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Archive for the ‘Recession Watch’ Category

Last summer, I began this blog with several posts aimed at graduates of landscape architecture programs who have faced difficulty in the tough job market. Some of those posts, like this one and this one, have been among the most popular. When I saw the series of opinion pieces in the New York Times Sunday Review (June 3, 2012) titled “My Brilliant Career,” with the tagline of “it’s worth remembering that careers aren’t built in a straight line, and that sometimes the oddest jobs are the ones that matter most,” I knew I had to read the articles. I especially like the entry by Leonard Mlodinow and the excerpt below.

Many of us wish for the security of a straight line path. When a career proves to be more unpredictable, it can be disconcerting. But the sinuous path often leads to a fulfilling life. And sinuous is an apt descriptor for many landscape architecture careers. Take heart and be inspired by Mlodinow’s words.

When we’re in college, we think about our future as a direct line from now to then, from here to there. You might get an internship at a financial services firm, then become an assistant, and gradually move up until someday you’re the boss. That’s a fine life’s path. But if you look at the careers of many successful people, you’ll find that their route is often far more sinuous. And if you look at happy people, you’ll find even fewer who traveled a straight line.

When I got my first job at Caltech after graduate school, a famous mathematician warned me not to keep working on that theory of infinite dimensions. It’s a bad idea to make a career of your Ph.D. work, he told me. Then, when I began to consider problems in an apparently too different area of physics, he told me: “You can’t keep jumping around. You have to stay in the field you made your name in.” I was 26, and I was supposed to think the boundaries of my career were already sharply defined.

The life that mathematician urged on me would probably have been an equally happy one. But instead of listening to his advice, I have written for television, produced computer games, designed a curriculum for math education and returned to Caltech, to physics research, teaching and writing — this time, nonfiction. I still see that famous mathematician, now an elder statesman, walking around the campus. I haven’t talked to him in a few years, but I hear that when my name comes up, he just mutters and shakes his head. And that’s fine with me.

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Since last summer, I have been writing about the impact of the Great Recession on planning and landscape architecture. My vantage point, as a college professor, means that I see creative, bright young people who have had the odds stacked against them for the past few years. Today, I am passing on an optimistic article, one of the many written over the past four years. Somehow, this one has a hint of possible truth to it, and I know that I, for one, am eager to hear good news. The premise is that the U.S. has finally reached a point where pent-up demand will finally loosen the purse-strings of those who have been sitting on cash and afraid to spend. Perhaps it rings true because I just came from a meeting where attendees discussed putting a multi-million construction project out to bid (we’ll never get a better interest rate…) because I’m one of the people driving an old car, knowing that it won’t last indefinitely.

Of the people who fear the country’s best days are behind it, a well-known economist recently said that people in 1933 thought the same thing. In that spirit, take what you will from this: (more…)

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Second Phase of The High Line

Suspended animation, with some promising stirrings of change. That is my assessment of the past year. Expectant waiting, but little change overall in the U.S. economy. In the coming year, there will be a U.S. presidential election, meaning that any significant new action (economic, environmental) is at least a year away. New economic uncertainties have arisen in countries around the globe. The planning and design professions do not exist apart from these circumstances. Four years into the Great Recession, what does seem to be changing is interest in activism, highlighted in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrations this past fall. Activism in planning and design circles means community empowerment, innovative, insurgent urban design, and continued attention to all things local, including food systems, infrastructure, and alternative transportation. These stirrings of change portend exciting developments in 2012, I think, but not the scale of excitement seen in the bubble years. That could be a very good thing, really.

The short 160-year or so history of landscape architecture doesn’t appear to be much of a guide to the present, although there are some parallels. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, some landscape architects continued to plan gardens for the owners of great estates (the 1% of that time), while others planned and carried out New Deal programs, finding employment with the federal government. To date, there have been no new New Deal initiatives in the U.S., although our aging infrastructure begs for investment. Perhaps after the election…  Meanwhile, some landscape architects and land planners serve the global elite, while others serve local communities in a host of ways, often with nonprofit organizations as government jobs at all levels continue to be cut.

An emerging trend is the latter – design that serves the public good (admittedly, a loaded phrase) – an impulse that is closely aligned with the fall’s significant uprising, OWS. The website, Archinect, reflects this in its top 10 design milestones of 2011 and top 10 design initiatives to watch in 2012. Local is big, and getting bigger. The New York Times made the case this week, as it tracked major changes in environmental organizations, many of which are shifting their activism toward local issues as a means of survival. People have little faith in the big aims these days, like cap-and-trade or new New Deals, so they are focusing more on creating change in their own communities, something that seems much more tangible. Urban agriculture and tactical urbanism are manifestations of this urge to take matters into one’s own hands (individually and collectively) and make change happen.

