Tag Archives: cities

What is Shibam Hadramawt?

I came across this place the other day and thought it was fantastic. According to Wikipedia:

Shibam Haḍramawt (Arabic: شِـبَـام حَـضْـرَمَـوْت‎)[2][3] is a town in Yemen. With about 7,000 inhabitants, it is the seat of the District of Shibam[1] in the Governorate of Hadhramaut. Known for its mudbrick-made high-rise buildings, it is referred to as the “Chicago of the Desert” (Arabic: شِـيـكَاغـو ٱلـصَّـحْـرَاء‎),[2] or “Manhattan of the Desert” (Arabic: مَـانْـهَـاتَـن ٱلـصَّـحْـرَاء‎).[4]

Shibam Hadramawt – Wikipedia

Here is just one great shot of it. It’s fascinating:

Check out the Wikipedia page for more information and better sized images of this place.

(Embedded image taken by Jialiang Gao http://www.peace-on-earth.org – Original Photograph, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1450126)

 

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Invisible cities: the eruv of Manhattan

What’s the eruv of Manhattan? Well according to the article below:

The eruv encircles much of Manhattan, acting as a symbolic boundary that turns the very public streets of the city into a private space, much like one’s own home. This allows people to freely communicate and socialize on the Sabbath—and carry whatever they please—without having to worry about breaking Jewish law.

Here’s a map of it:

You might think that it is hard to believe such a thing could last for long, but as this piece shows, it is diligently maintained.

I found this fascinating. There’s many interesting aspects of New York, but this is one of the better ones. For more on this, read: There’s a Wire Above Manhattan That You’ve Probably Never Noticed

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How living in a poor neighborhood changes everything about your life (and this was before the pandemic)


This is a really good explanation piece on how living in a poor neighborhood changes everything about your life (Vox).

It is focused on the United States, but is not unique to it. Well worth reading. It can also explain why people who live in poorer neighborhoods are more likely to suffer the effects of the pandemic.

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The new IKEA in Vienna is going to be amazing


And not just amazing visually, either. There are a number of new and better ways this new IKEA will be operating in Austria’s capital. To really get an appreciation for it, see this: IKEA is building a big new store in Vienna with no parking | TreeHugger

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In Detroit, Tiny Homes are in vogue (and for good reason)


This is a fascinating article on the use of tiny homes to help those without a place to call their own: In Detroit, Tiny Homes Are More Than a Lifestyle Trend – POLITICO Magazine

I think for many cities, apartment buildings are the way to go. More importantly, I think cities need to wake up to the problem of unaffordable housing and strive to make living in the city achievable and satisying for those that live there. If that means high rises in one city and tiny homes in another, then what works best is what should be aimed for. Here’s to livable and affordable places to live.

(Image from the article. It’s a nice place. Very IKEA, but that’s ok.)

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How climate change is going to benefit Buffalo

Lloyd Alter makes the case here: Boosting Buffalo as a climate change haven | TreeHugger

I have to admit that Buffalo is primed for people who will try to escape both the effects of climate change and do so in a way that doesn’t cost them a fortune. Buffalo will offer all of that. But so do other Rust Belt cities. It will be interesting to see which if any of them truly do see a resurgence as climatic problems plague other cities. I’m hopeful for Buffalo that it is one of them.

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You’ve heard of Pompeii and Troy, but have you heard of the lost city of Merv?


If not, then you might want to read of the city that was wiped out by Genghis Khan with the result of 700,000 deaths. That’s a gruesome statistic, but this is a fascinating story:  Lost cities #5: how the magnificent city of Merv was razed – and never recovered | Cities | The Guardian.

It’s part of a series on Lost Cities, which includes Troy and Pompeii and much more.

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How Toronto looks from the City of Buffalo

Torontoians will find this interesting: Toronto’s astonishing growth: Will it matter to Buffalo? – The Buffalo News.

This was a key passage:

For Buffalo, the question now is whether Toronto’s “reimagining” might seep south of the border, as well. Smaller cities in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe are booming, too, thanks in part to Toronto’s spillover. And Toronto and Buffalo, incorporated two years and 100 miles apart, kept pace with each other until the 1950s, said the University of Toronto’s Bourne, who used to assign a project comparing the cities’ trajectories to his undergraduate students.

