Can Urban Design Create Smarter, Kinder Cities?

There is no one way to think about a city. But one thing, until recently, has been certain: cities aren’t thinking about you.

The idea of conscious cities challenges the assumption that cities are thoughtless spaces, or stationary backgrounds for busy urbanites to make their mark on. Cities make their mark on us in ways we don’t realize, and often unintentionally so. By adding intelligence to city design, urban planners have the opportunity to create smarter, kinder cities.

Like any sentient being, a conscious city affects how you feel and what you do. It is an active participant that can improve or worsen your health, your comfort, and your wellbeing. The concept was coined in a 2015 manifesto by Itai Palti and Moshe Bar.

“The foundation of consciousness lies in the city’s awareness of the motives, personalities and moods of its inhabitants,” the authors write. Though architects have long designed to elicit emotion, from Pyramids to monasteries, we now have the data to base these decisions— from small details to large-scale urban plans—on actual science instead of instincts.

This isn’t to say today’s cities weren’t purposefully designed. Most city streets are planned for efficiency; the same goes for buildings, which are designed for convenience, if not luxury or bravado. Concern for public health and comfort, though, has not always been high-priority, let alone backed by science. True, there was a brief moment in the 70s when psychologists teamed up with architects in an effort to encourage “environmental psychology.” Unfortunately, the idea fizzled quickly.

As urban populations surge, the first instinct of builders and planners may be to save and make space. This alone is not enough, especially considering the well-documented psychological effects of overcrowding. Planners need only utilize science and research to plan for happy, healthy cities. Otherwise, they may worsen the existing condition.

How Our Cities Change Us

Before planning for the future, it’s useful to understand what elements of urban design are impacting us today. We know, for example, that repetitive patterns like stripes and tiles can induce migraines or seizures, while more natural and visually interesting shapes and spaces can ease stress.

Then there’s the paradoxical phenomenon of loneliness in crowds. Ample evidence through MRI scans suggests that people who grow up in cities are more prone to mental health issues, and it’s likely that crowding is one of these reasons, as our brains are not conditioned for such environments.

Technology helps us understand the way our surroundings affect us in ways we may not understand on the surface. Social psychologist Colin Ellard conducted a study to examine the physical reaction participants had to building facades using EEG headsets and wristbands. He found that facades, in fact, played a large role in the comfort levels of the participants.

According to the BBC, “when he walked a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole Foods store in Lower Manhattan, their arousal and mood states took a dive, according to the wristband readings and on-the-spot emotion surveys.” They sped up as if to escape a dead zone, then returned to a state of liveliness when passing storefronts.

Triangulation and public spaces foster community and reduce car accidents by implying that roads aren’t just for cars. Green spaces consistently correlate with higher levels of well-being in cities, even when taking other considerations into effect.

There are even worse ill-effects, planned or otherwise. The placement of highway systems and public transportation have led to segregation and poverty. Design features including spikes and high-pitched beeping discourage loitering at the expense of pedestrian comfort. Flashing lights and advertisements, especially at night, may induce anxiety and interrupt natural sleep cycles too.

Planning for the Future

Conscious cities, in theory, would use science and technology to optimize cities for the wellbeing of their inhabitants. This could—and should—go beyond just mental health by taking things like public health, ROI, and efficiency into consideration, too.

Take trees as an example. As a key component of “green space,” trees carry with them a number of psychological and physical benefits. A recent article by Vox outlined the findings of a recent Nature Conservancy report, concluding that “planting more urban trees, if done right, could save tens of thousands of lives around the world each year—by soaking up pollution and cooling down deadly heat waves.”

Besides these tangible, measurable effect, studies have found that simply viewing green space caused people to become happier and also changed their physiology, as their autonomic nervous systems showed strong signs of relaxation responses. Further research has shown that even simulated green space can have similar effects.

According to the Guardian, this type of research could be “the basis of a new and powerful discipline of experimental urban design based on sound principles of psychology and neuroscience,” perhaps utilizing virtual reality and other technology to simulate these types of responses. Neuroscience-based architecture and design could reinvent cities as we know them, or at the very least make little updates that pack a big punch.

After all, it follows that happier, more relaxed urban dwellers will be more productive, contributing to a happier and healthier economy. It’s a whole new way to think about cities, and ultimately a return on investment that can’t be ignored.

