Category Archives: Essays

How much has San Francisco changed? I’ll let you know

san-francisco-in-the-fog

Ten years ago this month, I packed my things, said goodbye to my good friends, and started my trip halfway across the country to San Francisco. When I arrived, I found a city robed in fog and suffused by a cool so damp that only a native San Franciscan would recognize it as summer. I had left Minnesota with some hesitation, and the weather I found there certainly wasn’t reinforcing my confidence my decision.

Over the next several months, the weather didn’t change much, but my opinion did. Slowly, the city revealed itself. I discovered a city that, once confident, suddenly it wasn’t so sure of itself. I could tell that the dot-com boom was still a raw memory. Software engineers still prowled the city, but probably with less confidence than a few years previous and almost certainly with less swagger than today. As a grad student, money was tight for me, but the city in 2004 was still accessible. I ate out on weekends (frugally), frequented bars (that served cheap beer), and hosted barbecues by firing up our stove’s broiler and throwing open the kitchen window (outdoor space was a luxury I couldn’t afford.)

I lasted ten months in San Francisco before the weight of a 45-minute commute and the draw of grad-school friends finally coaxed me across the Bay to Berkeley. June 2005 was the last time I spent any significant amount of time in the city. Sure, I would return to bars with my friends or spend a few hours at a concert in Golden Gate Park or wander the Haight or North Beach like a good little tourist. But usually I spent just long enough to remind myself why I had moved away—everything was so expensive and there were so many people.

Now, having hopscotched my way across the continent, I’m heading back. Just for a week, but it will be more time than I have spent there in nine years. I’ve certainly changed—I have a job, for one, and I’ve now lived in dense cities for over a decade. From what I’ve been hearing, San Francisco has changed, too. The money that was thrown around before—that turned me off before—has only multiplied. Neighborhoods have gentrified, private buses have proliferated, and old-timers have chafed at the new round of changes. These things have all been well documented in everything from Boom to Gawker to the New Yorker.

But I’m curious to see for myself. I’m wondering if, as a visitor, San Francisco’s transformation will be apparent. Is it superficial enough to pick up on in just one week? Has ten years been long enough to throw the city’s changes into relief? Or can they really only be understood with a deeper understanding of the place, the sort that requires years to acquire?

My days will be packed with reporting fresh stories for NOVA Next, but my nights will be spent catching up with old friends, revisiting favorite haunts, and getting to know parts of the city I hadn’t known that well. I’ll be snapping photos, taking notes, keeping my eyes open, and reporting back. Think of it as an amateur ethnography, sketched quickly and by an interested observer. It won’t be scientific by any means, but I’ll let you know what I find.

Photo by Marc Dalmuder

Related posts:

Ghosts of geography

Keep your eyes to yourself

Interview: Jon Christensen on California’s cities

The uncanny valley of commerce, and what it means for your community

target

Your grocery store. Google. Target. What do these three have in common? They all gather personal information, and they all do it—and I’m paraphrasing here—”to serve their customers better.” In the case of your grocery store, they profile your habits to get you in the store, to buy more things. Same with Target. Google mines your personal information to hit you with ads you’re more likely to click on. In each case the company is looking to make money off their knowledge of you. It’s not that different from the way business used to be run. With one big exception.

In the past, when you visited a store, you may have known the owner. The owner of the hardware store knew you were a repeat customer, so he may have given you a deal on a new drill, knowing you’d probably be back for screws, lumber, and glue. Or maybe the owner of the shoe store, which you’d been shopping at for years, would cut you a deal on your kid’s new sneakers. In each case, they wanted to keep you as a customer. Your repeat business ensured future revenue, which is more valuable than a few extra dollars today.

Big businesses know this, too. They know that repeat customers are among the most profitable—that’s why there are frequent flier programs, club memberships, and loyalty cards. But somewhere along the line, they also realized they were sitting on a treasure trove. With every signup, with every logged purchase, people gave away personal information that hinted at what kind of customer they were. Companies started to mine that data, looking for patterns that would reveal even more intimate details. Target is perhaps best at this among large retailers, famously predicting their customers’ pregnancies weeks before they even know.¹

And therein lies the problem. Massive databases of personal information allow companies to do the same things businesses did in the past—offer deals to loyal customers, personalize offerings, and so on—but they do so without any sort of meaningful relationship. “Steve” may be genuinely interested in your budding family. Target is not, except to sell you more diapers. These companies are able to do make personal offerings, but in such a way that it’s clear no human is behind them. Call it the uncanny valley of commerce.

In commerce, though, relationships matter. That’s part—a large part, I’d argue—of what makes us queasy about data mining. Personalized deals are one thing when someone you know is offering them. But in the absence of a person we know, we don’t know what’s behind the gesture. Without a personal relationship, we can’t trust that these companies have our best interests in mind.

Now, things weren’t all sunshine and daisies in the past. Small operators used to disappear in the middle of the night, absconding with their customers’ money.² And while personal relationships can keep some vendors in line, it holds little meaning for others. It’s true that big companies can be held more accountable in many circumstances, but that doesn’t mean we trust them any more. There’s a reason they’re called “faceless corporations.”

Massive multinationals exist because of economies of scale, which has been shifting our economy from one driven by small proprietors to one dominated by large companies. It’s also changing the relationship between seller and buyer. And just as economies of scale have transformed businesses, they’ve also fostered population growth. The two go hand-in-hand. Because we’re now so numerous, we’re easier to deal with in bulk than one-on-one. But I suspect that transformation is also subtly altering our communities, displacing some of the relationships that were built around proprietors and customers. It’s not clear to me what’s taking their place.

There will always be opportunities for small businesses. How many? We don’t know. But there are certain to be fewer. Personal relationships in commerce will continue to wane, and I’m guessing it’ll have an enormous impact on our lives, our finances, and our communities.


  1. Charles Duhigg exposed some of Target’s secrets in his book The Power of Habit, an excerpt of which you can read online.
  2. Though truth be told, the same thing can happen today. It’s called bankruptcy.

Photo by Mr. T in DC

Related posts:

Population density and the evolution of ownership

The Midwest’s big economic miscalculation

Keep your eyes to yourself

An American in Tokyo

View from atop Atago Green Hills Forest Tower

Standing in awe of Tokyo is cliché. The city dazzles, sometimes quite literally with its bright signs, jumbo Jumbotrons, and sea of pulsing red lights stretching from here to the high-rise-filled horizon. But Tokyo is more than just hyperkinetic advertising and self-warming toilet seats. Here’s a shortlist of what makes Tokyo a magnificent city—and what it could do better—gleaned from my recent trip.

Peace and quiet

After a nearly 15 hour flight, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Less predictably, I wasn’t awoken at some ungodly hour by city noise disrupting my jet lag-addled body. Instead, I opened my eyes at 7:30 AM to the sounds of birds chirping in the nearby temple grounds. In the background, the city whispered.

The Scramble, Shibuya, Tokyo

Even at its most frantic—say, the scramble across Hachiko Square in Shibuya—Tokyo didn’t blare its metropolisness. It wasn’t for lack of traffic. Cars and trucks flowed on smooth streets and on elevated highways, the Shinkansen whisked along polished rails, and metro trains glided from station to station. Having lived in Chicago and Boston where trains rattle like the lungs of a septuagenarian chain smoker, the quiet subway surprised me the most. The Japanese understand the value of a little peace and quiet.¹ For that, I thank them.

Cleanliness

Japan has a reputation for cleanliness that’s well-earned. From the little piles of leaves carefully swept off the Meji Shrine’s gravel paths to the sparkling bathrooms in JR train stations, Japan is a tidy place. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel oppressive. Discarded gum still stains the sidewalk, and yes, I did stumble on the occasional bathroom that smelled like a bus stop. Overall, the country was pleasantly hygienic.

