The new Prime Minister’s minor renaming of the Population portfolio to Sustainable Population suggests there’s a political agenda in play and a new way of thinking about “big Australia”. The terms sustainability and population have been conflated so the Government can walk a new path through the “big Australia” and “boat people” minefields.
But what it’s also saying is that you can’t have one without the other – population growth and environmental sustainability have to be traded off. The two concepts are necessarily in conflict, always and forever.
While that’s perhaps true in a narrow sense, it doesn’t follow that Geelong is necessarily more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne (according to the ACF it isn’t!) or that both have a lower environmental “footprint” than New York.
In fact despite its considerably larger size, New York is substantially more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne. Large concentrations of people provide economies of scale in, for example, the consumption of energy by favouring travel by public transport and smaller, attached dwellings. Bigger is often more environmentally sustainable.
Of course bigger cities also tend to produce larger negative externalities. But the main reason that size is often accompanied by problems like traffic congestion and unaffordable housing is the failure of political and policy systems. Read the rest of this entry »
There was a flurry of almost salacious excitement in the media at the end of last year when an ABS study found that Australians have the largest homes in the world. Worse, it found Victorians have the biggest homes in the country.
The Age reported that houses and apartments in Australia are bigger than those in the United States, which has traditionally had the most spacious homes:
“While Australian home sizes have risen 10 per cent over the past decade, research shows sizes of new American homes have fallen from a peak of 212 square metres to 201.5 square metres”.
Now property group Oliver Hume has thrown some new light on home sizes in Melbourne. They say that excluding Melbourne’s west, the median size of homes in the other five growth areas actually fell slightly over the last three years.
The largest absolute fall was in Cardinia, where the median home size fell from 267 sq m to 209 sq m, or by 57 sq m. Home sizes also fell in Casey, Hume and Whittlesea but increased in Wyndham and Melton. This does not, however, indicate an across-the-board change in preferences toward smaller houses.
According to Oliver Hume’s research manager, Mr Andrew Perkins, much of the drop in house size can be attributed to the increase in the number of first home buyers in the 2007-2008 period, when they accounted for an unprecedented 70% of all sales across the growth areas. Read the rest of this entry »
New data from the US Federal Highway Administration (see here and here) shows that although they increased their share of the US population slightly over the period, those aged 21-30 accounted for only 14% of all miles driven in 2009, compared to 21% in 1995. Another study reports that in 2008 only 49% of 17 years olds had driver’s licenses compared to 75% in 1978.
There is now a sharp difference between Gen Y and baby boomers. A typical 58 year old in the US last year drove 11,607 miles, while the average 28 year old drove just 7,011 miles.
Neither the GFC nor the recent escalation of petrol prices fully account for these changes because the decline in driving preceded these events. So what is driving Gen Y to abandon what has traditionally been one of the great rewards of coming-of-age?
The explanation usually advanced is that the internet has enabled electronic communication to substitute for face-to-face contact. As I’ve pointed out before, however, reputable researchers conclude the exact opposite – electronic communication increases the demand for face-to-face contact more than it substitutes for it. Read the rest of this entry »
Here’s a simple but stylishly written and persuasive piece on climate change. It’s a short speech delivered to an audience of big business and investors in London in 2005 by Nobel Laureate and physicist, Professor Michael Beard, famous for devising the Beard-Einstein Conflation.
I can’t locate an on-line copy of the transcript of the entire speech so I’ve typed up just the first few paras:
“The planet is sick. Curing the patient is a matter of urgency and is going to be expensive – perhaps as much as two per cent of global GDP, and far more if we delay the treatment. I am convinced and I have come here to tell you, that anyone who wishes to help with the therapy, to be a part of the process and invest in it is going to make very large sums of money, staggering sums.
“What’s at issue is the creation of another industrial revolution. Here is your opportunity. Coal and then oil have made our civilisation, they have been superb resources, lifting hundreds of millions of us out of the mental prison of rural subsistence.
