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.
"Smash It: Who Cares?", Martin Filler, New York Review of Books (subscription only)
An extraordinary large-scale demonstration occurred in Stuttgart in October 2010 when 100,000 protesters—one sixth of that city’s population—took to the streets to protest the $8.75 billion transformation of Paul Bonatz and Friedrich Eugen Scholer’s Central Station of 1911–1928 into a hub of a new trans-European high-speed rail network. That controversial project, Stuttgart 21, planned by the Düsseldorf-based Ingenhoven Architects, required the demolition of the monumental terminal’s north wing in 2010 and south wing this past January, leaving the building’s 183- foot-high flat-roofed clock tower and its Romanesque-basilica-like main concourse, the latter of which will become redundant when travelers will board trains below ground.
Bonatz and Scholer’s imposing elevations of unornamented rough-hewn beige limestone established a distinctive (if somewhat conservative) local variant of Modernism that set the tone for Stuttgart’s exceptionally cohesive architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. That consistent urban vision inspired James Stirling and Michael Wilford to follow the main precepts of the so-called Stuttgart School in their sandstone-and-travertine-clad Neue Staatsgalerie of 1977–1984, the city’s most distinguished postwar urbanistic achievement and the finest example anywhere of Postmodern architecture, i.e., design that didn’t accept the Bauhaus rules against ornament or historical pastiche.
To be sure, opposition to Stuttgart 21 has not been wholly, or perhaps not even primarily, architectural, even though critical opinion reckons the station among the finest transportation facilities of the twentieth century. The new scheme also involves felling two hundred trees in the adjacent Schlossgarten, one of the city’s best-loved parks, which along with the project’s enormous cost—opponents have warned that it could exceed $23 billion—may well be the main sources of public anger. Yet even the partial destruction of Bonatz and Scholer’s masterful work (which they dubbed umbilicus sueviae, the navel of Swabia) has been rightly perceived as an irrevocable act of cultural vandalism.
"Vanishing Shanghai" (photo essay), Howard W. French, Foreign Policy
China is said to be urbanizing faster than any other country, and this process has been on unusually open display in Shanghai, where developers destroyed the communally-organized neighborhoods of the central city at an extraordinary clip, replacing them with high-rises and shopping malls. Typically, the residents of areas to be cleared received little advance notice before eviction and no say in the compensation they received for having to abandon their homes -- and often their livelihoods. This is the world of my book, Disappearing Shanghai.
Although I explored and photographed more than a dozen of the city's doomed communities, in the end this work consists of images from half a dozen neighborhoods, each of which I visited scores of times during a five-year period. Most of the places one can see in these images existed on a north-south axis that ran from the north banks of Suzhou Creek to the southern edge of Shanghai's Puxi district. When I began photographing, it was possible to walk from one end of this realm to the other without ever exiting this tattered, closely-knit world. Now, few remain, having given way to the city's massive efforts at urban development.
"Rebel Cities," Kanishk Tharoor, Guernica
To wander Manhattan is to step into the modern fulfillment of an earlier age. The hurtling traffic, the stylish storefronts and bars, the pyramids of cupcakes, the lantern light of iPhones—it may all seem dreadfully contemporary, but its antiquity lies in the time of steam. “New York is a product of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution,” Lewis Lapham observed in the fall 2010 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, “built on a standardized grid, conceived neither as a thing of beauty nor as an image of the cosmos, much less as an expression of man’s humanity to man, but as a shopping mall in which to perform the heroic feats of acquisition and consumption.”
If the lust to acquire and consume is one defining feature of the city, so too is its complement–deprivation and economic disparity. David Harvey, author of Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, describes Manhattan as “one vast gated community.” He describes the process by which the rich push the city’s less well-off to its peripheries and take hold of urban life. Tracing the history of urban uprisings from the 1870s to Occupy Wall Street, Harvey argues that cities have long been contested spaces, where the interests of money collide with the public good. Beginning in the late nineteenth-century—when modern New York took shape—one finds the dawning sense that for the city to be made safe for consumption and its contented, bourgeois destiny, it needed to be purged of the blemish of the poor.
For Industrial Revolution-era exponents of this belief, the spectacle of “acquisition and consumption” was one of arresting beauty. Were you to climb the spire of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan in 1872, you would have an uninterrupted view north along Broadway as far as Grace Church on Tenth Street. That vista, hemmed on both ends by Gothic steeples, offered a glimpse of the awesome scale of New York. Man shrank into the precision of the pumping city. “The long lines of passers and carriages take distinct shapes, and seem like immense black bands moving slowly in opposite directions,” wrote James D. McCabe, a nineteenth-century chronicler of the city. “The men seem like pigmies, and the horses like dogs. There is no confusion, however. The eye readily masses into one line all going in the same direction. Each one is hurrying on at the top of his speed, but from this lofty perch they all seem to be crawling at a snail’s pace.” Broadway had real power, absorbing the frantic striving of the individual into the rhythm of a city so much larger than him. It was, in McCabe’s words, “the most wonderful street in the universe,” dwarfing all other European or American rivals in “the extent of its grand display.” Broadway was “a world within itself.”
