shared rides, but we are always evaluating our response and working with public health authorities to ensure we are responding appropriately based on the local situation.”

“How can you practice social distancing with multiple people in a car?” says Raveneau. “Pool rides have to go.”

Chen says New York’s TLC hasn’t offered needed help or assistance, either; its guidance to disinfect cars every 24 hours won’t help if drivers can’t afford supplies. What workers need, in addition to clear guidance around testing, is financial support; Chen believes the city should consider a bailout of financially struggling drivers. (Curbed has reached out to the TLC and will update the story when we hear more).

“The impact of this is very immediate, very devastating, and unrecoverable,” Chen says. “Drivers are their own businesses. They’ll fall behind on rent, on insurance. We need people to not just say things.”

“Now it’s a crisis,” says Raveneau. “The government is talking about giving everybody tax breaks, what about us? We get everyone to work, take them home to their families. What about us?”

Curbed

May 2017

It begins with boxes. For most people who order goods from Amazon—with nearly half of U.S. households enrolled in the company’s Prime program, that’s quite a few of us—interactions with the Seattle e-commerce giant start with a search and a click, and end with a delivery.

While the ubiquitous company—a retail and shopping juggernaut worth roughly $430 billionthat personifies the rapid growth in e-commerce—has an extensive footprint, a growing warehouse network, and a nascent brick-and-mortar retail presence, most of us just see piles of boxes on stoops, on doorsteps, and in apartment lobbies.

But that passing perspective would be a gross underestimation of the way e-commerce in general, and Amazon specifically, has and will reshape cities and communities around the country.

A growing web of Amazon warehouses is poised to further speed up and reshape commerce, putting more pressure on retail. Increasing deliveries, a result of this bigger and better logistics network and consumer demand, is leading to increased freight traffic on city streets. And an expansion into physical retail, including brick-and-mortar Amazon grocery stores, predicted by many analysts, could make an even bigger dent in urban landscapes and commercial strips. Curbed reached out to Amazon for this story, but they declined to comment on the record.

“Amazon has been able to ride this stealth presence and sink under the radar,” says Olivia LaVecchia, a research associate with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit focused on promoting small business. “Their true power and influence have remained invisible. They’re reshaping our commerce, built environment, and even social interactions.”

But it may not be that way for long. As LaVecchia and other analysts have noted, Amazon has begun to enter the physical retail market with a handful of bookstores and Amazon Go, an in-the-works convenience store, the first steps in a rollout that could rapidly speed up their disruption of retail and shipping. Many analysts and former employees told the New York Timesthat Amazon might make the move to enter into markets that you “can’t digitize.”

According to Cooper Smith, an analyst at L2 Inc., a New York-based business-intelligence firm, the company has been testing its technology and strategy with a small string of bookstores, which he sees as a means for Amazon to eventually enter into the grocery market, a $770 billion-dollar-a-year industry.

“These stores are about testing in-store tech to use in grocery stores,” he says, “which is a much bigger opportunity. Amazon already owns books. Did they crush Barnes & Noble and Borders just to open up physical stores and piss on the graves of these companies? When you think about the end game—launching grocery stores with the same tech they have in the book stores—you realize the past five years haven’t been about selling books.”

Warehouse party

Amazon’s incredible efficiency and massive network have impacted numerous sectors of the economy. One that isn’t very sexy, but that’s important to how e-commerce shapes urban areas, is its impact on real estate.

Industrial real estate, specifically warehouses, is booming, due to the increase in deliveries and e-commerce. According to a recent Cushman and Wakefield Industrial Market Beat analysis, the sector is “on a roll”: Vacancies are down year over year (well below the historical average), new construction is up, and prices for warehouse real estate have risen at a steady clip since 2012. Warehouses are big business, and are quite literally getting bigger; the industry standard 24-foot-tall building is making way for 34-foot-high structures tailor-made for e-commerce and holding more inventory.

