Category Archives: New York

The time-space economics of renting location assets

“The location of individuals determines their job opportunities, living amenities, and housing costs.”

According to Esteban Rossi-Hansberg and Adrien Bilal, an economics professor at Princeton University and PhD student, rather than buying accommodation, possibly to sell at a profit in a few years,  tenants can be thought of as investing in a location asset.  And like any asset, you need to ask “what are you getting out of it?”  According to Lifehacker,

Many people rent in places with a high cost of living for the job opportunities, good schools, cultural offerings, etc. (On a personal note… living in New York not only puts me at the epicenter of the media world, but in close proximity to any number of classes and workshops hosted by experts in every profession imaginable.)

“Buying more of the asset involves moving to better locations that cost more today but give better returns tomorrow, while selling the asset implies moving to cheaper locations with little opportunities,” the authors write.

CityLab breaks down the paper’s argument:

[W]hen you choose to move to a pricier and amenity-laden city, you’re transferring resources into the future—i.e., saving!—by establishing yourself near opportunities for higher pay and human capital, Rossi-Hansberg and Bilal argue. On the flipside, when you relocate to a community with a lower cost of living but fewer economic advantages, you’re pulling resources into the present that you might have gained in the future—i.e., borrowing.

I am an unusual case: I rent an apartment and I own a house so I see both sides of this equation.  Our critique of this comfortable view from the American Ivy League, parroted not too critically by a planning website, is that that not everyone can afford to “save” in this sense.  Also being forced to rent rather than buy is reflection of reduced choice and means in general.  It is more likely, in most North American cities, that renting places one amongst other disadvantaged people.  They may be artists on the cusp of a great break, or you might be a founding member of an activist group of the economically excluded, but they are unlikely to be successful entrepreneurs who are looking for workers. (Anecdotally, it is harder to create social bonds amongst residents in large rental apartment buildings, and easier to interact with neighbours on the street, possibly because children and pets add to the density of the web of social interactions and act as social lubricants between households).

Statistically it is much  more likely that tenants have less quality living environments, particularly in relation to childrens’ amenities, are more stressed by conflicts with landlords and unpredictable rent increases, and do not have a major asset that they can borrow against or lever as a means of responding to unexpected expenses and emergencies, opportunity costs such as tuition or even entrepreneurial initiatives.

The strategic question remains unanswered: how to make the situation work for rather than against you.  And, how would this argument fair in the case of suburban locations with long commutes, rural dwellers or urban squatters?  Turning this into an economic geography argument distracts us from other non-market decision factors such as quality of life, the ethnic makeup of the community or aesthetic factors that affect ones’ everyday sense of wellbeing.

This is a practical example of a debate that is both temporal and spatial.  It involves not only the geography of where one lives but of land speculation and rent trends into the future.  We call this elastic 4D field of rental rates, time, location and land price a topology because it combines space and time in more than 3D (non-Euclidean geometry) fluid space where these trends may move against each other to affect an outcome .

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

 

 

London’s NeoColonial Skyline

The Guardian’s architecture writers have been fretting for a number of years over the “jumble” of highrise office towers that have gone up in close proximity to each other.  The Guardian provides a flash interactive view here, built on a 3D model of London created by Vertex and currently shown on their homepage.  The focus is on sightlines at ground level.  However, missing is a more direct social analysis of the buildings and gardens high aloft the ground as inaccessible, private vertical enclaves.  Even the blocking of solar access will one day come to be seen as a major gap in the reporting.

This “tortured heap of towers” seems to be exactly a continuation of the ad hoc quality of the development of London over centuries.  The unifying elements of brick, building height and the twisting streets, were most disturbed in the the modernist mid-century. This is both good and bad.

In the twenty-first century, the shift in height and use of glass as building cladding is the most obvious provocation, not that they jostle together in a tight group.  The domestication of brute forms through nicknaming buildings in the media, such as the gherkin or cheese-grater, is a relatively unique London phenomenon amongst megacities.   Cute names elide the identity of building owners and builders who are amongst the worlds “least environmentally friendly companies” according to the Guardian and major purchasers of land globally.  In as much as cute names obfuscate the extraction and destruction of resources in one place and the creation of profitable facilities and environments elsewhere, the architecture of highrise office developments could come to be seen as a symbol of neoliberal economic relations that have a neocolonial quality.  It would be nice to see this level of analysis which spells out some of the implication.

The popularity of this naming distracts from the unifying idea of a skyline, however.  The skyline could be thought of as a kind of 4th dimension not captured in the 3D flyover.  New York promoted the skyline of Manhattan but is still coming to terms with the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the filling back in of this cavity in the vista.  In this sense, the buildings do overshadow London, not only physically but in the virtual world of media and place-images.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

City as Bicycle Space

Genre de Vie is about the senses, urban experiences and transit.  It documents how urban life is enhanced and empowered by the bicycle — a simple interface to experiencing and accessing the city.  Bicycling becomes attractive when it is safe and the fastest way to access the city.   These two requirements involve providing separate infrastructure for bicycles: physically separated lanes, convenient bike rental/sharing and integrated networks of bicycle routes throughout the city.  By bicycle, I can get across Paris in under 40 minutes, impossible by almost any other mode of transport.

Genre de Vie, filmed in Copenhagen and New York by Jorri Spoelstra and Sven Prince of Photobooth Works and Faithful to the Subject, offers insights on how we can make our own cities immediately more livable and enjoyable for ourselves.

IMG_1234-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Liveability and the Right to the City

 for the second year running, Australia’s political capital was named the best city in the world by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), a result that made northern hemisphere observers wonder if, down under, they were looking at the rankings upside down.

Canberra is a deathly place. It is a city conceived as a monument to the roundabout and the retail park, a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges, dotted with puffed-up state buildings and gigantic shopping sheds.  (The Guardian 12 Dec. 2014)

“Liveability” and “liveable cities” do not have anything to do with the right the city, Lefebvre’s vision of cities as oeuvres or collective “works of art”.  The Guardian complains “The Economist Intelligence Unit puts Melbourne in first place, followed by Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, Adelaide and Calgary. There is never any mention, on any list, of London or New York, Paris or Hong Kong. There are no liveable cities where you might actually want to live. ”  This is a common complaint, for liveability means public spaces that are in practice new, untroubled by historical memory, and often-times actually private property “lawns” and fountains in front of office towers, “lobbies without walls” as Oliver Wainwright sums up.

“Liveability” is a dream of an urban communion in the consumption of public spaces as a collective good.  Public sidewalks are privatised as outdoor cafe spaces to enhance the spectacle of enjoyment.  But the resulting urban environments are not platforms for self-expression, collective memory or political voices.  Contra apostles of “new urbanism”, bodies do not assemble here but pass through in a pedestrian transit vision of public space and social order or they pay to stay.   The architects protest that they are powerless, just following orders of capitalist owners.  But this total vision suits the paternal order that sets these bodies in motion, atomised and probably texting, at the feet of monumental buildings.  In Wainwright’s article, Gehl is quoted saying “It’s good for democracy if people can meet each other on the street.”  But people are discouraged from any collective encounter in these streets.  In this sense, is “liveability” totalitarian?

Totalitarian: Lacking rights to redeveloped urban spaces, has there not been a new enclosure of the urban commons?  Totalitarian: what sets limits or counterbalances a version of liveability that privileges a professional class of well-heeled “Bobos” that are “bohemian” only in their own eyes?  As consumption goes online and is thus increasingly individualised or enclosed in the “telephone booth-sociability” of online tweets and comments, these unpublic spaces become a key ritual site of belonging for inhabitants of the cities of OECD.  It confers on some the rights to these spaces and excludes others that are not “properly” active economically, bodies that do not comply, are disabled or disordered.

As consumption goes online and is thus increasingly individualised or enclosed in the “telephone booth-sociability” of online tweets and comments, these unpublic spaces become a key ritual site of belonging for inhabitants of the cities of OECD.  However, Occupy and the revolutions of the second decade of this century demonstrate that it is in the moments of political ferment when these spaces are occupied by people that there is a self-recognition by the public as a public and as citizens.

How about a liveability index based on the total number of park benches — ideally “sleepable” benches — the absence of loitering rules, and the number of public events and demonstrations held annually?

-Rob Shields, University of Alberta