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Why You Should Volunteer Before Launching Your Career

Why You Should Volunteer Before Launching Your Career

Volunteering can prepare young people for the world, both career-wise and on a personal level.

This article was originally published on Entrepreneur.com

With the weight of the world’s future resting on modern students, young people are bombarded with advice from the get-go on college majors, internships, salaries and beyond. On some level, it’s understandable: this world is a competitive one and we all want success for ourselves, our families, our economy. But what if instead of entering the workforce with money and power as the only goal posts, our careers were informed by developing our more selfless interests, too?

For me, volunteering was not so much a choice I made than it was something I felt compelled to do, partly due to my Jewish heritage and partly due to my urge to make a difference. After joining Dartmouth College Hillel’s Project Preservation, I led two separate trips to Eastern Europe — Belarus and the Ukraine, respectively — where my classmates and I worked to rebuild Jewish cemeteries destroyed under Nazi occupation.

These trips were incredibly formative for me, perhaps more so than any classes I took during my college career. By the time I graduated and moved to New York to start my career in real estate, I better understood my abilities and instincts not only as a businessman but as a human.

Some people are so eager to get out there and start working their way up the corporate ladder that they forget to develop their sense of self. I think volunteering is one way to prepare young people for the world to come, both career-wise and on personal level. Here’s why:

Volunteering gives you a sense of perspective.

It’s easy to have an inflated sense of self-worth as a young person; some may even say it’s natural. But the last thing you want entering the workforce is to preserve this state of invincibility — you are not and never will be invincible. On a similar note, your problems are not the only ones that matter; the world can be your oyster if you want it to be, but it isn’t yours alone.

Volunteering knocked me down a couple of pegs. Knowing — and witnessing, via the destruction of their cemeteries — how the Jewish people suffered under Nazi occupation, my perspective on life was altered. It didn’t matter as much if a teacher, friend, or colleague didn’t like me. I could handle my personal and professional issues with a level head.

Most forms of volunteering involve providing aid to those in need. When you have the privilege to be on the helping side and not the needy side, you realize how blessed you are. This attitude goes a long way when you start your career without a chip on your shoulder.

It helps with time management.

Juggling volunteering with academics, family, and a social life was not an easy feat for me; nor I imagine would it be for anyone. One major reason people don’t volunteer is because they think they don’t have the time.

You could really make this excuse for anything: “I don’t have time to go to the gym,” some say, or “I don’t have time to cook.” True, some people may not have the time for volunteering, let alone other activities, but the truth is most of us can make time if we want to. This takes time management, and a lot of it.

Being able to juggle school with volunteering and an active personal life is good preparation for the workforce. Young professionals often get a grunt of the workload and are expected to handle it if they want to advance. Volunteering teaches you to manage your time in an organized way so that you can balance your priorities and still squeeze in the occasional happy hour.

You develop new skills and passions.

Few people choose organizations to volunteer for arbitrarily. Finding a philanthropy that fits your personality and values can be just as important as finding a career that does and I would make the case that finding the former first helps with the latter.

Through volunteering, I learned how to be a leader; I learned to value teamwork and collaboration. Looking back, I can also see the parallels between my volunteer work and the career I’ve built since then. In Eastern Europe I restored and rebuilt cemeteries to preserve their histories; today, I oversee real estate development and restorations in historic NYC neighborhoods. It’s not the same, but there are overlapping themes about preserving history and community I’d be foolish to deny.

People who volunteer with animals from a young age may find that they want to go into veterinary sciences, or they may simply develop a strong compassion for underdogs. People who help the homeless may pursue careers in government, or they may learn not to judge colleagues by their appearance or income level. Whether a big or small, the impact on your career is almost certain to be positive.

It looks great on a resume.

There’s no denying that for all of volunteering’s personal benefits, it’s also something that can boost your resume by adding experience and depth. Philanthropy helps candidates stand out to employers in a positive way, especially if the company is a socially-minded one looking for a cultural fit.

For me, volunteering was key to defining my professional and personal identity, a link without which the whole of my persona would not stay strong. Whether I knew it or not at the time, my experience became a critical foundation for my success today, defining both who I am and who I want to be.

What New York City Could Learn from Toronto About Sustainability

What New York City Could Learn from Toronto About Sustainability

When it comes to cities, the word sustainable comprises much more than the environmental connotation acquired in recent decades. As any cement-pounding city dweller can attest, sustainable applies to basic living conditions, as well as environmentally-friendly practices. So it makes sense to assess cities’ sustainability in terms of residents. After all, what qualifies a city as a city, if not for the people?

Cities must not only retain but attract people: to persist and grow, to pay for services provided, and even to turn a profit. So it also makes sense to score cities on financial stability.

And beyond its residents and economic standing, cities have to adapt. In the current climate, that urban adaptation often takes the form of environmental policy.

So while cities have been coined green and smart, what really makes a city sustainable?

Recent surveys generally give scores in three categories: people, planet, and profit, according to Arcadis’s Sustainable Cities Index, assembled by the London-based Center for Economics and Business Research. No city has managed to perfectly balance these three tentpoles yet. As more and more people gravitate toward urban centers, that sweet spot remains a moving target. Factors like population growth and climate change affect a city’s sustainability score from year-to-year, and though circumstances seem to primarily impact one target, the three are closely intertwined. Hence, the Sustainable Cities Index, intended to reflect a city’s overall health: “not to create a hierarchy of elite cities,” emphasizes John Batten, Arcadis’s Global Director of Water and Cities, “but to indicate areas of opportunity.”

The necessity of comparison brings us back to examination of the term city. Although you can compose a checklist of characteristics that constitute a city, no entity of that name will reflect those characteristics in quite the same way. In a column tracking minimum population, for example, you may see similar numbers, but not the wildly varying demographics they represent.

