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kottke.org posts about cities

Urbanized

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 29, 2010

The next film in Gary Hustwit’s design trilogy (after Helvetica and Objectified) is Urbanized, an investigation of urban design.

Who is allowed to shape our cities, and how do they do it? Unlike many other fields of design, cities aren’t created by any one specialist or expert. There are many contributors to urban change, including ordinary citizens who can have a great impact improving the cities in which they live. By exploring a diverse range of urban design projects around the world, Urbanized will frame a global discussion on the future of cities.

Locals vs. tourists

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2010

Locals and Tourists is a set of maps showing where people take photos in various cities around the world. The results are broken down into tourist photos and photos taken by locals. Here’s NYC:

NYC photo takers

Blue points on the map are pictures taken by locals (people who have taken pictures in this city dated over a range of a month or more). Red points are pictures taken by tourists (people who seem to be a local of a different city and who took pictures in this city for less than a month).

Dear Leader meets Sim City

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2010

A 22-yo architecture student from The Philippines has “beaten” Sim City 3000 by building a city with the largest possible population that sustains itself for 50,000 years. The city, called Magnasanti, is not somewhere you would want to live.

There are a lot of other problems in the city hidden under the illusion of order and greatness: Suffocating air pollution, high unemployment, no fire stations, schools, or hospitals, a regimented lifestyle — this is the price that these sims pay for living in the city with the highest population. It’s a sick and twisted goal to strive towards. The ironic thing about it is the sims in Magnasanti tolerate it. They don’t rebel, or cause revolutions and social chaos. No one considers challenging the system by physical means since a hyper-efficient police state keeps them in line. They have all been successfully dumbed down, sickened with poor health, enslaved and mind-controlled just enough to keep this system going for thousands of years. 50,000 years to be exact. They are all imprisoned in space and time.

Update: In 1922, Le Corbusier designed an “ideal” city with 3 million inhabitants. (thx, diana)

NYC’s 34th Street makeover

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 23, 2010

The Bloomberg administration is considering splitting 34th Street into three parts: an westbound-only section from the Hudson to 6th Ave, an eastbound-only section from 5th Ave to the East River, and a pedestrian-only section from 5th to 6th Aves.

Buses would still operate in both directions, and through the pedestrian plaza as well, but in dedicated lanes separated from passenger cars by a concrete barrier. […] A city study showed that only one in 10 people travel along 34th Street by car, including taxis; the rest walk or use mass transit. Faster buses would benefit “the majority of the people who are actually using the street”.

Wow!

Final edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2010

Twilight of the American newspaper tells the story of San Francisco and its newspapers. And in that tale, a glimpse that we might be losing our sense of place along with the newspaper.

We will end up with one and a half cities in America — Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between “conservatives” and “liberals.” We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is “not a really good piece of fiction” — Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill. — two stars out of five). We are without obituaries, but the famous will achieve immortality by a Wikipedia entry.

Big cities, little states

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2009

New-ish thing from fake is the new real: outlines of the 100 most populous areas in the US. Some are cities and some are states.

The fifty largest metro areas (in blue), disaggregated from their states (in orange). Each has been scaled and sorted according to population.

By themselves, the New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago metros are the three most populous areas in the US. (via snarkmarket)

Cities, before and after

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2009

Oobject has a collection of before-and-after photographs of cities, most of which have been hit by bombs (economic or otherwise): Hiroshima, Dubai, Warsaw.

The rise and fall and rise of the Roman Empire

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 22, 2009

David Galbraith graphs the population of Rome from 300 BC to the present.

The population [of Rome] during the Renaissance was miniscule (yet it was still a global center), when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel it was considerably smaller than a town like Palo Alto is today (60K); Rome at its nadir was about the size of Google (20K employees); the growth of Rome during the Industrial era is much greater than the rise of Ancient Rome.

David, you should check out The Inheritance of Rome; I’m about 100 pages in and pretty interesting so far. Also, it would be instructive to do the same graph but Rome’s population as a percentage of world population.

The perfect city

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2009

Based on his world travels and city biking, David Byrne imagines his ideal city.

If a city doesn’t have sufficient density, as in L.A., then strange things happen. It’s human nature for us to look at one another — we’re social animals after all. But when the urban situation causes the distance between us to increase and our interactions to be less frequent we have to use novel means to attract attention: big hair, skimpy clothes and plastic surgery. We become walking billboards.

Moving walkways

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2009

At the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of moving walkways was in vogue. After successes in Paris and Chicago, plans were drawn up for a three-speed moving sidewalk across the Brooklyn Bridge to alleviate traffic on the crowded bridge.

With the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, Schmidt upped the ante. This time he envisaged a loop system at each end of the bridge, with a series of four ever-faster walkways. Passengers moved from one to another until finally taking a seat on the benches aboard the fastest, which whisked them across the bridge at 16 km/h [~10 mph]. Because the system ran constantly, there would be no waiting and little momentum lost on stops and starts.

