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London to pedestrianize Oxford Circus

I was just reading about London’s plans to pedestrianize Oxford Circus with two new semi-circular pedestrian piazzas (pictured above). And it reminded of two things.

One, there are silver linings to this pandemic. And one of them is that it has forced us to rethink how we allocate public space and how we engage with it. It is incredible seeing Toronto right now with so many outdoor patios in full swing. Why eat inside when you can eat outside? We should have been doing this all along.

Two, the transformation of Toronto’s Yonge Street cannot happen fast enough. We are sorely missing a pedestrianized spine through the middle of our downtown. This portion of Yonge Street currently looks like shit and I know that we can do much better.

Think La Rambla in Barcelona. Grafton Street in Dublin. Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. These are the streets that seem to always draw you in. They are places where public life can play out. I’m pretty sure that I have never once visited any of these cities and not walked these streets.

Thankfully Yonge Street’s transformation is underway. So let’s make it truly remarkable and one of the most beautiful streets in the world. That should be the bar we set for ourselves.

Image: Westminster City Council

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A fundamental and profound innovation

I setup a new cryptocurrency wallet (offline hardware storage) this evening and then used it to buy brandondonnelly.eth using ENS (Ethereum Name Service). I don’t know what the hell I’m going to use it for, yet, but I own brandondonnelly.com. So I figured I should grab the decentralized blockchain version of my name as well. Perhaps at some point in the future I’ll be glad I did.

I plan to buy a bunch of other .eth domains in the near future as well. The costs are similar to registering a traditional domain.

Part of the reason why I’m doing all of this because I’ve decided that it’s time to do a deep dive and better understand the possibilities of the blockchain (a decentralized vs. centralized internet). I’ve been following for a number of years, but it has been pretty surface level. It’s time to get serious. And I must say that it felt pretty cool to use my new hardware wallet to buy something with ETH.

Overall, things started to really click for me when I saw the digital economy that was emerging with Ethereum (applications, NFTs, DeFi, etc.). Instead of just digital money, I could now see clear use cases and demand drivers for the cryptocurrency. Again, I used ETH to buy brandondonnelly.eth, which means I first had to be an owner of ETH.

If you’re looking to better understand the possibilities of a decentralized internet — specifically why non fungible tokens are bad ass — check out this blog post by Albert Wenger. He uses the example of the Mona Lisa sitting in the Louvre to explain why NFTs are not a fad and, instead, a “fundamental and profound innovation.”

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Luminar announces vision for autonomous vehicle future

Luminar Technologies, which is an autonomous vehicle technology company that I have written about before, just hosted its first ever “Studio Day” in New York City this week. And at the event they announced two new technologies.

The first is called Iris, which is a small lidar device that is intended to be integrated into regular consumer production vehicles — on the roof just above the windshield. And supposedly the company is on track to have these into full production and available to their OEM partners by the end of next year (2022).

The second technology is something that they are calling Blade, which is a lidar system that can offer a 360 degree field of vision and is intended for use in robo-taxis, trucks, and other consumer vehicles. It’s called Blade because it’s kind of like a blade that wraps around the tops of these vehicles.

We’ve been talking about autonomous vehicles for what seems like a long time. And it is now clear that this is not an easy problem to solve. But from what I have read, lidar seems like the promising technology and something that will become necessary for full autonomy. So I am now long $LAZR. Whether this is the right move is still to be determined.

The full Studio Day video is embedded at the top of this post. If you’re reading via email subscription and can’t see it, click here.

I liked the bit (just after the 9 minute mark) about how headlights were first introduced and how it took some time before they were fully absorbed and integrated into the design of cars. Today they are now a signature design element for most car brands. It’s a clever parallel for what Luminar is trying to do with Iris and Blade.

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Creating change

I was reading about a proposed development earlier today (it doesn’t really matter which one for this story) and I immediately thought to myself, “wow, this is a beautiful development. I like what they’ve done here.” The project happens to be by one of my favorite architects in the city. Sadly though, we have yet to work with them on any of our projects.

I then decided to read the comment section of the article. There were dozens and dozens of comments and virtually all of them were negative and against the development. What is, of course, clear is that we all have different beliefs. We all see things differently. And that’s part of the reason why creating any sort of change is usually so difficult.

But if you think about it, so much of our world resolves around change. If we want to address climate change, we are going to need to make changes. If we want to improve housing affordability, we are going to need to make changes. If we want to build more inclusive and economically prosperous cities, we are going to need to make changes.

The challenge with all of this change is that we have inertia working against us. Case in point: I’m sure that most of us have been in a meeting at one point or another when a decision was made purely based on what was done the last time around. We did X. So let’s do X again. Why change? Probably a safe bet.

Seth Godin once said that, “if you do anything that matters, it means you’re trying to change something.” He was talking about the world of marketing. But I believe that there’s a universal truth to this. Change unlocks potential.

