Update + Plan

Past.

It’s been a while since my last post on here, but I can assure you, I have been up to great things. Within the past eight months since this year began I have:

  • Resigned from my position at Urbanation Inc;
  • Travelled to and fallen in love with Portland, OR;
  • Started and finished my fast-track course in Data Analytics, Big Data, and Predictive Analytics;
  • Gotten involved with #SitTO. (Media links here, here, and here);
  • Come out to my family and greater group of friends.

Present.

Needless to say, the last eight months have pushed me to grow in every sense of the word: technically, with Big Data and programming skills; professionally, from a clearer career path and newfound craving for learning more of the aforementioned technical skills; socially as I’ve learned through my summer program and #SitTO that although I am most comfortable and productive being alone, it takes a team to actualize and accomplish bigger goals; and personally as my coming out process has paralleled a good, hard, critical, no-bullshit look at my self.

I finished (and nailed) my last exam last Thursday and I’ve been taking it easy with my freedom. I’m in no rush to go job-hunting as I’d like to recollect, review, and hone everything that I’ve learned in the past three months.

Future.

We arrive at the crux and purpose of this post – to assign myself to goals. My over-arching career goal is to harness the power of big data and contribute to building a better, more livable and equitable city. In the meantime, my short term goals are to:

  1. Hone my skills in SQL, R, and HiveQL;
  2. Familiarize myself with CLI commands;
  3. Learn Python;
  4. Find a space/firm where I can combine my love for big data and urbanism.

To achieve this, my objectives are to:

a. Practice loading and analyzing comprehensive datasets from Kaggle and other sources. I’ll use Hive and Hadoop to manage and/or parse larger datasets (like the City of Toronto’s Parking Tickets), and R for in-depth analyses and visualizations;
b. Practice using PuTTy CLI commands while loading datasets into Hive and the HDFS;
c. Take a recommended Udacity course on Computer Science (specializing in Python);
d. Speak with those in the big data and/or urbanism field and learn from their industry insights;
e. Attend a CivicTechTO meetup.

I’m very excited for the next phase in my life and career. I think there’s huge untapped potential for big data in city-building, particularly in Canada. The field of urban planning is known to follow an archaic schema and is lethargic to move from legacy documents like the zoning by-law (est. 1986).

Big data can be quickly harnessed to identify key patterns in city-building that will provide guidance for decision-makers and as former New York City Mayor Bloomberg so affectionately puts it, “In God, I trust. Everyone else, bring data”. A challenge here would be finding actual big data for Toronto (as opposed to simply ‘open data’, like I have ranted here and here) but I strongly believe the prevalence of big data sets becoming available in Canada is inevitable. In the meantime, I’ll be preparing for the wave to hit.

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Diversity, Our Strength

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(originally posted on TOmillennials.ca)

If I hadn’t moved to Toronto, I might still be living in the closet.

Yup, the big TO helped me come out to myself. Living in the most diverse city in the world exposed me to all kinds of people from different walks of life. It normalized what I had once thought was “weird” and showed me that being “different” and being “okay” were not mutually exclusive.

Growing up in the suburbs, everything was very clean, organized, and routine. A friend once told me she would never move to Toronto because it was “so dirty and full of weirdos”. Firstly, yes, we’re still friends. Second, I’ll admit the occasional surprise-whiff of lingering urine can be irritating, but I had a whole other take on “weirdos”: Toronto is eclectic, full of people unapologetically embracing themselves, their identities, their passions. Just go to Trinity Bellwoods Park on a regular day and you’ll see what I mean (freestyle ultimate wizards, Slacklining parties, etc.).

Standard happenings at Trinity Bellwoods Park (Source: Torontoist)

Because everyone in this city is so visibly different, there’s an unspoken understanding that our differences are also largely invisible – you know you don’t know what the other person is going through. Having a diverse social network builds tolerance through empathy and understanding. Google it, and you’ll find a myriad of studies in the recent decade revealing diversity not only brings different perspectives to the table, but it’s also a necessity to having teams that are more creative, compassionate, and, effective. In fact, even where you keep your ketchup is an indicator of how diverse a group is. Our respective differences are not an obstacle to co-operation and it’s proudly reflected in our city’s official motto, “Diversity, our strength”.

