Is China Not Urbanizing Fast Enough?: The Best #Cityreads of the Week

Our weekly roundup of the most intriguing articles about cities and urbanism we' ve come across in the past seven days.

Image
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.

"Beijing Puzzles Over Urban Growth," Bob Davis, The Wall Street Journal

China's new leaders are counting on urbanization to remake the economy but have tried to limit the flow to the country's largest cities, fearing that a surge in migration could turn them into Latin American-style slums.

Some urbanization specialists inside and outside China argue that the fear is largely misplaced. The problem with Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese megacities, they say, is that they aren't even more densely packed—or better planned.

Adding more people to Beijing, for example—on top of the 18 million or so who already live here—would encourage better public transportation, boost land prices so high that factories would move away, and attract talented people with fresh ideas, according to these specialists. Imagine, say, Manhattan or Tokyo.

"We have to let the market play a bigger role in the development of cities and dismantle barriers" to urban growth, said He Fan, a senior economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the government's most prestigious think tank. "People prefer to move to larger cities because there is more opportunity there."

"In 1897, A Bicycle Superhighway Was the Future of California Transit," Brian Merchant, Motherboard

In 1897, a wealthy American businessman named Horace Dobbins began construction on a private, for-profit bicycle superhighway that would stretch from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles. It may seem like a preposterous notion now—everyone knows Angelenos don't get out of their cars—but at the time, amidst the height of a pre-automobile worldwide cycling boom, the idea attracted the attention of some hugely powerful players. And it almost got built.

Dobbins was able to win the support of an ex-governor of California, who in turn strong-armed a nay-saying legislature to get the bike highway approved. It was officially dubbed the California Cycleway.

"There Are Few Trees in Louisville, America's Fastest Warming City," Sarah Goodyear, Next City

What’s the scariest weather event you can think of? A hurricane? Tornado? Storm surge?

None of these is as deadly as heat. An average of 400 people, most of them elderly and living in urban areas, die each year in the U.S. from the effects of heat waves. More than 700 hundred perished in the disastrous Chicago heat wave of 1995. As many as 35,000 died in the European heat wave of 2003.

Brian Stone of the Urban Climate Lab at Georgia Tech is studying the way cities are getting warmer and how we can mitigate this trend in order to save lives. Stone, the author of a 2012 book called The City and the Coming Climate, specializes in analysis of the “heat island” effect — the difference between the temperature of a major metro area and the surrounding countryside.

Last year, he and his colleagues released an analysis of data from the 50 largest cities in America. And it came as something of a surprise that Louisville, Ky. had the unhappy distinction of being on top.

"Replanting the Rust Belt," Julia Moskin, The New York Times

Pittsburgh in springtime is an edible city.

Blossoms spangle the pear trees on the streets, the hills are covered with maples in leaf and vigorous spring greens like knotweed and dandelions push up through cracked asphalt.

“See that?” said Cavan Patterson, gesturing to a vast abandoned truck depot across from his foraging and food supply business on Butler Street, Wild Purveyors. “Japanese knotweed would grow like crazy there,” he said. “It seems to love vacant lots.”

Wild Purveyors’s knotweed (it tastes like asparagus but grassier), along with the first morels of the season, were on menus at Pittsburgh’s most ambitious restaurants that night.

"Henry Miller, Brooklyn Hater," Alexander Nazaryan, The New Yorker

Henry Miller was one of those rare writers who actively and energetically hated New York, calling it late in life “that old shithole, New York, where I was born.” A famously restless product of what was then the 14th Ward, Miller returned—ruefully—to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in his novel “Tropic of Capricorn.” “I saw a street called Myrtle Avenue,” Miller wrote, “which runs from Borough Hall to Fresh Pond Road, and down this street no saint ever walked (else it would have crumbled), down this street no miracle ever passed, nor any poet, nor any species of human genius, nor did any flower ever grow there, nor did the sun strike it squarely, nor did the rain ever wash it… Dear reader, you must see Myrtle Avenue before you die, if only to realize how far into the future Dante saw.” That Myrtle Avenue cuts at least partly through the borough of Queens is small consolation, for it is clear that Brooklyn is the target of Miller’s loathing.

This prejudice has not deterred the proprietors of the Henry Miller Memorial Library, in his beloved coastal hamlet of Big Sur, California. Starting Sunday, they will stage a weeklong festival, Big Sur Brooklyn Bridge, in Williamsburg, a neighborhood that was full of beer-brewing German immigrants when Miller was born and which has become a haven for beer-swilling artists today, some of whom may be spotted reading a Miller paperback on a lazy Tuesday afternoon. The celebration will feature music by Philip Glass, a show by the Upright Citizens Brigade, and treats by the Big Sur Bakery, to whose deliciousness I can honestly attest, even if its relevance to Miller’s legacy is not entirely clear.

"The Tyranny of the Zip Code," Anna Clarke, The New Republic

Mr. Zip, a gangly cartoonish figure with wide friendly eyes and a neat blue mail carrier's uniform, emerged fifty years ago to help the U.S. Postal Service promote its newest idea: five numbers added to our addresses to more clearly designate our locations. In 1963, the post office was overwhelmed with billions of pieces of mail each year, and suburban sprawl was spreading Americans farther and farther away from each other. At most post offices, people still sorted mail by hand, putting letters one by one into pigeonholes. The best employees could sort faster than one piece of mail per second, but it wasn't enough. What was needed was machine sorting. And machines read numbers, not handwritten addresses.

"Put ZIP in your mail!" exclaimed a cheery promotional poster. Another ad, featuring a certain yellow-hatted detective, read: "Dick Tracy says: 'Protect your mail! Use ZIP codes!'" But the number that began as a sorting utility has since expanded far beyond our addresses. Today, our ZIP code determines how we are read by policy-makers, politicians, statisticians, pollsters, insurers, businesses, organizers, and marketers. Governments use ZIP codes to determine who gets what—and this, in turn, stokes our political divisions. Private companies use ZIP code information to determine if they will, or will not, move into our communities. Retailers collect ZIP codes from customers, which can protect against fraud, but also helps a consumer database marketer collect personal information on us without our permission. 

ZIP codes, in other words, have evolved from finding where we are to defining who we are—far beyond our mailbox.

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.