All posts by Tim De Chant

About Tim De Chant

Tim De Chant is creator of Per Square Mile and a contributor to The Atlantic Cities, Ars Technica, and Grist. He received his Ph.D. in Environmental Science, Policy and Management from the University of California, Berkeley. Tim's dissertation focused on the impact of urbanization on California's coastal oak woodlands. Follow him on Twitter and Google .

New York’s type foundry district

Tobias Frere-Jones:

I re-read Maurice Annenberg’s “Type Foundries of America and their Catalogs”, tracked down business directories of the period, and spent too much time in Google Earth. But I was able to plot out the locations for every foundry that had been active in New York between 1828 (the earliest records I could find with addresses) to 1909 (see below). All of the buildings have been demolished, and in some cases the entire street has since been erased. But a startling picture still emerged: New York once had a neighborhood for typography.

(Via Daring Fireball.)

Album covers in street view

Halley Docherty puts classic album covers like “Physical Graffiti” by Led Zepplin and the Beatles “Abbey Road” in context. 

Redrawing North America, 1980s edition

Matt Novak:

In the early 1980s, Washington Post editor Joel Garreau outlined the nine different Americas he and his fellow journalists saw when they looked at a map of North America.

High-speed rail in Texas

A Texas network is often included in maps of potential high-speed rail corridors, but given the freeway-friendly politics of the state, you’d be forgiven in thinking its a long shot. Apparently, some businessmen in Texas disagree, and they have plans to open a 90-minute link between Dallas and Houston by 2021 using Shinkansen technology.

The Great Barrier Reef: an obituary

This interactive from the Guardian takes a bit to get into (click “scroll down” a few times), but it’s worth it. I spent six days on the reef in 2002 after setting out from Gladstone, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget. I told myself I’d get back one day, now I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it in time.

Give the people what they want, sort of

Architect Mitchell Joachim, being interviewed by Diana Budds for Dwell:

Green technology has to be more affordable. We have to find systems that will leapfrog previous ones and are actually cheaper at the point of purchase. Moreover, we have to accept that we can’t change the American value system. Everyone wants to own property and have a sovereign or autonomous lifestyle. We have to react by innovating.

San Francisco’s variable parking rates reduce circling for parking

Stephen J. Smith, writing for Next City:

SFpark, the city’s variable-rate parking program, is perhaps the most complete implementation of Shoup’s ideas to date. Started three years ago, the program gradually adjusts rates on electronic parking meters in the most congested parts of the city. (All are near downtown.) Rates can differ by time of day and day of the week, and are adjusted every month or so. Even then, they can only rise or fall by 25 cents after each adjustment period and are capped at $6 per hour, which costs less than nearby garages, where hourly rates can reach into the double digits.

According to a study published last month in Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, the program has worked. San Francisco’s occupancy goals have been met, and “cruising” for parking — driving around and clogging up streets after you’ve already reached your destination — is down by 50 percent.

Why China’s cities need to get denser, not bigger

Lily Kuo, writing for Quartz:

If higher density makes so much sense, why haven’t Chinese cities embraced it already? One major reason is that local governments are highly dependent on selling undeveloped land to developers. Redeveloping existing cities to make them more dense wouldn’t result in any local government revenue.

Origin of the Blue Marble images

NASA’s Blue Marble series was inspired by the whole-Earth image taken by Apollo 17 in 1972, but aside from that, I haven’t heard much about why it was revived as a series in 2002. Well, Quartz has the backstory:

[Robert] Simmon and his colleague at NASA at the time, Reto Stöckli, created the iconic image that ended up on the iPhone in part to undercut what he saw as undeserving operators profiting in the marketplace for space imagery, he told Quartz. At the time, he recalled, similar falsely colored images rendered from older black-and-white NASA data were selling for up to $10,000. Simmon and Stöckli’s image, as a work created by US government employees, was in the public domain—free for anyone to use, for any purpose, without restriction. Simmon posted it on the NASA website and didn’t think much more of it.

Months after Comcast payment, Netflix shows its hand

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix:

[O]n other big ISPs, due to a lack of sufficient interconnectivity, Netflix performance has been constrained, subjecting consumers who pay a lot of money for high-speed Internet to high buffering rates, long wait times and poor video quality. A recent Wall Street Journal article chronicled this degradation using our public data. 

Once Netflix agrees to pay the ISP interconnection fees, however, sufficient capacity is made available and high quality service for consumers is restored. If this kind of leverage is effective against Netflix, which is pretty large, imagine the plight of smaller services today and in the future. Roughly the same arbitrary tax is demanded from the intermediaries such as Cogent and Level 3, who supply millions of websites with connectivity, leading to a poor consumer experience.