Buddhist graves

Chalk it up to their religion. For well over a thousand years, one of the majority religions in Japan has been Shinto,² and Shinto gods don’t like filth. I had always figured the Japanese obsession with cleanliness was a way to deal with the filth of modern cities. Imagine my surprise when it dawned on me that the Japanese have been like this for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Given that cultural legacy, Japan’s cleanliness would be difficult to replicate in other countries without religious awakenings or authoritarian rule.³

Orderliness

Part of what makes Japan—and especially Tokyo—so clean is the fact that Japanese people like to follow rules. My friend joked that the Japanese like standing in line so much that he was tempted to start a line waiting for nothing and see who queued up behind him. Lines abound in Japan, especially in Tokyo. It certainly helps make the metropolis less chaotic and more manageable. Such orderliness can be refreshing, but there are times when it goes overboard. Like the trash of a pop-up ice cream shop, which was neatly stacked inside the bin.

Neatly stacked garbage, Tokyo

There’s orderliness, and then there are obsessive compulsions.

Shinkansen

Obsessive definitely applies to their rail system, but there it’s a virtue. I’ve said it here before, but we here in the U.S. are fools for not investing in high-speed rail. It’s truly a transformative technology. Trains depart Tokyo Station bound for Osaka—the Japanese equivalent of New York to Washington—every ten minutes or so from 6 AM to 9:20 PM. It completes the 343 mile (552 km) journey in 2 hours 25 minutes, and average delays on the line are measured in seconds, not minutes. The only high-speed line in the U.S. takes nearly 3 ours to make the 224 mile (360 km) run between New York and Washington.

700 series Shinkansen

Comparing those routes may be more apt than you first suspect. If you overlay Japan’s main islands with the East Coast, you’ll see that it stretches from the Florida Panhandle to New York’s border with Canada. In that space, Japan has about 130 million people, the U.S. about 112 million.

The Japanese aren’t any more accepting than we are of noisy train tracks, either. Both the U.S and Japan have their share of NIMBYs, or “not in my backyard” protesters. As a result, regulations limit noise from the Shinkansen to 70 dB in residential areas. Faced with this challenge, designers have streamlined the trains and engineers have polished the rails. As a result, on my two Hikari-service trains, we zipped through cities at shocking speeds.

Inside the train cars, things are modern, clean, and spacious. The only downsides I noticed were seats without power outlets (newer cars have them in every seat, older ones don’t) and first class Green Cars that smell like ashtrays. In a few years, I’m sure both will be taken care of.

It’s little wonder that that Japanese are extending the Shinkansen as far as they can, from subtropical Kagoshima in the south to Sapporo in the snowy north. Existing lines are being upgraded or replaced, drastically so in some cases. By 2027, JR Central expects to have maglevs zipping between Tokyo and Nagoya in about 40 minutes, and by 2045 from Tokyo to Osaka in a little over an hour. That’s nearly one and a half hours shorter than it takes today.

Parks

Hamarikyu Gardens

Partially by historical accident, Japanese cities have a wealth of parks. Temples and shrines are typically open to the public and offer a few minutes respite from city life. Former imperial grounds are also available for a nap or a stroll. Parks and other open spaces are not concentrated in one place, either, but spread throughout. The skyscrapers that dominate the horizon are the only reminder that you’re in a big city.

Architecture

Japanese architecture oscillates between inviting warmth and cool distance. Traditional buildings are all wood and coziness. Unfortunately, unless you were the emperor, that usually meant little interior light and cramped living space. But their detail is marvelous, from the careful use of natural materials to the expert joinery.

In Kyoto

Modern buildings can be both warm and cool. From the outside, they often present an austere, technocentric face. I was frequently overwhelmed by the sheer amount of metal and grey stone, a stark contrast with the glassiness of Western skyscrapers. But the aesthetic of modern Japanese buildings can switch from cool to warm the moment you walk in the door. Grey may dominate the facade, but yellow wood is everywhere inside.

Kyoto Station

For the most part, I’m not wild about the last few decades of Japanese architecture, with one exception: Roppongi Hills.

Roppongi Hills

That place is amazing. It’s level after level of hidden treasures—patios opening onto sweeping views, open-air plazas sheltered by expansive glass awnings, a massive outdoor performance space, and dozens of escalators nestled among towering skyscrapers. I spent half my time there outdoors and nearly all of that uncertain of where the actual ground was. But I was certain of one thing—Roppongi Hills feels like the future. You know, the one where people live in a planet-wide city where building on top of building obscures the terrain—and seedy underworld—beneath.

Just the beginning

Japan has a way of getting into your head. Perhaps it’s the contradictions of order and chaos, old and new, energy and passivity. Or maybe it’s the fact that no matter how long I may spend in the country, no matter how much I study its history and norms, I would never be considered culturally Japanese. Whatever it is, I know that someday I’ll return.


  1. You can even get a taste of it here in the U.S. Ever stood next to a Lexus at idle? Unlike many cars, you don’t hear a rumble but a muffled clacking. That’s the sound of the engine’s cams slapping against the valves. You can’t even hear the exhaust. That’s quiet.
  2. Buddhism was added in about the 600s, partially owing to the fact that Shinto gods don’t like the dead (they’re dirty, apparently) while Buddha doesn’t mind them. The two work pretty well together, and most religious Japanese are both Shinto and Buddhist.
  3. Cough, Singapore, cough.
  4. That’s practically a whisper—at my old place in Cambridge, I recorded over 80 dB as midday traffic roared by my open window (which was over 50 feet from the street).
  5. Coming from the U.S., that’s a very foreign concept.

More reasons to stop putting trees on skyscrapers

Bosco Verticale

Robert Krulwich, disagreeing with me:

Two residential towers, dense with trees, will have their official opening later this year in downtown Milan, Italy, near the Porta Garibaldi railroad station. (The image is not a photograph, but an architect’s rendering. The towers are built and the trees are going in right now.) I love this. I think these towers are gorgeous. Milan is a very polluted town; these trees will cleanse the air, pumping out oxygen and greening the cityscape. I think cities one day could look like mountain vistas; I’m enthralled.

But I am not Tim De Chant, tree lover, blogger, critic, who says this won’t work. All these trees, he thinks, are about to be dead. He recently posted an essay on his Per Square Mile blog, aimed at architects. He called it, “Can we please stop drawing trees on top of skyscrapers?” He thinks builders know squat about trees. I hope he’s wrong.

I know I seem like Buzz Killington to a lot of architects—and non-architects, Krulwich included—but that wasn’t my point…entirely. To me, trees atop buildings have become an architectural crutch, a way to make your building feel sustainable without necessarily being so. And that’s a charitable assessment. Here’s how I really feel—trees on skyscrapers are a distraction from rampant development and deforestation. They’re trees for the rich and no one else. They’re the soma in architecture’s brave new world of “sustainable” development.

In reality, trees on skyscrapers will likely be anything but sustainable. Structures built to support trees need to be over-engineered compared with their abiotic equivalents—trees are heavy, so is dirt (multiply so when wet), and so are watering systems required to keep them alive. If those trees are to have a chance on these windy precipices, their planters had better be deep, which further compounds problems raised in the previous sentence. A skyscraper that’s built to support trees will require more concrete, more steel, more of anything structural. That’s a lot of carbon, not to mention other resources, spent simply hoisting vegetation dozens of stories up, probably more than will ever be recouped in the trees’ lifetimes.

