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How Roommate-Matching Startups Help Renters in NYC

How Roommate-Matching Startups Help Renters in NYC

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.

Don’t Fear the Fearless Girl

Don’t Fear the Fearless Girl

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.

What The Shed at Hudson Yards Means for Public Space in NYC

What The Shed at Hudson Yards Means for Public Space in NYC

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.

How NYC Artisans Keep Historic Real Estate Like New

How NYC Artisans Keep Historic Real Estate Like New

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!

The Rise and Fall of McMansions—And Why Cities are an Attractive Alternative

The Rise and Fall of McMansions—And Why Cities are an Attractive Alternative

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.

What Amazon’s Brick-and-Mortar Mission Means For Retail

What Amazon’s Brick-and-Mortar Mission Means For Retail

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.

Bodegas in New York City: Convenience for the Ages

Bodegas in New York City: Convenience for the Ages

It’s not completely a convenience store, not completely a deli, you know one when you see one, but they’re not a total cinch to define. Uniquely of and representative of New York City, the bodega is a place every New Yorker regularly visits for their day to day needs. Whether for a daily coffee and bagel or an emergency 2 AM cereal run, the local bodega is a neighborhood cornerstone.

But where exactly did these places emerge from? As with many traditions, a combination of various ethnic traditions led to what we know know as a bodega. In a city as richly diverse as New York, it comes as no great shock that our corner stores contain the legacies of several generations of immigrants.

For one, it would appear that the post-WWII influx of migrants from Puerto Rico established the foothold that allowed modern-day bodegas to multiply. Rooted in the Spanish word for “storeroom” or “wine cellar” (but eventually coming to mean “grocery store”), many of the early examples simply advertised themselves with that one word splashed across a sign out front. Their customers knew what they’d find inside.

Of course, the idea of a small corner store didn’t start exactly there. Earlier sandwich shops in Jewish enclaves held the same position as an indispensable neighborhood establishment. However, these shops and grocery stores in those days hadn’t evolved into the self-service stores we visit today. Most still were run by the “grocer” who would find your items for you, and many more were sit-down eateries. It took a few decades before things sped up to the satisfaction of all New Yorkers.

Another example of such is the Dominican enclave of Washington Heights, where the old-country tradition of the colmado is an important part of the bodega’s local role. These convenient stores also function as a meeting place, where locals can meet up with neighbors and friends in a relaxed atmosphere. Groups of people chatting in folding chairs outside the store is a not very unusual sight. The same can be found not only in Washington Heights but in bodegas across the city. Their position as impromptu meeting points underscores the importance of bodegas to their communities.

More recently, a growing number of bodegas are operated by immigrants of Middle Eastern origin. As the latest set of arrivals to set down entrepreneurial roots in the city, these owners face the same challenges as those who came before them, along with a few unique ones. The idea of selling pork products or alcohol is for many Arab bodega owners a source of conflict, but many have assimilated and accept this practice without partaking in it themselves.  

No matter who they are owned by, bodegas survive by serving their community. More and more frequently this means offering healthy options alongside the usual snack cakes and sodas. New, so-called “organic bodegas” offer up kombucha and organic pasta to their customers looking for hip, nutritional fare in their neighborhoods. City leaders have gotten in on the act as well, with several initiatives aimed at improving access to healthy food in all communities.

Beloved by all New Yorkers for many years, it’s hard to imagine the city without these ultra-convenient quick-shopping stores. Whether you’ve been here all your life or are new to the city, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the neighborhood bodega.

How Minecraft Democratizes Urban Design

How Minecraft Democratizes Urban Design

There’s a reason young people love Minecraft. Called a “sandbox” video game, Minecraft is a blank slate that enables players to build brand new worlds using only building blocks and the contents of their imagination, then take on three-dimensional adventures from there.

If this sounds like paradise for the future architect or urban planner, you’re not the only one that thinks so. The United Nations’ Block by Block program operates based on the notion that, since urban planning is a community effort, community members young and old can take part in public redesign projects. According to their website, Block by Block uses Minecraft as “a community participation tool in urban design and fund the implementation of public space projects all over the world, with a focus on poor communities in developing countries.”

The beauty of Minecraft, in this regard, is its ease of use. Young people with big imaginations take to it easily, but so can adults, whether or not they are familiar with similar software. In Haiti, for example, a group of fishermen with no computer experience—let alone reading or writing—successfully designed a seawall to prevent flooding at Place de la Paix, complete with public toilets, and presented it to architects.

Block by Block is a partnership between Mojang, Minecraft’s maker, and UN-Habitat, the UN’s program for sustainable cities. UN-Habitat is determined to upgrade 300 public spaces in the next three years with its Global Public Space Program, of which Block by Block is a part.

Democratizing Urban Planning

With cities and public places specifically, a democratic, collaborative approach makes sense— because it’s something everyone has a stake in, and which everyone will use and share.

