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Hong Kong wants to be a digital asset hub

Today, June 1, is an important day for crypto and Hong Kong. The city just lifted its crypto ban and is once again allowing retail trading.

Now, there’s a lot of speculation about what this will ultimately mean for the city and for Asia, given that Beijing is a crypto hater (all crypto transactions have been banned in China since 2021).

Some think that this could be a leading indicator for a softening Chinese position on crypto; while the cynics think that this reinstatement could be short lived given that Beijing remains a hater.

Whatever the outcome, I think it is noteworthy that Hong Kong is trying to reestablish itself as a global hub for digital assets and that it believes crypto is here to stay.

It is also a good reminder that, even though the herd has moved onto AI, there’s still important work happening beneath many of the mainstream headlines.

My own conviction and activities around crypto haven’t changed over the last year, and so I’m happy to see cities like Hong Kong working to reassert themselves in this space.

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Adding missing middle housing in Vancouver

The City of Vancouver recently published this video talking about missing middle housing. For those of you who are following this trend (and reading this blog), there won’t be a lot that is new in the video (although Uytae Lee is great). But I’m sharing it here, anyway, for three reasons. One, it’s an example of Toronto being ahead of Vancouver, which wasn’t the case with laneway housing. Vancouver started allowing these first. Two, it is further evidence that this shift toward intensifying low-rise residential neighbourhoods is really happening — and gaining momentum — all across North America. And three, the City of Vancouver is about to bring forward new multiplex housing policies. So now is a good time to get involved and say things.

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Live/work in Oklahoma City

I am really drawn to live/work spaces like these ones here in Oklahoma City’s new Wheeler District. (Additional project info can be found over here.) We have some examples of this in Toronto, but I wouldn’t say it’s commonly done. And oftentimes they don’t work at all. More often than not, these spaces seem to just get used as strictly residential (which is okay).

But there are some arguably successful examples that we can point to. CityPlace is maybe one. When the area was first getting developed, retail would have been an extremely difficult use to underwrite. It was a development island. And so live/work suites were introduced at grade along much of the area’s main artery.

The area did eventually get new dedicated retail, but its live/work suites also started taking on more “work” as demand in the area grew. Today, nobody is going to confuse it with Bloor Street, but importantly, the ground floor was able to change and adapt. And this is one of the great benefits, or at least promises, of live/work: you get additional flexibility.

Personally, I would love to have a live/work space. I’d use it to incubate new ideas and sell random stuff. And I have a feeling that, given the opportunity, many others would do the same. So I plan to spend some more time thinking and writing about this topic. If any of you have shining examples of live/work successes, please share them in the comment section below.

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Density is good, but let me explain

I tweeted this out last week:

Not surprisingly, the responses were divided. Some responded saying that beauty is more important than density, and a lot of people were quick to point out that there’s good density and there’s bad density. And because I can appreciate both of these comments, it made me think that I should probably elaborate on my glib tweet.

The points I was trying to vaguely imply are the following.

More often than not (at least for North American cities), I think our problem is not too much density, it’s too little. This translates into cities that aren’t walkable, aren’t conducive to transit, and that are overall less sustainable. Right now, every mayoral candidate in Toronto is promising to fix our crippling traffic congestion. I don’t know how they’re going to do it, but they’re promising it because they know it’s something people are pissed off about.

But here’s my take: counterintuitively, the problem is not enough density. The problem is that too many people in our region have no reasonable way to get around without a car. So they’re forced to drive. The way you fix this not as simple as more traffic enforcement or better signal timing. Good luck! You fix it through density, because density is what makes other forms of mobility suddenly possible.

All of this is not to say that density alone will render you a great city. Obviously things like beauty also matter a great deal. But in my opinion, density is a fundamental component. Because what good is beauty if you don’t have any urban vibrancy? The answer is that you probably don’t have a real city.

The other point I was trying to make is that space and density are both relative and oftentimes difficult to understand. We think building height and density are correlated, but that’s not always the case. Look at Paris or Barcelona. We also like to make a lot of spatial rules that we think are right and make our cities better: streets should be at least this wide, buildings should be no taller than the width of the street, and so on.

But here (pictured above) is a street that narrows to around 6 meters and has buildings that are probably 2.5-3x the width of the right-of-way. Sure, it also happens to be beautiful, historic, and Italian. But what would happen if you maintained this same beauty and made the street 5x as wide and lined up parking in front of the stores?

Somehow it wouldn’t be as enjoyable as what you see here.

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I love narrow streets

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m a fan of narrow streets. It’s one of the reasons I have been such a supporter of laneway housing here in Toronto, and why I think they should ultimately allow for some non-residential uses.

If you have narrow streets and reasonably decent buildings that frame them, you have a base condition that has worked remarkably well since the creation of cities. Almost by default, and even if you don’t have proper sidewalks, it is going to feel pedestrian-oriented.

The challenge, however, is that it’s usually difficult to create these after the fact. Street networks are powerfully sticky; they generally don’t change unless you have someone like Haussmann rebuilding your city. So if you have these in your city, try and take advantage of them. You’re fortunate to have them.

The above two photos/measurements are from Milan. Both streets are around 20 feet wide (or 6 meters), which happens to be the required width of a standard two-way drive aisle here in Toronto. It’s a good example of how differently cities can view and allocate space.

You can do a lot with 6 meters.

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The nomadification of cities

One common way to measure affordability is to look at the cost of things relative to local incomes. But the world is getting increasingly more complicated than this. Here, for example, is an interesting article talking about the “nomadification” of cities such as Medellín.

What this is referring to is digital nomads who might work for and draw a salary from a company in say the US, but who work fully remotely in places like Medellín, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. It’s like working from home all the time, except home is some exciting city in Latin America.

