Category: People

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.

Must-listen:

  • 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:

You won’t believe why Arcade Place in Chicago’s Loop was changed from an alley to a street

The enhanced proposal for the building on the right, 230 W Monroe, was made possible by converting the alley to a “street”.

Arcade Place, for all intents and purposes, is an alley. It has Dumpsters, and loading docks. It has no sidewalks. It’s dark and probably dirty.

Yet in 1969, Alder Fred Roti passed an ordinance that gave the alley a name and street status.

Why? Because it gave an adjacent property owner the ability to get an FAR bonus and build a larger office building.

That’s not why Roti said he did it, though. “Nobody talked to me about this. I walk around the Loop all the time and I noticed this alley. It’s Arcade east and west and it didn’t make sense to me to be an alley here”, he told the Chicago Daily News.

How gracious he was to the poor alley!

There are several other “named alleys” in downtown Chicago, including Couch Place, Court Place, and Garland Court. I don’t know why they are streets.


I’m reading “Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago”, by Joseph P. Schwieterman, and Dana M. Caspall, which is full of downtown and North Side zoning change stories like the above. It’s available at the Chicago Public Library, or you can buy it right now.

I’m here in Rotterdam

Untitled

I arrived in Rotterdam last Saturday, 9 April. A friend of a friend, PK, picked me up at Rotterdam Centraal, the main station, the design of which I find fucking fantastic. By “picked me up”, he really did. He used his fancy “OV-chipkaart” multi-use transit card with associated “OV-fiets” bike-share membership to check out two bikes for me and him. I carried two pieces of my luggage, and he carried a third, and we biked back to my friend DS’s apartment. (PK had been living there temporarily while he looked for an apartment somewhere in the country.)

I’m posting frequent updates to my Tumblr. And my photos get automatically uploaded to Flickr. I also post photos to Instagram, and to Twitter.

All the luggage I brought for three months in Europe

PK let me into the apartment and then we went to the Albert Heijn grocery store. PK soon departed to catch a train to another city for a birthday party. I took a three hour nap. I didn’t do anything else on Saturday. DS would return from his holiday on Monday evening.

  • On Sunday I biked around the city.
  • On Monday I met with Meredith, an expat living in Amsterdam. I also slept a bunch off and on. DS came home and we went out to dinner. We also went back to the grocery store and tried to figure out why neither my debit nor credit card would work. Albert Heijn, since I was there in September 2015, has changed their machines and policy and won’t accept my bank cards!
  • On Tuesday I met with my friend Stefan. I found “Bataviakade” in Delfshaven. And slept at odd hours. I fell asleep on the couch at 20:00 and went to bed at around 00:00.
  • On Wednesday I slept until 13:00. I then followed up on some emails, fixed some stuff on Chicago Cityscape, and vacuumed the carpets. Then DS and I went out for beers and burgers. On our way home I bought a six-pack of (small cans) Heineken beer for €7 at a “night shop” called, well, “Night Shop.”

Bataviakade street name in Delfshaven, Rotterdam

“Bataviakade” means “Batavia quay”. I grew up in a city called Batavia, Illinois. The city was named after Batavia, New York. Batavia is the Latin word for the “Betuwe” part of the Netherlands.

It’s now Thursday and I’m going to try and open a bank account here. This means I’ll get a debit card which will open so many doors; many places don’t accept international bank cards. It also means I can pay rent and for a bicycle without lower or no fees. After I get a bank account I can get a discount travel card to use on NS, the national intercity train operator.

For €99 per month I can take unlimited trips on the intercity trains during off-peak hours and on weekends. I’ll be able to visit a lot more cities with this card, and I already have plans to use the train tomorrow, Saturday, and Sunday (that’s three round trips). The train fares add up! At least this weekend I’ll be traveling with DS; he has a travel card and companions can buy travel together with a 40% discount.