What sparkled in those two marvellous miles between the churches? What great display condensed the wonder of the universe into this single stretch of New York street?
Shops, of course. McCabe, the author of the guidebook Lights and Shadows of New York Life (1872), delighted in listing the proliferating stores that studded Broadway. There at the corner of Grand Street sat “the beautiful marble building occupied by the wholesale department of Lord & Taylor.” On Prince Street you would find “Ball & Black’s palatial jewelry store.” Passing theatres and hotels—the St. Nicholas, the Comique, the Metropolitan, the Olympic, and so on—you would finally reach “an immense iron structure painted white,” the vast edifice of A.T. Stewart’s Retail Store, one of the city’s first department stores, occupying the entire block between Ninth and Tenth streets. “It is always filled with ladies engaged in ‘shopping,’ and the streets around it are blocked with carriages. Throngs of elegantly and plainly dressed buyers pass in and out.”
"What Disney can teach us about urban planning," Rachel James, SmartPlanet
Can you imagine walking under the arches of the first Disneyland in 1955? Walt Disney manifested a magical world unlike anything seen before. I imagine having the feeling that anything is possible, that magic exists as long as we believe in it. I imagine this feeling because I have never actually felt it. By the time I was born, “Disney” meant “Disneyfication”. The Magic Kingdom meant waiting in line for hours just to order a coffee from a fake Italian town that turns out to be the exact coffee sold in the fake French town and the fake Moroccan town. You get my point.
But behind the typical reaction to Disneyfication today – the fear of homogenous design and pseudo-historic private spaces posing as public spaces - there is the more complicated story of how the Disney empire came to be, and what this has meant for contemporary urban design.
"Smart Cities, Limited Resources," Laura Tam, The Urbanist
Have you ever looked up the fare for a roundtrip flight only to find two days later that the price has gone up $200? Or perhaps you’ve had better luck finding rock-bottom, seemingly half-price deals to travel somewhere at the last minute? Why do different seats on the same plane, all purchased at different times, vary so widely in price? It’s because airlines employ a tool called dynamic pricing — a system that adjusts prices based on expected demand in order to increase profit in light of fixed capacity and the elasticity (or flexibility) of consumers’ individual demands. This enables the airlines to yield as much revenue as possible for each fixed cost (or flight), sometimes resulting in substantial consumer savings, other times not.
The price of public goods provided by either government or a regulated monopoly — think transit rides, drinking water, park admission — typically aren’t based on supply and demand, because there is no real “market” for such goods. Prices may be based on the cost to supply the goods or the cost that regulators believe will meet public expectations of fairness, or some combination of the two. Sometimes there is no price at all because it has not been possible — either physically or politically — to charge for resources based on use.
But it is becoming possible for the public sector to employ dynamic pricing — as airlines do — to manage certain limited public resources. Sometimes called demand-based pricing or real-time pricing, this is a more efficient way of allocating publicly provided or regulated goods, especially those that are subject to wide fluctuations in demand over a short period of time, such as within an hour or a day. By judging people’s willingness to pay for a publicly provided service — such as electricity, road space or parking — demand-based pricing enables a more nimble match-up of supply and demand than has previously been possible.
"The DC Area Is the Most Affordable in America (Sort Of)," Matthew Yglesias, Slate
The Center for Neighborhood Technology has been trying for a while to get people to consider commute-related transportation costs as part of the housing affordability mix, so it's great to see them team up with the Center for Housing Policy to evaluate the affordability of the 25 largest metro areas in the country in these terms. But is the DC metro area really the most affordable in America? Isn't it pretty expensive? And San Francisco? Really?
As Aaron Weiner explains, they turn out to be measuring affordability relative to local average incomes, so not really. There are huge compositional differences between these cities. The median person in the DC, Boston, or San Francisco metro areas is much better-educated and higher-earning than the median American. Housing isn't affordable in those cities—it's actually extremely expensive—it's just that the residents are rich. Conversely, the least-affordable cities turn out to be warm-weather coastal areas where people are paying a penalty for beach amenities.
To get a sense of the problem here, consider the question of "car affordability." Common sense says the most affordable cars are the cheap ones, and thus that BMWs are not very affordable. But if you look at car brands in terms of share of the owners' income, you'll find that since only rich people buy BMWs the BMWs are very affordable.
Top image: Opponents of "Stuttgart 21" wait for first exit polls in November 2011 in the plebiscite on the underground railway station project in Stuttgart (Michael Dalder/Reuters)