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Lisbon’s kiosks anchor public life

One of my favorite things about Lisbon is the way in which life seems to happen publicly right on the street and in public squares. Its kiosks (or quiosque), like the one you see pictured above, play a major role in that.

They are tiny; usually only run by one person. But they embody old world charm; usually with a dark green finish and some wrought iron flourishes.

Supposedly these street anchors fell away during Portugal’s authoritarian period (Estado Novo), as there was concern that this sort of urban fraternizing might lead to new, potentially radical, ideas. (That’s usually a feature of cities.)

Thankfully, Lisbon’s kiosks have returned and they’re as charming as ever. I like to think that city builders can workaround any type of climate. But the weather here certainly helps this public life. Lisbon is one of the sunniest cities in Europe.

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My first dockless scooter ride

I now know what all the fuss is about. Yesterday I rode a dockless (Lime) scooter for the first time. I took in lieu of an Uber in order to get to the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology (MAAT) on Lisbon’s waterfront.

Here’s another photo from my ride:

We don’t have these scooters in Toronto, but I understand they are imminent. And now that I’ve used one — and learned how shockingly fun they are — I can see why they are proliferating across so many cities.

They’re a solution to the last mile problem, but they’re also fast enough (20 km/h) that they can be a substitute for other forms of urban mobility, as was the case for me yesterday. I can also see myself using one to get to the office when I would rather not sweat through my suit.

Of course, there is the much talked about problem of scooters as urban litter. It’s a real thing and I am seeing that firsthand here in Lisbon. Because they are dockless, people leave them anywhere and everywhere. At the same time, part of what makes them so convenient is that, well, you can leave them anywhere and everywhere.

I’m confident there’s a tidier solution that doesn’t involve fixed docking stations. Geofencing, perhaps? Cars are “dockless” and we’ve sort of figured that out. Many cities are already working on and experimenting with different solutions. Here’s an example from Tel Aviv. I have also noticed a natural clustering effect.

I’m not sure how good of a business they will prove to be. The barriers to entry seem fairly low right now. You just need some Chinese scooters and an app, which is why I am noticing so many competing companies. But as the market matures, increased regulation could change this.

We are going through a period of growing pains and it’s not particularly elegant. However, I believe we’ll get there. So I am looking forward to riding these scooters when they do finally land in Toronto.

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Out of office: Lisbon

The out of office responder is on.

I am currently on a multi-day stopover in Lisbon on my way to Malaga, Spain. One of my oldest friends (we went to elementary school together in Toronto) is getting married there this weekend. They chose Spain because that’s where they met (she is Parisian). They have an incredible love story and I’m looking forward to celebrating with them in a few days.

The above photo was taken with my iPhone from Sky Bar.

The green you see in the foreground is Av da Liberdade. Here is another photo from a different angle, where you can begin to see the water (Tagus). Its tree canopy is one of the most impressive that I have ever seen. Its grandeur (largely its width) is quite a contrast against the small and winding streets in the rest of Lisbon. And it may be one of the only level places in this exceptionally hilly town.

I’m a big fan of Lisbon, already.

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The Château Laurier battle in Ottawa

As I was going through this Twitter thread by Alex Bozikovic on the “Château Laurier battle,” I came across a great line by Robert Wright: “We cannot recreate the past only parody it.” I told him I was going to steal it, but here I am giving him credit.

The controversy in Ottawa stems from the fact that a number of people believe that a modern addition to the Fairmont Château Laurier (which was constructed between 1909 and 1912) amounts to heresy.

Instead, the addition should be designed to match the “Château style” that already exists. There should be no change. As Alex put it, “people want Disneyland.”

We’ve had this very same debate come up on some of our projects, where people — but notably, not the city — have asked us to replicate something that was constructed in the 1800’s using labor and material techniques that no longer exist.

This is where Robert’s line comes in.

Architecture is a reflection of the cultural milieu in which it was designed and built, which is one of the reasons why we sometimes preserve old buildings. They communicate to us a particular moment in time.

The reason architects, designers, and planners so often respond — negatively that is — to Disneyland-type architecture, is that it lacks that same authenticity. It’s only a simulacra.

It’s for this reason that one of Ontario’s “eight guiding principles in the conservation of built heritage properties” is, in fact, legibility:

New work should be distinguishable from old. Buildings or structures should be recognized as products of their own time, and new additions should not blur the distinction between old and new.”

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be respectful of the past. Five of the eight guiding principles include the word “respect” in the title. There should be lots of that.

But we would be fooling, and cheating, ourselves if we believed we could mimic the past with any justice. We cannot recreate the past only parody it.

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Hong Kong vs. Singapore

There’s now evidence to suggest that the political crisis in Hong Kong may be having an impact on capital flows. Bloomberg, as well as others, reported today that wealth managers in Asia have been receiving a heightened number of requests to transfer assets out of the country — to places like Singapore — and to setup new overseas bank accounts so that they can be ready to transfer, should the situation gets worse.

