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Tasty data

A recent study and research paper by the MIT Senseable City Lab — called, Tasty Data — has discovered that restaurant data alone can be used to accurately predict location-based factors such as daytime population, nighttime population, number of businesses, and overall consumer spending within a specific geography.

They started by pulling restaurant data from Dianping (Chinese equivalent of Yelp) for 9 Chinese cities: Baoding, Beijing, Chengdu, Hengyang, Kunming, Shenyang, Shenzen, Yueyang, and Zhengzhou. They then paired their Dianping data with other available data (such as aggregated mobile phone data) and used machine learning to search for any correlations.

Below is a diagram of “nighttime population” in Beijing. They are using a 3 km2 grid.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I like these kinds of studies. By 2020, it is estimated that 1.7MB of data will be created every second by every person on earth. The numbers are staggering. And yet, “official” data sources, such as census data, remain slow and fairly limited. Studies like this one continue to show us what’s next.

Image: MIT Senseable City Lab

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Building the perfect city

Over the long weekend, and across a couple of flights, I read Perfect City by Joe Berridge. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Each chapter focuses on a different world city, starting with the one and only Toronto. From New York to Singapore and London to Belfast, Joe hones in on what is working and what is not working.

No city is perfect.

I found myself folding the top corner of the page on numerous occasions. I did this every time I came across an interesting takeaway or stat, such as this one here: “Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, recently observed that Europe has 7 per cent of the world’s population, 25 per cent of its GDP, and 50 per cent of its social expenditures.”

However, the thread that really stood out to me is one about individuals. We all know that great things happen as a result of great teams. But as Joe profiles the various city building initiatives that he has come across throughout his work and travels, a common theme seems to emerge.

From Jane Jacobs to Lee Kuan Yew, there’s often a determined individual who is set on making something happen, or set on stopping something from happening, as is the case with Jane Jacobs and Toronto’s (proposed) Spadina Expressway.

This is not meant to discredit the value of teamwork. We all know that is essential. Instead, I think it speaks to the power of individual passion, conviction, and tenacity — all of which are ingredients required to build a perfect, or almost perfect, city. Wonderful things don’t just happen on their own.

Photo by Fraser Cottrell on Unsplash

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Shoppable videos

Sometimes I think that writing a blog has become a bit old fashioned. I should probably be making videos. But the reality is that I like writing. Getting up in the morning, reading, having a coffee, and writing my thoughts down is a ritual that I really enjoy. Making videos is also a bigger time commitment, and I would rather focus my energy elsewhere.

But there’s no question that user-generated videos have and will continue to change ecommerce and many other aspects of society. This recent blog post by Connie Chan and Avery Segal called, “Ecommerce as video’s killer app,” is a perfect example of that. In it, they talk about a handful of Chinese companies that are pioneering “shoppable videos.”

What these platforms are doing is allowing consumers to buy things natively within their app and through a “video-centric checkout flow.” In other words: watch a story being told (from an individual, as opposed to a company); become interested in a particular product or service; and then immediately purchase it with only a few taps.

Another use case, which I think many of you will find interesting, is the creation of “crowdsourced video city guides.” Instead of checking for hotel reviews on TripAdvisor, simply find someone who has already vlogged a stay and book it that way. The individual who uploaded the video will then earn a commission.

This behavior already exists. Discovery and buying decisions — for many products and services — have moved to social platforms. Just today a friend reached out asking me about a bar that she saw on my Instagram stories a few weeks. She’s planning to go next week. Now where’s my commission?

Shoppable videos are a natural extension. They may also lower the barriers to participation. And so maybe I will end up making videos, after all.

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Personalizing outdoor spaces on multi-family buildings

I am still making my way through (and editing) my photos from Lisbon and Malaga. Here is one that I took from the Playa de La Malagueta. I also posted it to Twitter and Instagram and asked: Should we encourage the personalization and customization of outdoor spaces on multi-family buildings?

