Archive for urban technologies

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?

Keeping people honest

Jane Jacobs once commented that “eyes on the street” was an effective deterrent against crime.  And it is.  But it’s how it works that’s important.  Lots of eyes tend to keep those marginal criminals honest.  Committing a crime without getting caught is too difficult, so they’ll go elsewhere.

The advent of video surveillance and now “crowd-sourced” policing or evidence gathering (as happened in Vancouver during the riots) is another layer of “eyes on the street.”   Now even if there are only a few witnesses, they might be photographing or video taping you.

Professional or determined rioters will not be deterred by this, of course.  They show up at crowded events in gas masks, obscuring their identity.

Unlike the editorial in the Harvard Business Review, I am not alarmed by citizen evidence gathering.  It’s how people who don’t feel strong enough to confront a criminal directly can fight back and it could well serve as a big preventative tool for the future.

Mental Maps, Subways and Walkability

Mental maps refers to how people perceive urban spaces.  For example, is a place far away or close by?  How easy is it to get from point A to point B to point C?  The concept of mental maps can also include places people frequent.  A person with young children might have a lot of playgrounds in his or her mental map of their city, whereas the child-free music lover might know how to get to every small music venue.

Your mental map of your city or community will differ from other people’s.  Whether you tend to walk, drive, take transit or bike will also affect your sense of distance.

Travelling underground–on submays or metros in particular–can distort people’s sense of  distance and the relationships between places.

In London, it’s apparently quite common for people to take the tube only a few short stops because they don’t realize that their destination is close enough to walk.  Metro maps tend to portray routes as straight lines, and often with all stops equidistant.  Yet, in reality, the tracks often bend and some stops are closer together.  Two places that look far apart on the metro map may only have a few blocks separating them.

In London new maps are being placed around the city helping Londoners (and presumably tourists) understand the spatial relationships differently.  One goal is to get people walking both for their health and to relieve transit congestion.  Apparently there has been a 5% increase in people walking in parts of London with the signs, and the number of people getting lost has dropped by  65%.

Does your city offer maps?   Do they encourage you to walk?

Has seeing one affected your mental map of a city?

Four Lessons on Emergency Preparedness in Cities

The twin tremor-induced disasters in Christchurch and Sendai, taken in contrast to hurricane Katrina and other disasters, provide at least four lessons for cities and urban residents.

First, in a real city-wide disaster, however much preparation is done, it won’t be enough.  People will still die, others will struggle to find food, water and shelter, and many will get sick or injured either from the quake or the effects of it.  There was no way for Sendai to be ready for a 9.0 quake and a 30′ (10 metre) tsunami minutes later.  But…

Second, it will be far worse if a city and its residents are unprepared.  Look at New Orleans during and after Katrina–and that disaster could be seen coming for days and yet neither the city nor the country were ready to rescue, feed, clothe and house people in the days and weeks that followed.  Or look at Port-au-Prince and other cities in Haiti where sheer poverty of the nation, the city and most people prevented much in the way of adequate preparedness.

Contrast this to Christchurch where local and national emergency crews were on the scene right away.  Still…

Three, everyone in any city–earthquake zone or not–needs to be ready to look after themselves and their family for at least 72 hours (3 days) if not a full week.  As well documented in Christchurch, the city’s water system, sewage system and electrical network were severely damaged.  Neither clean water nor electricity was available for many people for days.  And just being ready yourself isn’t really good enough…

Four, as the Japanese have been brilliant at, you need to be ready to help others too, and the city has to have supplies stockpiled in places people can reach it.  In Sendai incredible stories have emerged of how people pooled and shared the clean water and food that they had.  Because the Japanese are prepared for earthquakes, many places likely had decent amounts of supplies stockpiled.

After a disaster it is probably easy to share something you have enough of.  I worry what might happen in North American cities if many residents are not ready and have nothing to eat, drink or use as shelter in the hours and days following.  Will the disaster bring out the best in people as happened in Japan, or show an ugly side as happened in New Orleans with looting and violence.

Seems that being prepared–as cities and as people–might make all the difference.

What else can we learn from these disasters? Do you feel your city is ready? are you?

