Archive for urban history

New ideas, old spaces and the microbrew renaissance

Sometimes new ideas need old spaces. I think Jane Jacobs coined that phrase. The evolution of cities and the use and re-use of space is fascinating. It also reflects the economic era.

Take the microbrew renaissance in many cities. Old, low-ceiling, unwanted industrial space in almost-forgotten pockets of cities such as Portland Oregon and Vancouver BC, has incubated dozens of craft breweries. The creativity of flavour blending is impressive–and very tasty.

The rise in popularity also tells us something about the economies of these and other cities with a strong brewery sector. They have a “lifestyle industry” around relaxing and appreciating creativity. (The new East Vancouver cliche is becoming one of sitting in a microbrew tasting room in Lululemon pants, and a rain-soaked gortex jacket; bike helmet on the counter). Both Portland and Vancouver have been evolving from only serving a natural resources extraction sector, to having more diverse economies including lifestyle industries and companies, from Lululemon to Nike, as well as hipster technology companies in Vancouver’s case like Hootsuite and Electronic Arts.

THe Microbrew expansion in these places also tells us that broader government policy supports small scale innovation. In places with a thriving industry can sell their wares in mainstream liquor distribution as well as smaller creative options such as farmers markets, specialty stores, or their own brewpub.

Thanks to this article today, I figured out why Toronto has such a limited craft beer scene and therefore mediocre options at the pub. The government favours foreign breweries through the distribution monopoly and the Beer store. Come on Ontario, free the beer distribution. Toronto has lots of older real estate that would incubate craft breweries, and other free thinking, that just might help the economy grow from within. And, it contributes to the evolution of neighbourhoods, which bring new investment and economic growth.

Canadian City Job Trends Outpacing National Average

Whether one looks at the recent monthly figures, or the five-, 10- or 15-year trends, most of Canada’s major cities have seen jobs growing faster than the national average.

This is intriguing. Canada’s economic growth is heavily dependent on resource extraction–whether oil, natural gas, lumber, coal or copper. This activity takes place far from most major cities, save for Edmonton (and even Edmonton is a 2-3 hour journey from the nearest oil sands project).

This urban job growth demonstrates how much overall economic development resources generate–and the more knowledge intensive nature of this activity in the 21st Century. The oil sector is no longer a pump pulling liquid from the ground and putting it in a tanker car.

Instead, Calgary office towers are filled with accountants, lawyers, engineers, more engineers, financing specialists, construction and project managers, etc. etc. all working directly or indirectly on energy-related activity in Alberta, BC and around the world. The Oil Sands are a brain-intensive activity. Forestry and coal, are less changed from their historic roots, but their influence drives employment in Vancouver, the hub for companies and for exports. The wealth this generates then flows through the economy as people buy homes, go to restaurants, and partake in cultural events.

In Toronto, the head offices of these legal and accounting firms provide further support. Moreover, in Canada’s economic hub shares are traded, mortgages for the vast workforce in Alberta processed, etc. As the strong energy economy bolstered the Canadian dollar following the 2009 recession, Canadian banks (Toronto based) went on a foreign acquisition spree, generating more employment.  If one excludes the structural change in manufacturing in the GTA, Toronto has been growing (job wise) almost as fast as the juggernauts in the West.  This can only be attributed to its connection to the resource sector–as a hub of financial and other business activity.

My conclusion: there is a symbiosis between Canada’s major cities and Canada’s continued place in the global economy providing raw resources. ALthough the cities have other sectors that don’t rely on resources–like software–these do not compare in terms of economic impact to the resource sector.

Anyone have a different explanation?

Random Observations from Europe

Here is a post I wrote last summer but never posted. enjoy.

My family and I spent three weeks visiting New York, Brussels, London, Amsterdam and Paris this summer.  Here are some random observations.

New York has the best playgrounds–starchitects like Frank Gehry design them and they are unique.

Amsterdam felt dangerous for pedestrians, especially for children–but not from cars but bikes.  Bikes were running red lights, riding on streets and sidewalks (and the woonerf concept used there meant these were often the same).

Also, in Amsterdam I saw no local children under the age of about 12 riding their bikes; children rode in large wheelbarrow-like baskets at the front of their parents’ bikes.  This was unexpected.  I thought it would look be more like Portland Oregon with families riding bikes together.

