In June, as the country reeled from the end of Roe v. Wade and the loss of federal abortion protections, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared some words I turn back to again and again. “The world we are fighting for is already here,” she wrote. “It exists in small spaces, places, and communities. We don’t have to deal with the insurmountable burden of coming up with novel solutions to all the world’s problems. Much of our work is about scaling existing solutions, many created by small committed groups of people, that others haven’t seen or don’t even know are around the corner.”
Every year, the Next City team sits down to look closely at the 600 or so stories we published over the past 12 months, covering how the change we want to see is already happening in cities around the world. We curate the stories we find most promising and inspiring to be featured in our annual Solutions of the Year print magazine, and an accompanying live event series (it’s free, and virtual this year, so be sure to register).
This year, we’ve selected 22 stories that show how communities are working to liberate cities from systems and cultures of oppression. We’re sharing them here in the hopes that they inspire you, too, and introduce you to strategies to cultivate more resilient, accessible, sustainable, just and equitable communities wherever you are.
From car-free streets to tenant organizing to Indigenous land return, here’s to the solutions that are just around the corner.
Public transit agencies that have implemented or experimented with free fares show the move can boost ridership, increase economic mobility and safety, and help cities reach their climate goals. Next City examined the proof from five systems around the U.S that are attempting free transit: Boston (which has helped kick off a national push for free transit), Chapel Hill (which has been providing free rides for two decades), Alexandria (which has also invested in frequent service), Olympia (which sees fare-free as a cost-saving measure) and Kansas City (which has found zero-fare to increase rider satisfaction and safety). Read more.
“Besides the increased mobility and financial benefits, nearly 80% of the residents surveyed also said Zero Fare increased their sense of safety on the bus,” Next City wrote of Kansas City in July, in what was one of our most popular stories of the year. “Indeed, the total number of incidents where supervisors were called fell 39% in the first year of full Zero Fare transit.” Read more.
The movement for fare-free transit is only gaining more traction. The D.C. Council unanimously approved a plan to offer free bus rides to all residents permanently, starting next summer. Denver’s state-sponsored experiment with fare-free bus and train rides in August led to a “fantastic” increase in ridership across the region, and a fare-free February brought the Utah Transit Authority its busiest month in two years.
Want to learn more about how cities can go fare-free? On Jan. 13, Boston Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge joins Next City’s Solutions of the Year festival as our keynote speaker. Register to join our virtual discussion.
Accessory dwelling unit – ADUs, or “granny flats,” as they’re also known – are emerging as a powerful and climate-friendly tool to build racial equity and housing affordability in urban areas. And if done right, it can also do much more.
“Yes, it’s about affordable housing,” Robinson Markus, co-founder of a cooperatively owned builder in Evanston that specializes in ADUs, told Next City in March. “Yes, it’s about climate action. But it’s also about the people who have called Evanston home…feeling like they have ownership and a sense of place in this community through a more democratic business.” Read more about their model.
In August, we noted a recent study showing that homeowners of color have less awareness of, and access to capital for, building ADUs. We covered a new collaboration in Oakland that’s working to overturn those barriers among Black homeowners. Read more.
Want to learn more about how cities can increase housing equity and affordability through ADUs? On Jan. 11, Next City and Shelterforce are co-hosting a webinar on leveling up the ADU model. Register to join our virtual discussion.
Next City’s senior economic justice correspondent Oscar Perry Abello has spent years covering the “perpetual purpose trust” model for ownership, in which businesses are owned by ideas, not people.
After news broke this year that ownership of outdoor clothing brand Patagonia was transferred into a perpetual purpose trust, driving increased interest in alternative ownership forms, Oscar began a deep dive into perpetual purpose and special purpose trusts to explain how they can benefit everyone – from a company’s employees to the residents of a neighborhood. Check out our podcast episode, our webinar and our story on a local restaurant owner that sold her small business to its mission.
“What I really like about the trust is that there is no ownership,” the restaurant’s co-founder told Oscar in November. “It’s the end of ownership. The trust is not a person, the trust does not need income, the trust just holds the purpose.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, cities around the world closed down streets to cars and opened them up for people. Over two years later, some of these experiments were so popular that they are here to stay. In November, in one of our most popular stories of the year, Next City looked at four car-free streets that are still going strong or just getting started. Read more.
The movement is just getting started. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams just proposed a plan to turn a long stretch of 5th Avenue – from Bryant Park at 42nd Street to Central Park at 59th Street – into a pedestrianized area that prioritizes mass transit and cyclists.
With the rise of Community Solutions’ Build For Zero movement, more and more municipalities are making headway on the fight against chronic homelessness by adopting a housing-first, data-driven approach that focuses on certain target populations (such as veterans). This year, we’ve covered Bergen County, New Jersey; Rockville, Illinois; and Medicine Hat, Alberta, which became the first Canadian city to reach the milestone of “functional zero” chronic homelessness.
