Seth Baron at City Journal explains how DiBlasio and NYC agencies focused so much of their efforts on climate change related disasters that they forgot to focus on the likely scenario of a flu-like pandemic. So while the city spent millions on education campaigns and billion of flood defenses related to a hurricane disaster, when COVID-19 hit it was short on basic supplies like ventilators, masks, face guards and hand sanitizer.
New York is the nation’s largest and richest city, and it’s worth asking why it found itself in such short supply of basic goods, especially after so much time and energy was spent on preparedness and resiliency. The city published multiple studies about the likelihood of an epidemic that could flood emergency rooms and participated in a rolling “Pandemic Accord Continuity Exercise Series” with FEMA from 2013 through 2015. The NYC Health + Hospitals Corporation, the largest public hospital organization in the country, has a dedicated Simulation Center that ran a “SARS Pandemic Response Simulation” at Kings County Hospital in 2019.
Jonah Markowitz of The New York Times offers a timeline of the many failures of New York City and State leadership to respond adequately to the COVID-19 threat. From the onset, New York leadership said publicly they were on top of the threat but, in actually, weren’t doing what they claimed they were doing. While their California counterparts shut down their cities, NYC leadership presented a false sense of calm. By one estimate, 50%-80% of deaths could have been avoided had NYC responded as quickly as San Fransisco did.
By Evgeny Morozov and Francesca Bria. Following the celebration of the “creative city” (as described by Richard Florida), the “smart city” has become the new flavor of the month—and a brand. It makes clever use of resources, and it attracts money, corporate power, and private industries. Offering us cheap, effective solutions to social and political problems, the smart city is functional, optimized, and safe rather than participatory, sustainable, and fair.
As Evgeny Morozov and Francesca Bria point out, however, the problem is not merely the regulatory impulse of smart technologies. Coming from a political-economic rather than a purely technical perspective, the authors argue that the smart city can only be understood within the context of neoliberalism. In order to remain competitive in the era of austerity politics, cities hand over the management of public infrastructure and services to private companies, both de-centralizing and de-personalizing the political sphere.
How can cities regain control not only over technology, data, and infrastructure, but also over the services that are mediated by smart technologies—such as utilities, transportation, education, and health? Offering a wealth of examples and case studies from across the globe, the authors discuss alternative smart city models, which rely on democratic data ownership regimes, grassroots innovation, and cooperative service provision models.
Evgeny Morozov is a prominent critic of digital capitalism, dealing with questions of how major technology companies are transforming society and democracy. The author of several books, he also writes for various newspapers, including The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. With a background in social science and innovation economics, Francesca Bria is an expert in digital strategy, technology, and information policy, who is active in various innovation movements advocating for open access, open technologies, and digital rights. She is currently Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer at the Barcelona City Council.
Laying out what works and what doesn’t in the smart city of today, the authors do not simply advocate for a high-tech version of socialism in the fifth publication of our “City Series.” By carefully assessing what is at stake and for whom, this timely study offers practical solutions for how cities can be smart while retaining their technological sovereignty.
Two of Italy’s wealthiest regions, Lombardy and Veneto, have announced plans for referendums aimed at obtaining greater independence.
The referendums will take place on October 22nd, the regions announced on Friday – and although the results of the vote will not be legally binding, they could have major implications for Italy’s general election next year.
At the heart of the issue is money: Grimoldi said the regions were fed up with “giving 80 billion euros [each year] to the state coffers”.
“At this point the only path to get a response to the ‘Lombardy question’ and the ‘Veneto question’ is through a referendum,” said Paolo Grimoldi, a key figure in the far-right Northern League said in a statement. “The time for answers from Rome has run out, as has the patience of citizens.”
Lombardy and Veneto are responsible for producing respectively around 20 and ten percent of Italy’s total GDP. They both pay several times more money in taxes to Rome than they receive in investment and services.
Veneto’s Northern League president Luca Zaia has been a leading voice in the calls for greater regional autonomy.
