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Young families typically leave cities for the suburbs. Here’s how to keep them downtown.

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Urbanist Brent Toderian explains how Vancouver held onto its families.

In North America, we take it for granted: When couples have kids, they move out of the city to the suburbs.

The trend has only accelerated lately. Some of the most attractive and fastest growing cities — San Francisco, Portland, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC — have seen their numbers of children plunge in recent years. My home city, Seattle, is now the fastest growing big city in the country ... and has the second-lowest number of households with children. (According to Governing magazine, as of 2015, 19.6 percent of Seattle’s 304,564 households have children. In Laredo, Texas, it’s 55.3 percent.)

Should cities try to keep families around? Some urbanophiles argue that they’re not worth it. Families cost cities more in services, spend less in the economy, and produce less tax revenue than affluent young single professionals. Cities that want to grow fast do it by building studios and one-bedrooms and drawing on endlessly renewable mobs of Youngs.

But few city leaders take that attitude. They see families as an important source of economic stability (hot industries come and go) and social vibrancy. You can read a lament about DC here, one about Denver here, one about Seattle here.

All these articles go on and on about amenities families enjoy, but the root of the problem is that families need bigger homes, while developers have every incentive to squeeze in as many small homes as possible, to maximize their profit per square foot. Unless cities step in, that’s what developers will keep doing.

Yet somehow, Vancouver has thousands of families with children living in its downtown. I asked urbanist Brent Toderian, who was Vancouver’s Chief Planner from 2006 to 2012, how the city did it. He says that there are three elements of family-friendly city design: bigger housing, amenities for families, and a safe, welcoming public realm. (More of our conversation, which ranged over a number of urbanist topics, here.)

Vancouver’s waterfront.	(Brent Toderian)
Vancouver’s waterfront, never without strollers.

David Roberts

You’ve said that children are an “indicator species of a healthy downtown.” How did Vancouver make its downtown so kid-friendly?

Brent Toderian

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: We assume families don’t want to live downtown, we therefore don’t design for family, and, sure enough, families don't come, or they don't stay. It is remarkable to me how often I still hear that families don't want to live downtown, or in urban places.

[Vancouver has] somewhere between 5,600 and 7,000 kids downtown, by design. Vancouver found that if you design specifically for families, you will achieve numbers of kids that will be a challenge for you. A good problem to have, right?

There are three parts to designing for families and kids, and you have to do all three.

The first is to ensure there are homes that can actually fit families. If your homes can’t fit families, you don’t get families, period. That generally comes down to the number of bedrooms, though it can also be about the size of the apartment or home.

For decades, Vancouver has been requiring that 25 percent of units in all major projects have two bedrooms or more. And there's been a debate for decades about whether that requirement should include three bedrooms. I, for one, have believed for some time that it should. I think Vancouver is finally moving in that direction.

David Roberts

If there's a market, why do developers have to be pushed so hard to do it?

Brent Toderian

Because it's not as profitable, per square foot, as a small unit. Developers will cater to the more profitable market segment, even if there is a strong market interest for two- and three-bedroom units.

But it's not the job of planning to maximize the profit of developers. It's the job of planning to determine the vision for the city and the downtown, set clear expectations, and let those expectations help clarify land value for developers.

Developers will argue that two- and three-bedroom units are not viable, but it’s false. Economic analysis shows that two- and three-bedroom units can be less profitable than one-bedrooms or studios, but that's not the same as saying that they aren’t viable.

It starts with asking yourself: Do you want families downtown and in urban places? A number of cities say they do, yet they’re not willing to do what’s necessary to make it happen, such as regulate. That’s particularly a problem in the United States, where regulation is a dirty word. It’s that ideology around regulation that can often keep cities from progressing.

It’s a very simple policy to require the number of bedrooms. It’s only anti-regulation ideology that holds cities back. If you aren’t getting families, and you want families, regulation is necessary.

David Roberts

What is part two?