Again, John Batten puts these statistics in perspective: “‘Cities have unique identities that are heavily influenced by their cityscape, economy and culture. Some cities, particularly established European cities such as Zurich which tops our index, are positioned within a moderate climate and have an economically balanced population which gives them a clear advantage when it comes to their sustainability. Others have to deal with issues including extreme climates, rapid urbanization and lack of financial resources which can hold them back.’”

So, with all these disclaimers about awarding cities of all shapes and sizes with number scores that constitute a somewhat arbitrary measure of sustainability, how can these cities take cues from each other? Specifically, what can the relatively high-scoring New York City learn from the similarly successful Toronto?

The Sustainable Cities Index operates on a scale from 100, and Zurich tops the charts with a score near 75. New York is ranked overall 26th out of 100 cities surveyed, and Toronto comes in at 33rd. However, the cities’ scores are not far off from each other: New York scored 62.9% overall, and Toronto 61.7%. And while New York earned the title of most sustainable North American city for 2016, Toronto held that title in 2015, for the first Sustainable Cities Index report.

The cities’ sub-scores reveal a more detailed makeup: in the people category, Toronto actually beat New York, with a sub-score of 62.3% compared to New York’s 53.4%, placing them 40th and 77th out of 100 cities. They scored similarly in the planet section: Toronto at 68.1% and New York at 66.1%, ranking 28th and 33rd in this category. The profit category explains why New York outranks Toronto on the Index: New York scored 69.3% in this category and Toronto scored 54.8%, leaving them at 8th and 38th in this section.

So if New York is to look to Toronto for ways to improve its sustainability score, the planet and particularly the people sub-scores give some indication. Each city’s rating in the people sub-section is comprised of scores in several sub-categories: education, health, demographics, income inequality, affordability, work-life balance, and crime. The biggest discrepancies between Toronto and New York can be found in income inequality (10.7% > 6.5%); crime (13.2 % > 10.1%); and affordability (7.1% > 0.2%).

The planet sub-score is based on environmental risks, green spaces, energy, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, waste management, drinking water and sanitation. The most significant differences between Toronto and New York here are environmental risks (9.9% > 7.6%); energy (8.6% > 6.5%); and air pollution (13.4% > 12.1%).

Toronto has been especially successful in energy efficiency, waste management, and water. Toronto is one of the top three cities for ensuring a robust, effective, and healthy water supply, while New York’s resources are considered more vulnerable. Indeed, the report highlights some of New York’s perceived weaknesses, including poverty, an overburdened transportation infrastructure, and rising sea levels forecasting more storms, flooding, and other natural disasters.

Toronto, on the other hand, will have to deal with a 25% population increase expected in the next 15 years. “According to a report presented by the city, Toronto has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 25% since 1990 and expects to improve that number to 30% by 2030 even amid the city`s population growth, which has seen the metropolitan area swell to six million as of February 2015.”

Hopefully these sustainability assessments and metrics encourage cities around the globe to learn from each other and the myriad issues faced by such complex cosmopolitan organisms in the coming century.

The Momentous Rise of Coworking Spaces in NYC

The Momentous Rise of Coworking Spaces in NYC

Coworking is widely considered to be the face of the changing workplace. As The Atlantic reports: “By 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 40 percent of the U.S. workforce will be freelancers, temps, independent contractors and entrepreneurs who single-handedly run their own businesses.” With an increasing emphasis on the “‘workplace of choice,’” the young workforce will inevitably transform what is now considered a trend into the new norm.

An entire industry has sprung up in the past decade to cater to the needs of this young entrepreneurial and independent-minded set. According to The Atlantic, “Shared workspaces first started as informal arrangements: Freelancers with extra space in their garage invited friends to work with them and groups of freelancers leased office space together to make it more affordable.” But new coworking spaces can offer much more than just physical accommodations: services, amenities, digital platforms, flexibility, networking opportunities, and–most importantly–a sense of community. As Tom Lloyd observes in Forbes, “‘Office work is transforming from one dominated by clerical processing to one where making the most of human capital is the ultimate goal. The knowledge economy is fueled by ideas, and ideas are fueled by collaboration.’”

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In accordance with this idea, Inc.com notes that “the number of coworking spaces in America has gone from one to 781 since 2005.” The article references a report by the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, which also distinguishes coworking spaces from other startup organizations like incubators and accelerators. There is every reason to believe this growth will continue. Hiring in the tech, advertising, media, and internet industries is increasing one-tenth annually, and these sectors most often make use of coworking space, according to Jason Bram, economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

New York by itself has seen the emergence of more than 50 new coworking spaces to support its entrepreneurial citizens. This is partly thanks to an injection of venture capital–49% from 2014 to 2015, exceeding $7 billion–as well as a population of 4.7 million freelancers and the city’s signature “creative abilities to make the most out of tight spaces.” The explosive growth of New York-based WeWork provides an illustrative example: since it was founded in 2010, WeWork has “leased 3 million square feet in New York City alone, […] enough to fill the Empire State Building, with 200,000 square feet left over.” The number of New York WeWork locations is already in the double digits, not to mention its U.S. urban expansion and international outreach, and it has signed “20,000 tenants in less than five years.”