What if you got rid of the NYC subway?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2009

You’d need the equivalent of a 228-lane Brooklyn Bridge to move all those people into Manhattan during Monday morning rush hour.

At best, it would take 167 inbound lanes, or 84 copies of the Queens Midtown Tunnel, to carry what the NYC Subway carries over 22 inbound tracks through 12 tunnels and 2 (partial) bridges. At worst, 200 new copies of 5th Avenue. Somewhere in the middle would be 67 West Side Highways or 76 Brooklyn Bridges. And this neglects the Long Island Railroad, Metro North, NJ Transit, and PATH systems entirely.

Kinda puts the subway in perspective, doesn’t it? And don’t miss the map at the bottom that shows the size of the parking lots needed for all those cars.

Parking really isn’t free

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2009

Parking is heavily subsidized in the US; spaces in cities can cost between $10,000 and $50,000, a high price to pay to house hunks of metal that don’t do anything for 95% of the day.

Who pays for this? Everyone. The cost of building all that parking is reflected in higher rents, more expensive shopping and dining, and higher costs of home-ownership. Those who don’t drive or own cars thus subsidize those who do.

The argument comes from a book called The High Cost of Free Parking.

Wrestling with Moses

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2009

Of Wrestling with Moses, the story of how Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses and his plans for two Manhattan freeways, Tyler Cowen says:

The parts of this book about Jacobs are splendid. The parts about Moses are good, though they were more familiar to me. I believe there has otherwise never been much biographical material on Jacobs’s life.

The New York Times has a lengthy excerpt from the book that recalls Jacobs’ arrival in NYC.

Writing about the city remained her passion. She often went up to the rooftop of her apartment building and watched the garbage trucks as they made their way through the city streets, picking the sidewalks clean. She would think, “What a complicated great place this is, and all these pieces of it that make it work.” The more she investigated and explored neighborhoods, infrastructure, and business districts for her stories, the more she began to see the city as a living, breathing thing — complex, wondrous, and self-perpetuating.

Old cities, still kicking

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 22, 2009

The 10 oldest cities which are still inhabited. Includes a few you’ve probably heard of (Damascus, Jericho, Jerusalem) and a couple of surprises. (via that’s how it happened)

The rose of urbanity

posted by Jason Kottke   May 27, 2009

Rice School of Architecture produced a poster showing the relative sizes of ring roads from cities around the globe. Houston’s is the largest, followed by Beijing. (via strange maps)

Math and the City (and the elephant)

posted by Jason Kottke   May 20, 2009

This should provide a sufficient amount of “whoa” for the day: mathematically speaking, how are elephants and big cities the same? A: both cities and elephants have developed a similar level of efficiency in the distribution of resources and transportation.

Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute and his colleagues Jim Brown and Brian Enquist have argued that a 3/4-power law is exactly what you’d expect if natural selection has evolved a transport system for conveying energy and nutrients as efficiently and rapidly as possible to all points of a three-dimensional body, using a fractal network built from a series of branching tubes — precisely the architecture seen in the circulatory system and the airways of the lung, and not too different from the roads and cables and pipes that keep a city alive.

(thx, john)

Jane Jacobs video

posted by Jason Kottke   May 01, 2009

The CBC has a clip of Jane Jacobs talking about Toronto and Montreal from 1969. In it, she makes the distinction between the two urban organizational forces at work in Toronto, a sort of “civil schizophrenia”: the vernacular spirit (“full of fun”) and the official spirit (“stamp out fun”). I also found a video on YouTube about Robert Moses and his difficulties with Ms. Jacobs which concludes with a cheeky update of Arnold Newman’s iconic photo of Moses.

Jane Jacobs Robert Moses

Nothing grows but oil and buildings

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2009

A long and damning article about the dark side of Dubai. Many of the rich foreigners who live there love it:

Ann Wark tries to summarise it: “Here, you go out every night. You’d never do that back home. You see people all the time. It’s great. You have lots of free time. You have maids and staff so you don’t have to do all that stuff. You party!” They have been in Dubai for 20 years, and they are happy to explain how the city works. “You’ve got a hierarchy, haven’t you?” Ann says. “It’s the Emiratis at the top, then I’d say the British and other Westerners. Then I suppose it’s the Filipinos, because they’ve got a bit more brains than the Indians. Then at the bottom you’ve got the Indians and all them lot.”

As for “all them lot”? Not so much.

Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. “To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell,” he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal’s village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa - a fee they’d pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.

As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat - where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees - for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don’t like it, the company told him, go home. “But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket,” he said. “Well, then you’d better get to work,” they replied.

