The Personalized City

A recent visitor to Venice Beach, California, was parking his car when he was approached by a young man who handed him a business card. The card was for a service that would park someone’s car to spare them the trouble and time of prowling the streets for a space, then deliver the car to the driver when the driver called the phone number on the card.

A driver late for a meeting has a new way to solve a problem; a young man with a smartphone and a stack of business cards suddenly has a business.

The incident is emblematic of the transformation reshaping urban economies and lifestyles.  Call it “the personalized city.”


Cities always have been the centers of energy, but they haven’t always made life easy for the young, old, poor or the too-busy careerist.  

That’s changing.

Across Europe and the US, technology married to entrepreneurship is birthing a niche economy for young entrepreneurs. Venice Beach’s mobile valet-parking service is only one example of this new economy in which people with nothing more than an idea and a smartphone can scratch out a living by delivering dry cleaning or takeout food to the upwardly mobile who have more money than time.

This is especially important for 20-somethings. Out of school and often out of work, their energy, ambition and curiosity bring them to urban centers. Schooled in technology and social media, they have the savvy to turn a Facebook page into a moneymaking venture if more traditional opportunities remain closed. For those pursuing more conventional business models, places such as Seattle’s Coterie WorkLounge offers shared business space with Wi-Fi, conference space and coffee bars.

And now, cities are giving these folks places to live.

In the past, cash-strapped urbanites often had to share a cramped apartment with a gang of roommates. Now, increasingly, cities are giving them the choice of micro-apartments or “apodments” — flats of 400 square feet or fewer, affordable for many more while also a private space that can be personalized.

In November 2015, for example, New York City’s Carmel Place began leasing. It’s the city’s first all-micro-apartment development, with nine floors of cubbyhole flats starting at 260 square feet. Similar projects are popping up from Des Moines to Warsaw, Poland. Often, these “cubicle homes” are made from repurposed shipping containers trucked to the site and stacked, reducing construction costs and subsequent rents even more. (In Houston and other cities, old shipping containers are seeing new lives as urban farms, accommodating urbanites’ growing appetite for fresh, local produce.)

Cities also are finding that “tiny houses” are a way to solve the problem of homelessness.  Research shows that the cheapest and most effective way to re-insert a homeless person into the economy is to give that person a home — a base from which to seek work, store clean clothes and regain a sense of identity. Portland, Oregon, has been a leader, creating a village of homes of 400 square feet or fewer that homeless persons build themselves before moving in.

At the same time, car-sharing services like Get-around and bicycle-sharing initiatives cropping up in dozens of cities make on-demand mobility a reality for those with low incomes as well as for millennials, many of whom lack interest in owning things — another accommodation of a responsive city.

Cities are even finding ways to make comfortable spaces for artists and the rich economy they engender, even though artists themselves tend to be a ragtag bunch forever in search of cheap digs. In St. Paul, a nonprofit real estate developer bought a rundown warehouse for a pittance, then spruced it up as artists’ lofts. As the neighborhood began to gentrify around the area’s budding arts scene, the artists themselves weren’t priced out: They owned the building.

But gentrification in the accommodating city is still, in most cases, a zero-sum game. As micro-apartment complexes rise and tech-savvy entrepreneurs reshape the economy, the low-skilled working poor are being pushed out of city centers to the suburbs — strengthening this traditional pattern in Europe, reversing a century of suburban escape in the US, and dispatching the poor to areas where public and social services are unequipped to meet their needs.   TJ

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