A pleasant surprise in Amsterdam was that I hardly ever smelled pot (I’m allergic to it so always notice).  In fact, the air was much more free of it than in Vancouver.  I did notice a slight smell right outside the marijuana cafes, but rarely anywhere else.  Maybe the cafes serve to confine the smoke and the smokers to these enclosed spaces. By contrast in Vancouver everyone smokes it in public parks because there is no where to go.


Loved the cobble stone streets; found it rather hilly for “the lowlands.”  And, I was somewhat surprized at how international and multi-cultural the population was (other than the historic architecture, it didn’t feel as European).  I was particularly intrigued to find so many Brazilians and Brazilian cafes dedicated to their favorite futbol teams.  Is there an historic connection between Brazil and Belgium that I missed?

Comments and explanations welcome!

Hosting the Winter Olympics versus the Summer Games

With the London Summer Olympic Games starting this week, the critiques have been loud. Unfortunately both the Summer and Winter Games have been tarnished with the same brush.

The Winter Games, I would argue, can provide net benefits to a city and region if managed correctly. Here are three reasons to think differently about these games versus those of summer.

First, the Winter Games have fewer events and require fewer venues.

Second, the Winter Games often take place in the mountains, on snow and at venues that already exist in some form. Yes, some summer tree clearing might happen to make a ski run wider, or some grooming to make it steeper, and you might need a bigger lodge–but the ski hills already exist in most host cities. Ice rinks too, tend to exist, and additional ones that need to be built are more easily transformed into other recreational facilities should additional ice rinks not be required.

The Summer Games require a lot of custom facilities. Most cities don’t have an artificial whitewater kayak facility (nor want one), for example, nor do they have cycle dromes, enough swimming pools with spectator space, etc.  Beijing is finding that many of these custom venues today sit empty.

Third, hosting the Winter Olympics can provide an equal opportunity to lobby for outside funds to help construct infrastructure that improves the city. The Canada Line connecting the Vancouver Airport to Downtown in 20 minutes has made a dramatic difference to congestion and commute times, plus makes business and tourist travel more efficient. Without billions from the federal government (only promised to land and host the Olympics), this would not have been built–or at least not for 2010. The improved highway to Whistler was another achievement of Games planning.

And then there are the small things that make communities nicer places after the Games. New and refurbished ice rinks, expanded recreational opportunities, and better transit (new buses, more metro cars, etc.) benefit everyone.

And all this doesn’t include the city-spirit building that can happen, as Brent Toderian and others have discussed.

The Summer Games have a price tag that may be too high for the benefits received. But the Winter Games may not. Vancouver’s organizing committee officially broke even, however hundreds of thousands were given to a legacy fund (sounds like profit to me, reinvested wisely in sport and arts).*

It would be useful if a neutral party did some accounting and fact finding on the two types of Olympic Games.  Maybe there are some lessons for the Summer Games that can be learned.  Do they need to be so big?  Could two or three cities share in the hosting, specializing in different types of events?


Pink Slime and Sprawl

I apologize for being late to the pink-slime-in-meat discussion, but unlike 99% of blog post ideas that fail to make it to cyberspace, this one keeps weighing on my mind.

I’ve been pondering the relationship between really poor quality food and an auto-centred lifestyle.  Here’s how I think the link works:

The mid-20th century suburban style of housing development separated houses from grocery stores, allowing for larger grocery stores.  It also required a car, which costs money, and time to drive everywhere including to ever-expanding supermarkets.

To keep costs down, supermarkets supported innovations in industrial food supply, including for meat.  This allowed shoppers to afford meat and cars and gasoline.

As Penelope Truck recently commented, meat (especially beef) should be a luxury good but it is not priced like one. She’s right.

I didn’t think that much about the broader role in society of the inexpensive cost of supermarket meat until an organic butcher shop opened 1 block from my house. All the meat comes from animals raised humanely on one ranch about 400 miles away.  It is at least 3X the price and at least 10X as tasty as the supermarket equivalent.

This new butcher shop has been successful in a Walkscore 100 neighbourhood.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.  One reason so many people in this economically diverse community can afford to buy their meat at this butcher shop is that they don’t drive much.


The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (Book Review)


Kate Ascher, The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (New York: Penguin Press, 2011)

Skyscrapers are a vital component of modern cites.  They allow tens of thousands of people to work in close proximity, allowing them to share ideas.  Tall residential buildings have also become important to supporting vibrant 24 X 7 downtowns, keeping thousands in close proximity to downtown amenities after the workforce has gone home.

