Predictable Punditry Down Under


The New South Wales Government has been following an extreme version of currently fashionable planning doctrines based on higher population densities. These policies have resulted in exorbitant housing costs and increasing traffic congestion.  A Liberal/National Coalition Government has come into power in New South Wales, replacing the previous Labor Government. In its election platform it promised to change planning policies for the better. These include fewer additional dwellings to be forced into Sydney suburbs, more fringe land release, decentralisation and giving planning powers back to the community.

The New South Wales Department of Planning bureaucracy is consequently ostensibly devising a new housing strategy.  As the main feature in a community discussion on this new strategy, the Department organised a presentation by Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser in Sydney entitled “Triumph of the City”, The promotional description read

recognised as the world’s leading urban economist, Harvard University’s Professor Edward Glaeser, along with four of NSW Government’s planning and infrastructure experts, will discuss fresh approaches to meeting Sydney’s biggest challenge now and into the future — planning for a population that is expected to increase from 4.2 million to more than 5.6 million by 2031”.

Previous consultation exercises for planning strategies had proved to be tokenistic and mere public relations exercises.  Unfortunately this event proved to be no exception. It promoted the current high-density policies with no discussion of alternatives or fresh approaches.

Professor Glaeser spoke about how cities evolved as engines of development and wealth creation. He portrayed cities facilitating people getting together, sharing ideas and building on previous innovations. He described how the advent of popular means of transport --- from horse drawn transport to cars --- allowed cities to spread and maintained that low density areas are associated with longer car journeys and larger homes that consume more energy. To facilitate the person to person contact he considers necessary to sustain innovation and to reduce energy consumption he advocated ever higher-densities closer to the city core.   

He implied this is especially important so as to set an example to highly populated China and India in order to limit the otherwise huge escalation in energy usage in those countries.

Throughout the proceedings the conference facilitator promoted the concept of high densities by such statements as “We need to re-examine the suburban model, living more like urban model” and “Go up, not out.  Can we do that? How do we do that?”
The overwhelming impression given by the consultation proceedings was that high-density is the only possible strategy worth considering and that Glaeser’s USA perspective can be applied to New South Wales.

Yet the argument that high density means more innovation seems flawed. In the United States of America the greatest innovative activity takes place not in crowded Manhattan but in regions of densities similar to that of Sydney, the urban area of which has 2100 persons per square kilometre (5,500 per square mile).  The San Jose urban area in Silicon Valley, with a similar population density, has a booming world-changing local technology industry including Cisco Systems and IBM. It also is almost totally dependent on automobiles, with only a small share of people taking transit.

Companies operating in Hillsboro in the Portland urban area (population density of 1400 per square kilometre or 3600 per square mile) include Yahoo!, Credence Systems, Synopsys, Epson and Sun Microsystems.  Seattle, the home of Microsoft and the initiation of Boeing, has a population density of 1,200 per square kilometre, or 3,000 per square mile. The densities in these dynamic areas are equal to or less than that of Sydney and a far cry from the Manhattan or even Hong Kong type of density of 25,000 (67,000 per square mile) or more that Glaeser seems to prefer.

Although high-density living may not be for everyone, apparently, particularly those with kids. Glaeser, like another prominent advocate of rapid densification, David Owen “copes” with living in suburbia.  I guess dense housing is for other families.

The claim by Glaeser that high-density is superior environmentally also is not borne out in Australian studies.  A publication of his finds emissions in low-density suburbs in several United States cities to be higher than in high-density suburbs.  Australian data does not show this.

A study of energy-related emissions at the final point of consumption finds per capita energy usage in a group of low density Sydney suburbs (96 GJ per annum) to be lower than in high-density suburbs (169 GJ).  One of several factors accounting for these differences is there are more people per household in the lower density areas. Glaeser models emissions on a “standard household” of 2.2 people; many, if not most suburban households, have more than that number, although city households frequently don’t.  One wonders whether possible differences in the number of people per dwelling in high-density and low-density areas can be adequately catered for in such models.