“Liberation from the daily grind coupled with our innate curiosity has produced in a mere two hundred years an exponential growth of our knowledge base. The process began in Europe and the United States, has spread in our lifetime to parts of Asia, and now to India and China and South America, with Africa yet to come. All our other problems and conflicts conceal this obvious fact: we barely understand how successful we have been. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve just read The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. This extraordinary book, which nominally chronicles the campaign of physician Dr John Snow to persuade Victorian England that cholera was caused by contaminated water rather than noxious odours, also takes the reader on long and fascinating asides into topics like how living at density selected for alcohol-tolerant genes.
As this article points out, large cities in all parts of the world used to be very dangerous places where the very proximity of humans directly led to disease and death.
I already knew the basics of John Snow’s battle with the established order and his famous map of Broad Street from TV programs and the odd book, like Mathew Kneale’s excellent novel about a Victorian hydraulic engineer, Sweet Thames.
But the particular value of Stevenson’s take on London’s cholera epidemic is the attention it gives to the broader circumstances of the times and the way he burrows deeply into the underlying social, medical and technological issues.
He talks, for example, about how humans living at close quarters historically addressed their vulnerability to polluted water by drinking alcohol instead (notwithstanding it is itself poisonous and addictive). Nothing new about that perhaps, but what is interesting is how the desire to live at higher density gradually selected for genes that could tolerate alcohol: Read the rest of this entry »
The CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Andrew Mcleod, advanced an interesting argument about the importance of growth when launching the Committee’s new report, Melbourne Beyond 5 Million, earlier this month.
He contended that Melbourne can get better as it gets bigger. His main argument is that Melbourne in 2010, with 4 million people, is double the size it was in 1960 and is, he says, unambiguously more liveable.
So is bigger better? I don’t think I have a definitive answer and I’m not even sure there is one, but I think it’s useful in light of the high population growth projected for Melbourne to canvass some of the issues.
The fear many people have is that a bigger Melbourne will mean housing is less affordable and roads and public transport more congested. Some people also think it would be less safe, less equal and have a much larger per capita ecological footprint.
But there are advantages in getting bigger. Larger cities are usually denser and have a lower ecological footprint than smaller cities. There is also an extensive literature showing that the productivity of cities increases with population.
There are different opinions on the underlying reasons but many observers, like Harvard’s Professor Edward Glaeser, think that big cities enable people to connect and learn from one another. They tend to be more diverse and offer greater specialisation in work, consumption, socialising and ideas.
There are more than thirty cities in the OECD countries alone that have a larger population than Melbourne. They must be doing something right if people want to live in them. For all the complaints made about Los Angeles, many more people seem to want to live there than in Melbourne. Many talented Australians aspire to move to LA to work in specialised industries like entertainment, higher education and technology. Read the rest of this entry »
The winners of the Victorian App My State competition announced last night by the Premier have a distinctly urban orientation. The objective of the competition is to inspire Victorians to create web and mobile applications for Victorians. Entrants compete for $100,000 in prizes.
First prize was won by Jason Smale for his iPhone app, Which Bin?, which helps people understand what items are able to be recycled. He says:
I’ve often seen my mother struggle to read which number is in the tiny recycling triangle on the bottom of yoghurt containers. After about 5 minutes she resorts to using a magnifying glass and finally the often undecipherable number defeats her.
The judging criteria are usefulness, design and development, innovation, useability and this delightful example of bureacratic cool, “The vibe” or overall appeal. Read the rest of this entry »
Melbourne’s peak train services are overcrowded and have been for quite a few years. Given the high costs that peak period commuters impose on the rail system, wouldn’t it be more efficient and more equitable if they paid more for their tickets?
After all, the capacity of the system is determined by peak demand – all those trains and the associated infrastructure and personnel required to handle the peaks are under-utilised or sit idle for the rest of the day and on weekends.
