This piece came up a few months ago while talking to one of my coworkers about San Francisco housing. For some reason San Francisco progressives (aka, conservatives) are allergic to the basic notion of supply and demand. Here, Noah explains a few reasons why the YIMBY solution should go beyond just “build more market rate housing.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite stop himself short of using supply and demand in his explanation.
The city I live in, San Francisco, is an amazing place where there’s seemingly boundless capital sloshing around, tons of smart people who are motivated to solve the world’s problems, and a total and complete lack of political will to do anything about the most immediate issues. Reading about the self-inflicted wounds of this city is painful.
Lots of interesting data is available on the internet if you have the patience to figure out how to join two separate streams. Here’s a data scientist who decided to join publically available home sales data with scraped data from LinkedIn and other job sites. His data is incomplete, very biased, and it leads to the unsurprising result that the people who share their employment information on the internet and buy homes in SF tend to work in tech. That doesn’t make the data any less interesting.
In this piece, Appelbaum quotes Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who observed that “preservation is not the enemy of modernity but actually one of its inventions… The whole idea of modernization raises, whether latently or overtly, the issue of what to keep.” We might be keeping too much.
A few months ago I went to the Oakland Museum of California to see their exhibit, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.” I kept thinking of Romer running around talking to people about charter cities.
It’s worth walking through, you should give it a shot. If I did it, so can you.
Getting cars to remote areas is hard. Getting them out of there is even harder.
Concrete and timber are expensive, and have an understated environmental and geopolitical impact in our lives, but our world is built on those two materials. In this episode, the 99pi crew explores the evolution of building materials over time. At first, I expected this episode would be about reclaiming land from bodies of water, places like San Francisco’s Financial District, or the Northwestern Lakefill in Evanston but in a way, land is a building material too, so at least I was directionally correct.
In which the 99pi crew describes the construction of a huge model of San Francisco that was created back in the 30s as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) effort to put people to work. I’d love to see this exhibited somewhere.
Health and architecture are deeply connected to each other. I listened to this around the same time that I read fragments of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, so it really resonated.
Libraries, parks, and other shared spaces are extremely important as tools for community building. Growing up, I didn’t really have access to this kind of space, being limited by my environment into mostly private contexts. Figuring out how we can invest in building more shared infrastructure, and agreeing on what needs it should cover is a noble endeavor.
“Neglect is undervalued” - a good short piece. This idea applies to family life, to office productivity, and even urban design. If a space is too controlled, there’s no room for emergent behavior.
I read this because Sean posted about it on Twitter. Turns out his family comes from there, which I didn’t know until after I read the article and told him I was adding this to my to-read pile. I have a very hard time understanding company towns. This book will be a good start.
I don’t really know much about Brexit, but this divide between “any-wheres” and “some-wheres” is an interesting one. For a while, I’ve been making a similar argument about the cosmopolitan urban elites vs secluded rural communities elsewhere in the world.
Power laws are real, and they are everywhere. Of ~6k firms making $1B+ in revenue globally, the top 1% creates 36% of all profits, middle 80% record near-zero profits, Bottom 10% destroys as much value as the top 10% creates. Similarly, out the top 50 cities host 8% of the global population and represent 21% of world GDP, translating into a GDP/capita that’s 45% larger than their peers. The dynamics that lead to this are not studied enough.
An entertaining story of how the designers at Sears shaped the future of tens of thousands of families with these mail-to-order houses. These are still sprinkled all over the US, and people don’t even know about it. The past was weird, and every once in a while it peeks back at us and laughs.
This episode tells the story of a literal land grab. I am happy that 99PI is doing more of these urban origin stories lately.
I’ve talked about this before, too. Google is pushing SoMa as “The East Cut” on their maps now. I literally spend half my waking hours in this neighborhood and the only times I’ve heard it in conversation were either (a) people making fun of Google, or (b) referring to the uniforms that cleanup crews wear, emblazoned with “The East Cut,” which ends up leading to (a). There is a very Orwellian aspect to this story, and to how the digital world can reshape the physical world.
I’m biased, so not much to say here, other than my full agreement with Noah. This broken city would just finish breaking if the tech industry collapsed.
San Francisco is a mess. Things could be different.
In Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott writes: “By a kind of fiscal Heisenberg principle, tax officials transform that which they take note of.” In this essay, Nielsen shows a few examples of this - from the roofs of Paris, to the facades of Amsterdam.
What kind of patterns arise if we look at the street grids in various cities? It’s not all orthogonal cross streets. Open Street Map data, and the tooling to manipulate it, seems to have evolved a lot since I looked at it a couple of years ago. Big props to Boeing for open sourcing OSMnx and sharing so much of his work. Maybe it’s time for a side project…
The longer I live in San Francisco, the more desensitized to homelessness I become. I hate that about this city, and I think about it daily. In my opinion, the biggest problem is NIMBYism - there’s an interesting parallel here with the rise in national isolationism, and some irony in San Francisco’s contradictory positions when flipping the scale from local to national. The second biggest problem, which feeds the first one, is a deep misunderstanding of second order effects - the world is dynamic, and it is hard to think of the change brought on by change itself. The solution is clear. Seattle was already the guinea pig. Let’s build more housing.
