There is no one way to think about a city. But one thing, until recently, has been certain: cities aren’t thinking about you.
The idea of conscious cities challenges the assumption that cities are thoughtless spaces, or stationary backgrounds for busy urbanites to make their mark on. Cities make their mark on us in ways we don’t realize, and often unintentionally so. By adding intelligence to city design, urban planners have the opportunity to create smarter, kinder cities.
Like any sentient being, a conscious city affects how you feel and what you do. It is an active participant that can improve or worsen your health, your comfort, and your wellbeing. The concept was coined in a 2015 manifesto by Itai Palti and Moshe Bar.
“The foundation of consciousness lies in the city’s awareness of the motives, personalities and moods of its inhabitants,” the authors write. Though architects have long designed to elicit emotion, from Pyramids to monasteries, we now have the data to base these decisions— from small details to large-scale urban plans—on actual science instead of instincts.
This isn’t to say today’s cities weren’t purposefully designed. Most city streets are planned for efficiency; the same goes for buildings, which are designed for convenience, if not luxury or bravado. Concern for public health and comfort, though, has not always been high-priority, let alone backed by science. True, there was a brief moment in the 70s when psychologists teamed up with architects in an effort to encourage “environmental psychology.” Unfortunately, the idea fizzled quickly.
As urban populations surge, the first instinct of builders and planners may be to save and make space. This alone is not enough, especially considering the well-documented psychological effects of overcrowding. Planners need only utilize science and research to plan for happy, healthy cities. Otherwise, they may worsen the existing condition.
How Our Cities Change Us
Before planning for the future, it’s useful to understand what elements of urban design are impacting us today. We know, for example, that repetitive patterns like stripes and tiles can induce migraines or seizures, while more natural and visually interesting shapes and spaces can ease stress.
Then there’s the paradoxical phenomenon of loneliness in crowds. Ample evidence through MRI scans suggests that people who grow up in cities are more prone to mental health issues, and it’s likely that crowding is one of these reasons, as our brains are not conditioned for such environments.
Technology helps us understand the way our surroundings affect us in ways we may not understand on the surface. Social psychologist Colin Ellard conducted a study to examine the physical reaction participants had to building facades using EEG headsets and wristbands. He found that facades, in fact, played a large role in the comfort levels of the participants.
According to the BBC, “when he walked a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole Foods store in Lower Manhattan, their arousal and mood states took a dive, according to the wristband readings and on-the-spot emotion surveys.” They sped up as if to escape a dead zone, then returned to a state of liveliness when passing storefronts.
Triangulation and public spaces foster community and reduce car accidents by implying that roads aren’t just for cars. Green spaces consistently correlate with higher levels of well-being in cities, even when taking other considerations into effect.
There are even worse ill-effects, planned or otherwise. The placement of highway systems and public transportation have led to segregation and poverty. Design features including spikes and high-pitched beeping discourage loitering at the expense of pedestrian comfort. Flashing lights and advertisements, especially at night, may induce anxiety and interrupt natural sleep cycles too.
Planning for the Future
Conscious cities, in theory, would use science and technology to optimize cities for the wellbeing of their inhabitants. This could—and should—go beyond just mental health by taking things like public health, ROI, and efficiency into consideration, too.
Take trees as an example. As a key component of “green space,” trees carry with them a number of psychological and physical benefits. A recent article by Vox outlined the findings of a recent Nature Conservancy report, concluding that “planting more urban trees, if done right, could save tens of thousands of lives around the world each year—by soaking up pollution and cooling down deadly heat waves.”
Besides these tangible, measurable effect, studies have found that simply viewing green space caused people to become happier and also changed their physiology, as their autonomic nervous systems showed strong signs of relaxation responses. Further research has shown that even simulated green space can have similar effects.
According to the Guardian, this type of research could be “the basis of a new and powerful discipline of experimental urban design based on sound principles of psychology and neuroscience,” perhaps utilizing virtual reality and other technology to simulate these types of responses. Neuroscience-based architecture and design could reinvent cities as we know them, or at the very least make little updates that pack a big punch.
