Golf and the romance of pre-urbanized society: Part 3, The infallible test

January 28, 2015 | Belmont, Golf, Green space, Housing, Land use, Leisure, Milton, Open space, Real estate taxes, Speculation, Transportation, Urbanization, US News, Zoning | No comments 105 views

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]

By: David A. Smith

Golf … is the infallible test. The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well.

P. G. Wodehouse


Fetch me that lost ball, will you Jeeves?

Yesterday’s post put the story in the fairway, itself a visual expression of the romanticized city in that it was a swath of well-kept green lined with wilderness and dotted with hazards.


Once more into the breach, dear friends:

The Himalaya bunker at Royal St. George’s

Sources used in this post

Goldfinger (1959), Chapter 9; Olive green font

WS Journal review, The Kingdom of Golf in America (August 16, 2013; pastel blue font)

Wikipedia on golf’s environmental impact; emerald green font)

The Economist (December 20, 2014; black font)

A golf course is everything a nineteenth century industrial city was not. 

Where the city is cramped, a golf course is spacious – in fact, it’s extravagant in its consumption of land for low-impact use:

While most modern 18-hole golf courses occupy as much as 60 hectares (150 acres) of land (other sources quote 200 acres), the average course has only 30 hectares (74 acres) of maintained turf.  [The rest is left natural and untrimmed – Ed.]

Where the city was dirty, the golf course was clean; where the city was loud, a golf course is quiet, even the longest drive making little more noise than a swish and a twank.  Where the city is all right angles, a golf course is dog-legs, curves, swales, undulations.


Office in a Small City, Edward Hopper, 1953


A green at Royal Aberdeen

Where the city was entirely man-made, a golf course is entirely natural – or designed to look that way. 

With the end of World War II and the return to normalcy, golf was a lovely expression of the desire of men to have a place of tranquility that gave a respite from their week.

Despite our Protestant work ethic, leisure had become a virtue by the 1950s, a decade during which, by Mr. Moss’s reckoning (there are other and higher reckonings), real wages increased by 25% while two-week vacations and five-day weeks became standard. There was time and money to play golf.

For the working men of that era, golf was a perfect weekend relaxation: lots of talk, lots of companionship, a journey and a purpose.  Like all leisure activities, it also signified that one had the time and money for such leisure.

Golf is not unlike a first home or a college degree: it carries the allure of progress, of arrival in the middle class. Only a few years ago some golf gurus forecast that the sport would grow even more, as baby boomers retired and flocked to the fairways.

Today, golf’s popularity is rising in countries whose middle class is both expanding in number and rising in consumerist expectations:


The Chinese Dream?

In China, where Mao Zedong banned golf in 1949 and building new private courses is illegal, it is still booming. According to Dan Washburn, author of “The Forbidden Game”, plenty of courses are built under the guise of adding “green space” and “ecotourism zones”, but a recent crackdown by the central government on corruption has slowed new course development. The party is not over, says Mr Curley, the architect, “but all the lights are on and the cops are out at the curb”.

Though Mr. Curley may be bearish on golf’s prospects in the Middle Kingdom, in his heart I expect that he’s actually bullish, for everything about China’s rise – including its emerging entrepreneurial class’s rejection of the ruinous and ruining Chinese urban environment suggests that twenty-first century golf in China will ride the same green-space and leisure-time wave that America rose 75 years ago – because people who play golf will emigrate for it unless it’s provided at home.

Golf, then, is urban or suburban green space – but is it morally green? 

Ironically, the growth of cities has led golf developers to redesign previously under-used urban space:

Golf courses can be built on sandy areas along coasts, on abandoned farms, among strip mines and quarries, and in deserts and forests. Many Western countries have instituted environmental restrictions on where and how courses are allowed to be built.

In Greater Boston, for example, the only new golf course (opened 1992) is Quincy’s Granite Links, and that only because it could redevelop a challenging site:


Start with an abandoned quarry

To some it might have seemed an impossible task; transform two large, old municipal landfills and former granite quarries near downtown Boston into an award-winning golf course. But for architect John Sanford, the opportunity was one he couldn’t pass up. 

A key to the site’s development centered on using soils being excavated from tunnels in Boston’s Big Dig, the state’s 15-year, $24-billion road infrastructure makeover of the city’s main thoroughfares.  By making the future golf course site a repository for the 900,000 truckloads of 13 million tons of material just seven miles from the epicenter of the Big Dig, it became a unique way to save the taxpayers money, cap the current landfills and reclaim wasted acreage, converting the site into a true asset for Quincy, Milton and the entire Greater Boston community. 


What can we do with all this sand?

Then too, even the remediation of an abandoned quarry had to avoid the sand traps and water hazards of Massachusetts’ NIMBYs:

The project required 74 permits from local, state, and federal agencies.

The effort was singled out recently by the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) for outstanding effort that “shines a light on the innovation and problem-solving skills required of today’s golf course designs.”

Clearly the demise of as-of-right zoning, and the increase complexity of developing in already-built urban environments, poses cost obstacles that make new golf course development harder:

In the U.S., land administered by the Army Corps of Engineers such as those bordering levees and lakes is often desirable for building courses, due to the scenic natural views and the unsuitability of the land for other purposes due to it lying in a planned flood plain; in these cases, the course designer must work with the Corps of Engineers to plan a course layout that protects environmentally sensitive areas, provides for a means of quick escape in case of flooding, and does not invite players to hit into or toward controlled structures such as levees or dams.

