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The anatomy of density

Urban environments can be dense in many different ways. This is a topic that we have discussed on several occasions here on the blog. But this working paper by Solly Angel, Patrick Lamson-Hall, and Zeltia Gonzales Blanco — called The Anatomy of Density — is a more scientific way of looking at it. They have come up with six measurable factors that, when combined, define urban density.

What this means is that cities achieve urban density through different kinds of built form. Hong Kong, for example, gets its density from height, even though only about 4% of its land area is occupied by residential buildings. Dhaka, on the other hand, does it through low building heights and high residential coverage. Homes occupy about 20% of the city’s area. Another dimension is crowding.

But here’s something that may surprise you. Most cities are actually becoming less densely populated. And, despite our best efforts to encourage more sustainable forms of development, sprawl has continued to outpace densification in the vast majority of the urban agglomerations that were studied as part of this working paper. The wealthier we become, the more space we want to consume.

Here’s a graph from The Economist that speaks to this trend:

To download a copy of the working paper, click here.

Image: The Economist

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The new Rubell Museum

This December 4 (2019) — the day before Art Basel starts — the Rubell family will open a new 100,000 square foot museum in Miami’s Allapattah district. (For years people have been calling Allapattah the new Wynwood.)

A former industrial space on a 2.5 acre lot, the building was renovated by New York-based Selldorf Architects. Just over half of the building has been allocated to exhibition space and about 65% of this will be for permanent/longer-term collections.

The Rubell family started collecting contemporary art in 1965. At the time, they were living in New York City. In 1990 they moved to Miami and in 1993 they opened up the “Rubell Family Collection” in Wynwood, which was a depressed neighborhood up until probably the early 2000s.

With over 7,200 works, it is now one of the largest privately owned and publicly accessible contemporary art collections in the world. If you live in Miami or you happen to find yourself there this winter, you may want to check out the new Rubell Museum.

Rendering: Selldorf Architects

Filed under: art
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Gentrification in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago is not as it would seem

Matthew L. Schuerman has a new book out called, Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents. I haven’t read it. But in it, he argues that “gentrification is all around us.” Hence the title. Will Stancil has an interesting rebuttal to this position as part of his book review in the Washington Monthly. Here’s an excerpt:

Schuerman settles on what he admits is a simple definition of gentrification: the process by which a neighborhood goes from having below-average to above-average incomes for its region. But he never really applies it. While he frequently asserts or implies that gentrification is exploding across cities, he doesn’t say how many neighborhoods actually meet his definition.

As a demographic researcher, I decided to check. Using U.S. Census data, I looked at the share of people in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago living in places that met Schuerman’s definition of having gentrified between 2000 and 2016. In New York, it’s 3.1 percent of residents. In San Francisco, the number is 4.4 percent. In Chicago, it’s 4.8 percent. Needless to say, this does not represent a vast swath. Although the numbers might increase if the time frame were extended, change at a generational pace is far less disruptive than change that takes place over a few years. Using Newcomers’ own definition, the story of urban America is not a tidal wave of gentrification but creeping racial and economic transition.

In fact, this aligns with the growing academic consensus that gentrification is much rarer than is commonly believed. This year alone, there have been no fewer than three national studies into the prevalence and location of gentrifying neighborhoods. (Disclosure: I authored one of these studies, for the University of Minnesota.) Despite using very different methods, all three studies roughly appear to agree that about 10 percent of neighborhoods in metro areas were gentrifying. Research has also tended to show that no matter how you measure gentrification in the urban core, it’s almost always more common to find neighborhoods afflicted by intensifying poverty. Out of the fifty biggest American regions, forty-four have core cities where the population in poverty has grown faster than the overall population since 2000. The only exceptions are New York City, Los Angeles, D.C., New Orleans, Atlanta, and Providence.

This issue of concentrated poverty has come up before on the blog through posts like this one about Detroit. The data is pretty clear: The number of high poverty Census tracts in the US is increasing faster than the number of gentrifying Census tracts (i.e. Census tracts that are becoming wealthier).

So could it be that the problem isn’t actually gentrification? It is that, paradoxically, gentrification isn’t happening enough and more broadly, and that it is leading to rising inequality across our cities. That strikes me as being the greater issue.

Photo by Hardik Pandya on Unsplash

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Yonge Street divides Toronto between east and west. It’s an iconic street (though it has its ups and downs). Since 2018, the City has been studying ways to redesign and improve the stretch that cuts through the middle of downtown.

It is a story that we have seen in many other cities around the world, perhaps most famously in NYC. Here is a street where pedestrians outnumber vehicles and yet we allocate more space to the latter (within a fixed ROW). This study hopes to fix that.

They’ve narrowed things down to four Alternative Designs (downloadable, here). All of them prioritize pedestrians, but in different ways. As of right now the preferred option is Alternative #4. It looks like this:

The section around Dundas Square (from Dundas Sq up to Edward Street) is fully pedestrianized with only emergency vehicles having access during the day. This segment has the highest pedestrian volumes. The other blocks allow for a combination of one-way and two-way vehicular traffic.

Vehicular access is obviously still important for things like loading, but it’s pretty clear that the future of Yonge Street is pedestrian priority. We should probably be doing this right now. If you’d like to voice your own opinion, you can do that here until Friday, December 6, 2019.

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Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer who is known for his images of industrial landscapes. In 2018, he released a documentary film called Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. It was the third in a trilogy of films that he directed alongside Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. In this one, the group tries to draw attention to the way in which us humans have (negatively) reengineered the planet and created a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene. I think many of you will find it interesting and eye-opening. Here’s a trailer (it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018):

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A survey of vacant condo suites in Toronto

Last year Jaco Joubert set out to estimate the number of condos in Toronto that are potentially sitting vacant. It was a response to the ongoing speculation that too many investor-owned condos are sitting empty across the city and thereby limiting the supply of housing.