Public spaces include parks, marketplaces, and public squares; they are the shared areas where people are free to walk, relax, and mingle. Public space adds to the health of a city, and in developing countries can make a huge difference since foot traffic stimulates economic growth.

New York City has made public space a priority (in fact it’s currently comprised of 60% public space). Other cities can take this example to expand public places with the input of locals. Technology like Minecraft is one way to get the public engaged and involved in planning the future of the communities they live, work, and entertain themselves in.

According to the Guardian, “Governments are…waking up to the idea that the public are not only users, but also a powerful resource – and that engaging them online is easier than ever before.” Technology like Minecraft is one way communities can be a force for change in their own neighborhoods.

More generally, tech and new media are providing tools for the public to offer up ideas, point out issues, and connect to advocate for collective needs. From apps, to crowdsourcing platforms, social media and augmented reality, emerging new media and digital technologies invite the public to take part without significant limitations. In other words, innovation levels the playing field.

Minecraft and Beyond

Minecraft is unique in its appeal to younger individuals, and its ability to gamify urban planning, making it attractive to a wide range of people regardless of experience level. With Block by Block, citizen players, architects, and government workers can walk around the virtual space and make important decisions together. In this way, it truly democratizes the important job of urban design.

But Minecraft is far from the only technology opening urban planning to the public. There’s Zooniverse, an online platform that organizations can use to launch citizen science projects, and the US National Archives’ Citizen Archive dashboard, which lets citizens transcribe and digitize handwritten documents. Then there are more city-specific projects like FixMyStreet, which lets locals flag problems in their neighborhood digitally.

According to the Guardian, “It’s examples like these, where governments use technology to bring communities together, that demonstrates the benefit of embracing innovation.”

Indeed, the mutual benefits are clear when citizens get involved in public efforts to improve either specific communities or society at large. As the saying goes, many hands make little work. Well, many blocks can make big, monumental changes. Perhaps the urban planners of the future will look back and wonder how and why it was done any other way. 

If We Live in a Simulation, Let’s Hope We Never Prove It

If We Live in a Simulation, Let’s Hope We Never Prove It

Odds are, you’ve pondered off-hand the nature of our shared and individual reality. Am I real? Is anything real? To most mature, sober adults, the consideration seems absurd. But there are some that think this a possibility not only worth pondering, but investigating. Believe it or not, many philosophers, physicists, and futurists think there’s a good chance the answer to both queries is “no.”

You may have heard of simulation theory before. It’s been most notably depicted in the Matrix Trilogy, wherein Keanu Reeves’ Neo discovers that his reality is a computer simulation created by sentient machines that control humanity. Simulation theory is basically that, but without a robotic antagonist and human bodies in pods. If human consciousness can be simulated, the theory goes, we could be all be characters in a virtual reality and never even know it.

The case for simulation

Why on earth(s) would this be the case? This is where the sci-fi element gets a bit more plausible. The first rationality is statistical. Assuming it is possible for humans to simulate reality in the future, post-humans would have the ability to run countless simulations, potentially of their ancestors (us), all at once. Statistically, then, it would be infinitely more likely to be part of one of these simulations than not.

Considering the rate of improvement in video games and virtual reality—by which we’ve gone from “Snake” to photorealistic VR in half a century—it seems unlikely that humans won’t someday reach this point. If you are a technological optimist and think humans can and will create simulations down the line, you’ll have to accept the probability that it’s happened already, and here we are. This belief also lends itself to the theory of nested realities, by which people in simulations create more simulations, forming a chain of virtual worlds.

Some scientists have equated the realization (if it could ever be proven) with Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth moves around the sun. Once you get it, everything else becomes simpler. If we are indeed part of a simulation, it may explain why, against great odds, we evolved from ooze into conscious beings. If this rare and miraculous evolution happened just once, trillions upon trillions could relive it in simulations. It could also explain why the universe is based on mathematical laws, and why objects are only measurable once they are observed.

The hypothesis was first laid out by Oxford philosopher and futurologist Nick Bostrom in 2003, but has since piqued the interest of prominent scientists. Elon Musk, for his part, thinks that there is a billion to one chance we are living in base reality. He also says we should hope we are, because if not civilization could be near its end. NASA scientist Nick Terrile agrees. “If one progresses at the current rate of technology a few decades into the future,” he tells the Guardian, “very quickly we will be a society where there are artificial entities living in simulations that are much more abundant than human beings.”

Is it possible to test such a hypothesis? Two Silicon Valley billionaires, for their part, have enlisted scientists to try and figure it out. Some things to look for would be irregularities, finite points that prove the universe isn’t endlessly expansive, or evidence of a creator “cutting corners.” But perhaps the only real solution would be to succeed at simulating reality and consciousness. In this regard, we have a long way to go.

