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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

14 Ideas for Making the Bay Area Livable

Technology – no surprise – is the answer


“One-third of Bay Area residents hope to leave soon, poll finds” read the headline of the May 2nd, 2016 article in the San Jose Mercury News. For many, the news came as hardly a surprise.

Things have become nearly unbearable for many throughout the Bay area. The cost of living, housing, traffic, poverty/income equality, crime and safety, homelessness, economy and jobs were all at the top of the list.

And while there’s plenty of disappointment about what has become one of the most challenging places to live alongside a general lack of leadership at the local and state level, there remains an almost weekly stream of content on sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn showing compelling ideas that are being pursued by startups, along with diverse technological breakthroughs and possibilities that are coming from all sides of the spectrum.

And much of that news seems to drive even more interest in the Bay area as an innovation center.

Many throughout the region have been holding out hope, searching for solutions to what may help improve the quality of life here in order to overcome some of the major issues listed above. But are we making any headway with some of the more traditional soundbytes such as raising taxes and fees in order to pay for new programs or infrastructure? Not exactly.

As many of us know, a long introduction to these issues isn’t necessary. So at the risk of sounding non-conformist, here’s a few ideas that are worth sharing in order to help us move beyond the current dialog.

1. Collaborative Real Estate Development. No doubt that there’s a big shortage of housing options here against a backdrop of ongoing commercial development. One of the easiest things to see is the gross under-utilization of space that does little to resolve the problem. Single-story office buildings in particular that utilize their space 8AM-6PM, while workers are away from home during the same time.

Single Use Commercial Real Estate

We’ve seen mixed use concepts with retail and residential, but very little with regard to office buildings that remain vacant after 6pm. Average commutes run 50–90 minutes in some areas, and for those coming here from the East Bay, it is even worse. Single story, single use office buildings are all over the Peninsula, from San Jose to Milbrae and elsewhere, taking up a lot of space that could be optimized for meeting multiple needs without infringing on businesses.

Strip malls, grocery stores, restaurants and other retail stores are also giving up a big advantage by limiting their use. The answer is zoning, land use reform and tax incentives for Collaborative Real Estate Development, or what some might refer to as Mixed Use Real Estate, on future projects, and even for existing developments that hold less value than originally anticipated. That is, office suites on the lower floors of the building, and housing above. While employees of these companies wouldn’t necessarily be required to live there, other residents from the area who work nearby could benefit with shorter commutes. And the rest of us might eventually see less clogged roads and freeways to boot.

2. Special Economic Zones. While this isn’t a new concept, getting startups and other companies into a frame of reference to move some of their operations elsewhere could begin by creating or contributing funding to Special Economic Zones that create tax incentives for workers and companies alike in less developed areas where the population is likely to move to in the coming decade. And with it, a special regulatory status for up to 4 years to protect new ideas from the prying hands of government and special interests. Areas worth looking at include Gilroy, Hollister, Morgan Hill, Richmond, Pleasanton, Walnut Creek, and Livermore, among others. And if not here in California, similar concepts are popping up elsewhere in places such as Central America.

Kazan Smart City Concept

3. Remote Working. While only a limited percentage of companies think of remote work as the norm, a stronger public statement needs to be made by Governor Brown, local government and business leaders for the necessity of remote work arrangements in many instances where the same work could be done remotely using a computer and a Wi-fi connection. And this is nowhere more visible than in the Bay area, given the terrible commutes that some endure, and the failure of open office environments to enhance productivity. Tax incentives for both companies and employees are one way to do it. Another way is through voluntary participation, or perhaps even a lottery system for those who can demonstrate an economic or familial hardship from prolonged commutes.

Home office concept

Next to the growing list of collaboration apps such as Slack, Basecamp, Asana, Skype and Webex, advocates of this idea include transportation and law enforcement officials, productivity experts, as well as health and wellness professionals who all point to extended benefits for getting more cars off the road and allowing people to work in places that help them to be more relaxed and in control of their work environment.

4. Intentional Communities. This concept has been around for many years, but rarely is seen in major metropolitan areas. Creating incentives for people to create and live in collaborative communities where things like space, meals and other resources are shared could also take more cars off the road, while improving the quality of life for the respective area. For startup founders and their teams, this may be the answer to rising rents in San Francisco and elsewhere.

5. Floating Communities. Another fairly new idea borrows from a concept that already has a growing list of proponents, including The Seasteading Institute, which proposes ocean-based communities elsewhere. So why not here, too?

The Bay area has a great deal of space throughout the Peninsula and East Bay that could be utilized for such a development in a very narrow scope, without creating a disruption to the local environment. And with other countries that are beginning to experiment with such concepts including China and Israel, it may be time to examine the idea for California.

Floating community concept for Bangkok

6. ReGen Communities. Somewhat similar to Intentional Communities, ReGen Communities, like the one being developed just outside of Amsterdam, is a self-sufficient community concept that is designed to generate its own food and power. It utilizes vertical farming and composting, and uses fish to fertilize and grow fresh produce. Their aquaponics systems can produce 10X more food than land farming while using 90% less water. The concept will use a mix of geothermal, solar thermal, wind, and biomass methods for power. The compostable waste will be used to feed livestock, and their non-compostable waste will be turned into power.

