March 04, 2010  |  permalink

Pop-Up Urbanism

Metropolis by Rob Carter - Last 3 minutes from Rob Carter on Vimeo.

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March 01, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: How Much Longer Can Shopping Malls Survive?

(Originally posted at

There are dead malls, and then there is Dixie Square. The suburban Chicago mall made famous by The Blues Brothers—who destroyed it on-screen in a spectacular car chase—had already closed by the time the film was shot in 1979. It’s just sat there ever since, not worth the cost of tearing it down. By now, trees sprout from the parking lot and the ceilings have turned to mush. Every attempt to redevelop the site—into a showroom for kitchen implements or senior housing—has fallen through due to asbestos, fire, and one suitor accused of threatening his creditors with a gun.

Last week, a shadowy group of local investors let it slip that they had won permission to demolish the mess. They intend to replace it with a constellation of discount big-box stores floating in a fresh sea of pavement. This shouldn’t be surprising considering the partners’ backgrounds, several reportedly build stores for Target and Lowe’s for a living—but it’s disappointingly modest proposal for 35 acres of urban tabula rasa. While their lawyer promises their plan will create 400 permanent jobs and $1.5 million in annual taxes, the surrounding city of Harvey has some of the highest crime, unemployment and poverty rates in Chicagoland. This rust belt suburb needs so much more than retail.

But the plans for Dixie Square have less to do with residents’ needs than what the partners can arrange in financing. (So far, they’ve pledged $3 million to pay off the previous owner’s liens, but that’s it.) While this may seem so obvious as to not be worth mentioning, the truth is that most of us remain in the dark as to the extent of Wall Street’s role in shaping the look and layout of Main Street—and the nearest interstate exchange. Anyone wishing to undo the worst mistakes of American postwar planning, whether urban farmers, New Urbanist architects, or enlightened developers of “town centers,” will have to crack the financing code to make it happen.

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March 01, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: HP Builds a “Central Nervous System for the Earth”


HP Labs researcher Peter Hartwell holds a prototype vibration and movement sensor, a super-sensitive inertial accelerometer. The first to be deployed as part of HP Labs’ Central Nervous System for Earth (CeNSE), it is about 1,000 times more sensitive than today’s mass-produced devices.  Photo: Margie Wylie

(Originally posted on

Just days after Cisco signaled it will horn into IBM’s turf by rewiring an aging city in Massachusetts, Hewlett Packard announced this morning the first commercial application of its own holistic blueprint—the torturously acronymed “CeNSE” (short for Central Nervous System for the Earth). Much like IBM’s “Smarter Planet” campaign, HP proposes sticking billions of sensors on everything in sight and boiling down the resulting flood of data into insights for making the world a better, greener place. But what sets HP apart from its rivals is its determination to create a smarter planet almost entirely within house, from sensors of its own design and manufacture to servers to software to the consultants who will tie it all together. And its first customer could not be less green: Shell Oil.

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February 11, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: Can Port-au-Prince Be Saved, or Should Haiti Move the Capital?


(Reposted from Fast Company)

Port-au-Prince—home to two million inhabitants and a fifth of Haiti’s population—is effectively leveled. The United Nations estimates 75% of the city will need to be rebuilt, with 500,000 people still sleeping in the streets. Others have moved out of the city and into emergency tents, lean-tos, and shelters. The International Organization for Migration told The New York Times last week that it could be five years before residents move back into houses, and that they could look forward to living in glorified “garden sheds” until then.

So far, the debate has focused on whether displaced capital-dwellers should permanently relocate. On one hand, $2 billion dollars in aid has already been promised for the reconstruction of the capital, and NGOs like Architecture for Humanity are on the ground organizing a construction force and teaching them to use earthquake-resistant building materials. On the other hand, Haiti’s top seismologist, Claude Prépetit, who accurately predicted the magnitude of the January quake, believes an even stronger one will strike Haiti within 20 years. Based on a seismological map or risk, Port-au-Prince, he told Der Spiegel, will always be Haiti’s most vulnerable area. “A lot of people have to get out of here,” Prépetit says.

But get where?

Bernhard Etheart, a former professor who now runs the government’s institute for land reform, is pushing a plan to pick up and move the capital inland. Similar proposals have already made the rounds of think tanks. Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has suggested relocating the capital to Cap Haitien, a proposal seconded by the Progressive Policy Institute. Etheart would go much further, founding a new city Der Spiegel compared to Brasilia, the remote Brazilian capital carved from the Amazonian jungle. A new capital, he says, attracts migrants from the countryside and ultimately costs the state more money. “We must invest in the country’s small cities,” he tells Der Speigel, and offer jobs, schools, hospitals, and other incentives to live there.

The longer term and more essential issue facing Haiti isn’t whether to rebuild the capital or move it inland; it’s how do you build a city that creates opportunities instead of slums.

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February 11, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: Cisco Brings New Songdo To America.

(reposted from Fast Company)

Cisco signed a deal on Wednesday with Holyoke, Massachusetts to transform the onetime mill town into a “Smart+Connected Community” over the next six-to-twelve months. Cisco has moved aggressively into the smarter city business in the last year as it chases IBM, which started the vogue for wired cities just as the world’s governments were earmarking billions of dollars in stimulus funds for infrastructure. (See “Cisco’s Big Bet On New Songdo: Creating Cites From Scratch” from the February issue.) The strategy has paid off handsomely for both companies thus far—public sector sales are IBM’s strongest, while Cisco considers SC+C one of its most promising new lines of business.

The Holyoke deal is significant in that it represents Cisco’s first attempt to rewire an existing city rather than simply build one from scratch, as it’s doing across Asia and the Middle East. This puts Cisco in direct competition with IBM for the first time, as Big Blue has been content to sign contracts for discrete services in established cities (such as congestion pricing systems for auto traffic in London and Stockholm). The choice of Holyoke mirrors IBM’s announcement last fall that it will retrofit Dubuque, Iowa as its first fully integrated smart city. Dubuque and Holyoke are similar in size (60,000 residents vs. 40,000), and both have been tapped for computing centers.

It’s perhaps only fitting that Holyoke turn to a corporation for its downtown’s salvation. Holyoke was one of the first planned industrial communities in America, built by the paper mills which flocked to the city in the 1880s for the cheap electricity powered by dams along its canals. (In a twist of fate, that’s what attracted Cisco as well.) On a conference call announcing the deal, Mayor Elaine Pluta described her city as “the first smart growth community” in America, with the classic, walkable downtown of a 19th century factory city. Unfortunately, Holyoke never really recovered after the mills left; as of December, the unemployment rate was 12.2%, and more than a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line.

The Cisco partnership came about after the city received a state grant for “re-envisioning” of its urban core. On the call, Pluta recited a list of urgent needs so long it actually earned laughs: “creation of jobs, workforce training, higher education, selectively removing blight,” and so on, including “promoting green power, green industry, and green identity.”

From Cisco’s point of view, the question is “how are we going to fundamentally create sustainability in an existing neighborhood, and what role is technology going to play?” according to chief globalization officer Wim Elfrink. He and his lieutenants will put their heads together with city officials in the coming days to select a neighborhood as the pilot district for its services. How Cisco expects to make money is still being determined—not in Holyoke, but in New Songdo, South Korea, where it hopes to learn what residents want and what they’re willing to pay. The stakes, according to Elfrink, could not be higher: “we predict the competition will be between cities – between neighborhoods” – for communities “that want a sustainable future.”


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February 11, 2010  |  permalink

Welcome to Slumburbia.

Timothy Egan and The New York Times discovers “slumburbia:”

Take a pulse: How can a community possibly be healthy when one in eight houses are in some stage of foreclosure? How can a town attract new people when the crime rate has spiked well above the national average? How can a family dream, or even save, when unemployment hovers around 16 percent?

Yet if these staggered exurbs, about two hours inland from San Francisco, were an illness, they would not quite be Abbey’s cancer. Though sick, foreclosure alley is not terminal. This is not Detroit with sunshine. It will be reborn, remade, inhabited. The question is: as what?

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February 07, 2010  |  permalink

Natalie, Meet Jenny

The best scene in Up in the Air has nothing to do with either frequent flyers or the dismantling of the American Dream. It’s a soliloquy delivered by Natalie (played by Anna Kendrick), the ambitious, buttoned-up, cute-as-a-button Ivy grad who’s on her way to an assistant associate director position in the Overclass. I wouldn’t have made it past a second date with her (and never did with her doppelgangers). Having just been dumped by her boyfriend via text message, she holds forth on her type:


You know, white collar. College grad. Loves dogs. Likes funny movies. Six foot one. Brown hair. Kind eyes. Works in finance but is outdoorsy, you know, on the weekends. I always imagined he’d have a single syllable name like Matt or John or… Dave. In a pefect world, he drives a Four Runner and the only thing he loves more than me is his golden lab.

She got her wish. Natalie grew up to be Jenny Sanford, the soon-to-be-former First Lady of South Carolina whose husband, Governor Mark Sanford, informed her of his infidelity via press conference. In a rueful interview with The New York Times today to promote her memoir, Sanford lists the reasons that attracted her to Mark in the first place (such a solid, monosyllabic name, “Mark”):

When the couple met in the Hamptons in their mid-20s, he had a summer job in Manhattan at Goldman Sachs and was a graduate business student at the University of Virginia. He was a devout Christian, she recounted, whose father died when he was in college and who had struggled to save the family farm.

She was a vice president at Lazard Frères. A Georgetown graduate who regularly attended 5 p.m. Mass on Sundays, she also lived merrily on the Upper East Side, meeting girlfriends for drinks and date dissections.

