Archive for urban technologies

An overlooked technology in shaping the city

The birth control pill turns 50 this week.  This technology has arguably been a key ingredient in shaping 21st century North American and European economic and urban life.  And yet, I don’t ever recall hearing urban theorists mention it.  So here’s the argument for the Pill as a key technology in shaping the new urban geography emerging today.

Since coming into widespread use in the 1970s, the Pill has allowed women to choose when or whether to have children, and how many.  This in turn has allowed women to imagine themselves in professional careers–and to fulfill those dreams.

Here are four ways the Pill has been re-shaping urban life.1. The fertility rate has dropped from 4 children per woman in her lifetime in Canada in the late 1950s to 1.6 children per women in Canada (and likely similar in urban areas of the US).    Women working in all variety of professions (not just nursing and teaching), is one of the drivers reshaping North America’s cities.

2. The knowledge economy built on collaboration and communication; psychologists will readily tell you that more women than men tend to excel in these areas.  Can you imagine a knowledge economy company with no women working there?  Women now earn more than half of all Bachelor’s and Masters degrees, which has been key to many knowledge occupations.

3. Experience economy–increasingly people have become more interested in consuming experiences rather than goods.  People from most income backgrounds today will spend money on fine dining, the spa, travel, a concert, etc.  Having the spare money and time to indulge in these is a direct consequence of having children later in life and/or having fewer of them. This allows both women and men some disposable income and time with which to have experiences.

4. Apartment and condominium living in dense, walkable and amenity-rich areas has been growing in popularity.  Living in small spaces suits a family of 3 much better than it would suit 6 people.  Suburbia made sense when having 4 or more children was normal.  Plus, living in an apartment near where both parents work, allows for more family time instead of commuting.

In his book The Great Reset, Richard Florida describes a new urban geography emerging in response to the growing “creative” economy (just as suburbia emerged in response to the industrial age).  Unless I missed it in reading the book, he doesn’t mention the Pill as perhaps the greatest labour saving technology for women (pun intended)–having fewer children to mother means more time and energy for contributing to the knowledge economy and makes dense urban living work much better.

What will make Toronto better

As discussed in my previous post, I find Toronto fascinating and enjoy visiting.  But it’s also a city with some immediate challenges that are perhaps holding the city back.

So what changes will improve Toronto and help it evolve faster into a global, international knowledge-economy hub?

#1.  Better transit.  The metro system hasn’t been upgraded since 1967, apparently.  Certainly feels that way to ride it.   The entire system needs an overhaul.  The stations each need a facelift and the network needs to go more places like Pearson Airport, “downtown Mississauga” (Square One) and York University.  This will help get people out of their cars and prolong the life of the existing freeway system.  If oil returns to $170/barrel, or more, I worry about how the automobile-centred suburban ring around Toronto will function.

#2 Simultaneous with better transit, the city needs to deal with certain freeway bottlenecks like the Gardiner Expressway exit by Union Station into downtown.  New condo and office towers opening and pending in the area will surely generate more traffic.  It’s insane now. I hope the city has a plan to deal with this.  Maybe congestion pricing? electronic tolls?

#3 Better recognition within the business and political community that Toronto’s future economic growth may need to be less centred on the financial services and traditional manufacturing sectors, and more based upon knowledge-economy production, including information technology, business services, or new media.

For people who live in Toronto, there is probably a list that might involve parks or schools.  But I can’t comment on that (however, feel free to do so in the comments if you live there).  This is the outsider’s perspective of what seems to be holding the city back–and it’s a list that would apply to many cities that also need better transit, solutions to automotive gridlock and a broader recognition of new economic growth possibilities.

The coming blurred boundaries between work and home

Over the past year I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the intersection of workplace trends and urban living trends.  It’s becoming probable that the urban knowledge economy will require many workers to supply their own private workspace.  Employers — or the city milieu itself — will be responsible for supplying the space for collaboration. This has pros and cons for individuals, employers as well as the city itself.

Increasingly, many office-based employers are literally breaking down walls to create a much more open environment for workers, often with the goal of increasing cross-communication among employees from different divisions and backgrounds.   Gone will be the days of many individuals hunkered down in private offices or high walled cubicles.  Those that have not yet done so often have making this change within their 5- year or 10-year  plan.