With widely-available communications technology, the burgeoning freelance economy (driven in part by the fallout of the 2009 recession), and a renewed focus on work-life balance, coworking spaces can offer benefits that traditional companies and office buildings cannot. Shlomo Silber, the founder of New York-based coworking chain Coworkrs, tells Crain that coworking ”’is about hospitality, in terms of focusing and taking care of the needs of our members.’” In fact, even big companies have recognized the perks of coworking spaces: benefits for employees such as networking and innovation as well as cost-savings on property rentals. According to Colliers International, “Fortune 100 companies are increasingly taking desks in temporary facilities, both as a cost cutting measure and as a bridge to attracting and retaining talent by providing environments that cultivate a mix of networking, training, team events, and ideation. WeWork is accommodating tenants with large numbers of employees by offering full floors and modifying space for security, reception, IT, etc.“

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This kind of accommodation–as well as the meteoric rise of coworking companies such as WeWork–has led some freelancers and entrepreneurs to ironically label these chain coworking companies as ‘corporate.’ Indeed, several founders of successful coworking spaces have discussed the difficulty of manufacturing community. As Kevin Smith, founder of the Vault–a San Francisco-based co-working space–reflects, “‘Collaboration’ is a word you hear a lot, and it’s this almost-mythic concept. […] You’re supposed to put people in a building, and the collaboration will just happen; but it doesn’t unless someone is there directing the show.’” Adam Neumann, founder of WeWork, also comments in The Atlantic: “‘It’s a science. […] We cannot force community, but we can create an environment that encourages it. We’ve gathered massive amounts of data about how to design a space to foster collaboration.’ WeWork has done research into design questions as specific as the optimal number of couches and the ideal location of coffee machines to foster conversation.”

In the spirit of this collaboration, and as an additional service to members, coworking spaces–particularly chains and franchises such as Grind and WeWork–have developed exclusive digital platforms to connect their members. One user called the WeWork app “‘a real life LinkedIn.’” While the app enables these professional connections to happen in person, they are still digitally arranged, which raises the question of how well a digital overlay enhances community. Physical coworking spaces seem to have sprung up in part to circumvent virtual networks, so a digital platform can almost be seen as the antithesis of the community-centric mode of coworking.

In a period of such rapid growth and expansion, many have begun to try to regulate what constitutes a coworking space. “People like Tony Bacigalupo, the founder of New Work City, are working to codify the principles of coworking so that they are easier to incorporate into new coworking communities. ‘There is a sense in the Zeitgeist that coworking is more of a real estate opportunity.’” Another attempt has been documented by The Huffington Post: “LExC is a network of passionate, like minded coworking space owners with aligned business approaches. Led by Jamie Russo, founder of Enerspace Coworking in Chicago, the organization was formed to define acceptable standards for coworking spaces and elevate the industry as a whole. LEXC gives members the ability to work from any member spaces if they are traveling, and defines appropriate operating levels so visitors can expect similar experiences no matter where they need to work.”

One thing that most of these coworking spaces already have in common, though, is their urban roots. According to CityLab, “Downtown San Francisco now has more high tech startups that suburban Silicon Valley,” the birthplace of the tech start-up. Silicon Valley could not possibly hold all the startups that have arisen in its trailblazing wake, but the migration of start-ups to cities raises some issues. Cities and start-ups have a symbiotic relationship: entrepreneurs tap into urban networks and take advantage of the culture and amenities. Coworking spaces fit right into the sharing economy, a predominantly urban trend.

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But startup culture and the coworking spaces that support it do not necessarily serve cities well, at least in terms of real estate. The acquisition of urban real estate in order to essentially rent to businesses that would otherwise find office space could lead to inflation. 

San Francisco has famously seen inflation in its rental market and a high cost of living increase due to its proximity to Silicon Valley and its own startup scene. New York is currently evaluating the effect of Airbnb–a startup itself–on its unique real estate market.

For all the growth that coworking spaces can bring to New York City, it might be worth evaluating the impact of this new model and design regulations not only to preserve the sense of community intrinsic to coworking spaces, but also to monitor the scaling of such businesses.

Hudson Yards Development & The Future of Smart Cities

Hudson Yards Development & The Future of Smart Cities

When the historic Hudson Yards project joined forces with Constantine Kontokosta and NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) in 2014, the topic of smart cities came to the fore. Hudson Yards is a real estate endeavor unprecedented in the modern era for many reasons: the land developed is west of Midtown West in Manhattan, home to the some of the hottest real estate on the market; the project spans many city blocks, essentially comprising its own neighborhood; and the complex will recycle organic waste, collect and reuse rainwater, and host a power generator onsite. Add the fact that Kontokosta and CUSP are outfitting the site with thousands of sensors, and you have a truly groundbreaking development, what many have termed a “smart city.” Smart cities powered by “user data” have the potential to be safer and certainly smarter, but the methods and application of data gathering deserve attention.

The myriad uses of this sensor system are still being explored, but certain essential energy efficiency and environmental factors will undoubtedly be addressed with the data gathered: air and noise pollution, for example. Hudson Yards’s emphasis on sustainability as well as “resiliency, redundancy, [and] future-proofing” is in part an answer to natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and to energy initiatives launched by the mayor’s office. In 2009 Local Law 84 came into effect in New York, mandating that larger properties collect and submit information about buildings’ energy and water usage. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to harness that data in the 80 x 50 effort, aiming to cut New York’s greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.

For a developer’s perspective, the Observer spoke to David Brause, president of family-owned Brause Realty: “His firm is comfortable investing in green features that might take 20 years to pay off, because his company’s strategy is to buy and hold long-term. He’s honest though that beyond energy cost savings, the economics of green treatments have yet to be entirely proven. […] For existing buildings, even the economic case for updating systems can be tough to make for building owners who aren’t able to work on a 20-year time horizon like large owners can.” However, regulations like Local Law 84 and initiatives like 80 x 50 make it in developers’ best interests to retrofit their buildings with energy management systems and to design green buildings going forward, especially as New York is not the only city to enact such legislation, and more is likely to come down the pipe in coming years.

A open source project called Array of Things has set out to gather urban data similar to that collected at Hudson Yards. By deploying 500 nodes attached to traffic poles and streetlights throughout Chicago, this project will “initially measure temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, ambient sound intensity, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and surface temperature.” Data is transmitted to the Argonne National Laboratory, and measures have been taken to ensure the privacy of passersby.

