The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

It is a scene that plays out each weekday morning across Tokyo. Suit-clad office workers, gaggles of schoolchildren, and other travelers gamely wend their way through the city’s sprawling rail stations.

To the casual observer, it is chaos; commuters packed shoulder-to-shoulder amid the constant clatter of arriving and departing trains. But a closer look reveals something more beneath the surface: A station may be packed, yet commuters move smoothly along concourses and platforms. Platforms are a whirl of noisy activity, yet trains maintain remarkable on-time performance. Indeed, the staggering punctuality of the Japanese rail system occasionally becomes the focus of international headlines—as on May 11, when West Japan Railways issued a florid apology after one of its commuter trains —short, ear-pleasing jingles to replace the traditional departure buzzer.

Also known as departure or train melodies, hassha tunes are brief, calming and distinct; their aim is to notify commuters of a train’s imminent departure without inducing anxiety. To that end, most melodies are composed to an optimal length of 7 seconds, owing to research showing that shorter-duration melodies work best at reducing passenger stress and rushing incidents, as well as taking into account the time needed for a train to arrive and depart.

The tunes feature whimsical titles like “Seaside Boulevard” and range from the wistful to the jaunty. Most stations have their own melodies, forming de facto theme songs that become part of a station’s identity. Tokyo’s Ebisu Station, for example, is known for its departure melody—a short, stylized version of the theme from The Third Man.

As more stations have added melodies over the years, the original thesis has proven correct. A study conducted in October 2008 at Tokyo Station, for instance, found a 25 percent reduction in the number of passenger injuries attributable to rushing after the introduction of hassha melodies on certain platforms.

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The use of these jingles is not without controversy, however. Shortly after their introduction, residents living near open-air rail stations, weary of hearing endless repetitions of the same jingles all day, complained of noise pollution.


Despite, or perhaps because of, its reputation as a remarkably safe country, Japan is nonetheless vigilant in combatting youth delinquency. Train stations are particularly sensitive in that regard, since large congregations of young people pass through stations at all hours of the day.

To address the Japanese fear of loitering and vandalism by young riders, some train stations deploy ultrasonic deterrents—small, unobtrusive devices that emit a high-frequency tone. The particular frequency used—17 kilohertz*—can generally only be heard by those under the age of 25. (Older people can’t detect such frequencies, thanks to the age-related hearing loss known as presbycusis.) These devices—the brainchild of a Welsh inventor and also used to fend off loitering teens in the U.S. and Europe—have been enthusiastically adopted in Japan.

Standing outside one of Tokyo Station’s numerous exits on a recent summer day, it was easy to see the effectiveness of this deterrent in action. Weary salarymen and aged obaachan passed under the sonic deterrent without changing pace. Among uniform-clad students, however, the reactions were evident—a suddenly quickened pace, a look of confusion or discomfort, and often a cry of urusai! (Loud!) None appeared to connect the noise to the deterrents placed almost flush in the ceiling panels above.

Pointing the best way forward

Rail employees are not exempt from the behavioral hacks of their employers. Perhaps most famously, Japanese train conductors, drivers, and platform attendants are mandated to use the “point and call” method—called shisa kanko—in executing tasks. By physically pointing at an object, and then verbalizing one’s intended action, a greater portion of the brain is engaged, providing improved situational awareness and accuracy. Studies have repeatedly shown that this technique reduces human error by as much as 85 percent. Pointing-and-calling is now a major workplace safety feature in industries throughout Japan.

So, why don’t train workers everywhere do this? Like so many aspects of Japanese transit culture, shisa kanko has proved resistant to export (though pointing-and-calling has been adopted in modified form by New York City’s transit authority). In this, as in so many things, Japan’s rail system stands largely alone.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified this frequency in hertz, not kilohertz.

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The Ancient Forests That Have Defied Urbanization

After the Interstate Highway System was authorized in 1956, planners decided that I-40 would link Tennessee’s big cities, from Knoxville to Nashville to Memphis. But in Memphis, locals looked at the proposed route of the highway and were appalled. It would barrel through Overton Park, a beloved local green space dotted with ponds, paths, and a stand of old-growth forest.

A grassroots group banded together to protest, but construction of the highway continued, getting ever closer to the park’s border. As a last-ditch effort, the group filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Supreme Court. Improbably, , both the U.S. Forest Service and the nonprofit Wilderness Society created old-growth inventories of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, and they came up with different numbers. The Forest Service estimated 4.3 million acres; the Wilderness Society just 2 million.

Meanwhile, old-growth forest survives in unexpected ways—and places. on New York City’s forests noted that, although a survey found that 56 percent of these areas had invasive species, younger forests had the smallest population of native species in their understory layers.

Old-growth forests need human guardians, although there are downsides to them being popular with the local community. The old oak and hickory trees that visitors adore in Overton Park require active stewardship—otherwise the forest might naturally transition to smaller trees such as maples, elms, and hophornbeams as the old trees die and fall. The park has a pedestrian trail, but runners who frequent the area have made their own trampled paths, possibly disturbing the ecosystem.

Coexistence can be tricky. Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History was founded in 1939 to preserve the Fernbank Forest, one of the largest remnants of the Piedmont-region forest. The 65-acre forest hosts more than 200 species of native plants, upwards of 150 native animal species, and numerous fungi, mosses, and microbes. In 2012, after a 48-year lease to DeKalb County, the museum took over its management.

Lynn Anders, the museum’s director of outdoor programs, explained that before they could offer people access to the forest, they had to get it into better health. In 2012, it was “overrun with non-native invasive species and a blanket of biological pollution that prevented it from thriving.”

The real health test is in the topsoil. Just an inch or two can take hundreds of years to form as dead material is broken down. If Fernbank Forest was going to invite people in, it needed to protect that delicate layer.

The WildWoods installation at the Fernbank Forest is an elevated walkway with interactive exhibits, an education pavilion, and “tree pods” offering views into the old-growth forest. (Fernbank Museum of Natural History)

The landscape architecture firm Sylvatica Studio designed an elevated walkway that guides visitors right from the museum into the forest, with tulip-shaped “tree pods” where visitors can pause. “Having the forest open and accessible to all visitors is crucial for the museum, because it reignites the central, original mission of Fernbank—to preserve Fernbank Forest as a school in the woods for nature study,” Anders said.

It may seem counterintuitive that foot traffic in or above the forest would help protect it. There was controversy over trails planned for the Spring Creek Forest Preserve in Garland, Texas, that would bring visitors into that old-growth forest, which has wildflowers not seen elsewhere in the Dallas area and a unique variety of oak trees. But with new development rising nearby, the forest is a potential refuge for future residents.

An old-growth forest can be a portal to nature appreciation. It was for Robert Loeb, a professor of biology and forestry at Pennsylvania State University and a leading expert on urban old-growth forests.

“I grew up in the Bronx—the South Bronx to be exact—and my mother wanted me to learn about plants,” he said. “She sent me as a child to the [New York Botanical Garden], and as time went by I took all the courses they offered to the kids.” When he was 15, the botanical garden hired him to do a survey of the hemlock forest. “I went out and remapped it, and compared it to a 1936 map, and that was where I cut my teeth on my first historic ecology project.”

Loeb confirmed the value of protecting primeval forests. “Replacing an old forest is not just a simple matter of digging out the stump and putting a new tree in,” he said. “Young trees don’t have what we call ‘niche space’—a small tree cannot house as many different species or as many different individual species, compared to a larger, older tree.”

Public access that respects the integrity of the forest can encourage future research and protection. Urban old-growth forests are small fragments of a vanished landscape, revealing how dramatically the environment of the United States has changed over hundreds and thousands of years.

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Innovative Financing for Cities: Pay for Results, Not Process

The Environmental Impact Bond. It can be used to finance green infrastructure and similar resiliency-oriented projects, which not only protect cities against flooding and pollution, but also create jobs and green underserved neighborhoods. The return to investors of these projects is based on the extent to which the projects produce results; such as the amount of stormwater diverted from flowing into nearby rivers.

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Federal Law Leaves Marijuana in a No-Fly Zone

There’s still a lot of confusion around legal weed. Though banned federally, each state, and even county, decides what kind of weed is allowed, and users don’t always know what those lines are. One of the spaces that catches people by surprise? Airports. Commercial flights work under federal law, and boarding them requires passing inspection by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), another federal operation.

Because airports are the boundary between local and national rule, staff and security have to negotiate the transition with pot-carrying passengers leaving weed-legal towns. For some, the solution has been amnesty boxes. These bright-green mini mailboxes at airports let passengers anonymously deposit weed or any illegal substances. The contents are regularly emptied by police or private contractors and destroyed. As a last-minute opportunity to dodge a felony, the boxes have probably saved some people from citations, fines, and jail time, but they do the airports some favors, too.

When Colorado Springs Airport put in amnesty boxes in 2014, they were tired of weed being trashed, flushed, and buried on their property, said Aidan Ryan, the airport’s marketing and communications manager. Marijuana had been legalized in the state two years earlier, and weed tourists were showing up to the airport and finding out that it’s a federal crime to carry their purchases onto planes, even if the flight departs from and arrives in weed-legal places. Also, TSA must report any amount or derivative of weed to airport security if they see it during screening. To alert passengers and facilitate compliance with the law, the airport became the first to install the lime green boxes. The bins work like mailboxes: Once something goes in, it can’t come out. Colorado Springs Airport Police empty the boxes once a month, and they almost always have something in them, Ryan says.

Passengers at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas have also found the drop-offs helpful. McCarran drilled the bins into the pavement in February of 2018, 13 months after weed was legalized in Nevada. The airport’s citation rate for illegal possession hasn’t changed since installation, according to Christine Crews, McCarran’s public information officer, but all 13 boxes have something in them when cleaned out twice a week by a private contractor. Since each drop-off is anonymous, passengers use them to abandon other products, too. The contractor has found prescription medication, said Crews, who has also heard of street drugs turning up in the boxes.

While the containers help people avoid uncomfortable encounters with security, they also protect the airport’s public image. When marijuana became legal in Nevada, the Las Vegas county that regulates McCarran Airport passed an ordinance stating that weed wouldn’t be allowed on airport grounds. Though operated by local government, the facility works with TSA, the Department of Homeland Security, the FAA, and other federal programs. The airport figured that if everyone on the property took the same stance on weed, misunderstandings between agencies could be avoided. “Our airport is so integral to the economy of Nevada, we don’t have any time for hiccups,” said Crews. At the same time, the airport would rather not charge people for unlawful possession. Crews explains, “We are a leisure destination, and we want people to come and go from Las Vegas…why would we want them to leave here with a bad impression?” The boxes allow McCarran to cooperate with the feds without confronting customers.

Over at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), amnesty boxes sound appealing because of how much time they’d save the police. “We still have a lot of marijuana coming through our airports,” says Marshall McClain, the president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association. Since weed was legalized in the state, people have been assuming local rules still apply and are bringing more pot to the conveyor belts, says McClain. Every confiscation requires an officer to drive it to the station and fill out paperwork—a two or three-hour process. A bi-weekly emptying of an amnesty box sounds easier, and McClain’s department has been looking into installing them ever since Los Angeles councilman Mitchell Englander suggested the idea a few weeks ago.

So the boxes are efficient, attention-grabbing, and anonymous. But what if you don’t use them? Even at TSA screening, McCarran prefers minimal confrontation. If passengers get to security with weed still on them, police offer one last chance to drop the product in the boxes, says Crews. Officers only hand down a citation if the customer refuses to leave the weed behind—though the offer doesn’t extend to illegal quantities of weed (an ounce or more) or any other drugs. At LAX, McClain plans to take a stricter approach. If your pot ends up on security’s conveyor belt, it means you walked by the posters and amnesty boxes explaining the situation, and you’ll be cited or fined by his officers. When asked how Colorado Springs handles passengers entering security check with weed, Rhine says she can’t speak on behalf of TSA, but that “anytime you go through TSA, you’re at risk of violating federal law.”

