The Los Angeles River only intermittently resembles an actual river, even though that’s what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entombed in concrete in the 1930s. Since then, its 51-mile course has been a trickling flood channel, the scene of countless movie car chases, and a punchline about how artificial L.A. can seem.
I edited CityLab's series of personal essays that illustrate the power of maps in shaping our private and public lives. “The Maps That Make Us” has gathered contributions from CityLab writers, mapmakers, city planners, and artists who consider how a work of cartography had a hand in changing their perspectives, relationships, or life decisions.
Why Real-Time Traffic Control Has Mobility Experts Spooked
Imagine driving through Los Angeles in the year 2040. There’s a mix of self-driving and human-controlled vehicles on Santa Monica Boulevard. A serious collision slows traffic to a crawl. But then a special orchestration of traffic signals flips on, parting the sea of cars for an ambulance to throttle through the streets.
This traffic engineering fantasy may be inching to reality, as companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Google, and HERE Maps develop what’s known as “digital twin” technology.
Why Washing Machines Are Learning to Play the Harp
The roar of the MGM lion. NBC’s iconic chimes. The godlike C-major chord of a booting Apple computer. Companies have long used sound to distinguish their brands and to create a sense of familiarity with, and even affection for, their products. Microsoft went so far as to tap the ambient-sound legend Brian Eno to score the six-second overture for Windows 95, a starry ripple trailed by a fading echo. Lately, however, the sounds have proliferated and become more sophisticated. Amazon, Google, and Apple are racing to dominate the smart-speaker market with their voice assistants. But a device need not speak to be heard.
Susan Kirsch’s backyard is, predictably, beautiful. Past the sunny wooden patio, tomatoes, blueberries, and poppies blossom between rugged pathways. A birdbath draws sparrows to the center; a lemon tree drapes over the back fence.
But all is not perfect. Next door, her neighbors recently added a detached room, which peeks over the side fence and cuts off part of Kirsch’s view of Marin County’s rolling hills.
“It broke my heart,” she told me. “But at least it was only one story.”
After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown
WEST BEND, WI—Kraig Sadownikow doesn’t look like an anti-corporate crusader. The mayor of West Bend, Wisconsin, stickers his pickup with a “Don’t Tread on Me” snake on the back window, a GOP elephant on the hitch, and the stars-and-stripes logo of his construction company across the bumper.
His fiscal conservatism is equally well billboarded: In the two hours we spent at City Hall and cruising West Bend in his plush truck, Sadownikow twice mentioned the 6 percent he has shaved off the Wisconsin city’s operating budget since becoming mayor in 2011, and stressed its efforts to bring more business to town.
So you might be surprised to learn that Sadownikow (he instructed me to pronounce his name like sat-on-a-cow) is personally boycotting two of the biggest big-box retailers in his town, Walmart and Menards, the Midwestern home improvement chain.
How Smart Should a City Be? Toronto Is Finding Out
On a Tuesday night in August, Jesse Shapins, the director of public realm and culture at Sidewalk Labs, flipped through a set of colorful slides before a public audience in downtown Toronto.
On view were design ideas for Quayside, the 12-acre mixed-use neighborhood that Alphabet’s city-building subsidiary has planned for the city’s waterfront. “How might we create a people-first city in the digital age?” asked Shapins, who wore a heavy beard and round red spectacles.
Whatever the Poop Patrol will be wearing as they power-wash feces off San Francisco’s sidewalks, let’s hope they get a great embroidered patch.
Armed with steam cleaners, a crew from the city’s Department of Public Works will target downtown alleys and sidewalks for human and animal droppings starting next month, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. They’ll start their vigil in the afternoon, aiming to clear deposits that appear after overnight crews have done their cleaning, but before any residents complain.
The first time Ryan Kelley lifted his hands off the wheel of a self-driving Uber, he felt like he’d landed a role in a dress rehearsal for the future.
This was in February of 2017 in Pittsburgh, where Uber had been testing SUVs equipped with proprietary self-driving technology on public streets for about five months. Some of the vehicles picked up passengers through Uber’s regular ride-hailing app—the first time self-driving cars had been so accessible in a U.S. market.
How WeWork Has Perfectly Captured the Millennial Id
In March 2017, the New York City–based editors and writers of The Atlantic moved to a WeWork office in Brooklyn. I remember our first morning vividly: It was like entering the Millennial id. Craft beer and cucumber water poured from kitchen taps. Laptoppers in jeans and toques clacked along to MGMT in the wood-paneled common area. A WeWork “community manager” showed us to a glass-walled office so small that my colleagues and I could clasp hands while seated. We sat. Had we arrived in the future of work?
