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.
"The Weeklies," Monica Potts, The American Prospect
From the outside, it is hard to know that people live in the Ramada Inn. The parking lot is always empty. The hotel sits facing a wide suburban boulevard called Kipling Street, just off Interstate 70 in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. The interchange where Kipling meets the freeway is packed mornings and evenings with daily commuters going to or coming from Denver and with skiers heading west into the Rockies. Hotels dot I-70 as it cuts through the 764-square-mile stretch of suburbia that runs from the city into the mountains, but at the intersection with Kipling is a cluster of seven budget-savers that travel websites warn tourists away from. The hotels advertise low prices—ranging from $36 to $89 a night—on neon signs next to gigantic flags that whip in the Front Range wind. Most offer even lower weekly or monthly rates. The Ramada is farther from the frontage road than the other hotels and is harder to notice, with its plain yellow stucco and dimly lit red sign.
Inside the lobby, which has wide windows and a clear view of a long, low mountain called Table Top and the snowy peaks beyond, are plenty of clues that the Ramada is more than just a hotel. Off the lobby sit two sets of washers and dryers that each take a dollar in quarters, and on weekends families use one of the bellhop carts kept in a back hall to roll out baskets of dirty laundry. In the late afternoon, schoolchildren do their homework on the dozen tables where guests have breakfast. Residents sit at the two computers with Internet connections. They wander around in sock-clad feet and chat with whomever they run into.
At any given time, roughly 20 to 40 guests are staying long term. Since they pay by the week, they call themselves “weeklies.” To score the cheap rates, $210 for individuals and slightly more for families, they must pay in advance. Residents sign a form that lists the activities that could get them kicked out (mostly involving drugs) and warns that they won’t get reimbursed if they leave early, no exceptions. Some families stay only for a few weeks, some for months, giving the hotel the feeling of a dormitory. A rotating cast of front-desk clerks sells candy and rations towels and washcloths. Though some of the clerks are kind and helpful, the guests think of them as enforcers, and the clerks tend to treat the weeklies less as customers than as undergraduates stealing toilet paper and sneaking in hot plates.
"Sprawling and Struggling: Poverty Hits America's Suburbs," Allison Linn, NBC News
Like many Americans who move to the suburbs, Tara Simons came to West Hartford because she wanted her daughter to grow up in a nice, safe place with good schools.
Her fall from a more financially secure suburban life to one among the working poor also happened for the same reason it’s happened to so many others. She had a bout of unemployment and couldn’t find a new job that paid very well.
As a single mother, that’s made it hard to hold on to the suburban life that is, in her mind, key to making sure her daughter gets off to the right start.
“I’m basically paying to say I live in West Hartford,” she said. “It is worth it.”
It’s a struggle that many Americans bruised by the weak economy can relate to.
The number of suburban residents living in poverty rose by nearly 64 percent between 2000 and 2011, to about 16.4 million people, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of 95 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. That’s more than double the rate of growth for urban poverty in those areas.
"Data Farming: Demonstrating the Benefits of Urban Agriculture," Kyle Roger, This Big City
Transforming underutilized land into productive urban farms was one of the many topics which were presented at the recent Kansas City Design Week. Jerome Chou, past Director of Programs at the Design Trust for Public Space, presented his unique experience with the implementation of the Five Boroughs Farm in New York City and the impact that urban agriculture can have on low-income areas of a city.
Chou pointed out in his presentation that having the land available for an urban farm is only half of the battle. The other half involves changing local zoning laws, influencing political opinion, garnering economic support, and proving the project will have a net benefit to a community. These challenges where not unique to just New York City but also to Kansas City’s 18th and Broadway Urban Farm which was also presented at Kansas City Design Week.
The constraint of influencing the community and political leaders is what forced Chou and the multi-disciplined team lead by Design Trust for Public Space to rethink how urban farms were a beneficial investment for New York City. Chou knew from past experience that the repurposing of vacant lots provided both fresh produce and employment for local residents in the Red Hook Community Farm. Chou also pointed out that the city officials were very reluctant to provide their support for the project, particularly in a city where Mayor Bloomberg was famous for tweeting “In God We Trust. Everyone else, bring data.” The team’s first step was to find studies on how urban farms influenced local communities and present their collective data to gain political support. Design Trust had difficulty finding studies on urban farms, but did find miscellaneous pieces of data such as how having bees in a city increases biodiversity of plants and access to healthy food improves the health of local residents. The team realized they would have to retool their approach and the end results would be the first of its kind.
