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 Long and Crumbling Road,” Tom Vanderbilt, New Republic
In his magisterial, improbably thrilling 1989 book The Pencil, Henry Petroski, a longtime professor of engineering and historian at Duke University, recounted that Henry David Thoreau, upon making a list of essential items to bring on an expedition into the woods, neglected to mention a crucial item, something that he was actually never without: a pencil. “Perhaps the very object with which he may have been drafting his list was too close to him,” Petroski suggests, “too familiar a part of his own everyday outfit, too integral a part of his livelihood, too common a thing for him to think to mention.”
We overlook the things that are within reach, until they are not. That this would happen with small, common, or easily replaced objects is understandable, even rational. And yet we also tend to overlook those things that are large, expensive, and central to our everyday lives. I am talking here about infrastructure. Our awareness of road networks flickers to life only when a typical commute is congested with other drivers or closed for construction—indeed, this sort of “glitch in the matrix” stirred me to write my own book on the ubiquitous, yet neglected topic of traffic—in the same way our consciousness of the complexity and expanse of the modern commercial aviation system is awoken by extensive flight delays.
If Petroski, in The Pencil, wanted to elevate the humble writing instrument as a pocket marvel of engineering, the seeming goal of his new book, The Road Taken, is less to extol the infrastructure around us as a pantheon of mechanical achievement—a subject covered in his 1995 book, Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America—as it is to remind us, with a certain urgency, that it is there. The word “infrastructure” itself, he notes, is an early twentieth-century invention; it only began to appear in language in earnest in the 1980s. As a concept, infrastructure is a bit muzzy—it can encompass almost everything from the moment you leave your front door, sidewalk to cell tower. It is the atmosphere of the built world.
“Masdar's Zero-Carbon Dream Could Become World's First Green Ghost Town,” Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Years from now passing travellers may marvel at the grandeur and the folly of the futuristic landscape on the edges of Abu Dhabi: the barely occupied office blocks, the deserted streets, the vast tracts of undeveloped land and — most of all — the abandoned dream of a zero-carbon city.
Masdar City, when it was first conceived a decade ago, was intended to revolutionise thinking about cities and the built environment.
Now the world’s first planned sustainable city — the marquee project of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) plan to diversify the economy from fossil fuels — could well be the world’s first green ghost town.
As of this year — when Masdar was originally scheduled for completion — managers have given up on the original goal of building the world’s first planned zero-carbon city.
Masdar City is nowhere close to zeroing out its greenhouse gas emissions now, even at a fraction of its planned footprint. And it will not reach that goal even if the development ever gets fully built, the authorities admitted.
“The Mythical Idea of the American Heartland Shouldn't Define the Midwest,” Daniel Kay Hertz, Chicago Reader
"You know what the midwest is?" Kanye West asked in 2004's "Jesus Walks."
Last month, Vox answered: "South Dakota and Kansas."
Claiming his bona fides as a native of the warmer Dakota, Todd VanDerWerff argued that the entire Great Plains region—the Dakotas, Kansas, and Nebraska included—ought to be understood as prototypically midwestern. With the obvious caveat that there's no objectively correct answer to the question, I'm going to say that VanDerWerff is completely wrong—and in ways that go to the very core not only of how we understand ourselves as midwesterners, but how Americans understand their country as a whole.
The Great Plains, VanDerWerff acknowledges, might constitute a "subregion" of the midwest. But "while there are some interesting geographical differences," it concludes, "the cultural differences are relatively minor. A small town in South Dakota and a small town in Iowa are virtually the same place."
This may in fact be true. I have no idea, since I've never been to a small town in Iowa and haven't set foot in South Dakota since Michael Jordan was playing for the Bulls. I've spent over two decades living in the midwest, in two different states, and have family in two more—and yet somehow managed to have zero experience with the cultural touchstones that supposedly define my region.
“How Denver Became an Unexpected Startup Mecca,” Jake Horowitz, Mic
DENVER — Three years ago, Jacqueline Ros took to Kickstarter with an ambitious idea: tackle sexual assault on college campuses.
Ros, who lives in Denver, says she was inspired to tackle the issue after the wrenching experience of witnessing her sister get attacked twice before the age of 17.
"My sister's experience was the straw that broke the camel's back," Ros told Mic. "I decided this is what I'm going to commit my life to."
Ros teamed up with co-founders Megan Espeland and Andrea Perdomo to launch Revolar, an innovative technology startup based in Denver that aims to become the "global leader in personal security." The company has created a wearable device that allows users who are in danger to press a button sending an emergency alert with location information to loved ones.
"Many people in these situations are afraid to cry wolf, but their instincts are telling them that something's wrong and they want to get out," Ros told Mic. "We want to give them an easy way to get out of a bad situation."
It all sounds like your typical, rapidly growing and fast-paced technology startup. That is, until you hear how the company operates.
“Mobster's House a City Landmark?” William Bender, Philly.com
Bruno is back, baby!
Angelo Bruno, whose reign as Philadelphia mob boss ended with a shotgun blast to his head in 1980, is experiencing a posthumous resurgence.
The "Gentle Don," as Bruno is sometimes known, surfaced on the big screen last year, played by actor Chazz Palminteri in Legend, the British gangster film starring Tom Hardy.
Philadelphia filmmaker Tigre Hill is wrapping up his appropriately titled organized-crime documentary, The Corrupt and the Dead, that will feature Bruno and other mob bosses.
And now Bruno's old Snyder Avenue rowhouse - where he was murdered at age 69 - has been nominated for official landmark status with the Philadelphia Historical Commission.