Why don’t we have 3,000-5,000 foot tall skyscrapers?

After explaining how exoskeletons provide stability for skyscrapers,All Posts this article explains why we don’t have even taller buildings:

So what keeps engineers from building even taller buildings? It’s not physics. “We can build twice as high as we can today,” says Shmerykowsky. “But it all comes back to the economics.” In other words, taller buildings aren’t worth the money to developers right now.

Plus, most cities have municipal codes that place restrictions on tall buildings to prevent them from interfering with air traffic or from disrupting the overall aesthetic of the city’s skyline. On the engineers’ part, as long as the soil around the foundation of the building can take the weight, even taller skyscrapers are possible.

Thoughts on the two reasons given above:

1. Economics. So what kind of densities would be needed for the economics to work out? Think of some of the most expensive housing markets in the world like Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, Manhattan, San Francisco. Even they couldn’t support taller buildings? I also imagine someone would make the case that buildings a supertall structure could lead to additional benefits like status and tourists.

2. Local regulations. Perhaps this is the bigger issue: who wants to be a neighbor to such a building? Would people be willing to live on the 130th floor? Would a single supertall building stick out of the skyline?

But, if such buildings can be constructed, we will probably have one sooner rather than later. Being the first could be quite appealing to a developing city or leader who wants attention.

Fighting public urination with splash-back paint

Public nuisances can lead to innovation in San Francisco:

The city’s Public Works agency is testing a pee-repellant paint on walls in areas that have been saturated with urine. Anyone urinating on the specially treated walls will get the spray splashed back onto them.

San Francisco’s director of public works, Mohammed Nuru – whose Twitter handle is @MrCleanSF – got the idea when he read on social media about the use of the paint in Hamburg, Germany’s nightclub district to stop beer drinkers from relieving themselves in the street.

The paint, called Ultra-Ever Dry, is sold by Ultratech International Inc and is billed as a superhydrophobic coating that will repel most liquids…

In a pilot program, San Francisco last week painted nine walls in areas around bars and other areas with big homeless populations.

This may be welcome in many places. Yet, the lack of bathrooms in many major cities is a big issue. For example, Mitchell Duneier has a section in his ethnography Sidewalk on the issues homeless black street vendors have in finding facilities. The paint may help deter people – particularly those around bars who could use the restrooms there – but doesn’t address the bigger concerns about clean public restrooms.

Homes going off the market at a record pace

Given the reduced supply of homes for sale, Redfin reports that houses for sale are going fast:

New research suggests that not only are typical selling times declining in the current bull market for housing, but they also may have hit record lows. According to realty brokerage Redfin, the median time on market dipped to just 26 days during June — the shortest time on record for its database — with houses in some markets moving from listing to contract in 11 days or less. Denver homes sold in six days or less, according to Redfin; Seattle’s median was nine days; Portland, Ore., 10 days; and Boston, 11 days.

That’s hot. But there are dozens of cities around the country where selling speeds are nowhere near that quick. According to June data from real estate Web portal realtor.com, which uses information from local multiple-listing services nationwide, the median time on market for homes in Chicago was 54 days. In the Washington, D.C., area it was 45 days; Miami, 75 days; metropolitan New York, 68 days; Oklahoma City, 53 days. At the laggard end of the spectrum, the median house in Brownsville, Texas, took 122 days to sell; Myrtle Beach, S.C., 105 days.

Why such apparently wide variations from area to area, and what can a typical seller expect? Some basics: Part of selling speed depends on matters that you can control. But there are factors you can’t control — the strength of your local economy, employment and income growth. If the economy is on fire and there’s a low inventory of homes for sale to serve market demand, you’re going to see houses rapidly zipping from listing to contract.

Regional variation is to be expected but it may also suggest that certain housing markets are getting overheated again – not necessarily by high prices and a lot of new construction (like the mid 2000s sprawl of Las Vegas) but by having high demand yet few homes for sale.