Bosco Verticale, the oft, and often only, cited example of a tower to be built with trees on top, is expected to cost $85 million. Stefano Boeri, the architect, estimates adding trees to the design pushed up construction costs about 5 percent. (No word on maintenance costs.) Whether that’s true or not, we’ll have to take his word for it. If we do, that means they will spend $4.25 million to put 2.5 acres—one hectare—of forest onto the side of a building.

Now, let’s say we take that money and resuscitate the region’s natural habitat.¹ Average costs run about $500 per acre for reforestation in U.S. national forests, with a top end of about $2,000 per acre. Let’s assume the worst. That means that with $4.25 million, you could restore 2,125 acres, or about 860 hectares, of forest. That’s 860 times more forest than is plastered on the side of Bosco Verticale. At the least. If restoration costs come in at the low end, about $200 per acre, it could be as high as 8,600 times more.

Then there’s the ecological value of each. Bosco Verticale will be home to a few birds (most of which will live in the city regardless) and some invertebrates, but not much else. It’ll also require massive human inputs—water, fertilizer, tending, and replacement. I covered the first of those three in my previous essay, so I’ll just elaborate on the last point here, replacement. Let’s say trees on a skyscraper will live for an average of 20 years—a generous assumption given that more than 50 percent of street trees, which are exposed to more benign conditions, die after just 10 years—what will we have gained? A skyscraper that needs an overhaul every 20 years.

A real forest, on the other hand, can replace itself. It can also support hundreds, even thousands of species, even in the middle of the city. A survey of the 315-hectare Central Park, for example, found over 800 species. Near Milan, at Parco Regionale di Montevecchia e della Valle del Curone, there nearly 1,000 known species on it’s 2,350 hectares. Biodiversity is just one measure. These forests also purify water, maintain nutrient cycles, and don’t require much in the way of maintenance (if any).

Here’s an alternate plan: Instead of planting trees on buildings, let’s focus on preserving and restoring places that already have, or desperately need, trees. Boeri and I agree on the importance of the latter. Bosco Verticale is the first stage of Boeri’s larger plan, one that includes preservation and restoration of existing land.² Bravo. It’s clear that Boeri understands the big picture, that to make a truly sustainable city, you have to incorporate ecosystem function on a broad scale.

We still disagree on the value of trees on skyscrapers: he, and Krulwich, see them as an inspiration; I see them as a distraction and potential liability—what if the Bosco Verticale becomes a brown eyesore, turning people off to his larger vision? I’d love it if Bosco Verticale and other proposed arboreal skyscrapers were sustainable and successful.³ Who wouldn’t want to live in a city full of tree towers? But I just can’t make a case for it. Plant physiology tells me that the trees, if they do survive, will require constant and costly maintenance throughout their short, brutal lives. Finance tells me that the money required to afforest a building would be more effectively used for restoration and preservation. And my gut tells me there are more equitable ways to give people trees, not just to those who can afford it.


  1. You could also plant street trees or reserve more land for parks, both laudable and equitable uses.
  2. Among the proposals is a greenbelt around the city. They’ll be great parks, but won’t do much to contain the city.
  3. Really, Robert, I do!

Sources:

Roman, Lara. 2006. Trends in street tree survival, Philadelphia, PA. Master’s thesis.

Gorte, Ross W. 2009. U.S. Tree Planting for Carbon Sequestration. Congressional Research Service R40562.

Illustration of Bosco Verticale.

Related posts:

Can we please stop drawing trees on top of skyscrapers?

Urban trees reveal income inequality

Income inequality, as seen from space

Boston Marathon

I was at the finish line an hour before the bombs went off. We passed it on our way to meet a friend who had just finished the race. Thankfully, he’s fast. He ran the 26.2-mile course in just over 2 hours and 40 minutes. By the time the explosions occurred, we were safe at home, sitting on the couch. I can’t remember exactly how I heard the news—someone was browsing Twitter or Facebook, I think, and told the rest of us. We turned on the TV. Initially, I thought it was a gas explosion. It’s funny how your first instinct is to assume it was an accident. It’s distressing when you find out it wasn’t. It took a while for that to sink in.

Last night, my wife said yesterday felt like it was two days long. She’s right. Yesterday was two different days. One joyous and triumphant, the other heart-wrenching and tragic.

What I learned from the blizzard

Road? What road?

Snowfall has many magical qualities, among them the ability to hush a bustling city and, in sufficient quantities, make time stand still. This past weekend’s blizzard did just that—it stopped life in its tracks. Everyone’s plans went out the window (and landed in a mounting drift, I assume). Meanwhile we all sat—contently I hope—waiting out the nor’easter.

Blizzard of 2013

As the night went on, the temperature sank and the wind howled, blowing the ever fluffier stuff into smooth scallops and pointy tufts.

whipped snow

When the sun finally rose, many of us were surprised to find that time hadn’t just stopped, it had retreated. You see, the evening before the governor had banned car travel in Massachusetts. That left the streets to snowplows and first responders and, in the morning, the people. By midmorning, the roads around my house in Cambridge resembled what they must have looked like when they were first platted hundreds of years ago. Without the horses of course. People were out in droves, shuffling down the middle of the street on their tour of the neighborhood.

Massachusetts Avenue

Cambridge has its share of pedestrians, but not like this. This doesn’t happen on a normal morning. But Saturday morning, there was plenty of novelty to draw people into the street, including the chance to literally be drawn into the street and not worry about being run over. That and the snow, piled high in magnificent masses.

marshmallows of snow

As people strolled, they stopped to chat. With nowhere to go and no schedule to keep, everyone was a bit more jovial than normal, despite the monumental amount of snow to move.

The streets were cozier, too. The plows had cleared what they could, which is to say not nearly everything. Intersections had quirky, nearly unrecognizable new boundaries. Blizzards, I’m convinced, are thinly disguised urban planning lessons. Watch where cars and plows go during and after a blizzard and you’ll see exactly how much roadway you need and not a foot more.

one-way street to one-way street

Life is slowly returning to normal. Traffic is up, even if travel speeds aren’t quite. The asphalt is showing, but many sidewalks are not. In a week or even a few days, this will be nothing more than a fond memory.

snowcone

Photos by Tim De Chant.

Why hyperlocal won’t save newspapers (and what will)

Stack of newspapers

Newspapers are in a tight spot. Advertising revenues have been declining for 11 years straight, and classified ads have all but vanished in the face of Craigslist and eBay. The move online hasn’t been smooth for them, either. First, they gave away their product, hoping to make it up on volume with increased ad sales. That hasn’t exactly worked—for every $1 newspaper websites bring in, they have lost $25 in print advertising. The only bright spot is subscriptions, which have miraculously held steady. Many papers are trimming their publication schedules—the New Orleans Times-Picayune the most recently notable of them—leading many communities to fear the ultimate demise of important institutions.

Whenever a business or industry falls on hard times, people trip over themselves to propose turnaround plans. Newspapers are no exception, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be left out of the fray.¹ My diagnosis? Too many newspapers have placed their bets on intensely local coverage, or hyperlocal as they call it in the biz. That’s a mistake. To remain profitable, they need to concentrate on a particular topic instead of a geographic region.

That epiphany occurred to me Christmas morning over a bowl of cereal at my in-laws. I was flipping through the Houston Chronicle when I noticed the paper had branded their energy coverage, FuelFix. Not the best name, but it’s a sound idea. Houston is a major hub for the oil and gas industry, and Chronicle reporters have spent years, even decades reporting on it. Who else would be so positioned to cover the industry?

The Chronicle isn’t the first paper to experiment with trade-specific coverage. The New York Times has done the same thing with financial firms and DealBook, to much success. By providing consistent, nearly obsessive coverage of an industry, both papers attract new readers and new advertisers interested in reaching a targeted audience.

