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Two tragedies

A friend of mine called me out today for not using my online presence — both social media and this blog — to share my views on the horrible tragedies that are taking place right now in the United States and the world. She is right. And it is certainly something that I have been thinking about. But as I mulled it over in my head, it just didn’t feel right to glibly share a few social media posts and consider my contributions complete. For almost 7 years, this blog has been my public voice and this blog is where I figured it should show up when I was ready.

My view is that there are really two tragedies taking place right now. The first started with the murder of George Floyd. It was truly awful, and it is symptomatic of some fundamental issues that remain in our society. I support the demonstrations that have ensued and I am pleased to see people and companies taking action. To give one example, Goldman Sachs today announced the creation of a $10 million fund for Racial Equity. If any of you know of any causes that should be supported or of any actions that you believe should be taken, I would encourage you to share them in the comment section below or to email them to me directly.

The second tragedy is the looting that has followed tragedy number one. I think it is counterproductive and I think it serves to obscure the systemic problems that most of us believe need to be addressed. I was reading through this Journal article today about the impact that looting is having on small businesses in Philadelphia — a city that is near and dear to me. It makes me both sad and frustrated that black-owned businesses are scrambling to post up “Black Owned” signs in their windows in an effort to be spared from the chaos.

The article goes on to quantify the number of US small businesses in mostly black areas that have enough cash on hand to survive 14 days or more. Very few do. In fact, almost none of them do. The number for mostly black areas is only about 5.3%. This is compared to 70.4% for mostly white areas and 97.9% for mostly Asian areas. This is a scary statistic that only amplifies the severity of tragedy number two. This looting is delivering a second blow to small businesses that were already reeling on the ground from COVID-19. Again, it is counterproductive.

Tragedy number one and the push for racial equity and positive change is the focus here. This can and should be done peacefully.

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Amazon’s delivery network is now the 4th largest in the US

This is an interesting article about Amazon’s delivery network, which is now the 4th largest in the United States. Here are the numbers (most of which are as of 2019):

  • Since 2014, Amazon has spent $39 billion building out its delivery network. When you add in warehouses and airplanes, this number increases to about $60 billion. As of 2019, Amazon leased 97% of its fulfillment and data center spaces.
  • Amazon is becoming increasingly vertically integrated. Last year, Amazon delivered about 58% of the 4.5 billion parcels that it shipped to US consumers. This represents about 22% of all online retail deliveries.
  • Outside of the US, Amazon still handles close to 50% of its own order deliveries. By 2025, Bank of America Global Research is predicting that Amazon could grow to handle somewhere between 38% and 49% of all online order deliveries in the US.
  • Amazon is the 4th largest in terms of US package deliveries (2019), behind FedEx, UPS, and USPS (in that order).
  • Amazon’s fulfillment network roughly entails: receiving centers -> fulfillment centers -> sortation centers -> last-mile delivery stations. It’s a hub and spoke system with the physical real estate naturally getting smaller as you get closer to the end destination. For a lot more information on their network, click here.
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Neon and space

At this point, it is well known that I am a big fan of neon. It is something that we have obviously worked to incorporate into our Junction House project through things like our rooftop placemaking sign (it’s actually LED), our collaboration with local artist Thrush Holmes (his work incorporates neon), and the neon popup gallery that we hosted last year in collaboration with the Downtown Yonge BIA and Neon Demon Studio. So it was no surprise that a friend of mine sent me an ArchDaily article this morning talking about how neon lighting shapes architecture.

What I like about the piece, and the pictures it includes, is that it emphasize the spatial qualities and potential of neon. For a lot of us, neon has come to represent brash advertising. Neon is bright. That was and is great for advertising. But that association has been changing. Even cities like Hong Kong, which have for so long been synonymous with neon, are starting to lose that form of advertising. I’m not saying that loss is a good thing. But I do think that we are now seeing neon being used in completely different ways. It has become more creative. It has become architectural.

Below is an excerpt from the ArchDaily article that speaks to this same idea. But what you really want to do is shoot over and look at all of the photos.

