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A mapping group at MIT wants to show us the way to greener cities

San Francisco coffee shops. Click to embiggen.
San Francisco coffee shops. Click to embiggen.

Walking down the street, that feeling swells up inside you -- the buildings, the restaurants, the parks, the people: THIS is New York.

Or maybe it’s San Francisco. Or Chicago. Or LA. Whatever your city of choice may be, you love it because it’s just got that je ne sais quoi, unlike any other.

But Sep Kamvar, of the Social Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab, thinks it could be so much more interesting than that. With his You Are Here project, he and his group are on a quest to bring out all those little pieces that come together to make each city what it is, by creating a total of 10,000 data visualization maps of cities across the U.S. By doing so, he hopes that urbanites might recognize the elements that they love, and the ones they don’t, to shape their towns into more efficient, happier, healthier, and greener places.

A map showing greenery on the streets of Cambridge, Mass.
You Are Here
A map showing greenery on the streets of Cambridge, Mass. Click to embiggen.

“Each map gives a different angle of what the city looks like,” Kamvar says. The group does this by collecting data from sources ranging from Google Maps to local police departments, and presenting it into compelling visuals -- which he hopes can expose the things that need to be fixed.

Read more: Cities, Living


Buying a bike? Now you can use Twitter to find out if it’s stolen property


Back in the olden days of 2005, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, bicyclist and web developer Bryan Hance had his bike stolen yet again in Portland, Ore. In response, he did what web developers so often do as a part of their grieving process: He built a website.

Hance wasn't the only person doing this. The rise of bicycling and everyone crowding onto the internet meant that anyone who had their bike stolen found themselves wading through a plethora of bike forums and Google groups dedicated to tracking down bikes and bike thieves. There were plenty of websites, but there wasn't a widely used database for stolen bikes, the way that there was for cars. While there was a national site affiliated with McGruff the Crimefighting Dog, it charged a stiff fee and only let law enforcement run searches through its database.

But Hance's database was particularly popular, even with people outside of Portland. When Hance announced early this week that his site had joined forces with an another bike registry -- a company named, which has ambitious plans to register bikes before they even reach their first owners -- it became, arguably, the closest thing we have to a national bicycle registry. From now on, whether you're looking at a bike in a used bike shop, or in someone's suburban garage, you can post the serial number to @isitstolen on Twitter, and a bot will report back to you on whether or not it's been reported stolen. (I just tried it and the bot told me that my bike isn't stolen, but sent me some depressing pictures of stolen bikes that look like mine.)

Read more: Cities, Living


This magic bus recharges while you dig for your fare


Electric buses are great, but you have to deal with all of those wires strung through half the city, making urban kite flying a dangerous proposition at worst and an opportunity to develop lightning-like super powers at best. And while being a real-world Black Vulcan would, admittedly, be rad, (you’d never run out of juice for your Palm Pilot, for instance), an OSHA workplace study shows that less than one in 50 people who are electrocuted develop super powers [Editor's note: I was going to call bullshit on that last bit, but this guy apparently knows what he's talking about], so …


Why liberals like walkability more than conservatives

walkable city street
Urban Grammar
All of the people in this picture are Democrats.

The wonkosphere is going wild over the Pew Research Center’s new report on increasing partisan polarization. It shows that liberal and conservative Americans are more segregated than ever: liberals are now all Democrats, conservatives are all Republicans, and both groups -- although conservatives much more than liberals -- increasingly tend to socialize and get their news only from one another. Conservatives are also found to be totally hostile to political compromise.

To anyone following political news, these findings mostly just reinforce what we already knew. One of the starkest divisions stands out, though, because it is on a topic that is seldom measured or discussed: ideological divisions over walkable urbanism versus suburban sprawl.

Pew asked whether respondents would rather live in an area where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away,” versus one where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance.” The country is evenly split, with 49 percent choosing the former and 48 percent the latter. But the political divide is dramatic: 75 percent of “consistently conservative” respondents prefer the suburban sprawl model, and only 22 percent prefer the walkable urban design. Among “consistently liberal” Americans, the numbers are reversed.

Read more: Cities, Politics


Ah shit

Climate change could flood your streets with doo-doo and toxic waste

Stefan Klocek
Oakland and surrounds.

Rising seas and ferocious storms linked to global warming won't just bring water to our doorsteps. In some cities, it will deliver a witches' brew of sewage from low-lying drains and toxic waste from Superfund sites and industrial areas.

That's because when seas rise, they don't just top over shorelines. They can burble up through waterfront infrastructure like sewage systems. New America Media reports from Oakland, a port city built along San Francisco Bay -- an estuary that's vulnerable to the rises in the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge:

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Four reasons why Portland became a cyclists’ utopia

Portland tweed ride
Will Vanlue

When I was young, I left the Motor City for a city that I would never have to drive in again. Years later, so did my sister.

Television commercials made the relationship between cars and humans look like a romance, but from a kid's perspective, it looked like an abusive relationship. Automobiles had a way of breaking down when you needed them most, taking large amounts of your money without warning, and attracting unwelcome attention from law enforcement officers. Little in the movie 8-Mile feels like a genuine depiction of Detroit life, but one thing feels accurate: the way that no one’s car will start.