Those two data points made me realize that most papers have it all wrong, at least as far as profitability is concerned. Hyperlocal coverage will never be profitable enough. On a local level, there’s simply not enough news worth paying for. Try too hard and you end up with stories like this. Subscribers will never fill the void—there simply aren’t enough people willing to pay for local news, especially when they can get the basics on TV, for free.² Hyperlocal won’t attract enough advertisers, either. The local advertising pie just isn’t that big.

This is where trade publication sections like FuelFix and DealBook come in. Revenues from their higher ad rates (and, yes, maybe even new subscribers) can subsidize the rest of the paper. It’s a new twist on an old model. In the past, classifieds and legal notices kept the rest of the paper afloat. Today, trade sections can serve the same role.

New York and Houston aren’t the only cities with papers that could benefit from a trade publication model. The Detroit Free Press already closely covers the auto industry, but it could do more. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel could dig deep into manufacturing. The Chicago Tribune might look at commodities or financial firms outside of New York. The San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle could step up their tech coverage, too. There’s a lot of competition in that sector already, but it is highly profitable. And if that fails, there’s still a chance for them in biotech. Not all papers can follow this model, but having some survivors is better than none.

With profits from the trade side, newspapers could continue covering the less profitable—but arguably more important—stories. It makes business sense, too. Without the rest of the newspaper, the trade section loses some of its credibility. It would be just another trade publication.

This plan isn’t problem free. Like in the past, advertising-editorial conflicts could scuttle the whole experiment. But unlike other proposed new business models, that devil is well known. Newspapers have managed such conflicts by erecting firewalls between advertising and editorial sections. The same could be done with trade sections by separating the two newsrooms. Even better, papers could spin them off the trade sections into wholly-owned subsidiaries and let the profits flow back to the regular news side. It might be enough to let newspapers live to die another day.


  1. I have my reasons for wanting venerable papers to survive. For one, I worked as a science reporter for Chicago Tribune in the summer of 2008. In my childhood, I spent many mornings and evenings reading the local papers. And as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of print journalism—there are simply some stories better told and better remembered in written form.
  2. I’d be surprised if the other option—providing deep insights on the news—would change the equation, at least on a local level.

Photo by jeffeaton.

How TED and The City 2.0 took the internet for a ride

TED Global 2012

Last year, TED made a lot of noise when it announced that it was awarding its TED Prize to something called “The City 2.0”. In case you don’t know what “The City 2.0” is, it’s an idea. At least that’s what TED was telling us. They were awarding the prize to an “idea” instead of a person, sort of like when Time Magazine goes all crazy and awards the Person of the Year to a machine.

Well, TED isn’t about machines, but it is all about ideas, so it gave its award to an idea, which was really like giving an award to itself, which as you’ll see in a bit is actually a more accurate statement than you’d think. Did I mention that this idea had a website? It does. One that TED designed and built themselves. Well, half-built. See, it wasn’t exactly ready when the TED Prize was announced, which is funny because TED both built the site and gave the award.

The humdinger behind the original The City 2.0 ¹ was that people could use the site to start grass roots campaigns to change their neighborhoods and cities. The idea was that “the reach of the cloud” and “the power of the crowd” would join forces and, from that totally awesome buzzword high-five, ten winners would emerge.

Wait, ten winners? Didn’t an idea already win the prize? Turns out that even though an idea can have a website, it can’t accept $100,000. Well, it could if TED, which came up with the idea for The City 2.0, had awarded the money to itself, but that would just look tacky. So instead they split up the $100,000 with the intent of awarding it to those ten winners who would bubble up from the cloudy crowd.² I’m not sure how the cloudy crowd picks the best ideas, but at the time I guessed it would have something to do with voting, as most cloudy crowds do.

This is the awkwardly placed paragraph where I say that I reached out to The City 2.0 for comment because I felt like I had to and because I actually did. They haven’t responded, not even a “no comment” or anything.

With a whole $10,000 on the line, I’m sure TED was expecting the The City 2.0 to be a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity. It wasn’t. Two months after the prize was awarded, I checked back. The site was finished, but it didn’t seem like anybody else knew that. There were just 124 ideas, most of which only had one or two votes in favor of them. Less than two months remained until TED Global, the event where the ten winners were supposed to be announced.

To be fair, there were a few ideas that were winners, some of which would go on to be actual winners, but they still weren’t announced at TED Global. (How these winners were determined I do not know because the only thing on the site about them was a handful of lousy sentences.) Most, though, were definitely not good. Some were rehashes of city council debates:³

Livable Elgin Parkway

Eglin Pkwy in Ft Walton is a 7 lane high speed road. In order to foster development / creativity, this could be reduced to a 2 lane road. Through traffic should be redirected to a high speed location.

Others didn’t even bother mentioning cities or local issues:

Creating a Viable 3rd Party

Democrats=Republicans

And my favorite?

Make the public aware of City2.0 [sic]

In order for this to become a reality local residents need to be made aware of The Wish.

Umm, guys, you realize anybody can read this, right?

You know how you feel when you see someone do something embarrassing and you feel embarrassed for them? That’s how I felt for The City 2.0.

Well, the TED people aren’t idiots. They know a failed venture when they see one, so they quietly pulled the plug on “The City 2.0” and rolled out… “The City 2.0”. The, um, 2.0 version of the site scrapped the map and didn’t show people’s submissions, because, like, some people’s ideas are totally lame and we don’t want that messing up our snazzy website we dropped a lot of coin on. In it’s place were “stories” that were selected by TED along with random urbanist links. That’s, like, totally better.

Did you know that October 13 was TEDxCity2.0 Day? Neither did I, and one of the supposed TEDxCity2.0 events was in Boston, just two miles from where I live. It had people talking about leadership and Mars and poetry and financial markets and communication and aerodynamics and mind reading but it didn’t have anyone talking about cities. Huh.

To date, TED has awarded eight of its ten prizes, five of which were given to projects that had already existed before The City 2.0 got all spendy. That’s not to say the winners don’t deserve it—they’re great projects—but it’s not exactly the crowdsourced, spontaneous wonderland what TED led us to believe The City 2.0 would be about. Two more are supposed to be awarded in November and December. It’s December already.

One of the things that upsets me about The City 2.0 isn’t that it was a half-baked idea with a sucky website that dozens of other organizations were already doing way better. Or that it was a transparent marketing ploy meant to draw more attention to TED than to the issue. Or that there was absolutely zero transparency about how winners were going to be selected despite pandering to the “crowd” and its infinite wisdom. No, what gets me is that so many people bought into it. ArchDaily ran such a breathless piece that I almost mistook it for a press release. The Atlantic Cities ran a laudatory article. Inhabitat, too.

Well, not everyone was buying it. The Next American City was doubtful—at first. They wrote a bit about how The City 2.0 was a major letdown, man. But later, they heard about the relaunch of The City 2.0 somehow, wrote a nice piece about it, and ended up winning one of the ten The City 2.0 awards. I also wrote a skeptical piece about The City 2.0 way back when, but I didn’t hear about the relaunch and didn’t write a nice piece about it and didn’t win an award.

I shouldn’t be surprised by all of this. In fact, I’m not. I know TED is a marketing machine and that its only real interest is making sure that the TED name is everywhere. I mean, what else can you expect from a conference that’s feels the need to address its own elitism? But that doesn’t make me any less angry. Angry that TED exploited the rampant churnalism that’s so prevalent on the internet. Angry that so many people bought into TED’s hokey and transparently vain message. And angry that TED would so arrogantly presume to fix something as complex as the city without giving it any more thought than would a few fresh-faced marketing graduates.