Yet because neon is so fundamentally associated with signage, which can feel limiting or kitschy for some architects, it is often neglected. Rudi Stern writes further that “Unfortunately for many architects, neon is the last shoddy pink ‘pizza’ sign they have seen, and they summarily reject a medium that offers great promise as a spatial and environmental element.” Thus, despite its historical and commercial associations, neon has the potential to be even more than retro symbols or cosmopolitan phrases. Abstract designs, atmospheric colors, and the kinetic properties of light combined can completely alter a space even without references to a historical aesthetic or explicit messages. In the images of the With.It Home below, BodinChapa Architects have used neon in a non-representational way to create a stunningly memorable James Turrell-esque room that is simultaneously tranquil and radiant. Neon light has the power to completely transform a room even if used in as simple a way as lining the corners of the ceiling, due to the unique properties of light in conversation with the sense of space itself. If architects can move past its commercial associations and investigate its relationship to architectural space, neon can become an even more powerful atmospheric element than it is already.

Photo by Yuiizaa September on Unsplash

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New York City is budgeting $30.8 billion in property tax collections

According to the WSJ, New York City is budgeting to collect $30.8 billion in property taxes for fiscal year 2021. These tax bills will go out on June 1 and payments will start becoming due on July 1, which is the start of the city’s fiscal year. Here’s how the collections break down across houses, apartments, and commercial properties:

Overall — and despite the fact that values have softened in the wake of COVID-19 — this year’s property tax budget represents a 5.7% increase over FY2020. The reason for this is that each year the city completes its annual assessments on January 5. And so according to the city’s January numbers, everything is just fine.

Supposedly this January 5 date is usually non-negotiable. A lawyer is quoted in the Journal article saying that under normal circumstances, if your house were to burn down on January 6, you would still have to pay all of your taxes for the upcoming fiscal year.

Time will tell if this time is different. But it is interesting, though not surprising, to note just how significant property taxes are to New York City’s overall tax collections. They represent a little more half of all taxes collected.

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Toronto approves 40 km expansion of cycling network

This week, Toronto City Council approved the largest ever one-year expansion of bike lanes in the city — a total of 40 km. It passed 23 to 2. Here is a map of the approved routes:

The Bloor West extension is being accelerated. This will take the Bloor Bikeway out to Runnymede and High Park in the west (close to our Junction House project).

New expansions of the network in the core include Bloor Street East, University Avenue, Dundas Street East, and Danforth Avenue (which also happens to connect another one of our development sites on Dawes Road).

Bloor, University, and Dundas are expected to be among the first installations. The idea here is to have them mirror some of our subway lines and fill the mobility gap as many people shy away from transit in the short-term.

All of this wouldn’t have happened without COVID-19, at least not this quickly. I’m certainly not happy about a pandemic, but as a car owner and fair-weather cyclist, I am happy about these new bikeways and I am happy that we were compelled into action.

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Living in the future

Sam Altman’s recent blog post about how to generate ideas for startups has some invaluable tips that I think apply to much more than just new companies. As a reminder, Sam Altman is an entrepreneur and the former president of Y Combinator. So he’s had a fair bit of experience dealing with both startups and new ideas. YC also runs lots of experiments in an effort to get better at funding both great founders and great ideas. And it turns out that being able to generate a lot of new ideas is a critical skill to have when doing a startup. But again, I think you can ignore, for a moment, that Sam is even talking about startups and still find value in his words.

Here’s the excerpt that stood out for me:

It’s important to be in the right kind of environment, and around the right kind of people. You want to be around people who have a good feel for the future, will entertain improbable plans, are optimistic, are smart in a creative way, and have a very high idea flux. These sorts of people tend to think without the constraints most people have, not have a lot of filters, and not care too much what other people think.

The best ideas are fragile; most people don’t even start talking about them at all because they sound silly. Perhaps most of all, you want to be around people who don’t make you feel stupid for mentioning a bad idea, and who certainly never feel stupid for doing so themselves.

