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Anthropocene

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

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Semi-automatic parking system

I can think of at least a dozen buildings in Toronto that use some form of a parking stacker system. And I am seeing firsthand how they are becoming more popular and more commonplace as a result of space constraints, rising costs, and a bunch of other factors. Below is an example of a system that allows you to (almost) triple the number of cars that can be accommodated on a given footprint. However, it does require higher floor-to-ceiling heights and a pit. If you can’t see the video below, click here.

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Sidewalk Toronto advances to the next phase

In June of this year, Sidewalk Labs released its draft Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) for Toronto’s eastern waterfront. I wrote about it here. It was a draft document that was subject to further discussion and refinement, with October 31, 2019 being an important deadline for a lot of that to happen.

Some of the critical issues included project scope (just Quayside?), the possibility of a Waterfront LRT (needs to happen), data governance (who owns and manages the data that will be generated by this new smart city?) and, of course, land value. How much is Quayside worth?

A number of these key issues have now been “realigned,” including the land value piece. Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalks Labs have agreed on a fair market value of $590 million (before accounting for any investments that will be required in order to achieve Waterfront Toronto’s goals).

For a summary of the critical issues and what has been agreed to, click here. With these items now firmed up, Waterfront Toronto’s board voted unanimously to proceed to the next phase. The next critical date is March 31, 2020, which is when the project will seek final approval. Mark your calendars.

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Dubai’s housing crisis

This week Bloomberg reported that Dubai is facing a “housing disaster” as a result of overbuilding. There’s simply too much supply coming onto the market. About 30,000 units are expected to be completed this year, which the industry believes is about 2x actual demand. As a result, the industry — yes, the development industry — is calling for a 1-2 year pause on all new construction in the city so that the excess units can be absorbed and demand can catch up.

I’m not an expert on the Dubai market. And I’ve only been to the city once. But my sense is that there are relatively few barriers to new supply, especially compared to markets like Toronto and San Francisco. And so it’s not surprising to hear that supply is and has been outstripping demand. According to Bloomberg, the market peaked about 5 years ago.

For the industry to call for a moratorium on new construction it must mean that there’s concern of a prolonged housing slump and perhaps even some sort of systemic collapse. But if the objective is more affordable housing, than you might argue that Dubai has been doing a pretty good job of that. Here is a global city with a “housing crisis” on the opposite end of the spectrum. So what is it that makes Dubai different than, say, London or San Francisco?

Photo by David Rodrigo on Unsplash

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The Birth of a Building

My friend Ben Stevens has just published a book called, The Birth of a Building. It is a primer on all the ingredients that go into a new building: finance, law, urban planning, architecture, engineering, construction, and development. It is a book that I wish I wrote. But at the end of the day, it’s a lot easier to endorse a book than it is to write a book. So I am doing the former here today. If you decide to purchase the book, you’ll also find my endorsement within it. But to be clear, the only reason I’m writing about this is because Ben is a great guy and this is a great book.

Congratulations on this huge accomplishment, Ben. For more information, click here.