Big Cities, Bad Cities, Beer Cities: The Best #CityReads of the Week

Our weekly look back at the stories you may have missed.

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Reuters

Our weekly roundup of the most intriguing articles about cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days. Share your favorites on Twitter with #cityreads.

"Unlivable Cities," Isaac Stone Fish, Foreign Policy

In Invisible Cities, the novel by the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, Marco Polo dazzles the emperor of China, Kublai Khan, with 55 stories of cities he has visited, places where "the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells," a city of "zigzag" where the inhabitants "are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day," and another with the option to "sleep, make tools, cook, accumulate gold, disrobe, reign, sell, question oracles." The trick, it turns out, is that Polo's Venice is so richly textured and dense that all his stories are about just one city.

A modern European ruler listening to a visitor from China describe the country's fabled rise would be better served with the opposite approach: As the traveler exits a train station, a woman hawks instant noodles and packaged chicken feet from a dingy metal cart, in front of concrete steps emptying out into a square flanked by ramshackle hotels and massed with peasants sitting on artificial cobblestones and chewing watermelon seeds. The air smells of coal. Then the buildings appear: Boxlike structures, so gray as to appear colorless, line the road. If the city is poor, the Bank of China tower will be made with hideous blue glass; if it's wealthy, our traveler will marvel at monstrous prestige projects of glass and copper. The station bisects Shanghai Road or Peace Avenue, which then leads to Yat-sen Street, named for the Republic of China's first president, eventually intersecting with Ancient Building Avenue. Our traveler does not know whether he is in Changsha, Xiamen, or Hefei -- he is in the city Calvino describes as so unremarkable that "only the name of the airport changes." Or, as China's vice minister of construction, Qiu Baoxing, lamented in 2007, "It's like a thousand cities having the same appearance."

Why are Chinese cities so monolithic? The answer lies in the country's fractured history. In the 1930s, China was a failed state: Warlords controlled large swaths of territory, and the Japanese had colonized the northeast. Shanghai was a foreign pleasure den, but life expectancy hovered around 30. Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minorities largely governed themselves. When Mao Zedong unified China in 1949, much of the country was in ruins, and his Communist Party rebuilt it under a unifying theme. Besides promulgating a single language and national laws, they subscribed to the Soviet idea of what a city should be like: wide boulevards, oppressively squat, functional buildings, dormitory-style housing. Cities weren't conceived of as places to live, but as building blocks needed to build a strong and prosperous nation; in other words, they were constructed for the benefit of the party and the country, not the people.

Even today, most Chinese cities feel like they were cobbled together from a Soviet-era engineering textbook. China's fabled post-Mao liberal reforms meant that the country's cities grew wealthier, but not that much more distinct from each other. Beijing has changed almost beyond recognition since Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, but to see what Beijing looked like in the past, visit a less developed part of China: Malls in Xian, a regional hub in central China famous for its row upon row of grimacing terracotta warriors, look like the shabby pink structures that used to dot western Beijing. Yes, China's cities are booming, but there's a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of "hot" new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, including obligatory new "development zones" (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, "villa" developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.

"Money Grab," Mark Bergen, Next American City

In 1978, three real estate developers in Boston set their eyes on a decaying waterfront property south of downtown. The lot, owned by the bankrupt Penn Central station, was up for $3.5 million. The deal fell apart. A few years later, one of the trio, Frank McCourt, bought the land for around three times the rate and set up shop on the 24 acres, using them mostly as a parking lot. He and his wife became the largest private developers in South Boston.

In the coming decades, state and city leaders made a series of heavy infrastructure investments stretching into the McCourts’ acres. They broke ground on the Central Artery and Tunnel, a $14.6 billion highway project known as the Big Dig, and launched the Silver Line, a massive bus rapid transit operation that put a station at the center of the property. Frank McCourt contributed $25 million to fund the station project, but only after the city reimbursed him $30 million for the land that was seized. And after McCourt, in an eminent domain suit, won an additional $57.5 million.

McCourt was not just a real estate guy. He was a baseball fan. In 2002, the grandson of a one-time Boston Braves owner attempted to buy the Red Sox and move them south, to the land on the waterfront. When his bid failed, he quickly put the property on the market. Then he bought the Los Angeles Dodgers. He sold his waterfront acres for more than $200 million. Even if McCourt didn’t build the baseball field of his dreams, it’s fair to say he made a killing on the attempt.

