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The Rise of the City Geek: Best #Cityreads of the Week

A round-up of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.

Columbia GSAPP/CC BY 2.0

Why Being a City Geek is so Cool Today,” Dianna Budds, Fast CoDesign

Earlier this year, Pentagram partner Marina Willer and a cadre of her colleagues roamed London's streets on a search for the city's most beautiful manhole covers. Yes, manhole covers: those ubiquitous metal caps over access points to the gritty infrastructural underbelly of a city. The gateways to the smelly sewers, tangles of phone and power lines, and labyrinth of water pipes that we step over every day and rarely notice.

When a particular manhole caught the eye of one of the graphic designers in the group, they pulled out a sheet of paper and a hunk of graphite and crouched down to make an old-fashioned rubbing of the patterns stamped into the metal. Afterward, they transformed these rubbings into Day-Glo illustrations that Willer turned into a book and set of limited-edition prints, exhibited during the London Design Festival.

Willer is one of a growing group of designers celebrating urban infrastructure through creative projects—and products. Today, you can buy tiles furniture, lighting, and pillows inspired by the London Underground; necklaces made using GPS data; and jumpsuits printed with subway tile patterns. Two enterprising graphic designers raised over $800,000 on Kickstarter to reprint a retro style guide for New York's MTA. That's a heck of a lot of coffee-table books—all dedicated to the ubiquitous and mundane subway sign.

London’s Latin Americans Are Bearing the Brunt of Gentrification,” Dan Hancox, Vice

Because they are the most visible signs, it can be tempting to think gentrification is largely about the dystopian Meccano of luxury flat construction, or the arrival of pop-up shops that only sell poached eggs. They are baubles which magnetise popular attention, and by the time they've arrived, it's too late. More often ignored, at the sharp end of urban transformation, are those resisting their displacement by the baubles: a steady murmur of impassioned local campaigns to save treasured community assets – libraries, parks, youth centres, clubs, pubs, independent shops – from the smiting hand of developers and local councils.

Two of the most intense such battles going on in London at the moment have one striking thing in common: they are both vital community hubs for Latin American Londoners. Under the most immediate threat, after years of fending off the inevitable, is the Seven Sisters indoor market (AKA Pueblito Paisa) – a popular, buzzing little hub of Latin shops, cafes, restaurants, barbers and other businesses in north London. It is a prize example of a city that can still offer more than identikit high streets – a community hub to Latin Americans, cultural variety to non-Latins and a break from the Anytown monotony of regeneration industry architecture and privately-owned public spaces.

There will always be more plazas.

"Only Street Dogs Are Real Dogs,” Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger, Nautilus

What is a dog? Many people often think of dogs as kennel club creations. The purebred dog is man’s best friend, not the street dog. Man’s best friends live ubiquitously in the United States, Europe, and other developed countries and, in these countries, are by and large household pets. Man’s best friends only live in areas where people have easy access to vaccines against rabies and distemper. They are the results of certain levels of commercial appeal involving pet stores, breeders, dog food companies, veterinary medicine, magazines, and books.

But could it be that breeds represented as working, hunting, or pet groups don’t represent real dogs? Could it be that the so-called stray dogs, street dogs, neighborhood dogs, village dogs, and even feral dogs of the world are the real, naturally evolved, self-selected dogs?

When watching the dogs in the Mexico City dump, a number of our students would say, “These dogs are different from real dogs—these are mongrels.” The implication is that the kennel club breeds are the ancestors of the village dogs. People seem to believe that if a dog doesn’t look like one of the kennel club recognized breeds then it must be a hybrid or mongrel. People think if you let all the pure breeds go and they interbreed for a few generations, the resulting population of dogs would look like the Mexico City dump dogs.

However, this cannot be true.

Stray dogs rest on a garbage dump site in Thailand's Ayutthaya province. (Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

A Kink in the Hyperloop,” Benjamin Wallace, New York Magazine

In August of 2013, Elon Musk casually released a 58-page proposal online with the unassuming title “Hyperloop Alpha.” Building on an idea the Tesla and SpaceX founder had hinted at in public a few times, the paper laid out his vision for a sleek, near-supersonic train in a giant pneumatic tube that would whisk passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Musk’s inspiration had come when he found himself stuck in L.A. traffic, an hour late for an appointment, and from his disdain for the planned California High Speed Rail project, which had descended into a morass of schedule delays, cost hikes, funding shortfalls, and political overpromising.

The idea had a number of irresistible features. Beyond turning the San ­Francisco–L.A. journey into a 35-minute jaunt, it promised to be clean (100 percent self-sufficient, using solar-panel arrays on the tube), cheap (6 percent as expensive as California High Speed Rail), and glamorously futuristic (floating on what Musk called “air bearings”). It was possible, reading the paper, to picture oneself elegantly cocooned in a steel pod and gliding along the Pacific Coast in what was less a new kind of train than a 21st-century escape capsule freeing us from the archaic shackles of big-government infrastructure.

In any other era, such a plan might have been understood as a precocious youngster’s idea for a sci-fi novel, or fodder for a screenwriter’s elevator pitch. And in fact, though in the paper Musk worked through the engineering and economic problems in impressive detail, it received large quantities of professional skepticism: While physicists pointed out that the technology mostly already exists, various experts in transportation infrastructure and urban planning — people who dedicate entire careers to inching public-works projects along — found Musk laughably naïve about the difficulty of building such a thing.

Journalists and guests look over tubes following a propulsion open-air test at Hyperloop One in North Las Vegas, Nevada. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

What Makes a New York City Kid?” Andy Newman, The New York Times

Some ride the subway alone. Others cannot leave home unescorted. They hang out on Broadway and at Target. They play on the swings with the little kids, then bike home in the dark through traffic-choked streets. They exchange daily pleasantries with doormen and bodega owners and grapple with the incomprehensible fact that some people sleep on the sidewalk.

They are New Yorkers of a certain age: 13, give or take a year or two, straddling the border of childhood and adolescence. And as they move toward independence, the city’s opportunities and diversions, challenges and frustrations come into focus. This is an unusual place to grow up — sometimes magical, sometimes impossible. But it is home.

There are nearly half a million New Yorkers ages 11 to 15. If they were their own city, it would be bigger than Atlanta or Miami. They are more like their own planet. We spent several weeks there, exploring what makes a New York kid a New York kid.

Boys play in a park in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

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