Gairville

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2009

In 1879, Brooklyn papermaker Robert Gair developed a process for mass producing foldable cardboard boxes. One of the paper-folding machines in his factory malfunctioned and sliced through the paper, leading Gair to the realization that cutting, creasing, and folding in the same series of steps could transform a flat piece of cardboard into a box.

Gair’s invention made him a wealthy man and turned his company into an epicenter of manufacturing in Brooklyn. From Evan Osnos’ New Yorker article about Chinese paper tycoon Cheung Yan:

Gair’s box, a cheap, light alternative to wood, became “the swaddling clothes of our metropolitan civilization,” Lewis Mumford wrote. Eventually, the National Biscuit Compnay introduced its first crackers that stayed crispy in a sealed paper box, and an avalanche of manufacturers followed. Gair expanded to ten buildings on the Brooklyn waterfront. Massive migration from Europe to the United States created a manufacturing workforce in Brooklyn, to curn out ale, coffee, soap, and Brillo pads — and Gair made boxes right beside them.

Gair’s concentrated collection of buildings eventually led the area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges to be called Gairville. That area is now known as Dumbo and, in addition to tons of residential space, the neighborhood is home not to manufacturing but to architecture firms, web companies, and other creative industries.

The Gair Company’s most iconic building was also its last: the Clocktower Building, also known as Gair Building No. 7. I tracked down several of the other Gair buildings and put them on this Google Map.

Can you help fill in the holes? Email me with additions/corrections and I’ll fill them in on the map. Thanks!

Update: I found a photo of some of the buildings that comprised Gairville on Google Books. The map has a couple of additions as well.

Alternate futures: the expressways of Manhattan

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2009

The architect Robert Stern once remarked, “Can you imagine an elevated expressway at 30th Street just so Long Island guys could get to New Jersey?” Robert Moses could. A pair of Google Maps of Manhattan were redrawn to include the Lower Manhattan Expressway and Mid Manhattan Expressway, two highways masterminded by Moses that would have cut across Manhattan through Soho and at 30th St., respectively.

Lower Manhattan Expressway

This was true for me, at least, while I was making these; Hand erasing buildings through SoHo, TriBeCa, and the LES was an eery experience as I tried to imagine what these places would really look like if my brush was a bulldozer.

More information on the Mid-Manhattan Expressway and the Lower Manhattan Expressway on NYCroads. (via migurski)

Foursquare is the new Dodgeball

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2009

Dennis Crowley is making a successor to Dodgeball called Foursquare. It’s an iPhone app that treats nightlife like a video game.

Users rack up points based on how many new places they visit, how many stops they’ve made in one night and who else has been there. You become a “mayor” of a hot spot if you’re there often. […] “People get kind of competitve about this.” There’s a “Leaderboard” which lists the most adventurous users with the most points.

(via fimoculous)

How the Crash Will Reshape America

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2009

Right or wrong, How the Crash Will Reshape America, Richard Florida’s analysis of how different areas of the United States are going to be affected by the current financial crisis, is full of fascinating bits.

The University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Robert Lucas declared that the spillovers in knowledge that result from talent-clustering are the main cause of economic growth. Well-educated professionals and creative workers who live together in dense ecosystems, interacting directly, generate ideas and turn them into products and services faster than talented people in other places can. There is no evidence that globalization or the Internet has changed that. Indeed, as globalization has increased the financial return on innovation by widening the consumer market, the pull of innovative places, already dense with highly talented workers, has only grown stronger, creating a snowball effect. Talent-rich ecosystems are not easy to replicate, and to realize their full economic value, talented and ambitious people increasingly need to live within them.

And:

But another crucial aspect of the crisis has been largely overlooked, and it might ultimately prove more important. Because America’s tendency to overconsume and under-save has been intimately intertwined with our postwar spatial fix — that is, with housing and suburbanization — the shape of the economy has been badly distorted, from where people live, to where investment flows, to what’s produced. Unless we make fundamental policy changes to eliminate these distortions, the economy is likely to face worsening handicaps in the years ahead.

Others have written about it elsewhere, but the few paragraphs Florida devotes to Detroit are stunning. (thx, peter)

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2009

A tantalizing 10-minute clip of an hour-long video called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

The clip shows an analysis of the plaza of the Seagram Building in NYC and what makes it so effective as a small urban space.

A busy place for some reason seems to be the most congenial kind of place if you want to be alone. […] The number one activity is people looking at other people.

The video was adapted from a book of the same name by William H. Whyte, who is perhaps most well known as the author of The Organization Man. The video is largely out of print — which is a shame because that clip was fascinating — but I found a DVD copy for $95 (which price includes a license for public performance). (via migurski)

Broadway closed to car traffic

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 26, 2009

As an experiment, parts of Broadway near Times Square and Herald Square will be entirely closed to cars for most of the rest of the year.

