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Susie Cagle's Posts


A year after a refinery explosion, Richmond, Calif., is fighting back

After the refinery exploded again last year, Doria Robinson set about tearing out the gardens. Six months of organic planting were lost in one large plume of toxic smoke bellowing from the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., one year ago today, that sent upwards of 15,000 people to local hospitals complaining of respiratory distress.


"They didn't pay for anything they did to our gardens. Nothing," she said. "And we lost so much."

Robinson is the executive director at Urban Tilth, a Richmond nonprofit dedicated to cultivating organic urban agriculture in western Contra Costa County, on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. The incident last August was the third large Chevron fire that Robinson, a third-generation Richmond resident, had experienced in her life.

"I could see the flame from the front porch over 10 blocks away," she said. "It was absolutely devastating. But it made us actually open our eyes even further to the need to stand up as Richmond residents, on the front line, to Chevron. We need to be standing up in creative ways to stop this madness -- not just locally, but internationally."

Over the weekend, Bay Area residents marked the one-year anniversary of that explosion with a march and rally of about 2,500 people at the gates of the Chevron refinery, one of California state's top polluters. As a part of's "Summer Heat" campaign, the action was aimed at pressuring Chevron to improve its environmental and safety practices, while also promoting other climate fights, such as the battle against the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline. Chevron is currently pursuing a plan to upgrade its Richmond facility to refine more crude forms of oil, including tar sands.

Local media heralded the weekend protests, which resulted in 200+ arrests for trespassing at Chevron's gates, as yet another sign of the growing climate justice movement in this country. But this city has been fighting the refinery for a very long time. In this economically depressed community of color, the threat of another plume of toxic smoke in the sky is far more immediate than a Keystone XL pipeline in Texas.



Don’t let the mustache fool you: That’s just an unregulated cab

They've been around since 2010, but over the last year, "ridesharing" services such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar have established themselves as serious transportation players in major American cities. But the road has been a bumpy one -- and so far, this part of the “sharing economy” looks less like an altruistic act, and more like a shadow service industry with few consumer or worker protections.

This was the theory of the rideshare: You're going to a meeting across town, and you have three empty seats in your car. Why not match those seats with riders in need, maybe with some help from a phone app? And hey, maybe they’ll even chip in for some gas.

But that’s not what “rideshare” has come to mean in practice. Sidecar, Uber, Lyft, and other similar services skirt car-for-hire regulations by insisting that their drivers are not professionals. But some of these services set clear fares, like taxis, and even when payment is in the form of a "suggestion donation," riders can read between the lines.

And that cash is not meant to just cover the gas for your ride. The Lyft driver sign-up page reads: "Drivers are making up to $35/hour + choosing their own hours!" The message is clear: This is a job, or at least a job opportunity -- not an act of sharing.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that ridesharing companies have been hitting roadblocks with municipalities and state regulatory agencies -- or that the furry pink mustache Lyft drivers zip-tie to their grills has become a symbol of "disruption" on San Francisco streets.


This week things came to a head in the Bay Area, as rideshare companies warned drivers to avoid the airport, where they could be slapped with potential fines and even citizen's arrest. San Francisco taxi drivers rallied, demanding the city crack down on ridesharing businesses that they say are taking a bite out of their bottom line, and face none of the regulations that taxis do. And the California Public Utilities Commission finally released its long-awaited recommendations [PDF] for bringing ridesharing companies into compliance with state laws.

How this all plays out will be the next big test case for the widespread success and acceptance of the sharing economy.

Read more: Cities, Living


Code green: Nerds for Nature pairs techies and enviros to hack the planet

Victoria Bogdan doesn't have the nicest things to say about environmental nonprofits. As a freelance grant writer, she works hard to raise money to support important eco causes, but she was a little disappointed by the big organizing ideas that money helped bankroll.

"They seemed woefully behind in their use of technologies and even in their imagination, just thinking about what is possible," she says.

"I started asking at conferences I went to, 'If you had access to designers and developers and young people thinking about things in interesting ways, what would you do? What would you dream up that would be possible for your organization?' And more often than not the response was something like, 'Oh, you mean using Facebook for, like, fundraising?'" Bogdan cringes a bit and laughs. "I would shake my head and say, no, no, no ..."

Bogdan is one of the Nerds for Nature, a motley group of programmers, designers, and storytellers that aim for a little more yes, yes, yes when it comes to environmental technologies.

Born at last summer's Code for Oakland civic hackathon, the Nerds are just one of a host of efforts aimed at bringing basic technological tools and cultural awareness to stodgy institutions that are traditionally a little afraid of change.