Anyone interested in understanding the modern city would benefit from reading Kate Ascher’s masterful tribute to the skyscraper.

Ascher inter-weaves detailed technical descriptions of building components with a overarching narrative covering the relationship between skyscrapers and broader human history and the history of science.  The beautiful illustrations and photographs assist in the visual appeal of this book that would proudly sit atop any coffee table.  Her descriptions of the technology, materials, mechanical  systems and engineering challenges involved in constructing tall buildings are fascinating and highly readable to a non-technical reader (such as me).  Yet, I suspect those with an engineering or construction background would find the descriptions equally compelling.

This book offers something for almost everyone, whether your interest lies in engineering, construction, real estate or cities.  As someone with a Ph.D. in history (although I work in the real estate investment industry), I was particularly drawn to Ascher’s discussion of the relationship between the economy, history of capitalism, history of technology and skyscraper evolution.

The industrial revolution and more specifically the mass-production of steel made the skyscraper revolution possible.

…the development of the internal steel skeleton permitted larger windows and more usable floor area…by the turn of the [19th] century, steel had replaced cast iron as the backbone of choice for new skyscrapers, and buildings of 15 to 20 stories [sic] had been completed in both New York and Chicago

The booming US economy from the 1880s through to 1929 allowed for a race to the sky that did not occur elsewhere, and New York and Chicago were the preeminent cities for this race..  Ascher describes how booming corporations each attempted to out-do each other in constructing ever taller buildings.  In 1930 there were vrtually no buildings with skyscraper technology outside of the USA.  This was an American phenomenon.

It was not until the post-world-war-two expansion in the 1950s and 1960s that the skyscraper race to the top began again (although the style was the plain, modernist rather than the ornate art deco of the 1930s notes Ascher). And this time, it was slightly more global with Europe joining in.

Ascher correctly notes that the tallest buildings of an era tend to begin just before an economic downturn. The twin World Trade Centre towers of New York began construction in 1972.  Although Ascher avoids much non-technical (and therefore political) discussion of these buildings, looking back as an historian, I might argue that they represented the culmination of America’s 20th century economic expansion—the end of an era.

When the skyscraper race began again, in the 1990s, Ascher notes it became an Asian era.  Here’s some perspective she offers on the Asian rise: before 1980, 85% of buildings over 500 feet high (150 metres) were in North America.  By 2008 72% of skyscrapers were outside of North America.

The Asian version has tended to be mixed use.  Whereas in North America skyscrapers tended to offer only office and occasionally residential, in Asia developers combine retail, residential and even hotels within a single building. The new Burj Khalifa in Dubai is presented as the prime example of this urban lifestyle building where people live, work and play.

Ascher covers an impressive range of subjects and knowledge in this book from history to civil, mechanical and environmental engineering. Her background is a Ph.D. in government from the London School of Economics followed up with time in the real estate and consulting sectors. Specialists in any of the myriad topics she covers will no doubt find the occasional fact or interpretation to quibble with, as I did. But these do not detract from what the book offers–a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary examination of skyscrapers and their relationship to economic and urban history.

Ascher ends with a good question: what would Jane Jacobs think of cites in which a large percentage of the population lives in skyscrapers?  Do they allow for enough informal interaction that Jacobs believed helps to build community?

Maybe these are good questions for the TED prize initiative around Cities 2.0. How to we better build communities in the sky?

The sheer diversity of the housing

“[I was struck by]…the sheer diversity of the crowd… to see people across so many diverse ethnic groups celebrating side by side…[was] very uplifting.”

Seattle Times reporter Danny O’Neil
in Vancouver to watch the Stanley Cup finals from Granville St.

Anytime I’m away from Vancouver this absence of an internationally-sourced and blended population often stands out.

This summer, in Portland we enjoyed the numerous old craftsman and Edwardian era homes and neighbourhoods, many streets with 100% of the original homes, their wood-siding in tact.  We live in a similar vintage neighbourhood in (East) Vancouver, but the homes today are much less homogeneity.

A sharp colleague who spends lots of time in Portland suggested that the two phenonmenon are interrelated; Portland has experienced fewer massive waves of immigration over the past 80 years.  In thinking and reading more about the heritage of the area, I think she’s right.

