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Sidewalk Labs, Uber, Lime, and the demise of urban density

Today I am going to talk about 3 things that recently happened and/or that are on my mind.

Sidewalk Labs pulled out of Toronto. I think this is sad. A lot of people have said that they’re surprised, but not surprised. The official reason is that this unprecedented environment has made it financially infeasible for them to develop the 12-acre site, while still adhering to their core principles. I don’t have any inside knowledge of the situation, but I can’t help but think that this is probably just an opportune excuse. They were getting beat up pretty badly by Toronto on all fronts, even though they had put forward an incredibly ambitious development proposal. As I said before, I can’t imagine many (or any) “conventional” developers coming forward with something like this. The last plan I saw was 1/3 non-residential, and 40% of the residential component was to be priced below market. And never mind all of the other innovations that were being contemplated.

In other tech news, Uber just led a $170 million investment in Lime (the micromobility scooter company). I think this is smart — both from an overall mobility standpoint and, selfishly, as a shareowner of $UBER. It is being reported that this round of investment values Lime at about $510 million. This is a 79% decline from April 2019 when it raised its last round. So presumably, Uber is getting a pretty good deal here. The bet is that the urban landscape demands multi-modal transportation solutions, everything from bikes and scooters to cars and public transit. There is also an argument to be made that in the short-term, our post-pandemic world is going to gravitate toward individual mobility and away from things like public transit. I’ve heard a few people say that, as we re-open the global economy and try to maintain social distancing, we’re going to face two major mobility bottlenecks: transit and elevators. Sounds like more testing would be a prudent idea.

Above, I was very careful to say “in the short-term” because I think the narrative that is emerging around the demise of urban density is entirely overblown. Few of us are clamoring to jump back into a mosh pit right now (perhaps a metaphorical mosh pit), but I also don’t believe that we will suddenly look to sprawling Brasilia as a source of urban inspiration. While it is true that “disease did shape architecture in the 20th century” (Alex Bozikovic wrote a good piece on this over the weekend) and that there have been oscillations in terms of how we view urbanity, I also know that this isn’t the first pandemic that our cities have lived through. The Hong Kong flu of 1968 is thought to have killed one million people around the world after, allegedly, emerging in one of the densest cities ever created. Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing is a tenuous one right now, but it still remains one of the world’s most important global cities.

Perhaps cities are more resilient than we give them credit for.

Photo by Touann Gatouillat Vergos on Unsplash

3 Comments

  1. I hope Brasilia is not where things are headed. Ugh, what a depressing super-suburbia! If that is the alternative, I’ll take dense NYC and hope for a return to sanity.
    I’m still betting on density, with the densest proposed development of them all: >19,000 people in one building (wiih twin legs): http://bit.ly/Riverarch
    I did add Covid-19 enhancements, however, just now becoming popular in new plans here in NYC:
    MulD-family buildings, retail, schools, and offices, such as the RiverArch would have, need mulDple enhancements to deal with newly emergent viral
    threats such as Covid-19. While crowding is inevitable in a dense city like New York City, and is pracDcally a definiDon of it, several opportuniDes for
    miDgaDon present themselves. The RiverArch will offer:
    1. A fully funcDoning community of stores and residences that includes flex-space offices which can be rearranged for more social distancing.
    2. MulDple hand saniDzing staDons
    3. Short wavelength UV light patrolling robots, probably available by fall of 2020.* Unlike current UV robots that can only disinfect common areas when
    no one is around, shorter wavelength UV robots could operate anyDme because these wavelengths do not penetrate human skin or the watery coaDng of
    the eyes.
    3a. Short wavelength UV* scanning passageways at all entrances to the RiverArch, to disinfect all residents and visitors to the building.
    4. Full exterior UV disinfecDon of package exteriors in package rooms (2), before Last Foot Delivery to apartment Package Ports (Package Ports would be
    accessible to building staff for small to medium packages using a small locking door accessible from the hallway to an interior security cage located in the
    vesDbule coat closet of all apartments. Only residents would have the key to the cage from the inside).
    5. Thermal cameras in flex-space offices and at opDonal building entrances.
    6. Bacteria-fighDng HVAC systems including UV light, IonizaDon in air
    7. Contactless vending machines and water staDons
    8. AutomaDc doors wherever pracDcal and secure
    9. Common area furniture with washable coverings or easily cleanable surfaces
    10. Full telework networking bandwidth in all units and workspaces
    * Sources: https://www.rfsafe.com/207-222-nm-uvc-light-can-slow-spread-of-novel-coronavirus-covid-19, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-51914722, https://www.news-medical.net/news/20160609/Far-
    UVC-light-can-combat-deadly-scourge-of-drug-resistant-surgical-site-infections.aspx, https://therealdeal.com/2020/05/06/welcome-back-to-your-post-corona-office-you-probably-wont-recognize-it/

    Like

  2. Pingback: Was NYC’s urban density really the problem? |

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