  1. They obviously didn’t have any better ideas for a name. Oh, and all links in this article to the original version of the site are from a publicly viewable development server. It looks marginally worse than the actual site did at the time, but all the data stored on the dev server is legit.
  2. Apparently, TED has run out of famous wealthy people to give their prize to, so they settled on ten less famous and less wealthy people. Maybe because less wealthy people are more easily wowed by less money?
  3. Have you ever been to a city council meeting? People can get angry there. I once saw a guy punch his own dog! Not really, though. But I can totally imagine it happening.
  4. Someone should tell them how version numbers work.
  5. GASP! That’s a long acronym.
  6. Somewhere, a stenographer just got his wings.
  7. NOTE: Correlation ≠ causation. In case you didn’t know that because you haven’t taken statistics or don’t read Slashdot.
  8. Churn + journalism. Lots of news and yet somehow no actual news. Sort of like CNN.

Photo by Stefan Schäfer, Lich.

Related posts:

Can crowdsourcing save the city?

In Star Wars, cities are evil

Responsive urban design

Why I can’t move back to Wisconsin

Forward?

I’ve often wondered if I would ever move back to my home state of Wisconsin. It’s not the logistics that phase me—I’ve lived in California, Illinois, and Massachusetts in the last three years. No, I’ve wondered whether the state could lure me and my wife with promising and satisfying jobs to complement the state’s kind people and bucolic countryside. Yesterday, I learned that will never happen.

It was yesterday that Governor Scott Walker survived a recall election. The contentious recall was spurred by his decision to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights, the majority of whom are teachers.¹ Walker sold the move as a way to balance the budget, but really he was just codifying the shift in Wisconsin’s values that has occurred over the past few decades. It also betrays Wisconsin’s uncertainty about how to deal with the future.

Wisconsin, like many rust belt states, has had a difficult time finding its economic footing ever since off-shoring became de rigueur among manufacturing companies. It’s had a few chances since then, but none more promising than the biotech opportunity that slipped through its fingers. The University of Wisconsin was a pioneer in stem cell research. Had George W. Bush not restricted funding for stem cell research, Madison could have been an incubator for related startups, enabling the state to shrug off its manufacturing past. It was a rare glimpse of an alternate future. The loss of that future should have galvanized public and private investments in education and research to unearth the next big opportunity. Instead, Wisconsin gave up. Frustrated, it turned to a simpler and shorter-term solution—tax breaks.

What the state really needs is a complete economic overhaul. Tax breaks won’t accomplish that. That’s not to say tax breaks don’t have their place. They can entice established businesses to relocate. They can encourage existing ones to hire a few more workers. They can even help fledgling businesses gain a foothold. But they won’t create the kind of daring and brilliant entrepreneurs needed to reshape Wisconsin’s economy.

No one ever started a revolutionary company because of tax breaks. Disruptive companies are founded because someone has a fantastic new idea, not because the state offered them a few thousand dollars. They succeed because they can hire intelligent, well-educated employees, not because they are paid to increase headcounts. Such transformative companies don’t magically appear because of low taxes. They bubble up in places that value education and innovation.

Wisconsin is a state adrift. Where it used to be an agricultural and manufacturing powerhouse, today it is neither. It has no defining industry, no discernible direction. Wisconsin is trying to rediscover its economic muse, but it’s going about it in all the wrong ways.

Wisconsin could still find its way by pouring money into education. That in turn would encourage the sorts of crazy innovation that happens across the street from places like Stanford and MIT. By offering its best and brightest more than just friendly faces and a low cost of living, it could keep them at home rather than lose them to other states. These changes won’t happen over night—Silicon Valley’s success took years, even decades, to manifest—but they could happen.

Yet I know they won’t. Deep down, I know I will never be able to move back to Wisconsin.


  1. Well, some public employees. Police and firefighters retain theirs.

Photo by CindyH Photography.

If football withers, what happens to small towns?

Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin

Anyone who is a football fan (and many who are not) know of Junior Seau’s death on May 2. The tragic event has been ruled a suicide, and the manner in which it happened—Seau shot himself in the chest—has people asking questions beyond the usual, “Why?” It’s not a common way to commit suicide, and it mirrors the suicide of Dave Duerson in February 2011, another retired NFL player. Before Duerson died he sent a text message to his family, telling them he wanted his brain studied for evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Seau’s family recently agreed to the same.

CTE is a disease that results from too many concussions and other head injuries. It’s symptoms are frightening, and include psychotic symptoms, memory loss, and Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms in later years. It can only be diagnosed post-mortem.

Recent exposés by the New York Times and other publications have highlighted the link between hard hits in sports like football and CTE. As a result, the National Football League has amended its rules to limit the risk of concussions. But they can’t take the inherent violence out of the current sport. Brain-jarring collisions are likely to remain common. For some, big hits are part of the appeal of the sport. Yet as word spreads of the link between CTE and football, I suspect fewer people will feel that way. As Rob Mitchum said, “It’s getting harder and harder to innocently watch football.”

That has some questioning the future of football. John Gruber linked to a piece over at Grantland written by economists Tyler Cowen and David Grier back in February, after Duerson died. In it, they detail the hypothetical decline of football in the coming decades. That may surprise many of you: An America without football seems like an impossibility. But keep in mind that football wasn’t always the juggernaut it is today.

Football’s uncertain future doesn’t exactly make me feel rosy inside—I’ve done some pretty silly things just to watch Packer games—but neither does the thought of NFL players living on average nearly 20 years less than everyone else.

Football’s decline could have far reaching consequences, Cowen and Grier point out, from possible decreases in binge drinking on college campuses to reduced profitability for cable TV companies. But there’s another part of their thought-exercise that stood out to me, and one that’s relevant to Per Square Mile. Cowen and Grier:

Overall, the loss of football could actually increase migration from rural to urban areas over time. Football-dependent areas are especially prominent in rural America, and some of them will lose a lot of money and jobs.

They use Green Bay as a case study. The Packers’ Lambeau Field adds $282 million to the local economy, supports 2,560 jobs, and contributes $15.2 million in taxes. While Green Bay may be an outlier as the smallest city in the NFL, many small university towns are similarly dependent on collegiate football. If football becomes too much of a liability and universities drop the sport, then many small towns will lose significant portions of their economy.

Let’s say these things come to pass, that football’s liability causes it to disappear at the high school and college levels, that schools no longer feed the NFL the talent it needs to stay on top, and that football in general withers like boxing did in the first half of the 20th century. What will replace it? If Cowen and Grier are right, that football is a small town and rural sport—and I believe they are—then what is an urban sport? Basketball or even soccer or track and field, as they suggest? Or another relatively unknown sport? Only time will tell, but given the recent spate of tragic deaths among football players, we may not have to wait long to find out.

Photo by compujeramy.

More than just flora and fauna

Landscape near Paris, Paul Cézanne

Peter Sigrist, writing at Polis about what he sees as ecology’s shortcomings:

Ecology “proper” is currently limited in addressing human habitation. It doesn’t usually incorporate the theory or methods of fields like economics, anthropology, political science, sociology and history. Many subfields have emerged in answer to the need for more detailed study of human-environment interaction, including human ecology, cultural ecology, political ecology, environmental sociology, historical ecology, ecological anthropology, ecological economics and ecological urbanism. But most are not closely integrated with mainstream ecology and its methods, which are primarily focused on nonhuman nature. Many ecologists portray human environmental impact as a kind of alien intervention into the natural world, and don’t attempt to understand the political, social, economic and cultural processes through which it takes place.

