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How successful cities are like marijuana

Photo by Spreng Ben.

If you've got an acre of land, and a magical get-out-of-jail-free card, which cash crop do you grow -- wheat, soybeans, or marijuana?

That’s a good metaphor for a city's decision to invest in its downtown versus sprawl, says Joe Minicozzi, the new projects director at Public Interest Projects. Minicozzi uses the pot-vs.-soybeans hypothetical because people intuitively grasp the value of cash crops -- that an acre of high-grade weed throws off 10 or 20 times as much income as a food crop.

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Slow ride: Buses are the new vehicles of youth rebellion

To entice teenagers, Ford and other automakers need to make their cars more like smartphones … They could automatically check teenagers into Foursquare when they arrive at the mall. The car could read text messages aloud for the driver. It could have built-in cameras to take pictures and videos of passengers and upload them to Facebook and YouTube, also automatically tagging who is who in the images.

- The New York Times

Hard to believe but today these guys would be total dorks. (Photo by TimothyJ.)

In Dazed and Confused, the classic ode to teenage freedom set in the mid-’70s, the majority of the action happens in or around cars; one character quips that she and her friends usually “just drive around” for fun.

I’ve always loved that film for how closely it approximates my own high school’s social world, thought it is set 30 years earlier. (I’m like the dorky redhead, except Matthew McConaughey never gave me his phone number.) But while the end-of-year hazing, kegs in parks, and frequent blazing it portrays rang as true in 2006 as 1976, the fact that cars are the, um, vehicles for all this rebellion already seemed a little vintage when I was in high school.

I could still fill up the tank for under $20 when I got my license, but burning gas to burn time was not an option for my allowance-and-summer-job budget or my millennial-generation conscience. I knew about the link between carbon emissions and global warming. Besides, I grew up in a city, and blasting “Slow Ride” doesn’t feel quite so badass when your ride is stopped in traffic.

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Gallery walls: Cities embrace street art as a ticket to success

The artist Gaia puts up the first installation in what he calls "a museum for street art." (Photo by Martha Cooper.)

Street artists from around the world are descending on Baltimore this spring to take part in an ambitious -- and totally legal -- exhibition, producing murals for an event designed to bring new life to a transitional neighborhood.

Launched this month and running through the end of May, Open Walls Baltimore is the city’s first officially sanctioned street art exhibition. Twenty walls throughout the Station North Arts and Entertainment District will serve as backdrops for murals that will be created over the course of several weeks. The walls to be painted are a mix of both private homes and commercial buildings, and represent both occupied and vacant structures. “It’s a museum for street art,” says the artist Gaia, who is curating the event.

Read more: Cities, Urbanism

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Need a ride? Check out London’s mobile bike library

Photo by London Bicycle Library.

A bus and a library make most people think of boring days locked inside a school -- unless that bus holds an AWESOME mobile bike library! Meet London’s Bicycle Library: This roving bike provider lets Londoners “check out” a bike, just as they might check out a book from a public library (although the bike library requires a small deposit, too).

The librarians provide on-site expertise to teach you about the art and science of bicycles. There’s even a bicycle matchmaking service where a librarian can match you with your true love on two wheels. Given that you can choose from folding, MiniVelo, "fixies" (Fix Gear Single Speed), Ladies Coaster, Mens Coaster, cargo, and electric bicycles, there’s no excuse for not finding something that works for you.

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Goodbye-ways: The downfall of urban freeways

The golden days -- when the traffic hadn't caught up with the lanes. (Photo by coltera.)

We can say this for our Great Urban Freeway Experiment: It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The time was the 1950s and '60s, specifically, and U.S. cities were watching their residents flee to the suburbs in alarming numbers. Their solution: Build giant freeways connecting city centers to the ’burbs, thereby allowing citizens to live the good life on the outskirts and commute to work in the urban core. It was an attempt to hang on to urban industrial might even as the city’s population bled (or drove) out.

When all was said and done, these freeways did salvage some downtown commerce, but they only accelerated the flight from the inner city. At the same time, they carved up historic urban neighborhoods, turned whole sections of cities into slums, and cut off many downtowns from their waterfronts. Legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs was among the first to fight the scourge of the urban highway, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s, it had become all but impossible to gain approval for new highways through urban areas.

It’s one thing to stop building urban freeways, however, and another thing entirely to tear down existing ones. For many city centers, those highways still look a lot like lifelines.

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Mexico City’s urbanization threatens ancient ‘floating gardens’

A man works his plot in the chinampas of Mexico City. (Photo by Eneas De Troya.)

Chinampas, or floating gardens -- small artificial islands full of crops, built up on shallow lake beds -- once sustained the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, producing multiple harvests every year. They still exist in Mexico City, feeding its rural citizens -- for now.

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River rising: Water helps revive a washed-up industrial town

Almost as good as a parking lot: An artist's rendering of the completed river restoration in downtown Yonkers. (Image by City of Yonkers.)

For nearly 100 years, New York’s fourth largest city sat on top of a hidden river. The Saw Mill, or Nepperhan ("rapid little water," its original Native American name), rose and fell with the seasons beneath a crowded parking lot in downtown Yonkers. Tiny fish struggled to carry on the cycles of life in its darkened waters, even as a bustling city above wrestled its way through a whipsaw economy.

The river ran through the center of town, and had played a central role in its history -- as early as the 1600s, it inspired the mills and industries that powered the town’s expansion. But by the early 2000s, the Saw Mill had not been seen in downtown Yonkers in living memory. Then a few imaginative residents had the idea that if the city could bring new life to the river, the river could help sustain the city.

Read more: Cities, Urbanism

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Smallest legal apartment in California is prefab, adorbs

If you're like me, you watch this video and think "my house is 10 times as big as this apartment and only slightly more functional," and then curse the day you moved to the suburbs.

This is the smallest studio apartment you can build in California, by law -- 160 square feet -- and it includes a bevy of space-saving measures.

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World’s worst elected official makes the case for sprawl

"Well, let me state it unequivocally: I love sprawl," says L. Brooks Patterson, county executive of Oakland County, Mich. "I need it. I promote it. Oakland County can't get enough of it," he continues, in an essay posted to the Oakland County website. Why should any of us care? Well, Patterson appears to be in a position of power, especially if you live in southeast Michigan. And unlike other people in positions of power who make absurd sprawl-feeding, bike-busting laws -- ahem Congress -- he’s laying all his reasoning out on the table.

Read more: Cities, Politics, Sprawl, Urbanism