Dan Philibin

Why Building Better Places Isn’t About Money

Added on Jan 2, 2023  ·  Filed under urbanism

Coby Lefkowitz offers some thoughts on why creating "quality, beautiful places" seems so difficult. He covers the common suspects like zoning, codes, and parking minimums—which do affect what's allowed to be built, yes—but then suggests that a lack of vested interest at the local level in making beautiful places also contributes negatively:

Perhaps the most important driver of this disease of thoughtlessness is who’s building our places today. Whereas in the past, our communities were spearheaded by craftsmen, designers, and developer entrepreneurs who both valued creating solid, quality places in their backyards, and had the freedom to do so, that’s not the case today. Most new building is subject to antiquated zoning codes that are carried out by institutionally backed developers who care little of the street-level impact their projects have. These firms tend to be out of towners who have little stake or vested interest in the neighborhoods they build in beyond their stabilization cycle. So long as the economics work, and the units are occupied, the project is deemed successful. Any qualitative impact it may potentially have is deemed superfluous, or not considered at all.

Interesting piece on "citizens' assemblies" as an alternative to representative democracy, which selects broadly representative groups of citizens by civic lottery to form deliberative groups that have the power to shape policy.

Over the past four decades, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have received invitations from heads of state, ministers, mayors and other public authorities to serve as members of over 500 citizens’ assemblies and other deliberative processes to inform policy making. Important decisions have been shaped by everyday people about 10-year, $5 billion strategic plans, 30-year infrastructure investment strategies, tackling online hate speech and harassment, taking preventative action against increased flood risks, improving air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and many other issues. [...]

Research also shows that being a member of a deliberative body strengthens people’s agency. It creates a collective consciousness and allows us to harness our collective capacity. Moreover, deliberative institutions strengthen democracy by extending the privilege of representation to a much larger and more diverse group of people, allowing them to play an important role in shaping decisions affecting people’s lives.

Someone with a one-hour commute in a car needs to earn 40% more to be as happy as someone with a short walk to work. On the other hand, researchers found that if someone shifts from a long commute to a walk, their happiness increases as much as if they’d fallen in love.

Not Everyone Should Have A Say

Added on Nov 23, 2022  ·  Filed under urbanism

Key to understanding the undemocratic nature of “community participation” is defining who is actually meant by “community.” First, the types of people who have the time and money to sue developers under federal environmental statutes are not representative of the broader community. Second, the costs of construction (noise, a disrupted view) are localized, whereas the benefits of renewable energy are large and diffuse. That means if the process for green-lighting a project prioritizes local voices, it will miss a much larger piece of the picture: all of the millions of people who will benefit from a greener future.

There Are No Cars in Wakanda

Added on Nov 22, 2022  ·  Filed under urbanism

In continuing to look at the car as some magical conduit to a brighter future, we continue to ignore what the automobile has wrought. [...]

What if we could rethink mobility to be not about the car, but about people? What if we thought less about technological innovation and more about connection and community, equity and access? Might it be possible to imagine a move away from petrol? From drivers? From cars?

More people should write

Added on Nov 22, 2022

When I have a piece of writing in mind, what I have, in fact, is a mental bucket: an attractor for and generator of thought. It’s like a thematic gravity well, a magnet for what would otherwise be a mess of iron filings. I’ll read books differently and listen differently in conversations. In particular I’ll remember everything better; everything will mean more to me. That’s because everything I perceive will unconsciously engage on its way in with the substance of my preoccupation. A preoccupation, in that sense, is a hell of a useful thing for a mind.

Your Kids Are Not Doomed

Added on Nov 21, 2022  ·  Filed under climate optimism

We face a political problem, not a physics problem. The green future has to be a welcoming one, even a thrilling one. If people cannot see themselves in it, they will fight to stop it. If the cost of caring about climate is to forgo having a family, that cost will be too high. A climate movement that embraces sacrifice as its answer or even as its temperament might do more harm than good. It may accidentally sacrifice the political appeal needed to make the net-zero emissions world real.

A Winter Garden

Added on Nov 20, 2022

George R.R. Martin:

I am much more of a gardener. My stories grow and evolve and change as I write them. I generally know where I am going, sure… the final destinations, the big set pieces, they have been my head for years… for decades, in the case of A SONG OF ICE & FIRE. There are lots of devils in the details, though, and sometimes the ground changes under my feet as the words pour forth. [...]

I have been at work in my winter garden. Things are growing… and changing, as does happen with us gardeners. Things twist, things change, new ideas come to me (thank you, muse), old ideas prove unworkable, I write, I rewrite, I restructure, I rip everything apart and rewrite again, I go through doors that lead nowhere, and doors that open on marvels.

Sounds mad, I know. But it’s how I write. Always has been. Always will be. For good or ill.