The sheer population of Toronto makes it much easier to support your passions and hobbies too. If you’re into longboarding, there are several longboarding communities and some pretty sweet shops in Kensington Market. Into coding and community-building? Hit up Civic Tech TO.  New LGBT grad interested in professional networking? Join Out on Bay Street. The best chicken and waffles? The Dirty Bird, hands down (it qualifies as a passion). There’s something for everyone, no matter how “niche” you might’ve thought you or your interests are, because Toronto has the critical mass to support it.

Since moving here, I’ve attended various networking events and international speaker series, and joined several non-profit and social groups. More importantly, through them, I have met the most interesting of individuals and they’ve enriched my life through their stories. Moving to Toronto opened my eyes, flipped the narrative for being “different”, and made it easier to accept my own differences. So, thank you, Toronto, and see you at Pride.

a change in pace.

Two weeks ago, I walked into my boss’ office, asked him if he had a minute, and quietly shut his door to deafening silence. “There’s never a good time to do this, but…”, I said, as I handed him my resignation letter.

I’d been with that company for just over two years (according to an earlier LinkedIn notification), and I’ve grown a lot since joining. I hit the ground running and took no time in between graduating and starting. It was a bit of a pivot from what I’d learned – my Bachelors’ Degree in Urban and Regional Planning laid out the infrastructure for understanding how the city works and gave me lenses to read and interpret policies set out by the province and municipalities for how the city should idealistically evolve – this firm dealt with the economic side of residential development – digging deep to gauge what works and what doesn’t in real estate (read: what sells and what doesn’t).

The decision to quit was a difficult one; the plan from there on was unemployment for two months and going back to school for four (read: having no income for over half a year). But I’m adamant that this is a path worth pursuing – I’m going back to Ryerson for a Certificate in Big Data Analytics, and my goal is to combine my newly acquired Big Data Analytics skills with my Urban Planning background to specialize in recording, analyzing, and evaluating the impact of urban development projects.

There are many buzz words in the urban planning community (you can’t find a white paper without mention of “sustainability”), and within the past few years, “smart communities” has been a hot topic. Down by Toronto’s waterfront where a swath of new residential developments are underway, the city’s first open-access, ultra-high speed broadband community network will provide some of the planet’s fastest internet speeds. Moving in this direction reflects the importance the city is placing on technology. Throw in news of driverless cars and you have everyone talking about revolutionary shift in planning considerations.

But it was Janette Sadik-Khan’s talk with Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat that was the tipping point for me. Being a major driving force in closing down Times Square to cars and opening it up to pedestrians, she enthused about the importance of data as not only a measurement of how well planning initiatives worked or didn’t work, but also as something that they were able to present to the skeptical public and ultimately serve as an object of accountability (after all, planning is, and always will be, for the people). She quotes former Mayor Bloomberg: “In God, I trust. Everyone else, bring data” and it speaks volumes.

She also highlighted problematically (albeit politely) how far behind Toronto was when it came to using data – in fact, there was very little data to draw from. Even our primary federal census-conducting body, Statistics Canada, has reported inconsistent reliability. Cities like New York and London are far more advanced and have entire municipal bodies dedicated to the collection, analysis, and distribution of data. The IMFG recently released a report on opportunities in Cities, Data, and Digital Innovation, detailing London’s natural evolution into one of the world’s leader’s in tech-savvy cities, and Toronto’s existing social and economic infrastructure that can propel it to reach its full potential as a world-class smart city.

But the takeaway here is that Toronto is not yet there.

The city recently contracted Jan Gehl, starchitect and star place-maker, to leading a data-building initiative focused on “improving King Street” (details are blurry), so I’m certain progress is being made in this direction. But my goal is to get ahead of the curve and incorporate tools for analyzing big data into my skillset. When Toronto is ready to deal with city-building using data, I’ll be ready too.

Professor Aseem Inam: Transforming Cities / Transforming Urbanism

The last keynote speaker for the Urban Land Institute’s Toronto symposium closed off on a philosophical note, beginning his talk with a question that brought the audience back to basics: “What is Urban Design?”.

