How can city governments ensure better public health?

A Legible London sign, intended to encouraging walking. Image: Applied Wayfinding.

Crossing the street while texting could cost you your life. If you live in Honolulu, even if you survive, thanks to legislation passed earlier this year, it could also land you a hefty fine.

The Hawaiian capital is not the only city trying to get us to look up from our phone. Hayward, California, introduced snarky signs in 2015, reminding us to “Cross the road, then update Facebook.” Singapore installed LED lights on the pavement at crossings to prevent accidents involving people who don’t look up from their phones. Antwerp in Belgium and Chongqing in China have text-walking lanes, and Mumbai and San Francisco have no-selfie zones, while Rexburg in Idaho banned pedestrians from using phones when crossing the street in 2011.

The increase of urban populations around the world is putting pressure on local governments to tackle the preventable health problems caused by air pollution and lifestyle, and some cities are stepping up to the challenge. In London, for example, TfL’s Planning for the Future is investing billions of pounds to develop the city’s transport and lower emissions. And almost 100 cities have joined the World Health Organisation’s European Healthy Cities Network, which aims to improve public health.

But traditional methods of improving a populations’ health – offering free cooking classes and handing out leaflets on how to stop smoking – aren’t enough any more. In these innovative times, cities are starting to play a more involved role in changing our behaviour. Public health researchers in California, for example, installed signs in San Diego International Airport, to encourage people to take the stairs instead of the escalator, which led to twice as many people opting for the former.

But Theresa M. Marteau, director of the behaviour & health research unit at the University of Cambridge, says that far more radical change is needed. “While information-based approaches to changing behaviour can raise awareness of a need for change,” she says, “they are generally, at best, weak interventions for achieving such change.


“There is no doubt that the design of cities and towns is key to population and planetary health. Re-designing these to reduce or remove the use of fossil-fuelled vehicles and increase walking and cycling is just one such change.”

Susan Claris, a transport planner with the consultancy Arup, agrees that cities need to adjust their infrastructure. “Buildings should be designed so that the stairs are the first thing you see and they are inviting to use.” At the moment, she notes, the lifts or escalator are often the first thing you see, “with the stairs hidden away behind closed doors”.

Such re-designs are important, because cities have the potential to reshape human behaviour. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently published a paper titled, “Persuasive Cities: Health Behavior Change at Scale”. It argued that, “according to social cognitive theory, any well-designed environment can become a strong influences of what people think and do”, concluding: “As cities continue to grow… the design of future urban places will become more dominant in impacting human behaviour.”

The key to this level of change lies not in brand new infrastructure, but in the use of technology, according to Arup’s Claris. “Thanks to new technologies, the physical city is changing,” she says. “With sensors and cloud computing, streets are becoming smarter and more interactive. The city can now monitor and analyse activity levels, actively advocate walking and cycling routes, as well as create a layer of play, fun and games onto the streetscape.”

All this, she says, is enabling cities to play a growing role in public health and wellbeing, “away from the traditional posters, leaflets and other traditional campaigns”. By combining better design and better incentives, cities can make sure that “the healthy choice is the fun, easy, convenient and attractive choice”.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.