Live in guardians: one radical solution to the UK’s housing problem

Property guardianship emerged in the Netherlands in the 1990s, seen as a way of dealing with the large numbers of squatters occupying empty Dutch buildings. 

Housing in Knightsbridge, London, an area where much property sits empty. Photo: Getty
Housing in Knightsbridge, London, an area where much property sits empty. Photo: Getty

Not many people can afford to live in a 10,000-square-foot property in the heart of London like Robin – but actually, she can’t afford to, either, which is why she became a property guardian.” So began a recent Sky News report, the latest in a series of upbeat features on property guardianship, the novel practice of recruiting people to live in empty commercial or residential buildings for a fee. But is it as good as it sounds?

It first emerged in the Netherlands in the 1990s. At the time, squatters were occupying empty Dutch buildings in large numbers and had gained legal status through a ruling stating that owners could evict them through the courts only. Property guardianship was seen as a way of preventing this problem.

In the past five years the practice has been adopted in the UK, too. And, in a country that has the apparently paradoxical combination of a homelessness problem and an empty-building problem, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. According to local council data, there were 635,137 empty residential properties in England in 2013. Almost a third of these had been lying empty for more than six months.

For the building’s owners, it’s a good deal: leaving a building empty can reduce its value by up to 5 per cent, and installing security can cost £6,000 a month. For the property guardians, it’s not too bad an arrangement, either, as they pay between 30 and 60 per cent of standard market rate. But what they pay isn’t rent, and they are not technically tenants – their fees go to an agency, not to the landowner, in exchange for keeping the guardians in check.

Arthur Duke, managing director of the agency Live-in Guardians, says most of his customers are aged between 25 and 35. “About 80 per cent are saving for a deposit, and the other 20 per cent are fed up with expensive rents.” Most stay with the company for about six to nine months; some stay in one property but others move through several. When a building is needed by its owners, the guardians are offered other properties.

Guardians have to contend with a fair few rules. These include a ban on pets, parties, and smoking – and on leaving the property for more than 24 hours without permission. Until recently, agencies also had clauses in their contracts forbidding guardians from speaking to the press; as far as I can tell, this no longer applies.

The rules highlight the big catch with property guardianship: even its strongest advocate would admit that the exchange is, essentially, reduced rent (sorry, “fees”) in return for reduced rights. Property guardians aren’t tenants; they are “licensees”. In human-speak, this means they are given the right to use the building but the building’s owner doesn’t take on landlord responsibilities. This legal compromise was constructed precisely to allow such schemes to operate: agencies need to be able to boot out the tenants when a building is due to be reoccupied, sold or demolished.

The facts are more complicated. Giles Peaker, a property lawyer, was approached in 2012 by a UK guardian who had been locked out of a property after being given only two weeks’ notice by telephone. Her belongings, which were still inside the property, then went missing. She sued the company for unlawful eviction and received a substantial payout. (One of the conditions of the settlement was that no one could name the agency.)

In court, Peaker argued that the Eviction Act 1977 applies to guardians. That gives them the right to at least four weeks’ notice before being asked to leave. Despite this, several property guardian agencies maintain a two-week eviction policy.

In the Netherlands, guardian agencies have faced mounting criticism. In 2009 the Dutch film-maker Abel Heijkamp set up the campaign group the “Union of Precarious Renters” to improve legal protection and push for an end to property guardianship. His website is almost entirely in Dutch, but this has not deterred guardians in the UK from contacting him. “Policymakers only see the stories where people live in Westminster palaces – they ignore the fact that it’s creating guardians without rights or security,” Heijkamp says. “In London, where the rents are ridiculously high, people see it as a solution. But they should protect the rights of citizens, not of private enterprises.”

Yet Giles Peaker believes guardianship could still be a viable, and effective, housing option. “Like so many things, it’s an arrangement that can work – if it’s done properly between consenting adults.” 

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The London development without a poor door

Because providing affordable housing is too expensive.

A computer-generated image of One the Elephant. Image: Lend Lease

Apartment blocks which use “poor doors” to segregate tenants based on their wealth have been hitting the headlines recently on both sides of the Atlantic. But for the developers of one London block of flats, the prospect of letting affordable renters in – even through a separate door – was too much to contemplate.

One the Elephant, a 37-storey building with 284 residential units at the glamorous Elephant & Castle roundabout, was granted planning permission in November 2012, and is currently under construction. The London Borough of Southwark has internal targets which require all new developments in Elephant and Castle to include a minimum of 35 per cent affordable housing.

