In the last few decades, blue whale calls have been getting lower in pitch—and a rebound in their numbers may be the reason. Christopher Intagliata reports.
— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com
In new pre-clinical research, scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), led by Scott Thompson, PhD, Professor of Physiology, have identified changes in brain activity linked to the pleasure and reward system.
New accelerator-based technology aims to reduce the side effects of cancer radiation therapy by shrinking its duration from minutes to under a second. Built into future compact medical devices, technology developed for high-energy physics could also help make radiation therapy more accessible around the world.
A recent study has shown how using cultured cells from patients with psychotic disorders to investigate abnormalities in nerve connections in the brain could lead to new treatments.
Sidewalk Toronto shared more details on Thursday about plans for the 12 acres of publicly owned land in downtown Toronto where a controversial neighborhood of the future is set to be built “from the internet up.”
For better or worse, though, the model of urban development put forth by Sidewalk Toronto—a public-private entity formed between Sidewalk Labs (the city-building subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) and the government-appointed nonprofit development corporation Waterfront Toronto—may more in keeping with contemporary principles of good urban planning than it is visionary.
Released in advance of the company’s fourth public roundtable in Toronto on December 8, the draft site plan is a piece of the larger “Master Innovation and Development Plan” that Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto have been working on for the past year; that plan will be released for public review sometime in 2019. This latest document is based in images that depict how buildings, streets, and environmental amenities could be situated at “Quayside,” as the development is called. It also outlines a few key proposals in writing.
With regards to housing, Sidewalk Toronto envisions a mix of 50 percent retail and 40 percent below-market rate housing, which would include “a minimum of 20 percent affordable housing, making sure that this community reflects the full diversity of Toronto,” the director of public realm, Jesse Shapins, wrote in a Medium post about the new release.
This would yield an estimated 2,500 units for an imagined 5,000 residents—a meaningful addition to Toronto’s crunched housing stock, which one Toronto ward councillor applauded as an “important step.” The mix of housing would also be more favorable to those in search of “missing middle” accommodations—i.e., space that’s affordable for those in between the income brackets for luxury and subsidized housing—than typical. However, the total number of units is in fact not as much as zoning in the area would permit. “It will have ~19% less housing than zoning allows[,] thus 120 fewer affordable units than typical, but 500 more middle-income units,” the urban researcher Yonah Freemark noted on Twitter.
The plan envisions the neighborhood being built entirely of mass timber, a material that the company anticipates would cut the costs of construction by 15 percent. Although this form of construction is becoming more common around the world, the company claims that Quayside would represent the largest-scale use of mass timber yet. At least some buildings would be factory-constructed—another approach to reduced-cost building that has become a rallying point among affordable housing advocates around North America.
Sidewalk Toronto also proposes a novel-sounding if still vague approach to the use of building ground floors, or the “stoa” in the company’s lingo. (That is “an ancient Greek word for a covered public walkway,” according to a Sidewalk Toronto tweet from August.) These spaces would be designed to adapt to different uses by “businesses, entrepreneurs and community groups” through “innovations in physical space, financing, digital services, and management of program,” according to the plan.
On the environmental front, the company envisions moving towards a “climate positive” footprint by reducing emissions in the neighborhood by 75 to 80 percent. This would be achieved through a combination of green building standards, solar power generation and geothermal heating, energy monitoring systems, and streamlined waste and water management. On Twitter, former Toronto mayor David Miller called these elements of the proposal “very positive” upon initial review.
Quayside’s streets would be designed for walking, not vehicles, with “woonerf”-esque sidewalks that flow curb-free into bike-friendly streets and a connection to Toronto’s light-rail system. Traffic data would be gathered along the streets to manage flows across modes of transportation and prepare the space for the future arrival of autonomous vehicles. The proposed transportation network would appear to align with the best practices of pedestrian-centric street design, with one unusual twist: a below-grade tunnel system to facilitate freight delivery and waste removal on the backs of robots.
Barring a few details, Quayside’s pieces don’t appear to break much new ground in urban design. But virtually all of them would be linked by a common thread that is more unusual: a digital infrastructure that collects data for the apparent purpose of streamlined urban life. This new site plan comes six weeks on the heels of an expanded proposal by Sidewalk Labs about the types of information it plans to gather and how would collect, store, and manage it. Most notably, the company has proposed that the data would be stored in a common “data trust” accessible to any user, and that it would not be proprietary to any one company—including Sidewalk Labs. The company has been criticized repeatedly for its lack of clarity about its data governance strategy and its business model (which has undergone significant change since 2016, a new report by The Information found.)