“He was naïve with me,” said Mrs. Sanford, settling on the sofa in the mansion library, with family photos scattered about, an oil painting of her husband staring down from the mantel. “He didn’t have a lot of experience courting women, let’s just say.”

Back then, she found him a nice change from Wall Street wolves: wholesome, spiritual, outdoorsy. That was the narrative she clung to, when he refused to say “fidelity” in their wedding vows. “I thought it was refreshing and honest,” she said. “What kind of an idiot was I?”

Years later, she said, he would bemoan his lack of dating experience, wondering aloud what he had missed.


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February 06, 2010  |  permalink

Introducing: The Master Plan

(Note: I’ve started writing a weekly column on infrastructure and urbanism for entitled “The Master Plan.” I’ll be cross-posting it here. Below is the first of hopefully many.)

“I was in California,” the consummate ad man Don Draper rhapsodized last season in Mad Men. “Everything’s new, and it’s clean. The people are full of hope. New York is in decay.” The suburban landscape that awed him circa 1963 was the fruit of a warm climate, middle-class manufacturing jobs, Federal Housing Administration mortgages, brand-new interstate highways, and tax code changes that made shopping malls a slam-dunk for developers. The immediate result was master-planned communities such as Lakewood, California, “the Levittown of the West,” which started from nothing in 1950 and had grown to 17,500 homes by the time Don Draper rolled through town. The rest is post-war geographic history.

What a difference a half-century makes. America’s suburbs are now home to the largest and fastest growing poor population, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution. The country’s largest metro areas saw their poor populations grow by 25% between 2000 and 2008, faster than either primary cities or rural areas. (The suburban fringes of Los Angeles were expected to take the biggest hit last year.) Part of this has do with math—the suburbs grew three times faster during that span. But faced with aging infrastructure, higher maintenance costs, and growing numbers of poor, this increase could become self-perpetuating, a la the inner cities in the 1960s and 1970s. “Clearly,” the Brookings Report concluded, “the balance of metropolitan poverty has passed a tipping point.”


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February 06, 2010  |  permalink

Where Eagles Dare To Drink. And Then Drink Some More.

On February 1st, Condé Nast Traveler and Lufthansa hosted a party at the Meatpacking District’s 675 Bar to celebrate my story “Triumph of the Air Warriors” in Traveler’s February issue. Sixty or so FlyerTalkers—including the complete cast of characters—flew in from Chicago, Toronto, Nashville, Winnipeg, Las Vegas and parts unknown to plot this fall’s Star Alliance Mega DO II—which has the working title “Star Wars.” Traveler’s Barbara Peterson wrote it up for the magazine’s Web site:

I felt like I was in an airport lounge with some 50 Ryan Binghams. Somehow the line “to know me is to fly with me”  kept echoing in my mind.

Randy Petersen, Mr. Mileage himself, can take credit for getting the group together-they met, virtually, on his website,, where they trade tips and horror stories and the like.

I got a kick out of meeting some of the personalities profiled in Greg’s story, such as Art Pushkin, described as a “legend in airline circles” for his formation of a group of rebels against poor airline service.  It was called the Cockroaches—because that’s how USAirways made him feel.


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January 26, 2010  |  permalink

The Real “New Industrial Revolution.”

Chris Anderson is at it again. Just when you thought he couldn’t top Free’s counterintuitiveness (and let’s not forget his plagiarism and outright theft of Wikipedia entries to pad out his word count), he’s back with “atoms are the new bits.” Read it now before he charges you $26.99 for it in 2012. Finished? Good.


Now read Joel Johnson’s first-rate takedown of the idea on Gizmodo. The scenario Anderson sketches ignores agglomeration economies and increasing returns to scale. He also treats China and the Pearl River Delta as a black box or robotic factory rather than a mega-city where the sheer concentration of skilled labor (yes, it’s there!) is accelerating its march up the value chain. Factories originally moved to China because it was cheap, but it’s gotten more expensive since then. They stay because the cost/quality curve (especially in small batches, as Anderson rightly identifies) can’t be beat. And what it made it possible for them to move there in the first place was air power. Or as Johnson puts it:

To marvel that you can convince a Chinese company to make a small batch of electronics for you? In many cases, that’s when conditions are worst. Try to get something that is more than a greenboard made and you’re back to standard manufacturing issues like making dies for stamping parts. Why? Because real 3D printers don’t exist yet.

Using the web to communicate with Chinese factories is an improvement…over the fax machine. But the real revolution is that it only costs a few bucks to ship a part from Shenzen to Sunnyvale. You want to talk revolution? Thank FedEx.

Arguing that “this time, it’s different,” as Anderson does, is to argue the case Nicholas Negroponte and George Gilder made in Wired fifteen years ago—that infinite bandwidth means we can all live on twenty-acre spreads in the Canadian wilderness with no need for face-to-face contact. That’s what “being digital” was supposed to be all about. If atoms are the new bits, then Anderson has fallen victime to the same fallacy.

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, a senior advisor to Climate Alpha, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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