"Walmart May Get Customers to Deliver Packages to Online Buyers," Alistair Barr and Jessica Wohl, Reuters
Wal-Mart Stores Inc is considering a radical plan to have store customers deliver packages to online buyers, a new twist on speedier delivery services that the company hopes will enable it to better compete with Amazon.com Inc.
Tapping customers to deliver goods would put the world's largest retailer squarely in middle of a new phenomenon sometimes known as "crowd-sourcing," or the "sharing economy."
A plethora of start-ups now help people make money by renting out a spare room, a car, or even a cocktail dress, and Wal-Mart would in effect be inviting people to rent out space in their vehicle and their willingness to deliver packages to others.
Such an effort would, however, face numerous legal, regulatory and privacy obstacles, and Wal-Mart executives said it was at an early planning stage.
"Exceptions Rule: The Dirty Little Secret of L.A.'s Zoning Code," James Brasuell, KCET.org
It's no secret that the citizens of Los Angeles believe their hometown to be an exception to many rules. The sun will always shine, there is always a way around the traffic, the Lakers will never miss the playoffs, and Hollywood is the only industry that is recession proof.
But very few Angelenos are aware of just how deeply exceptions are ingrained in the processes by which the city has developed. Most reasonably engaged members of the public will recognize the names of the regulatory tools employed by city planners in approving or disapproving development projects -- the Zoning Code, General Plan, and community plans are examples. The dirty little secret of land use planning and development in Los Angeles, however, is that it is the exceptions to those rules that actually get built.
According to a white paper presented to the City Council in November 2011 in preparation for a comprehensive overhaul of the city's zoning code (more on that later), over 60 percent of the city's geography is covered by special overlays and site-specific designations. These site-specific designations, designated in the Zoning Code as Q, T, and D conditions (standing for "qualified," "tentative," and "development restriction," respectively) are the machinery of the metaphorical sausage factory that is the Los Angeles development industry.
"The Mayor's Geek Squad," Alan Feuer, The New York Times
It was a case for a digital Sherlock Holmes. Last fall, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection wanted, finally, to crack down on restaurants that were illegally dumping cooking oil into sewers in their neighborhoods — congealed yellow grease is responsible, the department says, for more than half of New York’s clogged drains. The question, of course, was how to find the culprits?
The antiquated answer would have been to have the health department send inspectors to restaurants on blocks with backed-up sewers and hope by chance to catch a busboy pouring the contents of a deep fryer into the street.
Enter the city’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, a geek squad of civic-minded number-crunchers working from a pair of cluttered cubicles across from City Hall in the Municipal Building. They dug up data from the Business Integrity Commission, an obscure city agency that among other tasks certifies that all local restaurants have a carting service to haul away their grease. With a few quick calculations, comparing restaurants that did not have a carter with geo-spatial data on the sewers, the team was able to hand inspectors a list of statistically likely suspects.
"Your Neighborhood Needs More Bars," Matthew Yglesias, Slate
An interesting thing happened in my neighborhood recently. A small posse of local busybodies organized as the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance proposed a moratorium on new liquor licenses for the increasingly vibrant nightlife corridors on 14th Street and U Street in Washington, D.C. Similar moratoria already constrain longer-established D.C. drinking hubs, and when I heard about the Shaw Dupont proposal, initially I felt despondent. But, in fact, the NIMBYs look set to lose. A guy named Michael Hamilton founded a counter-group called In My Backyard—D.C. to argue for growth-friendly policies. At a neighborhood listening session, moratorium proponents were vastly outnumbered. For now it looks as if Logan Circle and U Street will continue to be safe for entrepreneurs who want to turn vacant storefronts and derelict structures into bars and restaurants.
Similar fights play out in cities all around the country but not always with the same happy outcome. Almost invariably, these fights give the extreme deference to the concerns of immediate neighbors. But this deference has a cost for everyone else. Cities need to recognize that bars and restaurants are not the ugly stepchildren of the modern urban economy: They are its greatest strength. They spur small-business growth and creation citywide. When cities consider whether to allow them, they should think about the overall benefits to the region, not the particular complaints of near neighbors.
My neighborhood is hardly the only nightlife cluster in urban America featuring a version of this controversy. Last fall a group of residents of the Lower East Side in New York—some oddly appropriating the “Occupy” brand—tried to bring a halt to the issuance of new liquor licenses. Chicago has areas that have voted to become completely “dry” and moratorium zones where existing businesses stay open but no new liquor licenses can be issued. In California, many whole counties—including all of San Francisco—have gone into moratorium status.