But in council planning meetings, developers Lend Lease argued that they would be “unable to support the inclusion of affordable housing within the development”. The firm’s reasoning was summed up in a council report as follows:

 A second core would be required to provide separate access, including lifts and circulation areas, to socially rented accommodation within the development.... the cost of construction would increase with the introduction of a further lift, as well as separate access and servicing arrangements.”

In other words, it’d cost too much to segregate the two types of tenant. And, in case you were wondering, they had to have separate entrances, because “not doing so would have significant implications on the values of the private residential properties”.

Luckily for Lend Lease, Southwark council came up with an ingenious solution. Southwark Council’s planning policy states that developments can bypass the 35 per cent affordable housing minimum “in exceptional circumstances” by “making a payment in lieu”: this can be invested in community services or affordable housing elsewhere. So instead of devoting 35 per cent of the development – around 100 units – to affordable housing, the firm could contribute £3.5m to the construction of a community leisure centre next door (it’s expected to cost a total of £20m).

Southwark estimates that, at current build costs of "£100,000 per habitable room at current values", putting up 100 affordable units would set you back around £10m. That’s nearly three times as much as Lend Lease donated to the new leisure centre. By declining to build the affordable housing, the developer seems to have saved itself a packet.  

Darren Johnson, a member of the London Assembly who campaigned against the decision, said by email:

 It's outrageous that the council and the Mayor of London would accept this argument, that the cost of 'poor doors' should mean there will be no flats in the development for ordinary Londoners at all.”

He called on the Mayor to threaten to refuse any such applications, “and strengthen planning policies against segregation”. Fingers crossed. 

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Surprisingly, London is the least happy major city in the UK

Can’t get no satisfaction. 

Sad in the city. Photo: Getty images

Everyone knows Londoners are grumpy. They file in and out of their fancy underground network with faces of thunder, avoiding each others’ eyes and rushing home to count the pennies left over after they’ve paid their astronomical housing costs.

All this we know anecdotally - but now, you'll be pleased to hear, we have the data to prove it. Urban Audit, a branch of the European Commission tasked with assessing the “attractiveness” and “quality of life” of European cities, has released the results of its 2012 Perception Survey. It asked people in 79 cities, including 6 in the UK, about their satisfaction with everything from their cities’ healthcare to its public spaces. It then used this data to put together average satisfaction levels on 12 different issues for each city. 

If you take an average of those 12 percentages for UK cities, they on the whole turn out to be “pretty satisfied” – all six fall in the 75-85 per cent range. They’re certainly doing better than Athens, which has an average satisfaction rate of 42 per cent.

But lagging in last place among the Brits is London, which feels the least satisfied with its schools, sports facilities, health services, and pollution and noise levels. (Its schools, incidentally, are among the best in Britain.)

The only category where London came out on top was public transport. Here's a graph of the overall satisfaction levels.

The survey also asked respondents whether they agreed with certain statements about their cities. Only 71 per cent of Londoners agreed with the statement “I feel safe in London”, which places it below the European median of 74 per cent and at the bottle of the pile in the UK. Londoners feel less safe than residents of Paris, Barcelona, Zagreb, and Malaga, to name but four.  Finally, in utterly unsurprising news, only 12 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement “It is easy to find good housing at a reasonable price in London.”

So should Londoners really be so down on their city? As the UK’s largest, it’s pretty much fated to have the highest crime and pollution levels. And yes, the housing market is awful. 

But when the researchers asked the question “are you satisfied with the place where you live?”, offering respondants the chance to say they liked their city despite its crime and pollution, Londoners were still the most dissatisfied in the UK – 82 per cent said they were satisfied, which sounds OK, but it places London ahead of only 17 European cities, and behind 51. The median satisfaction level for Europe was much higher, at 92 per cent. Here's the results for some major European cities: 

One explanation for London's poor performance could be that Londoners have less pride in their city - a result, perhaps, of the fact relatively few of them were born there. In 2001, Sheffield University conducted a “sense of belonging” study across the UK, based on the number of non-married adults, one-person households and people who had lived at their current address for less than a year. (The thinking was that these were the groups least likely to have roots in an area.) The researchers' results show that, of the six British cities included in the Urban Audit study, it was those who lived in London who were likely to have the lowest “sense of belonging”. Residents of Cardiff – also the winning city in terms of satisfaction – were likely to have the highest.

In other words, despite all their phone contacts, Londoners are lonely, disconnected and dissatisfied. Someone sort out the housing market before it’s too late.

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New York apartment blocks are using “poor doors”

One nation, indivisible. 

