How much does it matter what message a city sends you?

In keeping with the recent theme about cities, their brands, and the messages they send, I thought I would revisit an old essay (2008) written by Paul Graham (of Y-Combinator) called “Cities and Ambition.” In it, he talks about the various messages that cities send us, such as:

  • You should make more money (New York)
  • You should be better looking (Miami?)
  • You should be smarter (Cambridge)
  • You should be more powerful (Silicon Valley)

But the most interesting part of his argument is the belief that we are largely products of our environment. No matter how strong or formidable our personalities might be, the message a city sends us is hugely important. In fact, it might be impossible to escape it. Here’s how Paul puts it:

How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference.

But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.

You can see how powerful cities are from something I wrote about earlier: the case of the Milanese Leonardo. Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you’ve heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big. People in Florence weren’t genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo. What happened to him?

If even someone with the same natural ability as Leonardo couldn’t beat the force of environment, do you suppose you can?

I don’t. I’m fairly stubborn, but I wouldn’t try to fight this force. I’d rather use it. So I’ve thought a lot about where to live.

To some, this thought may depress you. I mean, if you happen to live in a city or place with the “wrong” message, you might feel as if you’re missing out. I know that thought certainly crossed my mind when I read his essay. But different messages resonate with different people, and so maybe the message your city is telling you is exactly the one you need to accomplish great things.

In Toronto, I’d say that the message is similar to that of New York: You should make more money. Oh, and also that you should buy more condos ;)

What message does your city tell you?

Kingston&Co at the Beaches Jazz Festival

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One of the best things about Toronto in the summer is that it feels like there’s a special event happening almost every day of the week. It would be impossible to go to everything, but one of my favorites is StreetFest at the Beaches Jazz Festival, which is running this week from Thursday (July 24) to Saturday (July 26).

If you’re from Toronto, then you’ve probably been. But if you haven’t been, StreetFest is basically a 2.5 km stretch of Queen Street East in the Beaches that gets closed to traffic so that hundreds of thousands of pedestrians can walk around and listen to jazz music on the street. It’s a lot of fun and I’m told there will be 40 bands this week.

This year TAS has sponsored a tent and so the Kingston&Co Condominiums team will be there to talk to people about our project (and also listen to some jazz music!). I’ll be there on Thursday night (tomorrow) and so if you’re around, come by and say hello. If you can’t find us, send me a tweet.

If you haven’t been to StreetFest before, here are two tips. It gets super busy and traffic is often bad heading in and out of the area. If you have the option of biking there (or riding on someone else’s handlebars), I would highly recommend that.

Also, given how busy it is, I remember it being difficult to find a beer the last time I went — all the restaurants and patios were full. So you may want to consider investing in a CamelBak Pack. We wouldn’t want you getting dehydrated :)

I hope to see some of you there.

Image: JR Photography

Rules are made to be broken. So which one is next?

Jevon MacDonald of StartupNorth published an interesting article today called, You are supposed to break the rules. It talks about entrepreneurship and how great companies are built by disregarding the way things are done today.

And I think it’s for that reason that many stupid sounding ideas (think Airbnb and its initial idea of offering air mattresses) actually turn out to be great ideas. In reality, they weren’t stupid ideas. They just contravened the norm, and that made them sound stupid. It made people feel uncomfortable. And as humans, we tend to have a bias towards things that reinforce our existing view of the world.

In any case, Jevon talks about some of the “big rules” that are being broken today. His list includes:

But really he’s talking about Uber, Tesla, and Airbnb. They are the startups breaking those rules. However, that’s old news for most of us. What’s more interesting are the following two takeaways.

The first is his prediction that startups are going to start running into more and more regulatory hurdles. In other words, we’re going to see more, not less, litigation. And I think he’s right. As technology starts to creep into other industries (like it has with the taxi industry, the car industry, and the hospitality industry), we’ll probably see a lot of incumbents fighting to hold on.

The second interesting takeaway for me was that out of his list of “big rules”, the real estate industry (i.e. the MLS) is the only one that doesn’t have a formidable disruptor attached to it. Which makes me wonder: Is something like Opendoor.com inevitable?