Amazon, as one of the biggest players in the game, has made a big push to improve its fulfillment infrastructure, a prime reason for its rapid growth (it reached 300,000 employees faster than any other American company, according to the Progressive Policy Institute), and a big part of its potential to further impact urban living.

Over the last two years, the company has expanded into major metro areas, building upon its massive hub-and-spoke system to the point where it can offer same-day (and in many cases, one- or two-hour) delivery to most major metro areas in the United States. In just the last year alone, for example, the company has doubled the number of facilities in its U.S. distribution network, according to the ILSR report Amazon’s Stranglehold, and the company is increasingly experimenting with ways to take over last-mile delivery.

“They now have warehouses within 20 miles of half the U.S. population,” says Smith, the business analyst. “They’re essentially going to be launching all of these small retail stores, which are ostensibly window-shopping centers.”

Smith believes Amazon has been especially aggressive about picking cities with the right customer base for increased e-commerce and expansion of its Prime Now program, specifically coastal metro areas with a disproportionate number of millennials earning six figures. There’s a link between warehouse growth and the rollout and expansion of services such as Amazon Fresh and Amazon Prime in cities like New York, Boston, Austin, Philly, and San Francisco.

Smith points to the company’s click-and-collect service, an app that allows users to quickly place and pick up orders. Imagine how that service could change grocery shopping: Combine an overwhelming logistics advantage with a series of small Amazon-branded stores, and suddenly it’s easy to simply order, and then pick up, groceries on the way home. Amazon claims to have the largest audience of any retail app in the world, according to Smith, with 30 million monthly active users users.

“With more and more warehouses and stores, and a decreasing distance between logistics facilities and stores, the cost of moving goods for Amazon goes down, and the margins go up,” Smith says.

With such a huge potential advantage, Smith predicts that within a decade Amazon will be a top-five grocery store in the country, in the same category as giants such as Wal-Mart (which, despite its vast inventory, makes half its revenue in groceries). There’s plenty of room to grow; while 42 percent of all U.S. consumers shopped at Amazon last year, 95 percent bought something at Wal-Mart.

Competing for the same curb

With expanding services and deliveries, one of the places Amazon and its competitors are poised to make a real impact is right on city streets. E-commerce can alternatively support a car-free lifestyle, offering city dwellers an easy way to do shopping, and increase the amount of freight and delivery traffic on roads. As companies like Amazon respond to increasing consumer demand—the number of online transactions has risen by 115 million from 2015 to 2016, according to Business Insider—streets will inevitably get crowded with more delivery vans.

Such freight traffic increases are rarely part of urban planning discussions. Anne Goodchild runs the Urban Freight Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. The year-old program, which examines delivery, logistics, and transportation with industry partners such as Costco and Nordstrom, advocates for more recognition of this growing source of vehicular traffic, and a more holistic planning approach from cities. People may be upset about these delivery trucks, she says, but they’re just accommodating consumer preference.

“Freight doesn’t appear to exist in urban planning, and that’s a problem,” she says. “Most people look at public transit and mobility, but they don’t appear to be living in a physical world. How can they plan complete streets when the words ‘freight delivery’ [aren’t] used?”

Goodchild says that cities are already seeing the consequences of neglecting to plan for increases in freight traffic. It’s not merely the jump in deliveries and traffic. With an uptick in cycling and pedestrian traffic in many areas, everyone is competing for the curb, and the same sidewalk and roadway space. Since freight infrastructure is often private, it’s off the radar for many planners.

“It’s like a transit system where you didn’t plan for the bus stops,” she says. “We all know we’re bringing more and more goods into the city, but there’s no programmatic way to account for what they’re delivering and when. We need scientific, data-driven, systematic views of urban freight analysis and planning.”

Goodchild believes that cities should start creating more holistic designs for roadways, like adding more curb cuts (graded ramps between the sidewalk and the street) and larger loading zones. More holistic policy and planning benefits everyone; city streets are freed up, while delivery companies cut “dwell time” and save money on deliveries.

Her team at the Urban Freight Lab is working with Seattle to create a map of the city’s freight facilities, bringing together public and private data to help design better policies around delivery services. She believes there’s a lot of good that can come from more considered policy around urban freight. These deliveries are the “logistics of living” for many city dwellers; greater efficiency can support car-free living and reduce the amount of time delivery trucks spend on the road, cutting emissions and congestion.

So far, Seattle and New York, which each have initiatives dedicated to urban freight issues, have begun to address the matter. But more thoughtful planning is still needed. According to Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a transportation researcher at Hofstra University, planners need to not only look at how people move, but how they consume.

“It’s almost a literal cargo cult,” he says. “Planners and architects believe that freight magically appears on your mailbox. They need to view people as needing a physical support system for their daily lives. Look at renderings and designs; where’s the freight? You see hipsters walking around these new buildings. How do they get their fake dirty jeans delivered?”

The incredible shrinking retail sector

Recent stories about the “retail apocalypse” and the shuttering of malls and big-box stores identify e-commerce sector growth as an important factor. Online retail, which accounted for 8.3 percent of total retail sales in the fourth quarter of 2016, according to U.S. Census figures, continues to rise in a pattern that mirrors the upward swoop of the arrow on the Amazon logo.

There are many other factors at play, according to analysts. Commercial property has been long overdue for a correction, says Smith; between 1970 and 2015, the number of malls grew at a pace twice as fast as the U.S. population. At the same time, discount stores are putting downward pressure on prices.

An Amazon physical bookstore in Seattle.

But it’s also true that e-commerce has been a big reason for less foot traffic and sales in physical retail. Smith says between 2010 and 2013, the number of people who visited malls dropped in half. If e-commerce increases, and expands into new categories, as Amazon is expected to do with groceries, we may see even more stores closing. The liveliness of commercial blocks may increasingly be replaced with empty storefronts.

“The combination of e-commerce, the decline of foot traffic, and technology is going to significantly shrink the footprint of retail in brick and mortar life,” says Smith. “What does that mean for city planners when all of that real estate is freed up for all these other uses?”

Smith believes that the push into groceries is all but inevitable for Amazon, mostly because they’ve been trying to crack the market for years. The failure of AmazonFresh, the company’s online grocery delivery service, only reinforced the consumer preference to picking up food in person. The average American family goes to a grocery store twice a week, and now Amazon wants to go where they’re shopping.

“Groceries [are] something they’ve never been able to disrupt, like they have with electronics and CPG [consumer-packaged goods, such as toilet paper and deodorant],” he says. “They need to go where the people are.”

If Smith’s predictions about the growth of Amazon’s grocery business are true, the company would become a big player rather quickly. And that has some serious potential side effects for cities.

According to LaVecchia, property taxes are the single largest source of revenue for state and local governments, and most of that comes from commercial landowners. Amazon’s incredible logistics operation significantly shrinks the footprint of a traditional commercial operation, meaning less taxes and revenue. And in many cases, especially in bigger urban areas, larger warehouses are outside of the main metro area (many Amazon warehouses serving Chicago, for instance, are located in Joliet, Illinois), in communities looking to subsidize new jobs: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance says the company has received $613 million in public subsidies for new fulfillment facilities since 2015.

The miracle of that Amazon box—bringing a world of goods to your doorstep in days, if not hours—has been transformative, as well as affordable. But the rise of online shopping, the unspooling of commercial districts, and the disconnect between shopping and the city have many unintended consequences. Planners and local governments need to be ready to grapple with them.

“The relationship between commerce and place has traditionally been a real strong link,” says LaVecchia. “Amazon is really throwing things on its head, and it’s something that we haven’t seen before. When commerce and shopping become disconnected from that sense of place, there are as many social implications as there are financial implications.”