Could Soda Taxes Halt Obesity? The Evidence is In

There’s a growing body of evidence that higher prices mean fewer sodas bought, and consumed.

It seems like simple math—lose empty calories, like those found in sugared sodas, lose weight, and be healthier. But how to get people to slow down on the sugar, and how big of a problem is this, really?

Given recent reports that 25 percent of New Yorkers are obese (which is actually far fewer than in many states: New York is currently ranked #44 in the nation in obesity) and that 12 percent of the people in New York drink at least one sugary soda a day (2014 numbers) maybe it’s time for a soda tax.

After all, if soda (or the sugar in soda) is taxed and prices of soda go up, people will certainly drink fewer sodas and the weight will come off, right?

In 2012, the former mayor of New York City Michael R. Bloomberg certainly thought that regulating soda would help the health of the city. At the time, his proposed limit on soda sizes was mocked and courts eventually ruled that the regulation exceeded government authority.

Since then, more than half a dozen cities, including Boulder, Colorado, Philadelphia, Penn. and San Francisco, Calif. have levied taxes on soda or “sugary drinks.”

With what appears to be wider acceptance, at least according to this New York Times article, the beverage industry may be losing the battle to keep government’s hands off sodas. Which brings up the need for evidence. Does a tax on a popular product really reduce consumption?  

It does when it comes to cigarettes, at least among younger people, as well as those already facing financial adversity.  A report published in 2011 states that, “Most studies found that raising cigarette prices through increased taxes is a highly effective measure for reducing smoking among youth, young adults, and persons of low socioeconomic status.”

In fact, it is “vital,” according to the researchers, to keep taxes on cigarettes high enough to inhibit purchase.  

Multiple experts consider sugar, in excess, (that is, 18 teaspoons or more) to be as dangerous to public health as alcohol and tobacco. Those campaigning against sugary drinks and sodas are actually using the tactics waged against “big tobacco” to make their case and get tax legislation enacted.

Drinking a can and a half of Coca-Cola, and you’ve hit the daily limit.

So, back to cutting back. The city of Berkley, Calif., was one of the first to pass a “big soda” tax. Researchers found that, in the first four months after the tax went into effect, self-reported consumption of soda went down by more than 20 percent. (Article about the study here.)

The study focused specifically on low-income families, and the self-reporting methodology has its flaws, but the research backs trends that have been proven in other countries with soda and/or sugar taxes.

Hungary has had a tax in place since 2011, and the result has been a 19 percent reduction in the purchase of sugary soft drinks. Mexico, too, has seen sales fall.

Yet, people like their soft drinks and there is often push back from consumers about higher prices. Residents of Philadelphia, Penn., were so worked up about the tax (1.5 cents per ounce of beverage) that they melted down on social media. Some people publicly declared that they would drink nothing but water. Which, of course, is one of the points of the tax—healthier beverage choices. Still, with a pint beer cheaper than a large soda, others will justify a switch to alcohol, which is not exactly healthier.

Jason Kessler, otherwise known as “The Nitpicker” penned a column years ago that dove into the high cost of sodas, and concluded that, “Maybe jacking up prices and introducing unnecessary innovation to the soda market will finally get me to stop drinking pop altogether. It’s just sugar water.”

It was a big maybe, though, because, “Sugar water….goes so well with pizza. And burgers. And wings…”

Soda might taste great, but with the links between sugar and poor health people need to seriously reduce the amount of soda they drink. Based on the research, and the reactions of consumers, the soda tax is effective, people do purchase (and presumably drink) fewer sugary beverages. While the economic consequence is another question, we can assume the tax at very least will loosen up some jeans.

By |2018-10-31T18:01:12+00:00February 17th, 2017|Culture|

In a World Full of Copycats, FX’s Atlanta is Redefining Originality

With the advent of shows like Louie and Girls, which freshly replicated the style of indie films, prickly realism has become another trend in TV comedy–and too often, a tired one. Hyper-personal and unapologetic, these dramedies have great potential. But in the Golden Age of TV, being a copycat won’t cut it. Instead, shows need to innovate and redefine their genre to succeed.

