Dec 29 2011

Living Aboard Sinking Whales

It takes fifty to seventy-five years for a dead whale to sink to the bottom of the ocean. As it sinks, an entire ecosystem of tiny creatures descend with it and thrive on its decomposing carcass.

From where I sit I see an auxiliary sink, two coffee makers, and three holsters of knives. There are four sets of china.  The mess ware and the quarry ware and the copperstone ware and the fine china each have their home. There are four rooms for sunning and ten more for blocking out the sun. There are seats for 175 people within this single structure, including a leather couch that can comfortably seat ten people without the inconvenience of coming into contact with another human being (As a secondary defense, it comes equipped with six pillows the size of large children). I can walk for 5 minutes in this house and never cross my own path and never leave sight of a television.

For twenty-five people- our crew for the week- it is extravagant. For the fifteen maximum occupants it is designed, it is opulent. For the single nuclear family for which it was built, it is aristocratic; they are the modern day Sun King’s of the South, laden by possessions for which there could be no justification beyond stroking the ego of a self-made family. They can be reminded that they have made it every time they have to use their iPhones to call each other from the game room to the media room. If a nucleus is the right metaphor to describe them, then they are at the center of a middle-weight atom; not the heaviest perhaps- this is not, after all, the Sun King’s palace in Versailles; that has been quite unfashionable since the heads of that particular aristocracy were separated from their carriers- but they would be perhaps among the rubidium.

What will become of these whales of homes as they sink to the ocean floor? Will ecosystems of idealist hipster youth crowd like algae on the lumbering masses which the previous generation erected and could not keep up, like the group houses that have become of mansions in DC? Will three generations live together in these colossi, as in past generations? Will we keep them up or will we make whole new structures of their bones?

I don’t know. But we are twenty-five and for a week we will fill a space that is quite the right size for our mob.

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Dec 6 2011

Washington, DC – Housing Innovation Capital

In my travels this Fall I noticed that some clever cities have been putting themselves on the map by picking one area of great social need that they desperately need to solve for themselves, going big, and then becoming a model for rest of the world to learn from.

The examples I highlighted in a separate post on Copenhagen and cycling, Lyon and lighting, Chicago and green roofs, etc. made me wonder; on what particular area of social innovation might my own city focus?

There are so many areas of pressing need here in DC, and also so many talented and passionate people who live here, that it can be hard to choose. But there is one area that could have large multiplier effects and which takes advantage of one of the coolest things the DC community already has going:

Washington DC should become a laboratory for housing innovation

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While the primary stock of housing in most cities in the US still consists mostly of high-rise apartments, condos, and single-family homes- all designed for 1-3 residents or a nuclear family- there are many more options than that already available in DC.

For example, one of DC’s greatest assets is our strong culture of group house living for young professionals who move to the city to work for one of the many social sector organizations here, but who generally aren’t making much money in the process.

You will find many of these young, passionate people living in beautiful, century-old row houses that were originally built as small mansions in particular neighborhoods throughout the city, some of which have since been converted to group houses where 5-10 people in their twenties or thirties are now living together.

Building community in new ways in our 20-30′s

The city’s rich stock of row houses, which virtually none of us could have afforded to live in on our own, probably helped get the movement of group housing started in DC. But many of us are living in group houses as much out of a desire for community and for living with people who share our values, as for any other reason, like money. It’s not uncommon for these houses to have names (Rosemont, the Bike House, the Monday House…) and along with that, a sense of identity and history. For many of us, our housemates are like families.

Some of these houses are co-operatively owned, some are rented, but virtually all of these have cultures of sharing. Most make use of their beautiful homes as community spaces as often as possible. More than half of the art galleries and concerts I have been to in DC have been hosted at group houses. I have been to film screenings, study groups, organizational planning meetings, and fundraisers… all hosted at group houses. In fact, I typically work 2-3 days a week in a group house that becomes a co-working space during the day, the early predecessor to Hub DC.

