What makes a city a city? The MIT Technology review covers some new research into the determinants of vibrant urban life from a team led by Marco De Nadai at the University of Trento. The conclusion: Jane Jacobs was right!

De Nadai and co gathered this data for six cities in Italy—Rome, Naples, Florence, Bologna, Milan, and Palermo.

Their analysis is straightforward. The team used mobile-phone activity as a measure of urban vitality and land-use records, census data, and Foursquare activity as a measure of urban diversity. Their goal was to see how vitality and diversity are correlated in the cities they studied.

The results make for interesting reading. De Nadai and co say that land use is correlated with vitality. In cities such as Rome, mixed land use is common. However, Milan is divided into areas by function—industrial, residential, commercial, and so on. “Consequently, in Milan, vitality is experienced only in the mixed districts,” they say.

The structure of city districts is important, too. European cities tend not to have the super-sized city blocks found in American cities. But the density of intersections varies greatly, and this turns out to be important. “Vibrant urban areas are those with dense streets, which, in fact, slow down cars and make it easier for pedestrian to cross,” say the team.

Jacobs also highlighted the importance of having a mixture of old and new buildings to promote vitality. However, De Nadai and co say this is less of an issue in Italian cities, where ancient buildings are common and have been actively preserved for centuries. Consequently, the goal of producing mixed areas is harder to achieve. “In the Italian context, mixing buildings of different eras is not as important as (or, rather, as possible as) it is in the American context,” they say.

Nevertheless, the team found that a crucial factor for vibrancy is the presence of “third places,” locations that are not homes (first places) or places of employment (second places). Third places are bars, restaurants, places of worship, shopping malls, parks, and so on—places where people go to gather and socialize.

The density of people also turns out to be important, too, just as Jacobs predicted. “Our results suggest that Jacobs’s four conditions for maintaining a vital urban life hold for Italian cities,” conclude De Nadai and co.

They go on to summarize by saying: “Active Italian districts have dense concentrations of office workers, third places at walking distance, small streets, and historical buildings.”

Disruptive change: Tesla’s pre-orders have exceeded 2011 forecasts of long-range-capable electric vehicle uptake by a factor of 100.

But sometimes innovation hits a dead end. In the Mercury News, Matthias Gafni asks: “Has BART’s cutting-edge 1972 technology design come back to haunt it?” It’s a cautionary tale for transport agencies betting it all on unproven technologies.

“Back when BART was created, (the designers) were absolutely determined to establish a new product, and they intended to export it around the world,” said Rod Diridon, emeritus executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose. “They may have gotten a little ahead of themselves using new technology. Although it worked, it was extremely complex for the time period, and they never did export the equipment because it was so difficult for other countries to install and maintain.”

Rather than stick to the standard rail track width of 4 feet, 8.5 inches, BART engineers debuted a 5-foot, 6-inch width track, a gauge that remains to this day almost exclusive to the system. Industry experts say the unique track width necessitates custom-made wheel sets, brake assemblies and track repair vehicles. The agency also debuted a flat-edge rail, while other systems tilt slightly inward. That BART design requires more maintenance and is noisier, experts say.

Those one-of-a-kind systems lead to a dearth of readily available replacement parts. Maintenance crews often scavenge parts from old, out-of-service cars to avoid lengthy waits for orders to come in; sometimes mechanics are forced to manufacture the equipment themselves.

And sometimes unwelcome disruption happens. In Bloomberg View, Jana Randow reports on the difficulties property bubbles are creating for central bankers. New Zealand punches above our weight in this category: Consumer price inflation has fallen out the bottom of the Reserve Bank’s target range of 1-3%, and prices are still rising, mainly in Auckland:

Since the global property market bottomed out at the start of 2012, house prices have risen most in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Increases of more than 30 percent in the three countries compare with an average gain of 11 percent in the sample. Prices are still declining in some of Europe’s largest economies. One exception is Germany, where property costs have surged more than 17 percent after prices slid for a decade and a half starting in the mid 1990s.

Central bankers want to see their low rates transmit into economic activity. Prices and transactions in real-estate markets can serve as indicators for buyers’ confidence in the economy, the strength of the labor market and spending prospects.

Too much froth in property markets can also be an obstacle to cutting rates further.

But according to Richard Burton, chairman of the anti-housing supply group Auckland 2040, there’s nothing wrong with our policy settings. Bernard Hickey reports:

Burton rejected the suggestion that the Auckland Unitary Plan did not have enough capacity to handle up to 600,000 extra residents expected to be living in Auckland by 2040, referring to modelling done by an Auckland Council submitter using the Auckland Council Development Capacity (ACDC) model created through the IHP process.

The results of the Council’s modelling have been contested by others in the ‘Topic 13’ group advising the IHP on the Unitary Plan’s economically feasible capacity. Housing NZ Corp has also argued the previous versions of the ‘down-zoned’ plan were not sufficient to meet housing demand.

