Bangkok’s Street Vendors Are Not the Enemies of Public Space

For a moment, it seemed like Bangkok was going to lose the very street food culture that’s defined the city for decades. Local newspaper The Nation reported last Tuesday that the city was planning to ban food stalls in all 50 of its districts as part of an effort to “clean up” the streets and “return the pavements to the pedestrians.” All would disappear by end of this year—the sweet and sticky aroma of coconut (a staple Thai ingredient), the sizzle of noodles hitting the wok as vendors fire up an order of pad thai, and the chaotic charm that draws some 20 to 30 million international tourists to the city each year.

After a public outcry, garnering media attention across the globe, Thailand’s chief of … Read the rest

Grizzly Bears Have a Human Problem

In 2015, a woman named Barbara Paschke was attacked and killed by a black bear inside her home in northwest Montana. Paschke, who was 85 and suffered from Alzheimer’s, had been feeding bears regularly on her property, a practice that is illegal and, as her death showed, potentially fatal. Bears can quickly get used to foraging for easily accessible food sources close to human habitation, but they remain wild animals, imperiling both humans and themselves.

Nobody knows this reality better than the farmers, ranchers, and other humans living in areas with high bear populations. Unlike Barbara Paschke, most have no desire to feed the bears, but they often end up doing it unwittingly. “Nuisance bears,” as chronic offenders are described by wildlife biologists, invade trash cans, … Read the rest

The Very Hungry Plastic-Eating Caterpillar

When she’s not working in her lab at Spain’s IBBTEC institute, Federica Bertocchini keeps bees. One day, when she looked at her hives, she found them infested with caterpillars called waxworms. These insects are the bane of beekeepers because they voraciously devour the wax that bees use to build their honeycombs. Bertocchini picked out the pests and put them in a plastic bag, while she cleaned out the hives. And when she returned to the bag, she found it full of holes.

The waxworms had eaten their way out.

Bertocchini doesn’t study insects, waxworms, or plastic—she focuses on the early development of animal embryos. But you can’t keep a good scientist away from an interesting question, and the perforated bags posed an obvious one: Were the … Read the rest

Anatomy of the 7 Train

The 7 train is known for more than just rogue subway surfers. It’s a key line on the New York City public transit network, and arguably, the most diverse commute in the country. And this year, it marks its 100th year in operation.

Nicknamed the “International Express,” the 7 kicks off on Main Street, in Flushing, Queens; cuts through East Asian, Latino, South Asian, and other immigrant locales; and terminates in Hudson Yards, Manhattan. In 1999, the White House Millennium Council deemed it a National Millennium Trail for being a testament to the immigrant experience.

The route of the 7 train and the Flushing catchment area (Courtesy of Columbia University Press)

A new book by urban sociologists Stéphane Tonnelat and William Kornblum sketches a … Read the rest

The Mystery of ‘Venus’s Hair’ After a Volcanic Eruption

In the summer of 2011, earthquake swarms started hitting the Canary Islands off the African coast. The ocean belched up sulfur, staining the water yellow and green. Fish died. Seawater bubbled over like a jacuzzi. Smoking lava balloons leapt from the roiling surface.

These violent events were all hallmarks of an erupting underwater volcano, which over 138 days blanketed the seafloor with newly formed volcanic rock.

By the time a group of Italian and Spanish scientists sailed to the Tagoro Volcano in 2014, things had quieted down—geologically, at least. Biologically, something extraordinary was happening. The once barren rock was now covered in a lush carpet of long, white hair, the size of eight tennis courts. “It was an impressive and surreal landscape, like discovering life on … Read the rest

This Magic Dutch Traffic Light Helps Bicyclists Avoid Stopping

Springlab

Red lights are the momentum-sucking bane of any bicyclist—they add time to the trip and kill your physical efficiency (just ask a physicist!). But thanks to some weird, animal-based technology in the Netherlands, riders may soon be able to sail through the city on a magic wave of green lights without having to worry about stopping for cars.

Flo, a traffic system that went into place last week in Utrecht, is a tall, blue kiosk abutting a bike path. Using sensors, it determines cyclists’ speed from hundreds of feet out and displays several kinds of symbolic advice. If cyclists need to speed up to catch a green light at the next intersection, they get a hare (not to be confused with a rabbitRead the rest

The Invisible Network That Makes Cities Work

Do you trust your neighbor? With your spare keys? With your dog? To not look when you change clothes with the blinds open? And has that behavior changed?