Some longtime critics of the Quayside have not been mollified by these recent rounds of detail. “My patience level for Sidewalk Labs dropping information about its plans like crisis communications weaponry is very very very short,” tweeted Bianca Wylie, a civic technology reformer who has been a leading voice of opposition to the project in Toronto. Wylie has objected to the fact that the company is spearheading a public engagement process that would normally fall under the leadership of local government.
But some leaders in that government seem to be coming around. “I’m glad to see Sidewalk Labs has released its initial proposal for Quayside—this will help shape the ongoing conversation about the future of this important site on our waterfront,” tweeted current Toronto mayor John Tory, who has previously expressed concern about the transparency of the project planning.
What sort of future will ultimately unfold in this waterfront district remains be seen. But at the most superficial level, at least, Sidewalk Toronto’s vision of the future doesn’t look that much different from the present.
African-American children often are reported by parents and teachers to display behaviors of ADHD at a higher rate than children from other racial and ethnic groups. For the first time, researchers have found that African-American mothers in a study rated boys as displaying more frequent ADHD symptoms than Caucasian mothers did, regardless of child race.
Using a large dataset and controlling for a variety of factors, including sex, age, height, socioeconomic status, and genetic ancestry, scientists found that people with larger brains rated higher on measures of intelligence and educational attainment. Size was far from everything, however, explaining only about two percent of the variation in smarts.
A new study reveals that water storage declines in global landlocked basins has aggravated local water stress and caused potential sea level rise.
Re-visit our Let’s Make America Smart Again series as Neil deGrasse Tyson, comic co-host Chuck Nice, and Ellen Stofan look at the past, present, and future of NASA. Now extended with Neil and Chuck chatting with former HI-SEAS IV crew member Dr. Sheyna Gifford on interstellar space travel.
NOTE: StarTalk All-Access subscribers can watch or listen to this entire episode commercial-free here:
Image Credit: NASA.
Striking an optimistic tone after the midterm elections, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called for a coalition between urban and suburban voters in what he envisions as a durable metropolitan majority built around issues like education, health care, and infrastructure. There is much to Mayor Emanuel’s argument for city-suburb common ground, but this coalition will face fundamental structural difficulties implementing its agenda. As currently constructed, our electoral process systematically favors the preferences of rural and exurban voters.
To move forward with its agenda, any urban-suburban political coalition must recognize this stark reality and decide how best to respond: fight for change, or work within it.
As has often been noted, the equal representation of states in the Senate, regardless of population, systematically favors smaller and more rural states. Wyoming’s 580,000 people get the same two senators as California’s 39.5 million; in other words, a resident of Wyoming has 68 times the Senate voting strength of a Californian. Of course, Texas reminds us that not all populous states are blue and Bernie Sanders’s Vermont (population 624,000) underscores that not all small states are red. But cumulatively, the Senate’s disproportionality favors rural voters who tend to vote for conservative politicians (not to mention the lack of senators for Washington, D.C., a city with more people than Wyoming or Vermont). Because the Electoral College includes a state’s Senate seats in its total electors, the Electoral College is also allocated disproportionate to population, although less so than the Senate.
The second major factor is subtler and rarely noted, but still important: Our prevailing method of allocating legislative seats on the basis of geographical districts—as opposed to a party’s share of the statewide or national vote (proportional representation)—inherently favors rural voters. As political scientist Jonathan Rodden has demonstrated, under this system parties with strong support in cities “waste” more votes in their districts than do parties based in the countryside. Today that translates to Democrats winning lopsided victories in big cities while Republicans win many seats in rural areas by closer—and hence more efficient—margins.
Intentional gerrymandering, which many state legislatures pursued after the pro-Republican wave election of 2010, can greatly compound this rural geographic advantage. This helps explain why, in the 2018 midterm elections, Democratic candidates won more cumulative votes for state legislative chambers in Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, but still ended up with a minority of seats.