For another thing, the Australian climate is very different and that is probably a significant reason for higher densities to be more energy intensive. If dwellings are too close they are more difficult to cool whereas it is easier to heat them.  Also, cooling technically needs more energy than heating as a much larger volume of air needs to be circulated (NOTE 1).

Glaeser’s advocacy of high-density to reduce transport emissions needs special consideration.  In Australia such reduction, if any, is trivial.  Transport greenhouse gas emissions account for only a small proportion of household emissions and higher-densities reduce these to a minimal extent. (NOTE 2

It is not only in Australia where evidence for significant environmental benefits from high-density planning is lacking.  As a result of studies testing the relative performance of spatial options in England, Echenique et al conclude: “The current planning policy strategies for land use and transport have virtually no impact on the major long-term increases in resource and energy consumption. They generally tend to increase costs and reduce economic competitiveness. The relatively small differences between options are over-whelmed by the impacts of socioeconomic change and population growth”.

The Department of Planning-sponsored Glaeser presentation was not a genuine consultation. It promoted existing government policies with no attempt to consider their downside or to discuss alternatives.  It is extraordinary and downright arrogant to expect Sydney communities to change their preferred mode of life to live in tiny apartments perched in towers (see picture) in the unproven expectation that this will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is yet even more extraordinary to presume that such a transformation would influence policies in China and India in any significant way. The days when these great countries looked to the West for models has already passed; and look where many people from these countries settle when they get to the United States or to Australia: the suburbs. Classic cases include the San Gabriel Valley East of Los Angeles, the Santa Clara Valley communities of Silicon Valley, large swaths of northern New Jersey and to Sydney’s North Shore in Australia.

The proceedings proved to be an attempt to promote a particular point of view, so perpetuating previous approaches of trying to manipulate opinion in the guise of consultation.

It appears clear that in spite of a change of government there will be no change in planning policies.  The new government looks like having been captured by the bureaucracy and its cult of densification that has no more chance of changing its views than the College of Cardinals is likely to eschew the Papacy. 

(Dr) Tony Recsei has a background in chemistry and is an environmental consultant. Since retiring he has taken an interest in community affairs and is president of the Save Our Suburbs community group which opposes over-development forced onto communities by the New South Wales State Government.

Photo: Kowloon, Hong Kong

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Where is an example?

Australian cities have managed to expand before high-density became the fad with seemingly less problems, including those relating to infrastructure, than now is the case.

The degree of bicycle riding in Copenhagen makes this an interesting but very unusual example. Copenhagen is of course not comparable to Sydney or Melbourne as the population is much smaller, being 1/8 the size and is very flat which makes bicycling much more practical. Bicycling in Sydney is dangerous - I got knocked off my bicycle by a truck and had to be hospitalised due to injuries sustained.

The critical question that needs to be answered by high-density advocates is where in the world can one find a large developed high-density city which does not suffer from the problems that they claim high-density eliminates. This of course must refer to the complete city, not just a selected section of it. Where is this sustainable dense city that we all can aspire to move to?

simonpjb makes some good

simonpjb makes some good points:

  • the need to precede any expansion of housing with public transport, education and health improvements, which means forcing developers and government to actually put such things in place first (which means planning)
  • And the stimulation and provision of job provision away from the CBD should be prioritised ahead of housing development too.

Agreed. We should be doing this better in our outlying suburbs. Planners can undoubtedly help us with this.

If our childhood experiences prejudice us against one type of living, then we should be free to choose a different type of living.

Again, agreed.

However: we should not allow our prejudices to force other people to live the way we want to. That is undemocratic and wrong. Recsei's article points out some of the fallacies trotted out in attempting to justify this elitist and dictatorial high-handedness.

The critique that suburbist

The critique that suburbist arguments don't deal with (even here) ;
– the potentially limitless expansion that market forces would lead to, into surrounding farmland and bush, with no vision to contain this;
-the need to precede any expansion of housing with public transport, education and health improvements, which means forcing developers and government to actually put such things in place first (which means planning)
- And the stimulation and provision of job provision away from the CBD should be prioritised ahead of housing development too.
Who is going to do all of this before a low density suburb on a city edge can be considered? Nobody on this commentary, who have not responded to any of these points. Have you any idea how hard all of that is?