Zaia had initially called for a referendum asking Venetians if they wanted to secede from Italy, or control the tax revenue collected in the northern region, but Italy’s Constitutional Court blocked the plan.
Instead, Venetians will be asked if they want the region to receive “further forms and particular conditions of autonomy”. The question which will be posed to Lombardy residents has not yet been decided.
The status of the regions of Italy – which only became a unified country in 1861 – is complicated. The peninsula is home to the microstate of San Marino, and the independent city-state of Vatican City, and of the 20 regions, five currently enjoy special status.
The regional councils of Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Aosta Valley and Veneto’s neighbour Friuli-Venezia Giulia have been granted special powers by the Italian government over their legislation and administration. It is this sort of privilege that Lombardy and Veneto are fighting for, with greater financial control the biggest issue.
But if the results won’t be legally binding, what effect will they have on Italy?
According to Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor and president of Rome’s John Cabot University, a strong vote in favour of autonomy would give a huge boost to the politicians fighting for a bigger share of tax income, and bring the issue of regional powers to the forefront of political debate.
“It’s all about the money. [Lombardy’s regional president, Roberto] Maroni said that if the state gives them more funds, he won’t hold the referendum,” Pavoncello told The Local.
“They aren’t asking for ‘independence’ but administrative authority,” he explained. “First they’ll vote, then in the event of a ‘yes’, the state will need to decide how to react. There are two main ways the issue could be settled: a reform of the entire country toward a federal system, or the possibility of particular regions being given special status.”
However, a win in the October referendums could cause headaches for the party in its efforts to expand its appeal across the centre and south of the country. Party leader Matteo Salvini has officially given his support to the regional councillors in their quest for autonomy, but hasn’t spoken publicly about the referendums, instead using his social media platforms to voice support for French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
But Pavoncello doesn’t think the party will be too worried about losing some votes in the central or southern regions. “Their aim is to reinforce the two regions are the most important for their political party, and are losing votes to the Five Star Movement, for example,” he explained.
Previous polls in the regions show strong support for independence.
In December, Veneto’s Northern League council approved a bill defining Venetians as a “minority”, allowing locals to define their nationality as Venetian and to teach the local language in school. At the time, Italian daily Repubblica dubbed the vote ‘Venexit’ and local councillor Riccardo Barbisan labelled it “an important step towards giving greater strength to the Veneto’s request for autonomy”.
In 2014, an unofficial online poll organized by the Indipendenza Veneta party – which campaigns for total secession from Italy, arguing that this is legal under international law – showed that 89 percent of Venetians favoured total independence. Two further opinion polls the same year estimated support for independence at between 51 and 54 percent.
It’s a fine spring Sunday in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and most people in this decidedly pious city in the heart of Amish country are at home or at church celebrating the Sabbath. Even the famous Central Market—with its traditionally dressed vendors, its German delicacies, its Muenster cheeses and cured meats —is closed.1
When you’re trying to create a populist political movement from scratch, however, you don’t get a lot of down time. And so Michelle Hines and her partner, Daniel Levin, are out knocking on doors and telling their neighbors about the new grassroots group in town.2
Hines, a young white woman who works a day job at a local laboratory, ascends the stoop of a gray stone row house and a middle-aged lady in a dressing gown and slippers answers the door.3
Hines introduces herself and then asks the crucial question: “What do you think of the political establishment?”4
“It sucks!” says the woman at the door, who gives her name as Judy and describes herself as a Republican who didn’t vote in the last election. “It ain’t good, I’ll put it that way.” The woman is open and garrulous, and Hines invites her to the next monthly meeting of the group she represents. It’s called Lancaster Stands Up.5
The organization, Hines explains, is a way for people who are sick of the status quo “to come together, to get plugged in.” It’s a polite and strategic description, but there’s plenty more to say.6
Founded in the wake of Trump’s victory and led by a 12-person leadership committee, Lancaster Stands Up aims to upend politics-as-usual in this central Pennsylvania city. It wants nothing less than to break the stranglehold of both the Democratic and Republican establishments here and replace them with a progressive multi-racial political force beholden to the people alone. And it is using the tools of long-haul grassroots activism—canvassing, vetting candidates, bird-dogging political foes, forming unlikely alliances, training leaders, convening meetings—to build its constituency.7
A crew of young lifelong Lancastrians, some of whom have been organizing together since high school, launched the group on their own, independent of any national organization, last November. Through huge rallies and intimate conversations and more, they are reminding neighbors like Judy that democracy is a practice that must be pursued constantly and in community. There are no off days. There are no off years. When civil society is at stake, it’s campaign time all the time.8
After describing her concerns about gentrification and the cost of a movie ticket, after lamenting the fact that “the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer,” Judy, standing on her stoop under the springtime sun, shares her contact information and tells Hines that she’ll try to make the next meeting. She promises to tell her politically active daughter about Lancaster Stands Up, too.9
Veterans courts and drug-addiction services in Austin, Texas, are being squeezed by the state because the sanctuary city’s sheriff won’t comply with ICE.
