Has evidence-based planning fallen from grace in favour of catchy slogans and untested assumptions? In the case of urban planning, arguably that is just what’s happened. The evidence, in Australia at least, is worrying.
“We must get people out of cars and onto public transport.” “We must stop urban sprawl and the consumption of valuable land.” “We must build higher density communities to achieve sustainable environmental outcomes.” Phrases like this are now de rigueur across many discussions about urban planning in the media, in politics and in regulatory circles in Australia. They are rarely challenged on the basis of what the actual social, economic or scientific evidence is really saying. It’s produced an Animal Farm like dogma: ‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’ Or ‘Napoleon is always right.’ Denial, followed by ‘pass the buck’ and ultimately ‘shoot the messenger’ are responses to legitimate questions.
But given the far reaching social and economic changes which will invariably flow from some of the regulatory planning schemes now being legislated, we should at least ask whether the various policies will actually achieve their stated goals. After all, these regulatory planning schemes are intended to govern our urban growth over the next 20 years. It would be a shame to get it badly wrong, simply because assumptions weren’t tested.
The rise of the big plan
Since the late 1990s, there has been a raft of Australian regional planning schemes dealing with urban growth in our major centres. The common theme has been the creation of urban growth boundaries and increased density in established urban areas, with an emphasis on public transport as opposed to the private vehicle.
Typical of these schemes is the recently released ‘South East Queensland Regional Plan 2009-2031’ (SEQRP) which aims to ‘manage growth and protect the region’s lifestyle and environment.’ The plan, like others of its type, is influenced by a desire to contain urban growth and implicitly assumes that we are at risk of reckless growth if we don’t. But Australia’s total population is currently around 24 million people, in a land mass roughly the size of continental USA. This puts us below Nepal and Uzbekistan but ahead of Madagascar in population rankings. Reports that Australia’s population may reach 35 million in another 40 years (the current population of Canada) have raised domestic fears that we might become over populated. (See my blog post ‘Australia Explodes’ for more on this).
The State of Queensland is the second largest state by area, but contains only 4.4 million people in total. Its population growth rates have in the past been amongst the highest of any region in Australia, growing at up to 1500 people per week (close to 80,000 per annum). Much of this growth has occurred in the south east corner of the state, surrounding the capital city – Brisbane. While modest by global standards, this rate of growth has thrown governments and some sections of the community into apoplexy. How will we ever cope? The region of southeast Queensland (population 3 million) has even been compared to California (population 38 million) in terms of its growth rates and population pressures.
Against this context, the SEQRP identifies the need to provide a further 750,000 dwellings in the period to 2031, with roughly 50% to be developed in established urban areas via infill, and the balance through new detached housing development on land within an urban growth boundary. The challenge for infill is greater in Brisbane, where 138,000 new dwellings are expected to be developed in established urban areas, especially around transit centres (typically rail).
One of the many assumptions that underpin the core strategy of the SEQRP have to do with
the risk of sprawl. This suggests that modest and manageable growth rates of 1500 people per week are somehow tipping the big end of the global scale. The region’s current population of 3 million shows obvious signs of urban expansion as a result of growth to date, yet, with some notable exceptions in recent years, infrastructure has generally kept pace with the growth. Even at the urban fringe, new housing development has been at higher rates of dwelling density than in years past (lot sizes are shrinking).
There is also an assumption that we are running out of land. But South east Queensland has vast tracts of land suitable for urban expansion and has several established regional centres readily capable of servicing new expansion with infrastructure and town centres already in place and capable of upscaling. The urban growth boundary imposed by the SEQRP is approximately 300 kilometres in length as it curtains the urban area. An expansion of this boundary by as little as a kilometer (under a mile) would create a notional land supply suitable for an additional 500,000 detached homes at 15 to the hectare (or six to the acre).