Joined up thinking, really – you cannot separate the house from the economic and planning context in which it sits. There is also the obvious fact that large land releases are simply lining the pockets of Australia's biggest real estate developers, who build down to the absolute minimum standards (or more expensive gated communities, the worst of the worst for social integration) and then still overcharge the punters. In the inner rings, they face more inconvenient plots, often more discerning customers, tighter planning controls, complaints, and usually make less money (as I discovered when working as a a property market researcher).

As Simons says, this means more pain for less gain. So if you leave housing to the market, it does not work. Planning actually regulates , stops the capitalist silliness, and on a good day also supports the locals (although it is a thankless job and sometimes bad decisions are made for sure).

M. Simons can be flippant, but knows her stuff and has lived in multiple environments. E.g. Griffith Review 8

Despite the title of this blog, I suspect none of the commentators have qualifications in urban geography, where thousands of studies have been conducted on these issues. I learned directly from Sir Peter Hall, and some of his ideas about cosmopolitanism and urban transportation have proven to be remarkably tractable. All evidence-based stuff. However I now see this website , despite its title, is stacked with commentators who don't really like planners and their efforts to create more sustainable cites – they prefer sprawling, cheaper ones without much regulation. Comment that emissions rise in the inner city due to taking "kids to sport, taking their pet to the vet" etc. are frankly wrong. They don't apply to the poor families of postwar immigrants where I live (who are growing vast quantities of vegetables as well, and talkimg to each other), or even to people like me with kids doing up to 10km a day walking and biking with them. No inefficient v8 commodores, holdens and 4WDs around here, nor their modern equivalents.
Particulates, data which I used to collect with my students, is overwhelmingly associated with arterial roads with high volumes that sometimes roll slowly, and with and these occur in the outer city as much as in the inner (shopping strips for example). Many one-offs- one the worst places in the western world for particulates and NOx is Southall Broadway – because everybody drives there. Also around Heathrow Airport (in a suburb). Very specific reasons, not applicable even elsewhere in London. The solution there and elsewhere is fewer polluting vehicles and less of them, not stopping denser housing development.
Evidence - Copenhagen, also where I used to live, does not sprawl, is very dense, is one of the most liveable cities in the world according to the Economist, and has 34% bike commuting crossing into the inner city each morning. Note that the Registreringsafgift (registration tax) on a car is 100% to 200% of its purchase price. Not all supply and deliveries by motorised means, either. See Australians wail of that sort of thing is introduced , but see what it produced in terms of urban form, sustainable transport, and public investment.

We each have our stories but Melbourne is well known for the speed at which recent arrivals vacate the outer suburbs for ones further in (or out, to the Goldfields etc.) as soon as they can afford to. I grew up in the 'burbs, one of my country's most infamous, in fact, and have lived in many, worldwide. Terrible experience, but I won't bore you…
Nnothing Recsei has offered is at all convincing, and specifically does not answer any of the questions at the top.
Australia has a very, very long way to go and the first thing to realise is that untrammelled capitalist housing development is unsustainable and needs strong regulation along the lines developed elsewhere.

Our suburbs are "boring",

Our suburbs are "boring", says simonpjb. Well, we happen to like that we can:

  • Chat with the neighbours across a fence.
  • Have them over to look through our backyard telescope at the rings of Saturn, the orange orb Mars and all those spectacular nebulae buried amongst the dark starry skies (try that in the city lights!).
  • Share out the fruit and vegetables from our backyards.
  • Have the kids play together in the backyard where we can keep an eye on them from the house, and where they can run in for home-made refreshments.
  • Have our washing dry naturally in the sun (rather than in a power-hungry dryer).
  • Use our own rainwater and generate our own power from the roof.

I don't mind if people like simonpjb prefer the adrenalin-charged glamour of inner-city living. That's perfectly fine with me, enjoy! But do you really think it is fair to force your own preferences on us, more ordinary folk that prefer living our simple, economical lives out in the suburbs?