In fact, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) even asked the country’s financial institutions not to prey on the wealthy in Hong Kong during this period of uncertainty. They want to avoid the perception that Singapore is trying to capitalize on the situation. Of course, it remains to be seen how much all of this is here-say and how much of it will actually translate into a meaningful transfer of wealth.

Hong Kong has a significantly larger private wealth base, with about 853 individuals worth more than $100 million. This is more than double the number in Singapore (figure from Credit Suisse). But the current demonstrations have people questioning what will happen to Hong Kong in 2047 when the constitutional article committing Hong Kong to a capitalist way of life is set to expire.

The flows of capital can be fickle.

Photo by Florian Wehde on Unsplash

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The densest urban cells in America

Garrett Dash Nelson recently published a study looking at urban density on a cell-by-cell basis for a number of US cities. Each “cell” is a 30 arc-second grid cell, but you can think of them as being approximately one square kilometer. The goal of the project was to better define urban density and do it in a more granular way. City averages don’t tell you a whole lot about how neighborhoods vary, and they can be skewed by the denominator you use. i.e. Where are you drawing the urban boundary?

You can play around with his interactive study, here. Each city can be explored according to its 200 most dense cells. One interesting takeaway — though it is probably not all that surprising to this audience — is that New York City is really a unique place when it comes to American cities. If you look at the above chart (sourced from CityLab), you’ll see that most other US cities don’t come close to it in terms of urban density. New York’s 200th densest cell is still denser than the most dense cells of Boston, the Twin Cities, and of Dallas.

The y-axis is the total population in each grid cell.

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Tiny, prefabricated, and expensive

This is not a new video (click here if you can’t see it embedded above). It’s from 2015. But I still very much like the simplicity of the Vipp Shelter. It’s only 55 square meters.

One problem is that it cost USD 585,000 at the time it was prefabricated. It goes to show you that prefabrication and small don’t necessarily equate to affordability. For this reason, Lloyd Alter called it a “problematic prefab” back in 2015.

Of course, there are ways to make a home like this much more cost effective. I’ve been looking, on and off, for over a year for a piece of land that would be suitable for a project like this. I’ll let you all know if I find something.

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New York state law restricts condo conversions

The State of New York just enacted a new law (on June 14, 2019) requiring that 51% of existing tenants agree to buy their apartments before a building can be converted into a condominium or a cooperative. There was previously no requirement for anyone to buy in order for a conversion to take place. Tenants who chose not to buy, could simply remain in the building as a renter.

Supposedly, the real estate industry believes this new requirement will be a largely impossible threshold to meet, meaning that condo/co-op conversions could now be dead in NYC. There’s also an argument that conversions have historically helped many middle class New Yorkers buy a home since they sometimes (usually?) had the chance to buy their apartment below market at the time of a conversion.

I’m not familiar enough with this space to be able to opine on the merits of these arguments, so I won’t. Perhaps some of you will in the comment section below. Instead, I will leave you all with a chart showing the median condo sale price in Manhattan over the last ~30 years (taken from the same WSJ article). I like seeing long(er) term charts. Maybe you do too.

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The Japanese are renting cars but not driving them

Lately it has been in the news that a growing number of people in Tokyo are using car-sharing services for reasons other than to drive places. It started when companies began noticing that “several percent of their rented vehicles” were not being driven at all. What they ended up discovering, largely through customer surveys, is that car-sharing services have become an affordable option for people looking to nap, work, eat, store things, charge their phone, practice rapping, and probably a bunch of other things.

This immediately struck me as being quintessentially Japanese, partially because one of my experiences of Tokyo is that Tokyoites are often cool to sleep all throughout the city, including at the bar and on my shoulder on the metro. But I also think this finding tells you something about Tokyo’s urban fabric and, in particular, how much of a precious commodity that space is within the capital. This guy once rented a car because he couldn’t find a place to sit down and eat his boxed lunch.

This may also be a case of mispriced private space. Cities should, of course, have well-designed public spaces that accommodate people wanting to eat their boxed lunches. But for those looking for a little quiet time, a few hundred yen for 30 minutes has proven to be a competitive, and in some cases a more affordable, offering compared to, say, internet cafes. From the sounds of it, none of the car share companies ever anticipated this use case. Pricing is interesting.

Photo by Louie Martinez on Unsplash

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The world’s top oil producers

Using data from MarineTraffic (which is definitely worth a click through), the New York Times has created this terrific animation showing the flow of oil tankers from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world from May 15 to June 15, 2019.

Here’s a screenshot:

About 20% of the world’s supply of oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, a tiny passage located between Iran (north) and the UAE (south). See above.

The article also has a number of other charts that speak to changing supply and demand patterns. Note the US, China, and Iran.

Here are the top oil producers (total petroleum liquids) and the top crude oil exporters in 2018 (both are measured in millions of barrels a day):

And here are the top oil consumers ranked by 2016 data (total consumption of petroleum and other liquids):

Images/Charts: New York Times