“At the time that housing-first was first implemented, I did not believe in housing-first,” Jaime Rogers, who leads Medicine Hat’s strategy on homelessness, explained in our story. “I thought it was such a simple approach and philosophy that it couldn’t possibly work. And obviously I was wrong. A lot of us were wrong.”
Our story on Medicine Hat quickly became our second most popular story of the year. Read more, or learn about the ins and outs of the city’s strategies and journey to combat homelessness in our recent webinar with Rogers.
Audre Lord famously wrote that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. But a new Black-led private equity fund thinks that flipping the private equity model can help build wealth for workers of color.
Oscar, our economic justice reporter, took a deep dive into Apis & Heritage Capital Partners, which facilitates acquisitions of small businesses to convert them into 100% employee-owned (ESOP) businesses. Read more.
Reporter Cinnamon Janzer writes about her experience joining a Twin Cities solar co-op through Solar United Neighbors. “As of 2020, co-ops like these have contributed $93 million to the solar industry in the U.S.,” she reported. “By leveraging bulk pricing, co-op members get competitive rates alongside support from knowledgeable and experienced organizers without any commitments unless or until an individual household accepts and signs their unique proposal. Plus, the solar installer that our co-op selected worked with a local credit union to offer financing options so that members without cash on hand can still participate.” Read more.
Last year, we featured guaranteed income as our No. 1 Solution of the Year. “Guaranteed income is, without question, an idea whose time has come,” we wrote then. “Check out our graphic that tracks programs in play across the country; new ones are coming online almost faster than we can update the map!”
Well, with every week seeming to bring a new guaranteed income program in another city, we’ve long given up on keeping that map up to date. The success of these pilots – many of which are recorded on Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania’s new dashboard – along with increasing support from policymakers and the general public, is now forging a path to more comprehensive guaranteed income policies in California and beyond. Read more, and check out our upcoming Solutions of the Year webinar on what we’ve learned from guaranteed income pilots.
Even in New York, the list of bars, clubs and lounges by and for Black or Brown LGBTQ people has never been very long. But with New York’s Cabaret Law finally repealed and zoning codes amended to make space for new dancing establishments that serve alcohol, Oscar reported in June, one more just got added to the list.
This year, the gay Black married couple that owns Lambda Lounge – only two Black LGBTQ-owned nightlife spots currently open in Harlem – celebrated the grand opening of 5,000-square-foot Club Lambda in Brooklyn. Read more.
In Boston, the CommonWealth Kitchen – a hybrid organization that combines a food business incubator, shared commercial kitchen space and a co-packing facility – has cooked up a successful model of community economic development by incubating businesses in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Crucially, Oscar reports, financial profit was not CommonWealth Kitchen’s main goal. But the real rewards might be invaluable. Read more.
In March, we looked at artist Tonika Lewis Johnson’s installation project “Inequity for Sale,” which raises awareness for Chicago’s predatory lending history. “How [land sale contracts] changed the trajectory of the entire neighborhood was something I wanted to really show. Because these homes still exist, whether they were demolished and are now vacant lots,” Johnson told Next City. “That was our direct connection to this past.”
By placing yellow and black “landmarkers” outside former homes purchased through land sale contracts, Johnson’s project has helped counter pervasive narratives about Greater Englewood. Read more.
The e-bike incentive program Pedal Ahead, launched in 2020, provides e-bikes to low-income participants at no initial cost. If they ride an average of five miles a day, track and share rides for a study, and secure their own bike insurance for two years, the bike is theirs to keep.
This year, the program announced that it’s expanding statewide as part of California’s $10 million e-bike incentives program. “We have a proof of concept, we’ve seen results on multiple levels, and we know there’s more we can do with our model that can be replicated throughout the state,” the founder told Next City.
Read more, or learn about Pedal Ahead’s model in our upcoming Solutions of the Year webinar on ways to increase e-bike access.
The Restorative Housing Fund adopted in 2021 by Evanston, Illinois, to address and correct the city’s racially discriminatory housing practices has sent its first reparations payments to residents, as our housing correspondent Roshan Abraham covered in 2022. Read more, or check out our related webinar and podcast on Evanston’s housing reparations program, and whether it can be a model for other cities.
To be sure, there’s debate over whether any such local, piecemeal initiatives can truly constitute “reparations.” But there’s no doubt such programs are gaining momentum in U.S. cities, and that they can provide crucial support to communities that have borne the brunt of economic injustice.
Through our reporting partnership with the nonprofit outlet Prism, we recently looked at a mostly-white church in the Bay Area that launched a Black Wealth Builders Fund as a form of local housing reparations. The initiative offers zero-interest loans to Black neighbors looking to purchase their first home. Read more.
A Nigerian tech startup is hiring internally displaced women to recycle waste, as part of a growing number of recycling initiatives in the country. Founded by a geologist and environmental expert, the app is attempting to reduce dumpsites blocking waterways, drainages and gutters, in an effort to prevent deadly and costly flooding in the Nigerian capital. Beyond financially empowering women, “it is important for us that there is a behavioral change towards how people manage their wastes in their homes,” the founder told Next City. Read more.