As would be the case with congestion charging on roads, a charge on peak hour train travellers should reduce over-crowding (congestion) by suppressing travel, moving lower value trips to off-peak periods and encouraging shifts to other modes. Passengers who continued travelling in the peak would make a larger contribution towards what it actually costs to get them to work.
I’m prompted to think about this issue by a proposal to levy a $0.50 per trip surcharge on customers of Washington D.C.’s Metro system who use or pass through the network’s busiest stations during the busiest period of the peak. If approved, the congestion toll would apply from next month. Read the rest of this entry »
This blog has devoted a fair bit of attention to the proposed Very Fast Train between Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne (here, here and here), wondering what warrant there is to replace one form of public transport with another.
More attention in fact than any of the mainstream papers or denizens of the blogosphere have mustered, as far as I can tell.
So readers might be interested in this article by Gary Johns published in The Australian last week. It’s notable because he conjectures that the VFT might be the price the Government has to pay to secure Green preferences in this year’s Federal election.
Don’t think I agree with his analysis of the Greens mind (this is the former Special Minister of State in the Keating Government, isn’t it?) but I think his sources on the economics of the VFT are impeccable. Here nevertheless is a less-than-complimentary take on Johns. Read the rest of this entry »
Just why people would move to regional centres on a scale sufficient to ease the demands on Melbourne significantly is not clear, as there’s little in the announcement to suggest the Government has suddenly discovered the secret to growing jobs in the regions.
The track record of policy-driven migration in Australia is poor. The decentralisation schemes of the seventies, based on growing regional centres like Albury-Wodonga and Bathurst-Orange, were conspicuously unsuccessful in lowering growth in the major capital cities.
Decentralisation was supposed to be driven by manufacturing, which at that time was on the march out of the inner city. However rather than moving to regional centres, manufacturing largely moved to the suburbs and offshore. It now offers even less potential for underpinning decentralisation that it did 30 or 40 years ago.
I think the practical impact of Ready for Tomorrow is more likely to lie in enhancing the liveability of the regions than in giving respite to Melbourne. It is really a regional development program. As The Age’s editorial writer points out, even if the annual growth rates of the eight largest regional cities were to double, it would only relieve Melbourne of seven weeks growth.
Nevertheless, I suppose the prospect of cheaper housing and lower congestion in reasonable proximity to Melbourne may be sufficient to attract some new settlers to regional centres, especially if it is hyped as the sensible thing to do by the Government and regional councils. Read the rest of this entry »
There was more evidence in The Sunday Age on the weekend that the spare infrastructure capacity that is widely presumed to be available in the inner city and inner suburbs has in all likelihood already been consumed.
What is unfortunate about this stubborn idea is that there are already sufficient good reasons for increasing housing density in established suburbs without having to resort to unsubstantiated and outdated beliefs.
New research by Professor Kevin O’Conner, Melbourne University, shows that the number of additional students who will be seeking enrolment by 2016 in the inner city and inner suburbs is equivalent to fourteen new schools.
However existing schools are generally at capacity. The principal of Port Melbourne primary is reported as saying “schools in this area don’t have the capacity to cope with more students….looking at my projected enrolments and those of neighbouring schools, and from what I hear about the plans for extra multistorey developments in Southbank and Docklands, we will be full soon”.
He could’ve mentioned that virtually every school within at least 10 km of the CBD already has one or more so-called temporary class rooms including, now, the two story portable, and some are using public parks for play and sport.
Unfortunately there is no credible contemporary analysis of infrastructure capacity and costs in different parts of Melbourne. As I’ve argued before (here and here), there is unlikely to be significant spare infrastructure capacity in the inner established areas. There are a number of reasons for this proposition: Read the rest of this entry »
So, who knew intuitively that Darwin and the Sunshine Coast are Australia’s most sustainable cities? These startling revelations are from the Australian Conservation Foundation’s newly released Sustainable Cities Index, which examined the country’s 20 largest cities across 15 indicators. Our least sustainable city is Perth, closely followed by Geelong.
