Category: Education

Shortlist: Four urbanism podcasts I listen to

I started listening to podcasts in 2021. I am sharing a list of four that I listen to regularly. Surprising to me, none of them are about Chicago.


  • UCLA Housing Voice is hosted by four UCLA researchers and teachers. Every week during the season (they’re on season two now) they summarize an academic paper about housing and cities and interview the authors. What I like about this is a few things: the consistent format, summarizing academic papers that I don’t have access to and are sometimes painstaking to read and understand, and getting the authors to expand on what they published.
  • The Livable Low-Carbon City are short, explainer-style episodes about the essentials to designing and redesigning cities and neighborhoods for the low-carbon future that we need. Mike Eliason is well known on “Urbanism Twitter” and “Architecture Twitter” for pushing passive house building techniques, baugruppen (a kind of cooperative housing), and point access blocks. Eliason’s episodes are brief and easy to understand, and are a great outlet to hear about his time working and living with his family in Germany.

Sometimes listen:

Where Chicago’s community colleges could build housing

The Illinois General Assembly and Governor Pritzker just gave community college districts in Illinois the authority to work with local housing authorities to develop affordable housing. The bill, HB0374, takes effect January 1, 2022. The text is very short (see the screenshot below or read the bill).


What does this mean for community college districts? It probably means that they can lease their land to the local housing authority for that local housing authority to develop affordable housing for the community college’s students and their families.

The land is essentially free, since it’s already owned by the community college districts and it’s not taxed. Plus, community college districts have their own taxing authority (subject to caps) that can be used to pay for bond-based debt.

Three opportunities in Chicago

I’m going to point out three community college locations in Chicago that could be great places for new and affordable student housing to be built.

Malcolm X College

Across from the New Malcolm X college was the original Malcolm X college, and now it’s a huge vacant lot. The Community Colleges of Chicago sold it in 2016 to the City of Chicago, which sold it in 2017 to Rush University Hospital System (which is across the Eisenhower Expressway to the south).

The land across from the New Malcolm X college has been vacant for half a decade.

Welp, Rush also wants to build housing – for unhoused people who use emergency rooms as a way to live and be housed. (People’s health dramatically improves when they have permanent housing and hospitals spend less money on treating them in expensive-to-operate ERs.) Rush and the Chicago Housing Authority could develop housing for both populations – the chronically sick and students – using funds combined with the Chicago community college district.

Additionally, the Jackson bus takes people to and from downtown, and the Blue Line has a station at Illinois Medical District a block away.

Humboldt Park

The Humboldt Park Vocational Education Center, which is operated by the Wilbur Wright community college, is another prime location for student housing. The center has a huge parking lot and lies along the California Avenue and North Avenue bus routes.

Humboldt Park Vocational Education Center and its parking lot, which takes up more area than the building.

Parking lots love to be turned into homes, especially in gentrifying areas. That’s free land in a high-demand area where rent is north of $1,200 for a 1-bedroom apartment (I’m using HUD’s Fair Market Rent for the 60647 ZIP code).

Dawson Technical Institute

Then there’s Dawson Technical Institute in Bronzeville, which is about 2 blocks from the Indiana Green Line station and several east-west and north-south bus routes.

Dawson also has a massive parking lot, on the opposite side of the Green Line tracks from the building on State Street.

Dawson teaches construction trades, which is perfect because the Green Line can take students to internships and jobs at all of the new construction in Fulton Market that’s ongoing and going to continue for the next three years (at a minimum).

What other good affordable student housing construction opportunities do community colleges in Illinois have?

In sci-fi, even parks get turned into parking lots

In one of Philip K. Dick’s short stories, titled “Precious Artifact”, Dick appears to recognize what tends to happen in American cities. 