Fixing these structural forces is a daunting challenge. Shortly before his death in 1995, Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted that “sometime in the next century the United States is going to have to address the question of apportionment in the Senate.” Will that day ever come? Such change seems improbable, if not unfathomable, given that it would require amending or rewriting the Constitution, but the implications of the Senate’s egregious deviation from one person, one vote are starker than ever. Moving the presidency to a popular vote system and enfranchising Washington, D.C., would also likely require constitutional change with prospects that currently seem remote, although less so than changes to the Senate.
Short of constitutional change, there are potential federal statutory fixes to ameliorate our electoral system’s anti-urban bias. These include the use of multi-member districts to increase competitive elections, as the proposed Fair Representation Act would foster, as well as expanding the size of the House, as The New York Times editorial board recently advocated. And taking politics out of legislative district line-drawing holds promise at the state level. The success this month of ballot measures establishing neutral districting commissions in Colorado, Michigan, and Utah, and a nonpartisan state demographer for districting in Missouri, shows that districting reform has broad, bipartisan support. These reforms, like those already at work in Arizona and California, should reduce gerrymandering of state legislative and U.S. House districts, which in the last decade has largely tended to undermine urban voters.
Working within our current system, urban progressives might choose to partner not just with suburbanites, but also with rural voters, hearkening back to the New Deal’s grand coalition between urban progressives and Southern agrarians. On issues like economic development, health care, and opioid abuse, such a coalition seems natural. But it is difficult to see how such a coalition could survive inevitable disagreements on issues like gun safety, just as civil rights eventually drove a wedge through the New Deal coalition.
A final, more immediate solution can be found in the empowerment of cities. Across the country, states and the federal government have been increasingly interfering with local authority, preempting local laws across a dizzying array of policy areas just as cities are stepping up to confront our nation’s most pressing challenges. Localism, for all of its virtues, is a second-best response to a federal and state system that structurally undermines the electoral power of people who live in dense, urban areas. If nothing else, however, urban voters should be able to hold sway within their own cities to pursue the policies they are disadvantaged in promoting in the larger political arena.
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The bus stops here: Even if you ride the bus every day, there’s so much you don’t know about your bus driver’s day. Driving a 36,000-pound, 40-foot-long vehicle through crowded and chaotic streets is a delicate, dangerous dance. Today on CityLab, Brendan Bartholomew, a driver for San Francisco’s Muni offers a driver’s-eye view of what it’s like behind the wheel of a city bus, beginning with the intense driver training bootcamp that drills in the safety-first mantra as an almost sacred discipline.
It’s not just what bus drivers see through the windshield: They are steering one of the last vestiges of the public square and transporting the passengers who often face the city’s toughest challenges. Intersecting with people’s daily lives means their jobs are just as much about customer service as driving their routes. “Drive a bus, and you are simultaneously a whipping boy, sounding board, hall monitor, and priest-confessor,” writes Bartholomew. “You see people at their happiest and at their worst.” Read it here: Confessions of a Rookie Bus Driver
When we first started our series about raising kids in the city, Room to Grow, many of you told us about wanting to go car-free, but were worried about the additional challenges with small children.
Now we want to hear from those of you who are making it work. If you or anyone you know might be interested in sharing their experiences of walking, biking, bus riding, train hopping, and ride-hailing with the kids in tow, please fill out or share our survey here.
Newly elected Democratic Socialists could shake up the affordable housing conversation (Governing)
San Francisco becomes first major U.S. city to propose eliminating parking minimums (Quartz)
How autonomous vehicle companies stack up on safety (Business Insider)
Why isn’t Mitch McConnell bringing up criminal justice reform? (Washington Post)
Snapping point: How architects fell under Instagram’s spell (The Guardian)
On my first day in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s bus driver training program, I had experiences so intimidating, I wanted to run away.
The one I most vividly remember was an exercise in which I was supposed to make a tight right turn around a stanchion, bringing my back tire within twelve inches of the object without touching it.
Being a novice, I ran over the stanchion. Looking in my bus’s right-hand rearview mirror, I was struck with the reality of just how big a bus is. That orange stanchion, now smashed under my back tire, looked tiny, as did everything else, because the back of the 40-foot-long bus was such a terrifyingly vast distance from where I was sitting.
If this had happened on a public street, I thought to myself, that could have been a kid.