The delicate art of parking provisioning

(with apologies to Trent Carlson)

How people live in cities is changing, faster in some places than others.  In general, people are driving less.  But car ownership is still quite prevalent and it remains a key means for people to get themselves, their families, and their stuff from A to B and C and D around the city.  Even though urban travel by bike, transit and foot is on the rise, cars are not likely to disappear.  They are too handy in certain circumstances.

So what to do with cars when we’re not using them?  That is a key challenge for cities these days.  Here’s what I mean.

First, lets talk about surface parking lots and above-grade parking structures.  These are ugly and suck the life out of the streetscape.  Nothing interesting (or at least good and interesting) is ever going on there (drug deals and break ins are interesting, but not in a good way).  So, the answers are either street parking or underground parking, or typically both.  But….

Starting with underground parkades, these are expensive to build.  They therefore can make it uneconomical to build many apartment, office and retail structures unless the highest rents (or condo sale prices) can be achieved.  Some cities are experimenting with reducing parking requirements for apartments in core areas where most residents will walk or take transit, in part to keep the costs down so new rental can be built.  But this isn’t practical in most neighbourhoods, even walkable ones, as a typical couple or family will have a car.  This is an unresolved dilemma in cities–adding residents to average communities still requires room to park a car.

Next, street parking. This works well if there is enough room on the streets for residents and visitors to a neighbourhood.  In detached, single-family neighbourhoods this is the case.  But in slightly more dense areas, there isn’t always enough.  Especially if a prominent shopping street is nearby.

In a trendy walkable neighbourhood, many people will drive to the area, park, and shop. The retailers rely on these non-neighbour customers, so need there to be parking.  But if the number of people living in the area increases, without more parking places, suddenly none are available for retailers unless we either add underground parking (too expensive), surface parking (too ugly), go to parking meters to keep people moving.

Parking meters.  It seems that some city halls have figured out a science of parking meters.  Charge enough so that there is usually an empty spot every couple of blocks, and then people don’t circle around looking for parking.  I was shocked to read New York City still has lots of free parking.  We’re also starting to see variable rate meters that adjust the costs with the time of day and congestion.  I like this approach.  I’d rather pay more and have a spot available when I need one, than have to drive all over looking for free parking (I put a value on my time, and it’s more than $2 for 15 minutes!)

But parking meters work at destinations, not at home.  So we’re back to the challenge of urban development right now: the delicate art of balancing enough room for cars while also improving the livability and walkability of communities, and keeping costs of new housing down so that homes can be built for the non-super-rich.


How is the parking dilemma affecting your community?

What examples are you seeing of the delicate art of balancing parking needs with other urban requirements and challenges?

Can you have too much walkability?

There is undeniable evidence of housing preferences shifting from auto-centred suburban locations to more walkable, higher-density urban spaces.

But does everyone want perfect walkability?  Do they want to have all amenities they’ll ever need in close proximity–given that often comes with higher car, foot and bike traffic as well as noise.

The web application is a fantastic tool that measures how walkable a location is, based on proximity to amenities.  A score is derived from the variety of amenities and number of choices in each category. 100 is a perfect score, and a handful of North American locations achieve that.  Walkscore has changed the way many people search for homes.

Does everyone who wants “walkability” actually want a walkscore of 95-100?  I love my walkscore-98 home’s location, just one block from a wide variety of independent stores and restaurants but it comes trade offs.

Here are three aspects of my particular location that may not appeal to everyone.

  • There’s no visitor parking on nice afternoons and lots of shoppers heading for the nearby retail-restaurant-commercial street seeking parking circling the block (constant albeit slow-moving traffic).
  • When the bars and restaurants close down at 2 AM, it’s noisy as people wander home or to their cars (!).
  • There’s not much privacy–and this isn’t a high rise neighbourhood, it’s all ground-oriented.  There are people around all the time (which is good for deterring crime, however).

To some people, this might be too much, too close–that is, too much walkability.

What about some 85 scoring homes?

If I run a walkscore 2-3 blocks east of my home, further away from the main shopping-urban space, the score drops to 85.   But 2-3 blocks away feels like another world.  The streets are quieter in terms of cars and people.  There are not shoppers from outside the neighbourhood seeking parking.

Yet are these 85-walkscore homes really that much “less walkable” than the 98 scoring ones?  Do two blocks make that much difference? To some people yes, but to many others, not really.

