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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“Going Underground: The High-Tech Secrets Of Laying Train Tracks,” Laurie Winkless, Forbes
I have a confession to make, dear Forbes readers. I am a train and tunnel nerd.
It all started back in August 2014. I’d been researching urban-related technology for my book, and came across a TV series on the BBC called “The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway”. Being a Londoner (an adopted one, in any case), I was already familiar with Crossrail – Europe’s largest construction project – but this show brought home the complexity of it, in a way that reading about it never had. I knew I needed to see it for myself, and thankfully, the team at Crossrail were very open to the idea. Since then, I’ve become a regular visitor to London’s newest 42 km (26 miles) long underground rail tunnels, and my latest trip was a particular favourite.
I wanted to find out a little more about how train tracks are laid, so I spent a couple of hours with Gregg Purcell, Railways Systems Construction Manager and and Juliet Murray, track engineer. The first thing to note is that not all tracks are the same, and because of that, there are lots of ways to lay them. For large-scale projects like Crossrail, it’s very common to use multiple approaches along the route, but Gregg, Juliet and I mainly talked about two types of track: standard and floating track slab.
“Rob Ford: The Honest Liar,” Ivor Tossell , Buzzfeed
There are two stories I like to tell about Rob Ford.
The first is the anecdote of the gentleman I met at a Rob Ford barbeque, at the height of the crack scandal. The “Ford Fests,” outsized festivals the mayor and his city councillor brother threw in their own honour, had become a seasonal rite in Toronto, with hundreds of cars snarling traffic for blocks around.
Reporters said they’d seen a tape of Mayor Ford smoking crack; Ford denied everything and called the media “pathological liars.” Ford’s supporters — and there were many thousands at this event alone, waiting in lineups to get free hamburgers and shake the man’s hand — felt that he was the honest one.
I asked the supporter, a small business owner from Scarborough, if his perception of Ford would change if the video turned out to be real. He didn’t pause. “No!” he said. Why? Because, the man explained, if he’d been caught out smoking crack, he’d have lied about it too.
That was Rob Ford: the honest liar. He lied a lot, but boy, you really got where he was coming from. You can trust this guy to be straight with his lies.
“Death By Gentrification: The Killing That Shamed San Francisco,” Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian
On 4 March, on what would have been his 30th birthday, Alejandro Nieto’s parents left a packed courtroom in San Francisco, shortly before pictures from their son’s autopsy were shown to a jury. The photographs showed what happens when 14 bullets rip through a person’s head and body. Refugio and Elvira Nieto spent much of the rest of the day sitting on a bench in the windowless hall of the federal building where their civil lawsuit for their son’s wrongful death was being heard.
Alex Nieto was 28 years old when he was killed, in the neighbourhood where he had spent his whole life. He died in a barrage of bullets fired at him by four San Francisco policemen. There are a few things about his death that everyone agrees on: he was in a hilltop park eating a burrito and tortilla chips, wearing the Taser he carried for his job as a bouncer at a nightclub, when someone called 911 on him a little after 7pm on the evening of 21 March 2014. When police officers arrived a few minutes later, they claim Nieto defiantly pointed the Taser at them, and that they mistook its red laser light for the laser sights of a gun, and shot him in self defence. However, the stories of the four officers contradict each other, and some of the evidence.
On the road that curves around the green hilltop of Bernal Heights Park there is an unofficial memorial to Nieto. People walking dogs or running or taking a stroll stop to read the banner, which is pinned by stones to the slope of the hill and surrounded by fresh and artificial flowers. Alex’s father Refugio still visits the memorial at least once a day, walking up from his small apartment on the south side of Bernal Hill. Alex Nieto had been walking on the hill since he was a child: that evening his parents, joined by friends and supporters, went up there in the dark to bring a birthday cake up to the memorial.
“The Craving for Public Squares,” Michael Kimmelman, The New York Review of Books
The twenty-first century is the first urban century in human history, the first time more people on the planet live in cities than don’t. Experts project that some 75 percent of the booming global population will be city dwellers by 2050. Dozens of new cities are springing up in Asia, their growth hastened by political unrest, climate change, and mass relocation programs that have cleared vast swaths of the Chinese countryside. Much of the growth in countries like India and Bangladesh is chaotic and badly planned. In many growing cities across the Global South there are serious shortages of water, sanitation, and housing, along with increasing air pollution. The United States has some of the same problems on a smaller scale, while here urban development is also being stimulated by growing numbers of university graduates and empty-nesters who are rejuvenating downtowns and rejecting suburbia, the culture of commuting, sprawl, and the automobile.
Not that suburbs have stopped growing, but since the late 1990s, the share of automobiles driven by people in their twenties in America has fallen from 20.8 percent to 13.7 percent. The number of nineteen-year-olds opting out of driver’s licenses has tripled since the 1970s from 8 to 23 percent. Electric, self-driving vehicles may soon revolutionize transportation and urban land use. Meanwhile, deindustrialization, plummeting crime rates, and increasing populations of singles and complex, nontraditional families have reshaped many formerly desolate urban neighborhoods.
“What Penal Reform Advocate Baz Dreisinger Learned in Two Years Visiting Prisons Around the World,” Mitchell Landsberg, The Los Angeles Time
Some people travel the world to surf, to hike, to visit art museums or dine at Michelin-starred restaurants. Baz Dreisinger goes to prisons.
Dreisinger, an associate professor of English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, spent two years on a pilgrimage to prisons in nine countries investigating a range of approaches to penal reform.
It was, by her account, a searing and occasionally uplifting experience.
She has written a book, "Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World," which is framed around her strong advocacy for penal reform. Dreisinger, who teaches college classes to inmates in New York, is a strong supporter of "restorative justice" programs that emphasize restitution and rehabilitation, and an impassioned critic of our current system of incarceration, which she believes has failed in its goal of "correction."