That was more than a year and a half ago, but I’ll always remember that sense of terror, because threading a 36,000-pound vehicle through a city as crowded and chaotic as San Francisco is a delicate, dangerous dance.
People sometimes ask me why I wanted to become a bus driver, and I don’t have just one answer. Part of it was just an interest in the equipment—I’ve been obsessed with cars my whole life, and at some point that obsession expanded to include buses. When I rode on a bus, I was always stuck by how strange it felt to be inside a moving object the size of a house, bouncing like a porpoise as it sped along the road.
During earlier periods of my life, I’d had jobs that involved driving for a living; I’ve been a Chrysler-Plymouth salesman, a valet parker, and a delivery driver for an audio/video company. But I’d never driven anything larger than a box van. I wondered if I could handle something as huge as a bus, with such an impossibly wide turning radius. The prospect of finding out was both scary and exciting.
And then there’s the money. Bus drivers for the city of San Francisco don’t have quite the pay and benefits they famously enjoyed in bygone decades, but it’s widely understood that if you’re looking for a decent hourly wage and a pension, working for Muni is still a pretty good choice. (For those who aren’t familiar with San Francisco transit: The San Francisco Municipal Railway is the oldest major public transportation agency in the U.S., and its nickname, “Muni,” persisted even after it became part of SFMTA in 1999.)
In my first year and a half at Muni, I’ve learned a few things about being a bus operator in a big American city. Even if you ride a bus every day, some of them might surprise you.
There is no job interview to become a Muni driver. There’s an entrance exam that determines whether you possess common sense and understand customer service principles, but your interview is the two-and-a-half months you spend in the training program.
During that time, you will awaken before sunrise every day, never come to class late, never miss a day of training, and basically put the rest of your life on hold. It’s bus-driver boot camp, but with no push-ups.
As CityLab reported in June, there is currently a nationwide shortage of bus drivers, which has created service delays for many transit agencies. Muni’s trainers, therefore, play a dual role. On the one hand, they must get as many new transit operators as possible trained and certified. But at the same time, instructors are gatekeepers, charged with making sure trainees who aren’t getting the hang of the job don’t make it onto the streets.
Muni kept close tabs on each of us during this months-long process, and not all of us were allowed to graduate. As one of our lead trainers put it, “For some of you, this will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.”
My first week of training was an intense, surreal experience. The skills course is held at Naval Air Station Alameda, not far from Oakland. You spend a week of your life on a sun-drenched former airstrip, 200 feet wide and 8,000 feet long, learning how to maneuver buses through an obstacle course designed to simulate the challenges you will soon encounter on the road. The runway is filled with orange cones and stanchions arranged in close formation to each other, and you have to avoid running them over while you learn to do things like parallel park a bus in a space not much bigger than the bus itself.
The airstrip sits next to the San Francisco Bay, and while you’re trying to master the skills course, you’re seeing these massive container ships bound for the Port of Oakland move slowly past—a reminder that braver people than you are piloting much larger vessels.
In the second week, we learned how to do a pre-trip safety inspection and air brake test. By the third week, my classmates and I were turned loose on the streets of San Francisco in training coaches, each with three students and one instructor, who would shepherd us through increasingly difficult traffic environments over the next two months.
Those instructors have nerves of steel, because they would be held responsible in the unlikely event that a trainee were to have an accident. And once you’re out on the streets, you see exactly how many opportunities there are for such mishaps. Another leader in the training department told us, “Everybody knows we’re the safest drivers in this city, because even when we have a big sign on the front of the bus that says, ‘Training Coach,’ people will walk in front of that bus without even glancing in our direction.”
The fear of hitting a pedestrian, cyclist, or motorist haunts every bus driver, and points to one of the most critical differences between driving a car and operating a bus. If a child runs in front of your car, you slam the brake pedal to the floor and let your antilock brakes do their thing. As long as you don’t hit that child, it doesn’t matter that the McDonald’s bag on your passenger seat flies forward, spilling food everywhere.
But if I need to make an emergency stop in my bus, the dynamic is different. Any passenger who’s standing up is likely to fall down or go flying. And if somebody on my bus falls because I stopped abruptly, that’s considered an accident, just as surely as if I’d hit somebody. A big part of the training process is teaching future bus drivers to develop a sixth sense about things, to predict dangerous moves by pedestrians and motorists before they happen, so we can avoid collisions without braking hard.
