Is architectural criticism critical?

Reviews can sometimes be very scathing. Consider this reviewer’s reaction to a recently released philosophy book:

“Self-important, pompous, pretentious, solipsistic, often obscure, sometimes barely coherent, his book seems to address itself only to those in the know. The translation by Jane Marie Todd renders all these faults with exemplary accuracy”

Cutting! Architectural criticism however is customarily astonishingly polite. This review by Sarah Williams Goldhagen therefore caught my eye because it said something unusual in an architectural critique:

“This is a modest building, however, and it is not perfect. At 30,000 square feet, it cost $11.5 million, more than it should have to build. Owing to bad value-engineering rather than the architects’ miscalculations, some of the attempts at sustainability failed, including a green roof that was never installed (CRI is still raising the money), and a geothermal heating system that was cost-cut into irrelevance (only one well was dug, not enough to heat the building, so they use gas)”

This is only a minor part of her review – most of it is on the safe ground of aesthetic metaphor. But what’s striking is that Goldhagen is actually prepared to comment, in however limited a way, on topics that actually go directly to the interests of the owner and users of a building.

Think about any major new building. Right at the top of the client’s priorities is: does it meet its intended purpose? Has it delivered value for money? What is it completed on time? Did it come in on budget? Right at the top of the user’s priorities is: does it do what I expect it to? Read the rest of this entry »

Is medium density housing on tram routes sustainable?

I like Melbourne City Council’s proposal for higher dwelling densities along tram lines but I think the claim that it would increase sustainability is exaggerated. There’s a whole ‘second half’ missing from this proposal.

The idea, which seems to be largely the brainchild of Council’s Rob Adams, is essentially that multi unit developments of up to 8 storeys should be encouraged along tram routes, leaving the suburban “hinterland” undeveloped (Rob refers to it as a new green wedge). This would reduce the need for fringe development and increase the mode share of public transport.

Nicholson Street - before

The major opportunities appear to be on tram routes in the inner suburbs, around 5-10 km from the CBD. While I think the assertion that 4-8 storey buildings can substitute for fringe development is fanciful and is based on a misinterpretation of other research, I accept that the proposal has the potential to increase the supply of dwellings of the type that are sought after by smaller households, especially those without dependents.

The key problem however is that nothing has been proposed to deal with car use by households occupying these new apartments. Without that, it won’t deliver. It just assumes that if households live cheek by jowl with good public transport they will necessarily use it. Read the rest of this entry »

Did good design make Federation Square a success?

Melbourne has had a long and sorry history in its search for a successful city square, but it eventually all came good when Federation Square was opened to instant acclaim and popularity in 2002.

So why do some places like Fed Square have “buzz” but others, like the previous attempt at a city square, seem lacklustre? And why is Docklands, for example, unable to attract visitors in large numbers or create a sense of excitement and vibrancy like Fed Square?

A common explanation is design and Fed Square is indeed a wonderful building with a grand sense of occasion. Good design can certainly make things work better and poor design can subvert the best of intentions. But design rarely “makes” a project successful. Buildings like Bilbao and the Sydney Opera House are the exception rather than the rule.

Let me advance a handful of alternative hypotheses for why Fed Square has been so successful in attracting users and establishing itself as an iconic Melbourne landmark. None of these by themselves is sufficient but combined they provide a compelling explanation. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the Very Fast Train all huff and no puff?

The idea of a very fast train (VFT) connecting Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne is gaining momentum (again). The CRC for Rail Innovation launched a pre-feasibility study earlier this year; veteran journalist Brain Toohey expressed his enthusiasm for the idea on Insiders on 11 April; and now the Greens are calling on the Federal Government to fund a $10 million study into a new scheme they are proposing.

The idea of a VFT has a long history in Australia, dating back to the first serious proposal put forward by the CSIRO in 1984. The key drivers of the current proposal are environmental and resource efficiency and support for expanded regional centres.

