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!

By |2018-10-31T18:29:25+00:00July 18th, 2017|Culture, Urban Planning|

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.

By |2018-10-31T18:19:36+00:00June 22nd, 2017|Culture, Current Events, Urban Planning|

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 is expanding its raging waters from the 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’s app, yes—but on the bright side, doing so gets you the 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 basing 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 is 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.

By |2018-10-31T18:17:39+00:00May 16th, 2017|Culture, Technology, Urban Planning|

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.

By |2018-10-31T18:15:55+00:00May 16th, 2017|Culture, Urban Planning|

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. 

By |2018-10-31T18:13:55+00:00May 1st, 2017|Culture, Current Events, Technology, Urban Planning|

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.

By |2018-10-31T18:11:36+00:00April 5th, 2017|Technology, Urban Planning|

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.

By |2018-10-31T18:10:45+00:00April 5th, 2017|Culture, Urban Planning|

How NYC’s Public Sector Is Tackling Innovation

In New York City, the goal to merge innovation with government is apparent on various fronts. This objective has been about a decade in the making, and while we’re only scratching the service of its potential, NYC has made great strides.

For various reasons, the public sector often lags behind when it comes to technology and innovation. While some of such reasons are valid, the tendency can be overcome. Opportunities aplenty lie in wake, especially on a city level where governments have more autonomy.

Partnering with the private sector is the best strategy thus far for bringing innovative solutions to public sector issues. Following are some of the most notable ways NYC’s public sector is bringing innovation into its governing, and what this means for the future of city government.

NYC’s Office of Tech and Innovation

In 2014, New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Tech and Innovation (MOTI) was launched. According to their website, the office “facilitates citywide coordination and collaboration on technology issues, serves as a catalyst for and advises agencies on innovation, and interacts with the wider New York City technology ecosystem.”

The office was started by Mayor De Blasio, who made it his mission to help New York City become the most innovative city in the world. Whether you love or hate De Blasio, this initiative has already made a measurable impact in its creation of tech-driven public initiatives.

The idea, according to the Mayor’s office, is to “expand economic opportunity and reinvent government for the 21st century.” MOTI’s website continues, “We will continue to attract the top talent to New York City, deepen our efforts to grow and foster local talent through education and workforce development programs.”

It should be mentioned that New York City has been leaning into private-public partnerships long before De Blasio. As one example, NYC BigApp competitions have been happening annually since 2009, challenging “developers, designers, and entrepreneurs to create functional, marketable tech tools that help solve pressing civic challenges.”

Innovative Projects

What BigApp has been accomplishing for seven years is similar to what MOTI is currently undertaking in different city departments. The city puts out calls for innovation (CFIs) and accepts proposals from individuals, startups, and companies.

CFIs are “an open solicitation of ideas and proposals that aims to help define the urban challenges facing our city.” There are currently several CFIs: two from the New York City Housing Authority, seeking solutions for electrical and heating issues, one from the NYC Department of Education, seeking data models for public schools, and one seeking ideas to bring broadband internet to all New Yorkers.

Besides from CFIs, MOTI has over a dozen innovative projects underway already. One of these is LinkNYC, “a system of 7,500+ high-tech public communications structures that….will each provide completely free, ultra-high speed encrypted Wi-Fi service (up to 1 Gigabit in speed) out to a radius of 150 feet….[and] provide free domestic phone calls, free emergency 911 calls and non-emergency 311 calls, and free cell phone charging stations.”

Other projects include the Department of Transportation’s Midtown in Motion, a program meant to improve traffic using sensors and data collection; the NYPD’s IdeaScale pilot project, which allows neighborhood residents submit issues they want addressed by their local precincts; and the Department of Education’s Short Cycle Evaluation Challenge, which lets educators pilot new edtech products.

Looking to the future

As we push further into the future, technology is quickly, and inevitably, following suit. We will all be in good shape is the government stays as up-to-date as possible. When innovation is saturated in both the public and private sector, and the two work together to public benefit, the economy and people will thrive as a result. NYC is a great example of this theory in action, and hopefully other cities will follow its example.

By |2020-05-07T19:09:37+00:00March 21st, 2017|Culture, Technology, Urban Planning|

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.

By |2018-10-31T17:56:21+00:00November 17th, 2016|Technology, Urban Planning|

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.’”

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.“

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.

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.

By |2018-10-31T17:55:17+00:00November 14th, 2016|Culture, Technology, Urban Planning|