What are the most compelling reasons for someone to become an architect now?

Since I’ve talked a lot before about the profession of architecture and the future of it, I thought I would share this recent interview with Mark Wigley from Surface Magazine (May 2014). Since 2004, Wigley was the Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. But he’s now stepping down and this was his exit interview.

The first question he was asked was: 

What are the most compelling reasons for someone to become an architect now?

I actually think that there’s never a compelling reason to be an architect. The decision is irrational, and that irrationality is an enormous and precious asset. Architecture is full of romantics who think that even relatively small changes to the built environment create the aspiration for a better society. It sounds hokey, but there is in every architect the thought that things could be better. This is a kind of professional optimism. And that leads to an expertise in entering situations in which the dynamics are unclear. Architects are only ever called into a situation when it’s impossible. If it’s possible, you invite somebody with a toolbox who can give answers. You call the architect in when it’s not clear what the question even is. 

The line I really like is the one I highlighted in bold above: “…there is in every architect the thought that things could be better.”

Wigley is talking about it in a kind of romantic and idealistic way, but I don’t think it necessarily needs to be that way. The optimistic belief that things could be better, that things could be improved, is a powerful notion. In my view, it’s what drives entrepreneurship and that happens to be our most powerful economic engine.

I actually think there are a number of parallels between architecture and entrepreneurship. In school, architects are indeed taught to enter into situations where “the dynamics are unclear.” It’s about taking an idea, developing it, and trying to figure out what it could become.

Then, once you’ve poured your heart and soul into that idea, you get up in front of everyone and you pitch it. It’s your job to convince everyone that, yes, the way you’ve developed your idea is in fact the right way. Sometimes you get shot down. And other times you don’t. But you just have to take the risk.

Click here to download the full PDF of Mark Wigley’s interview.

The branding of places

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Most people would agree that branding is a powerful and important exercise in the world of business. We recognize that brand equity is something that pays dividends in the future.

When you walk around a city with a Starbucks, Tim Hortons, or some other coffee cup in hand, you are sending signals about who you are as a person and consumer. So, you could argue that you’re consuming the cup, as much as you are consuming the coffee.

But one area that still feels like it’s in its infancy is place branding. That is, the branding of nations, regions, cities, and places. I’ve talked a lot about the business of cities and how impressions are created around cities, but I’ve never explicitly talked about place branding.

However, it is an area on the rise. Monocle has written extensively about the importance of nation branding and there are firms, such as Vancouver-based Resonance, that now specialize in the strategy and branding of places.

Here’s a short 5 minute video that they prepared talking about place branding and their approach to it. If you can’t see the video below, click here.

But at the same time, there are more grassroot ways in which a place brand can emerge. Think about the number of times Jay-Z has referred to himself as the Brooklyn boy or Drake has promoted Toronto in one of his videos. It’s hard to measure the impact of these sorts of things, but I am sure there is one.

Here’s another example — a 4 minute video of Drake talking about why he loves Toronto. Click here if you can’t see it below.

Recently, you may have heard that Drake is about to give Toronto a new moniker: The 6. Some think it is in honor of our two main area codes 416 and 647, and I think that’s probably a good guess.

But whatever the reason, I thought it was an interesting exercise in place branding. So I decided to partner with Toronto-based design firm Badd Press and make a “The 6” t-shirt (shown at the top of this post). You can get yours for $30 by visiting shopATC.

2 parents, 2 kids, and 1 cat in 1,000 square feet

Yesterday a colleague at the office sent around this Globe and Mail article talking about a Vancouver family of 4 (plus one cat) who live in a 1,000 square foot loft near downtown that they purchased in 2003 for $269,900. There weren’t really any photos of the place, but the article makes it sound like they have 3 beds crammed into one room. (I wonder how the parents ever manage to have sex. There are better ways to lay out 1,000 sf.)