Earth, “Terra”, has been attacked by “Proxmen” and the “Terrans” have lost. However, one of the Terrans, who has been reconstructing Mars for future Prox inhabitation has come back to Earth. A guide meets him at the spaceport and asks the Terran where he wants to go…

“I’m Mary Ableseth, your Tourplan companion. I’ll show you around the planet during your brief stay here.” She smiled brightly and very professionally. He was taken aback. “I’ll be with you constantly, night and day.”

“Night, too?” he managed to say.

“Yes, Mr. Biskle. That’s my job. We expect you to be disoriented due to your years of labor on Mars…labor we of Terra applaud and honor, as is right.” She fell in beside him, steering him toward a parked ‘copter. “Where would you like to go first? New York City? Broadway? To the night clubs and theaters and restaurants…”

“No, to Central Park. To sit on a bench.”

“But there is no more Central Park, Mr. Biskle. It was turned into a parking lot for government employees while you were on Mars.”

“I see,” Milt Biskle said. “Well, then Portsmouth Square in San Francisco will do.” He opened the door of the ‘copter.

“That, too, has become a parking lot,” Miss Ableseth said, with a sad shake of her long luminous hair. “We’re so darn over-populated. Try again, Mr. Biskle; there are few parks left, one in Kansas, I believe, and two in Utah in the south part near St. George.”

“This is bad news,” Milt said. “May I stop at that amphetamine dispenser and put in my dime? I need a stimulant to cheer me up.”

Where do those weird Chicago place labels on certain maps come from?

Andrew Huff pointed out some archaic neighborhood names he saw on a map that was generated using Carto. The company’s map “tiles” use free and open source data from OpenStreetMap, “the Wikipedia of maps”.

I’m going to tell you where these names come from!

I had a similar question as Andrew several years ago. (Note: I’m a very active OpenStreetMap editor, and I add/change/delete things from the map multiple times a week.)

First, we have to find that place name in the OpenStreetMap database, after which we can discover its provenance. The best way to do this is to search Nominatim, the “debugging search engine” for OSM.

I searched for “Summerdale” because that sounds unique. The fourth result is the right match, so go ahead and open that place name’s details page.

That details page still doesn’t tell us what we need to know, but there’s a link called that starts with “node” that leads deeper into the OSM database.

On the page “Node: Summerdale (153430485)” there are a bunch of “tags” that describe this place’s record in the OSM database. Some of those tags start with “gnis”, which is an abbreviation for “GeoNames Information System”, commonly shortened to GeoNames.

GNIS is managed by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which is part of the United States Department of Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey (commonly known as USGS).

We can use the GNIS Feature Search site to look up Summerdale by name or ID. (Using name is easier, and I recommend narrowing it to the state of Illinois.)

There are four results for “Summerdale” in Illinois, and two are in Cook County, and one of these is a church, and the other a “populated place”. We want the populated place result.

Here’s where our journey ends, because this result page tells the citation of how “Summerdale” got to be in a United States federal government database of place names.

Hauser, Philip M. and Evelyn M. Kitigawa, editors. Local Community Fact Book for Chicago 1950. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago, 1953. p18

You can find that book in the Newberry library. Request it on their computer and a librarian will fetch and bring it to you. I did that in 2015.

Uptown community area page in the 1950 Local Community Fact Book

Here’s what that book looks like, and you can see “Summerdale” mentioned at the end of the third paragraph on the page for the Uptown community area (which is an official place with a permanent boundary):

During the 1870’s and 1880’s, Uptown was still predominantly open country. The area east of Clark Street, from Montrose to devon, was a farming community. At each of the station that had been opened on the Chicago and Milwaukee line –at Argyle, Berwyn, Bryn Mawr and Devon Avenues–there were a few frame residences. West of Clark Street, a substantial portion of the land was swampy. Scattered settlements, chiefly the frame cottages of railroad employees, appeared along the Northwestern railroad tracks. An important factor in the growth of this area was the opening of the Ravenswood station at Wilson Avenue. The opening of another station on this line at Foster Avenue, eventually gave his to the settlement of Summerdale.

