Friday, April 01, 2011

Thousand-grand designs

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If I had a new client for every time someone has said to me, “Oh, you’re an *rchitect, you must have seen [some house or other] on Grand Designs?” then I’d have an awful lot of clients.

I usually have to confess that, no, I didn’t see the aforementioned house on Grand Designs; that, no, I”m not a regular watcher of the programme; and that, no, most of the designs I’ve seen on Grand Designs leave me rather cold—most of them exhibiting the real problem with British architects, which is their facility for designing expensive and time-consuming ways to build the same old British box.

Which is what virtually all the grand designs I’ve seen amount to. Some good people paying a lot of money to clad an expensive but otherwise very basic box. People paying a thousand-grand or more so they can to live in the same box as their neighbour but with slightly more esoteric cladding.

Anyway, along those lines then here’s Grand Designs’ presenter Kevin McCloud’s top ten “greatest architectural homes” in Britain—featuring boxes clad in rubber, glass, shingles, charred cedar and hand-tooled oak.

At least there’s one genuine masterpiece there at number five.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Study of reclining nude, oil on canvas, by Jasmine Kamante

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New painting by Jasmine Kamante, local artist from whom we’re expecting great things.

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... and everyone in Christchurch will get a pony. Or not.

I heard John Key this morning saying his shiny new Earthquake Recovery Authority (to provide "leadership and co-ordination of the ongoing recovery effort in Canterbury”) will make recovery faster, easier, better and more “sustainable.” In short, he foresees a steak on every plate, and a car in every new de-liquified driveway.

It’s certainly put an even larger steak on Gauleiter Brownlee’s plate, even if he is yet to find a permanent chief executive to share the new meal with him.

What power does the new Earthquake Recovery Authority have to deliver all this largesse, and make Christchurch’s post-earthquake recovery possible?  Basically, they have all the powers the Earthquake Recovery Gauleiter has, with only a committee or two to limit them.  As we have already seen, these include the power to

  • demolish other people’s buildings; and
  • requisition other people’s land; and
  • ban people from their own property; while
  • spending months deciding what people will be allowed to build where.

Basically, it’s an authority charged with “getting things done” that will continue doing everything in its power to make it impossible for entrepreneurs and property owners to get their own things done.

Want to rebuild your damaged commercial building?  You’ll have to wait at least six months until council/government/the new authority decides what (if any) new building standards it needs to be built under.

Want to rebuild your damaged house?  You’ll have to wait at least twelve months until council/government/the new authority decides what (if any) houses can be built or rebuilt on liquefied or unstable land.

Want to build new housing on the outskirts of town? You’ll have to persuade council/the new authority to relax their ring-fencing of the city, and wait at least eighteen months for the council’s damaged (and uninsured) services and infrastructure get to you.

Want to start building a new commercial heart to the city away from its now-devastated centre? You’ll first need to persuade the author’s of council’s “Strategic Plan” that there’s no way the city is ever going to “sustainably” (or affordably) the way the city is ever going to develop NOW, post-earthquake, the way they thought it would before the earthquakes struck.

In a nutshell, the new authority rests on the philosophy that it will be big government that “gets things done,” with all the costs, authority and powers of confiscation that requires. 

So there will certainly be certainty here with which folk in Christchurch can begin planning their own recovery. It is the certainty of uncertainty—full-on regime uncertainty—the certainty that no personal planning or investment will really be possible for months (if not years) to come; and that one’s land or property may be requisitioned (or made off-limits) with barely any notice whatsoever.

Oh, there will be “consultation.” Oodles of it. Whole committees and “advisory boards” full of it.

But there is a world of difference between folk making their own choices about their own advancement, and other people making those choices for them—however much “consultation” with them is carried out.

And the choice that already appears to have been made for everyone is that Christchurch will be rebuilt largely where and how it was before—oblivious to the fact that city has gone for good—with you and I and every other taxpayer for decades to come picking up the tab, rather than relying on the rebuilders themselves to make their own choices about where and how their own land, property, resources and money are best used.

UPDATED:  “Brownlee” changed to “Gauleiter Brownlee,” as was appropriately suggested by a commenter.

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Another mainstream economist, another idiot

News that government might be cutting bureaucrat numbers ever so slightly has summoned up idiocy from alleged economists and journalists alike. This morning’s Radio NZ report is representative. Take a look:

_Quote_Idiot Finance Minister Bill English is defending the timing of further cuts to the public service amid warnings this may ultimately be bad for the economy.

