The new slow city: one man's mission to live the simple life in downtown Manhattan

Can you live a life of rural simplicity even in New York? Image: Getty.

In 2007, I lived for a season in an off-grid permaculture cabin in North Carolina. No Name Creek gurgled through a lush forest, and I befriended the eclectic neighbors – organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers. I discovered a sustainable but imperiled way of life, and wrote about in my memoir Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream.

Alas, the book triggered angry questions. “It’s easy,” one Twelve by Twelve reader wrote, “to find minimalism, joy, connection to nature, and abundant time in a shack in the woods. But how the hell are the rest of us supposed to stay sane in our busy modern lives?” This question was the genesis of my new book: New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City.

I received, in fact, a hundred variations of this question after lectures and on radio interviews, and always answered by saying I was living 12 x 12 values... but in Queens, New York, the home to which I returned after my time in the cabin.

But as each year passed, the reader’s doubt increasingly became my own. Overwork, material clutter, and the lack of contact with nature – “civilization,” in short – brought me to a point of extreme unhappiness in Queens. Eventually, I too doubted it was possible to live 12 x 12 in a city, and I felt an urgent need to decamp far from urban life.


Not so fast. As I reached this point, my newlywed wife, Melissa, was offered an excellent job that demanded we stay put in New York City. I suddenly had no choice but to figure out how to take what I’d learned in the 12 x 12 – about the Leisure Ethic, connecting to nature, and living simply – and somehow make it work in the real-world context of a marriage and two careers.

In an attempt to do this, Melissa and I embarked on an experiment. We sold or gave away 80 percent of our stuff, left our 1,600-square-foot Queens townhouse, crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, and moved into a tiny rental: a 340-square-foot “micro-apartment” – roughly two 12 x 12s – in downtown Manhattan.

Melissa and I approached our thimble of an apartment through the ideas of philosopher Thomas Merton, who called his stark monk’s chambers “the four walls of my new freedom”. We stowed a minimal kit of kitchenware, toiletries, clothing, and books as if equipping a houseboat’s trim hull. It was a refreshing purge; the apartment seems to expand with each tweak.

We began to feel our well-being rise in proportion to what’s been shed. A slim metal table in the kitchen welcomes the cutting board; jackets laze on his-and-her hooks; sandals snuggle in their micro-shoe-apartment beside the door.

Beyond this minimalist freedom, I discovered that being “Slow” is not at all Luddite. Slow means cultivating positive qualities – receptive, intuitive, reflective – instead of the fast qualities so common today: busy, agitated, acquisitive.

I began living and working smarter instead of faster. Borrowing from author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris, I spent my Slow Year practicing two principles at the same time: 80/20 and the Hodgkinson’s Principle.

The 80/20 principle says that we accomplish 80 percent of work results in just 20 percent of our time. Conversely, we more or less waste the other 80 percent of our time on a paltry 20 percent of the results.

Dutifully, I 80/20ed my life and find that the principle holds true. In one particular week, for example, I looked at all the potential work streams – consulting, writing, speaking – that I could pursue, and distilled out that week’s most strategic one in terms of income-to-time-invested and my current level of enthusiasm: a high-end magazine article. Then I overlaid the Hodgkinson’s Principle. Hodgkinson’s says that work expands to fill the amount of time available to accomplish it.


Thus, having chosen the one most critical work activity, I corralled it into a tight timeframe, and found it works: I condensed what might have been five days of work into just two.

This approach spawned “reverse weekends” for me, where I worked smarter for two- days and took five-day weekends. This is not a utopian idea. Even Carlos Slim, the world’s richest person, recently called for a 3-day work week, and Google is increasingly experimenting in lowering hours and thus increasing employee creativity and efficiency.

Melissa and I discovered other Slow City tools in our year-long experiment.

  • Urban sanctuaries: We began spending more and more time in natural and reflective places right in Manhattan, like Central Park’s Ramble and the tip of Pier 45.
  • “Living at the third story”: I discovered I only need half my attention on the street level. As the rest of my focus rises up, I notice nut-brown oak branches and green leaves fluttering with white butterflies. An off-turquoise sky. Stretchy clouds. Ciao stress.
  • Technology fastin: We “fasted” from our gadgets for stints, diabling our phones and setting email to vacation mode. This helped quality of our relationship because we had more time focused on each other.
  • Silent meals. Even in Manhattan’s fine restaurants, we’d sometimes eat in total silence, deeply savor the food, scents, soundscape, and visual beauty of the restaurant in a meditative manner.

