Dec 24, 2019

Axios Cities

By Kim Hart
Kim Hart

Welcome to Axios Cities, coming to you a day early this week and next. If you're on the road during the holidays, travel safely!

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  • Today's edition is 1,694 words, a 6-minute read.
1 big thing: Skepticism slows smart-city growth

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Momentum for smart cities projects, which has been fed by big promises from industry and big hopes in government, is slowing down in the face of a wave of public skepticism.

Driving the news: Alphabet-owned Sidewalk Labs, which has proposed a futuristic smart-city development for Toronto's waterfront, this month pledged not to sell personal data collected at the project or use it for advertising to assuage privacy concerns.

  • Instead, if the plan is approved, local government entities would take the lead on managing data.

Where it stands: "The U.S. has a general optimism that technology can make our lives easier if used in the right way. But that’s countered by mistrust of intentions or capabilities of state and local governments," said Todd Daubert, chair of the communication and technology practice at Dentons, a law firm that works on smart-city developments.

There's also distrust of the tech companies that see cities as a huge market. Sidewalk Labs originally proposed an independent "urban data trust" to manage the data collected in Toronto's Quayside project.

  • But residents and city officials were uneasy about how it would work, and lack of clarity around the Sidewalk Labs' business model spurred opposition.
  • The company has now pledged to minimize data collection and to build only 25% of the technology systems used.
  • Sidewalk Labs' concessions "shows that Waterfront Toronto was able to stand up to Big Tech — not kick them out but not be bullied by them either," said Alex Ryan, SVP of Partner Solutions at MaRS Discovery District, an innovation hub in Toronto. "People don't want it to be just Big Tech doing this development."

What's happening: Projects in other cities have hit snags.

  • Kansas City, Mo., is scrapping a city office responsible for managing civic technologies in favor of a 12-person board to advise on future projects, per StateScoop.
  • A watchdog group sued San Diego for not disclosing data collected by sensors and cameras via its controversial Smart Street Lights Program, per the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The big picture: Smart-city developments haven't taken off as fast as predicted, but plenty of data-intensive technologies have been deployed in cities around the world (see below).

Cities have been quite aggressive in adopting restrictions for facial recognition, and some are trying to forge data-governance agreements with the companies operating there.

"Generally speaking, city officials are incredibly cognizant of data privacy and doing what they can to meet the concerns of people, largely because of what they’ve seen in the private sector," said Brooks Rainwater, Director of City Solutions at the National League of Cities.

  • "That puts people in a place where they are asking more questions as these new services come online."

The bottom line: "This is something that every city globally is going to be dealing with in the next 5 years," Ryan said.

2. Zoom in: What cities are collecting

Here's a sampling of the ways city governments have put in place sensors and cameras to monitor human activity, energy use, traffic and emergencies.

Expand chart
Map: Aïda Amer/Axios

Many data collection points start out as discrete projects. But as the amount of data being collected and exchanged increases, so do concerns that it may be compromised.

What to watch: Going forward, city governments must get smarter about sharing the insights from the data collected, not the data itself, said Todd Daubert of Dentons.

"Imagine you have 100,000 collection points in a city. If you took all that data and crunched it together, that's enormously powerful, but it also means you can use that collection of data in ways you never intended to, or it could be quite harmful if it was breached," he said.

  • "So the sooner in the process that you can take the insight and leave the data, the less risk there is for everyone."
3. Baltimore revives controversial "spy plane" surveillance pilot

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Baltimore will become the first city in the U.S. to pilot aerial surveillance, funded by philanthropists, to understand its impact on crime, per the Baltimore Sun.

Driving the news: Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who's been skeptical of the effectiveness of surveillance planes, has reversed course and said he supports a pilot program to let three private planes monitor the city from above.

Why it matters: The use of surveillance planes has been a controversial topic in Baltimore since 2016, when Bloomberg reported private surveillance planes had been circling the city in secret.

  • One one side of the debate are advocates including the ACLU who say use of the planes — called "spy planes" by some — will be a drastic privacy invasion.
  • On the other are community groups searching for ways to curb crime and record-high homicide rates.

How it works: The program is run by Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, which is backed by Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold.

  • 3 planes would record during daylight hours from 8,500 feet above the ground, but would not be used for real-time surveillance. Instead, law enforcement could use the footage to investigate past crimes, per the Sun.
  • "By funding a limited-duration pilot and a fully independent evaluation, we hope to learn whether this technology can be a useful part of Baltimore’s crime reduction strategy," Arnold said in a statement.
  • The 4-to-6-month pilot will begin in May. Harrison said he would halt the program if it doesn't show results.

Worth noting: Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan support the decision.

Go deeper: Baltimore wrestles with aerial surveillance

4. Homelessness rises in U.S., driven by California housing crisis

Tents for the homeless line a sidewalk in Los Angeles last week. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Axios' Rebecca Falconer writes: Homelessness in the U.S. has risen for a third consecutive year, driven by a spike in California, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said in a new report.

"Homelessness increased in California by 21,306 people, or 16.4 percent, accounting for more than the entire national increase."
— HUD statement

By the numbers: The annual HUD single-night survey, conducted in January and released Friday, found 567,715 people experienced homelessness, an increase of 14,885 people since January 2018.

  • 29 states and Washington, D.C., reported declines in homelessness between 2018 and 2019, and 21 states reported increases during that period.
  • The number of veterans listed as homeless dropped 2.1%, and homelessness among children declined 4.8%. 
  • Overall, the number of people listed as homeless has fallen nearly 11% since 2010.

What they're saying: President Trump has said homelessness is "destroying" cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.

  • HUD Secretary Ben Carson continued that attack line in a statement accompanying the latest figures, saying "homelessness in California is at a crisis level and needs to be addressed by local and state leaders with crisis-like urgency."
  • Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom told AP that California had "invested an unprecedented $1 billion" to assist communities in dealing with the issue. But he added, "we need the federal government to do its part."

The bottom line: Per the Washington Post, California's homeless issue is related to soaring housing costs, mental health and substance abuse issues and "legal hurdles to getting people off the streets — all issues that could complicate federal officials’ ideas to stage an intervention."

Go deeper: Supreme Court decision on homeless case is a blow to cities wanting more policing power (LA Times)

5. Credit inequality across the U.S.
Expand chart
Data: New York Fed; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

This map is a vivid depiction of credit inequality in the United States. The dark areas show counties where a large proportion of the population has no access to credit, while the lighter areas are considered "credit-assured" or "credit-likely," report Axios' Felix Salmon and Danielle Alberti.

Why it matters: Communities with good access to credit can grow faster and prove more resilient to shocks than their less creditworthy counterparts.

The report from the New York Fed creates a credit insecurity index, which is a proxy for the percentage of the population with no access to credit. Mouse over individual counties to see their scores (see the full map here).

  • "Credit-assured" communities have an index of less than 19%, while "credit-at-risk" communities fall between 29% and 35%. Anything above 36% is considered "credit-insecure."
  • For guidance: San Francisco gets a score of 19.4%, Manhattan is 23.2%, and Washington, D.C., is 30.8%.

Race plays an enormous factor in this map.

  • 58% of the population in the credit-insecure counties is non-white, compared with 27% of the population in the credit-assured counties.
  • One of the best scores in the country, 11.5%, is boasted by Fall River County in South Dakota, which is 89% white. Neighboring Oglala Lakota County, by contrast, has a score of 66.1%; it is 94% Native American.
6. Why U.S. homeowners consider going solar

Axios' Orion Rummler writes: 46% of U.S. homeowners say they have seriously considered installing solar panels at their homes, a new Pew Research Center poll shows.

Why it matters: It signals that the residential solar market has lots of room for growth. The survey notes that only 6% of homeowners polled have already installed systems — but the Solar Energy Industries Association's (SEIA) current estimate sits at 2.1%.

The intrigue: Pew asked what motivates respondents who said they're considering investments in solar systems. Here's what they found:

Expand chart
Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

The big picture: The residential solar market had a record-setting Q3, SEIA's latest market report shows. But the industry is also facing headwinds.

  • The year-end Capitol Hill tax policy deal does not extend tax credits that will begin phasing down next year and won't be available for residential projects installed after 2021.
7. Urban files

In Kyiv, Ukraine, the holidays just aren't complete without 'New Year Parade' participants dressed up like the snowman character Olaf from Disney's "Frozen" franchise. Photo: STR/NurPhoto via Getty Image.

Commercial structures could be formidable barriers to 5G (Urban Land)

With new Democratic majority, Virginia sees a push for denser housing (CityLab)

Cities and states look to tap more tax revenue from expensive real estate sales (Route Fifty)

How recycling has changed in all 50 states (WasteDive)

8. 1 🎬 thing: How "Home Alone" changed a neighborhood

The "Home Alone" house at 671 Lincoln Avenue in Winnetka, Illinois. Photo: Ben Schumin via flickr/creative commons license, 2013.

It's been 30 years since the holiday film "Home Alone" hit theaters, and its star Macaulay Culkin is almost 40 years old.

  • But the house in the Chicago suburbs made famous by the movie is still a tourist attraction and the site of endless selfies.

A fun read in the Chicago Tribune recounts residents' fond memories of the filming on Lincoln Avenue.

  • “Anytime we have visitors, they want to go over to see the ‘Home Alone’ house," longtime resident Terry Dason told the Tribune. "It’s probably difficult for the family who lives there, but since they put a fence up a few years ago, at least people aren’t walking up to their windows anymore and looking in.”

The five-bedroom house has changed hands several times since the movie debuted and, according to Zillow, its estimated market price is around $1.6 million.

  • An old real estate listing played up the home's Hollywood history: "There is an attic, perfect for sending a small child after having acted like a jerk. Beautiful bathrooms with aftershave. A gorgeous television that plays mafia movies not appropriate for children."

"People all over the world love ‘Home Alone,'" said resident Linda Martin, whose dog developed an allergic reaction to the fake snow used during filming three decades ago. "After they made the movie in our neighborhood, the crowds came, and they’ve never really left.”

Kim Hart

We hope you have a great time celebrating the holidays with family and friends. See you next Tuesday.