Professor Aseem Inam, the Director of TRULAB and an Asosciate Professor of Urbanism at Parsons New School for Design, pointed us to the Short Guide to 60 Urbanisms (and There Could be More) and began listing off buzzwords – “tactical urbanism, strategic urbanism, ecological urbanism, new urbanism…” – the urban community had been furiously adopting in recent years, but had oftentimes used carelessly to the point of meaninglessness.

In an ode to our Executive Director, Inam quoted from his pre-symposium blogpost: “Every so often a city region needs a really big conversation. I would like us to deepen that conversation“. When it comes to transforming (more ambitious than just building) cities, the most powerful tool is not infrastructure, design, or money; the most powerful tool is single-handedly our mind. Our collective minds have the power to change not just the physical but the social disposition of cities – from the fine-grained urbanisms of place-making between steel skyscrapers, to actions after “Council adjourned” and before “Call to order”, and to informal micro-collaborations between neighbours down the street from one another. Changing the narrative to one with more hope and optimism, he challenged us to think “What can Urbanism be?

He noted three fundamental shifts in thinking and practicing urbanism since the 80’s, specifically urbanism that was:

1. Beyond intentions: consequences of design

  • Bringing up his work on the Big Dig in Boston, people typically viewed it as one of two things: either a highly successful urban revitalization project that reduced congestion and reconnected the urban fabric; or an expensive government project with cost overruns tagged at $40.6 billion instead of the initially announced $2.6 billion. The third, less talked-about, narrative addressed “now that it’s done, how can we make it worthwhile?” and directed focus on the unintended consequences of projects. In this case, residual construction material was the unintended consequence of the Big Dig, which was used to construct recycled houses. How does an externality such as this, which was beyond the initial scope of the Big Dig, fit into standardized cost-benefit analyses for projects?

2. Beyond practice: urbanism as creative political act

  • Urbanism is not just with formal political institutions and dynamics – we must engage with the everyday politics of the city. We must find who has the power to actually shape cities and understand how that power is wielded. With optimism and passion, he proclaimed that how we revolutionize urbanism as a creative political act is by practicing temporary anarchy. And this is a good thing.

3. Beyond objects: city as flux

  • As the idiom “the only constant is change” goes, he emphasized that disequillibrium is normal and that we must leverage it to create fundamental change. Citing a pluralist philosopher, he motioned that “What really exists is not things made but things in the making… Once made, they are dead, and an infinite number of alternative conceptual decompositions can be used in defining them.” Urban change is accomplished by translating powerful ideas into strategic action, and it is the planning and the becoming of these ideas and actions that we must focus on, not the end result. Emphasis on time is essential in which urbanism is an ongoing verb rather than a definitive noun.

In a sudden change of pace, he revealed that he was an improv comedian and a big fan of Second City. In fact, he often incorporated it into his research design methodology. Elements of improv – horizontal teams, less hierarchical structures, on-the-spot creativity – proved valuable for his city-building studios, where groups were challenged with “What-If” scenarios. The intersectionality of his work was truly fascinating.

Professor Inam closed off the symposium on an excellent note – challenging us to not stop the big conversations that we need to be having once the symposium ended and we returned to our offices, but rather, break down what we as urbanists have learned so far and critically seek unconventional ways to build better cities and practice urbanism. We, at the Urban Land Institute, reiterate his challenge to build a better city and his question to you: what can urbanism be?

Three Policies to Advance Affordable Housing Initiatives

Recently a compilation of essays, The Next Urban Renaissance, by notable American urbanists was published and made available online for free. My interest was piqued when I saw Edward Glaeser credited for one (I’m a big fan of Triumph of the City), but I decided to read the first piece on affordable housing first. My draw to affordable housing has been bubbling as of late, and I’ve been fascinated with its promise to end homelessness. As dorky as it may sound, it was exhilarating plowing through Toronto’s policies related to social housing, initiatives to eradicate homelessness, and programs that I never knew were already in place, like the Toronto Rent Bank.