I don’t have access to whatever technical analysis the Green’s are relying on, but this seems an unlikely idea. The fact no project has yet been shown to be viable should be a warning to tread warily. I have some doubts. Read the rest of this entry »

Are smart meters always a smart idea?

You need to be careful with incentive programs that aim to change behaviour by providing consumers with feedback on, for example, their level of electricity consumption.

Husband and wife academics at UCLA, Matthew Kahn and Dora Costa, gave households information about their own consumption of energy and that of their peers (the paper is here – may be gated for some). They found that providing  feedback to green-minded households encourages them to reduce consumption, but it encourages conservative households to increase consumption. They conjecture that when conservatives see that their consumption is less than average, they respond by increasing it in order to be closer to the average.

Is commuting harder on women?

This study by three University of Sheffield researchers finds that commuting has a detrimental effect on the well-being of women, but not men. The authors explore possible explanations for this gender difference and find no evidence that it is due to women´s shorter working hours or weaker occupational position. Rather, the greater sensitivity of women to commuting time is a result of their greater responsibility for day-to-day household tasks, including childcare.

Roberts J, Hodgson R, Dolan P, It’s driving her mad: gender differences in the effects of commuting on psychological well-being, Department of Economics, University of Sheffield

Are older drivers a danger to others?

Radio National had a fascinating talk-back session yesterday on older drivers (audio download here; no transcript). This is a pressing issue because of the ageing of the Australian population – by around 2040 a quarter of the population is projected to be aged over 65 years.

However the good news is that elderly drivers, including those over 85, are just as safe as other age cohorts. In fact in Victoria there is no compulsory age-related retesting of drivers for this reason.  It seems older drivers actively self-regulate as they feel their capability diminish – they drive less, drive shorter trips, driver slower and in particular avoid driving at night or in wet conditions. Read the rest of this entry »

More on scooters

WordPress wouldn’t let me upload my planned post last night or early this morning about Melbourne City Councils’ proposals for apartments along tram routes, so I’m trying something more modest. Fortuitously, hot on the heels (top box?) of my post earlier this week about motor scooters, The Age has some related stories today. The first is Surge in motor cycle deaths hits move to slash tolls. The second relates to my invocation of Hanoi as what Melbourne might look like in the future (although as one reader points out, whether Hanoi will look anything like it does now is a good question): A (top gear) trip through Vietnam by scooter .

And there’s also a story on yet another proposal for a fast Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney rail link: Green dream: fast-rail link to Sydney. I’ll definitely want to take a closer look at this one.

Was Melton a bad idea?

I’ve referred to satellite cities in passing in recent weeks, both those around London and our own Melton and Sunbury. They’re a once-fashionable but very peculiar idea that might get another run if recent population projections are taken seriously. So it’s worth looking at the idea more closely, particularly how it’s been handled in Melbourne.

The issue I have with satellites is they’re O.K. if they have plenty of local jobs or if workers commute by public transport to the nucleus or host city, but they’re a very bad idea if neither of these conditions apply.

Melton was made a satellite city in 1974. According to historian David Moloney, satellite cities were a response to “urban quality of life issues: large cities and unrelieved urban sprawl were seen as too congested, uncongenial and economically inefficient”. They were, he says, a product of the rise of the town planning profession in the 1960s.

The Shire of Melton is in two parts. The main part with a population of around 40,000 is Caroline Springs – it is contiguous with the metropolitan area. Melton township is a further 9 km to the west and separated from Caroline Springs by green wedge. Read the rest of this entry »

Will the streets of Melbourne look more like Hanoi than Manhattan in the future?

I’ve believed for some years that motor scooters and motorcycles are likely to become a much more important component of Melbourne’s transport system if the cost of fuel increases dramatically.

Scooters and small motorcycles are extremely popular in cities like Hanoi where, like the probable Melbourne of the future, the cost of transport is very high relative to incomes.

Like cars, scooters offer a very high degree of personal mobility. They also have the advantage that they can ‘thread’ their way through congested traffic, are easy to park and are light on fuel. Read the rest of this entry »

Are all suburban centres the same?

