The potential problems with a city “built from the Internet up”

Sidewalk Labs, a part of Alphabet/Google, wants to develop 12 acres on Toronto’s waterfront and they have a unique vision:

Sidewalk describes its vision for Quayside in terms worthy of Blade Runner, as a city “built from the internet up … merging the physical and digital realms.” In reality, the company’s ambition lies first in the synthesis of established techniques like modular construction, timber-frame building, underground garbage disposal, and deep-water cooling. Not low-tech, but not rocket science either. Sidewalk’s success will depend on deploying those concepts at scale, beginning with a preliminary tract at Quayside but expanding—if all goes well—to Toronto’s Port Lands, a vast, underused peninsula of reclaimed land the size of downtown Toronto.

Sure, there will robots delivering packages, sensors for air quality and noise, and the deployment of a range of electronics that will help the infrastructure enable autonomous vehicles. But, says Rohit Aggarwala, Sidewalk’s head of urban systems, “I expect very little of the value we create is about information.” Indeed, a number of Sidewalk’s ideas are rather old-school: retractable, durable canopies to shelter sidewalks (hello, 11th-century Damascus); pedestrian pathways that melt snow (familiar from any ski town); composting, which is as old as human settlement itself. The company projects that managing wind, sun, and rain can “double the number of [year-round] daylight hours when it is comfortable to be outside.” The development, Doctoroff said, “is primarily a real estate play.”…

That’s part of the pitch for Sidewalk’s Toronto neighborhood. The company calculates the cost of living in Quayside will be 14 percent lower than the surrounding metro area. It believes timber-frame construction, modular units that can be assembled on site, microunits, and cohousing can significantly lower housing costs. Other ideas, like mixing office, production, institutional, and residential spaces together in buildings, do not draw on technology at all.

Many have tried to master-plan the vibrancy of an organic city; most have failed. You better believe a company named after Jane Jacobs has the lingo down: “The most exciting ways to activate the public realm are often a mix of traditional uses in flexible spaces,” the company’s proposal says. “The cafe that puts tables on the sidewalk, the teacher who uses a park for nature lessons, the artist who turns a street corner into a stage.” But is it really the case that that kind of street life can be built, as Sidewalk promises, on “a robust system of asset monitoring” that creates a reservation system for sidewalk space? No.

It sounds like this development could be an interesting mix of Jane Jacobs, New Urbanism, and Google. Or, it could be another splashy redevelopment project that Google eventually sells at a sizable profit.

In the long run, developing 12 acres or a sizable corporate campus – recently undertaken by Apple or Facebook – is very different than creating a city. There are numerous differences including these:

  1. Building and maintaining essential infrastructure including water, power, gas, and telecommunications. A smaller development has the advantage of plugging into existing systems.
  2. American communities tend to be built in pieces rather than all at once. There is the issue whether people can build a development or city in a certain way and just expect community to happen – there is enough evidence from New Urbanist projects that it does not exactly work this way. One way around this is to build in stages and give the community time to develop, grow, and have its own history and identity.
  3. A development project often is working within existing political structures. Google can’t do whatever it wants in Toronto; it has to answer to local government. This could be quite a hindrance and could lead some tech companies to practice their city-building in environments where they have more local control.
  4. A city run by a private company versus one operating in a democratic system could be very different. Graber hints at this at the end of the piece: what happens if residents do not like Google’s ideas? The company town idea has issues. At the same time, a private firm could develop the property or community and then hand it over to local residents and government – this happens everywhere from developers and HOAs to Disney building Celebration.

All that said, it could be worthwhile to let some private firms do large-scale development like this to see if they can offer new features or solve common problems facing municipalities.

Did Peyton Manning really lead to the revival of Indianapolis?

Lost within the Vice President’s protest of a protest at the Indianapolis Colts game was the retiring of Peyton Manning’s number. A great NFL quarterback – but also the savior of Indianapolis?

So now Indianapolis, with its compact downtown packed with hotels and restaurants, has had a Super Bowl—and the city performed so well the NFL might go back for a second one day. Indianapolis has won a Super Bowl. Indianapolis has had Final Fours, men’s and women’s. Indianapolis is even hip, with Manhattan-caliber restaurants like Bluebeard. On Saturday, with two big conventions and a Colts game in town, downtown was bursting at the seams; there was a line at St. Elmo’s. And a crowd of 10,000 to 12,000 people came to the city to watch the unveiling of the half-ton bronze statue for the man who, more than anyone, made it possible. GM Bill Polian always maintained Lucas Oil Stadium got built on the back of Peyton Manning, and the former two-term governor, Mitch Daniels, echoed that in remarks to the adoring crowd. Locals were giving Daniels a hard time about the cost of Lucas Oil Stadium early this century, and he said: “Just build it. Peyton will fill it.” Fitting, too, that the shiny upscale JW Marriott—representing boom times in the first 17 years of this century for $320-a-night rooms in ritzy downtown hotels—could be seen through the legs of the bronze number 18.

