Urban Notebook

Puerto Rico’s Biggest City Is Its Biggest Problem

Several high-profile governments have approached fiscal collapse in recent years. Think Detroit, Greece and now, Puerto Rico. Internal mismanagement has factored into all these crises, and news reports about them have often been technical, detailing excess spending and debt. Less reported is how insolvency affects people at the street level. I recently had the opportunity to see firsthand how Puerto Rico’s default is impacting San Juan, the island territory’s governmental and cultural capital.

San Juan has long had lower living standards than mainland U.S. cities. But it’s particularly struggled since 2006, when Puerto Rico began its near-decade recession. That year, the U.S. ended the territory’s special tax breaks, and it was later hit hard by the banking and housing crises. Compounding this has been corruption and excessive bureaucracy. About 31 percent of the island’s population is government employed, another 3 percent collects from the Employees Retirement System and, before cuts in recent years, nearly 70 percent of the budget went to salaries and benefits. Puerto Rico has $72 billion in debt and $35 billion owed in unfunded pensions. Luckily, the city has opportunities to turn its fortunes around. READ MORE

To Help Poor Neighborhoods, Urban Planners Have to Do More Than Urban Planning

In San Diego, half the neighborhoods are inhabited by mostly poor residents. During my recent stint as director of planning and economic development there, residents would often ask me how I planned to revitalize those neighborhoods. I tended to give an alarmingly honest answer: I wasn’t sure.

Officials who work in urban planning use every tool at their disposal to improve neighborhoods and cities. We strive to make them more healthful, equitable and attractive places to call home. But no matter how many transportation or development investments we put into some struggling neighborhoods, we can’t do the one thing that would most improve residents’ lives: put money in their pockets. READ MORE

What Cuba Can Teach America About Ride-Sharing

Thanks to recently normalized U.S.-Cuba relations, I got to visit Havana this summer. What I discovered there was an unenviable economic system. Residents are strikingly poor, and because much entrepreneurship is illegal, they’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future. But when Raul Castro became president in 2008, he pursued mild liberalizations. One was letting citizens use their cars as taxis. This has created a complex ride-sharing system within Havana that may be worth imitating in the U.S.

To be clear, Havana has two systems. One is the traditional government-run cabs that serve tourists. These are unaffordable to Cubans, most of whom live on less than $240 annually. But early on I learned about the other system, a private option called carro particular that locals take for 10 pesos, or about 40 cents. The cars don’t serve lone patrons, but those willing to share rides. To hail one, you go to a curb along a busy avenue and signal with your arms your desired direction. Once a car pulls over, the driver quickly negotiates how close to your destination he can get. You either hop in or you don’t. If you don’t, another driver is usually close behind. READ MORE

Drowning in Data, Cities Need Help

When I was an urban planning student at the University of California, Los Angeles, more than 30 years ago, my area of concentration was known as the “built environment” -- the bricks and mortar, the form and design of the buildings, the streets, the sidewalks, the parks and everything else that makes up the way humans have manipulated the environment to create built spaces. The course of study led me to think that cities are pretty static: Buildings, roads and other structures are expensive and time-consuming to build, and they don’t change much over time.

If you want to understand how completely wrongheaded that way of thinking is, just check out Corridorscope. It’s a website created by the Alliance for Downtown New York and the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, and it displays all kinds of data that shows just how dynamic a city is. Specifically it shows how Wi-Fi connections, 311 service requests, bike-share docking and trash compactors grow and shrink during the day as humans come and go. It’s a startling depiction of how one street in one neighborhood in one city changes over the course of the day. READ MORE

How Miami Fought Gentrification and Won (for Now)

Can growing cities avoid gentrification simply by building skyscrapers? Harvard economist Edward Glaeser thinks so. In his 2012 book Triumph of the City, he famously argues that in order to address housing shortages, cities need to build up. If they don’t, he warns, wealthy people who would buy high-rise units will instead buy older housing and displace longtime residents and businesses.

Glaeser’s theory has mostly gone untested as the nation’s most gentrifying cities -- such as New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- still heavily control building heights.But an area around downtown Miami might finally offer some support to Glaeser’s premise. READ MORE