After all, it follows that happier, more relaxed urban dwellers will be more productive, contributing to a happier and healthier economy. It’s a whole new way to think about cities, and ultimately a return on investment that can’t be ignored.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as a part of the country where it’s difficult to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods. An area is considered a food desert if 500 people or more, or 33% of the population in the area live at least one mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store. If that distance is 10 miles or more, the area is described as a rural food desert.
According to a recent report by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, about 2.1 million households i.e. 1.8% all households live at least a mile away from a supermarket and don’t have a car, making accessibility harder.
Food deserts are common in impoverished areas. This means that, for these people, buying that nutritious fresh fruit takes a lot of careful consideration and money management. One is faced with the task of either taking the exhausting ride in a bus (which also costs money) or paying a significant proportion of the grocery bill to have the purchase delivered. With the budget constraints, neither of these choices makes sense.
The dilemma too often ends residents foregoing the healthy eating entirely. They substitute the healthy food they can’t get with the available unhealthy food. Yes, it’s a big irony that the available shops stock processed, sugary and fatty foods instead of healthy foods––leading to another epidemic: Obesity.
As a side note, studies have been conducted suggesting that the distance from a supermarket or large grocery store has very little to do with the unhealthy eating habits. The studies say that the healthy foods just don’t sell in those food desert areas and it wouldn’t make a difference if stores were opened.
But we can pursue the little difference such a change would make.
It’s encouraging to see that there’s a wide range of models such as non-profit, corporate, charitable, and governmental programs that have been employed in trying to tackle the problem.
Working together with the communities, I believe there are a couple of measures that real estate developers can also help alleviate the problem.
1. Community Gardens
A community garden is a piece of land gardened or cultivated by a group of people in the same locality, usually for domestic consumption.
In the past, many developers have less than championed community projects that looked to turn vacant lots into food production areas. Rather, they have been more for house development.
To encourage growth of food in these communities, developers need to take the center stage by not just allowing people to farm in their communities but also designing those spaces and even funding them.
Community gardens can also be set on hydroponic rooftops, freeing up more space for housing developments.
2. Farmer’s Markets
Very much like a community garden, a farmer’s market is a retail market that features foods that are sold by farmers directly to consumers.
Instead of developing a whole area, one could decide to leave out sufficient space for the development of a farmer’s market where farmers can easily sell their produce and consumers can access foods without having to travel for miles.
3. Employment Opportunities
As mentioned, food deserts are often found in impoverished areas. Hiring local skills provides employment and a source of income to the people. With that, they can actually start thinking about eating healthy.
Also, the employees get to learn from the masters, especially where the project is about sustainable food production in the community. They can then use the skills learned to grow their own food back home.
4. “Giving Up” Land
As the situation escalates, developers need to start giving up more land to set up of community gardens, farmers markets, and even stores.
Giving up land isn’t a new thing. Developers have been giving up land to the city during new housing developments.
This time, instead of constructing parks and public structures on that land, it should be turned into a food production area.
Besides, giving up land for food production raises the value of the project in the long run.
As retailers and the government continue looking for ways to address the situation, real estate developers must also chip in and do their best to utilize their knowledge, access, and tools to ensure that even the low-income residents are able to eat healthy through convenient access to supermarkets and grocery stores.
When communities and local governments work together to create an urban landscape that caters to the needs of children, the result can be a safer environment for the younger generation and a more successful and thriving city overall. Many cities across the country have adopted elements of UNICEF’s Child Friendly City initiative, which promotes building sustainable cities and environments committed to honoring children’s rights. This includes having plenty of green space for plants and animals, providing opportunities to participate in cultural and social events, and supporting health care and educational institutions.
Here are some reasons why child-friendly cities are successful cities:
Focused on Equality
Child-friendly cities regard every resident as an equal and believe that all residents should have access to services and opportunities around the city regardless of gender, disability, ethnic origin, and other demographic statistics. This promotes environments of diversity and fairness among residents. It also upholds a high standard of respect among residents so that current and future generations can promote equality in their lives and in their community.
