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An architect’s lot

In this short video about the Harry and Penelope Seidler House in Sydney (which is a beautiful heritage-listed modernist house), Penelope talks about how her and her late husband, Harry, used to drive around looking for the ideal block of land in which to build their own home.

When she begins to talk about the property they ultimately chose (pictured above), she is about to call it a challenging lot, but then immediately corrects and says that it is “an architect’s block” — it’s steeply sloping. I thought this was interesting for two reasons.

One, there are countless examples of famous homes built into steep and sloping terrain. Think, for example, of the Douglas House by Richard Meier. A personal favorite. And two, I myself am drawn to these sorts of lots. Topography creates challenges, but also opportunities. It forces you to engage the site and also really study the section as you design.

Is this really an architect thing?

Image: Monocle

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Venice in numbers

Here are some interesting figures about Venice take from this recent FT article by Chris Allnutt:

  • Tourist visits to Venice last year were estimated to be about 1/5 of what they usually are
  • Short-term rental bookings as of December 2020 were down about 74% year-over-year
  • It is estimated that short-term rentals normally represent about 12% of homes in Venice (this is significantly higher than the “typical city” which is estimated to be about 1-2%)
  • Even before the pandemic, average property prices had declined from about €4,500 per square meter in 2018 to €4,341 in 2019 (2020 data is still coming)
  • Pre-pandemic, the population of the city was about 50,000, which is less than a third of what it was back in the 1950s
  • A 2018 study by Airbnb reported that for every local Venetian the city had 74 tourists on average (wow)
  • Being a dominant port city, the city has generally been disproportionately impacted by plagues and other health crises throughout its history
  • The Lazzaretto Vecchio, which still stands today, is a small island in the Venetian Lagoon that was founded in the 15th century as a hospital to care for plague victims; apparently it was the first of its kind in the world
  • During the 15th century, Venice saw its population drop by about two-thirds as a result of an epidemic
  • At the height of the Republic of Venice in the 1790s, the city had a population of about 170,000; after falling to Napoleon it halved to about 96,000
  • It’s worth pointing out that the “height of the republic” occurred after many great epidemics; the subsequent population decline was seemingly the result of a conquest and not pestilence

Photo by @canmandawe on Unsplash

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What will be the new New York City?

Peggy Noonan argues, in this recent WSJ article, that the world has changed forever. A human habit was broken during this pandemic and city life, including office life, will never be the same in New York City. She qualifies this by saying that some people will return to offices, potentially in significant numbers. (People like being around other people.) But that things will never be what they once were. We’ve learned that we can decentralize and still get work done.

As many of you know, I am bullish on cities and I am bullish on offices. So I found myself disagreeing with many of her arguments. But Peggy does raise some valid concerns: How are cities going to pay for what just happened over the last 12 months? According to the Partnership for New York City, the city lost about 500,000 private-sector jobs since March 2020. About 300,000 residents from high-income neighborhoods also filed for a “change of the address” during this time period.

Given that the top 5% in New York represent about 62% of the state’s income tax base, the movement of people to low-tax states (and warmer places) is something to watch. It’s also a trend that existed well before this pandemic.

At the same time, I’m not necessarily convinced that (at least some of) these fleeing rich people aren’t coming back. I was speaking with a real estate agent over the weekend who is based in a popular US resort/recreation market and while he told me that, yes, he’s seeing a massive influx of people from expensive coastal markets, these people are largely choosing to rent. They want to take the lifestyle for a test drive and they are also waiting to see what happens with the world once city life returns.

There will be real financial challenges coming out of this. But as I’ve said time and time before, cities are remarkably resilient. And as Jack Shafer argued in this recent article about “memorializing the pandemic,” humans tend to have short memories, especially when it comes to bad things. The Spanish Flu has been regarded by many as a forgotten pandemic. We moved on and the same will happen this time around.

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Biden revokes Trump’s executive order encouraging classical architecture

This week it was announced that US president Joe Biden has revoked a number of Presidential Actions, one of which is Executive Order 13967 — Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.

Signed on December 18, 2020 by former president Trump, the order, which I wrote about last February, encouraged the use of “classical and traditional architecture” for all federal buildings.

Part of the argument was that too many buildings are being made for only architects to appreciate. This includes, you know, modern architecture and styles like brutalism.

Well that order has been revoked and that means that “beautiful” federal civic architecture is now free to be anything it wants. Look to the past, look to today, and/or look to the future.

This is the way things should be.

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Thoughts on electric vehicle adoption

Nathaniel Bullard’s latest Sparklines article for Bloomberg Green makes some interesting arguments around EV adoption.

First, he shows that cars in general have been getting a lot more expensive. Looking at new vehicle market share in the US according to price (above), you can see how quickly cars over $40k have become about half of the market. Only some of this is inflation.

Nathaniel then goes on to show just how many people lease a luxury vehicle (apparently this is called lease penetration). For Infiniti it’s 55.6%, for BMW it’s 49%, and for Mercedes it’s about 40%.

When you consider that “upfront cost parity” between EV and internal combustion vehicles is supposed to arrive sometime in 2024, there is an argument to be made that people are destined to start buying a lot more EVs in the near future.

They’re already buying expensive cars and EVs will soon be cost neutral in that regard. At the same time, a lot of people lease their cars and will be in a position to easily switch when it makes sense to do that.

I think the greater barrier to adoption at this point will be the charging network and “range anxiety.” Too many plug types and not enough charging stations, except maybe if you have a Tesla. But at some point that too will change, I’m sure.

