Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days.
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“How Urban Parks Are Bringing Nature Close to Home,” Ken Otterbourg, National Geographic
There is magic here, the delight in being not quite lost and not quite found.
I am off trail, following an unnamed stream in northeast Ohio, scrambling over downed trees through a ravine of crumbling shale, the water milky with silt as it cascades over tiny falls. The sun dances with the stream and the hardwoods. When I take off my boots and splash in the small pools, I feel the cool of the mud between my toes. In the distance, just over the rise, the sound of the city comes and goes. Civilization is so close and seems so far, and in that toggle is the wonder of an urban park.
The place is an offshoot of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which stretches like a skinny inkblot between the gridded sprawl of Cleveland and Akron. The park’s centerpiece is the resilient Cuyahoga River, once a punch line about environmental ruin after an oil-slicked pile of debris on the water caught fire. The park came five years later, in 1974, first mostly in name, and then slowly assembled from land across the compact valley.
“Tetris and The Future of Architecture,” Samaya Sinha, Kill Screen
French architectural genius Axel de Stampa created a dancing ode to Tetris (1984) with the 2014 debut of his gif art gallery Architecture Animée. The introductory image sees large Tetris piece-shaped buildings fall from a blue sky to interlock themselves with the grounded structures below. The result is a series of architectural tetrominoes that reveal an understanding of the choreography and composition of each great city. But this is more than a videogame reference, as it alludes to the need for movement in the skyscrapers and city blocks of the urban utopias of the future. There is a growing demand for spatially efficient and moveable office spaces and apartments that could potentially reduce urban congestion, while also allowing cities to grow outwards and perhaps even inwards, onto themselves. With his gallery, Stampa realizes the dream of changeable, pieceable, and transformative architectural units that the design concepts of the future may move towards.
This is not a new idea. Kisho Kurokawa initiated his version of the architectural future with the Nakagin Capsule Tower, which was completed in 1972 and consists of 140 concrete, liveable capsules fabricated into the backbone of the tower itself. The crux of the concept is that the capsules can be moved out of the tower by the owners at any time and installed at a different part of the sprawling metropolis that is Tokyo (it’s not too easy, though, given that a crane is needed to lift each one out from top-to-bottom). Kurokawa’s brainchild was still very much ahead of his time—today’s architectural norms haven’t yet caught up with his idealistic perspective on spatially efficient approaches to architecture. The story of the Nakagin Capsule Tower remains something of a tragedy, a forsaken approach to urban growth and development. Kurokawa passed away in 2007, passionately protesting the Nakagin Capsule Tower owners’ collective decision to demolish the building, which is situated in the celebrated Ginza district where real-estate is always in high demand and quite expensive. Fortunately, the advent of the financial crisis prevented any such destruction and the tower was saved, though only half of the capsules are actually used today due to the derelict condition of the apartments themselves.
“How Cities Affect the Stomach Flu,” Nathan Collins, Pacific Standard
Few things are as dreadful as the stomach flu. At best, it's a lost weekend. At worst, it can kill. Rotavirus, one of the leading causes of the stomach flu, takes the lives of 20 to 60 kids under age five each year in the United States, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worldwide, that figure is more like 450,000, so it's obvious why public-health officials would want to find new ways to combat the disease. Well, here's a novel approach: Look to the physical geography of cities—in particular, the differences between a city's urban core and its suburban and rural periphery.
Why would that distinction matter? In a word, climate. Consider Dhaka, Bangladesh, a city of around seven million people with a population density on par with New York City. A 2011 study found that cholera outbreaks in Dhaka were sensitive to changes in climate, such as the El Niño phenomenon, but only in the densely populated core of the city. That core, the study concluded, "acts to propagate risk to the rest of the city." The conclusion was that understanding climate variability within cities could be important for predicting and containing future cholera outbreaks.
“How Habitat for Humanity Went to Brooklyn and Poor Families Lost Their Homes,” Marcelo Rochabrun, ProPublica
In 2010, the New York City affliliate of Habitat for Humanity received a $21 million federal grant to work on a city neighborhood hit particularly hard by the foreclosure crisis and help stabilize it.
The funds would allow Habitat-NYC to launch the most ambitious project in its 32-year history. Its neighborhood pick was Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically poor neighborhood in central Brooklyn, where the charity would focus on buying and renovating abandoned apartment buildings.
There was just one problem. With few vacancies in the gentrifying area, longtime tenants were pushed out of their apartments — some into homelessness — clearing the way for developers to sell to Habitat at a hefty profit, a ProPublica investigation has found.
Ultimately, Habitat’s project came with a cost: While scores of families gained new homes, other even needier ones were displaced.
Though Habitat promoted the properties it acquired to renovate as “long-vacant,” four of nine were still occupied shortly before the charity moved to buy them, records show. In two cases, Habitat targeted buildings just days after the last families living there moved out.
“Balcony Seats to the City,” Patrick Sisson, Curbed
Fire escapes have a fairly straightforward purpose, designed for the noble role their name implies. But for much of their history, in cities across the world, they’ve served altogether different roles. Tenement dwellers slept on them, bickered on them, turned them into literal community grapevines. For the optimistic and dirt-poor trying to eke out an existence in a dense city, the iron grates offered a blank canvas to conjure unaffordable luxuries; a mattress became an extra bedroom, especially before the comforts of air conditioning ("whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear," wrote playwright Arthur Miller about growing up on 110th Street); a flower pot was as good as a garden, and the stairs offered an easy way to the roof, "tar beach" during hot summer days. "The greatest thing I remember about wintertime," Chicagoan Bill Bailey once told Studs Terkel, "you’d reach out on the fire escape and pull in some snow, put condensed milk on it, and you had great ice cream!"
"They hearken back to a time when the barriers between your and your neighbor’s lives and physical space were much more tenuous than now," says Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, who’s spent his whole adult life in a pair of Hell’s Kitchen buildings with fire escapes. "This was an era when people had communal bathrooms and lots more shared space. It was time when there was an expectation, at least for many of us of modest means, that our lives would be much more intertwined and interdependent."