Authored by Professor Ellen of New York University, the piece admits to proposing no new ideas, but eloquently rounds up three great policies that have shown promise:

  1. Tax land, not property.
  2. Reduce or eliminate parking requirements for new developments.
  3. Shift public funds spent on homeless shelters to time-limited rental subsidies for those at risk of homelessness.

Again, these proposals are not new – splitting taxes between land and the actual building encourages owners to make improvements and renovations to the building – eliminating the existing disincentive to increase the value of the property (which would lead to higher taxes). This also discourages landowners from speculating and holding onto valuable infill properties (e.g. parking lots) in land-scarce urban areas. This type of speculation is exactly why there are random patches of parking lots in the midst of high-rises in downtown Toronto.

The second point I actually conducted a studio research project on. Currently, zoning bylaws stratify the number of parking spaces required from new developments in downtown Toronto, sorted by Policy Area. Those in the urban core have lower minimums of 0.3 to 1.0 parking spaces per dwelling unit (depending on the unit type) while those in non-Policy Areas (read: suburban) require 0.8 to 1.2 spaces per unit. Although this appears to make sense, from a personal standpoint, it’s clear just by the number of PARKING SPACE FOR RENT flyers in my condo building that there’s a much higher supply of parking than currently demanded. The advancement of biking infrastructure and transit service in the city has given people a viable alternative to driving in this city. However, by mandating parking spaces, the cost burden of constructing an underground parking space (in Chicago it’s roughly $36,000) are integrated into the final product, and thereby passed onto the consumer. In downtown Toronto, parking spaces upwards of $50,000 are not uncommon. By unbundling and lowering (or abolishing) the minimum parking requirement, we can lower the cost of housing.

The last point, I had actually not heard of before and I’m still trying to understand. “Rapid rehousing”, as it is called, provides families in need of shelter with temporary time-limited assistance to move into permanent housing. The emphasis is on getting this done ASAP. Staff would employ services that would help tenants stay housed, such as landlord negotiation, financial assistance, and social workers. According to the report, time-limited subsidies have proven to be cheaper in the long term than assigning people to shelters. Maintaining a steady job is also much easier with a private home than a shelter. Rapid rehousing is a great way to tackle an ever-growing waiting list for affordable housing. Currently there are over 78,000 households on Toronto’s waiting list, where the average wait time is seven years. Longer wait times leave at-risk individuals more vulnerable to present challenges, and the longer they stay unhoused, the further back they’ll be set.

I’d love to read more about affordable housing ideas, especially those that address tangled archaic policies that actually discourage housing solutions. I plan on researching New York’s experience with inclusionary zoning, and Hong Kong’s policy system with regards to housing. Lord knows the housing market over there is a pressure cooker. I’ll document what I find here.

Cars.

[Circa Summer 2001 – family vacation. Driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.]
I was a child, but I still remember staring down an endless stretch of the highway to Las Vegas, seeing the shimmering haze above a sea of cars in a 40+ degree desert. Sweating despite blasting the AC for hours on end was nauseating and I couldn’t imagine what it was like outside the car. The heat was suffocating. Looking down that road, I couldn’t even fathom the impact that so many cars were having on the environment, adding to the heat. I still can’t.

It’s no secret that driving on the 401 is a nightmare. It’s always congested no matter what time of day – every hour is peak hour and peak hour is just a standstill. So on ‘average’, you’re driving in something like this:

And this is just the stretch of the highway you’re on. Imagine the rest of it. Happening for hours. Every day. Every week. I can’t wrap my head around the sheer volume of automobiles on the road.

It also boggles my mind that the government allows people the freedom to use cars (I’m sure I’ll find an old tweet of mine if I dig around enough). Sure they’re regulated – we obey traffic lights, stop signs, etc. but essentially we are steering large steel masses capable of killing people and we’re basically being entrusted to “not kill people or damage property”. In 2013, 32,719 people were killed in the States by vehicles. That’s one in every 10,000 people. In Canada, there were 1,923 fatalities, or one in every 20,000. Because we’re entrusted with giant machines on wheels.

As you can tell, I’m not a huge car fanatic, but I understand their utility – getting around especially if you have a family or are travelling long distances. However, I feel the number of cars on the road is unnecessarily inflated. This post could be twice as long if we get into why people need to travel distances farther than what is walkable, but as it stands right now, I feel this is all the more reason to urbanize.

