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Michael Chabon’s Sitka World’s Fair

Michael Chabon, the author of many books, among them The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay, has a website whose front page currently shows a poster for the Sitka World’s Fair. At first I thought this was a just an interesting retro poster from 1977. However, between the Yiddish on the poster and the fact that Sitka is not a bustling metropolis but rather an Alaskan city of under 10,000 people, I realized that this is an artifact from the alternate-history of Chabon’s upcoming new book The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. This book, due out in May, supposes that a Jewish homeland was created in the mid-twentieth century in Alaska, instead of in Israel, and extrapolates outwards from this premise (there was a proposal like this actually made during WWII, but it was voted down). I’m looking forward to seeing how he crafts this scenario.

Solving the Problem of Traffic

John Seabrook, in a New Yorker article from a few years back called The Slow Lane, discusses the problem of traffic and its possible solutions. This article, which focuses on New York City, is bursting with some great information about traffic-engineering, and traffic in general. It includes discussions of congestion pricing, the history and science of the traffic jam, and cellular automata, among many other topics. Here are a couple of facts from the article:

Since 1970, the population of the Unite  States has grown by forty per cent, while the number of registered vehicles has increased by nearly a hundred per cent—in other words, cars have proliferated more than twice as fast as people have. During this same period, road capacity increased by six per cent.


Because of the limited space and the dimensions of its grid, the heart of midtown Manhattan can accommodate only nine thousand moving vehicles without succumbing to gridlock.

City Evacuation Preparedness Ranking

The American Highway Users Alliance ranked thirty seven large cities in the United States in terms of how prepared they are to undergo a mass evacuation. The results? Most cities are in bad shape (full report card, in pdf, is here). Kansas City, however, can be evacuated easily, mainly “because it’s not densely populated, there are no geographical barriers on any side of the city and it has a good intra-city road system, said Greg Cohen, president of the highway users alliance” (from the USA Today article about it). Wired Magazine also had an infographic in its February 2007 issue about this, but that piece is unfortunately not available online.

City Size and Baseball

Common wisdom holds that the larger city teams in baseball have the advantage, with all their added financial resources and the like (think George Steinbrenner). Well, as discussed in the most recent WSJ Science Journal article by Sharon Begley, A New Study Shows How Baseball Myths Can Hurt the Game, the economist J.C. Bradbury has quantified this effect, among many others. While it turns out that it’s a real effect, it’s not huge:

Oh, and the big-market/small-market question. Every 1.58 million residents produces one extra win per season, Prof. Bradbury calculates, using data from 1995 to 2004. Based on population alone, the Yankees should win 10.61 more games than Milwaukee.

Calculating “population-adjusted wins,” he shows which teams did better than their city’s size predicts — and which did worse. I’m talking about you, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Milwaukee.

Joel Kotkin on ‘Superstar’ Cities

The Wall Street Journal had an article yesterday called the Myth of the Superstar Cities. This op-ed piece, by Joel Kotkin, discusses the concept of American ‘superstar’ cities, such as New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Boston, and how they are generally considered ‘better’ in ways such as economic growth, trendiness and opportunities. Unfortunately, as Kotkin maintains, these are more images than reality. These cities are growing no faster, and sometimes more slowly, than other large (albeit less flashy) cities such as Phoenix or Houston. The most unusual feature of the ‘superstar’ cities are their stratospheric housing prices, which in the long term will cause a drain in talent and businesses from these superstars.

Here some different ways of looking at this article. The superstar cities are outliers because they have outsize populations in certain specific ‘industries’, such as finance, publishing, art, and so forth. The network effects of having these all in the same place (telecommuting notwithstanding) can yield a ‘rich get richer’ phenomenon where these cities become the hubs for such activities, and make it hard for other cities to catch up. While there is certainly potential for other cities to woo businesses and talent in general, it might be difficult for them to catch up in certain sectors. The superstars might still be superstars in the future for a reason (not just as enclaves for the super-wealthy), despite high housing costs.

On the other hand, while these network effects are strong, they are not insurmountable. And having a large number of other cities capable of competing with the superstars will in turn require them to innovate. Either the elite cities will rise to the challenge and flourish (and probably become more affordable), or other less glamorous cities will come in and take their place. Either option is good for residents.

Heat Island Effect

The Heat Island Effect is the elevation of the temperature around cities by up to 10°F, as compared to neighboring rural areas. These cities are then referred to as urban heat islands.

From 1998 until 2003, the EPA created the Urban Heat Island Pilot Project to help work on heat reduction techniques for cities. The pilot project focused on Baton Rouge, Chicago, Houston, Sacramento and Salt Lake City. The project’s recommendations are included on the site.

Rethinking the Legacy of Robert Moses

In a recent New Yorker Paul Goldberger writes an article entitled Eminent Dominion: Rethinking the Legacy of Robert Moses. In it, Goldberger argues that Robert Moses, while he often couldn’t care less about the effects of his projects (such as destruction of organically grown neighborhoods), did bring a number of positive things to New York City, such as the Triborough Bridge, for one. He also shows Moses as a product of his time-period, and that even with his embrace of the highway, “New York  probably comes closer to having a workable  balance between cars and mass transit than any other city in the country”.

Goldberger also recognizes that in today’s bureaucratically gridlocked environment, having a single person enforce their vision can have its benefits:

In an era when almost any project can be held up for years by public hearings and reviews by community boards, community groups, civic groups, and planning commissions, not to mention the courts, it is hard not to feel a certain nostalgic tug for Moses’s method of building by decree. It may not have been democratic, or even right. Still, somebody has to look at the big picture and make decisions for the greater good. Moses’s problem was that he couldn’t take his eye off the big picture. He was so in tune with New York’s vastness that he had no patience for anything small within it.

As Goldberger notes, a balance between Jane Jacobs’ embrace of the neighborhood and fine-grained approach to the city, and Robert Moses’s strong-man grandiose public works is something that has yet to be found.