In my opinion, FX’s Atlanta is doing an outstanding job at setting itself apart from the pack. Written by and starring the multi-talented Donald Glover, a writer on 30 Rock and actor in Community, hopes were high for the wunderkind’s first series. True to form, Glover’s show is a stand-out gem worthy of praise.

But Atlanta is unlike the standard comedies Glover has worked on in the past. It follows the independent film atmosphere much more, and embraces a slower pace. Like Louie and Girls, Glover plays a protagonist loosely based on himself. Unlike Louie and Girls, Atlanta has an almost-fully minority cast and writing team. It’s also magnificently directed by Hiro Murai, who also directed music videos by Glover’s musical persona, Childish Gambino.

The New Yorker does a great job of explaining the nascent greatness of Atlanta, calling it “a series that is shrewd, emotional, and impolite, with a style that veers toward pretentiousness but never crosses over.”

Glover’s Earnest Marks is handsome and sardonic, but it’s the side characters–namely, Earn’s cousin Paper Boi–that lend the show great depth. The show follows these two as they navigate the rap scene in Atlanta, Georgia, a space that both idolizes and penalizes black masculinity.

The Atlantic calls Atlanta one of the most versatile shows on TV. What makes it so original and surprising, the author argues, is that instead of relying on plot, the show is more dependent on mood–something that changes dramatically from episode to episode. “Donald Glover’s show is about rap music, race, celebrity culture, the city of his birth, and how those things all intersect. But it can also be a moody relationship drama, a madcap sitcom, a social commentary on gentrification, or, most recently, a surreal sketch comedy,” David Sims writes.

In other words, the writers are taking real experiments with Atlanta where traditional showmakers are more conditioned to follow a formula. In a way, this discord makes Atlanta feel all the more real. Life, people, and places rarely adhere to one theme—that Atlanta is unpredictable feels extremely authentic.

This feeling of authenticity via surrealism was entirely intentional. Glover told NPR that human experience isn’t black and white, and they wanted to make viewers feel this acutely. “Most things lie in the gray area.” he said. “But I think because of the Internet, and like, social media — things get cut into zeroes and ones really quickly. So we were like, ‘Let’s just play around in the gray areas.’ “

And play with the gray, Atlanta does. Indeed, the atmosphere in Atlanta refuses to validate or invalidate black stereotypes, instead portraying a wide range personalities and classes. Atlanta tells the stories of specific individuals within a specific community, of which violence and poverty are part, but not a defining part as outsiders might assume.

Suffice this to say, if you are looking for something new and revelatory all at once, Atlanta is worth watching. Trust me—you won’t get bored quickly.

By |2018-10-31T17:58:31+00:00December 9th, 2016|Culture|

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, 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|

How CompStat Helps Cut Crime in New York City

Many businesses today make use of a performance management system to achieve their revenue goals. In 1994, the New York Police Department adopted a similar system to reduce crime and ensure the police department was maximizing its efforts. This computerized tool, called CompStat, works to track some of the most serious crimes in New York City by analyzing statistics and researching patterns and trends. Here’s a closer look at how CompStat helps cut crime in NYC:

How CompStat Works

CompStat, otherwise known as COMPuter STATistics and short for Computer Comparison Statistics, is a complete organizational management tool that provides a dynamic approach to crime reduction and resource management within the New York City Police Department. It was created by Jack Maple, a Transit police officer in New York City and originally tracked crime through push pins stuck in a map, a process that helped to reduce subway crime. It was later adopted by the NYPD and rebranded as CompStat.

