You talkin’ to me?

Travis Bickle puts the big question

The drive for status is a powerful force that shouldn’t be ignored by urban policy-makers, not least those with an interest in cities. It explains much about the way people behave in urban areas, like why they might live in a McMansion or drive a Prius (I’ve written about status a number of times before – e.g. here, here, here and here).

Status can also throw light on other issues, like why some people brawl with complete strangers and why some couples split up. George Mason University academic, Robin Hanson, offers an interesting illustration of the connection between status and conflict in this piece, Status drives poverty?

The sometimes controversial economist starts by citing a passage from a new book, Promises I can keep: why poor women put motherhood before marriage, explaining why low income urban single mothers break up with their partners.

The authors, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, point to conflicts between partners over money. Fights and antagonism don’t erupt because the man doesn’t earn as much as someone with higher skills or because he can’t find a job. Rather:

Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.

They say money is an important factor in why co-habiting couples break up, but it’s not the only one – so is status.

This brief comment by Professor Hanson makes a wider but insightful point:

I suspect much of what makes some cultures more successful than others is how they help folks to avoid seeing unpleasant interactions as direct challenges to their status.

Something that might be merely annoying or vexing in one culture can be profoundly challenging in another, demanding confrontation and even retribution. One of the commenters expands further on this idea with an example. He asks you to imagine you and your staff are in a meeting with another manager and his team. During the meeting the other manager says things that challenge your status.

In the United States after the meeting your group members might say. “Boy, that guy was a jerk.” The issue becomes the other manager’s problem. Read the rest of this entry »


Why do outer suburban streets look so bland?

Manna Gum Drive, Ventnor, Phillip Island

Critics are gunning for Victoria’s Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, following his decision to rezone 5.7 Ha of farmland at Ventnor, Phillip Island, for residential use despite the opposition of Bass Coast Shire Council. The rights and wrongs of the Minister’s decision is no doubt a fascinating topic, however my present interest is in the way this land is likely to be developed.

I got to thinking about that after reading a letter in the paper on Saturday from the owner of a beach house at Ventnor, expressing the “hope that this natural wonderland does not become transformed into a home of little courts, high fences, and narrow streets filled with the McMansions of suburbia”.

I wouldn’t be holding my breath if I were him – there’s got to be a much better than even chance that any new residential development will end up looking more like nearby Manna Gum Drive (see exhibit) than the more traditional ‘beach houses’ of Ventnor. In fact even that seems optimistic – given the enormous decline in average lot sizes in recent years, a more probable scenario could be this development in Melton.

He can probably rest easy about his fear of McMansions though. Two storey behemoths are likely to be too expensive for most Ventnor newcomers – it’ll probably be single storey brick veneers with low tile roofs and two car garages.

Being near the beach doesn’t faze the standard suburban form – it’s ubiquitous. Drive 100 metres back from the beach in large parts of the sub-tropical Sunshine Coast or Gold Coast, close your eyes, and you could as easily be in the bland streets of Melton or Campbelltown. You’ll even have the same experience in tropical Cairns.

I expect they all look much the same because the economics of land development and cottage building produces the same solution everywhere. Affordable lots are 500–700 sq metres with high fences for privacy. The houses look more or less the same because the home building industry is pretty efficient at churning out economically priced detached houses in low-maintenance brick veneer.

As with most mass produced items built to a price, the scope for differentiation isn’t high, often just a tweak of the front facade. Buyers can have something markedly different if they want – they might, for example, commission an architect – but they’ll have to pay a lot more for the advantages of a bespoke design. But that’s just not an option for the vast bulk of buyers in areas like Melton and, I daresay, Ventnor.

A key reason streets in fringe suburbs look so boring and nondescript to sophisticated eyes is their relative youth – trees planted in the nature strip haven’t had time to take off and residents haven’t yet established front gardens. Many streets in established suburbs were bland once too. The streets of Eaglemont and Ivanhoe doubtless looked pretty insipid at first with their small brick and tile houses, but generations of zealous gardeners cultivating their front yards and nature strips have created, in effect, a completely new streetscape.

Yet there are many streets in established suburbs like this one in Keysborough which are still pretty uninspiring despite the advantages of maturity. This relatively young street in Melton looks like it’s lost some street trees already and parts of the nature strip have become a parking lot. Here’s another newish one in Melton where the front yards don’t even pretend to be gardens – they’re all driveway and low maintenance ground cover. And most of the houses on this street on the Sunshine Coast were built at least 30 years ago (in fact some have been redeveloped) yet apart from a few desultory palms, trees with scale aren’t very common. Read the rest of this entry »


Are Toyota Prius drivers wankers?

The unique body shape of the Toyota Prius

Educated elites often show distaste for the sort of conspicuous consumption exemplified by McMansions, but it seems almost everyone likes to show off, even greenies.

Two US researchers, Steven Sexton and Alison Sexton (they’re twins), have coined the term “conspicuous conservation” to describe people who spend up big to signal their green status. The standard conventions of conspicuous consumption still apply – like German cars and appliances – but now esteem can also be bought through demonstrations of austerity.