In Austin, some courts might have to be crowdfunded.
That’s because the city is what President Donald Trump calls a “sanctuary city”—and it’s facing extraordinary pressure, both political and financial, to join the Trump administration’s mass deportation efforts.
Austin is in Travis County, where its so-called sanctuary policy has already cost it $1.5 million in state funding that would have paid for drug courts, veterans’ courts, and aid to domestic violence victims.
Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and other advocates of tougher immigration enforcement urge local police and sheriffs to help ICE in its deportation efforts. But many local law enforcement officials—including including Travis County’s new sheriff, Sally Hernandez—are hesitant, fearing that undocumented immigrants will be less likely to help police track down dangerous criminals if those police are in cahoots with ICE.
When Hernandez announced the county wouldn’t always cooperate with Trump, Texas Governor Greg Abbott cut state funding to the county.
So the sheriff’s supporters are now crowdfunding to make up for the lost cash—cash that pays for special courts designed to help War on Terror veterans with PTSD and parents with drug addictions. And it’s unlikely to be an anomaly, as Austin has become a national focal point in Trump’s efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants.
In 1980, the Chinese city of Shenzhen was a railroad stop with a population of 30,000. Flash forward 40 years, and it was home to 12 million.
Why such massive growth? The Chinese government declared Shenzhen a “special economic zone” with more-liberal tax and business rules than the rest of the country. Coupled with its proximity to the financial hub of Hong Kong, the special status turned Shenzhen into a global economic powerhouse.
Now, an attorney who has developed special economic zones in over a dozen countries thinks that the model can be applied to the world’s refugee crisis. Calling his proposal Refugee Cities, former World Bank consultant Michael R. Castle Miller imagines a political solution with an economic rationale to solve the desperate plight of refugees, from Syrians crowding boats in the Mediterranean to Central Americans braving a harsh desert border crossing.
The crux of Castle Miller’s proposal — and so far, that’s all it remains — is that more often than not, refugees can work, whether high skilled or low skilled, but their uncertain status in host countries means that they can’t get an appropriate job. Whether the lack of a work permit shunts someone into the informal sector or incompatible education systems lead a PhD holder to drive a taxi, the refugee crisis has created a labour imbalance.
But if a national government were to delineate a refugee city using the legal tools of special economic zones, those migrants could work legally for companies with both an economic and corporate social responsibility incentive to hire them. Then, when the famine, civil war or other unrest subsides, most of the migrants could return home, alleviating the host country of permanent resettlement while generating economic activity.
Citiscope’s Gregory Scruggs spoke with Castle Miller about this idea earlier this year. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Gregory Scruggs: Why should leaders apply the “special economic zone” model to the world’s migrant crisis?