All of the modelling work done to date has said there is sufficient capacity within Auckland to accommodate the foreseeable growth.

He also thinks that we should ban anything over one storey – apparently two-storey blocks of flats are now high-rise. Sausage flats for all!

Burton told Interest.co.nz in a Double Shot interview Auckland 2040 preferred apartments be kept in town centres and that any intensification of established suburban areas be limited to multiple smaller single level dwellings on existing sections.

On a completely unrelated note, I ran across a clip of John Waters, cult film director and proud Baltimore resident, endorsing a mayoral candidate. Words of wisdom, really:

“When trouble happens, liberals can sometimes turn to reactionaries quickly. I guess I’m included. I’m not sure what I can do to help Baltimore with its problems these days. So why not let someone younger and more radical than I am have a crack at it?”

Speaking of young people, here’s two urban hipsters operating an urban lumber business in Vancouver:

To close, three articles about inclusion and exclusion in cities. First, Paul Krugman, who won an economics Nobel partly for his work on the economics of cities, writes about the importance of “cities for everyone“:

Upper-income Americans are moving into high-density areas, where they can benefit from city amenities; lower-income families are moving out of such areas, presumably because they can’t afford the real estate.

You may be tempted to say, so what else is new? Urban life has become desirable again, urban dwellings are in limited supply, so wouldn’t you expect the affluent to outbid the rest and move in? Why aren’t urban apartments like beachfront lots, which also tend to be occupied by the rich?

But living in the city isn’t like living on the beach, because the shortage of urban dwellings is mainly artificial. Our big cities, even New York, could comfortably hold quite a few more families than they do. The reason they don’t is that rules and regulations block construction. Limits on building height, in particular, prevent us from making more use of the most efficient public transit system yet invented – the elevator.

Now, I’m not calling for an end to urban zoning. Cities are rife with spillovers, positive and negative. My tall building may cut off your sunlight; on the other hand, it may help sustain the density needed to support local stores, or for that matter a whole city’s economic base. There’s no reason to believe that completely unregulated building would get the balance right.

But building policies in our major cities, especially on the coasts, are almost surely too restrictive. And that restrictiveness brings major economic costs. At a national level, workers are on average moving, not to regions that offer higher wages, but to low-wage areas that also have cheap housing. That makes America as a whole poorer than it would be if workers moved freely to their most productive locations, with some estimates of the lost income running as high as 10 percent.

Furthermore, within metropolitan areas, restrictions on new housing push workers away from the center, forcing them to engage in longer commutes and creating more traffic congestion.

Second, Alana Semuels writes in the Atlantic about “the role of highways in American poverty“. It’s a reminder that exclusion can be an implicit or explicit aim of many urban policies:

The urban planner Robert Moses was one of the first to propose the idea of using highways to “redeem” urban areas. In 1949, the commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads, Thomas MacDonald, even tried to include the idea of highway construction as a technique for urban renewal in a national housing bill. (He was rebuffed.) But in cities across America, especially those that didn’t want to—or couldn’t—spend their own money for so-called urban renewal, the idea began to take hold. They could have their highways and they could get rid of their slums. With just one surgery, they could put in more arteries, and they could remove the city’s heart.

This is exactly what happened in Syracuse, New York. The city had big dreams of becoming an East Coast hub, since it was close to New York City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Boston. (In the early days of the car, close was relative.) Use federal funds to build a series of highways, planners thought, and residents could easily get to the suburbs and to other cities in the region. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a Syracuse that you could easily leave by car? And, if they put the highway in just the right place, it would allow the city to use federal funds to eradicate what they called a slum area in the center city.

That neighborhood, called the 15th Ward, was located between Syracuse University and the city’s downtown. It was predominantly African American. One man who lived there at the time, Junie Dunham, told me that although the 15th Ward was poor, it was the type of community that you often picture in 1950s America: fathers going off to jobs in the morning; kids playing in the streets; families gathering in the park on the weekends or going on Sunday strolls. He remembers collecting scraps from the streets and bringing them to the junkyard for pennies, which he would use to buy comics.

Urban reformers have often had a nasty tendency to categorise places as “blighted” and rip them down. This has often been terrible for the inhabitants of those places: they’ve lost homes, businesses, jobs, and social capital, all of which take time to rebuild. And all too often, the political factors that make it easy to tear down poor neighbourhoods for highways – rich people’s votes and protests are more likely to be heard – also create barriers to rehousing their inhabitants elsewhere. Zoning codes are written to keep them away from successful places.

