A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
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"The Next Chapter for Urban Libraries Is Here," Amanda Erickson, Next City
Judge Nelson R. Wolff has been an avid reader for more than seven decades. He’s written four memoirs; his home library boasts an extensive collection of rare books. So he’s an unlikely leader of a movement that renounces paper and ink.
But in Bexar County, Texas, Wolff is overseeing a technology experiment that seeks to recreate a struggling American icon: the public library.
Wolff is a county politician who represents the rapidly growing exurbs outside San Antonio. Many of his constituents are immigrants or families below the poverty line — precisely the sort of people most in need of the free classes, computers and other resources that libraries offer. But although the city of San Antonio boasts a 26-branch system, the county’s suburbs had no library at all. For many years, they didn’t even have a bookstore.
Wolff set out to change that. It was a task that even most career librarians wouldn’t envy. After all, in the age of e-books and Amazon and shrinking municipal budgets, building a library from scratch sounds a little like founding a print newspaper or starting a mimeograph business. Library patronage is plummeting nationwide, and local governments are slashing budgets.
"A Day in the Life of NYC's Hospital for Wild Birds," Brandon Keim, WIRED
Even in a city famed for its oddities, New York’s Wild Bird Fund is an unusual place. To wit: one morning in April, while sitting in their Upper West Side waiting room, it dawned on me that I wasn’t alone. Perched on a chair, motionless in front of a life-sized photograph of a turkey vulture, was a large black-and-white guinea fowl.
The turkey vulture had been nicknamed Stanley. The guinea fowl, who’d been let out to stretch her wings, didn’t yet have a name. Both were among the roughly 10,000 feathered patients—snowy egrets and starlings, peregrine falcons and pigeons—delivered to the Wild Bird Fund since its founding in 2001.
“Any animal that’s picked up is in really bad shape,” said Rita McMahon, the Wild Bird Fund’s founder. “Half the animals brought in for rehab die, or are euthanized. But the other half go free. And they probably would have died if they hadn’t come here.”
McMahon founded the Wild Bird Fund after rescuing an injured Canada goose alongside Interstate 684 and learning there was nowhere in the city to take him. New York is full of veterinarians, of course, but none wanted to deal with wild animals. At first she ran the operation from her apartment. “I didn’t have any idea,” she said. “I just started doing it.”
"The Unspoken Rules of Favela Construction," Solène Veysseyre, Arch Daily
“Building a house takes time and money,“ said Marcio, a local resident of Complexo do Alemão, one of Rio de Janeiro’s numerous favelas, as he showed me around his house. This is why a house is often built over several generations: a floor may be laid, columns erected (rebar protruding), and a thin tin roof placed, but this is just to mark where the next builder should finish the job. “Constructing a roof with tiles is not a sign of wealth here—rather, it means that there’s not enough money to continue constructing the house,” explains Manoe Ruhe, a Dutch urban planner who has lived in the favela for the last six months.
An architect who has always been fascinated by the way people live, I had come to do a residency at Barraco # 55, a cultural center in Complexo do Alemão, in order to learn how its citizens went about building their communities. I had many questions: are there rules of construction? What are the common characteristics of each house? Do they follow the same typology? How are the interiors of the homes? What construction techniques and what materials are used?
"How a San Francisco Architect Reframes Design for the Blind," Lamar Anderson, Curbed
Architect Chris Downey is standing next to a pile of Sheetrock, balancing a white cane in the air like a tightrope walker's pole. The week before, construction had begun on a new office for the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco, or ILRC, a nonprofit community center for people with disabilities. Downey holds the cane up to approximate for the center's executive director, Jessie Lorenz, how the reception desk will jut out at an angle from a concrete column. Lorenz takes a step, and a pile of pipes on the floor clatters. "I don't know what's over there," says Downey. Lorenz giggles. "I hope I didn't break anything," she says. Lorenz regains her footing and touches the cane. "That makes sense," she says. "It's almost like we're funneling people into this part."
Even though Lorenz, who, like Downey, is blind, can't see the space before her, she knows exactly what to expect. On her desk at the ILRC's current office on Mission Street, she keeps a tactile floor plan that Downey printed for her. The plan's fine web of raised lines looks like an elaborate decorative pattern, suggesting a leaf of handmade stationery or a large sheet from which doilies are about to be cut. Though Downey has consulted on other architects' projects since going blind six years ago, this one marks a turning point for him. The community center is the first space he's designed since losing his sight. The center recently opened its doors to the public with a celebration to inaugurate the new space, located on Howard Street in the city's Yerba Buena district, just down the block from the Moscone convention center. But on this May afternoon, the walls are just beginning to go up.
"Can the Motor City Sell America on the Model T of Bicycles?" Heather Smith, Grist
“I don’t think the bike industry knows what’s going on,” says Zak Pashak. We are sitting in the office of Pashak’s factory in Detroit, talking about the state of American bike companies. “They’re all up in their treehouse, making bikes that they and their friends would ride – bikes that are complicated and that cost a lot. But not everyone who buys a bike is going to use it like an athlete. You don’t need 12 speeds to go buy groceries.”
The bicycles that Pashak makes are simple. Not fixie simple; practical simple. Three speeds, fenders, and a chain guard, with a frame made of lightweight chromoly steel. The first one was named the Model A – a riff on Ford Motor Company’s Model T. Like the Model T, it only comes in one size, and you can buy it in any color, as long as that color is black. (A second model, the Model B, comes only in white.) The plan is to keep the selling price under $700 (spendy, but about as low as you can get when buying a new bike with decent components), and appeal to the same type of person who would buy the European commuter-style bikes made by Linus or Public (neither of which makes their bikes in the U.S.).
Detroit and bikes go way back, but that relationship hit a snag in 1896, when a bicycle commuter named Henry Ford built a “quadricycle” out of a tiny sofa mounted on four bicycle wheels and took it out for a spin down Grand River Avenue. Henry Ford remained an enthusiastic cyclist (he kept on riding bikes well into his 70s), but the rest of America didn’t.
The Detroit Bike factory is remarkable for its resemblance to every other boring mid-century factory in Detroit and its outlying suburbs. Usually, when someone of Pashak’s background in intangible aesthetic experiences (musician, concert venue owner, and music festival founder) gets seduced into the world of making stuff, the resulting factory looks like the love baby of Martha Stewart and an old sawmill. But this is just a big, echoing series of concrete rooms, dotted with specialized manufacturing equipment — like the paint gun that uses an electrical charge to attach primer to the frame and the eccentric-looking wheel-building machine imported from the Czech Republic.