Not all airports bother with the boxes. Denver International Airport says every single passenger told about the law has willingly thrown away their pot or returned it to their car, so they don’t feel the need to install drop-off points. At Portland International Airport, staff have negotiated an exception to the law with the TSA based there. Passengers can keep their weed so long as they’re at least 21, carrying a legal amount and flying within Oregon. If their flight goes outside the state, however, the customer is told to put the weed back in their car or give it to the family member who dropped them off. The airport has no interest in dealing with collection or destruction, writes Kama Simons, their media relations manager, via email.

Trusting someone to return pot to their car doesn’t seem as foolproof as having designated security boxes, but the Colorado Springs airport is working out some kinks of its own. Rhine says passengers are still leaving pot in other places, possibly because they think the boxes have surveillance cameras on them. And though LAX hasn’t even installed the boxes yet, McClain has already received some pushback from pro and anti-legal weed advocates. Both think the boxes skirt the law in some way, when in reality, they’re just meant to show where one regulation ends and another begins.

“We’re not even going to have this conversation [about whether or not pot should be legal],” says McClain. “We’re just trying to deal with the situation we have now.”

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CityLab Daily: The Wild World of Scooter Sharing

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

Dancing in the street: Dockless scooters are set to be the shared-mobility jam of the summer, but cities aren’t singing the same tune on regulations. Consider some of the latest moves:

In San Francisco, public records indicate that Lyft might be entering the e-scooter competition as companies contend for five potential permit slots (Fortune). Last week, Honolulu ordered LimeBike to stop after one week of unauthorized operation, classifying the electric scooters as mopeds and saying they would need permits to operate (Hawaii News Now). And earlier this month, Nashville’s cease-and-desist order to Bird got much more serious after two riders were critically injured by a driver in hit-and-run (The Tennessean).

All said, cities are picking up new moves as these scooters shake up well-trodden right-of-way rules for sidewalks and roads. But as they squeeze to find room in the street, we might just be realizing that our cities are still stuck in an old groove of getting around.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

The Supreme Court Just Made It Even Harder to Sue Your Employer

Corporations love mandatory arbitration clauses, which limit the rights of workers to take their employers to court. If limits on them are struck down, employees have other options.

Kriston Capps

The Top Cities Americans Move to—and From—For Work

Most of the top cities are the usual suspects, but there’s something odd happening in Silicon Valley.

Teresa Mathew

A Healthcare Giant Enters the Battle for Cheaper Housing

Kaiser Permanente is pledging $200 million toward fighting homelessness and building more low-cost housing in eight states, plus D.C.

Kriston Capps and Benjamin Schneider

What Will It Take to De-Segregate Chicago?

A new report offers a roadmap to inclusive growth.

Tanvi Misra

Wyatt Cenac Is Here to Solve Your Policing Problems

In his new HBO series “Problem Areas,” comedian-actor Wyatt Cenac takes a crack at solving police racism.

Brentin Mock

Let It Be

“Loiter” is a weird word. It’s even stranger that, to be considered a crime, being in a certain place for a particular amount of time is always defined by somebody else. After a series of racially charged incidents of “loitering” triggered national outrage, from Starbucks in Philadelphia to a barbeque in Oakland, visual storyteller Ariel Aber-Riger dives into the long history of laws against being somewhere you’re not wanted. Her story on CityLab: What is Loitering, Really?

What We’re Reading

The eviction machine churning through New York City (New York Times)

Self-driving cars will give us more lobbies, and other possible city changes (Wired)

Wall Street’s new housing frontier: Single-family rental homes (Curbed)

The Justice Department is sending even more immigrants to prison (The Marshall Project)

Ben Carson doubles down on dismantling Obama-era fair housing policies (Washington Post)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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What Will It Take to Desegregate Chicago?

By 2030, Chicago will seem like a citadel of concentrated wealth. Estimates indicate that its white population will increase by 14 percent, and rich households making over $125,000 will grow by a striking 42 percent. Meanwhile, it is predicted that its black population will drop by 17 percent—to the lowest level since the 1950s. The surrounding suburbs are forecasted to see a 44 percent increase in Latinos, and a 12 percent growth in households making under $30,000.

Currently the population of Chicago is approximately a third white, a third Latino, a third black, and fewer than 10 percent other races and ethnicities, but intensely segregated. And this shift will be a further re-segregation of Chicago—white flight, in reverse. That’s the grim forecast in a new report by the Urban Institute and the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC). But the good news is, it’s still avoidable. The MPC, after consulting with numerous local stakeholders, has presented a detailed plan to dismantle the current patterns of concentrated poverty and wealth, and pave the path towards inclusive growth.

“In the past, the debate about segregation would happen in certain rooms and a discussion about the lack of economic vitality would happen in separate rooms,” said MPC’s MarySue Barrett. “Rarely would the concept of our sidelining of large portions of our population have anything to do with [the latter], but we drew those two areas of focus together.

The big picture prescription for the city’s ills: take a critical look at every policy, process, practice, and law at the local level that might be perpetuating racial inequity—and correct for it.

But the report also offers specific policies to increase opportunity and options for residents living in historically disinvested neighborhoods, minimize the racial wealth gap, combat systemic racism, and improve health and safety. Improving access to affordable housing, according to the report, is a crucial step that helps achieve all these outcomes.

The recommendation that has been getting the strongest reaction so far is one that seeks to decrease local control over affordable housing decisions; in other words, combat NIMBYism. It asks that the Chicago’s aldermen not be allowed to reject or defer any development project that includes 10 percent or more affordable units in wards containing fewer than 10 percent affordable housing units. “It would bring sunshine to the process—the discussion that we all need to contribute to having choices in every neighborhood,” Barrett said, “and no one can opt out of that.”

The other big recommendation—to evaluate the impact of new development—is particularly timely. Last Thursday, the Chicago Plan Commission gave the green light to the Obama presidential library, after hours of emotional testimony from supporters, as well as protests from community groups who are concerned about how the project will be implemented. The biggest source of tension has been the Obama Foundation’s refusal to sign a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with local community organizations who are worried about displacement. According to the MPC, these local groups have a fair concern given the unintended consequences of other well-meaning projects in the city, like the 606 Trail—Chicago’s version of the High Line. The prices of real estate have climbed since the amenity was built, burdening nearby residents with higher rents and property taxes.

“If the market is left to its own devices … we will see displacement, we will see a crowding out of the income mix that makes for a healthy, vibrant community,” Barrett said.

Renters make up almost half of the city, and some of the other recommendations address their needs. One demands 10-year tax incentives for property owners who agree to make a portion of their units affordable to households earning below 60 percent of the median income in the area. Another asks that Chicago’s housing voucher program be expanded so that it gives low-income families access to units that are at 200 percent of the area median rent, particularly in opportunity-rich areas of the city. “It’s not just about nice units in nicer neighborhoods,” said Barrett. “It’s where are those units located—that they’re located near amenities and jobs.

The rest of the recommendations include reforming the regressive property tax law, updating the homeownership support program in the city, and making sure that the required affordable units in new developments actually go to people who need them. While these are specific to Chicago, they offer examples of laws or programs that other cities dealing with the same problems may want to take a hard look at.

This roadmap is a follow-up to an MPC jointly-authored report with the Urban Institute from 2017, which highlighted the billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost in Chicago because of racial and income segregation. That was a “wake-up call,” Barrett said.