The authors set out the issue in this paper, Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and Willingness to Pay for Environmental Bona Fides:

Amid heightened concern about environmental damage and global climate change, costly private contributions to environmental protection increasingly confer status once afforded only through ostentatious displays of wastefulness. Consumers may, therefore, undertake costly actions in order to signal their type as environmentally friendly or “green.” The status conferred upon demonstration of environmental friendliness is sufficiently prized that homeowners are known to install solar panels on the shaded sides of houses so that their costly investments are visible from the street.

They examine the sorts of people who buy hybrid cars in Washington (State) and Colorado, focussing on areas with a green demographic where sales of hybrid cars are high and where ‘signalling’ green credentials therefore ought to work. They attempt to isolate the “green halo” effect by comparing sales of the market-leading Toyota Prius – which has a distinctive and unique body shape – against those of comparable hybrids like the Honda Civic. Like all of the other 23 hybrid models on the US market (excepting the Prius), the Civic is virtually indistinguishable from the bigger-selling petrol powered variants of the same car. It is only identified by a small badge and hence, unlike the Prius, fails to signal its environmental credentials.

Anyone who’s watched Larry David tootling around LA in his Prius with uncurbed enthusiasm will get the picture – “we’re Prius drivers….we’re a special breed”. As Dan Becker, the head of the global warming program at the Sierra Club says, “the Prius allowed you to make a green statement with a car for the first time ever”.

The authors cite a market research company’s finding that 57% of Prius buyers say their main reason for choosing the Prius is because “it makes a statement about me”. They refer to another study where most of the individuals interviewed had only a basic understanding of environmental issues or the ecological benefits of hybrid cars but purchased “a symbol they could incorporate into a narrative of who they are or who they wish to be”.

The authors conclude that the conspicuous conservation effect accounts on average for 33% of the Prius’s market share in Colorado and 10% in Washington. No wonder it’s come to be known as the Toyota Pious. Read the rest of this entry »


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 »


Who’s buying homes on the fringe?

Importance of proximity to......(%)

If you think that home buyers in the fringe Growth Area LGAs are predominantly young renters buying their first McMansion, then think again.

A survey released today by property consultants Oliver Hulme profiles home buyers in the Growth Areas LGAs i.e. Wyndham, Melton, Hume, Whittlesea, Casey and Cardinia.

Given the brouhaha in The Age today over foreign investment on the fringe, the media might give attention to the finding that 23% of purchasers in these areas are investors. However it is not possible to deduce from the report how many of them live overseas.

But there are plenty of other interesting nuggets of information.

Rather than moving out of rental accommodation and into their first home, most fringe purchasers already own a house. Only 36% are first home buyers. Of the 64% who are ‘upgrading’ from an existing owner-occupied dwelling, a third are buying their third or fourth home.

It is therefore no surprise that the average buyer is not ‘starting out’ on the great suburban journey. Nearly half (48%) of adult buyers are aged 35 years or more. In fact 14% are aged 50 or more.

And while some bought large houses, almost three quarters (74%) purchased a single level dwelling. Moreover, 70% of homes are less than 30 squares and 47% are less than 26 squares. That suggests the great bulk of dwellings are roomy but they’re hardly McMansions. However, small dwellings don’t cut it – even though 12% of buyers are single, only 1% of dwellings are smaller than 15 squares.

Read the rest of this entry »


Do fringe dwellers want density?

150 m2 house on 294 m2 lot at Craigieburn

The benefits of residential density are more complex than they appear. The attractions of living cheek by jowl in places like Surfers Paradise or the CBD may not apply everywhere, especially on the fringes of our major cities.

Almost everyone knows, it seems, that density has enormous benefits. It is correlated with lower levels of car ownership, fewer kilometres driven and higher public transport use. It lowers infrastructure costs and is also associated with lower consumption of energy and water. According to some, it’s even connected with higher levels of social capital and lower rates of obesity.

However most of the benefits – both private and social – do not derive from density per se but rather from location. Lots of people want to live in high amenity places like the beachfront or in proximity to the jobs, entertainment opportunities and transport infrastructure of somewhere like the city centre. These sorts of places are in short supply so demand can only be met by increasing density.

Higher density necessarily means less land per dwelling but it doesn’t inevitably mean smaller dwellings. However unless you’re filthy rich, one of the compromises you will have to make to capitalise on a sought-after location is a smaller dwelling. The 350 m2 McMansion on the fringe might at best be a 140 m2 three bedroom unit on the top of Doncaster Hill or an 80 m2 two bedroom unit in Docklands.

The point is that many of the social benefits associated with density – like higher public transport use and lower car ownership – are a function of the location, not the dwelling type. In turn, lower energy and water use is not primarily a direct function of density but rather a result of their smaller size.

This might seem self-evident or even a distinction of no more than academic interest. But as I’ve argued before, the failure to fully understand what density is, can lead to bad policy. It is also a particularly pertinent point in the context of advocating higher densities in places like fringe Growth Areas.

Read the rest of this entry »