Is News Ltd bringing discussion about cities to a standstill?

If the world's 6.9 billion people lived in a single city, how large would it be if it were as dense as.................................... (from Per Square Mile)

One of the more bizarre examples of ‘story manufacturing’ in the media I’ve seen for a while  – and we regularly have some doozies – went down in News Ltd papers right across Australia on Friday.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story headlined Congestion road tax on drivers is highway robbery. The lead para told us: “workers struggling with a carbon tax are about to be hit with a second wave of Greens-inspired tax pain”. This story was repeated in News Ltd papers across the country. Melbourne’s Herald-Sun was so concerned at this imminent threat it even published an editorial on the matter, No to a new Tax – “Australians do not need another new tax”, it thundered.

And what exactly is this new tax workers are about to be hit with? Well, there’s a clue in the rest of the Herald-Sun’s (short) editorial:

Even the idea of a congestion tax, put forward by the Federal Government yesterday for discussion at the tax forum, will have taxpayers shaking their heads. Fortunately, the Gillard Government will not be able to impose this tax on top of the carbon tax, and all the other taxes Labor has brought in, because it needs the agreement of the states. A congestion tax on cars was suggested by former Treasury secretary Ken Henry to help cut petrol excise, but the taxpayers can take only so much. No, no, no.

Even the idea”?! The incontrovertible fact is there is no new tax. All this supposed angst is manufactured from a handful of words in the Government’s new 36 page Discussion Paper released on Thursday in advance of October’s Tax Forum. The Forum is one of the conditions the independents set for their support of the Government.

The Discussion Paper canvasses a wide range of tax issues participants at the Forum might wish to discuss. These relate to personal tax, transfer payments, business tax, State taxes, environmental and social taxes, and tax system governance. At page 30, it notes the Henry Review recommended governments consider the introduction of variable congestion pricing and therefore poses the following question as a prompt for discussion:

Is there a case to more closely link road charging to the impact users have on the level of congestion on particular roads?

That’s it. It’s just a question. Moreover it’s one of 34 proposed for discussion. And so it should be – I’d be very upset if the most important prospective policy for improving the way we manage our cities wasn’t at least on the table. Read the rest of this entry »


Links for urbanists No. 1

by xkcd

Assorted links to some of the useful, the informative, the interesting, and sometimes even the slightly weird sources I stumble across from time-to-time. Worth sharing, I think:

  1. The level of GDP is correlated with human penis length. As xkcd often points out, correlations are easy to find.
  2. History of a vacant city lot. Sad and neglected now, but this lot in Philadelphia has had some wonderful buildings in its life. This is brilliant – I wish someone would do one of these for Melbourne (note to the delicate – some colourful words).
  3. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Lamb is really high in carbon emissions – much worse than beef. The key problem is not enough of the carcass gets eaten.
  4. Why do women have to queue more at public toilets?
  5. Reimagining the High Street. Strategies for re-invigorating strip shopping centres decimated by the internet and big retail chains.
  6. Hackgate: the movie. Didn’t take Hollywood long to get on the job! Brilliant casting for the Murdoch role.
  7. Urban evolution. Animals in cities are adapting biologically to urban conditions.
  8. Opinions: most of us make it up on the spot. According to economist Robin Hanson “If you talk a lot, you probably end up expressing many opinions on many topics. But much, perhaps most, of that you just make up on the fly. You won’t give the same opinion later if the subject comes up again, and your opinion probably won’t affect your non-talk decisions”. Let me say that blogging is a discipline which makes one very conscious about being consistent because there’s always someone who’ll catch you out!
  9. Manhattanisation of Melbourne. Following on from my piece last week about developers using American place names, an American’s view of our cultural cringe.
  10. Printing with concrete. This technology makes complex shapes out of concrete using a 3D printer.

I’ll try and post more links another time.

Note the competition to win a copy of Triumph of the City closes this weekend, Saturday 30 July at midday. See sidepane for details.


Are wind turbines bad for the countryside?

