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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The opening credits disperse, revealing a city. What city? A future city. This is an SF film, and we may not yet know the rules of this speculative world—whether there are space colonies, or authoritarian governments, time travel, or amazing future weapons—but we are already getting a taste through the thick world-building of the urban setting. Through the smogged out skies and the burning rubbish bins, or conversely, the spotless flying cars and the gleaming spires of impossible structures, we learn what kind of fictional world into which we have been dropped.
But these fictional cues are not all ray gun fantasies. Much of our depiction of future cities is taken from our non-fictional world, from our real cities that we must live in on an everyday basis. It is in this world where our speculation comes home to roost. Our ideas for the future of the city are of course born in the present, and even the most fantastical exploration finds its kernel in the foundations of our established metropolises. When we look at the future city, we are really looking at our own city. We just don’t know it yet.
"Behind The Photo That Changed The Boston Marathon Forever," David Davis, Deadspin
Everyone knows someone who’s run the marathon. Today’s big-city races—in places like Boston, New York, Berlin, and London—draw Olympic hopefuls competing for hundreds of thousands of dollars and hordes of weekend warriors raising money for their favorite charities or just hoping to check off “complete a marathon” on their bucket lists. Marathoning has birthed an industry of energy supplements and performance gear, training manuals and glossy magazines, corporate sponsorships and fitness expos. And nearly half of marathon entrants are women.
It’s an incredible change from 50 years ago. The very few marathons that did exist – even Boston’s, the oldest continuously run marathon in the world – attracted less than one thousand runners. The entrants were all amateurs; finishers at Boston were rewarded with a bowl of Dinty Moore beef stew. Oh, and the runners were all male. Women were banned from running marathons.
"What's The Perfect Size For a City?" Aaron Renn, The Guardian
The death of Michael Brown, shot by a police officer last year in Ferguson, Missouri, triggered civil unrest and protests that have yet to subside, withtwo police officers recently shot in the city. The media has blamed lots of things for the chaos that has engulfed Ferguson, from racism to inequality, but one factor might raise an eyebrow: municipal fragmentation in the St Louis area.
There are 90 separate cities and towns in St Louis County alone, which has created a landscape of small, cash-strapped cities pulling on tiny tax bases to finance their governments. The US Justice Department has specifically accused Ferguson of using its police department as a revenue-raising arm, with a racial bias and as such it could be argued that municipal fragmentation played a role in creating the conditions that produced police-community tensions in Ferguson.
A few year earlier, in 2010 and 800 miles to the north-east, Toronto elected the suburban politician Rob Ford from Etobicoke as mayor. Ford swept into office pledging to “stop the gravy train” and cut spending, cancelling bike infrastructure and streetcars. His sensibilities appalled urban Torontonians. The urban studies theorist Richard Florida called him “the worst and most anti-urban mayor in the history of any major city”. His mayoralty ultimately collapsed in a wave of scandals, including when he got caught on video smoking crack.
One of the factors blamed for the Rob Ford phenomenon? Amalgamation, or the consolidation of the city of Toronto with several formerly independent municipalities, including Etobicoke. It is amalgamation that allowed suburbanites to take control of governance over the inner city by electing one of their own as mayor.
"L.A.'s Loneliest Lion," Michelle Nijhuis, The New Yorker
Last Monday afternoon, while crouched in a crawl space beneath a house in the posh Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, a home-security technician came face to face with a hundred-and-fifty-pound mountain lion. Terrified, the man ran upstairs to alert the homeowners; by that evening, a scrum of news trucks and reporters had gathered at the scene, and state wildlife officials were trying to flush the male lion out—first by poking him with a long pole, then by launching tennis balls and beanbags in his direction. The lion stayed put through the hubbub, but by daybreak on Tuesday he was gone.
This particular mountain lion is no stranger to Angelenos. Three years ago, in early 2012, he left his home in the Santa Monica Mountains, crossed two eight-lane freeways, and, after travelling at least twenty miles, dead-ended in Griffith Park, a former ostrich farm that is now one of the country’s largest municipal green spaces. Biologists tranquilized the lion and fitted him with a radio collar; he became popularly known by his tag number, P-22. Though he stayed almost entirely out of sight—one remote-camera video showed him hiding in the brush while an early-morning jogger passed by, unaware and unmolested—his fame mushroomed.
"Have You Eaten Your Last Avocado?" Adam Sternbergh, Grub Street
Do you love avocados? I mean, really love them? Because as much as you might think you love avocados — and maybe you are one of the people in this world who run pro-avocado Tumblrs; who have avocado tattoos; who write articles like “11 Avocado Struggles Only Avocado Lovers Will Truly Understand” with sentences like “It’s not an ingredient. It’s a lifestyle” — you probably don’t love avocados as much as the people of Fallbrook, California. An inland town of roughly 30,000 that’s a half-hour drive north of San Diego, Fallbrook is unofficially known as “the Avocado Capital of the World.” More than 80 percent of the avocados grown in the U.S. come from California, and a third of the avocados grown in California come from within 20 miles of Fallbrook. Every April, the town plays host to the Fallbrook Avocado Festival, a one-day event that draws between 70,000 and 100,000 visitors. The festival features a guacamole contest, with amateur and professional divisions, and an “Art of the Avocado” show, featuring avocado-themed objets d’art, with separate categories for 2-D art (i.e., paintings) and 3-D art (i.e., papier-mâché avocados). For the children, there’s the Avo 500, in which avocados, outfitted with tiny wheels, are raced down an inclined track. There’s the Little Miss and Little Mister Avocado Festival competition, in which kids are dressed up, pageant style, and the Best Decorated Avocado Contest, in which avocados are dressed up, pageant style. If there’s anything fun or entertaining or exciting to be done with an avocado in public, Fallbrook has thought of it and done it.