Sigrist isn’t entirely wrong—our understanding of the natural world must consider human impacts. The thing is, many ecologist already do that. If Sigrist had written this decades ago, I would concede his point. But times have changed. No serious ecologist draws a firm boundary between natural and anthropogenic spheres. For years, ecologists have widely acknowledged that no part of the Earth is untouched by human influences. Some may still cling to the old distinction between human and wild, but they are increasingly few and far between. Climate change has thoroughly disabused most of that notion.

Sigrist further laid out his argument in a second post, stating:

Incorporating useful elements of cultural landscape, urban political ecology and ecological urbanism can make ecology more attuned to the ways humans experience and influence cities. This is more than a shared analytical framework or conceptual lexicon (Gandy 2008: 567); it means actual integration so that ecologists are equipped to address the full complexity of human environmental relations and help make cities more just, healthy and beneficial to the planet as a whole.

To say too few ecologists study human-environment interactions isn’t just unfair, it’s incorrect. Sigrist seems to misunderstand ecology and its relation to the myriad subfields he listed above. The ecologists he describes—the ones that focus on strictly “natural” ecosystems—aren’t members of an umbrella field but a subfield. They’re just one type of ecologist. The people who study other subfields of ecology? They’re ecologists, too.

What Sigrist is proposing for ecology already exists. Perhaps he wants ecologists to avoid over-specialization.¹ Perhaps what he means to say is that there needs to be more collaboration and cross-pollination between ecologists of different subfields. He’s not wrong—there could always be more. But he’s ignoring what’s already out there. I know ecologists of all stripes—field, physiological, sociological, and so on—who collaborate with environmental historians, economists, even electrical engineers. I know ecologists who write papers about the value of ecosystem services, how to use Wall Street’s data processing techniques to understand the water cycle, or how spirituality can affect the conservation of biodiversity. Hell, I’ve been to conferences where ecologists have wrung their hands about how ecology needs more collaboration. If anyone is conscious of the need for interdisciplinary collaboration, it’s ecologists. After all, ecology is the original interdisciplinary science.

Again, that’s not to say we shouldn’t work harder to identify how humans are affecting the natural world. I’m the last to argue against that. But we need to identify our shortcomings where they actually exist, not where we imagine them to be.


  1. Not a bad idea, but good luck getting it to happen. Despite calls for interdisciplinary research, the trend for individuals is toward increasing specialization. Nipples on the surface of human knowledge and all that.

Landscape near Paris, Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art.

In Star Wars, cities are evil

Mos Eisley, the wretched hive of scum and villany

George Lucas hates cities. At least that’s what I gather from decades of watching and rewatching the original Star Wars movies.

The Star Wars movies are famous for hewing to archetypal stories—hero sets out to save galaxy from evil warlords, hero confronts his (familial) past, hero grapples with his role as a savior. And the movies’ portrayal of urban agglomerations is similarly archetypal, drawing on a long tradition of damning the city while praising the countryside.

Let’s start from the beginning. When we meet our hero, Luke Skywalker, he’s lamenting how isolated life is on his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm on Tatooine. But it’s that same upbringing—away from the corrupting influence of a big city—that frames his character. Luke may be brooding and somewhat annoying on the surface, but deep down we understand him as innocent and inherently good.

A few scenes later, that isolation is shattered. His aunt and uncle are ruthlessly slaughtered by Imperial storm troopers—interlopers from the city—searching for R2-D2 and C-3PO. With few other options available, he joins Obi-Wan Kenobi, a philosophical hermit living out his days in the wilderness, on a journey to find Princess Leia. That journey starts in Mos Eisley, what Obi-Wan calls a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The characters in Mos Eisley live up to that description, providing a stark contrast to Luke and Obi-Wan. The cantina patrons are rude, incendiary, and violent. It’s quickly apparent that Mos Eisley has no redeeming qualities. The best thing to do in Mos Eisley is to leave—which with the help of Han Solo, they do.

The problem is, the next place they end up is even more treacherous. They drop out of hyperspace where they had expected to find Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, but instead are captured by the Death Star. The moon-sized space station is the city at its most extreme. The Death Star is not just a moon-sized spaceship with a city covering its surface—the whole thing is a city, straight through to the power station at its core. And until it’s destroyed at the end of A New Hope, it is the embodiment of the evil Empire.

But Lucas’s critique of the city doesn’t stop there. Darth Vader’s flagship, the Super Star Destroyer Executor, paints a silhouette that resembles a city skyline. Cloud City on Bespin—where our protagonists hope to find refuge—is anything but safe. Mayor Lando Calrissian betrays Han and his companions, turning them over to Vader. Granted, Lando later struggles to undo his betrayal by helping Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca escape, but it’s too little, too late. In the bowels of Cloud City, Han is frozen in carbonite and handed over to Boba Fett while Luke battles Vader, losing a hand in the process and discovering the grim truth about his father. Cloud City is like Mos Eisley—you can’t leave soon enough.

Contrast Mos Eisley, the Death Star, and Cloud City with the Rebel strongholds. The Rebel base on Yavin Four is an ancient temple nearly overrun by a jungle teeming and screeching with life. And the Rebel Alliance’s headquarters in The Empire Strikes Back are dug into the snowy surface of Hoth, a wasteland even more desolate than Tatooine.

Luke and Obi-Wan aren’t the only protagonists closely associated with the wilderness, either. We meet Yoda in the swamps of Dagoba. The little green fellow is seemingly the only sentient being on the entire planet. It’s also there on Dagoba that Luke trains to become a Jedi and where Obi-Wan shares with Luke his last bits of wisdom.

The entire trilogy comes to a climactic finish on and above the forest moon of Endor. The moon itself isn’t necessarily representative of anything, but its inhabitants are. Ewoks are introduced as primitive and superstitious, but they quickly become our heroes’ key allies. It seems improbable that their help was what sealed the deal, but really the Imperials were doomed from the start. Their base and shield generator stood out like sore thumbs in the forest. The Ewoks and their villages, on the other hand, blended right in. The Ewoks also used their superior knowledge of the forest to turn the tide of battle in their favor. Finally, Return of the Jedi ends with our heroes celebrating their victory in a tiny Ewok village, not on a massive battleship or in a city.

▪ ▪ ■ ▪ ▪

But what about Coruscant¹? you might be thinking. Its residents cheered when the Empire was defeated in Return of the Jedi. That would seem to imply that Coruscant had some redeeming quality, that not all cities in Star Wars are evil. Technically, Coruscant wasn’t in the original trilogy prior to Lucas’s tinkering, and my analysis here has been limited to the original, unadulterated trilogy. But Coruscant is hard to ignore for two reasons: One, it’s a world that’s almost entirely urbanized, and two, even if it wasn’t portrayed in the original trilogy, it plays an undeniably central role in Star Wars mythology.

Coruscant’s portrayal is more complicated than other cities in the Star Wars universe. That’s in part because it wasn’t included in the original trilogy. Lucas’s vision for the first three movies was unsubtle—there’s good and there’s evil and there’s very little overlap between the two. Even the central characters that are the most conflicted—Han and Lando—end up so unambiguously good that they spearhead the two-pronged attack on the second Death Star. Coruscant doesn’t carry the same dichotomous baggage. Its later introduction means it’s wreathed in subtleties that are missing in the original movies. But ultimately, it’s still depicted as a bad place.

Long before we meet Luke, Coruscant was the seat of the Old Republic. For thousands of years, it was a force for good in the universe. It hosted the Imperial Senate. The Jedi Order was headquartered there, too. But over time, the Old Republic rotted like a tree—from the inside out—implying that the capital was at the center of that decay. Indeed, Palpatine plotted his takeover from a penthouse office on Coruscant and later made the planet-city capital of his Empire. On balance, Coruscant is more evil than good.