Michael R. Castle Miller: It’s the second-best solution. The ideal scenario in my mind is for more nations to welcome more refugees into the formal economies nationwide. But the sad reality is that’s just not going to happen for the vast majority of refugees. Less than 1 percent of refugees are resettled to third countries, and those that flee to neighbouring countries to a conflict are normally confined to camps, where they aren’t given access to formal labour markets, are not legally allowed to work and are not legally allowed to start their own businesses, except in rare circumstances.
So what are we going to do for those people? The U. N. and other refugee advocacy organizations are pursuing things on one front, trying to urge nations to include more refugees into their nationwide economies, and that’s great — we need to keep doing that. But we’re not going to make it, especially with the current political climate. What are we going to do for people now?
So a work programme is a middle-ground solution. Something that is more politically acceptable for countries than either Western countries resettling people or countries of first asylum — like Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, other places — letting refugees work anywhere in the country. And most economists will tell you that it’s in the countries’ best interest to allow refugees to work.
It also is a politically desirable solution, especially if the refugee city is built in an area where there’s no economic activity happening, or very little. In that case, it counteracts the argument of refugees “stealing” jobs from nationals in the country. You take an area that’s currently unoccupied, where there’s no businesses, and you build a refugee city, and a bunch of investment comes in and starts creating jobs — then you can point to that and say the refugees didn’t steal jobs, they brought those jobs. And they brought them not just for the refugees but for host-country nationals. And of course, the refugees will start their own businesses and employ other refugees and host-country nationals, as well.
Q: What does this actually look like as a practical matter? Will a refugee city resemble the massive encampment in Dadaab, Kenya?
A: You could call places like Dadaab or Mae Sot, on the border of Myanmar and Thailand, refugee cities, but I would prefer not to for my purposes, because these places are a mess. Part of the reason is that the countries that they’re in are not including them in the formal economy. So most of the businesses that operate in places like that are illegal. They’re not licensed there, and therefore those businesses can’t have access to formal sources of financing. They’ve got to go to loan sharks, or reselling aid.
These are all things that people do to respond to their circumstances. Anytime people come up with solutions to address their own problems, it’s a creative activity. And that’s often very good. So what we want to do is create a platform that facilitates good, constructive, creative activity. In other words, it doesn’t relegate it to the black market as the informal economy but allows it to flourish as formal economic activity — so that the businesses are legal, and people are able to access input to production processes legally and employ people legally.
Q: Do you imagine building a new town, like a planned community, but populated by refugees?
A: One model is to have a “quick start” refugee city that would begin with a some basic master planning for the area. We’re thinking of it as a refugee camp but a little bit more city-like. And that would [include] hiring an architecture planning firm to draw up a master plan for an area where they parcel out pieces of the property. They build some basic infrastructure, have a basic road layout. They have some basic utilities, like water, sanitation — which is actually way more than most refugee camps. And then supplying modular homes that are quick and cheap to assemble, and laying them out according to the spatial plan that they’ve developed. Also, setting aside some facilities for businesses to operate in.
That’s a quick option, because that allows you to bring in a whole bunch of refugees really quickly. Then you’d also set up basic institutional structure, where there’d be some type of governing authority over the area and a major service provider. So we’d have the developer, a service provider, as well as security.
Q: In that case you wouldn’t charter your own municipal waste company. Rather, you would try to have all this done by third-party contractors?
A: What I’ve described is the “quick start” project. But then there’s the “best practices” version, which is a bit more like what you have in special economic areas today, especially in big special economic areas in city-like areas. There we do a lot more planning, first to study where the greatest opportunities for a refugee city lie, in terms of delivering the most positive economic impact for the host country, in terms where is going to attract the most investments for businesses to employ people.
And then we would have a concession agreement with the government, which would basically be the government either selling or leasing the land to a development company — maybe under a long-term lease, maybe 40 years. And that would give the developer the right to lease that property and the land to businesses and to residents and begin to make back all its initial development costs.
Q: But you’ve got refugees arriving with just the clothes on their backs. How do you anticipate that they would even be able to afford a nominal rent on these prefab homes?