That history is interesting, Bourne said, because while Buffalo and Toronto share important characteristics, they suffered opposite fates: Buffalo shrinking with the sunset of the Erie Canal and Rust Belt manufacturing, and Toronto swelling when the Quebec separatist movement made it the favored home for Canada’s banks.

As late as the 1970s, Torontonians considered Buffalo a nightlife destination. Many of their restaurants still closed on Sundays and maintained separate male and female entrances.

Torontonians “would come to shop, they would come for jazz – Buffalo was the hive,” said UB’s Foster, who lived in Toronto for more than three decades. “But then people started going the other way, and that hasn’t changed.”

Years ago going to Buffalo for shopping was still a thing in Toronto: not sure it is now. Perhaps some people still go to watch the Buffalo Sabers play hockey. Perhaps the linkages between the two cities will become stronger over time and there will be a good proportion of Torontoians making Buffalo a destination again.

For Torontoians considering going to Buffalo, I recommend this piece in the New York Times.

(Image linked to the New York Times piece)

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The limits of minimalism…

Might be here: Under 200 Square Foot Studio Apartment in Hong Kong | Apartment Therapy.

Cozy and minimal is fine, but this is basically the space you find in a big camping tent. I am sure some people can adopt just fine, but I don’t know if I could live in such a space for long. I also wonder if this is the direction we are heading for cities other than Hong Kong. Higher property costs and lower incomes might cause this to happen in other cities. I don’t look forward to that.

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What is hostile architecture?

You can find a description of hostile architecture here, but the best way to describe it is to show it, as Vice does here: Photos of the Most Egregious ‘Anti-Homeless’ Architecture – VICE. Once you see these photos, you will find you see examples of it everywhere in the places you frequent.

Most hostile architecture is aimed at homeless people. Sometimes it is obvious, like spikes installed on flat surfaces. Other times, it’s more subtle, like arm rests in the middle of benches. (Prevents homeless people from lying down on them.)

One of the problems with hostile architecture is that it allows us to pretend homeless doesn’t exist. If we don’t see homeless people, it’s easier to image they aren’t there. A lesser problem is that cities become more unliveable for all, because hostile architecture for anyone is hostile architecture for everyone.

We need more livable cities. And we need more support for homeless people. Hostile architecture is not the solution.

P.S. Not all hostile architecture is aimed at people. Some of it, like spikes on top of outdoor ledges, is aimed at pigeons. I’ll leave that for another post.

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A different way to see Paris

Not for everyone visiting Paris, but if you want to see Paris in a way untypical of most visitors, consider this: Paris on Foot: 35 Miles, 6 Days and One Blistered Toe – The New York Times

On superurbanization

Urbanization is an increase in cities  through their growth, either in more cities being created or growth within cities. Superurbanization is a new idea. It’s how some cities get the lion share of growth at the expense of other cities.

To see what I mean, look at this chart: A chart showing the growth of tech in US cities

Source: Tech is divergent | TechCrunch

Cities are growing everywhere, as people move from rural areas. But some cities are growing much more than others.

Smaller cities are trying to do something about it, as this article shows. But in the end, we may end up with more and more supercities, and smaller cities may suffer in the same way rural areas are suffering now.

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Can homelessness be reduced?


Definitely yes. Here’s how two cities are doing it:

  1.  New Orleans
  2. Helsinki

It can be done. These cities are showing how it can be done. Other cities need to strive for similar or better results.

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Can cities be affordable?


If you read articles like this, Why Homes in Major U.S. Cities Are Nearly Impossible To Afford – Curbed, it can be hard to believe than any city not on the decline can be affordable. But there are exceptions, and it is good to know about them and why they are. One such city is Vienna, and this piece has a good explanation on why it is.

If you are concerned about cities being affordable, I recommend the piece on Vienna. Affordable cities is going to be one of the big challenges of the 21st century. We need good ideas to deal with this.

(Image via pexels.com)

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On cities and digital technology and loneliness

This is a good piece: How to redesign cities to fight loneliness.