This issue of privacy, along with security and equality, will need to be addressed in the creation of any smart city. The internet of things – the concept of a network of physical objects collecting data and contributing to a kind of matrix of physical information – is an easy connection to make when visualizing the thousands of sensors placed around Hudson Yards. CUSP brands this idea as a “quantifiable community,” but that raises the question of who can afford to live in the Hudson Yards community, and who may be left behind in the age of smart cities.

An urban neighborhood built from the ground-up, like Hudson Parks – complete with commercial and retail spaces, a school, and a hotel – is almost unheard of, especially in New York City. Most city neighborhoods are deeply rooted in culture and history, even those that undergo controversial growth spurts like gentrification. Even cities that underwent large scale reconstruction, like Chicago after the fire of 1871 or San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, still grew organically, shaped by residents and experiences. Can smart cities be considered “cities” in the traditional sense if they are too engineered, and not by their own residents, but by management companies and city planners with a wealth of data at their command?

Kontokosta emphasizes that personal information about residents’ health and activities will only be gathered voluntarily. Such personalized data could be incredibly useful from a city planner’s perspective, but when does it become invasive or even Orwellian? And how is all the information gathered to be secured against cyber attacks? As Kontokosta admits in this Bisnow article, “There will be a lot of challenges dealing with the fire hose of data this is going to unleash, but we’re hoping this will eventually become a model for how cities think about this type of informatics infrastructure going forward.”

For more information, listen to WNYC’s summer 2016 segment: The Future of the Smart City. Find further reading in Anthony Townsend’s book Smart Cities and in Adam Greenfield’s shorter piece Against the Smart City.

How Big Data Can Make Philanthropy More Effective

How Big Data Can Make Philanthropy More Effective

Corporations across America are already tapping into big data to analyze customer behavior, conduct market research at a whole new level, and seek out new revenue opportunities. There is no reason why philanthropic organizations — and donors — can’t do the same.

From reviewing an organization’s performance to determining where fundraising dollars are coming from, big data-based strategies could be a powerful addition to the nonprofit sector in upcoming years. With a wealth of data readily available in the digital space and the ease in which more can be collected from supporters, sponsors and other contacts in their network, many can formulate plans and initiatives that are largely data-driven.

Here are some insights about how big data can make philanthropy more effective:

Tracking Fund Allocation

Many philanthropic organizations and charities publish annual reports about their usage of funds and other financial information. While these financial reports are valuable to stakeholders and donors, it’s not always easy for the average donor to find this data when deciding which charity to donate to or when comparing worthy organizations.

With big data, we would be able to access a smartphone app or online dashboard to review this information in real-time. Imagine how much easier it would be to compare performance and review activities of a certain organization so that you could verify how funds are being allocated.

Marketing Planned Giving Programs

Attracting donors interested in planning giving initiatives can be easier and streamlined with big data. Organizations able to tap into market segments in a position to join a planned giving program  — based on certain conditions or factors, such as age, occupation, retirement status, donation history, or similar — would have more information at their disposal for their marketing database.

Such organizations could coordinate more targeted marketing efforts to appeal to these potential donors, reaching out at just the right time and creating campaigns that resonate with their audience. This way donors would receive more valuable and impactful marketing materials from philanthropic organizations.

Identifying Supportive Markets

No matter what the organization’s cause, recruiting supporters is critical to success. Marketing teams may be able to identify the most responsive or supportive markets using big data analysis. For example, an organization could track the total number of dollars donated to the organization from every single state to see if there are any noticeable trends or patterns. Analyzing what may be causing these disparities can help the organization fine-tune their marketing and fundraising efforts so they are not wasting marketing dollars. This type of data analysis can also help unveil untapped markets or opportunities.

Increasing Reach via Digital Platforms

Another element of marketing that almost all nonprofits have already moved forward with is social media. While any organization can set up a Facebook Page or Twitter account to promote their cause and engage donors and related organizations, it takes some analytical muscle to dig through the data and determine what types of activities are most effective on social media, and who exactly the organization can reach through its efforts.

Whether they are coordinating online giving programs or simply making announcements about the latest activities, increasing reach to the ever-growing audience on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram, can be a valuable addition to an organization’s marketing efforts. Big data can tell us what this audience looks like, what their interests are and how likely they may be in a position to give. Nonprofits can explore a variety of social media marketing initiatives based on this data, making those advertisements and updates that much more impactful when connecting with potential supporters.

Maybe you’re a board member of your favorite charity or are thinking about joining forces with a philanthropic organization in some other capacity. No matter what your role may be, executing an effective fundraising strategy will be a high priority. In today’s data-driven world, there are numerous opportunities for fine-tuning fundraising strategy using big data. From accurately tracking fund usage in real-time to benefiting from planned giving programs, big data is opening new doors in the nonprofit sector — it will change things for good, both literally and figuratively.

The Skinny Skyscraper: More Than Just a Trend?

The Skinny Skyscraper: More Than Just a Trend?

The Manhattan skyline is marked by several skyscrapers and buildings with unique architectural designs, in addition to which we’ve seen an explosion of super-skinny towers in New York in recent years. The slender, compact design of these buildings gives them an edgier, futuristic look and many are now used as high-rise apartment complexes and business offices. Experts are claiming that this is almost a new phenomena in architectural trends, a combination of economics and engineering, according to professor of architecture at Columbia University, Carol Willis, who is also the founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum.

Are skinny skyscrapers, also called pencil towers, more than just a trend? Here’s a closer look at this emerging architectural design and what we can expect in the construction and design world in the oncoming years:

Notable Skinny Scrapers in New York

According to City Lab, the number of skyscrapers in New York City that are 1,000 feet or taller are going to increase significantly. Today, the skyline features just seven of theses super skinny buildings but there are already several multi-million dollar projects underway for new construction buildings that will transform the area around Central Park and Billionaires row, reports City Lab.

