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COVID-19 in the developing world

One of the things that Bill Gates mentions in his recent TED talk about the coronavirus is that we need to be aware of what might be coming in developing countries, particularly in the southern hemisphere with winter about to arrive. (There’s some evidence of a relationship with temperature.)

So far, countries like Brazil have been criticized for taking a laid-back approach to fighting the coronavirus. But the same could be said for many, or perhaps most, countries around the world at the outset.

However, in the case of densely populated slums — like Brazil’s favelas — the problem is expected to be more severe. Without the ability to socially isolate and without proper services, it is questionable whether they will be able to “flatten the curve” in the same way that some developed countries have. There’s also a lack of government oversight in these communities.

Incidentally, the Financial Times is reporting that organized crime has started to step in to fill this void — and it is happening over WhatsApp. Here is an excerpt from the above article: “Whoever is caught on the street will learn how to respect the measure. We want the best for the population. If the government is unable to manage, organised crime resolves,” read one message sent to residents of a Rio de Janeiro slum.

One hope is that rich countries will be largely through their outbreaks by the summer and that a vaccine will be well on its way.

(On a related note, here is an excellent slide deck from the London Business School on the economics of this pandemic. It’s very comprehensive and worth a read.)

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Internet traffic is up 36% in Toronto

Most of us are using the internet and our phones a lot more these days. According to Cloudflare — who recently published these stats on how the pandemic has impacted internet usage — traffic is up about 36% in Toronto between early January and late March 2020. Here is a heatmap of the city:

Similar maps are available for other major cities across the world. The red areas are places where internet traffic has declined and the green areas are where internet traffic has increased. Looking at Toronto, you can see that usage in the financial core of the city has, not surprisingly, declined. This makes sense. Most people are now at home using the internet there.

It would be interesting to see some sort of split between residential and commercial usage, because my mind is associating these red areas with businesses. And when you do that, some cities, like Toronto and New York, appear very monocentric; whereas others, like Berlin, appear far more polycentric.

The other thing Cloudfare looked at was internet activity by category (as of March 2020). What is also not surprising is that kids content is way up, and leads by a wide margin. For you real estate folks, you should also note that apartment searches seem to be down and are not far off from air travel. Now would be a suboptimal time to move.

Much of this probably won’t surprise you, but it is revealing nonetheless.

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How to respond to the coronavirus

I just finished watching this TED talk with Bill Gates. For those of you who are up on their TED talks, this is not the one from five years ago where Bill predicted a pandemic and told us all that we were nowhere near ready. (We, of course, didn’t listen.) This is one that was published a few days ago and talks about how we should be responding to the outbreak that we are currently living through. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been committing significant resources toward solving problems exactly like this one. So it’s interesting to hear his thoughts. In case you’re wondering, herd immunity isn’t the answer. We need (1) widespread testing and (2) to be extremely disciplined about our social distancing. In his words: “But money, you know bringing the economy back and doing money, that’s more of a reversible thing than bringing people back to life.”

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The Ontario Association of Architects recently announced its short-list of projects for their annual Design Excellence Award. (If you aren’t familiar with the OAA, here’s a bit of background.) There are so many excellent projects on their 2020 short-list, that I would encourage you to check them all out.

However, as a developer, it is my duty to shamelessly plug the architects that we are working with. superkül, the firm behind Junction House, was short-listed for two projects — both of which are custom homes. One of them is in Toronto and the other is in Singhampton, Ontario, which is just south of Collingwood and the Georgian Bay.

The second home — called Woodhouse — is located on a 90-acre site. And I love everything about it. I love the “breezeway” that separates the living areas from the more private sleeping areas, and I love how they incorporated an existing 19th century log cabin into the build.

Here are a few photos:

Photos by Alex Fradkin and Kayla Rocca

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9 square meters

Before bed last night, I was was reading about a Tokyo-based real estate company called Spilytus. They have an apartment brand called Ququri (pronounced ku-ku-ri) that specializes in tiny apartments, which I suppose isn’t all that novel for Japan.

Since the brand was launched in 2014, they have developed over 70 buildings and now manage about 1,200 micro apartments across the central wards of Tokyo (~17 units per project if you do the math). We are talking about apartments in the range of 9 square meters (plus sleeping loft) for somewhere around ¥75,000 per month.

Not surprisingly, their projects seem to lease up right away. And supposedly there’s a long wait list for future projects. People are clearly looking for affordable housing in the neighborhoods in which they want to live. It’s about lifestyle and location, and living a large portion of your life within the public domain.

This housing typology isn’t for everyone. But it’s great for some people. And I have no doubt that demand for it will only continue to grow in big global cities. However, for what we are all going through right now, I can imagine that it would be nice to have a bit more than 9 square meters to roam around in.

Image: Spilytus

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What they don't teach you in architecture school

When you go to architecture school, you are indoctrinated to appreciate certain projects, buildings, and houses. One of those pieces of architecture, at least for my generation, is the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, by Mies van der Rohe.

Completed in 1951 for Dr. Edith Farnsworth (a nephrologist), the house is one of the most celebrated midcentury modern houses in the United States. Today, the former weekend retreat is a museum owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (Information on how to visit can be found, here.)

But what they don’t teach you in architecture school is that the house never really worked all that well as, you know, an actual house. And that the client and architect ended up embroiled in legal battles toward the end of construction.