Puts Safety First
Child-friendly cities are committed to protecting children from violent crimes, exploitation, and abuse. This can have a trickle-down effect on residents as they are supported by local organizations and even local law enforcement to keep violence and crime at bay. Prioritizing the safety and well-being of all residents is critical for a city to thrive and child-friendly cities tend to uphold this as a necessity.
Many urban landscapes are littered with industrial buildings and pollution levels run high. Child-friendly cities encourage more green spaces and open environments where residents can embrace nature. This might take the form of investing in more city parks, promoting ‘green’ events, and taking the lead on preserving the environment with appropriate clean-up and maintenance practices. The result is that all residents can enjoy living in a city that provides opportunities to connect with nature and in turn, improves overall well-being.
Maintains Unpolluted Environments
From the drinking water to public restrooms, child-friendly cities are dedicated to preventing diseases and health issues related to the environment. As a result, residents can enjoy cleaner air, access to sanitary public spaces, and have access to pollutant-free drinking water. Cities in which tap water is not drinkable may focus on improving water and sewer systems, preventing hard water, and ensuring communities are built around grocery stores or convenience stores where clean water is readily accessible.
Wealth of Social and Community Activities
Children are eager to socialize and encouraged to make friends and develop relationships at a young age. Child-friendly cities may support these efforts by building playgrounds, hosting community events for different age groups, and sponsoring the arts. As a result, residents may have access to a wealth of social and community activities that encourage relationship-building and help residents connect. From city festivals to smaller play groups, living in a child-friendly city can help residents participate in family-friendly activities and get to know fellow residents in safe social environments.
Child-friendly cities offer a multitude of benefits for children and families, as well as residents of the city who may not have children or a family. Since many of these cities are designed to promote diversity, reduce our carbon footprint, and encourage healthy relationships and community-building efforts, the result is often a happier and more successful city. Landscape architects, builders, and local governments work together to create a safe, sustainable, and harmonious environment for all. As a result, these cities often see low crime rates, low unemployment rates, more diversity, and a variety of cultural activities that cater to all types of residents.
When the City Museum of New York held an exhibition on Manhattan’s layout, they named it the “Greatest Grid” because of the importance of planning in Manhattan’s success. Urban planning as a profession only developed in the 1800s, around the time the Manhattan grid was being set. While now we think of planners as a modern activity, the people who initially shaped cities had different problems and priorities.
In ancient times, cities were located on areas of strategic military importance, commercial interests such as ports, or spiritual centers. Planning the layout wasn’t particularly important, especially for each new leader who wanted to leave their mark. People resisted organization, too. When Rome burned in AD64, a proposal to make streets uniform and planned was turned down by the public.
Urban planning became a respected practice much later. At the first international urban planning conference in 1898, social workers and doctors stressed about overpopulation causing disease to spread, but the focus was mainly on an even more alarming challenge: horse manure from the many carriages in the streets. We’ve come a long way since then.
Here are four major influencers and innovators in the world of urban planning, both past and present.
James Corner and Field Operations
Having achieved fame through the New York City High Line, James Corner has also changed the way people interact with city streets and skylines. Being lifted into the air on the High Line changes our perspective, lets us see in windows, and lets us take a break from the world below. He is a landscape architect and academic, balancing structured human creations with wild nature. Some of this work involves undoing what city planners, and the natural course of a city’s changes, have done before him. In Cleveland, Corner adjusted the town square from a busy traffic center to return it to the original 1796 idea of a public meeting area.
As an activist, Jacobs protested, rioted, was arrested, wrote at Harvard, and moved to Canada. She lived a full life, and wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book which looks at how a city is made up of neighborhoods and people, not just streets and buildings. Jacobs argued for diversity as a key to safety and success. She pointed out that everyone in a neighborhood lives and acts the same, the streets would be empty at certain hours. If everyone shopped and thought the same, small businesses would never find customers. Her theories about mixed housing are visible in New York’s streets today, where 24hr corner store bodegas are the backbone of some neighborhoods.