The engineering of golf courses doesn’t stop with construction; it continues right through maintenance and groundskeepiing:

The United Nations estimates that, worldwide, golf courses consume about 2.5 billion gallons/9.5 billion liters of water per day.

Naturally enough, the water used to irrigate a golf course goes into the soil, and returns as greenery and plant life, so it’s not lost – in fact, quite the reverse:

These, along with health and cost concerns, have led to research into more environmentally sound practices and turf grasses. The golf course superintendent is often trained in the uses of these practices and grasses. This has led to significant reduction in the amount of both water and chemicals on courses. The turf on golf courses is an excellent filter for water and has been used in communities to cleanse grey water, such as incorporating into bio-swales.

Water restrictions established by communities have forced courses to limit the amount of maintained turf grass.

Many golf courses are now irrigated with non-potable water and rainwater.

Those who protest housing development in Belmont ought to be happy if instead a golf course was proposed for the site … but somehow I think they’d find ways to oppose that too.  Instead, some of those who are most passionate about preserving and protecting green space are also golf’s fiercest opponents:

In some parts of the world, attempts to build courses and resorts have led to protests, vandalism, and violence. Populists perceive golf as an elitist activity, and thus golf courses become a target for popular opposition.

More than almost any other participant sports, golf arouses anti-elitism passions – perhaps it’s the collective race memory of large parks belonging to the aristocracy rather than everyone, or the subconscious perception that all this green space should be public, not private … even if ‘private’ means simply that one has to pay a greens fee to play the course.

In the Bahamas, opposition to golf developments has become a national issue. Residents of Great Guana Cay and Bimini, for example, are engaged in legal and political opposition to golf developments on their islands, for fear the golf courses will destroy the nutrient-poor balance on which their coral reef and mangrove systems depend.

At issue underneath these particulars is the question of externality: do private property owners have the right to change their property’s use, if that change of use upsets the ecosystem?  Golf in its way echoes the NIMBYite objection to affordable housing, or any other form of dense development – it’ll upset what we have now.

Resisting golf tourism and golf’s expansion has become an objective of some land-reform movements, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Certainly golf taps something primal in both its players and its opponents:


Fairway, green, and water hazard: yes, you could put a golf course here

In ‘The Art Instinct,’ a book about evolutionary psychology that has little to do with golf, the late Denis Dutton quotes scholars on the notion of an ideal landscape, one that humans have evolved to see as beautiful. It is a landscape like the ones where mankind arose in Africa, rolling grasslands with signs of water and groups of trees and bushes where our forebears hunted and gathered.

If so, speculates Wall Street Journal reviewer Henry Allen, golf evokes that primal sense, and not just any primal sense – male private sense.

We learn so many things from golf—how to suffer, for instance.

Bruce Lansky


Greg Norman losing the Masters

[Continued tomorrow in Part 4.]


Golf and the romance of pre-urbanized society: Part 2, One vast golf course

January 27, 2015 | Belmont, Golf, Green space, Housing, Land use, Leisure, Milton, Open space, Real estate taxes, Speculation, Transportation, Urbanization, US News, Zoning | No comments 145 views

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]

By: David A. Smith

I like going there for golf. America’s one vast golf course these days.

Edward VIII


Better than playing well is looking good

Yesterday’s post teed off our examination of golf as an urban land-use phenomenon as a Gilded-Age response to the geographic expansion of cities, and the deterioration in quality of life that was the negative externality of the manufacturing-driven upsurge of urban wealth.

Sources used in this post

Goldfinger (1959), Chapter 9; Olive green font

WS Journal review, The Kingdom of Golf in America (August 16, 2013; pastel blue font)

Wikipedia on golf’s environmental impact; emerald green font)

The Economist (December 20, 2014; black font)

At the heart of golf’s economic proposition is a land-use paradox – maintaining so many acres of sculptured nature becomes economic only if those who use the nature are paying for the upkeep, and for that to be the many requires a city, which is a dense and sooty environment.  Hence making golf economically viable demands high-volume and reliable transportation – so golf became a popular pastime only after technology came to the cities: America’s first golf course, Edgewood Golf Club of Tivoli, New York, was established in 1884.

Golf went mainstream in America in the 1890s. The wealthy and upper middle classes formed private golf clubs where they could play.


Tivoli Station, about 1870 (slide 5)

Technological improvements stimulated by America’s Civil War – railways, coal and oil power, large-scale factories, and electricity – drove both the Gilded Age’s economic growth and its urbanization, which in turn were further fueled by Transatlantic immigration through Ellis Island.

Then, as today, its appeal depended on time and money. Late-19th-century Americans, with plenty of both and no gadgets to occupy them at home, liked the fact that it took hours to play.

Until the industrial revolution, leisure time belonged only to the rich, but with the emergence of an aspiring and energetic middle class, golf flourished:

Though golf courses sprang up in Newport, R.I., and other watering holes of inherited wealth, golf was a sport of businessmen more than the upper class, which leaned toward yachting and polo. Mr. Moss writes: “Middle-class Americans realized by 1915 that they could create collectively the sort of country retreats that aristocrats and the wealthy had enjoyed as individuals.”

Milton’s Wollaston Golf Club was founded in 1895; the Belmont Country Club was founded in 1918; and Cambridge’s own nine-hole Fresh Pond Golf Course was built in 1933 “by the Cambridge Unemployment Bureau.”

By 1894, that first pasture in Yonkers had spawned 75 courses as far west as Chicago, including some still played, such as Long Island’s Shinnecock Hills.