The first test community will have 25 homes and will be ready by 2017. So why do that here? The draw for such a concept should be fairly obvious, if done outside of major cities, to help decentralize the population and get people into different ways of thinking about how to live more sustainably.

7. Carless Condos. Most Americans are fairly attached to their cars. But what if we could incentivize the concept of not owning one through reduced rents and tax incentives in areas that already offer ample public transit, bike lanes, car and ride sharing options such as Uber and Lyft, and home delivery services such as InstaCart, Google Shopping Express, and Amazon Prime?

Imagine living only 5–10 minutes away from your current employer with such options while getting a tax break to boot. Would you or every person in your household really need a car every day of the week? Probably not.

8. Staggered work hours. The common work schedule of 9–5, Monday thru Friday, has become irrational and outdated, especially when you consider the number of people on the roads at those hours. Companies that provide latitude for workers to begin their days earlier or later, or work weekends and have time off during the week could be a welcomed change for many when remote work arrangements are not possible.

9. Paying People to Leave. Less attractive and more complicated, for sure. It sounds like a crazy idea, but how many people that are here in the Bay area would be willing to relocate to another part of the state if they had the additional financial support to do so?

Also consider the number of people who could work remotely from elsewhere if they or their employer were given a financial or tax incentive to stay away from the office, or relocate a business to another part of the Bay area.

One way to do it would be through commercial sponsorship, much the way some couples are financing their weddings, by enlisting the support of private companies in exchange for promotion. The only difference for movers is that it would be done with commercial signage on the outside of the moving trucks, rather than the common U-Haul signage that we frequently see.

10. Crowdfunded Real Estate. There, I said it. If it’s not already abundantly obvious, buying a home in the region requires a hefty down-payment of 20% to meet a ballpark price of $500–800k. So why not apply the same principles of crowdfunding that we now use to launch startups and use it to fund commercial and residential real estate projects?

Imagine what it would be like to own a home with more than one lender, and giving non-traditional funders the ability to opt-out later if you can find a replacement? Even more interesting would be the ability to crowdfund commercial real estate, such as a multi-unit condo complex, or a killer concept for an office park, retail center, startup incubator, co-working space and more. If commercial developers can do it, why not us?

11. Flying cars. Wait — what?! That’s right. A company called Terrafugia is developing one of the first prototypes of a flying car based on this video, and is slated to be tested by 2017. All we need is for state and federal regulators to get out of the way, and let people experiment.

The TF-X™ will be a four-seat, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) hybrid electric aircraft that makes personal flying possible. While we likely won’t see mass production of this vehicle for several years, we will see people slowly getting used to the idea. And with the ability to program it for autonomous flight, there’s very little learning to be done in order to get above and beyond the current traffic mess here. Crazy idea? Or are you in love with your long commutes?

12. Floating Homes. It had to happen sometime, and now apparently someone is taking this idea seriously. This video by Australian company SkyLifter illustrates a new concept that may soon become a reality, with a “heavy lifter” zeppelin concept they believe could be used for a number of things — including residential living. Another example by London-based designer Nick Talbert in the form of a flying hotel can be seen here.

SkyLifter Residential Concept

Designed to heft big housing complexes into the sky, it would create mobile buildings where people can live and drift around, landing when they need to at a SkyLifter complex. These airlifted domes would be air-pressure stabilized fabric structures. Think buoyant aircraft (airships) you live in while providing long-term access to the space above ground, without actually owning a home.

Traditional home buyers may not be impressed. But for those who are seeking alternative housing options while launching a start-up or attending school? This might provide an answer.

13. Personal Ultralight VTOL Aircraft. While some of the concepts might seem new, personal ultralight VTOL aircraft have been around for a while, such as the Hiller Flying Platform that was designed in the 1950s. We just haven’t seen anything mass produced for consumers to utilize above the roads, as demonstrated in this video.

Hoverbikes are another fairly new idea that borrows from the concept of a VTOL. Aerofex has released a video of its new bike, which flies over the ground at up to 10,000 feet, thanks to two large fans. Assuming their test flights get closer to 60 mph, this concept would help alleviate the need for driving cars during long commutes.

A drone version of a fully-functional hover bike was recently announced by Malloy Aeronautics. The quadcopter version acts as a proof of concept for a full-sized manned vehicle, with proceeds from the crowdfunding effort intended to fuel the continued development of the final vehicle.

14. Airships for Commuting. Hard to believe? Not for a slew of new and innovative airships that are already available. What’s great about this idea is that these new zeppelins can reach cruising altitude in less than a minute, which enables the occupants to move around freely within the cabin.

While they currently offer a variety of options for moving freight as shown in this video, there’s little doubt that due to the enormous capacity that these ships can offer and increasing speeds, the need for transforming this idea into a commuter-friendly option is very likely in the coming years.

SkyFreighter Concept Airship

Think these ideas are outlandish or downright crazy? Just remember how long it’s taking for broad public acceptance of the more simple ideas such as Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, against the continuous wrestling by local and state government, and special interests.

If beginning a public discussion about these ideas seems ill-timed, guess what those disappointments about living here will feel like in 10 years if we don’t start now?

This piece originally published on the author’s site


  • Michael Burns is a freelance creative consultant, digital marketing strategist and writer residing in the Bay area. You can connect with him here