Are huge homes irresponsible?

Huge houses on the urban fringe are an irresponsible drain on the environment, according to this opinion piece by Dr Robert Crawford from Melbourne University. There are two charges here – one is that the average 238m2 greenfield house is too big and the other is that the occupants are too reliant on cars for transport. I discussed the transport issues related to greenfield houses recently, so this time I want to look at the allegation of excessive dwelling size.

There are all sorts of problems with the “too big” criticism, not least the obvious question: what is the “right” size for a dwelling? Even if that question could be answered satisfactorily, there’s another – what should be done about it? Should there be regulations limiting the size of houses? Or perhaps a “McMansions” tax? I think there’s actually a sensible way to approach this issue which I’ll come to in due course. But I want to start with some pertinent observations.

First, greenfield houses mostly aren’t as big as epithets like “McMansion” imply. When Melburnians think “McMansion” they usually have in mind a two storey house like Metricon’s 530 m2 ‘Monarch’, which is more than double the size of the average greenfield house. In the US however, the term McMansion is reserved for much, much bigger houses on very large lots like Tony and Carmela’s spread in New Jersey (see first picture). The average house on Melbourne’s fringe, however, is a much more modest 238 m2 according to Dr Crawford’s own evidence. That’s big compared to an inner city apartment but it’s much smaller than the ‘Monarch’ and much smaller than any reasonable definition of a McMansion. Further, more than two thirds of houses in Melbourne’s greenfield areas are single story. Nearly half (47%) are smaller than 240 m2. Almost three quarters (74%) are smaller than 280 m2.

Second, fringe houses aren’t much bigger, if at all, than typical houses in some older suburban areas. I live with my family 8 km from the city on the border of Ivanhoe and Alphington where most dwellings were built before WW2. Having two children who went to Alphington Primary School means I’ve seen inside many, many homes in the Alphington, Fairfield, Ivanhoe area. I can’t recall ever being in a house in these neighbourhoods that hasn’t been extended at least once in its lifetime. And while they probably were once, these aren’t small houses anymore. For example, the external dimensions of our place, including the garage (but excluding decks), is 240 m2 and it’s by no means large relative to other detached houses in the area – in fact I’d say it’s about average or perhaps even a bit smaller. Yet I don’t hear many complaints that inner suburban homes are “too big”. Read the rest of this entry »

– Do governments spend too much on roads?

Total passenger travel by mode in Australia (billion passenger kilometres) Souce: BITRE

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) got a lot of press recently with its claim that “governments across Australia are spending at least four times more on building roads and bridges than on public transport infrastructure“.

The claim is in a new ACF report, Australia’s public transport: investment for a clean transport future, which argues for a rebalancing of the transport capital works budget, recommending that “two thirds should be spent on public and active transport measures and one third should be spent on roads”.

I agree with the ACF that more needs to be spent on public transport, but I don’t think the “roads vs public transport“ logic does justice to the complexity of the situation. There are a number of reasons why more public funds are spent constructing roads than rails.

One is that people drive much more than they use public transport. According to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), Australians travel almost eight times as many kilometres by car as they do by bus and rail-based public transport. The money is going where the demand is. If you accept the ACF’s numbers, public transport is actually getting a disproportionate share of public construction expenditure. Roads are needed even if travel is confined to foot and horse-drawn vehicles. The Hoddle grid in Melbourne and the avenues and streets of Manhattan were designed before cars were invented – land has limited value if it can’t be accessed.

Construction expenditure doesn’t in any event tell the whole story. Most funding for public transport comes via operating subsidies. Although getting comparable numbers is hard, Sydney University transport academic, Professor John Stanley, estimates that in states like NSW and Victoria, total public funding for public transport and roads is probably pretty nearly equal. In his 2008 report, Public transport’s role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Victoria’s Commissioner for Sustainability noted a significant shift in funding priority from roads to public transport at the State level.

Another reason roads are important is for the distribution of freight within the metropolitan area. According to BITRE, the number of tonne kilometres of urban freight transported by road within Australia’s eight capital cities in 2007/08 was more than five times higher than it was in 1971-72. There is simply no practical alternative to road for tasks like restocking those hundreds of supermarkets that supply suburban households with food and household goods.

But most importantly, roads are also extremely important for public transport. For example, in Melbourne, the Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) system, the Airport-CBD Skybus service, and the city’s three new orbital Smartbus transit services, all use buses. Because they use the existing road network, these systems do not require significant new land acquisition and construction. Some trunk lines might in time justify conversion to light rail services as patronage increases, but they too can use existing roads rather than require a dedicated right of way.  Read the rest of this entry »

Why does Canberra have more social capital?

Newly elected Labor member for the seat of Fraser in the ACT, Andrew Leigh, argues that Canberra has the highest level of social capital of any of Australia’s capital cities.

The former ANU economist contends that social capital – essentially the level of trust and reciprocity within communities – has declined in Australia. He points to declines in active membership of associations, in religious participation, and in membership of political parties and unions.

We even have fewer close friends now than in the 80s – we’ve two fewer friends who could keep a confidence and we’ve lost half a friend who’d help us through a hard time.

Andrew concludes that there are several plausible explanations for this decline, including people working longer hours, the feminisation of the workforce and greater ethnic diversity. In addition, more time spent watching television, using a computer and commuting means less time spent face-to-face with others.

Most of these changes also have benefits, so he cautions against trying to return to the past. We need new and innovative ways to build social capital. He argues that the place to look for how we might increase social capital is Canberra. This is where it gets really interesting. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Darwin really Australia’s most sustainable city?

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 »

Housekeeping – sources for my OpEd in The Age

A reader of my OpEd in today’s The Age (Problems with fringe-dwellers are peripheral) asked for more information on sources. That sort of technical detail is not welcomed by newspapers. So I’ve set out some of the key sources I’ve used over the fold. I’ve only included those where there is a link on the web (i.e. no gated academic journals). Read the rest of this entry »