Recap: all the issues discussed by The Urbanist last month

Amsterdam

Density by itself does not necessarily create vibrant street life. Late Saturday morning in Borneo, inner city Amsterdam

Are infrastructure costs a lot higher in the outer suburbs?

It’s a truism that development costs are much higher on the urban fringe than in inner areas. But there’s little evidence the claim still holds and good reason to think it’s no longer the case

Managing excessive car use: what’s the low hanging fruit?

A study of urban form in the US concludes that increasing the density of population and employment is a slow way to significantly reduce car use compared to directly pricing driving

Should we be building new rail lines up in the air?

It would be a pity if the “Sky Rail” brouhaha in Melbourne over removal of level crossings were to damage the potential use of elevated rail for totally new rail lines in all Australian cities

Read the rest of this entry »


What were the most-read posts of 2011?

Click to compare pre- and post-tsunami imagery of Japan in Google Street View

Here are the ‘top twelve’ articles posted on The Melbourne Urbanist in 2011 i.e. those that got, in order, the most readers:

  1. What were they thinking?
  2. Will redevelopment of Fishermans Bend really be revolutionary?
  3. The distribution of wealth: perception vs reality
  4. Is this building offensive?
  5. Is this a real tram ‘network’?
  6. How many travellers use the trains?
  7. How can trams be made better?
  8. Are these really the most (and least) liveable suburbs in Melbourne?
  9. How liveable are our major cities?
  10. Melbourne ‘fantasy’ rail map
  11. What causes urban riots?
  12. What is the key challenge for cycling policy?

Note that this list refers only to articles posted in 2011 and naturally it favours articles written earlier in the year. The three most-read articles in 2011 were in fact posted in 2010 i.e. Is water priced to encourage conservation?, How big is Melbourne?, and Banging the high rise drum.


What to read over the holiday season?

That violin's worth $3.5 million! He's playing some very complex Bach

When I started The Melbourne Urbanist I wasn’t sure what direction it would take. While primarily about planning and development issues, I imagined it might also have a major sideline in reading and literature.

Hence the Reading page in the sidebar. As things have turned out, there hasn’t been much interest in reading and books. For example, The Melbourne Urbanist had 25,000 visits in November but the Reading page only got 29 views, so next year I’ll probably move it elsewhere.

Clearly the readers of The Melbourne Urbanist don’t come here to talk literature. Fair enough, this is the age of specialisation and that’s one of the things the internet does well. However since it’s the holiday season, I have an excuse to talk books.

The thing newspapers love to do at this time of year is find out who’s reading what. Over the years I’ve found some good reads from seeing what politicians, novelists and others are reading (or say they’re reading). The Grattan Institute has put an interesting twist on this tradition – a suggested summer reading list for the Prime Minister. Here it is:

Fair share, Judith Brett, (Quarterly Essay 42, 2011)

Cities for people, Jan Gehl, (Island Press, 2010)

There goes the neighbourhood, Michael Wesley, (University of New South Wales, 2011)

Balancing the risks, benefits and costs of homeland security, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart (article available at http://www.hsaj.org/?article=7.1.16)

The rational optimist, Matt Ridley, (Fourth Estate, 2010)

Cold light, Frank Moorhouse, (Random House Australia, 2011) 

Some interesting suggestions. Of these, I’ve only read The rational optimist and can’t recommend it highly enough (I quoted from it yesterday). It would be a great summer read. If you follow the link to the Grattan Institute, there’s an explanation of the thinking behind the list. Anything by Frank Moorhouse should be interesting and Cold light is about power, secrecy and, of all things, urban planning! So I’ll put that on my “to read” list.

Of the books I’ve read this year, I’d recommend Ryan Avent’s The gated city, He argues in a mere 100 pages that opposition to density is a key reason for American economic stagnation. This is an Amazon Kindle “Single” – it only costs $1.99 and if, like me, you don’t have a Kindle, you can read it on your computer or, in my case, on an iPhone (not so good for the beach, though). I’ve cited it before, here and here.

I’d also recommend Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature. He argues that violence at both social and personal levels is much lower than historically it’s ever been. Another fascinating book is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: fast and slow. Kahneman is a psychologist and Nobel laureate – lots of insight on why we think the way we do and, especially, why we so often get it wrong. Both of these books are long (and in the modern fashion look like they never had an editor), but they’re worth it.

The best novel I’ve read this year – in fact for a while – is The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. It deals insightfully and wittily with some big issues. And it’s beautifully written – a deserving winner of the 2010 Booker. Read the rest of this entry »


Do cities have a distinctive ethos?

What are they laughing at? Some Xmas cheer - the Berlin Laughter Project

City managers love a catchy idea. Ten years ago it was “creative cities”; next it could be the idea that cities should discover their own “ethos” to protect them from the homogenisation of globalisation.

Avner De-Shallit and Daniel A Bell have just published a new book, The spirit of cities: why the identity of a city matters in a global age, which they say revives the classical idea that a city expresses its own distinctive ethos separate from its national affiliation. They take their definition of ethos from the Oxford dictionary: “Ethos is defined as the characteristic spirit, the prevalent tone of sentiment, of a people or community”.

The authors look at nine cities which, they argue, each have a dominant ethos. The cities are Jerusalem (religion), Montreal (language), Singapore (nation building), Hong Kong (materialism), Beijing (political power), Oxford (learning), Berlin (tolerance and intolerance), Paris (romance), and New York (ambition). According to the publisher’s blurb:

Bell and De-Shalit draw upon the richly varied histories of each city, as well as novels, poems, biographies, tourist guides, architectural landmarks, and the authors’ own personal reflections and insights. They show how the ethos of each city is expressed in political, cultural, and economic life, and also how pride in a city’s ethos can oppose the homogenizing tendencies of globalization and curb the excesses of nationalism.

You can get a sense of what the whole idea is about from this transcript of a public seminar on The Spirit of Cities the Grattan Institute conducted with Professor Bell on 4 October 2011. You can also read the first chapter of the book, titled Civicism, and some of the chapter on Jerusalem, at Amazon (use the ‘look inside’ option). Chapter one is instructive because it sets out the rationale, theory and methodology, with subsequent chapters discussing each city in turn.

It’s an interesting idea, but I remain to be convinced. For starters, separating national from city-level characteristics is a minefield. As if to reinforce this difficulty, De-Shallit and Bell mess it up from the outset. They select Singapore as one of their examples even though it’s a city-state. Arguably, Hong Kong was too up until relatively recently.

And what, in practical terms, do we settle on as a city’s intrinsic ethos? I don’t find the discovery that Jerusalem is a city of religion, or that diminutive Oxford (population 165,000) is a city of education, provides any greater insight into these places than the discovery Karratha is a mining town. All that tells me is these are their dominant industries – that’s not telling me about the spirit of the place.

And if Bejing’s ethos is political power, that’s also true of most of the many other places that specialise in government, like Washington DC and Canberra (and there are many of them – for example, 33 capital cities in the US are not the most populous city in their State. Olympia, the capital of Washington State, has a population of just 50,000). Perhaps the hand of politics feels heavier to the outside observer in Beijing, but if so, that could be because of a national-level characteristic – it’s a communist state – rather than a city-level one.

It’s also very hard to separate out what’s city branding/marketing and what is the characteristic spirit of a place, or the collective aspirations and beliefs of its residents. New York is certainly a world power in finance and media and has marketed itself accordingly. But does “ambition” permeate the lives of all those New Yorkers – the great bulk of the city’s population – who aren’t “Masters of the Universe” e.g. the teachers, doctors, suburbanites, shop assistants, retirees, truck drivers, stay-at-home parents, people living in “the projects”? I don’t think so.

Similarly, does “romance” permeate all walks of life of Parisians or is it something projected onto the place by visitors (and maybe helped along with some savvy Gallic marketing)? Read the rest of this entry »


What’s Melbourne good at?

What's the answer?

It’s natural in discussions of planning and development issues to focus limited energy on the areas where Melbourne could do better. But it’s easy to forget our blessings – the areas where Melbourne is doing well. That’s not to say that things couldn’t be better, but it acknowledges there are some areas where things could be much worse. It’s conceivable there are even areas where Melbourne punches well above its weight.

It’s the season of goodwill, so I thought it timely to look at the positives. Hopefully readers will have some suggestions too.

One of Melbourne’s great blessings is its extensive rail system. Please, while your first reaction might be disbelief, many cities elsewhere – in the US for example – don’t have anything even remotely as good as our network. And our tram system is reputedly the largest in the world. Again, many cities elsewhere are scrambling to retro-fit light rail and streetcar systems. We have rolling stock that’s getting friendlier for wheel chairs and successive governments have (belatedly) ordered new trains and trams.

In many places if you change modes you have to pay again. Not in Melbourne – there’s unlimited travel on a single ticket within a time window no matter how many times you transfer. While it’s had teething problems and isn’t out of the woods just yet, we have a smartcard system too. And two high frequency bus services now orbit the suburbs from the deep south to the west and from (relatively) early till late. Heck, I even heard there’s an extra NightRider service next weekend.

The Regional Rail Link has gotten the green light and design work is continuing on Melbourne Metro. It’s not good enough for most people I know, but we have a 24/7 airport public transport service operating at 10 minute frequencies for the great bulk of the day.