As a professor at Brooklyn College, Zukin thinks and writes about New York City. In her book The Cultures of Cities, she looks at urban spaces and whether public space is really open to the public. She examines what culture influences a public space, and considers the role of the private-sector. Zukin also advocates for small businesses in New York versus chain stores, and considers how New York has changed over time and influenced the world by popularizing lofts that were once occupied by artists.
On the other coast, Shoup is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA. He also has a lively url for his personal website. His focus is on parking and the major social and economic toll that parking spaces can take on a city. He argues that everyone pays for parking, via increased costs in businesses, housing, and taxes. More importantly, money spent on parking removes funds from public transport, as well as bike and walking infrastructure. His attention to cars has shifted entire city plans from ‘minimum parking requirement’ to ‘maximum parking allowance’ for some developments.
Whether you agree or disagree with these influential planners, they each bring an important perspective on how we exist together in cities.
Obtaining an apartment in New York City has been covered in many movies and TV shows as a triumph to be celebrated, and rightly so. A prime living space can change the entire experience of the city. So once people have a home, they’re reluctant to let it go, even when a friendly roommate leaves.
Equally popular are the roommate horror stories. Welcoming a stranger into their home creates a difficult situation for people who need to find professional, appropriate matches to help cover the rent or sublet. It was only a matter of time before entrepreneurs looked at the rental market and decided there could be an app for that.
First, there are roommate matching services, which are more like traditional matchmaking. Some of these businesses are also taking a page from dating services. Speedroommating is based on speed dating, with the same set-up where strangers can join others in a social environment, mingle briefly, and speak more in depth if they believe it’s a match. Events are held in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Attendees wear a badge showing whether they’re seeking a room or a roomie, as well as their budget, preferred area, and other details.
Several websites not only match roommates but also review the profiles for warning signs in advance. Roomiematch even checks the person’s IP address to see where they’re really located, then filters through responses to a series of questions to look for signs of strange behavior. These are similar to the traditional rental matches that were made by housing services before the internet. The matchmaker is a cherished role, but it’s not quite the modern, quick fix many people seek, so there’s a lot of opportunities for new businesses to let people connect directly.
For renters seeking their own apartment, New York is a particularly complicated place to look because the city uses real estate brokers, who can help navigate paperwork and lead renters through the massive number of apartments available. However, according to Investopedia, the average New York broker takes 15% of the annual rent as a fee. Brokers can save people immense amounts of time, sweat, and tears. But not everyone can afford a broker or knows how to find a reliable one and avoid a scam. There’s a lot of money on the line, and many startups have stepped up to try to make renting in NYC easier.
Peer-to-peer connections and rental startups are just as valuable for people seeking an apartment. The app Inside Digs connects apartment hunters to the people leaving the apartment directly, so that they can ask questions about neighbors, noise, or other difficult to discern details. It also connects apartment seekers to brokers and even to landlords who have signed up for the service. This is also useful for people looking to sublet their apartment for the short-term.
Another service called Roomi combines questionnaires about house rules and habits with features like in-app chats, so people don’t have to share personal contact information before they’re ready. The site Leasebreak specializes in sublets, shares, and short-term rentals, which could be helpful, for example, for people who need to leave for a brief work contract out of town.
Like any startups, many of these companies seem to disappear as quickly as they arrive. Some of the problem is their own success, because when someone finds a rental, they leave the app. But there’s always going to be people moving in and out of New York, and they’re going to need help renting. Plus, it’s only getting more expensive in the city. When Forbes calculated the most expensive zip codes in 2016, New York dominated the top fifteen, with New York zip codes ranked at numbers 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, and 14.
Landlords are as eager to fill empty apartments as renters are to live in them, but there’s more than just personalities to match up. For people seeking an apartment, the cost and time spent searching can be daunting and prohibitively expensive. In New York, startups will continue to have room to grow and help renters in new ways.