Demographic trends and dealing with gentrification

It’s great that we have this option in DC, and a culture built around it, because of an important demographic trend in our generation; it is no longer the norm that all people now get married right after completing their education and move in with their spouses to start a family. Group houses give those of us who didn’t take that route yet in our twenties and thirties (a growing trend) a way to still have a sense of community and family that is comparable, if not better, to what we would have found in nuclear family homes, college dorms, or in the multigenerational homes that have been the norm in almost every culture of the world at some point.

I personally love group houses in DC and would love to see that option grow. There is so much more demand for group houses than the city has in supply. It is typical to have 50 people show up for an opening in a group house. Expanding the stock of group houses in DC could be an important strategy in helping keep the city affordable both for the droves of young people who move here early in their careers and for our invaluable long-term residents, who are in risk of being priced out of the market by the former, otherwise.

Building a local industry around housing innovation

But, like Copenhagen, Lyon, and Charlotte, we have so much more we could do. There are many other existing and new local models we can continue to expand alongside the group house option, from cooperative apartments to multi-socioeconomic row-houses with shared backyards.

With a concerted effort, DC could become a leader for demonstrating to the rest of the world what can be done when we make it a priority to implement intentional development strategies (remember Lyon’s lighting plan and Copenhagen’s cycling plan?) to help us better house our city’s amazingly diverse range of residents and to strengthen community across our huge range of socioeconomic groups and lifestyles.

Internationally-known partners with offices here, like Calvert Investments, Ashoka, the World Bank, Aspen Institute, and the World Resources Institute- not to mention the federal government- will all directly benefit from improving the diversity of housing options available for the passionate young transplants they hire, and they will all see network effects of cooperating in such an effort.

Like Charlotte and its energy efficiency initiative, new companies will emerge to meet the needs of the effort. And like Copenhagen and Lyon, other cities will want to learn from DC’s example.

In short, housing innovation could put DC on the map.

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Dec 6 2011

We built this city on social innovation

In my travels this Fall I noticed that some clever cities have been putting themselves on the map by picking one area of great social need that they desperately need to solve for themselves, going big, and then becoming a model for rest of the world to learn from.

In the process, they are creating whole new local industries, attracting and keeping talented residents, and solving their most pressing problems at the same time.  It’s a new model for building prosperity through social innovation.  Brilliant.

I wanted to highlight some of the coolest examples of this phenomenon I have observed first hand, and I hope my own city, DC, will follow suit.

What puts a city on the map?

One example isn’t a trend, but you can certainly draw a line through 5-6 data points.  Here’s why this particular line is important.

Cities compete globally for their reputations, residents and markets for their businesses. Cities, just like people, can thrive or stagnate based on that reputation: the thing that puts them on the map.

A unique, energizing vision or mission for a city can help create such a reputation by mobilizing and unifying great effort from the community around concrete goals. A few common ways cities or regions have put themselves on the map, historically, have included:

  • Becoming an epicenter for an industry (Los Angeles, Silicon Valley…)
  • Becoming a transportation hub (Charleston, Chicago…)
  • Becoming an artistic haven (while the scene lasted: Venice, Paris… Lately: Berlin, Asheville, Dubrovnik…)
  • Becoming an intellectual capital (Alexandria, Oxford, Boston…)
  • Becoming a center of commerce (New York, Hong Kong…)
  • Becoming a center of political power

While traveling this Fall, I observed that another option has emerged late in the last century, with a great deal of room to grow in the next:

Become a center for social innovation – pick a single target issue (eradicating homelessness, radical energy efficiency, urban organic farming, etc.), invest heavily in solving that problem, and become a model from which others want to learn.

There are a handful of cities already putting themselves on the map by doing this. Whether those efforts have emerged from inspired leadership or from fortuitous emergence, these cities have found that there are many happy side effects to focusing their efforts like this- aside from increasing the likelihood of actually solving their most pressing problems- including:

  • Attracting talented people to move to their cities to join the industries that have emerged around these areas of focus
  • Attracting tourists or formal study tours to learn from these innovative cities firsthand
  • Attracting partnerships and contracts with other cities to help them develop similar solutions

For example:

Copenhagen, Denmark – Cycling Innovation Capital

While cycling has been a popular mode of transportation in Copenhagen for more than a century, it was not destined, necessarily, to be one of the world’s most friendly cities for cycling, which it is.

