US cities

Biblio (113) The rise and fall of Manhattan’s densities

biblio 113- Manhattan densities

This working paper by Shlomo Angel and Patrick Lamson- Hall, researchers at the Marron Institute at NYU, studies the evolution of population densities in the built-up areas of Manhattan from 1800 to 2010. They combine census data for population with a series of maps, and conclude that time is ripe for a densification programme that could accommodate a larger population with bottom-up actions, without need to use large public- financed schemes. The proposal is essentially a change in the planning regulations that would allow higher densities in peripheral boroughs, as was done before in Manhattan. This would hardly be seen as a contentious issue where I live, as the habit of living in denser neighbourhoods is more common, but would mean a change for many in the land of the single- family home; even if skyscrapers are not a rarity, high rise housing has different cultural implications, as you would loose many freedoms you have being the lord and king of your lot.

There are two interesting videos which show the base data that helped reach those conclusions

Maps 2014 (42) Urban Decay in the US

This map was produced in 2011 by Derek Watkins, graphic editor for the New York Times, whose portfolio is full of extremely attractive references (including details on the tools used to produce these gorgeous images). This map was generated by looking on Flickr for geotagged images with urban decay tags. It is noteworthy that the number of images in some cities si quite reduced. In fact, this is not a map of a phenomenon, but of its perception by a group of people whose definition is complex (photographers aware of the special aesthetics of ruins prone to share their images on flickr?). Gorgeous map, anyway, and it seems quite related when it comes to results with other data about this subject.

Things I saw while on break

The Danube near Vienna, as seen from Khalenberg Hill

The Danube near Vienna, as seen from Khalenberg Hill

For those that have followed this blog during the last years, here is the proof it has not disappeared. Just a small fraction of that time was a break (most of it was quite the opposite…), but it was worth it.

During that time I have seen and thought about some interesting things, either on travel or through other means. Here are some, which can be viewed as a thematic layout of future posts:

  • Vienna: I had never visited Austria. After a recent trip to Germany I was curious to see the other big Germanic country, not so much (or rather no only) for its past as an old empire that imploded almost overnight in 1918, but more as a country in which I thought an interesting version of modernity was happening. The trip has indeed been interesting. My knowledge of German is schematic, and if I told you I have grasped the soul of the country after just a few days you would (for a good reason) think I’m just bragging; but some things have seemed interesting.
  • The evolution of the idea of sustainable development (or its weakening under some points of view). The quarrels surrounding the ministerial reorganization in France during this summer have made me remember news read during the recent municipal and European elections there. Among the promises made by local candidates of the National Front in many cities were the ones about letting again access the city core by car without restrictions, reversing policies adopted years ago to try to reduce pollution and conserve the old cities qualities. The National Front is a particularity in the French political system, but its rise is fuelled by their ability to grasp subjects that galvanize citizens. They raised that idea in many cities, but not in Paris and Lyon, where things cannot be so simplified. On the other hand, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President, who instituted a Ministry for Durable Development, said in 2011 during a visit to the Agricultural Convention of Paris “the environment, it is becoming a bit too much”. On the other side, the relations between socialists and ecologists in France are far from easy (hence the initial mention to the French politics of this summer). The evolution over time of the UK policies on that matter has also been controversial there. Many in Europe will think that this is just peanuts compared to the American scene, forgetting the fact that there the scene is also mixed, as you just have to compare Republicans in the Congress (denial of climate change) to Schwarzeneger or Bloomberg (climate change policies) to see what I talk about. Are we witnessing the end of sustainable development as a somehow blind faith (believing in something presented as good, even if not understood by many that feel it just brings costs or even nuisance to their way of life) that can be used by politicians and marketers alike, to see a more critical conscience emerge, or else? Therein lies the rump….
  • A new rise in the social demand for rules, not as a defence of some economic interests, but of other matters lied to the idea of common good. These days there have been demonstrations in Barcelona against the growing presence of tourists renting apartments in an informal way in the Barceloneta area; they use what to some is a reduced booze price and a perceived image of Spain as a permissive country to behave in ways that perhaps could be subject to prosecution in their own countries. Sure, hotel owners have used that to talk about unlawful competition (a bit like taxi drivers revolts against Uber), but the neighbours asked here for quite simple things: the right to sleep without noise, or to move around their city without seeing gross scenes. I have read on today’s Washington Post a quite similar news concerning Ocean City, Maryland. The fear of squadrons of youth looking for booze and party, ruining the calm of a neighbourhood by renting homes piecemeal has also surfaced, and is also criticized by those saying that as the city lives from tourism, this must be endured. So Barceloneta (a popular neighbourhood with high density) is on the same wavelength as Ocean City (apparently a richer, lower density area). Some will present this as a case of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard), a resistance to accept externalities related to the inherent complexity of cities. But this seems something more, a symptom of a general evolution of the idea of what can be or not accepted in a society.
  • I have also seen interesting physical landscapes