It talks about how cities and services can be changed to fight loneliness. This is good. The flipside of it, though, is that cities are designed and have evolved to promote loneliness. One of the reasons people come to cities is to get away from things. The cost of that is often loneliness.

Cities are not the only contributor. Digital technology also can contribute to loneliness. But like cities, digital technology can also help to assist those struggling with being alone.

The bigger problem is loneliness in general. Cities and digital technologies can help there. But there are bigger social and cultural issues in the mix, and those need to be addressed as well.

 

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New York City and the future of retail in cities


I’ve read a number of articles talking about the demise of New York due to rising rents and gentrification. After reading them, tt’s easy to feel hopeless about New York and cities in general. Which is why I was glad to read this: New York City Reveals the Future of American Retail – The Atlantic. It’s true, there are big changes in New York, just like there are big changes in other cities. And it’s true that many beloved retail stores are disappearing in cities everywhere. But it’s untrue that vacancy rates are shooting up and it’s untrue that it’s only big chains taking over. While retail stores threatened by Amazon are closing, places like restaurants and fitness locations are filling the gap.

You can argue that a city needs more than this new world of cafes and restaurants and gyms. The article points out to ways cities can encourage that. Specifically:

According to Jeremiah Moss, specific policies caused the disappearance of old New York—like tax breaks for big businesses, which have been a hallmark of city governance since the Ed Koch days (and up through HQ2). Moss says that several new policies could fix the problem. First, he is an advocate of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would make it easier for small retailers to extend their lease in neighborhoods with rising rents. Second, he favors zoning laws that would limit the density of chain stores. He and others have also called for “vacancy taxes” that punish landlords who sit on empty storefronts for months at a time. All of these policies could help small businesses push back against the blandification of New York and the broader country.

Cities thrive when there is a mix of establishments servicing the wants and needs of its occupants. After reading this article, I think cities, New York and elswhere, are doing well and have a viable path to get better.

What Happens to Churches in the 21st Century?

Quite a few things, according to this: www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/what-should-america-do-its-empty-church-buildings/576592/

if you have a church in your neighbourhood, there is a good chance one of the things mentioned in the article will happen in the next 10 years.

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The greatness of what College Park in Toronto could have been

Sigh.

I love College Park in Toronto. I wish it were more of a destination spot for visitors. Perhaps if it had been built out like this photo, it would have. Instead, it was built out to the area outlined in white.  Still a lovely building, but it could have been a phenomenon.

What could have been.

Via The half-built relics of nixed Toronto skyscrapers – Spacing Toronto

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Can housing be affordable?

Based on many affluent cities currently, the answer is “no”. But there are exceptions we can learn from like Vienna. As this piece shows,  Vienna’s Affordable Housing Paradise | HuffPost, it’s possible even in affluent cities and countries to have affordable housing under the right conditions.

Well worth reading that if you are feeling it is impossible to have affordable housing these days.

San Francisco puts delivery robots on a lease. Good.

According to CNET: Delivery robots face strict rules in San Francisco.

I like that picture above. Often when I see delivery robots in photos, they are by themselves on an uncrowded street. In the photo above, you can get a better sense of how it will be a problem if swarms of these things start taking over the sidewalk. The idea of sidewalks becoming more crowded by these tiny vehicles is a maddening one.

I’d be fine with them if city planners can come up with a way these robots can roll around and not impede better uses of the streets such as walking and cycling and public transit. Until then, the less robots crowding the sidewalks, the better.

Like drones in the air and autonomous cars on the roads, robots are coming to the sidewalks. City planners need to start planning for that now.

Montreal’s low rents are a lesson for any city suffering the opposite

Le Plateau in Montreal

Rents in many cities are high and rental properties are becoming increasingly difficult to afford. One exception to this is Montreal, where “average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Montreal metro area is $760. The Toronto average is $1,288. In Vancouver, it’s $1,368.” Why is that? Well there are a number of reasons, but as this The Globe and Mail point out, a key reason is the basic economics of supply and demand. But there is more to it that just that, and I’d recommend you read the piece to find out why.

I’m not sure if other expensive cities can replicate this, but it’s worth knowing it can be done and using this knowledge in cities where politicians and others try to limit rental stock.