Not the poor door. Photo: Extell

The website for One Riverside Park, a new high-rise in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, calls it “New York’s most distinguished new address, introducing a new level of luxury to waterfront living”. It’s very pretty. Look.

Unfortunately for its developers Extell, the new building is hitting headlines not for its charming river views, but because it’ll have two separate entrances – one for the residents of its luxury apartments, and another for those living in its cheaper units.

Critics have dubbed this second entrance, which will apparently be located at the back of the building, the “poor door”. It offers access to the 55 affordable apartments, which face the street. The block’s 219 luxury apartments have those river views all to themselves.

This segregation is a sneaky way to appease New York’s drive for mixed-income housing, without actually forcing people with different incomes to mix. Developers are under pressure to ensure that a proportion of all new housing is affordable, and receive subsidies and tax exemptions for any affordable apartments they build. But Extell has decided to keep its two sets of apartments as separate as possible, and last week its plans were approved by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Bill de Blasio, the current mayor, has spoken out against the separate entrances, but says he can’t do anything about these plans, which were given the green light by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. This week, though, he announced plans to change planning laws to make the practice illegal (Extell claim that they believed the separate entrances were “required” under the current regulation). Wiley Norvell, a City Hall spokesman, said in an email to Next City:

The previous administration changed the law to enable this kind of development. We fundamentally disagree with that approach, and we are in the process of changing it to reflect our values and priorities.”

There’s also a bill going through the City Council that would make it illegal to discriminate against tenants based on whether they were eligible for affordable housing.

A “poor door” entrance for renters living in publicly-subsidised units is already in operation at 1 Northside Piers, another New York apartment block. David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at Toll Brothers, the building’s developers, told The Real Deal last year:

I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to have to be in the same boat as low-income renters, who are very fortunate to live in a new building in a great neighbourhood.”

We’re just going to leave that quote there for you to think about.

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A new site lets you help pay Detroit residents’ water bills

A drop in the bucket.

Congressman John Myers joins protestors in Detroit at Friday’s protest. Photo: Getty

It’s now almost a year since Detroit became the largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy. One stubbornly persistent hole in its finances comes from the $5.7bn of bad debt its Water and Sewage Department is sitting on. So, city officials have decided to address the problem by letting residents go thirsty.

Since last year, the department has stopped supplying water to around 41,000 households who owe $150 or more: that’s about 100,000 people affected by the shutoffs so far. Many families have turned their water back on illegally, risking further fines if they’re found out.

The reception to this hasn’t exactly been positive. On 25 June, the UN office for Human Rights called on the city government to end the shutoffs, and released a statement saying: “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water.” Meanwhile, a local attorney has filed a class action suit against the city on behalf of residents, claiming that the shut-offs – which fall overwhelmingly on black households – are racially motivated. And last Friday, 2,000 people including the Hulk himself, Mark Ruffalo, took to Detroit’s streets in protest.   

Two women, however, have taken a more digital-first approach to the problem. Last week, Kristy Tillman and Tiffani Bell launched a site called Turn On Detroit’s Water which matches up donors willing to pay part or all of an overdue water bill with those struggling to pay.

Donors sign up by submitting an email address and the amount they’re willing to pledge, while residents enter their water department account information. Bell and Tillman redact residents’ names and pass on the payment information to donors.

According to Bell’s Twitter feed, over 1,000 donors have already signed up:

Both women have also tweeted screenshots of bills successfully or partially paid, implying that the donors have actually come up with the goods.

The site isn’t likely to be a long term solution, especially as the city authorities are planning to raise water prices by another 8 per cent. But for now at least, it may help keep the water flowing. 

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Should mapping apps take us the scenic route?

Walk this way. 

Happy pedestrians on the Millennium Bridge. Photo: Kunstlerbob at Wikimedia Commons

Walking in cities can be a grim experience. Pavements along what are, essentially, motorways; grey concrete buildings looming over ominous back alleys – it’s fair to say many of us would sacrifice another five minutes to take a more aesthetically appealing route.

Yet mapping apps – which are, let’s face it, the only way any of us manage to put one foot in front of the other these days – are programmed to get us places via the quickest and most efficient route. Even if that’s down a darkened alley, or along the hard shoulder of a smog-enfolded dual carriageway.

Helpfully, though, researchers from Yahoo! and Italy’s University of Torino have taken the first step towards developing an alternative: apps which can take you via routes which, in their words, are “not only short, but also emotionally pleasant”.