“It was important for us to emphasize that [segregation] had an impact on all communities, on the collective economy, on the state’s fiscal health,” Barrett said. “And so while an individual may not experience the physical impacts of this separateness—if their life insulates them from it, from traveling through a poor community, or from interacting with with diverse communities—they still are deeply impacted by these structures that have been created over many, many decades.”

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A Healthcare Giant Enters the Battle for Cheaper Housing

Housing is healthcare. That’s a common refrain among leaders working on public health issues that range from substance abuse to food insecurity. Fighting poverty and homelessness, and treating the many negative health outcomes associated with living outside shelter, starts with helping people secure safe, affordable housing. It’s the bedrock tenet of the “housing first” movement.

This intersectional approach to public health can be witnessed in dozens of cities across the country. But the country as a whole has yet to develop the structures or resources to support or expand the most successful programs. That’s a goal for Mayors & CEOs for U.S. Housing Investment, a coalition that has partnered with the National League of Cities to push the federal government to answer the affordable housing crisis. The organization has several strategies in mind to put healthcare and housing to work to combat homelessness and chronic mental health challenges.

“Having a roof over your head is essential,” said Eve Maldonado O’Toole,* senior policy advisor for Holland & Knight and the campaign manager for Mayors & CEOs. “But for the most part, this has been a metro-page issue. We want to ensure that this is on the front page and foremost on people’s minds.”

On Friday, the organization made a play for some national headlines, especially in cities battling high rates of homelessness: The healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente, a member of the Mayors & CEOs coalition, has pledged to invest $200 million in affordable housing and homelessness over the next two to three years. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf encouraged Kaiser, which is headquartered in Oakland, to make the commitment, says Brooks Rainwater, director for the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions (and an occasional CityLab contributor).

“Our goal is that other corporations will see this and really think hard about how affordable housing and homelessness is impacting cities nationwide and their own individual businesses,” Rainwater said.

Kaiser will spend the $200 million in the eight states (plus the District of Columbia) where it operates. The funds will be part of Kaiser’s impact investment fund, meaning they will be expected to generate a return so that the fund can continue to make new investments in the future. This could be accomplished through residential developments that mix homeless services and market-rate housing, according to Rainwater.

Kaiser’s entry into the national housing issue makes sense: Its coverage area is a who’s-who of America’s most expensive regions, including California, Oregon, and Washington State, and the Washington, D.C., area. These are areas where housing affordability has begun to make an impact on healthcare outcomes.

“Many of the communities we serve are grappling with some of the highest rates of housing insecurity and homelessness in the United States,” said Dr. Bechara Choucair, Kaiser’s chief community health officer, in a press statement. “As a family physician, I’ve provided medical care to the homeless, and have seen first-hand the impact that living without a home can have on someone’s health.”

The benefits of combining housing and healthcare to treat chronic homelessness are abundant. Philadelphia offers an example. The consolidated city–county established a single-payer system for public behavioral healthcare. The city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services receives some $800 million in funds through Medicaid. The agency administers the city’s permanent supportive housing initiative, and because most of the people who come through Philadelphia’s housing-first program are eligible for Medicaid coverage, Medicaid pays for the healthcare and recovery sources they receive.

According to the Kaiser Foundation, of the roughly 1,200 chronically homeless people who entered into Philadelphia’s permanent supportive housing between 2009 and 2017, 89 percent of them remain in stable housing. That reduces both the cost and strain on other resources, including emergency rooms and jails.

“Everything is interconnected,” said Sunia Zaterman, executive director for the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. “We have emerging research that is telling us about social determinants of health. We have research that tell us that housing instability has a very negative impact on educational achievement. We know that housing instability has negative effects on job readiness and employability. We understand how fundamental stable housing is.”

Developing holistic interventions that combine housing and healthcare resources requires cooperation between local, state, and federal agencies—which means a lot of obstacles. Not only are there logistical challenges that vary from place to place, the regulatory regimes associated with housing and health are often mismatched, Zaterman says.

