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 »


How much housing can brownfields sites supply?

Examples of former industrial zoned sites now currently zoned residential. Images in clockwise order: Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula, Maribyrnong and Kingston (graphic from DPCD)

Governments like to point to disused industrial sites as a significant source of land for expanding housing supply within the established suburbs. Only recently, for example, the Victorian Government talked up the potential of Melbourne’s Fishermans Bend as a new “Growth Corridor”.

So-called brownfields sites can make a useful contribution to housing supply but the available evidence suggests their potential is over-stated. One of the risks of taking too-optimistic a view of brownfields is that the formidable obstacles to other sources of supply – like higher density housing in activity centres and infill developments – will tend to be neglected.

The potential of brownfields sites is limited by a number of factors. They might be in locations that are unattractive to the market (e.g. deep within an industrial area) or are expensive to service. Some have been contaminated by industrial processes and it’s possible another use might be preferred over housing.

Challenge Melbourne, the discussion paper prepared to kick-off the Melbourne 2030 process, estimated brownfields sites could contribute 65,000 dwellings over the period 2001 to 2030. While useful, this was well short of the estimated number of new dwellings that need to be constructed – for example, the latest edition of Victoria in Future projects the number of households in Melbourne will grow by 825,000 between 2006 and 2036.

Now the Planning Department has produced a new study which throws further light on the likely contribution brownfields sites could make to housing supply in Melbourne.

The department estimates more than 400 ha of industrial land was rezoned from industrial to residential in Melbourne over the last ten years. The exhibit shows new housing constructed on former industrial sites in Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula, Maribyrnong and Kingston.

That’s an average of 40 hectares each year over the last ten years. If each hectare was developed at a net density (say) of 20 dwellings, that would mean brownfields sites have contributed on average 800 dwellings p.a. to Melbourne’s housing task.

Compared to Victoria in Future’s projection that the number of households in Melbourne will grow by an average of 27,500 p.a. between 2006 and 2036, that 800 dwellings p.a. seems a decidedly modest contribution. In fact, it’s not certain that rezoning always leads to development and, where it does, what proportion of the site is used for housing. Many of the lots identified by the Department are in suburban locations so even my assumed net density of 20 dwellings per ha might be optimistic.

There are of course other non-industrial sites that could potentially be used for housing. For example, a major housing development was proposed for the former Coburg High School site in Bell St (although it appears to have fallen over). The trouble is there are likely to be many fewer such sites available than industrial sites. I’m not in any case aware of an estimate of their likely supply potential and the associated timing.

I applaud DPCD for producing this new study. There are still many questions around the supply potential of brownfields and other major sites, so I would like to see the department continue with this work. As it stands, the existing evidence suggests the Government should be very wary about over-selling the contribution brownfields can make to housing supply in Melbourne.

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Are we squandering infill housing opportunities?

Eight unit Infill project, Alphington

I’ve argued before (here, here and here) that new housing supply within Melbourne’s established suburbs is excessively dependent on small-scale infill housing projects. In the expansive middle ring suburbs, around half of all housing projects provide only one or two additional dwellings, with the great majority providing only one.

It’s therefore important to look at other options, but given it’s carrying most of the burden, it’s also worth asking if infill is being managed as efficiently as it could be.

The exhibit above shows a newly completed infill development at 2-4 Old Heidelberg Rd in suburban Alphington (here are some interior pictures). It provides eight dwellings on an 825 sq m site that originally would’ve been intended to accommodate a single detached house like its neighbour.

That’s a big up-lift in density – if most infill projects yielded this many new dwellings we wouldn’t have a supply problem. But the great bulk are simple dual occupancy developments. This raises the important issue of whether we’re maximising the value we’re getting from the limited supply of precious infill sites.

If projects that could yield four, six or eight new units are only providing one, then that could represent a very high opportunity cost. Given that activity centres in the middle ring suburbs are mostly failing to deliver much new housing, what we ideally want to see is each lot delivering to its full potential – yielding the maximum number of new dwellings that, having regard to its particular circumstances, it reasonably could.

There are of course many “objective” reasons why not all projects can yield as many dwellings as 2-4 Old Heidelberg Rd. Some redevelopment sites are small or inconveniently shaped. Some may have infrastructure inadequacies or access might be hard.

There are also a range of legitimate planning constraints like heritage, over-looking and solar access that might limit the number of units that can be built on a given lot. And the nature of the market in a particular area could mean the highest return comes from building fewer dwellings rather than maximising the total number.