Windswept in tony Southampton, New York

Then as now, golf courses were often located in the most visually stunning places, where wind and weather made the scenery breathtaking even as the shot-making was ever more difficult.  But these were also places with the best air quality, unlike the sooty, smelly cities:


Eventually someone will pick up this dead horse: New York City, 1895

An epidemic fear of declining vigor drove men onto golf courses just as it drove Teddy Roosevelt to a North Dakota ranch and rich boys to the spartan rigors of boarding schools such as Groton.

This was also the era of ‘healthy science’ – of spas at purges and cleanses – and what could be cleaner than fresh air and manly exercise surrounded by nature?

One writer testified that “the businessmen of the Middle West are no longer shallow dyspeptics …. Golf has made their blood flow and color come to the cheeks.”


Golf is better than this?

Golf also was surprisingly egalitarian, both with the handicap system and even more with the multiple tee boxes, so that women, the elderly, and youths could all make up a foursome.

Golf was prescribed for neurasthenic women. Wellesley College had a golf club as early as 1893 (18 years after its opening).


Golf at Bryn Mawr, 1898

By 1895, there was “Golf in America: A Practical Manual.” Brooks Brothers and Spalding’s Athletic Library each published guides.


The leisure bible of 1895

Golf caught the romantic desire for a country excursion with a purpose, and because it consumed so mulch greenspace, a golf course became a destination that had to have a golf club, a clubhouse, then a bar and restaurant, and often a resort hotel.

Resort hotels added golf courses. Boosters in smaller cities built them out of civic pride.

The newly mobile, newly rich bourgeoisie flocked to golf:


Turn of the century golfers

Golf also appealed to America’s mythos of self-made men.  Rich or poor, titled or humble, all men were the same with a driver or a mashie or a putter in their hands:

Golfer’s Magazine said that on the course “it is difficult to tell J. Brown, farmer, from Jasper Brown, banker, and J. Brown often is the better golfer.”

That further appealed to the Everyman vision:

In 1913, the lower classes breached the elitism of golf with the U.S. Open victory of Francis Ouimet, a former caddy.

Ouimet wasn’t just a former caddy, he personified the American immigrant dream.  A first-generation American, his mother was Irish, his father French-Canadian.  He’d been caddying nine years, taught himself how to play, and was playing in the U. S. Open on the course he knew best in the world, at The Country Club.  His caddy, Eddie Lowery, was ten years old.


Ouimet and Lowery, 1913 U. S. Open

His photo on the front pages of newspapers raised awareness about the sport.

In the Jazz Age, golf boomed along with the economy


The amateur gentleman: Bobby Jones winning the claret jug at the British Open, 1927

In the 1920s, the sport began to create celebrities such as Bobby Jones, who in 1930 won the grand slam (the British and American opens and amateur championships) but stayed an amateur.

The national worship of Bobby Jones was akin to the worship of Charles Lindbergh.


Bobby Jones testing Augusta National when it was under construction

He helped found the Augusta National course in Georgia, a big-money operation that nevertheless retains its status as a shrine

But if one is to worship the pre-urbanized landscape at a convenient commuting distance from one’s business, then one needs to prevent the land from being developed, and for that there are two paths.


Two paths, depending on how long you hit it

3. Golf preserves green space, for private use

Though cities have always been the source of humanity’s wealth generation –ideas, innovations, and change all are made in cities – people have also realized their cities need respiratory green space, oases of nature amid the built environment, and people have always connected those with leisure and relaxation.

The street has always been the place of hurly-burly – noise, traffic, mud, and bustle – and so urban homes in every century have created little square of private green, whether in a courtyard:


Roman villa, recreated in Los Angeles by an oil baron: the Getty Villa


The Cloisters: Fort Tryon Park, upper Manhattan (190th Street), donated by oil baron John D. Rockefeller


The green at Trinity College, Cambridge

In all these examples, the green space is preserved and tended, but then enclosed in a building that makes the space private, familial, and social only for those with whom we choose to socialize.

Such uses of land are, of course, expensive, both in maintenance and lost-opportunity cost, so that green space in a pre-industrial city always signaled wealth and power, and often signaled collective association (monks in an abbey; students in a college). 

But as cities industrialized, and the mob of people increased, green space for the ordinary people4 became if not an imperative, at least a political, and philanthropic desirability.  So, by the mid-nineteenth century, the fastest-growing American cities, under demographic pressure, pre-emptively turned some of their better-located undeveloped spaces into parks, such as Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park (1873) in New York City


‘Making the lake’ in Central Park

– and Boston’s Emerald Necklace (1894) from the Boston Public Garden (1837) along the reclaimed Muddy River (renamed the Fenway) to Franklin Park.  And in addition to those places of unstructured leisure, there also arose the great age of civic pride expressing itself through the formation of city teams for competitive sports, such as baseball, where the Fenway became the site of 1912’s Fenway Park.


Two-year-old Fenway Park hosting the 1914 World Series featuring the Boston Braves

Against this backdrop, the golf course stands out as the Gilded Age’s socially competitive private-public space.

Golf prospered with the rise of the suburbs. As cities were taken over by immigrants and industry, older and richer families moved out to find fresh air. They re-created a lost sense of community by joining country clubs.

Golf courses and clubs also provided a bulwark against nineteenth-century urban sprawl.  A golf course consumes a minimum of a quarter of a square mile, and hence it depopulates the immediate vicinity.  In bucolic Belmont and meadowy Milton. If the golf courses were to be developed, with (say) quarter-acre zoning, the courses could accommodate 640 new homes each, or perhaps 2,000 people, enough to make a big jump in each town’s population growth.

Golf and sex are about the only things you can enjoy without being good at.