"I have an interest in seeing these environmental nonprofits do well in the world, and I would like to see them not fall so incredibly far behind that they think fundraising on Facebook is the cutting edge," says Bogdan. "We thought, if we could even just bring together in one room the tech-capable with the environmental professionals, and just facilitate an exchange of ideas -- just begin that dialogue -- that would be something new."

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


The dark side of Startup City

Jenner Davis

A Lyft car idling at every stoplight, a smartphone in every hand -- and an eviction on every block.

Few cities have seen as much disruption as San Francisco has over the last 10 years. Once a hotbed of progressive political activism and engagement, the city is being remade in the image of the booming tech industry, headquartered in Silicon Valley to the south.

Rents in some of San Francisco's most desirable neighborhoods have doubled in a year. Apartment construction has exploded in order to absorb the new residents. The city is developing so rapidly that Google’s streetview photos from 2011 are already well outdated.

The local government has embraced the disruption. Longtime residents, meanwhile, talk about fleeing or saving their city as though a hurricane is coming. But the hurricane has landed.

The storm has brought a surge of tech-driven initiatives designed to supplant services that have traditionally been viewed as public domain. Where downtown urban planning failed, city leaders hope a new Twitter headquarters and other tech outlets will transform a long-troubled business district -- and they’re offering up the tax breaks to make it happen. And on the streets, Google and other companies now run their own, very private version of public transit: a fleet of unmarked buses that shuttle the tech class to and from jobs at corporate campuses south of the city.

San Francisco may be an outlier in this trend. But as goes California, so will go the rest of the country. There are lessons to be gleaned from Detroit’s recent bankruptcy, but there is also much to be learned from San Francisco’s recent influx of tech cash. This place is redefining what public and private really mean in all civic spaces -- and the implications are not as bright, shiny, and truly shareable as the tech blogosphere would like you to believe.

Last week, one blogger asked, “What if Google bought Detroit?” Well, we know what if: It would make another San Francisco.

Dennis Brumm
Read more: Cities


Gas fields, not cities, are America’s land of opportunity

Want to give your kids a chance at a better life in this flagging economy? Well then get thee to the oil and gas fields, America.

That's certainly how I read this piece in The New York Times this week, "In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters," based on new research [PDF] from Harvard and the University of California Berkeley -- the best income mobility study in the U.S., they say.

The Times created an interactive map that breaks down a child's chance at rising out of poverty by region, revealing massive geographic disparities between the intergenerational winners and losers. Most-mobile areas are in blue; least-mobile are in red.

Click through for the fully interactive version
The New York Times
Click through for the fully interactive version.

But as to why this is happening? The researchers point to correlations between intergenerational mobility and income inequality, segregation, school quality, family structure, and local taxes -- basically, the usual social civic infrastructure stuff. Noted urbanist Richard Florida had his own theories on the pattern.

That urbanist argument isn't totally without merit: The Deep South and post-industrial Rustbelt have hit the economic skids in recent decades, and this research shows that those residents are at a serious disadvantage compared to other regions, city or no city.

But some of the most intensely mobile places in America -- North Dakota, Northeast Utah, West Texas -- are not full of large cities and tech startups. They're full of natural resources that are being extracted as fast as these places can import the young (mostly) men to do that job. San Francisco and Seattle may have tech, but Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming have the Uintah Basin; New York may have finance, but North Dakota has the Bakken shale.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Mapped: A hot hot summer of climate action

The weather is heating up, and so are the protests against "dirty energy" that contributes to climate change.

protest sign: "Tar sands = game over"
Steve Rhodes

Fearless Summer is a coordinated effort by more than 50 organizations and unaffiliated individuals taking aim at everything from coal mining to fracking to the Keystone XL pipeline (natch). Launched in June, the campaign will last through September, organized by a range of grassroots efforts and larger nonprofit environmental groups ranging from the more hardcore 350 to the more traditionally uptight Sierra Club.

We've mapped all of this summer's actions, past and planned, from puppet theater to kayak flotillas (!) to arrestable civil disobedience. Know of an event that's not on this map? Tip us!


Detroit: Bankrupt and broken — but not beyond hope

Image (1) detroit_skyline.jpg for post 39844On Thursday, the long-troubled city of Detroit declared bankruptcy -- the largest and costliest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the country. The filing will allow the city to overhaul its massive debt load (confirmed at just over $9 billion, though the city's emergency manager says it could be more like $20 billion).

