A man stands motionless where Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl from Chicago, was shot and killed on January 29, 2013. AP/Charles Rex Arbogast

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

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"In Chicago's War Zones, the Tragedy Extends Beyond the Kids Who Die," Steve Bogira, Chicago Reader

Like many Chicagoans, Latoya Winters was stunned by the fatal shooting of 11-year-old Shamiya Adams at a sleepover in July. Shamiya and several friends were in the bedroom of a home in West Garfield Park. They were circled around a pretend campfire, about to microwave s'mores, when a bullet fired at some boys outside came through a window. It struck Shamiya in the head; she died the next morning.

Winters lives a few blocks away. "I ride past that street all the time, and it's hard to take in," she's telling me on an August morning. "I have a lot of little cousins and nieces. We have sleepovers at my sister's house, we paint nails and watch movies and order food. Who would think that you aren't safe inside a house, doing little girl things?"

But Winters knows that children anywhere in her neighborhood aren't really safe. She's spent most of her life in West and East Garfield Park, neighborhoods besieged by poverty and violence when she was born 26 years ago, and ever since.

She grew up looking over her shoulder. "I feared for my life, and I feared for the life of the kids that I lived with, that I went to school with, all these young kids in the neighborhood I knew. You can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even in the right place at the right time, and something bad can happen."

We're in an office at Marillac House, the 100-year-old social service agency near Jackson and California, where Winters works with children in summer- and after-school programs. Some of the younger kids in the summer program have had questions about the sleepover shooting, she says. "They want to know, 'Why was that girl killed at that party? She wasn't doing anything wrong.'" Since there isn't a good answer, Winters mainly listens sympathetically.

"Are Better Signs the Secret to a Successful City?" Steven Poole, Guardian Cities

Street signs, airport signs, signs in shopping malls and railway stations: they’re all around us, but we only really notice them when they go wrong – when we’re looking for a sign that’s not there, or are led in a circle by a mysterious set of signs whose promised objective never appears, as though we are the butt of some deadpan semiotic joke cooked up in the bowels of the University of Paris. Yet signs are, of course, carefully designed objects. They have a history and, right now, are even in the throes of something like a revolution.

The Legible Cities movement takes its inspiration from the American social geographer Kevin A. Lynch, who published the seminal book The Image of the City in 1960, introducing the concept of the “legibility” of urban space. The modern Legible Cities idea began in Bristol in the late 1990s, when planners wanted to communicate information about city-centre regeneration projects. It became a graphically consistent network of new directional signs, street information panels with maps, printed maps, and plaques. Taken together, this all constitutes a “wayfinding system” (another Lynchian coinage).

The project was conceived by Bristol town planner Mike Rawlinson, who now has his own company, City ID, to extend the practice to other places around the world. “It was about stitching together the city,” he explains of the Bristol project. “The crucial thing is to build any sign system as a system: it’s a network, and you have to plan the routes. You do a lot of modeling—there is a science to this. You have to model new buildings or places through scenarios, data, flow data, trying to predict the needs of the user at any point in their journey. If you get that right, job done. People don’t complain, they just get on and move.”

The Bristol experience inspired, in turn, the project Legible London, which was spearheaded by Patricia Brown, then CEO of Central London Partnership and now running the urban consultancy Central. The most visible results of Legible London today are the public-information boards with local maps on them. The big ones, pleasingly, are called “monoliths” (no Kubrickian evocation of hooting apes is presumably intended), and there are also midiliths and miniliths. “My personal image [for the project],” Brown says, “was for London to put a subliminal arm around people.”

"A Short History of Postal Banking," Mehrsa Baradaran, Slate

Last week John Oliver offered up an exposé on payday loans, describing them as “the circle of debt” that “screws us all.” And at the conclusion of Oliver’s takedown on payday lending Sarah Silverman offered low-income borrowers better alternatives—including donating blood and jumping in front of rich folks’ cars. But there is a burgeoning alternative to usurious payday lending: postal banking, which allows low-income Americans to do their banking—from bill payment to small loans—at the same post office where they buy stamps. As states try to regulate away the payday-lending sector, their desperate customers may be pushed either into the black market or bankruptcy. Postal banking is a much better solution. It is time to consider a “public option” for small loans.

Every other developed country in the world has postal banking, and we actually did too. It is important to remember this forgotten history as we begin to talk seriously about reviving postal banking because the system worked and it worked well. Postal banking, which existed in the United States from 1911 to 1966, was in fact so central to our banking system that it was almost the alternative to federal deposit insurance, and served as such from 1911 until 1933. The system prevented many bank runs during a turbulent time in the nation’s banking history—essentially performing central banking functions before the Federal Reserve was up to the task. Postal banking helped fund two world wars and reduced a massive government deficit after the Great Depression.

A post office in Shanghai offering postal savings services. (Wikimedia Commons)

"The Outlaw Instagrammers of New York City," Adrian Chen, New York Magazine

The 17-year-old photographer Humza Deas spends so much time exploring the air above New York City that he’s begun to run into people he knows up there. On a recent balmy night he strolled across the Manhattan Bridge, snapping long exposures of FDR Drive from the pedestrian walkway. He was descending into Chinatown when, about 50 feet over Henry Street, his name wafted out.


Two backpack-laden figures ran laughing over the rooftop of a six-story building across the street, just a few feet above the walkway. They scurried up a ladder to an empty billboard and disappeared around its far side. “I think that was Last Suspect,” Deas told Junior, a friend who was carrying his tripod. “I can tell by the way he dresses.” Last Suspect is a well-known New York City street photographer, part of a community that specializes in combining picture-taking with urban exploration: a tribe of outlaw Instagrammers for whom, every night, New York City becomes a playground and battlefield. They compete to capture the gritty cityscape from unexpected — often aerial — angles while garnering as many likes and follows as possible in the process.  (Like Deas, Last Suspect is an elite of the group, called a “K,” which means he has more than 10,000 followers on Instagram so the last three digits of his follower count are replaced with the letter K.) They can be spotted by the distinctive humpback of their padded photographers’ backpacks and colorful lightweight Nikes, equally effective at gripping rusty ladder rungs and looking cool in a photograph hanging over the city from the edge of a skyscraper’s roof, as if all of Manhattan were just an ottoman.  For them, photography is more performance — or competition — than visual art.

"Ghost Town: Searching for Remnants of Russia in the Chinese City of Harbin," Jacob Dreyer, The Calvert Journal

It is not rare for a civilisation to abruptly falter, give way and fold into a new one. This insight seems obvious in the territories of the former Soviet Union—a universe transformed into a memory overnight. It is more rare that one settlement transforms into another, that a city turned ruin continues to be inhabited, that the collapsing buildings and boulevards stained by a thousand footsteps, after the apocalypse, host new forms of human life, new memories. Harbin, in the far north-east of China, used to be a very Russian metropolis. Once called the Paris of the east—although it’s not the only contender for the title—it was a haven for political refugees, fascists, Bolsheviks, painters and poets. Now, all that is gone.

Not quite all: traces of the old city do remain. Russian writing adorns the walls; St. Petersburg-style pastel-coloured buildings line boulevards where they sell black bread and sausage; the nostalgic Russian song Moscow Nights plays everywhere. But these are just traces: this is now a thoroughly Chinese city of some nine million official residents (but most likely many more)—Han Chinese, Mongol and Manchu. Russians are visitors here, in the ashes of a great Russian city. They wander dejectedly through beer gardens, on their way to trade delegations, or maybe to nightclubs where they are paid to dance.

Harbin at night. (Wikimedia Commons)


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