By |2018-10-31T19:15:11+00:00October 2nd, 2017|Culture, Urban Planning|

How Real Estate Developers Can Help Alleviate Food Deserts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as a part of the country where it’s difficult to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods. An area is considered a food desert if 500 people or more, or 33% of the population in the area live at least one mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store. If that distance is 10 miles or more, the area is described as a rural food desert.

According to a recent report by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, about 2.1 million households i.e. 1.8% all households live at least a mile away from a supermarket and don’t have a car, making accessibility harder.

Food deserts are common in impoverished areas. This means that, for these people, buying that nutritious fresh fruit takes a lot of careful consideration and money management. One is faced with the task of either taking the exhausting ride in a bus (which also costs money) or paying a significant proportion of the grocery bill to have the purchase delivered. With the budget constraints, neither of these choices makes sense.

The dilemma too often ends residents foregoing the healthy eating entirely. They substitute the healthy food they can’t get with the available unhealthy food. Yes, it’s a big irony that the available shops stock processed, sugary and fatty foods instead of healthy foods––leading to another epidemic: Obesity.

As a side note, studies have been conducted suggesting that the distance from a supermarket or large grocery store has very little to do with the unhealthy eating habits. The studies say that the healthy foods just don’t sell in those food desert areas and it wouldn’t make a difference if stores were opened.

But we can pursue the little difference such a change would make.

It’s encouraging to see that there’s a wide range of models such as non-profit, corporate, charitable, and governmental programs that have been employed in trying to tackle the problem.

Working together with the communities, I believe there are a couple of measures that real estate developers can also help alleviate the problem.

1. Community Gardens

 

A community garden is a piece of land gardened or cultivated by a group of people in the same locality, usually for domestic consumption.

In the past, many developers have less than championed community projects that looked to turn vacant lots into food production areas. Rather, they have been more for house development.

To encourage growth of food in these communities, developers need to take the center stage by not just allowing people to farm in their communities but also designing those spaces and even funding them.

Community gardens can also be set on hydroponic rooftops, freeing up more space for housing developments.

2. Farmer’s Markets

 

Very much like a community garden, a farmer’s market is a retail market that features foods that are sold by farmers directly to consumers.

Instead of developing a whole area, one could decide to leave out sufficient space for the development of a farmer’s market where farmers can easily sell their produce and consumers can access foods without having to travel for miles.

3. Employment Opportunities

As mentioned, food deserts are often found in impoverished areas. Hiring local skills provides employment and a source of income to the people. With that, they can actually start thinking about eating healthy.

Also, the employees get to learn from the masters, especially where the project is about sustainable food production in the community. They can then use the skills learned to grow their own food back home.

4. “Giving Up” Land

As the situation escalates, developers need to start giving up more land to set up of community gardens, farmers markets, and even stores.

Giving up land isn’t a new thing. Developers have been giving up land to the city during new housing developments.

This time, instead of constructing parks and public structures on that land, it should be turned into a food production area.

Besides, giving up land for food production raises the value of the project in the long run.

As retailers and the government continue looking for ways to address the situation, real estate developers must also chip in and do their best to utilize their knowledge, access, and tools to ensure that even the low-income residents are able to eat healthy through convenient access to supermarkets and grocery stores.

By |2018-10-31T19:10:19+00:00September 9th, 2017|Culture, Current Events, Urban Planning|

Why Child-Friendly Cities Are Successful Cities

When communities and local governments work together to create an urban landscape that caters to the needs of children, the result can be a safer environment for the younger generation and a more successful and thriving city overall. Many cities across the country have adopted elements of UNICEF’s Child Friendly City initiative, which promotes building sustainable cities and environments committed to honoring children’s rights. This includes having plenty of green space for plants and animals, providing opportunities to participate in cultural and social events, and supporting health care and educational institutions.

Here are some reasons why child-friendly cities are successful cities:

Focused on Equality

Child-friendly cities regard every resident as an equal and believe that all residents should have access to services and opportunities around the city regardless of gender, disability, ethnic origin, and other demographic statistics. This promotes environments of diversity and fairness among residents. It also upholds a high standard of respect among residents so that current and future generations can promote equality in their lives and in their community.