State and local governments prioritize building infrastructure for cars, and public transportation remains underfunded and unreliable. Wide roads and parking lots spread everything out and make walking extremely difficult, if a neighborhood even has sidewalks to begin with. Today, because a majority of Americans, including an increasing number of children and the elderly, live in car-centric areas like suburbs, our ability to form connections and community is limited. [...]

As local governments across the US increasingly take steps to make car-centric cities more walkable and amenable to public transit, it makes sense for us to consider what it would take to do the same for car-centric suburbs. Americans of all abilities deserve to participate in society independent of their ability to own, maintain, and drive a car. That includes being able to make friends on their own two feet.

It is worth cultivating an understanding of beauty and rituals as compelling forces, and it is worth listening when environments speak to you, even if you never have the chance to design a home. Even in the very small scale, most people have more control over their environment — and their environment has more control over them — than they realize.

Designing Defaults

Added on Nov 20, 2022  ·  Filed under favorites

One of the most practical life skills that no one talks about is turning discipline into consistency. Discipline will only take you so far. It’s hard to be consistently disciplined.

Relying on discipline to do what you know you should do requires a lot of effort. But what if you could take that discipline and turn it into something that happens without much effort? 

Ways to think about a metaverse

Added on Nov 14, 2022  ·  Filed under futures

I enjoyed and mostly agree with this take by Benedict Evans on the multiple visions for 'the metaverse' being presented to us today.

Ben offers two definitions for 'the metaverse' to consider: narrowly, AR/VR dominance (where AR/VR basically becomes the next smartphone) and a broader "new internet" vision, where the digital world will converge with the physical world and we'll all be admiring each other's NFTs while wearing high-tech glasses, or something like that. (I admittedly still don't understand how this is supposed to work or how it sounds the least bit compelling.) Count me as a skeptic of either scenario taking form.

The real question, of course, is whether AR and VR actually do break out, and reach that scale. People in the space often talk as though this is inevitable and unquestionable, but I don’t think we should be sure. The basic mistake, I think, would be to presume that because the technology can get better, it necessarily follows that billions (or even hundreds of million) of people will use it.

I do not think smartphone-level AR/VR dominance is inevitable, at least not in the next 5-10 years. I briefly owned a Quest and was unimpressed enough to return it; reviews for Meta's higher-end headset don't sound any more promising. The tech will undoubtedly improve to make the experience less miserable, and I can see headsets gaining traction in some narrow enterprise use cases, but I'm not convinced that people will want to spend more time with screens in front of their faces. At the moment it mostly feels like Meta is spending billions of dollars on disappointing hardware and nonsensical CGI ads to will this future into existence.

And every time I see a VR or AR concept showing huge virtual screens floating in space, I think that the future of software is not about seeing more rows in my spreadsheet at once - the future is not seeing it at all, and having an ML engine that builds it for me. This is like printing out our emails.

On the broader "new internet" vision:

The internet was organic. No one person or company could decide how it would work or what it would look like: it was created by everyone.

And so when people start making highly specific predictions about how an entirely new thing will appear, a decade into the future, and explain how it will all work, that feels very inorganic. [...] The problem with this view of ‘the metaverse’ is not so much that there are huge practical problems in making assets portable between totally different types of game, but that you really can’t predict any of that in advance. [...]

Going back to the mobile internet in 2002, many of us knew that this would be big, almost no-one thought it would replace PCs, and only a crazy person would have said that the telcos, Nokia and Microsoft would play no role at all and a has-been PC company in Cupertino and a weird little ‘search engine’ would build the new platforms. So be careful building castles in the sky.

On writing and thinking being a mutually reinforcing feedback loop:

Very few people have the ability to write effortlessly and perfectly; most of us must sweat over the process of revision, drafting, and redrafting until we get it right. Equally, very few people think accurately enough so that mere transcriptions of “what they have in mind” can serve as intelligent communications. Here the author points out that we tend to revise our words and refine our thoughts simultaneously; the improvements we make in our thinking and the improvements we make in our style reinforce each other, and they cannot be divorced.

Rebecca Solnit: Why climate despair is a luxury

Added on Oct 30, 2022  ·  Filed under climate optimism

Note: this is currently soft-paywalled, which wasn't the case when I originally posted it - sorry! Keeping the link, as it's a very good article and registration is free.

Prophecies are always partly self-fulfilling; by promoting whatever outcome they describe, they make it more likely. In this we can distinguish them from warnings, which assume the outcome is as yet undecided, and urge us away from the worst version. “You could be annihilated” is a very different statement from “You will be annihilated”. One includes room to act; the other puts nails in the coffin.

What motivates us to act is a sense of possibility within uncertainty – that the outcome is not yet fully determined and our actions may matter in shaping it. This is all that hope is, and we are all teeming with it, all the time, in small ways. […]

If we can recognise that we don’t know what will happen, that the future does not yet exist but is being made in the present, then we can be moved to participate in making that future.