Friday, November 18, 2005

Sprawl is good; regulation is not

John Howard has realised that so-called suburban sprawl is not a problem, it is the solution to a problem: specifically, the problem of young people finding it f'ing hard to afford their first home.

The reason buying a first home is getting beyond many first-home buyers is not the fault of banks, real estate agents or 'greedy developers' -- as you might think if you read the New Zealand press -- it is the fault of a political market that has locked up land and over-regulated its use, adding tens of thousands of dollars to the price of a new home. Howard at least seems to recognise that, even if planners and local journalists don't.

In comments reported in an offline article in The Australian Financial Review (but strangely nowhere else), Howard said while there was "no easy solution to the problem," some of the answers, he said, lay with "more adventurous land release policies and rather more realistic development policies to be adopted by state and federal governments."

His comments reflect in part the findings of a two-year-old Australian report into First Home Ownership; in the New Zealand context they would translate as "gut the Resource Management Act, eviscerate the District plans, and let development rip." First-home buyers currently locked out of the market in New Zealand would surely thank any politician for following that prescription. Or we could go the way of Houston and get rid of zoning altogether: first-home buyers there have more affordable options available to them than do many Australian buyers -- it takes more than twice an average household's income to buy a house in Melbourne than it would take in Houston. The same is true of Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington.

Sprawl is good. It's about choice, and letting people afford to have one.

NB: If you want to have a really good look at where exactly New Zealand's cities rank in terms of density [PDF downlaod] and affordability, the excellent Demographia site has all the figures, and much more.

9 Comments:

Blogger libertyscott said...

I've encountered land use fascists a lot in local government and central government - they all believe that high density development is the answer to traffic congestion and low use of public transport. The real answer is that road use is virtually free to users, no road owner would be stupid enough to let congestion get bad before upping the price, which in itself causes behaviour to change among some motorists. Government used to subsidise sprawl by overinvesting in roads before they were needed, now it regulates for high density living - it should just bugger off. As farming becomes more and more efficient, it doesn't matter if more land gets used for housing - in fact it is healthy.

11/18/2005 04:30:00 am  
Anonymous Robin Thomsen said...

I agree Scott; some of these fascists seem to get mighty upset at the prospect of productive farmland getting replaced by productive people.

11/18/2005 06:26:00 am  
Blogger DenMT said...

Come on PC! Surely given your profession, you have done some reading on 'Edge City' phenomena and the catastrophic effect it has on urban design.

This is a highly complex and multi-faceted issue that affects every aspect of metropolitan form. Sprawl leads to disjuncture, ill-function and gridlock.

While I would expect anyone of the libertarian persuasion to rattle off a standard defense of free-planned no-restriction development around cities ("hands off, local government") I would have expected someone who professes a passion for architecture to have a more balanced view.

Architects don't design buildings in a vacuum. City form and context is a vital part of what we do, and urban sprawl is one of the greatest enemies of good urban design.

Joel Garreau 'Edge City' = must-read. 'Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanisation of the United States' by Kenneth T. Jackson and 'Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape' by James Howard Kunstler will also help to fill you in a bit more on exactly why it is that suburban sprawl is FAR from a 'solution to a problem,' but it is in fact contributing to the demise of good urban design.

As an architect, I would expect you to be ADVOCATING for good design standards! Urban design and building design are inextricably linked.

11/18/2005 11:43:00 am  
Blogger PC said...

Den, I'll reply to you in detail later, so here's [what started as] a quick response.

First, your crticism ignores an important thing: as always context is king.

Almost everything that has happened in mainstream urban design has been done within the restrictive framework of zoning, state provision of infrastructure, and the self-anointed elitism of central planning.

The results have often not been very pretty, but they've been 'achieved' within the context you yourself are defending. I would strongly suggest for example that zoning in particular has virtually ensured the segregation and ghettoisation, the bland atopias, and the ~particular kind~ of suburban sprawl you seem to object to.