Whether you consider it “a powerful beacon” or “incredibly stupid,” “corporate feminism” or “revolutionary art,” Kirsten Visbal’s “Fearless Girl” statue has been impossible to ignore since it popped up overnight this past March. Placed in a defiant stance before the furious charge of the iconic “Charging Bull” near Wall St. in Lower Manhattan, in a short amount of time the girl has come to represent a spectrum of opinions on feminism, capitalism, art and commerce. Especially since the events of last fall, these issues have been at the forefront of public conversation, and the Girl is the latest iteration of such.
One opinion that’s garnered a great deal of attention (for obvious reasons) is that of Arturo Di Modica, sculptor of “Charging Bull.” Modica considers the girl an “attack” on his piece, and has even retained a lawyer in order to have her removed from the public square. His counsel has said “‘Charging Bull’ no longer carries a positive, optimistic message,” declaring that the original statue “has been transformed into a negative force and a threat.”
To discuss in such concrete terms, through a lawyer or on his own, the meaning of this piece of art is certainly Mr. Di Modica’s right as it’s creator. One can consider the opinion of the maker of a public artwork to be the essential stance. After all, who would know better what a piece of art is supposed to mean?
Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it ends up working. Art, especially visual art, doesn’t carry a proscribed meaning. It’s not a textbook or instruction manual. Every viewer brings to it their own unique set of experiences and ways to understand the world. That’s the beauty of it. A painting as plain as the Mona Lisa, or as busy as a Jackson Pollock, becomes an endlessly fascinating set of questions when one considers all the ways to look at it.
The 20th Century French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote a great deal on this subject in his essay Death of the Author, published in 1967. Barthes found popular reception of art to be too frequently “tyrannically centered” on the opinions and experiences (whether inferred or stated outright) of the creator. He felt that meaning of art is created in the mind of the person experiencing it, not by the person who brought it into being.
Consider the great statues of Greek and Roman antiquity that populate the world’s most prestigious museums. Few would question their value in the context of art and global history. Originally created as exultations of the glory of gods and other mythical figures, so many of them now stand headless and limbless, stunning visual representations of the ravages of time. Should a modern viewer take away from these statues a new found appreciation of the greatness of Athena or Zeus, as they were possibly intended? Even if that’s what this hypothetical viewer does, are they “incorrect?”
Mr. Di Modica, while naturally defensive about the perception of his creation, needs to come to terms with the fact that people’s reaction to the Bull was never up to him. For years before the Fearless Girl arrived, his work was in the public sphere, standing for whatever each individual viewing it believed it stood for.
The origin story of Mr. Di Modica’s “Bull” is an illuminating one. Much like the Fearless Girl, it was placed overnight without notice, smack dab in the middle of the nation’s financial capital. It lasted only a day in its original spot before calls to the police led to it being trucked to an impound lot in Queens. Eventually, public outcry led the New York City Parks Department to find it a permanent home a few blocks south of Wall St. on Bowling Green. Those in charge of keeping order on Wall St. were aghast at the Bull, despite Di Modica’s intentions that it be a tribute to them. Although they were to be exalted by it, they were in fact repulsed. Surely this wasn’t part of his idea of it, either.
Consider the “Charging Bull” on its own face. It’s a fierce, massive creature in the midst of a potentially deadly strike. The statue weighs over 7000 lbs and looks it. It’s rippling muscles and kinetic pose imbue the chunk of bronze with the fearsome quality of the real thing. Considering the damage done in 2008 (not to mention 1929) by the denizens of the area, does this symbol of Wall Street really carry such a “positive, optimistic message?” Maybe you think so. Maybe you don’t. One group of you, according to Mr. Di Modica, is correct.
Which is a ludicrous premise. Especially for a piece of art that sits on public land, which by definition belongs to the citizenry. But even if the Bull were in a museum, it would be served well by being confronted by the Fearless Girl. Any viewer is well served by the interaction between the two pieces. Perhaps Mr. Di Modica himself could see the benefit of it, if he let go of his own fears.