No, i do not happen to think that is fair. I also do not believe that stratospheric housing prices has to be "part of life". As can be seen in Recsei's article above, the supposed "evidence" trotted out time and time again to force us into inner city high rise is faulty. No wonder high density policies are "falling far short of their aims". High density policies are wrong. They are based on faulty premises and impose a punitive "one-size-fits-all" lifestyle on us ordinary Australians, that happen to prefer our "boring" suburbs.

worn thin by sprawl

As Margaret Simons points out in 2011, we are in trouble.
" Family lives are being worn thin by congestion fuelled by urban sprawl. The quality of the air, already responsible for more than 2 per cent of all deaths, according to one estimate, is deteriorating. Public transport systems are suffering from decades of underinvestment. The level of car dependency is rising faster than the rate of population growth, making us more vulnerable to rising petrol prices and less capable of adapting to the imperatives of climate change.

It sounds bleak, but among governments and town planners there is a great deal of unanimity about what needs to be done. Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and the other mainland capitals all have plans to increase the density of the middle-ring suburbs by building higher-density housing along public transport routes and in designated activity areas. The aim, which has been shown to be realistic, is generally to build more than half of new homes in existing suburbs.

But the plans are falling far short of their aims. They have been frustrated by the sheer complexity of the organism of the modern city, the lack of good models for retrofitting existing suburbs, and the cheapness and ease with which new greenfields developments can be built, free of the local activism that complicates inner-city development. "

Continued land release on the fringe only makes such social divisions worse. It will be the death of a dynamic and convivial Sydney, creating more picket-fence fortresses 30km or more from the centre. Loss of employment out there has happened in the past and suburbs have already died. Melbourne's low density suburbs are an embarrassment as they sprawl further and further into the countryside on USA lines, have no or little public transport, and precede any major employment opportunities. They are also boring. Because everything is determined by land prices and economic demand in these cities, urban densification is the only way. I never said 'build loads of flats'. And the way to stop annoying urban growth is of course to control new land sales - continued demand means price rise for housing but that is part of life when a city gets it right. You can't have cheap houses without sprawl if you adhere to a 'quarter acre' model. And then you get rising pollution and emissions. YOu can in communal spaces with recycled materials, great planning and design.

Interesting that it is Liberal governments that tend to permit land sales for periurban housing. Probably because of the sorts of voters that tend to live there, and their mates - as a recent study I published shows from the US. California and Arizona are in our future - watch out.


“Please don’t confuse me with the facts - my mind is made up” seems to be the mantra. It is difficult to understand how quoting journalists unfamiliar with details of the subject matter proves anything.

The quality of air in cities gets worse as they get denser. While a greater proportion of people may use public transport in denser cities this is outweighed by the greater number of people in the area who have to use their cars for conveying their kids to sport, taking their pet to the vet and other reasons not catered for by public transport. There is a higher concentration of commercial traffic that has to cater for their needs. These increases cause a greater concentration of dangerous particulates from exhausts due to the decreased volume available for dilution and dispersal. A report released by INRIX, an international provider of traffic information shows peak hour congestion delay in the denser European cities reported on is three times that of United States cities. Excessive start-stop traffic resulting from this congestion further increases the pollution due to reduced engine efficiency.

Movements advocating high-density show characteristics of idolatry, their members’ fervour resulting in a less than objective approach. There is no justification for dictatorially forcing their preferred lifestyle for which no objective favourable justification can be provided. The greater community has to live with the consequences.

Developer Dollars vs Healthy Living

There is no evidence that high density lifestyle is good for human beings, and a lot of evidence to the contrary. Green spaces, both private and public promote exercise, fresh air, family and social interaction, non-technological leisure time and incidental encounters with the environment. The closer you put people to each other, the more possessive they become over privacy and the more likely are territorial disputes. Community is better fostered when people don't feel crowded or threatened by each other. Why does the government want to promote this kind of density rather than looking for other solutions. Well it sure serves the developer's dollar to do so. To squeeze as many people into dinky dwellings on the one square and charge them top dollar is the ultimate profit. Don't kid yourself that it creates affordable housing - I've seen no evidence of that in Sydney so far! And since governments also require only minimal contribution by said developers towards the alleviation of infrastructure needs and local pressures that arise as a result of high density building, one can only surmise that governments care more about who gives to their next campaign than the happiness and wellbeing of people in their state. But what else is new?!

