Monday, July 19, 2010

Monday Morning Linkages

Today's links may not have a particular theme, beyond being as diverse in their complexity and range of issues as urbanism itself. Two things that I often focus on are governance/democracy and its various permutations and the transition between old capitalism and new capitalism, as any economy is the single most important dynamic affecting the form and function of our cities.

On to the show:

Derek Powazek citing Yochai Bentler on the revolutionary democratizing agent of the internet and its lamentations:
You know who’s sad about the gatekeepers losing control of the media? Nobody except the gatekeepers. If you care about democracy, thank your lucky stars for the internet, the most open forum for the free exchange of ideas ever invented.

I say: Let’s dance on the graves of the gatekeepers. Let’s build things never before possible. Let’s show what a giant network of brains can really do.

The internet as a single entity and a voice for the rabble isn't the only way this is happening. It's an empowering agent that fosters self-organization and self-customized connections, where we can eliminate the useless and cut out middle men of any economic transaction. There are gatekeepers in all industries and to some extent they are necessary. Language, for example. See the late David Foster Wallace's internal debate* regarding the issue of laissez-faire language evolution and the protectors of a true (potentially arbitrary) protocol of syntax.

Similarly, while gatekeepers can be right or wrong for a field, usually depends on their own abilities, often undermined by the foundations of capitalism as we know (knew?) it. Those same useless, wasteful, or stalling agents in the name of progress. One example, is the music industry, controlled by a few major record labels increasingly turns out more noise and less art, setting up barriers against real talent reaching a broader audience.

While occasionally, against the tide, some musical acts can rise to the top, but they typically need a martyr within that very industry to fall on a sword to give them a chance. The reason the music industry prevents talent from rising as it is naturally wont to do, is that talent can typically write. And writing music means royalties. And royalties mean on-going and perpetual revenue stream.

By cross-platforming between music and television with TV shows like American Idol, the music industry, largely engulfed by gigantic publicly traded companies, is able to build an audience by marketing to the willing masses. The show gives the audience a "stake" in the game by each having their favorite individual, the most popular gets ahead. The most popular will sell the most records because we** feel we have some level of personal connection to that person winning.

The industry, with staff writers on salary and under contract as to not receive royalties, then produces some factory-produced, focus-grouped modern-day elevator music for the all-singing, all-dancing puppet to perform.

It's also all that is wrong with capitalism. More usury and pyramid scheme than facility for talent to garner its true worth.

* Warning: You have to be an uber-nerd to dive into DFW's text.

**Author has never watched a single show of American Idol.

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While we're on the topic of changing economies, I've recently come across a fellow tweeter (twitterer? twit?) by the name of Umair Haque, who incidentally happens to write for the Harvard Business Review. I was struck first by Haque's tweets which always seem to mirror my own with regards to a profound generational, perceptual, and functional shift in the fundamental operational underpinnings of the economy (like in a good way).

Eventually I started reading his writings at the HBR, including this one on Apple. There are times when you think you can write and then there are times when you have similar thoughts in your head as to the author but only wish you could convey them as clearly and concisely as he does here:

Apple, when you think about it, is a microcosm of the global economy; a tiny but striking representation of both its strengths and its weaknesses. Apple mass produces "product" (with a smattering of services on top), mega-markets it (across mass media), and sells it in your local mall, mostly to developed-world "consumers."

Here are just a few of the downsides: The raw materials Apple uses are toxic to the environment; Apple's Chinese subcontractors have endured a spate of recent suicides; Apple takes advantage of a questionable Chinese exchange rate regime that effectively exports unemployment to the developed world (and subverts the very notion of "free trade"). And it does all this at a lightspeed pace of "innovation," which results in spirals of obsolescence; last year's junk heads, often, to the landfill. Finally, it's questionable whether Apple's products, as beautiful as they are, offer meaningful benefits to people. Are they just the technological equivalent of Jimmy Choos, the kind of stuff that underpins the consumption addiction at the heart of the global economic crisis in the first place?

Apple, to its great credit, strives mightily to minimize each and every one of these downsides. Yet, that it must do so is the very point. How different, as a linchpin of the economy, is Apple from the Ford of 1930, the GM of 1950, the P&G of 1980, or the GE of 1990? In economic terms, not so much: all are built on the same set of institutions: mass production, mega-marketing, "profit," hierarchy, opacity, "innovation." You know the score — and by now, you might just ask yourself: "isn't it time to move past the industrial age already?"

Just shut up and let it breathe, Patrick...

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Der Spiegel interviews Albert Speer, Jr. Yes, but no. Not the Albert Speer known for his overly scaled representations of Romanesque forms for Nazi Germany but his son who has become an accomplished architect himself and says that the slums of the 21st century are being built in Dubai (to which I completely agree, of course for reasons I will get to):

The highlights:

So, fundamentally, buildings such as the Burj Khalifa aren't inventions of the 21st century. Such plans existed earlier, it was just that they weren't feasible technically. Today, we have the means to build such towers. However that doesn't mean it's sensible to build them. It's purely a vanity project.

Overscaled product of dying economy: check.

Perhaps there are enough people in the world who would consider an apartment in such a building to be the cherry on top of their luxurious lifestyle. But this has nothing to do with normalcy or a sustainable lifestyle. When one builds a city -- at least I think so, as a German -- one builds it for the next 200 years rather than the next 10. Take the German city of Freiburg, for example -- the layout of the city is the same as it was in the year 1000. But in Dubai, it is likely that the majority of the buildings there will have to be torn down again before too long

Product of supply-side thinking rather than outgrowth of demand: check.

I am convinced that the slums of the 21st century are, to a certain extent, being built there. Dubai has two sides. On the one hand, it's the Gulf state that doesn't possess any oil but which has nevertheless managed to get its name on the world map within the space of 20 years... Many buildings were built quickly and on the cheap by speculators and are now standing empty.

No foundation for an economy to exist there, other than the epicenter for the black market of the world: check. Eventually, it will become far too seedy for the wealthy that are needed to fill those condos to want to even be there.

One builds cities for people... I believe that Dubai got intoxicated with the idea that everything is possible. The collapse of that system demonstrates that it wasn't the right way to go.

One predictive measure of whether the system of built form and how people interact with it will succeed or fail is Space Syntax, a career's worth of work by a British Professor in the name of adding objective regularities or constants to urban planning and architecture: city building. It is heavy stuff if you want to dive into it, but you can be sure that Dubai and the new portions of car-orientation lack the form where people can predictably and comfortably use the space. In the place of order, Dubai represents an application of American oppulance and profligacy.

We were once wealthy and powerful. Wealth and power then gets associated with the "right way to do things" rather than the actual reasons of that accumulation of wealth and power. Dubai and China are copying what we did wrong and painting a rosy picture of the future economy on top.

Their/Our mistake was in thinking that simply by pending money and siphoning off the circulation of that money somehow created wealth and prosperity. Only through creating and adding value creates wealth and prosperity. Copying the copyers is no way to rebuild our economy.

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And lastly, speaking of pyramid scheme real estate economies, while this only deals with property tax revenue, mixed-use development far and away outpaces single-use suburban development, much of which hasn't fully paid for the infrastructure it requires before it is torn down and land repurposed:

Next, Katz showed the results from retail properties. Here comes surprise No. 1.: Big box stores such as WalMart and Sam’s Club, when analyzed for county property tax revenue per acre, produce barely more than a single family house; maybe $150 to $200 more a year, Katz said. (Think of all those acres of parking lots.) “That hardly seems worth all the heat that elected officials take when they approve such development,” he noted in a related, written presentation.

Among retail properties, the biggest per-acre property tax revenue in his county, almost $22,000 per acre, comes from Southgate Mall, the county’s highest-end commercial property with Macy’s, Dillards and Saks Fifth Avenue department stores. That’s not so surprising.

But here’s the shocker: On a horizontal bar chart Katz showed, you see that zooming to the far right side, outpacing all the retail offerings, even the regional shopping mall, is the revenue from a high-rise mixed-use project in downtown Sarasota. It sits on less than an acre and contributes a hefty $800,000 in tax per acre. (Add in city property taxes and it’s $1.2 million.) “It takes a lot of WalMarts to equal the contribution of that one mixed-use building,” Katz noted.

If not just questioning our development product and form, this should also having us more closely examining our tax policies at a fundamental and philosophical level.