I haven’t answered Andrew’s other question, on why Lincoln Square or Uptown, official community areas with permanent boundaries, don’t show on Carto’s map.

That’s because no one has imported these boundaries or these place names into OpenStreetMap. You can do it, and here’s how.

Why are children getting hurt in the street because of “looming”?

Adults are better than children at detecting the speed of a car that’s traveling faster than 20 miles per hour and are more likely to avoid crossing, thus not getting hit. 

Director of New York City-based Transportation Alternatives Paul Steely-White asked on Twitter for a plain English translation of this three-year old journal article about vehicle speeds and something called “looming”.

The article is called “Reduced Sensitivity to Visual Looming Inflates the Risk Posed by Speeding Vehicles When Children Try to Cross the Road”.

Skip to the end if you want the plain English translation, but I’ve posted the abstract below followed by excerpts from Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic.

ABSTRACT: Almost all locomotor animals respond to visual looming or to discrete changes in optical size. The need to detect and process looming remains critically important for humans in everyday life. Road traffic statistics confirm that children up to 15 years old are overrepresented in pedestrian casualties. We demonstrate that, for a given pedestrian crossing time, vehicles traveling faster loom less than slower vehicles, which creates a dangerous illusion in which faster vehicles may be perceived as not approaching. Our results from perceptual tests of looming thresholds show strong developmental trends in sensitivity, such that children may not be able to detect vehicles approaching at speeds in excess of 20 mph. This creates a risk of injudicious road crossing in urban settings when traffic speeds are higher than 20 mph. The risk is exacerbated because vehicles moving faster than this speed are more likely to result in pedestrian fatalities.

The full text is free to download, but I think Steely-White needs to learn more now, so I pulled out my favorite book about driving, Tom Vanderbilt’s “Traffic”.

Page 95-97:

For humans, however, distance, like speed, is something we often judge rather imperfectly. Unfortunately for us, driving is really all about distance and speed. Consider a common and hazards maneuver in driving: overtaking a car on a two-lane road another approaches in the oncoming lane. When objects like cars are within twenty or thirty feet, we’re good at estimating how far away they are, thanks to our binocular vision (and the brain’s ability to construct a single 3D image from the differing 2D views each eye provides). Beyond that distance, both eyes are seeing the same view in parallel, and so things get a bit hazy. The farther out we go, the worse it gets: For a car that is twenty feet away, we might be accurate to within a few feet, but when it is three hundred yards away [900 feet], we might be off by a hundred yards [300 feet]. Considering that it takes about 279 feet for a car traveling at 55 miles per hour to stop (assuming an ideal average reaction time of 1.5 seconds), you can appreciate the problem of overestimating how far away an approaching car is – especially when they’re approaching you at 55 miles per hour.

[Here comes the keyword used in the journal article, “looming”]

Since we cannot tell exactly how far away the approaching car might be we guess using spatial cues, like its position relative to a roadside building or the car in front of us. We can also use the size of the oncoming car itself as a guide. We know it is approaching because its size is expanding or looming on our retina.

But there are problems with this. The first is that viewing objects straight on, as with the approaching car, does not provide us with a lot of information.


If all this is not enough to worry about there’s also the problem of the oncoming cars speed. A car in the distance approaching 20 miles per hour makes passing easy, but what if it is doing 80 miles per hour? The problem is this: We cannot really tell the difference. Until, that is, the car gets much closer — by which time it might be too late to act on the information.

[the topic continues]

Plain English translation

However, nothing I found in Traffic relates children and “looming”. The bottom line is that children are worse than adults at detecting the speed of a car coming in the cross direction and thus decide wrongly on when to cross the street.

Update: Based on Vanderbilt’s writing, it seems that humans cannot really be taught how to compensate for looming, to build a better perceptual model in the brain to detect the difference between cars traveling 20 and 80 MPH. If this is true, and I’d like to see research of pedestrian marketing and education programs designed for children, it may be that we should stop trying this approach.