Wind turbines attack! by xkcd

Earlier this week I watched the Four Corners story, Against the Wind, on the alleged health impacts of wind turbines and came away wondering just what the point of the program was. Based on what I saw, my clear impression is there’s no issue here – there’s simply no hard evidence of the supposed health dangers of turbines*. The allegations remind me of the scare-mongering around the dangers of winds turbines to birds, which I’ve discussed before.

But I was horrified (no doubt unintentionally) by the vision of rural landscapes blighted by row upon row of giant white robots stretching along the tops of the hills. An occasional turbine is novel, even an object of beauty, but to my sensibilities a massed army of towers is a scar on the countryside.

I know they’re not being erected in pristine bushland, but the sort of sweeping pastoral panoramas in the regions filmed by Four Corners – with green meadows, stands of trees and occasional rustic buildings – are extraordinarily beautiful. It’s a different aesthetic to natural bushland, but no less valuable for that.

As if we haven’t done enough visual damage by permitting ad hoc development on the urban fringe, now we want to make the country look like Texas’s endless oil derricks. We fight tooth and nail to protect the beauty of streetscapes in the cities (admittedly not always successfully), but the defacing of farming landscapes on a grand scale goes on with hardly a murmur of protest.

It’s true we urgently need to reduce carbon emissions but I don’t think it’s obvious we need to pollute the countryside to achieve that goal. That seems a ludicrous price to pay, effectively substituting one form of environmental damage with another.

Wind isn’t the only option we have to address climate change. Wind just happens to be the cheapest form of renewable power – with subsidy – we currently have available. However that calculation doesn’t account for the long-term damage done to scenic landscapes. Just as historically we’ve done with cars, we’re failing to price the negative externalities. Read the rest of this entry »


Are too many houses empty?

Earthsharing Australia - Suburbs with highest proportion of properties withheld from rental market (last col)

Earthsharing Australia highlighted this week what could be a major housing supply issue in Australia’s major cities: the number of houses sitting vacant at any one time. Properties will inevitably be vacant from time to time – that’s necessary for an efficient market – but the issue is whether there are structural factors that mean too many are unoccupied for too long.

Earthsharing has attempted to quantify the number of unoccupied dwellings in Melbourne. It claims speculators are the reason why five per cent of the city’s housing stock – or 46,220 dwellings – sit empty and unrented at any time. It says the REIV’s Rental Vacancy rate is commonly referred to in media coverage as the ‘housing vacancy’ rate, but Earthsharing’s own:

Estimated Speculative Vacancy Rate (of 4.9%) is more than twice the REIV’s Rental Vacancy rate for the same period of 1.7%…….Recent increases in house prices have been driven by speculation, not a housing shortage. Property buyers are restricting the supply of housing by holding their properties off the rental market.

The Estimated Vacancy Rate for some suburbs was much higher – in Docklands it was 23% and in East Melbourne, 19% (referred to in the exhibit above as Estimated Genuine Vacancy rate).

Earthsharing’s findings are contained in a report released on the weekend, Speculative Vacancies in Melbourne 2010, which measured the number of houses (excluding the area covered by South East Water) that consumed less than 50 litres of water per day, on average, over a period of six months in 2010. The presumption is dwellings using less than this amount must be unoccupied, given that average daily consumption during the period of the study was 140-160 litres per day. The further assumption is these dwellings have been withheld from the rental market for speculative reasons.

Earthsharing’s Speculative Vacancy rate could be conservative. Unoccupied dwellings with an automatic sprinkler system or a serious leak might consume more than 50 litres per day and hence be under-counted. On the other hand, its methodology could over-count the number of unoccupied dwellings. There’s some evidence consistent with the latter view – of the 46,200 properties identified by Earthsharing as “withheld from the market”, only 15,237 consumed zero litres of water over the six month period, and hence could be regarded as unambiguously vacant.

In fact there are many reasons why a property might be occupied but nevertheless average less than 50 litres per day over six months. Apart from rental dwellings between leases, some properties are unoccupied because they’re being sold by one owner-occupier to another. There are city properties owned by country people who use them regularly but relatively briefly e.g. a weekend every fortnight. Then there are single person households who travel frequently or for extended periods, as well as “couples” where each party has their own home but they favour one.

