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.

Zoning trade-off: privacy vs. adverse effects

The conclusion of Sonia Hirt’s book Zoned in the USA sums up the advantages and disadvantages of a zoning system that privileges the single-family home:

Arguably, zoning – the kind of zoning that makes explicitly private space the formative compositional element of America’s settlements – does deliver the gift of privacy to American families. But put all the other arguments mentioned in the previous paragraphs together, and one begins to wonder whether the original promises of zoning were either highly suspect from the beginning or have since been turned on their heads. Paradoxically (from the viewpoint of zoning’s founders), we may not have more pollution and worse public health with our current zoning that we would have if we had modified our land-use laws more substantially over the last hundred years.

As Hirt discusses, residents can have their own private homes – the largest new single-family homes in the world – but that comes at a cost of traffic and commuting, worse pollution and using more land, and worse health as well as some unrealized dreams of zoning including reduced crime. Some would argue that the privacy is overrated as well: compared to many other countries, Americans have given up on public life.

While it is easier to imagine mixed uses in dense urban neighborhoods – imagine Jane Jacobs’ vision of a bustling mixed use New York neighborhood – it is harder to imagine mixed use or zoning throughout the vast expanses of American suburbs. Even New Urbanists have tended to design neighborhoods or shopping centers dropped into suburban settings rather than the whole fabric of suburban communities. From the beginning of American suburbs, there was the idea that the urban dweller was escaping to a cottage in nature. The home out there offered refuge from people, dirt, and bustle. Today, this legacy lives on when suburban residents oppose certain land uses near their homes for fear of a lower quality of life and subsequently reduced property values.

Ultimately, would the American suburbs even exist without the fundamental desire for privacy?

Trying to replicate Times Square in places like Atlanta

Large cities often borrow ideas from each other. But, is it possible to design places like Times Square into being by adding lights?

Some smaller American cities have recently been attempting to mimic this aesthetic, albeit on a lesser scale, in the hope of spurring economic development and a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. Denver’s theater district, for instance, now features an enormous video screen and lighted advertisements peddling the latest in products and entertainment, and Atlanta is in the process of planning such a district for a section of its downtown.

The organization Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) is spearheading the effort to relax signage restrictions so that property owners can go bigger and brighter. “At this point, downtown Atlanta’s zoning doesn’t allow signs that are over 200 square feet, and our billboards are stuck in time,” says Jennifer Ball, CAP’s Vice President for Planning and Economic Development. “We’re anticipating an increase in size as well as the ability to do large-screen video and LED boards.” Atlanta’s City Council will likely vote on the measure in January…

But the larger aim is to bring more people downtown—and for them to experience the area on foot rather than in their cars. Atlanta is known for its incredible sprawl, with its more walkable neighborhoods scattered throughout the city and thus only easily accessed via automobile. The city is aiming to make itself denser and more pedestrian-friendly, and the district is, according to Ball, “a piece of the puzzle.” To further that goal, the bright lights district would also include more housing and ground-level retail outlets and restaurants. “Atlanta wants to have a strong core that is walkable and bikeable and has the level of density to support a lifestyle where you don’t have to be in your car all the time,” Ball says.

Such a multi-pronged strategy is important, as urban lighting scholars caution that illumination on its own doesn’t guarantee an increase in business or foot traffic. Margaret Petty, Head of the School of Design at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology and a historian of electric lighting, says that there’s no evidence to suggest that lighting alone attracts people to an area, unless that area, such as Times Square, is “iconic.” Josiane Meier, lecturer at the Technical University of Berlin and co-editor of Urban Lighting, Light Pollution, and Society, adds that the “if you build it, they will come” model doesn’t really work in terms of lighting and density. “The interdependency runs the other way,” she says. “Density is a prerequisite for the existence of bright lights districts.”

It sounds like the Atlanta plan isn’t just about lights; it is about creating denser, vibrant places with a variety of uses and lights (which both can attract people and highlight existing activity). New Urbanism and Jane Jacobs come together to possibly reshape Atlanta.

