While federal politics dominated the headlines in 2017, a lot went down in cities, too. From the good to the bad to the truly terrifying, here are some of the best and worst trends that shaped cities this year.
Bye Wells Fargo, Hello Public Banks
In the wake of former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s disastrous 2016 testimony before the U.S. Senate, Philadelphia began exploring divestment. This year, the city joined the ranks of Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and San Francisco in moving forward with a public bank model. New York City also began the process of moving city deposits away from the disgraced entity earlier this year, citing its failing grade on a recent Community Reinvestment Act examination. And Los Angeles is also looking toward alternative models for the 2018 date when its contract with Wells Fargo expires.
Putting a Priority on Privacy
As more cities make use of cell phone records and police data to improve day-to-day services, questions of privacy become ever more urgent. As Next City covered earlier this year, most regulatory frameworks focus on removing personally identifiable information for publicly used data sets, but because so much data is now available from so many sources, hackers can use a piecemeal approach to identify individuals, even if the data has been made anonymous. In response, cities have stepped up their privacy game. Santa Clara County hired one of the country’s first Chief Privacy Officers. Kansas City — a leader of the “Smart Cities” trend — created a set of principals to guide its privacy policies. And a first-of-its-kind New York City bill addressing discrimination in the city’s widely-used algorithms also covered privacy issues in areas like facial recognition technology.
Uber Shows Kalanick the Door
The problem-plagued company got one thing right this year. Kalanick, the bullish (and sexist) CEO whose combative temperament helped create one of “America’s Most Hated Companies,” stepped down following a shareholder revolt in June. It would be inaccurate to say that since his departure, Uber has become a meek and compliant city partner — Uber was, after all, molded in its founder’s disruptive image. But there are signs of improvement. The company’s tactics appear to have softened, and when the European Court of Justice ruled in December that Uber was officially a cab company, Uber didn’t fight back with its old vigor. Instead, it put out a statement about how it was “appropriate to regulate services such as Uber” and how the company would continue its “dialogue” with cities.
Fare Evasion Isn’t a Crime
As more transit providers switch from on-board fare collection to kiosks, law enforcement have begun clamping down on fare evasion. But in 2017, with fear of officers at an all-time high among immigrant communities, some advocates and judges have pushed back against the trend. Cleveland transit agency’s “proof of payment” system, which allows police officers to stop passengers and check whether they’ve paid, was ruled unconstitutional by a municipal court judge in November. The decision was embraced by a group of Pittsburgh advocates, who have been trying to convince the Port Authority to switch law enforcement officers for a team of civilian enforcers.
(Credit: The Floating Museum)
Opening Museum Doors a Little Bit Wider
Too often, art and history museums are marketed as venues for the wealthy and white. This year, a number of cities and institutions tried to change that. In July, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would link all future funding of cultural institutions to the diversity of their boards and employees. And in November, the Ford and Walton Family Foundations stated that they would each commit $3 million over three years to support diversifying curatorial and management staff at U.S. art museums. Meanwhile, museums became political advocates for their neighborhoods and sent local art floating down the Chicago River, so more people would see it.
With Seattle leading the way and New Orleans close behind, the private, dockless bike-share model is allowing more cities to have bike-share without spending tax dollars up-front. The model, which allows users to pick up and park bikes at locations close to them — rather than at set docking stations — is both innovative and convenient, and has spread like wildfire in Chinese cities, where officials have embraced it as a green transportation option in areas with deadly air quality.
Corporate Welfare Alive and Well in HQ2 Bids
When Amazon announced that it was searching for a city in which to locate its “HQ2,” municipal leaders across the country scrambled to out-do each other in over-the-top gestures (a giant cactus as a gift, the promise of a de-annexed city named “Amazon”) and corporate welfare proposals. Two of the worst offenders were Chicago, which offered up $2 billion in incentives (and hinted that it was willing to offer more), and Baltimore, which is luring the company with a massive redevelopment project funded by Goldman Sachs, with backing from sportswear firm Under Armour.
From uncomfortable benches that can’t be slept on to boulders pushed beneath underpasses to discourage sleeping to, worst of all, a robot meant to prevent homeless encampments from forming in San Francisco, 2017 has been the year design went Scrooge-like in its petty cruelty. The robot was eventually smeared with barbecue sauce and feces, covered with a tarp and beat up, which, to be fair, it deserved.
Not-So-Public Public Spaces
Privately-owned public spaces are nothing new, but this year their prevalence came into disturbing focus. A Guardian investigation revealed that many of London’s most famous and widely-used “public spaces” were actually privately-owned, and subject to the (often clear) rule of private security guards. And a series of New York audits revealed that the city had doled out extra square footage to developers in exchange for the creation of “public spaces,” but those spaces were often restricted by some type of fence or barricade or accompanied by signs reading “For Private Use Only.”
The Unhelpful Jargon of NIMBY/YIMBY Still Reigns
As Chrishelle Palay wrote in a Next City op-ed this year, “NIMBY” is often a veiled and coded term for blatant racism. If white and affluent residents don’t want affordable housing, desegregated school policies or public transit in their neighborhoods (often referring vaguely to “crime” or “gang activity”), they’re “NIMBYs,” not racists, and local officials tend to treat their wishes with polite kid gloves. YIMBY, a reaction to the unhelpful term, isn’t much better. It’s time to retire this imprecise language. and talk in concrete terms about the legacies of redlining and segregation that still shape our built environments.
The “Brodega” was Twitter’s snarky response to a particularly unsavory piece of west coast disruption: the vending machine called Bodega. In September, a start-up helmed by CEO Paul McDonald announced that it was rolling out the machines in offices, dorms and gyms, but its name, “Bodega,” struck a discordant note nationwide, especially after thousands of Bodegas closed their doors to protest President Trump’s immigration ban. “Weird that they’re calling this heinous vending machine ‘Bodega’ and not ‘Gentrification Box,’” one particularly astute observer tweeted.
Yes, the dockless bike-share model is allowing more cities to have bike-share without spending tax dollars up-front — but that arrangement could be problematic long-term. Critics worry about the fact that many dockless start-ups are venture-funded with an infusion of cash up-front. They fear that they’ll roll out bikes as quickly as possible, with little accountability to city agencies and less thought about the needs of the transit system as a whole. And while the model is both innovative and convenient, and has spread like wildfire in Chinese cities, that country’s infamous clogged sidewalks and bike graveyards tell a cautionary tale about rolling out too many cheap bikes too fast.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.