The migration from rural to urban areas is going to continue for some time. People need more places to live. Let’s hope other cities can learn from Montreal.

(Quote from the article, image from Wikipedia)

How to see parks in Toronto

Easy, with this beautiful map:

Map of Toronto parks

A link to a full sized version of the map is here.

More information on the map, here: New map charts parks near TTC stations

Another cautionary tale: this time regarding Bleecker Street in NYC

The story of Bleecker Street’s Swerve From Luxe Shops to Vacant Stores in the  NYTimes is one playing out in many cities throughout the world, though perhaps not as extreme as this. It’s a big problem when money comes flooding into neighborhoods and cities, disrupting the people that live there, and making those areas unlivable in some cases. Most people need somewhat stable places to live, but unstable social systems (capitalist or otherwise) can make that difficult unless other social systems (like local governments) come in and press back against such instability. As more of the world moves from rural to urban areas, the tools to make streets and cities livable need to be developed and put to use.

Anyone living in a growing city needs to read this piece. Recommended.

(PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRIS MOTTALINI FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)

And now for something beautiful: pictures of Venice in the fog

Venice in fog

I highly recommend checking this out: Pictures of Venice in the Fog – Fubiz Media. Beautiful images of a beautiful city in a form I have rarely seen.

A cautionary tale of what low taxes and libertarianism brings

Amish women on the beach
There can be many lessons that can be drawn from the story here: The Rise and Fall of the ‘Freest Little City in Texas’

The ones I drew were

  • You get the society you pay for. In this case, the people of this part of Texas were unwilling to pay for anything, and they got nothing in return. It’s hard to believe this even needs to be said in this age, but apparently it does.
  • Even basic services cost money. That money comes from taxes or service fees.
  • Those services are expensive to pay for individually: it makes much more sense for people to pool their money (in the form of taxes),  to make it cheaper overall for everyone.
  • Taxes are only part of what makes a society, but a society that is based on money and that does not have taxes is no society at all.
  • Only a society that does not depend on money can get away without taxes. Typically those a tightly knit,  cohesive, pre-money communities that depend heavily on sharing and barter. These communities are more socialist or communist in nature as opposed to libertarian. More like an Amish community or hippie commune or a religious community of some form.
  • The best way to have a libertarian society is to have one of great abundance. Scarcity requires people to share and work together if they want to survive.

It’s a good story. Read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

(Photo above is Amish women on the beach)

Is it okay for a city to track … and other thoughts

This: Is it okay for a city to track what’s in your poop? – Macleans.ca, is a provocative question that headlines a good article.

Now for most people, the answer would be a loud “no!”.  But as you can see in the article, smarter cities lead to municipal governments gathering more information about you. Certainly in the case of smart meters, the government agency can tell alot about you just from when you use power. Digital technology and the need to better manage government resources can lead to further tracking, including to what is in your waste water. Expect to see more such tracking in the future.

Ideally for any information being gathered about you, there would be strict control over who has access to the information and what they can do with it. As well, there would be some accountability with regards to that information. I would expect there is a mixed record for much of that information, but the fact that I can only speculate tells me there is more work to be done with regards to accountability.

Read the article. It helps to be informed about such tracking so you can know how you can be tracked and how you can ask questions about such tracking to government officials and elected politicians.

Something beautiful: Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, Illustrated

Artist Karina Puente is illustrating  Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ and the web site ArchDaily has a sample of some of her work, including the image you see above.

I hadn’t expected to like illustrations of this book. The writing itself is so evocative, I would have thought that illustration would limit it.  I make an exception for these works: they complement rather than reduce the writing.

I’d love to see an edition of Invisible Cities filled with Puente’s illustrations. For now, we can enjoy what we see at Archdaily.com.

Where the weather is not too hot, not too cold…but just right

I often wondered, especially in the bleak mid-winter, if there are places that have lovely weather all of the time. Well, someone at Buzzfeed wondered this too and came up with this list: 10 U.S. Cities Where The Weather Is Perfect Year-Round.

Some of the cities on this list (L.A., San Francisco), shouldn’t surprise anyone. Others, like Galveston, Texas (seen in the image above) might be unexpected.

If you are thinking of moving to some place in the U.S., you want to check out this list.