Without strong net neutrality, big ISPs can demand potentially escalating fees for the interconnection required to deliver high quality service. The big ISPs can make these demands — driving up costs and prices for everyone else — because of their market position.

Yours truly, writing on February 24:

Many people have predicted (and feared) that the day would come when a content provider would pay an internet provider for priority access to broadband subscribers. Now that it’s here, I can’t help but wonder why it happened now and with Comcast, especially when you consider that Netflix and Verizon have also been duking it out over the same issue (arguably in a more public way).

The answer, I think, is that Netflix is using Comcast’s bid to buy Time Warner to its advantage. As a part of the buyout approval process, both the FCC and the Department of Justice will be scrutinizing Comcast’s moves and market power in the coming months. Having made this payment, Netflix can make the case to either the FCC or the DoJ that pre-Time Warner Comcast has used its dominance in broadband—about 27 percent of the market—to extract payments from content providers like itself. Netflix could argue that if the Time Warner deal goes through, Comcast will have nearly 50 percent of the market, and its bargaining power to demand such payments will further increase.

One rail yard, four city blocks, five skyscrapers

Nick Stockton, writing for Wired Map Lab:

Hudson Yards is the largest private development project in U.S. history, and it’s being built without footings or foundations. Instead, the project is going to sit atop 300 concrete-sleeved, steel caissons jammed deep into the underlying bedrock. Work on the platform broke ground last week, and will take roughly two and a half years to complete. In that time, there’s a lot of engineering to do.

In 40 years, will self-driving cars send us packing for the suburbs?

desert-suburb

At the end of 2013, the journal Cityscape put the following statement to contributors and asked their opinion of it: “In 40 years, the average person will live closer to her neighbors and farther from the ground than she does today.” This is a critique of one response. More to come…

Most urbanists will tell you that we’ll be living at higher densities sooner than you think. Nathaniel Baum-Snow, an economist at Brown University, is one of them. He cites a handful of reasons why he thinks we’ll all be living closer to our neighbors 40 years from now, including commute times, declining fertility rates, and stalled highway construction. Baum-Snow makes valid points, but many of his assumptions presume that the world 40 years from now, at least technologically, will look similar to today. Given the last 40 years, I’ll be surprised if that happens.

Self-driving cars are one of the biggest threats to the future of cities, and widespread adoption could single-handedly undermine one of Baum-Snow’s most compelling arguments—commute times, which he says will be a driving force behind increasing urban densities. As incomes have risen for many city dwellers—those in the top 50 percent, at least—the value of their commute time has also risen. Given Marchetti’s constant, which says that commute times tend to hover around 30 minutes each way, snarled traffic will force the wealthy out of the suburbs and back to cities. In a sense, we’ve already started to see that.

But self-driving cars could reverse that trend. As people’s commutes are freed up for other tasks, including work, they’ll stretch their daily trips, once again allowing them to live where they want. And as we’ve seen, people want to live where they have more space.¹ Compounding the problem is the fact that most early adopters are likely to be wealthy, the same people Baum-Snow says will be looking to drive less.

Working in cities’ favor, Baum-Snow adds, are declining fertility rates. Between 1967 and today, birth rates have fallen from 0.122 births per woman of childbearing age to 0.065, nearly a 50 percent drop. With people having half as many children, the need for space should decline. But as we’ve seen, that’s not necessarily the case. Between 1973 and 2012, median home sizes have grown from 1,525 square feet to 2,306 square feet, the same time that fertility was declining. In that same time period, median household income has risen almost $10,000 when adjusted for inflation, a nearly 25 percent increase.²

Then there’s the siren song of the suburbs—school quality. Suburban and small town school districts frequently outperform their urban counterparts. Baum-Snow notes that the quality of public schools in big cities has stabilized, at least, but that isn’t quite the same as improving. Plus, even if they do improve, urban schools will have to overcome the stereotype wrought by decades of poor performance.

(There is a simple fix, of course—invest in public education at all levels. Early childhood programs have shown great promise at preparing children of all backgrounds for full-time school, and education is the best chance many of children have to break free of poverty.)

Given these realities, I don’t think the future points to downtown, as Baum-Snow does. It’s true that city centers are the hot place to be, but density numbers don’t reflect the newfound enthusiasm. And trends in technology could shatter the many cities’ recoveries.