The article goes on to talk about how sellers can slow down the process by pricing their homes a bit higher and leaving room for negotiation. But, there is little discussion about who benefits or is hurt by these quick sales times. Doesn’t this suggest that more housing is needed in the market, particularly in the lower ends of the market, either through some new construction or through continuing to help people get out from underneath their mortgages?

Mexico City’s pedestrian superhero back in the news

Continuing to fight for pedestrians in Mexico City is “The Little Pedestrian”:

The mighty Peatonito (Little Pedestrian) pushes cars blocking the path of pedestrians, creates crosswalks with spray paint, and climbs on vehicles parked on sidewalks — though his mother has begged him to stop stepping on them.

“Pedestrians are happy because they finally have a defender,” Peatonito said, his face covered by a wrestling mask adorned with a pedestrian symbol and wearing a striped cape (sewn by his grandma) adorned with the black and white stripes of a pedestrian crossing.

“We live in a car dictatorship. Nobody had fought for pedestrian rights until some activists emerged a few years ago.”

Meanwhile, below the city streets five clowns are on a similar mission to send up urban incivility, barging into a metro carriage making monkey noises and holding a sign saying “It’s better without pushing.”…

Peatonito aims to reduce traffic deaths in a city where pedestrians account for more than half of around 1,000 annual road fatalities, according to health ministry statistics.

This is a fascinating way to draw attention to the issue. It is one thing to publish statistics or to have more road signs (read about the campaign in Illinois to post the number of driving deaths for all to see) but another for a handful of people to act in public spaces. With the line of “we live in a car dictatorship,” I’m surprised others haven’t taken up similar routines in other cities around the world (including the United States which might be as much as a car dictatorship as one can have). But, two things might be problematic:

1. I wonder if police or local officials could actually arrest them for being a disturbance. In a real car dictatorship, you don’t want fake superheros running around in the way of cars. Might it take some complaints from drivers or others who feel that these crusaders have gone too far?

2. How does one translate these activities into a broader social movement or changes in policies and regulations? If the pedestrians of Mexico City wanted to take over the roads, they certainly could. At the least, this superhero might publicly shame the city but that doesn’t necessarily lead to large-scale change.

By the way, this isn’t the first time Peatonito has drawn international news coverage. See this story from 2013 that discusses what his actions led to:

Peatónito is the alter ego of Jorge Cáñez, a 26-year-old political scientist in Mexico City who has also worked with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP)…

His efforts got him invited to speak at the Walk 21 conference in 2012 and has met with officials from Mexico City’s department of public security to discuss the importance of putting pedestrians first in street design and traffic enforcement. He is hopeful about government efforts to improve infrastructure. At least, he says, they are now talking about giving pedestrians priority — which would only make sense in a city where 80 percent of the population doesn’t drive…

“Once the government has adopted the ‘pedestrian is the king’ in their speeches, I’m going to monitor and help them till the day there’s no pedestrian fatalities nor accidents, and also decent sidewalks and safety crossings in the streets. But even if the government calls me to collaborate, I will always be a non-partisan citizen hero of the public domain.” He has registered Peatónito as Creative Commons, so that anyone who wants can become Peatónito.

Perhaps there really are superheros…

How the ADA changed architecture

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 had a profound effect on architecture and design:

The Americans with Disabilities Act created a comprehensive civil rights approach to accessibility at the federal level. Before its passage, architects worked under a varying system of state and local buildings codes that governed design requirements. Federal laws that were precursors to the ADA, such as the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (especially section 504) and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, mandated better access. But since they only applied to federal properties, those built with federal money, or housing programs funded by federal sources, they didn’t address varying codes for other structures, and had no impact on privately owned buildings. People with disabilities still had to navigate on unstable terrain, legally speaking. Wright told lawmakers the patchwork of protection was akin to a “piece of Swiss cheese” spread across the country…

The battle for passage, which foreshadowed many of the issues surrounding its implementation and eventual effectiveness, boiled down to three main issues, according to Wright: civil rights, an implicit part of the debate; architects’ desire to have freedom in their choice of designs; and the cost of retrofitting buildings. While architects eventually accepted the changes as another set of guidelines, like a code change, every section of the bill encountered different forms of corporate resistance. During debates over transportation, for instance, Greyhound complained about the cost of retrofitting buses and rebuilding all their stations. During months of negotiations, Wright was assisted by her “right-hand man” Ron Mace, an architect and designer with Barrier-Free Environments, who used a wheelchair due to polio. He continually gave her facts and figures on the costs of different alternatives and upgrades, helping to assuage fears and correct inflated cost estimates from the opposition…

At first, architects greeted the ADA as just another code change, according to many in the field. Patrick Burke, a principal at Michael Graves Architecture & Design who started there in the ’70s, admits that his colleagues at the time rarely thought about people with wheelchairs. But a few years after the ADA was introduced, it quickly became “part of design DNA.” While sustainability often provided a quantifiable, monetary impact, accessibility, which almost always requires a bigger building and more money, is just the right thing to do…

“It’s changed the way we enter buildings, and the way we design for monumentality,” says Steinfeld. “The ADA has created a new way of thinking, a much more convenient, egalitarian approach. It’s no longer like the days of imperial Rome and England, with the elite of society standing up on the second floor, watching the peons go by below.”

The suggestion here is that addressing accessibility led to more open, flowing, lighter designs that all people could benefit from. While the legislation may have been aimed at helping a specific group, the benefits can be shared by all. Think about the trend of having first floor master bedrooms in houses; they may have benefits for those with mobility concerns or allowing the homeowners to stay longer since they don’t have to travel up or down stairs as much but such a layout could have other benefits such as a more private space away from the other bedrooms and having closer access to the main living spaces.

On the other hand, I wonder if the normal person has noticed these changes in public places beyond seeing a ramp here or there. Many people don’t have to think about accessibility issues. Granted, it may be our often lack of attention to architecture and design in our daily lives and the inability to read/understand this architecture that is more of an issue. Yet, I suspect this is still a hidden issue.

Song invoking filling potholes with cement (which the gov’t is not doing)

Potholes are problems in many places but it isn’t often that the issue makes it into a popular song. Here is part of the bridge for Twenty One Pilots’ “Tear In My Heart”:

You fell asleep in my car I drove the whole time
But that’s okay I’ll just avoid the holes so you sleep fine
I’m driving here I sit
Cursing my government
For not using my taxes to fill holes with more cement

Potholes are costly to the average driver but who knew that they can be detrimental to romantic relationships? Yet another reason for spending more upfront on infrastructure to keep the later potholes at bay. Plus, the artist is convinced that the government is misallocating his tax monies. Seems to be a popular American sentiment these days.

These failed romance/anti-government themes may just be popular together: at the time of writing, the song was #67 on iTunes and is #2 on the alternative radio charts. Or, maybe the reference to filling potholes with cement is the real secret…

Viewing a neighborhood differently with white vs. black residents

A recent study asked people to look at the same neighborhood but with differences in the race of the residents:

In a study led by sociologist Maria Krysan at the University of Illinois at Chicago, people were asked to assess short video clips of neighborhoods with black and white actors posing as residents. Whites rated more positively the places that appeared to be white neighborhoods, compared to when the very same neighborhoods were shown with blacks. These two clips used in the study capture the same middle-class neighborhood in Detroit.

An interesting twist to use videos with similar scenes. But, the findings follow in a long line of studies that suggest whites and blacks are treated differently in mortgage applications, searches for rental housing, applying for jobs, buying a car, and other areas. Just having a different skin color provokes people to different perceptions and actions. Whites generally don’t want to live in neighborhoods with blacks though the opposite is not true. And just seeing blacks on the street might be enough to push whites away…

Dot maps of American jobs

A researcher shows the geographic dispersion of American jobs through an interactive dot map:

This visualization plots one dot for every job in the United States, according to the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics data. The LEHD data is based on state unemployment insurance records, and tabulates the count of jobs by census block. Here, jobs are colored by type, allowing us to see how different industries and sectors exhibit different spatial patterns–some clustering in downtowns, others spreading across city and suburbs alike.