This is part of the story that is told in Alex Beam’s new book, Broken Glass, which was recently reviewed by Witold Rybczynski in the Wall Street Journal. Now, Witold isn’t a fan of modern architecture to begin with and so the Farnsworth House never stood a chance:

Despite the purposeful appearance of his architecture, Mies was not particularly interested in practical matters. The travertine on the terrace weathered badly, and a poorly designed heating system left sooty stains on the windows. The glass walls resulted in spectacular heating bills in the winter and hothouse temperatures in the summer—there were only two small openable windows. Then there was the problem of condensation on the glass in cold weather. “You feel as though you are in a car in the rain with a windshield wiper that doesn’t work,” Farnsworth complained. A film about the genesis of her house, starring Elizabeth Debicki and Ralph Fiennes, is currently in the works. It will be interesting to see if it will show the doctor squeegeeing her foggy windows.

On his blog, Witold calls Mies an aesthete. Appearance was everything. My personal view is that it’s generally good practice to design houses so that they function properly. But icons are icons and the Farnsworth House is certainly an icon. Maybe we should just call it a prototype.

Image: Farnsworth House (National Trust for Historic Preservation)

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The latest coronavirus figures

The Financial Times has some of the best charts/graphics that I have seen on the coronavirus and its impact. They’re also free and regularly updated. Below is the cumulative number of deaths, by number of days since the 10th death (last updated March 23 at 21:00 GMT). I prefer this to the number of cases because it is more precise, though impacted by things like demographics. The number of cases is impacted by how good you are at testing. Some countries have been far better than others. And what we are continuing to learn is that lots of people were and are completely asymptomatic.

Seeing China (and Iran?) continue to flatten out is encouraging. (Note the logarithmic scale.)

Here has been the impact to the Chinese economy. It’s slowing coming back.

And here are traffic volumes around the world. This chart was published on Sunday, March 22. At that time, Tokyo looked to be largely business as usual.

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Leveraging mobile phone data during a pandemic

Smartphone user data is hugely valuable at a time like this. Which is why governments all over the world from Israel to South Korea are using aggregated telecom data to try and track how their citizens are moving during this pandemic.

Some are calling this a violation of digital rights. I don’t know enough to comment on that specifically, but I do know that the value to society as a whole is clear. It strikes me that if we knew (1) who was infected (you know this by doing widespread testing), (2) where people have been, and (3) where people are today, we would be in a much better position to contain the spread.

To that end, Singapore’s Ministry of Health has been publicizing a surprising amount of information regarding its cases. And that data has been in turn made into interactive maps. You can see who is infected, where they live and work, which hospital they were admitted to, and so on. Is this an overshare? Or is this price of collective health and security?

The New York Times has similarly gone and visualized the movement of people and the virus using data from major telecoms, Baidu, and other sources; though in this case it is more of a retrospective view of what went wrong as opposed to a proactive management tool. The argument they make is that Wuhan’s lockdown was too little, too late.

According to the NY Times, 175,000 people left Wuhan on January 1st alone. Throughout the month of January, outbound travel from Wuhan accelerated as many started to fear a lockdown. About 7 million people left in January. Where they travelled to can be found here. Would it be too draconian to use this kind of mobile phone data to see who is obeying a lockdown and who is not?

Images: New York Times

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Studio Gang: Architecture

Phaidon — publisher of books on art, design, architecture, food, and fashion — has a new publication coming out this summer called, Studio Gang: Architecture. They are describing it as: “An in-depth exploration of one of the most important, innovative, and creative architecture practices working today.” As most of you know, we are working with Studio Gang on an important project in midtown Toronto. And so we are of course thrilled to see the firm’s work being celebrated. To pre-order a copy of the book, click here. They are supposed to start shipping around mid-May.

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Nurx announces home testing kit

I have been debating whether I should continue writing about what is already on all of our minds, or if I should focus my attention on positivity and humor. The latter is hugely important at a time like this, which is why I have been trying to intersperse my thoughts, both here and on Twitter, with things like funny videos, dance music, and architecture.

But the reality is that none of us know how this is all going to play out. As I mentioned yesterday, very few of us have a mental model for this kind of macro event. So it’s important for all of us to continue learning. Is our country taking the right approach? Are we doing enough? How long are we going to have to live like this and what does that mean for the global economy?

The Financial Times published an invaluable story earlier this week about a small town outside of Venice called, Vò. With only 3,300 people, the town was supposedly able to test and retest all of its residents while the rest of northern Italy was growing as an epicenter for the Wuhan virus.

In late February, they completed their first round of testing and found that about 3% of the town had been infected. But it’s important to note that about 50% of those that were infected were completely asymptomatic! However, because everyone was tested, the asymptomatic people got immediately quarantined.

The town did a second round of testing about 10 days later and that point the infection rate had dropped to about 0.3%. Of course, if all those asymptomatic people had been out and about in the town of Vò, this would not have been the case. There now appears to be no new cases in Vò.

It is for this reason that the WHO is urging diligent and repeated testing. But that obviously needs to be done in a sensible way. Having people line up — together — for hours upon hours is an obvious problem. Most people are not getting tested.

Earlier this morning, San Francisco-based Nurx announced a home testing kit for the Wuhan virus. Supposedly it is the first of its kind in the US. (It’s not yet available in Canada — I asked). I don’t know how available it is to Americans or how accurate it is, yet, but I do know that something like this needs to become widespread.