For a paper released earlier this month, adorably entitled “The Shortest Path to Happiness”, they asked over 3,000 online users of their site Urbangems.org to decide which of two street scenes from Google Earth was the most beautiful. The researchers then used this data to put together four different routes between London’s Tate Modern and Euston station, and asked 30 people to test and rate them. Each route was chosen by the researchers to display a different quality: one was “beautiful”, another “happy”, a third “quiet”, and the last was “short”. The researchers also used “metadata” from Flickr – looking at which photos had positive captions or tags, counting how many likes they had, and so forth – to generate pleasant routes in London and Boston.

In each of these experiments, the team found that the shortest route was often ranked the lowest by users: the quickest path between their two destinations in London, for example, took walkers down busy, car-clogged roads, and crossed Blackfriars Bridge. Much better, many felt, to take a quieter and more scenic path across the pedestrianised Millennium Bridge. If a route is attractive, walkers often don’t even notice that it’s longer.

Both online and in the London experiment, participants generally favoured green spaces and historical buildings. This confirmed the findings of previous urban research which, the paper notes, has shown that “green spaces and Victorian houses are mostly associated with beauty, while trash and broken windows with ugliness”. Shocking, that.

The plan is to turn all these findings into an app for cities in the US and Europe. It wouldn’t be the first app to take users off the beaten path – Dérive gets you “lost in the city”, while Serendipitor uses the philosophy of, among others, Yoko Ono to “introduce small slippages and minor displacements within an otherwise optimized and efficient route” (oooohkay). But this would be the first app to generate routes based on “quiet, happiness and beauty”.

Of course, at least two of these qualities aren’t objective. Some of the study’s respondents commented that they liked routes associated with “personal stories”; others preferred busy areas to quiet ones. As a result, the researchers suggested that the app could also use personalisation, so routes were based on a user’s previous preferences. It could also, they say, “record [walkers’] memories associated with specific places and show these memories back to them when physically revisiting this place”. Proust eat your heart out. 

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Do big cities make you more social?

Who you gonna call?

Lisbon: queen bee of Portugal. Credit: Lucag at Wikimedia Commons

Good news for the city mice out there – new research is claiming that people who live in bigger cities have larger social networks.

The study, carried out by researchers from MIT and the Santa Fe Institute, examined anonymised call information from the UK and Portugal to find out how many phone contacts (that is, “people you actually call”) phone owners had, and how often they communicated.

When they analysed the results, researchers found a “superlinear” link between city size and communication activity: as city size increases, residents’ total phone activity, and the total number of contacts they have between them, increase even more. 

The diagram below compares the phone contacts of an average inhabitant of Lisbon (population 564,657) to that of a resident of Lixa (population 4,233). The Lisbonian has twice as many contacts.

Credit: Kael Greco, MIT Senseable City Lab

Oddly enough, the researchers also found that, despite a higher number of contacts in larger cities, the likelihood of your friends or acquaintances knowing one another remains pretty much the same. (That’s what “average clustering coefficient” at the bottom of the image refers to. Catchy.) Essentially, you’ll find similar types of networks in all sizes of city; it’s just that people in bigger cities tend to have larger ones. The researchers call this the “village” effect. Carlo Ratti, one of the paper’s authors, says:

It seems that even in large cities we tend to build a tightly-knit community, or ‘village,’ around ourselves...In a real village, connections might be defined by proximity, while in a large city we can elect a community based on affinity, interest, or sexual preference.”

This fits in nicely with the theory of “Urban Tribes”, put forward by US journalist Ethan Watters: in large cities where we lack family or local community, we create our own.

There is, however, a catch. Or rather, a network of catches.

For a start, the researchers analysed 7.6 billion calls from landlines (remember those?) in the UK, from a single month in 2005. While this included calls from landlines to mobiles, they didn’t include any mobile-only data, despite the fact that in 2005, around 85 per cent of UK households were using mobile phones.

In Portugal, they analysed mobile phone calls from a single phone network for fifteen months from 2006 to 2007. Yet in each city, the largest group (always at least 10 per cent of the phone users) had only one contact. Mobile users in Sabugal, the country’s least populated city, had a median of only 4 contacts, while in Lisbon, the largest, it was 11. Over fifteen months, that’s not that many – either people are a lot lonelier than we realised, or mobile usage doesn’t offer a comprehensive guide to someone’s social life.

But the research is at least indicative of an upwards trend in phone interactions as cities get larger. According to the study’s website, the researchers hope that their findings could “elucidate the role of cities as accelerators of human integrations”, and so shed light on the spread of other things in cities – crime or disease, for example.