But there are reasons to suspect that “objective” factors do not always, or even usually, explain why a lot isn’t developed to its potential. Consider these two contiguous lots in Elphin St Ivanhoe – although they’re the same size and have a common context, one has six dwellings and the other has two.

The most commonly cited explanation for these sorts of anomalies is the “dead hand” of the planning system. Additional cost and risk is imposed on projects by self-interested opposition from existing residents. Councils often lack the resources and skills to deal with the complexity of sophisticated opposition and, not surprisingly, often take a position more sympathetic to their constituents than to the developer.

There’s a range of measures that have been suggested to tilt the balance more toward redevelopment. These include abolition of third party appeals (the issue got a run in The Age recently), code-based approval systems, more resources for councils, better forward planning, and so on. I endorse this position but there’s no doubt it’s very hard politically, both for councils and the state government.

I think there’s another approach that’s worth thinking about, particularly for the middle ring suburbs. We know infill developers tend to be small and it could be that many simply lack the knowledge, skills, access to finance and appetite for risk to enable them to undertake larger projects. They might not have the wherewithal to push for larger projects in the face of vigorous opposition from neighbours and limited support from timid councils.

Perhaps the project class with the greatest potential for “under-utilisation” is dual occupancy. Landowners carve off a bit of land and sell it, usually for the construction of one additional dwelling. That way they get to stay in their old house and transform some excess land into cash without taking much risk.

That’s a net addition to supply so it’s positive. While in many cases the value of the existing dwelling will preclude more intense development, dual occupancy is a lost opportunity if the entire site could’ve been successfully redeveloped for four, six or eight dwellings. Read the rest of this entry »


Are these really the most (and least) liveable suburbs in Melbourne?

Liveability index for 314 Melbourne suburbs (from The Age)

I never read those glossy magazine inserts in The Age (who does?) but on Friday I made an exception for The Melbourne Magazine because it promised to tell me “the most liveable suburb in the world’s most liveable city”.

The Age’s Our liveable city project ranks the “liveability” of 314 suburbs from top to bottom and claims to reveal “Melbourne’s best suburbs, the ones improving the most, and where you should buy your next home”.

Liveability is defined initially as “the general quality of a place that makes it pleasant or agreeable for people to reside in”. Fortunately, someone saw that was a tautology and wouldn’t be of any practical help. So liveability is subsequently defined by 13 measurable criteria.

These cover topography, traffic, crime, cultural facilities and parks, as well as proximity to a range of amenities – the CBD, beaches, public transport, schools, restaurants and shops. Scores out of five on each criterion are added to give an overall summary score for each suburb. Each suburb is subsequently ranked from 1 to 314 on an Index of Liveability.

Unsurprisingly with this sort of exercise, there was a lot of criticism from readers, with many pointing to apparent anomalies in the rankings. One said, “once I saw Footscray was rated higher than Middle Park I stopped reading”.

Disagreement is inevitable. People are different and so it’s hard to get consensus on just what does, or doesn’t, make a place liveable. That shouldn’t be surprising – an elderly couple, for example, is likely to have a very different definition of liveability to that of a young single. Throw in further differences, say in education, income or ethnicity, and it gets much more complex.

There is a much more straightforward and reliable way of establishing the relative liveability of suburbs. That simply involves measuring what people are prepared to pay to live in them i.e. property prices. It doesn’t require complex measures and weights (not that The Age bothered with the latter). In fact it sidesteps entirely the hardest and most intractable question of all – defining apriori just what liveability is.

Moreover, it provides a clear ranking and allows us to measure the size of the difference between suburbs. And it’s based on the actual decisions of hundreds of thousands of householders. Knowing that the average property value in South Yarra is three and a half times higher than in Hallam is a much more useful and valuable piece of information about the relative merits of the two suburbs than knowing one ranks 350 places ahead of the other on the Index of Liveability.

There’re distortions in the market so property values aren’t a perfect representation of the relative liveability of Melbourne’s suburbs. I would argue however that this approach involves infinitely fewer compromises than the methodology used by The Age. Of course it wouldn’t make a very interesting story when there’s the option available to the newspaper of bringing some “science” to the issue.

That’s not to say exercises like the Index of Liveability don’t have value. They can be useful to establish just why residents think one suburb is more liveable than another. Knowing why properties average $1,300,000 in South Yarra and $369,000 in Hallam would be very important information for policy-makers.