And contrary to The Age’s headline that “Melbourne trails in sustainable cities index” and “pales in comparison with Darwin and Brisbane”, Melbourne is the 7th most sustainable of the 20 cities studied (Brisbane is 3rd).
I’ve previously looked at the inappropriateness of the Mercer and Economist indexes as measures of a city’s liveability and I think the ACF’s index is less useful. It seems to be more about publicity than useful research – a feeling reinforced by an absence of technical information on the methodology. It’s actually not an environmental sustainability index per se, but rather a mish-mash of environmental, quality of life and resilience indicators.
It includes indicators like subjective well-being, the rate of volunteering, unemployment levels and the proportion of the population with type 2 diabetes.
I’m sympathetic to the argument that sustainability connects deeply to other facets of life – as the ACF puts it, it’s about learning to live within our environmental means while maintaining social cohesion and liveability. But the fact is most readers of the newspapers that reported on this study (see here and here) think of sustainability as a largely environmental concept. I agree with them – there’s a danger that stretching the term to include liveability measures will ultimately devalue its usefulness and render it virtually meaningless. It would be more sensible to have two or three separate indexes rather than one.
Notwithstanding the confusion about what it’s intended to measure, does the Sustainable Cities Index approach its task in a sensible way? Straight off there are some worrying methodological issues. Read the rest of this entry »
I value having The Age delivered to my door each morning, but I’m disappointed with the online version, theage.com.au. I refer to it often, but my experience with the site suggests I’d have to think long and hard before I’d be prepared to pay to access it online.
Charging is of course Fairfax’s ultimate goal (the online version of The Financial Review, which is also Fairfax owned, is pay for use) and seen as a way of making up for the declining popularity of newspapers – sales of the Monday to Friday edition of The Age fell 4% in the March Quarter, 2010. Sales of the Saturday edition fell 5%.
Those video advertisements that automatically start when you click on the site are a real turn-off but I have some sympathy for Fairfax’s search for a financially viable online model (although since I pay for the hard copy, why should I have to endure such intrusive advertising?). No, my disappointment relates to management issues.
A key reason for my dissatisfaction is basic – it’s hard to find stuff on the site. I imagine that many people want to track down an article they recall seeing in yesterday’s paper or last week’s, yet you can’t search by date of publication. You have to know the title or author. That seems like a terribly basic omission to me. Why can’t I look up a simple table of contents for each day, showing the name and author of articles with the ability to jump straight to what I want? Read the rest of this entry »
A sadly prophetic advertisement (not) run by BP in the US in nineties.
Suburban sprawl is often linked with rising obesity – for example, see this submission to last year’s Urban Growth Boundary Review from Kelvin Thompson, Labor Member for the Federal seat of Wills, or this article in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The customary argument is that because the incidence of obesity is lower in the inner city where densities are higher, it follows that low density outer suburban development is the cause, or at least a very significant contributor, to obesity.
At first glance this seems to make some sense. For example, only 1.1% of workers in Melbourne’s outer suburbs walk to work, compared to 12.9% in the inner city.
But for all its faults, is it reasonable to put the blame for obesity on sprawl? No, it isn’t reasonable. We would we better off focusing our energies on the real issues associated with sprawl rather than being distracted by sideshows.
The key reason is that what goes in our mouths is more important than how much we exercise. You have to walk the dog for an hour and a half, or cycle for an hour, to burn off the calories in just one Big Mac.
The inner city has a lower incidence of obesity primarily because the residents eat better. And they don’t eat better because of higher density but because they have higher incomes than residents of the outer suburbs and, importantly, higher levels of education. They are more likely to know about the importance of good eating and they are more likely to be able to afford to eat better food. They also have smaller households on average so it’s easier to cook healthy food at home rather than go out for fast food. Read the rest of this entry »
As I noted yesterday, the Yarra River park system – that ribbon of green that runs north east from the vicinity of inner suburban Kew and Abbotsford to Warrandyte State Park – is one of Melbourne’s great assets. Few other cities have such a vast expanse of relatively undeveloped land threaded through residential areas so close to the city centre.
