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.
"In Debate on Domestic Policy, No Talk of Cities," Clyde Haberman, New York Times City Room
For all the thousands of words that poured out of President Obama and Mitt Romney in their debate Wednesday night, neither man could find room for a word that applies to more Americans than just about any other: cities.
Nearly all Americans live in cities and their suburbs. But even though this first presidential debate of 2012 focused on domestic policy, the two candidates couldn’t devote so much as a sentence to any thoughts they might have had on mass transit or crime or crumbling infrastructure or homelessness or other matters that enormously affect cities, including, of course, New York.
While we’re at it, another word that never arose is “guns.” Thanks go to Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, for pointing this out.
The omission of guns might be shrugged off were it not for the fact that the debate took place in Denver, minutes by car from two of the worst massacres in modern American history — the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., less than three months ago. To be in that corner of the country and make no mention of gun violence was somewhat like traveling to northern Japan and saying nothing about its nuclear crisis.
"Bachelor Padding: How lonely single men created China's real estate bubble," Roseann Lake, Foreign Policy
BEIJING — When Xiaobo Zhang got married in the early 1990s, he and his bride, like millions of other couples across China, were given a small room to live in by his danwei, or work unit. At the time a lecturer at Nankai University in Tianjin, Zhang's room was utilitarian and unremarkable, virtually indistinguishable from the ones inhabited by his colleagues. In a word: average.
In the China of the 1990s, which was characterized by a pubescent limbo between the economic reforms of the 1980s and the last decade's explosive growth, Zhang recalls that mostly everyone was average. People were neatly packed into work units, generally laboring under the same conditions, eating in the same canteens, and sleeping in the same blocks of industrial-looking housing provided by their employers. There was little disparity in salaries, and few cars and luxury handbags to spend those salaries on.
During these times, Zhang explained, occupants paid minimal rent for their work-unit housing -- which was issued based on seniority, family size, and rank -- and could essentially stay in it forever. There was no legal market for buying and selling property in China, even in rural areas without employer-provided housing, where families built their own homes. Then, in 1998, the Chinese real estate market was born. It began with a decision by the Chinese State Council to monetize housing in an attempt to develop a commercial private market for real estate. In other words, instead of just providing apartments for lifetime occupancy, companies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies began to give their employees the option to purchase the housing they lived in. Fourteen years and a serious housing construction boom later, China's property market has allowed for one of the world's largest accumulations of real estate wealth in history, valued at $17 trillion in mid-2010 by HSBC Global Research and worth some 3.27 times China's GDP. (To better understand the scope of the construction boom that precipitated this massive accumulation of wealth, it's worth noting that between 1998 and 2008 alone, 14.4 billion square meters of residential housing space were constructed in China, according to China Statistical Yearbook figures. That's equivalent to 160 times all the residential space on the entire island of Manhattan.)
"Between the Lines," Dave Gardetta, Los Angeles Magazine
Anyone scanning Disney Hall’s debut calendar in the fall of 2003 would have noticed the size of that first season’s schedule, 128 shows in all. That’s a weighty number for a new hall—one might have assumed it was chosen by venue management wanting the gravitas of a world-class chamber’s arrival or perhaps seeking a broad spectrum of music that could reflect the diverse city. Those guesses would have been wrong. Disney Hall had been built atop Parcel K, a county-owned square of land on Bunker Hill that long had sat empty, awaiting development. For decades Parcel K served a prosaic function: It was a parking lot. Commercial landowners like parking lots; they generate cash until better economic conditions arrive, and blank space can be converted into a more profitable moneymaking device—typically a building. The practice is called “land banking.”
Yet before an auditorium could be raised on K, a six-floor subterranean garage capable of holding 2,188 cars needed to be sunk below it at a cost of $110 million—money raised from county bonds. Parking spaces can be amazingly expensive to fabricate. In aboveground structures they cost as much as $40,000 apiece. Belowground, all that excavating and shoring may run a developer $140,000 per space. The debt on Disney Hall’s garage would have to be paid off for decades to come, and as it turned out, a minimum schedule of 128 annual shows would be enough to cover the bill. The figure “128” was even written into the L.A. Philharmonic’s lease. In 2003, Esa-Pekka Salonen opened Frank Gehry’s masterpiece to a packed house with Mahler’s Resurrection, and in the years since, concertgoers—who lay out $9 to enter the garage—have steadily funded performances that exist to cover the true price of their parking.
