The Scary Truth About Climate Change: 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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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.

"Life at the Top," Adam Higginbotham, New Yorker

When the architect Norman Foster initially presented sketches for the Hearst Tower, the first skyscraper approved for construction in Manhattan after September 11th, one of the questions the building’s prospective owners asked was: How are we going to clean those windows?

In early 2002, Foster + Partners’ associate architects approached Tractel-Swingstage, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of scaffolds and window-washing platforms, to provide a solution. The result, a rectangular steel box the size of a Smart car, supporting a forty-foot mast and a hydraulic boom arm attached by six strands of wire rope to a telescopic cleaning basket, houses a computer that monitors sixty-seven electromechanical safety sensors and switches, and runs around the roof of the Tower on four hundred and twenty feet of elevated steel track. 

Avery Solan, 8, plays in a flooded street as high winds and heavy rain from Hurricane Sandy arrive in Norfolk, Virginia, October 28, 2012. Hurricane Sandy could be the biggest storm to hit the United States mainland when it comes ashore on Monday night, bringing strong winds and dangerous flooding to the East Coast from the mid-Atlantic states to New England, forecasters said on Sunday. (Rich-Joseph Facun/Reuters)

"The Scary Truth About How Much Climate Change is Costing You," Coral Davenport, National Journal

Jimmy Strickland can tell you exactly how much money rising sea levels have cost his business. In 1989, he opened his accounting firm in a one-story brick building near Norfolk’s historic cobblestoned Hague district, which surrounds one of this low-lying city’s many tidal rivers.

Dressed in pinstripes and a large, gold class ring, the white-haired Strickland is a consummate Southern gentleman—and also a consummate small-business owner. In his soft coastal accent, he tells the story of how the rising tides of Norfolk have eroded his bottom line. “I was here for 14 years, and nothing happened. We had no idea this area flooded. It had never happened before,” Strickland says. “Then, over the past 10 years, we had three big ones.” In 2003, Hurricane Isobel drove a foot-high surge of seawater into his office, drenching the foundation and walls. On Veterans Day 2009, a nor’easter brought a repeat. Last October, while most of Virginia escaped the wrath of superstorm Sandy as it barreled up the coast toward New York, the tidal waters in Norfolk rose and soaked through his cinder-block foundation. Strickland and his wife spent 36 hours in the office, vacuuming the moisture as it seeped through the floor. Now, whenever a storm is forecast, the boss and his staff come in to prep two days before it is due. That means moving furniture and files, as well as wrapping the photocopiers and fax machines in plastic. It means hours of setting up the $12,000 “door-dam” system that Strickland bought online—an assembly of metal panels and pegs that can hold floodwaters from the building for a few tide cycles.

“I could be billing $150 an hour for my workers,” he says. “Instead, this is what we’re doing. And then it’s another two days or more after the storm to put it all back.”


It’s a question being asked all across the region, as a series of scientific reports have singled out Norfolk as one of the nation’s cities most vulnerable to flooding and economic devastation as a result of sea-level rise—second only to New Orleans. The reason: rapidly rising sea levels due to climate change. Among the chief causes for that rise, according to the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, which trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, melting polar ice sheets and driving up the tides. Over the past century, the planet’s sea levels have risen about 8 inches. Globally, scientists now project sea levels to rise another 1 to 4 feet by the end of this century.

 "A Long Struggle for Equality in Schools," Fernanda Santos, New York Times

 TUCSON — Looking back at the school desegregation case he took as a young lawyer, Rubin Salter Jr. sees a pile of wasted money and squandered opportunities. After almost four decades in court and nearly $1 billion in public spending, little has changed for the black children whose right to a good education he had labored to defend. 

They are still among the lowest-performing students in the Tucson Unified School District, still among the most likely to be suspended or to be assigned to special-education programs and still among the least likely to join groups for gifted students. They are, as Mr. Salter put it, “still getting the short end of the stick.”

Pedestrians stand in the rain while waiting for a cable car on the California Street line in San Francisco, California. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

"Taxi Drivers Learn to Make Way for Bikes," Charlie Mintz, KALW

On the third floor of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency building on South Van Ness, by Market Street, a group of about 65 taxi-drivers-in-training sit at desks, in a long, fluorescently lit conference room.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, aspiring taxi drivers come here for a mandatory one-day training class. It ends with a 70-question test that earns them a temporary cab driver’s permit. Bike safety is the last lesson before the test. It taps into a lot of frustration.