Brent Toderian

Point two is, even if you have the homes, you need the services and amenities that support family living. Those start with daycare and schools. We put a lot of attention into schools, but you can’t underestimate the importance of daycare. We [in Vancouver] largely use density bonusing to pay for daycare [density bonusing explained here], so we have pretty good daycare service by comparison to other cities, although we are constantly struggling to keep up with demand.

We just opened our second elementary school in the downtown peninsula, and we have a third planned, and a Catholic school planned just off the peninsula. They are already over-subscribed. We still have more kids than we have school space.

Crosstown, a vertical elementary school in downtown Vancouver. (Brent Toderian)
Crosstown, a new “vertical elementary school” in downtown Vancouver.

Point three is, you design the public realm for kids and families, because that means it will work for everyone. You have to think about all age groups: the parents with their strollers, young kids and their need for playgrounds, and then teenagers and their distinctive needs, which are different than those of younger kids. Teenagers are shaping up to be our biggest challenge in downtown Vancouver.

David Roberts

What do teens want in a city?

Brent Toderian

The most common answer I hear is “hangout space.” But that can become a bit of a lazy catch-all for the kinds of spaces that teenagers end up using by default, like malls, un-programmed parks, or transit stations, because there's nothing that's been made with them in mind. If there's nothing better, they'd go to any place they think other teenagers already are.

Or you can have places actually made for teenagers, preferably involving teenagers in the design process — things like skateboard parks; plazas with activities like music and games for teens instead of young children; places designed to help teens interact with each other and the space itself in cool ways (ice-breakers, conversation starters, and "show-off" opportunities); spaces with food as an option. And of course don't forget the wifi.

You also have to recognize that once your kids are at their teenage years, the number of bedrooms in your home might not be enough. We often hear about families in Vancouver not feeling the pressure to move out with two or even three kids when they’re small, but once they become big, the pressure increases. Housing to fit not just young kids but teenagers is critical, and support and services specifically for teenagers are important.

So that’s the three elements: housing that fits families; support for families, such as schools and daycare; and designing the public realm for kids.

David Roberts

Fitting families into dense downtowns is challenging for all kinds of reasons. At the most concrete level, what’s the right way to integrate residences into busy areas?

Brent Toderian

For Vancouver, the “city at eye-level” starts as simply as: no blank walls. We make sure that there are real, active things at grade, as a starting point — either retail stores or residential doors. Most urbanists, I think, default to stores.

David Roberts

That does seem to be the model that’s getting built in Seattle — a condo plopped on top of a retail row.

Residential doors at street grade in downtown Vancouver. (Brent Toderian)
Residential doors at street grade in downtown Vancouver.

Brent Toderian

And if you can do that, that’s great. But what we found is that retail doesn’t always work, nor should it be the default assumption. In downtown Vancouver, we have retail streets and non-retail streets — streets where the ground-floor use is expected to be retail or commercial, and other streets where we don’t want those uses at grade, because it could dilute the success of the retail street. You have to have a strong sense of how much retail space your population can support.

But I think many urbanists feel they don’t have good plan B, because what else can you put at grade?

David Roberts

What else indeed?

Brent Toderian

Surely in our walk you noticed our housing. What we are good at in Vancouver, because we’ve figured out the details, is housing at grade — doors at grade. Most other cities still aren’t doing that, although there’s incredible historical precedent for it, like the New York brownstones. Sesame Street, for godsakes, right?

We always have something active at grade, but in most cases, it’s not retailing, it’s residential doors.

David Roberts

What are some guidelines for residential doors at street level?

Brent Toderian

It starts with designing your building to externalize the front door. That should go without saying, but it seems to be the problem with most architecture — it’s been designed to be internal, and the housing is internal, off the elevator or off the hallway. It’s not off the street.

So it starts with the goal of having doors and windows on the street — Jane Jacobs’s “eyes on the street.”

doors at street grade in Vancouver (Brent Toderian)
Doors and windows on the street; semi-private and public spaces clearly delineated.

There are ways you can do it badly. The number one way we’ve observed is to do it flush.

