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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”No Parking Here,” Clive Thompson, Mother Jones
If you drive out to visit Disney's Epcot center in Orlando, Florida, you will arrive at one of the biggest parking lots in America. With room for 12,000 cars, it sprawls out over 7 million square feet—about the size of 122 football fields. If you look at the lot on Google Maps, you realize that it's nearly the size of Epcot center itself. Disney built one Epcot to hold the visitors. Then it built another to hold the cars.
Disney isn't alone in its expansive approach to parking. Parking is, after all, what cars do most of the time: The average automobile spends 95 percent of its time sitting in place. People buy cars because they need to move around, but the amount of time they actually do move around is tiny. So the cars are parked, and in multiple spaces: A car owner needs a spot near home, but also spots near other places he or she might go—the office, a shopping mall, Epcot.
A 2011 study at the University of California-Berkeley found that the United States has somewhere close to a billion parking spots. Since there are only 253 million passenger cars and light trucks in the country, that means we have roughly four times more parking spaces than vehicles. If you totaled up all the area devoted to parking, it'd be roughly 6,500 square miles, bigger than Connecticut.
“Neighbors of the Fence,” David Hanson, The Bitter Southerner
In the time it takes for me to pull out an old film camera and set the focus, there’s already a car coming down the empty street toward us. I’m standing in the back of a pickup truck shooting a thin, dead-straight road surrounded by empty grass lots and mature oak trees. It used to be a residential neighborhood of small bungalows and fenced-in yards. Today there’s not a brick stoop or foundation left, and the weeds have begun to consume the road’s edges, as happens to anything abandoned in southern Louisiana.
A Baton Rouge police car, then another, then a minivan convene behind the truck. A young plainclothes officer asks what I’m photographing. He’s nice enough. This empty neighborhood of trees, I tell him. An older gentleman from the minivan asks if I’d shot any photos of the Exxon plant across the street. He says this is ExxonMobil property and I can’t take any pictures. Homeland Security. Although it looks like a public street in a forgotten city park, most of the Standard Heights neighborhood of north Baton Rouge has been bought by ExxonMobil, the former residents relocated and the homes razed. Buyouts and relocations have become common solutions in southern Louisiana, where more than 150 petrochemical facilities operate, many of them within a football’s throw from historic neighborhoods.
The 1,800-acre ExxonMobil Standard Heights plant is the largest of the massive refineries that hug the Mississippi River from north Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Some call this span of petrochemical plants “Cancer Alley.” Some call it work, some call it home, and we all call it a major source of fuel for our cars and ingredients for everything from dog food to fleece sweaters. I’ve come to southern Louisiana to see what happens when one-quarter of our nation’s bulk commodity chemical production squeezes into a narrow, populated, riverine path complicated by deep poverty, house-rattling refinery explosions, salt domes collapsing in barge-eating sinkholes, mysterious flakes falling from the sky and a curious lot of homegrown community advocates who have been ardent watchdogs since before Erin Brockovich was a household name.
“Part of Sierra Leone’s History Is Being Dismantled Board by Board,” Tommy Trenchard, The New York Times
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — On a busy roundabout in the heart of this nation’s capital stands an ancient cotton tree, marking the spot where Freetown was founded by freed slaves from North America more than 200 years ago. Walk for a few minutes toward the southeast, past the vendors who line the derelict remains of Victoria Park and through the bustling streets of the city center, and you will find at the corner of two rutted dirt roads a house that looks more suited to the American South than to a steamy West African capital.
The Young House, as it has been known for as long as anyone can remember, is a two-story dwelling constructed primarily from wooden boards and painted a bright lemon yellow, clashing starkly with the squat concrete buildings around it.
It is what is known here as a board house (or bod ose in the local Krio language), one of an ever decreasing number still standing in the capital and the surrounding villages. Its style is as old as the city itself, brought over from the Americas by the settlers who arrived in several waves from 1792 onward.
“How an Investigative Journalist Helped Prove a City Was Being Poisoned With Its Own Water,” Anna Clark, Columbia Journalism Review
It was not a typical evening of reporting. In early September, Curt Guyette was knocking on unfamiliar doors in Flint, Michigan—not to ask for interviews, but to ask residents to test their water for lead. Local activists were doing the same thing on sidewalks nearby, and in other parts of town. The task: Muster tests from as many ZIP Codes as possible to give a complete picture of what, exactly, was flowing out of the taps in Flint.
Guyette had been following the story of lead in Flint’s water for months, even as officials assured residents and the media that everything was under control. Over the summer, he’d helped produce a mini-documentary about concerns with the water for the ACLU of Michigan, where he works as an investigative reporter. That led to a scoop—a leaked memo from a US Environmental Protection Agency official that explained how Michigan’s process for lead testing in Flint’s water delivered artificially low results.
Now, a researcher from Virginia Tech was conducting an independent evaluation, and Guyette wasn’t just following the story, he was in the middle of it. Initial assessments by the researcher, Marc Edwards, had already found dangerously high levels of lead in the water in many Flint homes—the consequence of a series of questionable government decisions. More tests, taken with the samples collected by Guyette and others, confirmed the problem with the water. Soon, a local doctor was reporting elevated blood-lead levels in Flint children, too, and county officials were declaring a public health emergency.
“Will U.S. Cities Design Their Way Out of the Affordable Housing Crisis?” Amanda Kolson Hurley, Next City
The house I’ve lived in for almost 10 years isn’t a single-family home or an apartment in a tall building. It’s something in between, a two-story “condominium townhouse” on wooded grounds in a suburb of Washington, D.C. There are 166 townhouses in my complex, and whenever one is listed for sale, it gets snapped up. This is a popular place to live.
But the funny thing is, it shouldn’t be — not if you trust the conventional wisdom about real estate. The townhouses here are 75 years old and they look it. Built quickly and cheaply as military housing during World War II, they’re small (in the range of 1,000 square feet) and architecturally plain. Except for a few that have undergone renovations, they lack pretty much every feature now deemed essential in a “nice” American home: kitchen islands with granite countertops, walk-in closets, bathrooms galore.
My family doesn’t have a yard. We have a patio out back, and share a landscaped plaza with dozens of our neighbors. We don’t have a dedicated parking space. Yet I’m confident that if we put the house on the market tomorrow, it would sell, and fast. How can that be?
Just a few years ago, a name emerged for the kind of community I live in. Neighborhoods like mine represent “the missing middle” in American housing, say architects and planners: not a big subdivision, not a high-rise apartment tower, but a middle option in terms of scale and density.