In any event, the point of the article is that there’s a growing number of families who are clinging to the downtown lifestyle that they’ve grown accustomed to and are refusing to follow the path of a conventional suburban house — regardless of how tight their current quarters might be. It’s happening in Toronto (here’s an article from the Toronto Star and here’s a post I wrote) and it’s happening in New York:

A recent New York Times article on a similar trend noted that the number of white professionals with one or more children living in one-bedroom condo units in that city had jumped by almost a third between 2000 to 2006. Prof. Andrew Beveridge, from Queens College of the City University of New York, said the pattern was showing up in other expensive American cities. In Toronto, the 2011 National Household Survey showed there are about 72,000 families living in 71,500 units in buildings with five or more storeys – undoubtedly many of them the new, tiny condos proliferating there.

To some this might sound crazy. I mean, why would a dual income family—such as the one in Vancouver—subject themselves to a smaller space when they could easily afford a bigger place somewhere else? Isn’t that the dream — to have a big house?

The answer is that these families are considering—in addition to the direct costs of a bigger place—both the indirect costs of living further away from the core (such as longer commute times) and the inevitable lifestyle changes that would happen should they move out from their downtown neighborhoods. The urban lifestyle is different.

But what I find interesting about this phenomenon is that if this trend continues (and I think it will), we’re going to have a new generation of people in North America who grew up in apartments, condos, and lofts, and don’t have the same biases around single family houses and suburban living. To them, an apartment will be a perfectly normal place to raise a family.

How Toronto became cool

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After yesterday’s post about Toronto, I had a friend ask me on Facebook what it is exactly that I think happened to make this city so much cooler. Was it because of one iconic building like Toronto’s new City Hall? Was it because of our recent condo boom? Or was it something else? What changed exactly?

My response was that it’s a generational thing. Let me explain.

Toronto used to have the reputation of being a boring and staid city, and that’s because it was a boring and staid city. In the immediate post-war years, Toronto was overwhelmingly Protestant and the immigration policies at the time were specifically designed to exclude anyone who wasn’t white and from Western Europe or America. If you were Asian, Southern or Eastern Europe (especially Jewish), then you were at the bottom of the entry list.

Here’s how Prime Minister Mackenzie King felt in 1947:

Prime Minister Mackenzie King reflected the national mood when he observed that “the people of Canada do not wish to make a fundamental alteration in the character of their population through mass immigration.” Discrimination and ethnic selectivity in immigration would remain. “Canada is perfectly within her rights in selecting the persons whom we regard as desirable future citizens. It is not a ‘fundamental human right’ of any alien to enter Canada. It is a privilege. It is a matter of domestic policy.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Canada started to slowly open up, but only because it needed to. It was in need of labour to fuel its robust post-war economy. Reluctantly, Canada began to look for workers in places like Italy. Initially, Canada had hoped to attract more northern and Germanic-like Italians, but with the European economy picking up, it was the southern Italians who came in the greatest number. In the 1950s, Canada’s Italian population jumped from around 150,000 to 450,000.

But this influx of espresso drinking Catholics was hard for Toronto to adapt to at first. They were so alien compared to Toronto’s population at the time. They wanted to do weird things like eat outside on patios, and that just wasn’t the way we did things here in Protestant and conservative Toronto. We ate inside. That’s where food belonged.

In the 1970s, multiculturalism finally became a federal mandate and Toronto’s population took off, quickly surpassing that of Montreal. In the end, we were left with the most multicultural city on the planet.

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My best friend’s father — who’s also in the real estate development business — once told me that when he first moved to Toronto in the 1970s the real estate business was virtually run by two groups of people: Italians and Jews. In other words, the people building our city were the people that we were once afraid to let come here in the first place.

But in their quest for wealth and a better life (I have so much respect for people who are able to build something from nothing), these new Canadians also reshaped Toronto both physically (through building) and socially (by doing crazy things like eat outside on patios). They were not only building new lives for themselves, they were also rebuilding Toronto. They helped us grow up and not be so stuffy. And I absolutely believe that we’re a better city because of it.