Donald Shoup, a Yale-trained economist and former chair of UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning, loves telling this story. Gehry’s auditorium may be wonderful, says Shoup, but it is also a fine example of poor planning. The garage—designed to serve the public good—instantly made the Metro immaterial to concertgoers, placed several thousand cars on the road every week, and pumped a few hundred tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. Like any parking lot entrance, the one on Bunker Hill sucked air from street life. “L.A.,” says Shoup, “required 50 times more parking under Disney Hall than San Francisco would allow at their own hall.” Downtown already had an oversupply of garages and lots where music fans could leave their cars. “After a concert in San Francisco,” says Shoup, “the streets are full of people walking to their cars, eating in restaurants, stopping into bars and bookstores. In L.A.? The bar next door at Patina is a ghost town.” Receipts that should have gone to the philharmonic’s endowment instead are funding enough parking for nearly every ticket holder to park a car every night downtown.
"To Drive or Not to Drive: Two South American Countries Consider Congestion Pricing," Drew Reed, This Big City
Whether they own a Prius or a Hummer, a Porsche or a Pinto, or anything in between, car owners all over the world can agree on one thing: they don’t want to pay to use the roads they drive on. User fees like toll roads, congestion pricing, or others, are almost always met with scorn. Some of the best know examples of this have been in London and New York, where despite the transit friendly culture the measures have been met with controversy. Not surprisingly, similar proposals made in more car-oriented cities have gone down in flames.
The core rationale for user fees on roadways generally falls into two categories. The first is the idea that, since roads are expensive to build and maintain, the people who directly benefit should help to pay for them. While no form of direct payment for roads is ever going to be immensely popular, this idea is generally well received. People who feel their tolls are being used for something are likely to quietly accept them.
The second rationale for road user fees is that they should be used as a mechanism to promote driving patterns that utilize limited road space and car-related infrastructure in heavily urbanized areas more efficiently. This is often met with outrage. And despite the potential benefits of such measures, some of this outrage is understandable. When people have to pay for something, they like to know what it is they’re paying for. Congestion pricing struggles to convince people it needs to exist. For as much as everyone likes to complain about traffic, they have trouble accepting that they are part of the problem, instead embracing solutions that only apply to everyone else.
"Baseball, Architecture, and the City of the Future," Vedanta Balbahadur, Satellite
Montreal has long been recognized as one of North America’s artistic hubs. But for the last century it has also been synonymous with another cultural phenomenon: hockey, a game thoroughly suited to the city’s long, unrelenting winters.
When spring and glorious summer arrive, though, Montrealers come out of hibernation in droves, peeling off jackets and sweaters to enjoy the sunshine. As any Montrealer will tell you, being outdoors in the summer to enjoy the all-too-short respite from the cold is essential.
And for more than one hundred years, baseball has been a staple of the city’s summer days. While the departure of Montreal’s professional baseball team, the Expos, to Washington, D.C., may seem to indicate lack of local interest in the game, the truth is more complicated. During its final years in Montreal, behind-the-scenes maneuvering involving the Expos’ ownership and operation further complicated a difficult set of circumstances surrounding the team (one of them being the weak Canadian dollar in the nineties).
The loss of the Expos can be thought of as one of the last blows to an era often considered the city’s glory days. Today, Montreal is an amalgamation of thriving, culturally diverse neighborhoods—a fact of which its residents are justifiably proud. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that Montreal never quite reached the “city of the future” aspirations it set for itself during the sixties, when the eyes of the world were focused on it as a site for twentieth-century progress. Although we now look back critically on the aspirations of modernist planners and reformers, it is clear that in many ways Montreal is still slumbering in the shadow of that time. How telling it is that the city was the first in Canada to hold a World’s Fair (Expo 67), the first to host an Olympics Games (1976), and the first outside the United States to acquire a major league baseball franchise. The departure of the Expos is further proof that those days have passed.
Top image: Reuters / David Gray