Fortunately, large parts of our freeway system are tolled. There are significant barriers to getting a drivers licence in terms of time and out-of-pocket costs. And just this week the Government had the good sense to bang up registration charges.

Successive governments and councils have promoted high density residential growth in the city centre. New inner city brownfields sites such as Fishermans Bend have been earmarked for development. There are large tracts of historic housing in areas like Fitzroy Nth and Carlton Nth that are largely intact. And we have inner city parks and the glorious Yarra River park system that other cities would die for.

One of Melbourne’s great assets is it has capacity for growth in the west, still within a reasonable distance of the CBD. Average lot sizes in all the growth areas are smaller than the older middle ring suburbs and getting smaller.

Perhaps the jewel in the crown is the wonderful and vibrant city centre. Its laneways and public spaces are rightly the envy of other cities who think (mistakenly) that they can replicate Melbourne’s success. I believe (admittedly without much hard evidence) that within ten years or less, inner Melbourne will be widely acknowledged as one of the world’s coolest cities (that’s a prediction!). Many major trip generators like the MCG are located in the centre, where peak crowds can best be served by public transport (unlike, say, Brisbane’s entertainment centre at Boondall).

We have Fed Square and the free Ian Potter Gallery. We have a culture that’s interested in the public realm, including planning and development issues, for its own sake (maybe I’m overdoing that one…)

That’s a start. I’ve focussed mainly on infrastructure, but there are also institutions and people who give Melbourne a positive outlook. For example, I reckon the Lord Mayor, to the surprise of many, is a real asset. I’d like to think there are some areas of social and cultural policy where we do well too.

Anyone else got any ideas on what Melbourne does well?

P.S. More on that statistics question.


Links for urbanists No. 6

Correlation is not causation

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:

  1. There are only one and a half days to go to win a copy of Jarrett Walkers new book, Human Transit. Follow this link (this competition closed 17 Dec 2011)
  2. Motoring helmets for car drivers – “Ultimately, motoring helmets will be commonplace”
  3. Ted Baillieu’s favourite Melbourne buildings. He’s not likely to annoy anyone – the most recent is Alkira House, built in 1937
  4. How to increase capacity on SkyBus? – use “double deckers”
  5. Evolution of the London Underground map
  6. 16 global cities to watch in the future, according to Edward Glaeser and Saskia Sassen – but where’s Melbourne?
  7. Naughty and nice in transport advertising – Waking up in Geelong
  8. Correlation or causation. Need to prove something you already believe? Statistics are easy: all you need are two sets of data and a leading question (H/T Human Transit)
  9. The importance of place – scientists who are geographically close do better work (especially those within 10 metres of each other)
  10. Should speed limits be higher? No, the social costs of speed limit increases are three to ten times larger than the social benefits
  11. What does it cost to run a car? RACV’s guide to what it costs to run new cars of all sizes and shapes
  12. Barbarians on the Thames – hindsight analysis of the British riots by Theodore Dalrymple
  13. Sir Rod Eddington interviewed by Professor Peter Newman – they’re old colleagues!
  14. The death and life of great architecture criticism
  15. Slowing motorists down is the best way to increase safety for cyclists according to Britain’s Department for Transport
  16. Commuting cost analysis: bus vs bicycle vs car
  17. All you need to know about Birrarung Marr
  18. There was a time when the great political worry was that we’d leave no coal for future generations
  19. A review of Steven Pinker’s new book, The better angels of our nature, by Peter Singer
  20. A joke about a snail
  21. Imagining life in 2076

Links for urbanists No. 5

Gain weight! "Men wouldn't look at me when I was skinny"

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:

  1. Council against paid parking at shopping centre
  2. The secret to a long and healthy life: bike to the shop
  3. What does it cost to build a subway?
  4. Transportation costs too much
  5. A transit city is a centralised city
  6. National Geographic photo contest 2011
  7. Animals like you’ve never seen them before
  8. The limits of congestion pricing
  9. Public transport patronage trends in Australasian cities – updated
  10. Dawn of the dead mall
  11. Jane Jacobs – an urban legacy in need of renewal
  12. Parking datapoints of the day
  13. US road fatalities – map of every fatality 2001-09
  14. Quirky cycling images
  15. Copenhagen: cycle city
  16. Downtown office development
  17. How to look better with Photoshop – before and after
  18. A list of fallacies
  19. Is High Speed Rail a real alternative?
  20. Urbanised – the movie
  21. What is the limit to population growth?
  22. Can public transport defeat congestion?
  23. Melbourne’s city square
  24. Are the US 99% in the richest 1% in the world?
  25. What a child of two lesbians is like
  26. Vlogging
  27. How good are robots?
  28. Daniel Kahneman answers readers’ questions
  29. WTF!? The earth is a net exporter