Jimmy Demaret


At least I know how to use one club

[Continued tomorrow in Part 3.]


Golf and the romance of pre-urbanized society: Part 1, A good walk spoiled

January 26, 2015 | Belmont, Golf, Green space, Housing, Land use, Leisure, Milton, Open space, Real estate taxes, Speculation, Transportation, Urbanization, US News, Zoning | No comments 89 views

By: David A. Smith

Golf is a good walk spoiled.
Mark Twain


When scanning Google Earth to research my lengthy posts of bucolic Belmont and meadowy Milton, I was struck how among the few landmarks readily identifiable from even very high altitudes were golf courses; though largely invisible from commuters’ streets, from above they stood out.  Examining those two towns for locations where affordable housing could be built, I thought, That’s a lot of undeveloped acreage.  And that, more or less, was the genesis of a multi-page article Handicapped: The future of golf, in the year-end edition of The Economist (December 20, 2014):


On a recent Saturday Matt Owens, the owner of Trenton Street Golf Course in West Monroe [Louisiana], sat indoors facing the entrance to his course and greeted golfers. In this town of 13,000 inhabitants with a love of fried catfish and a reverence for “Duck Dynasty”, a television show about hunters whose stars live nearby, golf used to be a regular indulgence for many, and that mild autumn weekend was ideal golf weather. Yet by the end of the afternoon Mr Owens had taken in only around $200 in green fees, a tenth of what his course earned on Saturdays a few years ago.

‘Greens fees’ is golf’s civilized euphemism for admission price, and like so many terms in golf, the circumlocution bespeaks a far earlier time, when golf was a game for gentlemen, amateurs were esteemed above professionals, and golf was a-booming.

Sources used in this post

Goldfinger (1959), Chapter 9; Olive green font

WS Journal review, The Kingdom of Golf in America (August 16, 2013; pastel blue font)

Wikipedia on golf’s environmental impact; emerald green font)

The Economist (December 20, 2014; black font)

No more: golf is on its back nine, and giving back strokes to par.

What is happening in West Monroe is not unusual. In America, the heartland of golf, the game is in decline.


No really, this isn’t my frozen face: Kemper’s Skinner

Last year 160 of the country’s 14,600 18-hole equivalent golf facilities shut up shop, the eighth straight year of net closures, according to the National Golf Foundation, an industry group. Steve Skinner of Kemper Sports, a large golf-course operator, thinks it is going to take another ten years to level the imbalance between supply and demand. With only a handful of new courses scheduled for construction in America, architects are looking abroad to find work. “If golf-course architecture were a publicly traded stock, it would be a penny stock right now,” says Brian Curley, a golf-course architect who spends much of his time designing courses in China.


Growing golf where the money is – China – Brian Curley

Golf’s decline has many symptoms, yet they all trace back to a single cause – the changing relationship between Americans and their cities, and their access to or interest in outside leisure time.

Golf isn’t an urban game; it’s a suburban game, a game for people who made their money from cities, live in cities, but harken back to a pre-urban time.

Last year around 25m Americans played golf, 18% fewer than did so in 2006, although the population grew by 6%. Although still played by men and women, including businesspeople hoping to bond over more than lunch, golf does not hold the same appeal for the young and minorities, groups that will determine its future health. In recent years more people have abandoned than taken up the game.

And while golf is a game, a golf course is a real estate investment, and that has always been both its blessing and its curse.


Eighty-year-old Arnold Palmer, hitting off the first tee at Augusta national

Spiritually, golf appeals to aspirational middle-class men because it romanticizes the pre-urban landscape and gives them a place to be men socializing among men – but those very attributes contain within golf the seeds of its eventual demise as societies urbanize further, putting urban space and leisure time under pressure that eventually makes the golf course no longer sustainable as a social model for leisure time or an economic model for urban leisure space.  

1. Golf romanticizes the pre-urban shaped and landscaped environment

From the time people first invented towns and cities, cultivated green space has always been a mark of culture. 


Emperor Napoleon hunting at Fontainebleau

Kings had hunting preserves; or royal parks laid out for the stately perambulation of lords and ladies.


Only royalty should be allowed to walk in nature … don’t you agree, court gardener?

With the earliest industrial revolution, large parkland estates were how the nouveau riche displayed their cultural achievements.


Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, 1749

Golf is part of that, for from its beginnings along the coast of St. Andrews, golf has celebrated the romantic outdoors:

The use of natural creeks and ponds is generally desirable when designing a golf course for their aesthetics and inherent difficulty, but such areas also typically include wetlands within the flood plain that are unsuitable for golfing.

Much is made in golf course design of ‘using the natural landscape.’

Wampanoag … has remained mostly untouched since the clubs inception in 1924. Famed Course designer Donald Ross sculpted a championship course on this beautiful park-like piece of land.   Donald Ross is widely recognized as the leading golf architect of the 20th century – and quite possibly of all time.   He is best known for his simple designs that use the existing natural landscape to challenge golfers of all skill levels, including Pinehurst No. 2, one of the most consistently highest rated courses in the country.  

The famous pot bunkers at St. Andrews, for example, were supposedly formed by sheep lying down against the fierce North Sea winds.


Isn’t nature wonderful?  Sheep on Ahill Island, Scotland


Never get into a bunker taller than your head

Golf’s landscapes also echo English notion of the garden.  Where the French believed in geometric perfection of the parterre, nothing so delights the English as a ‘wild’ or natural border, which is raised to a peak of intellectual sublimity at Sissinghurst, created by Vita Sackville-West, who in true English fashion was both a poet and a gardener

I sing the cycle of my country’s year,
I sing the tillage, and the reaping sing,
Classic monotony, that modes and wars
Leave undisturbed, unbettered, for their best
Was born immediate, of expediency.


