(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘cities

“When the graphs were finished, the relations were obvious at once”*…

We can only understand what we can “see”…

… this long-forgotten, hand-drawn infographic from the 1840s… known as a “life table,” was created by William Farr, a doctor and statistician who, for most of the Victorian era, oversaw the collection of public health statistics in England and Wales… it’s a triptych documenting the death rates by age in three key population groups: metropolitan London, industrial Liverpool, and rural Surrey.

With these visualizations, Farr was making a definitive contribution to an urgent debate from the period: were these new industrial cities causing people to die at a higher rate? In some ways, with hindsight, you can think of this as one of the most crucial questions for the entire world at that moment. The Victorians didn’t realize it at the time, but the globe was about to go from less than five percent of its population living in cities to more than fifty percent in just about a century and a half. If these new cities were going to be killing machines, we probably needed to figure that out.

It’s hard to imagine just how confusing it was to live through the transition to industrial urbanism as it was happening for the first time. Nobody really had a full handle on the magnitude of the shift and its vast unintended consequences. This was particularly true of public health. There was an intuitive feeling that people were dying at higher rates than they had in the countryside, but it was very hard even for the experts to determine the magnitude of the threat. Everyone was living under the spell of anecdote and availability bias. Seeing the situation from the birds-eye view of public health data was almost impossible…

The images Farr created told a terrifying and unequivocal story: density kills. In Surrey, the increase of mortality after birth is a gentle slope upward, a dune rising out of the waterline. The spike in Liverpool, by comparison, looks more like the cliffs of Dover. That steep ascent condensed thousands of individual tragedies into one vivid and scandalous image: in industrial Liverpool, more than half of all children born were dead before their fifteenth birthday.

The mean age of death was just as shocking: the countryfolk were enjoying life expectancies close to fifty, likely making them some of the longest-lived people on the planet in 1840. The national average was forty-one. London was thirty-five. But Liverpool—a city that had undergone staggering explosions in population density, thanks to industrialization—was the true shocker. The average Liverpudlian died at the age of twenty-five, one of the lowest life expectancies ever recorded in that large a human population.

There’s a natural inclination to think about innovation in human health as a procession of material objects: vaccines, antibiotics, pacemakers. But Farr’s life tables are a reminder that new ways of perceiving the problems we face, new ways of seeing the underlying data, are the foundations on which we build those other, more tangible interventions. Today cities reliably see life expectancies higher than rural areas—a development that would have seemed miraculous to William Farr, tabulating the data in the early 1840s. In a real sense, Farr laid the groundwork for that historic reversal: you couldn’t start to tackle the problem of how to make industrial cities safer until you had first determined that the threat was real.

Why the most important health innovations sometimes come from new ways of seeing: “The Obscure Hand-Drawn Infographic That Changed The Way We Think About Cities,” from Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson). More in his book, Extra Life, and in episode 3 of the PBS series based on it.

* J. C. R. Licklider

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As we investigate infographics, we might send carefully calculated birthday greetings to Lewis Fry Richardson; he was born on this date in 1881.  A mathematician, physicist, and psychologist, he is best remembered for pioneering the modern mathematical techniques of weather forecasting.  Richardson’s interest in weather led him to propose a scheme for forecasting using differential equations, the method used today, though when he published Weather Prediction by Numerical Process in 1922, suitably fast computing was unavailable.  Indeed, his proof-of-concept– a retrospective “forecast” of the weather on May 20, 1910– took three months to complete by hand. (in fairness, Richardson did the analysis in his free time while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I.)  With the advent of modern computing in the 1950’s, his ideas took hold.  Still the ENIAC (the first real modern computer) took 24 hours to compute a daily forecast.  But as computing got speedier, forecasting became more practical.

Richardson also yoked his forecasting techniques to his pacifist principles, developing a method of “predicting” war.  He is considered (with folks like Quincy Wright and Kenneth Boulding) a father of the scientific analysis of conflict.

And Richardson helped lay the foundations for other fields and innovations:  his work on coastlines and borders was influential on Mandelbrot’s development of fractal geometry; and his method for the detection of icebergs anticipated the development of sonar.

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“An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome.”*…

We’ve misunderstood an important part of the history of urbanism– jungle cities. Patrick Roberts suggests that they have much to teach us…

Visions of “lost cities” in the jungle have consumed western imaginations since Europeans first visited the tropics of Asia, Africa and the Americas. From the Lost City of Z to El Dorado, a thirst for finding ancient civilisations and their treasures in perilous tropical forest settings has driven innumerable ill-fated expeditions. This obsession has seeped into western societies’ popular ideas of tropical forest cities, with overgrown ruins acting as the backdrop for fear, discovery and life-threatening challenges in countless films, novels and video games.