“There's too many people riding bikes these days,” says Mamadou Hasin. “Some bikes they come over me, and oh man, it's gonna be an accident.”

Hasin used to drive a cab in Daly City. Now he wants to drive in San Francisco, so he has to get re-certified. He’s passed the background check, filed his applications. But if he wants to ace the test, he’ll need to pay attention.

"For Host Cities, the Super Bowl as a Carrot," Andrew Zaleski, Next City

Near Eastside has indeed had a gainful few years. Over the last half-decade, investments totaling more than $150 million have helped erect new retail businesses, affordable housing, greenery projects, a community health center and the area’s only recreation center. It’s the result of two factors: A 2007 quality of life plan that outlined 150 specific objectives to improve this section of the city, and $1 million from the National Football League, a happy side effect of the successful bid Indianapolis placed in 2008 to host the 2012 Super Bowl.

Less famous than its commercials, touchdowns or snafus is the NFL’s annual tradition of awarding $1 million grants to the city that hosts the league’s most-watched game. Typically, these grants have come in the form of community centers (what the league calls “youth education towns”), provided each host city puts up $1 million in matching funds. It’s a stamp the league can leave behind in Super Bowl cities where, far too often, economic activity generated by football’s biggest game benefits stadium concession stands and local hotels more than it does residents who must contend with a flood of tourists and beer-guzzling fans.

Lately, however, these investments have taken a different tack. Instead of putting its cash toward a one-off legacy project, the NFL is opting to work with cities that have a plan to leverage the money for a project that will have a larger impact. And increasingly, the investments are being targeted for neighborhoods in need.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at Grand Central Station in New York,. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

"Bloomberg Isn't New York's King He's Its Fairy Godmother," Noreen Malone, The New Republic

Michael Bloomberg has been accused, during his long tenure as New York’s top executive, of seeking to play many roles other than the one to which he was elected. When he pushed aside the previous term-limit stipulations, “King” was bandied about most often. (It also comes to mind when you take a gander at his "baronial" decorating style.) Another favorite, thanks to his bans of cigarettes and soft drinks (and his hoped-for one of Styrofoam), is “Nanny.”

But if we’re going to caricature Bloomberg with a job title inside the frame of reference of the average kindergartener—and after eleven years of the same guy at the same job, this is the kind of article the press is forced to write—the correct one to use these days is Fairy Godmother. It’s a role Bloomberg has settled into as he’s realized the limitations of democracy: As he prepares to give up dreams of a crown, increasingly, what he has sought to do—and what we the public have come to hope for from him—is to wave a wand (or a wallet) and magically change everything into something fancier, safer, better. New York City, rounding the corner into the final years of Bloomberg’s last term, is filled with new sparkling castles and well-heeled Europeans who like to dance in large gaudy rooms—just like something out of Grimm’s or Perrault (or Disney, as anti-gentrification critics love to point out). And, as is seldom noted about but equally true of his fairy tale counterparts, Bloomberg isn’t especially interested in consulting the beneficiaries of his largesse about what their vision of a better life might be

"Destined for Demolition, the Best Western’s Bar Keeps Serving Drinks," Simon van Zuylen-Wood, The Philadelphia Post

Brian Coyle’s story isn’t really about Jeff Lurie. It’s about the B & W.

“This bar,” he says, “was the one place I could just come in and just trash the fucking Eagles.”

When the Best Western gets publicity, it’s usually not good. In December, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore said a beloved guitar was stolen from his room there. A month earlier, plans to replace the Best Western with a Whole Foods were revealed. In a city that routinely protests the demolition of obscure, unbeloved buildings, no one piped up.

Indeed, one must ask, what is a dilapidated motel doing soaking up prime real estate in a neighborhood anchored by art museums and tony high-rises? Or, to turn the question on its head: In a city of a thousand bars, who the hell spends their Friday night drinking at the Best Western? And what will they lose when the place is no more? So, at least while it lasts, I spent a week there, trying to find out.

About the Author

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