Back in the 1920s, our neighbourhood would have been indistinguishable from those in Portland.  The mostly-European immigrants built their craftsman homes from kits, and using the old growth douglas fir that dominated the Pacific Northwest Landscape as a structural base, and as trim and flooring.  (In my area, and I’m sure in Portland, a few Chinese and Japanese were involved as builders or land developers but left only a limited imprint on the housing landscape).

Today in East Van, only some of those original homes exist in their original state, or restored back to it.  After world war two a wave of southern Europeans from Italy in particular arrived.  They were masons and concrete workers, and gradually covered the unfamiliar-to-them wood siding with concrete stucco.  They paved a portion of the yard with concrete, and planted tomatoes in wood pots.  Some also added grape arbours.

The next wave from Asia (southern China in particular, but also India and SE Asia) helped popularized “the Vancouver special” in the 1960s and 1970s which replaced smaller pre-war homes on many lots.  Two levels and designed to be easily split into two units or house a large extended family, these adaptable homes worked well for the changing needs of immigrant families who often arrived with no money (although often with education or marketable skills).  They could rent out half the house until financial fortunes improved, or they could house extended family to help pay the bills. (Italian and Greek immigrants as well as native born also embraced this housing type in other neighbourhoods of Vancouver for some of the same reasons).

Grander homes, square like, covered in pastel California stucco came next in the 1980s and 1990s, often purchased or developed by a new wave of wealthier immigrants and those who had come earlier and been successful.

Also at this time a more hybrid home appeared, with the two level characteristics but also craftsman-style bay windows, and a wide mix of coverings from brick to stucco to vinyl to wood siding.  These seem to appeal to a range of immigrants as well as the now-grown children of immigrants—who may well be in couples with roots from many different parts of the world and eras of immigration to Vancouver.

I don’t know if this house style has a name (if it does, someone please comment), but for now I’ll call it “The Vancouver Mix” it’s a hybrid of the sheer diversity of the housing and reflects the people.

What’s the housing mix like in your neighbourhood?

As is probably obvious, I have no architectural background (feel free to correct, comment or expand).  But in pondering this over the past few months,  I have a new appreciation for the interrelationship between housing and the cultural and immigration history of a city. Sounds like fodder for a Jane’s Walk next spring.

Demography behind occupiers discontent

In cities around the world people have been occupying key streets to express frustration over a variety of issues.  Many protesters have commented on “growing inequality” as being one grievance.  But what if the real cause of this apparent phenomenon is demographic rather than a result of economic or financial systems, or something abstract like “corporate greed.”  The baby boomer cohort has been distorting aspects of the economy since they were born, and today is no exception.

Looking at urban housing issues provides a good window into how the bulge of humanity born between 1945 and 1960 has created many of the challenges our cities and countries face today (and I’m not blaming individuals here, it’s just the fact that there are so many more people in one age cohort than in others that is unusual in human history, and the issue here)

1. Those  who bought houses before the boomers have done really well.  Many people born in the 1920s through early 1940s who bought in the late 1960s or early 1970s achieved a real estate windfall upon retirement.  The reason? One the baby boomers hit the housing market, demand skyrocketed but the preference for detached single family homes meant that supply could not increase in the best locations, and so values went up owing to increased demand.  The only place supply could expand was the suburbs.

I know many people who bought a house for $20,000 in 1970 and without taking on much or any more debt ended up with homes in the $1 Million to $2 Million range at retirement in the mid-2000s. This is in Vancouver, but I am sure similar stories can be found in places like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Sydney, Melbourne, Seattle, etc.  The earlier one got in, the better.  So the oldest boomers have done okay as well.

In Canada, this pre-boomer and older boomer group still has their wealth, whether it’s in real estate or they sold it.  In the US, some likely ended up losing at least a portion (by buying a McMansion in suburbia only to have its value plummet, or from using their house as an ATM and borrowing too much) but I also get a real sense that this group has done okay.  It is hard for younger generations to imagine buying into the same types of homes they might have grown up in.  The younger boomers and gen xers got caught in the US housing crash, is my perception (but someone please give me stats to disprove this if I’m wrong).

2.  In Employment, a similar general  story exists.  The pre-boomers ended up with the plum management jobs supervising boomers, who then filled up all of the employment making life tougher on subsequent generations, especially gen x during the economic downturns of the 1990s (until the dot com boom put people who widdled away idle time in front of computers to work).  The youngest boomers and the “jones generation”(those born 1960-1967) did well in the computer revolution because they understood it, and then could put to work this lost generation x who couldn’t squeeze themselves into a lot of the companies and organizations that employed the boomers.

