The people of Detroit have been shut out of its regeneration. The CBO could change that

The remains of the Packard Motor Car Company, which ceased production in the late 1950s. Image: Getty.

For the sea of eyes gazing in, Detroit has long been a kind of portal to a world undone. Here, in the heart of the city’s strife-torn ghettos and manufacturing ruins, one finds ground-zero for America’s post-industrial storm. And amid the rubble, a dramatic warning that even titans can fall.

What goes unmentioned is the havoc wrought not by natural disaster, but by human sabotage. I’ve reviewed that history – of policymakers doing the work of bandits – in these pages before. I invite readers to comb the historical record and draw conclusions for themselves.

In the meantime, those who follow coverage of the felled metropolis have likely heard of its resurrection. It’s a captivating and dangerously simple tale. Just sprinkle in some downtown development here and commercial and residential expansion there, and voilà: from the ashes of America’s largest municipal bankruptcy, the city would rise again, cloaked in all the mythic glory of a phoenix reborn.

All the while, the future of the city’s economically miserable ghettos remained a question lonesome for an answer. Longtime Detroiters, on good historical authority, determined the fix was in. The city’s wealthiest and whitest regions would receive first class treatment while the poorest and blackest would be banished to cargo.

But the city’s elite wouldn’t let that spoil their version of revival. And they would have their revival, dammit. All they had to do was smear everyone who dared protest the plan as economic halfwits. Whatever the form, each attack emerged from a prophecy as old is it is wrong: that the wealth of the most powerful among us would inevitably trickle down.

You’ll notice that those who make the claim never offer evidence when doing so. And for good reason—none exists.

Let’s look at the facts. The American economy has nearly doubled in size over the past 40 years, while working communities’ share of the gains have totally flatlined. The reason is simple: over that time, we’ve eviscerated the policies that once nudged us closer to a more equitable distribution of the national income. Greater Detroit – where suburban prosperity rings an urban inferno – is the predictable outcome. And the recent wave of development has done nothing to extinguish it.

Detroit is home to a 40 per cent poverty rate, $25,000 median household income and 10 per cent unemployment rate that in all likelihood perilously underestimates the real one. Add to these grim figures a wave of water shutoffs, home foreclosures and school shutdowns and the picture becomes clear. Whatever the charm of recent happy talk, it’s saddled with the disadvantage of being bullshit.

But those made to feel like outlaws in their own home are having none of it. Instead, they’ve elevated policy ideas meant to empower them in the places they know best—their own communities.

Take the groundswell of support for what’s known as a Community Benefits Ordinance (CBO), which will appear on the city’s November ballot. It’s well-known that large-scale developers have a nasty habit of straight-up lying about the universal good fortune their projects will unleash on surrounding communities. Under the ordinance, developers that receive at least $300,000 in public subsidies for projects of $15m or more would be forced to negotiate those benefits upfront. Benefits like locally-sourced construction jobs, environmental protections, small business participation, and affordable housing options for low-income residents who would otherwise be pushed to the city’s outer limits.

This is straightforward stuff. These projects rely on massive taxpayer-funded subsidies and infrastructure to launch in the first place. Without policies that reconnect the productive power of communities with the wealth they help generate, that wealth will be almost entirely captured by a powerful few.

It’s an old and boring tradition. One that uses massive state intervention to secure the prosperity of some, while banishing others to the economic wilderness and demanding they outrun their own galloping misfortune. The CBO is a modest effort to turn those unearned handouts to the idle rich into real-life benefits for the communities that dish them out. Increasing their bargaining power accomplishes this for reasons known to everyone: policies tend to reflect the priorities of those that author them.

All of which carries another victory still. American democracy is a clobbered, clumsy ass mess. The CBO is a citizen-led effort to force a democratic reckoning in a city – and for that matter, a country – where democracy has always been a nice idea, but rarely a description of things as they actually are. CBOs are good and cool for lots of reasons. Strengthening democracy’s most basic principle – the right to participate in the decisions that impact one's life – ranks high among them.

Revival without it is a ruthless mirage for the historically besieged peoples of Detroit – beyond reach, and all the more menacing because of it. Odds are, the city’s wise men will continue to prefer abstract thought experiments to this known and uncomplicated reality.

But this November, the city’s most qualified minds will have the opportunity to throw that wisdom into the dustbin of history.

Eli Day is a former congressional policy adviser, and a Detroit-bred writer of policy and plunder.​

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.