I’d like to see Buzzfeed do an extended list for cities worldwide. I like winter, but I’d rather visit Winter in some other city than have Winter visit me in my city. 🙂

Palo Alto vs. Tokyo: some modest thoughts on housing 

Image of Palo Alto linked to from Wikipedia

Two pieces on housing got me thinking of housing policy and what if anything can be done to improve it. The two pieces are this:

  1. Letter of Resignation from the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission — Medium
  2. Tokyo may have found the solution to soaring housing costs – Vox

(Note: I don’t have much expertise on housing policy. These are just some notes I jotted down after thinking about these pieces. Take the following with a (huge?) grain of salt.)

The first piece describes how housing in Palo Alto, California is becoming too expensive for all but the rich. Part of what is causing this is the limits placed on adding new housing in the area. The second piece describes how Tokyo gets around this, namely by removing the decisions about housing from city politics and making it at a national level.

It seems pretty straightforward then: all cities should remove decision making about housing from the local level and assign it to a body at a national level. But is this true? And would it work in North American cities?

It depends on what you expect your housing policy to be and how effectively you can impose it. If the policy is to have affordable and available housing for a city, then the Tokyo model makes sense. However, there is an assumption that decisions made at a national level will be in line with the desires of the residence of the city. This is a big assumption.

There are at least two sets of desires that home owners have for their homes and their city. One, that their homes and the neighbourhood they live in remain stable or improve. Two, that their homes appreciate in value. The first desire could be wrecked by the Tokyo model. The second desire would definitely be affected by the Tokyo model. With cities like Palo Alto, you have the two sets of desires met, at least in the short term. In the longer term, the second desire could level off as people and industry move elsewhere.

The ideal is to have a national policy that takes into account the need for neighbourhoods to grow organically, for house values to appreciate over time but still allow for affordability, and for cities to  allow for new housing as well as account for when neighbourhoods become depopulated. Having such a policy would support vibrant cities at a national level. You would treat cities as a network of systems, and you would allocate or remove resources over time to keep all cities vibrant, regardless if they are growing or declining.

This is the ideal. Practically, I just can’t see this happening in North American cities. North Americans are too strongly capitalist to allow what is happening in Japan to happen here. If national organizations tried too hard to manage cities and resulted in cooling off housing markets, people would oppose that. For many people, their house is their chief asset, and any efforts to restrict that from appreciation would be met with defiance.

Sadly, I think there are going to have to be many failures within cities such as Palo Alto and San Francisco before there is enough political will to change the way housing is managed. I think the Tokyo/Japan model is out of reach for my continent for decades, still.

It’s unfortunate: you have cities in the U.S. in the rust belt suffering great decline, while cities on the coasts struggling to come to terms with growth. A national policy on housing would help all cities and have a greater benefits for people than the current approach.

I like Palo Alto. It’s a great city, in a great region. I think it would be greater still if it had more housing.

Is facadism/urban taxidermy bad?

In this piece, Are we killing Yonge Street? from NOW Toronto Magazine, there is a good discussion on what is happening to development on Yonge Street in Toronto. NOW reports that for a lot of development happening on Yonge Street, the facades of the existing building are kept and much of the development is happening behind it. The article argues that this is a bad thing, and they raise some good points.

What I think they don’t touch on are some of the alternatives. Toronto is fortunate in that there is development ongoing. For poor cities, the alternative is boarded up or demolished buildings and vacant neighborhoods.  Instead, we have neighborhoods and buildings being improved. That’s good.

Another alternative is the old buildings being torn down and replaced with new storefronts and new buidlings. I think some of that is good, but I also think preservation of old buildings is also good.

When it comes to preservation and improvements of old buildings, I also think that some of them should be preserved outright. However, Toronto is a growing city, and in some cases, we need larger buildings. In that case, facadism is a good compromise.

Now whether or not facadism is effective or not depends on at least two things. The first is how well the new architecture uses the existing architecture. Done well, the marriage of the old and new building results in something that enhances the area and preserves the city while allowing it to grow.  The second thing that determines if facadism is effective is how the new building affects the neighborhood. Here, I think, is the root of the problem. It’s not so much facadism as it is gentrification. Old buildings get preserved, but old stores do not. New developments can cause rents to rise, driving out the stores and organizations that made the neighborhood great. You get bank branches and big chain stores replacing old bookshops and cafes.