Third, in Commonwealth Magazine, Clark Ziegler and Christopher Oddleifson report on a new effort by the Massachusetts state government to reform its exclusionary zoning:

A bill approved earlier this month by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing would confront that problem head-on. The bill would require that every city and town plan for multifamily housing and designate areas where it is allowed as-of-right. It would also require every community to allow single-family homes clustered on modest lots in compact, walkable neighborhoods surrounded by open space. Cities and towns would be compensated for any net increases in school costs that result from their approval of multifamily and cluster developments…

Our inability to produce enough housing to fuel the economy results from the fragmentation of local government in Massachusetts. In many other parts of the country land, use regulation is managed at the county or regional level. In Massachusetts, it is handled by a multitude of local boards in each of 351 individual cities and towns, most of which serve a population of less than 11,000 residents. It’s understandable that elected officials take steps to slow or stop housing development because that’s what voters ask and expect of them: “please don’t allow more residents into our community,” “please don’t add any more kids to our schools,” “please don’t approve any more development in our part of town.”

Resistance to new housing often comes in the form of “downzoning” – allowing housing development in fewer places or at lower densities than was allowed in the past. It also comes in the form of discretionary zoning codes (as opposed to zoning “by right”) that make local decision-makers especially susceptible to community pressure. Available land zoned for multifamily housing used to be relatively commonplace in Massachusetts and now it has become a rarity. Many of the most desirable neighborhoods in the Commonwealth could not be built again today because local zoning has become so restrictive.

Good luck to Massachusetts in getting it sorted out.

To end on a slightly different note, here’s a map of the places that most closely match New Zealand’s various climates. Otago and Southland are most like Northern England, while the upper North Island is closer to Spain, Chile, or northern California (but wetter).

climates matching NZ

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18 comments

  1. Love that last map. So pleased to see I live in Spain, particularly the Northern Coast; there are the most civilised cities in the world… lets get even more like them… Metros, LRT, HSR between cities, a Guggenheim, great apartments, stunning food, OK wine….

    And when we were there we constantly remarked how like NZ the countryside was, so much greener than the rest of Spain; complete with sheep and rugby fields too.

    1. Yes interesting map. I’ve always wanted to know how Auckland rates in rainest cities over 1 million people in the world. I think the rainfall is double London’s last time I looked.

    1. To me the real solution would be to change the voting system. councilors shouldn’t represent a ward, they should represent the whole city and be voted in by the whole city. we have the local boards for local representation.

  2. re: BART Technology dead end.

    If Robbies Rapid Rail had gone ahead as planned originally isn’t it likely we would have used the BART technology in the RR vehicles deployed here?
    Especially given many [local and central government] politicians belief both then and now that all things American are of themselves automatically “best practice” when it comes to transport systems.
    I recall images on the RR documents had pictures of the then brand new BART style trains on their covers.

    If so we’d have had the gauge issues, the rail design issues and the other issues that BART faces today. And as a result our RR system would be at end of life too.

    Of course even if that was the case, the costs of refurbishing the track, trains and corridors with new kit would be tens to a hundred times cheaper than trying to put a corridor through areas where the right of way was sold off or never existed.
    I think the BART current problems are largely a lack of ongoing investment in the entire system to keep it modernised.

    But it does also remind us, that one day our bright new EMUs [and LRTs when we get them] will eventually be discarded as bits of worn out junk unsuitable even for retention by MOTAT.

    But that time will be a long way away, well after our shiny new EVs, driverless cars, and platooning/driverless trucks have all been recycled a half a dozen or so times.

    1. Despite what the article says, BART is not at the end of its life. It is expanding, rolling stock is being renewed, and it is investing in new control systems (as are many other systems), albeit paying the price for being an early adopter of high tech.

      And re that article, anyone who thinks that BART’s 5’6″ gauge is unique needs to get out an awful lot more, particularly to Chile or the Indian subcontinent, where it is the standard gauge.

      1. Interesting, Wikipedia says 5’6″ is the second-most-used gauge worldwide after standard.

        What was the advantage of flat-edge rails, do you know? That seems like it would cause more procurement problems than the broad gauge.

  3. Funny how Auckland 2040 want density near transport hubs but not near the city itself! Just another group pretending to be open to density as long as it happens somewhere else (in a much less suitable location)

    1. One storey is barely building at all, and is certainly not city building. Burton lives in a three storey house himself! Is a manipulative and deceiving snob who simply wants to control ‘what type of people’ might be near him. This is an abuse of planning regs for extreme and nasty social engineering purposes. Should be laughed at and ignored.

  4. Tesla pre-orders for Model 3.

    That chart from 2011 is very old and completely out of date the moment it was published. 5 years in EV related tech is several lifetimes of progress in most other industries.
    Back when that chart was published they were predicting thousands of dollars per Kilowatt of storage in battery costs for EV battery packs, and unlikely to drop more than a few percent a year.
    Hence the slow take up predictions. But a mere 5 years on, battery cost is well under 40% of that cost per kW, [how much lower is a closely guarded trade secret it seems] and is likely to keep dropping for some time yet.

    Now that EV battery tech is good enough, the limit that EV’s face is not so much usable range at 200+ miles (300+ KM) is pretty nearly enough for most long distance travel.
    You could drive one way from Auckland to anywhere in the upper North Island (Taupo north) except Gisborne, with that sort of range.

    The problem is more the time taken to fill it up again when on the road and covering longer distances.
    Overnight and end of journey charging is not so time critical, on the go charging is.

    Tesla has been able to [partially] solve this problem so far – by rolling out their proprietary network of very fast charging stations, which are incompatible with the rest of the EV industry charging standards.
    Who amongst themselves can’t agree on which particular charging technology their cars should use, so they have several competing standards – a VHS and Betamax battle royale all over again going on there.
    [Standards are good – there are so many to chose from!].

    Its presently like every traditional car company had their own petrol, with different Octane ratings and other bits in it. So you’d have to find the petrol stations selling “your kind of petrol” as you drove around and hopign they had some in stock when you did. Either that or tow a petrol tanker with you when doing long distances.

    Which does make me ponder why doesn’t any EV maker offer to rent a EV battery trailer/rage extender to let you double/triple your range for those odd extra long trips?
    Maybe the perception it produces of lack of range is considered too off-putting?

    But regardless of how you do it, [plug in or wirelessly] it takes an awful lot of Amps [100+] even at 240 volts to fill up a 60Kw EV battery pack such as the Model 3 is suggested to have.
    Especially in any reasonable time that most people would tolerate. You’d need several days of solar generation from a house roof of PV panels to “fill your EV up” from empty once.

    A break of 15-30 minutes every 300 km is about what people do when driving now with regular cars, after all, the toilet stops and driving/coffee/meal breaks (and for some, fag breaks) make it necessary anyway.
    Including a EV charging break too is not such a problem in practise. Provided you have such charging capabilities available when you pull up in your nearly depleted EV.
    But imagine if you had to queue for an hour to recharge your EV, before you could continue, because everyone else ahead of you drives an EV too and the charging station slots are all full.

    And likely soon enough all that fast charging tech of whatever stripe will become obsolete sooner than expected – rendering your EV obsolete too without some sort of on-board voltage conversion upgrade.

    The truth is without truly standardised universal/interoperable “on the go” charging tech then EV’s can’t go mainstream yet, no matter how many Tesla, GM or the other car companies can pre-sell and deliver in the next few years.

    Which is why Tesla is continuing to roll-out their charging stations, I suppose they’re hoping their charging tech [and cars] can stay ahead of the curve as far as obsolescence is concerned.
    But unlike their cars, a charging station can’t be easily updated overnight with new capabilities or connectors and such via over the air patches.
    So whatever charging tech your EV comes with, is locked in for the life of the system. Maybe Tesla is trying for first mover advantage with theirs?

    And they’re betting longer term that their tech will prevail and they’ll make money selling electrons to all comers [Tesla and non Tesla EVs] .
    So the cars are a trojan horse to get the energy retailing/manageent future for Tesla?

    possibly, but I think that maybe that the real “killer app” for EV’s is not the “E” part, but rather the coming “driverless” part.

    GM and others have stated that their driverless cars will be EV based – probably for good reason.
    All that always on driverless tech sucks a lot of electricity, so you need big batteries to run it all the time, so why not use the same batteries for moving the car too.

    In the end I think most people will eventually buy/use a driverless car that happens to be an EV, rather than buy/use an EV because its an EV.

    Now that Tesla has said they’re coming here to NZ we may see some interesting developments taking place.

    Hmm, A driverless Tesla-based Uber-run 24×7 taxi service putting those old-fangled driver operated taxis out of business future anyone?

    It will be interesting to see how it all plays out in a world wide and in a NZ context over the next 3-5 years and beyond.

    Like that shampoo ad, “It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.”

    1. I like the option of having a petrol engine as well as electric; electric for short journeys and commuting, petrol for longer journeys. That gets over most of the charging and range problems (just charge at home) and would still reduce petrol usage significantly (probably in the order of 95%+ for myself). Can also use a much smaller and cheaper battery as range isn’t an issue.

    2. I wouldn’t drive further that per day, I think most people would go for a different mode at that distance. If you are that extreme about driving and spend that much time in the car then you would probably fork out the extra for a model S.

  5. I thought Temuco & Valdivia were a bit warmer, more like Waikato. Very similar country also being dairy, similar bush (aside from the bamboo), similar thermal springs and volcanos. The gardens around Valdivia university even had Kowhai trees.

  6. Great post Peter, thanks for putting it together.

    I think inclusionary vs exclusionary will be a big thing in the next few years, and it’s hard to imagine what possible rational/economic reasons could be given for exclusionary policies.

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