As patterns of communication, social interaction, and economic exchange shift, so too does the nature of trust. You can’t see trust. You can’t touch it. But like the copper below city streets and the wires above them, a network of trust undergirds urban neighborhoods and communities. And it’s undergoing something of a revolution.

Economists who write about trust love behavioral game theory experiments that measure the risk-reward premium of trust. The Trust Game, a version of Daniel Kahneman’s famous Dictator Game, allows counterparts to loan or give each other money … Read the rest

The Hopes and Fears Around Ben Carson’s Favorite Public Housing Program

When Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren asked Ben Carson what he would do as HUD secretary to address the condition of U.S. public housing, Carson enthusiastically singled out one program for praise—the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD), a five-year-old federal initiative that has gone largely under the radar. He said he’s “very encouraged” by RAD’s early results, and “looks forward to working with Congress to expand this worthy program.”

RAD works by transferring public housing units to the private sector, so that developers and housing authorities can tap into a broader range of subsidies and financing tools to rehab and manage the units. Given Congress’s refusal to adequately fund public housing and the billions of dollars needed for backlogged repairs, supporters say RAD is the best available … Read the rest

Singapore, City of Sensors

This post is part of a CityLab series on open secrets—stories about what’s hiding in plain sight.

Armed with a deep pool of tech entrepreneurs and startups—not to mention a government that’s eager to make the most use out of them—the island-nation of Singapore offers a wealth of urban innovation.

Today’s Singapore provides free WiFi inside subway stations, and it’s paved the way for its first driverless taxis. With limited access to fresh water, the city-state has also developed technology to catch rain and desalinate some 100 million gallons of seawater a day. Even its fabled fancy bus stops get a dose of high technology.

Then there are the sensors, cameras, and GPS devices. They’re on trains, … Read the rest

Yes, Elite Women’s Clubs Still Exist

This post is part of a CityLab series on open secrets—stories about what’s hiding in plain sight.

The Sulgrave Club is an elite women’s organization that has occupied its location—a tan brick mansion in the tony Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Dupont Circle—since 1932. That year, the widow of a millionaire gentleman farmer from upstate New York, who earlier in the century had used the house as her winter residence, sold it to a group of similarly privileged D.C. women for their new club.

Inside, all is tastefully upholstered in pale greens, yellows, and subdued floral patterns. Large spaces, including a ballroom, and smaller chambers with couches and chairs arranged for conversation, serve, as the website notes, … Read the rest

Naked Germany, Straining at the Seams

This post is part of a CityLab series on open secrets—stories about what’s hiding in plain sight.

Tourists making their initial visit to Germany sometimes do a double-take the first time they they see a naked person.

Germans think nothing of stripping to sunbathe. They do it on on beaches, by lakes, and in heavily frequented urban parks in Berlin and Munich. It’s not unheard of to see unclothed people on regular park lawns or topless on balconies. The country is one of the few places in the world where naturism occurs not just in secluded areas, but in the heart of major cities. German-style public nudity, known as Freikörperkultur (or “free body culture,” and usually shortened to FKK), dates back to the 19th … Read the rest

Marching for the Right to Be Wrong

When I was asked to speak at the Los Angeles installment of the March for Science, a vision leapt unbidden to my mind: thousands of scientists and science-lovers gathered in Pershing Square, carrying whiteboards and graphs, arguing with each other about how to properly interpret the data they were showing.

Presumably the real march won’t be like that. But nothing would be more characteristic of how scientists behave in the wild than a bit of good-natured disagreement. Indeed, the March for Science itself has notably stirred up some controversies—over the fear that it turns science into a partisan special interest, over worries that it has tried too little (or too hard) to promote diversity, over a concern that scientists shouldn’t descend to the tawdry realities of … Read the rest

Learning From Two Months of Illuminating Abandoned Homes

For two months last fall, Breathing Lights wove through New York’s Capital Region. Using gently pulsing lighting to humanize abandoned buildings, it was frequently perceived as a celebration, a sales pitch, or a call to action, but rarely as just art.

The installation literally shed light on an awful problem—abandoned and collapsing buildings in poor neighborhoods—for which solutions have not surfaced. It also gave the sad properties some TLC just briefly, only to return them to darkness.

“The lights had to be short lived to draw attention to the longer-lasting things,” says Adam Frelin, the upstate New York artist who Read the rest