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What a Square Mile of a City's Grid Looks Like Around the World

An easy way to tell how long a city has been around is to look at it from above: modern cities tend to have wide, even street grids that are easy to navigate by car. Ancient cities like Rome, by contrast, look like a pile of spaghetti from a bird’s eye view. It’s not just an aesthetic difference—it’s fundamentally easier to walk around the small blocks of downtown Manhattan (where the Dutch first established a trading post in 1624) versus the wide lanes of Irvine, California, a master-planned suburb built in the 1960s. To get a better idea, check out these grid maps by UC Berkeley city planning researcher Geoff Boeing (as spotted over on FlowingData).

Boeing’s visualizations compare aerial views of different cities around the world through one-square-mile snapshots, created using an algorithm that pulls from OpenStreetMap. The unified scale of the visualizations makes it easy to quantify how walking around different places feels. City blocks differ in both size and shape. An aerial view of downtown Paris looks like a windshield that just had a bad encounter with a flying rock. A similar view of Portland looks like a chicken-wire fence. If you look closely, you can compare the width of streets and highways:

The maps also show where even the most uniform city grids are interrupted. Since the 1960s, Portland’s dense, walking-friendly blocks have had a giant highway cut through them. Atlanta, too, is a tangle of highways. San Francisco is filled with alleys, as is Tunis.

If you look at all of the grids, you can see the difference between cities that were meticulously planned and those that sprang up organically. Dubai and Sacramento look like they were drawn by a city planner’s pencil, but Osaka and Boston clearly expanded more haphazardly over the centuries. The symmetrical boulevards and diagonal side streets of Paris are the result of the 19th century plans of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who was hired by Napoleon to help remake the city.

They are all a good reminder that the easiest cities to get around don’t always have the simplest maps. Rome may look like a tangle of winding streets, but that tight network is much easier to traverse than the very few streets that intersect in a square mile of Irvine’s street grid. And from street level, those tiny blocks tend to look a lot more interesting than big suburban intersections.

[h/t FlowingData]

All images courtesy Geoff Boeing

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Why a Train Full of New York City Poop Was Stranded in Alabama for Two Months
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Residents of Parrish, Alabama probably aren't too fond of New Yorkers right now. That’s because the town is currently home to a full trainload of poop courtesy of the Big Apple, as Bloomberg reports. Some 200 shipping containers of treated sewage have been stuck in Parrish for more than two months while the town takes landfill operators to court.

New York City doesn't keep its own sewage sludge to itself, and it hasn't for decades. In the 1980s, New York City was dumping its "biosolids"—the solids left over from sewage treatment, i.e., your poop—into the Atlantic Ocean, where it settled on the bottom of the sea floor in a thick film stretching over 80 square nautical miles. When the government banned the practice of dumping waste straight into the ocean, the city had to get creative, finding a way to get rid of the 1200 tons of biosolids produced there every day.

Enter the poop train. As a 2013 Radiolab episode taught us (we highly recommend you listen for yourself), treated sludge was eventually shipped out to other states to use as fertilizer in the 1990s. After farmers in Colorado began noticing better growth and fewer pests in the fields they grew with New York City's finest sewer sludge, growers in other states began clamoring to take the big-city poop by the train-full, too. That tide has turned, though, and now no one wants the city's poop. Because of the cost of running the program, the train to Colorado stopped in 2010.

Now, biosolids are instead shipped to landfills upstate and in places like Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to The Wall Street Journal. And Alabama. For more than a year, the Big Sky landfill near Parrish has been accepting New York City biosolids, and the locals who have to deal with trainloads of rotting waste aren’t happy.

Normally, the sludge would be loaded onto trucks and then driven the last stretch to get to the landfill. But Parrish and its nearby neighbor of West Jefferson aren't interested in playing host to those messy poop transfers anymore. As the two towns take the landfill operators to court over it, the trains are stuck where they are, next to Parrish's Little League baseball fields. The trainload of sludge is blocked from either being sent to the landfill or back to New York City. While the city has stopped shipping more waste to Big Sky, it essentially said "no takebacks" regarding what they've already sent south. Short of a legal decision, that poop isn't moving.

Needless to say, the residents of Parrish would really, really like to resolve this before summer hits.

Update: Parrish residents can officially breathe easy. The last of the sludge has now been removed from the town, and Big Sky has ended its operation there, according to a Facebook post from Mayor Heather Hall. The containers that remain have been emptied of their smelly cargo and will be removed sometime before Friday, April 20.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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The Self-Deploying Flood Barrier That Could Keep Cities Dry Without Sandbags
MegaSecur, YouTube
MegaSecur, YouTube

For many places in the world, the future is going to be wet. Climate change is already intensifying heavy rains and flooding in parts of the U.S., and it’s only expected to get worse. A recent study estimated that by 2050, more than 60 million people in the U.S. would be vulnerable to 100-year floods.

Some cities plan to meet rising waters with protective parkland, while some architects are developing floating houses. And one company has figured out how to replace piles of sandbags as emergency flood control, as Business Insider reports. Water-Gate, a line of flood protection products made by a Canadian company called MegaSecur, is a self-deploying water barrier that can be used to stop overflowing water in its tracks.

The emergency dam is made of folded canvas that, when water rushes into it, inflates up to become a kind of pocket for the water to get trapped in. You can roll it out across a street, a canal, or a creek like a giant hose, then wait for the water to arrive. In the event of a flash flood, you can even deploy it while the flood is already in progress. It can stop waters that rise up to five feet.

According to MegaSecur, one Water-Gate dam can replace thousands of sandbags, and once the floodwaters have receded, you can fold it back up and use it again. Sadly, based on the flood projections of climate change scientists, heavy flooding will soon become more and more common, and that will make reusable flood barriers necessary, saving time and money that would otherwise be spent buying, stacking, and getting rid of sandbags. The auto-deployment also means that it can be used by a single person, rather than a team of laborers. It could just as easily be set up outside a house by a homeowner as it could be set up on a city street by an emergency worker.

As climate change-related proposals go, it sounds a little more feasible than a floating house.

[h/t Business Insider]

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