What’s this about “further” cuts? What decent cuts have we seen? And how could cutting the unproductive be at all “bad” for producers?

_Quote_IdiotMr English announced on Tuesday there will be more consolidation of departments and agencies over the next two or three years…
    He said he has no master plan …

Well, that much at least has been evident for all of the last two or three years.

The chief economist at research firm BERL, Ganesh Nana, says the cuts should be made when the economy is strong and public servants have somewhere else to go to get another job…

So it is somehow wrong to make cuts when spending is unaffordable. Is this guy an idiot? It would seem so:

_Quote_Idiot… Ganesh Nana says the cuts risk hurting the Government's accounts, rather than helping them and now is not the time for aggressive action… Cutting spending risks tipping the economy into a very long period of depressed activity and hurting the books even more, he says.

So let’s see if we can follow what passes for Mr Nana’s “reasoning.”

This alleged economist suggests that cutting spending when government debt is spiralling out of control (even by the timid amount Bill English might countenance) will somehow be worse for government accounts. How’s that again?

His argument for this seems to be based on the ridiculous “circular flow” model of the economy which looks only at how much money passes from person to person rather than how much productivity those transactions purchase.

At present, in a New Zealand weighed down with government debt and an over-abundance of grey ones, those transactions are far too often producing no productivity at all.  (And that’s when they’re not paying grey ones to hinder productivity.)

Cutting spending on bureaucrats so there are more scarce resources available for productivity could be considered a bad thing only to an alleged economist who’s never understood what transforms resources into real wealth. And that’s certainly not paying for offices full of bureaucrats to make that sort of productivity impossible.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

“Planning” to stop Aucklanders plan

Kip's Law:  "Every advocate of central planning
always —
always — envisions himself as the central planner.”

“The monument to Soviet central planning was . . . a heap of surplus
left boots without any right ones to match them.”
~The Economist

“[Today’s argument is about how to pay for the Auckland mayor’s rail dreams fantasies.] There is
of course no good way to pay for something you do not need.”
- Owen McShane

big_government_i_heart_cp_protest_poster-p228652185006148257tdcp_400 There is nothing more odious than the sight of a group of politicians with no real skills between them running up the flagpole their “plans” for a region’s (or a country’s) economic future.  The spectacle of Len Brown and his equally inept councillors issuing a “Thirty Year Plan” for Greater Auckland——and an equally motley lot attempting to predict how Christchurch will develop now its east and centre have been devastated—a band of people unable between them to even manage their credit cards telling several million other people how and where they must live and work—would be amusing if not so damaging.

A myth exists that politicians “run the country.” That without them no planning would exist. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only planning that truly does exist is not the shambolic dictation of politically-diven reef fish suffering from power-lust, but the economic planning undertaken every day by all those millions of people who aren’t politicians.

_Quote The overwhelming majority of people [notes George Reisman] have not realised that all the thinking and planning about their economic activities that they perform in their capacity as individuals actually is economic planning.  By the same token, the term “planning” has been reserved for the feeble efforts of a comparative handful of government officials who, having prohibited the planning of everyone else, presume to substitute their knowledge and intelligence for the knowledge and intelligence of [hundreds of thousands], and to call that planning.

2359443We don’t have to look at Soviet Five Year Plans to know the failure of central planning.  The feeble ability of politicians to successfully “plan” anything beyond their own TV appearances can be seen in the Auckland roading network itself, which was “planned” by the panjandrums back in the 1960s (back when a fifth-hand Morris Minor was a sought-after family car), and is only now being partially completed fifty years later.  (An “achievement” underscored by Andrew Galambos’s pithy observation that traffic jams are an example of the collision of capitalism and socialism: capitalism can produce cars faster than socialism can produce roads.)

And the paucity of “vision” exhibited by political entities can be seen in their plan to create a new government department with the power to “plan” the recovery of  Christchurch—a recovery whose possibility is daily prohibited by the very entities who will head up the department. And it can be seen in that the statements made last week by the “chair” of the Christchurch Planning Committee Sue Wells (poor woman thinks she’s a piece of furniture) that the “Spatial Plan” previously drawn up by her Committee of Super-Importance will need only “minor tinkering” now the city they purport to “plan” has been devastated by two of the biggest earthquakes in modern history.