I didn’t get to publish this before I left the house. I went to the bank and the kind worker said it wasn’t possible to open a bank account for someone who’s staying here for such a short time. She said there’s a monthly maintenance fee, and I said I would be okay paying that while I’m not in the Netherlands between visits.

Anyway, my friend is going to help me get the discount travel card, which, to me, is the most important product I need.

I also need to file my American tax return today.

Transportation infrastructure is for more than transportation’s sake

Transportation infrastructure should be designed for more than carrying people through places. It also needs to be about carrying people to places, because transportation is for moving people as much for commerce as it is for being social.

The Dutch consider “social safety” when designing and redesigning streets (they’re constantly upgrading streets, roads, and entire neighborhoods to standards that seem to be frequently updated).

Mark Waagenbuur posted a new video this week showing a new tunnel under Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station in Amsterdam, and he highlighted several of its social safety features.

The screen grab I embedded above – and posted on Twitter where it got a lot of shares and likes – shows an aspect that’s common across all cycling facilities in built-up areas: it’s wide enough to ride side by side with your friend, mother, or lover, with still enough room on your left for people to pass you in the same lane.

Another aspect of this tunnel is that it has sound-absorbing panels. Often tunnels have a disturbing echo that inhibit comfortable communication – my new home office has an echo and it makes it hard to have conversations on the phone here because I hear an annoying feedback. The communication is important to be able to hear people cycling with you, but also to hear what other people are doing.

The tunnel has a final feature that supports social safety: clear, wide, and open sight lines. Not just from end to end, but also to the sides. It’s hard to hide around the corner because the breadth of vision is so wide that you would see someone lurking in the corner.

For Chicagoans who use one of the many old tunnels under Lake Shore Drive connecting the “mainland” to the nation’s most popular trail along Lake Michigan, the feeling of claustrophobia and invisibility of what’s around the bend is too common. New tunnels, which I prefer to bridges because you go downhill first, should be a priority when the State of Illinois rebuilds Lake Shore Drive north of Grand Avenue in the next decade. This is what those tunnels look like; sometimes they have mirrors.

We can sell ads on the Lakefront Trail underpasses, but they're still shitty to walk through

The inside track on how Aldertrack works

Mike Fourcher and Claudia Morell talk about Aldertrack at ChiHackNight

Crappy iPhone shot of Mike Fourcher (left) and Claudia Morell (right) talking about the information that Aldertrack collects on Chicago City Council, boards, commissions, and electeds.

Mike Fourcher, founder of Aldertrack, and perpetual “news startup antagonist” (okay, I don’t remember the actual adjective he used), joined his colleague Claudia Morell, a reporter, and us at ChiHackNight on Tuesday night to explain how Aldertrack works.

ChiHackNight heard from Aldertrack’s former staffer Jimm Dispensa earlier in the year about the tools and processes they use to publish, but it’s hard to call tonight’s meeting a followup from the meeting with Dispensa, because they were focused on entirely different parts of the operation.

Tonight was more about the politics that Aldertrack “interferes” with.

As with most of my posts derived from my notes on the ChiHackNight collaborative agenda document these are paraphrased sentences, not quotations.

Presentation title: “Not really open data”

There are ~70 different boards and commissions in the City of Chicago, but information about each is sparse. Most don’t have their own website, but the bigger ones do.

In our quarterly report product – the first was published in August – we display a picture, a name, background on their day job, an email, and a phone number. It was hard to find this kind of information. If their appointment requires City Council approval then it can be a little easier to find the resolution that appointed them.

Issues in hunting down information

  • Sometimes information didn’t match.
  • Sometimes the source documents is missing data, like the appointment or expiration date.
  • The mayor’s fashion council, we weren’t sure if they met, what their purpose was.
  • Eventually we found pension board compensation amounts in state law.

Fourcher: City agency staff have basically been trained that they should never answer any questions from the press. The rule is to refer press to the mayor’s press office, so that they can make it hard for the press to get information. There’s a lot of information that’s obscure, whether purposely or not.