CompStat is comprised of four key components that can be replicated by other police departments: timely and accurate information or intelligence; rapid deployment of resources; effective tactics; and relentless follow-up. The problem-solving tools and system includes weekly crime control strategy meetings to increase accountability; development of commander profile reports; crime strategy meetings at the Command and Control Center with representatives of District Attorney’s Offices in attendance; crime mapping and database collection systems.

CompStat Data

The entire CompStat system is entirely data-based. As a result, it is dependent on accurate information gathering and data entry. Management decisions cannot be made without timely and accurate information so those involved with sourcing and reporting data need to follow very specific protocol and adhere to certain processes. All employees are expected to act upon this data and everything is accessible by various departments. When a problem must be solved with the involvement of another government agency, such as at the county level with the Sheriff’s Department or at the state level at the Department of Corrections, the data must be accessible by all.

Value of CompStat

In an article published back in 2002, Garry McCarthy, deputy of commissioner of operations at the New York Police Department, explained how CompStat had taken over the New York City Police Department and was a critical component of the agency. It was, and continues to be, a valuable business management tool for the agency since it helps to organize information using different performance indicators and identify areas of improvement. Over the years, it has evolved into a complete system that allows for accurate measurement of all activities and accountability within the police department.

Since its implementation, CompStat has helped to track many major crimes, including murder, rape, robbery, shooting incidents and grand larceny. It can also track minor crimes, including public drinking and prostitution. However, one of the biggest benefits of this system is that it also keeps track of police officials. If a police officer is guilty of misconduct or there is enough reason to believe that a police officer is playing an accomplice to a crime, everything can be reported and tracked within the system.

Ultimately, CompStat helps police officers hold each other accountable and everyone is documented and analyzed. The reports are stored in the database and made available to all precincts for review. This creates a greater degree of transparency and helps all officers and officials better understand the overall impact of their efforts.

Effects of CompStat

According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University’s School of Law, CompStat-style programs adopted by police departments across the country have contributed to a 5 to 15 percent decrease in crime. Between 1994 and 2012, CompStat has been credited for reducing 63 percent of crime in New York City.

Many police departments are also adopting cloud technology and developing custom software programs that allow for more accurate predictive analysis, documentation and tracking. For example, some police departments can make use of a cloud-based software program that generates predictive maps of where crimes are likely to occur so police officials can allocate resources accordingly.  

Since its implantation in the mid-90s, CompStat has help cut crime in NYC and has been readily adopted by several other cities across the country. It has helped many police departments streamline operations and obtain accurate data about current and potential crimes. Today, many police departments continue to use CompStat in conjunction with other software programs and cloud-based technologies to fight crime effectively. We can only hope that this evolving technology continues to keep communities and officers safe — and crime rates low — in the years to come.

By |2018-10-31T17:48:35+00:00October 18th, 2016|Culture, Technology|

The Power of a Humanities Degree in the Business World

There is a common misconception that degrees in the humanities — like English, history and philosophy — are the first nails in the coffin of a young person’s career prospects.

“We need more welders and less (sic) philosophers,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio famously stated on the debate stage. Jeb Bush echoed the sentiment by implying all liberal art majors were destined to work at Chick-fil-A. Not to mention iterations of the same dull question posed toward English majors — “Beyond teaching or becoming the next Hemingway, how do you plan to make money?”

In my experience, humanities skills are undervalued assets applicable across a wide range of industries. In fact, the unemployability of such graduates is widely regarded as myth.

Degrees in business, finance and STEM fields are, of course, vital to the economy, innovation and more. But without the skills central to liberal arts — for which there is an even more universal need — the economy would stop just as suddenly.

All businesses need good writers and communicators.
English majors and others in the liberal arts arena read, write, communicate, and critique — and then read and write some more. Their relationship with the written and spoken language is nuanced and informed. They are taught to express their thoughts with purpose.

Sure, reading and writing are base requirements for most jobs — but being able to do so expertly is uncommon. Whether writing decks, copy, white papers, business proposals or simple emails, professionals with the skills to communicate their ideas effectively go a long way in any workplace.