6cNK2YiQI0EmqQgUNtoCCd Perhaps she and her colleagues could look at the history of West Berlin, and how (after the devastation and dislocation of the war had ripped out both its heart and its other half) the heart of the newly-divided western part of the city quietly relocated away from the Wall that had cut right through its former centre to a newer, less damaged centre around the Kurfürstendamm that was both more logical and more economically viable in the changed post-war environment than its former heart around Potsdamer Platz.  (A move to ponder in considering the resurrection and probable relocation of Christchurch’s heart.)

Or perhaps they could just get the hell out of the way so people can plan their own futures with all  the planning and economic coordination made possible by the price system and voluntary cooperation rather than by grandstanding and political prohibition.

This is what it really would mean to “unleash Auckland.”  The debate in Auckland at present however is the manner in which Auckland’s elected and unelected diktatoriat wishes to put a leash around Aucklanders’ necks.

In this guest post below, Owen McShane comments on the new “Spatial Plan Discussion Document” issued by Auckland’s would-be central planners last week, saying the battle lines are being drawn “between retro vision and current realities.”


_MCSHANE3 Retro Visions vs Current Realities: The Chips are Down
by Owen McShane

Auckland’s Spatial Plan – Council's Discussion Document.
   
1. Evidence or Visions?
   
The battle lines are being drawn.
    The Government legislation that created the Auckland Council included a requirement for an “evidence-based” Spatial Plan as a general planning framework for the region to be governed by the new Auckland Council. Government has recently presented a set of position papers establishing its preferences for an approach based on rigorous analysis of existing patterns and trends rather than utopian and coercive visions. The position papers flag the reasonable position that Government will not ask the taxpayers to fund major projects focused on the Auckland CBD unless they are supported by rigorous analysis, including costs and benefits.
     The Council has today published its own discussion documents – Auckland Unleashed – and it seems New Zealand may be entertained or mortified by a long battle between two opposing attitudes towards developing an appropriate “spatial plan.”
     The Government has the whip hand insofar as the Council hopes the taxpayers will fund many of the visionaries’ bills. Those who are asked to pay the piper can reasonably expect to call the tune.
    On the other hand, over the past few decades, the ARC and its Smart Growth friends have had the advantage of enthusiastic support from the news media, and a host of commentators and influence brokers, who have backed these Smart Growth utopian visions with unalloyed enthusiasm. Our local regional governments and advisors have been slavishly following the patterns already established in a multitude of cities and regions in the New World.
     However, over the last few years these Dense Thinking coercive policies have delivered their inevitable downside and the costs have come home to roost.
     The recent collapse in the property and finance markets has certainly generated some second thoughts within the New Zealand Herald. Recent editorials, and columns by informed commentators such as Fran O'Sullivan, are raising questions, and challenging assumptions that should have been asked and challenged in the past.
    The Herald has even recognised that people's responses to surveys often indicate what those surveyed believe other people should do, rather than reflecting their own real-world choices or preferences. Much of the public support for public transport reflects a desire for other people to ride on trains to free up the roads for their own convenience. [Ninety-five percent of people surveyed think other people should use public transport. – Ed.]
    So before the “discussion” gets underway we should all insist that the policy makers and planners open their conversations with questions asking “How and where do you want to live?” rather than “How and where do you want everyone else to live?”
    The Council's discussion document is here:

http://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/EN/AboutCouncil/PlansPoliciesPublications/theaucklandplan/discussiondocument/Pages/home.asp

    2. The Herald Challenges Past Planning Dogma.
   
A good starting point for the Herald's reporting is here:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10714546

    And useful links, including Fran O’Sullivan’s “Brown Needs to Up the Ante”, are here:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/super-city/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501110&objectid=10714533

    However, Brian Rudman continues to hold the traditional retro-rail fort. His position is a simple one – which explains much of its appeal. His answer to every urban problem is a train.
    Professor Jonathan Richmond, author of the seminal work “The Mythical Conception of Rail in Los Angeles” somewhat wistfully observes that males do seem to be fascinated by the sexual metaphors associated with rail including the prospect of long shiny tubes plunging into deep dark tunnels.” When did you last hear a woman champion the benefits of riding on the trains?
    See the pages (13 – 16) titled Technological Sex Symbols on Steel Rails, for Richmond’s entertaining but perceptive commentary.
     Anyhow, the shift in the Herald’s thinking is a political game-changer. Maybe the editors of the motoring pages have suggested that Aucklanders are not addicted to their cars – they actually chose to use them because they provide so many benefits. Women in particular appreciate having their own grope-free zone.

    3. Auckland “Unleashed” or Auckland “Constrained”?
   
Paragraph 374 of People and Place indicates the Discussion Documents’ overall bias in favour of a compact dense city where land use is constrained by Metropolitan Urban Limits.
    While the options are mentioned the document keeps returning to this current model as the preferred option. It reads:

_Quote_Idiot 374. The existing option is for a quality compact Auckland where growth of people and jobs is directed into our town centres along our main roading arterials, and is confined within a metropolitan urban limit where the urban area accounts for about 12% of all of the land across Auckland. The limit to growth within Auckland was based on accommodating 20 years of growth, noting that growth would need to include higher densities around the centres and more intensive patterns of development along growth corridors.

There is little discussion of who does this directing of people and jobs and where they derive their moral authority to do so. Anyhow, there is little in any of these documents to suggest that Auckland is to be “unleashed” – indeed the general tenor of the promotion plans for everything suggests that Aucklanders will remain severely constrained and must learn to do as they are told.

    4. The Unfortunate History of Metropolitan Urban Limits.
   
Metropolitan Urban Limits, of one kind or another, have a long history.
    A villa was originally a Roman country house built for the aristocracy who made sure their country estates were not surrounded by plebeians by containing them within the city walls. Many plebeians lived in tenements called insulae. Some were above or behind their shops. The Romans were early adopters of mixed use and MULs.
    More recently, the urban Jews of Europe were contained in ghettos with clearly defined limits to keep them in their place. Around 1800, the Russians engaged in the first modern exercise in social engineering, treating the Jews as earth or concrete to be shoveled around. They confined the Jews behind the limits of the Pale of Settlement. Those who emigrated were “Beyond the Pale.”
    More recently again, the US cities confined their black populations to the “red line” districts which were an informal system of urban limits which set the territories where properties could be sold to blacks and where they could not.
    Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, reminds us (or should remind us) of another consequence of urban limits when she describes a black neighbourhood in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962:

_QuoteSo Jackson’s just one white neighbourhood after the next and more springing up down the road. But the colored part a town, we one big anthill, surrounded by state land that ain’t for sale. As our numbers get bigger, we can’t spread out. Our part a town just gets thicker.”

    And rents get higher. The American black families were only able to join the middle class when they were unleashed from these constraints and able to move into the suburbs and buy their own homes and secure family assets that could finance their children through college.
    Metropolitan Limits, whether stone walls, informal understandings, legal zoning rules, or some variation of the Pale have always been used to keep the poor and unseemly in their place.  As I said to a committee of Rodney District Council some years back:

_Quote These MULs work at one level. You don’t see many Maori families in Rodney District do you?”

 

    5. Put Bad Data in – and Bad Plans Come Out.
   
The Herald story is accompanied by claims that “by 2050, 2.6 million people will live in Auckland”. This meaningless statistic is used by Auckland central planners to justify massive spending on rail tunnels etc, all serving Auckland’s central core.
    Actually, four future populations for “Auckland” have been “mentioned in dispatches” – 500,000 more, 700,000 more, and 1,400,00 million more (double), and the total of 2.6 million listed above. (Critics should always ask “What and where is Auckland?”)
    These population projections for the Auckland region, or wherever, make no attempt to identify where in “Auckland” the growth will actually occur.
    It may be true that Auckland’s population will grow by some large number over the next 30 years but where, within Auckland, will this growth actually take place?
    The international evidence is that Auckland’s urban core will lose population and jobs and yet that is where the central planners seem determined to spend most money on infrastructure. (See my previous Digest for the evidence.)
    Clearly the Auckland planners want to stop people living and working where they want to and force them to live where they will supposedly use public transport rather than their evil cars.

    6. The suburbs will grow and the central core will shrink.
   
Wendell Cox's  analysis of all the US and Canadian cities of more than 1 million people strongly indicates that the urban core will lose population and jobs to the suburbs and beyond.
    Phil McDermott's work suggests this is already underway in Auckland. Go to Cities Matter at:

http://cities-matter.blogspot.com/2011/03/new-zealands-changing-settlement.html

    We are in for a fight between the central planners and the believers in spontaneous order. The Herald editorials of the last two days, and the columns by Fran O'Sullivan, support the argument that the market and people’s preferences will prevail. The costs of trying to stop this natural churning (The central planning penalties) will be high.

    7. New York Suburbs grow twice as fast as the Core.

    Wendell Cox reports on New Geography (25th March) that the growth of New York population reflects the general trends of cities in the US and Australia. (Note: the census period is ten years and the 2.1% core growth occurred over ten years and is not per annum growth.) This is hardly a triumph of agglomeration and densification. Wendell Cox writes:

_Quote  Just released census counts for 2010 show the New York metropolitan area historical  core municipality, the city of New York, to have gained in population from 8,009,000 in 2000 to 8,175,000 in 2010, an increase of 2.1 percent. This is the highest census count ever achieved by the city of New York.”

    Nonetheless, the figure was 245,000 below the expected level of 8,420,000 (based upon 2010 Census Bureau estimates). The higher population estimate had been the result of challenges by the city to Census Bureau intercensal estimates. The city of New York attracted 29 percent of the metropolitan area growth. Approximately 43 percent of the metropolitan area’s population lives in the city.
    Overall, the New York metropolitan area grew from 18,323,000 to 18,890,000, an increase of 3.1 percent. The suburbs grew approximately twice as rapidly as the city of New York, at 4.0 percent, and attracted 71 percent of the metropolitan area growth.

    8. Auckland's Place in the Economy.
   
Para 48 of “The Big Picture” says:

_Quote_IdiotNationally, Auckland contributes around 35% of New Zealand’s GDP annually, and is one of a handful of world cities that generates more than 30% of its nation’s GDP. Auckland’s share of the national population (33.4%) and its population growth rate (1.6% per annum), are both relatively high in international terms. The goal now is to use our strengths to improve our economic performance and contribution to the national economy.

    This ratio is not so unusual if we look at the Federal States of the USA, and even of Australia – which would seem to be a more reasonable comparison. After all, if New Zealand became a State of Australia, would Auckland generate 30% of Australia’s GDP?
    Phil McDermott’s take on this is that “the policy-makers lean too heavily on the notion that scale begets growth (agglomeration economies) when the reality is that Auckland has been underperforming the rest of the country (and our trans-Tasman neighbours).”

    9. Paragraphs 43 and 44 of “The Big Picture” trot out the standard myths
    which supposedly drive “urban intensification”:

_Quote_Idiot44. The third megatrend is urgency to fix the environmental problems of the modern world. In today’s world, being green is a minimum standard. Global warming, pollution, peak oil, loss of biodiversity and water scarcity are driving public concerns for action by central government, local government and the corporate world.

    Curiously, all these issues encourage decentralization rather than intensification – unless of course you base your conclusions on dogma rather than evidence.

_Quote_Idiot44. The Auckland Plan proposes playing a leading role in promoting a low carbon footprint for Auckland. We need to lead by example in energy efficiency, in the promotion of walking, cycling and public transport, and in landfill and waste management. The discussion document sets out some proposals for Auckland to harness the global trends in these areas.

    The Australian Research summarized in Consuming Australia concludes that inner city dwellers have larger carbon footprints than those living at low density on the periphery.
    Maybe the authors of the discussion documents should focus more on learning from the research on these global trends rather than on “harnessing them” – whatever that means. Could it be “constraining them”?

    10. Conclusion.
   
These are no more than a few initial thoughts from a brief scan of one or two chapters of the “Discussion Documents”, and of “The Big Picture” in particular.
    But Council’s visions do not bode well for the economic growth and development of most of Auckland. The Council decision-makers seem determined to carry on with more “Smart Growth.”
    Rod Oram claimed on television that all the international research shows that cities that “ooze” into the greenfields are less creative etc and more expensive etc than dense cities with high quality public transport.
    Actually the international research shows quite the opposite. But it seems that Oram cannot distinguish between academic research and central planning dogma.
    Anyhow, we now have a document to get our teeth into, and it is encouraging to have Central Government, and the Herald, increasingly on our side.
    It’s time for those with concerns for the future of Auckland to challenge these vision-based false claims, one by one.
    We have access to the resources and skills, both local and international, to do the job.
    Christchurch appears to be seizing the opportunity to become a modern multi-nodal connected city, and end up as the dominant urban economy of New Zealand. The people may have loved their Heritage Buildings. But Auckland seems determined to create a heritage economy.


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