A scan of other top 10 lists and year-in-review posts reveals the following causes for optimism: (more…)

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Nothing like a little break and a (fairly) relaxing holiday to clear one’s head. The holiday week began, though, with more news of recent graduates struggling in the weak economy. No advice from the comfortably employed seems sufficient, but I did run across these words from Forrest Church (2009) this weekend which I pass along:

I have a mantra that I’ve come to live by over the past few years, and it’s served me very well. It is “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.”

He explains all three parts of the mantra, but I will just relate the middle, as the other two seem self-explanatory.

Doing what you can means doing all you can, no more and no less. It’s not just mucking by, but it’s not trying to do more than you can either, not stretching yourself out so far that you can’t help but force a failure.

I’m going to focus on the part about not stretching so far as to force a failure… And while I’m on the subject of motivation, I will add the motto of my former workplace, Virginia Tech. It is ut prosim, that I may serve.

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In December, we celebrate the 4th anniversary of the official start of the Great Recession or Lesser Depression. One silver lining that I see would be if communities (i.e., community residents) started to take matters into their own hands and began to create their own better futures. Recently there have been signs that some communities are doing just that. From today’s New York Times, the story of the new department store in Saranac Lake, NY, entirely financed by shares sold to community residents. After the town’s last department store closed, residents had to drive 50 miles to buy basic necessities, and they were considering an offer by Wal-Mart to develop a store. Not liking either alternative…

But rather than accept their fate, residents of Saranac Lake did something unusual: they decided to raise capital to open their own department store. Shares in the store, priced at $100 each, were marketed to local residents as a way to “take control of our future and help our community,” said Melinda Little, a Saranac Lake resident who has been involved in the effort from the start. “The idea was, this is an investment in the community as well as the store.”

And later in the article:

Think of it as the retail equivalent of the Green Bay Packers — a department store owned by its customers that will not pick up and leave when a better opportunity comes along or a corporate parent takes on too much debt.

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Recent reports on real estate trends, including one by the Urban Land Institute, identify best bets for real estate investors. The publication, Financial Advisor, lists 5 cities as best bets – Washington, D.C., Austin, San Francisco, New York City, and Boston.

The best markets for investment are blue chip getaways, job centers such as university communities, and gateway cities, according to the report. A walkability index was added this year, and cities that are less car-dependent ranked better than others. [Emphasis added.]

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The Urban Land Institute released an important report today on real estate trends to 2020, asking the question that is on everyone’s mind – what’s next? The report is tied to the 75th anniversary of ULI. Two years ago, prognosticators were looking for green shoots. Today, organizations like ULI are finally acknowledging the effects of the Great Recession/Lesser Depression as “fundamental societal change.” The major findings of ULI are summarized as:

  • Technology will reshape work places. Office tenants will decrease space per employee, and new office environments will need to promote interaction and dialogue. Offices will be transforming into meeting places more than work places, with an emphasis on conference rooms, break areas and open configurations. Developers will craft attractive environments to attract young, talented workers.
  • Major companies will value space that enables innovation. They will continue to pay more for space in a global gateway served by a major international airport, or in 24-hour urban centers. Hard-to-reach suburban work places will be less in demand.
  • The influx of Generation Y, now in their teens through early thirties, will change housing demand. They are comfortable with smaller homes and will happily trade living space for an easier commute and better lifestyle. They will drive up the number of single households and prompt a surge in demand for rentals, causing rents to escalate.
  • For most people, finances will still be constrained, leading to more shared housing and multi-generational households. Immigration will support that trend, as many immigrants come from places where it is common for extended families to share housing. This may be the one group that continues to drive demand for large, suburban homes.
  • The senior population will grow fastest, but financial constraints could limit demand for adult housing developments. Many will age in place or move in with relatives to conserve money. Developers may want to recast retirement communities into amenity-laden “age friendly” residences. Homes near hospitals and medical offices will be popular, especially if integrated into mixed-use neighborhoods with shops, restaurants and services.
  • Energy and infrastructure take on greater importance. Businesses cannot afford to have their network connections down, and more will consider self-generated power or onsite generator capacity. Developers, owners and investors are realizing that the slightly higher costs of energy- and water-saving technologies can pay for themselves quickly, creating more marketable and valuable assets. Ignoring sustainability issues speeds property obsolescence.

On Asia and Europe:

  • Nearly all Asian countries are going through a radical urban transformation, and many believe that the next decade of Asian urbanization will drive the global economy. By 2020, China alone will have 400 cities with populations over 1 million. Asia’s surging middle class is projected to reach an amazing 1.7 billion in 2020. Water availability—and the maturation of real estate capital markets—will be major issues.
  • In Europe, the global financial crisis has made investment capital increasingly hard to obtain. Resilient cities, those with a strong city government and high degree of market trust with investors and businesses, will be most attractive to investors. With companies operating in increasingly global markets and citizens expressing a desire to reduce their commute times, European cities must place an even greater emphasis on effective, state-of-the-art transportation systems.
And the effects on urban planning and design?

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