Friday, March 28, 2014

How to grow cities for people.

There are two kinds of cities. There are cities designed for cars and cities designed for people.
If you're wondering which you'd rather live in, ask yourself whether you'd rather lose the ability to drive or the ability to walk.
A small tweak to how we think about planning can make it much easier to design cities for people. That tweak starts with understanding the urban transect.
You have a scale from T1 to T6. T1 is untouched nature, T6 is a metropolitan core. The places in between are a gradient of increasing density and activity.
Instead of planning the land use, instead decide on the shape of the community you want.
Your 'main street' will probably be T4 or T5. That's the urban metro area with apartments, commercial development and lots of activity and excitement. You plan the energy and the building shapes and types there to support the city you want.
Further out you have the T3 sections, which is more like the typical single family residential areas. The T2 would be the exurban development or rural reserve.
What this lets the planners do is tune the city. Rather than simply having to say yes or no to something, it lets them say how and where, and have it support the goal of a complete city.
Building types, fences, roads, sidewalks and public space can all be tuned in the land use bylaw by where it exists in the transect. You might want big setbacks in T3 but buildings up to the sidewalk at T5.
You could allow apartment buildings in T4 and T5 areas, but not in the T1, T2 or T3 areas. They wouldn't be right for that part of the city. These decisions help clarify what the city will be like, make the decisions about what sort of buildings can go where, and simplify what's normally a complicated land-use-bylaw document.
By specifying which areas are in which parts of the transect and what is allowable in each of the spaces, you allow the city to become what it needs to be. Rather than focusing on which areas are commercial, residential and industrial, you make it easy to specify the gradient and variety of development that allows human scale cities to emerge. Look up the 'Smartcode' for details.
You could throw out your existing land-use bylaw and start over. That's what Miami did. There's enough existing suburbia out there that makes that sort of strategy challenging.
A parallel code strategy would allow you to pick whether you wanted to build your development for cars or for people, then follow that set of rules, whether it's the traditional Land Use Bylaw, or the Smartcode.

Changing the planning structure makes it easier to make cities for people instead of cities for cars. That's what lets you keep the small town feel as your city grows.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Read this. You don't have to agree.

When you read things you disagree with you understand your own position better.
Books are lighthouses for your worldview. Newspapers and magazines are GPS satellites. The internet is a laser rangefinder. Agree or disagree, care or don't care; reading teaches you about where you are in the landscape of ideas.
Some ideas are new-to-you and open up continents of thought you haven't explored. Other ideas conflict with things you know to be true; punt 'em.
Reading widely provides the raw material for combining existing ideas in interesting and potentially profitable ways. It's hard to connect the dots if there aren't any.
Reading widely helps you understand the gamut of opinion on any issue. When you understand all the angles, you might be able to help everyone win.
Avoid confirmation bias: If you only read things you already think it demonstrates insecurity. The slightest breeze could knock it over.
Avoid pig-headedness: If you're so confident in what you believe that nothing could sway you, that's another intellectual error, and it robs you of the advantages education can provide.
New ideas are scary. Invite them in. Entertain them. Test them every way you can. Keep the good ones. Changing your mind when better ideas come along is how we get better as individuals and as a society.

Read widely. Read thoughtfully. If you don't think for yourself, someone else will do it for you, and they might not have your best interests at heart.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Smart city growth isn't at the edges