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The world’s tallest residential building will be 1 foot shorter than One World Trade Center

Because otherwise the terrorists win.

One World Trade Center. Credit: Siriusly at Wikimedia Commons

Leaked plans for New York’s latest skyscraper, the Nordstrom Tower, offer a sneak peek into its intentions to set a few new records. It’ll have the tallest roof in the US, taking that title from Chicago’s Willis Tower. It’ll also be the tallest residential building in the world.

But on one front, it’s showing remarkable restraint. Drawings leaked to US website New York YIMBY show that the building’s total height, including the giant spire atop the roof, will be 1,775 feet. Just three miles away stands One World Trade Center, which stands at 1,776 feet.  

When you consider the fact that the Nordstrom Tower’s architects are Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, who previously designed Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, this lack of vertical ambition becomes a bit mysterious. Is it a sudden fear of heights, perhaps? An oversight? A miscalculation?

Actually, it’s an act of patriotism.

The height of One World Trade Center, which reflects the year the US declared independence from its British oppressors, was chosen as a statement of US freedom in the wake of 9/11; it thus follows that surpassing this height would be an insult to the tragedy’s victims. (The fact that the Nordstrom Tower’s 1,775 feet therefore represents an America still bound by British rule doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone.)

Plans make it clear that the spire will top out at 1775.0 feet. Credit: YIMBY

To be fair to Smith and Gill, a look back at the controversies surrounding the naming of One World Trade Center shows that they were probably right to be cautious. Its original name, the “Freedom Tower”, was axed by the Port Authority as they worried it would be “too political” for potential renters.

Fox News (who else?) accused them of being un-American. George Pataki, governor of New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks, told the New York Daily News that he, too, disapproved of the name change:

It shouldn’t just be, you know, One World Trade Center. It should have a name. And symbolising 1776 and showing the world that we weren’t going to be frightened in the face of these attacks... it all logically came together that the perfect name for this is the Freedom Tower.”

And in case you were wondering, yes, he is directly comparing the British colonial period with the terrorist attacks. Go figure.

The new tower, which will be located on West 27th Street, is named after its owner, the department store Nordstrom’s. It’ll contain a seven floor flagship Nordstrom’s store as well as a hotel and apartments. No concern about names that are “driven by commercial interests” here, then. 

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China’s Google plots bikes with no riders. What could possibly go wrong?

Look, mum, no hands!

They probably won’t look much like this. Credit: Moebiusuibeom-en at Wikimedia Commons

You thought Google’s self-driving cars sounded dangerous? Well, imagine the same thing, but with bikes. Bikes that drive themselves around. Bikes that drive themselves around with no one riding them.  

Now imagine them cruising along the traffic-choked streets of Shanghai and Beijing, and ask: what could possibly go wrong?

All this is the vision of Baidu, China’s largest web services company and search engine, which last Thursday confirmed rumours that it’s been developing a riderless “smartbike” for China. Like Google, the firm is sitting on huge amounts of geo location and map data, which it’ll use to create navigation systems. A spokesperson told the Chinese news website Sina that the bikes would also “use intelligent sensors and big data analysis to know the owner’s requirements and health index”. They’ll also, one hopes, be able to spot obstacles and avoid them.

Baidu’s take on the unmanned transport trend seems canny, as bikes are a huge market in China – the Earth Policy institute reported in 2010 that there were 430 million cyclists in the country. Electronic bikes (or “e-bikes”), which travel up to 30 miles per hour, have also seen a surge in popularity in the past 10 years, with 200 million sold in the country by 2013. That’s good news for Baidu: people are keen to travel on two wheels, but not so keen to actually pedal.

The bikes could also make life easier for China’s plethora of cycle courier services, by allowing them to carry packages to destinations without a rider – essentially like a grounded version of Amazon’s delivery drones.

When all this will come to fruition is not exactly clear: the spokesperson said the plans were “long-term” and wouldn’t confirm when the bikes would be on sale.  

It’s not the first time Baidu has followed in Google’s footsteps when it comes new technology. Since mid-2013, they’re been working on prototypes for the Baidu Eye, a headset with a screen with face recognition and image search which responds to voice commands, and which bears no resemblance whatsoever to Google Glass:

Oh.

Image credit: Baidu

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Is the Glasgow cycle hire scheme really more popular than London’s already?

Scottish upstarts. 

Battle of the bikes. Image credits L-R: Nextcycle; ZanMan at Wikimedia commons

It’s been a rough year for the relationship between England and Scotland. One’s thinking about dumping the other after hundreds of years of marriage, and propaganda (sometimes Lego-strewn) is rife on both sides.

