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10 challenges that will define cities in 2019

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From homelessness and housing to big tech and budgets, the forces shaping urbanism in the coming year.

Busy crowds of people walk across 3rd Avenue in front of rush hour traffic in the East Village in Manhattan.

Beginning with a partial federal government shutdown, 2019 has started with a potent reminder of dysfunction at the national level. The current budget brinkmanship only reinforces the importance of innovative local government to address pressing issues.

Last year, pundits from Richard Florida to Deborah and James Fallows talked about the power of localism, how local governments—from small towns to superstar cities—represent innovation, collaboration, and progress. At the same time mayors and local leaders are trying and testing new ideas, urban growth, especially when it comes to inequality, has created challenges and setbacks for growing cities.

Here are 10 big issues expected to play oversized roles in shaping the story of cities in 2019.

The elimination of single-family zoning and parking minimums

Minneapolis just eliminated single-family zoning citywide.

The recent decision by Minneapolis leadership to effectively banish single-family zoning citywide has been one of the more consequential, and newsworthy, zoning decisions in decades. According to proponents, the Minneapolis 2040 plan will help increase density, reduce carbon emissions, and improve equity.

The proposal also moved the goalposts in a way that few recent urban planning decisions have. In the wake of the plan’s passage, a Bloomberg op-ed called single-family zoning, which still applies to the majority of U.S. neighborhoods, an “urban dinosaur.” Scores of YIMBYs and local politicians have asked, “why not us, too?” Along with the push to eliminate parking minimums—San Francisco just voted to eliminate them for all new developments—Minneapolis 2040 reinvigorated the debate around reforming and changing zoning laws.

What to watch: Perhaps the most extensive such proposal on the table is Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek’s plan to upzone the entire state, mandating that every town with a population over 10,000 allow four units on parcels currently zoned for single-family homes.

How far will the scooter invasion go?

Bird and Lime scooters parked on a city sidewalk.

After landing in West Coast cities, the fleets of dockless electric scooters that became such a huge transit story in 2018 are poised to spread further across the country. Bird and Lime, now startup unicorns valued at more than a billion dollars each, as well as Uber and Lyft, have all deployed massive two-wheeled fleets and plan to expand further afield both in the U.S. and abroad. Even as some analysts have said the business model of these vehicles is unsustainable, growth seems inevitable, especially with Uber and Lyft, who are pursuing IPOs later this year, focused on showing increased ridership.

Have cities learned lessons from last year? As mayors, planners, and transit workers try and balance the good and bad of scooters—increased car-free transit options and lower emissions versus unsafe riding and sidewalk overcrowding—will the regulatory models pioneered by cities such as Santa Monica, California, allow for transit innovation and experimentation within a controlled framework, or will it be more akin to the wild wild west?

What to watch: Will scooters come to the Big Apple? City Council Member Rafael Espinal has introduced legislation that would help establish a pilot program for e-scooters in New York City. The scenario is seen as both a dream—a dense population center with gaps in the transit network that could be filled with scooters—as well as a nightmare of increased overcrowding on city streets.

Can cities continue to lead on climate change?


Urban areas are both the sources of, and solutions to, climate change and rising carbon emissions. Urban areas generate 70 percent of the globe’s CO2. But research by C40, the international coalition of cities dedicated to fighting climate change, has shown that while cities have an outsized footprint, they can have an equally outsized impact on cutting emissions; 27 cities around the globe have already seen their emission peak, suggesting it is possible to combine growth and emissions reductions, while targeted action around transportation, building codes, renewable power, and electrification can help cities, and everyone, hit their aggressive carbon reduction targets.

What to watch: As the debate of the Green New Deal continues both in Congress and the campaign trail, will climate mayors and cities take a role in crafting any plans or legislation, or will cities continue to work amongst themselves to take the lead in climate change action in the U.S.?

Bigger blowback against big tech

Protesters gather in Long Island City to say “No” to the Amazon “HQ2” decision on November 14, 2018 in Long Island City, New York.
AFP/Getty Images

The not-so-warm welcome Amazon has received from many New York politicians and labor activists foreshadows how Big Tech will continue to be heavily scrutinized in 2019. While the lengths with which cities planned to go to court Jeff Bezos suggest the incentives-for-job tradeoff won’t disappear anytime soon, many other aspects of tech’s impact on cities will likely come under the microscope, including the privacy implications of smart city technology, their support (or lack thereof) for local institutions, and autonomous driving tests.

What to watch: Amazon isn’t likely to slow down its expansion anytime soon. Will protests over the company coming to Queens manifest themselves in other ways, such as demands for labor rights in new Amazon warehouses, or new rules and regulations over the corporate incentive process?

Can congestion pricing help curb traffic woes?


As traffic becomes ever worse in U.S. cities, many advocates have proposed the enactment of a congestion pricing scheme, which would charge drivers more for roadway access to crowded neighborhoods during peak hours, giving drivers a financial incentive to take public transit or drive at a less crowded time of the day. The idea has been successfully implements in cities overseas, including Singapore, Stockholm, and London. Even car-centric Los Angeles has discussed the idea as the head of the city’s Metro suggested enacting such a system to pay for transit expansion.

The major, yet incomplete, example in the U.S. is New York City, which has struggled to fully enact such a scheme. Since many politicians have pushed this proposal as a means to repair the city’s crumbling subway system, the success or failure of congestion pricing in New York carries extra significance.

What to watch: The expected Uber and Lyft IPOs offer an interesting wrinkle to the ongoing debate in New York over congestion pricing. If the rules attach a user fee to driving into Manhattan, for instance, using the carpool option offered by these ridehailing companies may suddenly become cheaper, and more desirable.