Having worked in both environments, I have found open plan to be far more efficient for idea generation and collaboration.  However, when I really need to focus and write down the results of the idea generation, or to build an Excel model or other tool to move a project forward, uninterrupted, private time can be essential.   Most knowledge-based workers I speak with feel similarly, at least when it comes to the need to focus.

Some companies that have moved to open plan offer silent workspaces for such concentrated efforts — or even small bookable  private offices.  Many also allow employees to work from home when they feel the need for privacy.

Thinking ahead, I suspect many knowledge economy companies will increasingly rely on the employees to provide their own private spaces (which might be at home, might be at the library, might be on a park bench).  The employer will offer only collaborative options and allow or expect people to find their own way to block-out or escape distractions when necessary.

Will this work? I think it might.  It will allow employers to save some money on office space. (Although typically technology costs rise to supply more mobile options, thus possibly negating any real savings here.  Time will tell.)  And, it may allow many employees to better manage their own productivity as well as work-life balance needs.

Will employees resent being expected to supply their own workspace?  I keep thinking that many will.  But, I’ve yet to find anyone who will admit to being anything but excited at the prospect of generally being allowed to work from wherever they feel most productive.

Indeed, a major US financial institution I interviewed found that when given a choice, over 80% chose to go mobile — which meant giving up an assigned office, but having the privilege of working from anywhere.  Most still came into “the office” 3 or 4 days per week, needing to stay in the loop on company happenings, collaborate with team members, and catch up with supervisors and mentors. Those that didn’t want to go mobile had typically only recently been promoted to a role with a private office and were therefore reluctant to give up this perceived status symbol.

This shift toward mobile work could really benefit the functioning of cities.  What if everyone didn’t commute at the same time?  Some people might find it more productive to work from home for a few hours, then head to the office mid morning.  Others would come in early and leave early, finishing their workday from their patio in the sun.  Those who prefer suburban living might not commute everyday.

What about you?  would you resent or embrace the more flexible workplace, or the mobile-worker based city?

What other pros or cons do you see?

Urban scenarios under high oil prices

How much will life in the cities change if gasoline costs significantly more than it does today?

Will the city be able to offer the housing, transportation options or amenities that its residents may prefer if fuel becomes a more expensive item relative to the family budget?

These are some questions I’ve been pondering lately and would welcome your input.

Assuming that oil prices over the next 10-20 years reach and surpass the previous high of $147 per barrel, and gasoline prices reach $2 or even $4 per litre, or $5 to $8 per gallon, how will life in cities really change?

Will it make a difference if the price escalation happens quickly or gradually?

Scenario one: new technologies emerge to allow for existing infrastructure to continue working.  One significant obstacle to any change is the existing built infrastructure.  The roads, bridges, freeways, housing stock, schools, office buildings, industrial and retail parks that we will be using for the next 50 years, and beyond, are largely already built.  Retro-fitting rapid transit into this framework tends to be costly and highly disruptive to people’s daily lives. Plus, many people like their suburban lifestyle (even if there is a growing trend toward higher density, inner-urban area living it won’t appeal to everyone).

Therefore, it’s highly possible that in most North American cities, the private automobile will still be dominant 30 years from now.  It may be smaller than the SUVs of today; it may run on electricity, fuel cells, a hybrid of sources, or simply have a much more fuel efficient gasoline engine and/or be less powerful.

Under this scenario, walking, cycling, densification, and transit use may still be gradually increasing in the cities as there are a variety of compelling reasons for people to change their lifestyles, but I’m suggesting that the private automobile and the infrastructure and built environment that supports it will remain a dominant force in urban life.

Scenario two: Strong shift to higher density living, and living close to work

Suppose gasoline costs rise relatively rapidly, and quickly become a significant drag on the living standard and lifestyle of the majority of individuals and families.  Waiting for new automotive technology may not be an option.  Families living in distant suburbs will need to reign in expenses and the fastest way to do it may be to move to a smaller home in a transit oriented neighbourhood closer to the income earner(s) place(s) of work.   This will be a boom to real estate developers — but also a challenge to them, city planners, and an entire construction industry to keep up with demand in order for such housing to remain somewhat affordable to these suburban refugee families.