“He didn’t do it alone,” Letterman said. “But by God, look around us. He changed the skyline. This used to be a small town. This man has changed the skyline.”

Never wonder again about the effect of a winning quarterback on a city, a state, a region. It’s why every team that doesn’t have Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan spends so much time and money looking for one. As Browns owner Jimmy Haslam told me this summer: “There’s nothing that compares to it. You need a great starting pitcher, a great closer in baseball. You need a great point guard in basketball. But there’s not one position that comes anywhere close in sports, I don’t think, to quarterback in football. If you ask any one of our football people, they’d all say getting the quarterback right is number one. I can tell you this: It’s on the top of our list daily. Once you get that, the game’s much easier.”…

Manning got emotional talking to the crowd. The crowd—at least via signs from as far west as Hawaii, as far east as New Jersey—ladled love on him for an hour. “WE LOVE YOU MAN,” punctuated the affair three times from the crowd. A friend, Angie Six, was in the middle of it and texted me afterward: “Being a part of the crowd was a truly moving experience, enough to make this fan and those around me a little misty-eyed. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the shadow of Lucas Oil Stadium, I saw a diverse crowd of Colts fans: young, old, black, white, Hispanic, men, women. We are all Hoosiers, proud to claim Peyton as our own. When Peyton left to play for Denver, we watched heartbroken from afar. We never had a chance to say thank you. Today, we were able to express our gratitude in person, and the crowd was giddy. The woman behind me said, ‘What a great day to be a Colts fan.’”

I do not buy these two common arguments made by sportswriters and others:

(1) stars and championships can change the course of major cities and regions and

(2) sports truly bring together communities in ways that other spheres or events cannot.

Development and community-building does not work this way. Cleveland finally winning a championship does not change everything. The Bulls winning six championships in the 1990s followed by the White Sox, Blackhawks, and the Cubs (!) winning in the following decades has not solved the problems facing many poor neighborhoods. J.J. Watt raising a lot of money in response to hurricane relief in Houston is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed to clean up and more importantly help Houston and other regions develop ways to be resilient in the face of disasters. Peyton Manning becoming the most recognized face of Indianapolis – even though he is from Mississippi and the team dumped him when they thought they could do better without him – is a nice story but there are plenty of players who do similar things (just not at one of the most visible positions in sports).

This does not mean that winning or doing good things in the community are bad. Indeed, following sports is worthwhile in the long run when your team finally wins and team and player efforts to help communities are much appreciated. But, cities and regions are much bigger than this. Cities and regions can recover from major teams moving away. (Does anyone make a serious case that Seattle lost big when losing the Supersonics or that San Diego is going to decline with the Chargers now in Los Angeles?) People will find other ways to spend their money and local officials will continue to use whatever tools they can – including sports – to promote economic development and boost the status of their community.

I would enjoy seeing academic research on the influence of players and teams on local communities. Even in places where the teams are intimately wedded to the common insider perceptions of what a place is – think the Pittsburgh Steelers – what influence does a team really have? Perhaps Indianapolis is a unique case of sports contributing to economic development because Manning’s stardom came alongside a thriving amateur sports scene (from high school basketball to the NCAA). But, can we also imagine an alternate universe Indianapolis where the city changes over several decades with no influence of major sports?

“People care about flooding…they don’t care about stormwater management”

An article discussing the difficulties of avoiding flooding in a sprawling city like Houston includes this summary of a key problem:

One problem is that people care about flooding, because it’s dramatic and catastrophic. They don’t care about stormwater management, which is where the real issue lies. Even if it takes weeks or months, after Harvey subsides, public interest will decay too. Debo notes that traffic policy is an easier urban planning problem for ordinary folk, because it happens every day.

It is difficult to get people interested in infrastructure that does not effect them daily or they do not see it. Yet, flooding is a regular issue in many cities and suburban areas and it can be very hard to remedy once development has already occurred. Indeed, it is difficult imagine abandoning full cities or major developments:

The hardest part of managing urban flooding is reconciling it with Americans’ insistence that they can and should be able to live, work, and play anywhere. Waterborne transit was a key driver of urban development, and it’s inevitable that cities have grown where flooding is prevalent. But there are some regions that just shouldn’t become cities.

Given the regularity of flooding in developed areas, it is interesting to consider that there are not more solutions available in the short-term. Portable and massive levees? Water gates that can be quickly installed? Superfast pumps that can remove water?

