Atlantic Cities

How Houston Could Become America's Best City: Top #Cityreads of the Week

How Houston Could Become America's Best City: Top #Cityreads of the Week
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Our weekly roundup of the most intriguing articles about cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days.

"Houston: The Surprising Contender in America’s Urban Revival," Ryan Holeywell, Governing

What is changing is Houstonians’ attitude toward urban life. Historically, as Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research succinctly puts it, Houston has been viewed as "the most sprawling, least dense, most automobile-dependent major city in America." And for many years, Houstonians seemed to be perfectly content with that. But there’s evidence that’s no longer the case. The institute’s annual survey of Houston-area residents last year found that half the residents of Harris County, of which Houston is part, would prefer to live "in an area with a mix of development, including homes, shops and restaurants" as opposed to a “single-family residential area." Even if you look at the farthest parts of the metro region—the nine counties surrounding Harris County—more than 40 percent of residents prefer the mixed-use option. The results, which are also reflected in recent development patterns, have city leaders, developers and advocates for density buzzing. "It’s not a flash-in-the-pan trend," Campo says.

The trend seems to be driven by three factors: young adults who are less attracted to suburbs, rising transportation costs, and a concerted effort by Mayor Annise Parker and her predecessor Bill White to promote amenities in the city and especially its core. Houston, of course, is by no means the only city experiencing a renewed interest in urban living. But it may be the most unlikely, and the trend is especially notable given the poor reputation Houston has historically had in the urban planning field. Now, city leaders are trying to respond to market demands they didn’t encounter just a short time ago. As the Kinder study notes, "the challenge today is not in finding residents who want to live in more compact, urbanized communities, but in building places across the region that can accommodate them."


Anne Sateren (L) and Matt Burow snowshoe past a bicycle covered with snow next to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. (Eric Miller/Reuters)

"Minneapolis' Secret to Enticing Residents to Bike in the Tundra," Sustainable Cities Collective

For a state that built a city with both skyway systems and universities with mass underground tunnels for shelter in its Arctic-like temperatures, we see an opposite trend in terms of bicycling planning. While Minneapolis is known for being one of the coldest cities in America, in 2011 Bicycling Magazine also claimed it be the #1 bike city, beating out more moderate climates such as San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, and the well-known bicycle capital, Portland. How can Minneapolis compete with such large powerhouse cities? Why does the bike culture here thrive in such an unforgiving climate?

"Nation’s First Non-Profit Supermarket Opens in Chester, PA, a Food Desert for 12 Years," Cassie Owens, Next City

A growing crowd buzzes on a sun-soaked lot facing a brand new supermarket. Families weave around displays and free food giveaways. The Utz girl and Herr’s Chipmunk wave at them. Employees hand out free tote bags. Shoppers line up on both sides of the doors, awaiting the final remarks to conclude and the ribbon to be cut.

The market opens and people rush in. Outside, a DJ kicks up some music. Adults and kids start doing “The Wobble.” “Too crowded in there,” one woman says, shaking her head and entering a free hot dog line. “I live two blocks away, I’ll be back.”

It’s a lot of fanfare for a store opening, but with good reason: This is Fare & Square, the nation’s first non-profit supermarket, which opened in Chester, Pa. on Saturday. Chester, a USDA-designated food desert, had gone without a supermarket in town for 12 years.


A man is reflected on the window of a closed shop in a non-designated tourist area during a Sunday morning at the Butte Montmartre in Paris.  (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

"Why the French are Fighting Over Work Hours," Alexander Stillez, New Yorker

It’s telling that in France, where several stores are fighting an order requiring them to close on Sundays, retail employees showed up at work last month wearing T-shirts that read, "YES WEEK END." It was a play on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, and a symbol of the fact that some in France—where shops have been barred from opening on Sundays, with some exceptions, since 1906—have lately been eyeing a more American approach to work.

In September, a French tribunal de commerce said that two big home-improvement stores, Castorama and Leroy Merlin, would face daily fines of a hundred and twenty thousand euros per store (about a hundred and fifty thousand dollars) if they continue to operate on Sunday. The retailers have said they will open despite the fines, the result of a lawsuit. People in France like to work on home improvement on Sundays, which makes it one of the busiest days for do-it-yourself stores, accounting for between fifteen and twenty per cent of their sales. Closing on Sunday could jeopardize the jobs of some twelve hundred employees, according to the Fédération des Magasins de Bricolage, which translates, roughly, as the Federation of Do-It-Yourself Stores.

"How Ralph Nader Became D.C. Libraries' Biggest Headache (and Pissed off a Whole Neighborhood)," Aaron Wiener, Washington City Paper

Amid his hot dog activism and cellular diplomacy, Ralph Nader, according to his critics, has become the single greatest obstacle to the redevelopment of D.C.’s public libraries.

This summer’s battleground has been the West End Library, where Nader’s Library Renaissance Project has sued to prevent the construction of a new library as part of a mixed-use project including the neighborhood fire station and residential units. On Aug. 8, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled against the Library Renaissance Project, but the group quickly petitioned for a rehearing before the full court. That appeal is still pending, as the costs to the city and the developer, Eastbanc, keep piling up. Eastbanc initially hoped to finish the project by mid-2015; it’s now looking at a completion date in 2016 or even 2017 if there are further appeals.

But this is not the Nader group’s first time holding up the development of a D.C. library, nor is it likely to be the last. At several of the branch libraries the city has modernized—a process the Library Renaissance Project takes credit for helping jumpstart originally—the group has raised objections and caused delay. And with D.C.’s central library, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, slated for redevelopment soon, another fight is likely around the corner, perhaps the biggest one yet.

Top image: Silvio Ligutti /Shutterstock.com

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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