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Community Urinalysis

The NYT Magazine’s Year in Ideas is my favorite issue of the year, and this one is no exception. One idea that I particularly enjoyed is the concept of community urinalysis. By examining the sewage water of a city, scientists can examine which drugs its inhabitants are using. As Clive Thompson writes:

…when [Jennifer] Field’s team tested a mere teaspoonful of water from a sewage plant — which it ultimately did in many American cities — the sample revealed the presence of 11 different drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine.

The research team called this technique community urinalysis. From a privacy standpoint, it’s a very clever approach to monitoring drug usage, because while it is involuntary — drug users can’t help urinating — it also manages to preserve the public’s anonymity. “It’s the closest to the urinal you can get without violating privacy,” says Field, who presented her findings at an August meeting of the American Chemical Society.

I look forward to a whole slew of maps that show, at a glance, the drug usage of different cities. And better yet, ones that show the drug use over time (which they have already begun measuring).

Where to next, Buffalo?

Buffalo, my hometown, has been receiving a lot of press lately. And somewhat surprisingly, not all of it bad. Here’s a brief rundown of the articles I have seen lately:

  • Buffalo’s Field of Dreams (WSJ), in which Jake Halpern discusses a British businessman’s plan to build a tall skyscraper in Buffalo and Buffalo’s residents pinning their hopes of urban reinvigoration on this construction project. Halpern says this is passing the buck on fixing the city and avoiding real changes such as improving the schools.
  • Wake Up Toronto—You’re Bigger than You Think (Globe and Mail: Word document file), in which Richard Florida attempts to demonstrate that Toronto is great because it is part of a greater metropolitan area that includes Buffalo and other cities. Florida argues that if the border can get its act together, these cities can act as a single unit and Toronto can be great, and Buffalo can ride Toronto’s coattails to its former glory.
  • Can Buffalo Ever Come Back? (City Journal), in which Edward Glaeser argues that Buffalo should not try to reclaim its place as a captain of industry and as a large city; this was a one-time thing. (A nice summary of Buffalo’s rise and fall over time is included.) Instead, Buffalo should concentrate on being a great small city, which is well within its capacity to do.
  • More Buffalo Blogging (Economist), where the Economist bloggers mention some of these articles and discuss them. There is a focus here on the international border issue.

So, what’s my take? Buffalo is clearly not the city it once was, that much is clear. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As Glaeser mentions, not trying to sustain a large city can be beneficial. This is similar to the concept discussed in last year’s NYT Year in Ideas called Creative Shrinkage, where a city can get better by becoming smaller. If Buffalo first concentrates on being a really good and efficient small city, then it can be rewarded with growth. People will not be attracted to a city simply because it used to have more people.

Another way to make the city more efficient (and which can be done in tandem with the above), is incorporating large portions of Erie County into the city of Buffalo. By making the Buffalo metropolitan area a single entity (a consolidated city-county), a number of effects will be achieved. First, people will realize the true size of Buffalo (and no, I am not attempting to return Buffalo to its glory—this would simply allow people to recognize that Buffalo is more than just a dying inner core). Second, the government will become much more efficient, and things will get done, as the entire Buffalo area suddenly realizes that they are in this together. Unfortunately, due to political short-sightedness this is unlikely to happen, but it sure is a nice pipe dream.

In terms of industry, Buffalo is beginning to take advantage of the great state university it has there. It’s going for a biotech jackpot, which might be unreasonable, but if Buffalo can increase its white-collar companies, it will certainly have immigrants something to offer, as well as its neighbor Toronto (if the border crossings become smoother). These things, coupled with an ability to attract people who want to actually stay to raise their families (which Joel Kotkin contends is the recipe for a great economy), could be the way towards a renaissance.