Biblio (95) Rebuild by Design

Rebuild by Design is an initiative of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Even if sometimes from Europe such a ministry seems unlikely for the US, it has existed for decades, with influential policies, although not always on the good sense… as everywhere. HUD is looking for a way to tackle the urban resilience challenge posed by climate change, taking into account the Sandy lessons. These lessons can benefit other rebuilding efforts or risk prevention schemes. The initiative has formalized as a competition whose results were published in April, with 10 winners proposing alternatives for damaged coastal cities. There are big names from the architectural world, as OMA, but the projects are not just drawings, as they benefit from public participation; according to the available information, what is really chosen is not a team of architects, but local coalitions that have built consensus and will receive grants to develop proposals that have been formalized by specialists.

Back of the envelope calculations (3) Amazon’s trails: wings vs knees

Taking as a starting point the previous post on the text about the future of employment by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, we can produce some ideas. Home delivery was until now one of those jobs that was deemed as a human task, as the amount of unpredictable situations that could happen made the substitution by machines almost impossible to substitute a person (that anyway earned a limited wage).
Some months ago Amazon, the internet retailer, published some videos about a new ultra-fast delivery system for small loads, Prime air, based on small drones.

The video shows a quite American context: the drone takes off from a logistical base and delivers a small pack by landing on the client’s garden. In a country like Spain, in which most of the people live in apartment buildings, this would have some problems, and the same can be said about other countries in which Amazon operates.
Taking existing drones with a design that seems similar to those shown on the video, as the Parrot AR Drone, the idea of a 30 minute delivery time seems limited: the Parrot cruises at 18 km/h (some 12 miles/h). Let’s assume that Amazon uses twice that speed, so in half an hour you would get as far a 18 km (without considering the time to prepare the pack in the fulfilment centre). This means that if this idea is serious, either Amazon multiplies its fulfilment centres (losing a strategic edge over conventional retailers), or it will limit this system to the areas closest to its 55 fulfilment centres in North America (MWPVL international data for april 2014). The fact is that these centers are in quite peripheral locations, so the population that could be reached would be limited. The following map shows the location of the two Amazon fulfilment centres in the Los Angeles Basin, San Bernardino (open in 2012) and Moreno Valley (to open in 2014), on a heat map rendering of population densities (census 2010), with the road network and a 18 km grid. The idea of delivery on the same day seems much more realistic than 30 minutes delivery, and probably on that time scale the road would be more competitive than a sprawl of fulfilment centres. On the other side, in Madrid the Amazon base is in San Fernando de Henares, just slightly over 18 km from Puerta del Sol, the urban core; in a denser city, a single centre would cover a substantially higher share of the metro population… but as they live mainly in multi-storey buildings drones would have problems.

Delivery by drone raises other issues. Civil aviation regulations are stringent in terms of rules to ensure the safe take-off and landing of aircraft, especially in terms of geometric conditions and electromagnetic interference. It is clearly possible that Amazon could design its fulfilment centres to adapt to those rules, with take-off and landing corridors adapted and without obstacles, which would be easier for choppers. Besides, both LA locations, for instance, are near an airport. However, how do you know if the delivery address complies with such rules? Trees, posts, buildings make a good bunch of potential obstacles. Sure, we have good aerial images, but the problem here is more complex: there would be a need for a good 3D cartography, up to date, with these obstacles, and there is the issue of the liability of a homeowner that by extending his home with a plan-abiding project restricts the air accessibility of a neighbouring property. This would certainly make way more complex volumetric conditions for buildings.
Let’s just go back to the problem: what a deliveryman does today? He comes in a vehicle that the parks (as he can), goes down, and uses the sidewalk to get to the building lot. If the home is individual, he gets to the gate. If it is an apartment building, he must enter a common space, and then use a lift or the stairs. Hard for a chopper. Would Amazon’s idea be closer to Valkyrie, NASA’s robot? At first sight, it seems more feasible, especially in dense cities, but it seems also far away in time. In fact, the most logical solution (even more for denser cities with frequent traffic jams) would be a walking robot… able to run on freeways, passing through cars in a traffic jam and nullifying the parking problem, as it could just go up five storeys of stairs up to any apartment. The issue is to know if this would really cost less (just in economic terms) than to pay a person. This would not touch that much the urban fabric in physical termes, but it would matter in terms of parking… and also in terms of the existing retail basis.

Industrial traditions (3) Cars and titanium

Usually a city can owe its industrial basis to a entrepreneurial population or to the arrival of external entrepreneurs. Even when most of the western countries have most of their jobs and revenues generated by small and mid-size businesses, what moves the newspapers titles is the ability of a city to lure large, well known firms, to come to their place to invest.

