Flickr/Daniel Lobo

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

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"Why Urbanists Everywhere Should Be Fighting for D.C. Statehood," Aaron Wiener, Next City

December 9th was a wild day for the cause of home rule in the District of Columbia — a power that Congress granted in 1973, but with enough caveats that it continually gets yanked away. A month earlier, D.C. voters had gone to the polls to vote on, among other things, a ballot initiative to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in the District. The measure was rooted in a push for social justice: A 2010 American Civil Liberties Union report found that black Washingtonians were eight times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white residents, even though blacks and whites nationally smoke pot at around the same rate. Amid contested mayoral and D.C. Council races, passage of the marijuana initiative seemed a given from the start, with polls showing overwhelming support. On November 4th, voters approved it by more than a two-to-one margin.

A month later, Congress was poised to take it away.

Because the District needs prior congressional appropriation to spend its own locally raised funds, Congress can curtail virtually any District policy its members dislike. On that morning in December, word circulated that House Republicans were likely to slip a so-called rider into the omnibus spending bill based on language proposed earlier by Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican from Maryland. As negotiations progressed, the terms of the rider crystallized: Marijuana would remain illegal, and the existing D.C. law that had decriminalized possession last summer might be threatened too.

The rider infuriated D.C. officials and some congressional Democrats. But as they spoke out against it, the word “marijuana” barely appeared in their defense of the will of D.C. voters. Instead, a different word kept coming up: “statehood.”

"Shadow Prisons," Cristina Costantini and Jorge Rivas, Fusion

The U.S. government has quietly created a second-class federal prison system specifically for immigrants. For years the Department of Homeland Security has been known as the agency that houses immigrants awaiting deportation. However, tens of thousands of additional immigrants, most serving sentences for immigration crimes, are held by the Bureau of Prisons each night before being sent back.

And it’s all part of a lucrative business model which has funneled billions of taxpayer dollars into the private prison industry.

A Fusion investigation found that without a single vote in Congress, officials across three administrations: created a new classification of federal prisons only for immigrants; decided that private companies would run the facilities; and filled them by changing immigration enforcement practices.

"You build a prison, and then you've got to find someone to put in them,” said Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, who has seen five of the 13 Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons built in his state. “So they widen the net and find additional undocumented folks to fill them up."

Video from Fusion/YouTube.

"The Town Where Everyone Got Free Money," Whitney Mallett, Motherboard

The motto of Dauphin, Manitoba, a small farming town in the middle of Canada, is “everything you deserve.” What a citizen deserves, and what effects those deserts have, was a question at the heart of a 40-year-old experiment that has lately become a focal point in a debate over social welfare that's raging from Switzerland to Silicon Valley.

Between 1974 and 1979, the Canadian government tested the idea of a basic income guarantee (BIG) across an entire town, giving people enough money to survive in a way that no other place in North America has before or since. For those four years—until the project was cancelled and its findings packed away—the town's poorest residents were given monthly checks that supplemented what modest earnings they had and rewarded them for working more. And for that time, it seemed that the effects of poverty began to melt away. Doctor and hospital visits declined, mental health appeared to improve, and more teenagers completed high school.

“Do we have to behave in particular ways to justify compassion and support?” Evelyn Forget, a Canadian social scientist who unearthed ​some of the findings of the Dauphin experiment, asked me rhetorically when I reached her by phone. “Or is simply human dignity enough?”

"America's Billionaires Are Turning Public Parks Into Playgrounds for the Wealthy," Inga Saffron, The New Republic

It’s no picnic to run a public park these days. Look at Manhattan’s Pier 54. Once the launching point for ocean liners, the pier was incorporated into Hudson River Park in the late ’80s and turned into an event space. But its underwater pilings were rotting, and four years ago it had to be shut down. The Hudson River Park Trust, the public agency that oversees a four-mile stretch of waterfront, had no money for repairs; it receives no public funding for its operations, even though its collection of ballfields, athletic facilities, and footpaths are the go-to recreation space for residents of Manhattan’s West Side. Madelyn Wils, the Trust’s president and CEO, had kept the park’s assortment of piers open largely with private contributions, but she knew Pier 54’s pilings would require a big donation. “I couldn’t get any interest from the state or city,” she lamented. “And there are not a lot of philanthropists out there willing to repair the pilings.”

Wils approached the billionaire Barry Diller, the chairman of IAC. He was an obvious choice: His company’s Frank Gehry-designed headquarters in Chelsea overlooked Hudson River Park, and he and his wife, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, were the largest private benefactors of New York’s much-celebrated High Line, just a couple blocks away. But instead of handing Wils a check, Diller counteroffered: Let him build a completely new park. What was initially a plan for a modest events space ballooned, and pretty soon Diller was offering to bankroll a miniature Central Park on an offshore platform called Pier 55. Designed by a top British architect, Thomas Heatherwick, the $130-million manmade island would be studded with groves of mature trees, walking paths, and three performance spaces. Not only did Diller agree to donate over $100 million for Pier 55’s construction, he promised to fund the maintenance for 20 years and handle all the event bookings.

Pier 55 in New York. (Heatherwick Studio)

"Big Data and Bacteria: Mapping the New York Subway’s DNA," Robert Lee Hotz, The Wall Street Journal

Aboard a No. 6 local train in Manhattan, Weill Cornell researcher Christopher Mason patiently rubbed a nylon swab back and forth along a metal handrail, collecting DNA in an effort to identify the bacteria in the New York City subway.

In 18 months of scouring the entire system, he has found germs that can cause bubonic plague uptown, meningitis in midtown, stomach trouble in the financial district and antibiotic-resistant infections throughout the boroughs.

Frequently, he and his team also found bacteria that keep the city livable, by sopping up hazardous chemicals or digesting toxic waste. They could even track the trail of bacteria created by the city’s taste for pizza—identifying microbes associated with cheese and sausage at scores of subway stops.

The big-data project, the first genetic profile of a metropolitan transit system, is in many ways “a mirror of the people themselves who ride the subway,” said Dr. Mason, a geneticist at the Weill Cornell Medical College.

It is also a revealing glimpse into the future of public health.

Across the country, researchers are combining microbiology, genomics and population genetics on a massive scale to identify the micro-organisms in the buildings and confined spaces of entire cities.

Top image used via CC License.

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