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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“Havana: Some Assembly Required,” Brendan Borrell, Hakai Magazine
If a place could be described as bitterly hot, it’s here on a street along Havana’s waterfront. A century-old custom house sprawls the length of three soccer fields, blocking the sea’s cooling embrace. The building is an affront—a dilapidated fortress with broken windows and gaping holes in its terra cotta roof—that I deeply resent right now.
I’m on a walking tour with two dozen international architects and urban designers, as we imagine a theoretical future for Havana. The walk is part of a charrette—an exercise that gives professionals and community members a voice on urban development when there is no formal mechanism to do so, as has been the case in crumbling Havana. At this moment, however, under the searing sun, it’s our imaginations that are crumbling and the water that’s theoretical. Every so often, the scent of sunscreen permeates the air as someone slathers it on their glistening pink face. “Agua?” we inquire, as we poke our heads into doorways on a fruitless search for bottled water.
As relentless as the heat on this “death march”—to quote the mutterings of the design contingent—is our leader: Cuban-born architect Julio Cesar Perez, clad in a heavy blue blazer and exuding a kind of reptilian comfort. His taut, olive skin is radiant under the tropical sun. Like a lizard animated by the heat, he whirls around, pointing this way and that way, and expounding on the failings of this once great city—the largest metropolis in the Caribbean, with a population of over two million. Havana is Perez’s birthplace, his stomping grounds, and his part-time home when he’s not in Miami, Florida.
“One Year After a Devastating Earthquake, Nepal Is Still in Ruins,” Elijah Wolfson, Newsweek
It was a miracle, the Nepalis say, that the 2015 Gorkha earthquake, which registered a magnitude of 7.8 and shook their Kathmandu Valley onto the world stage, happened on a Saturday morning. Throughout rural Nepal, children were in their home villages instead of away in the schoolhouses, and most everyone was out in the fields planting, picking, cooking and playing. When the ground rumbled on April 25, the people swayed, fell to their knees in the dirt and felt their hearts race as they looked out across the valleys and saw homes topple. When the shaking stopped, they ran through the switchbacks carved into the terraced hills to their stone-and-mud homes, most constructed at great cost and with their own hands over many years, to assess the damage.
Over 600,000 houses crumbled that day, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs (some 300,000 more were partially damaged)—but only around 9,000 people died; consider that the death toll of Haiti’s 2010 quake is thought to be well above 100,000. The people of Nepal counted their blessings and resigned themselves to making a new life.
A year later, roads have been cleared and businesses have reopened; the traffic in Kathmandu is again making rush hour unbearable, and the city air unbreathable. But most of the rubble remains, and state-of-the-art, earthquake-resistant structures have not risen from the dust. In fact, among the dozen or so villages I visited in the first week of April 2016, not a single ruined home had been rebuilt. Instead, the majority of Nepali families who lost their houses now reside in precarious temporary dwellings made of corrugated metal, plastic tarpaulin and whatever other materials they could salvage.
“Gentrification Spotlight: How Portland Is Pushing out Its Black Residents,” Abigail Savitch-Lew, Colorlines
Marih Alyn-Claire, a Black 64-year-old Portland, Oregon, native, is afraid she will soon be homeless. Last summer, she learned that her rent would rise by several hundred dollars in June 2016, but so far she hasn’t found a decent apartment that she can afford. “I’ve watched the redlining here. I’ve lived through discrimination myself," she said at an emergency housing forum with state representatives and senators in January. "But I’ve always been able to get a place."
Alyn-Claire lives on Social Security Disability insurance and pays for part of her housing costs with a federal Section 8 voucher. In recent years, though, Portland rents have skyrocketed and the federal government’s voucher program hasn’t kept apace—leaving tenants like her to shoulder the cost or meet the streets.
There is no one story of displacement in Portland. Among the 30 others who testified at the January emergency housing hearing was a working-class mother pushed out, a copywriter evicted and grappling with doubled rent costs, and a domestic violence service provider having trouble finding emergency housing for clients.
“The College That Ate a City,” Daniel J. McGraw, NextCity
Stand in the front yard of Jennifer Roberts’ house in San Marcos, Texas, and it’s hard not to notice the giant wall across the two-lane street. More than 40 feet high and stretching about a half-mile down River Road, 20 apartment buildings form an imposing physical barrier — and represent a true change in her city. Residents of the roughly 300 units and 1,000 bedrooms are mostly Texas State University students.
The complex, called Woods of San Marcos, now blocks the view that those in Roberts’ longtime family home have enjoyed of trees along the San Marcos River. Fed by springs that have attracted settlements to the area for more than 13,000 years, the river and its pretty banks have been used by generations of San Marcos residents as a place to cool off during the long hot summers. It’s also been a spot where, for many years, college students and “townies” mixed together. But the City Council’s development decisions and the boom in private student housing have made that typically tricky relationship tenser in recent years.
San Marcos, population 58,000, was listed as the fastest-growing city in America according to 2014 census data. The growth is mostly thanks to an expanding Texas State University — the largest employer and largest property owner in the city. With the anchor institution showing no signs of slowing down and the invasion of national developers that have seized on a growing real estate opportunity to provide housing for an increasing number of college students, city residents find themselves much more concerned about the consequences of that growth — including rising rents and flood waters — than noisy parties.
“Our SF: The 1906 Earthquake Brought out the Best in the City,” Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle
The smoke was still clearing on April 22, 1906, the city was under martial law, and mothers continued to wander San Francisco’s streets looking for lost sons and daughters.
Some manhole covers were reportedly so hot from the post-quake fires, they still could not be removed safely.
And yet, just four days after the greatest disaster in the history of San Francisco, a defiant humanity emerged that was every bit as inspiring as the original moment was tragic.
“I have enough left to buy an annuity and live like a fighting cock for the rest of my days; but none of that for me,” Raphael Weill, owner of the White House department stores, told The Chronicle. “I am going into the work of rebuilding with all my soul. I am 70 years old, but I love San Francisco with a love that is filial, and I am going to work on the restoration of the city as if I was only 30.”
There’s a good chance you’ve seen an image of the famous newspaper after the April 18, 1906, quake; a Call-Chronicle-Examiner combined edition that came out the next day, printed on Oakland Tribune presses. “Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco in Ruins,” the headline reads in two decks, on top of an article documenting layer upon layer of doom in detached horror.