Comedian Adam Conover was waiting for his ride-share when he decided to make a quick TikTok post: “So, something you guys might not know about me is that I don’t drive. I take public transportation everywhere. And I want to show you guys my new favorite form of public transportation.”
It was the TikTok that launched a million views — over 1.3 million, to be exact. The subject: Los Angeles Metro’s micro transit pilot, Metro Micro, a service that only costs a buck.
Commenters were in disbelief. You’re telling me that a van will pick me up and take me where I need to go for only $1? Seems too good to be true.
The people at Metro Micro were thrilled. “I was super pumped as the project director,” said Rani Narula-Woods, senior director of special projects. “It was nice to see that this is actually making a difference.” Read more.
There’s conflicting views on the long-term impact of violence intervention, alongside a general consensus that this work has been underfunded, under-resourced and is difficult to study. Crucially, there’s been little investment in understanding the actual profession and its impact on the people who practice it. Amid widespread calls for more community-based violence intervention, a new survey shows the high cost of this work for the “violence interrupters.” Read more.
The alarming trend of private equity buying up single-family homes continued unabated throughout 2022. One of our housing correspondent Roshan Abraham’s most popular stories of the year looked at how tenants of such private equity-owned single-family homes in North Minneapolis are banding together to get long overdue repairs, by putting their rents in escrow. These tenants are among the most organized in the U.S.
“Connecting with other tenants in this way, it is life changing, because you’re not alone and we can support one another,” one tenant told Next City. “We can…advocate for ourselves and eventually for other people who are renting from other corporate landlords.” Read more.
The City of Oakland has announced plans for a historic easement through which five acres of city-owned land could be returned to the stewardship of the Indigenous Ohlone people. Oakland officials hope the land return can be a model for other cities. The property would be transferred to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an Indigenous women-led nonprofit leading land “rematriation” projects, as well as the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Nation, an East Bay Ohlone Tribe.
Read more about the plan, and register for our upcoming Solutions of the Year webinar with the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust to learn more about Indigenous land return in Oakland and beyond.
While early data shows that decreased soda sales in the wake of Seattle’s soda tax seems to be driving a notable drop in sugar sales, soda taxes are already making an impact in another area: equitable programmatic spending of the revenue they bring in. Researchers at the University of Washington and University of Pennsylvania published a study on the economic benefits of sweetened beverage taxes. Ultimately, the study found that sweetened beverage taxes have resulted in the transfer of funds to lower-income populations in all three cities they studied: Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco.
“All three cities there was essentially a transfer for tax money from higher-income households to lower-income households,” one researcher told Next City. “In every city, lower-income households got more back in benefits than they paid out in taxes.” Read more, and register for our upcoming Solutions of the Year webinar on the impact of these controversial policies and what’s necessary to ensure they are a net benefit to communities that already pay more than their fair share for groceries.
Although street vending has a long history in Los Angeles, going back at least 100 years, it has often been a contentious one. With Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signing of SB 972, the California street vendor movement has achieved its latest victory: This particular legislation eliminates the final legal hurdles for California street vendors to get permits authorizing the sale of food from their beloved, iconic carts and stands.
“It’s going to create so many jobs,” Rudy Espinoza, executive director at Inclusive Action for the City, told Oscar. “Thousands of street vendors getting legalized, permitted, all the jobs at the cart manufacturers, the commissary spaces. It’s an ecosystem.”
Read Oscar’s deep dive into the history of the movement and how it achieved this monumental win.
In industrialized Seattle neighborhoods historically devoid of reliable government-sanctioned air monitors, community moss sampling has successfully led to new air monitoring sites in pollution hotspots. Washington’s Duwamish River Community Coalition worked with the U.S. Forest Service to train more than 50 young community scientists to investigate heavy metals around them through analyzing moss tissues. Read more about how their research won regional air agency funding to estimate potential cancer risk based on new air toxin measurements.
As we reported in partnership with the nonprofit Religion News Service, houses of worship in St. Louis are working with local scientists to monitor the air quality in communities affected by industrial pollution. Low-cost sensors are placed on the roofs of churches spread throughout the city to measure particulate matter, a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Through a new digital map, the data collected by these sensors is publicly viewable. Read more.
After four years of reporting, Oscar published a deep dive into E.G Woode. The collective commercial real estate model, created and led by Black businesses in Chicago, is taking advantage of old mixed-use buildings to revitalize the South and West Side’s long-disinvested commercial corridors. “Its members hope to demonstrate and promote an alternative to the traditional commercial real estate model, one that doesn’t depend on generating profits for developers and landlords to revitalize commercial corridors,” Oscar writes. Read more.
We’re working to bring you more stories like this in 2023 and beyond. At a time when cities face rampant inequality and urgent challenges, Next City’s work as a nonprofit is critical: by spreading real stories and workable ideas from one city to the next, we connect people, places and solutions that move our society toward justice and equity. If you believe in this work, become a sustaining or institutional member to preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities.