Welcome back to Sunday reading. Our lead article: sheep.
A Guardian article by Will Coldwell describes how the Faroe Islands have developed Google SheepView to map their landscape:
Living across 18 tiny sub-polar islands in the north Atlantic, Faroe islanders are used to working in difficult conditions. So tired of waiting for Google Street View to come and map the roads, causeways and bridges of the archipelago, a team has set up its own mapping project – Sheep View 360.
With the help of a local shepherd and a specially built harness built by a fellow islander, Durita Dahl Andreassen of Visit Faroe Islands has fitted five of the island’s sheep with a 360-degree camera.
As the sheep walk and graze around the island, the pictures are sent back to Andreassen with GPS co-ordinates, which she then uploads to Google Street View.
“Here in the Faroe Islands we have to do things our way,” says Andreassen. “Knowing that we are so small and Google is so big, we felt this was the thing to do.”
For something completely different, Scott Beyer (Forbes) describes how America’s ugly strip malls were caused by government intervention.
There is a common architectural language that I’ve found while traveling America. The most interesting part of any city is generally its downtown, with historic buildings and narrow streets. But drive a couple miles—or in small towns, several blocks—in any direction, and the terrain quickly devolves. Major roadways turn into strip malls fronted with parking lots and endless stretches of chain retail. These strip-mall arterials exist nationwide, robbing cities of their appeal. The common wisdom is that they result from “the market,” as monuments to American capitalism and consumerism. But that is a big fat myth—they have been forced into existence by government regulations.
Let’s assume, just for the sake of conversation, that nobody finds a corporate fast-food establishment particularly attractive. The visual impact of these places is nonetheless minimal and sporadic in mixed-use, urban settings, where they bump up against different building types, or sit at ground level within buildings. But along many American strip malls, fast-food chains—and other low-budget retail—are clustered side by side, extending into infinity with their loud signage, cookie-cutter design, drive-thru windows and parking lots.
We can thank single-use zoning for this. Most cities’ comprehensive zoning maps separate residential, commercial and industrial uses. They usually allow commercial retail on just a handful of key roads that run from downtown to the suburbs. So that’s where most of the retail ends up. It’s as if the government has taken uses that are fundamentally ugly, and crammed them together, causing the ugliness to spread. People still shop on these strips because they have no other choice, but don’t celebrate the areas themselves, often finding them distasteful and congested.
The article goes on: minimum parking requirements, setback controls, and density limits are other major offenders.
— Brilliant Maps (@BrilliantMaps) September 1, 2016
Are there alternatives? Yes. Joe Cortright (CityObservatory) reports on new research into the value of walkable neighbourhoods. People in the US pay higher prices to live in more walkable locations, even though they’re not intrinsically more expensive to build – prima facie evidence of a regulated shortage of good urban places:
One of the hallmarks of great urban spaces is walkability–places with lots of destinations and points of interest in close proximity to one another, buzzing sidewalks, people to watch, interesting public spaces–all these are things that the experts and market surveys are telling us people want to have.
Its all well and good to acknowledge walkability in the abstract, but to tough-minded economists (and to those with an interest in public policy) we really want to know, what’s it worth? How much, in dollar and cents terms, do people value walkable neighborhoods? Thanks to the researcher’s at RedFin, we have a new set of estimates of the economic value of walkability…
What they found is that increased walkability was associated with higher home values across the country. On average, they found that a one point increase in a house’s Walk Score was associated with a $3,000 increase in the house’s market value. But their findings have some importance nuances.
First, the value of walkability varies from city to city. Its much more valuable in larger, denser cities, on average than it is in smaller ones. A one point increase in Walk Score is worth nearly $4,000 in San Francisco, Washington and Los Angeles, but only $100 to $200 in Orange County or Phoenix.
Second, the relationship between walkability and home value isn’t linear: a one point increase in the Walk Score for a home with a very low score doesn’t have nearly as much impact as an increase in Walk Score for a home with a high Walk Score. This suggests that there is a kind of minimum threshold of walkability. For homes with Walk Scores of less than 40, small changes in walkability don’t seem to have much effect on home values.
— Howard Blackson (@hblackson) September 2, 2016
Some places get it. Paris is redesigning major intersections – many of which are currently massive multi-lane roundabouts – to give more space to people on foot. Adele Peters reports in Fastcoexist:
Right now, the Place de la Bastille in Paris is basically a traffic island: A huge memorial sits in the middle of a road packed with cars. There’s no way to easily cross the street on foot. But that will soon change. The square is one of seven major sites that Paris is redesigning for pedestrians and cyclists.
“Parisians are finding out that what were once admirable squares of theirs are now just intersections,” says Jean Macheras, the Paris delegate of the French Transportation Users Assocation.
The shift started with the Place de la République—until 2013, it was also a busy road, but now it’s a pedestrian plaza planted with trees, lined with benches, and filled with people. The transformation was so popular that the city decided to keep going.
Each of the new designs give pedestrians at least 50% of the space in the square, taking away lanes of traffic even though each of the streets is a major route in the city. At the Place de la Bastille, the square will reconnect with a curb on one side, creating a new green space for people to sit. At the Place de la Madeleine, trees will mark off more pedestrian space and a new weekly market will be added.
Places that don’t figure out that they need to adapt their approach are not going to be awesome. The combination of an aging population and car-dependent suburbs will lead to some negative social consequences. Jenni Bergal (Miami Herald) reports on the challenges facing many suburbs:
CENTENNIAL, Colorado: Greg Glischinski and his wife, Sheri, have lived in their two-story brick and wood Colonial-style house for more than three decades. The retirees, both in their 60s, want to stay where they are for the rest of their lives.
