Tech isn’t for every city

Lydia Depillis, reporting for the Washington Post:

“It’s the dumbest idea in the world,” said Phil Levine, mayor of Miami Beach, Fla., speaking at this week’s U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting. “People cling on to things that are not the highest and best use for their city. Miami Beach is never going to be a high tech hub. As much as it sounds great, it’s sexy, that’s not who we are.”

Why not? Well, the city has neither a bunch of cheap office space nor good universities, which are two of the key ingredients of a successful start-up culture. But it does have a lot of cruise ships. Instead of buying into the “creative class” dogma, Levine — who himself built a huge cruise ship concessionaire in Miami Beach from scratch — thinks the city should focus on the things it does well.

Maple syrup could become a row crop

A chance discovery by a pair of Vermont researchers suggests that densely-planted saplings might be all the maple syrup industry needs, not the mature forests they currently use.

It’s an interesting data point in the “spare or share” debate about agricultural land use, which asks, do we use more ecologically integrated farming techniques over more land, or do we intensify our production on less land? Maple syrup is one of the few crops that harvested exclusively from “natural” land. That it could be produced like a row crop suggests the trend toward intensification is inevitable.

Chinese Internet Traffic Redirected to Small Wyoming House

Nicole Perlroth, reporting for the New York Times:

The China Internet Network Information Center, a state-run agency that deals with Internet affairs, said it had traced the problem to the country’s domain name system. And one of China’s biggest antivirus software vendors, Qihoo 360 Technology, said the problems affected roughly three-quarters of the country’s domain name system servers.

Those servers, which act as a switchboard for Internet traffic behind China’s Great Firewall, routed traffic from some of China’s most popular sites, including Baidu and Sina, to a block of Internet addresses registered to Sophidea Incorporated, a mysterious company housed on a residential street in Cheyenne, Wyo.

A simple Google search reveals that the address on Thomes Avenue in Cheyenne is not a corporate headquarters, but a 1,700-square-foot brick house with a manicured lawn.

How Do You Stay Warm When You’re Homeless?

Krystal D’Costa:

When the temperature drops during the winter months, it’s not uncommon to see articles about how to help the homeless. The advice is generally the same: call a city hotline and a special team will be dispatched or consider donating warm weather clothing—and you should of course do both of these things if you know of someone who must be out in the cold. These articles also highlight a large segment of homeless people who turn down help to avoid having to spend the night in a shelter, where they worry their safety and well-being will be compromised in the company of strangers. Where do these people actually go in the face of extreme elements?

São Paolo gets a monorail

Keith Barry, writing for Wired:

Currently, it can take nearly two hours to make the journey between Vila Prudente and Cidade Tiradentes by car. When the monorail is accepting passengers, that time should be cut to 50 minutes. Half a million passengers a day are expected to ride the new Silver Line.

Maybe the reason so many monorails failed was because they were built where there wasn’t a need for any mass transit.


Alex Schmidt, reporting for Boom:

To see what a city formed around a power center looks like going forward, one need look no further than Phoenix, which has been dependent on sales tax for a long time. The incentive is to continue to build sales tax generating centers at the edge of the city, nearer the highway, to capture the consumption of people who live in surrounding areas, and development simply keeps sprawling outward. On the other hand, a property-tax-dependent city has no interest in moving the border of the city. It is interested in increasing the value of land and one way of doing that is having more dense areas, more amenities located in proximity to population.

At issue is how new cities can incorporate in California. Incorporations surged, if I’m not mistaken, following the allocation of vehicle registration fees to localities. But now with that money gone, they’re stuck unless they have a sales tax base (property taxes in the state are severely restricted, depriving municipalities of revenue). 

U.N. Says Lag in Confronting Climate Woes Will Be Costly

Justin Gillis, reporting for the New York Times:

Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, experts found.

A delay would most likely force future generations to develop the ability to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and store them underground to preserve the livability of the planet, the report found. But it is not clear whether such technologies will ever exist at the necessary scale, and even if they do, the approach would probably be wildly expensive compared with taking steps now to slow emissions.

I can see this report having an unintended consequence—that people who don’t think we should do anything about carbon emissions today will point to this, saying that it’s already too late, that we don’t have the technology now, so it’s up to future generations to develop that capacity.

The Weird Stuff That Happens When You Sign Up for Food Stamps

Emily Badger, reporting for the Atlantic Cities:

To understand how CalFresh interacts with users, one Code for America fellow, Rebecca Ackerman, signed up for the benefit (after committing not to actually use any of the money).

“We started seeing what it was like to be a client,” says Jacob Solomon, another fellow on the team. “We started seeing what the nature of the communications was. We started getting these letters.”