David Roberts

Right up against the sidewalk?

Brent Toderian

Flush to the sidewalk or even submerged. That’s very common in American and Australian cities. It’s wrong because you can see into the amenities space in front of the door. You can see into the windows. So people don’t use the amenities space and they close the blinds on the windows. And what you get is a de facto blank wall.

Whereas, if you elevate [entrances], just a few steps — three or four steps — and design a semi-private amenities space, people will use it. They’ll keep their windows open.

You have to delineate, through design, the private, the semi-public, and the public. And you have to do each realm well.

David Roberts

Do those units do well in Vancouver? Do people like living off the street?

Brent Toderian

Yup. They sell. About 25 percent of our units have to be two-bedroom or more. Usually those at-grade units are part of that calculation; they usually have two or three bedrooms. They’re often the family-oriented units, and having them right on the street is a positive thing. It not only makes the street safer, it makes the street more comfortable and lively.

The presence of a door creates this possibility that something will happen! [laughter] Who will come out of that door? What will they have with them? No one even has to come out of the door for the presence of the door to make the street more interesting and more comfortable. It’s that possibility, that potential.

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economyaki
32 days ago
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FINRA Issues Research on Securitized-Asset Liquidity

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WASHINGTON — The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Office of the Chief Economist today posted a new Research Note on liquidity in structured products, complementing an earlier report on corporate-bond liquidity.

The new analysis focused on two categories of products: real-estate securities, including mortgage-backed securities in residential housing and commercial buildings, as well as collateralized mortgage products and to-be-announced forward mortgages; and asset-backed securities in credit cards, automobiles, student loans and other miscellaneous products.

The research identified positive and negative market developments. Specifically, the number and volume of new issues of securitized assets decreased sharply after the financial crisis and have not yet rebounded to pre-crisis levels, while trading volumes are down for most but not all securitized asset categories. However, bid-ask spreads are down in almost every category, the price impact of trades has fallen and the size of dealer networks has remained fairly stable, although interdealer trading has declined. The analysis also found little correlation in liquidity between securitized assets and corporate bonds, with the exception of collateralized mortgage obligations.

“Together with our earlier work on corporate bonds, this analysis deepens and broadens our collective understanding of these important markets, and contributes to informed decision making among securities firms, investors, issuers and regulators,” said Jonathan Sokobin, Chief Economist at FINRA.

FINRA is dedicated to investor protection and market integrity. It regulates one critical part of the securities industry – brokerage firms doing business with the public in the United States. FINRA, overseen by the SEC, writes rules, examines for and enforces compliance with FINRA rules and federal securities laws, registers broker-dealer personnel and offers them education and training, and informs the investing public. In addition, FINRA provides surveillance and other regulatory services for equities and options markets, as well as trade reporting and other industry utilities. FINRA also administers a dispute resolution forum for investors and brokerage firms and their registered employees. For more information, visit www.finra.org.

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economyaki
44 days ago
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How the MTA Got So Broke

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Everyone who has ever sat on a stalled subway train knows that the MTA, the agency responsible for keeping New York City transportation running, is broken. Why? We asked MTA employees to tell us.

We’re going to begin with some historical perspective on the big picture—how the MTA got so decrepit to begin with. The following is from a veteran of the New York City Office of Management and Budget, who was privy to the broader financial planning for transportation that took place during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations:

I’ve worked in a number of places, and while City government is not run as efficiently as Wall Street, it is run far better than non-profits or cultural institutions, and on par with many public companies that are swallowed up by their own bureaucracy. The MTA is behind, certainly, but still better than any non-profits I’ve seen.