The nonprofit art center the Shed will open in Spring 2019 at the High Line next to 15 Hudson Yards, at the edge of the Public Square and Gardens. While it has come under some fire for its price tag, lack of clear programming, and even its original name (the Culture Shed), what I find most interesting is the physical opening and closing of public space which the shell of the Shed makes possible. The flexible space, combined with the hiring of a chief technology officer who is known for creating real-world video games, suggests we are only just beginning to understand how we will interact with the Shed.
As a physical space, the Shed is in three parts: a building, a shell, and a plaza. The building will be eight large floors of display space total, including two levels of galleries, a theater that can merge into the outdoor plaza, a rehearsal space, a creative workspace for artists, and an events space at the very top. Covering over the entire building is a large, mostly transparent shell of metal and glass. Next door is a 17,000-square-foot plaza. When the shell is covering the building, the plaza is open for public use and as an outdoor performance space. However, when the shell rolls out to cover the plaza, things get interesting.
The shell of the Shed will be 120 feet high and mounted on rails so that an outdoor space is made into an indoor space with a pull of the lever. All of the necessary electrical equipment and platforms are built into the shell and so roll out with it. Of course, several features of the High Line already make use of rails, in homage to the trains below, but the wheels and rail for the Shed will be a new scale, with three large gray wheels on each side. It’s easy to see the possibilities for aerial and multi-level performances in that space.
Looking at the video on the Hudson Yards New York website for the Shed, the exterior walls of the building can also move to accommodate and meld with the plaza. On the sides of the shell, parts can open and close to create entryways and adjust flows of foot traffic.
The High Line averages 4 million visitors a year, so the exterior plaza of the Shed will be a natural place for foot traffic to pool, whether they visit inside or not. Also, the side of the shell facing the plaza can become a large projection screen, which can project shows or images to be viewed by those passing by.
Public space is sacred in New York first as part of the iconic 1961 Zoning Resolution which influenced the shape of skyscrapers with the idea that open parks and public spaces would surround them. The Shed has been criticized for its price tag of more than 500 million, and construction photos which make it look like a skeleton of the AT-AT Walkers from Star Wars don’t necessarily help. But is the plaza enough?
The American Planning Association outlines several questions for determining if a public space is any good. The questions as if it can:
- Reflect the community’s local character and personality?
- Foster social interaction and create a sense of community and neighborliness?
- Provide a sense of comfort or safety to people gathering and using the space?
- Encourage use and interaction among a diverse cross-section of the public?
We will have to see how people feel once the construction is complete, but I suspect that the use and interaction will be heavily influenced by our digital lives. Why do I think this?
The Shed has hired Kevin Slavin as the chief science and technology officer. He has a popular TedTalk on algorithms which has nearly four million views. He is also a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab and co-founder of a gaming company that used location technology to create large, real-world games. This is worth thinking about because the public space of the Shed can really extend to cover the entire High Line area. Could interactive events begin all over New York, and end in the plaza of the Shed? Is the removal of walls both physical and digital?
The Shed is designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the same firm hired for the MoMa’s unsuccessful Art Bay, in collaboration with Rockwell Group. While there is still a lot left to learn, I suspect that digital art and interaction through smartphones and technology will be a major part of the Shed’s arts programming, which is an exciting prospect.
From Brooklyn to the Bronx, and all the brownstone and mansion studded boroughs in between, owners of historic homes know they need a little help when it comes to renovations and upkeep of their historic properties.
Especially if their home is officially designated historic by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, which recognizes buildings with “special historical, cultural, or aesthetic value and that (are) an important part of New York City’s historical and architectural heritage.”
The Commission, which was created in 1965 in response to the destruction of historically significant buildings, designates individual buildings as well as entire neighborhoods.
According to the Commission’s website:
To help protect the city’s landmarks from inappropriate changes or destruction, the Commission must approve in advance any alteration, reconstruction, demolition, or new construction affecting the designated building.
But New Yorkers don’t maintain historic properties just because there are rules and regulations. People who own these properties want to preserve a small piece of history, indulge in the luxury of having a gently used, but still beautiful, home.
