Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
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"A Glimpse Into the Future of City Halls?" Lars Eriksen, The Guardian
Opulent clock towers, grand halls, building facades covered in splendour and stone. Looking at town halls of the past - from Victorian Britain to modern functionalism - there is a palpable sense of pomp and authority. Town halls are where you find the council chamber and the nucleus of local democracy but they often seem like impenetrable bastions of power.
The town hall of the future, amid myriad administrative and cultural functions and a digital culture where citizens are organising themselves in new ways, is a concept far less easily set in stone.
City planners and the public alike are asking for transparency, citizen involvement, and the breakdown of physical and political barriers. These are ambitions that in some ways hark back hundreds of years to a time before the rise of local government when Europe’s squares, piazzas and market places fostered community and nurtured civic debate.
"The Perfect Urban Bike Is Just Around The Corner," Adele Peters, Co.EXIST
The bicycle hasn't changed much since the 1890s: Today's version has the same basic diamond shape and the same configuration of parts that it's had for over 100 years. If a 19th-century cyclist time-traveled to 2015 and got on your Bianchi, he'd know what to do.
You could argue that the bike has lasted so long because it has a nearly perfect design. In part, that's because the bicycle craze of the 1800s spawned so many new ideas and inventions. At one point, an entire patent office—out of two that existed in the U.S.—was devoted entirely to inventions for bicycles.
After experiments with different shapes and styles of bikes, like velocipedes with giant front wheels, designers finally landed on consensus with the basic design we know today. "The real reason bikes seem so similar today to bikes of yesteryear is because they nailed the design back then," says Jim Langley, a former technical editor for Bicycling Magazine.
"From around 1817 to 1890, there was an unprecedented amount of experimentation, thought and invention put into the bicycle," he says. "At that time it was the most amazing invention known and the entire world focused on improving it. You could argue that no item since the bicycle back in the 1890s received so much attention from the world's top scientists, inventors and dreamers."
"Would You Take the Bus If It Earned You Free Credits For Tolls?" Alissa Walker, Gizmodo
There's a running joke in many American cities: The only way to make public transportation truly work would be to pay people to ride it. In Atlanta, that's kind of what a new pilot program is doing. For certain transit trips, passengers can now earn $2—but they can only use the money to pay tolls on a nearby highway. Is this the best/worst idea to provide congestion relief?
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the program was specifically conceived to alleviate the crushing gridlock on I-85, where even the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) toll lanes which opened in 2011 have become a commuter's nightmare. The city's State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) is offering the transit plan in the hopes of getting at least some of those cars off the road during peak hours.
Here's how the transit credit works: For every trip on the buses which travel the same routes as the express lanes, $2 is credited to the commuter's toll credit account (they'll have to link their transit pass to their toll pass), with the potential to earn up to $10 per month for six months. The maximum credit that can be earned through this particular pilot program is $60.
"Designing the Food Market of the Future," Nina Feldman, Next City
They’re at the center of every neighborhood. On a corner, or at a major intersection: big, barn-like buildings, architecturally distinct from the houses that surround them. Maybe they have terra-cotta shingles on the top, in a strange anomaly of Spanish architecture. Maybe they function as a grocery store, or house fancy apartments. Maybe they’ve been boarded up for years.
While cities all over the country operated public markets during the mid-19th century, New Orleans took the cake. Its distinct neighborhoods inspired a larger network than anywhere else in the country. At its peak, the city ran 34 markets throughout the city.
The markets were reflections of a changing city. During the 1820s, New Orleans’ population had begun to grow pretty quickly. People moved beyond the French Quarter and into different pockets of the crescent that lined the Mississippi. But it took longer for transportation to catch up to the population growth — it wasn’t easy to get from one section of the city to another. So, each neighborhood developed its own amenities. No matter where you lived, a market would be within walking distance.
"Ellis Island After the Flood," Jordan Larson, The Awl
For more than thirty years, long after its time as the “gateway to the American dream,” Ellis Island sat empty and abandoned in New York Harbor. The island didn’t have much of a purpose after the Immigration and Naturalization Service relocated to an office in Manhattan in the nineteen fifties, and it was declared surplus federal property until a decision could be made about what to do with it. Eventually, after becoming part of the National Park Service’s Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Island was restored and given over to tourists in 1990. Ferries from New York and New Jersey now usher millions of visitors over to the twenty-seven-and-a-half-acre island every year, where families trace their lineage and pose for photos with the Manhattan skyline. The distinct French Renaissance style and pristine red-tiled roof of the Main Immigration Building give the illusion that the place hasn’t changed much since the early twentieth century; Inside, the Immigration Museum’s three stories stand as testament to Ellis Island’s years of inspection lines and medical exams. But as much as it seems frozen in time, and for all the work put into making it a historical landmark and tourist destination, Ellis Island is disappearing. ...