However, I think the true impact of their efforts is happening right now through the next generation — their children. Millennials and Generation Xs (at least the younger ones) don’t remember when Italians were considered aliens. They remember growing up with martini bars on College Street (which is the original Little Italy for those of you unfamiliar with Toronto). They know a different and cooler version of this city.

But most importantly, those subsequent generations are now old enough (and have a lot more generational wealth behind them) to reshape this city even further. And with much deeper roots here, they have the passion to do just that. When I went to graduate school in the US, my parents were afraid I would never come back. That’s what they told me. But the more I traveled and the more I lived outside of Toronto, the more I wanted to come back.

Just like those early wave of pioneering aliens who got us to dine al fresco and taught us that if we shop on Sundays we’re not going to go straight to hell, I feel like I too want to shape this city. I want to make it even better. No city is perfect, but if there’s something you don’t like about Toronto, then here’s my advice to you: Go change it. I can tell you it’s possible, because new immigrants with no money managed to do it.

The first person who can tell me (in the comments below) which restaurant the patio shown above belongs to will get a free Architect This City t-shirt. If you’re from Toronto, this should be an easy one.

Note: Most of the stats for this post were taken from this great research paper.

Top Image: Wikipedia

The impression you are leaving

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"Toronto is a city that has long struggled to make any sort of impression on the imagination."

That is how Monocle correspondent Christopher Frey started his recent architectural feature on Toronto’s iconic City Hall. To watch the video click here. It’s about 5 minutes long.

As a born and raised Torontonian who loves this city, I absolutely hate that sort of introduction. But at the same time, it doesn’t surprise me. Growing up in this city, there were always the haters. However, I think it’s important to keep 2 things in mind.

Firstly, Toronto has gone through a dramatic transformation over the last decade or so. In fact, I recently had a friend say to me: “Brandon, 10 years ago you told me that Toronto was going to be a super cool global city. I didn’t believe you then. But you were right.” This is what I was getting at in my Guardian Cities piece when I talked about how people are becoming noticeably more passionate about this city. (I actually wrote about what my friend said but they edited that part out.)

Secondly, if you’ve ever read Seth Godin’s book All Marketers Are Liars, you might remember this line:

To illustrate what he means by this, Godin uses the example—among many others—of Riedel wine glasses. Riedel is a high end glassware company founded on the belief that every type of wine needs its own unique glass shape. And indeed, their customers believe that the right glass makes all the difference in terms of how their wine will taste. That’s why they buy them.

However, when you blindfold those same people, they are no longer able to tell the difference between a Riedel wine glass and some cheap alternative. The wine all of a sudden tastes the same. What that tells us is that when we believe something is supposed to be better, we actually experience it differently. You could say that we’re actually lying to ourself.

And I’ve thought about this same phenomenon when it comes to cities. When people visit a place like New York they’re supposed to like it. That’s what everybody tells them. New York is great. You’ll love it. But ultimately, that “supposed to” changes how people experience the city.

Which is why when Toronto gets introduced as being bland and banal I get upset. Not only because I disagree, but because I know it’s creating a “supposed to” in somebody’s mind. And that’s not the story we should be telling as a city.

Image: Wikipedia

The story of a symbol of belonging

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I’ve been following Airbnb pretty much since the beginning. The company has always fascinated me because I saw it as being less about technology and more about travel, hospitality, community and, in my view, real estate.

An office building is just a set of spaces that get rented out on long term leases. A hotel building is just a set of spaces that get rented out on short term leases (one night at a time). And Airbnb spaces are simply extra or “found spaces” — such as an extra bedroom — that could never really be rented out at any sort of scale before. But then Airbnb came along, built a community around it, and empowered everybody to make money off that found, extra space. I think that’s pretty neat.

Well today, Airbnb unveiled an entirely new logo, brand, and expression. It’s all about belonging, and their new logo is called the Bélo. Here’s a quick video that they call “the story of the symbol of belonging”. If you can’t see it below, click here.

What’s interesting about this new expression is that it’s a perfect example of Simon Sinek’s belief that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. And in this case, Airbnb’s why is community, trust, belonging, and a sense of place. Talk about emotive.

