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The story of Los Angeles’ last Japanese boarding house

Rooming houses or boarding houses are a divisive topic. Here in Toronto, they are permitted in the older parts of the city, but illegal everywhere else. Since 2021, we have been talking about changing that in attempt to increase the supply of what is typically the most affordable kind of housing. But there are lots of people who want to “protect the integrity of single-family communities”, and so a decision on this issue has been, as I understand it, punted until sometime next year. At some point, I suspect a decision will be made (though deferring is also a decision).

While we wait, this recent piece by journalist and photographer Samanta Helou Hernandez tells an interesting story of Los Angeles’ last Japanese boarding house. But as you’ll see from her article, it’s labeled as a boarding house, but it really acted as a kind of community center. Boarding houses in this community have, over the years, served as a place for people to get back on their feet (after returning from internment camps following WWII) and as a place where they could speak their own language and build community.

Looking back on the history of the area, it’s hard to fathom being comfortable with some of the exclusionary policies that were in place at that time, which effectively blocked immigrants and people of color from moving to certain areas. Then again, I’m sure posterity will look back on some of decisions being made today and wonder what we were thinking.

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It’s time to build, but not here

Oof.

Let’s assume for a second that you penned an article back in April 2020 called, “It’s time to build.” And in this article, you argued, among other things, that we’re not building nearly enough housing and that home prices are skyrocketing as a result.

Now let’s assume that a new multi-family zoning overlay is being proposed for your own neighborhood in an attempt to increase said housing supply and alleviate some of the concerns around home prices. And in response to this proposal, you pen this:

One might call this being hypocritical. But I’m not here to name call. I think the real lesson is what Jerusalem Demsas points out in her recent article, “The Billionaire’s Dilemma.”

What we have is a macro-micro disconnect that policy makers need to be more aware of. At the macro level we know what we should be doing in order to achieve our stated objectives. But if we allow people at the micro level to veto these efforts, they often will, and sometimes using ALL CAPS.

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A case study in urban resiliency

One of the most exciting city building projects going on in Toronto right now is the revitalization of the 715-acre Port Lands area (here’s a map if you’d like to get situated). Despite its massive scale, it doesn’t seem to be receiving a lot of attention. And that’s probably because, at this stage, it’s mostly infrastructure work. It’s just a lot of soil being moved around.

But it’s of course important work. The mouth of the Don River (where it meets Lake Ontario) was never properly engineered for resiliency, and so the entire area is at risk of flooding. That’s why this $1.25 billion effort to re-naturalize its interface is currently underway. The above video does a good job explaining just what that entails.

At the same time, it is creating a wonderful city building opportunity — new parks for the illegal drinking of craft beers, new wildlife habitat, new meandering rivers for kayaking, and of course new housing and new jobs. But when you look at what’s planned, it’s hard not to feel like we’re missing the mark in terms of density.

The plan for Villiers Island calls for some 4,900 homes (according to this Globe and Mail article). And the plan for the entire area calls for only about 20,000 homes (according to this recent Bloomberg article). Surely there’s room for at least a few more — especially if we’re hoping to support a new LRT line to the area.

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How far you can travel in Europe by rail in 5 hours

Here is a neat tool (created by Benjamin Td) that allows you to quickly see how far you can travel in Europe by rail in 5 hours. The way it works is that you just hover over a train station and then the relevant isochrone will show up. Above is what that looks like for Paris’ Gare de Lyon, which has one of if not the largest catchment areas from what I can tell after playing around with the tool for a few minutes. The data being used to power this map is from Deutsche Bahn. And if there’s a transfer on any of the routes, the tool assumes you can make that happen within 20 minutes, which may or may not be realistic. Regardless, it’s fascinating to see just how connected (or disconnected) some cities are. It’s also a shameful reminder that a North American version wouldn’t be nearly as impressive.

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AI-generated street transformations

One of the most effective ways to encourage change in our cities is to run a pilot. I think people find comfort in knowing that if chaos ensues, things can be easily reversed. So that is exactly what Phoenix has been doing with its “cool pavement” pilot program; what Seattle did (or is doing) with electric scooters; and what Toronto is doing with the pedestrianization of Market Street. Let’s try it out and see how things go.

But there are other options emerging beyond just physical pilots. Better Streets AI, for example, is using artificial intelligence to instantly transform streets and give people an idea of what might be possible. If you haven’t yet seen any of these images, I would encourage you to check out their Twitter account. The rendered images aren’t hyper-realistic, but they are instant and they are all magically generated by a computer.

As these sorts of tools become more sophisticated and widespread, it isn’t a stretch to imagine them having an impact on the way we think about and plan our cities. And I think that will happen. They also get me excited about the potential of augmented reality (which is something that interests me a lot more than full VR). Being able to quickly and accurately pilot the future is a powerful thing.

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It sounded stupid when I said it

Click here if you can’t see the embedded tweet above.

This is your daily reminder that many/most of the things that are ubiquitous today were once difficult to explain and understand (in the above example it’s email and the internet). Once a new idea or technology becomes widely adopted, its inner workings and technical aspects tend to recede into the background.

