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The Positive Brothers

I kind of forgot how bad the bad old days of the late 80s / early 90s were until the DJIA hit 7750 and the unbroken chilly gloom of February made pedestrians look like frosty denizens of an Edward Hopper painting. Then I went for a walk in Battery Park and saw the Postive Brothers doing their show, and I remembered how good it was to see guys performing acrobatics in the old fountain at Washington Square Park, telling me my monetary contribution was keeping my home safe from burglary later that night.

The show is much the same as it was back then: witty chatter, tension-diffusing racial jokes, break dancing, and some crazy acrobatics, usually concluded with a spectacular leap over the heads of six or seven terrified audince members. But these guys make it new every time with their good humor and positive vibes. If you’re feeling down with the market, unemployment, and empty pockets, go down to Battery Park on a sunny day and check out their show. Throw a dollar in the hat if you have it. They also accept enthusiastic applause for payment.

oil-fields

Dubai is a palace of excess and contradition. It is a mushroom that paradoxically bloomed under the whithering rays of the sun. But the leadership of the UAE is a lot smarter than anyone in America today. From today’s New York Times:

[The UAE’s] new investment [in renewable energy] aims to maintain the gulf’s dominant position as a global energy supplier, gaining patents from the new technologies and promoting green manufacturing. But if the United States and the European Union have set energy independence from the gulf states as a goal of new renewable energy efforts, they may find they are arriving late at the party.

The irony that the most wasteful and oil dependent part of the globe should be on the cutting edge of green energy is unremarkable next to the ambition — characteristic of the Gulf states — to go all the way all at once. Consider Masdar City, a planned community outside of Abu Dhabi that claims it will have a zero-carbon footprint. Even though skeptics doubt this claim, it is notable not for its complete success in execution, but for its audacity.

According to the Times article, Qatar has invested $225 million into a British research fund, and Saudi Arabia has invested untold millions into American universities, including $25 million for Michael McGehee an associate professor at Stanford, to develop cutting edge technologies. That is fifty times the amount invested by Western governments or industry.

Finally, the Times tells us Masdar City “goes beyond creating new materials and is in fact exploring a new model for urban life.” To wit: “The city will have no cars; people will move around using driverless electric vehicles that move on a subterranean level. The air-conditioning will be solar powered.” As a New Yorker I take exception to this. After all, we also have subterranean electric cars that move people around. It’s called the subway. If only the city, state, and federal government could get their posteriors and capitals wired together they could see that a massive investment in the New York City subway is a necessary good faith effort to putting America into the 21st century.

burj-dubai-2009

Burj Dubai

The Burj Dubai is the tallest building in the world and holds records for many “biggest” and “most” categories including tallest structure, tallest freestanding structure, building with the most floors, and highest vertical concrete pumping for any structure. The picture above was taken (by me) from the roof of Al Ghaya Residence on Sheik Zayed road, a pitiful 30+ story building. In the foreground you can see several other buildings in various stages of construction.

dubai-skyscraper

This is the building next door to Al Ghaya Residence, some 80+ stories tall. It has been under construction for more than a year, and it looks complete from the outside. It is empty, however, and the entrances are sealed. This building became emblematic, for me, of our unique historical moment.

The Baharain Tribune noted on October 2nd 2008 that Dubai’s growth is “founded to some extent on a burgeoning property market heavily dependent on borrowed money”, and Norton Rose, a corporate law firm specializing in investing, said on its “credit crisis blog” that “there are rumors that some large projects will be placed on hold.” The analyst at Norton Rose is optimistic, if not in the near term, at least in the medium term:

The “real” market, that is where construction has commenced (and therefore finance is in place to complete the project) or the property has been completed, is suffering a short term state of confusion although the medium term view is that the market will bounce back particularly in quality sectors in quality locations.

But this may be a species of optimism ridiculed by Paul Farrell (my new favorite Wall St. contrarian) in his Marketwatch.com editorial today. Norton Rose thinks the fundamentals of Dubai’s growth are strong, and that the financial problems of the last year will clear up soon, but one could also make the case that demand in Dubai has always been artificial, and that its incredible ten (really five) year growth spurt is an effect of the global bubble that has driven over-production in all sectors to astonishing, never-before-seen levels. As the New York Times reported recently, globalization led to global growth, and now it is leading to a global contraction. Is it implausible to postulate that globalization, growth, and blowing bubbles were interconnected, self-reinforcing phenomena?

But beyond a global contraction, Dubai has other worries. Norton Rose again spins the situation in positive terms:

Dubai has built itself as a trading hub, financial centre, tourist resort and is an attractive and exciting place to live. The number of expatriates moving to Dubai from throughout the world is staggering; all of these people will need a home. Office space still remains in very short supply with heavy demand. Rents in all sectors have continued to increase and demand remains strong, however owner occupiers are struggling to find lenders to accommodate them.

On one hand, many of the immigrants to Dubai are from India and Pakistan, and those people are definitely not the people Dubai wants filling up its empty towers. Certainly, Dubai’s planners have gone to great lengths to lure Western investment. Investment banks are able to run by Western laws — within the walls of their own buildings.

The lush courtyard of the Dubai Financial Center

The lush courtyard of the Dubai Financial Center

But outside the walls Dubai is still a theocratic state run under Sharia law. The world chuckles at Vince Acors and Michelle Palmer who were caught having sex on the beach and sentenced to three months in prison. The situation is made human and poignant, however, by the case of Marnie Pearce who was accused of adultery by her estranged husband and consequently convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. As a result she may lose custody of her two children entirely. In the print version of the article from January 5th, Ms. Pearce tells the reporter for the Telegraph with obvious passion that Westerners need to remember that Dubai is not a liberal state. A woman — any woman — can be punished for being alone in the company of a man who is not her husband or kinsman. And that is a kink in Norton Rose’s projection of continued demand for Dubai properties.

The New York Times is running a story today about the difficulty of getting alternative energy (in this case wind energy) to market. Mr. Wald locates the problem here:

The power grid is balkanized, with about 200,000 miles of power lines divided among 500 owners. Big transmission upgrades often involve multiple companies, many state governments and numerous permits. Every addition to the grid provokes fights with property owners.

This sounds a lot like the classic modernist narrative Le Corbusier gives in The City of Tomorrow:

Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it. The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatter-brained and distracted fashion, he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance.

It is also the capitalist, freemarketeer’s main argument against preservation — and, by the way, environmentalism. Speed and economies of scale are assumed by the capitalist to be fundamental to survival. In high school debate this is the “Growth Is Good” argument.

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