Why South Barrington is not the home to Fermilab

While doing some recent reading on the Fermilab facility in Batavia, I ran into a passage in Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience that describes why South Barrington was not selected for the facility:

Illinois was forced on April 5 to withdraw its South Barrington site, despite having the strongest congressional support at the time, according to an AEC tally. Science magazine reported that residents from the affluent Chicago uburb feared that the influx of physicists would “disturb the moral fiber of the community.” (76)

That physicists would alter the character of a wealthy suburb for the worse is humorous to consider. How exactly would the “moral fiber” be disturbed? New housing? Non-white residents? I’m guessing the South Barrington area might wish that local leaders and residents had been more enthusiastic in 1966…

Claim: “Local politics is always…about housing”

In a detailed overview of the policy debates over housing between YIMBY and the Democratic Socialist of America groups in San Francisco, Henry Grabar leads with an interesting argument:

Local politics is always, in one way or another, about housing. In San Francisco, a deep blue city whose fault lines long ago ceased to resemble America’s, that politics is a vitriolic civic scrimmage, where people who agree about almost every national issue make sworn enemies over zoning, demolition, and development. It’s like a circular firing squad at a co-op meeting.

This seems similar to Sonia Hirt’s contention that zoning in America is all about protecting the single-family home.

Ultimately, do local politics always come down to housing? In many ways, housing is the bedrock of a community: it is where residents experience home, it provides numerous signals about the status of the residents and the community (through property values, architecture, the quality of life associated with the dwellings), and it generates property tax revenue (more important in some places than others). If the housing is bad shape or there are major issues, it is a major concern for residents and, by extension, their elected (and unelected) officials.

Perhaps we could even get more specific about which aspects of housing drives local politics. Which issue is most important may differ based on the (1) class status of the community and (2) its stage of development. How about property values? Or decisions about large-scale developments (particularly if they present some differences from already-existing housing)?

Assessing the Water Street development in Naperville

Several Naperville political and business leaders talked yesterday of the impact of the now open Water Street development:

There were lengthy delays, caused by the recession and by repeated rounds of changes to the plans. First there were condos, then a Holiday Inn, and finally developers proposed what actually got built: a 158-room Hotel Indigo that incorporates elements of Naperville’s history into its design.

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico thanked the residents who supported public officials as they took “tough votes” in support of the hotel, shops and riverfront improvements…

Investors Peter Foyo and Dominic Imburgia, for whom the new plaza and fountain are named, told the crowd they were honored to put their money toward a project that created jobs in their hometown and beautified a public place for a bustling future…

Pradel said by the looks of it, he’d never guess the new Water Street District was in Naperville. Not the Naperville where he grew up, seeing the strip of land south of the waterway remain relatively underused for decades upon decades.

It is quite a sizable project along the Riverwalk in downtown Naperville; it is hard to miss. And I wouldn’t expect many local leaders to say bad things about a just completed project. However, here are some questions I would ask about the development moving forward:

  1. Is it a portent of things to come in downtown Naperville and elsewhere in the community? Naperville has very little open land remaining so for population and business growth, redevelopment is key. But, redevelopments can take a myriad of forms, including new larger structures. Is Naperville ready for more structures of this size?
  2. Who benefits the most from this new development? It would be worth keeping track of the jobs and taxes generated by this new development. In the long run, are the developers or the city residents benefiting? (Of course, both could benefit but the construction of a larger structure came at the expense of other options. And growth machines – collections of local politicians and business leaders – tend to do things that are in their financial self-interests.)
  3. How many residents will use the new structure and visit the business establishments? The construction of a downtown hotel is an interesting move, suggesting that there may be an interest for visitors to stay downtown rather than at the numerous other hotels in the community (particularly along the business corridor along Diehl Road and I-88). In other words, is this for the use of residents or others?

See earlier posts about Water Street in Naperville here and here.

Geographic differences in venture capital, start ups

The race between cities to attract the tech industry is an uneven one as two graphics from a Wired story about a Denver startup illustrate:

*Combines San Francisco and San Jose metro areas. Sources: Apartment List, Brookings Institution, Pitchbook

Are efforts to replicate Silicon Valley in different places that much different than trying to copy the High Line? While it is popular to try to attract the tech industry and similar businesses – see Richard Florida’s work as an example – it is not an easy task. Even technology, with all its possibilities to span times and space, is often an embodied industry. Why would Apple pay so much attention to their new building? Why does the tech industry seem to develop in clusters like Silicon Valley and Route 128 outside of Boston?

More broadly, it takes times for communities to develop and often a series of decisions and events are required. Intentional efforts may or may not lead to a flourishing tech sector in a particular location as it is difficult to apply and carry out a particular formula. These developments are often contingent on a number of previous factors. For example, the tech industry seemed to rise up near research universities (Stanford in the Bay Area, multiple schools in the Boston area). It takes a lot (in both time and resources) to develop such educational settings. Success in developing a tech cluster should be measured in decades rather than years.