Puts Safety First

Child-friendly cities are committed to protecting children from violent crimes, exploitation, and abuse. This can have a trickle-down effect on residents as they are supported by local organizations and even local law enforcement to keep violence and crime at bay. Prioritizing the safety and well-being of all residents is critical for a city to thrive and child-friendly cities tend to uphold this as a necessity.

Embraces Nature

Many urban landscapes are littered with industrial buildings and pollution levels run high. Child-friendly cities encourage more green spaces and open environments where residents can embrace nature. This might take the form of investing in more city parks, promoting ‘green’ events, and taking the lead on preserving the environment with appropriate clean-up and maintenance practices. The result is that all residents can enjoy living in a city that provides opportunities to connect with nature and in turn, improves overall well-being.

Maintains Unpolluted Environments

From the drinking water to public restrooms, child-friendly cities are dedicated to preventing diseases and health issues related to the environment. As a result, residents can enjoy cleaner air, access to sanitary public spaces, and have access to pollutant-free drinking water. Cities in which tap water is not drinkable may focus on improving water and sewer systems, preventing hard water, and ensuring communities are built around grocery stores or convenience stores where clean water is readily accessible.

Wealth of Social and Community Activities

Children are eager to socialize and encouraged to make friends and develop relationships at a young age. Child-friendly cities may support these efforts by building playgrounds, hosting community events for different age groups, and sponsoring the arts. As a result, residents may have access to a wealth of social and community activities that encourage relationship-building and help residents connect. From city festivals to smaller play groups, living in a child-friendly city can help residents participate in family-friendly activities and get to know fellow residents in safe social environments.

Child-friendly cities offer a multitude of benefits for children and families, as well as residents of the city who may not have children or a family. Since many of these cities are designed to promote diversity, reduce our carbon footprint, and encourage healthy relationships and community-building efforts, the result is often a happier and more successful city. Landscape architects, builders, and local governments work together to create a safe, sustainable, and harmonious environment for all.  As a result, these cities often see low crime rates, low unemployment rates, more diversity, and a variety of cultural activities that cater to all types of residents.

By |2018-10-31T19:02:56+00:00September 1st, 2017|Culture, Urban Planning|

4 Urban Planning Influencers and Innovators Worth Knowing

When the City Museum of New York held an exhibition on Manhattan’s layout, they named it the “Greatest Grid” because of the importance of planning in Manhattan’s success. Urban planning as a profession only developed in the 1800s, around the time the Manhattan grid was being set. While now we think of planners as a modern activity, the people who initially shaped cities had different problems and priorities.

In ancient times, cities were located on areas of strategic military importance, commercial interests such as ports, or spiritual centers. Planning the layout wasn’t particularly important, especially for each new leader who wanted to leave their mark. People resisted organization, too. When Rome burned in AD64, a proposal to make streets uniform and planned was turned down by the public.

Urban planning became a respected practice much later. At the first international urban planning conference in 1898, social workers and doctors stressed about overpopulation causing disease to spread, but the focus was mainly on an even more alarming challenge: horse manure from the many carriages in the streets. We’ve come a long way since then.

Here are four major influencers and innovators in the world of urban planning, both past and present.

James Corner and Field Operations

Having achieved fame through the New York City High Line, James Corner has also changed the way people interact with city streets and skylines. Being lifted into the air on the High Line changes our perspective, lets us see in windows, and lets us take a break from the world below. He is a landscape architect and academic, balancing structured human creations with wild nature. Some of this work involves undoing what city planners, and the natural course of a city’s changes, have done before him. In Cleveland, Corner adjusted the town square from a busy traffic center to return it to the original 1796 idea of a public meeting area.

Jane Jacobs

As an activist, Jacobs protested, rioted, was arrested, wrote at Harvard, and moved to Canada. She lived a full life, and wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book which looks at how a city is made up of neighborhoods and people, not just streets and buildings. Jacobs argued for diversity as a key to safety and success. She pointed out that everyone in a neighborhood lives and acts the same, the streets would be empty at certain hours. If everyone shopped and thought the same, small businesses would never find customers. Her theories about mixed housing are visible in New York’s streets today, where 24hr corner store bodegas are the backbone of some neighborhoods.