And of course, Buffalo has the image problem to contend with. In truth, it has a lot to offer (architecture, great airport, good cost of living), but let’s focus on the weather. Frankly, it is time that Buffalonians (yes, that improbable title is what we call ourselves) go on the offensive. Buffalo has great weather. If you simply want some sort of neutered weather patterns, go somewhere south or west. But if you crave four distinct seasons, there is no better place than Buffalo. The summer is warm but not humid. The fall is crisp without much rain. Spring is pleasant and mild. And winter: Buffalo has a bona fide winter. It is snowy without being too cold. So if you love the beauty of snowfall without the piercing chill of other northern cities, Buffalo provides that. So, make fun of Buffalo’s weather if you want. But really, you’re just wrong.

Okay, so what does all this mean for Buffalo? Well, Buffalo will never become a first-tier city. But Buffalo should become more efficient and play to its strengths. By doing that, and taking advantage of university spinoffs, it could become something of a technology/service center up in the Rust Belt, similar to Pittsburgh. Is that aiming low? Maybe, but first Buffalo needs to tighten up and get its act together before it begins to aim high. It can happen, it might just take some time.

19.20.21: A Study of the Modern Supercity

A new study which examines 19 cities of 20 million people each (and in the 21st century) is about to be undertaken. This study, called 19.20.21, appears to be quite intriguing and I look forward to its results. Check out the site for some interesting urban facts, both historical and recent.

One question though: anyone know who is sponsoring the study? If you have any information about it, please contact me, or put the info into the comments.

(via kottke)

Blogging Scholarship Update

So, as I had hoped, I came in Not-Last Place in the Blogging Scholarship contest. As near as I can tell, I did this by about 2 votes. And from the fine print of the contest site, I think my prize is some sort of pre-worn gym clothing.

But about the contest itself. Shelley Batts, of Retrospectacle (a fellow science blogger who fared much better in the contest than I) wrote a little recap, and issued a wish to hear the other contestants’ thoughts. Additionally, she astutely noted that I haven’t “blogged much at all since the start of the contest”. Very true. (Though in my defense, I normally post rather infrequently and didn’t feel that strong of a yearning to change my style just for the contest.) Anyway, here are some thoughts:

Regarding the nature of the contest, Yes, it is sort of a popularity contest for the final part. But am I okay with that? I think I have made my peace with it. Frankly, it is somewhat of a fluke that I was a finalist at all. The Biourbanist is a tiny, infrequently updated blog, and is not really in the same league as most of the other blogs. Perhaps my essay on the joys of being a small and modest blog swayed the judges. And perhaps on quality I should’ve had a better shot. Nonetheless, my blog has a small following, and to be considered the best certainly must include some sort of readership metric. Yes, quality need not correlate with popularity, as many critics have discovered. However, a good blog should be good at getting readers, at least as one characteristic.

So, by being chosen as a finalist, I was bestowed with legitimacy (implying some aspect of goodness and probably the best thing to happen to a blog of my type), and the final portion of the contest was to see how influential my blog was (a different aspect of bloggy goodness). Are there other ways of measuring the quality of a blog? Certainly, and I would like to think that The Biourbanist would measure up in some of these categories (although frequency of posting certainly is not up there, Shelley). But am I okay with how it worked this time around? Yes. Perhaps a different contest next year could be in order, with judges actually doing the judging from start to finish. But, as they say, it’s an honor just being nominated as a finalist. Now, please excuse me as I go gently cry myself to sleep over lost scholarship money.

Frumination: a blog with lots of public transit info

Michael Frumin has a great blog, Frumination, chock full of information about public transportation, mainly the NYC Subway. There are graphs, maps, pictures, and much more, with lots of data and links to data. A few interesting posts:

NYC Subway capacity analysis

Urban GPS and congestion pricing

Sources of NYC Traffic Data

Enjoy playing.

Atlantropa of Herman Sorgel

Atlantropa, a concept from the 1920’s by the architect Herman Sorgel, is profoundly weird. The concept was to dam the Strait of Gibraltar in order to unify the continents of Africa and Europe, and thereby allow the super-continent to compete with Asia and the Americas.

And this wasn’t a one shot idea. Sorgel worked really hard on it until he died in the Fifties. Here are some pictures of the proposal, which was only successful in science fiction.