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 last seven days.
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“The End of Walking,” Antonia Malchik, Aeon
In 2011, Raquel Nelson was convicted of vehicular homicide following the death of her four-year-old son. Nelson, it’s crucial to note, was not driving. She didn’t even own a car. She and her three children were crossing a busy four-lane road from a bus stop to their apartment building in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. She’d stopped on the median halfway across when her son let go of her hand and stepped into the second half of the road. Nelson tried to catch him but wasn’t fast enough; she and her two-year-old daughter were also injured.
The driver admitted to having alcohol and painkillers in his system (and to being legally blind in one eye) and pleaded guilty to the charge of hit-and-run. He served six months in prison. For the crime of walking three tired, hungry children home in the most efficient way possible, Nelson faced more jail time than the man who had killed her son.
I am writing from a position of privilege. Not white or middle-class privilege – although I am both of those things and those facts play a role in my privilege – but rather, the privilege Americans don’t realise they’ve lost in a nearly Orwellian fashion: I can open the door of my home, take my kids by their hands, and meet almost any need by lifting my feet and moving forward. Food, schools, social centres, books, playgrounds, even doctors and dentists and ice cream – nearly everything our family uses daily is within about a mile’s walk of home and well-served by wide, uncrowded sidewalks.
“The Lost Summer,” Elissa Strauss, Longreads
By the time Olympia picked up her 6-year-old daughter Raina from the babysitter she was tired. She works a 10-hour day satisfying the various needs of two young siblings in Brooklyn’s affluent neighborhood of Cobble Hill, shepherding them to and from various classes, camps and playdates, making sure they get food when hungry, rest when tired and are properly stimulated when bored.
Raina wasn’t tired. She had just spent most of the day inside a Crown Heights apartment a few blocks away from their own, accompanied by two toddlers and the woman who watches them. Olympia didn’t love the arrangement, but it’s about all she could manage right now. In fact, financially, the 37-year-old single mother could barely manage it.
Still, at least they had their evenings, which, despite the exhaustion, were Olympia’s favorite time of day. “She makes me feel so balanced,” Olympia said, about the time she spends with her daughter. Thanks to the late sunsets this time year, there remained an hour or so of daylight after pick-up that they could enjoy outside together.
“How Nairobi Got Its Ad-Hoc Bus System on Google Maps,” Shara Tonn, Wired
Painted with the faces of celebrities like Bob Marley and Tupac Shakur, and furnished with disco balls that lurch and twinkle as they weave through traffic, the thousands of matatus on the roads in Nairobi are bright and loud. Blaring music and honking their way through congestion, these mini-buses are the main mass transit network in the Kenyan capital, and 70 percent of the population uses them to get around. They’re cheap and convenient, filling the public transit void. But the system is chaotic.
Individual matatu buses and routes are privately owned and operated, which means schedules and ticket prices can change at the whim of whoever’s in charge. Even finding the right stop can be tricky. You just kind of have to…know. If you choose the wrong line, you could waste half a day on an already long trip. Since most routes run through the city center before going back out, the roads—not designed for the megacity that Nairobi has become—are flooded with matatu congestion. One or two accidents on the main thoroughfares can shut down traffic for hours.
“Who Gets to Play Tennis?,” Ben Austen, The New York Times
When the Hyde Park Racquet Club opened in the late 1970s, amid the country’s short-lived tennis boom, there wasn’t another indoor facility in Chicago for 10 miles. The club occupied a section of 47th Street, near the lake, that long served as the boundary between the aging mansions of Kenwood and the greater South Side beyond. Across the street was a record shop that sold house music and a drive-through liquor store that peddled home brew in gallon jugs with the promise ‘‘Won’t go flat!’’ In a hot-dog stand on the block, two teenagers once pummeled me with their fists while three of my tennis buddies could only watch, as we were useless at hitting anything other than yellow balls. The original owners of the club soon bailed. The many racquetball courts they had built went mostly unused. The sauna wasn’t properly ventilated and rotted the locker room. A fitness chain eventually rented the space, filling half the tennis courts with weight benches and treadmills; the other five courts remained playable but were invariably coated in tennis ball fuzz, many of their overhead lights askew and glaring or altogether dark.
“Coal Dethroned,” Laura Gottesdiener, Tom Dispatch
In Appalachia, explosions have leveled the mountain tops into perfect race tracks for Ryan Hensley’s all-terrain vehicle (ATV). At least, that’s how the 14-year-old sees the barren expanses of dirt that stretch for miles atop the hills surrounding his home in the former coal town of Whitesville, West Virginia.
“They’re going to blast that one next,” he says, pointing to a peak in the distance. He’s referring to a process known as “mountain-top removal,” in which coal companies use explosives to blast away hundreds of feet of rock in order to unearth underground seams of coal.
“And then it’ll be just blank space,” he adds. “Like the Taylor Swift song.”
Skinny and shirtless, Hensley looks no more than 11 or 12. His ribs and collarbones protrude from his taut skin. Dipping tobacco is tucked into his right cheek. He has a head of cropped blond curls that jog some memory of mine, but I can’t quite figure out what it is. He’s pointing at a peak named Coal River Mountain. These days, though, it’s known to activists here as “the Last Mountain,” as it’s the only ridgeline in this area that's still largely intact.