Alternatively, if I run a walkscore in another neighbourhood with a different population profile (slightly older), in what I would consider a walkable location, same 1-block distance from the main shopping strip as my home, that same 85 comes up.

There are no pubs nearby, and a slightly lower quantity of stores in each category which accounts for the lower score. If you’re usually in bed by 10 PM, and are content with two pharmacies rather than four, is this locale “less walkable” to you than the 98?  Probably not, since you don’t use the nearby amenities that achieved a 98.

A couple decades ago, few people wanted walkability–they wanted quiet, or the perceived security of auto-centred life.  Today, many want the opposite.  But maybe we’ve gone too far in thinking everybody should have everything close by?  Perhaps even more people would embrace an urban life with an 85 walkscore?

Or, maybe soon they’ll be a “custom” walkscore ap, where you can prioritize what amenities matter to you, and the distance which you consider walkable.

Cities are great in this way–something for everyone.

What’s your ideal walkscore?  (and your current one?)

Why Revolutions Are Being Tweeted

A few weeks back respected trend spotter Malcolm Gladwell commented that The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted. His argument is that twitter and social media does not generate the personal connections or convictions needed to create the revolutions of the past, such as the courage four young black men had to sit down in a “whites only” restaurant and request service. At the time, his arguments and sources sort-of-convinced me.

But, hearing and seeing first hand how the ground shifted in Calgary last week, it’s clear that Twitter and social media were crucial.  I have some theories as to why revolutions can happen via twitter.

First, twitter with its 140 character limit is a “cool” medium, to use the language of Marshall McLuhan.  This means that you have to interpret it.  And people interpret short, often ambiguous information and messages according to their own context.  The act of interpreting–or interacting–with this medium and message draws you in.

Second, social media can create an “imagined community” of people who feel a part of the same group. (This time I’m borrowing the thesis of Benedict Anderson who argues that nations are imagined in the sense that people belong to them in their own way, in their own mind–being “Canadian” or “American” means different things to each person).  In the case of our “revolutions, because they are all following a candidate, many participants may feel they have more in common with each other and the candidate than is really the case.  And imagined communities can be powerful.

Third, maybe the structure of political revolutions has changed with the times.  Gladwell suggests that twitter works best for getting things done when you’re not asking too much of people.  He suggests that Revolutions in history have typically happened because people were willing to sacrifice everything including their lives to achieve a goal.

Perhaps 21st century “Revolutions” will happen because millions of people did a few little things (instead of fewer people sacrificing their lives).   On Twitter, blogs, facebook, etc. it’s easy to ask people to chose one small thing as Obama’s team did with fundraising–anyone can donate $5 and then feel a part of the campaign (and become part of it’s imagined community).

In Calgary, followers were tweeted tips for getting out the vote, and apparently they did. The voter turn out for Calgary’s municipal election rose from 18% in a previous election to 53% this time.


BTW – you can also follow me on Twitter (@Wendy_Waters)

The Next Generation Takes Over a City

Evidence is mounting that younger adults live in and experience cities differently than their parents, grandparents or even older brothers and sisters did at their ages.

And, in Calgary this week, youthful adults used their smartphones and their feet to mobilize the vote for one of their own, 38-year-oild Naheed Nenshi, the unexpected new mayor.  He went from 1% support in the polls to victory with the help of an army of inspired youthful citizens who spread his messages.

The Calgary-born, Harvard educated Nenshi campaigned on a platform that included ideas to improve the functioning and design of the city, including design guidelines that would ensure greater walkability in new subdivisions. One of his key messages that people were talking about on the streets this week was about de-emphasizing the automobile in a city that lives and dies by the oil industry.  Despite the mild contradiction, a lot of Calgarians seemed to like this idea.

Nenshi’s election shows how a new generation with ideas—and a candidate who can articulate them—can seize control of a city.

This was a revolution in Calgary, long stereotyped as a place of white, socially and fiscally conservative cowboys with minimal educations.  Indeed many observers would characterize some past mayors (such as Ralph Klein) in this light.