Will there be a sudden demand for additional schools?  Can public school boards and private education providers manage this?  Will the local transit authority be able to manage a rapid increase in demand for transit from these new hub communities?

This scenario would also likely see a rapid decline in suburban residential real estate prices, trapping some families out there with “under water” mortgages (and in Canada you can’t walk away from these as easily as in the US).   On the plus side, such “stuck families” may see their commutes become less time consuming if fewer people are clogging the roads.

Other Scenarios, briefly:

Is there a larger scale migration from low density metro areas to higher density places?

Does working from home (or satellite offices) become much more viable with the rapid expansion of affordable, high-end video conferencing technology?

Will there be different “winner” and “loser” cities?  Ones that cannot keep talented people because driving is expensive and the built environment isn’t adapting fast enough, or can’t adapt?

None of these are necessarily mutually exclusive.  Thoughts and ideas welcome.

Intriguing idea: Charter Cities

Why is it that in hundreds of cities around the world, average citizens can own and use cel phones every day, but don’t have electricity or running water in their homes? They have a new, 21st century technology, but not a late-19th century one.

From this premise, Stanford University Economist Paul Romer develops an explanation, and then a solution in one of the most intriguing lectures I’ve watched in a long time.  See it here: or here.

Romer’s explanation for this dichotomy is poor rules.  Poor rules that create an unstable foundation for any kind of personal economic security.  For example, in some countries governments insist that utility companies offer electricity (or land-line phone, or water) at a particular, subsidized rate that doesn’t begin to cover their costs.  Therefore, these providers have no incentive to sign more people up, or even ensure the service doesn’t go out.  Changing the poor rules is tough, since thousands or millions of citizens as well as corporations rely on the cheap power, even if it is unreliable.  There is no easy path out for a country under this system.  (Cel phone operations, by contrast, tend to be market-based in much of the world.)

Starting up a new city, with new rules, in Romer’s argument, offers a way out.  He uses the example of Hong Kong.  For much of the 20th century, under British administration, the territory experimented with “good rules” adapted from successful economies around the world.  These rules encouraged innovation, investment, and overall economic growth.  Chinese premier Deng Xaopeng recognized how successful Hong Kong had been as a laboratory and market economy based alternative system to what existed in China in the late 1990s.   Special economic zones were then established in many Chinese cities, with more market-economy based rules (such as private property, market prices for services, etc.) offering citizens the choice of whether to live their and participate, or not.   Millions of Chinese have been flocking to these cities, that offer a different future for them or their children.  We’d have to consider them a success.

Based on the Chinese success, Romer suggests other countries from Cuba to Kenya consider creating charter cities and giving their citizens and people from around the world the option to move in.  He believes that more successful states, such as Canada, would be asked to administer the zones (instead of the failed state, who would be more of a silent partner).  As part of administering the zones, these more successful countries’ (or some team of people from them) would establish the new rules.   Likely these would involve laws about the security of private property, the enforecability of contracts, etc.

Contracts to provide services — everything from infrastructure, to schools, to commercial buildings — would be offered to national or global companies.

Charter cities would offer citizens in these struggling places another option.  They could switch to living by a different set of rules, and have an opportunity to build a better life for themselves or their children.

While I see some flaws in the plan (why would Canada’s government want to take on the challenge of setting up a special administrative zone, or charter city, in Guantanamo Bay, or anywhere else, for example), the idea is quite intriguing.  The planet needs to find a way out of failed states.

The video is worth watching if you have 20 minutes.

Metro mania

Tens of thousands of people stood in line for hours yesterday to experience the new rapid transit line in Vancouver. Such excitement has not greeted new transit options before, which got me thinking about the relationship between metro lines, a city, and its residents.

Unlike two previous routes, which primarily link suburban residential areas to downtown, this “Canada Line” links a variety of great places — real destinations — together:

  • The financial core / downtown area and nearby Granville St. Entertainment District
  • The trendy,  restaurant-rich condo-ville of Yaletown
  • City Hall and the new retail developments adjacent as well as the Vancouver General Hospital complex
  • Langara University College
  • River Rock Casino (which has a theatre that brings in great retro musical acts)
  • The Vancouver International Airport

Many more citizens can see themselves benefiting from this line, compared with the previous two which have really only served commuters from bedroom communities.  I think that accounts for the extra excitement.  That it opened three months early, and in August, also helped (not sure how many would have stood in the rainy November weather had it opened on schedule).