A: There is still a role for aid, for governments and for donor organizations like the U. N. to be channeling aid money, but it’s under a very different model. It’s under a model that provides a pathway for refugees to become self-sufficient. So you’d have initial cash assistance for refugees that can’t afford to pay rents or can’t afford to pay their water bill or electricity bill. You could still even deliver food to people, and clothing. You could still provide free dental care, just like they do in refugee camps now. Except the alternative is, first of all we have the infrastructure to deliver all the same much more efficiently — for instance, water and sanitation infrastructure. The temporary measures that they use now are much more expensive.
Also, it’s on a model where there are opportunities for refugees to become self-sufficient, so they can gradually earn more and more money for themselves and they can begin paying rent themselves. That way, the developer, rather than basically receiving indirect subsidies from the aid that is being provided by humanitarian organizations, will end up collecting revenue from residents.
But initially the developers’ revenue isn’t just going to come from either the residents or from the aid that channels through them, but it will also be collecting revenue from the businesses that rent properties. In fact, that might be the largest source of its revenue — marketing the area in order to attract, especially early on, major anchor tenants. Major anchor tenants are businesses with a really strong corporate-social-responsibility reputation that can come and employ large numbers of people.
Q: What kind of businesses do you think would benefit from employing presumably low-wage unskilled labour?
A: First of all, that’s one of the things that’s different about refugees from most migrants: A lot of refugees have very significant skills. When a conflict happens, it drives out a huge cross-section of the country, from high-skilled people to low-skilled people. So there probably will be a lot of high-skilled people that are there available to be employed.
But even if not, or we can’t attract the type of employers that would employ them, there’s still huge markets out there for low-skilled labour, too. In places like northern Africa and the Middle East, they’re importing construction materials, for instance, from places like Europe and other places. Garment manufacturing has become the classic example of an industry that is able to employ large numbers of low-skilled workers.
That’s really where the feasibility studies come into play, because the ultimate answer to your question is going to depend heavily on the particular context. What is the labour market like of the refugees and the-host country nationals living in the area? What are their skills levels, or what have they done in the past? Are you located near a port, or how far is it from a major consumption market like Europe?
Q: Do you anticipate building refugee cities along the lines of a Shenzhen that is just over the border with a financial capital like a Hong Kong?
A: When we’re looking at the best opportunities for a refugee city, it’s the same thing with special economics zones: It’s always best to have it located near existing economic activity. The more economic activity, the better. Another factor is near existing infrastructure access, especially when you think about major ports, seaports, major airports and other transportation connections. It’s not necessarily crucial for the success of a refugee city, but it certainly helps.
Q: Are you concerned that planning for a refugee city’s permanence could undercut the quality of the city to begin with?
A: For a lot of the Middle East and North Africa, there’s a need for new cities in these areas, for new urban space. So worst-case scenario is the refugee city gets built, there’s a lot of money invested in the infrastructure and buildings, and a lot of the refugees end up going back home when the conflict ends. In that case, the city is getting a whole bunch of great, high-quality infrastructure and buildings for free, or whatever they negotiated with the developer. Worst-case scenario, they’ve got a new city.
‘It has to be total revolution or nothing: that was our stance’ … the 17 independent councillors who now make up Frome’s town council. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt
At this year’s Glastonbury, while some people get excited about the Foo Fighters and others loll around the Healing Field, one of the events in Billy Bragg’s politics-and-music Left Field tent will be devoted to a discussion of “Radical Movements”. The organisers have booked speakers from Greece’s governing party, Syriza, insurgent Spanish rebels Podemos and Scottish leftwing collective Radical Independence, all of whom will presumably give it some about the horrors of neoliberalism and the nitty-gritty of popular revolt. And then there will be the representative from Frome.
Somewhat incongruously, the speaker from the Somerset market town will be there to explain an idea known as “flatpack democracy”, and a small-scale revolution that has turned local politics there, and elsewhere, on its head.
