Changing cities

A view of the capital city Port of Spain from the Visitor Lookout along, Lady Young Road in Belmont. - ROGER JACOB
A view of the capital city Port of Spain from the Visitor Lookout along, Lady Young Road in Belmont. - ROGER JACOB

What will cities of the future look like? There is little doubt that the world is changing. The covid19 pandemic has in some ways accelerated that change, with more people working at home among other factors.

One of the things rapidly changing is how a city is supposed to look and what makes a city. Trinidad and Tobago (TT), too, has seen the need to restructure its capital with the Prime Minister announcing last year that there were major plans in place to revitalise the capital, Port of Spain.

CEO and founder of Sidewalk Labs Daniel Doctoroff sees all that has been happening as an opportunity for cities to change.

Its website says, “Sidewalk Labs was founded in 2015 as Google’s arm for urban innovation, becoming an Alphabet company in 2016. From the start, we focused on solving cities’ greatest challenges through forward-thinking urban design and cutting-edge technology.”

Doctoroff was also New York city’s deputy mayor under former mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg was mayor from 2002-2013. Doctoroff spoke at Collision Conference’s one-day City Summit conference done collaboratively with oil company Shell. The one-day summit ran from 1 pm-3. 30 pm and Newsday was invited to attend. The summit had opening remarks by Shell’s president Gretchen Watkins. Doctoroff spoke in one of the breakout sessions called It’s time for cities to rebound. Cities of the future need to be more sustainable and inclusive, he said as he spoke with American business magazine Fast Company’s technology editor Harry McCracken.

The ideas at Sidewalk Labs will be more relevant in the future, Doctoroff said. But one particular area of focus for the company is its Mass Timber Buildings factory.

“And we have been focused on it for the last three years. We have invested a lot of money in developing a concept for a company that will focus on mass timber building,” Doctoroff said.

Naturallywood.com said mass timber products are, “thick, compressed layers of wood, creating strong, structural load-bearing elements that can be constructed into panelized components. They are typically formed through lamination, fasteners, or adhesives.”

Doctoroff said if mass timber buildings are done right one can, “meaningfully reduce the cost of buildings. That would be particularly important for affordable housing.”

But more importantly mass timber building and construction was dramatically more sustainable.

“The actual carbon emissions of a building built out of mass timber compared to concrete or steel could be 80 per cent or more lower

“So the impetus for doing this existed before but I think it has only accelerated in the post-covid period,” he said.

But Doctoroff did not only address the change in focus on sustainable materials for building construction but what does it mean for a city with so many people, globally, working from home.

Doctoroff said it was too early to tell whether people would be able to live anywhere and work from anywhere minus the need to migrate to big cities where large companies have huge headquarters.

“I have a hypothesis about it. I do think that the vast majority of companies recognise that half of the employees in an office together is a great thing.

New York - AP Photo

“I think, by the way, most surveys we’ve done, most employees feel that as well.

“I think everyone wants more flexibility,” he said.

Doctoroff hypothesised that if there were 100 people in an office on February 1 last year, that there might be 65 to 75 people in that office on the same date next year.

This, however, has implications.

“Implications for the retail service providers in those central business districts. And we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to have to help them through this period,” Doctoroff said.

He sees the office as a social space. A space to collaborate, develop new ideas and which meets a lot of basic human needs.

While he does not see the office space fundamentally changing, he believes that people will want more flexibility.

“The other thing that I think is going to happen with office space – for the last 25 years the amount of office space per person has been declining…

“I think that is going to start reversing itself and the notion of space will be different.”

And people then needed to be concerned with what happens to neighbourhoods.

He said that in New York, for example, one would see a real effort to convert a lot of the old buildings into residential spaces, which would then create 24-hour life as what happened in lower Manhattan.

“Cities are adaptive creatures and they learn to adapt, sometimes not as quickly as we like but they do adapt,” he said.

Doctoroff said, when asked if he did not then expect cities to empty out and housing trends to come down, he said in certain pockets it will.

He added while in New York one sees very low activity in the central business districts, trends were showing foot traffic and other activity on the streets in the other commercial districts because most people might be at home and doing things during the day.

“You are seeing a rebalancing. We’re going to have to develop new strategies for specific areas but that does not mean that the city as a whole is going to be negatively affected.”

Doctoroff said he thinks that the trend city administrators have to be really sensitive to is an anti-growth attitude in cities. This was occurring before covid19 and was only going to be accelerated by the pandemic.

He said cities have not managed growth properly and so resistance to it is growing.

“And so I believe cities are going to have to develop a model of more inclusive growth, that is able to distribute the benefits of growth more fairly or else cities won’t grow.

“The paradox is if cities don’t grow they can’t afford to be more inclusive.”

Doctoroff said his own personal view was that the only way out of the paradox is to innovate.

“That is why we created Sidewalk Labs. We’ve seen this thing happen. Politically and socially there are a set of forces that are making it harder and harder to grow. The only way to resolve that paradox is to innovate and do it in a more inclusive way.”

One of the problems Doctoroff and his team at Sidewalk Labs has been working on is parking through its company Pebble.

Sidewalk labs website says Pebble is, “A low-cost vehicle sensor to help manage parking and curb space.

“Pebble empowers parking operators, real estate developers, and municipalities to use real-time availability data in innovative and sustainable ways.”

He said the pandemic gave everyone a taste of how streets can be better used.

“We’re seeing these restaurant sheds all over New York and there is an indication that if we are in need, we can rethink our streets...

“There is an opportunity, if there is lower demand for cars, to reuse major portions of the streets.”

He said in order to do so, the streets had to be made more dynamic, shifting its use depending on the time of day or even the season.

Doctoroff said there must also be better data on the way the streets are being used. He added he created a company that has produced a “low-cost, low-infrastructure, long-lasting privacy sensitive sensor that could play a significant role in actually figuring out how to use streets much more effectively.”

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