Despite that, I think many of us—at least, those of us not in the top few percent—will be living closer together. Not downtown, but in the sprawling inner suburbs that will be indistinguishable from the rest of the city, slogging through long commutes between home—which was convenient to the old job we got laid off from—and our new jobs on the wrong side of town.


  1. Home sizes briefly halted their inflation during the recession, but they’ve started to rise again.
  2. On top of that, interest rates are lower today than in the 1970s. That could change 40 years from now, of course.

Photo by Michael Colburn.

Source:

Baum-Snow, Nathaniel. 2013. “Changes in Urban Population Densities Over the Next 40 Years.” Cityscape 15(3).

Related posts:

In 40 years, will we live in cities in the sky?

Marchetti’s constant, or why the 30 minute commute is here to stay

Population density fostered literacy, the Industrial Revolution

How Google Earth may help find MH370

Experienced commercial pilot Chris Goodfellow, writing at Wired:

We know the story of MH370: A loaded Boeing 777 departs at midnight from Kuala Lampur, headed to Beijing. A hot night. A heavy aircraft. About an hour out, across the gulf toward Vietnam, the plane goes dark, meaning the transponder and secondary radar tracking go off. Two days later we hear reports that Malaysian military radar (which is a primary radar, meaning the plane is tracked by reflection rather than by transponder interrogation response) has tracked the plane on a southwesterly course back across the Malay Peninsula into the Strait of Malacca.

When I heard this I immediately brought up Google Earth and searched for airports in proximity to the track toward the southwest.

Fifteen years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible. In my mind, it’s an elegant demonstration of how the spread of geographic information has changed the world for the better.

Drowning in Light

Dirk Hanson, writing for Nautilus:

[Sandia National Laboratory physicist Jeff] Tsao calculates that, as a result, light represents a constant fraction of per capita gross domestic product (GDP) over time; the world has been spending 0.72 percent of its GDP for light for 300 years now. […]

The Sandia group forecasts that “the developed countries are nearing a saturation point in average illuminance, but plausible arguments can be made that the saturation point may yet be a factor of 10 or more higher.” Even a factor of 10 is small compared to the distance we’ve come, and may be reached in the not-too-distant future.

Animals see power lines as glowing, flashing bands, research reveals

Damian Carrington, reporting for the Guardian:

Scientists knew many creatures avoid power lines but the reason why was mysterious as they are not impassable physical barriers. Now, a new understanding of just how many species can see the ultraviolet light – which is invisible to humans – has revealed the major visual impact of the power lines. […]

Dr Nicolas Tyler, an ecologist at UIT The Arctic University of Norway and another member of the research team, said: “The flashes occur at random in time and space, so the power lines are not grey and passive, but seen as lines of light flashing.”

He said the discovery has global significance: “The loss and fragmentation of habitat by infrastructure is the principle global threat to biodiversity – it is absolutely major. Roads have always got particular attention but this will push power lines right up the list of offenders.” The avoidance of power lines can interfere with migration routes, breeding grounds and grazing for both animals and birds.

Why Nothing Is Truly Alive

Ferris Jabr, writing an op-ed for the New York Times:

Why is it so difficult for scientists to cleanly separate the living and nonliving and make a final decision about ambiguously animate viruses? Because they have been trying to define something that never existed in the first place. Here is my conclusion: Life is a concept, not a reality.

It’s a thought provoking argument, and controversial, judging by this Twitter thread and others. Well worth a read.

Vagaries of DST

Love it or hate it, daylight savings time is back in the U.S. Personally, I prefer DST. Mike the Mad Biologist explains why I’m not alone in a little more detail:

Every time we go on or off Daylight Saving Time, like clockwork (forgive the pun), there is a flurry of articles defending or attacking Daylight Saving Time (‘DST’). Well, put me in the supporters of Daylight Saving Time camp–I HATE going off it. Living in Boston, I don’t actually know very many (any, really) people who like ‘leaping back.’ Why?

Well, it’s the longitude, baby.

The Remnants of Prehistoric Plant Pollen Reveal that Humans Shaped Forests 11,000 Years Ago

Josie Garthwaite, writing for Smithsonian:

In the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo, for example, pollen samples dated to about 6,500 years ago contain abundant charcoal evidence of fire. That alone doesn’t reveal a human hand. But scientists know that specific weeds and trees that flourish in charred ground would typically emerge in the wake of naturally occurring or accidental blazes. What Hunt’s team found instead was evidence of fruit trees. “This indicates that the people who inhabited the land intentionally cleared it of forest vegetation and planted sources of food in its place,” Hunt explained in a statement about the study.