comment 0

Delivering happiness

I was both surprised and saddened to learn about the death of Tony Hsieh this weekend. Forty-six years old is far too young.

Though best known as a pioneer of e-commerce (he was previously CEO of Zappos) and for his brilliant/wacky management ideas, Tony was also a city builder, particularly in Las Vegas.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent WSJ article:

In Las Vegas, Mr. Hsieh became beloved locally for investing $350 million into revitalizing part of the city’s downtown including real estate, restaurants, retail and a tech startup fund starting in 2012. His vision included the development Container Park, a quirky shopping and entertainment center where retailers operate in converted shipping containers. Visitors are greeted by a giant sculpture of a praying mantis that shoots fire.

But perhaps more importantly, everything I have read this weekend about Tony describes him as a good human being with a great sense of humor and a commitment to “delivering happiness.”

Here’s another excerpt from the same article:

After Zappos had a rash of late deliveries, he sent an apology note to customers and provided a phone number for use by anyone who suffered “undue hardship.” As for those who were merely annoyed, he said, they were welcome to call Zappos and “ask whoever answers the phone to do something weird and embarrassing, like sing ‘I’m a Little Teacup.’”

Happiness. I can’t think of anything better to be delivering to people in the world right now.

comment 0

The art of the possible

Architect Sheena Sharp, of Coolearth Architecture, tweeted something interesting out today:

Improving this would be good. And it is the same gripe that I had with architecture school when I was there. Why is it taboo to talk about money and the market? Why must design exist, in many instances, within a vacuum?

I can appreciate the value in not always constraining yourself with the status quo. To innovate, you have to stretch. And sometimes, or perhaps oftentimes, the best ideas initially seem dumb. It’s important to have room to experiment and tinker.

But eventually, reality does matter. Plans that look good on paper, may not be suitable for the market. Constraints are a big part of what makes the city building industry so rewarding. Planning is hard. Building is hard. Getting consensus is hard. It’s all incredibly difficult and you have to be creative.

The really elegant solutions usually need to weave across and through many different objectives and stakeholders. And so in my view, the more you can empathize with those other constraints, the more elegant your solution will be. Knowing more is good.

comment 0

Only about a quarter of Canadians are living the 15-minute city

This is an excellent article by Alex Bozikovic, Joe Castaldo and Danielle Webb about the 15-minute city. In it, they do a block-by-block analysis of how many Canadians actually live in what they are calling an “amenity dense” neighborhood.

Their definition of amenity dense:

  • Grocery store, pharmacy, and public transit stop within one kilometer
  • Childcare facility, primary school, and a library within 1.5 kilometers
  • Healthcare facility within three kilometers
  • Place of employment within 10 kilometers

Once you apply this filter to Canadian cities, it turns out that only about 23.3% of city dwellers live in this kind of amenity dense neighborhood. It’s really only our three largest cities. For the most part, we have built environments that want you to have a car.

When it comes Toronto, and also Montreal, it is a tale of two almost equally divided cities. If you live in a central neighborhood, you’re probably dense with amenities. But in the inner suburbs, it becomes pretty spotty. And though it can be done, this is not an easy change.

The full article has many more of these city maps and so I would encourage you to check it out. It’s a great piece of journalism.

Photo by Chloe Evans on Unsplash

comment 0

Airbnb’s S-1 is now public

Airbnb’s IPO documents recently went public.

Not surprisingly, their business as a travel company has been heavily impacted by COVID-19. Last year, the platform saw 326.9 million nights and experiences booked, with 251.1 million being booked in the first nine months of 2019. This year, nights and experiences are down to 146.9 million for this same nine month period. Revenue is correspondingly down from $3.7 billion for the first nine months of 2019, to $2.5 billion for the first nine months of this year.

But what is also clear from their data is that people still really want to travel and have new experiences. As soon as April passed and the Northern Hemisphere entered the normally busy Q3 travel season, domestic travel began to quickly ramp back up. For many, this likely took the place of international travel. See above chart.

Of greater concern might be all of the regulation that now surrounds short-term rentals. As of October 2019, about 70% of the platform’s top 200 cities (by revenue) had some form of regulation impacting short-term rentals. But at the same time, no one city accounts for more than 2.5% of the platform’s revenue. So there’s strong geographic diversification.