What’s most significant about these buildings is their structural aspect ratio. Willis explains that some are built with extreme of a 1:23 base-width to height ratio which means the building is an architectural feat — and certainly a sight to behold.

The tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere is located at 432 Park Avenue. It was designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects and stands 1,396 feet tall with a height to width ratio of 15:1. The building was completed in 2015 and boasts nearly birds-eye views of New York. It’s a welcome addition to the bustling streets of New York City since it doesn’t take up much space on the ground. The tower looms high above many New York buildings, changing the famous New York City skyline.
Another iconic building in New York City is The Icon, a 43-story residential tower on West 48th Street. This was the first skinny skyscraper in New York and also has a height to width ratio of 15:1. Residents of this building enjoy views of the Hudson River, Midtown and Central Park.

Skinny Skyscrapers Push the Boundaries of Architectural Design

Skinny skyscrapers and super-slender buildings certainly push the boundaries of modern design, architecture, engineering, and real estate. In cities like New York where space is a commodity, it would seem the skinny skyscraper is the perfect solution for saving space on the ground while increasing available space above.

Building developers and construction teams may also be able to save money on materials in both the short-term and long-term since they need to use higher-strength steel and composite structures to ensure the buildings do not collapse, and also so the building maintains its structural integrity and original design for several decades to come. We are already seeing this trend influencing construction and building design in Melbourne, Australia, and in London, United Kingdom where we are seeing a combination of skinny skyscrapers and sculpted buildings scheduled for construction in 2017 and beyond.

Optimizing Architectural Design and Construction of Skinny Skyscrapers

The effects of heavy traffic on roadways near the building, stormy weather and even strong winds can all shake a building from the foundation upward, causing vibrations and even structural damage. To counteract the impact of environmental factors in the bustling city of New York, architects are designing these buildings with additional features.

As The Lyncean Group of San Diego points out, slosh dampers can be installed to absorb vibrations on lower floors, something that many residents or office workers in a skinny skyscraper experience because of the construction of the building. Mass dampers can be placed on user floors to reduce the impact of wind forces. These technical and engineering modifications may soon become a necessary part of the design and building process of very high and slender buildings, something that is may not always have been required when building traditional skyscrapers.  

Architects working on skinny skyscraper buildings are now using advanced structural modeling techniques to determine how to optimize the design of the skyscraper to handle certain environmental effects, such as wind turbulence and heavy traffic, as well as the overall weight load of a building based on its use. For example, residential towers may have different structural requirements than a commercial use building. Mixed-use buildings may need to be designed with certain specifications to ensure they can accommodate for certain weight loads and activities.

Since they can be constructed for both residential and commercial purposes and take up less space than traditional skyscrapers and mixed-use buildings, skinny skyscrapers are likely more than just a trend. In some of the world’s biggest cities where space is increasingly limited, the skinny skyscraper may be the best solution for accommodating for a growing population. Architects that know how to use advanced computer technologies and modeling systems to create these buildings will able to render futuristic, edgy and awe-inspiring designs that are also structurally sound and meet local zoning laws.

Featured image: Richard Schneider via Flickr 

Why Many From-Scratch Cities Are Failing to Thrive

Why Many From-Scratch Cities Are Failing to Thrive

Rome. Paris. New York City. Beijing. Some of the most powerful and beautiful cities are centuries old, with some having been built up and outwards for thousands of years. Many new, built-from-scratch cities may not be destined for the same success — in fact, hundreds of shiny, modern metropolises lay dormant in spite of high hopes and intelligent design.

With global urban population expected to rise to six billion by 2050 from 3.9 today, new cities will be essential for growing communities to form and thrive. Public and private projects around the world are aiming to design and build these idealistic cities of the future, but have been proven flawed in both approach and outcome.

Flawed planning, hazy results

A Hologram for the King, a Dave Eggers novel recently made into a film starring Tom Hanks, portrays a fictionalized example of how new cities can fail to get off the ground. In it, the protagonist Alan takes a trip to Saudi Arabia to present his company’s IT system, which he hopes will be adopted by the in-the-works King Abdullah Economic City. Throughout the course of the story the city remains in a state of limbo, likely never to live up to the King’s exaggerated claims or marketing promises.

King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced “cake”) is real: though perhaps not as bleak as rendered in the book, the desert megacity has been underway since 2005 as one of four new cities proposed to control sprawl and congestion. The city is supposed to become larger than Washington DC, but remains only 15 percent completed, gaining only several thousand inhabitants over a decade post-conception.

Other Middle Eastern countries have traversed this road already to minimal success. The United Arab Emirates’ carbon-neutral smart city Masdar, though completed, remained virtually empty to this day. Built to house 50,000, the population is only 1,000, consisting mostly of students attending the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology there.

China is perhaps the posterchild for from-scratch cities: the nation has used more cement in the last three years than the US in the entire 20th century, and invested more time, money, and space into brand new cities than any other country. Called “overnight cities” by some, a fleet of metropolises have been popped up across rural land in anticipation of rapid population growth.

Roughly 600 new cities have been built since 1949, many in the 80s and early aughts. Hundreds of these remain empty or under-populated, often referred to as “ghost cities” or compared to dystopian fantasy settings. The buildings shine, but the streets echo; they are eco-friendly, but until they are people-friendly their sustainability is a moot point.

China’s top-down approach to urban planning is smart in theory but lacking in practice: you can plan a city all you want, but over half the appeal of cities are their community and culture, which are inherently organic. Even the best marketing plan can’t disguise the deficit.

In spite of China’s struggles with the matter, down in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made smart cities a major goal of his administration. One of such cities is Lavasa, a completely privately-run metropolis. Like the others, it is unfinished. Visitors remark that it is more suitable for vacation than for living, as it lacks adequate hospital and schooling systems. And like many other new cities, it doesn’t solve problems like poverty because it’s too expensive to live there.

