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Thoughts on the coronavirus

This is an excellent article by James Hamblin about the coronavirus. He believes, along with many epidemiologists, that the disease (COVID-19) is unlikely to be contained, and may become endemic:

The Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch is exacting in his diction, even for an epidemiologist. Twice in our conversation he started to say something, then paused and said, “Actually, let me start again.” So it’s striking when one of the points he wanted to get exactly right was this: “I think the likely outcome is that it will ultimately not be containable.”

But here’s the irony. It is unlikely to be containable because, comparatively speaking, the disease isn’t as fatal as other coronaviruses. In James’ words: The virus is deadly, but not too deadly.

As of right now, the fatality rate is believed to be less than 2%. SARS and MERS, on the other hand, were highly fatal to humans. H5N1 (avian flu), which emerged in the 90s, had/has a fatality rate of about 60%.

One of the problems with COVID-19 is that, for many people, the symptoms are mild or even non-existent. And that is precisely why it has been so difficult to pin down. If it affected everyone equally and as severely, then it would be far more containable.

But I am the furthest thing from an epidemiologist, so you should probably just go and read James’ article over in The Atlantic.

John Hopkins University also has this live map showing total confirmed, total deaths, and total recovered. At the time of this post, the fatality rate looks to be about 3.4%. But if you believe that many people are asymptomatic, the denominator is probably understated.

Naturally, we are all taking precautions, doing what we can to make our communities safe, and trying to quash this virus. And that is what we should be doing. At the same time, I found James’ article helpful at putting things into perspective.

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The future of central London

The Centre for London has just published an interesting report called, Core Values: The Future of Central London. Like most city centers, Central London (or the Central Activities Zone as the report calls it) punches well above its geographic weight.

Central London occupies about 0.01% of the UK’s total landmass, but is responsible for about 10% of its economic output. It represents about 2% of London’s total footprint, but is responsible for about 40% of total employment and about 45% of economic output.

Here’s another interesting stat:

From 1961 to 1983, the residential population of CAZ boroughs in London fell from about 2.5 to 1.7 million. And things really didn’t begin to turnaround until the late 1980s. It took until 2018 for the population to return to 2.5 million. Makes me wonder: How concerned do you think people were in the late 1970s about housing affordability in Central London?

To read the full report, click here.

Chart: Centre for London

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Field of infinity

I am a big fan of the work of Reuben Wu. He is, among many other things, a landscape photographer. But he explores and documents his landscapes in highly creative ways. In one of his latest projects — Field of Infinity — he photographed the Bolivian landscape at night and used a modified drone (plus a slow shutter speed) to draw light objects in the night sky. The results are incredible. Here is a short video about that trip and his work. (Note: He is an ambassador for the XT Camera System.)

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Working from somewhere

From the outset, people have been predicting that the internet would become a decentralizing force for cities. That is, technology would allow us to spread out and work from anywhere — perhaps from a small mountain town in the BC interior. While working from home (WFH) and working from anywhere (WFA) does appear to be on the rise, it hasn’t made cities irrelevant. (US Census data from 2018 estimates that only about 5.2% of Americans work entirely from home.) In fact, the “new economy” seems to have made superstar cities, such as London, seemingly even more important. It has concentrated economic activity; so much so that we’re searching for ways to spread out income and wealth more evenly.

But could it be that the technology simply wasn’t there yet? Fred Wilson posited on his blog today that right now might be video conferencing’s moment. Between not wanting to travel (coronavirus, carbon footprint, time, etc…) and advancements in the actual technology, companies such as Zoom are changing the way people and companies engage over long distances. It is happening in our offices. And come to think of it, there are probably a bunch of meetings that I could and should switch over to Zoom. I’m not yet convinced that it will become a decentralizing force for cities. But it does seem to be empowering less travel and more flexibility.

Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash

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Economies of agglomeration in London

The media tends to describe agglomeration economies — one of the benefits of big urban areas — as being entirely serendipitous. Minimize travel. Maximize chance encounters at the local coffee shop. And then all of a sudden patents will go up and new startups will emerge. That does that happen, I’m sure, but there’s a bit more structure to a lot of these encounters. Economies of agglomeration is not just about serendipity. It is about the benefits of and the decision to concentrate economic activity.

Last week, a think tank in the North of England (IPPR North) published a report outlining, among other things, job creation and productivity across England. Based on these metrics, London and the South East dominate, with “productivity” in London being by far the highest. Almost half of England’s new jobs over the last decade were in these two regions. Above is a chart from the Financial Times. The trade-off is wealth and income inequality. And the report does look to how the government could address this centralization of power and wealth.

Like Singapore’s low fertility rate, this is an instance of leaning into the wind.

