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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Agree with Glaeser

Recsei's opposition to urban densification are weak, and not born out by growing evidence from other Australian cities. Melbourne has more of a classic von Thunen ring pattern to it, whereas Sydney has a massive harbour dissecting the city, and a fascinating geography of capes and bays that makes it rather unique.
In Melbourne, where arguments about developing these 'rings' are much clearer to research; and an expansion to 5m people is quite likely within 15 years or so; the case for densification in the inner rings is a non-brainer. They have been explained in numerous reports (Melbourne 2030 by example, and the work of Kevin O'Connor, all linked on and by Prof Rob Adams (Head of Design, City of Melbourne) and others who castigate the metro area authorities for permitting massive sprawl, without keeping up public transport, utilities, and doing so at the expense of local food supply, water supply, and green space. In other words, classic American-style bad planning and exurban growth brought about by zoning approach not strict planning laws. And directed by the large housing development companies who make a killing buying periurban farmland cheap and then convincing politicians to rezone it.
It tends to be the Liberal voting population in the outer suburbs that runs against people like Adams, wanting quarter acre blocks and oversize housing. But household sizes are falling and their days are numbered. There is no more space where we meet the Bay and the hills, the west has very poor rainfall, and it is only the north and extreme south east that is still expanding. It is really not pretty up there- sprawling half finished housing estates without so much as a bus route, poor or no schools and health services, and people forced to own a car just to keep a job or take kids to school. Emissions from minimum-standard dwellings and driving everywhere are bad.
What Melbourne needs is a combination of massive investment in public transport, significant disincentives to car ownership (particularly for driving into the city), and a better planning model. I and many academic geographers support the densification of the inner city to reduce utility costs, constrain heat islands, link new dwellings explicitly to public transport corridors, expand the exciting multicultural core, and anchor it all with green corridors and opportunitites for communal (not individual - a British inherited idea) garden spaces. Constant complaints about 'overlooking' are a common manifestation of communities ill at ease with themselves but fortunately in the inner city people are more accepting.
Really the whole thing is about increasing liveability and reducing net carbon emissions. Our research on green roofs and walls has gathered huge interest across Australia and addresses the heat island effect nicely, with 30%+ increases in thermal efficiency.

If you seriously think low density suburban sprawl is good for the planet, I would love to see the data. Of all the city growth models (core-periphery, multiple nodes, distinctive neighborhoods, etc.) virtually nobody believes continuing suburban expansion to accomodate a dying Australian dream (which we got from the US, not Britain) of oversized home ownership in ever expanding suburbs is realistic. My generation (born in the 60s) has largely abandoned it - we live in the cooperative inner city with little land, and have no objection to more affordable housing going up. If it does, maybe that will bring back more shops and schools lost during the 80s when we depopulated.

Where are the armies of suburb supporters? In the outer suburbs, maybe. I have seen Sydney's nightmare future if it keeps on growing - and it is Phoenix, AZ. But Sydney has, as I said, a unique geography where the real estate in the centre and along waterfronts is so expensive that an Adams-style intervention is unlikely to be cost effective. It already had great green wedges and a slightly more secure water supply than in past years. I would permit much greater densification in the inner rings, away from the prime real estate that won't budge, and continue to develop the transit system that has only recently reached places like Macquarie Uni and fails in the outer west and north. I would also hope for some more cultural diversity north of the harbour. I visit the insular Peninsula, where Australia's highest price housing can be found, every year and find it monocultural and consumption oriented. If that is the sort of model you are after, heaven help us.

Understanding "markets" and land economics

How many mistaken assumptions in that comment, I have lost count.

"......large housing development companies who make a killing buying periurban farmland cheap and then convincing politicians to rezone it....."

Actually, competitive land supply in the affordable cities in the USA listed in the annual Demographic Reports (about 200 of them, that never had a house price bubble) means that there is little or no killing to be made. Sections are $30,000 to $50,000, which means that no-one is making much capital gain over the price of rural land plus costs of development. Complete freedom to "leapfrog develop" keeps land pricing this honest. Nothing else does, except "compulsory acquisition" or nationalisation. And even then, the Govt agencies doing it most usually abuse the monopoly powers they gain thereby, to maximise non-tax revenue.

It is the growth constraint people who look to be involved in corruption, given the obscene capital gains that are reaped BECAUSE of strict rural/urban zoning. This is classic Baptists and Bootleggers stuff. Bernard Frieden wrote "The Environmental Hustle" on this way back in the 1970's.

Prof. Peter Gordon (Uni of Southern California) has been saying for decades
that urban land markets find their own balance between agglomeration economies, transport costs, congestion diseconomies, and land prices. Employment has dispersed at a similar rate to housing, leaving travel times roughly stable. It is the heavily planned, higher density cities that have the worst congestion, longest travel times, and worst local pollution.

The basic reason that it is impossible to reverse the population flow back towards the city centre or towards specific locations, for long, is that of course it forces property values up at that location. Very few people get to actually move to where the planners want, before rising prices shut everybody else out. Meanwhile the lucky property owners at those locations are raking in the capital gains - another reason the advocates of densification are the ones who look corrupt, not the pro-free-market-competition advocates.