After I graduated the training program, I noticed something odd about my new coworkers. Whenever they part company with fellow operators, they never say “Bye” or “See you later.”
When Muni drivers part ways, they always say, “Be safe.”
And they mean something specific by it. What they’re really saying is, “Don’t hurt anybody and don’t damage their property, because I’d hate to see you lose your job.”
It’s rare to see an employer truly obtain buy-in from its rank-and-file laborers on any stated goal or value, but when it comes to safety, that is exactly what Muni has accomplished.
Even the worst malcontent among us—the jaded, veteran operator who routinely holds court in the break room listing his grievances against the agency—is still somebody who has made safety his religion, and views rookies like me as initiates who must be guided along the righteous path.
Driving a bus gives you unique insights into what it’s like to be poor in an American city—a process that, for me, began during training. On many days, we drove through weed-strewn warehouse and industrial districts, where San Franciscans who are experiencing homelessness have wound up, far from the sweeps conducted against the homeless downtown.
You can’t help but notice the contrast. Here you are on an upward trajectory, taking your first steps along a career path you hope will be long and lucrative. And there are all these people, living outdoors in tents, cars, and RVs.
One cold morning, I sought to illustrate this contrast by taking a photo of the tent encampment next to Muni’s Islais Creek division. As I aimed my phone camera through the bus yard’s iron fence, I realized one of the encampment’s residents was out of her tent, watching me.
Embarrassed, I put my phone away.
People at all income levels ride the bus, but serving our homeless and low-income passengers has shown me how disability, mental illness, addiction, and trauma intersect with a person’s housing status or lack of money. Muni trains us on inclusivity and diversity, and during one such training, the facilitator told us that early-onset schizophrenia often presents when a person is about 15 years old.
“So that person on your bus screaming about God or the devil is somebody who never got to attend their high school prom,” she told us, “because their world became very frightening and hard to understand before their senior year.”
I try not to forget that when a passenger with behavioral health issues is causing me problems.
But such people are outliers. Far more prevalent on my bus are the working poor. One night, a woman boarded my coach with her five-year-old son and rode for about an hour, from one end of the city to the other. She told me she was dropping her child off at a friend’s home so he could sleep there while she worked the graveyard shift at a homeless shelter.
Our buses are lifelines for workers like her; she’s whom I’m thinking about when I skip a break in order to begin my next trip on time.
When you work in public transportation, you are seen as public property, and that gives people license to comment on every aspect of your behavior and being.
Much has been written about the physical violence and verbal abuse transit operators sometimes face. But what really bugs me are the much subtler and far more frequent acts of passive aggression we endure.
For example, one day I happened to stop my bus at a faded yellow line of paint on the ground—a once-active bus stop that had since been moved. Ideally the city would have removed the yellow paint, but it hadn’t.
“The stop is up there,” insisted a passenger in her late teens, pointing with irritation at the next bus stop, less than half a block in front of us. When I tried to explain my error, the teen said, with a sneer in her voice, “Well then you must be brand new, because you don’t know the route.”
It’s surprisingly common for passengers to do this sort of thing to bus drivers. But the city would not be well served if I took the time to defend myself. Politely allowing angry passengers to have the last word is part of the job.
The flip side of this situation is that every outgoing person wants to talk to you. Small children wave when boarding your bus. Sports fans update you on the status of games you didn’t know were happening. People get on and share with you the most random, unexpected things about their lives.
One day, a 60-year-old woman told me she was in a state of exhilaration because she’d just finished running a marathon. On another occasion, a kid in his mid-20s rode my bus to the hospital, explaining he was going to check himself in for detox and try one more time to quit heroin.
San Francisco has never been like New York, where it’s normal for strangers to talk to each other on the street. And in this era of earbuds and social-media silos, communal experiences are increasingly rare. But ride my bus, and sometimes you’ll see the most amazing, serendipitous exchanges.
One night, I picked up a passenger at the Potrero Terrace housing projects. We got to talking, and I learned she was formerly homeless, and now worked as a program director, helping homeless people get jobs and transition into permanent, long-term housing. Another passenger overheard the conversation and sheepishly asked, “Can you help me?”
They exchanged phone numbers and the program director assured her, “We’ll talk.”