Other high-tech, eco-friendly city projects — like Portugal’s fully sensor-embedded PlanIT Valley — have halted construction over economic concerns.

Whether public or private, from-scratch cities face similar issues: attracting people, solving problems, and investing large sums into an uncertain fate.

People bringing promise

Why is it, exactly, that historic cities flourish while new ones flounder? Old cities face troubles of all sorts, especially as older infrastructure crumbles, populations fluctuate and architecture becomes outdated. Systems fail, buildings overcrowd, and yet they remain resilient in their complexity.

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. This is obviously true: modern Rome was built over the course of two and a half thousand years, and is thusly one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Europe. Even newer cities like New York have had a couple of centuries to develop character, layers and intricacy.

New cities may never have the chance to make it to that status, and it doesn’t help that they lack the appeal and vibrancy of old cities. As the architect of the still-budding city Loseva said in an interview, “soul is something that the city develops over time.” The older the city, the stronger the soul.

The location of age-old cities also reflects the cream of the crop in real estate: they are natural and ideal spots with the best weather conditions and access to water supply and trade. Their economies and communities have thusly developed both financial and cultural capital over the ages, not out of a goal of perfection but out of necessity.

This said, not all from-scratch cities in recent histories have or will necessarily falter. South Korea’s Songdo is among the most successful so far, whether by design or chance, it’s reached a population of 70,000, which is expected to triple by 2018. Though it’s largely a blank slate still, Koreans already accustomed to the high-tech slickness of cities like Seoul may be ideal adopters to fill it out with the color and energy it needs.

Songdo may be an outlier. Either way, the planet needs more cities. Perhaps people simply don’t want to live in cities of the future — not yet anyway.

What is the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t think there a hard and fast rule — it may be that time and population growth alone does the trick. Even so, the territory is uncharted and the variables are many. Knowing what we know about people, about culture, and urban planning, better practice should at least be in reach.

As Jane Jacob wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Perhaps this is the core issue: city architects should plan and build alongside people rather than simply for them.

There must be room to go off the books, room for the unexpected, room for a little bit of chaos to seep between the buildings. If urban planners have to compromise their ideals to get there, it may just be worth it: without people, a city is simply a glorified diorama. With them — flaws and all — it can develop a spirit along with its skyscrapers.

6 Green Innovations That Could Revolutionize Urban Planning

6 Green Innovations That Could Revolutionize Urban Planning

The world’s cities are in constant flux, being built or built upon to accommodate fast-growing urban populations. The standard approach to urban design has changed, as it has countless times throughout the ages. Today, a new trend has dawned: sustainable design for greener cities, and ultimately a greener planet.

Sustainable design boils down to two main goals: conserving energy and reducing waste. There are many innovations that deliver these goals that are worth paying attention to. After all, they could be staples in the future of urban design, construction, and renovation. As a seasoned real estate entrepreneur, I find it useful to watch these developments carefully.

Here are seven innovations that, though not necessarily new, I believe may explode in popularity as cities are designed and developed with sustainability in mind.

1.Green roofs

Not unlike the habitats of the Hobbit’s Shire, green roofs are structures either partially or fully covered by vegetation. Why? The benefits are extraordinary. Green roofs limit the need for heating and cooling, filter pollutants from the air, insulate buildings, and offer extra square footage for agriculture. They also help mitigate the “heat island” effect in urban spaces — when cities are hotter than the surrounding land — by lowering temperatures.

The modern trend started in Germany in the 1960s and spread to other European cities, many of which are known for their sustainable initiatives. It’s an effective use of space that reduces energy consumption and adds new functionality to formerly barren roofs. North America also has a growing market for green roofs and other types of eco-friendly “living architecture.”

2. High-speed transport

Elon Musk’s future-forward Hyperloop has been in talks for years, and recently the much-hyped high-speed rail had its first public test. It could take many years to be fully realized, but it’s not the first of its kind: also known as bullet trains, high-speed railways can be found in Japan, China, France, Germany, Russia, South Korea, the US, among other countries.

Though expensive to build, high-speed rails are generally eco-friendly and save in greenhouse emissions by providing a speedy alternative to more fuel-intensive transport. Just look to California, where high speed rails run on electricity and reduce the need for cars. In future cities, mitigating the need for vehicular and air travel by implementing high speed rails instead will save dramatically on energy usage and mitigate pollution, too.

3. Floating buildings

With so much land overtaken by human activity, expanding onto the water could preserve greenery for agriculture and other uses. There are various of types of floating architecture designed precisely to be eco-friendly urban solutions.

Self-sustaining floating house units already exist: for example, the WaterNest 100 by EcoFloLife is made of 98 percent recyclable materials, with photovoltaic panels embedded in the rooftop for solar energy. This type of innovation could work for an entire city, in theory. In fact, various eco-friendly floating cities have been designed, including Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad, proposed as a city for climate refugees, and Silt Lake City, which would float atop the Nile River.

4. Water recycling

Speaking of water, droughts and shortages are predicted to become increasingly common as populations grow, supplies dwindle and the planet warms. Americans in particular use 100 gallons per day, 95 percent of which is wasted. Certainly there is a more efficient way to conserve water, in and out of cities.

Greywater refers to water in sinks, showers, washing machines, etc: essentially all streams but toilets. Greywater, along with stormwater and even wastewater can be better managed and recycled for reuse in urban settings through large-scale systems and smaller-scale innovations like this high-tech shower that recycles water as you wash.

5. Solar solutions

Solar is one of the fastest growing forms of sustainable energy and one of the most promising too. But for all the hype, it faces some key problems: mainly, the fact that sunlight isn’t always a guarantee.