It will be interesting to see how ridership does.  I could see this line having much more balanced use beyond during rush hour as people go about their daily activities.

For those of you familiar with transit and metro systems,  what’s your experience?  Do metro lines connecting special places — destinations — have better ridership?  Do they mean more to you and other residents in the city?

This is not to say a debate doesn’t continue about whether this infrastructure was worth the cost (although I personally think it’s a worthwhile investment in a future, green, livable region).   I’m wanting a different discussion on what makes rapid transit work, and what makes rapid transit draw people from a variety of backgrounds. 

Automotive advertising and newspaper struggles

Many city newspapers in North America are struggling.  A few months back in a post I suggested it was because they were not covering local topics, instead picking up on non-analytical wire copy and propaganda media releases rather than reporting actual events.

The Global Urbanist has another theory, suggesting in a recent e-mail that newspaper declines are actually linked to a decline in advertising dollars from car companies and the fact that automotive-based commuters simply don’t have time to read the paper.
So s/he asks:

Why do newspapers have an automotive section?

On reviewing the world’s largest newspapers, I realized they circulated in regions with high transit use.  Japanese newspapers hold the top five spots in circulation numbers.   Japanese are also the largest users of passenger rail services.  Almost half of Tokyo’s 30 million residents commute by rail everyday. In the United States the top newspapers also correlate with the top mass transit centres with the exception of USA Today.  That exception could be explained as being the airline’s newspaper.  Daily airline passenger traffic in the U.S. is equivalent to almost half of New York City transit user traffic.

This makes sense since a train ride or a flight is the ideal environment to read a newspaper as opposed to the attention demands of driving an automobile.  So why do North American newspapers spend so many resources promoting automobile culture, and hardly any promoting transit?  Does the decline of transit culture in North America equate to the decline in daily newspaper readership?

Of course the answer is newspapers are funded by advertising, not readership.  There are a lot of advertising dollars coming from the automobile culture.  Whether it is a classified ad to buy or sell a used vehicle, an auto dealership promoting new deals, or a manufacturer promoting the upcoming model; there’s a lot of revenue coming in from drivers.  When was the last time Bombardier or Siemens promoted their latest rail innovation in the newspaper?  So newspapers are initially drawn by the advertising revenue from the automotive industry that leads to the long term detriment of their readership.

Today North American newspapers find themselves on a road to extinction.  On-line options get much of the blame, but these options are also available to Japanese, Germans, and British, all of whom maintain substantial readership numbers among their major newspapers.  The lengthening of the North American driving commute is as responsible if not the key factor to the decline of the continent’s newspaper industry.  When cars drive themselves or there’s significant increase in mass transit traffic the industry might start to recover.  Metro International is the fastest growing newspaper in the world and there key success factor is that they distribute at transit hubs.

Your thoughts?
p.s. I’ve been busy with family and vacation, but have several big posts percolating that I hope to post in the next few days

Lesson from India on affordable housing

In dynamic, popular urban cores there is a constant dilemma about housing affordability.  Because more people want to live in an area than there are homes, rents and sale prices can be high.

One solution is to demand a certain number of rental units or non-market units for sale when developers build out a new area (whether greenfill or brownfill).   But, government agencies involved in decisions often insist that all housing be of a certain size with particular amenities, such that it becomes more expensive to build and thus the city ends up with fewer units, and lower supply with the same demand brings higher prices.

Take this new community in India as an example of what homes need, and what they don’t — brought to you by Tata, the makers of the $1500 car.The development of Shubh Griha offers three home types ranging from 283 square feet to 465 square feet.  They’re basic, but affordable and allow many more units to be built within the same sized apartment building as would be the case in most North American cities.

No, this size and simplicity wouldn’t suit everyone.  But many families long for a well-built, simple and more affordable home in the city and would likely give up size in return for everything else.

In North America more two bedroom units might be appropriate for families who don’t all want to sleep in the same room.  But, why not on the same scale?  a 400 s.f. 2 bedroom place?

Looking ahead to an urban world with high energy prices, maybe there is room for housing that’s simpler, smaller and more ecological.  Plus, more people living in the same area provides a big enough market for frequent mass transit and offers enough customers to support more local businesses, reducing the need to drive.

