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

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

Chasing London’s Cloud of Feral Parakeets

“My Secret City” is a collaboration between CityLab and Narratively, a digital publication featuring extraordinary stories of ordinary people, told through video, text, photo essays, comics journalism and more.

They started on the margins and colonized the centre. First they were seen in Kingston upon Thames, a leafy suburb on London’s southwestern fringe. Then they moved to neighboring Richmond and squatted the gardens of Hampton Court Palace—the former residence of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I—before migrating northward into London proper. Soon they were in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, clamoring around Big Ben, massing in Parliament Square. Then they were in the grand Victorian cemetery at Highgate. Then they were up Primrose Hill. Then they were crowding East London’s canals. Then they were … Read the rest

When Cars Fly

Look at just about any celebrated imagined futuristic city—The Jetsons! Star Wars! Back to the Future! Blade Runner! What do we see? Flying cars.

And the decades-old dream of soaring over the gridlock seems to be within reach. We have autonomous cars. We have electric cars. And we have electric drones flying around all over the place. Surely, the great lift-off is almost upon us.

Several companies claim to have prototypes coming to market. Andrew Hawkins at The Verge reports that Metro Skyway, a subsidiary of the Tel-Aviv company Urban Aeronautics, just unveiled a “CityHawk” that might fly rooftop to rooftop by 2022. AeroMobil, a Slovakian company, just started taking pre-orders for 2020 for their flying car. German … Read the rest

Why Is Affordable Housing So Expensive?

In many cities, affordable housing has a problem: it’s not affordable. California Governor Jerry Brown made that point again, emphatically, with his new state budget. He’s said that won’t put any new state resources into subsidizing affordable housing until state and local governments figure out ways to bring the costs down. Last year, opposition from labor and environmental groups blocked the governor’s proposal to exempt affordable housing from some key regulatory requirements. Brown had offered $400 million in additional state funds for affordable housing if that proposal was adopted. Now that money is off the table, as Brown said in his budget speech: “We’ve got to bring down the cost structure of housing and not just find ways to subsidize it.”

But the costs are substantial. … Read the rest

Cities Seek Deliverance From the E-Commerce Boom

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

Just before 3 in the afternoon on a rainy spring day, Keith Greenleaf busts out his “bricklaying” skills. That’s delivery-driver parlance for balancing an inordinate amount of cardboard boxes on a metal handcart. As high as his collarbone he stacks them, packages labeled HP, J. Crew, Amazon Prime. “This is probably one of the first days I don’t have Pampers or dog food,” he says.

Greenleaf also doesn’t have any 60-pound boxes of copier paper, which is a welcome way to finish his daily rounds.The veteran UPS driver is parked near 22nd and I St. in Washington, D.C., having arrived there about six hours earlier in a … Read the rest

Applying the ‘Rooney Rule’ to Cities

The city of Pittsburgh will no longer make hiring decisions for leadership positions in city government without interviewing at least one person who is not a white male. This was the hiring approach instituted in 2003 by the recently deceased Dan Rooney, who was president of the Pittsburgh Steelers NFL team that his family owns. As chair of the NFL’s diversity and inclusion committee, he was able to have the entire NFL adopt this hiring policy, and it’s been called the “Rooney Rule” ever since.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto decided to honor Mr. Rooney by adopting a similar hiring rule for city government hiring. An executive order he signed on Wednesday creates a Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the city and directs the … Read the rest

Grooving to the Oldies at New Orleans’s Temple of Uncool

“My Secret City” is a collaboration between CityLab and Narratively, a digital publication featuring extraordinary stories of ordinary people, told through video, text, photo essays, comics journalism and more.

I try to follow the steps of a line dance forming to a song I’ve never heard before when a middle-aged woman in hot pants whispers that I’d better get off the dance floor with my cocktail glass, because there is no telling how dangerous the dancing might get. A few minutes later, sensing my confusion and observing my missteps, a man approaches me on legs shaky from age but firm from cha-chas and says, “Dancing is just fancy walking. If you remember that, you’ll never go wrong.” As he walks away, “Shama Lama Ding Dong” … Read the rest

The Ultimate Photo Map of the 1906 San Francisco Quake

OpenSFHistory/Western Neighborhoods Project

Of all the horrible scenes that poured out of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—which killed roughly 3,000 people and injured 225,000 more—one of a refugee camp at the old Hamilton Square on April 19, a day after the quake, haunts Woody LaBounty.

“There’s a guy actually sweeping the grass next to two women with a shocked, middle-distance stare,” says LaBounty, executive director at the Western Neighborhoods Project. “Shock, bewilderment, uncertainty in many faces.”

For LaBounty, it’s a reminder that the famous disaster was just that—a catastrophe that left human lives as well as buildings in ruins. “In recent years, as a community we have defaulted to an almost celebratory attitude around the anniversary” of the tragedy, he says. “But many people died. … Read the rest

Sidewalks Full of Handmade Monuments to Buenos Aires’s Disappeared

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

Liliana Giovannelli, 61, rarely visits the commemorative stone in Buenos Aires that carries her husband’s name. Set into the sidewalk in the north of the Argentine capital, it does not mark his grave, but the spot where he disappeared from work at a ceramic factory in 1977, at the age of 27. His body was never found. Some 40 years later, Giovannelli is still looking.

The handmade plaque, carefully inlaid with broken crockery and colored glass, is dedicated to Giovannelli’s husband, Juan Carlos Panizza, and three other missing potters kidnapped by the military from a factory in Villa Adelina on … Read the rest

Exploring Richmond’s Underground Music Scene

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

Evan Hoffman lives in an apartment on a quiet street in Richmond, Virginia. On weekend nights, some music fans seek out his basement instead of downtown’s theaters and bars.

Underground concert venues—typically in someone’s basement, backyard, or living room—exist wherever there’s demand for live music. In Richmond, the handful of formal venues is vastly outnumbered by private house venues with colorful names like Sloth Sanctuary, Crystal Palace, or Lucy’s. Typically hosted by renters, the names of venues rove around the city as hosts change residences.

Hoffman has run Good Day RVA, a non-profit music and film collective, since 2012. Read the rest