Will it actually work? This reminds me of the number of cities that tried to replicate the High Line after it proved very successful in New York City. It isn’t hard to build things to look like someplace else – look at Las Vegas – but it is difficult to create legitimate neighborhoods that aren’t just tourist destinations. Times Square is interesting not just because of the tourists but also because it is at the center of the number one global city (New York City) and and is located in one of the most densely settled places in the United States (Manhattan). A bar/entertainment district with some housing above and nearby may be nice but it can’t exactly replicate the conditions of a New York City or London or Tokyo.

What could a city like Atlanta create that would be more authentic to itself while also increasing density and vibrancy? What is unique to Atlanta that can’t be found elsewhere (besides the sprawl)?

A sociologist goes to the Urban History Association meetings, Part Two

I posted several observations yesterday from my time at the Urban History Association meetings. I turn today to the three most interesting ideas or debates I heard when attending sessions and panels:

  1. On a session on public housing, the discussant made this observation: with all of these negative cases of big government involvement in public housing, perhaps we need to turn away from seeing this as the solution. The main issue is this: when the federal resources are earmarked for the poor and redevelopment, it always seems to end up in the hands of the wealthy and developers rather than with those who really need the assistance. (For another example of this that involves lots of government money but not public housing, see the book Crisis Cities about New York City after 9/11 and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) He suggested then and in later conversation that doesn’t mean that government should be completely removed from public housing. However, more local efforts seem to allow more opportunity for success rather than a completely top-down approach.I’ve argued before that the private market can’t do much about affordable housing in the United States, let alone public housing. At the same time, I would agree that the record of the federal government regarding public housing is mediocre at best. Are there some middle-range solutions? (I’ll also acknowledge that sometimes it does seem to take the federal government to help local governments do the right thing. For example, the Chicago Housing Authority was a mess for decades and required some oversight.)
  1. On a panel on Jane Jacobs, one of the scholars highlighted her upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania as being particularly formative. While Jacobs is most associated with New York City and Toronto, she was shaped by this smaller big city, the third most populous Pennsylvania city at the time and a city that attracted a variety of residents to work in the coal mining industry. This made me think of two things: (1) Why don’t more scholars pay attention to smaller big cities that may not be as important on the global stage but still contain a large number of American residents and (2) how might Jacobs and fictional resident and booster Michael Scott of The Office get along?
  1. A later panel discussed the history of Silicon Valley. In a response to a question about the representativeness of Silicon Valley for understanding other places in the United States and around the world, at least one participant suggested the ideas, social life, and spatial dimensions of Silicon Valley were likely to spread elsewhere and become normal. Another participant pushed back, suggesting that many places have no interest in becoming like Silicon Valley or don’t have the knowledge or resources to follow such a path. Such a discussion highlights how a place devoted to creating things for the masses may be in its organization and daily life be very separate from the rest of the country.

A bonus nugget from a session: when the Illinois Tollways first opened, there were not enough customers/drivers. Thus, a marketing campaign kicked off and the commercials featured Mary MacToll. Enjoy.

Getting a handle on the increasing complexity of large cities

Richard Florida interviews the author of a new book on cities and complexity. Here is one of the more interesting questions:

What do you think is the best way to think about cities: as machines, ecosystems, living organisms, or something else?

The fascinating thing about cities is that different aspects of them allow us to think about them in many different ways. At the level of urban infrastructure, cities certainly have features of machines, with vast constructed networks involved in transporting people, water, electricity, and waste.

At the level of the economy, cities resemble complex ecosystems, with companies and individuals filling specific niches and all living and working in a symbiotic dance. And at the level of growth and change, cities also feel like living, breathing, constantly growing and changing organisms.

But ultimately, the fact that a city has features of both a machine, a societal ecosystem, as well as a living thing means that a city is truly its own category: a novel type of socio-technological system that humans have made, and is perhaps one of our more incredible inventions.

