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 »


Does public transport offer enough privacy?

Parallel parking - how to do it when space is tight

There are many ways to measure the immense improvement in standard of living enjoyed by western countries over the millennia (although most especially over the last two hundred years). I think an important indicator – with implications for city managers – is the greater demand for physical privacy that comes with rising incomes.

Much attention is given to how much better off we are today in terms of basics like food, clothing, energy and shelter than our ancestors were.  But there are many other measures. For example, in The rational optimist, Matt Ridley discusses the spectacular increase in the availability of time.

Part of the improvement came from dramatic reductions in the time taken – and hence the cost – of making things. Part also came from access to artificial light. He provides a fascinating example of how much the cost of manufacturing artificial light has fallen: this is how many lumen-hours (lm-hr) of artificial light could be obtained from an hour’s work at the average wage of the day:

1750BC: 24 lm-hr, sesame oil lamp

1800: 186 lm-hr, tallow lamp

1880: 4,400 lm-hr, kerosene lamp

1950: 531,000 lm-hr, incandescent light bulb

2008: 8,400,000 lm-hr, compact fluoro

If they haven’t already, LEDs will undoubtedly increase the amount of light an hour’s work buys by another order of magnitude. Modern lighting is also cleaner than the comparatively primitive methods widely used even a hundred years ago. It’s less of a fire hazard, doesn’t flicker and doesn’t create smoke within the premises (a leading cause of death in times past).

Although it isn’t discussed by Ridley, another aspect of the rise in living standards that should be of particular interest to anyone interested in cities is the increase in the demand for privacy and personal control.

With rising incomes, households who once shared a one-roomed hovel now have individual bedrooms. Twenty somethings who used to live in share houses a generation ago now live by themselves in studio or one bedroom apartments. Where once hotels and boarding houses had shared facilities, now even the most run-down motel offers a private bathroom and toilet. People who can afford it have babies or convalesce in private hospital rooms, not communal wards.

And look at transport. Around 90% of all travel in a city like Melbourne is by private car, much of it with only the driver present. Those who can afford it take taxis, fly in chartered or private jets or, if there’s no alternative to sharing, cocoon themselves in first class cabins on planes and ships.

Compared to a train, tram or bus, cars offer a lot of privacy and control: they’re available on-demand, go directly to the driver’s destination, are in most cases considerably faster, and are only shared by invitation. Car ownership usually costs more in terms of cash outlays than public transport, but people with a high standard of living are prepared to pay the price.

The increased demand for privacy and personal control might seem at odds with the growth of cities. People have been drawn to cities over the last 200 years on an unprecedented scale, so there’s no doubt they want to be closer to each other than ever. Indeed, a key reason why incomes have increased spectacularly is precisely because of the greater proximity of people.

But it’s clear they also want more privacy. Technology is one reason they’ve been able to live cheek-by-jowl and still increase their autonomy. Yet there are limits. Cars aren’t a very effective solution in dense environments. In response, cities have generally evolved by decentralising population, services and jobs at low densities, enabling residents to maintain their car-oriented lifestyle.

But cars have other downsides like pollution, carbon emissions, traffic accidents and noise. Moreover, a significant proportion of people now want to be close to key nodes, like the CBD and beaches – that requires density, the enemy of cars.

I think it’s very important that policy-makers, particularly those involved with public transport, understand and acknowledge the desire of contemporary travellers for privacy and personal control. Of course there’re many other improvements that need to be made to Melbourne’s public transport system, but this perspective suggests that, for example, safety, security and comfort are key values for existing and prospective public transport users. Read the rest of this entry »


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 »


– What concept is most useful for thinking?

Is congestion pricing fair?

This is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a while. According to Princeton University Professor of Psychology and Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman, nothing in life is as important as you think it is. He gives these examples:

Education is an important determinant of income — one of the most important — but it is less important than most people think. If everyone had the same education, the inequality of income would be reduced by less than 10%. When you focus on education you neglect the myriad other factors that determine income. The differences of income among people who have the same education are huge.

Income is an important determinant of people’s satisfaction with their lives, but it is far less important than most people think. If everyone had the same income, the differences among people in life satisfaction would be reduced by less than 5%.

I find these insights astonishing and I suspect they throw light on key urban issues too. If nothing else, they emphasise the dangers of focussing on single causes and hence on single solutions. Professor Kahneman is one of 159 contributors who responded to the question: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive tool kit?” at Edge.Org. This site has been setting an annual question and inviting brief responses from thinkers since 1998.

The vast majority of contributors are from prestigious universities and institutions. Many are intellectuals of international stature, including Richard Dawkins (who nominates the double-blind, controlled experiment), Richard Thaler (aether), Jonah Lehrer (strategic allocation of attention), Paul Kedrosky (shifting baseline syndrome), Clay Shirky (the Pareto principle) and Matt Ridley (collective intelligence). This year’s question was set by Harvard psychologist, Steve Pinker, who also makes an interesting nomination (positive-sum games). This is the New York Time’s summary of some of the key contributions. You can read the rest of Professor Kahneman’s short piece here.

I didn’t see anything that was specifically on urbanism (there are contributions by three architects – Stefan Boeri, Neri Oxman and Richard Saul Wurman – although for my money the real value is in the scientists) however there is one by Brian Eno (ecology) and, in particular, another by Matt Ridley that should be interesting to anyone concerned with how and why cities work:

Brilliant people, be they anthropologists, psychologists or economists, assume that brilliance is the key to human achievement. They vote for the cleverest people to run governments, they ask the cleverest experts to devise plans for the economy, they credit the cleverest scientists with discoveries, and they speculate on how human intelligence evolved in the first place. Read the rest of this entry »