Stay away from people who are world-weary and belittle your ambitions. Unfortunately, this is most of the world. But they hold on to the past, and you want to live in the future.

Photo by Fábio Lucas on Unsplash

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Surface Summer School at Penn

The University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design — my alma mater — has just launched a new initiative with Surface Magazine called the Surface Summer School at Penn. A fairly unique partnership between a media company and an accredited university, the goal of the “summer school” is twofold.

One, it gives Penn students, who might otherwise struggle to find an internship in this climate, something productive and positive to do over the summer. And two, it applies design thinking to the problems of this pandemic.

Penn students will have the month of June to design a prefabricated COVID-19 testing structure — one that could be rolled out in dense and compact urban centers around the world. A jury will then review the submissions and a winner will be announced by mid-July.

The jury includes a host of noteworthy architects and designers: Winka Dubbeldam, Dror Benshetrit, Thom Mayne, Yves Béhar, Susan Sellers, Marion Weiss, Ferda Kolatan, Joe Doucet, and others. Starting on June 3rd at 6:30 PM eastern, members of the jury will also start delivering design lectures on Surface’s Instagram.

I am looking forward to seeing the submissions. Hopefully all of them will be made public.

Photo by Dyana Wing So on Unsplash

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Amazon might be buying Zoox

This week the FT reported that Amazon is in “advanced talks” to acquire the self-driving startup Zoox. This would be Amazon’s first acquisition in the space, though it did lead a $530M funding round in Aurora in early 2019.

Zoox last raised two years ago and was valued at $3.2 billion. Rumor has it that its valuation will be less than that today. Some of its investors, according to FT, include Breyer Capital and the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board.

The move seems reasonable. Amazon wants to build out its (driverless) logistics capabilities. It’s also in keeping with what we have been seeing from big tech. Companies that can are using this environment to be acquisitive, invest in the future and, hopefully, gain market share. It’s probably also inevitable that the self-driving space will see some consolidation going forward.

If you go back to this post from earlier this year, Zoox and Aurora weren’t near the top in terms of R&D spending on autonomy. And it has become increasingly clear that this a giant problem/opportunity requiring giant funding capabilities. It’s going to take time.

I recently heard Chamath Palihapitiya refer to Jeff Bezos as the greatest investor of our time — even more so than Warren Buffet. Why? Because he is consistently, and sometimes exclusively, investing in the future. Is this one of those moments?

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The state of the restaurant industry

People are starting to eat at restaurants again. Here is a recent chart from the WSJ showing seated diners at restaurants on the OpenTable network:

OpenTable has been publishing this data since the beginning of the pandemic in something they call “the state of the restaurant industry.” All of their datasets from around the world can be downloaded here.

Back in March, it was interesting to see this data, but most people basically just stopped eating out around the middle of the month. After that, in-person dining mostly flatlined. (This data wouldn’t capture takeout, delivery, and other activities not flowing through the OpenTable network.)

At this point, we are now seeing geographies reopen in different ways. Germany, for example, is ahead of many other countries (at least on the OpenTable network). Note the spike (i.e. lower year-over-year decline) on May 21st. It was a national holiday.

You can also drill down into individual cities:

I think this is a pretty good indicator for how people are feeling, and so it could be useful to follow this data. Governments can reopen things, but people need to feel confident to go out and spend money. It looks like a number of people already feel that way.

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Tracking epidemics in cities

The last thing you probably need at this point is another webinar. But this one could actually be interesting. On May 29th, 2020 at 9:00 AM eastern, the Senseable City Lab at MIT is hosting one called, Tracking epidemics in cities: urban environments and the insights they provide into disease. The Senseable City Lab has previously looked at how sewage could be mined for real-time information about an urban population, revealing things like eating habits, genetic tendencies, drug consumption, and — yes — contagious diseases. In this webinar, SCL plans to pickup on this last point, as well as discuss how mobile phone patterns can help to inform epidemiological studies. If you’d like to register, click here.

Image: SCL