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Intraprovincial migration across the Greater Toronto Area

This is a chart from a recent blog post by Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development. It shows net intraprovincial migration across the regions of the Greater Toronto Area. And what you are seeing here is people moving from expensive and built-up areas like the City of Toronto and the Region of Peel to lower cost areas further outside of the city.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. One, it’s very much a natural market outcome. Many people tend to “vote with their feet” and look for greater housing affordability. And two, this is a trend that existed prior to COVID-19. It is not the death of cities. In the words of Ryerson’s CUR, it’s about people looking for more affordable lower-density housing.

But to what extent is “lower density” the key deciding factor? In other words, how much of this is consumer preference and how much of this is people being forced out by a lack of infill housing supply?

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Will “bleisure” travel become a thing?

According to this recent WSJ article, 60% of Marriott’s hotel stays in 2019 were for business travel. Given that this travel segment is believed to be one of the most permanently impacted by soul-sucking virtual meetings, the company has announced that it will be working to turn its hotels, or at least some of them, into “bleisure” destinations.

The idea here, as I understand it, is that if this pandemic does in fact result in greater work flexibility, but less business travel, then this could be a way to target people who are “working from anywhere.” Don’t travel for work; work while you travel, is I guess how you could spin this.

I’m not clear yet on how exactly this gets executed, but it sounds somewhat similar to the coliving/coworking spaces that currently cater to digital nomads and other location-agnostic professionals. Examples include companies like Outpost and Outsite.

Regardless of whether or not this is actually practical, productive, and scalable (it could be), I think the idea of working from different (and potentially exotic) locations all around the world is a compelling concept for many people. Especially right now after a year of mostly working from the kitchen table.

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Why urban density is good for innovation

One of the reasons why I remain so bullish on cities is because we know that new ideas disproportionately come from cities (typically big and dense ones). Matt Clancy does an excellent job of explaining this in a recent post. In it, he cites a number of studies that suggest density is pretty good. It’s good for not only increasing innovation, but also for increasing the diversity of innovation.

One of the studies found that, all else being equal, doubling the number of jobs per square mile resulted in 20% more patents per capita. Matt argues that the reason for this is that density allows us to meet and collaborate with new people. With this is mind, what do you think that working from home (which is the opposite of job density) might do to innovation/patents?

Another one of the studies that Matt cites in his article deals with the correlation between patents and street grids. Denser street networks seem to have a marginally positive relationship with innovation.

But Matt surmises that this may not be because it means we’re all serendipitously bumping into each other all over the place; instead a denser street network is likely symptomatic of other things — namely an increase in “third places.” Because if you consider which census blocks have a concentration of restaurants, cafes, and bars, the number of patents then goes up meaningfully.

As further evidence of this, Matt cites a fascinating paper from 2019 which looked at the effects of early 20th century prohibition on patents. Turns out that this is a pretty good experiment, because you can examine the impacts of prohibition, as well as compare counties that were already dry (i.e. unaffected by prohibition) against counties that were wet prior to prohibition.

What the study found was that (1) prior to prohibition wet counties were producing more patents per capita (where they bigger and denser?) and (2) wet counties saw a meaningful drop in patents right after prohibition. Previously dry counties went unchanged in terms of innovation.

If you’re skeptical of the relationship between bars and innovation, I would encourage you to check out Matt’s full post. But know that there is overwhelming research to suggest that new ideas tend to flourish in the big and dense places that we call cities.

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Urbanization since the 14th century

This morning I stumbled up on this conversation between Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser about the post-pandemic city. It’s from September 2020 and that is obvious in some of the comments. Richard Florida (who was in Toronto) remarked that it felt like the pandemic was mostly over at that time and that Canada had seemingly done a much better job than the US at tackling it. That no longer feels right. But I did find myself agreeing with some of their other points.

Here’s one from Ed Glaeser that looks back to previous health crises:

But pretty much since the 14th century, urbanization proceeded despite the reappearance of the Black Death in the 1350s. Urbanization proceeded despite the Great Plague of London in the 1660s. All of the great diseases that spread in 19th-century America, cholera, yellow fever, the urbanization just chugged along. Even the influenza pandemic of 1919-1920 was followed by a tremendous decade of city building. So, I think our cities have proven to be remarkably resilient.

For the full conversation, click here.

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What’s next for Canada’s housing market?

Rachelle Younglai’s recent piece in the Globe and Mail does a great job summarizing Canada’s COVID-19 housing boom. The title of the article is, “How Canada’s real estate market defied expectations in the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Non-mortgage debt is down. Mortgage debt is up. Money is cheap. And people are clamoring for drivable vacation homes. Average home prices in places like Prince Edward County and the Kawartha Lakes (both outside of Toronto) are up ~30% from Jan 2020 to Jan 2021.

But after I sent this article around this morning, I was reminded that this is a good summary of what has just happened. It, for the most part, does not speak to what might happen going forward.

None of us can travel anywhere. We’re stuck at home. And immigration volumes last year were down some 48% in Toronto, 43% in Vancouver, 40% in Montreal, and 46% in Calgary. The Toronto region went from about 120,000 new permanent residents in 2019 to about half that last year.

The behaviors and market outcomes that we have seen over the last 12 months, therefore, make intuitive sense. But how about the next 12 months or the next 5 years? I would prefer to use this latter time period for decision making right now.

Chart: The Globe and Mail