An a-tag placed in the asphalt of a New York street. But what does it mean? Paul Lukas

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

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"The Street's Secret Code," Paul Lukas, Medium

We’re often told that urban streets conceal a hidden subterranean world of water mains, sewer lines, electrical wiring, and more. But the surface of the urban roadway — the blacktop that we navigate each day by car, bike, and foot — presents a complex world of its own. Where the untrained eye may see only pavement, lane markers, and crosswalks, a person who knows how to “read the street” will see painted codes and symbols, markings on manhole covers and storm drains, and small but telling records of construction work, all of which combine to form a language that tells the street’s story.

In New York, where I happen to live, that language includes a particularly intriguing element: a series of circular plastic markers embedded in the roadway, each measuring an inch and a half across. Appearing in a variety of colors and stamped with a jumble of words and numbers, they have a bit of Pop Art feel, sort of like poker chips. Once you start noticing them, you can’t stop — they appear on virtually every block. At first glance they seem to be randomly distributed, but upon closer inspection it becomes apparent that they appear only on asphalt patches — spots where the roadway has been torn up by a utility or contractor and then repaved.

"Inside Japan's Disposable Housing Market," Alexander C. Kaufman, Pacific Standard

Philip Brasor just wanted a place to call home in Japan.

The 58-year-old writer, born in a sleepy bayside suburb on the north shore of New York’s Long Island, had lived in the country for more than 15 years. He and his wife, Masako Tsubuku, 57, scoured the home market for something affordable and livable, only to find dilapidated houses that even the real estate agents expected them to demolish and re-build upon.

“We were surprised at just how bad so many of these used homes were,” he says. “We were expecting small, cramped, little land, and certain amount of normal wear and tear, but we were seeing places that were dark, smelly, falling apart.”

The low-quality housing stock in Japan is a product of a real estate market that’s very different from that in the United States. The Japanese rarely buy homes that were previously owned, whereas existing home sales are the vast majority of U.S. real estate transactions. Only 429,000 newly constructed homes were sold last year, according to the U.S. census. Compare that to the 5.1 million existing homes sold, as reported by the National Association of Realtors.

In Japan, the majority of home sales are of new construction. Sales of existing single-family homes in the densely populated Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa, and Saitama prefectures hit just 36,432 last year—a record-breaking number for them, according to Japanese government statistics.

Old houses in Tokyo. (elminium/Flickr via CC License)

"Irrigating the (Food) Desert: A Tale of Gentrification in D.C.," Vann R. Newkirk II, Gawker

The Safeway on Georgia Ave. and Randolph was a disaster. Rotten meat regularly rested on refrigerated shelves and the stench spilled into the parking lot. Several floor tiles were broken or missing altogether. Produce was wilted or soft on good days and spoiled or moldy on bad days. Shopping carts were often broken down and covered in sticky grime.

This was the story for years until 2012, when the building was demolished to make way for the construction of a new incarnation of the store. In the interim, many residents of the Petworth area in Northwest Washington, D.C. who had lived there for years—the neighborhood sits just north of Howard University—were forced to walk, drive or find transit over longer distances to different neighborhoods to buy groceries and other basic needs. For most residents, this meant traveling to places that were not within close proximity.

Already on the edge of a burgeoning gentrification movement in 2010, Petworth has since taken off in economic growth and rising property values. "Artists" moved in, bike lanes and racks showed up beside streets overnight, coffee shops and niche stores sprang from seemingly nowhere. The new sprawling citadel of a Safeway returned triumphantly in 2014 to a coffee-scented community of swanky condo blocks, cyclists and more young white faces than ever.

Close to the far side of Petworth in neighboring Brightwood, the first Walmart in the District popped up not too long ago, complete with a fancy interior and a robust grocery section. These two huge stores bookended a long grocery-deficient area and promised to help irrigate the food desert at the heart of Petworth. But as the healthier and tastier food options replaced what previously existed, so did whiter and wealthier faces replace the lower and middle-class black and brown faces that had long lived and died there.

"The Story Behind the Ancient Map That Invented Red and Blue States," Susan Schulten, The New Republic

We live in what is endlessly described as an era of unprecedented partisanship, with Americans polarized into red and blue camps and no convergence in sight. But much of the nation’s history was characterized by intense political rivalry, especially the late nineteenth century. 

In 1876 the United States celebrated its centennial in the midst of a terrible depression sparked by the Panic of 1873. In some cities unemployment reached 25 percent, casting a significant pall over the celebration mounted in Philadelphia that spring. The mood worsened after the November presidential elections, which left Democrat Samuel Tilden in an electoral tie with Republican Rutherford Hayes. The atmosphere was chaotic, with accusations of voter suppression, rigged ballots, questionable returns, and eleventh-hour statehood for Colorado, which threw three crucial electoral votes to Hayes. The election was ultimately decided by a committee, which gave Republicans ongoing control of the White House.

This “Great Compromise” came during one of the most partisan periods in American history, and much of the staunch party loyalties had been forged in the recent Civil War. White Southerners were committed in their resistance to the Republicans for years after Appomattox, and by 1876 had coalesced into a bloc of unquestioned support for the Democratic Party that would last well into the twentieth century. In response, Republicans repeatedly “waved the bloody shirt” to remind Americans that it was theythe party of Lincolnthat had preserved the Union through the late war. 

The riveting and decidedly partisan centennial election also coincided with the emergence of politics as a field of academic study. At its outset, “political science” focused on the evolution of American democracy and party behavior. This heightened interest in the nation’s political history prompted a slew of charts, maps, and graphs designed to make sense of the past “century of progress.”

A map of the 2012 presidential election results by county. (Wikimedia Commons)

"The Trouble With Trying to Make Trains Go Faster," Katia Moskvitch, BBC Future

Since George Stephenson’s Rocket, designers have been trying to make trains go faster and faster. Despite all the innovations, particularly in the last 50 years it’s still a dream that all cities around the world could be connected by high-speed trains that complete journeys in a flash, allowing you to arrive at your destination relaxed and untroubled. Why is this the case?

Going fast on rails brings its own special set of problems. Human bodies are simply not built for rapid acceleration, we experience certain low frequency motions that create discomfort – a feeling of “motion sickness". We also experience rapid acceleration, for example, each time we take off and land in a plane.

Then there is the logistics of trying to send a train faster along a track. Going fast means pushing air out of the way, which also requires a lot of power. A train travelling at 300 mph (480 km/h) uses roughly 27 times more power than one travelling at 100 mph (160 km/h).  And at ground level the air is a lot denser than it is at 35,000 feet (10,600 meters), where airliners regularly cruise. That means more resistance, and therefore more vibrations.

But train operators and companies are pushing for ever-greater speeds, and they have been trying out a range of innovative designs that they hope will make trains go super-fast and be ultra-comfortable at the same time.

An artist's rendering of a high-speed train station for California. (AP Photo/California High Speed Rail Authority, File)


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