I moved to San Francisco. My sister moved to Portland. I love San Francisco, the way that you do, but whenever I visit my sister I cannot help noticing that -- as far as gracious, car-free living goes -- she made the better choice. When I visit her, I don’t have to look at every car that I pass and gauge the risk of being doored, because, in a lot of places, the bike lane is wide enough for both me and an open car door. I rarely have to merge into car traffic and route myself around someone who has double-parked in the middle of a bike lane, because some traffic engineer has thoughtfully placed a barrier between car and bike traffic. All is not perfect; my sister still got doored last winter. But Portland had zero bike deaths last year (and many years before it), which is more than you can say about San Francisco.

How did this come to pass? While Portland has a reputation for being the most uber-millennial of millennial cities, it’s not that different from your average American college town. Bicycling in cities has been on the rise for years now; what made Portland so ready for it, when bicyclists in other cities have had to struggle? I did some digging, and came up with a few theories.

Read more: Cities, Living


Airbnb thinks your apartment would make a great illegal bistro


Airbnb, the outfit that brought you strangers-sleeping-in-your-bed-while-you’re-at-your-cousin-Maura’s-wedding-in-Connecticut is at it again! This time, the company wants you to make people you don’t know dinner, and pay Airbnb for the privilege. Where do I sign up?

Reuters’ Gary Shih summed it up this way:

Airbnb is encouraging hosts to throw dinners for strangers as part of a new pilot program in its home city. The company would take a cut of the proceeds, similar to how it makes money from its core business of letting people list spare bedrooms or homes on its website.

The startup began inviting hosts in San Francisco to participate in the dining pilot on Tuesday. A listing for one of the pilot dinners charged $25 per person for a three-course meal.

Marissa Coughlin, an Airbnb spokeswoman, said the company is "always experimenting with new ways to create meaningful experiences" and declined further comment.

Why did she decline to comment, you wonder? Maybe because the whole set up is completely against the law.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living


Three reasons you shouldn’t lose hope on climate change

Suzanne Tucker

Last week, Ezra Klein declared us all toast in his Vox blog post “7 reasons America will fail on climate change.” He said that America had neither the will nor the way to do what’s required to stave off the worst of climate change’s threats. The key line in that piece for me was “This is climate change's ugliest tradeoff: It pits our most fundamental economic goal against our core environmental imperative.” We’re too big to succeed, in other words, and we’re only really concerned right now with getting bigger.

America is, as the kids say, thirsty when it comes to moving, buying, and selling products because C.R.E.A.M., but in ways that are too often incompatible with environmental protection and climate security (and civil/human rights too, but I digress). As a consequence, the planet is dying of that thirst, while we humans are dying to find out just how far we can stretch this carbon-intense living before climate change flushes us all out of the system.

Knowing all of that, it’s tempting to concede climate change defeat in the face of our economic desires. Klein made a good case for throwing the towel in -- or at least for describing how we may already have. Climate Progress’s Joe Romm revived hope with his own seven-point essay on why American’s “should” succeed on climate change. Klein’s Vox colleague Brad Plumer rightfully brought the doomsday proclamations down a few notches as well.

As for me, I’ve been guilty of sharing Klein's pessimism. Just recently, I wrote that if Americans-at-large aren’t willing to change our behavior and take an economic hit for repairing racism’s impacts, for people we actually see, then it’s doubtful we'll do it for the impacts of climate change, which we don’t see. But that kind of hopelessness falls stale when considering history, particularly that of oppressed people, whether we’re talking slavery in the Americas or colonialism and apartheid in Africa.

With that, I join Romm and Plumer in submitting reasons why we can succeed. I’m not attempting seven points like Klein and Romm. I think we only need a field goal -- three points -- to win this.


Grist’s Brentin Mock talks about climate change’s new poster children on MSNBC

When President Obama and EPA administrator Gina McCarthy unveiled their new climate push last week, they didn’t talk about saving the polar bears and sparing the ice caps. Instead, Obama led his pitch by talking about the children: A set of proposed power plant regulations, he said, were aimed at “reducing the carbon pollution that hurts the health of our kids, and the health of the planet, while also giving us enormous opportunities to grow and improve the economy in all sorts of ways.”

In particular, Obama singled out African American kids, who “are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma, four times as likely to die from asthma,” as white kids, and Latinos, who “are 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized for asthma.”

Brentin Mock, who covers environmental justice for Grist in his Read, black, and green blog, explained this new frame in a post that got some wide attention from the national press. Mock talked to MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry on Sunday.


Art trucks bring a little eye candy to the local underpass

Rodi Gallery

Ever been hanging out at your regular food truck rally and think to yourself, “You know what would go great with this goat and poblano enchilada? Some delicate, thought-provoking mixed-media abstracts and a severed concrete slab or two.”

Well wait no more! Art is no longer confined to the outside of vans. It’s got a seat inside in a growing fleet of mobile art galleries.

From the New York Times:

While statistics on mobile galleries are hard to come by, social media shows the trend catching on in Los Angeles; Seattle; Santa Fe, N.M.; Tampa Bay, Fla.; Chicago; and even Alberta, where a ’60s teardrop-red trailer presents works from a changing lineup of local artists. Pinterest boards show a range of designs on pages dedicated to mobile galleries, and Twitter is full of people advertising their whereabouts with hashtags such as #keeptrucking. Ann Fensterstock, a lecturer on contemporary art and the author of “Art on the Block,” a history of New York art galleries, said these galleries are “part of the zeitgeist of this moment in art creating.”

Read more: Cities, Living