Quite the pair: Harold (Hadji) Nicholson and Vita Sackville-0West

The garden she created, and that today is revered among the English, mixes natural growths and lawns:


Just put a putting green in here

The same sensibilities are reflected in the most famous American golf course, Augusta National:


This would be a nice garden … if you got rid of the guys with sticks


Hit it on the green stuff, not into the colored stuff

The Masters - Round One

The most famous Par-3 in the world: Augusta’s 12th hole, where …


… you really want your tee shot to stay on the green


You can hit your ball out of the creek if you’re unfortunate enough to hit it into the creek

Also famous at St. Andrews is the Road Hole,

st_ andrews_17_road_hole

The 17th at St. Andrews (the Road Hole), where the pros aim their tee shot over the hotel


The wall is in play, and he’s about to ricochet his ball off it back toward the green (out of shot to the left)

And the most famous golf tournament in the world, the Masters’, is always played on the most garden-like of golf courses, Augusta National, and its height of blooming, Georgia in April.

2. Golf was born during the age of industrial urbanization

For the beginnings of history, men have made their leisure into competitions, whether martial arts as celebrated in the ancient Olympics, and along with such early sports, golf uses a weapon to propel a projectile.

Golf traces its modern origins to 15th-century Scotland, where people played with wooden clubs and balls full of feathers. In 1457 King James II temporarily banned it, along with football, because it interfered with archery practice, but he was no match for its growing popularity. Mary, Queen of Scots was an enthusiast; her clubs were carried by students she called “cadets” (now known as “caddies”). The game of “gawf”, as it was first called, spread: first to England, and subsequently to its colonies. 


The MacDonald boys playing golf, 1741

But golf depends on a green – an immaculate and well-maintained surface of undulating grass – and before there were suburbs, lawns were the preserve mainly of the rich.  Greens surrounded stately homes and castles.  Towns had greens, but their lawns were maintained by the cattle or sheep that grazed upon them, and where cattle and sheep graze, one doesn’t want to swing a club at objects in the grass.


Golf at St. Andrews’ Old course, 1855

If you think it’s hard to meet new people, try picking up the wrong golf ball.

Jack Lemmon



[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]


Aiding and a-bedding? Part 4, In an hour, you won’t want them to

January 23, 2015 | Airbnb, Apartments, Cities, Global news, Hotels, Housing, Innovations, Markets, New York City, Paris, Rental, Speculation, Urban issues, US News, Zoning | 1 comment 269 views

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 3 and the preceding Part 1 and Part 2.]

By: David A. Smith

Jack Bellicec: What are you talking about? A space flower?

Nancy Bellicec: Well why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?

Jack Bellicec: I’ve never expected metal ships.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Arriving at the last of our four parts on this topic, we’ve seen that disruptive technology – in this case, Short Stay Rental enabled by a rapidly evolving and physically disintermediated web-based marketplace – creates an unstoppable new force and an irreversible change in urban dynamics, one that ruptures current zoning and land use strategies.

Sources used in this port

(and previous AHI posts on Airbnb and flat-renting)

Prohibition and the rent-easy (August 13, 2010)

Chez Reductio ad Gotham (August 5, 2013)

Outbreak of informality, Part 1, Part 2 (September 18, 2013)

We know where you live, Part 1, Part 2 (October 16-17, 2013)

The enemy of my enemy, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (November 18-20, 2013)

New York Post (October 16, 2014; brick-red font)

BBC News (December 26, 2014; black font)

Boston Herald (January 17, 2015; olive-green font)

Naturally, such disruption threatens the habitat of some incumbent mercantilist species, such as hoteliers (versus Short Stay Rental) and taxi medallion owners (against Uber/ Lyft), who become the vocal rallying point for last-ditch opposition – but by the time they realize they’re facing an existential threat, they’re in such a minority as potentially to be overwhelmed, and it’s time for a negotiation strategy.


Maybe we can come to terms with them

7. What will happen?  How can this end?

Matthew Bennell: Listen, we’re not the last humans left. There are people who will fight you. They will find out what you’re doing here.

Elizabeth Driscoll: They’ll stop you.

Dr. David Kibner: In an hour… you won’t want them to. In an hour, you’ll be one of us.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

As Pandora learned, disruptive technology cannot be returned to its packaging; once out, it can only be adjusted to.  With broadband ubiquitous, servers powerful, and established high-capitalization entities like Airbnb already deeply embedded in their markets, Short-Stay Rental is a new permanent model, if only because the SSR landlords are so numerous they are now a political veto to any form of aggressive banning.

Everyone accepts that weekend or week-long flat rentals are here to stay. They bring in new tourists and are a welcome source of revenue to thousands of people.

Each of the three possible outcomes referenced in Section 5 can be envisioned.

Outcome 1: Overrun.  This is happening now – cities are being overrun by Airbnb and other Short Stay Rentals.


Stop us if you can

If they proliferate unchecked, then SSR’s will penetrate every neighborhood at least until they have reached tourist equilibrium within the city, and for cities like Paris, whose businesses have long since decamped to La Defense and other enclaves, that will mean central Paris has become one big historic theme park.


You’d better decide we’re an attraction …because we’re not leaving


It only encourages them

It will also mean the death of urban zoning, or at least that the SSR form of use trumps zoning.