In both the above video and in CEO Brian Chesky’s blog post today, reference is made to our cities and towns, and the fact that as they continue to get larger, we’re also becoming increasingly more disconnected. Things have gotten impersonal. But Airbnb is bringing back that sense of belonging.

On a less emotive level, what it also does is set Airbnb up for expansion.

Chesky has said before that the company wants to own the entire travel experience — from the moment you leave your home to the moment you return. So presumably a big impetus behind the rebrand was to develop something that could become ubiquitous across a number of different products and services. Which is why it makes perfect sense that they would encourage people to design their own versions of the logo.

So while the rebrand has received a lot of criticism today — some people say it looks like a vagina — I wouldn’t discount it just yet. There are bigger plans in store.

The top 10 mega-cities by 2030

One of the reasons I’m so fascinated by cities is that it’s becoming increasingly more important to get them right. From about 1831 to 1925, London was the largest city in the world. Its population went from somewhere around 1.5 to 2 million people to nearly 7.5 million. London surpassed Beijing as the largest city and was then surpassed by New York.

Today our largest cities are significantly bigger. Tokyo has almost 40 million people and London doesn’t even make the top 10. But there’s also a broader shift taking place. According to a new report by the United Nations, most of the world’s largest cities will be in Africa and Asia by 2030. Here’s a chart from Quartz:

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And the reason for this shift is because Asia and Africa are newly urbanizing, whereas the rest of the world has already urbanized. In North America, over 80% of people already live in cities.

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But even though Asia and Africa are following a trend that has already taken place in the rest of the world, it doesn’t mean we should assume we know what we’re doing. Having spent time in cities like Dhaka, I can attest to the many challenges that these mega-cities are facing and will continue to face as people flood in from the rural areas looking for economic opportunities.

So while it’s important that we talk about strategies for reviving cities like Detroit — which has a population somewhere around 700,000 - 800,000 people — we should also keep in mind that we have some significant challenges ahead of us in terms of creating a sustainable urban planning agenda for the world.

Mirvish + Gehry gets nod from City Council

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Last week Toronto City Council voted to support planning staff’s recommendation to approve the landmark Mirvish + Gehry development on King Street West in the Theatre District. 

The revised design now includes 2 towers (as opposed to 3) at 82 and 92 storeys tall. As a result of this change, 3 of the 5 existing buildings on the site will now be retained. I think this represents a good balance between (historic) preservation and progress.

If you’re interested in a bit more of the backstory, Toronto Life published an article today called David Mirvish on the Edge. It talks about his father (Ed Mirvish), his upbringing, and how he got into the real estate development business.

I thought you all might enjoy it.

Image: Projectcore

The role of the private sector in city building

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The New York Times published an interesting and popular article last Friday called The Post-Post-Apocalyptic Detroit. It of course talks all about the efforts of billionaire Dan Gilbert, but it also talks about the initiatives of many small and local entrepreneurs who are doing their part to help revive the city — while at the same time making a profit.

One thing that I found interesting about the article is the extent to which the private sector has taken over the responsibilities of the public sector. With only 35,000 of the city’s 88,000 streetlights actually working, the city simply doesn’t have the money to pay its bills. When I visited the city last fall, I was told that the city couldn’t even afford batteries for its parking meters. 

So the private sector has stepped up. 

In downtown, Dan Gilbert pays for his own security force to patrol the area 24 hours a day both on the ground and through 300 surveillance cameras. And in the Jefferson East corridor, John Stroh III — of the Stroh Brewery Company — is paying for 3,500 hours of private security in order to help transform the area into a walkable retail strip.

It’s a model that relies on the funding and vision of rich people to catalyze change. And it strikes me as a quintessentially American way of going about it. In Canada, I’m not so sure it would be approached in quite the same way, which I think is both good and bad. I think in Canada there would be more government involvement.

If the rich people are there and willing to step up (like they are right now in Detroit), then I would assume the capital would be deployed more efficiently and that change would happen more quickly. But if the rich people aren’t willing to step up, then nothing happens and the place declines.

