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Two giant glass domes filled with plants sit in the courtyard of an urban plaza with dozens of high-rise buildings in the background, one with a bright yellow crane.
Amazon took over Seattle’s downtown and virtually every aspect of U.S. city life.
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How our cities failed us this decade

We let big tech take over and dragged our feet on climate, but it’s not too late for change

It was 2010, and for U.S. cities, the future was just starting to look bright again. Crawling out from the recession that decimated the housing market, and buoyed by the wide-eyed enthusiasm of tech companies that pledged to connect us in revolutionary new ways, American cities showed so much promise.

Unfortunately, that optimism was smashed to bits over the next decade. Cities underwent a tremendous amount of change in the 2010s, and not all of it was good. The boom of economic growth left many residents behind. That tech that promised to make our lives easier delivered a multitude of new problems to our doors. The real-life effects of the climate crisis—decades before most leaders expected them—swept entire communities off the map.

The 2010s might have crushed our collective urban spirits—but all is not lost. Think of this list as the Ghost of Christmas Future coming back to warn cities everywhere of the potential missteps they might avoid in the 2020s. It’s not too late...

Nextdoor paranoia

At first it was a novel way to meet the neighbors. Then it became a hotbed of racial profiling. A place to organize against affordable housing projects. And a shadow network for plotting retaliation against homeless residents. Now Nextdoor’s paranoia has given wings to apps like Citizen, Ring, and a whole new generation of fear-based social media (even as urban crime rates have plummeted). A new CEO is trying to change the culture from within, but right now Nextdoor is so beyond saving that you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that Best of Nextdoor, a Twitter account that collects the most gasp-inducing entries, is parody—nope, it’s all far too real.

Future to avoid in the 2020s: Smart doorbells that use facial recognition to automatically call the cops

Billion-dollar disasters

For the past four decades, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has published a list of the country’s “billion-dollar disasters”—the costliest and most devastating climate-related catastrophes faced by U.S. cities. Five out of six of the worst years for climate disasters occurred in the last decade. (This year is already in the top six, and it’s not even over yet.) With losses totaling $400 billion, 2017 was the worst of the worst, as California’s five-year drought cycled into three years of devastating fires, and three major hurricanes, Maria, Irma and Harvey, pummeled the Gulf of Mexico. Even in the face of these pricey disasters, city leaders were still not willing to confront the number-one contributor to climate change: We all drive too damn much.

Future to avoid in the 2020s: Trillion-dollar disasters

A traditional Colonial-style house fringed by green grass sits in what appears to be a large muddy lake, with two men resting on the front porch.
In 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew up a levee to save the nearby city of Cairo, Illinois from catastrophic flooding. Billion-dollar disasters became more frequent during the 2010s.
Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Single-family zoning

Exclusionary zoning isn’t new, but over the past decade, it’s become weaponized by the people who live in single-family homes to stop the construction of much-needed new housing. Although certain places like Minneapolis and Oregon managed to virtually eliminate single-family zoning, many cities that desperately need to add more housing just didn’t seem to get there. More than three-quarters of the residential land in Los Angeles and San Jose remains zoned for one family per parcel. If just 10 percent of those lots were to add a fourplex where a single-family home now stands, the state could make a serious dent in its housing shortage. Will most homeowners ever allow this to happen? No.

Future to avoid in the 2020s: Blanket ADU bans

Plummeting transit ridership

Over the last decade, virtually every major transit system in the U.S. faced dwindling ridership—with a few notable exceptions—even as many cities invested more money than ever in public transportation. Fewer people riding transit not only meant less revenue for transit agencies, it also meant more cars, more carbon emissions, and more traffic deaths. Blame Uber and Lyft, blame a breakdown in maintenance, blame high rents that pushed riders out of dense urban areas, but one thing is clear: Cities need to help people get back on the bus.

Future to avoid in the 2020s: Uber acquires local transit systems

Catering to the Creative Class

The 2012 re-release of Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise Of The Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community And Everyday Life couldn’t have been better timed for cities trying to lure tech companies into communities that had been flattened by the financial crisis. It was a recipe for disaster. All over the country, cities welcomed well-paid workers without putting protections in place for existing renters, triggering massive displacement that pushed people out of neighborhoods and into the streets. Although Florida attempted to address this urban inequity in his 2017 follow-up—and was an outspoken critic of Amazon’s reality-show headquarters search—the damage had been done.

Future to avoid in the 2020s: Creative Class III: The Reckoning

Instagram backlash

Hashtag tourism has irrevocably transformed the way people view, visit, and potentially ruin cities. Now, in an effort to crack down on influencer foot traffic, people are being banned from high-profile public places. San Francisco elected officials tried to charge a $10 toll to access super-steep Lombard Street, and so many neighbors complained about people making social media pilgrimages to a popular Hollywood Sign viewing spot that the city of Los Angeles closed a popular hiking trail. Say what you will about selfie culture—shutting down publicly accessible places sets a dangerous precedent.

Future to avoid in the 2020s: Geofenced social media blackout zones

SUVs

About midway through the 2010s, the number of pedestrian deaths in the U.S., which had been plummeting for decades, started to climb again. Federal safety experts wagged fingers in every direction: smartphones, speeding, jaywalking, legalized weed. No single answer made sense, until advocates started to point out a curve that almost perfectly tracked the rise in pedestrian deaths: Over the last 10 years, sales of SUVs and trucks have steadily increased. The high-profile vehicles with poor visibility have proven to be much more likely to kill people, especially children. It’s something both the federal government and American automakers have known for years—and don’t seem to want to do anything about.

Future to avoid in the 2020s: Every country banning SUVs except the U.S.

A large concrete building with a “Zappos” sign is seen next to a street sign marked with “Las Vegas Boulevard” as people walk by on the sidewalk.
Zappos bought Las Vegas’s former city hall in 2012 as part of CEO Tony Hsieh’s $350 million attempt to build a new neighborhood in downtown.
Corbis via Getty Images

Big tech’s brand-new cities

Complete infiltration of city-dweller lives wasn’t enough for tech companies that proposed building their very own technotopias from scratch over the last decade. From Sidewalk Labs’ big plan for Toronto’s waterfront to Y Combinator’s still-in-development idea to build better cities on a “blank slate,” results have been mixed. When Amazon opened its glass-dome headquarters in downtown Seattle, the company rebuilt the neighborhood around it, irrevocably changing the city. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s $350 million “city as a startup” plan to reinvent downtown Las Vegas had decidedly less impact.

Future to avoid in the 2020s: Amazon uses delivery drones to drop giant dome-hoods in every H2Q city

Flipping

Sure, people have been fixing up old houses since, well, This Old House, but the transition from “fixing” to “flipping” during this decade has changed the very fabric of our cities, one bland gray kitchen at a time. The glorified flip complete with horizontal wood fence—you know the type—has become a signifier of a changing neighborhood where someone is more interested in exploiting culture than building community. Now add a speculative real estate market that’s pairing with giant corporations snapping up properties to erase what little personality homes used to have when passed on from one (human) owner to another.

Future to avoid in the 2020s: Algorithm-powered home-flipping platforms (oh wait, those are already here)

Elon Musk

He said he wanted to fix transportation, and we believed him. Heck, it wasn’t even that long ago that he said he was designing an electric bus. Sure, he got a lot of rich people into electric cars, and not all of those cars exploded. But Elon Musk’s ridiculously overhyped ideas have created a major distraction from the hard work transportation planners are doing on the ground. Cities are now actually paying the Boring Company to dig tiny tunnels for cars. Hey, at least we got batteries out of it.

Future to avoid in the 2020s: Autopilot Cybertruck Hyperloop

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