Outcome 2: Extermination.  Some cities, like Paris, are trying to exterminate SSRs by prosecuting individual landlords in hopes of frightening the herd.  It won’t work; it’s like swatting flies. 

Truly to kill the phenomenon, one must attack not the users but their source – the company itself, just as the attorneys general did with the tobacco litigation, the Obama Administration with the big banks.  Undoubtedly Airbnb has long considered this possibility, and done everything it can to insulate itself against legal liability – I’m sure the unread fine print in an Airbnb listing agreement is a masterpiece of drafting – but as we’ve seen with the tobacco companies, or the big banks, perfect legal protection is no defense against an ambitious politician with a populist agenda.

In New York, for example, attorney general Eric Schneiderman is attacking Airbnb and seeking to force the company to disclose all its participating owners:

By analyzing Airbnb bookings for private stays between Jan. 1, 2010, and June 2, 2014, Schneiderman was able to get a snapshot of how the service works in New York. The report revealed several key findings.

1. Gentrified neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, Soho, Chelsea and the Lower East Side accounted for more than 40% of Airbnb hosts’ revenue, or about $187 million.

2. More than 100 lessors controlled more than 10 different apartments that were rented out regularly through Airbnb. Together, these hosts booked 47,103 reservations and earned $59.4 million in revenue.

3. The most prolific user administered 272 unique listings, booked 3,024 reservations and made $6.8 million in revenue.

“Few Airbnb hosts appear to have filed the paperwork with New York City necessary to remit hotel-room-occupancy taxes,” the report said. “Nor did Airbnb collect any of the hotel taxes owed for the reviewed transactions.”

That’s good, but even better will be when Attorney General Schneiderman sues the company (or even indicts its principals) as an accessory before and after the fact of each violation of NYC’s registration and occupancy laws would enable the city to pursue a single-payer enormous judgment. 

(He would certainly not be the first New York Attorney General to pursue a high-profile prosecution mainly to build public visibility and run for governor.)


He went from AG …


… to mayor


He went from AG …


… to governor

To just-start his campaign of vengeance and ambition, all Mr. Schneiderman will need, one may callously observe, will be a tragic circumstance arising in an Airbnb flat that will allow the attorney general to claim the moral high dudgeon.

And before Airbnb claims it’s too big to fail, perhaps it should consider Enron or Arthur Andersen.


That brings us to the third possible outcome, one whose outlines appear to be emerging.

Outcome 3: Redefinition and modus vivendi.  As between the SSR networks, exemplified by Airbnb, and their host cities such as Paris or New York, each can be killed by the other. 

A sufficiently outraged city could enforce its current zoning, fine every Airbnb landlord, start a massive class-action lawsuit against the company, and put the full power of government against the pernicious threat. 


Bill Gates giving deposition testimony in US v. Microsoft

For instance, think Microsoft v. European Commission, or US v. IBM, filed on the last day of the Johnson Administration and then enduring for over a decade:

The case went to trial six years later and dragged out for another six years. The trial transcript contained more than 104,400 pages, and thousands of documents were placed in the record. Then, in January 1982, after 13 years of litigation, at a cost to the Government of between $1 million and $2 million for each year, the antitrust division dismissed the case as being ”without merit.” One of the longest and costliest antitrust cases in history, a case the authors of this book describe as ”a juggernaut out of control,” ended with an embarrassing whimper.

On the other hand, a sufficiently outraged consumer service could use its marketing, advertising, legal, and buyer power to vilify the elected officials seeking to ban the company, and could almost certainly ensure they’d be voted out of office or pressured to abandon their extinction threat.

It’s Mutually Assured Destruction, unprofitable for the company, unpolitical for the elected officials.


Shall we play?

The cities know they’re on the wrong side of technology, and that the technological disruption has destroyed their ability to stamp out the infestation. Now they’re stuck with it.

Small species (viruses, bacteria, insects) can be diseases, parasites, or symbiotes, and evolutionary biology is full of examples where Small Species A invaded larger Animal B, then found ways not to attack the body it invaded but support and even protect it.  Eukaryotic cells evolved out of symbiosis of prokaryotic cells into protoplasm; gut bacteria do the same thing on a larger scale.  Birds and bees pollinate plants, which pay for their reproduction with nutrients.  It’s called mutualism.  Dogs and horses have much better reproductive and survival rates than their non-domesticable cousins coyotes and zebras.


A rich man’s oddity: Walter Rothschild and his one-of-a-kind zebra carriage

And while the business model of plagues is flashy, in the long run human gut flora have the better arrangement. 


Just think of us as a specialized biological value chain, okay?

(Mutualism also operates in human societies, particularly with respect to informality, slums, and low-wage unskilled labor vis-a-vis the formal city.)

Species (like Airbnb) can be domesticated (by cities) in mutualism arrangements (regulatory and tax structures) if they meet seven criteria:

1. Serves both the master and the animals.  Notwithstanding shortsighted or sectoral people who see only the invasive species, not its benefits, Short Stay Rentals improve cities because they boost the economy (bringing in tourists, jobs, and businesses) at the same time that they increase the effective utilization rate of the built residential environment.  Thus there’s a clear mutualist case for enabling SSRs so long as they are domesticated.  And for the companies like Airbnb, cities are prime territory – essential territory – where there’s a vast and reliable volume of newcomers seeking accommodation, and a large enough built environment of properties to provide continuing supply of flats to rent.

2. Cannot be picky eaters.  Airbnb tolerates a wide range of possible hosting sites and landlords.

3. Reach maturity quickly.  The web has enabled Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft, to get to critical mass within a city before elected officials can create to them.

