Understanding Nairobi's Shopping Mall Siege: 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.

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Associated Press

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

"Africa's Obsession with Shopping Malls," Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

There’s a reason the Al Shabab terrorists who attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on Saturday chose a mall instead of a government building, a downtown street, or a transport hub. Malls are increasingly central to urban African life; they’re the social hearts of the continent’s rapidly expanding cities, places where everyone from Savile Row-tailored diplomats to surfer-shorts-clad backpackers to the upwardly-mobile local middle class and even to the slum-dwelling poor, gather to act out a dream of the African future, one without the gates and barbed wire that divide the rich and poor in their residential areas, without the provisionality and roughness that mar the continent’s public infrastructure. As the Westgate shooting unfolded, a narrative settled that the attackers chose it because it’s frequented by white expats. But the photographs that emerged from the scene showed a different story: An amazingly wide range of people got caught in the crossfire. Attacking a mall struck right at Kenya’s emotional heart, at its new consumer-class vision of itself, like the attack on the World Trade Center towers struck at America’s core vision of itself as a place where hard work lets you touch the sky.

"How Popeyes Went Upscale," Lydia DePillis, Washington Post

Over the past few years, on the once-dingy midtown strip of 14th Street in Washington D.C., corner stores and carry-outs have yielded to upscale bars and boutiques. You can walk for blocks and blocks without finding so much as a sandwich for less than the price of a movie ticket. Until, that is, you hit Popeyes -- the greasy chicken 'n biscuits fast food joint that's been around for three decades, and feels increasingly out of place as vintage clothing stores, glistening condos, and farm-to-table restaurants spring up on all sides.

Inside, however, the franchise is undergoing a transformation of its own.

"The Unneeded Ambulances," Liam Dillon, Voice of San Diego

San Diego ambulances respond to 120,000 medical calls a year, an average of more than 300 times every day.

Most of the time, said a high-ranking ambulance official, they didn’t need to go.

“Fifteen percent of those calls are really sick people,” said Wayne Johnson, general manager of the city’s ambulance provider, Rural/Metro. “The rest of them probably could have taken a car, in all reality.”

Rural/Metro’s ambulances go out so often, Johnson said, because they have to.

"How Washington Went Topless," Ryan Avent, Washington Post

In hindsight, it was kind of a silly thing to do.

Planners were the first to promote the idea of lopping off the tops of Washington’s buildings at 130 feet. “A city,” they said, “is like a well-manicured lawn. Ours must be mown.” They tried other metaphors, too: “Imagine the city as a delicious sheet cake, with the monuments as birthday candles, but not burning birthday candles obviously."

"What Kenya's Mall Siege Reveals About the Urban Future of War," Geoff Manaugh, Gizmodo

The disturbing realization is that, for the U.S. Army, the vulnerable targets of tomorrow are shopping malls and schoolyards, airports and sports stadiums, perhaps even suburban streets. The mall siege in Nairobi is perhaps only the most recent, horrifying example of how this will look.

For the most part, however, the recommendations of the Military Review remain on the side of armed fantasy; the authors even refer to these structures as "Die Hard buildings," as if in a wink and a nudge to watching too many action movies, and their advice, for the most part, remains abstract and highly general. But their conclusion is straightforward enough: any building can be inverted or, in a sense, turned against the people who try to attack it, and this can be done by way of the architecture itself. You can tactically misuse the building, so to speak, to hide from or, even better, to trap and bewilder your assailants.

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.