The past few weeks I have been reading about topics that have piqued my interest this past year.  My first readings have focused on developers and understanding how they think about construction projects.  This interest stems from my conversations with Dustin Summer, an M. Arch student focusing on real estate development.  My second set of readings has been about global cities and emerging economies, with my particular interest in nodes in the urban periphery.


Architect and Developer

Development – and developers – are critical to the creation of architecture.  Because architects often work for developers and clients with strong interest in the financial viability of a project – understanding a developer’s point of view is critical to an architect’s understanding of how decisions about a building are made.  Practicing architects do not operate in an academic, studio environment, where decisions of cost do not impact design decisions.  Professional’s decisions are influenced by factors other than aesthetics, and architecture students must embrace this as they begin their career.  Cost becomes another design element that must be considered as thoughtfully as the user experience.

Development, as much as it seems to be an enigma to the average architect, actually mimics the creative process employed by designers.  Throughout my readings, a developer’s activities are often described as being iterative, similar in many ways to the design process an architect employs.  Also of interest is a developer’s method of data collection.  Just as an architect performs a site analysis to understand the how to site the building, a developer performs a site analysis of his/her own.  This often involves driving the area and understanding the types of retails and market opportunities in the context.

Also paralleling architecture is a developer’s need for consensus building, or building support at all levels of a community for a particular project.  A primary example of the importance of this is in the Evansville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s proposal for a softball park in 2010, which the firm I worked for, VPS Architecture, was the lead designer for.

This well developed plan had a strong design team and a strong concept: develop an old arena’s parking lot into a regional softball complex.  The project, however, could not survive on the merits of the urban plan or architecture alone.  Lacking a strong local, and more importantly, vocal support by particularly local softball players, the complex continued to be viewed merely as an economic project geared towards key local investors.

Developers, also like architects, are managers of risk, in this case, of capital risk.  In many cases a developer asks to “extend the closing on the land until they are certain they can proceed with the development” (Peiser 22).  Sometimes this method requires more money to “hold” onto a property, but it greatly reduces risk to the developer. Of particular interest to me is the use of land as collateral to finance construction costs.  When a developer buys a piece of land, the land can be used as capital to pay for the building cost.  In many senses, this complements phased development.


Global Cities

Not only am I interested in development, but I also have become highly interested in global cities, particularly the economic, social, and environmental aspects that change drastically in new industrial economies (NIE’s).

Today, globalization is constantly around us, but what brought about this sudden change from loosely connected economic regions to a truly global economy?  Globalization, as many sources say, begun with the Japan’s debt crisis, which caused a decentralization of its industry to other Southeast Asia countries.  Japan searched for lower production costs outside of the country, while Tokyo remained the location of central managerial functions (CMF), an example of an urban core, knowledge intensive location.  In our world today, we see three primary trading blocks: NAFTA, EU, and Pacific Asia.  When we consider global trade, we see the interplay of global cities, which enable a global economy to operate around the clock. Tokyo, London, and the NYSE allow for the continual operation of the world’s financial system, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

As we view our world cities, similar patterns become evident across many cities in quite different geographic locations.  For instance, the trilogy of airport, science/high-tech park, and luxury residential is one such pattern (Jacquet 102).  When we view mass transit, we see centralized and decentralized patterns.  The “metro train promotes a discontinuous form of development around the stations, and not a continuous one, as the roads do” (Jacquet  102).  In Chicago, one only needs to take a metro from Elk Grove to Union Station to see the decentralized developments around the metro.  These have higher densities and cater to commuter lifestyles.  In contrast to decentralized development, we often see “orbital highways,” which often fail to contain the city but merely promote its expansion in continuous development forms.  In Cairo, tour guides call the Cairo Ring Road the “magical ring road,” as it eases travel around the heart of Cairo.

Once particular interesting writing is about “Patchwork City,” which describes typologies of urban spaces that exist in nearly every global city (Lo 68).  These include areas of international finance, franchise worlds, gentrified urban islands, global tourist circuits, and research and development technopoles. This pattern is particularly noticeable.  Whether in Mexico City, Istanbul, Dubai, or Milan, one can find the “franchise world” of Gucci, Armani, Louis Vutton, and the likes. These cater to a wealthy, global clientele.  Similar patterns, such as the global tourist circuit, exist in Paris, Barcelona, and Rome, with some cities more accessible than others.  These types of patterns challenge our mental understanding of the city, and also allow us to better identity the types of people frequenting certain areas.  This awareness also allows architects to analyze the system and better “plug” their buildings into an already operating system. This type of patchwork idea indeeds makes one’s conception of global cities change greatly.  Also of particular interest to me is the idea of “flag ship projects” which “add accessible modern sites of global interest to the local environment” (Lo 70).  These are typically new national monuments created for Olympic games or cultural districts.  Examples include the ROM museum by Daniel Libskind, the Bilbao Guggenheim by Frank Gehry, or the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi (image below).

