Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, I’d like to start off with a short essay on agglomeration economies (sort of) by science fiction writer Charlie Stross: “Insufficient data“:

What is the minimum number of people you need in order to maintain (not necessarily to extend) our current level of technological civilization?

[…] Let’s take a look at the superficial structures around us. How many people does it take to design a new automobile? Back in Henry Ford’s day, it needed an office full of draughtsmen, a handle of senior engineers to sort out each major mechanical subsystem (gear train, engine, electrics, brakes, suspension, bodywork), and experts on coachbuilding to dictate the shape of the bodywork. There would be time and motion men to dictate the speed and sequence of assembly line activities, and more drafting work to design the tools the production line workers would use … it took the effort of a few hundred men.

But modern cars are different. A typical 2010 automobile may contain roughly 20-30 electric motors and actuators (for everything from the central locking system to the air conditioning and the motorized seats and windows). There’s a similar number of microprocessors involved in everything from the engine and gearbox management systems to the entertainment, navigation, communication, and accident mitigation systems (for example, the sensors and microprocessors that control the sequence of pyrotechnic detonators that inflate air bags, tension seat belts, and collapse the steering column in event of a collision). The in-car electronics alone require on the order of 10-20 million lines of code to run all these services — which implies the combined efforts of thousands of software developers, never mind the small army who design not only the body panels but the handling tools the production line robots use to install them. Cars are no longer user-serviceable because they’re nearly as complex as 1960s airliners.

Stross suggests that the minimum requirements for maintaining technological civilisation would be a population in the range of 100 million – 1 billion. In the realm of science fiction, this has ramifications for Mars colonies and the like. Back on earth, the complexity of modern economies is a key driver of international trade and urban agglomeration economies.

Speaking of, economist Sandy Ikeda writes (on Market Urbanism) about the functioning of urban economies: “Spillovers: Knowledge, Beer and Technology“. It’s a clear take on a complex topic.

So it would be helpful to think of “knowledge spillovers” as including things like “noticing what others are doing.” Again, “spillover” suggests that the knowledge is being conveyed accidentally. Someone starting a new business doesn’t want competitors to know what she’s doing, just as Oscar de la Renta wouldn’t want to tip his hand to Donna Karan. But the density of big cities like New York or London makes three things possible.

First, because there’s so much going on, on the streets and in the theaters, it’s much easier to notice what other people are doing, often whether we want to or not. But if someone in a competing or a complementary line of activity does something new, that newness gets diffused through a city (via social networks or by sheer accident) very quickly. By the same token, the possibility of our new ideas leaking out to competitors is also higher. All of which fuels competition.

Second, the cohesiveness of a big city, its “ability-to-get-together-with-socially-distant-peopleness,” means making those novel connections and then following through on them is also much easier. Those 6.6 people we frequently meet in a city are more likely to have connections with more diverse and relevant talent than if they were in a smaller town.

Third, cities, especially big ones, don’t just have a wide range of knowledge and skills on the supply side. On the demand side, there’s a much broader range of tastes and an ethos of greater tolerance and experimentation than you’re likely to find elsewhere. Of course, you can sell globally via eBay or online stores. But with a few exceptions those places don’t start global. Rather, they tend to start small and cater to local demand (even though they have a website); then, if they’re successful locally, they may expand globally.

Unrelated to this, here’s the surprising result of a real-life tortoise vs hare race:

Autonomous vehicles have been getting more buzz lately. Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic has a sharp take on the issue: “Do we have the political will to build a different type of transportation system? Or will the rise of autonomous vehicles simply reinforce existing norms?

Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, has laid out an intuitive way of understanding this issue using a binary “heaven or hell” construction (note: I’ve interviewed her in the past on how autonomous cars will impact the transit system). According to this formulation, we could have “heaven” if we had fleets of shared, electric, driverless cars powered by renewable energy, plus a redistributive economy that ensures that people who once had jobs in the transportation sector have access to a minimum income. On the other hand, we could have “hell” if everyone owns his or her own driverless car that does our errands, parks our cars, and circles the neighborhood waiting for us to need it again.

[…] Payton Chung, who is more skeptical than me of the ease with which the transportation system will evolve into universalized autonomous vehicles, notes thoughtfully that “It’s important to remember that American suburbia is a political and social construct, not a fact of life, and that policies put into place immense structural supports for American suburbs.”