So we’re sorry to say that yet another dispute has emerged between the two nations. According to a news report on the Herald website yesterday, Glasgow’s new cycle-hire scheme, the Mass Automated Cycle Hire Scheme, or “Mach”, is already more successful than London’s. It only launched on 24 June.

A spokesperson from operator Nextcycle told the paper that the bikes were rented an average of 1.24 times per day during the scheme’s first 12 days. (That’s 2,505 total rentals, divided by 168 bikes, divided by 12 days.) This, the paper said, makes it more popular than London’s scheme, where bikes are rented at a “daily rate” of 1.16.  

Unfortunately for Glasgow, this number appears to be, um, wrong.

It looks like they got 1.16 by taking the authorities’ figures for the bikes’ daily usage over the first 12 days of London’s bike hire scheme, and dividing them by the number of bikes available – originally meant to be 6,000. The problem is that, for three months after launch, the actual number of bikes available was around 5,000 (and, some claim, even lower): there weren’t enough docking stations installed to house 6,000 bikes.

Using the lower figure of 5,000 bikes, the uptake over the first twelve days in London works out to 1.39 uses per bike. That’s a whole 10.8 per cent higher than the Glasgow bikes’ 1.24 uses per day.

There’s also the issue of scale to consider. In Glasgow, Mach launched with 168 bikes; London’s scheme launched with 5,000. Granted, Glasgow’s population is only around 600,000, while inner London’s is around 3 million; but to achieve the same ratio Glasgow would have needed to introduce 1,000 bikes.

What’s more, at the same rate of usage, fewer bikes per capita should, logically, mean more hires per bike. It hasn’t. London’s bikes were simply used more in their first two weeks than Glasgow’s were.

In one area at least, Glasgow is winning: the average journey time so far is 58 minutes, according to Nextcycle, whereas London’s is just 17. One enterprising pair even rode their hire bikes to Loch Lomond, around 20 miles outside the city.

The scheme will add 170 more bikes within the next couple of months. Given time, then, Glasgow could still pull ahead in the bike-hire peloton. 

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Skyscraper made of its occupants’ waste planned for London

A load of old rubbish. 

Designs for three of the Organic Skyscraper’s stages. No, it’s not just the Shard painted green. Credit: Chartier-Corbasson

Everything’s going organic these days. First food, then clothes, then wine – so it was probably only a matter of time before architecture hopped on the bandwagon too.

So it is that Paris-based firm Chartier-Corbasson has unveiled its designs for an “organic skyscraper” to add to the decidedly non-organic ones currently populating London’s skyline. Its facade would be made from recycled paper and plastic bottles, along with glass and other, more traditional, building materials.

There’s a twist: the building would start off at only around half of its planned height, then grow over time, using plastic and paper thrown away by the building’s occupants as building materials. The waste would be processed on site and used to construct plastic and paper panels to add to the structure.

The whole thing would be anchored by a criss-cross of metal pipes, modelled on the bamboo scaffolding used on building projects in Asia. This scaffolding, however, would be permanent; some pipes would even have tiny wind turbines inside to generate electricity for the building.

The Organic Skyscraper’s designers deny it would feel like an eternal building site. The scaffolding would make cranes for further construction unnecessary, they say; new elements would be prefabricated and then quietly slotted into place. The architects claim the design was intended to be the “most realistic approach possible” to building a skyscraper, since it allows more levels to be added when they’re needed, cutting down on the investment required before construction can begin.

The intended location is on Shoreditch’s high street, where the skyscraper would feel right at home among organic coffee vendors and vegan restaurants. Its potential uses are laid out in a remarkably opaque press release from the building’s architects:

The pyramidal organisation of lifts generates spaces landings [sic], lobbies that can receive activities, spaces for common services, like fitness-rooms, conference-rooms, restaurants or bars, and, of course, on the summit, an observation platform.”

Right.  

If the Organic Skyscraper is realised, its owners will have to pray that the building’s occupants aren’t wholly sold on being eco-friendly themselves – they’ll be relying on them to chuck away plastic bottles and long, single-sided printouts so they can keep building skywards. 

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Skyscraper made of its occupants’ waste planned for London

A load of old rubbish. 

Designs for three of the Organic Skyscraper’s stages. No, it’s not just the Shard painted green. Credit: Chartier-Corbasson

Everything’s going organic these days. First food, then clothes, then wine – so it was probably only a matter of time before architecture hopped on the bandwagon too.