▪ ▪ ■ ▪ ▪

George Lucas isn’t the only one who has juxtaposed virtuous rural folk with vile city dwellers. People have been doing that for centuries. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Romantic and Transcendentalist movements were intellectual reactions to the ascendancy of cities. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson saw cities impersonal and anonymizing, their inhabitants despondent and listless. Romantics like Percy Bysshe Shelly often brooded over ancient ruins, remarking on how such constructs of society were often overwhelmed by nature, implying a sort of justice for the wrongs cities exact on humanity. Both groups built their reputations by extolling the virtues of the countryside while decrying the debasing influence of cities.

Star Wars is just another footnote in a bulging tome of intellectual criticism on cities. It may seem surprising that such commentary would come in the form of a sci-fi film littered with energy weapons and faster-than-light travel. But if you pause to consider George Lucas himself, it shouldn’t be. Just look at where he lives—on 4,700 acres of rolling oak woodlands, secluded from the chaos of the San Francisco Bay Area.


  1. For the unfamiliar, Coruscant is a world almost entirely covered by a city, reminiscent of Trantor in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Though artist Ralph McQuarrie sketched concepts of a capital city for the original trilogy, Coruscant was never officially named or seen before Lucas tinkered with the films.

Thanks to Maura Chhun for her invaluable feedback.

The Linked List and the Curator's Code

A subtle shift occurred on the Internet over the weekend. Maria Popova unveiled at South by Southwest a project she’s been working on for the last year called the Curator’s Code. Popova—a serial aggregator on her site and on Twitter—is hoping to encourage content aggregators to give a little back to the original source through links that trace the origin of the work. The site isn’t much—it’s a plea for transparency coupled with a few tools to facilitate citations—but Popova’s idea has made a palpable splash.

The Curator’s Code is only a start, but I’m happy it’s out there for two reasons. One, I’m a writer. I want my work to be spread as far and wide as possible, but I’d also like to be noted as the original source. And two, I started dabbling in aggregation—sharing, really—two months ago when I launched the Linked List. Before that, I thought a lot about what it means to be a responsible and ethical aggregator. In the process, I developed my own code of conduct which I think does more to respect original content than the Curator’s Code.

The entire point of the Linked List is to send people out to other sites. That’s it, really. I view the Linked List as a themed Twitter account without the character limit. If you think that way, everything else follows naturally: Don’t copy too much of the original article. Don’t summarize it, either. Get people to click the link. Even the design I chose for the Linked List emphasizes outbound traffic. The headline—often the most visible link in the post—is a link to the article itself. The permalink to my post—the infinity symbol just to the right of the headline—is almost an afterthought. Everything about the Linked List is meant to send you away from Per Square Mile. (Just don’t forget to come back!)

Oh, and there’s one more principle I follow—don’t be a dick. When I’m crafting a Linked List post, I think to myself, Would I be OK with my work being shared in this way?

That’s an easy question for me to answer. I’m a writer, and I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of some, ahem, aggressive aggregation. Take my article on income inequality in the Roman Empire. Russia Today repackaged it without a link (an oversight they later corrected). Business Insider and the Huffington Post excerpted a small paragraph and summarized most of the rest. I have no idea how much traffic they got from their versions, but I do know that among the three of them I received well under 1,000 hits.

Fortunately, not all aggregators are created equal. From that same post, Matthew Yglesias on his blog at Slate pulled one factoid from my article, added a quick take, and sent me over 1,000 visitors. On other posts, the editors at Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish have sent me a few thousand readers by tastefully excerpting. And I have great respect for John Pavlus: Where Gizmodo and Business Insider were happy to copy and post one of my infographics—sending me around 1 percent or less of the traffic their posts received—John not only asked permission to use the image for a post at Fast.Co Design, but he interviewed me for his piece.

It would be great if “overzealous aggregation” meant the sort of effort that John put into his post, but it doesn’t. The Curator’s Code is a first step, but it’s not a complete solution—it would be easy to use the “via” and “heard through” links as a license to over-aggregate.

I signed a pledge to honor the Curator’s Code, but I’m also sticking to the principles I outlined above. They may not be perfect and they may not work for everyone, but I think they’re good signposts for when I’m working on the Linked List.

What do you think? Do Linked List entries catch your attention enough to send you away (and then hopefully return)? Am I striking the right balance between aggregation and original content? Does the Curator’s Code go far enough? Or do my principles do more to respect original content?

Can crowdsourcing save the city?

The City 2.0

TED is currently in full swing, and the program this year has an entire section devoted to the city. Fitting, given that this year’s TED Prize went to a city-centric project, one that hopes to crowdsource ideas to solve urban problems and reinvent cities. It’s predictably named The City 2.0. The site has a flashy splash page, but the innards still need some work—tapping in my current city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent me to a generic index page that encouraged me to “get connected” with other aspiring urban planners in my area, but responded to my clicks with little more than a broken Google Maps interface and some “COMING SOON” dialog boxes. For now, it’s long on pizzazz and short on details.

The TED Prize website fortunately has more on what The City 2.0 hopes to accomplish:

For phase I, the website (www.thecity2.org) will focus on helping individuals in forming cross-disciplinary groups to:

  1. determine the issue they want to tackle (i.e. traffic, lack of trees);
  2. determine a solution;
  3. develop an action plan;
  4. work to implement the solution;
  5. share the story of their success or failure with others.

Companies and organizations will be able to offer their tools to site users for use in executing their action plans. Ten micro grants of $10,000, coming out of the $100,000 TED Prize money, will be awarded in July 2012 to ten local projects that have the best hope of spurring the creation of their City 2.0.

To be clear, that’s $100,000 to be equally split among ten groups. Not a lot of money to tackle problems that probably need millions, even billions, of dollars thrown at them. Thankfully, there’s more:

As the site continues to grow and the overall platform grows we expect to:

  1. expand the functionality for individuals to connect and act;
  2. develop and design templates for knowledge sharing between new ideas formulated on the site and preexisting projects;
  3. build out our resource section with new local and global partners;
  4. introduce technology solutions for non-web based communities;
  5. expand our financial incentive program with larger grant offerings for active projects
  6. establish local and/or global gatherings on the City 2.0.

That’s a little better. This part of the project should have a longer-lasting impact than the small pot of grant money. Local civic groups often don’t have the skills or wherewithal to build a connected platform to publish their ideas and solicit feedback. The City 2.0 could provide that. But soliciting ideas is just the beginning. Many other hurdles stand in the way, and from what I can see The City 2.0 doesn’t propose how to address them.

The most obvious barrier is money. The City 2.0 acknowledges that to be successful it needs “companies and organizations willing to offer empowering resources” and “financial support”. It seems to me they are simply hoping companies and philanthropists will step forward and reward the best projects. That’s papering over a big problem.

The next issue is how to choose the best project. The City 2.0 says in its intro video that it will “combine the reach of the crowd with the power of the cloud”. Both crowdsourcing and the cloud are hot topics these days. Crowdsourcing in particular can give people a voice who otherwise may not have spoken up, and it leverages the law of big numbers to extract a handful of singular, stand-out ideas. But the real problem with crowdsourcing solutions for cities is more fundamental than that: Who decides which ideas to implement?

Lior Zoref, a crowdsourcing advocate, gave a TED talk this year about the wisdom of crowds in which he was joined on stage by an ox. After the gasps died down, he asked everyone to guess the weight of the animal and submit it to a website. At the end of his talk, he announced the average of the audience’s guesses: 1,792 pounds. The real weight of the cow? 1,795 pounds.

