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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“Is GPS Ruining Our Ability to Navigate for Ourselves?” Joseph Stromberg, Vox
I absolutely love GPS. I think the ability to get from one place to another, anywhere in the country, is one of the most remarkable gifts of modern technology. I've often reflected that I wouldn't terribly mind getting rid of my smartphone if I could somehow keep one app: Google Maps.
But over the many hours I've used it, I've occasionally wondered about a troubling idea. Could our dependence on automated directions be eroding our ability to navigate for ourselves?
We don't yet have a clear answer, and scientists haven't yet conducted experiments directly observing how GPS affects the brain. But we have good reason to believe that when we blindly follow GPS for direction, we're not exercising crucial navigational skills—and many of the scientists who study how the human brain navigates are concerned.
“Moving Targets,” Jon Swaine, Jamiles Lartey, and Oliver Laughland, The Guardian
Tommy Maness had no choice but to shoot, they said.
Called to tackle a supposed late-night fight at a roadside diner in Alexander City, Alabama, the 34-year-old police corporal saw Emerson Crayton Jr, a young black man, hurry into his Ford SUV in the restaurant’s parking lot and start the engine.
Maness knocked on the driver’s window and told Crayton to get out. But Crayton, 21, reversed out of his space. Then he turned his wheels toward Maness, police chief Willie Robinson alleged, and “tried to run over the officer”. Maness “could not get out of the way of the vehicle”, so instead he fired his Glock pistol into it at least three times. Crayton, who was unarmed, died from a shot to the head.
According to an Alabama state bureau of investigations file on the shooting obtained by the Guardian, however, things unfolded differently.
“The Birth of the Bicycle,” Alex Q. Arbuckle, Mashable
In 1818, Baron Karl von Drais of Baden, Germany, patented the design for a two-wheeled Laufmaschine, or “running machine.” It consisted of two in-line wheels beneath a seat and handlebars, and was propelled by the rider pushing off the ground with his feet.
Also called the “Draisine,” the device was created not out of fancy but necessity—Drais was looking for a substitute for the horses that had starved to death in the recent volcanic winter, caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815.
His invention inspired other manufacturers in England and France, who created their own two-wheeled conveyances, calling them velocipedes or “dandy horses.”
“Freddie Gray and William Porter: Two Sons of Baltimore Whose Lives Collided,” Michael A. Fletcher, The Washington Post
BALTIMORE — They were born 11 blocks and less than two months apart in a city notoriously perilous for black males. Freddie Gray Jr. and William G. Porter Jr. did not know each other, but their lives circled and mirrored one another for 25 years.
Each was named after his father. Each was raised by a single mother who went to court seeking child support. For about a decade after their births in 1989, they lived in the same struggling West Baltimore community, where both their mothers said they were diagnosed with dangerous levels of lead in their blood. They played sports in the city’s recreation centers and attended public schools, where each found his share of trouble.
Over time, their paths diverged. Gray began getting in trouble with the law; Porter became an enforcer of the law. Then, on a quiet Sunday morning in April, their lives collided in an encounter that led to Gray’s death, criminal charges against Porter and five other police officers, and a city shaken by rioting and a crime wave that followed.
These two sons of Baltimore have been cast as martyr and villain in the vociferous debate over the brutal treatment that black men too often suffer at the hands of police. But their stories are more complicated than that.
“Object of Intrigue: Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon,” Ella Morton, Atlas Obscura
To anyone living in less-than-pristine urban environs, the concept of a celebrity pigeon seems ludicrous—surely the ash-colored flying rats are to be reviled, not exalted. But these people never got a chance to meet Martha.
Martha, a passenger pigeon, died 101 years ago today at her Cincinnati Zoo home. The death of a bird, while a somber moment for your average ornithologist, does not tend to resonate far beyond the bird’s nearest and dearest. But Martha was special. Her death marked the end of not just her lineage but the entire passenger pigeon species, which once flew in great flocks across the United States.
Passenger pigeons, according to the Smithsonian, were once the most common bird in the U.S., numbering in the billions. Hunted for their tasty meat, as well as merely for sport, the birds also experienced habitat loss as human development encroached on the wilderness during the 18th and 19th centuries. But at the time, conservation was not a concern.