Nenshi’s election reflects a different Calgary that I see gaining strength in every visit I make to the city.  From beneath the above-mentioned stereotype, over the past couple decades, a young, well-educated, energetic, idea-drive, tolerant and highly diverse population has been remaking Calgary into a vibrant global city. 

This was the logical next step—seizing control of city hall.

 Note, although the media has given some press to Nenshi’s minority and muslim background, it shouldn’t be overplayed.  The genius and power of this youthful movement he lead happened precisely because those two things didn’t matter to the voters, of all ages, he inspired with his ideas and fresh approach.

 Watch for this collaborative, youthful revolution to shake other Canadian and North American cities within the next 5 years, including Toronto and Vancouver.

Tax incentives vs fixing urban spaces first

What would be more effective in attracting a new cluster? Tax incentives? or improved urban infrastructure to attract and retain more people?  Or both?  What’s working (or not) in your city?

The province of Ontario (Canada) has announced tax incentives in order to build a digital animation cluster to rival those in Vancouver and Montreal.  This sector includes video game programming as well as movie special effects / post production work.

Presumably, they expect the focal point of this cluster will be in Toronto.  As nice as St. Catherines and London ON are (where a couple bigger animation firms are currently located), young computer graphics whiz kids will probably prefer to live in more urban, higher density and amenity-rich Toronto.

In fact, according to my friends at the Martin Prosperity Institute, people with creative occupations in SW Ontario disproportionately live in Toronto along the metro line corridors–yet I’ve heard most of them don’t take transit.  MPI’s map:

And I wouldn’t blame them for not taking the metro. To me it feels “scary old.”  It’s dark, dirty and rickety and I wouldn’t want to take it every day (and I’m a metro lover: I’d happily take Vancouver’s 25 year old sky train every day; I’ve lived in Mexico City and done that Metro every day too).  As a result of under investment in this system, I suspect many more people in Toronto drive than would do so if a clean, modern metro existed.

This further contributes to the crippling congestion in the Toronto area. The drain on the economy and quality of life must be enormous.  If I were a company considering taking the government up on their tax incentive offer, I would worry about retaining workers.  Toronto is a cool place, attracting talent to give it a try shouldn’t be a problem (plus a company can recruit from students at the local universities and technical colleges).  But will these people stay if their commute option is gridlock, old ricky metro, or a long go-train commute from a suburb (or a combination of drive in gridlock and go-train).

If the Ontario government has money to spare, and can subsidize industries, perhaps they can kick in a little more to partner with the city of Toronto and fix the transportation infrastructure.   This would also benefit their goal of being a more prominent global financial centre.

Building suburbs in “the city”

Are some cities starting to transform into suburbs?  Here’s how I see the dynamic (and then I welcome your responses):

Aside from their frequent auto-dependence, suburbs often offer the characteristic of “sameness.”

  • Homes in each subdivision all tend to be the same, or at least very similar.
  • The same type of people tend to purchase them–one subdivision will be popular with young native-born middle-class families while another will attract more immigrant families and still another older families or empty nesters.
  • The nearby retail, chain-based big box or strip centers.

This is often contrast with life in many traditional inner-urban neighbourhoods:

  • Homes reflect a variety of architectural styles, stemming from the different decades in which they were built.
  • Because of the different eras when various owners bought into the neighborhood, a wide range of people live there.
  • Retail also may have evolved gradually, with ownership fragmented into small units, often family owned, which tends to support more independent retailing and fewer chains.

More recently, to combat sprawl, many cities are re-zoning large swaths of industrial or commercial land into high-density residential.  But what gets built in many ways resembles the suburbs in character.  Buildings and units look very similar; everyone buys in at the same time so will tend to be of similar backgrounds; and the large retail chains scoop up the retail spaces.  Put all this together and you get a suburb in the city, even if the residents take transit to work and live in condos.

My question to urbanistas is whether this matters?

My thought is that it  could. Recent research on Generation Y suggests that this cohort group prefers to consume from smaller, independent businesses and organizations.  This new generation of talent may not be as attracted to vertically-oriented suburbs as they are to more authentic neighbourhoods.    Moreover, if the knowledge economy really needs creative inspiration, are you going to get it in these new milieus?

On the other hand, this style of development may be the only way to quickly offer more housing options in the city. Perhaps it’s not ideal, but it’s the way cities will develop.

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