Interpreted this way, I think The Age’s attempt is actually better than many of the commenters are prepared to concede (even though I’m annoyed that very little information about the methodology is disclosed). You can argue the toss at the margin – for example, I suspect proximity to schools only matters in the case of certain institutions – but by and large the criteria are a reasonable compromise. Read the rest of this entry »


Could major housing developments be outside activity centres?

We need to start thinking about new ways of increasing housing supply in the established suburbs. As I’ve noted a number of times now, activity centres aren’t delivering much and infill housing, though it’s putting in a sterling effort, is probably at full stretch. These strategies are still important, but additional sources of supply are needed.

Much of the current thinking confines major developments to a narrow range of locations, primarily activity centres and major transport corridors where key infrastructure, particularly rail lines, already exists. Many have argued these locations have the potential to accommodate enough apartments to house all of Melbourne’s projected growth for decades to come. I don’t doubt they could in theory, but in reality they’re not doing enough.

I think there are lessons we can learn from the study of infill housing I discussed last time. One is the decisive importance of land – developers working at all scales need to be able to easily acquire or assemble sites that are of an appropriate size and aren’t encumbered by high-value improvements.

Developers don’t want to be rejected or delayed by unhappy neighbours or sent packing by councils that impose restrictive limits and conditions on development. And they need to offer housing types that are attractive to the market in that locality – not everyone who’d be inclined to live in the middle ring suburbs would want to live in an apartment.

I think there’s another option worth investigating that addresses many of these concerns. Although it’s just an idea at the moment, it involves a reverse strategy – encouraging residential and commercial development in areas that usually have poor infrastructure, but large sites and compliant neighbours. Rather than require infrastructure to be in place first, it involves retrofitting infrastructure like public transport in order to create new living areas.

It relies on the existence of sites in the suburbs which are large, in single or limited ownership, have few neighbours, and are either undeveloped or have relatively low-value improvements such as warehouses. Some sites that meet these criteria are attached to large public sector organisations like tertiary institutions and utilities, but are surplus to requirements.

As an example, I’m familiar with a tertiary institution in an Australian capital city that’s located within 20 km of the CBD and has more than 100 ha of surplus developable land (that’s five times the size of Melbourne’s E-Gate). It is in a single ownership and already has the extensive infrastructure and services required to serve a student population and workforce of many thousands.

It’s in an attractive environment and could potentially be redeveloped as a major regional activity centre at relatively high densities. It isn’t near a train line, but is well-connected by buses to the rail network with the potential to add more to suit the needs of a very large permanent resident population. I’m aware professionally of some opportunities in Melbourne that are consistent with this example.

However most of the prospective sites are likely to be used at present for storage, distribution and manufacturing activities. They’re not brownfields sites though, because they’re not disused. The idea is that rezoning would provide owners with an incentive to redevelop their properties for intensive residential and commercial uses.

The extended area running through Clayton/Monash/Glen Waverley is a possible candidate in Melbourne. It has a number of large industrial sites that could potentially be redeveloped given an appropriate inducement. This region is particularly important because it already has the largest concentration of jobs in suburban Melbourne (albeit at relatively low density compared to the CBD) and is a prime candidate for development as a Central Activities Area.

While it isn’t well-served by rail, it could potentially be retrofitted as part of the proposed Rowville rail project. More plausibly, it could be serviced at a lower up-front cost by an expanded bus rapid transit system similar to that now connecting Monash University with Glen Huntley Huntingdale station.

The overall idea of retrofitting relies on the sheer size and intensity of projects to provide the incentive for redevelopment and to justify investment in infrastructure. The scale of projects would also be a key way of differentiating developments from neighbouring uses, some of which may retain their non-residential character, at least in the short term. Read the rest of this entry »


Can Melbourne depend on infill housing?

Geography of infill developments in City of Monash, 2000-2006 (source: Phan et al, 2008 - graphic via Grattan Institute)

We know that the inability to increase significantly the supply of dwellings within established suburbs is a key failing of strategic planning in Melbourne. Simply put, there’s not enough housing to make established suburbs affordable for all the people who would like to live in a relatively accessible location.

We also know that activity centres aren’t pulling their weight in the task of increasing supply (see here and here) and that the burden of supply is instead falling on small-scale infill development, much of it dual occupancy projects. So it’s worth looking further at the nature of infill housing.