This building overlooks the beach and the Alboran Sea. If you look closely, you’ll see that a number of the balconies have been modified to include different kinds of awnings and shade structures. And some look to have been converted to interior space.

A few of you seem to support this level of customization, provided that the overall design integrity of the building is maintained. And I would agree that in this particular instance, it seems to work, which is actually why I took the photo. It gives the facade life.

I recall seeing instances of this in Toronto, but generally speaking it’s not encouraged or allowed. In condominiums, outdoor spaces attached to units are typically defined as “exclusive-use common elements.”

The challenge, here, lies in the subjectivity of “maintaining the overall design intent of the building.” I’m not sure how you codify that, unless you pre-design the options. Perhaps that’s one way of doing it.

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Gender earnings in the gig economy

Last year, 5 economists published a research paper called “The Gender Earnings Gap in the Gig Economy: Evidence from over a Million Rideshare Drivers.” The authors are 2 economists employed by Uber; 2 professors at Stanford University; and the chairman of the University of Chicago’s economics department.

The findings were widely discussed, including on Steven Levitt and Stephen Duber’s Freakonomics podcast (Episode 317). What’s interesting about Uber’s ridesharing data is that their compensation algorithm is believed to be entirely gender-blind.

The formula is pretty simple. It takes into account distance, time, and sometimes a surge multiplier when demand is spiking. Gender does not factor. And the same goes for the actual dispatching of rides. The software doesn’t know who is male and who is female.

What they discovered is that on average male Uber drives earn about 7% more per hour compared to females. And that 50% of this wage gap can be (apparently) explained by one variable: Men tend to drive a little faster than women. So they complete more rides per hour.

It’s also worth noting that across the US, only about 27% of Uber drivers are female (at least at the time the report was published). Women also have a higher 6-month attrition rate; 76% compared to 63% for men. In other words, more female drivers drop off the platform.

If you’re interested in this topic, you should probably have a listen to the Freakonomics podcast. They deliberate on the above in a lot more detail. You can also download a full copy of the research paper, here.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

People are camping out in Opendoor’s homes

Inc. Magazine just did a profile on Opendoor, which is a company that we have, of course, talked a lot about on this blog and that I continue to follow closely.

It’s interesting to read about some of the challenges that they’ve been having as a result of their frictionless open houses. Since all you need is a smartphone, the company has been having the ongoing problem of people camping out in their listed homes. Sometimes for weeks. They’ve been working to address this by restricting the hours (6AM to 9PM) and by installing motion detectors. I am sure they will figure it out.

The company is also having to be careful in terms of how it positions itself alongside realtors. There are many livelihoods at stake here. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

During interviews, Wu has chosen his words carefully when discussing Opendoor’s potential to replace Realtors. “The reality with Realtors today,” he said on stage at the Startup Grind Global Conference in Silicon Valley in February, “is their role is shifting from project management–especially in our ecosystem, where we’re automating a lot of the processes–to advisement.”

Fred Wilson (venture capitalist) has argued many times before on his blog that business model innovation is far more disruptive than technical innovation. I think it’s valuable to keep that in mind in the context of this discussion.

Opendoor continues to charge a commission fee (sometimes a higher one than is typical), but it also makes money on the flipping of homes and it has plans to vertically integrate other aspects of the real estate business.

Will that do it?

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GTA condo market posts strong Q2-2019 results

Urbanation released its Q2-2019 condo market results for the Greater Toronto Area this week. It was a robust quarter, following a slower Q1. Here are a few highlights:

– 8,902 condo units were sold across the GTA in Q2-2019. This is the second highest Q2 level on record after Q2-2017 (11,413 sales).

– The average price for all remaining (unsold) inventory in the GTA hit $1,000 psf for the first time ever, representing a 9% year-over-year increase.

– The region saw increased activity in the outskirts, including Hamilton, as a result of purchasers/investors looking for value buys.

– Only 6 projects launched for pre-sale in the former/old City of Toronto (the core). The average opening price was $1,284 psf.

– Average pricing for remaining units in the core is now $1,291 psf. This is the new standard for centrally located housing.