Though not everyone can live in this way, all of us can ask: What’s my twelve by twelve? We can find the elusive contours of enough, and live there.

Enough is the sweet spot between too little and too much. It starts with each of us creating space to slow down a little and ask the core questions, like: How do we find balance in a world that is changing more quickly than ever before in history? And how can we incubate a New Slow City that’s saner now and fit for the future?

William Powers is author of New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City, which is published this week.

 
 
 
 

North central Melbourne is becoming a test bed for smart, integrated transport

A rainy Melbourne in 2014. Image: Getty.

Integrated transport has long been the holy grail of transport engineering. Now, a project set up north of Melbourne’s downtown aims to make it a reality.

Led by the School of Engineering at the University of Melbourne, the project will create a living laboratory for developing a highly integrated, smart, multimodal transport system. The goals are to make travel more efficient, safer, cleaner and more sustainable.

Integrated transport aims to combine various modes of travel to provide seamless door-to-door services. Reduced delays, increased safety and better health can all be achieved by sharing information between users, operators and network managers. This will optimise mobility and minimise costs for travellers.

The National Connected Multimodal Transport Test Bed includes arterial roads and local streets in an area of 4.5 square kilometres in Carlton, Fitzroy and Collingwood.

Bounded by Alexandra Parade and Victoria, Hoddle and Lygon streets, this busy inner-suburban area is a perfect location to test a new generation of connected transport systems. Our growing cities will need these systems to manage their increasing traffic.

How will the test bed work?

The test bed covers all modes of transport. Since April, it has been collecting data on vehicles, cyclists, public transport, pedestrians and traffic infrastructure, such as signals and parking. The area will be equipped with advanced sensors (for measuring emissions and noise levels) and communications infrastructure (such as wireless devices on vehicles and signals).

The test bed will collect data on all aspects of transport in the inner-suburban area covered by the project. Image: author provided.

The aim is to use all this data to allow the transport system to be more responsive to disruption and more user-focused.

This is a unique opportunity for key stakeholders to work together to build a range of core technologies for collecting, integrating and processing data. This data will be used to develop advanced information-based transport services.

The project has attracted strong support from government, industry and operators.

Government will benefit by having access to information on how an integrated transport system works. This can be used to develop policies and create business models, systems and technologies for integrated mobility options.

The test bed allows industry to create and test globally relevant solutions and products. Academics and research students at the University of Melbourne are working on cutting-edge experimental studies in collaboration with leading multinationals.

This will accelerate the deployment of this technology in the real world. It also creates enormous opportunities for participation in industry up-skilling, training and education.

What are the likely benefits?

Urban transport systems need to become more adaptable and better integrated to enhance mobility. Current systems have long suffered from being disjointed and mode-centric. They are also highly vulnerable to disruption. Public transport terminals can fail to provide seamless transfers and co-ordination between modes.

This project can help transport to break out of the traditional barriers between services. The knowledge gained can be used to provide users with an integrated and intelligent transport system.

It has been difficult, however, to trial new technologies in urban transport without strong involvement from key stakeholders. An environment and platform where travellers can experience the benefits in a real-world setting is needed. The test bed enables technologies to be adapted so vehicles and infrastructure can be more responsive to real-time demand and operational conditions.


Rapid advancements in sensing and communication technologies allow for a new generation of solutions to be developed. However, artificial environments and computer simulation models lack the realism to ensure new transport technologies can be properly designed and evaluated. The living lab provides this.

The test bed will allow governments and transport operators to share data using a common information platform. People and vehicles will be able to communicate with each other and the transport infrastructure to allow the whole system to operate more intelligently. The new active transport systems will lead to safety and health benefits.

The test bed allows impacts on safety in a connected environment to be investigated. Interactions between active transport modes such as walking and cycling with connected or autonomous vehicles can be examined to ensure safety is enhanced in complex urban environments. Researchers will study the effects of warning systems such as red light violation, pedestrian movements near crossings, and bus stops.

Low-carbon mobility solutions will also be evaluated to improve sustainability and cut transport emissions.

Environmental sensors combined with traffic-measurement devices will help researchers understand the effects of various types of vehicles and congestion levels. This includes the impacts of emerging disruptive technologies such as autonomous, on-demand, shared mobility systems.

A range of indoor and outdoor sensor networks, such as Wi-Fi, will be used to trial integrated public transport services at stations and terminals. The goal is to ensure seamless transfers between modes and optimised transit operations.The Conversation

Majid Sarvi is chair in transport engineering and the professor in transport for smart cities; Gary Liddle an enterprise professor, transport; and Russell G. Thompson, an associate professor in transport engineering at the University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.