Let’s stop relying on the car. Stop generating all this pollution. Stop the unnecessary fatalities. Easier said than done, but let’s start with this intention.

Toronto: Condos or Rental Apartments?

Source: Flickr user: Drum118

 This is not a condo.

After roughly two years of construction and nearing completion, the developer decided to change this project to a purpose-built rental apartment – that’s the second in under two months. As reported by the Toronto Star, Kingsclub, on the western fringe of downtown Toronto, has returned all deposits to its preconstruction buyers due to “not being able to reach its construction financing thresholds (70-80% sales)”. Though this antagonizes the condo industry further, there’s really nothing illegal about what the developer has done. The only other time when a project gets cancelled (that I’m aware of) is when planning approvals don’t go through and the city’s limits on the project (e.g. height) make it unfeasible.

It seems developers are really picking up on the rental wave and are seriously considering them as opposed to condos. This is especially true in cities rated highly for their “livability” like Toronto. Check out a rental comparison I did on a few newer purpose-built rental apartments and their surrounding condo-competitors here.

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Planning Mistakes

This is one of my favourite photos:

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I took this picture in Birmingham back in 2012 on a trip with my Ryerson Urban Planning peers.

Notice the older buildings on the left and the newer one on the right. Now look at the setback for the newer building in the foreground. Our guide pointed out that this setback was mandated for redevelopments per old planning documents, in anticipation of expanding the right of way for cars – they believed cars were the future of travel and were preparing to move them up the transportation hierarchy.

It’s a great reminder of how planning can get things wrong, despite the best of intentions. But I’m happy this misled prioritization was withdrawn, otherwise modern-day Birmingham would not have been as joyously walkable as it was.

(Then again, who knows? Maybe in 50 years we will think not keeping that zoning standard was a mistake, when we have solar-powered SUV hoverboards.)

Cycling in Toronto and Copenhagen

Diversity is a double-edged sword – there is strength in it but it must be properly harnessed with its scattered nature. In a city like Toronto, we’ve seen decisions made “in the public interest” that do not necessarily serve the needs of the public affected. Rather, these decisions serve needs that are either grossly aggregated or imposed upon people. Take the removal of bike lanes on Jarvis Street for example. This bike lane is used by local commuters and had the support of the local councillor. However, the majority of council decided that an additional car lane would be better and thus it was removed. This is an example of the government listening to the wrong people for the wrong thing.

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Quietly raging against the lane-removing machine

I have to confess: up til yesterday, I had never ridden a bike in downtown Toronto. Why? Continue reading

Local Appeal Body for Toronto?

Say you’ve inherited an old run-down house built in the 50s in Toronto.

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Your development proposal must fit inside this box, prescribed by the zoning bylaw. (Image Source: Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing)

If you want to redevelop said property beyond the box that the zoning bylaw prescribes (e.g. 2 metres higher than the 15 metres allowed), you need to apply for a minor variance at the Committee of Adjustment. If the application does not pass the four tests for a minor variance, then the Committee will deny your application for redevelopment.

You can appeal this decision by going to the provincial appeal body, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), which will review your application de novo and judge it against its conformity to the Official Plan and other applicable planning policy documents. Sometimes the OMB will arrive at a different conclusion than the Committee of Adjustment and the same application would get approved.

In Toronto, what we’ve been seeing is condo developers having their proposals turned down by the Committee of Adjustment for intruding on sunlight/shadow lines, having “excessive heights”, not conforming to the character of the neighbourhood, etc. The developers naturally embark upon an appeal to the OMB and have a greater chance at winning. The popular perception of the OMB is that it favours developers and has little to no context for what they are approving. As well, because of the extra costs, it systematically makes it difficult for the little guy to afford to do what the big bad developer can.

The public outcry for a more “fair” appeal process has pressured the city to do something about this apparently weighted development battle. So in December of 2013, Council’s Planning and Growth Committee passed a decision to initiate a public consultation process on having a Local Appeal Body (LAB) for Toronto as a “made-in-Toronto” alternative to the OMB.

Let’s take a step back.

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