Are McMansions about class warfare?

It's big, but who would dream of calling it a McMansion? It's Beached House, a winner in this year's Victorian architecture awards

There was a very interesting trans-blog discussion over the weekend about one of my favourites topics – McMansions. It started earlier in the month when Helen at Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony decided to “call bullshit on the popular story that criticising McMansions is equivalent to sneering at the working class, and denying them the good things in life”. She goes on:

In this narrative, the people championing the McMansion are the true socialists and stand with the working man and woman in their quest for a truly equal society.

She reckons it’s nothing to do with class. Her alternative interpretation is that McMansions are objectively just plain bad. That’s partly, she says, because they’re shoddily built, partly because they’re environmentally greedy, and partly because buyers are unwittingly duped by advertisers and marketers into wanting these big status machines.

Don Arthur at Club Troppo picked up on Helen’s post in passing on Friday in his regular Friday Missing Links. He must’ve been intrigued by the debate because he returned on Sunday with a nice, measured commentary on the topic, Together alone, why McMansions appeal.

I’m not going to get into the detail of this debate because I’ve looked at it before (e.g. see here, here, here and here, or go to Housing in the Categories list in the sidepane for a larger selection). However I do want to summarise in twelve simple points what I think are the salient matters in this ongoing debate.

One, what we call a McMansion in Australia is modest compared to the way the term is used in the US where it originated. In the latter McMansions are palaces, but here in Australia, any outer suburban two story home and garage produced by a developer, whatever its size, seems to attract the pejorative, McMansion.

Two, only cookie cutter houses constructed by developers are McMansions. Large architect-designed bespoke detached houses like these aren’t described in such sneering, deprecating terms.

Three, the great majority of fringe dwellings don’t fit the popular definition of a McMansion. For example, in Melbourne, more than two thirds of all houses built in the Growth Areas are single story (however for some critics that means little – they implicitly regard all detached fringe houses as McMansions).

Four, buyers of McMansions aren’t from struggle town – they’re overwhelmingly 2nd and 3rd home buyers.

Five, fringe area McMansions aren’t appreciably bigger, if at all, than all those renovated detached homes within established suburbs. The latter have the advantage of larger sites, so there’s scope to extend further. When account is taken of relative household size, the difference in per capita space between McMansions and established homes – such as those occupied by empty nesters – is likely to be even smaller.

Six, there’s no evidence McMansions are more shoddily built than smaller fringe dwellings, or apartments for that matter. That’s just out and out prejudice. Read the rest of this entry »


– Is the new Population Strategy…. strategic?

Hmmmm......so, this is the sort of useful guidance a real strategy provides?

There are two things the new population strategy the Federal Government released on Friday gets right. First, it dismisses the concept of a specific population target and instead focusses on making Australia more resilient to change (I’ve discussed this before). Second, it points out that population size is not the sole cause of problems like traffic congestion or lack of skilled labour.

But overall Sustainable Australia: Sustainable Communities is underwhelming. In fact whatever else this document might be, it’s not a strategy. ‘Strategy’ was originally a military term and refers to a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. Whereas tactics are concerned with the conduct of an engagement – how a battle should be fought – strategy is concerned with the terms and conditions that it is fought on and, crucially, whether it should be fought at all.

I expect a population strategy for Australia should be looking at the range of possibilities for where the country could go in the future; the warrant for different choices; the costs and the benefits; and the various implications and knock-on effects. It should assess whether we want to embark on any of them and, if we do, what is the best way forward.

Given how fundamental this issue is to the future of Australia I’d expect to see some pretty sophisticated analysis. There might even be some data, some numbers, some theory and even some analysis. I’d expect to see the economic issues laid out and analysed with rigour – maybe something like this. I’d expect to see immigration discussed in a meaningful way given that for practical purposes that’s the only aspect of population growth that we have much choice about. And I’d expect it to start with the strong likelihood that Australia will reach a population of 35 million around 2050 despite what governments do (I set out my expectations of the strategy 12 months ago).

What is offered up to us with this document is none of those things. It’s a lot of very high-level and inoffensive motherhood statements and ‘principles’, combined with a lengthy description of a vast range of existing Government programs, from health to skills development to the NBN. If I were uncharitable I’d describe it as vacuous. This quote typifies the tone:

A sustainable Australia is made up of sustainable communities: communities that are vibrant, liveable places that have a mix of affordable housing, employment opportunities, access to services, transport and natural amenity.