That’s why Mayors & CEOs aims to push Congress to develop a funding stream that can press past all these barriers. The group is proposing a joint voucher between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Health and Human Services. There’s a model for a HUD-HHS voucher: the successful HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher for reducing homelessness among veterans. Since the program’s launch in 2008, more than 90,000 HUD-VASH vouchers have been awarded.

Mayors & CEOs has only just begun to outline how a HUD-HHS voucher would address substance abuse and mental health disorders among the chronically homeless. But the group hopes to introduce legislation before the August recess. It isn’t clear whether either cabinet agency would support such a joint effort, and building a voucher program means getting these departments to speak the same language. That’s a tall order, but the success of city-level housing-as-healthcare efforts shows how effective the model can be.

“In terms of the policy initiatives we’re putting forward, cities know that it works,” said O’Toole. “They have proven initiatives and programs on the local level. Hence we’re calling for a federal partnership on this, and national attention.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Eve Maldonado O’Toole’s name. It has been updated.

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Mapping Palestine Before Israel

The Palestinians recently protesting in the Gaza Strip called their demonstration “The Great Return March”—that’s a reference to a desire to return to the land from which they were expelled in 1948. Of the 1.9 million Palestinians living in Gaza, 70 percent came from villages in the surrounding area and beyond, in what is now Israel, 70 years ago this month.

During the founding of the state, the Israeli military destroyed more than 500 Palestinian villages; some were completely abandoned, while others became the foundation for Jewish villages and towns. Some villages survived. A new open-source mapping project, Palestine Open Maps, allows users to see the Palestinian landscape as it looked before 1948—and to search for villages and towns from that era to find out whether they remain, were depopulated, or were built over.

A screenshot from the project showing how users can discover what happened to Palestinian villages mapped by the British in the 1940s. (Courtesy of Palestine Open Maps)

Such a project is not entirely new. The Israeli nonprofit Zochrot, for example, has mapped destroyed Palestinian villages. But Palestine Open Maps is the first open-source mapping project based around historical maps from the British Mandate period, which preceded the creation of the state of Israel. Though the British map sheets were already available online and in the public domain, they were difficult to obtain in high resolution and were divided into hundreds of separate sheets, so it wasn’t possible to visualize them as a whole.

Ahmad Barclay, a Beirut-based architect and designer who led the project—which was initiated through a collaboration between the organization Visualizing Palestine and Columbia University Studio X Amman—said the team knitted together more than 200 map sheets and made them navigable in high resolution.

The maps’ level of detail is exceptional, showing roads, topographic features, and property boundaries. The team’s next task: to make the maps downloadable.

The project also features Israeli overprints of the British maps, like this 1958 one of the city of Tiberias and its environs, marking destruction of Palestinian villages and the new Jewish-Israeli settlements built on their lands. (Courtesy of Palestine Open Maps)

In the decades since 1948, what Palestinians call the nakba (“catastrophe”) remains a matter of debate between the sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Barclay, an aim of the mapping project is to clarify at least one part of this debate: the land itself, and what was once there. “Putting the villages on screen that were destroyed, depopulated, and built over in the form of these maps makes what happened irrefutable,” he said. He also noted the irony of using the maps of the former colonizer for such a project. “The British essentially drew these maps as part of their control of Palestine,” he said. “But the maps unintentionally captured the moment before the destruction occurred.”

He also pointed out a potential future use for the project: backing the property claims of Palestinians, should they be able to return to the land from which their parents and grandparents came. “These maps can show the villages from which protesters originated,” said Barclay.

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What Is Loitering, Really?

Editor’s note: A series of racially charged incidents of “loitering” have triggered national outrage recently. This month, CityLab’s visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger dives into the long history of laws against being somewhere you’re not wanted.