Throughout these depictions runs the idea that all ancient cities and states in tropical forests were doomed to fail. That the most resilient occupants of tropical forests are small villages of poison dart-blowing hunter-gatherers. And that vicious vines and towering trees – or, in the case of The Jungle Book, a boisterous army of monkeys – will inevitably claw any significant human achievement back into the suffocating green whence it came. This idea has been boosted by books and films that focus on the collapse of particularly enigmatic societies such as the Classic Maya. The decaying stone walls, the empty grand structures and the deserted streets of these tropical urban leftovers act as a tragic warning that our own way of life is not as secure as we would like to assume.

For a long time, western scholars took a similar view of the potential of tropical forests to sustain ancient cities. On the one hand, intensive agriculture, seen as necessary to fuel the growth of cities and powerful social elites, has been considered impossible on the wet, acidic, nutrient-poor soils of tropical forests. On the other, where the rubble of cities cannot be denied, in the drier tropics of North and Central America, south Asia and south-east Asia, ecological catastrophe has been seen as inevitable. Deforestation to make way for massive buildings and growing populations, an expansion of agriculture across marginal soils, as well as natural disasters such as mudslides, flooding and drought, must have made tropical cities a big challenge at best, and a fool’s gambit at worst.

Overhauling these stereotypes has been difficult. For one thing, the kind of large, multiyear field explorations usually undertaken on the sites of ancient cities are especially hard in tropical forests. Dense vegetation, mosquito-borne disease, poisonous plants and animals and torrential rain have made it arduous to find and excavate past urban centres. Where organic materials, rather than stone, might have been used as a construction material, the task becomes even more taxing. As a result, research into past tropical urbanism has lagged behind similar research in Mesopotamia and Egypt and the sweeping river valleys of east Asia.

Yet many tropical forest societies found immensely successful methods of food production, in even the most challenging of circumstances, which could sustain impressively large populations and social structures. The past two decades of archaeological exploration, applying the latest science from the land and the air, have stripped away canopies to provide new, more favourable assessments.

Not only did societies such as the Classic Maya and the Khmer empire of Cambodia flourish, but pre-colonial tropical cities were actually some of the most extensive urban landscapes anywhere in the pre-industrial world – far outstripping ancient Rome, Constantinople/Istanbul and the ancient cities of China.

Ancient tropical cities could be remarkably resilient, sometimes surviving many centuries longer than colonial- and industrial-period urban networks in similar environments. Although they could face immense obstacles, and often had to reinvent themselves to beat changing climates and their own exploitation of the surrounding landscape, they also developed completely new forms of what a city could be, and perhaps should be.

Extensive, interspersed with nature and combining food production with social and political function, these ancient cities are now catching the eyes of 21st-century urban planners trying to come to grips with tropical forests as sites of some of the fastest-growing human populations around the world today…

They may be vine-smothered ruins today, but the lost cities of the ancient tropics still have a lot to teach us about how to live alongside nature. Dr. Roberts (@palaeotropics) explains: “The real urban jungle: how ancient societies reimagined what cities could be,” adapted from his new book, Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us.

* John Ruskin

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As we acclimate, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Sir Karl Raimund Popper; he was born on this date in 1902.  One of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, Popper is best known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favor of empirical falsification: a theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments.  (Or more simply put, whereas classical inductive approaches considered hypotheses false until proven true, Popper reversed the logic: conclusions drawn from an empirical finding are true until proven false.)

Popper was also a powerful critic of historicism in political thought, and (in books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism) an enemy of authoritarianism and totalitarianism (in which role he was a mentor to George Soros).

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“Everyone should be able to do one card trick, tell two jokes, and recite three poems, in case they are ever trapped in an elevator”*…

Two things make tall buildings possible: the steel frame and the safety elevator. The elevator, underrated and overlooked, is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war. Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment. The population of the earth would ooze out over its surface, like an oil slick, and we would spend even more time stuck in traffic or on trains, traversing a vast carapace of concrete. And the elevator is energy-efficient—the counterweight does a great deal of the work, and the new systems these days regenerate electricity. The elevator is a hybrid, by design…

The history, design, economics, and psychology of the technology that made modern cities possible– the lives of elevators: “Up and Then Down.”