When it comes to Chattanooga, the largest recent such investment is by Volkswagen, who built the production line for the American version of the Passat. The investment was announced in 2008, with the following figures (this is the most detailed news I have had, even if they do not describe the final deal ):

–           1 billion dollars in Volkswagen investment

–           More that 500 million dollars in public aids:

  • 81 million in real estate
  • 30 million for worker training
  • 43 for public works (roads and highway connections)
  • 3,5 for rail line improvements
  • 200 million in job tax credits over 20 years
  • 150 to 350 million in property tax breaks over 30 years

–           2.000 direct jobs

–           546 hectares (1.350 acres) of land in a location 12 miles from Chattanooga, on an industrial area which is the result of a decades-long work by local authorities to reclaim a former ordnance factory

The factory opened its gates in 2011. In February 2014 it has been the centre of a strong debate on unions, something in Europe would sound rather strange; in fact, Volkswagen was (according to the press) not opposed, but it was rather an American right-left battle waged as a part of a larger conflict in the south. To an European eye it is puzzling to see Tennessee republican legislators accuse Volkswagen (a private company) of favouring a given union and threaten to remove incentives if that union was to win ( ).

Titanium clad: Guggenheim Bilbao

Titanium clad: Guggenheim Bilbao

In Bilbao, the investment in the Guggenheim shows parallels. The incentives given to ensure the presence of the Guggenheim museum can only be understood taking into account that the Provincial Government of Biscay has a special fiscal regime, on equality with the Spanish tax agency (and clearly because Biscay is a rich province).

How do you attract a large brand, whose image is far from the one your city currently sports? By looking for a brand that wants to widen its scope, and providing advantages: a good location, a coherent city project to grow… and consequent public help. Seen from the other side, if the project works, there are chances for synergy for other business in the area, even if there can be exclusivity agreements (Eurodisney in Paris, for instance) on some zones; but these benefiting from the synergies will have to pay full taxes.

To be sure, during the XIXth century, there were not such aids; but taxes were lower, as much as environmental protection and other things now judged as unavoidable. To which extents do such deals are fair and acceptable? In a democracy, transparency must be there, and election votes should be relevant, but there is a need to hear the citizens during negotiations.

Industrial traditions (2) Steel, rail and textile

Lille grew by a combination of industries, mainly the textiles ; Bilbao and Monterrey were clearly two steel cities, and Chattanooga, as Glenn Miller reminds in his song, grew by the rail. When industries got into trouble and pollution was deemed horrible (Bilbao and Chattanooga were not helped by scenic, but impractical hills for that matter), they became problem cities. What is interesting is to see how they avoided becoming a Detroit (whose story is still running…).

Industrial traditions (1) A sample

Old industrial cities in what we call usually the “western countries” are often an exemple of how hard it is to maintain an economic health on the long term, but also that this is achievable. Monterrey is still a reference in the Mexican industrial landscape. Chattanooga seems to be succeeding its transition to a more viable economic model. Lille tries to reinvent itself as a reference node in the European High Speed Train network, and Bilbao has in fact changed its image thanks to a museum that is, in fact, just the tip of the iceberg.

Maps 2014 (10) Home price mapping in France and America

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There are three main ways to get data on real estate prices: conducting a study based on standard assumptions (usually comparing with neighbouring properties is factored), using listing prices or using the amount that the legal professional authorised by the Government to record the deed. This legal professional is a Civil Law Notary in civil law countries as Spain or France, or their former colonies. The third way is, assuming there is no tax cheat, the most precise, but it is not universally available, or its geographical detail is not of use; for instance, in Spain the General Notaries Council ( publishes data by province. The geographical scope is relevant, as the real estate values depend a lot on location, and mixing in the same bag high price neighbourhoods with low price exurbs results in meaningless averages.

In France notaries ( do publish data with a detailed geographical scope (census blocks). This  is good to understand recent activity. But a substantial part of the land has such a reduced amount of sales that data is not representative (or simply does not exist, just think of depressed rural areas with no sales for years). This does not prevent the fact that there is a demand for some kind of data, so it is estimated by a multifactor system, in which listing prices and realtors opinions are factored (

In the US the fact that there is a continental size nation with 50 legal systems has led to nationwide portals as, which estimate prices for a substantial part of the country, even if a large part of the central states, as Texas or Louisiana, are not rendered.

Taking as a reference data from, and for Paris, New York and Madrid, with an exchange rate of 0,72 € by $, and considering that 1 sq m is equal to 10,7 sq ft, you can see that the more expensive areas of Paris (rue du Bac, for instance) are over 14.200 €/sq m, those of Madrid (Recoletos) are around 11.000 €/sq m, and those of New York (Flatiron District) are in the region of the 16.000 €/sq m. Any need for more reasons to understand why the urban fabric of the core areas of successful cities has such an inertia?.

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