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Canada’s COVID Alert app

I installed and setup Health Canada’s COVID Alert app this morning.

It’s really simple to do that. You don’t enter any personal information. You just select which province you’re in, agree to let it use your Bluetooth, and give it permission to share the random codes that you collect with its servers (more on this below). The app is then active and working. But to be clear, it doesn’t collect your location (it doesn’t use GPS or location services). It doesn’t collect the places or times that you are next to someone who also has the COVID Alert app. And it doesn’t know if you’re with someone who was previously diagnosed with COVID-19.

Built on top of the private exposure framework that was collectively developed by Apple and Google, the app works by using Bluetooth to exchange “random codes” between nearby phones that have the app. These are anonymous and random codes that are used to track which phones have been next to which phones for any meaningful period of time. The app also uses Bluetooth signal strength to estimate proximity. So it knows how long your phone has been proximate to someone else’s (with the app) and how close they got to each other.

That’s pretty much all that happens with the app unless you test positive for COVID-19. At that point, you will be given a one-time key along with your diagnosis. The onus is then on you to anonymously self-report on the app. Once you do that, anyone who was exposed — i.e. next to your phone in the last 14 days — will receive an alert on their phone via the app. And since the app doesn’t know any names or who anybody is, it’s of course all completely anonymous.

It’s great to see all of this coming together. The private sector worked to build the underlying framework and now you have government building on top of it to deliver public health tools. I know that some or many of you will be concerned about privacy, but that appears to have been very well thought out. If you haven’t already downloaded the app, I would encourage you to check it out. It’s available for iOS and Android and can be downloaded over here.

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The global effort to build more bike lanes

I received an email this week from a senior real estate executive who was sharing the fact that, in response to COVID, he had decided to give up driving completely. He was now cycling everywhere — whether for work or for personal errands. And it was doing wonders for his health and his overall well-being.

Indeed, this feels like some sort of golden era for urban cycling. Back in May I wrote about how Toronto City Council had just approved the largest ever one-year expansion of bike lanes. Some 40 km. When have we ever moved this quickly and without months (okay, years) of painful debate? Probably never.

Of course, it’s not just Toronto. This is happening all over the world. Here are some of the numbers (taken from this recent Journal article):

  • Paris added 400 miles of pop-up bike lanes across the region — all of which didn’t exist before the pandemic – some of the streets being tracked have seen a doubling in usage
  • Oakland closed almost 10% of its streets to cars
  • Montreal is adding an additional 70 miles of pedestrian and cycle paths
  • Bogota is the midst of planning for 47 miles of temporary bike lanes
  • The UK has fast tracked over $315 million in capital spending for bike infrastructure — referring to this as a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity
  • New York’s bike share service (Citi Bike) saw year-over-year usage surge 67% in the first 10 days of March alone — before any shelter-in-place rules were even imposed

There are obvious reasons for this rush to build out cycling infrastructure. We’re in the midst of a global health crisis and people are staying away from public transit in big numbers. But I think it’s also important to keep in mind that in many / most cases, there is really no other viable mobility solution. You cannot take all the people that used to ride the tube in London and plop them into cars. There isn’t enough space.

So cities all around the world are doing the sensible thing and acting fast to make sure that it’s safer for people to move about on bikes. But as we all know, humans tend to have a bias toward the status quo. And so when this is all said and done, I suspect that many of these pop-ups will end up sticking around. And that will be a good thing for cities.

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The West Toronto Railpath

blogTO recently published a piece about the West Toronto Railpath: “the city’s hidden urban trail next to the train tracks.” In this particular instance, the headline is actually pretty accurate. (If you know blogTO, you’ll know what I mean.) I think that there are a lot of Torontonians who don’t know this railpath exists. Build over top of a decommissioned rail line (but adjacent to an active one), the railpath is a 2.1 km trail that runs from the Junction in the north (basically adjacent to Junction House) to Dundas West & Sterling Road in the south. But there are plans to extend it further south to Queen West. Public meeting number two was held back in February of this year (presentation here) and construction of the extension is expected to start as early as next year. The City has to acquire some additional lands in order to make this all happen.

Here’s a map from the City showing both the current West Toronto Railpath and the planned extension:

What I like about this map is that it starts to show you just how multi-modal the city is becoming and how important these individual initiatives are for our broader mobility network. Here you can see how the WTR currently connects into the Bloor GO / Union Pearson Express station and how the extension will bring it within striking distance of the planned King-Liberty Village station. You can see how the railpath will interface with the Davenport Diamond Greenway that I wrote about last month (mustard color). And you can see the various pedestrian/cycle crossings that have already been built to better stitch the city together. Though hidden to some, these pathways, greenways, and crossings are critical to how many people commute and enjoy this great city. I have certainly been doing a lot of the latter this summer. Almost exclusively atop two wheels.