Sienna, Italy.
Sprawling cities create a liability with every new subdivision. Cities can be lively and financially prudent by building up, not out.
The maintenance and replacement costs of that infrastructure are not sufficiently covered by the property taxes.
As each subdivision needs infrastructure maintenance that money comes from the tax revenue from several newer subdivisions, which don't need that maintenance yet.
This is the vicious circle of perpetual exponential growth. Just like any good Ponzi scheme, it works for you if you get in early, but you don't want to be stuck at the end.
The institution of 'the city' is there for the long game. It's going to be around for the reckoning. All the infrastructure that the city thought it was getting for free from developers will need expensive replacement.
Sprawling has other costs too. Obvious costs include the additional cost of transportation over longer distances, additional cost of road maintenance because there's more roads, and the opportunity cost of the paved agricultural land.
More hidden costs include the social isolation that exists in suburbs where it's difficult to connect with your neighbours.
Great neighbourhoods aren't about wide boulevards, two car garages and mature trees. Those things are pleasant amenities, and they're beside the point. Great neighbourhoods are places where you know someone who can lend you a fondue pot; places where you run across your friends on a regular basis.
Much of the city has already been built out at a low density. Fixing it involves creating dense nodes near amenities and transit hubs. It involves reinhabiting the main streets. It also means curtailing the sprawling fringe.
The dense pedestrian nodes keep down the costs associated with transportation, infrastructure maintenance, road work, and parking. If you can live in these places without needing a car except for unusual trips you can save a bundle. The city saves a bundle too, because it doesn't need to maintain so much area.
The costs are an important factor, but they can't compare to the social benefits that emerge when people live in community with each other. There can be conflicts, but those are outweighed by the benefits of having friends close, being close to the amenities you need, and living in a vibrant environment.
When you think of destinations like London, Paris, and New York they have an energy that you can't find in a sleepy suburb.

Quit building fluff around the edges. Reinvent that stale business model. Find ways to reinvigorate the core and you'll end up with a vibrant community that won't be a ticking time-bomb of infrastructure and social problems.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Do just what you're doing

It's now. Do you know where your attention is?
There's nothing more important than giving the present your full attention. Do what you do fully and completely.
You can get to this principle from lots of different angles; there may be something to it.
Focusing completely on what you're doing is part of getting into 'Flow' which is associated with satisfaction.
On the ISS, Astronauts are trained so thoroughly that they can focus completely on what they're doing at that moment, and execute it flawlessly. ISS Commander Chris Hadfield learned about this level of focus flying jets: "If it doesn't matter for the next 30 seconds, then it doesn't exist".
This matters when you're driving too. It's far more dangerous than most other things you do in a day. If you can't focus on the safe guidance of of the ton or so of metal you're sitting in, you put yourself at risk. 
Eckhart Tolle wrote a book called "The Power of Now" which approaches this level of focus and engagement with what you're doing from a spiritual angle.
Multitasking has been shown to be less productive than single tasking. You might feel more productive, but you're probably not.
David Allen (the Getting Things Done guy) recommends trusting a system for your next actions. Then you can be comfortable with what you're not doing and focus completely on what you're doing.

If you pay attention to what you're doing you'll do it better and get more satisfaction out of it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Running a democracy? Don't be so sneaky.

Originally published June 2012. Hopefully these concerns are no longer valid.
Representative Democracy isn't easy. It's worth fighting for. When fighting for democracy is required our soldiers are there doing their best to promote peace and democracy. It's a tradition we're proud of.
When it comes to our own country, the Canadian Government is abusing its majority, cramming legislation with devastating consequences for environmental protection into the omnibus 'budget' bill C-38.
Stephen Harper's Conservatives have a majority in the House and the Senate. They are capable of passing any legislation they see fit to pass.
So why hide stuff?
This obfuscation flies in the face of the transparency and accountability we must expect of our elected representatives. This sneaky trojan horse bill conceals and bundles things that should be discussed in the open.
If our government truly believes that gutting the Fisheries Act, repealing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and eliminating the National Round Table on Environment and Economy are noble, proper things to do, it should propose them clearly and distinctly, so that their merits can be discussed, debated, and voted on separately.
These same principles apply to repealing the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act and removing protection for the habitat of endangered species. Discuss them openly.
Why bundle? Governments rise and fall on the Economy. By reducing environmental protection they aim to accelerate economic growth. That's not a successful long term strategy, just a short term political one.
Coming out as overtly anti-environment wouldn't play well in the media. By hiding their pet provisions in a 'budget' bill, they can avoid the responsibility and political fallout for their actions.
If we allow our dictatorial government overlords to hoodwink us on this we have only ourselves to blame. If we'd rather have accountable transparent representative democracy we need to protect and nurture it.
Democracy isn't just about soldiers in third world countries deposing dictators. It's here, now, where we insist on the best from our government, not where we let them get away with the worst.

Sneaky democracy isn't democracy at all. It's dictatorship in democracy's clothing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Expeditionary Behaviour: Party on.