I like this response: we have a tendency to reduce complex social phenomena to understandable objects (like machines – think of how often the brain is compared to a computer) but this often isn’t possible. Understanding all of the social relationships involved – and this could include relationships between people as well as between people and objects or nature – should lead us to some humility of how much we can know and predict as well as a fascination regarding how it all works. (Or, perhaps this fascination just applies to people like sociologists)

If indeed cities are complex systems, this could lead to questions of whether that complexity has drawbacks in the long run that cannot be overcome. (Parenthetically, such questions could also apply to nation states.) At some point, complexity may produce diminishing returns as argued by anthropologist Joseph Tainter. This reminds me that Jane Jacobs suggested organizing cities in districts that weren’t too big or small so that they could attend to smaller matters while also allowing community involvement. Americans tend to like smaller local government but the combined resources and interactions between larger groups of people can lead to more unusual benefits.

Overcrowded sidewalks in Manhattan

Manhattan is crowded and this includes the sidewalks:

While crowding is hardly a new problem in the city, the sidewalks that cemented New York’s reputation as a world-class walking city have become obstacle courses as more people than ever live and work in the city and tourism surges. The problem is particularly acute in Manhattan. Around Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, two of the city’s main transit hubs, commuters clutching coffee cups and briefcases squeeze by one another during the morning and evening rushes. Throngs of shoppers and visitors sometimes bring swaths of Lower Manhattan to a standstill, prompting some local residents to cite clogged sidewalks as their biggest problem in a recent community survey.

Foot traffic has slowed to a shuffle along some of the city’s most famous corridors. On Fifth Avenue, between 54th and 55th Streets, 26,831 pedestrians — enough to fill Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall combined — passed through in three hours on a weekday in May 2015, up from 20,639 the year before, according to city data.

Transportation officials are taking measures to alleviate the congestion. To help accommodate foot traffic, they are adding more pedestrian plazas across the city, expanding the presence of a streetscape feature first embraced by the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. One is scheduled to open soon on 33rd Street near Penn Station. There are also plans to widen a half-dozen sidewalks in Flushing, Queens, in the next year (the city’s sidewalks vary in width, but must be at least five feet wide).

While a crowded sidewalk is simply a symptom of a crowded city, it resonates deeply because it affects almost everyone. Unlike overstuffed subways or tourist attractions like, say, Times Square, there is no going around the sidewalks. They are to New York what freeways are to Los Angeles: an essential part of the infrastructure. Sidewalks not only get people from Point A to Point B, but also serve as a shared public space for rich and poor, native and tourist alike.

As Jane Jacobs highlighted, crowded sidewalks are critical for thriving cities. And, don’t most urbanists today want more people walking? As the article notes, this is a problem in numerous cities where tourism is encouraged and there are a mix of important uses in proximity.

There seems to be an easy answer that is not discussed here: close more streets for stretches to allow for more pedestrian traffic. If there are so many people walking, this shouldn’t hurt businesses too much. Additionally, it could allow for pedestrian corridors that might also then reduce foot traffic on nearby streets. At least, perhaps some areas would benefit from road diets. If you have so many people in a small area and then prioritize vehicular traffic, problems like this will arise.

Even more radical than limiting vehicles in major urban stretches would be some version of the High Line in high-trafficked areas. Imagine raised platforms for walking above the sidewalk that could add both capacity and recreation options.

“Forty Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today”

Manhattan’s zoning code is complicated and there are a number of buildings – many built prior to 1930 – that would not meet current standards:

New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados. Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city…

New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. Just in March, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio won approval for a vast citywide plan that would encourage sleeker, more affordable developments…

Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today…

Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York. In a way, the zoning code helps to preserve such architectural diversity. The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. I particularly like the two examples of buildings cited in the story where it is clearly shown what would have to change should the buildings be subject to current standards.
  2. It is not entirely clear but it looks like this article credits zoning for protecting a lot of these older buildings. If you wanted to purchase an older building, tear it down, and build a new one, the new structure would not be quite the same. This means that zoning acts as a kind of historic preservation. Of course, we could ask how many older buildings are too many?
  3. There are calls to overhaul the zoning code to make it simpler. One of the problems is that different areas of Manhattan want different standards. Even though New York City the global city, many of the building decisions are local and residents want some control. Think of Jane Jacobs’ efforts to save Greenwich Village and certain structures during the 1960s. A more vanilla zoning code would make things simpler but could hinder local character.