Last week I looked at the geography of suburban jobs in Melbourne (Where are the suburban jobs?), finding there are 31 centres that account for just 20% of all suburban jobs. There is a large variation in the size of centres, with the largest four – Clayton, Tullamarine, Kew/Hawthorn and Box Hill – accounting for nearly half of the jobs in these centres.

Today I want to look at the economic functions of suburban centres, as indicated by their industry composition. If a centre is specialised by industry compared to jobs in the rest of the suburbs, it suggests it has a distinct economic role. It could also mean that the benefits of agglomeration may not be especially important.

Specialisation Index scores for suburban centres. 13 centres score 0.3 or higher. Dotted line shows score for suburban jobs located outside centres (click to enlarge)

Actually it’s a little more complex than that – specialisation implies that being in a large, diverse centre is not that important, but being spatially close to firms in the same or a related sector is. In other words, firms seek to minimise the costs of density by locating just with “their own kind” and avoid the overhead of firms from whom they obtain little benefit.

The data shows that the economic functions of suburban centres are many and varied and differ markedly from the 80% of suburban jobs that are not located in centres. Some centres are dominated by a single industry and accordingly have a distinct “personality”. There are thirteen such centres, mostly focussed on Retail or Manufacturing, although Latrobe is concentrated in Education and Heidelberg in Health.

Yet that only tells part of the story. With only one exception, all centres have a specialisation in at least one of 17 industries and some are specialised in multiple industries. For example, although Box Hill is not dominated by a single industry like Latrobe is, it nevertheless has specialisations in Health and Government (defined as having at least twice the share of jobs in each of these two industries as jobs located outside centres do). Health accounts for 27% of jobs in Box Hill and Government for 17% – the respective figures for suburban jobs outside of centres are just 11% and 4%.

Some centres like Burwood East, Sunshine and Broadmeadows are specialised in three industries. The only truly “diversified” centre is Kew/Hawthorne, whose sectoral composition is reasonably similar to that of the rest of the suburbs in all industries (note that larger centres tend to have fewer specialisations because there is less variability). Read the rest of this entry »

How important is transport in addressing climate change?

There are some salutary lessons in the Climateworks Australia report, Low Carbon Growth Plan for Australia, released publicly last month.

It reinforces the point I made on 10 March (We need to be more strategic about how we tackle GHGs) that it is important to think more deliberately about how to reduce carbon emissions. The estimated contribution that traditional “urban” policies in transport, buildings and land use planning can make to reducing emissions is relatively small, contributing together just 11% of potential savings, whereas the Climateworks report estimates power generation could contribute 31% and forestry 28%. Read the rest of this entry »

Do cities cause divorce?

The divorce rate is higher in cities (like Melbourne) than it is in the country. But is that because there’s something about cities that promotes marital discord? These Danish researchers say no – it’s because couples in relatively stable relationships are more likely to move to the country:

“We give evidence that of the marriages that are formed in the city, those couples who
remain in the city have a higher divorce rate than the ones who move out. Likewise, the
couples who marry in the countryside but move to the city are more likely to divorce
than the ones who stay in the countryside. The main question we want to address in
this paper is whether this correlation refl‡ects a causal link. …… (read further –
Sin City: Why is the divorce rate higher in urban areas?)


Where are the suburban jobs?

Where are suburban jobs – are they located in activity centres or are they spread more or less uniformly across the suburbs?

Many people are surprised to learn that nearly three quarters of the jobs in Melbourne are located more than 5 km from the CBD i.e. in the suburbs (see The jobs are already in the suburbs). Here’s another surprise – only 20% of those suburban jobs are located in medium to large activity centres.

The other 80% aren’t sprinkled throughout residential areas in stand-alone developments (although some most definitely are). Rather, they’re mostly located in relatively small centres, for example in what Melbourne 2030 curiously calls Major Activity Centres.