3. Millennials, those born after 1980, especially those born in the late 1980s are feeling a little squeezed out of both the job market (now full of boomers, gen xers, and the oldest millennials).Boomers have not exited either the employment or real estate markets. This makes jobs a bit scarce during these uncertain economic times (unless you live in Calgary) and real estate prices remain elevated in many high-demand locations.  The suburban housing crash in the US offers options in those locales, but this housing style has not been embraced by younger generations for reasons that have been suggested and explained elsewhere.

Being shut out of the good jobs, and for those with a good job an affordable house, undoubtedly feels unequal, and unfair for millennials.  And it might be nice to blame corporate greed on an unfair economic system for this situation.  But it might be mostly a demographic phenomenon and the situation will change over the next few years.

The good news on the job front is that boomers will be exiting the workforce, creating opportunities.  They will also eventually be selling houses at a fast rate.  This will create some opportunities for younger generations to improve their standard of living.

What GMs anti-bike ad tells us

It was intriguing that General Motors ran an advertisement last week depicting the bicycle as the inferior competition to its product. Instead of trying to compete with Honda or Toyota, they chose the bicycle.

Although GM was shamed on Twitter into pulling the ads, the concept makes sense if you look at it from an automotive manufacturer`s point-of-view.  Young people are driving less, and presumably buying fewer cars than they used to.  Increasingly young Americans are saying they want to live in walkable urban communities and get around on foot, bicycle or by transit. If they need a car, they belong to Zip Car or another sharing equivalent (not much data on young Canadians, but anecdotally it seems to be similar).

Is private automotive ownership going to diminish?  Have we passed peak car? By this I mean automotive ownership per capita is probably on the way down.  Soon a typical American couple or family might only own one car–and some urbanites no cars!

We could see all of the automotive companies fighting back with ads that glorify automotive travel and ridicule the other options.  Maybe they’ll form an industry alliance to promote their sector (like more nascent groups will sometimes do).

I can certainly tell that my Walkscore-98 neighbourhood has passed peak car.  There are many more open parking spots on the street at all hours than there was when we moved here 10 years ago.

What’s happening in your community?  Has it passed peak car?  And should we shed a tear for GM?

The worst sports city in North America – it matters

ESPN recently ranked Toronto as the worst sports city in North America.  They calculated this based on a ratio of ticket prices to wins by the city’s teams.  Toronto’s sports fans loyally pay top dollar to see their favourite teams lose all too often.

I think this affects the psychology of the city, including the business community’s outlook. 

No matter how well things are going for Toronto, many of my friends, colleagues and network in Toronto refuse to believe in it.  They seem convinced they’ll soon be let down—that there is no more point in believing in Toronto’s solid economy than in a 3 game win streak by the Mapleleafs.

The sad state of the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC and other teams is about more than sports.  The inability of these teams to win consistently and live up to expectations seems to create a pattern in peoples’ heads that they expect to be repeated elsewhere–such as in the city’s economic performance.  For nearly 3 years now I’ve been hearing it when I put evidence in front of people that Toronto will do (or is doing) fine in this era of global economic uncertainty.

For example, job growth in the knowledge sector has been strong over the past three years, right through the global economic turmoil.  Finance, professional services and information and culture sectors have together added tens of thousands of jobs since 2008. Despite this many in the commercial real estate sector have been convinced that office demand will fall (that this is a mirage of some sort).  Instead absorption has been strong, especially in 2011 as companies lease space in which to put these workers.

Since the global financial crisis began in 2008, Toronto has risen up the ranks of global business and financial centres, as well as the livability rankings.  Compared to most other world cities, and even Toronto’s own past, Toronto is thriving.

And it’s not all business.  Toronto’s international film fest, TIFF, has also risen in prestige and is now *the* place to showcase a new movie.  Bollywood even held its annual award gala in Toronto last year, illustrating the international nature of this city.  With over 50% of residents foreign born, and many from Asia, it’s as connected to Mumbai and Shanghai as to many US or European cities, whether economically or culturally.

Toronto is a city to believe in.  As hard as this is for a Vancouver Canucks fan to say, I hope the Maple Leafs start winning so more of my friends and colleagues in Toronto will start believing in their city too.  

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