To accomplish this, he photographed 15 different buildings at night (and at different times of the year) and monitored who had their lights on. He then turned these photographs into heat maps and compared the lighting pattern to the floor plans of each building in order to determine the unit demising.

This month Jaco published his findings. All in all, he estimates that he surveyed some 1,362 units. And of these units, 76 are believed to be vacant (when in doubt he erred on the side of occupied). So a vacancy of 5.6%. Is that more or less than what you were expecting?

Now, the buildings he “surveyed” are all located downtown and they are all roughly the same vintage. So you could easily argue that these aren’t necessarily representative of the city’s broader condo stock, assuming that’s where you want to take this. Still, an interesting study.

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Rue Eugene Sue and rue Simart

At the intersection of rue Eugene Sue and rue Simart in Paris is a collection of mid-rise buildings that were constructed during Haussmann’s renovation of Paris in the second half of the 19th century. They were intended to house some 10,000 workers.

Here’s an aerial image of that intersection from Google Maps:

Some people, namely the folks over at The Funambulist, have compared this area to the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong as a result of its extreme population density. But unlike the Walled City, this area of Paris still exists today.

The way these blocks are able to achieve such a high population density is by employing compact internal courtyards. In some cases they would be more accurately referred to as light wells.

Here’s a fascinating diagram from The Funambulist showing the approximate areas of each courtyard/light well:

I have become very interested in these sorts of European courtyard buildings. They do have their benefits. For one, they offer respite from the rest of the city. But you can also understand why the modernists were so fixated on access to light and air.

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How to fix transit in Toronto

Last month, Drew Fagan and Matti Siemiatycki — both of the University of Toronto — published an interesting op-ed in the Globe and Mail on how to fix Toronto’s dysfunctional approach to building transit. They argue that two things need to change: (1) the unclear and competing web of different levels of government and (2) the seemingly divisive relationship between technical evidence and politics.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

The focus should not be on one-off political deals. What is needed is co-ordination and integration. Why not consider all aspects of a regional approach that enables the creation of a long-term strategic investment plan with the legitimacy to be implemented? The GTA’s transit problems can’t be solved through backroom negotiations between Queen’s Park and the City of Toronto alone.

They also get into some of the nuances around point number two:

It is often said that we need to remove the politics to improve transit planning. This is wrong. Politics is the instrument of our democratic system and is an essential and legitimate part of decision-making for projects costing billions of dollars. The key is to ensure that politics is isolated to the correct stages in the decision-making process, and that decisions are made in a transparent way.

The civil service produces the independent studies assessing the merits of proposed projects. The politicians debate and approve the projects that best meet strategic objectives, informed by the technical evidence. When politicians go against the evidence in choosing projects, as is their prerogative, the intervention should be reported publicly along with the rationale for the decision made.

These arguments are from a paper that they published for the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto. If you’d like to read the full report, you can do that here. But here’s what I take from it. At the end of the day, what the authors are talking about is an effective process for making transit decisions in this city region.

What comes to my mind as I read all of this is the following: Any decision — including a wrong decision — is better than no decision. I subscribe to this philosophy. Maybe some of you do too. And so what is most frustrating about the way we pretend to plan transit is that we’re constantly re-trading previous decisions, which means decisions aren’t really being made and investment dollars don’t know where to go.

I have my own views on how transit should be planned and built in this city, as I am sure many of you do as well. (Being a transportation planner is easy, right?) But more than seeing my vision of the world come to fruition, I would like to see a vision of the world come to fruition. Matti and Drew put it this way in their report: “[The GTA needs to] act decisively with more focus and discipline, and yet also with greater inclusiveness.”

Photo by Jorge Vasconez on Unsplash

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Hong Kong GDP as a % of mainland China GDP

I was talking about this with my friend Evgeny Tchebotarev last night:

The transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong (also known as the handover) happened at midnight on July 1, 1997. At the time, Hong Kong had a population of about 6.5 million people and China had a population of about 1.23 billion people. But Hong Kong punched well above its weight class and its GDP as a percentage of mainland China’s GDP was about 18.4% (see above). In other words, Hong Kong represented about 0.53% of the population, but almost 1/5 of China’s economic output. Today, well as of 2018, this number has declined to 2.7% (again, see above). Hong Kong still possesses a number of structural benefits compared to mainland China, but its position as a global financial center is not guaranteed.

Graph: Investopedia

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Rethinking Brutalism (in London)

The Standard recently opened up its first international outpost in London. It’s a 266-room hotel housed in a 1974 Brutalist office building overlooking King’s Cross. London-based Orms (architect) was the lead consultant and they did an incredible job both preserving and modernizing the existing building.

All of the existing windows were replaced, but otherwise the Brutalist exterior remains more or less intact.

A tasteful 3 storey addition was placed on top of it, which required threading new steel columns through the existing waffle slabs. There’s a 1st floor transfer slab with concrete columns below it in order to pickup these new loads.

A dedicated (and red) exterior shuttle elevator was also added to the north elevation of the building. This takes people up to the rooftop, which is a signature feature of all Standard Hotels.

Brutalist architecture is experiencing a bit of renaissance right now. We are seeing people lament the demise of our concrete blocks from the 60s and 70s. Perhaps it’s because it’s a style/movement that is finally old enough for people to appreciate it. That’s often how these things work.

The Standard in London is a perfect example of how this history might be both respected and repositioned.

Images via Orms