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Parasol installation unveiled in downtown Vancouver

Tangible, which is a Vancouver-based art and design studio, has just unveiled its latest “immersive experience.” It’s called Parasol and it can be found in downtown Vancouver in front of the Bentall Centre near the intersection of Dunsmuir and Burrard. An illuminated canopy-type structure, the 40 fins that make up each Parasol are equipped with LEDs and are designed to mimic the underbelly of a mushroom. If you can’t see the embedded video above, click here.

I am a big fan of urban lighting and I have long felt that we don’t do nearly enough to light our cities in ways that are fun and playful and that promote a stronger sense of place. This is particularly true during the winter months where, in cities like Vancouver, the sun sets before many people even leave work. So I am sharing Parasol with all of you today as a kind of call to action: Let’s be more fun with our cities. This is a great example for how to do that.

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China is building and megalopolises are now national policy

Well here are some interesting figures (via MIT Technology Review):

  • In the past two decades, about 400 million people moved into China’s cities — so more than the entire population of the United States
  • By 2035, about 70% of China’s entire population is expected to be urban (up from 60% today and up from 30% two decades ago)
  • To accommodate this scale of growth, China’s national urban development approach has shifted to something that now revolves around city clusters, or megalopolises (term coined by French geographer Jean Gottmann back in the 1950s to describe the Boston-Washington corridor in the Northeastern US)
  • By 2035, there are expected to be five major city clusters (see above)
  • One of the reasons for this is to improve cooperation across the various clusters — less competition and less redundancy
  • But it’s also about creating smaller more manageable cities — is this what one needs to do after a certain scale, go polycentric?
  • To service these clusters, China is rolling out a network of 16 new high-speed rail lines
  • By 2035, China expects to have 200,000 kilometers of rail, with a third of it being high-speed — assuming this happens, China will be home to 60% of the world’s high-speed rail coverage
  • Current cost estimates for the construction of this network comes out to about US$150 million per kilometer
  • 1-2-3 Rule: The plan is that everyone should be able to get around a city within 1 hour; a city cluster within 2 hours; and travel between the country’s clusters inside of 3 hours

China is building.

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The general theory of urbanization

I have come to the realization that I don’t get nearly enough emails throughout the day (sarcasm), and so I’ve just subscribed to Overview’s daily post.

Overview is a company that uses satellite and aerial imagery to show how humans and natural forces are shaping the earth. In addition to a daily post, their work includes stories, books, prints, and various other projects and collaborations. It’s pretty cool stuff.

One example of a partnership is this one here with ArchDaily, where they look at urban block patterns around the world. Everywhere from Barcelona to Belo Horizonte. I think many of you will enjoy flipping through these aerials.

And if you’re interested in this topic (you know, urban morphology), you may also enjoy this book by Ildefons Cerdà called, The General Theory of Urbanization 1867. Cerdà, and his work, were instrumental in shaping Barcelona at a time when the word “urbanization” didn’t even really exist.

Photo by Kaspars Upmanis on Unsplash

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Electric vs. internal combustion engine

Porsche released its first electric car back in 2019. It was the 2020 Porsche Taycan, which was fairly similar to the Porsche Panamera sedan in terms of price, performance, and styling, except that it was fully electric. So if you were in the market for a very expensive sedan, it was more about whether or not you wanted an electric vehicle or a vehicle with an internal combustion engine (ICE).

In the quarter in which it launched (Q4 2019), the Taycan ended up only representing about 7% of Porsche North America’s overall sedan sales. But by the second quarter of the following year it was nearly 50%. And in the first quarter of this year (2021), it was over 80% of their sedan sales. That was fast. Pretty soon, I would imagine there will be no point in even making the Panamera.

Now, the Panamera and Taycan aren’t exactly mainstream vehicles. But I found the above chart (which is from Bloomberg Green) interesting in that it feels like an all-things-being-equal kind of question. If you happen to be in the market for a six-figure Porsche sedan — and all things are kind of equal — would you rather an electric model or one that runs on gas? Already most people are choosing the former.

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The 2021 Serpentine Pavilion

Each year, the Serpentine Galleries in London commission a leading architect to design a new temporary summer pavilion in Kensington Gardens. The installation usually runs from June to October. Sometimes it then travels around the world, as was the case with Unzipped Toronto (Bjarke Ingels).

Now in its 20th year, the Serpentine Pavilion is a tradition that started in 2000 with a building by architect Zaha Hadid. (There was no pavilion last summer because of COVID.) And as I understand it, the commission is usually awarded to an architect who has not yet completed a building in England.

This year’s pavilion will open to the public on June 11. Designed by Sumayya Vally of Counterspace, the pavilion is intended to be a “puzzle of many different [historic] elements.” See video above. Vally also happens to be the youngest ever architect to be commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery.

Architecture tends to take a long time. The Serpentine Pavilion happens much faster and happens every year (when there isn’t a pandemic). This strikes me as a very good thing for the world of architecture. I think we should do something similar — but of course better — here in Toronto.