It might be possible to refer to these sorts of properties as “under-occupied” in the same sense that empty nesters rattling around in four bedroom houses is “inefficient”, but it would be a big stretch to label them with a pejorative like speculative. These aren’t properties that are being withheld from the rental market. In short, Earthsharing’s methodology doesn’t seem very robust.

But having said that, I suspect there are far too many non-rental properties that sit unoccupied for unnecessarily long periods. Let me emphasise that I don’t have any objective data to support this contention, but if it’s right, it would add to pressure in the rental market. Consider that within 500 metres of my place (I live 8 km from the CBD) there are four properties I’m aware of that have sat vacant in recent years for twelve months or more. Read the rest of this entry »


Are neighbourhood bookshops doomed?

Relative prices of selected magazines in hardcopy (1st col) vs electronic delivery in the US (2nd col) and Australia (3rd col). Chart by Kwanghui-Lim

There’s a small, independent literary bookshop in my local shopping centre whose days, I fear, are numbered. I can’t see how it will survive the online challenge. Its likely demise will make the shopping centre even more monocultural. This isn’t a big shop like Readings in Carlton, so its scope to live on by “adding value” for customers is limited.

Some people really love their local bookshops. In Friday’s Crikey, Ben Eltham said “many independent bookshops offer…..character, passion and charm”. What they provide, he says, is:

An induction into a vast and exciting secret society, populated by beautiful physical objects containing wisdom, and knowledge, and love.

Not sure I like the “secret society” bit, but as a keen reader I understand the delights of browsing, even though I don’t make a lot of use of my local bookshop. Although Readings is further away, I’m much more likely to browse there because I can combine it with a visit to the movies and dinner. Readings is also bigger with a larger range of specialised books.

However the key reason I don’t spend a lot of time in the local store is because, like most people, I’m actually far more interested in reading than I am in the act of buying. The fact is the internet offers me a vastly superior buying/browsing experience and thereby gives me more time to get down to reading.

It goes without saying that I can get books much cheaper online than I can over the local counter. There’s no way even the big chains are competitive on price with Amazon-Book Depository, so my local indie has no chance. And there’s no way any bricks and mortar bookshop in Australia can compete on stock against the online behemoths, especially when it comes to technical books or out of print volumes. A smaller bookshop can’t afford to carry all the works of even popular literary authors. Its big advantage is immediate over-the-counter delivery, but that only works if it has stock.

Then there’s information. Although I hear a lot of talk about the expertise of dedicated bookshop staff, there’s no way they can have the sort of product knowledge that’s just a click away at Amazon. Maybe bookshops run by owner-managers that specialise in arcane topics do, but chances are it’ll be something I’m not interested in. My local is a more general, literary-oriented bookshop.

Somewhere like Amazon gives you instant reviews from literary sources and other readers across the world. Amazon even tailors recommendations for new books based on your search topics and previous purchases. Even on those occasions when I do buy a book from my local (usually a gift so new releases are preferred) I’ve already done my research and know what I’m after.

If I want a novel in a hurry I’ll go to my local bookstore, but unless it’s reasonably popular or new, chances are the proprietor won’t have it in inventory. I can either get the store to order it in or do it myself at substantially lower cost (as well as avoid another trip to the store). In fact these days I’m much more likely to get an electronic copy instantly and read it on my (Kobo) e-reader. A growing proportion of Australians are doing likewise.

Some argue that if we don’t patronise our local bookshops they won’t be there when we need them. They usually turn out to be people who are in the publishing and media business, like Ben Eltham or this writer. The “use it or lose it” argument is of course rubbish – no commercial operation is likely to survive, much less flourish, on this sort of shaky business model. It would be nice to have a local bookshop but it will hardly be the end of civilisation if mine disappears – I’ve got too many other options. Read the rest of this entry »


Why is housing in European rural villages so dense?

Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, near Lucca, Italy

I can’t let the Tour de France go by without finding some way to reference this great spectacle and Cadel Evan’s singular achievement.