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Urbanation releases Q2-2020 condo market survey results

Urbanation released its Q2-2020 condo market survey results earlier this week. This data represents the first full quarter of sales to be entirely impacted by COVID-19. Not surprisingly, sales activity was way down. But pricing and construction starts actually increased. Here are some of the highlights:

  • New condo apartment sales totaled 1,385 units across the Greater Toronto Area. This represents an 85% year-over-year decline and the lowest sales activity since Q1-2009. Only six projects launched during this quarter.
  • Most of the projects that did launch were outside of the core of Toronto. So that skewed pricing downward. In the first quarter of 2020, the average selling price for new launches was $1,159 psf. In Q2, this number was $889 psf — again, reflecting a shift in geography.
  • But if you control for geography and compare year-over-year launch prices within the same submarkets, prices did in fact increase in Q2 compared to last year. At the same time, the average price for unsold units in Q2 increased by about 9% year-over-year to a record high of $1,087 psf. Unsold inventory also declined by about 19% from last year.
  • On the construction front, a total of 7,388 units started construction in Q2. This is a 45% increase from Q2-2019. A lot of this growth is coming from the suburbs, where presumably there are fewer supply constraints.
  • Given the resiliency that the market has been showing, Urbanation expects to see an increase in new project launches in Q3.

Chart: Urbanation

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Twelve climate technologies

This is an excellent blog post by entrepreneur and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla about some of the “instigators” that are working to help solve our climate crisis and some of the areas in which we probably should be focusing on next. One of the things that’s noteworthy about the post is that he distills it all down into 12 areas of focus that — if solved and if scaled — could have a material impact on carbon emissions. They are (verbatim):

  1. Electric vehicles & automotive batteries
  2. Food & agriculture, especially meat
  3. Low carbon transportation: Air transportation (jet fuel), shipping (electrofuels, biofuels?)
  4. Cement or substitute construction material
  5. Low carbon dispatchable electricity generation (fusion, geothermal, nuclear)
  6. Public transit
  7. Grid storage (long duration battery storage)
  8. HVAC
  9. Industrial processes (hydrogen?)
  10. Fertilizer (hydrogen)
  11. Water
  12. Steel

Looking at this list, it is clear that some of these things are already happening (and some aren’t). I currently own an ICE vehicle, but I’m fairly certain it will be the last non-electric vehicle I ever own. It’s also not clear whether I will want to continue owning a car. Dynamic mass transit and overall autonomy are things that we’ve talked a lot about on this blog.

But here’s the other idea put forward in Khosla’s post. If these are in fact the 12 most impactful and important categories, then we may only be 12 or so companies away from real solutions. We only be 12 or so entrepreneurs away from meaningful societal change. When you look at it this way, the climate crisis should hopefully feel a lot less daunting.

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Housing supply in the Bay Area


Back in March, SPUR Regional Strategy published a report called: “What It Will Really Take to Create an Affordable Bay Area.” Much of its focus is on all of the housing that the San Francisco Bay Area should have been building over the years and all of the housing that it will need to start building in order to prevent things from getting worse.

Here are a few stats to put things into perspective. Since 2000, the Bay Area has added about 1 million people (about a 15% increase). From 2011 to 2017, the Bay Area also added some 658,000 jobs, but only created about 140,000 new housing units. That’s 4.7 jobs for every new house built. SPUR further estimates that over the last 20 years, there has been a shortfall of almost 700,000 new housing units.

If you look at the above chart showing residential building permits issued between 1980 and 2018, you can see that the Bay Area was actually more prolific in the 1980s — peaking at nearly 50,000 units per year. Those levels have yet to happen again, despite the region growing in population. (If you looked at new housing units per capita or some other normalized metric, the supply decline would be even more pronounced.)

Part of the reason for this is that the supply of housing in the 1980s had a higher percentage of low-rise single-family homes. We could get into a discussion about sustainability, but that’s not the topic of today’s post. The reality is that this housing typology was easier, faster, and cheaper to build as compared to today’s urban infill housing. We have made it very difficult to build.

To download a copy of the SPUR report, click here.

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The Sails of Scampia

Italian techno DJ Deborah De Luca recently released this live set with Mixmag. Naturally she was playing by herself on a rooftop. Even if you don’t like techno, you may find this set interesting because of its setting. It was filmed in Vele di Scampia, which is a housing complex in northern Naples and the suburb where she grew up. But Vele is also one of the most notorious public housing projects in Italy and the world — known for its decaying brutalist architecture, its drugs and crime, and its role in housing the Camorra crime syndicate.

Built between 1962 and 1975, the “Sails of Scampia” were designed by Italian architect Franz Di Salvo and inspired by the work and thinking of architect Le Corbusier. Obviously this is a recipe that has been tried out all over the world and the results here are not entirely unique (see also Pruitt-Igoe). The complex was based on two building types: towers and tents. The towers are what you might imagine and the tents are what create the “sails” that today define the complex.