But their house has no bedroom or full bathroom on the first floor. It is on a cul-de-sac, and public transportation options are limited. As they grow older, the Glischinskis may need in-home assistance with tasks like bathing, dressing and preparing meals – an expensive proposition.
“It’s a huge problem for boomers,” said Greg Glischinski, 66. “Quite frankly, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Turns out the kids who listened to rock ‘n’ roll on their transistor radios and watched spellbound as men walked on the moon – the first American generation raised in the suburbs – want to grow old there.
In fact, the American suburbs, built for returning GIs and their burgeoning families, are already aging. In 1950, only 7.4 percent of suburban residents were 65 and older. By 2014, it was 14.5 percent. It will rise dramatically in the coming decades, with the graying of 75.4 million baby boomers mostly living in suburbia.
But car-centric suburban neighborhoods with multilevel homes and scarce sidewalks are a poor match for people who can’t climb stairs or drive a car.
“Most (boomers) are in a state of denial about what really is possible and what’s reasonable for them as they age,” said John Feather, a gerontologist and the CEO of Grantmakers in Aging, a national association of foundations for seniors.
Meanwhile, the invaluable Kim-Mai Cutler points out that growing cities that are doubling-down on single house zoning in an attempt to maintain suburban amenities for young families are, in fact, pricing out and driving away young families:
— Kim-Mai Cutler (@kimmaicutler) August 31, 2016
New Zealand’s conversation about housing affordability has been far more reasonable than the conversation in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. But that still hasn’t stopped some politicians tying themselves in knots about whether or not they want houses to become more affordable. The Spinoff’s Hayden Donnell covers Nick Smith’s rhetorical convolutions:
Housing Minister Nick Smith understands. He wants to appease younger and poorer voters by making housing more affordable.
But he wants to do it without actually lowering house prices, which would upset a horde of elderly homeowners, who are swaying their way through the longest, most debaucherous property boom in New Zealand history, drunk on the nectar of billion-dollar-a-year price rises.
It’s an impossible task.
On Saturday, Smith came up with an innovative solution: becoming two Nick Smiths.
In an interview with Patrick Gower on The Nation, Bad Smith appeared first, comforting homeowners fearful their endless property bacchanal may be winding down.
“I want house-price inflation in single digits,” he said, in response to a question about whether he wants house prices to fall.
“If you ask me what the objective of my policy, both in Auckland and throughout New Zealand, it’s for house-price inflation to be in single digits.”
Almost immediately afterward, the Housing Minister’s brain slithered out of his body to be replaced by a better version of itself.
“In 2014, just before the election, you said – and this is when the housing multiple was seven – you said your goal was to get it down to four,” Gower said, searching for assurance that was still the Housing Minister’s position.
Good Smith leaned in to reply, gleaming under the coat of his new skin.
“Yeah, I think, long-term.”
It’s literally impossible for one man to hold both those views at the same time. The housing multiple in Auckland is nearly 10. Even if house prices don’t rise at all, household incomes would need to go up more than 200% – from $76,000 to $250,000 – to bring a million-dollar home down to a housing multiple of four. If wages and salaries keep going up at their current rate, that could take roughly 50 years. But single-digit house price inflation could mean 9%, in which case it would never happen at all.
It’s now been a month since Green leader Metiria Turei was flayed alive for committing the cardinal political sins of making sense and telling the truth about house prices. But her wild claim that homes need to cost less than King Tutankhamun’s tomb to be affordable was at least a viable position for a human mind.
Incidentally, lower house prices are popular among voters.
Likelihood of voting in local board elections… aue, south auckland we have such massive potential to make change! pic.twitter.com/0t8Axvxwit
— Te Ora O Manukau (@teoraomanukau) August 31, 2016
To close: If you want to read one longer article this week, I’d highly recommend Bill McKibben’s new piece in the New Republic: “We need to literally declare war on climate change“:
In the North this summer, a devastating offensive is underway. Enemy forces have seized huge swaths of territory; with each passing week, another 22,000 square miles of Arctic ice disappears. Experts dispatched to the battlefield in July saw little cause for hope, especially since this siege is one of the oldest fronts in the war. “In 30 years, the area has shrunk approximately by half,” said a scientist who examined the onslaught. “There doesn’t seem anything able to stop this.”
In the Pacific this spring, the enemy staged a daring breakout across thousands of miles of ocean, waging a full-scale assault on the region’s coral reefs. In a matter of months, long stretches of formations like the Great Barrier Reef—dating back past the start of human civilization and visible from space—were reduced to white bone-yards.
Day after day, week after week, saboteurs behind our lines are unleashing a series of brilliant and overwhelming attacks. In the past few months alone, our foes have used a firestorm to force the total evacuation of a city of 90,000 in Canada, drought to ravage crops to the point where southern Africans are literally eating their seed corn, and floods to threaten the priceless repository of art in the Louvre. The enemy is even deploying biological weapons to spread psychological terror: The Zika virus, loaded like a bomb into a growing army of mosquitoes, has shrunk the heads of newborn babies across an entire continent; panicked health ministers in seven countries are now urging women not to get pregnant. And as in all conflicts, millions of refugees are fleeing the horrors of war, their numbers swelling daily as they’re forced to abandon their homes to escape famine and desolation and disease.
World War III is well and truly underway. And we are losing.
That’s all for the week. See you next time!