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Have three, or more if you can afford it

At the beginning of this year, Singapore expanded its preschool subsidies and improved its support for assisted reproduction and fertility treatments. The goal: more Singaporean children. According to the World Bank (via the Wall Street Journal), Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world at about 1.14 children per woman as of 2018. This is down from about 3 in 1970, when the government was actually worried about the opposite problem — too many children.

Of course, this trend is not unique to Singapore. This is generally the way the winds are blowing in the developed world. Young people are spending more time on education, career, and travel. And they’re delaying marriage (or not getting married). On top of this, family-sized housing has become fairly expensive in most big cities. The fastest solution is to ramp up immigration, but many countries, including Singapore, have concerns about what this does to the “national identity.”

So there seems to be a preference for throwing money at the problem and promotional material with slogans like this one: “Have three, or more if you can afford it.”

Chart: WSJ

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Electric vehicle startup Canoo launches first wave waitlist

LA-based startup, Canoo, is trying to rethink urban transport and, more specifically, how people use and consume electric vehicles. They aren’t planning on launching in Los Angeles until next year, but here’s what is apparent so far.

(1) The vehicles (pictured above) are far more utilitarian in their design — though still attractive. The focus does not seem to be on creating objects of desire, which is how cars have historically been sold.

(2) The interiors are more living room-like in their seating configurations. This makes them feel less like a car and more like public transit (or a prom party limo).

(3) The plan is for these vehicles to be available through a commitment-free monthly membership, as opposed to through a traditional lease or purchase option.

These features are the sorts of things that many have been predicting would happen. But they remain signals for the future of the “car.” They are also perfectly well suited to autonomy.

If you’d like to join their waitlist, you can do that here. I just did and apparently I’m #5967 in line. I have no idea when they hope to launch in Toronto, but who doesn’t love a good waitlist? The illusion of scarcity can be a powerful motivator.

Update: My position in line has improved to #229 because of all of the “referrals” generated by this post. Canoo has done a good job using their waitlist system to generate exposure and solicit early customer feedback.

Update: #46.

Image: Canoo

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Q4-2019 high-density land report for the Greater Toronto Area

Bullpen Consulting and Batory Management published their Q4-2019 land insights report for the Greater Toronto Area today. According to the report, there were 36 high-density apartment land transactions in Q4-2019. The average sale price was about $111 per buildable square foot and Bullpen estimates that these future projects — assuming they go condo — will sell for just under $1,000 psf on average.

But that’s blended across the entire GTA.

Looking at the core of Toronto (former City of Toronto boundaries), the average price per buildable square foot was about $187, which represents a year-over-year increase of 28%. There’s also a premium for mid-rise sites. Bullpen pegs the average price of a mid-rise site in the City — unzoned but with an active development application — at about $231 pbsf. These numbers will obviously translate into much higher condo/apartment prices.

If you’d like to download a copy of the report, click here.

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Rightsizing in Kits Point

Architect Michael Green’s new house in Kits Point, Vancouver was recently featured in the Globe and Mail. He and his family went from a 3,500 square foot home in the suburbs to a 1,500 square foot semi-detached home in the city, close to downtown. The house is simple, sparsely decorated, and about 13-feet wide.

Here’s why he decided to do it: “I didn’t want to have to commute by car any more,” he says. “I wanted to be able to bike everywhere. I also wanted my kids to be able to bike everywhere. I wanted them to develop a sense of freedom, to have mobility, something too many kids don’t get these days.”

As we all know, there is typically a very real trade-off in cities between space and location. The further you move out from the core (a generalization), the more affordable space usually comes. But at the same time, your transportation costs also increase — both directly and indirectly if you factor your time and your quality of life.

Depending on how you value each of these items, you might be inclined to pursue more space or pursue more reasonable transportation costs. A 2,000 square foot reduction in space might seem like a lot. But if you’re heavily weighted toward freedom and mobility, as Green clearly is, it could be a perfectly rational decision.

Photo: Ema Peter via the Globe and Mail

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Telling a story through spaces

I started watching Parasite on a flight home this past weekend (I know, I’m behind). The first couple of scenes immediately hooked me and so I ended up watching the full movie over the weekend. It’s one of the most creative movies I have seen in a long time. (To be fair, I don’t watch a lot of movies these days.) I won’t spoil it all for you here, but if you haven’t seen it yet, I would highly recommend it. One of the principal themes is social inequality. And it’s interesting to see how that gets told through the spaces within the film. The poor family lives in a “semi-basement” at the end of what appears to be a laneway. And the rich family lives, higher up, in a house designed by a famous architect. Naturally it has a big and perfectly manicured backyard. At one point in the film, you also get to see which housing type is more environmentally resilient.

I’ll leave it there. But it’s worth checking out if you are into award-winning Korean tragicomedies.