A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we’ve come across in the last seven days.
“Nobody is Home,” Charles Leadbeater, Aeon
The tiny home is one of the many oxymorons of our strange times. Thousands of people, mainly on the west coast of North America, have built small homes, little bigger than a garden shed, that they tow around on trailers. Since they first started appearing a few years ago, tiny homes have become an open-source ‘maker movement’ of thousands who share their designs for very small and often elaborate mini-mobile homes that cost as little as $5,000. It is one of the mutant social phenomena that spread in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and it’s uplifting, amazing and slightly shocking all at the same time.
Tiny homes evoke a frontier spirit of people trying to remake their lives after a catastrophe. The fact that these homes are on a trailer and don’t touch the ground can exempt their owners from property tax in states where they count not as homes but as a vehicle. That is part of what makes them affordable to run. Tiny-home owners often gather in impromptu sharing communities. Yet as proprietors of vehicles, they have to keep moving. It’s difficult to feel you have roots if your home is on wheels.
The tiny house is just one example of the lengths to which people will go to create a sense of home even when they lack the means for it. It’s just one symptom of a much wider and intensifying search for belonging, which makes home as important to politics as the idea of class or rights – especially now, when so many people feel displaced, both literally and figuratively, by life in innovation-driven, high-tech, networked capitalism. On top of that, the contest over where home is and who is entitled to live there, is – in the form of the current apparent crisis over migration – driving global political debate.
“Build It Back,” Andrew Zaleski, Curbed
When Shea Frederick started house hunting in 2013, he went the typical route: Heading online to look at different properties. But Frederick, a computer programmer and noted internet do-gooder among Baltimore’s civic hacking community, wasn’t looking for brand new houses. Instead, he was using an interactive online map he had built, BaltimoreVacants.org, to look for neighborhoods with vacant houses available to rehab. He found a prospect in one of Baltimore’s eastside neighborhoods. When he first crossed the threshold, he saw soiled needles and thousands of empty vials.
"It was quite the sight, and smelled really bad," Frederick remembers. "People had just been getting high and shitting in the corner for, like, 15 years in this place."
No turning back, however. It was July 2013, and Frederick had just spent $9,000 to purchase his first vacant house from the City of Baltimore. A little more than one year and $100,000 later, Frederick would move into this newly rehabbed house in Greenmount West, one of several Baltimore neighborhoods that has undergone a noticeable transformation over the last half-decade thanks, in part, to a six-year-old city program called Vacants to Value.
“Reach Out, Raise Money or Remove: How Should Cities Deal with Street Begging?” Ian Wiley, The Guardian
For other cities, however, begging is a much more recent, if growing, phenomenon – and often a controversial one. While the reasons for this global rise are complex, the responses to the issue vary both in their severity and their success rates.
In the US, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty views begging as “a very basic form of speech, asking your fellow human beings for help when you’re in a desperate situation ... It deserves, as much as any other speech, to be protected.” Yet its study of 187 US cities last year found that 76% prohibit begging in specific public places, while 24% impose city-wide bans.
“Inside a Virtual War: Can Video Games Recreate Life in a Conflict-Ridden City?” Jordan Erica Webber, The Guardian
In March 2014, a few months before the release of This War of Mine, the developers at 11 Bit Studios were discussing potential endings to their video game story of civilians trying to survive in a war-torn city. Wojciech Setlak, one of the writers, suggested they have a neighbouring country intervene, sending in troops to gain control of part of the weakened nation.
A month later, in the real world, militia flying Russian flags – known to the locals as “little green men” – appeared in eastern Ukraine. “It was uncanny,” says Setlak. “We had anticipated something that actually happened.”
11 Bit eventually decided against that particular ending. As Setlak explains, they didn’t want their game perceived to be about one specific conflict. Instead, the game – a nominee in the Design Museum’s 2016 Designs of The Year awards – uses the fictional city of Pogoren, Graznavia to tell a more general story about what it’s like to be a civilian during modern conflict.
“What It Takes to Open a Bookstore,” Jonah Engel Bromwich, The New York Times
For more than 20 years, small bookstores have been vanishing, their business models under pressure from large competitors and internet retailers.
In the last several years, though, there are signs that independent bookstores are making a comeback in New York and other cities, in part through innovative financing that gives neighborhoods a stake in the businesses.
A case in point: Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting, the owners of Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, have just opened a new location in a second Brooklyn neighborhood, Prospect Lefferts Garden.