If you’d like to take a look at the company’s S-1, you can do that over here. And for those of you who might be curious, these are Airbnb’s top 10 cities based on revenue:

  1. London
  2. New York City
  3. Paris
  4. Los Angeles
  5. Rome
  6. Barcelona
  7. Tokyo
  8. Toronto
  9. San Diego
  10. Lisbon
comment 0

Five global airlines to start using a digital health pass

The Commons Project and the World Economic Forum are piloting an initiative right now called the CommonPass framework, and a number of airlines, including Lufthansa and Swiss International Air, are expected to start rolling it out before the end of the year.

What the CommonPass does is allow people and travelers to verify their health status via a digital certificate on their phone. Right now it can confirm that you’ve tested negative for COVID-19 and eventually it will confirm if you’ve received a valid vaccination.

The framework also asks countries to publish their travel entry criteria in a standard format, so that it’s easy to update and it can be globally understood.

Of course, much like all of the exposure alert apps that are out there, this is only really useful if people and companies actually start using it. But the travel industry knows that for customer confidence to return, people are going to need to feel safe again. And a digital health pass is one way to help with that.

Here is a short video explaining how the CommonPass works. If you can’t see it below, click here.

comment 1

Vancouver is probably getting transport pricing

Earlier this month, Vancouver City Council approved a plan that will have staff developing a “transport pricing” strategy for the city’s core. (Transport pricing is just another term for road pricing or congestion pricing.) The plan is for staff to go away and work on this and then report back to Council with a pricing strategy sometime in 2022. At that point Council will look to approve the plan and it will all get implemented by 2025. Or at least that’s the plan. I remain somewhat skeptical because Vancouver certainly isn’t the first Canadian city to look at pricing its roads and congestion. Toronto has tried and failed. And so if Vancouver does end up doing this, they’ll likely be the first city in the country.

So why are they doing this, or least trying to do this? Well, if you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that I’ve been a supporter of road pricing for many years. Lots of old posts over here. But in the case of Vancouver, their stated goals are really as follows: 1) They want to reduce congestion and encourage people to use other forms of mobility; 2) they want to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030; and 3) they want another revenue stream that can be used to fund things like transit and active transport. Put differently, it’s about pricing/taxing the things that we want less of and then using that money to pay for the things we want more of.

Some of you might be wondering whether this is a good idea at a time when the centralizing pull of cities is being called into question. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that Vancouver thinks it needs at least five years to implement its transport pricing. We’ll be living through the roaring twenties by then. I am also a firm believer that cities are going to snap back significantly faster than most people think.

comment 0

Hong Kong to Singapore, quietly

Here is an interesting article from the Financial Times talking about the quiet move of people and companies from Hong Kong to Singapore. I say quiet, because apparently Hong Kong-based companies are reluctant to overtly signal that they are setting up offices and moving some of their executives out of the city, in case that starts to upset people over in Beijing.

But the real estate market in Singapore seems to be benefitting from some of these macro trends, as well from the city-state’s handling of the coronavirus. This is despite there being a 25% stamp duty tax on foreign property purchases (US nationals and a few others are exempt) and despite the fact that the economy shrank in the second quarter of this year by the largest percentage (13.2%) since independence in 1965.

According to FT, there were 2,362 residential property transactions in the core central region of Singapore in the first 9 month of this year. This compares to 1,962 transactions for the same period last year. Of these total sales, 260 residential homes were sold to foreign nationals this year (~11%), compared to 316 last year (~16%). While this is obviously a decline, including a decline in the percentage sold to foreign nationals, it still feels pretty significant given that the borders were presumably closed, or largely closed, earlier this year.

Apparently 75% of the above 260 homes were sold to buyers from either mainland China or Hong Kong. I don’t know how this percentage compares to last year. But the narrative out there right now is that it is up (along with office leasing by foreign companies) and that Singapore is a pretty safe place to put your money right now.

