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Biden revokes Trump’s executive order encouraging classical architecture

This week it was announced that US president Joe Biden has revoked a number of Presidential Actions, one of which is Executive Order 13967 — Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.

Signed on December 18, 2020 by former president Trump, the order, which I wrote about last February, encouraged the use of “classical and traditional architecture” for all federal buildings.

Part of the argument was that too many buildings are being made for only architects to appreciate. This includes, you know, modern architecture and styles like brutalism.

Well that order has been revoked and that means that “beautiful” federal civic architecture is now free to be anything it wants. Look to the past, look to today, and/or look to the future.

This is the way things should be.

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Thoughts on electric vehicle adoption

Nathaniel Bullard’s latest Sparklines article for Bloomberg Green makes some interesting arguments around EV adoption.

First, he shows that cars in general have been getting a lot more expensive. Looking at new vehicle market share in the US according to price (above), you can see how quickly cars over $40k have become about half of the market. Only some of this is inflation.

Nathaniel then goes on to show just how many people lease a luxury vehicle (apparently this is called lease penetration). For Infiniti it’s 55.6%, for BMW it’s 49%, and for Mercedes it’s about 40%.

When you consider that “upfront cost parity” between EV and internal combustion vehicles is supposed to arrive sometime in 2024, there is an argument to be made that people are destined to start buying a lot more EVs in the near future.

They’re already buying expensive cars and EVs will soon be cost neutral in that regard. At the same time, a lot of people lease their cars and will be in a position to easily switch when it makes sense to do that.

I think the greater barrier to adoption at this point will be the charging network and “range anxiety.” Too many plug types and not enough charging stations, except maybe if you have a Tesla. But at some point that too will change, I’m sure.

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Intraprovincial migration across the Greater Toronto Area

This is a chart from a recent blog post by Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development. It shows net intraprovincial migration across the regions of the Greater Toronto Area. And what you are seeing here is people moving from expensive and built-up areas like the City of Toronto and the Region of Peel to lower cost areas further outside of the city.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. One, it’s very much a natural market outcome. Many people tend to “vote with their feet” and look for greater housing affordability. And two, this is a trend that existed prior to COVID-19. It is not the death of cities. In the words of Ryerson’s CUR, it’s about people looking for more affordable lower-density housing.

But to what extent is “lower density” the key deciding factor? In other words, how much of this is consumer preference and how much of this is people being forced out by a lack of infill housing supply?

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Will “bleisure” travel become a thing?

According to this recent WSJ article, 60% of Marriott’s hotel stays in 2019 were for business travel. Given that this travel segment is believed to be one of the most permanently impacted by soul-sucking virtual meetings, the company has announced that it will be working to turn its hotels, or at least some of them, into “bleisure” destinations.

The idea here, as I understand it, is that if this pandemic does in fact result in greater work flexibility, but less business travel, then this could be a way to target people who are “working from anywhere.” Don’t travel for work; work while you travel, is I guess how you could spin this.

I’m not clear yet on how exactly this gets executed, but it sounds somewhat similar to the coliving/coworking spaces that currently cater to digital nomads and other location-agnostic professionals. Examples include companies like Outpost and Outsite.

Regardless of whether or not this is actually practical, productive, and scalable (it could be), I think the idea of working from different (and potentially exotic) locations all around the world is a compelling concept for many people. Especially right now after a year of mostly working from the kitchen table.

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Why urban density is good for innovation

One of the reasons why I remain so bullish on cities is because we know that new ideas disproportionately come from cities (typically big and dense ones). Matt Clancy does an excellent job of explaining this in a recent post. In it, he cites a number of studies that suggest density is pretty good. It’s good for not only increasing innovation, but also for increasing the diversity of innovation.

One of the studies found that, all else being equal, doubling the number of jobs per square mile resulted in 20% more patents per capita. Matt argues that the reason for this is that density allows us to meet and collaborate with new people. With this is mind, what do you think that working from home (which is the opposite of job density) might do to innovation/patents?

Another one of the studies that Matt cites in his article deals with the correlation between patents and street grids. Denser street networks seem to have a marginally positive relationship with innovation.

But Matt surmises that this may not be because it means we’re all serendipitously bumping into each other all over the place; instead a denser street network is likely symptomatic of other things — namely an increase in “third places.” Because if you consider which census blocks have a concentration of restaurants, cafes, and bars, the number of patents then goes up meaningfully.

As further evidence of this, Matt cites a fascinating paper from 2019 which looked at the effects of early 20th century prohibition on patents. Turns out that this is a pretty good experiment, because you can examine the impacts of prohibition, as well as compare counties that were already dry (i.e. unaffected by prohibition) against counties that were wet prior to prohibition.

What the study found was that (1) prior to prohibition wet counties were producing more patents per capita (where they bigger and denser?) and (2) wet counties saw a meaningful drop in patents right after prohibition. Previously dry counties went unchanged in terms of innovation.

