Can activity centres supply enough housing?

Average annual growth in population of centres (%) - data from BITRE

Melbourne 2030 envisaged growth of high density housing and office employment within established suburbs would be located in activity centres, especially those with a rail station. In fact it specified that 41% of all dwellings should be constructed in activity centres over the period 2001-30 (with 31% in Growth Areas and the rest dispersed in small projects throughout established suburbs – at present though, about half of all new dwellings are constructed on the fringe).

Locating more intensive development within strategically important activity centres makes a lot of sense. In particular, it means a larger number of people will be within walking distance of frequent public transport, giving them an alternative to driving. Bigger activity centres should be more sustainable and might even cost the public sector less in infrastructure outlays and operating costs.

Yet it doesn’t seem to be happening – outside of the city centre, only a small number of activity centres are experiencing significant growth in multi-unit housing. Moreover, according to research by BITRE, Melbourne’s six Central Activities Areas (CAAs) and 25 Principal Activity Centres (PAC) only accounted for 3.6% of all population growth in the metropolitan area between 2001 and 2006. The number of people living in CAAs fell (by -0.3% p.a.) over the period and the number in PACs grew by just 0.8% p.a. – much lower than the growth rate for the metro area and the CBD (see exhibit).

Nor are activity centres generally successful in attracting employment – BITRE found jobs growth was actually negative in the CAAs, falling by 0.5% p.a. between 2001 and 2006. Jobs grew by 1.25% p.a. in dispersed areas outside of centres over the same period, but by only 0.5% p.a. in PACs.

There are reasons why it’s hard to attract developers to larger centres. Assembling land is difficult – existing holdings are in diverse ownership, values are often high and lots may be small. Moreover, Planning restrictions mean suitable sites are in short supply or have constrained redevelopment potential. But perhaps the key issue is opposition to development from existing residents.

As the strong reaction to Banyule Council’s proposed structure plan for Ivanhoe shopping centre shows, many residents don’t like the idea of redevelopment at up to 4-8 storeys in their local centre. They fear higher housing and employment densities will increase traffic congestion and noise and they expect the character and familiarity of their local centre will change for the worse. They see few, if any, upsides for them personally from a higher density centre.

It seems putting most higher density redevelopment eggs in the activity centres basket isn’t paying off. The politics of dealing with existing residents is simply too hard for all levels of government, whatever their colour. That’s not surprising given residents generally feel redevelopment makes them worse off and the planning system emphasises the interests of local residents.

Economists like Edward Glaeser and Ryan Avent have proposed ways that in theory might give existing residents an incentive to be more accepting of redevelopment, e.g. residents could buy the right to remain living at low density. These are novel and interesting ideas but at the present time they’re simply not going to fly politically.

Any redevelopment within established suburbs is going to be difficult. However the level of opposition can be reduced, although by no means avoided, where more intensive development is proposed for disused industrial areas. Even so, “brownfield” sites come with their own set of issues, like potential contamination and possible alternative uses.

Further, there don’t actually appear to be many brownfield sites. The authors of Challenge Melbourne – the discussion paper prepared in 2001 as part of the Melbourne 2030 process – estimated suitable brownfield sites within established suburbs have a total potential yield of 65,000 dwellings. That’s impressive, but even if all of that estimate could be realised, it’s not a big enough contribution, given the number of households in Melbourne is now projected to grow by 825,000 between 2006 and 2036. Read the rest of this entry »

What can be learned from the English riots?

"Remember, if you're arguing on the internet, you've already lost"

A lot of the commentary published in the wake of the English riots earlier this month marvelled at the wide range of views on the underlying causes. But few had much of substance to say themselves that might enhance broader understanding of the fundamental causes of the riots.

I’ve come across three sources that I think actually do have something interesting to say about the riots, or at least offer a different perspective. One is from the new issue of the UK Architect’s Journal; one is a new op ed by urban economist Edward Glaeser; and the third is a study by the Black Training & Enterprise Group in the UK on educational attainment in the British Chinese community.

What the Architect’s Journal says……

The UK Architect’s Journal asked a number of prominent Britons with an interest in design and cities for their views about the recent English riots. Those who responded include Joseph Rykwert, Richard Sennett, Jeremy Till, Alain de Botton and Robert Taverner.

Sennett says the riots were all too predictable – “a generation of poor, young people with no future becomes a tinder box for violence”. Taverner says the riots are a sobering reminder that people make cities – “cities rely on a precarious social balance that can be wrecked by the irresponsible”.

Some implicated the built environment more directly. Rykwert says cities incite riots – “herding people in high-rise reservoirs of social aggression doesn’t help”. Yasman Shariff says there are fundamental problems with urban regeneration schemes – “riots in new generation areas point to the schism where ordinary people cannot afford the new people’s palaces… can be little surprise that these regeneration areas are being torched”.

Marianne Mueller, whose practice is involved in assessing regeneration scheme designs, says “spaces for young people and public facilities in general (nurseries, libraries, green open spaces…..) are definitely not a focus in the schemes we have been reviewing over the last few years”.

The response that most struck a chord with me is from Jeremy Till who, perhaps surprisingly for an architect, emphasises the importance of underlying social processes relative to the built environment:

At least the architects are not blamed this time, as we were with Broadwater. Nor could we be, because (quoting Simmel) the city is not a spatial entity with sociological consequences, but a sociological entity that is formed spatially. Here the riots spatialise years of ramping up of social inequality. So when my Twitter feed calls for the reintroduction of Jane Jacobs, I blanch (because space is not the solution, just the symptom) and when the Tories say it is ‘pure’ criminality, I rage (because of the implicit disavowal of their political responsibility).

Very astute, Professor Till.

What Edward Glaeser says………

Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser has published a short op ed on Bloomberg View in response to the English riots, titled How riots start and how they can be stopped. He reminds us that not all riots are overtly related to a political grievance (e.g. the ice hockey riot in Vancouver earlier this year). He argues there’s a tipping point where the cost of rioting – in terms of the risk of being arrested – gets lower as the number of people participating gets larger:

If I decided to start rioting tomorrow in Harvard Square to express my outrage at the closing of the beloved Curious George children’s bookstore, it’s a pretty good bet that I would be immediately arrested. But if thousands of others were involved, I’d probably get off scot free. The police would be overwhelmed, and my probability of incarceration would fall to zero. Thus, riots occur when the sheer mass of rioters overwhelms law enforcement.

Professor Glaeser also provides some insights on how riots might best be managed. He cites research which compares the Paris riots of 2005 with the Republican Convention in New York in 2004, where the threat of violence was averted. Police arrested only a handful of rioters in Paris, but sought serious criminal penalties. In contrast, the New York police arrested over 1,000 people but eventually let them go:

The New York strategy protected the city; the French strategy wasn’t as effective. The lesson: Light penalties widely applied and serious penalties applied to a few can both deter unlawful behaviour. This is a central conclusion of Gary Becker’s path-breaking economic analysis of crime and punishment. But in the case of riots, it is awfully hard to actually prove wrongdoing and extremely important to clear the streets. Arresting widely and temporarily can be far more effective.

What the Black Training & Enterprise Group says………

The Black Training & Enterprise Group’s study, titled What more can we takeaway from the Chinese community? (that just has to be an unintentional pun!), suggests that common explanations for poor educational performance, like ethnicity and poverty, don’t provide a complete answer. The study, which relied on official statistics from the UK Department of Education, found that 87.5 percent of British Chinese students pass the GCSE whilst their white counterparts manage only 69.6 percent. Further,

Black students from African and Caribbean descent attain a combined 67 percent respectively. Children of Indian heritage are the closest ethnic group in gaining similar levels of attainment but still only manage 82.2 percent exposing a gap of nearly 5.5 percentage points. Read the rest of this entry »

What causes urban riots?

Location of verified riots, up to 6.00am 9 August 2011

British leftie, Brendan O’Neill, takes an unsympathetic view of the UK rioters in this article, London’s burning: a mob made by the welfare state. He dismisses popular explanations like racism, characterising the rioters as “welfare-state mobs” who are destroying their own communities.

Painting these riots as some kind of action replay of historic political streetfights against capitalist bosses or racist cops might allow armchair radicals to get their intellectual rocks off, as they lift their noses from dusty tomes about the Levellers or the Suffragettes and fantasise that a political upheaval of equal worth is now occurring outside their windows. But such shameless projection misses what is new and peculiar and deeply worrying about these riots. The political context is not the cuts agenda or racist policing – it is the welfare state, which, it is now clear, has nurtured a new generation that has absolutely no sense of community spirit or social solidarity.

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser (author of my last book giveaway, Triumph of the City) has a long interest in the causes and consequences of urban violence. In this paper, The Los Angeles riot and the politics of unrest, Professor Glaeser and colleague Denise DiPasquale examined the tragic history of post-war riots in the US (H/T Christian Dimmer, @remmid).

The LA riot of 1992 – sparked by the police beating of Rodney King – lasted three days and resulted in 52 deaths, 2,499 injuries, 6,559 arrests, 377 buildings completely destroyed and 222 seriously damaged. Seventeen people died and 400 were arrested in the two-day Miami riot in 1980. In 1965, a six-day riot in Watts resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 800 buildings damaged or destroyed.

DiPasquale and Glaeser examined the causes of rioting using international data, evidence from the race riots of the 1960s in the US, and Census data on Los Angeles, 1990. Their empirical results suggest high levels of ethnic diversity and unemployment among young black men, combined with the “sheer size” of LA, all help to explain the 1992 riot.

However they found little support for the notion that poverty is a major determinant of which cities riot. Nor did they find a connection between high levels of migration – a proxy for social capital – and rioting. They conclude that rioting is driven to some extent by the probability and size of punishment. An increase in the probability of arrest, they say, lessens the probability of a riot and its size. Individual costs and benefits matter.

We find some support for the notions that the opportunity cost of time and the potential cost of punishment influence the incidence and intensity of riots. Beyond these individual costs and benefits, community structure matters. In our results, ethnic diversity seems a significant determinant of rioting, while we find little evidence that poverty in the community matters.

