Assorted (and tangentially related) links:
I’m not sure I agree with her parenthetical about DC’s “historic fabric” being “so strong already” – in fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a newer city on the Northeast Corridor than Washington – but she’s definitely right that that’s what Washingtonians, even the not-so-native ones, think of their city. Of-right development – that is, building within the zoning code in a way that does not trigger a subjective review – is on the wane everywhere in America, but in DC it’s even rarer, and therefore personal relationships like the ones Eric Colbert has (“an ANC 2B commissioner, who had worked with Colbert on previous projects, introduced him with affection”) are even more important than usual when compared to good design.
A few points. A) I’m not sure why Stephen associates the strength of a city’s fabric with age – DC’s fabric has the advantage of being largely intact. B) Stephen more explicitly states the same thesis – that Colbert’s architecture is ‘boring,’ and boring is, by association, bad design. I would disagree that fabric is boring – on the contrary, fabric is essential. C) It’s a mistake to conflate the countable and objective measures of development (square footage, height, density, etc) with more subjective measures like ‘good design.’ Stephen conflates two key elements here – development by right, and design by right. The regulatory structures and processes that govern both are quite different.
2. Cities are all about context. Atlantic Cities discusses a review of San Francisco by John King, from iconic buildings to more mundane (boring?) elements of the urban fabric.
The startup lore says that many companies were founded in garages, attics, and warehouses. Once word got around, companies started copying the formula. They stuck stylized cube farms into faux warehouses and figured that would work. The coolness of these operations would help them look cool and retain employees. Keep scaling that idea up and you get Apple’s ultrahip mega headquarters, which is part spaceship and part Apple Store.
But as Stewart Brand argued in his pathbreaking essay, “‘Nobody Cares What You Do in There’: The Low Road,” it’s not hip buildings that foster creativity but crappy ones.
“Low Road buildings are low-visibility, low-rent, no-style, high-turnover,” Brand wrote. “Most of the world’s work is done in Low Road buildings, and even in rich societies the most inventive creativity, especially youthful creativity, will be found in Low Road buildings taking full advantage of the license to try things.”
Being on the low road isn’t exactly the same as being a part of the fabric – the price point and the prominence don’t always correlate – but the concept is somewhat similar. These spaces are easy to adapt and reuse. Not just easy, but cheap.
I think that the authors have basically gotten the state of innovation right: we are approaching a critical point at which impressive progress in information technology becomes explosive progress. And I think that the authors are right that the extent to which we are able to take advantage of these technological developments will hinge on how successful America’s tinkerers are at experimenting with new business models and turning them into new businesses. But I also think that there is a critical geographic component to that process of experimentation and entrepreneurship and, as I wrote in my book, I think we are systematically constraining the operation of that component.
High housing costs constitute a substantial regulatory tax burden on residence in many high productivity areas. These are the places where the tinkerers are having their ongoing innovative conversation. But if the tinkerers are driven away, the conversation loses depth and breadth, and we lose many of the combinations that might go on to be the next big company — the next big employer. That, to me, is a very worrying idea.
5. When considering both the versatility of space as well as the institutional and infrastructural momentum (as well as touching on the importance of information technology), Mammoth also links to a short documentary of the infrastructure of the internet: Bundled, Buried, and Behind Closed Doors: