Madison Johnson/CityLab

What’s changed and what hasn’t since we set out to chronicle cities in 2011? To answer this question, we went back to CityLab’s roots.

It was almost a decade ago, in 2011, that this very website was launched, at the time dubbed The Atlantic Cities. The conceit, then as now, was that “to understand cities is to get a handle on how most of us live, work, and play,” as CityLab editor emeritus Sommer Mathis wrote at the time.

Now, an even greater majority of the world’s population lives in a town or a city. And cities have increasingly become the places where some of the most pressing issues of our time may be decided.

So as we enter the new decade, we consulted some of CityLab’s esteemed alumni to get their take on the concepts, changes, innovations, and unfulfilled promises that have defined the decade in cities.

Multimodal transportation finally went mainstream

We launched as The Atlantic Cities in 2011, which just so happened to be the year that Uber expanded to The Atlantic's home base of Washington, D.C. The year before, the District of Columbia debuted Capital Bikeshare, then the largest and most ambitious bikeshare system in the U.S. Yes, ride-hailing isn't perfect, and some bikesharing systems have struggled or failed. But the proliferation of both types of services over the past decade has helped millions of city dwellers around the world experience multimodal transportation choices for the first time. This was the decade when technology finally made it possible to imagine a future, particularly in North America, where driving yourself alone in a car doesn't have to be the default.

An unanswered question

Over the past decade, I have come back over and over to the same question that I still don’t think we have the answer to: How do cities ensure that the people who have long lived in disinvested neighborhoods benefit from their revival? In Chicago, Richmond, Oakland, Atlanta, and Baltimore, historically neglected neighborhoods have attracted new parks, new grocery stores, new development, new residents. That is, in theory, good news. But that investment is so often accompanied by fears of rising rents, displacement, and exclusion. What would it look like to have urban redevelopment without those fears? The question feels increasingly urgent.

Are rich neighborhoods the real problem?

The history of housing discrimination and segregation has given us the unequal urban geography we see in the U.S. today. Over the last decade, some of the go-to strategies have advocated breaking up, “deconcentrating,” or “integrating” low income neighborhoods. But in doing so, perhaps inadvertently, these tactics designated poor communities of color as problems that need solving—and not as culturally valuable, reasonable, and knowledgeable communities that can advocate for their own interests. A question that I am seeing asked more frequently: Should we, while respecting and empowering less resourced communities, be focusing our research and solutions instead on the role of highly privileged neighborhoods in maintaining the status quo?

The wrong way on walking

One of the most disappointing, and ultimately tragic, trends of the past several years has been the steady rise of pedestrian fatalities around the United States. Even as other traffic deaths have declined, and even as communities around the U.S. have begun to see the value of streets designed for humans and not cars, the number of pedestrians killed by drivers went up 35 percent between 2008 and 2017, according to a recent report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. The pattern shows no sign of reversing: In 2018, 6,227 pedestrians died on the nation's streets, the most since 1990. Some of the toll, the report's authors say, can be attributed to the rise in popularity of SUVs, which are more likely to kill people that they hit. Those big trucks are another depressing, energy-hogging trend that Americans are embracing in defiance of the need to devote fewer resources and less space to personal motor vehicles in the age of climate change.

The unfulfilled public transportation promise

The story I wrote for the 2011 launch of The Atlantic Cities included a reference to the Kardashians, like any substantive piece on public transportation should. Both were having a moment. Transit was rising across American cities; by mid-decade, ridership would reach levels not seen since the 1950s. But from there it fell, and hard. There are many reasons for this unfulfilled promise: service cuts, car-first street designs, artificially cheap parking and driving and hailing, no political will to deploy congestion pricing as a reliable source of transit funding. But the common theme is that cities have not been effective car-dash-ians. That’s made it harder for people to reach jobs and get places—you might say, to keep up.

The Rise of the YIMBYs

The 2010s began with the affordability crisis, but will be remembered for the rise of the YIMBYs. As America continues to build fewer homes per capita than at any time since World War II, this new wave of activists, embracing the acronym for “yes in my backyard,” has taken up the central question of fair housing advocates going back to the 1950s. Why are apartments banned from most of the land in most American cities and suburbs, anyway? And what can we do about it? In just a few years, the Overton window on this issue has permanently shifted: California has legalized accessory dwelling units and is converting garages into housing by the thousands; Minneapolis has ended single-family zoning; Oregon has liberalized zoning statewide. Many other changes appear to be close behind. Two trends will stoke more changes in the 2020s: More millennials will confront their (bad, overpriced) housing options as they start families, and boomers will begin to age out of huge, car-dependent houses and yearn for alternatives.

Growing city literacy

This decade has seen a spike in what I'd call city literacy. More people are thinking and caring and debating about cities. There's more scrutiny on the dynamics of neighborhood change, the promise of big tech in cities, and the role urban design plays in shaping lives and livelihoods. It's now widely (or at least sort of widely) understood that outdated zoning has worsened housing shortages, that more parking leads to more driving, that maybe we don't actually need so many freeways running through our cities. When the site launched and I was its sole staff writer, opening up these topics to a “mainstream” audience felt a little daunting, if overdue. It's been gratifying to see the conversation evolve over the years, thanks in no small part to CityLab and its talented pool of writers and editors.

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