Brendan O’Neill says the intrusion of the welfare state in the UK over the past 30 years “has pushed aside older ideals of self-reliance and community spirit”. The most striking thing about the rioters, he says, is how little they seem to care for their own communities – the violence is not political, but merely criminal: Read the rest of this entry »

Must it be bright lights, big (dangerous) city?

Where Americans are moving - interactive map

This article in The Sunday Age reminds us that, for all its virtues, there’s a dark side to density. In Melbourne’s CBD, it include drunks urinating in doorways, assaults, noise and rubbish dropped heedlessly anywhere.

Physical proximity has driven human progress for millennia, driving trade and exchange. But it also brought severe problems, like the water-borne diseases that ravaged Victorian cities and the crime wave that plagued New York in the 70s and 80s. According to Professor Edward Glaeser, New York was so bad in those days that skilled workers required and got a premium – ‘combat pay’ – to work there.

Improvements in water supply and sewage disposal technology in the nineteenth century overcame cholera. Mayor Rudy Giuliano’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy, based on the ‘broken windows’ theory of George Kelling, is credited with turning New York into one of the safest cities in the world, at least partly because large numbers of young black men were incarcerated.

So you’d think Melbourne could solve its problems with marauding drunks. The Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, says the long term answer is a change of attitude – we need to expect more of each other, he says. That’s actually not a practical answer because there’s not much agreement on what the underlying causes of anti-social behaviour are and what to do about them.

New York didn’t become much safer due to some change in the underlying causes of criminal behaviour. Partly it became too expensive to live in for practitioners of street crime. But a key factor appears to be ‘zero tolerance’ policing. That approach relied on the regularity that people who commit serious crimes are the kind who are also likely to flout minor laws. Those who committed minor offences like fare evasion were arrested rather than, as had been the case hitherto, ignored. Offenders were frequently found to have outstanding warrants for more serious crimes and accordingly ended up in gaol. I think it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that ‘zero tolerance’ is a bit like transportation to Botany Bay – a whole cohort of criminals was simply locked up.

However I don’t think the New York experience has a lot of relevance for Melbourne. We’re not dealing with serious crimes like stick-ups. The drunks who brawl and piss in King St at 2 am on a Sunday morning are more likely to be bank johnnies, tradies and public servants than career crims from ‘the projects’.  They’re more like ‘good ole boys’. Read the rest of this entry »

Is commuting (very) bad for you?

Let me say from the outset that I’ve long been sceptical about some of the methods used by Richard Florida, celebrated author of The Rise of the Creative Class. And I’m not the only one – this review of his book by Edward Glaeser is written with a velvet glove but packs an iron fist.

So it’s not surprising I’m unimpressed by Commuting is very bad for you, written by Florida for last month’s issue of The Atlantic. He gets it completely wrong and provides a lesson in the dangers of only seeing what you want to see.

Florida seizes on a survey of 173,581 working Americans which he claims shows that those with longer commutes suffer higher levels of back pain, higher cholesterol and higher obesity. It also shows, he says, that commuting takes a toll on emotional health and happiness – those who commute more worry more, experience less enjoyment and feel less well-rested.

Commuting by car is so bad it’s up there with smoking:

“commuting is a health and psychological hazard, not to mention the carnage and wasted time on our over-clogged roads. It’s time to put commuting right beside smoking and obesity on the list of priorities for improving the health and well-being of Americans”.

The trouble is the data he cites doesn’t support these conclusions. A proper reading of the two tables from his article (I’ve reproduced them above) indicates there’s very little relationship between commute time and health. Read the rest of this entry »

Do firms want to be in suburban centres?

We know that most jobs in Melbourne are now in the suburbs. There’s also an increasing understanding that large metropolitan areas are now generally polycentric rather than monocentric in form i.e. there are significant activity centres outside the CBD with large numbers of jobs. The strategic planning update to Melbourne 2030, Melbourne @ 5 Million, released in October 2008, explicitly acknowledged this reality.

It is clear that firms can increasingly obtain the benefits of density, such as face-to-face contact, in both inner city and suburban centres where they don’t have to carry the extra costs in rent and congestion imposed by the very high density of the CBD. The CBD’s share of metropolitan jobs has consequently fallen significantly over the last 30-40 years (it has staged a small revival since 1996, showing significant jobs growth in absolute terms, but its share of metropolitan jobs has not increased).

Tysons Corner - the archetypal edge city

Yet many studies in many countries have found that while the number of suburban and inner city activity centres is increasing, the proportion of jobs located within them is falling. In fact, around a half to two thirds of employment in US cities is scattered across the metropolitan area at relatively low densities. Inter-city and cross-country comparisons are difficult, but the evidence suggests that suburban jobs are even more scattered in Melbourne.

It seems that firms can increasingly achieve the benefits of agglomeration at a larger geographical scale than that of the CBD or suburban activity centres. The advantages of physical proximity have apparently declined to such an extent that the costs of aggregation now exceed the benefits at ever lower levels of density.

But why are firms increasingly spurning density? Read the rest of this entry »