This is especially true for people in leadership positions, who must be able to communicate clearly and expertly. As an example, current and former CEOs at companies like Avon, Xerox, Disney and MTV all held English degrees. The founder of Starbucks had a philosophy degree, and the head of American Express, a bachelor’s degree in history.

Humanity graduates understand people.
Degrees in STEM fields are highly specialized, which is great for specific jobs and goals. But you could argue that STEM skills are like keys that only unlock very particular doors — their purpose is limited.

Humanity degrees, also called social sciences, are called that for a reason — they are the studies of human nature, thought, and creation. Knowing how people think, what the smartest minds have written and how groups behave provides valuable insight into teamwork and client interactions. What some call soft skills are actually key to professional success.

That’s not to say other majors don’t understand people. I’m saying when your education is centered around human thoughts and ideas, it can amplify your success in a work environment.

Creativity drives innovation.
If the emphasis of humanities is on the human, the emphasis of liberal arts (of which humanities is a segment) is on the art. Art is the expression of the human imagination, which takes creativity — something that is critical in the professional world. Creative writing, as an example, teaches the expression of ideas in a variety of forms utilizing narrative, plot, language, metaphors and just about any type of rhetoric you can think of. Most importantly, it teaches out-of-the-box thinking — going beyond what is usual and what is known.

In science, technology, finance and even real estate, creative thinking drives innovation. While it doesn’t take a writer to think creatively, a person accustomed to brainstorming and bending rules will likely have a lot to bring to the table.

Critical analysis is a business skill.
Another thing that sets the humanities apart is their penchant for critical analysis. This comes in the form of peer review, which is ubiquitous in academia, and in taking a text or idea and being forced to dissect it, to improve or disprove it. Critical thinking helps groups and individuals identify what’s presented, evaluate the intent and function, and the examine the results.

In the business world, this is vital. Great ideas cannot be truly great without healthy dose of doubt and without being viewed from all angles and tested for flaws. A person who approaches anything from clients to projects with this mindset is likely to be a company asset. Combined with ambition and drive, it’s a recipe for success.

This post was originally featured on

By |2018-10-31T16:19:43+00:00July 15th, 2016|Culture|

How Self-Driving Cars Would Transform New York City

Self-driving cars developed by the likes of Google and Tesla are generating a lot of buzz as their wheels are tested and designs refined. While it’s difficult to imagine driverless cars in a New York City — a city defined by its traffic jams and vocal drivers — all signs point to their eventual introduction. But what exactly would that look like? The vehicle and pedestrian congestion levels of NYC would make the adoption difficult, to say the least.

Self-driving cars universally raise questions regarding safety, legislation, mass transit, and environmental and human impact, not to mention their inevitable impact on gas prices. Add to that list the volume of foot traffic in New York City, the city’s well-established taxi fleet, and a massive public transit system, and you end up with an interesting conundrum.

Here’s a look at how self-driving cars would transform one of America’s largest metropolises, and what it could mean for urban spaces across the nation and world.


For self-driving cars to become commonplace, the cars first and foremost need to be safe. Early in 2016 Elon Musk claimed that Tesla’s Autopilot feature was “’probably better than a person right now.’” However, Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Google’s autonomous driving initiative, noted Autopilot’s limitations during test drives.

According to this New York Times article, “The Tesla performed well in freeway driving, and the company recently fixed a bug that had caused the car to unexpectedly veer off onto freeway exits. However, on city streets and country roads, Autopilot’s performance could be described as hair-raising.”

In fact, the first recorded fatality occurred in May of this year, when a Tesla car on self-driving mode failed to break as a tractor trailer ahead made a left turn. In a city, this type of incident could be even more likely — especially in New York City, where vehicle and foot traffic are perpetual problems. Still, human error being the main cause of accidents, driverless cars are likely to prevent many deaths and accidents.