Architecture students are often convinced that city plans succeed due to their design merit rather than their infrastructural merit.  These two are linked however. Less effort should be on the field and more thinking of the knolli plan, the in-between space.  Tokyo’s best asset, so claimed by Jacquet, is its infrastructure (Jacquet 154).  This effect is aptly described here: “the design and implementation of these types of works, particularly urban roads, is seen to have more influence on the evolution of urban form than actual urban planning” (Jacquet 105).  Where urban planning is influential is in the size of a city’s grid, which can influence greatly the kind of urban environment a place has. When viewed from a financial perspective, infrastructural efficient locations – such as ring road intersections or transit lines – provide access to a large supply of workers, ease transportation and delivery access for distribution, and typically have lower land costs than in the urban core.  Thus there is a tendency to locate the more physically robust uses at these periphery locations and the more knowledge intensive work places at the city center.  As students, we often combat sprawl in projects about the city, but our understanding of this often lacks a financial perspective.  In contrast, its merit is often built upon social and environmental justice.  Sprawl, in essence, is an economic reaction.

When a city does build infrastructure, it prefers to have concurrency, ensuring that growth takes place where infrastructure develops, as in the city of Seattle, which developed as the railroad expanded (Jacquet 131). Typically, local nodes of residential are born, followed by retail centers.

Development of infrastructure, however, is costly to governments, thus we see countries turning to public/private partnerships to fund large transit projects.  In Mexico City, particularly at Chipultapec and El Rosario, public/private investments have created complementary uses and adequate financing for commercial and multi-modal transit center developments.  In this case, private developers retain ownership of the land for 30 years, a type of concession contract.  For this, the private entity  provides the necessary transportation infrastructure, such as a transportation hub, and in return, the entity builds commercial retail or service based retail, such as hospitals, that provide goods and services to the local community.  Because these are tied into the mass transit system, they become places of gathering and socializing, particularly as cities continue to lose open space to denser and denser developments.  Public/private partnerships are happening in all countries.  In the American Midwest, in roads such as Highway 69, which connects Indiana with Canada by Port Huron, Michigan, has been coined the “NAFTA Superhighway.”  (Lo  189) “Privatization or closure of substantial parts of the state apparatus” reduces the dangers of inflation.

Peripheral sites serve an important function to urban cores.  These periphery nodes can create services and jobs for persons who cannot afford the high prices of living or commuting to the urban core.  This type of nodal development was explored in my studio at the University of Michigan, Megacentralities, which proposed a mixed use development combined with a multi-modal transit hub in the southern part of Mexico City.  (image below).  Often these peripheral sites become specialized areas that contribute a specific benefit to the urban center, whether it be research, financial, or commercial foci.   Such an example may be the North Campus Research Complex in northern Ann Arbor, which uses a large land area to create a research campus for the university.  Thus the development contributes to the urban center, but serves its own special, complementary function.

The urban core, in contrast to the periphery, succeeds by its concentration of knowledge, culture, and social activities.  This benefits companies that thrive on personal, social relationships with other service firms; this type of exchange is nearly impossible to accomplish in vehicular based, peripheral sites.

Now that we understand the development of a global city, we should consider global cities in regards to economics. Throughout my reading, I am constantly confronted by the proposition that world cities have more influence over global economics than the countries they are based in.  “Cities represent countries in the global economic system” and “as economic growth becomes more interdependent among nations, cities with specific functional complementary begin to become linked across national boundaries” (Lo 169, 172).  “The rise of the information economy has the effect of lessening the importance of boundaries” (Lo 4).  Globalization has the effect of not only changing physical space, but also affecting political relationships.

There also exists a constant struggle between global capital and local/region development.  This struggle is manifest in “privileging the primacy of corporate leadership in a global free market over the parochial demands of local & regional interest groups” (Jacquet 207).  The power of global businesses often make them above the city’s politics and thus local interests.  In places such as Tijuana, government turns a blind eye to environmental degradation, a cost of competing for these global enterprises, a “political detachment” (Jacquet 210).  Because of inequalities in both environmental and human rights standards, corporations become forced to find the lowest cost workplace with the least negative clout of publicity.

Wages continue to spiral downward for manufacturing jobs as countries with large supplies of workers enter the global market place.  Many people hope their country can become “self-sufficient,” but this, in reality, is no longer possible due to the high connectivity, both physically and communication based, between countries.  Researchers have noticed a direct correlation between growth and greater disparities between the rich and poor.  This disparity often, as is visible in emerging economies, results in the informal sector creating systems, such as trash, recycling, and water distribution, that used to be “public” services.  (Lo 193) “new economic model is accentuating existing levels of inequality” and  “the poor might as well be living in a different city as far as these kinds of facilities are concerned” (193).  This is true in nearly every global city, where the poor continue to be segregated from the rich, who tend to live in gentrified urban islands.  This social separation, as many believe, will create unrest from the poor and greater social distress, as the poor become continually marginalized.   As the labor market is continually casualized cities are forced to balance the economic benefits with both environmental and social costs.