Even so, solar technology is becoming better and more efficient, and more easily stored for not-so-sunny hours. One Swedish company is able to power 24 homes with one dish, and Tesla now offers a solar battery at the most affordable price yet. Individual solutions like these could be scaled up for implementation in urban areas, like this solar road used in the Netherlands that generates enough power for a year’s worth of electricity.

6. Microgrids

Solar energy is great for easing reliance on the electrical grid, but grids will likely be necessary in powering cities for a long time. However, there are less wasteful ways to provide electricity, like the use of microgrids for example.

Microgrids are small, decentralized energy systems that collect, store and distribute electricity in an even and balanced way. Where large-scale power plants are often powered by fossil fuels, localized grids are better suited to sustainable energy sources like solar and wind, and can act as backup in case of blackouts. For cities, a network of microgrids would waste less energy and derive it from a variety renewable sources. The market for microgrids is expected to grow to $40 billion by 2020.

These are just several of the innovations that are likely to inform sustainable design in cities as we move into a more environmentally-conscious future. Whether all at once or a little at a time, the urban greening trend shows no sign of sunsetting anytime soon — which is why it’s smart for those in the real estate industry to take note and adapt.

 

ULI’s UrbanPlan: Creating Informed Citizens, In and Out of Classrooms

ULI’s UrbanPlan: Creating Informed Citizens, In and Out of Classrooms

As a real estate industry insider, I’ve felt compelled and delighted to follow the Urban Land Institute and its endeavors closely. An independent, global nonprofit, ULI dedicates time and resources to supporting the entire spectrum of real estate development and land use disciplines in order to strengthen communities across America.

The real estate industry as of late has been striving for sustainability and local empowerment; ULI is representative of the space where the real estate business meets private and public community betterment. One ULI initiative I feel has a unique potential is UrbanPlan, which brings hands-on curriculum into high school and college classrooms to help students learn about — and participate in — the forces that shape community development.

UrbanPlan has been servicing youth for over a decade in schools across the country, and recently even further. Since its founding in partnership with the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley in 2003, it’s reached over 27,000 high school and university students in about 140 classrooms every academic year. This latest year, UrbanPlan operated in 36 high schools, ten universities, and even a pilot program for 90 pupils in the United Kingdom.

UrbanPlan is run by 13 ULI District Councils, which deliver the ULI mission at a local level to provide industry expertise to community leaders.

In 2010, UrbanPlan was selected by the George Lucas Educational Foundation (yes, that George Lucas) as one of 20 programs running in the US to spread awareness on innovative and effective educational programs, emphasis mine. Since kids are the future of our cities and communities, this is exactly the type of program that influences future leaders to care about intelligent land use.

How it works

What I find most interesting about UrbanPlan is that it’s not your everyday lecture; there are no textbooks, powerpoints or pop quizzes. Instead, the curriculum is immersive, allowing students to fill various roles and negotiate to solve problems — and turn profit — in fictional communities.

I think most of us can agree that the most fun and interesting classes back in the day were the ones that let us learn in the act of doing, rather than simple note-taking. What better way to get students interested in real estate development than to let them experience it for themselves?

Here’s a description of the program, from ULI’s website:

Student development teams respond to a “request for proposals” for the redevelopment of a blighted site in a hypothetical community. Each team member assumes one of five roles: finance director, marketing director, city liaison, neighborhood liaison, or site planner. Through these roles, students develop a visceral understanding of the various market and nonmarket forces and stakeholders in the development process. They must reconcile the often-competing agendas to create a well-designed, market-responsive, and sustainable project.

Once again, the emphasis is mine. With students taking on different roles, conflict, collaboration, and creativity can organically unfold. All the while, team members work together to design a project that fits the needs of the community and the market.

Teams present their final projects to “city council” of ULI members, who question teammates, deliberate, and award a “contract” to the winning proposal as a council would in reality.

The course is typically six weeks and a total of 15 hours long. And while it’s not designed to create a future generation of real estate developers — the skills go far beyond that, into general teamwork, marketing and economics — for those that may choose professions in this area, a robust understanding of the industry will be instilled.

Real results

While this sounds pretty interesting in theory, you may be wondering how it comes together in reality. The press has covered several cases, which report on how the UrbanPlan curriculum operated in real classrooms.

According to Paula Blasier director of San Francisco-based UrbanPlan, the program allows students that may not be top performers under traditional education models to excel. “All of a sudden, a kid discovers a whole new world, maybe even a possible profession, that requires a skill set they thought had no value,” Blasier said. This is because the activities require human skills that aren’t always used in classrooms.

Berkeley High School student Sofia Haas noted that the program helped her understand the complexity of development and the political trade-offs involved. “It was definitely challenging to have to make a profit on our product and try to keep true to our beliefs,” she said. “But those are the problems that face people who do this in the real world.”

Now, Haas is careful to take note of the little things in neighborhoods that were likely implemented carefully behind the scenes.

In Colorado, high school students found UrbanPlan was helpful for team building. It was also a great fit for Littleton High School’s curriculum, because it fit into the economic portion of students’ social studies requirements.

“When we first started, none of us really liked each other, but as time went on, we all stepped up and took on our roles,” student Ashley Winters said of the experience. “Everyone helped everyone else know what they were doing and what they were supposed to be talking about.”

Why it’s important

Since the US population is forecasted to grow by 60 million people in the next two decades, programs like UrbanPlan are critical in educating the next generation to be informed citizens able to handle population and community demands.

Blasier admits that one of the key benefits of UrbanPlan is preparing young people to be called upon for active roles in their communities — and that the forces that come into play in these decisions aren’t often taught in schools. “We wanted to provide the most realistic experience possible, but we also wanted a model that could be embraced by public schools nationwide,” she said. “We knew we had to make it not only engaging for the kids but teacher friendly as well.”