For the full press release, click here.

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The below Twitter thread, initiated by Brent Toderian, is a great collection of some of the “best streets in the world.”

I would encourage you to click through and have a scroll. The one thing that you’ll likely notice about almost all of the contributions is that the streets tend to be fairly dense/urban and they tend to be oriented around the pedestrian. No surprise there.

My only qualm with some, but not all, of these streets is that — while beautiful from an urban design standpoint — many of them can feel quite touristy and/or commercially generic. They are the street you go to when you’re visiting the place, but they are perhaps lacking in urban authenticity.

I don’t mean to take anything away from the beautifully designed streets in the above thread. In fact, some of them aren’t at all commercial and are simply magical places to be — period, full stop. See, for example, La Condensa (neighborhood) in Mexico City.

My argument is simply that the natural cycle of cities and neighborhoods sometimes means that the best streets for new ideas and small businesses are maybe not the most beautiful ones. Part of this is a function of rents and part of this is function of the fact that the best cities are constantly reinventing themselves.

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Immaculate construction

Emily Badger’s recent piece on “how ‘developer’ became such a dirty word” has been getting passed around within the industry over the last few days. I had a chuckle when I read this bit:

The notion that development is inherently bad, or that developers are inherently bad actors, seems to ignore that the communities residents want to protect from developers were once developed, too, and often by people who made money at it. (That is, unless you believe in “immaculate construction.”)

The article hits on a number of points that are absolutely true. There’s generally a lack of understanding around the economics behind new housing. And the cost structures, today, are dramatically different compared to the suburban-industrial complex.

To provide one example, our cost consultant, Finnegan Marshall, recently shared with me a chart (dated April 2019) that broke down the various government fees that typically make up every new condo suite in Toronto.

What it showed is that between 20-24% of the price of a new condo is generally compromised of government fees and taxes that span all three levels of government. This includes everything from development charges (impact fees) to parkland dedication.

Similarly, the article quotes one developer from Montgomery County who estimates that the impact fees alone for his projects are usually upwards of $60,000 per housing unit. (This is pretty cheap compared to Toronto.)

I raise this as an example because development charges/impact fees have become an important source of revenue for cities across both Canada and the US. They often offset lower property taxes. (Whether this is appropriate is an entirely other debate.)

And so I find it paradoxical that many homeowners would like to simultaneously see lower property taxes, no new development, and more public services and infrastructure.

Photo by EJ Yao on Unsplash

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Junction House Sales Gallery wins “Best of Canada Award” from Canadian Interiors

Today I’m excited to announce that the Junction House Sales Gallery has just received a Best of Canada Award (2019) from Canadian Interiors. Link, here. Shout-out to Dialogue 38, Vanderbrand, Unique Urban Homes, Superkul, and the rest of the team for making it happen. We are fortunate to have had such a cool space to work with. It was previously occupied by the art studio, Moss & Lam. And so from the very beginning the idea was always to find the right balance between old and new, raw and unpolished, playful and luxurious.

Some of you may also not be aware that before we converted the above studio into a condo showroom, we donated it to a number of creative groups who were looking for space, but maybe didn’t have a lot of (or any) money. Lost & Gone used it to host an immersive rendition of Romeo & Juliet (video of the performance, here). DJ and designer Steve Aoki used it to launch one of his Dim Mak collections (okay, he has a lot of money). And Secret Walls used it for a live art battle. In fact, Secret Wall’s markings are still present within the Gallery if you look up toward the ceiling.

Before we came along, the space was used as an art studio. That’s an important part of the Junction House story and we wanted to commemorate that in the build out of the Sales Gallery (the “Gallery” part is meant to reference this past use). It is also one of the reasons why we partnered with Ben Johnston for this “Forever” mural on the outside of the building (yes, we see the irony); why we created a place for artists to showcase their work (currently Leeay Aikawa); and why we commissioned a celebrated local artist (Thrush Holmes) to create a custom piece for the future lobby of Junction House.

Art matters.