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China is building and megalopolises are now national policy

Well here are some interesting figures (via MIT Technology Review):

  • In the past two decades, about 400 million people moved into China’s cities — so more than the entire population of the United States
  • By 2035, about 70% of China’s entire population is expected to be urban (up from 60% today and up from 30% two decades ago)
  • To accommodate this scale of growth, China’s national urban development approach has shifted to something that now revolves around city clusters, or megalopolises (term coined by French geographer Jean Gottmann back in the 1950s to describe the Boston-Washington corridor in the Northeastern US)
  • By 2035, there are expected to be five major city clusters (see above)
  • One of the reasons for this is to improve cooperation across the various clusters — less competition and less redundancy
  • But it’s also about creating smaller more manageable cities — is this what one needs to do after a certain scale, go polycentric?
  • To service these clusters, China is rolling out a network of 16 new high-speed rail lines
  • By 2035, China expects to have 200,000 kilometers of rail, with a third of it being high-speed — assuming this happens, China will be home to 60% of the world’s high-speed rail coverage
  • Current cost estimates for the construction of this network comes out to about US$150 million per kilometer
  • 1-2-3 Rule: The plan is that everyone should be able to get around a city within 1 hour; a city cluster within 2 hours; and travel between the country’s clusters inside of 3 hours

China is building.

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The general theory of urbanization

I have come to the realization that I don’t get nearly enough emails throughout the day (sarcasm), and so I’ve just subscribed to Overview’s daily post.

Overview is a company that uses satellite and aerial imagery to show how humans and natural forces are shaping the earth. In addition to a daily post, their work includes stories, books, prints, and various other projects and collaborations. It’s pretty cool stuff.

One example of a partnership is this one here with ArchDaily, where they look at urban block patterns around the world. Everywhere from Barcelona to Belo Horizonte. I think many of you will enjoy flipping through these aerials.

And if you’re interested in this topic (you know, urban morphology), you may also enjoy this book by Ildefons Cerdà called, The General Theory of Urbanization 1867. Cerdà, and his work, were instrumental in shaping Barcelona at a time when the word “urbanization” didn’t even really exist.

Photo by Kaspars Upmanis on Unsplash

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Electric vs. internal combustion engine

Porsche released its first electric car back in 2019. It was the 2020 Porsche Taycan, which was fairly similar to the Porsche Panamera sedan in terms of price, performance, and styling, except that it was fully electric. So if you were in the market for a very expensive sedan, it was more about whether or not you wanted an electric vehicle or a vehicle with an internal combustion engine (ICE).

In the quarter in which it launched (Q4 2019), the Taycan ended up only representing about 7% of Porsche North America’s overall sedan sales. But by the second quarter of the following year it was nearly 50%. And in the first quarter of this year (2021), it was over 80% of their sedan sales. That was fast. Pretty soon, I would imagine there will be no point in even making the Panamera.

Now, the Panamera and Taycan aren’t exactly mainstream vehicles. But I found the above chart (which is from Bloomberg Green) interesting in that it feels like an all-things-being-equal kind of question. If you happen to be in the market for a six-figure Porsche sedan — and all things are kind of equal — would you rather an electric model or one that runs on gas? Already most people are choosing the former.

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The 2021 Serpentine Pavilion

Each year, the Serpentine Galleries in London commission a leading architect to design a new temporary summer pavilion in Kensington Gardens. The installation usually runs from June to October. Sometimes it then travels around the world, as was the case with Unzipped Toronto (Bjarke Ingels).

Now in its 20th year, the Serpentine Pavilion is a tradition that started in 2000 with a building by architect Zaha Hadid. (There was no pavilion last summer because of COVID.) And as I understand it, the commission is usually awarded to an architect who has not yet completed a building in England.

This year’s pavilion will open to the public on June 11. Designed by Sumayya Vally of Counterspace, the pavilion is intended to be a “puzzle of many different [historic] elements.” See video above. Vally also happens to be the youngest ever architect to be commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery.

Architecture tends to take a long time. The Serpentine Pavilion happens much faster and happens every year (when there isn’t a pandemic). This strikes me as a very good thing for the world of architecture. I think we should do something similar — but of course better — here in Toronto.

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Ecommerce as logistics

Benedict Evans asks some great questions in this recent post about ecommerce penetration. Instead of just looking at the product itself and/or the way in which we buy it (online versus offline, for example), he focuses on the logistics model that accompanies the transaction.

What can be parceled and shipped via Amazon? What can be delivered using a bicycle? What requires some sort of special delivery or collection method?

The point he is making is that different things need to happen for a new fridge to make it to your home, compared to say a Chipotle burrito. And these differences matter when it comes to how we should be thinking about ecommerce and the real estate in our cities.

Personally, I find it helpful to reframe the questions in this way.