Around 1999, the MTA passed a 5 year capital plan which was financially preposterous. The dotcom boom was still pushing Wall Street, but with City and State endorsement, they basically expected funding to continue to come in at Madoff-like rates, as it had been doing in the late 90s. This was the timing of crazy golf course expansion and whatnot, where it seemed like 12% annual growth might be permanent. (Ridiculous, 8% is what’s used for pension modelling, and even that is a little rosy, if you’re doing any long term planning beyond 6%, you’re nuts). That’s when all the expansion projects hit: 7 train, east side access (still waiting), second avenue (hurrah!), Advanced Signalling, and if you remember the whole subway fleet was replaced (adieu, redbirds) and new railroad cars. There was also a whole new bus fleet, but no one thinks of them as real transit.

The problem was that the financial boom of the 90s had only let the MTA catch up on maintenance and get the system back to a reasonably functional state... That 2000 Capital plan basically assumed they could do the massive expansion AND keep a maintenance record like they had in the 90s, when they were luckily flush. I recall at the pre-meeting, when all us wonks from City, State, and the MTA sat around without the bosses, we’d all done our research and realized we’d built an unsustainable plan, but The Bosses and Politicians were already out there, and it was a done deal. We could show them all the dire portraits of the future, but they had ribbon cuttings to get to, and things were awesome in 1999.

Of course, 9-11 and Lehman brothers and Sandy add to the narrative, but there was never going to be a permanent boom economy, I don’t know if the ups and downs of the last 20 years are any different than the average of any random 2 decades. And while the City still had some growth, Bloomberg was only interested in real estate and added nothing to infrastructure. Even though the City was growing, its financial position didn’t really get better or worse than the rest of the country, you can’t sell bonds to people with no cash, they didn’t raise taxes to pay for the growing City, and the MTA was still burdened by that 2000 plan. So something had to give, the maintenance funding wasn’t terrible, but the Politicians began to think of the system as “fixed” because the City is still generally clean and better than the 70's and 80s. So they could splurge on shiny new things.

The payoff (or whatever you call a negative payoff) only begins to strike now, in the infrastructure world. Projects take a very long time, and infrastructure ages very slowly. But when it goes, it goes, and it takes another decade to get all the funding and do all the work to bring it back to par. You’ll get tons of stories from guys on the ground who will blame their bosses right up the chain, but those bosses are sitting there with $20 to fix $200 worth of problems. If it was $30 worth of problems, then yes, creative management might be able to do something, but they’re not close to that. So everyone is miserable, faces the same pressure, and going up the chain to the Mayor and Governor, they all know there’s no money coming. You’ll get lots of horror stories from the guy who just needed a $20 part to save a disaster, but he doesn’t realize that his boss has to give that part to 10 different guys. I’ve been that boss, every employee thinks he can save the day, but I can’t do jackshit to help him. Journalists love to find the stories of the government employee who misused a company car, but they couldn’t care less about a general funding shortfall (I don’t blame them, it’s not interesting, or easy to get anyone to understand why it matters.)

This isn’t just the subways, you’ll see it in all American infrastructure over the next decade. There was a major build in the 30s, and then again in the 60s. (New York and the whole northeast are especially susceptible to this schedule) Things like bridges are sold under 30 years bonds (sometimes 40) which reflects their useful life. This can be pushed to 50 or 60 years, but at some point, as with any maintenance (like your car), you’re paying more to fix it than just throw it out and get a new one. So since our infrastructure was last really built in the 60's, that “some point” is basically now, where we can slap on all the duct tape we want, but it’s rebuild time.

Of course, there is no rebuild coming. You can call up your local government contact and ask them for the rebuild rates on roads and bridges and watermains and sewers, you’ll soon discover that many are on 200 and 300 years cycles. This isn’t re-paving roads, this is “tear it up and build a new one.” You’ll have to trust me that bridges are only good for 50 years, but common sense should tell you that a road probably needs to be rebuilt more often than every 200 years. We can blame the GOP and tea partiers all we want, but there’s not a single Democratic politician proposing anywhere near the infrastructure funding we need, even if there were, there’s not a single voter out there who would vote for the kinds of tax hikes we’d need to address it, we’re just not close.