The appeal of this work arrangement is obvious. You get to both live in an exciting city and you get to arbitrage between a US or other similarly high salary and a place where the cost of living is significantly less.

But the point of the above article is that this can distort a local economy and make locals feel like they’re getting priced out. When you take enough software developers making $150k a year and you drop them into a place where the minimum wage is $350 per month, that additional income starts to have an impact.

Though, many countries seem to think it’s a positive one. Last year, both Portugal and Colombia introduced new digital nomad visas, which presumably means they want more of them. And I certainly think that we will see more and not less of this kind of working.

But in a way, isn’t this really just an extreme form of tourism? I mean, unless these nomadic cities are collecting additional income taxes (or deriving some other benefits), aren’t we just talking about foreigners renting Airbnbs and spending money that is earned and taxed elsewhere?

Chart: Rest of World

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Pill-shaped prototypes

Back in 2020/2021 when we were getting ready to launch sales for One Delisle, the team came up with the idea of pill-shaped kitchen islands for our residences. 

What that means is we wanted to use perfect semi-circles on both ends. We didn’t want oval islands. We didn’t want distorted semi-circles. We wanted islands shaped like pills!

We felt these opened up the kitchens and also looked really unique. So with Studio Gang and the rest of the team, we proceeded to design a few different types.

We needed ones that would work for smaller suites, we needed ones that would work for larger suites, and we needed to accommodate breakfast bars/seating.

When we approached Scavolini Toronto about this idea their first response was, “we’ve never done this before. It would be a first.”

However, their second response was, “but we’ll figure it out with you.” And based on this response, we built (by hand) a pill-shaped island for our condominium sales gallery, and then included them as part of One Delisle.

Fast forward to 2023 and we are now in the “let’s figure it out phase”. This week we reviewed the very first production prototypes in Scavolini’s factory in Pesaro.

They are everything we could have hoped for, and we are thrilled that Scavolini was a willing partner in this endeavor.

It’s not easy doing new things in construction. The smallest things can (usually?) end up being a lot more work. But it all feels worth it when you get to see the results.

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Scavolini’s pasta sauce test

Today I learned that one of the most important quality assurance tests you can run on a kitchen is this one here:

It is the “pasta sauce test”. And it involves repeatedly boiling a cauldron of water underneath some cupboard doors for at least several hours.

It is an important test because the combination of heat and humidity is particularly tough on certain kinds of finishes.

So if you happen to be in the market for a new kitchen, make sure you ask them about the pasta sauce test.

P.S. Scavolini is supplying the kitchens for both Junction House and One Delisle.

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Which is more “sustainable”?

These two residential buildings:

Or this one here?

Both are located in the Porto Nuova district of Milan.

And from what I could tell when I walked by them yesterday, they’re pretty comparable. They have similarly deep balconies. And they even appear to have the exact same exterior cladding.

Of course, the big difference is that the former — the celebrated Bosco Verticale — has about 800 trees, 4,500 shrubs, and 15,000 plants sitting on its 3.3m cantilevered balcony slabs. It also has an elaborate irrigation system that services said greenery.

Okay, so which is more “sustainable”?

First impressions would suggest that it’s the former. Trees and green things are good for the environment. So putting trees on a tall residential building must also be good, right? Maybe.

The main counterargument is that it requires a lot of additional work to get trees, shrubs, and plants onto a tall building. You need more concrete, more structural reinforcing, an irrigation system (maybe not always?), and a way to maintain everything going forward.

In this case, all of the greenery is a common element, and so it’s maintained by the building and not by any of the individual residents. Among other things, this preserves a uniform aesthetic.

But all of these additional materials increase the building’s embodied carbon. And so there’s an important question to consider: Do the benefits of putting trees up in the sky outweigh the impacts of actually doing it?

This is one of the great debates surrounding this project, and it’s a good reminder that being more sustainable isn’t so simple. There’s a lot to balance, and there are countless details to figure out.

However, innovation does require iteration. And already there are new iterations of the Bosco Verticale, such as this one in Paris, that plan to swap concrete for mass timber construction.

So even more trees in the sky. That’s probably a good thing.

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Fashion and design capital of the world!

The first and only other time that I have visited Milan was over 20 years ago. I was 19 or so, and a close friend and I decided to take the train into Centrale without a place to stay and without a plan, other than to get into some trouble.

We ultimately succeeded at this ambitious plan. But I clearly didn’t see enough of the city, and I left thinking that it was a bit of a grimy and sleepy place. I was disappointed. I thought it would be fashion everywhere, and it wasn’t for me. And this impression has lingered with me ever since.

Boy have I been missing out.

I have fallen in love with Milan on this very short trip. It really is a capital of fashion and design. This is not a city of meandering tourists looking for the Pantheon (okay, there’s still some of that); it is a big city of business and culture. And if I had to compare and contrast it to other cities, I would say this.

Its built form is not nearly as manicured and as fussy as Paris’. In fact, in some ways, it’s a bit like Toronto. Its overall urbanism is messier, and you have to scratch beneath the surface and sneak into some courtyards before you really uncover its true beauty. But once you do, it’s magical.

At the same time, its street fashion strikes me as being slightly fussier. There is an effortlessness in Paris that doesn’t seem as pronounced in Milan (though it is still there). Here, there’s a little more flash and a little more, “I’m sexy and stylish, and I would like you to be aware of that.”

But this is not to say that you won’t see men and women in suits and stilettos riding a bicycle. It still feels effortless. It still feels natural. And when you’re here, you can’t help but feel like you’re probably not stylish enough for this capital of fashion and design.