Ultimately, I believe that UrbanPlan is an innovative and highly useful educational approach that helps students understand the reality of the public, private, and political aspects of real estate and land development. The town in question may indeed by hypothetical, but the lessons are not. At the end of the day, immersive projects like this are the ones that stick and teach kids some of the most important responsibilities of adulthood.

Featured image: Sony Abesamis via Flickr

 

Dying Sustainably: What Greener Burials Mean For Big Cities

Dying Sustainably: What Greener Burials Mean For Big Cities

The world’s cities have a grave problem. With limited space and growing populations, the dead outnumber the living in packed cemeteries that occupy valuable real estate, cost families exorbitant fees, and strain the environment to boot.

While land is abundant in more rural areas to respectfully bury the deceased, in cities like London and New York City space is increasingly scarce. Because cemeteries aren’t inherently profitable — the dead do not pay rent, after all — existing sites must grapple with an influx of demand without much chance at horizontal expansion.

So what is the solution? Pushing bodies further underground? Building mausoleum towns? Creating floating cemeteries and skyscrapers? As radical as these ideas may seem, they have all been explored and implemented in cities attempting to make room for the dead.

With 50 million people passing away every year, afterlife accommodation is as much a real estate issue as it is an environmental one. Just as the real estate industry has moved toward a more ethically and environmentally conscious ethos,  the funeral business is doing the same for deceased tenants. Some say as many as one in four older Americans are likely to opt for sustainable burial options in the future, given the growth of environmental awareness.

Though challenges lie ahead, especially in cities, many sustainable and space-saving burial options exist. It may take an extra dose of creativity — and maybe even some cultural change — but new earth and community-friendly burial solutions could do the world a great good.

A costly problem

Even if they want to, many city residents can no longer bury their loved ones the traditional way. Inground plots in Manhattan are in the single digits with six-figure costs. Even a burial outside of cities can cost upwards of $10,000, considering the price of coffins and other funeral services.

In US cemeteries alone, 30 million feet of hardwood caskets are buried, along with 90,000 tons of steel caskets, 14,000 tons of steel vaults and over 2,500 tons of copper and bronze. That’s a huge wealth of trees and minerals buried beneath the earth, unable to be recycled or put to use. Embalming chemicals can also be incredibly toxic to humans, animals and wildlife. Even cremation takes its toll: it’s an energy-intensive process that emits mercury from burnt teeth fillings.

With baby boomers aging, 76 million Americans are projected to reach life expectancy between 2024 and 2042. To give each a standard burial, an area about the size of Las Vegas would be required. This won’t be an issue for the many people living in rural locations, but with city populations growing there will no doubt be problems among denser populations. In fact, there already are.

City residents and urban planners are in perhaps the perfect positions to pursue sustainable alternatives, for the sake of space, money and the planet.

The Green Burial Movement

The concept of green burials is not a new one — in fact, it was once the norm, with burials often occurring at home in wooden boxes. At the turn of the 19th century, when deaths moved from homes to hospitals and funeral parlors, the post-death rituals we practice today became widely adopted. Embalming began during the Civil War to help preserve the bodies of soldiers during their transport, and though not legally mandated continues to be the standard practice.

The green burial movement, which began in the early 90s, seeks to return to the style of natural burial. Biodegradable caskets made of bamboo, cardboard, or wicker are less expensive and easier on the earth; for those that want to go the cremation route without the detriments, an alternative method called resomation is less toxic and energy exhaustive.

Today, people who want green burials need only consult with the Green Burial Council (in North America) to find a certified green burial provider, the number of which has increased from just one in 2006 to over 300 today. Unlike other services bearing the “organic” label, green burials tend to be even cheaper than traditional ones.

The Green Burial Council estimates that about one-quarter of older Americans want green burials — an opportunity to take the trend from niche to mainstream. Because city residents face the biggest dilemma and tend toward progressive social leaning, it’s no surprise that New York City boasts great green options like Brooklyn’s Greenwood Heights Funeral & Cremation Services.

Saving space and memories

Just making the switch from steel to straw caskets won’t solve space issues, however green they may be. With the last open cemetery in Manhattan selling vaults for $350,000, it’s worth wondering if there’s a better way to die without shipping yourself to faraway fields a day-trip away from family.

Other cities have tackled this problem, some to great success. Countries like Belgium, Singapore and Germany practice grave recycling, through which families get a free public grave for the first 20 years or so, after which they can either pay for renewal or allow the cemetery to move the body to make space for another. Locations without this practice balk at the idea of disturbing the dead.

Some Asian cities have decided upon large, mechanized columbariums, which store thousands of urns that can be retrieved with an electronic card. Hong Kong has plans for a columbarium island called “Floating Eternity,” and other cities are considering vertical cemeteries. A Norwegian student won a design contest with his vision of such a skyscraper, which would house coffins, urns, and a computerized memorial wall.

As our virtual selves gain credence during life, digital memorializing has become more popular. A Japanese company offers virtual cemeteries for descendants to tour, while Hong Kong’s government created a virtual social network for families unable to.

Designing for the future

How do we negotiate respect for the dead with respect for the planet? And how do we negotiate these with cemetery real estate deficits and cost concerns? We don’t want to do away with cemeteries, after all. Like schools and hospitals, graveyards add a layer of emotional and cultural intelligence to neighborhoods. In cities, they are more akin to history museums and monuments — housing century-old skeletons instead of people more recently warm.

Moving forward, city residents will have to make tough choices, and urban planners will have to make smarter ones. As the number of people living in cities grows, the number of those dying there will too. Real estate developers may not be directly responsible for accommodating the dead, but one a larger scale urban planners may be wise to do so.

Grave as the situation may seem, so long as there are both private and public efforts to solve space and environmental issues, cities and their residents will grow to adopt the most efficient and green burial processes possible.