Here’s an excerpt from the post:

But if I buy online and then drive to the store to collect it, is that different to phoning and reserving it? We didn’t have a statistics category for ‘telephone ordering’. If I use an app to order pizza instead of phoning the restaurant, has that become ‘ecommerce’ or is it still pizza delivery? 30 years ago, if I drove to Walmart instead of walking to a neighbourhood store, or drove to Best Buy instead of going to a department store, we didn’t call that ‘car-based commerce’. So is this a tech question, or a retailing question, or an urbanism question?

For the full thing, click here.

Chart: Benedict Evans

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A story about oranges

A friend of mine circulated this tweet storm over the weekend. It is an explanation of how NYC’s housing market works using the example of oranges. The author ends by saying that, “it is a parody and an exaggeration, but I promise you it’s not much of one.”

The crux of this story about oranges is that if you don’t deliver enough to meet market demand, you’re going to invariably run into a problem of affordability. If people really want oranges, they are going to bid up the price of whatever oranges they can get their hands on. The same is true for housing.

But there are, of course, some obvious differences between homes and oranges. People don’t live in oranges. And I would imagine that there are other ways to get your daily recommended intake of vitamin C.

As far as I know, people also don’t buy oranges with the hope that they can derive a rental income stream and/or that they will be worth more tomorrow. And so I’m sure that many of you will be quick to point out that it is perhaps the speculative nature of housing that makes it different from most oranges.

Still, there’s no denying that, in most cities around the world, we do a lot to make it exceedingly difficult to build new housing. We constrain supply — such that we perpetually underserve the market — and then we wonder why prices continue to rise.

Disagree with this take? Let me know in the comment section below.

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Popular times — how live is live?

I was searching for a location this morning on Google Maps and I came across the “popular times” chart that many of you are probably familiar with. It shows you how busy the location you’re looking at tends to be throughout the day. But this time around, I noticed a pulsing “live” dot and it got me wondering: How live is live?

Google collects this data from of our phones.

It is aggregated and anonymized Location History data from anyone who has opted in on their Google Account. If you’re using Google Maps and have your location services set to “always”, you can actually see a timeline of the places you’ve visited — even if you haven’t explicitly navigated to them (see above).

So the short answer is that the live data is really live. If there’s a spike in the busyness of a particular venue — one that doesn’t match historical busyness patterns — the Google network can pick it up.

I’m fascinated by this kind of city data because I see it as part of the future of city building. Why not use more data to inform the way in which we plan and build our cities. Retail data, traffic data, migratory patterns, population densities — all of this and more is now available to us.

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Ground-related housing vs. apartment permits across the Greater Golden Horseshoe

Here are two charts from a recent blog post by Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development. The charts compare residential building permits issued for ground-related housing vs. apartment suites.

Over the last two quarters (Q4 2020 and Q1 2021), the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) issued a record (all-time record?) number of permits: 39,734 housing units. This represents a 56% year-over-year increase.

The biggest contributor to this increase is, not surprisingly, apartment units. These permits saw a 73.6% year-over-year increase. There’s simply no other way to deliver this amount of new housing — at least in the context of the GGH. You have to go up.

But given the price increases that we have seen across the region for ground-related housing, Ryerson’s CUR concludes that there must be a strong home buyer preference that is simply not being met by the amount of low-rise supply we are delivering.

Notwithstanding this potential mismatch, I don’t see things changing anytime soon.

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Too much low-rise — Theresa O’Donnell in conversation with Larry Beasley

I attended the above talk last night over Zoom. (Shoutout to Michael Mortensen for inviting Slate’s development team and for helping to moderate the Q&A.) The talk was a conversation between Larry Beasley (former Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver) and Theresa O’Donnell (the newly appointed Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver). Prior to this, Theresa was the director of planning for cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada, and Arlington, Texas.

I’d like to point out two comments that she made last night that I found interesting.

The first is that community meetings over Zoom actually aren’t all that bad. And the reason that they’re not all that bad is that they tend to draw out larger crowds (they are easier to attend), and so the feedback on development applications tends to be a bit more inclusive / representative. I agree with this overall view and I’ve been arguing for years (here on the blog) that the typical approach to community engagement is pretty much broken. The opinions become lopsided when you erect too many barriers to participation.

The second point has to do with the amount of land in Vancouver (and other North American cities) that is dedicated to low-rise housing. It’s too much and it’s going to need to be addressed in order to increase overall housing supply and to chip away at the housing affordability problem. This won’t be news to this audience, but it’s interesting to see how widespread this belief has become. Of course, the big questions remain: How gentle should gentle density be? How much intensification should these neighborhoods see?

I also appreciated her comment that it’s pure lunacy (my words, not hers) to have higher order transit lines running through mostly low-rise neighborhoods. We need much higher densities to sustainably support these kinds of investments in infrastructure. For us Torontonians, a good example would be (most of) the underdeveloped Bloor-Danforth subway line, though there are other culprits.

Welcome Theresa.