In a tight city, that won’t be easy. The Midtown grid may be easy for Autopilot to navigate, but what about the twisting streets of the Financial District and the Village? Northeast weather conditions can introduce additional challenges.

Another big issue is the switch to manual control, as prompted by the Autopilot, which presumes close human supervision. According to John Leonard, an MIT mechanical engineering professor, “’The whole issue of interacting with people inside and outside the car exposes real issues in artificial intelligence.’”

Human error while operating large machinery is a known–if beleaguered–quantity. Although potentially safer, self-driving cars will probably be held to higher safety standards prior to widespread use, prompting a chilling question: will these self-driving cars and corresponding apps be susceptible to sabotage and hacking?

Despite precedent in features like cruise control, which automates some aspects of driving, people will undoubtedly want certain guarantees before giving up manual control.


With continued funding, testing, and refinement, safety issues can certainly be improved upon, if not eliminated. However, that leaves the next hurdle of legislation.

Autonomous cars must be made legal state-by-state, which could be a challenge depending on the region and public perception. What will the inevitable transition period look like–the mix of driven and self-driving cars? How will issues of litigation be settled in the inevitable event of an accident?

If driverless cars are to become normalized, especially in big cities, all of the legal kinks will need to be worked out first.


Beyond all these practical implementation concerns, how will these self-driving cars affect the New York cityscape? According to an article by Curbed, autonomous cars would eventually lead to a “shared vehicle ownership model, ” similar to Citi Bike or Zipcar, which would in turn lead to more efficient driving and parking practices, such as the reduction of parking spaces and roadways, which would mean the reclamation of public space.

According to Dr. Kara Klockman, “shared bikes” will also get a boost from this kind of transit model. Alain Kornhauser posits that autonomous vehicles will actually make regional transit and by extension urban public transit more accessible.

Essentially, if all cars (or even most) in NYC were to go the driverless route, it would mean less traffic and smoother roads.


Still, one can’t help but ask if autonomous cars would be a preferred mode of transport over public transit. There’s the transfer to consider, as well as the costs of each mode of transportation (and the tally when combining them). Why not take an autonomous car all the way to work? Even with carpooling, we might see increased urban sprawl and an uptick in commute times.

As Dr. Kara Klockman notes, “’A big concern that I have for cities, states and regions is excessive travel. […] I think we’ll need a credit-based congestion pricing model.”

As the environmental costs of vehicular travel continue to be scrutinized, alternative modes of transportation are more likely to be prioritized, especially in cities like New York that have robust public transport systems already. But if driverless cars could operate sustainably, quickly and cheaply, they may play a chief role.

Human impact

The question of cost raises additional concerns. Gerry Tierney notes: “If we’re moving toward this autonomous, decentralized transit system, we need to make sure that it’s accessible to everybody, that there’s a social equity concept in the design.”

For people of lower income who cannot afford to live in the city center where they work, self-driving cars could be a real time-saver. But if these people are priced out of the service, we could end up with a very lopsided combination of public transportation systems and autonomous vehicle transit.

Another human cost to consider is the impact on labor. As this New York Post article puts it, “Chalk up another possible job victim of the Internet age — the New York City cab driver.” Mayor Bill de Blasio already signed an agreement with Google in April 2015 to add thousands of self-driving cars to New York’s taxi service.

The proposed 2016 White House budget included $4 billion for pertinent research funding. And Uber, along with its competitor Lyft, are planning to use autonomous cars, which–given the recent controversy surrounding Uber’s employer practices and the app’s controversial reception in many cities–could prove contentious.

Lastly, what of New York City’s finest, the NYPD? Traffic tickets add a consistent stream of revenue to police forces, and assuming self-driving cars limit (if not remove entirely) the possibilities of road violations, some estimates predict half of cops could be put out of work.

While this would be bad in the short-term for police officers, it could free up their time and resources to concentrate more fully on serious crimes.