Although it seems counterintuitive, officials believe the move will actually improve the overall flow of traffic, because the diagonal path of Broadway tends to disrupt traffic where it intersects with other streets.

The streets will become pedestrian malls instead. Love this.

Practical city magic

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 24, 2009

Matt Jones has posted the slides from his talk at Webstock entitled The Demon-Haunted World. It’s about technology and the city. Or if you’d like, the city as technology.

The car changed the development of the city irreversibly in the 20th century. I’d claim that mobiles will do the same in the 21st.

Form follows finance

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 24, 2009

When the money dries up, so too do the plans for tall buildings by big-name architects. In the late 1920s, a number of buildings in NYC were scrapped in the planning stage or built significantly lower than planned.

Bye bye Dubai

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2009

I didn’t watch the clip he links to but I can’t imagine anything is more entertaining than David Galbraith’s scathing goodbye to Dubai. He opens with:

Short of opening a Radio Shack in an Amish town, Dubai is the world’s worst business idea, and there isn’t even any oil. Imagine proposing to build Vegas in a place where sex and drugs and rock and roll are an anathema. This is effectively the proposition that created Dubai - it was a stupid idea before the crash, and now it is dangerous.

What’s the biggest problem with Dubai? It doesn’t have the cultural bedrock needed to support a destination city.

It looks like Manhattan except that it isn’t the place that made Mingus or Van Allen or Kerouac or Wolf or Warhol or Reed or Bernstein or any one of the 1001 other cultural icons from Bob Dylan to Dylan Thomas that form the core spirit of what is needed, in the absence of extreme toleration of vice, to infuse such edifices with purpose and create a self-sustaining culture that will prevent them crumbling into the empty desert that surrounds them.

The Places We Live

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 27, 2009

The Places We Live features panoramic photos of slums, narrated by the people who live there (through translators). Really really engrossing. To access the stories in the restricting Flash interface, skip the intro, click on a city, and then on one of the households in the upper left corner. There’s a book too. (via snarkmarket)

The first mall

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2008

A photo from Life Magazine of Southdale Shopping Center in Edina, Minnesota after its opening in 1956.

Southdale Mall, 1956

Southdale was the first mall ever built and still stands today (I visited many times during my Minneapolis residency). The mall’s designer was an immigrant from Austria, Victor Gruen, who wanted to bring the community feeling of the European arcade to the suburbs.

Oddly, this most suburban American invention was supposed to evoke a European city centre. Hence Southdale’s density and its atrium, where shoppers were expected to sit and debate over cups of coffee, just as they do in the Piazza San Marco or the Place Dauphine. Gruen exiled cars, which he thought noisy and anti-social, to the outside of his mall. Most contemporary critics thought Gruen had succeeded in bringing urbanity to the suburbs. Southdale was “more like downtown than downtown itself”, claimed the Architectural Record. Another asserted, in a rare example of journalistic hyperbole that turned out to be absolutely right, that the indoor shopping mall was henceforth “part of the American way”.

Ironically Gruen’s creation only served to strengthen the suburban car culture that he despised. Later in life, Gruen became disillusioned with malls and their unintended consequences.

He revisited one of his old shopping centers, and saw all the sprawling development around it, and pronounced himself in “severe emotional shock.” Malls, he said, had been disfigured by “the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking” around them. Developers were interested only in profit. “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” he said in a speech in London, in 1978. He turned away from his adopted country. He had fixed up a country house outside of Vienna, and soon he moved back home for good. But what did he find when he got there? Just south of old Vienna, a mall had been built — in his anguished words, a “gigantic shopping machine.” It was putting the beloved independent shopkeepers of Vienna out of business. It was crushing the life of his city. He was devastated. Victor Gruen invented the shopping mall in order to make America more like Vienna. He ended up making Vienna more like America.

Update: Whoa, lots of email about this one, especially from Seattlites. There’s a bit of controversy that I was unaware of concerning the first mall…here’s a list of contenders. (thx, todd)

What would a contemporary depression look like?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 24, 2008

With the Great Depression further removed from today than the Civil War was then, it’s difficult to imagine what a contemporary depression might look like.

Much of a modern depression would unfold in the domestic sphere: people driving less, shopping less, and eating in their houses more. They would watch television at home; unemployed parents would watch over their own kids instead of taking them to day care. With online banking, it would even be possible to have a bank run in which no one leaves the comfort of their home.

Also, desuburbanization:

In a deep and sustained downturn, home prices would likely sink further and not rise, dimming the appeal of homeownership, a large part of suburbia’s draw. Renting an apartment — perhaps in a city, where commuting costs are lower — might be more tempting. And although city crime might increase, the sense of safety that attracted city-dwellers to the suburbs might suffer, too, in a downturn. Many suburban areas have already seen upticks in crime in recent years, which would only get worse as tax-poor towns spent less money on policing and public services.