“We should not deny thousands of New Yorkers the chance to share their homes, pay their bills and stay in the city they love,” Airbnb said in a statement.

4. Willing to breed in captivity.  The companies need to ‘take the bridle’ and accept the structure of regulation as a basis for further expansion within a city and to other cities.

5. Docile by nature.  Once the agreement is negotiated, then the companies need to live up to it. Uber’s CEO shows go-rogue tendencies, and might be fired.

Travis Kalanick, Uber, Code Conference

6. Cannot have a strong tendency to panic and flee.  Once a company has dominant position and market capitalization, it will want to remain on good terms with its host city.

“We need to work together on some sensible rules that stop bad actors and protect regular people who simply want to share the home in which they live,” said Airbnb’s statement.

7. Conform to a social hierarchy.  The companies have a corporate structure, including CEO and board of directors, so there is a governance system already in place.

In the case of the Short Stay Rentals (invasive species) versus their cities’ zoning (host organism), mutualism must be the outcome, something along the following lines:


Yet, even as there may be a mutualist endgame for the Short Stay Rentals, cities must beware: Invasive creatures come in many species:

A lawsuit filed by taxi owners claiming Boston and state officials are violating their rights by allowing ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to skirt regulations they must follow faces an uphill battle, legal experts say.

“I think they would have a very difficult time proving they were being treated unequally,” said Janice Griffith, a law professor at Suffolk University. “It’s very difficult to overturn regulations that a state makes.”


She betta now.  Much betta now

Mr. Tong: No, no… she all right. She betta now. Much betta now.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers


Aiding and a-bedding? Part 3, Being spied on

January 22, 2015 | Airbnb, Apartments, Cities, Global news, Hotels, Housing, Innovations, Markets, New York City, Paris, Rental, Speculation, Urban issues, US News, Zoning | No comments 235 views

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]

By: David A. Smith

Dr. David Kibner: Elizabeth, could you please tell me, in your opinion, what is going on?

Elizabeth Driscoll: People are being duplicated. And once it happens to you, you’re part of this… thing. It almost happened to me!

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

At the conclusion of yesterday’s Part 2, we saw that when a building or even a small neighborhood is infested with Short Stay Rental tenancies, the social ecosystem is disturbed, and not always for the better.


Once it happens to you, you’re part of this … thing

Sources used in this port

(and previous AHI posts on Airbnb and flat-renting)

Prohibition and the rent-easy (August 13, 2010)

Chez Reductio ad Gotham (August 5, 2013)

Outbreak of informality, Part 1, Part 2 (September 18, 2013)

We know where you live, Part 1, Part 2 (October 16-17, 2013)

The enemy of my enemy, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (November 18-20, 2013)

New York Post (October 16, 2014; brick-red font)

BBC News (December 26, 2014; black font)

Boston Herald (January 17, 2015; olive-green font)

Yet that localized effect has to be seen against the larger city, which like any other complex organism is divided into areas that are specialized organs whose functions serve the whole city – in this case, all those tourists bring more money to the city than they take home, and with all that money comes new jobs for locals.

So perhaps the city’s leadership needs to look beyond the localized complaints at the bigger voting patterns picture:

5. Short Stay Rental can be symbiotic with a healthier city

Elizabeth Driscoll: There’s nothing to be afraid of. They were right. It’s painless. It’s good. Come. Sleep. Matthew.

[Matthew begins to back away]

Elizabeth Driscoll: Matthew. Matthew!

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

At the heart of the ‘sharing economy’ business models is an indisputable reality: things that we possess as ours are used infrequently. 

Many things are used for only part of the day.  Cars are used perhaps two hours in twenty-four even by heavy commuters; offices hum ten hours in twenty-four; homes are occupied perhaps eighteen hours in twenty-four.

Most spaces are under-occupied.  When was the last time every seat in your car was taken?  Or every bedroom in your apartment or home slept in?

At Airbnb – by far the biggest internet site dealing in holiday lets – they say that the vast majority of their business is with people legally letting primary residences.

The figure offered by Airbnb’s Paris director Nicolas Ferrary is 83%.


Invest in France … so we can ban your investment?

Underuse is an acceptable and accepted consequence of ownership, because we want the thing ready for our use whenever we want it. 

(Urban slums are the counterexample: there poverty is so extreme that everything is stressed: construction costs are minuscule, operating costs likewise tiny, and every available space is used for sleeping.)


This over-ownership is natural, even efficient, because compared with the cost of acquisition (including construction and maintenance), the marginal cost of use drops dramatically when the asset is idle, and our planet is (in general) rich enough that we can afford this investment in our built environment.

That figure is disputed by Francois Plottin, who says around half of properties advertised on Airbnb are not primary residences.

Frankly, I would expect the figure of pure-SSR properties to be even higher, because once an owner has configured an apartment to be in the business of being rented, he or she wants to maximize its rental use.

We do everything to comply with the rules, and it is clearly signposted to users of our website what those rules are,” says Mr Ferrary.

Mr. Ferrary is being doubly disingenuous:

1. Posting to the web site isn’t compliance, it’s covering one’s posterior, like those ubiquitous ‘I have read’ disclosures.


You didn’t, we know you didn’t, we know that you’ll deny you did, but we feel better anyway

2. “We do everything.”  Nonsense: Mr. Ferrary means his company does the minimum things necessary to be out of direct liability to the Paris government.  If Airbnb wanted to do everything, it could inspect flats listed on the send; send mystery shoppers to flats; offer rewards (of, say two free nights’ lodging) to whistleblower guests who reported their landlords – and that’s only three things I thought of in ten seconds. 


