Welcome back to Sunday reading. Here is a piece by Joe Cortright describing the importance of storytelling in framing “Visions of a Future City“, Strong Towns.
WHY NARRATIVE MATTERS
In his Presidential Address to the American Economics Association two weeks ago, Nobelist Robert Shiller presented his thoughts on what he called “narrative economics.” Human beings are not the cold rational calculators they’re made out to be in traditional economic modeling. Instead, Shiller argued, human’s are hard-wired to visualize and understand the world through story-telling: We really ought to be called “Homo Narans.” That’s why getting the story right matters so much. If we have a story that centers on technology, vehicles and frenetic movement, we can remake our world in that image. If, instead, we have a story that embraces experience, and place and freedom, we’ll get a very different world.
Auckland was greatly influenced by the modernist concept of the city. This vision was so captivating it has become the default setting – the status quo.
In the recent history of the American city, General Motors’ famous Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair captured the imagination of Americans, and served as an iconic model of a new, auto-centric lifestyle that promised an end to traffic congestion and urban crowding. There’s no doubt that this image of a bright, mobile future appealed to a nation just recovering from the Great Depression. That image ultimately got reflected in policy–and pavement–with the enactment of the federal interstate highway program in the 1950s.
So what are today’s latest urban narratives? Cortright reports back from the Consumer Electronics Show and finds that not much has changed.
At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show–which is now the place for automobile companies to roll out their newest ideas, technologies and models–Ford presented its remake of the Futurama, which it called, “The City of Tomorrow”.
Right off the bat, you’ll notice that this is a road and vehicle-centered view of urban space. Cars dominate. Sure, there’s a sop thrown to biking, pedestrians and transit, but notice this: All of the pedestrians, and cyclists are shown traveling in parallel to the cars. Walking and biking are just alternative ways of doing the same thing one would do, if one only had a car.
But their are emerging counterpoints including this one by Samsung.
This other vision comes from Samsung, the Korea-based technology company. They’ve been running a long form (60 second) television commercial called “A Perfect Day.” It follows the exploits of a half dozen kids–armed just with bikes, skateboards, and of course Samsung Galaxy smart phones–as they roam around New York City. There’s a lot going on here. Watch the video and then let’s see if we can’t unpack the different—and in many ways radical—narrative it’s proposing.
Ultimately transport decisions are not based on cold rational calculations. Again, this is where the narrative come in. Konstantinos Dimopoulos, “Transport Isn’t Technology, It’s Politics“, How We Get to Next.
Deciding whether public transportation is required, or if environmentally friendlier tech should to be developed, ultimately comes down to politics and the people. It is us who will choose — democratically or through protest — whether we want to travel freely or stop at militarized borders, whether we want better public transportation or are fine with automobiles, traffic, and all the pollution that comes with them.
Technology alone will not provide us with miracle solutions. If we really want to achieve sustainable, efficient, fair, safe, and environmentally sensible ways of moving both things and ourselves around, we have to start thinking politically. We even have to question prevalent tendencies such as the privatization of mass transport, consider whether moving to hybrid private cars is wise, or discuss the moral dilemmas that arise in the design of self-driving vehicles.
Speaking of transport technology, here are some recent news stories about Uber.
“Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber“, Susan J. Fowler.
When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organization. When I asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers.
Laura Bliss, “Hailing an Uber Just Got Way More Political“, City Lab.
One could argue that hailing an Uber has always been something of a political act—by taking a ride, passengers “vote” for Uber’s policies and business model with their dollars, even if they’re not particularly aware of the implications. #DeleteUber may raise a certain level of public consciousness in regards to that fact. But as the landscape of urban mobility redraws along partisan lines, fresh arrivals to the anti-Uber camp should know this: The best way to support immigrants and low-income workers who could be exploited by a private transportation service isn’t by downloading a competitor’s app. Now, and always, the most radical statement is riding the bus.
Dozens of cities are considering removing legacy motorway infrastructure that divide and degrade urban environments. Here is an update of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s top 10 list of “Freeways without futures“, CNU.ORG.
Communities across North America are facing a watershed moment in the history of our transportation infrastructure. With cities, citizens, and transportation officials all looking for alternatives to costly highway repair and expansion, these ten campaigns offer a roadmap to better health, equity, opportunity, and connectivity in every neighborhood, while reversing decades of decline and disinvestment.
Above all, these ten highways are opportunities for progress. Each one presents the chance to remove a blight from the physical, economic, and environmental health of urban communities. Their intended benefits have not justified the tragic consequences, but converting these highways into human-scaled streets offers a chance to begin repairing the damage. From Buffalo to San Francisco, these are the freeways without futures.
The Auckland Bike Challenge concludes this week. Here’s a good take on what it’s like cycle commuting in Auckland. Elisa, “Go by Bike Day 2017 – my experience!“, Elisa’s creation.
Broadway is a nightmare. This is where citybound buses converge and they could come three at a time. Wide footpaths are required outside the shops for the high volume of pedestrians. Then there are on-road parallel parking. There are a couple of pinch points where the footpath extends out onto the road, meaning the buses have to merge into the general traffic lane. Transport engineers, do let me know how we can make Broadway safer and more efficient!
Wow what a difference cycle lanes make! Suddenly I stopped being so nervous, my grasp on the brakes loosened and I started to enjoy myself. There is a psychological shift in perception when your needs are being met. When I use cycle lanes I think: my safety and comfort are being prioritised; there are people thinking and designing for vulnerable road users like myself. It reassures me and encourages me.
We’ve been covering the causes of the global housing crisis over last couple of years. This piece stands out as being particularly influential in shaping the pro-market housing supply response to the crisis. John Mangin, “The New Exclusionary Zoning“, in Stanford Law & Policy Review.
For the first time in American history, it makes sense to talk about whole regions of the country “gentrifying”—whole metropolitan areas whose high housing costs have rendered them inhospitable to low-income families, who, along with solidly middle class families, also feeling the crunch, have been paying higher housing costs or migrating to low-housing cost (and low-wage) areas like Texas, Arizona, or North Carolina. Underlying both of these phenomena—high housing costs in the suburbs and high housing costs in the cities—is a relatively straightforward problem of supply and demand. A city’s ability to remain affordable depends most crucially on its ability to expand housing supply in the face of increased demand. Among the people who care most about high housing costs there is a lack of understanding of the main causes and the policy approaches that can address them. The central message of this Article is that the housing advocacy community—from the shoe-leather organizer to the academic theoretician—needs to abandon its reflexively anti-development sentiments and embrace an agenda that accepts and advocates for increased housing development of all types as a way to blunt rising housing costs in the country’s most expensive markets.
No argument here -> “For a growing chorus of urbanists, NIMBYism and land use restrictions are the culprit behind everything from growing income inequality to shrinking affordable housing, productivity, and innovation.” But Richard Florida in “Anatomy of a NIMBY“, CityLab, argues that it’s vital to understand neighbourhood opposition.
The crux of the California problem, the Monkkonen paper argues, is not the state’s restrictions on uber-high density building in and around urban centers, but the broader dependence on lower-density zoning across the board. Los Angeles may be a relatively dense city and metro (indeed, according to some basic measures, it is the densest metro in the country), but three-quarters of its residential land is devoted to relatively low-density single-family housing that only shelters half the city’s population.
To get beyond NIMBYism, we first must understand it. Neighborhood resistance isn’t just triggered by residents trying to prop up their home values or protect their neighborhoods from things they don’t like—it’s the product of policies that provide incentives toward homeownership and a regulatory system that encourages and prompts opposition.
What follows is a BINGO card of issues.
- Traffic and parking: Nothing activates wary homeowners faster than the threat of losing a parking space. People moving into new apartments tend to own cars at higher rate, and one study found traffic to be one of the most common complaints in opposition to affordable housing in the Bay Area.
- Strain on services: Other residents fear that parks and schools will be overrun, as well as the limits of sewer, power, and water resources to handle new development and more people.
- Environmental preservation: Some of the most prominent fights over development in California—like the Sierra Club’s resistance to Governor Jerry Brown’s “by-right” legislation—are over possible environmental damage from added density.
- Neighborhood character: Finally, residents are often concerned over how new construction will negatively impact historic and architecturally significant urban neighborhoods.
Lets return to one of the key arguments of Mangin who notes that cities are not longer the “growth machines” they once were.
Many of the country’s most desirable and most economically vibrant cities are no longer “Growth Machines.” They may be getting richer, and in that sense “growing,” but an emphasis on building housing and adding population is a thing of the past. Consequently, housing prices in these post-Growth Machine cities have risen much faster than the national average. The effect has been the same as in the exclusionary suburbs: The anti-development orientation of certain cities is turning them into preserves for the wealthy as housing costs increase beyond what lower-income families can afford to pay. The phenomenon deserves a similar name—the New Exclusionary Zoning.
Sluggish economic growth and productivity is something that is bewildering economists. Does the urban housing crisis, private indebtedness, and lack of access to cities contribute to the global malaise? I don’t know. Here is David Brook review of Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class. “This century is broken”, The New York Times.
The hard part is that America has to become more dynamic and more protective — both at the same time. In the past, American reformers could at least count on the fact that they were working with a dynamic society that was always generating the energy required to solve the nation’s woes. But as Tyler Cowen demonstrates in his compelling new book, “The Complacent Class,” contemporary Americans have lost their mojo.
Cowen shows that in sphere after sphere, Americans have become less adventurous and more static. For example, Americans used to move a lot to seize opportunities and transform their lives. But the rate of Americans who are migrating across state lines has plummeted by 51 percent from the levels of the 1950s and 1960s.
Americans used to be entrepreneurial, but there has been a decline in start-ups as a share of all business activity over the last generation. Millennials may be the least entrepreneurial generation in American history. The share of Americans under 30 who own a business has fallen 65 percent since the 1980s.
Americans tell themselves the old job-for-life model is over. But in fact Americans are switching jobs less than a generation ago, not more. The job reallocation rate — which measures employment turnover — is down by more than a quarter since 1990.
There are signs that America is less innovative. Accounting for population growth, Americans create 25 percent fewer major international patents than in 1999. There’s even less hunger to hit the open road. In 1983, 69 percent of 17-year-olds had driver’s licenses. Now only half of Americans get a license by age 18.
That’s all for this week. Please add your links in the comments below.