Of course, there are the practical problems associated with old homes: plumbing; HVAC and electricity. For that owners need licensed, insured, technicians with a great reputation.
But once (or while) those dollar-draining issues are dealt with the enticing details that lure people into purchasing historic properties—stained glass windows, wood floors, ornate plaster ceilings, tile- demand attention.
Fortunately, in New York, there’s plenty of help available, according to a recent article in the New York Post. There are large firms, such as EverGreene Architectural Arts, which can handle multiple aspects of a restoration project from mural restoration to recreating ornamental plaster.
Not just any handyman can handle the job of restoring, or even duplicating, the gorgeous architectural flourishes of past eras. It takes artisans with years of training and experience.
The Post article quotes two men who began learning their craft as teenagers. Vincent Battiloro, of The Finest Brownstone Wood Restoration, learned to work with wood as a teen in Italy while Larry Feldman, of Feldman Stained Glass, began working in window repair at local antiques shops while growing up in Greenwich Village.
Battiloro’s story exemplifies the evolution from starving artist to in-demand artisan. According to the Post “he moved to New York in 1960 — a time when preservation was less popular — and picked up odd jobs like repairing wood furniture in hotels.
“The business changed when young professionals realized that instead of paying $1 million for a studio in the city, they could buy a brownstone in Park Slope,” Battiloro says.
Today he mainly restores high-end woodwork in townhouses—much of which gets painted over or varnished from decorative fretwork to carved doors to elaborately detailed staircases.
Like Battiloro and Feldman, many of the artisans who focus on restoration and historical preservation are craftspeople who operate small, independent, businesses. That means their work isn’t cheap, but the end results can be priceless.
Deborah Mills, a custom wood carver based in Long Island City, is quoted in the Post article, admitting her skills “are pricey but valuable.”
But, she said, her firm is “up to any task, including recreating mantels, cornices and friezes for homeowners.”
One of the best resources for finding an artisan is the “Find a Professional” page on the New York Landmarks Conservancy website. The artisans aren’t vetted, but dozens of professionals are members of the organization (for instance, there are 10 who consult about stained glass.)
With resources like that available, it is possible to own, maintain and even improve historic houses in the boroughs of New York. It’s not easy, and it certainly won’t come cheap, but for those who love the idea rest assured, it’s do-able!
More than 20 Years After the “Bigger is Better” Building Trend Began, are These Odd Monuments to Excess on their Way Out?
It began—like parachute pants, shoulder pads and “supersized” fast food meals—in the 1980s and became full-blown in the early 90s: McMansions. Houses described as bland, standardized, dis-proportionate and, like the other fashions of the time, ostentatiously large.
The structures, which average 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, sprouted up all over the country and have been blamed for everything from destroying regional architectural charm to being the pin that popped the housing bubble in 2007.
Overall, home ownership is considered to be part of the American dream. That ideal began before the great depression and blossomed in the post-WWII housing boom when returning veterans took advantage of the GI Bill benefit that offered low-interest, no down payment, mortgages.
That, along with a generally growing economy, increased the homeownership rate from 43.6 percent in 1940 to 61.9 percent in 1960.
But the houses on the market at the time were small, sturdy, structures that were about 985 square feet, on average. One 1952 ad for a home in Syracuse, New York, lists a “modern three bedroom home, living room, furnace, kitchen and new roof, $9,900.”
Hardly a palatial set-up.
By 1990 the homeownership rate was at 64.2 percent (it took a dip in the 1970s during the recession) before hitting 66.2 percent in 2000.
But these were not homes meant to last, nor were they necessarily affordable. During the housing crisis, more than 10 million homeowners lost their homes (more families were displaced than during the great depression.)
An article in Business Insider quotes Kate, who created the blog McMansion Hell, about the quality of many of the homes that went into foreclosure. According to the blogger, McMansions were “built cheaply in order to get maximum items checked off the check-off list for the lowest cost. The designing of houses from the inside out caused the rooflines to be massive and complex.