Sharon Zukin

As a professor at Brooklyn College, Zukin thinks and writes about New York City. In her book The Cultures of Cities, she looks at urban spaces and whether public space is really open to the public. She examines what culture influences a public space, and considers the role of the private-sector. Zukin also advocates for small businesses in New York versus chain stores, and considers how New York has changed over time and influenced the world by popularizing lofts that were once occupied by artists.

Donald Shoup

On the other coast, Shoup is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA. He also has a lively url for his personal website. His focus is on parking and the major social and economic toll that parking spaces can take on a city. He argues that everyone pays for parking, via increased costs in businesses, housing, and taxes. More importantly, money spent on parking removes funds from public transport, as well as bike and walking infrastructure. His attention to cars has shifted entire city plans from ‘minimum parking requirement’ to ‘maximum parking allowance’ for some developments.

Whether you agree or disagree with these influential planners, they each bring an important perspective on how we exist together in cities.

By |2018-10-31T19:01:53+00:00August 17th, 2017|Culture, Technology, Urban Planning|

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

The nonprofit art center the Shed will open in Spring 2019 at the High Line next to 15 Hudson Yards, at the edge of the Public Square and Gardens. While it has come under some fire for its price tag, lack of clear programming, and even its original name (the Culture Shed), what I find most interesting is the physical opening and closing of public space which the shell of the Shed makes possible. The flexible space, combined with the hiring of a chief technology officer who is known for creating real-world video games, suggests we are only just beginning to understand how we will interact with the Shed.

As a physical space, the Shed is in three parts: a building, a shell, and a plaza. The building will be eight large floors of display space total, including two levels of galleries, a theater that can merge into the outdoor plaza, a rehearsal space, a creative workspace for artists, and an events space at the very top. Covering over the entire building is a large, mostly transparent shell of metal and glass. Next door is a 17,000-square-foot plaza. When the shell is covering the building, the plaza is open for public use and as an outdoor performance space. However, when the shell rolls out to cover the plaza, things get interesting.

The shell of the Shed will be 120 feet high and mounted on rails so that an outdoor space is made into an indoor space with a pull of the lever. All of the necessary electrical equipment and platforms are built into the shell and so roll out with it. Of course, several features of the High Line already make use of rails, in homage to the trains below, but the wheels and rail for the Shed will be a new scale, with three large gray wheels on each side. It’s easy to see the possibilities for aerial and multi-level performances in that space.

Looking at the video on the Hudson Yards New York website for the Shed, the exterior walls of the building can also move to accommodate and meld with the plaza. On the sides of the shell, parts can open and close to create entryways and adjust flows of foot traffic.

The High Line averages 4 million visitors a year, so the exterior plaza of the Shed will be a natural place for foot traffic to pool, whether they visit inside or not. Also, the side of the shell facing the plaza can become a large projection screen, which can project shows or images to be viewed by those passing by.

Public space is sacred in New York first as part of the iconic 1961 Zoning Resolution which influenced the shape of skyscrapers with the idea that open parks and public spaces would surround them. The Shed has been criticized for its price tag of more than 500 million, and construction photos which make it look like a skeleton of the AT-AT Walkers from Star Wars don’t necessarily help. But is the plaza enough?

The American Planning Association outlines several questions for determining if a public space is any good. The questions as if it can:

  • Reflect the community’s local character and personality?
  • Foster social interaction and create a sense of community and neighborliness?
  • Provide a sense of comfort or safety to people gathering and using the space?
  • Encourage use and interaction among a diverse cross-section of the public?

We will have to see how people feel once the construction is complete, but I suspect that the use and interaction will be heavily influenced by our digital lives. Why do I think this?

The Shed has hired Kevin Slavin as the chief science and technology officer. He has a popular TedTalk on algorithms which has nearly four million views. He is also a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab and co-founder of a gaming company that used location technology to create large, real-world games. This is worth thinking about because the public space of the Shed can really extend to cover the entire High Line area. Could interactive events begin all over New York, and end in the plaza of the Shed? Is the removal of walls both physical and digital?

The Shed is designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the same firm hired for the MoMa’s unsuccessful Art Bay, in collaboration with Rockwell Group. While there is still a lot left to learn, I suspect that digital art and interaction through smartphones and technology will be a major part of the Shed’s arts programming, which is an exciting prospect.

By |2020-02-11T16:49:35+00:00July 18th, 2017|Culture, Technology, 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|

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|

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|

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|