The basic aim seems both simple and benign: “Taking political power at a local level, then using it to enable people to have a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives.” But the results have been explosive: the routing of Lib Dems and Conservatives (and, of late, a solitary Ukipper) from Frome’s town council, and the arrival in power of a coalition of self-styled independents, united by the belief that democracy needs a drastic revival.
On 7 May, after four years in power, the Independents for Frome (or IfF) group took all 17 seats on Frome’s town council, with vote-shares as high as 70%, and support from people who cast their other votes for the main political parties. Moreover, the IfF idea seems to be spreading, as people add their voices to a quiet rebellion that is materialising in some very unlikely places – from small commuter towns in Bedfordshire to the political home of George Osborne. There are two key elements to this very English revolt: a quest to revive the often moribund town and parish authorities long squashed by county, borough and district councils, and give them a new energy and purpose; and in the places where party politics has dominated even this lowly tier of government, the shoving aside of the big parties in pursuit of new ways of doing things.
In May 2015, the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) catapulted Ada Colau into power as the city’s first female mayor. Ten months earlier, the group didn’t even exist.
With no money and little experience, just how did they wrest the city from the entrenched political caste that had been running it for the past 40 years? Not surprisingly, Barcelona en Comú has since been inundated with requests for an answer from mayors, political parties, urban conferences and community groups all over the world.
In response, the group produced a step-by-step explanation – How to Win Back the City en Comú (pdf). A new documentary, Alcaldessa (“Mayoress”), by the Catalan director Pau Faus, promises further insights into how this revolution in urban governance came about.
‘Involve as many people as possible’
According to Marina López and Juan Linares, members of Barcelona en Comú’s communications team, the first step was to build a platform that could bring together individuals and the multitude of Barcelona’s citizens’ movements in a coherent and coordinated way, so their voice could more easily be heard.
“We have always set out to involve as many people from as many social groups as possible,” says Lopez. “We’ve tried to rethink the public space so the debate can happen in the street.”
The platform didn’t spring up from nothing. On the one hand, Barcelona has a long history of communitarian politics, often organised at a neighbourhood level. And the widespread discontent caused by Spain’s prolonged economic crisis and corrupt political class had already found expression in the 15-M movement. It appeared spontaneously in 2011 as a reaction to the crisis and saw thousands of people meeting in squares around the country to argue and debate a better future. Barcelona en Comú, like the national political party Podemos and other left-wing groups, emerged in part from 15-M.
Linares emphasises that Barcelona en Comú is a platform, not a political party. “We’re a porous organisation. By being open we can combine people with lots of experience with people with none – from university professors to bricklayers, but all with the same goal.”
Cities are mankind’s most enduring and stable mode of social organization, outlasting all empires and nations over which they have presided. Today cities have become the world’s dominant demographic and economic clusters.
As the sociologist Christopher Chase-Dunn has pointed out, it is not population or territorial size that drives world-city status, but economic weight, proximity to zones of growth, political stability, and attractiveness for foreign capital. In other words, connectivity matters more than size. Cities thus deserve more nuanced treatment on our maps than simply as homogeneous black dots.
This map from my new book, Connectography, shows the distribution of the entire world’s population, with yellow representing the most dense areas. These zones are, not surprisingly, where you find the dashed ovals that represent the world’s burgeoning megacities, each of which represents a large percentage of national GDP (indicated by the larger circles) in addition to its role as a global hub.
Within many emerging markets such as Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and Indonesia, the leading commercial hub or financial center accounts for at least one-third or more of national GDP. In the UK, London accounts for almost half Britain’s GDP. And in America, the Boston-New York-Washington corridor and greater Los Angeles together combine for about one-third of America’s GDP.
By 2025, there will be at least 40 such megacities. The population of the greater Mexico City region is larger than that of Australia, as is that of Chongqing, a collection of connected urban enclaves in China spanning an area the size of Austria. Cities that were once hundreds of kilometers apart have now effectively fused into massive urban archipelagos, the largest of which is Japan’s Taiheiyo Belt that encompasses two-thirds of Japan’s population in the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka megalopolis.