The Remarkable Patience of the Staten Island Bat Watchers
On the deserted edge of Freshkills on Staten Island, winged shadows swooped through night sky. Wearing a headlamp, Danielle Fibikar, a wildlife biologist and an educator at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, adjusted the nets she had set out to catch bats.
COLUMBUS, OH.— Katrina Lewis could feel impatience radiating off the bus as she struggled to collapse the stroller. That was the rule on Columbus transit, the driver said, even with small children in tow.
Modernizing the economy of one of the remotest towns in the continental U.S. has its manifest challenges. A mirage of brick and neon amid dimpled mountains and Pixar skies, Ely, Nevada, is four hours from the nearest major airport.
Even if climate change wasn't shrinking the snowpack that feeds it, the Colorado River would still be facing a serious dilemma: The two nations, seven U.S. states, and 6 million acres of farmland downstream have made legal claims to more of its water than actually exists.
On a recent Monday afternoon at Grand Central Station, strings of subway cars clatter up to the 4/5/6 platform. As trains arrive every four minutes or so, doors open and shut quickly, rarely parting longer than the 10 seconds they’re supposed to. They stick to schedule.
Cities change. The neighborhoods we fall in love with as natives and newcomers can metamorphose slowly, or overnight. Those who can stick around shoulder the loss and move on, hardened to the next wave of inevitable transformation.
The secretary of the interior’s recent recommendation against eliminating four pristine national monuments had some environmentalists breathing sighs of relief. But the boundaries of these lands may still be shrunk in an unprecedented review of the National Antiquities Act—one of many prongs to the Trump administration’s assault on federal lands.
The New York City subway, scoliotic backbone of the country’s most powerful urban economy, is snapping. On-time performance has dropped from 85 percent in 2011 to 63 percent today. A dissection of the issue in today’s New York Times shows that trend hitting every subway line over the past 10 years, with only a handful of routes running with on-time rates above 70 percent.
In Divided Denver, a Highway Promises Reconnection
The playground at Swansea Elementary School sits less than 50 feet from the viaduct that carries I-70 through Denver. From the perspective of a driver on the interstate, the orange brick schoolhouse, faded gingerbread bungalows, and low-slung industrial plants surrounding this neighborhood flash by in seconds.
When Robert Hammond first conceived of turning a disused elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into a high-design “linear park,” he thought it would attract maybe 300,000 visitors a year. He and co-founder Joshua David didn’t really think about what the High Line could do to the neighborhood, apart from adding a little extra breathing room.
“New Orleans filled with water” does not conjure up a promising image, at least not yet. The fight to stay dry has defined the city’s history. In the early 20th century, pumps and canals drained swamps and marshes, allowing development in low-lying neighborhoods like Gentilly, on the sunken edge of Lake Pontchartrain.
Bulmario Tapia Madrigal doesn’t want to shower in a stream of dirt. He doesn’t want to cook with bottled water, haul a bucketful to flush the toilet, or wonder if he has enough water to clean the diabetes wounds on his feet. But since his well went dry three months ago, that’s how life has been.
The Los Angeles aqueduct meets the city in the northern San Fernando Valley, in a neighborhood called Sylmar. To reach it, take the I-5 Freeway north, meandering past dry hills, past one active Los Angeles Department of Water and Power reservoir and another that’s been decommissioned, past blank-faced office buildings and dirt bike racing centers.
The National School Lunch Act was passed in 1946 after an alarming number of World War II draftees turned up too malnourished to serve. The Los Angeles Unified School District has followed strict nutritional guidelines for its 712 cafeterias ever since, dishing out more than 700,000 meals per day that range from pupusas to calzones. Grab a fork—your teriyaki chicken awaits.
Our streets are the worst of any major city in the United States: About two-thirds of L.A.’s thoroughfares are deteriorating. Angelenos spend more on car repairs due to damage caused by crumbling roads—a rattling $832 per year—than residents in other big metro areas.
Extravagant folly or sphinxlike masterpiece? Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass has drawn both praise and censure since its June 2012 debut at LACMA. One thing’s for sure: The $10 million, 340-ton boulder perched above a trench is now a symbol of civic art, public spending, and complex engineering. Here’s how L.A.’s giant rock holds up.
How LA Works: L.A.’s Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control System
A streak of green lights can make even the most godless of drivers thank deities. Next time direct your praise to the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control system (ATSAC).