Some 20 letters, in fact, came over the next seven months, and Solomon has documented all of them in a maddening interactive timeline here. The letters are oddly hostile in tone.

Appalling, really. I know a lot of it is written with legal concerns in mind, but I don’t think anyone wants to be on food stamps, so why not be a little nicer about it?

Elevated bike highways are not America’s future—nor should they be

Nick Stockton, writing for Quartz:

The problem, says architect Tim Stonor of Space Syntax, Ltd., who helped design the London plan, is that segregating cyclists just perpetuates the “us vs. them” mentality that drives the current uneasy dynamic between bikes and cars.

That’s like saying we shouldn’t grade separate trains from roads, that every train track should cross every road so we don’t perpetuate the “us vs. them” mentality of train passengers and cars. It’s a pretty weak argument. 

A two-part Interstate system

Eric Jaffe:

Boarnet argues that one branch of the Interstate Highway System should have been reserved entirely for intercity roads. These would be highways running through remote areas with cheap land and sparse populations, so it would make sense to prioritize traffic flow and vehicle capacity. Paying for this branch with a pooled fuel tax would also make sense, because the benefits of low-cost transport and trade redound on everyone.

The other branch of the system would be made up of intracity roads, those running within the city limits. Given the high cost of land and density of population in cities, creating sufficient road capacity and swift vehicle flow would become a pipe dream, so the wiser aim would be transport balance. The logical way to finance these roads, given the great demand for space on them, would be with direct user fees — ideally priced to reduce congestion.

It’s difficult to envision what this two-part system would look like, though we can get a good idea of how the first half would function if we keep the the auxiliary loops and abandon any through-city trunks or spurs.

In that case, I think we’d see a very different world, one where interstates aren’t relied upon for commuting. That would have changed the city-suburb dynamic drastically and perhaps given rail a fighting chance.

Eisenhower’s Interstates not exactly what he intended

It’s from an old article, but Eric Jaffe points out this interesting bit of trivia:

Even in the early years of America’s highway construction craze, a few people recognized the folly of placing major roads through the hearts of cities. In her 1970 book Superhighways – Superhoax, Helen Leavitt famously wrote that Dwight Eisenhower, the president who signed the Interstate Highway Act into law, didn’t realize these roads would run through downtown districts until he saw construction of Interstate 95 in Washington, D.C. Officials looked into relocating the system’s urban highways, but by then it was too late.

Never knew that. Though given how development tends to follow Interstates, it’s inevitable that some would end up bisecting cities. The difference would be that they wouldn’t be disrupting an already functioning urban area, which is significant.

Green spaces have lasting positive effect on well-being

Mark Kinver, reporting for BBC News:

“We found that within a group of lottery winners who had won more than £500,000 that the positive effect was definitely there but after six months to a year, they were back to the baseline.”

Dr White said his team wanted to see whether living in greener urban areas had a lasting positive effect on people’s sense of well-being or whether the effect also disappeared after a period of time.[…]

“What you see is that even after three years, mental health is still better which is unlike many of the other things that we think will make us happy.”

No surprise, really, given that office workers who have a view of just one tree say they’re happier. But it also highlights why we need to deal with the arboreal disparity between rich and poor.

On-ramps for high-speed rail

Tuan C. Nguyen, writing for Smithsonian:

One particularly intriguing proposal that futuristic-minded engineers have batted around since the 1960s is the notion of a high-speed train that can transport and pick up passengers at various stops along the route without ever having to actually, you know, stop. A true express train from say, New York to Los Angeles, would offer a much shorter overall commute time and, without the constant stop-and-go, cut down significantly on fuel costs for train operators, which maybe—just maybe—would translate to lower fares for all.

“Lost” New England Revealed by High-Tech Archaeology

Dan Vergano of National Geographic News interviews Lidar-expert Katharine Johnson about her use of the light-pulse technology in discovering old land-use patterns. 

Fun fact: You don’t need fancy tops like Lidar to spot such patterns—just aerial photography like the sort found in most online maps and a keen pair of eyes. For example.

Your carbon footprint may not be as low as you think

Tokyo buildings

High-density living—it’s an urbanist’s answer to climate change. Living close is a straightforward solution to a complex problem. One that’s probably a little too simplistic. While living in dense cities certainly does reduce your carbon footprint, the results may not be as dramatic as you suspect.

That’s according to a new research paper by Chris Jones and Dan Kammen, two University of California, Berkeley researchers who have extensively studied people’s carbon footprints. Their results show that moving from a carbon-heavy suburb to an ultra-dense city will only reduce your emissions by 35 percent on average. Yes, that’s a big number, but perhaps not as significant as we’re often led to believe. But fortunately lurking within their data is an even simpler—and maybe even more effective—way for metro areas to reduce their footprint.

