Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Send in the clowns

Cue Barbara Streisand singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ and tune into Youtube for a piece of viral public policy which plumbs new depths of sentiment over substance, of faith over fact. As a piece of propaganda, it scores well, but as a piece of reasoned, evidence-based policy, it’s a disgrace.

“Brisbane, don’t be a NIMBY [Eye on Milton]” is the title of a Youtube slideshow which bears every resemblance to something interests associated with current high density housing proposals for Milton in Brisbane might underwrite. You can view it
here but be sure to have some tissues handy to dab at the tears. The authors have also setup a Facebook page (here), but with only 20 members so far, it’s got a long way to go before Corey Worthington (that brat child of the Y Gen with the white sunglasses) gets worried.

Perhaps I shouldn’t find it so objectionable – we live in a free society and expressing opinions is, after all, what this site is all about. But I can’t help but recoil at the overtly moral rectitude of the tone. The sentiment (it fails as an argument) is that residents who reject moves for much higher urban densities are doing the wrong thing by society, because the alternative is ‘sprawl’ outwards (always a pejorative term).

And why is sprawl bad? The slideshow’s answer is simply “Urban sprawl is bad, VERY bad.” Yes, it’s very bad. Better stop it, or you’ll go blind. Not that some reasons aren’t offered in support: “It’s bad for both the environment and society as a whole” it says.

There you go, surely you don’t need more proof than that?

So having ‘proven’ that sprawl is bad, very bad, we are asked to conclude that density, lots of density, is good, very good.

The video makes a few more claims, including the assertion that the taller the buildings are, the more open space there will be. It then goes on to say that “it is proven to create more sustainable, social environments whereby people don’t need cars” (without offering any of that ‘proof’).

The masterful conclusion would make Goebbels proud: object to these developments or question the density dogma and you are therefore anti environment and pro sprawl. You’re a NIMBY, and that’s bad, very bad.

Now before you start shooting the messenger here, I am not opposed to infill nor to transit friendly development. But I do object to ‘silver bullet’ arguments which claim moral right on their side, and propose that only one form of housing development is sustainable while another is clearly evil. I object to the lack of evidence and, more to the point, worry that we’re becoming so caught up in this emotional clap trap that the facts are fast becoming irrelevant.

What is the available evidence saying about the density dogma then? Here’s a snapshot:

· Urban land boundaries which seek to prevent so called sprawl and enforce higher density have created a chronic land shortage and an uncompetitive market, which is driving housing prices to preposterous highs relative to average incomes and average families’ ability to pay. We have a serious problem with housing affordability in this country and in this region. This fact is rarely commented on by density advocates, let alone a solution suggested.
· As a region of just 3 million and growing to 5 million, alleged problems of sprawl on the scale experienced globally are simply not there. What we have done is to short change our infrastructure investment which is now below capacity, creating issues of congestion and infrastructure pressure not attributable to ‘sprawl’ but to under investment in transport and related infrastructure over a 20 year period.
· Suggestions that high density living is more environmentally sustainable don’t concur with the evidence. No less than the Australian Conservation Foundation showed (in its
Consumption Atlas) that residents of inner city, high density housing created a larger carbon footprint through energy use than suburban alternatives. They also showed that inner city residents were generally no more likely to use public transport than suburban alternatives. The reason? They’re wealthier, with less need to turn off the lights and conserve power.
· This was reinforced in studies by Professor Bob Birrell of Monash University, who showed that high density dwellings were typically more energy intensive. Stands to reason if you think about it: lighting and air conditioning of common areas, lack of cross flow ventilation, use of electric clothes driers rather than a (solar) clothes line in the backyard. The list goes on.
· Additional studies by Professor Kevin O’Connor, Professorial Fellow of the Architecture, Building and Planning School and the University of Melbourne suggested that suburban locations with treed footpaths and vegetated backyards actually provide more ‘green’ space and leaf cover than high or medium density housing can. Pot plants on the verandah don’t quite cut it.
· The suggestion that more high density will mean more open space is counter intuitive. We are not opening more public parks in inner city or middle ring neighborhoods. More density will invariably mean more people wanting to use the existing open space. That in itself may not be a bad thing but in high density cities (and I grew up in one in Hong Kong) available open space is more crowded. Kicking a football or playing cricket in the community park might become a thing of the past the moment some jogger gets clocked on the noggin from a good drive to deep cover.
· The suggestion that high density housing will mean that people won’t need cars is also not supported by the available evidence. An interesting paper by Paul Rees of RMIT suggests that the nexus between urban density and types of transport “show little or no relationship to transport modes share, which seems more closely related to different transport policies. These findings are very different from those on which current urban policies are based, and suggest the need for a radical rethinking of those policies.” You can read the paper
here. It’s called evidence, don’t worry, it might be unfamiliar but it won’t hurt you.
· A similar conclusion was reached by David McClockey, Prof Birrell and Rose Yip in a paper entitled “Making public transport work in Melbourne” published in ‘People and Place’ which you can read online
here. In it, they concluded that the proportion of residents living in TOD style housing only rose as TOD locations were closer to the city, where (ironically) people are wealthier. And even then, public transport rates of use were not that much higher than in alternate locations.
· A final nail in this ideological coffin is the obvious: between and 8 and 9 out of every 10 jobs are in the suburbs. Nurses, teachers, tradies, shop workers, industrial workers, suburban professionals – all located in suburban commercial centres which are not serviced by public transport. You could find yourself living in an inner city TOD and still be reliant on your car because your place of work is not in the CBD, or for other reasons of convenience (eg the children aren’t in a CBD school). Even a heroic public transport assumption of 30% public transport use in high density areas (triple current rates) would mean that 70% of high density housing residents will still use their cars. And that will inevitably mean more cars on existing road space, not less.

So the truth is being crushed by the anti density zealots on one side and pro-density zealots on the other, while the evidence itself is infrequently consulted, if at all.

There are very good reasons why planned new suburban communities, if done well, can achieve the environmental, social, community and economic benefits claimed for high density housing. There are also very good reasons why higher density, if done well, can become an asset for the community and build a better city. Witness the quality of urban form outcomes in the New Farm and Teneriffe areas, achieved under the watch of Trevor Reddacliff and his Urban Renewal Task Force.

But in doing so, it’s worth recalling that Trevor fought vehemently against proposals for 20 and 30 storey towers throughout the area. And thank goodness he did – the picture today of the New Farm-Teneriffe area would be ghastly had he not. Trevor also didn’t fall for slogans or policy dogma. He was a pragmatist who valued good urban design and relied on evidence.

I wonder what Trevor would make of this debate were he still alive today?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ross,

    This appears to be a video from the BCC. When you go to the YouTube page of the person who posted it http://www.youtube.com/user/soulvisionq1#p/u you find that they list their web page as http://www.brisbanedevelopment.com/ which appears to be owned by the BCC.

    The BCC could spend their money better. Most of these videos are getting fewer than a thousand views - hardly high density. God know how much they are paying a "social media expert" to do this for them, but cracking the 6:00 news is so dramatically better I'm not sure why they'd bother.

    Some of it is just uploads of TV footage, but this one looks tailor-made for the web, so add production costs in as well.

    And as you say, the message, at least in this case, is offensive.