The Urban Pontificate

It’s easy to forget that the Pope wears many hats (or, should I say many miters?). In addition to heading up the richest institution in the world, he moonlights as de facto mayor of Vatican City and head of the local Catholic diocese. So while he’s the head of a global religion, he’s also a big fish in the urban pond of Rome.

Until Pope Francis, the Vatican’s secondary role as a major civic institution flew under the radar of the non-Italian public. But Francis has gone out of his way to incorporate urban issues into his advocacy — and not just when speaking to local Italian audiences.

Just this week he hosted 60 mayors from around the world — including New York’s Bill de Blasio, Boston’s Marty Walsh, and Paris’s Anne Hidalgo (no sign of Mayor Nutter, who will of course host the pope at the end of September) — for a two-day conference on modern slavery and climate change. Read more »

The Tragic Last Days of The Voice’s Anthony Riley

Anthony Riley at the Reading Terminal Market in February, one day after leaving rehab. Photograph by Robby Parsons

Anthony Riley at the Reading Terminal Market in February, one day after leaving rehab. Photograph by Robby Parsons

Anthony Riley had been off the map for weeks when, by some random act of providence, I bumped into him outside a greasy-slice pizza joint at Broad and South. It was one of those unseasonably chilly April evenings, the kind you complain about in spring and dream about in summer. Anthony was dressed in an olive green jacket that melted into his dark skin; his cheeks rose into a handsome smile when I said hello.

I might not even have remembered our encounter, except that it would be the second-to-last time we ever spoke. Read more »

London Tube Now Accepting Apple Pay



Apple Pay made its London debut earlier this week, which means that travelers and Brits alike can purchase merchandise at over 250,000 shops with a simple tap-and-go of their smartphone. One of the biggest operations accepting Apply Pay? The London Underground. Here’s how it works: you simply hold up your device  — linked to your credit card or bank account with Apple Pay— to a sensor upon entering the metro, zip through the turnstile, then tap a sensor upon exiting which determines your fare. Read more »

Slowing Gentrification By Building Up


According to a recent story in Governing, the city of Miami might have found an interesting deterrent against gentrification: Height restrictions on development. Not the creation of regulations, but the absence of them.

Miami doesn’t control building heights as strictly as most major cities, and the result has been a residential tower building boom in recent years. Out of the 64 buildings that are 400 feet or taller in the city, 53 have been erected since 2000. And according to the story, there’s been virtually no gentrification spillover into the the residential areas bordering the business district — named Brickell — where most of the tall buildings have been raised. Areas like Little Havana and Overtown — two minority-majority, middle-class neighborhoods — have not witnessed the kind of displacement that’s familiar to, say, parts of Point Breeze in Philly. As Governing reports:

According to the real estate site Zillow, median home values in both neighborhoods are about half of what they are citywide and about one-third of Brickell’s. While both areas have some new condos, they are still predominately historic and low-slung. Most important, people there have stayed put. Both Little Havana and Overtown remain 95 percent non-Anglo, with median incomes below $24,000.

Read more »

Best Way to Help Homeless Families? Give Them Homes

Photo: Liz Spikol

Photo: Liz Spikol

Each year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts a “Point-in-Time” count of the homeless population in areas around the country. The count of Philadelphia homeless was 3,327 on a January evening this year.

There are many reasons why the city’s  population on the streets is as high as it is, one being the lack of housing supply for homeless families, who often face a shortage of facilities that are willing to accept children. When the number of people being turned away from emergency shelters nearly tripled between 2011 and 2013, Axis Philly found that most of them were members of families.

Given that homelessness is particularly acute for families within Philly, the results from the first-ever large-scale study on various forms of assistance for homeless families is worth a closer look. And those results show that homeless families would be aided most effectively not in emergency shelters, but through other forms of intervention like low-income housing vouchers. Read more »

We Live in Amazing Times: In NYC, “Looie” Offers Access to Pristine Bathrooms … for $25 a Month



Ever since the City Toilet on the north end of Dilworth Plaza died a quiet death in 2007, Philadelphians have been on their own when nature calls in Center City. Seasoned pedestrians know better than venturing out absent-mindedly without a mental map of publicly-accessible bathrooms. There’s the Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse; the Central Library; just about any Trader Joe’s; Starbucks. Thank god for Starbucks.

But aside from George Costanza, we’ve all had to white-knuckle it at some point.

New York, though, has made huge strides in its bathroom-related technology. They’ve crowd-sourced potty map. They have ample listings on Airpnp (Airbnb for bathrooms only), while there’s an utter lack of participation in Philly. The Big Apple is so spoiled that a few hundred people are now paying $25 a month for private access to penthouse-quality toilets. Read more »

How the Big Blue Bin Has Made Recycling Awfully Expensive

recycling sorting facility

A recent story in the Washington Post headlined “American Recycling Is Stalling” sent a shockwave through environmentalist circles. America’s recycling business, once lucrative for both cities and private employers, is now devolving into a “money-sucking enterprise,” the story concluded. And that’s despite years of growth in curbside recycling. One of the big culprits? Ironically, it’s blue bin recycling,  according to the Post:

Trying to encourage conservation, progressive lawmakers and environmentalists have made matters worse. By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins — while demanding almost no sorting by consumers — the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system.

Before we go further, what exactly are the “economics of the whole system”? As ubiquitous as recycling has become, the business model is rather opaque. How does the city make money from empty soda cans on the curb? Read more »

A Simple Tool To Save Bicyclists’ Lives

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

It seems like every week there’s a new list of the most “bikeable” or “bike-friendly” American cities. Lo and behold, Philadelphia makes the Top 10.

Cycling has exploded in the city, but thankfully, traffic accidents involving bicycles have not. Last year, the number of bicycle crashes was nearly half (551) what it was in 1998 (1,058). The number of bicycling fatalities has also dropped, although much less dramatically over that span. After recording an astonishing zero deaths in 2013, the city rose back up to three last year — the same figure posted in 1998 (the median over that span was four deaths). Read more »

Cities Are Killing Rats With Data



It was the spring of 2013 and rats were on the rise in Philly. A particularly mild winter, coming on the heels of another mild winter the year prior, resulted in an uptick of reports to the city’s Rat Complaint Line. Calls jumped 31 percent year over year in February and March of 2013. Then came the panic over a rat invasion in Rittenhouse Square.

It was a particularly problematic season for rats not only in Philly but in cities across the East and Midwest. That included Somerville, Massachusetts (population 78,804) which had a boom in rats following successive warm winters. Rat populations often ebb and flow based on temperature variations, but the city was determined that controlling other factors could prevent an outbreak from ever happening again. It inspired Somerville to enlist predictive analytics in the cause of rat abatement. Moneyball for pest control, basically. Read more »

Google’s Next Big Project? “Urban Problems”


The next big thing at Google is, drumroll … cities! In case you missed it, there’s a new Google-backed company called Sidewalk Labs that’s describing itself as an “urban innovation company.” Its mission? “To improve life in cities for everyone through the application of technology to solve urban problems.”

What does that mean, exactly? It’s hard to say. But this is Google, so it’s all pretty intruiging.

Here’s what we do know: Read more »

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