A study by Monash University’s Thu Phan, Jim Peterson and Shobhit Chandra , Urban infill: the extent and implications in the City of Monash, examined new developments in the municipality over the period 2000-06. They defined infill primarily as projects where two or more new dwellings were constructed on sites formerly occupied by detached houses. A total of 1,483 projects were identified, ranging in size from two dwellings to 178.

The study revealed a number of interesting aspects about this middle suburban municipality.

First, it found new dwelling supply is dominated by small projects. One project built more than 178 dwellings and three built between 40-77 dwellings, however 98% of projects involve just 2-7 seven dwellings (and we can be pretty confident they’re heavily weighted toward the smaller end).

Second, projects are dispersed, not concentrated. As shown in the exhibit, proximity to major trip generators is uncorrelated with location of projects. Just 5% are within 400 metres of a Principal, Major or Specialised activity centre, and only 10% are within 400 metres of a rail station. Moreover, the authors found projects located within 400 metres of an activity centre are smaller on average than those in more distant locations.

Third, developers tend to be opportunistic rather than strategic – they wait for properties to be offered for sale and assess each one on its potential for redevelopment. Thus the geography of infill development is shaped largely by what comes on the market rather than by any sort of deterministic planning policy.

Fourth, the size of lots and the age of the existing house is a more important influence on the location of infill development than proximity to an activity centre or rail station. The average infill site is relatively large (700 to 900 sq m) and the majority of existing dwellings are relatively old i.e. built between 1945 and 1965. Lot sizes close to rail stations are smaller – and hence less amenable to redevelopment – than those further away, probably reflecting the different periods of development.

Thus not only are activity centres failing to expand housing supply in accordance with the precepts of Melbourne 2030, but the great bulk of new housing being built in Monash isn’t located close to activity centres but rather is dispersed (relatively uniformly too judging by the exhibit i.e. non-randomly).The dispersed pattern will worry some, but I don’t see it as a big issue. Read the rest of this entry »


What’s happened to the idea of the compact city?

Number of Newly Constructed Residential Dwellings by Dwelling Yield Range, 2004 to 2008 (DPCD)

Pending completion of the Government’s new urban strategy for Melbourne, the two major strategic planning documents that jointly guide the metropolitan area’s development – Melbourne 2030 and Melbourne @ 5 Million – are rich with rhetoric about the importance of directing development to established suburbs rather than the periphery. They also emphasise the desirability of concentrating that development around activity centres instead of dispersing it throughout the existing suburbs.

In a show of great political courage, Melbourne 2030 sought to limit the share of Melbourne’s population growth in peripheral Greenfield developments to just 38%. Virtually all the rest would be located within the established suburbs, of which 40% would be concentrated in activity centres.

However the supplementary strategy released six years later in 2008, Melbourne @ 5 Million, relaxed the target considerably. It was clever – it slackened the numerical target to 47% while simultaneously narrowing its geographical ambit to just the six Growth Area municipalities. These six cover an area much smaller than that implied by the term ‘greenfield’ used in Melbourne 2030.

This statistical report prepared by the Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD), Housing Development Data 2004-2008, reveals that the new Melbourne @ 5 Million target wasn’t very demanding. It merely echoed the way the market had behaved over the preceding four years.

Over 2004-08, the Growth Area municipalities accounted for 44% of net new dwelling construction (after subtracting demolitions). Once the larger average household size of outer suburban households is taken into account, this is much the same as Melbourne @ 5 Million’s 47% population “target”. Rather than seek to change the market as its rhetoric suggests, Melbourne @ 5 Million was essentially business as usual.

In any event limiting the target to Growth Areas could be construed as misleading. They are not the same as the outer suburbs. There was considerable growth in other peripheral municipalities over 2004-08 e.g. Frankston, Nillumbik, Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Ranges. When they are added to the Growth Area municipalities, the outer suburbs accounted for 54% of all new dwelling construction in the metropolitan area over 2004-08. In terms of the share of population growth, the number would be somewhat higher.

So Melbourne @ 5 Million essentially had no real ambition to drive significantly higher housing supply in the established suburbs. Despite what the text sought to imply, it settled for them absorbing just 46% of new dwellings.

Melbourne @ 5 Million also dropped any numerical targets for activity centres. Previously, Melbourne 2030 projected that 40% of the population growth within the established suburbs would be concentrated at relatively high densities, with the other 60% in small infill developments dispersed across the suburbs. Read the rest of this entry »