At the end of the day, it’s tough to say what NYC would really look like if and when driverless cars are popularized in urban spaces. But we can say for certain they will play a part in the future, and that the impact on America’s infrastructure and the face of its most vibrant city will be drastic.

Featured image: DiAnn L’Roy via Flickr

By |2018-10-31T16:19:00+00:00July 11th, 2016|Culture, Technology|

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

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

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

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

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

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

How it works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real results

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why it’s important

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

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

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

Featured image: Sony Abesamis via Flickr


By |2020-05-07T19:52:58+00:00May 11th, 2016|Culture, Philanthropy, Urban Planning|

Dying Sustainably: What Greener Burials Mean For Big Cities

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

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

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

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

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

A costly problem

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

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

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

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

The Green Burial Movement

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

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

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

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

Saving space and memories

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

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

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

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

Designing for the future

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

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

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


By |2018-10-31T16:13:37+00:00April 18th, 2016|Culture, Technology, Urban Planning|

How Urban Planning Shapes Art, Music and Culture

The structure and a design of a city is integral to the way in which communities come to use its space. This is true of the basics — like recreation, work and residential — but it’s also true of art: where it thrives, where it’s created, and how it’s consumed. From music venues to street art and theater districts, there are reasons why certain cities and spaces spawn cultural renaissances.

You see, the size and layout of homes and public places impact what people choose to do there. So if a building is conducive to creative activities, the area will develop to reflect it. Then, as the location begins to adopt creativity into its ethos, the art has it’s own impact, and may affect urban planning moving forward. This cycle of environment and art is something often considered overtly.

For people interested in art, culture, urban design or all of the above, the cause and effect of environment on cultural innovation is a topic worth exploring. With this knowledge, urban planners can design spaces that organically spark creation, and artists can choose spaces that serve their needs based on both historic accomplishments and future goals.

Art & culture

Artistic movements are induced by time, attitude, persons and place. The importance of environment in art-making cannot be overstated — just think about the classic pastoral, impressionism, and expressionism, all inspired by nature.

The natural world has always been impactful for artists, but so have cities in a different way. Urbanisation has birthed its own art movements based on factors like the city layout, population, and the social and political realities of the times. The symmetry and tight design of a cities contrasts greatly with nature, so it makes sense this the art that comes from it characterizes more grit than greenery; more angles than angels.

For example, modernism as an art form was shaped by the rapid growth of cities and industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th century. When people began to move into cities to seek their fortunes, the environment inspired a new outlook that rejected the certainty of enlightenment and the limits of traditionalism. Modern cities, defined by order and the promise of enlightenment, inspired art, literature and philosophy that affirmed human power to create with the aid of science, technology, and practical experimentation.

In this way, modernism was a reflection of urban environments: their stoicism, their nihilism and their promise. It’s a testament to the functionality of city design during the industrial revolution: when machines and manufacturing were introduced via factories and plants, economic growth and innovative thinking flourished. In fact, modernism inspired a new era of urban design that followed the logic of mass production by implementing large-scale solutions citywide.

Around the same time, city design that prioritized industrialization faced artistic pushback in the form of the Arts and Crafts movement. Due to anxieties over the prominence of industrial life, handcraftsmanship surged in the early 20th century to prove the value of human creativity and design.

But in the wake of two world wars, cities and cultural attitudes would change. Times of hardships and the inability of cities to keep urban spaces safe and clean made clear that even modernism had its faults: in city planning, architecture, and in philosophy. Postmodernism emerged as a result of these failures, exemplified by the decline of American cities. It rejected the totality of modernism in favor of a more contextual and skeptical approach less devoted to perfection.

But even in times and places in strife, art has thrived: as it turns out, abandoned warehouses served the needs of artists as well as they did mass production. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, large abandoned factories proved ideal for artists seeking cheap rent and ample, light-filled spaces. The town was revived as a hub for creative types, and remains one of the hippest neighborhoods in the city.