With increased prosperity and the rise of the automobile around the middle of the last century, Copenhagen was gradually becoming a less bike-friendly city. Cars and cyclists were having trouble figuring out how to get along.

But around the 1980′s a partly-organized and partly-organic effort pushed the needle back the other direction dramatically. One way or another, the city collectively recognized and stood up for something that was important to it: keeping the roads friendly for cycling.

Copenhagen is now one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. Just a sample of some of the things I observed in person about their cycling infrastructure:

  • There is a robust culture of respect and etiquette between cyclists, pedestrians, and cars. When I rented a bike in Copenhagen, I was immediately and politely given a quick summary (by a rental company operator who reminded me a bit of The Tallest Man on Earth) of the city’s cycling culture and norms, such as which hand signals to use when turning and breaking, and the appropriate way to make a left turn across oncoming traffic. I observed these rules to be the total norm everywhere we rode. These norms didn’t emerge by accident; there has been a great deal of effort and advertising put into building them.
  • Bike lanes are physically separated from sidewalks and car lanes. Virtually every road has one. Some roads are dedicated cycling routes.
  • There is a national highway system of bike trails! Let me say that again… you can ride from any city in Denmark to another… by bike… without setting one tire on a road shared with cars. I rode one such trail all the way up a beautiful 40km stretch of coastline.
  • The traffic lights are being re-timed to reflect the average speed of a bicycle instead of a car. They call this the “green wave.”
  • And yet, they talk about how much work they have yet to do…

Copenhagen, as you might expect, has had to build up an entire industry around this effort, which now exports that expertise to many other cities who want to learn from its example. For example, when Mexico City, Melbourne, and New York wanted to make their cities more bike-friendly, they went to the Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects. Not to mention all of the designers, filmakers, etc. that have been attracted to the city to join the fun.

In the world of cycling innovation, Copenhagen is on the map.

Lyon, France – Lighting Innovation Capital

If you love beautiful lighting, someday you must visit Lyon. Since 1989, when the city became the first city in the world to have a lighting plan, the city has been developing an entire industry around a lighting cluster.

Like Copenhagen and cycling, Lyon has a beautiful story to tell about why it invested such a concerted effort into lighting: an annual winter festival in which the entire city is lit by lanterns at 8pm, which has been a tradition since 1852.

Like Copenhagen, Lyon exports its lighting expertise internationally. My host in Lyon in August told me that the city of Shanghai and many others have hired its Cluster Lumière.

Chicago – Green Roofs Initiative (+SF, +Charlotte, NC)

There was a time a few years ago that no one could mention green roofs without Chicago coming up. That was because Mayor Daley showed some leadership and introduced incentives to help along green roofs, before they were popular elsewhere, like fast-tracking permits for developments that included them. This might have even played a role in the decision by the US Green Building Council to host their enormous annual conference in 2008 in Chicago.

The same can be said for other cities around certain areas of green technology innovation. I wonder how much innovation San Fran’s goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2020 will spur, for example.

My home town of Charlotte, perhaps better known for its banks and NASCAR, has begun a program called Envision Charlotte which is rallying a common effort between banks, developers, and energy service companies (with Bill Clinton helping out) to reduce the energy consumption of the downtown building stock 20% by 2016.

If Envision Charlotte is as successful as I hope it will be, in ten years your city might be hiring designers and engineers who first got their start in Charlotte (or Chicago, of SF, depending).

What about your city?

In my really rough assessment, urban farming, affordable healthcare, housing the homeless, cracking inner city education, city-wide brownfield reclamation, and many other areas of need are up for grabs!

I hope that my own city of Washington, DC will be the next to join this trend by taking a leadership role in housing innovation.

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