Suburban employment centres - circles proportionate to job numbers. Click to enlarge

Defining an activity centre is not as straightforward as it might appear. There are a number of possible approaches, such as identifying higher density clusters of jobs, people or trip ends. Another way is to look for concentrations of particular land uses such as retail space. In practise, planning agencies don’t always seem to apply a lot of rigour to defining centres. Counting the area of retail space seems to suffice in many cases, or accepting historical hierarchies in others.

I defined centres as agglomerations of employment. This is in line with the customary approach in the literature on this topic and is appropriate because employment is a good indicator of economic activity. I broke Melbourne down into 1,950 zones and applied minimum thresholds for job numbers and gross job density to each zone using 1981- 2006 Census data. Zones that exceeded both thresholds constitute centres (contiguous qualifying zones are aggregated to a single centre).

Using 2006 Census job data, I found there are 31 suburban centres in Melbourne. These contain just one fifth of all suburban jobs. That low proportion is not because my thresholds are taxing – I used the mean values of employment and density for all zones across Melbourne. The suburban centres collectively are only around one eighth as dense as the CBD (defined to include Docklands and Southbank).

If I were to set the density threshold at the same level as the inner city (including the CBD) then only 7% of all suburban jobs would be in centres. If it were set at just over half the density of the CBD then just 2% of suburban jobs would be in centres (they would be Box Hill, Doncaster, Dandenong, Wantirna Sth and Heidelberg).

I also found that the proportion of suburban firms located in centres declined significantly over 1981-06, although the number of centres increased. This is a near-universal trend in US cities and is often interpreted as signifying that density is declining in importance as transport and communication costs have fallen.

That such a relatively small proportion of suburban jobs is located in centres is an enormously important finding. It indicates that the great bulk of firms in the suburbs (and hence most firms in Melbourne) either eschew anything but modest density or, alternatively, simply can’t get access to higher density locations. Read the rest of this entry »

More myths about Melbourne’s density

The Australian Financial Review ran an article on the weekend by Deirdre Macken that perpetuates the myth that Melbourne and Sydney are archetypal sprawled cities (Shifting sands of suburbia – gated unfortunately). The article claims that Melbourne’s population density is 520 persons per km2 and Sydney’s is 370 persons per km2. Melbourne denser than Sydney? That should have set off a few bells.

The problem is the journalist used population figures from a new Australian Bureau of Statistics publication, Regional population growth, Australia, 2008-09, released on 30 March 2010. Rather than use the urbanised or developed part of the metropolitan area to calculate population density, the ABS uses the Melbourne Statistical Division (MSD) as the boundary. This is a patently unsuitable definition for this purpose because it includes some very large undeveloped areas. As I’ve noted before, the MSD boundary extends to Warburton in the east!

Read the rest of this entry »

Time to hand Yarra Boulevard over to cyclists

I think it’s time Yarra Boulevard was declared a ‘Bicycle Road’ where cyclists have priority over cars. This would increase safety and send a powerful message to residents and tourists alike that Melbourne is a bicycle friendly city.

Yarra Boulevard is already an iconic recreational and commuter cycling route due to its river and bush outlook, undulating alignment and direct connection to the Yarra Trail. It also operates as an alternative route for part of the Yarra Trail. Read the rest of this entry »

Why is there a housing shortage?

A curious aspect of the Australian housing market is that we have a shortage of housing even though dwelling investment has been at record levels in the last decade. It’s now 6% of GDP.

A key reason is that a large part of that investment has not been directed at building new houses, as this address by Ric Battelino of the Reserve Bank indicates. Instead we’ve been investing in:

  • Dwellings that are bigger and of higher quality – real expenditure on each new dwelling is now 60% higher than it was 15 years ago
  • Additions and alterations, which now attract almost half of all dwelling investment
  • Replacement dwellings – around 15% of new dwellings built between 2001 and 2006 replaced dwellings that were demolished. The figure was 10% a decade ago
  • Holiday homes and second homes – there are now 8% more dwellings in Australia than households

Does this shortage of supply mean we’re spending more on housing than we can afford? On the face of it, yes – the ratio of dwelling prices to incomes is higher in Australia than in the US. However what doesn’t gel here is that there’s little evidence of housing stress in Australia – for example, our arrears rates on loans are lower than in the US. Read the rest of this entry »

Building a green economy

Outstanding feature on climate change in the New York Times Sunday magazine last weekend by Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman. This is a great primer on the key economic issues.