What it would mean—and should we worry?

The greater question is, if we are to accept simulation theory (or somehow prove it), does it even matter? Is it good for the world, or bad? The revelation might inspire a sense of purpose in some, causing them to do more to make things interesting for the game-maker. This seems like a stretch—personally, I can’t imagine a collectively positive reaction in today’s day and age.

Casting a tidal wave a doubt over the world’s religious billions, for starters, would the extinguish (or at least badly damage) the moral purpose of huge portions of the population. People would question the meaning of their day-to-day lives and struggles, and be embittered by the idea of a mortal creator watching for amusement. If there were concrete proof of a simulation, humanity would doubtless attempt to make contact, or cause enough of a commotion to merit intervention. This would be a recipe for mass anarchy.

Lest I end this on a dark note, it’s worth taking a moment to realize that whether or not we are in a simulation, the odds of us proving it any time soon are miniscule. And there are perfectly good reasons to disbelieve the theory entirely. Simulations rely on physical properties, after all, and it boggles the mind to think of the time, space, and effort necessary to create a perfect, mammoth simulation that grasps the minuscule details of reality so expertly. Think of it this way: if simulated water tastes and hydrates just like water, is it a simulation anymore, or just water? Further, there is no evidence yet that computation can replicate consciousness on any level.

There will probably be no real answer to this question in our lifetime, and simulation theory is in this way kind of like religion. If believing in it drives us to be better people, and strive for an improved, advanced humanity, I may still call it creepy, but I won’t knock it.

If the concept alone drives us to mayhem, well… it wouldn’t be the first time belief in a higher power led to war.

What The New ‘Tactical Urbanism’ Design Guide Means for Cities

What The New ‘Tactical Urbanism’ Design Guide Means for Cities

You may not know the term tactical urbanism, but you have probably seen evidence of this recent movement if you live in or near a city. Tactical urbanism can look like a parking space converted into a mini park; handmade pedestrian signs; manmade public spaces, reclaimed from the road; sidewalk gardens; and pop-up markets, to name a few examples. Tactical urbanism is essentially citizens taking city planning into their own hands through small-scale, transient projects meant to enhance their lives and their neighbors’ lives by improving their urban environment.

The movement fits into a pattern of citizen activism and limited civic funds, thanks to the recent economic downturn, while addressing the reality of aging infrastructure. City dwellers have responded by taking matters into their own hands, with the aim of improving matters short term, demonstrating proof of concept, and solidifying changes in the long term through official channels.

Tactical urbanism is iterative, like the agile development processes of many startups and tech companies. Projects are thrown up overnight (in some cases literally), and citizens see what sticks. The tactical urbanism handbook, published by the Street Plans Collaborative, is similarly adaptable. The first edition of the handbook Short-term Action for Long-term Change is credited with helping to popularize the movement by collecting and publishing tried-and-true techniques for other municipalities to replicate. The strategies outlined in the guide have been vetted on the ground, and this may be likelier to succeed long term. The tactics are also assessed through case studies focusing on different cities. While these reforms are scaleable in the sense that they can be replicated, they are by nature community-instigated, they don’t lose their grassroots.

The most recent edition of the DIY urban intervention manual focuses on materials. “The Tactical Urbanist’s Guide to Materials and Design dives into the details of pop-up urbanism: when to use tape or paint or chalk, how to choose the right materials for temporary barriers, and more.” Temporary materials are usually cheaper, and also often the better choice for the job. Tactical urbanism sometimes runs up existing regulations, like traffic lanes, for example. The project might be reversed immediately, so wasting money and effort on expensive permanent materials serves no purpose. Often these projects illustrate a desired improvement to city planners and government officials, who would be responsible for making it permanent.

Although tactical urbanism cannot solve larger issues like infrastructure, it can make cities more livable and comfortable in the immediate future. It also creates an open channel of communication between citizens and government officials, encouraging dialogue with residents about neighborhoods improvements. Some have expressed concern that tactical urbanism can exacerbate inequality: that only the privileged can dedicate time to such projects, and that engaging in activities that skirt the law is riskier for some. In the spirit of tactical urbanism, projects intended to benefit the community must be conceived as inclusive and accessible to all.

New York City is a hotbed of engaged citizens with good ideas, useful skill sets, and activist tendencies, all living in a sprawling urban jungle, where pedestrians constantly wage war against cars. Unsurprisingly, tactical urbanism has already been deployed here to good effect, and sometimes initiated by the city itself. The oasis in Time Square that reclaims street space for pedestrians is an example of a temporary measure becoming permanent after it was well received. Sidewalk gardens, pop-up markets, and other creative city hacks are already a commonplace sight around the five boroughs. Tactical urbanism will undoubtedly continue and thrive here, deepening the dialogue between an engaged citizenry and their local government.