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

Tweet us your favorites with #CityReads.

The Fat City That Declared War on Obesity,” Ian Birrell, Mosaic

When Velveth Monterroso arrived in the USA from her hometown in Guatemala, she weighed exactly 10 stone. But after a decade of living in Oklahoma, she was more than five stone heavier and fighting diabetes at the age of 34. This friendly woman, a mother of two children, is a living embodiment of the obesity culture cursing the world’s wealthiest country. “In Guatemala it is rare to see people who are very overweight, but it could not be more different here,” she said. “I saw this when I came here.”

As soon as she arrived in the USA she started piling on pounds—an average of half a stone each year. In Guatemala she ate lots of vegetables because meat was expensive. But working from eight in the morning until eleven at night as a cook in an Oklahoma City diner, she would skip breakfast and lunch while snacking all day on bits of burger and pizza. Driving home she would often resort to fast food because she was hungry and exhausted after a 15-hour day slaving over a hot grill. If she and her husband Diego—also a cook—made it back without stopping, they would often gorge on whatever was available rather than wait to cook a decent meal.

Her lifestyle was no healthier when she stopped working after having her second child eight months ago. She was tired and her family encouraged her to drink lots of atole—a heavily sweetened corn-based drink popular in central America—to aid the breastfeeding of her new daughter, Susie. Sugar levels in her body soared, and on top of her obesity she became pre-diabetic.

Before Farming, Writing, or the Wheel, Humans Began Perfecting the Skyscraper,” Cara Giaimo, Atlas Obscura

Between now and 2018, if all goes according to plan, New York City will be home to 33 new skyscrapers. Builders will soon unveil the MoMA tower, a supertall sliver of glass right next to the museum, and 432 Park Ave, which will be the tallest residential building in the hemisphere.

Elsewhere in the country, cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia aregoing tall—residents of Washington, D.C. are even calling for a repeal of the Height of Buildings Act, a century-old piece of legislation that constrains new structures to about 12 stories. Globally, newly powerful cities like Dubai and Taipei have taken to announcing their arrival on the scene with megatall triumphs, while the old guard works hard to keep up (as of this spring, London has 270 skyscrapers in the works).

Such heights may be unprecedented, but the concept of the skyscraper is surprisingly ancient. Twelve thousand years ago, before people had invented pottery, farming, writing, or the wheel—before anyone had even thought to settle down from a life of nomadic wandering—a group of 500 or so hunter-gatherers living in what is now southeastern Turkey got together, limbered up, and did something brand new: built a tall structure. They carved huge chunks of stone out of nearby quarries, carried them up a hill, stacked them into tall T-shapes, and arranged them in a series of circles around pairs of even taller pillars. They filled out the circles with walls and stone benches, and filled many of the surfaces with elaborately carved animals—stately birds, bandy-legged scorpions, toothy lions, crouching boars. Some of the central pillars were inscribed with arms, hands, and clothing, as though meant to represent larger-than-life human figures.

Chicago’s Home Insurance Building, constructed in 1885, is known as the world’s first skyscraper. (Chicago Architectural Photographing Company/Public Domain)

Shadow City: How Chicago Became the Country's Alley Capital,” Steven Jackson, WBEZ

When’s the last time you paid attention to alleys?

Chances are, unless you’re taking out garbage or trying to squeeze a U-Haul back there, you rarely think about the narrow lane that can cut through a block.

Here’s at least one reason to take note: Chicago is the alley capital of the country, with more than 1,900 miles of them within its borders. (If you left Chicago by plane and flew southwest for that distance, you’d end up just shy of Mexico City.)

Chicago architect Dan Weese would never take his alley for granted. To him, the alley is a many-splendored thing. Dan grew up in Lincoln Park, a North Side neighborhood with plenty of alleys, and he spent a lot of time playing in the alley behind his family’s rowhouse. As he puts it, the alley was the “rec room of the block.”

An alley off Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. (Flickr/Water Lesus)

Geography of Poverty,” Trymaine Lee, MSNBC

The most vulnerable Americans are being crushed by the grip of poverty, from the deserts of the Southwest through the black belt in the South, to the post-industrial, rusting factory towns that dot the Midwest and Northeast.

From border to border, high-poverty rates have crippled entire communities, leaving bellies burning with hunger and hope of better days dwindling. Income inequality has widened in recent decades while upward mobility has declined. A tiny percentage of high income Americans hold the majority of the wealth in this country.

Quite plainly, the rich have grown richer and if you’re born poor here you’re likely to die poor. The slight declines in the national poverty rate have done little to allay the day-to-day plight of so many who are just scraping by, largely invisibly and along the margins.

The poverty rate for African Americans and Hispanics is particularly stark, with 27% and 23.5% respectively falling below the poverty line.

From SimCity to, Well, SimCity: The History of City-Building Games,” Richard Moss, Ars Technica

Cities are everywhere. Billions of us live in them, and many of us think we could do a better job than the planners. But for the past 26 years dating back to the original SimCity, we've mostly been proving that idea false.

We've traveled through time and space to build on alien worlds, in ancient civilizations, and in parallel universes—laying down roads, zoning land, playing god, and cheating our way to success in a vain attempt to construct a virtual utopia. And now, here, I'm going to take you on a whirlwind tour through the history of the city-building genre—from its antecedents to the hot new thing.

The early years and an empty plot

While extremely limited in its simulation, Doug Dyment's The Sumer Game was the first computer game to concern itself with matters of city building and management. He coded The Sumer Game in 1968 on a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8 minicomputer, using the FOCAL programming language. David H. Ahl ported it to BASIC a few years later retitled as Hamurabi (with the second 'm' dropped in order to fit an eight-character naming limit).

The Sumer Game, or Hamurabi, put you in charge of the ancient city-state of Sumer. You couldn't build anything, but you could buy and sell land, plant seeds, and feed (or starve) your people. The goal was to grow your economy so that your city could expand and support a larger population, but rats and the plague stood in your way. And if you were truly a terrible leader your people would rebel, casting you off from the throne.

A 1990 ad for SimCity. (Flickr/Daniel Rehn)

Top image: Lightspring /

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. illustration of a late-1800s bathroom

    How Infectious Disease Defined the American Bathroom

    Cholera and tuberculosis outbreaks transformed the design and technology of the home bathroom. Will Covid-19 inspire a new wave of hygiene innovation?

  2. Coronavirus

    The Post-Pandemic Urban Future Is Already Here

    The coronavirus crisis stands to dramatically reshape cities around the world. But the biggest revolutions in urban space may have begun before the pandemic.

  3. photo: A cyclist rides past a closed Victoria Park in East London.

    The Power of Parks in a Pandemic

    For city residents, equitable access to local green space is more than a coronavirus-era amenity. It’s critical for physical, emotional, and mental health.

  4. Perspective

    In a Pandemic, We're All 'Transit Dependent'

    Now more than ever, public transportation is not just about ridership. Buses, trains, and subways make urban civilization possible.

  5. Life

    The Social Distancer’s Guide to Urban Etiquette and Ethics

    Being a model local citizen during coronavirus requires us to upend some of our ingrained neighborly behaviors. Here’s how to adopt new best practices.