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Urbanization in the Ancient Near East

This past year, archaeologists found that Tell Brack, an ancient city in Syria, was founded around the same time as Sumerian cities from around 6,000 years ago. This is contrast to the assumption that cities were initially founded in southern Mesopotamia, and the idea of urbanization spread out from there.

Of course, Tell Brak became a city in its own distinct manner: the pattern of urbanization at Tell Brak proceeded outside in (though from the picture, this might be due to a hill in the middle of the city).

Coincidentally, one of the archaeologists on the team has the surname Ur, which must certainly provide Ancient Near East scholars hours of amusement.

(via kottke)

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)

Houston’s Underground Tunnels

Apparently, Houston has an extremely intricate series of walkable tunnels that exist below the downtown area. These tunnels, modeled on the ones below Rockefeller Center, while connecting large portions of the downtown area, have not been centrally planned. Instead, “befitting Texans’ distrust of government, most of it is private; each segment is controlled by the individual building owner who deigns to allow the public access during business hours — and then locks the doors on nights and weekends. Some parts, like those belonging to the former Enron buildings now leased by Chevron, are closed to outsiders altogether.” This private component is probably the most astounding part of the entire tunnel network.

Chittenango, NY: The Land of Oz

Yellow Brick SidewalkChittenango, east of Syracuse, is a small village in Upstate New York that most would simply pass by without a second thought. However, someone tipped me off to its claim to fame: L. Frank Baum, the writer of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz (and the rest of the series), was born there. And its residents have taken this extremely seriously.

I was visiting Albany and decided to go through Chittenango on my way there. I found a yellow brick sidewalk lining the main street, sundry Oz-themed stores (including Ruby Red’s Diner and the Emerald City Grill) and even an Oz museum, which unfortunately was closed when I was there since it is currently moving to its new location in the soon-to-be-renovated library (I was told this when I stopped in at the Village Hall). Anyway, nothing theme-park-like here, but certainly a pleasant place to stretch your legs.

Transportation Future, via A.C. Clarke in 1946

In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1946 short story Rescue Party (the first he ever sold), he offers an intriguing view of how rapid transportation of the future has changed the world and its cities:

For the culture of cities, which had outlasted so many civilizations had been doomed at last when the helicopter brought universal transportation. Within a few generations the great masses of mankind, knowing that they could reach any part of the globe in a matter of hours, had gone back to the fields and forests for which they had always longed. The new civilization had machines and resources of which earlier ages had never dreamed, but it was essentially rural and no longer bound to the steel and concrete warrens that had dominated the centuries before. Such cities as still remained were specialized centers of research, administration or entertainment; the others had been allowed to decay, where it was too much trouble to destroy them. The dozen or so greatest of all cities, and the ancient university towns, had scarcely changed and would have lasted for many generations to come. But the cities that had been founded on steam and iron and surface transportation had passed with the industries that had nourished them.

Yes, the Rust Belt has seen better days. But for the only surviving cities to be one-trick ponies (such as DC for administration and Las Vegas for entertainment) is unlikely. Diverse cities are the ones that are the engines of innovation and the ones that people wish to live in. Furthermore, the importance of proximity for people is one that will probably not simply be invented away. We are social creatures and while we all prefer differently sized cities, I have a feeling that cities are here to stay.

As a bonus, here’s another fun quote from the story:

The great room, which had been one of the marvels of the world, meant nothing to them. No living eye would ever again see that wonderful battery of almost human Hollerith analyzers and the five thousand million punched cards holding all that could be recorded on each man, woman and child on the planet.

Police Sirens, and introducing the Rumbler

There are a wide variety of sirens at the disposal of police. However, there is now a new type of siren being added to their repertoire:

Christened with a tantalizing name, the Rumbler, it sends out low, bone-rattling vibrations, so it is not only heard, but also felt. One has been tested on the streets of New York, but the jury is out on whether it is effective, offensive or terrifying.