You’ll never rent from Airbnb again

No, Mr. Ferrary and Airbnb are rent-easy pushers, as is Ms. Leeds:

Many of her clients bought pied-a-terres which they visit occasionally, but rent out the rest of the year to pay off the mortgage.

‘To pay off the mortgage’ is more self-justifying rationalization– as if without the Airbnb money the mortgage would go into default. 

It’s inducing violation of the law, pure and simple.



Like other epidemic, over time an outbreak of law-violation ends up in one of only three possible end states:

Extermination, where the violations are wiped out or at least reduced to a negligible population.


“I don’t know who you are … but I will look for you, I will find you … and I will fine you.”

Overrun, where the law drowns in universal non-compliance, and a new order emerges.

“There are no more than 100 or so owners every year who are going through these compulsory steps, and acquiring the compensatory property,” says Francois Plottin.


We can use the law to stop them

“That means 20,000 people breaking the law. But now we are slowly starting to levy fines. This year 50 people have been fined 10,000 euros (£8,000; $12,000) each.”

In other words, the odds of getting away with it are 1 to 400 (99.75% success rate).

Elizabeth Driscoll: Matthew, we’ll never be able to stop them!

Matthew Bennell: Yes, we will.

Elizabeth Driscoll: We can’t! Look it, they control the whole city.

Matthew Bennell: We’ll find a way somehow.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Redefinition, where both the law and the behavior are changed and a new symbiosis emerges.  When policy and power clash, there are always at least two critical questions:

1. What should happen? 

2. What will happen?

6. What should happen?  What’s the right answer?

Like many organisms, when Short-Stay Rental (SSR) proliferates, it permanently changes its environment:

The repercussions on the Paris residential market are severe, according to Ian Brossat, Director of Housing at City Hall.


Hearing tourists’ footsteps? Ian Brossat

“There is already a serious shortage of flats in Paris, especially studios and two-room apartments where couples might start a life together,” said Mr. Brossat.

While Mr. Brossat’s statement may be true, he’s not seeing the whole system. 

Some cities are magnets for transients, who can be immigrants:


We’re just passing through, heading for the hinterlands

University students:


Every dot is a magnet

Or tourists:


Get your picture taken with the shoe


Photo by Philip Gould

People-magnet cities are also jobs magnets: all those tourists visit the museums, go to the restaurants, climb the Eiffel Tower, take the taxis or the metro, ride the Air France planes, and fill up the hotels,


Discharging loads of rubes heading into town

“Now we have this growing problem of holiday lets, with investors moving in and buying up as much as they can.  It has become a business, and the result is fewer properties on the market for ordinary Parisians, and higher prices for what is available.”

There are fewer homes for rent because the jobs and population are growing, but the city isn’t adding supply – and probably for the same reasons that two other Airbnb-popular cities, San Francisco and New York, are likewise running short – development restrictions and development disincentives (rent control).

Paris is an urban disneyland.  So are the Italian hill towns.  So is Venice.

Venice, Basilica di San Marco

A gorgeous tourist trap …


… since at least 1730 (Canaletto)

So is downtown Charleston, South Carolina.


Charleston, South Carolina

Because tourist attractions have higher foot traffic than residential neighborhoods, they have higher real estate value.  So tourist neighborhoods inevitably tourist-ify, and that means apartments are replaced by transient-occupancy dwellings, by demolition and new construction, or by retrofitting small flats into extended stay hotels, or by simple SSRs facilitated by Airbnb. 

“When [Short-Stay Rental takes over] a whole neighbourhood, then the life just drains out of it,” said M. Guillot.

‘Life,’ for M. Guillot, means the rhythms of residential living, the place where people know your name.  everyone is familiar, because everyone is known, and because everyone is known, everyone is familiar. 


Some Parisians worry that holiday lets are changing the character of neighborhoods

But in cities, by contrast with neighborhoods, strangers live companionably side by side, sharing streets, entries, corridors, walls, floors and ceilings.  What distinguishes a good city from a bad city is the ability of people who do not know each other to become neighborly; in a bad city, those anonymous flats can become handy entrepots for drug deals, pied-a-terres for call girls, or staging areas for terrorists.

Ms. Leeds says inspectors are following people with suitcases on the street to see what apartments they go to.

“We feel like we are being spied on. It’s like World War Two. And they have the right to enter apartments without the owner even being there. It is incredible!”

It may be incredible, Ms. Leeds, but you are a fool if you equate occupancy checkups with Nazi police.


The cost of anonymity

The hotel industry is also watching the accelerating spread of Paris holiday lets with misgiving.

“We are not against competition per se, just distorted competition,” says Alexandre Loisnard-Goyeau of the hoteliers’ union Synhorcat.


“The distortion comes because on our side we have all the taxes and the legal obligations concerning security and access for the disabled and so on.”

“And the flat-owners have none of it.”

Ah, but should they?

In some ways, yes: the flat-owners should be regulated.  While the consumer-protection aspect of renting a room is less essential with the power of social media to report and ostracize bad landlords, issues of habitability, wiring, safety and so on.

Conversely, cities have long used
hotels as a convenient source of soak-the-tourist revenue streams, and a single apartment isn’t a hotel; it’s much less and there is at present no standard for what it is and what is the appropriate level of regulation – and hence, the policy-justifiable level of taxation or assessment of the cost of that regulation.

Dr. David Kibner: We came here from a dying world. We drift through the universe, from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt and we survive. The function of life is survival.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers


We adapt and we survive

[Continued tomorrow in Part 4.]