Music making

Another key example of how our designed environment shapes culture is music, which has developed in garages, living rooms, churches and garages. The distinct personality of different genres has in part to do with the history of the space through which they first emerged.

1960s Detroit, it’s argued, gave birth to MoTown for several reasons: first, the northern migration of African Americans from the South for factory jobs, and second, because single-family houses had ample space for pianos. A musical heyday was relinquished even in the face of the city’s imminent decline because African American residents used this extra space to gather and make music.

“What this suggests is that cities shouldn’t despair too much about their existing built form, even if in many cases they are struggling with it,” wrote Aaron Renn on this phenomenon. “The question might be, what does that form enable that you can’t get elsewhere?”

The Detroit-Motown connection prompted journalist Ian Wylie to explore how urban planning shaped other music scenes in an article for the Guardian. When considering the grunge scene in Seattle, Wylie writes, both architecture and weather contributed to its cultivation. The inclusion of garages in local homes gave musicians a place to practice, and the damp, moderate climate convinced them to spend more time there making music, regardless of season.

Wyle also writes of how tower blocks in London made ideal transmission spots for illegal radio stations promoting grime music: the towers were fortress-like labyrinths that concealed the pirate stations from police, allowing the widespread broadcasting and popularization of grime music.

Then there are Berlin’s abandoned warehouses, which gave rise to electronic music. Not unlike Williamsburg’s abandoned factories, these large spaces provided ample from for experimentation and dance parties.

“DJs enjoyed the liberation of making music in places where previously they might have been jailed or even shot for trespassing,” Wylie writes. “The large warehouses of cold war-era Berlin also became spaces for artists and musicians to convert into studios.”

Lastly, New York City’s community centers played a part in the growth of hip hop: DJs and other hip hop artists held shows at sponsored community talent shows and dances more often than they did on the streets. The existence of these centers allowed a blending of generations and cultures, which contributed to hip-hop’s unique and eclectic sound.

What it all means

Where there are cities there are humans, and where there are humans there is art. Whether the city as a whole inspires a political and artistic movement, or simply certain elements of its design, environment will always play an important role in cultural evolution.

Many of the world’s cities tell the stories of the complex relationships between buildings, communities, and art. When the space informs the artist, the art informs the community, and then the community informs the future of the space. It’s a known phenomenon that when art flourishes, it invigorates neighborhoods, and invites the further development of both art and business.

Both urban planners and artists can take this information into stride in their future endeavors. It’s a common goal of developers to build spaces that are hospitable to young, artistic individuals and communities. Building spacious community centers, rooms, and public spaces where collaboration can happen could prompt the artistic renaissances of the future.

For young creatives, cities continue to offer the inspiration and flexibility to kickstart new projects, movements, genres, and works of art. Whether or not urban planners intend it — and as evidenced by abandoned spaces, perhaps especially when they don’t — creativity finds a way to fill in both cracks and canals.

Featured image: Vincent Anderlucci via Flickr

By |2018-10-31T16:10:38+00:00March 29th, 2016|Culture, Urban Planning|

How Company Culture Shapes Business Outcomes

Company culture is more than just having a ping pong table and the occasional happy hour. It’s the essence of a business: the pervasive vision, values, and systems pulsing within employees, management, atmosphere and more. Some like to call it the genetic code of a company, though in some circumstances it can be more malleable than that.

More and more, good company culture is being recognized as vital to a company’s success; on the flip side, toxic culture has been witnessed contributing to huge failures. Built into business at its most basic level, company culture is both the result of a company’s structure and the support that keeps it standing. It’s both an outcome of hiring choices, and the force that drives them. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: a company shapes its culture and the culture shapes the company, over and over or all at once.

