Words on the Street highlights the best writing on the built environment we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

Using Yelp to Track Economic Growth

The advent of big data, in the form of massive databases augmented with crowd-sourced information, adds a new dimension to our ability to track and measure local economies. One of the most exciting sources is Yelp, which tracks and publishes user reviews of millions of businesses. Yelp has just introduced its new “local economic outlook” which rates cities and neighborhoods based on their “economic opportunity.” The rankings are based on Yelp’s extensive data, and are summarized in the form of national rankings of cities (and a parallel rankings of the top 50 neighborhoods). [Read more…]

—Joe Cortright, City Observatory

How Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander Unlock 21st Century Problems

Those in the land-use planning and development business know the stories of urban renewal damage, the failure of modern urban projects like Pruitt-Igoe, and the consequences of suburban sprawl. Most are are familiar with Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, both of which have been influential in urban planning, architecture, and other fields.

But something was going on at a deeper level that underlay the dysfunction Jacobs and Alexander fought from the 1960s onward. Cities Alive by Michael Mehaffy examines Jacobs and Alexander together to get at the root philosophical problems that created erroneous thinking in city building in the 20th Century, continuing to the present day. [Read more…]

—Robert Steuteville, CNU Public Square

The Disruption That’s Putting Bikeshare Into a Higher Gear

A couple of months ago, silver bikes with bright orange wheel rims began appearing around Washington, D.C. One here and one there, like someone had left their new toy unattended while they ran inside to grab a cup of coffee. These are Mobikes, one of four companies (two of which are Chinese) that are pushing the dockless bikesharing phenomenon in the nation’s capital. Unlike the traditional systems that require users to pick up a bike at a fixed station and drop it off at another station at their destination, dockless bikes have a rear-wheel horseshoe locking system allows riders to park the bikes anywhere they want, essentially a car2go for bikes. The GPS-enabled bikes are usually unlocked with two taps on a smart phone app. [Read more…]

—T.R. Goldman, Politico Magazine

Bill Gates’ Smart City in Arizona Is Not Smart, Not a City, and Has Little to Do With Bill Gates

Here are some things you should know about the smart city Bill Gates is building in Phoenix. It’s not a city, nor is it “smart,” nor does the Microsoft founder appear to be involved in any meaningful way. And when outlets like CNBC say it’s in Phoenix, well … the plot of land in question is some 40 miles west of Phoenix, on the western edge of the metropolis’s westernmost suburb…. What’s happening in Buckeye looks much more like the foolish past of the American city than its future. The state of Arizona is working on a long-deferred dream to build a new highway, Interstate 11, to connect Phoenix to Las Vegas. It would run right through this arid valley, putting those parcels along a big transportation corridor. The project was singled out as a “boondoggle” by public interest groups, who noted that ridership predictions for highways are routinely inflated. [Read more…]

—Henry Grabar, Slate

Why the Ideas of Jane Jacobs Are Still Vital

Vital Little Plans collects for the first time Jacobs’s interviews, speeches, talks and short pieces of journalism – and there is much in this lucid and persuasive anthology that resonates today. In her essay “Downtown Is for People”, from 1958, she criticises the lack of variety in cities: “Notice that when a new building goes up, the kind of ground-floor tenants it gets are usually the chain store and the chain restaurant.” Later, bemoaning the primacy of buildings over people, she writes: “The logic of the projects is the logic of egocentric children, playing with pretty blocks and shouting ‘See what I made!’” This could well apply to London’s current skyline, with its Walkie Talkie building, Cheesegrater and Gherkin – a VIP cocktail party guarded by corporate bouncers. [Read more…]

—Chris Hall, The Guardian