“These roofs are nearing their time of needing to be redone and maintained at extraordinary cost due to their complexity,” she said. “As the era of repair draws near, I suspect many homeowners are quietly trying to walk away from their bad decision.”
So, owning a large, expensive, possibly poorly constructed home became considerably harder in 2007-2008. Does that mean the trend is over, permanently, even with the economic recovery?
The same Business Insider article makes the case that it is. Similar articles have appeared in Curbed and even The Chicago Tribune. With cities undergoing property booms and becoming safer all around, it’s attractive to live in downtown areas as opposed to the suburbs. Perks include the convenience of having everything you need in 5 blocks radius, without the need to even own a car.
A counter argument, citing recent data from a February 2015 survey by Trulia, which states that 43 percent of American adults would like to live in a home that’s bigger than where they currently live, has been offered.
The fact that the trend was especially evident with millennials, ages 18 to 34, seems significant.
However, the survey also covers the size of the current home and, unsurprisingly, those in smaller homes would like to upgrade. In fact, 55 percent of those in 800–1,400 square foot homes and 66 percent of those in homes with less than 800 square feet would like to live in larger spaces.
Not included in the survey results are whether it’s millennials who live in the smallest of spaces.
Since millennials are credited with renewing growth in cities, have less disposable income than the yuppies of the 80s, and are buying into the “tiny homes” movement, it seems likely that the days of the McMansion are numbered. Especially if those roofs start caving in.
Virtually, Amazon is as daunting as the river it shares a name with: by total sales and market capitalization, it’s the largest Internet retailer in the world. Having begun its run in 1994 as a modest online bookstore, the tech giant has expanded rapidly to offer consumer electronics, apparel, furniture, cloud infrastructure, and even streaming services with original movies and TV.
Now, Amazon expanding its raging waters from online space into brick-and-mortar retail. After opening a bookstore in Seattle in 2015 and two more in San Diego and Portland, Amazon will reach the east coast later this year with a new store in Manhattan, NY. According to the Wall Street Journal, the 4,000 square-foot Midtown location will be located in the Shops at Columbus Circle just south of Central Park.
The company is also considering a location in the new Hudson Yards development, which would be slated to open in 2018. This is alongside other plans for Amazon Books locations in Chicago and Denham, Massachusetts.
It’s an interesting time for retail to be certain, especially since we’ve seen the mass closing of malls, department stores, and small businesses in recent years. What is it about Amazon that will succeed in a physical space, especially in a world where ecommerce is only slated to rise? And does their move into brick-and-mortar bode well for the world of retail, or signify its demise?
As always, we can only speculate about the answer to these questions. But one certainty about Amazon Books is that it has a future-forward approach to shopping. Instead of listing prices, shoppers use their phones to find the best price online and read reviews. This necessitates that shoppers download Amazon app, yes—but on the bright side, doing so gets you best price possible, and unlocks reviews by real readers instead of just literary critics on the back cover.
Shoppers can check out and search the store for inventory virtually, and are even recognized for being Prime members. It’s the best of both worlds when it comes to book shopping: the convenience of tech plus the physical pleasure of rifling through pages (plus occasionally sniffing them for that classic new-book smell).
Amazon Books is also revolutionizing retail by also bases their merchandise on online data culled from sales. According to National Real Estate Investor, “Books in the physical stores are stocked based on titles that have garnered the best sales, popularity on Goodreads, high customer ratings and many pre-orders, according to the company’s website.”
All of this is to say, Amazon’s retail is different than retail of the past, and this may just be the key to retail’s future. Luckily for Amazon, they don’t have to compete with ecommerce because they are ecommerce, but if other brick-and-mortar stores want to get in on the action they may need to take a leaf or two out of Amazon Books.
Integrating mobile devices into the physical shopping experience one way other retail stores can recreate Amazon’s model, whether through apps or beacon technology. Stores might also consider using data to create a more user-friendly (and Internet-friendly) experience for shoppers. For retailers, embracing technology may be the only way to make Amazon’s presence less stifling, and truly run with the flow of innovation’s ever-moving stream.