That might be an oversimplification, but I think there are differences.

To end, I’m going to leave you with this Bloomberg video about Steve Case’s (former AOL founder) “Rise of the Rest” road trip to Detroit. If you can’t see the video below, click here.

The death of driving

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Last night my father and I were walking to dinner and he commented to me that he thinks my generation will be a lot healthier than his—at least on average—given how much more my generation walks. I responded by reaffirming to him how little I drive these days and how much I enjoy that.

Then today, I was watching this short clip of the The High Road with celebrity chef Mario Batali, where he interviews venture capitalist Fred Wilson. During their tour around New York City, Mario asks Fred what he thinks the future of transportation will be. Fred responds by saying that nobody will drive anymore. He then went on to say that the technology for driverless cars is already ready, but that we as a society just aren’t ready for it, yet.

Finally, on my way home from wakeboarding today, I stumbled upon this Guardian Cities article talking about Helsinki’s ambitious plan to make owning a car pointless. By 2025, the goal is have a “point-to-point mobility on-demand system” that will integrate all forms of mobility into one booking and payment platform. Think everything from public transit to carpools to taxis. 

As I read on, I then discovered that Helsinki is already offering on-demand public minibuses that allow people to specify their own routes on their smartphone. The system then aggregates all of the requests and establishes the most efficient route based on the immediate demand. Coincidentally enough, it’s quite similar to a use case I wrote about for driverless cars.

All of this got me thinking that one day we’ll probably look back at that time when people used to drive their own vehicles around as some antiquated and hilarious moment from the past.

Image: Observatoire

What we could do to improve traffic in Toronto

This morning The Guardian Cities published my one-minute video talking about how much traffic sucks in Toronto and why we should be considering bold initiatives like dynamic road pricing.

The video was shot on the sundeck of my building on a holiday Monday (meaning traffic volumes should have been less). The dirty glass makes the city look a lot smoggier than it really is, but it felt appropriate for the topic I was discussing.

I’m sure many of you will disagree with what I’m advocting for, so let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

The importance of storytelling

Last night I was out for drinks with a friend of mine who runs an architecture firm in the city called Reflect Architecture. We started talking about the importance of marketing and storytelling in city building and then got onto the topic of Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and his firm BIG.

At only 39, Bjarke Ingels has become a celebrity architect at a relatively young age. He’s working on projects all over the world from Vancouver to New York to Shenzhen. And he describes his work as a combination of “shrewd analysis, playful experimentation, social responsibility and humour.” But what has always interested me about BIG is their use of dead, simple, diagrams (see above for an example).

A diagram is just a graphic way of communicating information. And lots of architects use them as a design tool. But what BIG does is use them to create a narrative around each and every project. If you look at their website you’ll see that every project is presented using a series of diagrams that outline the process used to arrive at the final design. You’ll never just see the final product. You always see the steps involved. Click here for an example from Vancouver.

What’s powerful about this approach is that it demonstrates that there’s a logic behind every design outcome (even if sometimes it might be contrived or done after the fact). It’s not form for the sake of form; it’s form as a result of the uses in the building, the urban context, and so on. 

But at the same time, I think it taps into a deeper psychological phenomenon: people love stories. In fact, research shows that when we’re told stories, our brains actually become more active. We pay closer attention.

I mean, just think about how much people enjoy hearing about rags-to-riches stories. Nobody likes to talk about some rich person who was born rich. That’s not an exciting or interesting story. And it changes how we perceive that person. We want to hear about that guy or girl who came over from a war torn country and built an empire from nothing. Now that’s a good story.

What I’m getting at is that I think a big part of Bjarke’s success has come from his ability to masterfully storytell and market both himself and his projects. Architecture schools don’t usually teach you how to market and sell; they teach you how to design. But the reality is that you need to sell. And storytelling is a great way to do that.

If you liked this post, I recommend you check out this TED talk by Bjarke Ingels and this short interview with marketer Gary Vaynerchuk where he talks about how he used storytelling to sell wine.