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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“How Inmates and Loved Ones Review Jails on Yelp,” Beth Schwartzapfel,Wired
A few years back, Jenny Vekris says she was prescribed the sleeping pill Ambien for insomnia. It took her a while to figure out that the drug was affecting her in dangerous ways. “I’d wake up to car damage, bruises, fast-food wrappers, and who knows what else, because I was sleeping and driving,” she says. Twice, she woke up in jail. One of those times, she was charged with a DWI.
When she got home, she turned to a place she knew she’d be understood: Yelp.
“So, one morning, I wake up next to a girl in the big house. It took a minute to realize where I was, and I started asking the girl questions,” Vekris wrote in a review of the Austin city jail, which is more formally known as Travis County Jail. “My Cellie told me I was in jail, and then she started crying. I asked why, and she said she had to poop. That’s cool, whatever, do it. So she sits on the silver toilet, pooping and crying, and apologizing to me.” Twenty-six people marked the review “useful” and 22 thought it was “cool.”
“I reviewed jail on Yelp because I couldn’t afford a therapist,” Vekris says.
“What It’s Like to Live on $2 a Day in the United States,” Chico Harlan, The Washington Post
In the United States, we often talk about poverty as a line: You are above it or below it; you escape it or can’t get out of it. Every year, the government defines that line with a number. Right now, if you’re in a family of four, you’re considered poor if you get by on less than $16.60 per day.
What we tend to ignore, though—and almost never bother to quantify—is the vast spectrum of poverty itself. And that’s why a new book, “$2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, is so eye-opening. It exposes in devastating detail the lives of millions of Americans who aren’t just in poverty, but extreme poverty, the kind you’d normally associate with the developing world. Edin and Shaefer crunched census data and other numbers and calculated that 1.5 million American households are surviving on no more than $2 per day, per person. They also found that the number of households in such straits had doubled in the previous decade and a half.
It’s worth pondering for a moment just how difficult it is to survive on $2 per day. That’s a single gallon of gasoline. Or half a gallon of milk. If you took a D.C. bus this morning, you have 25 cents left for dinner. Among this group in extreme poverty, some get a boost from housing subsidies. Many collect food stamps—an essential part of survival. But so complete is their destitution, they have little means to climb out. (The book described one woman who scored a job interview, couldn’t afford transportation, walked 20 blocks to get there, and showed up looking haggard and drenched in sweat. She didn’t get hired.)
“An Illustrated History of Bagels,” Alison Herman, First We Feast
The bagel may not be the only bread of its kind in the world, says author Maria Balinska, but it’s the only one “to have had such a career.” A journalist and author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, Balinska has researched the famous foodstuff from its origins in 17th-century Poland to its status today as an icon of both New York City and Jewish-American food.
The evolution of the bagel is inextricably tied with that of the Jewish-American experience, following a trajectory Balinska deems a “riches to rags to riches story.” Beginning in eastern Europe as the product of Jewish bakers, the bagel was a luxury item in the 17th century. As wheat became cheaper, the bagel became a widely consumed—and widely beloved—snack food. During her research, Balinska found that the bread had even become part of eastern European pop culture: “It becomes something that’s part of rhymes for children,” she says. “There’s stories told about bagels; there’s songs about bagels.”
“The Story of How Income Inequality Has Exploded in America,” Ben Schiller, Fast Co. Exist
Inequality is inevitable in a market economy like America's. There is unequal income and wealth because people are different. They're competing. Some people want to work harder, they apply themselves better, or they acquire more skills that allow them to climb the ladder. Others are purely lucky. And some inequality is a good thing: These differences are what make people want to go to college, compete for jobs, suck up to their bosses, create new inventions and businesses, and generally raise productivity. Inequality provides incentives and gets people going.
But there's a point beyond which the forces of inequality become too powerful, when they're no longer motivating because they're impossible to overcome.
"You can have too much inequality or too little," says MIT labor market economist David Autor. "The concern about inequality is where economic dynamism gives way to dynasticism, and inequality becomes self-reinforcing: If you don’t 'choose the right parents,' you’re stuck in the bottom forever."
“Design Ideas Show How EU Cities Can Make Room for Refugees,” Marielle Mondon, Next City
As cities and countries in the EU debate what to do about incoming Syrian refugees, those giving sanctuary to the newcomers must also figure out a way to welcome them. In the last month alone, 100,000 Syrians have arrived in Germany, and a German officials said this week that the country could easily accommodate 500,000 refugees a year.
Though the word “refugee” often conjures the image of informal tent cities, Leibniz University architecture students in Hanover, Germany, have another vision—they see potential in unused parts of urban cores. Here are some of their ideas—not actual projects yet, but certainly deserving of consideration.