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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“The Intelligent Life of the City Raccoon,” Jude Isabella, Nautilus
Toronto resident Simon Treadwell wheeled a garbage bin onto a snow-bound lot next to his property one evening this past winter. Inside the bin was a smelly mixture of wet and dry cat food, sardines, and fried chicken. Treadwell sprinkled some of the mix on and around the bin, made sure his three motion-activated night vision cameras were on, and went back into his house.
Treadwell was testing a new lid latch he had devised in response to the city of Toronto’s request for proposals: The city needed help keeping raccoons out of people’s garbage. For over a decade, residents had been asked to place organic compostable materials such as vegetables, meat, bones, and even paper towels into green bins. But raccoons had learned to overturn the bins, causing the latches to give way when they hit the ground. And if the latches didn’t pop open, raccoons often fiddled with them until they did. The city wanted to upgrade its garbage bins so that they could resist raccoons, but still open easily when picked up by a garbage truck’s automated arm. Designs continue to be evaluated.
“We’ve devised all sorts of ways of protecting our garbage, which all fail,” says Michael Pettit, an associate professor of psychology at York University, who has studied the history of animal behavior, including that of raccoons. The success of the city’s aggressive raccoons have struck fear into the hearts of Torontonians. Even Toronto Mayor Rob Ford confessed to the media that his family was too frightened to take out their trash. “Everyone I know has had to evict a raccoon from their house,” says Pettit. “Everybody has a raccoon story.”
“The Full Texture of a City,” Ratik Asokan, Guernica
Growing up as a middle-class Indian in the 1990s and 2000s, I had access to two very different kinds of comic books. On the one hand, the Amar Chitra Katha imprint produced hundreds of slim volumes drawn from Indian mythology. On the other, there were western comics with their charming imperial adventurers (Tintin), war-mongering ancients (Astérix), and young American consumers (Archie). Though they represented different cultural universes, these two bodies of work shared one trait: they had absolutely no connection to my life. Indeed, I never imagined the comics would be more than a fundamentally escapist medium for me.
That all changed in 2004 with the publication of Corridor, Sarnath Banerjee’s debut graphic novel. Rendered in a mixture of photographs, drawings, and text, Corridorfollowed the lives of three ordinary men who whiled away their time in a second-hand Delhi bookstore. The world it depicted—one of roadside hustlers and garish billboards, of liberated college students and their conservative landlords, of trendy parties and shady markets—was, for the first time, entirely familiar.
Though rooted in the local textures of Delhi street life, Corridor was driven by an assured, cosmopolitan sensibility. Banerjee made it his business to gleefully make collide east and west, culture and kitsch, high and low—to make Baudrillard wash himself with the local Liril soap. His early aesthetic, in which characters drawn in a sparse western comic style are often superimposed on billboards and street photographs of Delhi, brilliantly mimicked the mentality of post-colonial urbanites who straddled different cultures.
“Malls of America,” Sarah Goodyear, New York Daily News
It starts with the sign, the one that says FOR LEASE or FOR RENT or simply AVAILABLE, with a phone number printed underneath and maybe the name of a real-estate firm. The sign appears not on an empty space, but on a building that’s home to a long-established business — say, an old-fashioned general store like Winn Home & Beauty, which anchored a block on the busy commercial corridor of Court Street in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood.
Next come the rumors. Did you see that the Winn store space is for lease? A local blogger writes a post, and the comments section fills with laments. News travels along the nearby sidewalks, on social media, at school drop-off. Did you hear? Oh, no. Not another one.
Then, a couple months later, comes confirmation of the worst fears. The store’s familiar, friendly employees fill the windows with signs advertising a 50% markdown on all merchandise. The shelves of housewares and shampoo and school supplies — sometimes overpriced, as the store struggled to make ends meet in its final years — start emptying out. Before long, all that’s left are out-of-season holiday decorations. The kiddie horse and car rides that entertained countless neighborhood children for 50 cents a turn are rolled away for good, and the doors shut for the last time.
“First Came the Artists, Then Came the Hackers: The Strange History of London's Own Silicon Valley,” Steve Ranger, Tech Republic
It's a cold drizzly morning in London but it's toasty warm in the packed basement cafe at Google's Campus building.
The whimsical urban decals pasted on the walls and funky soundtrack floating overhead are at odds with the deadly serious furrowed brows and pursed lips of the mostly young, hip clientele. There's a table football game in the centre of the room, but nobody is playing here. Instead, they're plotting to build the future.
This is the primordial startup ooze out of which a billion dollar company could soon crawl.
This cafe, and cafes like it around the area are full of the building blocks necessary to create new startup life: smart people, bright ideas and lots and lots of coffee.
The nascent ideas that do emerge from this ooze only have to crawl up a couple of floors to find cheap shared office space or an accelerator programme to boost its chances of growing up into a tech giant.
And it's not just at Google Campus that this is process of startup evolution, this alchemical process of turning ideas into real businesses is happening. Across this swathe of East London an array of digital businesses are emerging which together are creating a startup scene utterly unlike the one which powers Silicon Valley, one with a London flavour as distinct as a cup of tea and which has taken unexpected inspiration from the grimy neighbourhood in which it has taken root.
“Broken: What The Hell Happened in East New York,” Kevin Heldman, Digg
I've been hearing about how East New York, Brooklyn is that bad that hard that street since 1983, when I was sixteen years old and heard a NYC felon and dope shooter in a halfway facility playing as if he were in prison, calling out and toasting East New York cross streets (Pitkin and Pine) as if the phrase was a standard thug-life signifier, on par with On the gate; On the lock In; Don't reach over my food; You better sleep with one eye open.
And though East New York's Wikipedia entry lists "Dodge City" as its nickname, and though one of the most thorough block-by-block ethnographies of a crime zone in song and video that I know of (I'm From East New York/Fish Grease Jenkins) refers to the place by its older nickname, "The Killing Fields," nobody is really street proud to be from this tough hood.
Because — and I say this not just as hyped-up journalism rhetoric for the sake of touting an all-or-nothing false narrative, but as someone who's worked a long time struggling to understand and categorize this place, constantly disbelieving how much worse I find it every time I dig in — when we talk about hoods and bad neighborhoods, crime zones and ghetto areas in NYC and you then compare them to East New York, all those areas that fit those definitions are nothing like East New York. East New York is sicker, sadder, more dysfunctional, more isolated, harsher, frailer, madder, toxic, broken through and through everywhere.