The Case for Public Drinking Fountains

Credit: Shutterstock.com

Credit: Shutterstock.com

Quick question: where is the closest public drinking fountain to you at this very moment? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It took me awhile to ponder, too. Within walking distance from this office at 19th and Market, the nearest bubbler I’m aware of is right in the middle of Rittenhouse Square — jutting out of the pool in the center of the park — roughly four blocks away. And it doesn’t even work.

Such is the state of public drinking fountains, not just in Philadelphia, but nationwide. Outside of parks and recreational areas like the Schuylkill Banks, fountains are few and far between these days. What were once ubiquitous fixtures of our grandparents’ cityscapes have largely disappeared.

What killed the public water fountain? A confluence of factors: the rise of bottled water, wrongheaded perceptions that big city water is dirty (pristine water-quality reports prove otherwise, not to mention the studies showing bottled is no safer than tap), and the unseemly notion that water fountains are somehow “low class” (recall the symbolic role water fountains played in Jim Crow-era segregation). And then there’s the high cost of maintenance. For cities that struggle to keep schools operating, water fountains can seem like expendable pieces of infrastructure.

But are drinking fountains primed for a comeback? Just maybe. Read more »

State Bill Would Require Bicyclists to Wear Reflective Clothing at Night

Credit: Shutterstock.com

Credit: Shutterstock.com

A bill has been introduced to the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee which would require bicyclists to wear highly visible reflective clothing at nighttime under all circumstances. But the safety-minded legislation, sponsored by Allegheny County Representative Anthony DeLuca, is being harshly rebuffed by cycling groups.

Bike Pittsburgh thinks it’s crap, for one. In a blog post referring to the legislation as a “bicycle fashion bill,” the group lambasted DeLuca’s efforts (while noting that his bill was “most likely well-intentioned”), saying this change would force bicyclists to carry around special clothing in the event they’re caught riding when the sun goes down. Further, the group notes, the state vehicle code already requires headlamps and rear lighting on bicycles. Read more »

The Incredible Potential of Philadelphia’s Neglected Public Pools

Lounge Deck

The public pool in Francisville. | Photo Credit: Group Melvin Design and Sikora Wells Appel

This would be a great pool day. I’ve heard it uttered a dozen times this summer, probably more, by friends wallowing in sweat-stained misery or baking on city concrete. Sure, it would be nice if everyone could afford the Lombard Swim Club or had an uncle in Ardmore doling out guess passes to his private pool. But those aren’t the only chances Philadelphians have to take a dip. Within walking distance of most people’s home are a multitude of free public pools, run by the City of Philadelphia.

And yet, they’re an afterthought, if that, for many Philadelphians. Why? Read more »

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

Credit: Shutterstock.com

Credit: Shutterstock.com

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

Miami-skyline

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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

Credit: Shutterstock.com

Credit: Shutterstock.com

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

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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 »

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