We published the Quarterly Report as a PDF but eventually we want to put it online so that you can click on someone’s name and see what other boards they serve on.

The content we find, and put in our Quarterly Report and Clout.wiki, is something we refer to in our reporting.

[I didn’t take any notes about the Clout.wiki, but there’s a lot of information in the questions and answers below.]

Q&A

Alex Soble: Does the city council do more than we think they do?

Claudia: There’s this perception that aldermen are a rubber stamp, or just there to approve the mayor’s agenda. I think that’s part of the problem.

Because people think that the news media is less likely to cover the things that are covered in the “big” committees (like finance). The education committee doesn’t seem to matter to a wider audience.

We put the TIF expenditures data in our newsletter, and I don’t think that’s something you found in the Tribune.

I also come from the NYC city council, where it operates differently. There’s less conflict in Chicago, especially when it comes to the budget [Claudia described how the city council ripped Bloomberg’s proposed budget to shreds and inserted their own pieces.]. There’s no speaker here that decides what bills get voted on, while Chicago’s mayor presides over the meeting.

Mike: Chicago isn’t a true representative democracy, but it’s less of a terrible thing than people think it is.

Eric Sherman: Why isn’t the wiki open?

Mike: It’s our site, and we don’t want to take the risk that people write dumb things. We close it off to everyone. We would love to hear from someone who has information, and we would check it, and then post it. We want to run it through the journalistic process we adhere to.
Claudia: We don’t have enough staff to moderate the wiki.
Mike: I don’t think even one full-time person could do it.

Forest Gregg: Many of the application processes are hard to figure out in Chicago. I love the documenting you’ve been doing of all the different commissions. What have you heard from users if they would like to hear things more on how things work? Lucas Museum…a number of steps that have to happen, a number of bodies that have to sign off on it. For developers, there’s a cottage industry around permit expeditors, but there’s the same problem of knowing how to step through other development processes.

Claudia: Land use boards…Zoning Board of Appeals that’s a 4-member panel that decides whether or not you can get a special use permit (to build a set back garage, or something).
Mike: We initially had this idea that we would have a regular city council product, and a separate zoning product. What we learned is that people who have an interest in land use, have a passing interest. Once the thing you’re interested in is “over”, like a proposed project that gets approved, then you’re not interested anymore.
The people that fall into the category of perpetual interest in land use, they all know each other. We decided to roll that into the main subscription. We have thought of doing trainings on how zoning works, here’s how you build a building in Chicago.
Forest: I think you’re in a good position to…make some flow charts. That information is shockingly hard to find right now, unless you have a professional interest in that area.

Jerry Mandujano: You started with campaigns [I missed the rest of the question] Is there something else that people should know?

Claudia: Property taxes, most other press focuses on how the changes would affect you on a personal level. What we do, we tend to be focused on the nitty gritty, the language of the ordinance, what conversations are going on around City Hall.
Mike: The demands of most of the news organizations is very different, and we have a blank slate. Every time someone zigs, let’s zag, and see what happens. If you read just one day of our product, you’re going to react, “Omg, what is this stuff? There’s so much detail.” If you read us over time then you’re going to get a good picture.
Fran Spielman, that woman is a freaking machine at the Sun-Times, she writes so much, and I mean this in the most positive way. She went on vacation for two weeks, and on the day she came back she published three articles. She has her head above water and she’s easily doing backstrokes.

[Someone commented that there used to be the City News Bureau which did a lot of what Aldertrack is doing.]

Steven Vance: Alderman show their true selves on social media. Many alderman have few followers and I think you’re spreading their thoughts further than they have been themselves. (I was referring to a new section on the free Aldertrack newsletter where they were posting links to weird or interesting tweets.)

Mike: And we’ve been getting some ire for that! There’s a lot of information out there, and we scoop it up, sift through it, and that’s shoe leather reporting. There’s a lot of sitting on the phone and calling people.