If you’re skeptical of the relationship between bars and innovation, I would encourage you to check out Matt’s full post. But know that there is overwhelming research to suggest that new ideas tend to flourish in the big and dense places that we call cities.

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Urbanization since the 14th century

This morning I stumbled up on this conversation between Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser about the post-pandemic city. It’s from September 2020 and that is obvious in some of the comments. Richard Florida (who was in Toronto) remarked that it felt like the pandemic was mostly over at that time and that Canada had seemingly done a much better job than the US at tackling it. That no longer feels right. But I did find myself agreeing with some of their other points.

Here’s one from Ed Glaeser that looks back to previous health crises:

But pretty much since the 14th century, urbanization proceeded despite the reappearance of the Black Death in the 1350s. Urbanization proceeded despite the Great Plague of London in the 1660s. All of the great diseases that spread in 19th-century America, cholera, yellow fever, the urbanization just chugged along. Even the influenza pandemic of 1919-1920 was followed by a tremendous decade of city building. So, I think our cities have proven to be remarkably resilient.

For the full conversation, click here.

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What’s next for Canada’s housing market?

Rachelle Younglai’s recent piece in the Globe and Mail does a great job summarizing Canada’s COVID-19 housing boom. The title of the article is, “How Canada’s real estate market defied expectations in the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Non-mortgage debt is down. Mortgage debt is up. Money is cheap. And people are clamoring for drivable vacation homes. Average home prices in places like Prince Edward County and the Kawartha Lakes (both outside of Toronto) are up ~30% from Jan 2020 to Jan 2021.

But after I sent this article around this morning, I was reminded that this is a good summary of what has just happened. It, for the most part, does not speak to what might happen going forward.

None of us can travel anywhere. We’re stuck at home. And immigration volumes last year were down some 48% in Toronto, 43% in Vancouver, 40% in Montreal, and 46% in Calgary. The Toronto region went from about 120,000 new permanent residents in 2019 to about half that last year.

The behaviors and market outcomes that we have seen over the last 12 months, therefore, make intuitive sense. But how about the next 12 months or the next 5 years? I would prefer to use this latter time period for decision making right now.

Chart: The Globe and Mail

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Introducing the One Delisle video series — a renaissance at Yonge and St. Clair

Today I am excited to share the first episode in a new film series about One Delisle and the surrounding neighborhood of Yonge and St. Clair in midtown Toronto. Created for Slate Asset Management by the award-winning UK filmmakers, Raspberry and Jam, the series is about telling the story of how Studio Gang’s first ever project in Canada came to be. (Hint: It started with a neighborhood and not with an individual building.) Episode one is called “A Renaissance at Yonge and St. Clair” and you can view it over at Stay tuned for episode two and for the upcoming launch of One Delisle this spring.

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Shopify’s mission is to be an entrepreneurship company

Howard Lindzon has a podcast called Panic with Friends. It was started last March (hence the name) and he uses it to interview entrepreneurs, investors, venture capitalists, and other business people about what they’re up to. In today’s episode he speaks with Harley Finkelstein, President of Shopify, about the future of ecommerce and about how they’re positioning the company. What was interesting but not surprising to hear was that in the early years people didn’t believe that Shopify had a large enough total addressable market. Supposedly, there weren’t enough people out there who might be interested in starting their own online store. That, of course, has proven to be false and there are new and successful ideas emerging all the time. We’re also now talking about how ecommerce is reshaping the landscape of our cities. Given all of this, the company has grown to think of itself as an entrepreneurship company. If you’re at all ambitious, then you’re an entrepreneur in their eyes and Shopify wants to be the platform for you. As a Canadian, it’s great to see them doing so well. If you can’t see the embedded Spotify player above, click here.

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What are your thoughts on Airbnb?

Surface Magazine just republished this 2016 interview with Arne Sorenson. Sorenson was CEO of Marriott, but sadly passed away this week after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

One of the questions he was asked in the interview was about the rise of Airbnb. This is how he responded:

It’s fascinating. I hope we’re not as exposed to this as the taxi industry is right now.  Taxis in many cities are awful and hard to find. So here comes Uber with a better product. In the hotel business, I still think we can deliver better service, so we don’t have quite the same risk. Airbnb is fascinating. Increasingly, it’s less personal, and there are more dedicated units. The more they get into that space, they become a competitor. The story isn’t over, but we’re set up to compete well.

Taxis were awful and that business model is done for good. But how do Sorenson’s comments about Airbnb hold up today?

Marriott ended up launching its own home sharing platform in 2019, but it’s comparatively small as I understand it. There are also no shortage of bull cases for Airbnb (and just look at its market cap).

But there are also headwinds. Barcelona, for example, is looking to permanently ban people from renting out private rooms on a short-term basis (< 30 days). This is even if the rest of the home remains owner occupied.

So what use cases remain? Only extended stays?

If I look at my own pre-pandemic travel record, I am largely in the hotel camp. I like the consistency and I like certain brands. But maybe that’s just me getting older. What do you all think? Leave a comment below.