Something I noticed watching the Tour is how traditional French country villages have relatively high density housing compared to Australian country towns. I’ve seen the same pattern in the Italian countryside – villages of three storey (or more) apartments set within productive agricultural land.

Yet in contrast, Australian country towns are predominantly detached houses on large lots. Only the odd commercial building – like pubs – is two storeys. Why didn’t town dwellers in Australia choose to live in multi-storey buildings like Europeans?

I don’t know the answer but it’s worth thinking about and so I’m hoping someone does. There’s a host of potential explanations. It might be the car, yet parts of Australian country towns that pre-date motorisation are lower density than their European equivalents. It might have something to do with differences in the value of agriculture, yet there are some Australian towns where agriculture must’ve been of comparable or higher value than many areas of Europe e.g. wine growing regions.

Perhaps building materials were generally harder to get than in Australia – i.e. more expensive –and this encouraged smaller dwellings. Maybe the more extreme climate had an influence too, giving residents an incentive to cluster buildings for better insulation. I also wonder if there was a different tradition of village housing in England compared to the rest of Europe that was followed by early settlers in Australia.

Perhaps it was driven as much by politics as by anything else. I recently read Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, which is loosely based on the book, Democracy in America, which French aristocrat Alexis DeTocqville wrote after touring the young democracy in the early 1830s. I was struck by the enormous gulf in the world views of the aristocracy and the common people in France at this time. So perhaps it was in the interest of the local aristocrat in country areas to maximise the amount of land in agricultural use and minimise the quantity of land and resources devoted to housing the peasants. However once the “common man” settled in the New World he could make his own choice about how much space to devote to housing and how much to agriculture.

As I say, I don’t know but I’d be interested to hear other’s views.


Why are “Tribeca” and “Madison at Upper West Side” in Melbourne?

The real Upper West Side, Manhattan - apparently you can now get all of this in Melbourne, Australia (much cheaper too!)

A few months ago, writer Julie Szego bemoaned the Americanisation of place names in Melbourne. She identified two examples – the “Madison at Upper West Side” development on the old Spencer St power station site and “Tribeca” on the former Victoria Brewery site in East Melbourne.

She invoked the spirit of Robin Boyd to explain just how easy it to sell the gloss and sparkle of New York to aspirational Melburnians:

Robin Boyd in The Australian Ugliness, the highly influential polemic about cultural cringe in the 1950s and early ’60s, observed that the most ”fearful” aspect of Australia’s low-rent mimicry of the American aesthetic ”is that beneath its stillness and vacuous lack of enterprise is a terrible smugness, an acceptance of the frankly second-hand and the second-class, a wallowing in the kennel of cultural underdog”

While Melbourne’s developers and apartment buyers pretend they’re living Sex in the City downunder, real New Yorkers are continuously inventing new, home-grown names to market projects. Here are six New York neighbourhoods you probably haven’t heard of:

SoLita: Downtown Manhattan, south of NoLita between Tribeca and Little Italy

FiDi: (Financial District, geddit?) Southern tip of Manhattan between the South Street Seaport and Battery Park City

BoCoCa: Brooklyn waterfront area comprising Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens, also known as Columbia Street Waterfront District

LIC: Southwestern waterfront tip of Queens, including Hunter’s Point (also known as Long Island City)

Two Bridges: Southeast of Chinatown beneath the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges

Southside: South part of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, near Williamsburg Bridge exit

Other examples – some of which resurrect old names or functions – include the Meatpacking District, Dumbo (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), East Williamsburg and Vinegar Hill. According to this writer, areas “like NoMad (north of Madison Square Park) and others like SoHa (south of Harlem) haven’t exactly caught on yet”. One commenter says that some, like Dumbo, were coined by the populace, not developers.

This has all gotten too much for certain New Yorkers. Suliman Osman reports that a Brooklyn (State) Assemblyman, annoyed that real estate agents are calling the area between Prospect Heights and Crown Heights “ProCro”, is calling for a Neighbourhood Integrity Act. One of his complaints is that rebranding lower income areas as hip could ultimately displace traditional residents. Read the rest of this entry »