The apartments were designed to be simple. But the idea was to connect them with elaborate exterior common spaces that simulate, in a way, the many alleys and courtyards of Naples. (Does this sound like a co-living project?) There are many possible explanations for what went wrong. Perhaps the best place to look for answers is the book Gomorrah written by Robert Saviano.

But what I always wonder is to what extent was the architecture and the approach to urban design responsible for these outcomes? In other words, how much of this is a result of built form and how much of this is a result of socioeconomic factors, such as poor management, high unemployment, and a lack of policing in the area? According to Wikipedia, Scampia had an unemployment rate of about 50% as of 2004.

Le Vele initially consisted of seven buildings, but four of them have already been demolished. In the next few years two more will come down, leaving only one. Supposedly the plan is to keep this last building and refurbish it so that the history of Le Vele isn’t lost entirely. Some, including Robert Saviano, are questioning why the state would ever want to commemorate such a horrible place. But if it is repositioned and if it proves to be successful, it may actually help to answer some of my questions.

In the meantime, we’ll just have to enjoy Deborah’s set.

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Barriers to entry: Salvador vs. Toronto

Netflix has a new docuseries out about Latin American street food. I watched two episodes of it last night. The first was about a chef from Buenos Aires, Argentina and the second was about a chef — named Dona Suzana — from Salvador, Brazil. Even if you aren’t necessarily into food shows, it’s a good way to remind yourself just how much you probably miss traveling right now.

The story of Dona Suzana is an interesting one. Before opening her restaurant, she was doing laundry in order to make ends meet. Then at one point, the City of Salvador came to her community in order to undertake a large construction project. They needed someone to cook food for the construction workers and so they asked her if she would do it.

Since she had always dreamed of being a chef, she jumped at the opportunity and took out a loan to buy everything she needed in order to fit out her kitchen. She cooked for the workers and everyone loved the food. But she never ended up getting paid. They stiffed her.

That turned her off cooking for a bit and it was not until a trio of graffiti artists were working in her community and looking for a place to eat that she tried her hand at it again. They offered to pay her in advance and persuaded her to make them something. She agreed and the food was a huge hit.

In fact, the group of artists loved the food so much that they made her a sign with the name “RĂ©Restaurante” (titled this way because Dona has a stutter) and began sharing photos of her dishes on social media. All of a sudden she had people showing up at her door. And today she has people from all around the world showing up at her door.

This is a wonderful success story. But I think it also says something about land use policies. As far as I can tell from the episode, she setup her restaurant at her place of residence — a community along the waterfront where her husband fishes and where she uses his catches for her renowned dishes.

Here in Toronto, we are operating in an environment where if you try and setup a coffee shop in a residential “Neighbourhood” — like, for example, Contra at 1028 Shaw Street — you might spend a few years fighting with your neighbors and battling it out at LPAT hearings in order to get the appropriate permissions.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that we should do away with all zoning (or maybe I am). But I would like to draw your attention to this contrast. Because one has to wonder whether RĂ©Restaurante Dona Suzana would exist today and be known around the world had the barriers to entry not been so low for her. Of course, had there been more rules, maybe she wouldn’t have gotten stiffed the first time around.

Either way, I am currently in the market for some dende oil.

Photo by Milo Miloezger on Unsplash

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Marking up drawings

Apparently I’ve been living in the dark ages. The One Delisle project team just introduced me to Bluebeam Revu and, frankly, I’m not sure how we were marking up PDF drawings before this. It’s faster and more responsive than Adobe Acrobat. Everyone’s comments sit nicely in the cloud. And you can even take measurements off of the drawings. It kind of feels like a light and friendlier version of AutoCAD (which I haven’t used in over a decade). Marking up drawings is something that I do regularly as part my job. Sometimes I do that with trace paper (I did that for probably every suite at Junction House). But more often it has been with Adobe Acrobat. If you’re in the same boat and aren’t yet using Bluebeam, I would encourage you to check it out.

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The Nooq, now available for rent

I’ve never been to Whitefish, Montana, but it is on my list (mostly to try out the snowboarding). I have also been following a home in Whitefish that was designed and built by Alex Strohl and Andrea Dabene called the Nooq. I like to periodically dream about living in the mountains and this home is the sort of thing that usually comes to mind.

Take a look at the home’s Instagram page and you’ll see that every detail has been carefully considered. Each bathroom, for example, has a different tile color — all of which are meant to mimic the color palette of Montana throughout the year. As I’ve said before on the blog, that’s one of the things that you want from good design — you want to know that somebody thought about things.

They have also recently made the home available for rent on Airbnb. But the listing is private. So if you’d like to learn more, you’ll have to drop your email address over here. I may just have to do that once winter rolls around.