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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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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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

Sheppard vs LRT

The hot topic-turned-punchline in Toronto right now is subways (‘subways, subways, folks!‘).

The past couple of months has seen city council become an all-out monster truck show, complete with casualties, not-so-secret weapons, and ‘backstabbing’. In round 1, the battle was for Eglinton Ave. The original plan was to have transit served by means of Light Rail Transit (LRTs). Those who oppose it echo this mode of transportation synonymously with streetcars, and lets face it, it’s a powerful word in Toronto as they’re known as clumsy, lethargic, 1960s-industrial revolution-esque chunks of metal limited to routes embedded in streets. However, the newer LRTs that will be released are capable of running at higher speeds, have a more comprehensive design (higher passenger capacity, ground level floors for accessibility), and don’t lie, they’re pretty sexy.

Toronto's current streetcars

New LRTs (Coming in 2014)

After enough arguing and name-calling (‘dictator’, ‘idiot’ etc.) to make the real housewives look like civil scholars, transportation plans for Eglinton Ave were won over by LRTs (and facts and numbers).

But from a larger perspective, the discourse unintentionally served a higher purpose – citizens of Toronto began switching channels from Days of Our Lives to City Council livestreams. This project actually hit home with Torontonians, and so, like the rational self-motivated little beings economists say we are, we began tuning in to the hot mess that is Toronto Transit season 1.

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