Behind the plan lies an accepted wisdom that demand for ‘the quarter acre block’ is driving excessive expansion. The evidence, however, suggests this is now ancient history: lot sizes have not been anywhere near a quarter acre since the 1960s. The typical lot size now is 400 square metres, or around one tenth of an acre, hardly an irresponsible over-consumption of land for housing.
It is also assumed that all this growth imperils quality farm land. This assumption can only come from those with a vague understanding of farming practices. In the south east corner of Queensland, typically two types of land have been conserved for this reason. The first is land devoted to growing sugar cane which is no longer economically efficient. This agriculture produces a biodiversity desert and is far better suited to the more tropical north.
The second type of land conserved under this rationale is land historically devoted to cattle grazing. This was always marginal grazing land in the main – dry, shallow soils that struggle to hold moisture or grow pasture. As technology improved and transport economics developed, more efficient grazing country has been opened up further from city markets. But as farmers are prevented from selling their land for housing, despite its logical location for that purpose, herds of bony cattle continue to roam the urban fringes of the metropolis.
This assumption also seems to hold dear the notion that, for sustainability reasons, regions should source their food needs from within a nearby catchment, minimizing transport costs. Were this true, Queenslanders would not enjoy apples (grown in southern temperate zones) and neither would Tasmanians (our cool climate southern state residents) ever enjoy bananas (two thirds of Australia’s crop of which are grown in Queensland). It would also mean our agricultural industries, which rely heavily on export, would fail.
The cost of infrastructure provision is a subject that preoccupies governments in growth regions. Perhaps for this reason, the suggestion that infrastructure is more economically deployed in established urban areas, as opposed to newly provided in outer growth areas, found much support in treasury corridors. However, the evidence suggests otherwise: established urban areas‘ essential services (electricity, water, sewerage, stormwater) are ageing and incapable of serving significantly higher demand loads. The replacement and upgrade cost of retrofitting these services is demonstrably higher than the cost of installing new services in new growth areas.
It is also assumed outer suburban growth will mean worsening urban congestion. Yet relatively few residents of new outer suburban growth areas are employed in inner city areas: according to the Census and other official government data, most jobs are in suburban locations – 90% of all jobs in fact. The CBD (our downtown) is a high density focus area for many headquarter operations, but at 2 million square metres of office space, it cannot by any stretch of the imagination provide sufficient space for the majority of the region’s workers.
There is the assumption that infill and higher density will get more people using public transport. Current public transport usage represents under 15% of all trips. With higher density housing in established areas, especially in and around transit nodes (TODs), that figure could theoretically increase. But even the most heroic of assumptions would put the future rate at little more than 30%. Meaning 70% of new residents will still be auto dependent. There is also an unanswered question on the capacity of existing rail and bus services to cope with additional demand (frequent reports mention chronic overcrowding) combined with the high level of public transit subsidies per passenger, which will somehow have to be funded.
Finally, it’s assumed that high density housing is more ‘sustainable.’ But according to several Australian University studies, unit and townhouse dwellings actually consume more energy than equivalent detached dwellings. Common area lighting, lifts, clothes driers and airconditioning are all more commonplace in high density dwellings than detached (where natural light, cross flow ventilation and solar power for drying clothes are the norm). Factor in the higher number of persons per dwelling in detached housing, and the per person energy consumption of inner city, high density housing looks ordinary. No less an authority than the Australian Conservation Foundation actually proved this in their Consumption Atlas which revealed that inner city high density residents had much larger carbon footprints than their suburban cousins.
On balance, many of the assumptions that underpin the central strategic intent of regulatory planning schemes such as The South East Queensland Regional Plan, just don’t stand the test of evidence. Indeed in many cases, the evidence suggests the opposite of what is assumed. But evidence, it seems, is out of favour and slogans are in.
Four legs good, two legs bad. Napoleon is always right. Why consult the facts when the mantra will do?
About the author: Ross Elliott has 20 years experience in the property and development field, including stints in research, advocacy and urban economics. He writes an occasional blog, which you can find here and works as a consultant in marketing, strategy and business development, specializing in the property sector.