Like Melbourne’s green wedges it is used for all sorts of purposes, but rather than the sewage works, quarries and airports that sully the good name of the wedges, the Yarra River park system is mostly occupied by real “green” uses – primarily golf courses and sporting fields. At the time these facilities were established, this land was floodplain with few alternative uses.
Just looking at the Melways, I can see 10 golf courses along the Yarra, of which six are clustered at the southern end of the river around Fairfield-Ivanhoe. There’s a nine hole course in Yarra Bend Park, Yarra Bend Public Golf Course at Fairfield, Latrobe Golf Course at Alphington, Green Acres Golf Club at Kew, Kew Golf Club, Ivanhoe Public Golf Course, Freeway Public Golf Course at Bulleen, Yarra Valley Country Club at Bulleen, Rosanna Golf Club and Heidelberg Golf Club at Lower Plenty.
The Yarra River park system is a very special asset, but I’m not sure it’s used as well as it could be. In particular, there’s very little forest in the park. There’s a bushland area around Wilson Reserve in Ivanhoe that’s used by locals for walking, but its small and one of very few within the lower reaches of the park system.
Melbourne could however have one of the largest urban forests of any city in the world. Such an asset would provide enormous environmental, recreational and tourism benefits for the city.
If the three adjoining private golf courses at Alphington and Ivanhoe, say, were returned to native forest, it would produce a centrally located bushland region covering an area of around three square kilometres – more than eight times the area of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Read the rest of this entry »
When I think of Sydney, where I lived for 10 years, I naturally think of the harbour. Not the familiar expanse around the bridge or opera house, but rather the myriad small inlets in places like Mosman that can only be fully appreciated from the water.
When I think of Brisbane, where I grew up, it’s those wonderful old latticed timber Queenslanders, laced with tropical vines and shaded by white and pink frangipani, stepping up and down the steep slopes of inner city Paddington.
But when I think of Perth, where I lived for four years, nothing truly special comes to mind. There’re plenty of interesting places, like Northbridge, Fremantle, Kings Park, Cottesloe and Rottnest Island, but they don’t seem different enough to really distinguish Perth from other cities.
So what about my favourite city – what are the special places in Melbourne? My rule is that these can’t simply be nice places to go to if you live in Melbourne. They have to be places that are special and not readily found in other cities – they are either unique or done so well they make a lasting impression on visitors. Here’s some I like. Read the rest of this entry »
There is a near universal consensus that Melbourne Bicycle Share is misconceived and almost certain to fail. Most attention has focussed on the compulsory helmet requirement but as I noted last week, this is a program that addresses a need that doesn’t exist and is designed in a way that will almost guarantee failure.
But no one wants a fiasco. The Government wants to save face, the RACV wants to keep its management contract and no one wants to see Melbourne’s reputation damaged by the failure of the blue Bixis.
So, I propose some radical surgery for Melbourne Bicycle Share.
First, forget about targeting the scheme at CBD workers running short errands. Reposition it instead as a service to promote tourism. The tariff should be turned around completely to support longer hire periods. For example, something more tourist-friendly, like $20 for the first two hours and $5/hr thereafter – hence $30 for 4 hours – would be close to the mark, although the tariff should be set with the goal of operating on a commercial basis.
Second, the Government should change the law to give anyone who can produce a valid out-of-State ID the right to ride a blue bike without a helmet. The exemption would not apply to any other bicycles and would be justified on the basis of supporting tourism. Tourism has been used to support Sunday trading in the dark and distant past when shopping on the Sabbath was a sin, so it’s an old and much used workhorse. Read the rest of this entry »