Indeed, the same can be said about our transportation system as a whole, and its relationship to the cities it serves; it isn’t a random coincidence that people commute in very different ways in New York and Dallas. We do not have to accept the “hell” scenario of Tesla’s creation—but working to produce “heaven” requires more than resting our hopes on the economic benefits of sharing vehicles versus owning our own. Advancing positive change for our cities means recognizing the trouble with simply accepting whatever is most appealing on the market, or whatever the market leaders are promoting.

Another one of those “heaven or hell” questions is whether the housing we’re building now will age well and meet a variety of needs in the future. Adam Weis (Walls of the City) asks: “Can mid-rise buildings be family-friendly?” Short answer: Yes, given attention to design:

An interesting case study comes from Michael Pyatok, who has been at the forefront of affordable housing in the Bay Area for a generation. I studied under Mike in grad school and, between his socialist rants, learned a tremendous amount about housing design. I’ve never met anyone who has such a firm grasp of the minutia of kitchen layouts and the exact closet space desired by different cultural groups. His approach to design involves a level of community participation that most architects would cringe at. Beyond soliciting the residents’ advice on massing and preferred unit layouts, he also invites them to pick the style and suggest design elements. It leads to a more colloquial aesthetic than most architects would appreciate, but it also leads to buildings uniquely fitted to a community. If you want to design a family oriented building then working directly with the families that will occupy it is a very precise kind of market research. Over time Pyatok’s firm has developed a variation on the ubiquitous 5-over-1 building that has become a template for their family oriented housing.

Typical maisonette unit plans. A variation of the three bedroom plan contains a “nested” bedroom configuration which allows the unit to be narrower and deeper. Attribution: Pyatok Architecture + Urban Design

Nihonmachi Terrace in the International District of Seattle is typical of Pyatok’s work. Most units in this project are two-story maisonettes, not flats. Bedrooms are accommodated in an efficient upper floor plan while the entry level is an open living space. According to Pyatok this plan is popular because it is considered the equivalent of a house.  It also allows every unit to have a living space with two exposures, limiting the bowling alley feel of many modern apartments.  However, this unit type also has a second advantage: it allows for a gallery access building without the persistent privacy concerns associated with a motel 6. Bedroom windows are up out of the view of passers by while the kitchen forms a connection to the gallery.  Wrapping the building around a courtyard gives the gallery a sense of dignity and purpose that you won’t find in a motel.  Pyatok laments the lack of landscaping budget, but even in its somewhat spartan form the courtyard provides a place at the center of the building that can be programmed or used as recreational space.  Since every unit connects to the courtyard directly, parents feel free to let their children use it as a play space. A community room also opens onto the courtyard, reinforcing its role as the central recreational amenity.

Nihonmachi Terrace, image of courtyard and gallery (left) and section (right). The first four floors of this building are made up primarily of two story maisonettes with the gallery occurring only on entry level floors. The fifth floor is made up of flats intended for smaller households. Attribution: Pyatok Architecture + Urban Design

Figuring out how to build affordable, accessible housing is essential for making cities work for everyone. That’s one thing I took away from Alana Semuels’ fantastic article on economic mobility in San Jose in The Atlantic: “The place where the poor once thrived“:

People like Tri Tran, who fled Vietnam on a boat in 1986, showed up in San Jose with nothing, made it to MIT, and then founded the food-delivery start-up Munchery, which is valued at $300 million.

“I think that in this land, if you are really determined and focused, you can go pretty far,” he told me.

Indeed, data suggest that this is one of the best places to grow up poor in America. A child born in the early 1980s into a low-income family in San Jose had a 12.9 percent chance of becoming a high earner as an adult, according to a landmark study released in 2014 by the economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues from Harvard and Berkeley. That number—12.9 percent—may not seem remarkable, but it was: Kids in San Jose whose families fell in the bottom quintile of income nationally had the best shot in the country at reaching the top quintile.

[…] San Jose used to have a happy mix of a number of factors—cheap housing, proximity to a burgeoning industry, tightly-knit immigrant communities—that together opened up the possibility of prosperity for even its poorest residents. But in recent years, housing prices have skyrocketed, the region’s rich and poor have segregated, and middle-class jobs have disappeared. Given this, the future for the region’s poor doesn’t look nearly as bright as it once did.

Semuels also points out an interesting factoid from Chetty’s study:

She knows a few families in which the parents work in San Jose, but are forced to live far outside the region to afford the rent. Where they may have once woken up at 7:30 a.m. to get their kids ready for school, they now get up at 4:30 to make it to work on time, she said. This won’t help their children’s futures: One of the conclusions of the Chetty study is that families with shorter commuting distances fare better on mobility outcomes.

Because urban planning is, at the bottom, a political exercise rather than a purely technical one, I thought it was worth taking a look at two articles discussing how the left engages with the topic.

First, from Auckland, Daphne Lawless comments on some of the debates swirling around the recent Auckland local body elections: “Blue-greens and conservative leftists“. While not everyone will agree with her underlying perspective, I thought it laid out some of the issues quite well, especially around the spoken and unspoken agenda of various parties:

To call Generation Zero, Transportblog and The Spinoff “blue-green” is a slander, but neither are they red-green ecosocialists. Discussions on Transportblog of placing tolls on motorway driving, for example, have shown a blindspot as to how road pricing would hit the most vulnerable in our society – such as cleaners who have to travel from the outer suburbs to the CBD. What is needed is for socialists to engage with the “New Urbanists” who congregate around such organisations, to challenge these blindspots and to make sure that an environmentally sustainable Auckland is also socially just – while rejecting the conservative leftists who, in The Spinoff’s memorable phrase, are “intent on trapping Auckland in a 1950s time prison”.

I think it’s fair to point out, as Lawless does, that there are gaps in the policies suggested by Transportblog. Some people might see that as an example of inherent bias, or some sinister ideological bent. But I don’t think that’s the case: for me at least, it reflects an awareness of the limits of urban policy (and of my own knowledge about, say, labour economics or education policy). City building can have a big impact on social and economic outcomes – as the articles above illustrate. But it can’t do everything.

A coherent approach to urban policy should recognise that some problems are best addressed with other tools. Education matters, as do the social safety net and labour market policy. Better policies in these areas are therefore essential to give people confidence that problems of inequality and poverty will be addressed, regardless of what we do with zoning or congestion pricing.

Benjamin Ross provides a complementary perspective on the issue in an article in Dissent magazine. He offers a critique of conventional ‘left’ narratives about redevelopment: “Fighting gentrification, but to what end?

Renters’ interests fundamentally clash with the demands of not-in-my-backyard homeowners. Civic associations insist that low-cost homes will destroy the character of their neighborhoods. When they complain about neighborhoods’ changing “character,” they mean something more than exterior appearance. In cities dominated by low-rise housing, the splitting of big houses into less expensive units—invisible from the outside if all enter through one door—is a particular target of their ire. Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, looking back at the controversy that erupted when he championed a modest loosening of the ban on two-family houses in one-family areas, likened his experience to that of a character in a Franz Kafka novel.

The original purpose of single-family zoning was to make housing not more affordable but less. Realtors were among the chief advocates of zoning when it was introduced in the 1920s, and one of their objectives was to raise rents by limiting the construction of apartment houses. Their allies were the buyers of newly built residences in what were then advertised as “high-class” subdivisions.

Why, then, do so many critics of gentrification put development control at the head of their agenda? In part, it’s a way to find easy victories. A new apartment building that replaces a parking lot won’t drive out tenants the same way a condo conversion will, but it’s much easier to stop.

But much more is going on here than mere political opportunism. A deeper affinity between the two anti-development camps often lurks beneath the surface. For a fair number of grassroots advocates, concern about affordability begins with a desire to keep the neighborhood just the way it was when they moved in. Sympathy for low-income neighbors comes second.

Ross’s conclusion doubles as a potential slogan for progressive urbanists:

In a city where neighborhoods never change, good, walkable neighborhoods must inevitably be the preserve of a few. In a just society, they would be for everyone.

That’s it for the week. See you next time!

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  1. Quite a long post this week.

    Regarding to congestion pricing, it is a fact cleaners that live far will be hit hard. There needs to be a solution, such as free rapid transit to area that are low social economic areas.

    Without this poor will hit very hard.

  2. “Where they may have once woken up at 7:30 a.m. to get their kids ready for school, they now get up at 4:30 to make it to work on time” – yes this is sad fate of outcome, saw a TV 60mins or something type program on this once.

  3. I love the pedestrian desire lines vs the actual crossings! Lets close the entire CBD to traffic for a day and monitor where people actually want to walk:)

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