It’s possible that there could be a few disasters that hit the news and make someone care. The Brooklyn Bridge isn’t going to fall down, but maybe a few highway overpasses give out in the next big storm. Even this is unlikely, a more likely result is that a lot of them are simply closed over the next 10 years when they just can’t be fixed fast enough. I only cite bridges here because its hard to demonstrate a subway or road “disaster.” When the subway signals go down, the train simply stops. Roads just crumble and ruin your car. Neither makes for good TV. And even if you miraculously got people to care, it still would take 10 years to ramp up because you need cranes and tunneling tools and whatnot that aren’t just sitting around, you have to take a few years just to build the infrastructure you need to build the infrastructure. (Sidenote, there’s an interest schedule across the globe of mega projects, because in the whole world there are only a handful of the massive cranes and barges and tunneling equipment you need, so the whole world can only build yea-much cool shit at the same time). We got a glimpse of that in the aughts when China was building so much that concrete and steel prices became prohibitive, and noticeably reduced our own domestic construction, the number of projects was probably reduced by about 15% simply because of increased prices, putting us further behind schedule.

This is the kind of stuff we’d model out for kicks 10 and 20 years ago, as we wonks are wont to do. No one was looking at it, not that they could do anything. So while you’ve probably heard of unfunded social security and pensions and medicare and so on, American infrastructure is just another thing to add to the list. The difference is the other items are abstract and just drift into whatever we conceive of as Poverty and declining living standards, but the infrastructure will fall down (or you’ll sweat out some subway rides), so we’ll see it. We built a ton of shit during our boom years, mostly ignored it, but compounded that problem by essentially sticking with Reagan-era tax rates for an entire generation. Let’s say we shorted ourselves on taxes just 1% per year (though probably much more), but did that for 40 years, how we would ever get that lost savings back? This is the kind of stuff that’s easy to ignore because no one would look twice at a line graph with 1% cuts. But now we all own a giant house that we can’t afford the upkeep on since we spent all our money on iphones and hookers instead of investing in the house. So all you schlubs out there are just reaping the harvest that was sowed a generation ago by schlubs like me. Too late now.

Tomorrow, we’ll bring you thoughts from some rank-and-file MTA workers. If you are an MTA employee who wants to share, email me.

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satadru
21 days ago
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skorgu
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economyaki
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reconbot
43 days ago
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Sony’s New toio Wants to Inspire a Future Generation of Robotics Engineers

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Build, play, inspire. That’s the idea behind Sony’s new toy for kids, designed to inspire a future generation of robotics engineers. Toio is the result of 5 years of research into developing a toy that’s simple enough for kids to use, but also sophisticated enough to create a figurative sandbox where kids can explore the inner-workings of robotics engineering.

the core of toio are miniature cubic robots that move on wheels

Toio, at first glance, is stunningly simple: the core of the toy is just 2 white cubes with wheels. But don’t be fooled by their appearance. The tiny cubes pack a whole lot of tech. They respond to motion, are able to detect the exact location of the other, and can be programmed but also remote controlled.

It would seem that the possibilities for toio are endless, which is why the developers teamed up with various creatives and designers to come up with various craft sets that help kids explore what robots can do. You can create your own robotic beast and battle others, you can play board games with them and you can make obstacle courses for them to go through. Sony has even teamed up with Lego for this project, allowing kids to build Lego structures on top of their robots.

But one of the most attractive features is a craft set designed by the folks behind the lovable PythagoraSwitch TV segment. It’s a simple paper set that encourages kids to join the two white cubes using paper. The cubes then interact with each other and come alive, resulting in different movements.

Check out the videos to get a better sense of what toio can do. Sony has released a limited quantity of toio sets that start at 21,557 yen (about $200 USD) and go up to 33,415 (about $300 USD) depending on how many craft sets you want to add on.

the toio console and rings where you charge the robotic cubes. The rings serve as remote controllers.

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economyaki
47 days ago
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'Life Is Unfair': A Q&A With Nier: Automata's Director

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Nier: Automata is both a wild action game and an introspective look at the things that make us human. We corresponded with director Yoko Taro via e-mail to talk about the game’s themes, what goes into writing memorable characters, and what he’d like video game players to stop doing.