The bus is one of the last vestiges of the public square, and I never know when a bit of curiosity on my part will lead to a memorable conversation.
One afternoon, I had a “Candy Crush Saga” developer on my coach, and found myself pitching my idea for the ultimate bus-driving simulator game. On another evening, a Lucasfilm animator rode my bus and gave me some tantalizing inside info about the making of the next Star Wars film.
Even though I was born in San Francisco, I’ve never felt more woven into the fabric of the city than I do now. Drive a bus, and you are simultaneously a whipping boy, sounding board, hall monitor, and priest-confessor. You see people at their happiest and at their worst. You become a fixture in the community, and people ask about you when you’re not around.
One of the hardest things about being a bus driver is dealing with people.
But one of the best things about being a bus driver is the people you deal with.
As governments in many European nations get more aggressive about removing cars from their densest city centers, they often have to perform a balancing act. Touting the environmental and lifestyle benefits of car bans can quickly run up against opposition from a public that’s used to driving where it wants, even when the detractors don’t live in the affected cities.
That pattern makes it all the more notable that Spain is planning a sweeping ban to remove the vast majority of cars from city centers across the country—and that the move has broad support among the public.
According to a new poll released by IPSOS this week, 63 percent of respondents favored severely restricting car access in downtown areas. In the Northwestern region of Galicia, a favorable attitude toward such bans went as high as 78 percent.
That’s sure to be welcome news to Spain’s current government as it drafts a law on that matter. It’s an effort that could ban all but zero-emissions vehicles in the center of any town of over 50,000 residents by 2025, a ruling that would apply to 138 cities across the country. The first of those zones has in fact just arrived: On Friday, central Madrid became an ultra-low emissions zone, protected against pollution and congestion by the toughest restrictions on cars in place on a large scale in any major European city.
These restrictions will transform the way Madrileños get around their city, and will no doubt require some public readjustment. They are nonetheless popular, with 64 percent of people in the city supporting the move, on par with Catalonia’s 65 percent favorability of such restrictions. Galicia’s even higher rates could be boosted by the demonstrated success of pedestrianization in the city of Pontevedra.
Even on a continent becoming ever more conscious of pollution and global warming, the level of support is striking. In Norway, a country with an all-but peerless reputation for green leadership, a more modest 54 percent of Oslo residents were in favor of a central car ban, a level of support that, following a backlash, some polls allege has dropped to the point that 83 percent of residents are now against.
The greater level of support in Spain could be partly down to the layout of the country’s cities, which are not just dense, but hyper-dense. Across Europe, only Paris matches the heavy concentrations of residents found on Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia (all traceable in this remarkable map).
One single square kilometer at the heart of Madrid’s new car-free zone is home to almost 45,000 people, almost three times as many residents as in the most densely populated square kilometer of Oslo. Spanish suburbs, meanwhile, are often denser than many North American downtowns, with large numbers of people living in taller buildings and more likely to be exposed to road traffic. The issue of pollution in dense urban areas is thus a central one to a large section of the population. It may not be a coincidence that the only major European city to have something similar to Madrid’s ultra-low emissions zone is Paris, the only other European metropolis to match Spain’s urban densities. And while Paris’s restrictions on more heavily polluting vehicles have come to be accepted as normal, its restrictions on car access to some central streets has proved extremely contentious.
Spanish attitudes to car policies also seem to be very closely tied to political affiliation. The levels of support for car-calming measures among the left and center-left political parties are such that it’s possible that support for one has come to mean support for the other. According to the survey’s results from Madrid, 93 percent of supporters of Podemos, Spain’s main left party, and 88 percent of the center-left Socialist Party, currently heading the government, support city-center car bans. That level drops to 48 percent for supporters of center-right liberals Ciudadanos, and down further to 42 percent for supporters of the right wing Popular Party, suggesting that even to the right of the political spectrum, support is still substantial without reaching a majority.
There’s another key reason the Spanish are more amenable to the thought of squeezing cars out of cities. The idea of introducing such policies has been part of the public conversation for years. With Madrid’s first such car-restricted zone, which starts today, a 1.8-square-mile (472 hectares) ultra-low emissions zone will transform the city’s transit network.