This project was inspired by the Racial Dot Map, as implemented most recently by the Cooper Center at the University of Virginia. I’m grateful to them for hosting such a stunning visualization, and especially for their extensive methodology section, which I drew on heavily to create the map here.

Not surprisingly, jobs are concentrated in different areas. Geographic dispersion is not unusual in the United States as it includes racial and ethnic groups (ongoing patterns of residential segregation), spatial mismatches between where people live and work, and grouping by social class and other categories (like religion or cultural groups – see the books The Big Sort or Our Patchwork Nation).

Why jobs are so grouped could involve a variety of factors including zoning (communities wanting to place certain firms in certain places), economies of scale and innovation (it could make sense to concentrate large numbers of workers and/or organizations near each other), and historic patterns of businesses locating near each other.

Another issue is whether these patterns are generally good for organizations, workers, and communities.

Do you want your big city mayor to have no experience with corruption?

Many big city residents may want mayors who stay away from corruption but what if that means the mayor is less effective at getting things down and fighting corruption?

Today, Mr. Marino finds himself under political siege in the city he vowed to save from itself. Italy’s news media lampoons him as an honest man in over his head, or as one newspaper called him, a Forrest Gump.

“His virtue is also his main problem: He is not connected to all the rotten Roman relationships,” said Carlo Bonini, an investigative journalist with La Repubblica, a daily newspaper. “He knows the world he operates in too little.”…

Perhaps most damning for the mayor has been the slow-bleeding “Mafia Capitale” investigation, which has exposed tainted bidding for city contracts on a number of services, including refugee centers and sanitation. Even for a country more than accustomed to such scandal, the revelations have come as a shock…

While the corruption revealed by the scandal predated Mr. Marino’s arrival in office, the mayor has been criticized as responding slowly and indecisively. “He has always been a step behind,” Mr. Bonini of La Repubblica said…

The corruption investigation of park maintenance contractors led the mayor to suspend their work, leaving public spaces overgrown. His order to stop sidewalk vendors from peddling near historical sites prompted protests from merchants.

Perhaps this is a situation where you would prefer to be the mayor after the crusading reformer has vigorously taken on corruption. Two other quick thoughts:

1. How much can a mayor do on his/her own to fight corruption? If other governmental bodies are not working with the mayor, it would be difficult to get much done.

2. Cleaning up corruption is a difficult task. Moving too quickly may lead to disruptions. Moving too slowly irritates residents.

Spotted in Boston: a prominent silver unicorn

Atop the Old State House in Boston is an unusual site in a modern city: a unicorn.


Here is a wider shot:


Both the lion and unicorn were recently restored and put back in their positions:

The unveiling of the two statues Sunday morning attracted Bostonians, tourists, and members of the press. Shannon Felton, of the British Consulate General, and Greg Soutiea, a participant in the 2013 Boston Marathon, had the honor of revealing the newly refurbished statues to the public…

Over the course of a few hours, the statues were removed from their wooden crates and hoisted to the top of the Old State House. This marks the end of a six year long project to restore the statues to their original glory. The unicorn, newly plated in a palladium cover, looks completely different from its tarnished appearance when it was removed in September.

According to the Wikipedia page for the building, the unicorn has an interesting history:

Today’s brick Old State House was built in 1712–13…A notable feature was the pair of seven-foot tall wooden figures depicting a lion and unicorn, symbols of the British monarchy…

In 1882, replicas of the lion and unicorn statues were placed atop the East side of the building, after the originals that had been burned in 1776.

Read more about the unicorn present on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom.

I wonder if there is any other American city that has such a prominent unicorn…