Smaller homes seem like a good fit.

Social media and community engagement

Many popular culture analysts noted the decline of community in the later decades of the 20th century.  People seemed to “tune out” and become uninterested in world events, local politics and issues that affected their daily lives.  Some blamed television, others the double-income family combined with longer commutes that left little time to connect with those who lived nearby — and little reason to do so.  Shopping at automobile-centred power centres and supercentres some distances from home combined with working in isolated business parks while carting the kids off to distant private schools would hardly generate any reason to connect with people local to your home.

The 21st century has brought the decline of passive TV watching and the rise of social media.  It has also brought a renewed interest in cities, density and getting out of the automobile, at least occasionally, and connecting at a slower speed.

This combination of citizens living in closer quarters, spending less time in their cars, and more time with their families, friends — and on social media — may be the foundation of a new community structure.

In my neighborhood we have a private Yahoo e-mail group, “Parents in ‘The Area’”  where we share ideas and help answer each others questions about everything from parenting to renting to home renovation dilemmas.  As this group has evolved, what’s interesting is how different the member backgrounds are.  If not for this social media, we might not have otherwise connected in the ways we have.  An excerpt from something I posted to the group as we pondered our raison d’etre last week:

What I really appreciate about the group is the opportunity to converse with people who bring a variety of different — and even diametrically opposed — perspectives to our community. The one thing we have in common is that we are parents, trying to do the best we can.

In today’s “Multi-channel” universe of information, ironically the tendency has been for people to shut out or ignore perspectives that are not their own – you can tune in to your own custom “channel” if you want.  Our group somewhat forces all of us to tune in to many “channels” of information – perspectives — that we otherwise might not have tried to understand.
Just think, within our group we have:

  • Parents who vaccinate, and those who do not, and those who do so selectively
  • Carnivores, vegetarians and vegans
  • People who watch lots of TV, only a little, or none at all
  • Families who generally believe in western medicine, and those who prefer eastern or alternative approaches
  • Families who home school, families who support public education, families who use religious or independent schools
  • Gay families, straight families, single-parent families
  • People who rent their homes and people who own their homes, and people who own homes and rent suites within them
  • People who work in a wide variety of jobs and professions
  • People who prefer to buy most things for their children new, and those that prefer (or need) to buy most things second hand

It is becoming harder to find communities like ours who share in a non-judgmental way.
So we should all give ourselves a pat on the back for what we’ve created.

And, in still thinking about this group, and in how younger generations use social media seamlessly (and more than I do), I can’t help but think that maybe, technology will now lead North Americans back into forging tighter local communities.

Is social media helping you connect with people or businesses where you live?

Car-free communities in the 21st century

 Older neighbourhoods in European and some North American cities often work well as pedestrian and cycling zones because they emerged before the automobile existed.   Any new community, by law, typically has to allow for automobiles both in roadway allowances and parking regulations.

But what would happen in the 21st-century if you built a community that deliberately excluded automobiles. In Vauban, Germany, they decided to find out as the New York Times’ Elizabeth Rosenthal describes (via CEOs for Cities):

Street parking, driveways and home garages are generally forbidden in this experimental new district on the outskirts of Freiburg, near the French and Swiss borders. Vauban’s streets are completely “car-free” — except the main thoroughfare, where the tram to downtown Freiburg runs, and a few streets on one edge of the community. Car ownership is allowed, but there are only two places to park — large garages at the edge of the development, where a car-owner buys a space, for $40,000, along with a home.

The community was built in 2006 and has 5,500 residents all living within 1 square mile.

Rosenthal mentions a new community, Quarry Village, is proposed for Oakland California that also limits automobile access.  However, mortgage lenders are reluctant to support the project citing concerns that houses with no parking will not hold their value in car-centric America.

jordan 12 cherry jordan 12 cherry jordan 12 cherry jordan 12 flu game jordan 12 flu game jordan 12 flu game jordan 12 french jordan 12 french jordan 12 french jordan 12 gym jordan 12 gym jordan 12 gym jordan 12 ovo jordan 12 ovo jordan 12 ovo jordan 12 unc jordan 12 unc jordan 12 unc jordan 12 wings jordan 12 wings jordan 12 wings