The new zone will ban through-traffic—currently estimated at over 58,000 vehicles a day—and severely restrict drivers’ access even for people whose ultimate destination lies within the zone’s borders. From Friday, all gas-fueled cars built before 2000 and all diesel vehicles from before 2006 will be banned from this area of inner Madrid. In 2020, this ban will be further tightened to restrict all gas cars from before 2006 and all diesel from before 2014. People with limited mobility will be exempted, as will residents within the zone, who will also be allowed to register up to 20 visitors a month. These strict limitations should do much to clean the city’s notoriously dirty air. It’s estimated that after the zone’s introduction NO2 levels in the area will drop by as much as 40 percent.
That Madrid is the first major European city to take such pioneering measures might seem surprising seen from outside the country. Spain doesn’t have a green movement with roots as deep as those in Scandinavia, while Paris’s larger size and greater popularity with international visitors tends to mean its urban policies get more attention than Madrid’s, even when they are less radical. The green map of Europe is clearly changing, however, and Madrid’s ban is only one piece of evidence of this. In a country where clear majorities favor such bans—and acknowledge the need to make tough decisions to clean up transit, cut emissions, and clear the air—it seems that a collective watershed has been passed.
Even Crispr babies have a global supply chain.
Earlier this month, the U.K.’s Conservative government launched a new commission on architecture called “Building Better, Building Beautiful.” Announced by Secretary for Housing and Communities James Brokenshire (yes, his real name), the group is meant to draft guidelines to “tackle the challenge of poor quality design and [construction]” in real-estate projects so that they earn “popular consent.” The idea is that if the outward look of new development is more to people’s liking, they will be less inclined to turn NIMBY and oppose it.
The birth of yet another “quango,” as such paper-pushing bodies are known in the U.K., might have gone unnoticed as the deadline for Brexit approaches. But one thing has provoked controversy: the appointment of conservative philosopher and author Sir Roger Scruton as the unpaid head of the commission.
Scruton is a well-known public intellectual in the U.K., who has written books on wine, music, and architecture as well as philosophy and makes regular appearances on the BBC. (He is also a favorite of the right-wing internet.) In the wake of the announcement, media outlets reported that he had previously called Islamophobia “a wholly imaginary enemy,” date rape and sexual harassment made-up, Hungarian Jews “part of … the Soros Empire,” and homosexuality “not normal”—the last in a 2007 article that argued against gay adoption. Labour members of Parliament then demanded that Prime Minister Teresa May remove him from his post. (She did not.)
Architects and architecture writers piled on with their own criticisms. One objected to the “narrow and predictable terms” in which Scruton, an arch-traditionalist, defines beauty. Another called the philosopher a “ludicrous curmudgeon.”
But there are bigger problems with Scruton and this commission than his personal preference for Georgian and Victorian architecture, or even the offense caused by his comments. (Scruton maintains his remark on Hungarian Jews was taken out of context.)
First, Scruton’s theory as to what caused the U.K.’s severe housing crisis is so off-base that any “solution” premised on it, far from alleviating the problem, will only make things worse. Second, his claim that people want traditional styles rests on questionable evidence. And third, his notion of architecture itself as a war between styles—of “tradition” and “Modernism” locked in battle, one right, the other wrong—is reductionist and outdated.
In a lecture delivered in London on November 14, Scruton lambasted Modernist architecture for degrading cities and explained what he believes is the root cause of the country’s housing woes:
The sense that new developments violate the existing order, rather than embellishing it, is the primary cause of local resistance, and the Government is beginning to take this matter seriously, since it suggests the existence of a “democratic deficit” in the planning process. There is a demand among all citizens that new buildings should conform to a standard of beauty, but a serious confusion as to what that standard is or how it might be brought to bear on the massive projects that it is now necessary to undertake.
[Their] objections suggest that the housing question is not at root an economic, social or political question but an aesthetic one. [Emphasis mine.] And it is in this vein that I propose to address it.
Experts differ on the primary reason for the housing crisis, but the contributing factors are clear. Population growth, decades of inadequate new construction (including the demise of social-housing programs), the sell-off of existing public housing, and strict planning rules have caused a critical shortage of homes and soaring prices, especially in greater London and the southeast of England.