High Density HOusisng versus traditional Australian suburbs

Dr Tony Rcsei is a hghly respected professinal and what he says here is very accurate and has enormous support from the vast majority of residents of Sydney.
My city is Melbourne and I am Convenor of Planning Backlash Inc a Coalition of more than 250 resident groups across Melbourne, coast and country. We are united in our opposition to what the Growth Lobby is trying to force on us. The greedy growth lobby, intesnt on making millions at the expense of the liveability of Melbourne. WE see liveability disappearing as density continues.
According to Professor Bob Birrell of MOnash University the majority of forming households over the next 20 years will those wanting family friendly homes ie with a garden and on the ground. He maintains we will end up with empty high rise blocks of unwanted apartments if these are contunualy being approved by a governement influenced by the growth lobby.
The factor that has not been mentioned is that the vast majority of people vote agaisnt the big Australia and dont want the cities to get bigger either out or up.
Simon should realize that people have hated Melbourne 2030 and the madness of Melbourne @5 million. The last 10 years Melbourne has grown by 1 million and the wrongly advised Brumby government pushed fot more people and did nothing at all about increasing infrastructure so Melbourne is desperately short of everything, even we have just heard, of places to bury people. I suppose Simon wnats to make that high density too.
Further studies are certainly showing that high density is just as polluting as low density, if not more so. For your info I live on a large block of land and always dry clothes on a line, where in an apartment can you do that?. I have an old house that stays cool in the summer, I dont need cooling. Show me an apartment that can do that. My block is a childs paradise, it is not good for children to be in high density with no where to play safely. Of course there are people who want to live in high density, the young, the retirees,and those who like city life, and they shaould have them, but the vasst majority like a house on the ground with a bit of garden.
Sydney - we in Melbourne know what sham community consultations are. WE had a classic one here which created a scandal for the government re the Windsor Hotel. So we can believe the NSW government have pulled a similar trick, against all their election promises, and held a sham.
Time we got real democracy back where MPs listened to the voice of the people instead of to the bureaucrats and developers. Can they blame us for being suspicious of why?.
Well done Tony Recsei, your voice should be heeded by all.

Choice and diversity are

Choice and diversity are surely what we should be aiming for. Certainly, provide high density, vibrant areas for those who want it, but similarly respect the needs of those who prefer space, privacy, quiet and gardens/trees. It's abhorent that governments try to impose particular ways of living on people. Established, low rise areas where people have purposely chosen that way of life need to be respected and preserved.

simonpjb opens his comment

simonpjb opens his comment with "Recsei's opposition to urban densification are weak." If he means that Recsei's arguments are weak, then i would be interested in which particular arguments simonpjb is referring to. Because the data in Recsei's references seem pretty iron-clad strong to me.

I'm no academic. But i live in a small 2 bedroom house in the outer suburbs of Sydney that:
1. Generates more power than it uses, thanks to the Solar Panel array on the roof.
2. Has a 5000 litre and a 1000 litre Water Tank that are both fed from rainwater from the roof.
3. Is 40 years old and hence has generated no materials/construction carbon dioxide since its construction 40 years ago.
4. Has public tranport nearby, meaning that i only drive around 8000km per year.

How many high density dwellings have an environmental footprint this low?

Please don't get me wrong, i don't care if people like simonpjb prefer to live in high density. If there is a free market demand for high density, then let the developers provide it for those people that prefer it. That's perfectly fine.

But i profoundly resent government interference that deliberately strangles the release of land in the outer suburbs and incentivises high density, based on faulty premises like those that are pointed out in Recsei's article. This shutting down of the release of new land has meant our property prices have skyrocketed to the extent that the current generation are locked out from ever owning their own place, whether high density or suburban.