I hope the next phase of development tries to understand how to preserve not just the existing architecture, but the neighborhood as well. I realize that is a difficult task, but it is one worth trying to accomplish.

More thoughts on Waze

I have thought a lot about Waze since I started using it. Without a doubt, it has improved my life substantially. Here are some other thoughts I had as I used it.

  1. Waze is an example of how software will eat the world. In this case, the world of gPS devices. Waze is a GPS on steroids. Not only will Waze do all the things that a GPS will do, but it does so much more, as you can see from this other Waze post I wrote. If you have a GPS, after you use Waze for a bit, you’ll likely stop using it.
  2. Waze will change the way cities work. Cities are inefficient when it comes to transportation. Our work habits contribute to that, in that so many people commute at the same time, in the same direction, on the same routes, each work day. Waze and other new forms of adding intelligence to commuting will shape our work habits over time. Drivers being able to take advantage of unbusy streets to reduce congestion on major thoroughfares is just the start. City planners could work with Waze to better understand travel patterns and travel behaviour and incorporate changes into the city  so that traffic flows better. It’s not that city planners don’t have such data, it’s that Waze likely has more data and better data than they currently have.
  3. Waze is a great example of how A.I. could work. I have no idea how much A.I. is built into Waze. It could be none, it could be alot. It does make intelligent recommendations to me, and that is all I care about. How it makes those intelligent recommendations is a black box. Developers of A.I. technologies should look at Waze as an example of how best to deploy A.I. Those A.I. developers should look at how best A.I. can solve a problem for the user and spend less time trying to make the A.I. seem human or overly intelligent. People don’t care about that. They care about practical applications of A.I. that make their lives better. Waze does that.

Not the shortest but the most beautiful route to take

I found this piece awhile ago and think it’s fascinating: Forget the Shortest Route Across a City; New Algorithm Finds the Most Beautiful from MIT Technology Review.

I would love to see algorithms and other such means to find the best a city has to offer. And it’s not all that far fetched. For a long time flickr.com had a feature that featured photos viewers found the most interesting. If something similar was available for cities, a whole new generation of flaneurs and happier tourists might result. It might even spur improvements to areas deemed less beautiful.

NYC has a good problem to have (some thoughts and observations)


New York City has a good problem to have: it’s getting increasingly more expensive to live there. In the second half of the 20th century, it had the opposite problem and the question was would anyone want to live in all but small parts of it. Those days are gone, so much so that Manhattan became too expensive for most, which partially led to people moving to Brooklyn. Now even Brooklyn is getting too expensive, according to this: Moving Out of Brooklyn Because of High Prices – NYTimes.com.

It’s not surprising to me: NYC is more desirable than ever to move to. Yet the parts of Manhattan and now Brooklyn that people find too pricey are not the whole city. I expect in a few years from now people will be talking about great spots in Queens and the Bronx and how they too are becoming more expensive.

Globally populations are leaving small towns and rural areas and moving to cities. Cities like New York will be the beneficiaries of this, and will grow accordingly.  Assuming they are well run cities, they will find ways to accomodate newcomers, and the parts that were cheaper will rise in value.

I don’t see NYC getting cheaper any time soon. It will be more what parts of it people live in, and what the housing will look like. I expect you will see more high rises built in places where none were before, and more and more neighborhoods being gentrified.

Here’s to a growing New York.

(Creative commons image from picsbyfreyja)

(Chinese) invisible cities

Have you ever heard of Zibo? I haven’t. Yet, as James Fallows points out, it is bigger than Chicago or Milan. It’s not the only one. Fallows states there are many cities like that in China. Have you heard of Ningbo? As the site Moving Cities points out, “Ningbo, once China’s largest trading port, now sits poised for its resurgence as a business and cultural mecca. In the coming years, Ningbo will connect to Shanghai via a modern expressway and high-speed rail link.” You can bet from there it will again be a major city. If anything, many of these cities (besides Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong) will be move from being invisible to most of the world to prominent.