The pension payment time bomb continues to grow

Chicago is one of many cities with a looming pension payment crisis.

While post-Recession economic growth has been a boon for city coffers, many are still weighed down with extensive pension responsibilities, which continue to take up a ever larger piece of the budget. The League of California Cities reported that pension payments, which take up 11 percent of general fund budgets now, will jump by 50 percent by 2025. According to the Wall Street Journal, the pension hole for U.S. cities and states is now $4 trillion, roughly the size of Japan’s economy. Los Angeles has a $15 billion debt to the retirement fund for municipal employees. Over the last two years, the city has spent $2 billion, or 20 percent of annual general fund revenue, on pension payments. The pension issue is like the leaky pipe of municipal governance; the longer leaders wait to address the problem, the more it will cost residents in delayed and reduced services.

What to watch: Chicago, along with the state of Illinois, has long been considered one of the worst offenders when it comes to covering its pension obligations. Departing Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who isn’t seeking re-election, has proposed a plan that would issue $10 billion in bonds in an attempt to cover the city’s growing financial obligations.

The rise in homelessness

A homeless man sleeps on the sidewalk in the Mission district, on April 17, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Christian Science Monitor/Getty

Another troubling indicator in a supposedly robust economy is the uptick in homelessness in 2018. It was slight, just 0.3 percent, according to the latest HUD figures. But that’s particularly troubling during low unemployment and years of increased focus on the issue by cities. The issue is intrinsically linked to affordability, or the lack thereof. A new analysis from Zillow found homelessness rising in the most unaffordable tier of cities, including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The portion of rental units considered affordable to low earners has dropped 62 percent in the last few years, according to Freddie Mac, and 10 cities on the West Coast have declared states of emergency due to the homelessness crisis.

What to watch: Can San Francisco and Los Angeles make significant inroads into solving this issue? In San Francisco, newly elected Mayor London Breed has made affordability a central pledge of her administration, and the success of Measure C, a proposition to fund homeless services, will provide more money to help the cause. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, needs to show local results to bolster his national profile, and overcome strong neighborhood opposition to new shelter construction (only one of his 15 promised emergency shelters has broken ground so far).

A widespread shortage of affordable housing

In Philadelphia, the architecture firm ISA looks for ways new housing can address other equity challenges, like public health, access to open space, and emotional well-being. Its Powerhouse project, a 31-unit infill development completed in 2014, includes
The Powerhouse project, a 31-unit infill development completed in Philadelphia in 2014.
Sam Oberter Photography

Rental housing for low-income Americans has become increasingly harder to come by; according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the inventory of affordable units has remained essentially unchanged since 2015. For every 100 lower-income renters, only 35 units were affordable and available, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. That’s a shortage of 7.2 million units nationwide. More than 2.5 million units priced below $800 disappeared between 1990 and 2016.

Not only do many cities need to rapidly expand their affordable housing, but they’ll soon need to take action to protect what’s already there; according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, nearly half a million units created under the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit will lose their federal affordability protections by 2030.

What to watch: Can housing affordability become a big issue on the campaign trail? Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Kamala Harris have proposed affordable housing measures. With a crowded Democratic field where candidates will compete to articulate a powerful, progressive message, affordable housing could be a strong plank in a successful platform.

The potential of legal pot

A view of the crowds at the MedMen Abbot Kinney store ribbon cutting ceremony on June 9, 2018, in Venice, California.
Getty Images for MedMen Enterprises

Marijuana had a good 2018 at the ballot box, with voters approving recreational cannabis in Michigan. As legal weed spreads, localities will need to figure out the intricacies of regulation, and how to spend the tax windfall. And, as more cities and states have positive experiences with legalization, which governments will be the next to pass new laws?

What to watch: New York City, once again, looks poised to make a potentially huge change in 2019. Governor Andrew Cuomo added pot legalization in his 100-day agenda, and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office released a report outlining how legalization could work in NYC. The biggest beneficiary of this historic change may be the MTA. Officials have said a marijuana tax could be used to fix the subway.

Retail’s continued evolution

Amazon Go store in Seattle
Amazon Go store in Seattle
Getty Images

Changing commercial districts and malls reflect the retail world’s continuing evolution. As ecommerce inexorably rises, more locations will become “click-and-collect,” or pick-up spots for online shoppers, and more and more freight traffic will crowd city streets. Abandoned department stores and malls weigh on city tax revenue and create blight. The rise in small, urban-oriented versions of big box retailers challenges mom-and-pop stores. And tech-first convenience stores, such as Amazon Go, take aim at local convenience stores and merchants.

What to watch: Akin to the way food halls have become a trendy new way to present new restaurants, expect more urban marketplaces—filled with pop-up shops, temporary exhibitions by big brands, and startups—to try and fill the gap in urban commerce left by retail’s shifting landscape. Neighborhood Goods, a new concept that opened in Dallas, is seen as a forerunner of this concept.

Can we reverse transit’s declining ridership?


Transit is in trouble. Healthy public transportation systems are crucial to cutting congestion and carbon emissions. But according to New York-based TransitCenter, in 31 of 35 major metro areas of the U.S., ridership of buses and trains has decreased over the last year, in major markets from Boston to Chicago to LA. Even legacy systems like New York City and D.C. are being strained by the impact of delayed maintenance, increased car ownership, and the rise in Uber and Lyft.

There have been bright spots, especially Seattle, where a long-term local investment in expanded transit coverage has seen ridership increase in parallel with the city’s tech-fueled population boom. But without better service and significant upgrades, this dangerous decrease may become a long-term spiral.

What to watch: Will New York find a way to fund an ambitious subway overhaul? Will Uber, Lyft, and the raft of scooter companies bleed more riders away from transit?