From The New York Times:

From here, there is no road map for Detroit’s recovery, not least of all because municipal bankruptcies are rare. Some bankruptcy experts and city leaders bemoaned the likely fallout from the filing, including the stigma it would carry. They anticipate further benefit cuts for city workers and retirees, more reductions in services for residents, and a detrimental effect on future borrowing.

Earlier this year, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) put an emergency manager in charge of all city operations and finances in a last-ditch effort to avoid this exact fate.

"For Detroit, the filing comes as a painful reminder of a city’s rise and fall," according to The New York Times. But Detroit residents are surrounded by those reminders and experience them on a daily basis -- along with the flowers that are growing up through the cracks in the city's very broken infrastructure.

Read more: Cities


The littlest parks could make the biggest civic changes

Eight years after the first "parklet" occupied a parking space in San Francisco as an act of protest, these mini-parks have become a favorite "placemaking" tool of urbanists across the country. A little wood platform, some sod, tables and chairs, and boom, you've got a new urban park -- so long as you keep feeding the meter.

Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.
Susie Cagle
Join Grist as we explore the wild landscapes of our cities.

In San Francisco, parklets have graduated from do-it-yourself novelties to government-sanctioned parts and parcels of the urban landscape, with a little influence from New York City plazas and European open-streets movements. "We took this Park(ing) Day model, which is really an act of civil disobedience, and we sort of codified it, institutionalized it, and made it like a legal thing to do," says Paul Chasan, the parklet program manager in the San Francisco Planning Department.

Yes, San Francisco has a parklet program. It's called "Pavement to Parks." And with 40 parklets on the ground currently, and over 40 more in some stage of the permitting and development process, SF is leading the way on these little parking spot occupiers, and redefining what they can and should be.

San Francisco Planning Department

The city's parklets guidebook [PDF], authored by Chasan and released in February, reads kind of revolutionary, at least so far as city infrastructure goes. With explicit goals of encouraging non-motorized transportation, eco-friendly design, and reshaping neighborhood interaction, these teeny parklets pack a big political punch.

"In terms of changing the dialog about what the public realm can be, I think it's been really successful, both with the public and within the city bureaucracy itself," says Chasan, who has headed up the program for two and a half years. "When you park your car on the street, you're essentially privatizing a public space. So when you turn it into something for everyone, it becomes a very literal metaphor."

Read more: Cities


Judge demands tech companies hand activist data over to Chevron

Hey kids, it's a cool new update from your favorite horror show, The Surveillance State!

Creepy face staring through fence.

This week's episode features multinational oil giant Chevron, 100-plus activists, and basic American civil liberties. Who do you think might win?!

Chevron is attempting to defend itself against a pesky $18 billion-plus judgment for its dirty dealing in the Ecuador rainforest. In the company's appeal against the landmark judgment, a federal judge in New York has upheld a subpoena from Chevron seeking IP addresses and identity records of people allegedly tied to the investigation. From EarthRights International:

The sweeping subpoena was one of three issued to Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft, demanding IP usage records and identity information for the holders of more than 100 email accounts, including environmental activists, journalists and attorneys. Chevron’s subpoena sought personal information about every account holder and the IP addresses associated with every login to each account over a nine-year period.


Those who walk together rise up together

From New York's Zuccotti Park to Egypt's Tahrir Square, popular uprisings of the last few years have often been credited to the organizing power of digital social networks like Twitter and Facebook. But shared public spaces in dense urban areas have a lot more organizing power than hashtags or retweets, and there's new research to back that up.

occupy wall street
Jessica Lehrman

The Urban Affairs Review paper "Walk and Be Moved: How Walking Builds Social Movements" by Brian Knudsen and Terry Clark underscores how dense city living exposes residents to new ideas and connections, and in turn fosters the creation of social movement organizations. The authors (Knudsen works at Urban Innovation Analysis, a Chicago design firm, and Clark is a sociology professor at the University of Chicago) base their research on the interaction between the urbs -- our physical infrastructure, our streets, our parks, our commerce -- and the civitas -- the people who give those places meaning collectively.

Knudsen and Clark say they are "the first to discover and analyze electronic unpublished data for environmental, human rights, and other types" of social movement groups, and compare them to how city spaces are used and lived. Their analysis shows that it's not just the existence of those shared public spaces, but the way we use them that contributes to making a city more politically active. Specifically, a more active city is one that uses its two feet.

"The study provides substantial evidence that it is not just density, or the crowding together of people in urban areas, that shapes political and social activism, but the direct engagement of the city through walking," Richard Florida writes at Atlantic Cities.

Read more: Cities