It is an impressive demonstration, but one that doesn’t sell me on the crowd’s ability to reinvent the city. That’s because crowd wisdom cannot apply to projects like The City 2.0. With the ox’s weight, there is one right answer. The crowd’s wisdom can be unambiguously verified. But with ideas and concepts like those solicited by The City 2.0, there is no right answer. And you certainly can’t distill an “average” idea from them all. Ultimately, a panel will have to pick the winners and losers. Those panelists will have enormous sway over the outcome of The City 2.0. If they are experts in their field, what’s to say the winners will be revolutionary, or even substantially different from their own work?

If winners are picked by popular vote—which I highly doubt—that, too, is no guarantee that the most promising proposals will be selected. People don’t always know what they want. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” Steve Jobs once said. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” There may be wisdom in crowds, but genius is usually confined to individuals.

I suspect it’ll take true genius to remake the city. We’ve been spinning our wheels in recent years, rehashing concepts of the city that have been around for decades, even centuries. Those ideas may have worked well in the past, but they didn’t have to contend with airports, globalization, or climate change. Today’s best solution may be unlike anything we have come to expect from cities.

I’m sure The City 2.0 will fund some great projects, but we won’t really know how they work until we really try them. Not small bits here and there, but big implementations. Trying on that scale takes money, and the only organizations with the money to do it are governments.

Does that mean it’s back to the old way, sitting through planning meetings and zoning boards? Maybe. Crowdsourcing is a great way to gather ideas, but implementing them takes community and persistence and enthusiasm. It’s possible that a website could create that community, but I’m skeptical—most social media tools piggyback on existing, real-world social bonds. I know I sound pessimistic about The City 2.0. I’m not entirely. I hope that the project will uncover a work of genius that would have otherwise been ignored, but I’m not holding my breath.

Photo from The City 2.0.

What do we mean by "rural"?

Taiwanese countryside

The day after Thanksgiving I was on the tail end of a journey that spanned three flights and four airports. I was zipping through the Taiwanese countryside, though I didn’t realize where I was at the time. You could be forgiven if you thought my confusion was caused by the 28 hours of travel I had endured the day before, or maybe the intense jetlag, but you’d be wrong. I was fully alert.

This being my first time in Taiwan—my first time in Asia, in fact—I felt like a kindergartener on his first day of school. Everything felt foreign, new, and exciting. Mopeds raced ahead of automobiles at every stoplight and surged through crowds of people wandering the famous markets. Their rattling exhaust mingled with the vaguely eggy smell of effluent seeping from sewer grates. Politicians beamed down from billboards, thumbs erect in positive estimations of the country’s prospects. Lights pulsed along every roadside, manmade rainbows framing incomprehensible Chinese characters and occasionally humorous English phrases.

Amidst all the clamor, my density-obsessed mind couldn’t help but notice something else. This place was crowded. It was so packed with three-story houses, mopeds, Mazda 3s and Mitsubishi Delicas that it felt like one continuous city. In fact, I didn’t know we had left the city until my wife told me so. That was the source of my confusion.

When she mentioned that, I was taken aback. This was the Taiwanese countryside? To me it looked more like a confused mishmash of industry, farmland, and suburbia. But then realization settled in. I was in Taiwan, the second most densely populated country in the world.¹ With 23 million people living mostly on the slim plains sandwiched between the west coast and the rugged mountains that dominate two-thirds of the island, it makes similarly-sized Holland seem depopulated.

Satellite view of Taiwan

That Taiwan is a mountainous island no doubt partially accounts for its teeming population. But so too does the humid, tropical climate of the lower elevations. Tropical ecosystems are the most productive in the world, in part due to their year-round growing season and generous precipitation. It’s why the majority of Taiwan’s population lives on the flat, western sliver, and why farmers there don’t need large land holdings. It’s also why the Taiwanese countryside is as populous as some American suburbs.

As we whizzed by parked cars, rice paddies, and murky fish farms, I had an epiphany. I was in the country. Sweeping aside my preconceptions, I realized that “countryside” is inherently interpretable term, one that depends more on how the land is used than it does on population density.

¹ If you don’t count city-states or tiny oceanic flecks like the Maldives.

Photo by Tim De Chant, satellite image from NASA.

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7 billion

Earth

Sometime today—or maybe it’s already happened—the 7 billionth person on this planet will be born. It’s a milestone, that’s for certain, though I’m unsure whether it’s auspicious or portentous. What I do know is it’s a bit contrived. The 7 billionth person will face the same challenges as the baby born just before or just after. They are all entering a world that is trying to answer its most pressing question—how many of us can it support?

The answer depends, of course, on what sort of future those people will have. Will they live like Americans—sated and safe—or like Somalians—as uncertain about their next meal as they are about their country’s fate? That, of course, depends on resources. In truth, we won’t know the answers to any of these questions until we get there, if we’re even lucky enough to realize when we’ve arrived.

For years now, I’ve felt as though the world has been filling up around me. Part of that has been the result of changing scenery, an impression reinforced by years of moving up the density ladder from small towns to bigger cities. But that feeling is also supported by cold, hard facts. My worlds are filling up. It’s most evident in my hometown, a small city where change comes slowly if at all. Yet even there, the roads and houses and shops I knew can’t contain the now pulsing masses, grown half again as large as when I first knew them. Like a teenager, the city is coping with its new size awkwardly. Ambivalent about the future, it keeps trying to be the city I knew. But even I—with my propensity for nostalgia—know better. Every time I return, as I sit trapped a dozen deep at a stoplight, a lesson is writ large in the taillights of the car in front of me. Growth, like progress, cannot be stopped.

So as we cross this synthetic threshold, close your eyes for a second to take snapshot of the world as it is. It will never be the same. Then open them to a future that’s two people fuller.

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16,422 people per square mile

cardboard box

Nostalgia is not something I avoid easily. It usually lies dormant until woken by some change, distinct or subdued. And when it does, it takes charge. Small details and insignificant landmarks shout out, begging me to remember everything about this place and this time, from the noteworthy to the not-so-historic. And something as momentous as a cross-country move hurtles me back even further as I sift through the scraps of paper that invariably define my life. A ticket stub from a tram in Germany. A Polaroid with an Elvis impersonator from college. A note my wife scribbled, explaining how to write her name in Chinese, and how its homonym is “Little Zero”.

And so every time I—now we—move, I am reminded of how this last place and the one before it and so on were good to me. Each time, I found friends, opportunities, and new perspectives. And each time, I am sad to leave.

The first time in my life I moved I was 16, and we were only moving three miles away on the same side of town. My school didn’t change and neither did my friends. But I was moving away from the only home I knew, and I was desperate to feel some attachment to our new house. I remember closing the linen closet door one night and noting how it made a whooshing sound. I thought, this is something I will remember. I belong here, because I will always remember how the linen closet makes a whooshing sound when you close it. It’s a silly detail, but I still notice it fourteen years later.

And so every time I move to a new place, I start cataloging those silly details. The first year is always the most difficult. With a sense of place like mine that is anchored in hundreds, even thousands of details on small, subtle scales, it can take a while. Necessities dominate at first—the path to the grocery store, a running route, a good place to get pizza—but the later details are what tell me I’m at home—the sound of the train, the smell after a rainstorm, the putterings of the neighbors.

And so here I sit, waxing nostalgic about my time in Chicago, and by extension the Midwest. The scraps of paper from Chicago and places previous are all safely tucked away in boxes, waiting to be shipped, again, across the country. 16,422 people per square mile. The population density of Cambridge, Massachusetts, our soon-to-be new home. It’s a statistic that’s very similar to our current Chicago neighborhood. But it’s only a number, and much as I’d like to think that I’ll quickly find my groove because the numbers align, deep down I know better. I know that it won’t feel like home until I know that number and the people and the trees and the streets and the sounds and the smells and more.

Photo by Justin Shearer.