So it is that Paris-based firm Chartier-Corbasson has unveiled its designs for an “organic skyscraper” to add to the decidedly non-organic ones currently populating London’s skyline. Its facade would be made from recycled paper and plastic bottles, along with glass and other, more traditional, building materials.

There’s a twist: the building would start off at only around half of its planned height, then grow over time, using plastic and paper thrown away by the building’s occupants as building materials. The waste would be processed on site and used to construct plastic and paper panels to add to the structure.

The whole thing would be anchored by a criss-cross of metal pipes, modelled on the bamboo scaffolding used on building projects in Asia. This scaffolding, however, would be permanent; some pipes would even have tiny wind turbines inside to generate electricity for the building.

The Organic Skyscraper’s designers deny it would feel like an eternal building site. The scaffolding would make cranes for further construction unnecessary, they say; new elements would be prefabricated and then quietly slotted into place. The architects claim the design was intended to be the “most realistic approach possible” to building a skyscraper, since it allows more levels to be added when they’re needed, cutting down on the investment required before construction can begin.

The intended location is on Shoreditch’s high street, where the skyscraper would feel right at home among organic coffee vendors and vegan restaurants. Its potential uses are laid out in a remarkably opaque press release from the building’s architects:

The pyramidal organisation of lifts generates spaces landings [sic], lobbies that can receive activities, spaces for common services, like fitness-rooms, conference-rooms, restaurants or bars, and, of course, on the summit, an observation platform.”

Right.  

If the Organic Skyscraper is realised, its owners will have to pray that the building’s occupants aren’t wholly sold on being eco-friendly themselves – they’ll be relying on them to chuck away plastic bottles and long, single-sided printouts so they can keep building skywards. 

San Francisco’s oppressed motorists are fighting for change

They’ve been silent too long. 

The battle for San Francisco’s streets in action. Credit: Aude at Wikimedia Commons

Drivers in San Francisco have been having a hard time of it. All the public parking spaces created since the 1990s have been for cyclists. There’s no longer any requirement to build parking spaces for new houses and apartments. The transport agency even made them (gasp!) pay for parking on Sundays (mayor Ed Lee abandoned the policy after a year). 

But fear not – for like countless downtrodden, voiceless groups before them, the city’s motorists have come together to fight back. Earlier this week, a group called “Restore Transportation Balance” delivered a ballot initiative to the town hall, demanding a change in policy to pay more attention to the poor, ignored motorist. Ballot initiatives can be proposed by individuals or interest groups and are then voted on in a local election. To qualify, they need to collect 9,702 (yes, 9,702) signatures from locals, but, just to be safe, this one had 17,500.

In an editorial for SFGate, Bill Bowen, a member of the Restore Transportation Balance team, described the initiative’s backers as “a coalition of neighbourhood activists, small businesses, first responders, disabled advocates, parents, churchgoers and just plain folks”. Their proposals include:

  • Funding for car park construction;
  • A freeze on parking meter and garage charges for five years;
  • No parking charges on Sundays, holidays, or outside working hours;
  • Motorist representation on the Municipal Transportation Agency board; 
  •  A requirement that “traffic laws should be enforced equally for everyone using San Francisco’s streets and sidewalks”.

This last, somewhat passive aggressive demand is presumably directed at the over-mighty interest groups which have dominated the city’s transport agenda for far too long: bikes, pedestrians and the city’s street cars. The initiative is in part a backlash against another ballot in the election, a horrific proposal for a $500m bond to be spent on new public transport and to make the streets bus and bicycle friendly.

According to the annual TomTom traffic survey, San Francisco is the second most congested city in the US – a fact the coalition of motorists blames on the introduction of cycle lanes. That said, it’s also been rated the second most walkable city in the country by website Walk Score, based on how close schools, businesses and other amenities are to each other.

The proposals will both be voted on in November. Until then, the war rages on. 

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

A traffic survey has claimed South Nottinghamshire is more congested than New York

It’s probably wrong. 

Gridlock in Basford, Nottinghamshire. Credit: Alan Murray-Rust, published under creative commons

Until now, Nottinghamshire’s greatest claim to fame was Robin Hood. This week, however, the East Midlands county swept to world renown, when a large chunk of it was revealed to be the twelfth most congested area in Europe or North America.

