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

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"Muting the Freeway," Nate Berg, Re:form

The freeway sound wall may be as overlooked as it is ubiquitous. Lining interstates and highways and freeways across the United States, these concrete and cinderblock structures are a blur in the peripheral vision of our automotive world.

This is partially by design: sound walls serve the utilitarian role of blocking and containing the tremendous noise generated by high speed transportation, and they’re built to do their job without distracting the people driving past in thousand-pound vehicles at more than 100 feet per second.

And yet, if you’ve ever looked at sound walls on the freeway, you’ve probably noticed that they are indeed designed, albeit somewhat minimally. A band of brown cinderblock cuts through the beige, a textured row of bricks juts out at the top, a zigzag waves along as you drive by. Sound walls are subtly decorated, and there are designers — mostly landscape architects — whose job it is to design them. There are now thousands of linear miles of freeway sound walls lining roadways in the U.S., and their simple patterns are an indelible part of the American landscape. Despite this abundance, sound walls are little more than an ignorable background architecture, something to look away from or even despise. Given their massive footprint on our built environment, that seems inordinately dismissive.

Sound Walls from Nate Berg on Vimeo.

"Need for Speed," Simon Liem, The Walrus

In the heart of agricultural Alberta, about ninety kilometres north of Calgary, there is a place where people have access to Internet speeds of one gigabit per second—making downloads about forty times faster and uploads 170 times faster than those of the average Canadian. Here, with the Rocky Mountains looming to the west and hills of Canada Prairie Spring Wheat rippling to the east, a community-owned fibre-optic network sits ready to feed into almost every home and business, using the same technology that Google Fiber has deployed in a handful of American cities. This town, however, has done so without corporate support. It has a population of 8,600, and it is literally named Olds.

Like many small communities, Olds has had to get creative in its efforts to stay economically viable and socially vibrant. The non-profit Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development has, among other things, founded a community-owned power utility, and tried to attract doctors by showing young medical students around town. In 2004, the institute’s technology committee, chaired by retired pharmacist Joe Gustafson, conceived what would become O-Net, Olds’ ambitious homegrown Internet provider. While he appreciates the novelty of lightning-fast speeds—being able to stream HDTV to six different screens simultaneously, for example—Gustafson’s goals are more practical: “This whole O-Net thing is to make Olds a good place to live. And a good place to live is a good place to work. So people will then come to build businesses and stay in town.”

A grain elevator in Olds, Alberta. (Wilson Hui on Flickr/CC Commons)

"Why Nashville Is Still America's Music City," Margaret Littman, Next City

The factory that produces one-third of all vinyl records on store shelves today is easy to miss. With its pastel tile facade and retro-industrial trappings, United Record Pressings hides in plain sight in Nashville’s transitioning Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood.

But step inside the 52-year-old plant and the hum of machinery will remind you that this is where 30,000 to 40,000 records are pressed every day but Sunday. The presses run 24 hours for those six days a week, and even at that pace the company has been behind in keeping up with demand, with some orders taking as long as three months to fulfill. To fill the backlog, United Record is racing to complete a second plant that will double its capacity to 60,000 to 80,000 records daily.

No one makes money in music anymore. In a time when the song of the summer (hello “All About That Bass”) can be yours on repeat for 99 cents and an entire album saved to your record cabinet in the cloud for just a few bucks more, the chorus is as familiar as the latest Beyonce tune in most of the United States. But in Nashville, a different trend has taken shape, one that has the city thriving and creative industries booming.

“Nashville is as good as any place you can imagine being for this business,” says United Record CEO Mark Michaels, who plans to hire another 70 to 80 employees when the new plant opens.

The Nashville headquarters of Jack White's Third Man Records. (Wikimedia Commons)

"The Rise of the Viral Subway Fight Video," Paul Hiebert, Pacific Standard

In early November, two videos capturing two separate scuffles aboard a New York City subway car appeared online. In the first, titled “Man Smacks the Soul Out of Girl on the NY Subway,” a woman ridicules a man clasping a pole for wearing a dated jacket and, later, for having a speech impediment, among other things. She then swings a pair of leopard print stilettos at his head. He, in turn, delivers a hard slap to her face. A multi-passenger brawl ensues. In the second video, a man and woman on a packed train trade insults until the abuse turns physical.

These events, of course, aren’t without precedent. Today, you can find footage of people fighting on subways over everything from saggy pants to eating spaghetti to singing aloud. Type the words “subway fight” into prominent video-sharing sites such as Reddit, LiveLeak, and WorldStarHipHop for more examples of the same. Or just search YouTube itself.

Indeed, it’s almost as though the subway fight video has become its own genre, with a common building of tension, eruption of violence, and cast of fellow passengers looking on in bewilderment as the train continues rolling toward its next stop. Sometimes bystanders intervene: in 2012, a then-24-year-old architect broke up an incident aboard a NYC subway simply by walking between the two combatants while nonchalantly munching on a handful of cheddar Pringles. After the clip went viral, the Internet bestowed the young man with a folk hero-like title: “Snackman.” Other times, however, the only conclusion to the melees is that the person holding the smartphone stops filming.

"Doctor Makes House Calls in Chicago's Most Dangerous Neighborhoods," Ted Gregory, The Chicago Tribune

Up wooden steps, past unlit Christmas lights dangling in the window, Dr. Fred Richardson Jr. walked through the doorway of Louise Cannon's house on a cold November night on Chicago's West Side.

He passed Cannon's grandchildren, a photo of the Obamas on the mantel and a statuette of the Virgin Mary, then pulled back curtains to a dining room converted to a makeshift hospital room. Unable to speak after a series of strokes, Cannon, 79, was in bed. A rerun of "Good Times" glowed on the TV in a corner.

She saw Richardson, raised her emaciated left arm and beamed.

"How are you, Miss Cannon?" Richardson asked, taking her hand. "All right, sweetheart. Now I'm going to check your breathing, OK?"

She cooed.

A son of Englewood on Chicago's South Side, Richardson has been a solo practitioner of family medicine since 1990. Throughout that time, he has been doing what he did on that Tuesday night: grabbing his scuffed, black, leather bag and making house calls primarily in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods.

Richardson also has become a legacy builder, rescuing minority students struggling with medical school by bringing those students — many on probation; some dismissed outright — into the small waiting room of his Oak Park storefront office three days a week. There Richardson, 54, teaches them the practical applications of what they are trying to grasp in textbooks.

(Top image via fztommy / Shutterstock.com)

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