Just as disastrous has been the state provision of infrastructure, which I'd suggest is the greatest reason for for the gridlock you mention, and that plagues Mr Garreau's self-defined 'Edge Cities.' I can't do better than quote Andrew Galambos's observation that "A traffic jam is a collision between free enterprise and socialism. Free enterprise produces automobiles faster than socialism can build roads and road capacity." The failure of Century City's transport infrastructure for example was a failure of the state, not of the market. Developers relying on roading hubs to deliver punters are relying on something provably shown to be unreliable: the State. Gridlock is just one bad result among many.

And to correct another misconception you allude to: not only is the present 'sprawl' not an example of "free-planned no-restriction development around cities" as you suggest; and neither are privately-planned developments without the usual restrictions that are created by zoning, town planners, and meddling urban design aesthetes either unplanned, or chaotic or even necessarily 'atopic' - like other similar examples of freedom in action, they usually develop in ways representative of spontaneous order, and in ways that try to at least give people what they're after, rather than what a self-anointed elite has decided they ~should~ be after. I'd point you to Bernard Siegan's excellent book 'Land Use Without Zoning' which points out many cogent reasons why cities without zoning develop the way they do, which for the most part is logical, ordered, with a great variety of densities, 'mixed-use' developments, and living choices on offer. Freedom trumps central planning any day of the week.

You say, "Urban sprawl is one of the greatest enemies of good urban design." I don't agree. Four words: 'Broadacre City.' And 'Paris riots.' I'll leave that as a taster for a later, more detailed comment here, maybe tomorrow.

In the end, the greater context here is the point of my article: that restricting land development hugely increases the cost of land and of housing, which greatly diminishes the opportunity for first-home buyers to become home owners. Your line of argument suggests perhaps that your own chosen aesthetic standards trump the aspirations of many thousands of New Zealanders either locked out of owning their own home because governments both central and local have hampered the market, or who face spending more of their working lives working to own their own home than they need to. (To say nothing about all the extra borrowing they have to do, and what that does to the economy.)

What's wrong with leaving people free to choose their own aesthetic standards, their own lifestyles and their own places in which to live -- and ensuring that their property rights are protected once they acquire some.

11/18/2005 12:59:00 pm  
Blogger DenMT said...

OK, I'm hesitant to reply right now if there is a fuller response coming, but I have to say:

- If someone were able to somehow reanimate Frank Lloyd Wright, and show him some Auckland-style suburban sprawl, while excitedly suggesting that society is on it's way towards realising his vision of Broadacre City, how do you think he would respond?

There is no possible analogy between suburban sprawl and a 'Broadacre City' type scenario, or Corb's 'Ville Radieuse'... Both of these models assume a carefully planned sub-metropolitan hub located in a wider, natural context - the whole primacy-of-nature type deal. This is not what drives sprawl or 'Edge City' development.

FLW's Broadacre City springs not from a laissez-faire attitude, but from the opposite - careful planning and central government involvement! From memory, don't the seed communities for his model come from government one-acre grants to families?

I don't see how you can possibly reconcile FLW's vision of Broadacre City with the eradication of 'disastrous...state provision of infrastructure'. The two are inseparable.

Furthermore, you'll have to explain to me how the Paris riots resulted from a lack of urban sprawl (or a surfeit of good urban design). I miss the point.

Finally, I think that allowing unrestricted development is not the answer to making new homes more accessible to young families/lower income earners. Central and local government HAS to be involved in the planning of infrastructural matters as simple as power and services supplies, and as such, what aspiring young family would buy a cheap plot of land outside of a main 'planned' centre with all of the concomitant costs involved in extra transport, connection to services, distance from amenities, etc.

It would take a serious societal shift to achieve a 'Broadacre City' type scenario, and I'll be first to move in when we evolve that far, but urban sprawl is not a first step in that direction - it IS decentralisation but of a negative kind.

11/18/2005 01:46:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

manual trackback.

(You should get backlinks!)

11/18/2005 09:29:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Den, you said, "If someone were able to somehow reanimate Frank Lloyd Wright, and show him some Auckland-style suburban sprawl, while excitedly suggesting that society is on it's way towards realising his vision of Broadacre City, how do you think he would respond?"