Same topic, but with a broader view, and the same messed up incentives. Noah argues that there are policy solutions that must be taken at the federal level to solve this. I agree, but I’m skeptic that we’ll see them any time soon.
We take details of urban design for granted. I bet you had never thought about the fact that someone had to put those little ramps on street corners. I surely hadn’t.
If you have watched Narcos, you should listen to this episode. Exploiting the dark past of a city for tourism is an interesting moral problem. Reviving the city is a more interesting challenge.
Gotta love when economic analysis beats bad arguments.
Krugman discusses how running a deficit vs. a surplus is about math and accounting and not about winning or losing, but just plain accounting. Then he goes on to compare international trade to inter-state trade. Inter-state and inter-city interactions are super interesting. I’ve always wondered why there isn’t more research along these lines. Made me wonder whether there is a dataset that could be used to replicate the methodology of Dirk Brockmann’s research on mobility and effective communities, but capturing trade instead of commerce.
If you went to Northwestern, Al’s was a staple. I walked in front of the shop daily, on my walk from home to school, and I probably had their sandwiches at least once a week while I lived in Evanston. This essay made me nostalgic about college life, and now I’m craving their croissant with baked ham and swiss.
These are re-branded and remodeled SROs, but people on both sides are doing mental gymnastics to convince themselves otherwise. On the one hand, you have the residents, signaling that their (probably annoying) neighbors are their best friends, and on the other you have the developers who are selling the renewal of these buildings as a good thing for the neighborhood (which I agree with) and a good thing for the residents (which, eh…). Honestly, I was suprised that the NYT was not more critical of this. It adds another layer to San Francisco’s patina of dystopia.
Lately, Roman Mars and his friends at 99PI have been doing great work explaining the evolution of cities, urban planning, and state sponsored development projects. This one on CIAM’s Bijlmer project reveals a lot of the problems of modernist architecture. Having just read Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Scott’s Seeing Like a State, made this extra interesting. Don’t miss part two.
This one, about Henry Ford’s failed project in Brazil was also fascinating. It’s packed with great tid bits of economics, culture, and incentives management. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something similar happening with American corporations setting out for a modern equivalent in China today.
SF spent $275M on homelessness efforts in 2017. Where did they go? This city is insane. Collective action problems like this one are exactly the kind of things governments are meant to address, but San Francisco is dropping the ball. (I fully agree with Stephen Merity, who pointed me to this article on Twitter)
This is true capitalism at work. At a certain point, the demographics and economics of small towns make it impossible for private businesses to survive. This is why we have governments! Certain human processes are just not profitable, no matter how necessary they are, and we ask the government to step in and do the work to align those incentives, or to put up its own offices instead. A relevant example of this is USPS which is not meant to be a profitable business, but a useful service. Capital flowing out of these towns is inevitable - it is up to local governments to figure out how to provide the necessary services for its people. If that means these little towns should not exist, so be it.
In this column, Smith discusses Richard Florida’s argument that “by creating a good environment for knowledge workers […] cities could attract the human capital that would bring in businesses and ultimately re-invigorate their economies.” As Noah points out, and Florida concedes, this helped many American cities kickstart a new phase of growth, but that came together with increased inequality, and other undesired side effects. I agree with Florida that cities should “invest in things that improve the lives of their poorer residents,” but I am skeptic of Noah’s claim that the federal and state governments should get more involved. There is too much local knowledge required to solve urban ailments, but in the end, these are problems of fragmentation, and short vs. long term incentives, both of which governments are well fit to solve…
…speaking of which. Krause makes good arguments of how to fix up San Francisco. Some make sense, and some don’t. I agree with him that it’s not a problem of resource constraints. It’s an issue of political will. There’s no BART going up to Marin because of NIMBYs, not because there was no money to build it. I remember listening to a similar arugment on the YIMBY pocdast, where they discussed how the arbitrary geographic divisions in the Bay Area’s landscape makes coordination basically impossible.
When I first read George, it just clicked. It seems beyond logical that windfalls should be taxed at a high rate, especially when said taxation is paired with a fixed market size. If you want to go back to the source, read this excerpt, but Noah’s piece is a good window into how the land lays today. Pun intended.
Using Airbnb ratings to visualize a visitor’s experience of a city is an interesting idea. Understanding neighborhoods, and social problems (just look at the Tenderloin in the SF visualization!)
Urban economics and gentrification are recurring topics on this blog. This post doesn’t bring much new to the conversation, but the explanation of feedback loops and how the durability of buildings relates to the length of these feedback loops is interesting.
Last night I attended an event about the interaction between technology and housing. As you’d imagine, this is a hot topic in San Francisco. One of the panelists pointed out that unlike other countries, in the US home ownership is seen as an investment, and not as a means of shelter. From her perspective, this philosophy has led regulators to crystallize a perverse set of incentives into law, in order to preserve the value of those investments, at a huge social cost. And I totally agree. When I see all the single-family two story homes in the western side of San Francisco, or the low rise buildings neighboring the downtown area, I just get more convinced that this is a policy issue, not an innovation issue. Having an economic boom should be a good thing!
Disagreeing over the facts, and these levels skepticism over quantitative analysis is almost laughable, but NIMBYs, and other critics of the pro-housing movement do have some good arguments. Here’s a quick summary.
Hannah has been reading a lot of books on gentrification lately, so we’ve been discussing the topic more than usual. What is the meaning of gentrification today in these neighborhoods, when the gay population were the original gentrifiers? I live a few blocks away from the Castro, so you could put me in the bad-guys bucket in this story. This is a hot-button issue, and I have no answers on what’s the right way to solve it, but I am convinced the real cause is policy, not the people moving in.
While the episode is framed as an argument against the game of golf, it really is about the strange taxation status of country clubs in California where the game is played. The reason it is specifically about California is Prop 13, and the extremely low property taxes that these clubs pay to the State. Under the proposition, land value is reassessed whenever the majority ownership changes hands, making for a really interesting argument on the nature of ownership under equity membership schemes of the clubs.
Planning urban development is hard, and sometimes, the unplanned spontaneous decisions of many lead us to interesting places that central planning couldn’t reach.
The writing has been on the wall for a while - is not a surprise - but the numbers are staggering: “42% of Chicago’s taxi fleet was not operating in the month of March […] The average monthly income per active medallion has dipped from $5,276 in January 2014 to $3,206 […] medallions hit a median sales peak of $357,000 in late 2013, just before Uber arrived on the scene in Chicago. In April, one medallion sold for just $35,000.”
This article was awesome. The basic idea it tries to get across is that because cities are multicultural and inclusive, they are also more productive. This vision of the city as a bastion of openness and tolerance, unlike the insular rural communities that voted for Trump, is not new, but the post sparked some interesting conversation online. For example see Noah Smith’s, Ross Douthat’s and Chris Arnade’s takes.
I am currently reading several books at once, and one of them is Seeing Like a State. So far, the book has presented a bunch of ideas about the inner workings of what the author calls high modern states. In this post, Rao (who is not the author of the book) summarizes one of the most interesting ideas in the book so far: legibility, or reorganizing society to make it more understandable, and thus more governable.
Not surprisingly, the past is different than we think it was. Thinking of the rise of segregation as a relatively new phenomenon is odd.
There are a slew of insane facts in this piece. For example, San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children of any of the largest 100 cities in the US. The rate for San Francisco is 13%, for New York is 21%, and for Chicago, 23%, which is also the overall average across the United States. The number of dogs is roughly the same as the number of kids: 120k. There is one additional student enrolled in the public school system for every 100 apartments sold in the city. The public school system has shrunk by 40% since 1970. More than 10 private schools have opened in San Francisco since 2009. This city really makes no sense.
Are we at the tail end of the up-cycle in San Francisco? The economic indicators make it seem like we might be. With rents flattening over the past few months, and unicorns falling from their sky-high valuations, the Bay Area might become a little less insane in the near future.
I was first exposed to Jane Jacobs through a class in college. We were assigned an excerpt of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and it was odd how much Jacobs’ line of thought, once extranous, was so internalized into our own views that many of us didn’t understand why her writing was interesting. After learning more about her, and putting things in historical perspective, it all made much more sense.
I lived in Chicago for 4 years, and I never saw levels of poverty and homelessness as intense as I see in San Francisco. However, both cities have poverty. Both cities have homelessness. In Chicago it is a matter of “out of sight, out of mind”, while in SF you see it day in and day out. Market Street and the Magnificent Mile are a stark contrast, but both cases require society to provide solutions. This article is missing a call to action.
Over the last few weeks, I started watching The Wire. The longer I live in this country, the more I understand the tensions around race and class rooted in years and years of history. I want to spend more time reading about this, and exploring the narratives of the various sides. Building empathy is hard work.
Not the usual Krugman. A really interesting take on how the Internet has changed cities. While he thinks of “back office operations,” I think of AWS and outsourced manufacturing.
A very cool project. Can’t go wrong with mapping + Python + 3D Printing.
As the source name implies, this is not about San Francisco, but Los Angeles. “…we can’t solve society’s mobility problems by trying to ensure that everyone gets a $250,000 car. We don’t need subsidized Lamborghinis, we need Honda Civics.”