Company culture is often developed gradually and without intention. At a company’s onset, certain things are decided implicitly: what goals are most important, the attitude it takes to get there, and even common personality traits and values. Even if the company starts with just one person — its founder — a culture is born from that individual’s choices when it comes to hiring and leadership. With each new decision and addition, the culture grows for better or for worse.

Company culture as motivation

The idea of company culture as a success factor isn’t new, but it seems the extent of its value is only on the precipice of realization. Some believe it is just as important, if not more so, than pay. Money is certainly a powerful motivator — as demonstrated with rats by B.F. Skinner in 1938, “operant conditioning” occurs when individuals are rewarded when their behavior is good and penalized when it’s bad. This method of compensation has been the primary model of employment for ages.

But reward and punishment aren’t enough to get the best out of people, Abraham Maslow’s theory of hierarchical needs suggested in 1943. Basic needs like food, water and shelter can be met by money, yes, but a whole pyramid of needs exist beyond the staples of life — like safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. A workplace that makes employees (and clients) feel safe, welcome, proud and confident will yield higher result than monetary value alone.

Company culture is what either succeeds or fails at meeting these extra needs. Factors like robust benefits, comfortable office space, amenities, extracurriculars and relationship building shape the culture, which in turn motivates employees and impacts productivity.

The benefits of good culture

So, we know that company culture is important. But what can it actually accomplish? We can look at some success stories to get a better idea of what returns may come from investment in culture.

There are various companies that are known for their culture, and are likely successful, in part, because of it. Well-known innovation hubs like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Adobe boast impressive cultures that prioritize inclusion, teamwork and perks. Hiring the right people who will fit and thrive within the culture (in some cases, over qualification and education) differentiates these companies from the rest.

Research suggests that companies with strong, substantial, and adaptive cultures outperform their counterparts when they emphasize customers, employees and investors, fit the business environment and adapt to change. In this way, culture has a strong influence on economic performance.

Culture is more than just perks. It’s onboarding, work-life integration, and an ignition of passion that leaves workers positive about everything from mundane tasks to advancement opportunities. Positive culture makes for happier employees, better business, and also leads to employee retention, which saves time and money on hiring and training.

The risks of toxic culture

There are many qualities that signify a potentially toxic culture, or at the very least a dysfunctional one. Many of these stem from bad leadership, which tends to trickle down into management and employee well-being. Some signs include poor health, high stress, discomfort, fear, and a host of other issues that compromise the hierarchy of needs, as mentioned previously.

In other words, when employees feel unsafe, unwelcome, unmotivated and unheard, it is likely due to a toxic culture. Bad culture costs more than just feelings — productivity is lower, communication is strained, leading to bad business. Equally harmful can be a bad reputation, or worse, lawsuits.

A Gallup State of the American Workplace found that unhappy workers cost U.S. businesses $450 to $550 billion dollars a year in lost productivity. When these unhappy workers leave, it’s not much better: the cost of turnover from just 12 employees is about $250,000 when you factor in hiring costs. When employees are subject to incivility, they spend as little time at work as possible and decreased work quality; those that witness it like clients and coworkers are impacted for the worse, too. In other words, the toxins leak, affecting everyone in the workplace and beyond.

Turning a culture around

In the end, company culture shapes business through all sorts of aspects, like employee well-being, management style, and office environment. And because it often grows organically as a reflection of company values, it can be extremely difficult to turn around.

Changing a culture entirely is a daunting and possibly impossible task. But culture can always be improved, if those with the most influence are willing. And there are better ways than simply implementing a Taco Tuesday — like engaging employees with tasks, policies, and initiatives that keep them motivated and happy, or simply making them know their input matters.

Articulating company vision and ethics, supporting worker health and wellbeing, providing opportunities for training and development, fostering camaraderie, and encouraging healthy work-life balance can also go a long way. At worst, these steps will give employees a slight boost; at best, they will shape the entire business for the better.


By |2018-10-31T15:59:53+00:00January 21st, 2016|Culture|
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