* Daniel Handler

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As we press the button, we might recall that it was on this date in 1527, during the War of the League of Cognac, that an estimated 20,000 mutinous troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (angered over unpaid wages) carried out the Sack of Rome (which was then part of the papal States). For three days, they pillaged the city, grabbing valuables and demanding tributes. They overpowered (and killed most of) the Swiss Guard, and took Pope Clement VII hostage (in Castel Sant’Angelo); he was freed only after a hefty ransom was paid. Benvenuto Cellini, witnessed the Sack and described the it in his works.

In the aftermath, Rome– which had been the center of Italian High Renaissance culture– never recovered its momentum. Indeed, many historians consider the Sack of Rome the end of the Renaissance.

The Sack of Rome, by Johannes Lingelbach (17th century)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 6, 2021 at 1:01 am

“A culture, we all know, is made by its cities”*…

 

c-atalho-yu-k_after_the_first_excavations_by_james_mellaart_and_his_team

Çatalhöyük after the first excavations

 

Welcome to one of the mothers of all cities, Çatalhöyük, a community on the Anatolian plane that is now part of Turkey. … [Nine thousand] years ago … Çatalhöyük consisted of attached dwellings covering 33 acres. … The city was so new back then, they hadn’t invented the street yet — or the window. So the only way you could get into your apartment was to walk over your neighbors’ rooftops. A ladder was propped against the skylight opening of your apartment.

Çatalhöyük lacked something much more significant than streets and windows. There was no palace here. The bitter price of inequality that the invention of agriculture cost human society had yet to be paid. Here, there was no dominance of the few over the many. There was no one percent attaining lavish wealth while most everyone else merely subsisted or failed to subsist. The ethos of sharing was still alive and well. There is evidence of violence against women and children, but the weakest ate the same food that the strongest ate. Scientific analyses of the nutrition of the women, men, and children who lived here show a remarkable similarity, and everyone lived in the same kind of home. … Dominating [every] room was a giant head of an auroch with massive pointed horns, mounted on the richly painted wall. The walls were lavishly festooned with the teeth, bones, and skins of other animals.

The apartments at Çatalhöyük have a distinctly modern look. The floor plan is highly utilitarian and modular, uniform from dwelling to dwelling, with cubicles for work, dining, entertaining, and sleep. Bare wood beams support the ceiling. It was home for an extended family of seven to ten people…

More of this excerpt from Ann Druyan’s Cosmos: Possible Worlds at “The First Proto-City.” (Via the ever-illuminating delanceyplace.com)

* Derek Walcott

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As we appraise our antecedents, we might spare a thought for Muhammad; he died on this date in 632.  The founder of Islam, he is considered by its adherents to have been a prophet– the final prophet– sent to present and confirm the monotheistic teachings preached previously by Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.  He united Arabia into a single Muslim polity, with the Quran (the transcriptions of divine messages that he received), as well as his other teachings and practices, forming the basis of Islamic religious belief.

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Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. From the manuscript Jami’ al-tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, 1307

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 8, 2020 at 1:01 am

“This land is your land, this land is my land”*…

 

Willie Nelson

 

“City of New Orleans” isn’t a song about New Orleans. It’s a song about a train called the City of New Orleans. Willie Nelson didn’t write it. But he made it a Grammy Award-winning hit in 1984.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how Willie Nelson came to it. Over the course of his career—a five-decade ramblin’ run that spans recordings as far back as 1962 and as recent as last year—Willie has written endlessly about his affection for (and occasional vexation with) cities across the land…

No one map could track all the sites and cities Willie sings about. He’s recorded songs about rivers: the Rio Grande and the Pedernales, the Mississippi and the Ohio, the Rhine and the Jordan. He’s played songs about trains: the Midnight Special, the Wabash Cannonball, the Golden Rocket, the City of New Orleans. (And, of course, a song about rainbows.) Georgia, Montana, Tennessee, and Texas all loom large over his songbook…

Still,  the map above does contain a  great many of them… An appreciation: “On the Road Again: Mapping All the Cities in Willie Nelson’s Songs.”

* Woody Guthrie

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As we celebrate one red-head, we might also celebrate others: it was on this date in 1887 that the (fictional) action began in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short story, “The Red-Headed League”– a piece that Conan Doyle ranked second on his list of his twelve favorite Holmes stories.

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Sidney Paget‘s illustration of Watson reading the newspaper to Holmes and Wilson in “The Red-Headed League” in The Strand Magazine, where the story first appeared.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

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