Convention Towns, Zoning Overhauls, and Physics Experiments: The Best #CityReads of the Week
Our weekly roundup of the most intriguing articles about cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days. Share your favorites on Twitter with #cityreads.
"Europe’s Cities: Gentrification or Ghettoization?," Harvey Morris, IHT Rendezvous/NYTimes.com
The widening gap between haves and have-nots in debt-saddled Europe has sharpened a debate over whether the accelerating gentrification of its major cities is leading to the ghettoization of their urban poor.
The rioting in housing projects in the northern French city of Amiens this month marked a recurring phenomenon in France, after decades of planning policy consigned the urban working classes to suburban “banlieues” where poverty and unemployment are now rampant.
In Berlin, a magnet for an international set of affluent hipsters and artists since the Wall came down in 1989, locals are opposing a plan to demolish Communist-era apartment blocks in a prime city center location and replace them with upscale homes and shops.
And in Britain, a proposal to sell municipally-owned homes in expensive neighborhoods, and move their low-income tenants elsewhere, prompted accusations this week that it would drive disadvantaged families into ghettos.
"New zoning code: Toward a more competitive, livable city," Inga Saffron, Philadelphia Inquirer
All right, there were times over the last four years when the process of rewriting Philadelphia's zoning code seemed like a pointless exercise, one as thrilling as watching Jell-O set.
Debates raged over the tiniest details. The optimum rowhouse height? The perfect car-to-apartment ratio in high-rise buildings? Then, just as the final draft was being committed to paper in 2011, the project nearly blew up in the political minefield that is City Council.
If the proverbial sausage-making wasn't always pretty, at least we can be glad that the resulting sausage has turned out to be reasonably tasty.
"Tampa: America's Hottest Mess," Will Doig, Salon
Poke around the White House website and you can still find the hopeful "fact sheet" for a 324-mile high-speed rail line linking Miami, Orlando and Tampa.
No such system exists, of course — it was killed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Today, there’s a 40-acre vacant lot where the Tampa terminal would have stood. And when Republicans arrive for their national convention in about a week and catch a glimpse of it, they’ll likely see a big win. In fact, the GOP will find a lot of things in Tampa that exemplify their commitment to not investing in the future.
"The trend [in Tampa] today is to say, ‘We don’t need it — no new taxes — we are not going to invest anymore,’” former Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan recently told Tampa Bay Online. “And that message resonates from not only the constituents, but the leadership of the Republican Party." You could fairly call the GOP vision for the country the Tampafication of America.
Tampa is a hot urban mess, equal parts Reagan ’80s and Paul Ryan 2010s. Urban renewal projects decimated the city in the ’60s, but its current persona was forged in earnest starting three decades ago, when finance and insurance companies started moving their back-office operations there, attracted by the sunshine and low-cost labor. The 1988 bestseller “Megatrends” declared Tampa “America’s next great city.” Real estate joined the service economy as a major economic pillar, and the city embarked on a building spree, sprouting large glass towers disconnected from the city itself, a development pattern that offered little incentive to invest in things like parks, transit or walkable spaces.
"Selling Charlotte: Convention business requires millions from taxpayers," Steve Harrison, Charlotte Observer
The Democratic National Convention will be Charlotte’s most prestigious event, bringing tens of thousands of visitors and worldwide exposure.
It’s the crowning achievement of the city’s two-decade quest to become a world-class convention destination.
What’s less known are the tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money spent to compete in the convention business and the wildly inflated projections of economic impact used to justify the Convention Center’s construction and expansions.
In fact, the city of Charlotte and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority have not scrutinized how the Convention Center has performed. Elected officials who oversee it do not understand it.
"Why Cities Should Subsidize Marathons, Not Stadiums," Alex Abboud, alexabboud.com
Few cities in Canada or the United States have been immune from calls to massively subsidize professional sports teams. Over the past two decades, dozens of cities have shelled out 9 figure subsidies, usually in the form of publicly-funded stadiums, in order to keep or attract professional sports teams. Sold as a necessary element of being a “big city”, and backed by wildly exaggerated claims of benefits economic or otherwise, report after report nonetheless shows that pro sports adds little to no net economic impact to a region. When there are gains, they’re likely offset by the subsidies being provided.
I’m part of the small minority fans who do travel regularly to watch sports (usually once or twice a year to see baseball). I’m fully aware, though, that we are – relatively speaking – few and far between. In the past couple of years, I’ve started traveling for another sport – distance running, when I started running half marathons.
Marathons have become big business as running has grown in popularity. While the proportion of people who run (half) marathons pales in comparison to the proportion who are professional sports fans, I nonetheless noticed something anecdotally. Nearly every runner I know travels semi-frequently to compete in races, and often with family/friends coming along. Initiatives like Team in Training coordinate travel for large groups. With this, they are spending on hotels, entertainment, and other amenities and experiences at their destination. I started thinking more seriously about what economic impact this has after competing in the San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon (I did the half) this June. Prior to picking up your race kit, you fill out an exhaustive survey covering the economic impact of your trip. I don’t remember every question, but I’m pretty sure they asked everything about my spending in the city short of how much I tipped my cab driver coming from the airport.
Cities may be the defining element of human civilization.
The path from hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era 25,000 years ago to the high-tech, high-wonder jumble we inhabit today runs straight through cities. In traveling that path, our construction of cities has always been a dance with physics. In some cases, that physics was explicitly understood; in others, its manifestation was only recognized in hindsight.
As our cities have become more complex the physics embodying their behavior and organization has also become more nuanced, subtle and profound.
About a month ago I walked down the streets of my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., to discuss a street-level view of physics and cities. From the street a city is all about the physics of "simple" machines: bikes, buses, streetcars and the plumbing of fire hydrants. Once you get up high enough, however, your physics-colored glasses lets you see cities in a whole new way.
Top image: The Tampa Convention Center (Brian Blanco/Reuters)