Most people, for instance, probably aren’t familiar with all of the various internet protocols and how they work. Could you explain the difference between TCP and IP and SMTP? If you can’t, it doesn’t matter. The various protocol layers of the internet now work behind the scenes to power our daily lives. And the innovation that continues to be built on top of them is getting increasingly more user friendly as time goes on.

The same thing will happen with crypto, which is talked about today in much the same way as the above folks are talking about email and the internet. New ideas will continue to emerge and we will all start deriving more and more utility from it (beyond just NFT art). And at that point, most people will stop caring about how all the sausages are made. They’ll just like eating them.

P.S. One of the nice things about blogging every day is that I’ll be able to look back on this post in ten years and see how right or wrong I was.

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Consistency over intensity — rethinking Toronto’s low-rise neighborhoods

Toronto’s chief planner, Gregg Lintern, published this piece in the Toronto Star over the weekend where he argued that “expanding housing options in [Toronto’s] neighbourhoods is the missing piece of the growth puzzle.”

What he is saying is that if we’re going to have any chance at reasonably accommodating the 700,000 or so people who are expected to move to this city over the next three decades, we’re going to have to evolve our low-rise neighborhoods. That includes more retail, more amenities, more density, and yes, built form that houses multiple units.

I immediately thought that this was meaningful progress in the right direction. It is acknowledgement that things need to change and that our low-rise communities need to change.

But others felt that this was a case of soft-serve ice cream, arguing that there’s “danger in praising incremental, belated change when dramatic change is what’s needed.” I also see this point.

To quote the late architect Daniel Burnham, “make no little plans.” But this is arguably a little easier to subscribe to when you’re rebuilding after a great fire has decimated your entire city (he was instrumental in the rebuild of Chicago following its fire of 1871).

The unfortunate reality today, at least in this environment, is that bold vision isn’t often rewarded politically. The status quo bias is simply so great. Change is painfully slow. That’s why we rely so heavily on pilot projects when it comes to city building.

So while I too am a fan of bold vision, I also see value in what Simon Sinek and others refer to as consistency over intensity. Small, repetitive, and compounding actions can have powerful long-term results. You just have to keep going in the right direction.

And I think that many of us, or perhaps most, will agree that the right direction is rethinking our low-rise neighborhoods.

Photo by Tungsten Rising on Unsplash

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[Video] Saudi Arabia’s new 170-km-long vertical city

I am usually known for my optimism for the future. But I am having a difficult time deciphering whether the new 170-km-long vertical city that Saudia Arabia just revealed (see above video) is a legitimate development proposal, a new metaverse project, or a dystopian spoof about how we’re all going to live in beehives once autonomous everything and artificial intelligence takes over.

The Line, as it is cleverly called, is intended to form the basis for a new and allegedly livable city called Neom. This is a city that is intended to lead Saudia Arabia into some sort of glorious post-oil future. And the plan is for it to eventually house some 9 million people; all within a 170-km-long mirrored strip that is 200m wide, 500m tall, and accessible end-to-end in 20 minutes via high-speed rail.

I would love to see the development pro forma for this one (if it even exists), but I certainly don’t need it to determine that this thing is never going to be built — certainly not in its current incarnation.

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Why housing is so expensive

A friend of mine sent me the above podcast episode this morning (click here if you can’t see it embedded above). I’ve only listened to a bit of it, but I plan to finish it up over the long weekend. Here are the topics it covers:

We discuss why the states with the highest homelessness rates are all governed by Democrats, the roots of America’s homelessness crisis, why economists believe the U.S. gross domestic product could be over a third — a third! — higher today if American cities had built more housing, why it’s so hard to build housing where it’s needed most, the actual (and often misunderstood) causes of gentrification, why public housing has such a bad reputation in the U.S.; how progressives’ commitment to local democracy and community voice surprisingly lies at the heart of America’s housing crises, why homeownership is still the primary vehicle of wealth accumulation in America (and the toxic impact that has on our politics), what the U.S. can learn from the housing policies of countries like Germany and France, what it would take to build a better politics of housing and much more.

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Insufficient electrical capacity until 2035

One of the things that you need to do when you’re constructing a building is arrange for new utility connections. Sometimes there’s enough capacity to support what you’re building and sometimes the capacities need to be upgraded (which usually becomes the responsibility of the developer).

But according to this recent Financial Times article, some new applicants in west London are now being told that there won’t be “sufficient electrical capacity for a new connection” until, oh I don’t know, maybe 2035. And it could affect all new housing projects with 25 or more units.

This is a pretty wild piece of news. And it certainly won’t be good for overall housing supply. The three west London boroughs that are being impacted by this capacity issue were responsible for about 5,000 new homes between 2019-2020. That’s about 11% of London’s total housing supply.

So what and who is to blame for this? The Greater London Authority is saying that data centers are at least partially responsible. Too many new data centers in the area with high electrical loads.

I don’t know exactly what is going on here (maybe some of you do), but now feels like a good time to turn our attention to solar power. I recently visited a large 3,000 panel rooftop installation here in the Greater Toronto Area, and so naturally there is a blog post in the works. Stay tuned.