Urbanization Notes #3

Photo Credit: Ciro Miguel

Urbanization News: July 8

Rankled: This week’s featured news story is from Polis, which posted an excellent critical piece about city rankings:

“The regurgitated notion that New York, London, and Tokyo sit comfortably at the peak of the “global city” hierarchy has little bearing on the activities of the street cleaners, shop owners, artists, and residents who populate these places. Or does it?”

The post raises that questions not only the metrics used to rate “top” cities, but also mentions recent research on how cities deemed to be the best can also hurt other cities by drawing away businesses and workers, and “world-class” cities also tend to have higher degrees of inequities.

Melissa has written about and critiqued city indices in past posts too, check them out here and here.

Urban Evolution from Revolution: Der Spiegel describes how while the future of the Yemeni capital hangs in the balance, what started as a sit-in has evolved into a 3-4,000 organized tent city.

New to the Tube: The Economist reports on the London Tube‘s new map that’s supposed to be more geographically accurate – but will it be easier to use? The article gives a nod to NYU-Wagner professor Zhan Guo’s recent paper that made headlines last month in the UK from showing that the (now) old map tricked 30% of passengers into taking longer trips than they needed to. If you’re in London, let us know if the new, squigglier map has made your commute any faster.

2014 Transport Goooools: TheCityFix reports that the Inter-American Development Bank and other donors are making huge investments in Brazil’s infrastructure, especially the transport sector, in advance of the 2014 World Cup.

Building Binge?: As Chinese cities like Wuhan are racing to developing new infrastructure, the New York Times reports new worries about understated risk of loans to local governments.

Two Wheels Good, Two Wheels Bad: This Big City proposes that better bike networks are a positive feedback for other qualities that make for more socially sustainable cities. With that in mind it’s sad to hear local media reporting from Toronto that “The war is over, the car has won.” That’s true in another sense, according to the New York Times’ Economix blog, which speaks to the huge direct subsidies and indirect social costs cars pose on cities, which trump the benefits cities receive from cycling.

What if the whole world lived in one city?

A city of 6.9 billion people may seem like the beginning of a dystopian novel, especially if it is a sprawling suburban city of 6.9 billion people.  The blog Per Square Mile created a  series of maps that shows just how big a city holding the world’s population would need to be at various densities.  If 6.9 billion people squeezed into Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi is startling, just image the traffic congestion if Houston sprawled across the entire Continental U.S.

- Melissa

City Beautiful: The Secret Life of Trees

Despite tree-hugging tendencies, I’m trying my hardest not to hate trees and other blossoming urban flora right now as they wake up from a long winter and their wanton pollination causes my awful allergies. To feel a little better, it’s a good time to remember that while urban forests dish out suffering to those of us with sensitive immune systems, they do take a lot of abuse from us too.

In late February the New York Post reported a shocking expose: in 2010, New York City police fined over 100 citizens for acts of  “arborcide,” where people attacked trees, tore them limb from limb in some cases (unknown was how many of these attacks were due to pollen-induced allergy rage). Aside from assault, our urban canopy deals with a host of indirect attacks too. They filter our air but can suffocate when their little leaves clog up with pollution, their roots retain stormwater while we inadvertently poison their soil, they calm us down even after having insomnia from the damn street lamp next door that stays up all night long.

So instead of cursing all the happy little trees out there for my imploding head and stuffy nose, this week’s City Beautiful collects images of street trees the world ’round and the uncharacteristic uses and abuses they take from the humans with whom they cohabitate.


Mexico City: Gum was supposedly invented by the Aztecs, who would chew on sticky resin from the chicozapote tree as a way to clean their teeth. In a way of giving back for the bounty we have received from nature, people now stick their gum to tree trunks, which isn’t very nice but does end up forming some interesting patterns. Check out this story on about another landmark gum tree that was cut down in Philadelphia a few years ago.

Photo credit: Flickr user choppington

Delhi: The banyan tree – the exotic, pensive Sacred Fig. Buddha was believed to have attained enlightenment under one, in Hinduism the tree symbolizes eternal life.  In cities the big tangles of trunk, roots and branches make them quite nice to sit on or under for shade, though they can make for beautiful but difficult neighbors. This 400-year old one in Delhi invited itself in for tea.

Photo credit: Flickr user Mr. Matt

Singapore: Another sacred banyan tree, this one enveloping a shrine in Singapore’s Little India.

Photo credit: Flickr user cathdupuy

London: The Stokenchurch Shoe Tree is a big ash that lacks a better explanation than “There’s a tree there that people throw their shoes up” (though not just shoes – if you look closely there’s also a bike tire).  Spending £265,000 on an investigation as to why only yielded the same tired explanations for why people do strange things with trees: fertility or putting a hex on someone.

