In CityLab’s Perspective section contributors express new ideas, new takes on old ideas, and push us to think boldly about how life in cities can be better and more equitable for all. As 2018 drew to a close we asked our contributors and other thinkers what they saw as the notable “deaths” of 2018. We asked not for deaths of people (although some were noted) but ideas or concepts that died in 2018, and received responses on the topics of equity, transportation, environment, and life.
From varied cities and continents, these are the replies.
Obituary for sustainability (1987 - 2018)
This year it became clear, even to the willful optimists amongst us, that sustainability is an inadequate approach to the compound crises we humans have inflicted upon ourselves and our living planet home. Definitions of “sustainability” abound, but perhaps the most frequently cited in urban practice comes from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Nearly every self-respecting city government, property developer, architecture firm, and corporation has a sustainability policy. However, as made terrifyingly clear by the International Panel on Climate Change’s “Global Warming of 1.5 ºC” and the World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet” reports (to name just two of 2018’s formal ultimatums), our efforts have been insufficient, and will prove increasingly so if we are to avoid the worst consequences of the destructive forces that we’ve already unleashed. Why has sustainability proven insufficient, at least as currently practiced by the majority of us who claim to subscribe to it? Perhaps in part because, as the architect Michael Pawlyn pointed out to me, sustainability has largely been about minimizing harm: doing less bad. I wonder whether sustainability’s focus on future generations, however noble, may also obscure the reality that we are already on the brink of bankruptcy.
Before we can think about “sustaining” the world for the future, we must actively repair the environmental and social damages inflicted by our precursors, from which we have benefitted comprehensively. As designers, planners, and clients of the built environment, we need a more integrated, accountable and proactive approach, one that strives for the understanding, restoration and enrichment of the natural systems within which human society is integrally embedded and upon which our survival is wholly dependent. We need it now. —Sarah Ichioka
Sarah Ichioka is a Singapore-based urbanist, curator, and writer. She currently leads Desire Lines, a strategic consultancy for environmental, cultural, and social-impact organizations and initiatives.
Died, 2018: The myth of poverty’s geographical parameters
The urban legend goes something like this: “Poverty is rising mainly in inner cities among people of color. ” Except that story is harmful and false. Sure, wealthy suburbs exist. Many are getting wealthier. But poverty rates are actually growing faster in the suburbs than in the inner cities. And this problem isn’t isolated to the older, close-in suburbs; poverty is increasing in most newer suburbs, too. The reality is that poor people have been moving from the cities to the suburbs for almost three decades now.
This exodus is happening for a variety of reasons like increasing inequalities, and the rising cost of inner-city life. The decline in local good-paying jobs everywhere for those who are less educated and skilled is an underlying issue. So why does any of this matter? Because the myth that “poverty is mostly an inner-city problem” has resulted in growing suburban poverty that gets ignored, hobbling their upward mobility. Suburban social services have failed to keep up with the fact that more poor people in the US are living in the suburbs or moving there. That’s why it’s time for this myth to die. —Sam Adams
Sam Adams is the former mayor of Portland, Oregon, and was the founding director of the World Resources Institute’s U.S. program. He is currently the Director of Strategy for CleanTech Methods, Inc.
Death of a congressional vacancy (1789-2018)
Despite the fact that Native people have been oppressed by federal legislation from the founding of the United States, there have been very few Native people elected to Congress. Native women, in particular, have been the victims of federal laws without having any representation in Congress.
In the historic November 2018 election, the first two Native women were elected to Congress. Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk) will represent the Kansas third congressional district. Davids is an Ivy League-educated lawyer and former White House fellow.
Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) will represent New Mexico’s first congressional district. Haaland is the former Chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico.
With the elections of Davids and Haaland, Native women finally have a “vote” in the Nation’s legislature. When combined with the first Native Supreme Court clerk, Tobi Young (Chickasaw), who began in October as a clerk for Justice Neil Gorsuch), the nation will no longer be able to ignore the voices and faces of the nearly 2 million Native women in the United States. —Sarah Deer
Sarah Deer (Mvskoke) is Professor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. She is Chief Justice of the Prairie Island Indian Community Court of Appeals.
A death in transit: Debt and despair fuel a suicide crisis in the taxi industry
Doug Schifter, 61, of New York City posted a lengthy Facebook post about his debt and despair before he shot himself in his car in front of City Hall in early February. For 40 years he had driven taxis and black cars and, for the past four years, written an online column about the plight of professional drivers like himself in the age of Uber. The disruption that Uber had caused in the taxi industry was not some sort of inconvenience. Schifter had lost health insurance, amassed credit card debt, and could no longer cover his medical expenses. Peers struggled with bankruptcies, foreclosures, and eviction notices. Reminiscent of the self-immolating Tibetan monks who protested Chinese rule, the message from Schifter was clear: Local officials had stood by as financial hardships beset a whole industry of professional drivers.