Jones and Kammen have spent years honing their methodology for determining people’s carbon footprints. Jones is the lead scientist at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab and Kammen is its director and a professor at the university. Together they’ve created one of the most detailed and accurate carbon footprint calculators available online. To develop that tool, they had to ask a lot of people a lot of questions about their lifestyles. With that experience, they’ve published a number of papers that lift the veil on our energy use, revealing which aspects of our lives produce the most greenhouse gas emissions.

Their latest paper is contains some seemingly unexpected results, all gleaned by modeling emissions for individual ZIP codes. For example, you might expect carbon footprint to fall commensurately with population density. After all, living in the boonies makes you pretty reliant on cars while living in the city frees you to take transit. But it isn’t so clear cut. People living far from cities and suburbs have fewer destinations and tend to buy less, driving down their overall footprint.

As population density increases, then, household carbon footprints rise initially, up to 3,000 people per square mile. After that point, emissions per household drop, though the trend isn’t linear, it’s logarithmic, which is to say it falls fast at first but then with plateaus.

Jones and Kammen found that the most carbon intensive places to live are about 15 to 45 miles from the center of the nearest major city.¹ Most households in these bands have higher incomes and more members, both of which are tightly coupled with carbon emissions in the U.S. Those households also have higher transportation footprints—50 percent more than city center households. Overall, suburbs account for half of the U.S.’s carbon footprint. Large cities contribute 30 percent.

No city can escape its suburbs. As long as people have the means and the desire, they’ll live in those sorts of places. So to reduce a metro area’s overall carbon footprint, Jones and Kammen say, you have to tailor solutions that will work for each region of the country and each part of the metro. To be successful, those solutions must work with people’s existing behaviors.

Take the suburbs, for example. “These locations are ideal candidates for a combination of energy efficient technologies, including whole home energy upgrades and solar photovoltaic systems combined with electric vehicles,” they write. Forcing someone to use transit changes their behavior, and people are resistant to that. But if you encourage them to use electric cars, that works within their existing behavior. It’s an easier sell.

The overall trend of population density and household footprints offers another option, too. Pushing densities above 3,000 people per square mile can lower emissions substantially. That’s the tipping point in Jones and Kammen’s curve. Beyond that, they declined sharply, but then plateau. In other words, to make an significant impact, we just have to live a little closer together.

  1. The lowest emission rural areas are on par with people living in some major cities, though the densest cities still have the smallest footprints per capita.

Related posts:

Tell me how much you drive, and I’ll tell you where you live

What’s more energy efficient, shopping online or in stores?

If the world’s population lived like…

Japan offers to lend US half the cost of ‘Super Maglev’ train between Washington and Baltimore

Julian Ryall, reporting for The Telegraph:

Tokyo is so keen to show off its technology that it will provide loans for half the estimated $8 billion (£5bn) cost of installing the tracks, Japan’s Asahi newspaper said on Tuesday.

Masahiro Nakayama, a general manager at Central Japan Railway Co, told The Daily Telegraph that the American federal government was keen, and that the state authorities were especially enthusiastic about the project.

That’s nice, but just like the hyperloop, it glosses over the cost of land acquisition, which will surely dwarf the cost of the loan.

Urban Nature: How to Foster Biodiversity in World’s Cities

 Richard Coniff, reporting for Yale e360:

Though it may be too soon to call it an urban wildlife movement, initiatives focused on urban biodiversity seem to be catching on. The U.S. Forest Service, which once laughed off the idea that anything urban could be wild, now supports a growing urban forest program. Urban ecology and urban wildlife programs are also proliferating on university campuses. There’s a “Nature of Cities” blog, launched in 2012. University of Virginia researchers recently announced the beginning of a Biophilic Cities Network devoted to integrating the natural world into urban life, with Singapore, Oslo, and Phoenix among the founding partners.

Good news all around. But we don’t have to wait until city hall takes action—we can start with our yards, no matter how small.

50 degree temperature swing in 48 hours

When I drove to work today, it was 59˚ out. Yesterday at the same time it was 27˚, and the day before it was 10˚. Meanwhile, it’s -16˚ in the town where I grew up in Wisconsin. Usually, we’re no more than 10˚ different.

Welcome to the future, everyone.


Two Decades of Change Have Boston Sparkling

Katharine Q. Seelye, reporting for the New York Times:

Boston’s boom was driven in part by a new dynamism among its universities and research institutions as technology expanded and the knowledge-based economy developed. Those institutions had always been here, but as Paul Grogan, the president of the Boston Foundation, which provides grants to nonprofit organizations, put it, “The world changed in a way that assigned a new value to them.”