Local resistance to development, while frustratingly common, is a secondary factor, and the idea that this comes down to style is dubious anyway. It is naive to think people will applaud a plan for new houses nearby if they have symmetrically placed windows or nice corbeling. The fears of British NIMBYs seem pretty consistent with those of their counterparts across the Atlantic: more traffic on local roads, more kids crowding local schools, possibly disreputable “newcomers,” and the blocking of views.
Unfortunately, Scruton’s theory is not his alone, but shared by members of the U.K. government. At a public event on November 19, Housing Minister Kit Malhouse said “acceptability” was key to the government achieving its goal of building more housing: “If it fits in, resistance starts to reduce.” The more the government treats the housing crisis as a matter of aesthetics, the further behind it will fall on developing real strategies to fix it.
It may be true that many Britons dislike the new buildings in their area. But the case made by Scruton and a London think tank, Policy Exchange, that the public strongly prefers traditional architecture is shaky even on their own evidence.
The “Building Better” commission grew out of a report that Scruton and Policy Exchange released earlier this year. The report includes the results of public polling on architectural taste, and these are ambiguous. Asked which style of housing they’d like to see in the future, about half of respondents answered “traditional terraces on tree-lined streets,” but “housing developments or estates in a modern style” came second. Asked which features they’d include in a new home, many respondents said thick walls, fewer but larger rooms, feature windows, and high ceilings—none of which connotes traditional versus modern design. Only a small percentage said “symmetrical shape,” “lots of corners, nooks and crannies,” or “pillars at the entrance.” (And this is despite the leading phrasing of some of the survey questions.)
Improving the quality of new buildings is a laudable goal for the British government (and one it has pursued before). But equating quality with style is a form of misdirection. What people overwhelmingly dislike about many new buildings is the sense that little effort has gone into their design and construction, as expressed in any style. As the report states, “In focus groups … the words soulless, alienating, identikit, chocolate box, noddy houses and ugly, were all used by people to describe their feelings about new development.” A few of those terms refer to faux-traditional tract housing rather than progressive architecture.
Given that his academic specialty is aesthetics, Scruton really ought to look around more. The architectural culture he hopes to rein in is currently besotted with … tradition, of all things. The last several years have seen a resurgence of interest in the materials and visual language of the past. Glass is tired; brick, stone, copper, and terra cotta are wired. Color and pattern are back. Arches are suddenly everywhere. This is partly a revival of Postmodernism a generation after that movement’s heyday. In London, it’s also a response to housing-design guidelines issued by then-Mayor Boris Johnson back in 2009.
The architect charming London critics at the moment is Peter Barber, who primarily designs social housing. Barber remixes traditional types like medieval almshouses and Victorian back-to-back houses in inventive ways. His buildings sport crenellations, brightly colored front doors, and bull’s-eye windows. Barber is a “Modernist” if you define that as not earnestly imitating historical styles, but his work bears little resemblance to that of Lord Norman Foster or Thom Mayne, whom Scruton took aim at in his recent lecture. Contemporary architecture is a much broader church than the Scrutonians give it credit for.
Scruton told the design publication Dezeen that as head of the new commission, “I want to give the public the opportunity to have the kind of architecture they would vote for, not the kind that is imposed on them by the disciples of Le Corbusier and Mies.” But no one is trying to build Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse in 2018! What Scruton seems not to realize is that “Modernist” architects also look to earlier figures such as Nicholas Hawksmoor and Louis Sullivan for inspiration. Besides, the public actually likes some of the glass towers that Scruton accuses of “trashing” the skyline.
On his website, Scruton promises the commission will not be an “aesthetic dictatorship”: “[M]y own aesthetic stance will be only one input among many, to the exploration of design quality in all its aspects.” Let’s hope so. The architectural style wars refers to a time in the 1980s when traditionalists and Modernists (“trads” and “mods”) split into camps and fruitlessly tangled over which style was best. Reigniting those wars at a time when the public is mostly agnostic as to style, and the architectural profession is thankfully moving on, would be worse than pointless. The real fight must be for high-quality, affordable housing for the millions of people who need it.
An international research team has discovered a mechanism that regulates the regeneration of the insulating layer of neurites. This insulation coating, also referred to as myelin sheath, is crucial for rapid signal transmission among cells. Damages to the myelin sheath, such as are caused by multiple sclerosis, can considerably inhibit the function of the nervous system.
Hoping for a Christmas miracle.