Here, in full, is our Q&A:

Heather Alexandra:  Nier took inspiration from September 11th and the War on Terror. Were there any real world events that guided your writing for Nier: Automata?

Yoko Taro: I wasn’t directly thinking about it but, looking back, I do feel like I may have been influenced by the changes that were happening in the world. For example, changes from “reason to emotion” and “objective to subjective,” which are represented by “President Trump being elected” and “the UK leaving the EU.” The fact that I’ve aged must be related to it somehow as well.

Alexandra: What would you consider to be the main theme of Nier: Automata?

Yoko: Since I believe that themes in video games are something that players should find out themselves, I have not specified one. However, I do think that the framework for the story is themed around “uneasy children without parents” represented as “machine lifeforms that have lost their creator” and “androids that have lost the humankind they were supposed to protect.”

Alexandra: In your 2014 GDC talk, you mention the idea of backwards scripting. What was your starting point for Nier: Automata? What image did you work backwards from?

Yoko: As I track backwards from multiple points, I did not decide where my goal would be. However, I did put aside the final E-Ending for this game thinking, “I’ll think about this later” and left it to take its own course, which is rare for me. I finally thought about what kind of ending I would make about one year after I had created the plotline. However, it feels somewhat mysterious that the ending ended up becoming a happy one.

Alexandra: You’ve also said that you are interested in pushing into grey areas and exploring taboos. Were there particular taboos that you were you trying to explore with Nier: Automata?

Yoko: There are quite a few if I were to go into minute details, but the greatest one is probably the fact that online connectivity is practically necessary at the final stage.

Alexandra: You’ve written for many mediums. Stage plays, manga, video games. Has one of these proved trickier than the others?

Yoko: No. Well, I think that each medium has multiple possibilities and each are tricky in their own way.

Alexandra: I wanted to ask about the characters in your games: do you have any that you identify with or feel strongly about? I know that I, like many, feel very protective of Emil. I want him to be happy.

Yoko: I want to treat all of the characters I create equally. Even if they are an antagonist, I did not want them to exist just to be defeated, and wanted them to have their own reason to live. That is why I especially put in an effort to express the characters as ones users may have a difficult time empathizing with.

However, I am happy that you empathize with Emil. I do want Emil to be happy too… but due to my job, there is a possibility that I will choose to sacrifice him. This is because what’s important to me is not to make Emil happy, but to create a game that will have meaning to everyone who plays.

Alexandra: I feel like Nier: Automata has a happier ending than Nier or Drakengard. Why do you think this is? Have you become a more optimistic person?

Yoko: Huh… I don’t really know why. I don’t think that the other games, and the previous ones, have that much of a bad ending.

Alexandra: If there is something you wish other game designers would stop doing, what would that be?

Yoko: It would help me if they would stop creating games. Having less competition would make it easier for me to do business.

Alexandra: Is there something that you wish players would stop doing?

Yoko: I’d like for them to stop saying things like “shut up old hag!” to their moms and others.

Alexandra: What would you like to do next now that Nier: Automata is released? I think after so much work, I would want to take a nap.

Yoko: I think so too. By the way, right now it is 3:53AM. I want to go to sleep but, as I’m still working on some things, like answering this interview, I cannot. Life is unfair.

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economyaki
54 days ago
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GSE Financing of Single-Family Rentals

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Fannie Mae recently completed the first ever GSE securitization of single family rental (SFR) properties owned by an institutional investor for Invitation Homes, one of the largest institutional players in the SFR business. This paper analyzes the completed deal, examining key structural aspects and the need for this type of financing. The paper also discusses affordability aspects of the deal and urges the Federal Housing Finance Agency to articulate a clear vision for the GSEs role in the SFR market to ensure that the benefits of such deals are used mainly to increase the availability of rental housing for those earning up to the area median income.

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economyaki
67 days ago
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