Banging the high rise drum

The Age is banging the high rise drum again.

This quote from Living the high life or just scraping by? in The Age on Saturday (who writes these clever puns, Tim Vine?) is a good example of setting up a ‘straw man’:

“With Australia’s population growth an increasingly vexed issue, ‘density’ has become a popular word with planners and developers. But are skyscrapers the way to achieve it?”

A ‘straw man’ is a logical fallacy where a decoy argument is substituted for the real issue under debate. In this case high-rise is easier to disparage than the real issue, even though (almost) no one is actually arguing that high rise is the answer. The real issue is almost entirely a debate about sprawl versus medium density housing. Sprawl is mostly about detached houses while medium density is mostly about two storey town houses and four storey apartments. Read the rest of this entry »

No foundation for policy on centres

The  six building blocks for a better Melbourne announced yesterday by the Premier are innocuous (the term mother’s milk springs to mind) except for the third one, in which he pledges to ensure the planning system “encourages the transformation of Melbourne from a mono-centric to a multi-centred city, so that people can work closer to where they live”.

The belated recognition that large modern cities tend to have multiple major employment centres was set out in the Victorian Government’s supplementary strategy plan, Melbourne @ 5 Million, released in late 2008. The original strategy, Melbourne 2030, implicitly conceived of Melbourne as a nineteenth century monocentric city – with jobs in the centre and with the suburbs acting as dormitories for workers. The multitude of small suburban centres identified in Melbourne 2030 were seen as largely providing retail and personal services for residents.

It seems the Premier knows that 72% of Melbourne’s jobs are now located more than 5 km from the CBD and 50% are more than 13 km out. But the Government doesn’t seem to know much about the geography of suburban jobs, particularly the number and role of major suburban activity centres.

Melbourne @ 5 Million designated six new Central Activities Districts (CADs) to provide “significant CBD-type jobs and services” in the suburbs. The Age described them as “mini-CBDs”. They are Broadmeadows, Box Hill, Dandenong, Footscray, Frankston and Ringwood.

I find it very hard to imagine that any of these CADs can seriously be thought of as having the potential to provide “significant CBD-type jobs and services”, at least in the foreseeable future. All the indications are that six of the existing Transit Cities were simply redesignated as CADs without much further thought.

Consider the case of Broadmeadows. On 24 March The Age ran a story headlined “Broadie all set for major revamp”, with the subtitle “Broadmeadows could become a major economic centre in the north”*. According to the story, the outstanding prospects for Broadmeadows come down to its designation as a CAD.

I don’t however see much evidence that Broadmeadows is acquiring a CBD-type character. The story lists a number of major investments that are either proceeding or planned, all of which are public sector driven.

There’re new Council premises, a Global Learning Centre, a leisure centre, a secondary school, a tree-lined extension of Main St, an upgrade of the railway station and a parking station. There’s a planned seven level office building but it is intended to accommodate public servants. All in all, there is little evidence that the private sector, which is the backbone of the CBD, has much interest in Broadmeadows beyond retailing and consumer services.

An examination of the composition of jobs is revealing. Whereas almost half of all jobs in the CBD are in Commercial Services (i.e. Finance, Insurance, Business and Property), the corresponding figure for the Broadmeadows CAD is just 4%. Where it excels however, as the projects listed above suggest, is in government – 44% of jobs are in the public sector.

Broadmeadows also has neither of the other two key characteristics of the CBD – size and density. It has only 1% as many jobs as the CBD and is only one eighth as dense. The idea that it could function like the CBD in the foreseeable future seems fanciful. Read the rest of this entry »