If you advocates of densification were arguing for nationalisation of the land where you want people to live, to keep it affordable, you would at least show that you understand land economics AND are clearly not corrupt stooges of property investors.

I don't know much about planning,but I know what I don't like

As a former 50 year resident of Sydney's suburb of Lane Cove,this baby boomer feels he can tell the NSW Dept of Planning what the average former and present Sydney resident thinks of their planning policies.

We still don't like what you are doing to our suburbs!Many of us have voted with our feet and moved north to suburbs like the ones we grew up in in Sydney.

As is well known to the Dept ,83% of Australians prefer to live in single detached housing (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004).This is a Dept who,working with the previous NSW Labor government for 16 years,has presided over increasing housing unaffordability,increasing congestion, and loss of amenity in our suburbs.

With the previous Labor government taking millions in donations from developers,and at the same time strangling the traditional release of new land,the NSW Labor government and the high rise developers got what they both wanted-millions from the resulting huge housing costs due to the artificial housing shortage they and the Planning Dept all help create.Conflicts of interest seems to come to mind. I'm amazed how the Dept seems to be able to avoid criticism of its higher density policies.

This is a Dept who,in their desire to increase housing densities, even apparently tried to change the actual definitions of low,medium and high density.They seemingly got the then NSW Assistant Planning Minister to announce at an annual Local Government Conference that she had no problem with now considering villas,units and dual occupancies as low density,or so called low rise development.She also had no problem with now considering high rise as medium density,or so called medium rise.Suddenly George Orwell,1984,Newspeak,and the Ministry of Truth(the NSW Dept of Planning perhaps)come to mind.

We know that the previous NSW Labor government was the most corrupt government in living memory,as instanced by the many charges laid against Ministers and MP's, and many charges proven,by ICAC-the Independent Commision Against Corruption.Some of these charges involved inappropriate behavour with developers.The voters showed their opinion of the former government with one of the lowest votes for a sitting government ever in NSW.

I like to call the previous 16 years of Labor government planning as the Developer Donations Planning Era.

And now we have the new Liberal government,voted in overwhelmingly to change the agenda of the previous government,apparently falling for the same old propaganda from the Ministry of Truth.More high rise is better,there will be more public transport usage,less congestion etc. nauseum.

The Ministry of Truth has a problem with the facts,dare I say true facts,as Dr Recsei has shown.They ship in overseas experts to back up our own , to tell us what's best for us.

Thanks for the community consultations chaps.As Dr Recsei tells it as it all is in reality -a public relation excecise.

I prefer to call it all a facade.

Interesting article

This is a most interesting article and very enlightened comments that show one size does not fit all communities. I am learning a great deal.

Glaeser letting the enlightenment down

Well done, Tony. Glaeser has "sold out", evidently. You would be interested to know that Randal O'Toole showed Glaeser's own study of the correlation between density and energy efficiency, to be flawed:

Followed by a critical review of the book, "Triumph of the City":

Another excellent review of Glaeser's book by your fellow Australian John Muscat is HERE:

Glaeser's whole thesis is actually an egregious example of what Patrick Troy appropriately slammed as "physical determinism" in his 1996 book. That is, the belief that any city can order itself around an imposed urban form and transport system, without regard to the nature of the type of city it is and how it has evolved going back centuries. If NYC had collapsed like Detroit and not replaced manufacturing with Wall Street, it would not have its wonderful sustainable skyscraper lifestyle and transit system.

Its economy therefore in any case exists on capital inflow from other urban and rural economies where the messy real life wealth creation is done; of course this is near costless as regards resources and CO2 emissions at the point where the capital flows inwards. There are only a handful of such economies in the world and it is absurd to hold it out as a model for all cities. It is appalling that a credentialled academic like Glaeser could write such an important book without regard to such basic concepts. He shows no sign of having read Fernand Braudel, or Colin Clark, or Sir Peter Hall, or Saskia Sassen, (and does not reference them in the index to his book. His bibliography lists 1 book by Hall that he shows no evidence of having read). This is like leaving Catholicism out of a discussion of Christian theology.

Glaeser himself recently authored "Wall Street Isn't Enough", which shows him getting a bit of enlightenment since he wrote his book:

The Anti-Glaeser

By the way, there is a delightfully simple booklet that is a remedial education in itself, to the flaws of "Triumph of the City": William Fruth's "The Flow of Money and Its Impact on Local Economies".

That booklet should be compulsory reading for all urban policy makers, and William Fruth is the guy who SHOULD be getting invited all around the world to address them.

Alain Bertaud, Peter Gordon, Alan W. Evans, Alex Anas, Edwin S. Mills, Stephen Malpezzi, Shlomo Angel and Paul Cheshire are all outstanding too, if you want to invite top guys from overseas. But Australia is not short of better urban experts than Ed Glaeser. He could learn a lot from Patrick Troy, John Muscat, Alan Moran, and several others.