Photo by Kirill Petropavlov on Unsplash

comment 0

Density is not destiny

Back in March and April, there was a belief that big and dense cities were going to pose a serious problem in the fight against COVID-19. The narrative was that the benefits of urban density suddenly flip to glaring negatives during a pandemic. Elevators are a problem. Public transit is a problem. Busy streets and public spaces are a problem. Instead of density, you want dispersion. There was also some speculation that COVID-19 cases would be somewhat correlated with colder climates.

The data that we are seeing today suggests the opposite. Note the above chart by Axios. On a per capita basis, COVID-19 cases are now the lowest — and below the national average — in large US cities with populations greater than 1 million people. Where cases are the highest, again on a per capita basis, is in rural areas. Non-metro areas less than 10,000 people. The county with the highest rate also isn’t the coldest of places. It’s Childress County, Texas, where the rate is about 1,265.3 cases per 100,000 people.

I have a lot of questions about the most important factors affecting transmission rates. Is mask wearing, for example, more important than average temperatures? What is the impact of socio-economic status? I am seeing maps that, unfortunately, suggest this plays a meaningful role. What is really driving these so-called “hot spots?” But what seems clear to me is that density is not necessarily destiny during this pandemic.

P.S. Here’s a related article on hospital capacities across the United States.

Chart: Axios

comment 0

The value of boredom

I took a class during my undergraduate degree about the material culture of the Victorian era. I took it mostly for fun and because I found the lessons relevant to architecture. But it also allowed me to write papers about things like gin (though I remember not doing very well on that one).

My big takeaway from that class, which continues to stick with me to this day, is about how difficult it was for the Victorians to process and ultimately accept new technologies and ideas. There seemed to be immense skepticism and concern for everything that was novel.

Take, for example, the first ever escalator. An invention of the Victorian era, there were very serious concerns at the time about what such rapid changes in elevation would do to the human body. That’s why they initially gave people booze at the top of the ride. A little something to calm the nerves after such a traumatic experience.

This, of course, seems silly today. But I always come back to it when I see us trying to process new technologies. Will posterity eventually think that we too were being silly for worrying? Will they think it’s cute that we thought social media was turning us all into narcissistic and envious creatures? Probably.

Still, there’s no denying that material culture impacts us all. I was reminded of this while reading this WIRED article by Craig Mod called, “The Glorious, Almost-Disconnected Boredom of My Walk in Japan.” (Tim Ferriss shared it in his most recent newsletter.)

Craig does ultra-marathon walks. And the article is about one that he did in Japan. While this may seem like a recipe for a whole lot of nothing, there are things to be learned here. In it, he talks about how he rationed his use of technology on these walks and how “boredom” became something of value.

In the context of a walk like this, “boredom” is a goal, the antipode of mindless connectivity, constant stimulation, anger and dissatisfaction. I put “boredom” in quotes because the boredom I’m talking about fosters a heightened sense of presence. To be “bored” is to be free of distraction.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of our phones is that they allow us to fill every second of boredom with stuff. Have 3 three seconds to spare? Pull out the phone. On the one hand it’s nice to never be bored. But on the other hand, it’s harder to be contemplative. It’s harder to go deep into things. And it’s harder to find that right kind of “bored.”

Or maybe we’re just being fuddy-duddies who will one day be made fun of by future generations when somebody decides to teach a university course about early 21st century material culture.

comment 0

Double height space at Mackay Laneway House

The drywall started this week at Mackay Laneway House. This is a fun part of the construction process because it is that moment in time where, very quickly, the space transforms from a full on construction site to something that starts to resemble a livable space.

What you are seeing above is a double height space (and 8 foot long skylight) that was incorporated into a sloping roof on the side of the house that faces the existing backyard. This is a design move that I felt pretty strongly about from the outset. Gabriel Fain, who is the project’s architect, likes to joke that it was really the only design directive.

The move does a few things.

1) It is a way to get light down and into the house without having a window facing the existing backyard. So it mitigates privacy concerns. 2) It frees up the north wall of the house, creating a place for a TV, art, photo backdrop, or whatever. You only have so many empty walls in a house of this size. And 3) it looks really cool and frames a large tree that overhangs the house.

Stay tuned for more progress photos. The best way to do that is to follow @globizen.