"The Benefits of Big," Sarah Karlinsky, The Urbanist

Los Angeles differs from the Bay Area in many ways, but one of the biggest differences is its sheer physical size. The City of Los Angeles is enormous, covering 469 square miles and housing 3.8 million people.  Compare to San Francisco, at 47 square miles, Oakland at 56 and San Jose at 177, with populations of roughly 800,000, 400,000 and 950,000, respectively. To put it another way, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose — the three “central cities” of the Bay Area — could all fit inside Los Angeles’ city limits with nearly 190 square miles to spare.

The County of Los Angeles is larger still. It encompasses more than 4,000 square miles and includes some of the cities that we think of when we think of L.A.: West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Long Beach, Pasadena and Santa Monica. It is the most populous county in the entire nation, home to roughly 9.8 million people. And the broader Los Angeles region as defined by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) includes Imperial, Orange, Riverside, San Bernadino and Ventura counties in addition to Los Angeles County itself, covering more than 38,000 square miles and roughly 18 million people. Compare this to the ninecounty Bay Area, which covers 6,900 square miles and includes 7.1 million people. Los Angeles — the city, the county, the region — is simply enormous.

"Could Beer Help the Twin Cities?" Marlys Harris, MinnPost

It only takes a menu in a local restaurant listing exotically named concoctions like Fulton Lonely Blond, Left Hand Chainsaw Ale and Rush River Double Bubble to let you know that craft beers are booming.  

There are now 2,126 breweries in the United States – about 350 more than last year – according to the Brewers Association, a national trade organization. Most of them fall into the "craft" category, which means that they produce fewer than 6 million barrels a year, have ownership that is predominantly independent, and emphasize malt brews. The industry employs 104,000 people nationwide, full- and part-time. And that's not even counting their microbrew and brewpub cousins, which are restricted to under 15,000 to 35,000 barrels a year.

Minnesota has been a stalwart in the beer boom. Clint Roberts, spokesman for the Minnesota Craft Brewer's Guild, says his group now has 50 members, including 35 breweries and brewpubs. Membership grew by 30 percent just in the last 18 months. In 2010, the industry provided 17,554 jobs statewide and paid $156 million in sales tax.

"How Portland Got Its Groove Back," Matthew Yglesias, Slate

While I was in Portland, Ore., last week to give a few talks on economic policy, at least four different people told me the same joke about the local economy.

 “Portland,” they said, “is where young people go to retire.” Fun city, in other words, but a bleak labor market. The joke turns out to be borrowed from the IFC show Portlandia. The city is described as reminiscent of a time when “people were unambitious; they’d sleep till 11 and just hang out with their friends.” Or a time when there were “no occupations whatsoever, maybe working a couple of hours at the coffee shop.” This is said with affection on the show, but the city’s reputation for labor-market difficulties weighs heavily on residents, particularly because they’re proud of its quality of life. If, despite all the bike paths and painstakingly made pour-over coffee, you’re an economic backwater, that seems to suggest you’re doing something wrong.

And it wasn’t just jokes told in coffee shops or on TV shows. In 2010, a consortium of area business groups released a report (PDF) attempting to explain “why Portland-metro’s economy underperforms” relative to comparable cities such as Seattle, Denver, and Minneapolis. The authors noted a substantial and growing gap in per-capita income between the Portland and Seattle metropolitan areas, driven primarily by weak workforce participation.

"The Dark Ages," The Economist

Britain's streets are starting to look as gloomy as its finances. North Yorkshire started switching off street lights in the middle of the night earlier this month and wants 60% of its lights to go off between midnight and 5am. Shropshire, which began its “part-night lighting” programme in June, hopes to extinguish two-thirds. This will save money. Hertfordshire, which is reducing operating hours for about 70% of its lights, thinks the scheme will cut energy bills by 35%, saving £1.3m ($2m) a year.

Darker streets in the small hours frustrate night workers and inconvenience clubbers. But many groups welcome blacker nights. Lovers of wildlife reckon street lights confuse owls, bats and moths. Stargazers enjoy respite from a sky-obscuring orange glow. And all-night lighting is bad for the overall environment. Street lights in Devon account for around a third of the council’s carbon emissions.

Top image: A woman stands on an overhead bridge on a hazy day in Beijing's central business district (Jason Lee/Reuters)

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com.