Holmes, Magarian, Taormino/Eldridge, Brown, Mostue. Ecosa Fall 2006
Whether you're commanding the international space station, pushing buttons, or making fire with sticks, party on.
Expeditionary Behaviour: "...the ability to work in a team productively and cheerfully in tough conditions" -Chris Hadfield.
The people who display these qualities are the people you would enjoy travelling with. They're relaxed, positive, and confident. They don't get on your nerves, and they contribute to the success of the team.
The psychological part is important too. Staying off each others nerves is tough enough in the regular world, and amplified in wilderness survival situations or out in space.
Stay positive. The world's a tough enough place without your friends and colleagues bringing you down.
A little humour can lighten the darkest situation and help the team overcome obstacles.
Fear isn't helpful. Physiologically, it impairs your circulation, judgment, and fine motor skills. It sets a bad example for the others.
If you're trying to figure out what to do in a situation, don't panic. Stay calm and work the problem. Don't lash out at people or tear down the team.
Misery and whining are never constructive. They make surviving dangerous situations far less likely. Instead, those attitudes spread and the team suffers.
Maintaining a 'Party-on' attitude keeps spirits up and leads to the best team results.
"Things work out best for those who make the best of the way things work out."-John Wooden

Nobody wants to travel with a miserable whiner. Party on.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Where should the economic engine take us?

The economy is like the engine in a car. The engine pushes the car in the direction it's pointed, and that's all it can do.
Where it's pointed, on the other hand, is up to the driver who controls the whole vehicle with a goal and a conscious intention. The engine will not get you to your destination on its own. You also need the steering wheel and the map.
A strong economy is valuable because it helps us do what we want to do, both individually and as a civilization. It's a means not an end in the same way that money is only worth what you can trade it for. A million dollars is useless if nobody will trade you a loaf of bread for it.
Our civilization obtains lots of advantages through specialization and trade. You don't need to fabricate your own clothes. Instead, you can work at something you're great at, then trade for the clothes you need. This is what the economy does best: When everybody works on what they're great at and trades for the rest, the whole system does better.
The 'economy' is ultimately a measure of how much of this trading is going on. It leaves out everything that's external to the exchange, which is its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.
"Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth." -Øystein Dahle, former VP of Esso Norway.
The price signals in the economy communicate what we value. This is not a full accounting. The cost of a barrel of oil includes the cost of extraction but not the cost of making that oil from scratch or the cost of the CO2 that will find its way into the atmosphere.
A triple bottom line (economy, environment, society) approach is better, but even that tends to speak in the language of the economy by trying to attach dollar values to everything.
Many things are beyond the economy, and those tend to be the things that make us the happiest. It's not the work, it's the connections with your family and friends that you value. When you think of spending time in the environment, that means being outside, not at your desk.

The economy is a wonderful tool that allows specialization of labour, trade, and increased societal productivity. Just don't confuse the engine in the car with the steering wheel or the destination. It serves us, not the other way around. Where will it take us?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Is this Bob's Pizza?

Even with the Man in the Middle attack, Alice still gets the pizza.
Alice calls Bob to order a pizza. Eve intercepts the phone call. "Bob's Pizza!" Eve writes down Alice's order and credit card. Then Eve calls Bob and orders Alice that pizza. The pizza shows up, and Alice has no idea that Eve has her credit card number.
That's called a 'man in the middle' attack. If you haven't updated your iPhone's software in the last week or so, upgrade to either 6.1.6 or 7.0.6 immediately.
There was a security hole in the routine that confirms that websites are who they say they are. Until you upgrade and close the hole, your computer won't be able to determine whether it's talking to Bob or to Eve.
While you're at it upgrade your Mac OS to 10.9.2. That update patches the same hole.
A quick look at the source code leaves it impossible to tell whether it's a case of a clumsy line of code "goto fail;" duplicated in just the wrong place or a perfectly deniable security backdoor for the NSA. They'd both look the same.
Connection authentication and secure communications over an open internet make innovations like online pizza ordering and midnight banking possible.
Watch out for the two-tier internet arrangements like the recent Comcast-Netflix deal. They move the internet towards a cable broadcast system rather than a neutral system where everyone is on the same playing field.
The next Netflix, Reddit or Facebook will have a hard time getting started without a neutral, trustworthy internet. You need to be able to know it's Bob's Pizza.