No one is saying that. What I said was: "The results have often not been very pretty, but they've been 'achieved' within the context you yourself are defending. I would strongly suggest for example that zoning in particular has virtually ensured the segregation and ghettoisation, the bland atopias, and the ~particular kind~ of suburban sprawl you seem to object to." There's a difference. The relevance of the Broadacre concept is to show that the sprawl of today's suburbia is not the only form of sprawl that is possible. (And even with the meddling of his 'architect-kings,' Frank saw Broadacre as an expression of 'Democracy,' not of central planning or State meddling)

Inany case, the point here on the table is that sprawl, however manifested, does demonstrably offer cheaper houses to young families and low income earners. There's just no question that's true.

It's not a matter even of discussing this theoretically, and dissembling about infrastructure and so on (which in no way HAVE to be provided by the State): Have a look at those affordability figures for cities in the links I provided for cities that have adopted the 'Smart Growth' idiocies of containment and ~enforced~ higher densities, and compare them to those that haven't; the proof is there is there already in the pudding: it takes more than twice an average household's income to buy a house in a Smart Growth-affected city than it does in one that's rejected that fashionable nonsense.

Town planning itself restricts land-use and restricts supply; Smart Growth is just the latest extra-virulent variant. But once supply is restricted, from there it's just simple economics: as supply decreases, prices soar, and housing is priced out of the reach of those demanding it. Why would anyone support that willingly unless they want to will people to live they way THEY wish them to, forcing upon them a lifestyle and mode of living that they would not otherwise choose for themselves if they were left free to do so? Talk about an ideological burp -- and perhaps an esthetic one?

That's the chief result of 'Smart Growth' policies -- excluding a swathe of people from home ownership, and all in the name of 'better living.' The planners don't care: most of them have already got their country house. Now they have, they think everyone else should live as they're told to. As they say, the environmentalist is often the person who's already got their bush cabin.

"What aspiring young family would buy a cheap plot of land outside of a main 'planned' centre with all of the concomitant costs involved in extra transport, connection to services, distance from amenities, etc." Plenty. If they didn't want to do so, you wouldn't have to get the government's gun and the planner's clipboard out to stop them. And the more that are allowed to do so, the cheaper housing becomes for all of us.

11/19/2005 11:39:00 am  
Anonymous Ruth said...

I agree wih you about regulation.

The corruption out here where I live is mind-boggling. Many families who have lived in the area for decades ~had~ to sell to the council, ot they were told they would be rated out. One family had to sell to make way for (wait for it) "Barry Curtis Park". Real estate agents and developers are in the council's pocket, and Botany South is like Coronation Street, where you can jump roof to roof.

Unfortunately it is getting closer and closer to me (next door actually) - so I will be forced to move on at some point, as I don't want to sit on the terrace and look at houses.

But if there was no zoning it wouldn't be a problem. I think. I'm not quite convinced ;-)

11/19/2005 03:48:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

House prices have NOTHING to do with whether or not a city has adopted a smart growth strategy.
Bremen, Germany, has highly restricted growth. Unfortunately (I own a house there) house prices have fallen 20% over the last ten years.

There is however a strong correlation of house prices and economic performance of the region. This is why house prices in Auckland (unfortunately again, because I do not own a house here, yet) are skyrocketing: people want to live here, and obviously a lot of them are still able to afford it.
But let's assume sprawl continues unrestricted, and eventually the economy sores (it was unthinkable in Germany some years ago, too - but, hey, it happened): what happens with all the people living in cheap houses in Kumeu or wherever, only getting jobs in Manukau, or none at all. With petrol prices on a constant rise: who wants to live there, then?

Again: house prices have nothing to do with urban growth strategies. There are however real issues with the sustainbility of cities. If we do not solve those problems now, and economic growth finally ceases, we'll get a whole belt of suburban ghettos. Then you can compare the situation with Paris' riots.

6/07/2006 02:45:00 pm  

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