The survey, conducted by INRIX, a traffic information service, placed South Nottinghamshire above New York, Rome, Boston and Birmingham in its ranking of most car-clogged metropolitan areas. (No, we wouldn’t call it a metropolitan area either. We’ll get to that in a second.) Here’s the top 15:

The Nottinghamshire press were understandably nonplussed by the news, especially since the area was placed 33rd in 2011-12, and 27th in 2012-13. The Nottingham Post reported that the results have been “questioned by transport figureheads”, namely the chairman of a taxi association. It also quoted Councillor Jane Urquhart, who pointed out that major works on the M1 and A453, which together form the main route into Nottingham, have slowed down traffic a lot in the past year.

There could be other explanations for the anomaly. INRIX only considers traffic on “major motorways and arterials”. The only motorway in South Nottinghamshire is the aforementioned M1, which skirts the edge of the county for about five minutes: those road works will therefore have had a disproportionate effect on the survey.

Another explanation is that INRIX used Eurostat’s UK metropolitan boundaries, which lumps pretty much the whole county into one “metropolitan area”. The Office of National Statistics, on the other hand, uses something called “urban areas” which stop once a minimum population density is reached. It consequently defines Nottingham’s urban area as Nottingham, plus a few suburbs: this seems like a better point of comparison with NYC than the entire southern part of the county, which is mostly grass.

Nottinghamshire, as seen from space. Credit: Google Earth

The reason this is a problem is because INRIXs’ ranking is based on the difference in traffic speeds between rush hours and “free-flow” periods – and true metro areas have very different traffic patterns from more rural ones. In New York City, for example, the roads are so busy that peak time traffic is often not that much worse than general traffic. In smaller cities, peak time makes a big difference.  All the index really shows is how much more congested an area gets at commuter time. If traffic is terrible all day, then the answer may be “not much”.

Happily for Nottingham, then, its leap into the big-time seems to be a fluke. Works on those major roads will carry on until 2015 though, so the locals may be stuck in that traffic jam a little longer yet.

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

A Hackney toyshop wants to dress the Boris bikes in animal print

“Boris beasts”, anyone?

The toyshop's mock-up of Boris astride one of their designs. Image: TellTails

With their grey/blue palette and bulky frames, London’s hire bikes are not known for their style.

Luckily for the discerning Londoner, toyshop TellTails has come up with a plan. Based in Hackney (where else?), it’s making a redesign the cornerstone of its unlikely campaign to be the bike hire system’s next sponsor.

According to their page on crowd-funding platform Indiegogo, TellTails would attach their own tailor-made tails to the bikes and give them an animal print paint job in order to turn London into a (no, really) “style Serengeti”. The manifesto continues:

We believe in a London bike sponsored by the people, for the people. A bike that represents the natural irreverence, exuberance and rebellious nature of the British people. A wild, wondrous bicycle that one might mount to feel like a Saxon king rather then a banal banker.”

TellTails claims that the redesign would simultaneously serve as a political statement, an “act of style” and a tourist attraction. Oh, and the tails would act as “superior mud guards”, too. But it’s sadly silent on whether all bikes will be cheetah-themed as in the campaign’s photo, or whether monkey, tiger and dinosaur tails would also be available.

Barclays announced last December that it would not renew its sponsorship deal with TfL once it expired in 2015. But we suspect TellTails’ bark is worse than their bite: at time of writing, they’re on £792 out of a £37.5m goal.

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

A Hackney toyshop wants to dress the Boris bikes in animal print

“Boris beasts”, anyone?

The toyshop's mock-up of Boris astride one of their designs. Image: TellTails

With their grey/blue palette and bulky frames, London’s hire bikes are not known for their style.

Luckily for the discerning Londoner, toyshop TellTails has come up with a plan. Based in Hackney (where else?), it’s making a redesign the cornerstone of its unlikely campaign to be the bike hire system’s next sponsor.

According to their page on crowd-funding platform Indiegogo, TellTails would attach their own tailor-made tails to the bikes and give them an animal print paint job in order to turn London into a (no, really) “style Serengeti”. The manifesto continues:

We believe in a London bike sponsored by the people, for the people. A bike that represents the natural irreverence, exuberance and rebellious nature of the British people. A wild, wondrous bicycle that one might mount to feel like a Saxon king rather then a banal banker.”

TellTails claims that the redesign would simultaneously serve as a political statement, an “act of style” and a tourist attraction. Oh, and the tails would act as “superior mud guards”, too. But it’s sadly silent on whether all bikes will be cheetah-themed as in the campaign’s photo, or whether monkey, tiger and dinosaur tails would also be available.

Barclays announced last December that it would not renew its sponsorship deal with TfL once it expired in 2015. But we suspect TellTails’ bark is worse than their bite: at time of writing, they’re on £792 out of a £37.5m goal.