37 Comments
Oct 29, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

I <3 Alfred. Good luck on your race!

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Great piece, thank you. Presumably electric cargo bikes and bikes generally, along with escooters will be more used as people will use them for short, sub fifteen or twenty minute trips to schools, shops, work etc. Sidewalks will need modifications and adaptations, and traffic calming will be more prominent. We're seeing lots of this kind of adaptation in various European cities. Demand for safe cycle parking bays is going up. I assume multistory carpark will be adapted for other uses - perhaps greener in some way for certains of urban farming, photovoltaic installations, maybe even workshops and the like.

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You mentioned urban farming, which brought to mind for me a rather tangential concern with that whole idea - pollution. I'm not sure if I'm correct about this, but I would feel wary about eating anything grown in city air.

When I was young, my mother always told me to stop sucking on the lemongrass that grew beside the road because she said the pollution from the cars fell on it. Right now I live near the intersection of two freeways, and every month I have to clean a layer of black soot off my windowsill. This is in San Diego. So when I imagine eating something grown in a repurposed car park, I can only imagine consuming huge amounts of soot and tire rubber.

I can more easily imagine car parks being used for solar installations on top. The workshop idea sounds nice but I'm not sure the economics work out well. There are a lot of car parking structures.

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All good points - I guess maybe urban vegetation as a pollution and carbon sink, and for water management might be even more appropriate - depending on the city you're in. There are urban farms in many places that seem quite successful - but food monitoring and scale of production might be limiting steps. Maybe vertical greening on the outer surface might be as much as can be achieved. Worth thinking about, I guess. Some nice ideas here: https://www.theagilityeffect.com/en/article/10-ideas-for-repurposing-city-car-parks/ One idea I like very much is using them for urban logistics - removing heavy goods vehicles from streets, and dispersing their loads from such car parks using cargo bikes etc. Be nice to see lots of experimentation around these structures.

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Oct 29, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

We just visited the lovely Mt Pleasant SC, near Charleston, which allows use of golf carts. If feels so much more fun and casual because of it. There are pretty homes which are located fairly close to the small street, and there are no sidewalks, also giving it a less formal and approachable look and makes it easier to interact with people sitting on their porches.

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Oct 29, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

This doesn’t sound so far away. In some ways, it’s now.

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The future is already here, it's just not well-distributed yet.

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I love the drawings and the effort to imagine how to evolve what we have towards something better.

But... if Manhattan can’t get rid of private cars and street parking and all of their discontents, despite having the absolute most favorable environment in the US for doing so, how will mid-rise inner-suburbs? Because this vision imagines not just a slowing or halt to car ownership and use - which tends to happen organically through gridlock and parking exhaustion - but a significant decline despite many more people in the same area. I live in the same general area as Alfred and believe me there is nothing I would like more than to see 980 turned into a linear park, but I also drive on it regularly, because the East Bay lacks fast, clean, safe alternatives to the urban freeway network, and I see no prospect at all that they will be built.

That would need to be an interurban rail network, at least traffic-separated, and preferably on dedicated ROW or underground. It could be done, but will it? In part this is because of something that is taboo to discuss among progressives, which is that for transit to be an acceptable alternative to driving for adults wealthy enough that cost factors are insignificant, it needs to be clean and pleasant. BART in particular has had a longstanding problem with trains and stations being de facto homeless shelters (and... toilets). You cannot expect support for a radical expansion of transit at the expense of driving if people of above-average wealth cannot imagine using that transit, ESPECIALLY if traffic diminishes organically for unrelated reasons. Transit cannot be both a way to efficiently remove cars AND made to bear the costs of homelessness, drug abuse, and petty crime that it currently does.

And policing in general is a major issue with densification. There may well not be more crime per capita, but there will be more crimes in total, and more sub-criminal nuisance behaviors that affect neighbors, not because “those people” moved in - I am well-aware that wealthier neighbors can be very annoying - but simply because there are more people.

To ground this: my neighborhood has one crack-smoking drunk (who IS housed, in a room in a run-down building neighboring my house), who moves from one little nest to another in the bushes of front yards or little bits of city-owned land with trees. She leaves a mess behind, but it’s manageable - I have cleaned up her bottles and other garbage more times than I could count. If there were even three like her, it would be unmanageable and I’d be calling the cops instead. (Which I never have, with her, because she’s not a physical threat to herself or others, and her behavior at this level can be accommodated.)

I’m not a NIMBY - I would welcome apartment buildings replacing many of the defunct or low-value commercial lots in my neighborhood. Nor am I a fan of the war on drugs. But before we can live in an urban transit paradise, and even if we actually solve homelessness (which I think is very achievable), we need to get real about how to reduce antisocial behavior in public, including drug use, drunkenness, noise nuisances, vandalism, and petty crime. Otherwise people will correctly see their cars as a refuge from it all.

The two alternatives to reconciling that are that we return to urban decay, or we allow wealth to actually displace every poor person from the city cores. Wealthy people are powerful - you know, they have money. They’ve long kept “their” neighborhoods (Pac Heights, Piedmont) clear of poor people and urban nuisances. They will expand those boundaries as far as they’ll go. And it’s not an avoidable process necessarily; I’m engaged in it myself, I bought a renovated house in a marginal but improving area (because I needed a house); I don’t WANT my poorer neighbors to leave, but from the flyers I get, that sentiment certainly isn’t universal.

The TLDR is, we have to make much more progress on solving some of the social nuisance problems as well, otherwise densification will stall.

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It remains frustrating to me how disconnected these people are from the reality of remote work. People are going to want bigger homes when everyone is working from home. These smaller-than-average-detached-house apartments aren’t going to cut it.

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Oct 29, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

Those bigger homes for remote work may not be in the city as much as around it, or anywhere.

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Despite to talk of multigenerational housing and group living arrangements, I think the real assumption is singletons or DINKs or maybe a couple with 1 kid.

But cities have almost always been demographic sinks, and I don't see that changing.

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An insightful vision of the future city. But the future of rural areas is another big question. Rural living has been changed by networked computer communications, making remote work, online shopping, telehealth, and distance learning possible. Simultaneously, interest in locally grown food has increased, and folks are questioning the sustainability and quality of the products of industrialized agriculture, which is changing how crops are produced and distributed. Awareness of the danger of infectious diseases has made dispersed living more attractive. These pressures are changing the rural landscape, but no one seems to think about it.

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But agriculture is not limited to rural areas. Urban farms/vertical farming is definitely sustainable-- particularly with the decrease of petroleum powered vehicles.

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The question on urban farming is whether urban land is best dedicated to producing bulky commodities that have low values per unit vs. other types of production. In almost every case, and assuming transportation costs remain low, the answer is no.

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In the high-density parts of downtowns, I wonder if it would be feasible to basically build a series of platforms over the existing roads, for pedestrian and maybe cyclist/scooters only, and have many/most of the shops have their entrances there instead of at the ground level? A kind of street above the street.

That way the roads would still exist and you could use them to some extent (stocking the stores, mass transit, etc), but you could have a pedestrian area as well?

It might also help when/if climate change gets worse and sea levels rise and storm surges result in flooding.

I'd be surprised if this hadn't been done somewhere already, so it likely isn't a new concept by any means...

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Even in suburbs... I would love to see sidewalks installed along streets on the yards where there is easement. I know some homeowners would object but honestly, I feel kids should have a safe place to walk in the neighborhoods as having some additional living units added to homes will increase traffic (as well as the increased delivery vans and bots). I, personally wish to put an addition on my ground level to possibly house my inlaws as they become more infirm, even my son and his family if they need shelter prior... and in the future, my husband may have increased difficulty ascending the stairs-- we don't want to have to transition to assisted living/nursing home as the cost is impossible. A coworker told me that before he turns 70 (he is 59 now), he is divesting all his assets after this past year having to find a safe competent facility for his mother with Alzheimers and selling her home.

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In a city of the future

It is difficult to concentrate

Meet the boss, meet the wife

Everybody's happy, everyone is made for life

In a city of the future

It is difficult to find a space

I'm too busy to see you

You're too busy to wait

But I'm okay, how are you?

Thanks for asking, thanks for asking

I'm okay, how are you?

I hope you're okay too

Every one one of those days

When the sky's California blue

With a beautiful bombshell I throw myself into my work

I'm too lazy, been kidding myself for so long

I'm okay, how are you?

Thanks for asking, thanks for asking

I'm okay, how are you?

I hope you're okay too

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Would have thought that tech development, AI and manufacturing automation meant that high density living is likely to die out. Other than young single professionals and rich old people, nobody willingly wishes to live in a city

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Oct 29, 2022·edited Oct 29, 2022

A _ton_ of people prefer living in an environment that's higher density than American suburbs. That's why even in cities that are less dense, you'll see _enormous_ demand, driving up prices, for areas that are dense enough to have walkable amenities. You don't necessarily need high-rises, but to hit the level of density where you can get most of what you need within a fifteen-minute walk, or a cargo-bike ride to bring home some groceries, you do need mid-rise stuff. Much of Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, and Tokyo look like this, outside their respective downtowns.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnKIVX968PQ

As Matt Yglesias often says, this isn't necessarily a majority of the population -- but it's obviously a lot more people than we presently can accommodate with the existing neighborhoods that meet this level of density. If we legalized building like this, then we'd see more such neighborhoods get built until it stopped being profitable.

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Depends on what kind of city. The current crime trends can be reversed, the sound pollution can be decreased, and the educational issues can be resolved. These are all fixable problems given the will of our voters and legislators.

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Oct 29, 2022·edited Oct 29, 2022

If you look at per-population rates, crime is actually even worse in a lot of red state exurbs than it is in more urbanized areas. The rate of violent crimes is higher in Oklahoma than it is in New York.

This is not to say there are no problems -- the upward trend the last few years has not reversed all of the gains since the peak in the early '90s, but it is still alarming and we should take it seriously. Investing in something like a "Police for America" program, similar to "Teach for America", is an interesting idea. https://www.slowboring.com/p/police-for-america

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Per-population crime is not the right measure. Per-neighborhood crime is. A resident's feeling of safety depends on how many crimes they hear about in the locations they frequent, not the percentage of their neighbors that are criminals or their own chances of being victimized.

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Nov 1, 2022·edited Nov 1, 2022

The right measure for _what_?

Like, my whole point was that people's _feelings_ about these things are disconnected from the _reality_ of the probability of becoming a vicitm. If your "neighborhood" is some exurban McMansion sprawl that only has a couple hundred people, you may not hear about the guy in the next subdivision over who beats his wife to death.

If, like me, you live in a somewhat denser suburb in a major metro, where you can walk corner to corner across a 5x7 block neighborhood in perhaps ten minutes, and you have something like 2000 neighbors, then yeah, it's more likely you'll hear about whatever crimes are happening, by way of that hive of scum and villainy, NextDoor.

Liberals are going to have to find a way to deliver the _feeling_ of being safe, rather than only the reality. But it's pretty irritating that right-wing media gets away with simply _lying_ about the reality.

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Yeah, to clarify I'm talking about the right measure to predict feelings of safety. Feeling of safety is what matters politically, and I'd argue that in terms of quality-of-life terms it's a major issue too. Living in fear of crime every day is a serious issue, and it impacts everyone, not just the actual victims. There might even be an utilitarian argument that feeling of unsafety does more harm than actual crimes, because so many more people are harmed. I suppose that what I'm getting at is that feelings can't be ignored as "just feelings, not reality" because feelings are real qualia that matter.

I think Democrats have been practically ignoring the unsafe feelings. For example, the message I've heard about mentally ill vagrants or drug addicts is that we should ignore them because the actual rate of attacks from mentally ill people is low. But that ignores the fear people feel from these erratic people. Providing the feeling of safety in addition to the reality of safety requires being more aggressive on some matters that might seem minor. For example, cleaning up people peeing on the sidewalk, or people shooting up on the street. Those aren't public menaces but they create feelings of unsafety.

I think liberals take the attitude that they can take the high road by punishing only serious crimes and showing mercy to the minor crimes. That would make sense if the second-order effects of widespread minor crime could be ignored. But minor crimes make people feel unsafe, so we can't allow them either.

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My own position on this is that we should deal with people being intoxicated or mentally ill in public using _something other than police_, but should deal with them nonetheless.

https://www.auros.org/issues/let-the-police-do-police-work

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Are you referring to NYC or the total rate of crime in nys?

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I don't believe that actually matters -- on the latest numbers I could quickly dig up on Google, Oklahoma state rate is 458.6 per 100k population. NY City is 456.4 -- close, but still lower. NY State is 363.8.

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It is not clear that the "eds and meds" economic model that has replaced the previous manufacturing/distribution economic model of cities has legs. Most health care is directed to senior citizens....a bad economic investment for a nation. And there is growing evidence that higher education may have already reached "peak student" as citizens realize what a bad investment it is for many of us. How long will it be before we collectively realize that these "endothermic" segments of the economy cannot be sustained while continuing to provide for all other needs?

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The future cities are already in China while the Americans are still dreaming for their future cities.

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Single stair building sounds like a fire-hazard to me.

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Noah, you should blog about how tech can be used to preserve biodiversity, since this is a tech optimist blog

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Bringing imagination and creativity to urban planning is the first step in freeing society from policy solutions that grow out of a bureaucratic approach. The next step is to get buy-in from developers and private financial interests.

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