Photo credit: Flickr user Stephskimo

New York: I’ve locked my bike to trees a few times and always felt terribly guilty about it for unclear reasons. It just seems disrespectful, which this photo of a burly New York chain lock choking a little elm tree confirms in my mind.

Photo credit: Flickr user mogaphoto

City Beautiful: Pop-Up Cities

This week’s City Beautiful starts from a post on BLDG Blog about a forthcoming book,  Short Stories: London in Two-and-a-Half Dimensions. Authors CJ Lim and Ed Liu create a new genre of “architectural fiction” where fantastical  environments built in paper are inspired by actual sites in London meshed with stories ranging from the Three Little Pigs to Alice in Wonderland.

This and the other works below tell stories of what is most durable – our built environment – using fragile, ephemeral paper.  As a medium, 3D paper collage lends itself nicely not just to telling kid’s stories of the pop-up book variety, but the intricacies of cities, tales of how they change over time and even what they could be with a little imagination.

Hong Kong

Kit Lau, an animator by trade and dubbed Hong Kong’s “first pop-up book artist“, combines personal narrative, architectural history, and rapid urban growth in his 2009 book Hong Kong Pop Up.  Says Lau on the book’s website:

From the 30s Cantonese tenements, the squatters common in the 50s, the Kowloon Walled City, to the resettlement estates of the 60s as well as the public housing of the 70s, these homes of the many Hong Kong people witnessed how my grandparents struggled through to improve the living standard of the family.

We tend to meet the destruction and construction of cities with kneejerk nostalgia – Lau does document what was, and the stark contrast with current housing trends, in very personal terms. But rather than lament an idealized past it’s more a story of improving the standard of living, and how the built form has changed to accommodate not just a rapidly expanding population but also dreams of a better life (even if that fan of towers looks a little more ominous than the more human-scale low-rise tenements).

A few pages from Hong Kong Pop Up:

The old | Photo credit: Hong Kong Pop Up

The new | Photo credit: Hong Kong Pop Up


Charlotte, North Carolina probably doesn’t come to mind as a booming metropolis, yet it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. that has exploded with people and skyscrapers as banking and other corporate headquarters have set up shop. This rapid growth is the subject of a stop-motion animation film by Brooklyn artist Rob Carter. I had seen one of Carter’s films last year at a papercraft exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in New York and was happy to stumble upon Metropolis, which documents Charlotte’s development from its first house in 1775 to the current urban skyline.

Carter’s animations using paper cut-outs are humorous in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of Terry Gilliam‘s funky collages between skits on Monty Python’s Flying Circus: skyscrapers sprout out of nowhere, a basketball arena sails in and plops down like an uninvited flying saucer, a crinkled wad unfolds itself into highway tendrils that ring the city. As Carter describes it:

The animation literally represents this sped up urban planner’s dream, but suggests the frailty of that dream, however concrete it may feel on the ground today.

I have to disagree with him here – as an urban planner, I watch the film and think that this type of development happens more as a result of a lack of planning, a lot-by-lot real estate boom driven by speculation. The last three minutes of the nine-minute video is shown below, but you can see the whole thing  here:


Lim and Liu’s Short Stories mentioned above takes ten actual sites in London and tells their fictional stories primarily with visuals. From the book introduction:

The short stories of this book’s title are set in different time periods of London, intentionally locating themselves in the liminal territory between fiction and architecture … The stories are neither illustrated texts nor captioned images; the collages represent a network of spatial relationships, and the text, which splices genre such as science fiction, magical realism and the fairy tale, a thread that links some of the nodes of that network together.

The work is about London’s past – its tradition of storytelling, its mythic places and traditions informed by its architecture – but gives the author/architect free reign to re-imagine those places.  Just as we interact with the built environment on a daily basis and it infuses our experience of the city, Lim and Liu’s paper sculptures and  are the setting, a character, and even a narrator of the story.

From the story "Dream Isle" | Photo courtesy of BLDG Blog

From the story "Carousel" | Photo courtesy of BLDG Blog


Comparing Urban Form

Have you ever wondered how New York City’s urban form compares to London?  Or the ancient streets of Rome?  This comparison from Bricoleurbanism compares eight famous cities’ urban form at the same scale to the city of Mississauga, ON, revealing “the inherent problems of scale in trying to evolve any suburban, auto-oriented area into a more pedestrian-oriented center.”

I would be fascinated to see a similar comparison of these cities with Asian Megacities.  Until then I will just have to share this comparison of urban density in Johannesburg, London, New York and Shanghai from The Endless City.