At the year’s end, the number of drivers in New York City who have committed suicide is now eight. Abdul Salah, an immigrant from Yemen, was the seventh casualty. He had struggled to pay the leasing fee on his yellow cab. The eighth casualty was a Korean immigrant named Roy Kim who could no longer find fares to cover the fees for his half-a-million-dollar medallion. In almost every case, the reasons were the same as those that bought Schifter to his death: debt, depression, and Uber. While a bailout may be a long-way off, the recent approval of a new minimum wage and a cap on the number of Uber drivers suggest that Schifter’s last plea actually may have been heard. —Katie Wells
Katie Wells is an Urban Studies Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Georgetown University. She conducts research on this topic with Kafui Attoh and Declan Cullen.
A transit leader takes his final journey
William Wheeler, a longtime leader at New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), passed away on October 27th at 69. Wheeler is credited as the visionary behind MTA's MetroCard, introduced in 1993. Now a fixture for New York City commuters, the thin, plastic MetroCard replaced metal tokens used by commuters for four decades.
The MetroCard was groundbreaking when it launched, but its user experience has never been smooth as attested by those who have been stopped at subway turnstiles swiping futilely for entrance. MetroCard's days are now numbered: In 2017 MTA began testing an app-based fare payment system, and it plans to go to an entirely paperless system by 2020. MTA is hardly the only agency moving toward a digital payment future; cities from Boston to Chicago to San Francisco have done so as well. Innovation marches on. —David Zipper
David Zipper is a Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a Partner in the 1776 Venture Fund.
Death of the misconception that the modern movement against sexual harassment originated with white women
In 2018 the #metoo movement gained traction, but for me the idea that was laid to rest was that white women birthed it.
As Julianne Malveaux reminded us this year, Mechelle Vinson, a black woman from Northeast, Washington, D.C., laid the foundation 40 years ago. Vinson wasn't a famous actress with press access, but a young black woman who had dropped out of high school to marry. Vinson started work at Meritor Savings Bank as a teenaged teller-trainee and endured four years of sexual harassment before initiating her case in 1978. Her groundbreaking lawsuit wended its way through the courts until finally, in 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Mechelle Vinson vs Meritor Savings Bank, FSB, that sexual discrimination resulting in a “hostile environment” is a violation of Title VII.
When Vinson started at the bank in 1974, she was 19 and Washington D.C., was basically a black-white city with few residents identifying with any other racial or ethnic group.
The sun has set on that black-white D.C. and the dawn has given birth to a Washington with a diversity that is as multifarious and complex as the #metoo movement. —Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe
Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe is founder and president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity, and Race, a think tank focused on the social, economic, cultural and political well-being of women of color.
Kigali 2018: Death of a tragic past
Only 24 years ago, Rwanda was beset by a gruesome event: a genocide that claimed the lives of close to a million Rwandans. Ever since, the country and her people have been deeply marked and regarded by this horrendous chapter in their history. However, visit Kigali today—as I did during the Invisible Borders Trans-African Road Trip—and you will be baffled as to how far things have come. The kind of progress being made in all aspects of the society is nothing short of a miracle when compared to the improbability of their destiny. What’s more, this is a believable progress. In every way, it feels like a ground-up progress. It begins with seamless order and the sparkling cleanliness of the streets and public spaces from the airport in Kigali to Gisenyi, the border town between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This sense of progress runs through the demeanor and consciousness of every Rwandan I met. There is something unprecedented, more so in the context of Africa, about their willingness to work for and sustain their own progress in the spirit of togetherness. I have never felt so alive and so hopeful in a place where many would erroneously want to continue to see as a place of many deaths. There is still a long way to go, but the distance between present-day Rwanda and her past is too exponentially far apart to be measured by any ordinary scale. —Emeka Okereke
Emeka Okereke is a Nigerian visual artist and writer who lives and works between Lagos and Berlin. He is the founder and artistic director of Invisible Borders Trans-African Project and a 2018 recipient of the Ministry of Culture of France’s Chevalier De l’Ordre Des Arts et Des Lettres.
Death of silos in governmental administration
In 2018, we witnessed another nail in the coffin of administrative silos, the much-criticized vertical structure of government—one set up around various agencies to advance the needs of the bureaucratic state over the interests of citizens.
Digital tools had already punched holes in the walls between agencies, and this year those tools managed to attack the structure itself. Los Angeles demonstrated progress with its GeoHub that provides a platform for ongoing collaboration around a sense of place and helps erode vertical inefficiencies. Likewise, Atlanta utilized digital advances to produce building permits in record time by altering sequential agency handoffs into concurrent processing. And Chicago city government instituted the role of Design Director, dedicated to creating responsive government experiences around the user, not the agency. While government spent the better part of the past century hardening the edifice of its silos, this year alone managed to mortally weaken many of those bulwarks beyond recognition. —Stephen Goldsmith
Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis and deputy mayor of New York, is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the director of the Innovations in American Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.