Further Reading:

  • “Vagrancy Laws and the 1960s,” C-SPAN
  • “The Forgotten Law That Gave Police Nearly Unlimited Power,” Time
  • “Racial Profiling via,” East Bay Express
  • “The Yes Loitering Project Ask Kids of Color to Rethink Public Space,” Fast Company
  • “#WhyLoiter Reclaims Public—and Inner—Space for Indian Women,” PRI
  • “Black Women vs. White Men in Public Spaces: Crosswalk Experiment and Relevance,” Girl with Pen
  • “How Punitive and Racist Policing Enforces Gentrification in San Francisco,” Truthout
  • “The Criminalization of Gentrifying Neighborhoods,” The Atlantic

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Navigator: Loneliness, Revisited

Hello, and happy weekend!

We’re trying out a new Saturday time slot for Navigator, in time for weekend lounging. Let us know what you think.

And now, the good stuff: A number of you wrote back to me after I asked for your thoughts on the link between loneliness and geography. I wanted to share some excerpts:

Andrew Aldrich, Oakland:

Loneliness is not about being alone, really. It’s about feeling a mismatch between oneself and one’s environment.

The great question debated by philosophers of place is whether suburbia is, by nature, alienating. Does the “geography of nowhere”—places that are neither country nor city, and that look virtually identical to other such places, not just around the country but around the modern world, create souls that feel like ciphers in a technologically reproduced environment where they cannot feel fully alive? Reading or watching novels or movies that celebrate suburbia, one gets the feeling that that can’t be the whole story. There is life in the suburbs. And yet, the ghost of Columbine must plague our thoughts about this. Has the culture of suburban modernity helped foster the alienation of young people?

Angela Conte, Santa Rosa:

Ali Amani, Kabul:

City life is always pretty fast-paced. There is a non stop cycle of competition, pressure, and mental stimulation directed towards the individual. Our physical, social, and mental capacities are limited and we cannot cope up with all the pressures in the long run; therefore, as a defense mechanism, we attempt to protect our individualities and isolate ourselves in the process.  


What we’ve been writing:

So, is D.C. cool or not? If you’re still debating that, you’re missing the point. (OK, yes, but…maybe D.C. would’ve been cooler if it had these cool abstract metro maps below.)

This Estonian city has a new logo: a cannabis leaf. ¤ The story of the man who documented Toronto’s formative years. ¤ What Ecatepec de Morelos, Los Angeles, and Istanbul have in common. ¤ London’s tube gets in touch with its feminist side. ¤ The digital jukebox “erodes the premise of quaint regionalism as bars of all kinds transform into Top 40 danceries.” ¤

(Vignelli Center for Design Studies, RIT)

What we’ve been taking in:

The Solo Cup’s Chicago origins. (Chicago) ¤ On Nairobi’s burgeoning skate culture. (CNN) ¤ How the bougainvillea came to California. (KCET) ¤ “Small-bany, some call it. Shmalbany, I prefer. Albanality, a friend of mine says, but the syllables don’t work out.” (Longreads) ¤ Black cowboys are real. (Bitter Southerner) ¤ The “roaring girls” of queer London. (Longreads) ¤ The mesmerizing symmetry of Chinese tchotchke stores. (Nowness) ¤ The enchanted forest from Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke,” but IRL. (New York Times) ¤ Can gentefiers and barrio activists find common ground in Boyle Heights? (Los Angeles Times) ¤

Know the neighborhood social media forum Nextdoor? CityLab fellow Teresa Matthew brought to our attention a Twitter handle that posts some of its…more interesting exchanges:

The twitter account @bestofnextdoor posts screenshots of snippets from different Nextdoor community groups, and its timeline contains a mix of concerns over missing storefront apostrophes, the Illuminati at local libraries, and chickens in blue pants. Hell may be other people, but hilarity is reading about other peoples’ neighborhoods.

View from the ground:

@dr_zmo photographed an Orthodox church in Jerusalem, @halfco captured the mouth of a Paris metro stop, @mallory_wanders took in a rainy Rome scene, and @enkrall shot a van by the sea in Santo Domingo.

Tag us on Instagram with the hashtag #citylabontheground.

Over and out,



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