That’s fair enough as far as it goes but the trouble is it doesn’t even take us to the front gate. Population growth is a serious business for Australia – we need a discussion that is couched in concrete terms and a strategy like this should provide direction and leadership. Population policy is essentially about immigration because that’s the only variable that can practically be affected by government action. Most of the concern with growth is around the impact on the functioning of our cities. Yet the strategy devotes considerably more attention to talking up regional development than it does to examining immigration. Read the rest of this entry »


Can Coles and Woolies be more sustainable?

Traffic on Lisbon's main 'arteries'

Giant US department store chain Wal-Mart has some interesting initatives to promote sustainability and public health that the likes of Coles, Woolworths and Bunnings should be taking note of.

My interest in Wal-Mart was piqued by a large number of hits The Melbourne Urbanist received last month from the US on a piece I wrote about the value of ‘food miles’. The hits were generated by an article published in The Huffington Post and the Harvard Business Review.

Written by Andrew Winston, the article looked at Wal-Mart’s efforts to green its supply chain and linked to the analysis of whether or not ‘local food’ is more sustainable that I posted here back in July.

Andrew Winston says there are three initiatives in particular that demonstrate Wal-Mart’s strategic focus on sustainability.

First, it’s doubling the quantity of locally sourced food on its shelves; second, it’s reducing the amount of saturated fat, sugar and salt in its house brand products; and third, its donating $2 million to 16 food banks to help them lower their energy costs (food banks are non profits that distribute surplus food to the hungry).

I doubt there’s any sustainability dividend from buying locally (the point of my earlier piece on ‘food miles’), but apparently Wal-Mart believes it will lower supply costs. It should also help the company create a friendlier image with local communities.

The second initiative is the key one. It could potentially provide a better public health outcome for customers as well as reduce the environmental impact associated with complex inputs like saturated fat and sugar. It should improve Wal-Mart’s standing on health and environmental issues and thereby give it a continuing commercial incentive to keep up the good work. Read the rest of this entry »


Public transport: time for a new paradigm?

Sorry for the hoary cliché but I really do think it’s time for a new way of thinking about public transport.

Much of the debate on transport in cities is too simplistic. All too frequently it’s reduced to a simple nostrum: “replace all car travel with public transport”. I think it’s more complex than that and, to use another cliché, requires a more nuanced approach.

Let me be clear from the outset that there are compelling reasons why we need to invest more in public transport – for example, to provide mobility for those without access to a car. Another reason is to provide an alternative to roads that are becoming increasingly congested.

But I’m not convinced that the reason most commonly advanced – to overcome the environmental disadvantages of cars – is all that persuasive. Here’s why. Read the rest of this entry »


Is unused infrastructure capacity in the inner suburbs all used up?

There was more evidence in The Sunday Age on the weekend that the spare infrastructure capacity that is widely presumed to be available in the inner city and inner suburbs has in all likelihood already been consumed.

What is unfortunate about this stubborn idea is that there are already sufficient good reasons for increasing housing density in established suburbs without having to resort to unsubstantiated and outdated beliefs.

Proposed 520 unit development, Coburg. How much 'spare' infrastructure capacity will it use?

New research by Professor Kevin O’Conner, Melbourne University, shows that the number of additional students who will be seeking enrolment by 2016 in the inner city and inner suburbs is equivalent to fourteen new schools.

However existing schools are generally at capacity. The principal of Port Melbourne primary is reported as saying “schools in this area don’t have the capacity to cope with more students….looking at my projected enrolments and those of neighbouring schools, and from what I hear about the plans for extra multistorey developments in Southbank and Docklands, we will be full soon”.

He could’ve mentioned that virtually every school within at least 10 km of the CBD already has one or more so-called temporary class rooms including, now, the two story portable, and some are using public parks for play and sport.

Unfortunately there is no credible contemporary analysis of infrastructure capacity and costs in different parts of Melbourne. As I’ve argued before (here and here), there is unlikely to be significant spare infrastructure capacity in the inner established areas. There are a number of reasons for this proposition: 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 »


What role for high-rise towers in Melbourne?

Do high-rise towers have a role in Melbourne’s future? Peter Newman thinks they do!

This report by VECCI, Up or out? dealing with Melbourne’s population boom, nicely summarises two alternative approaches set out in The Age for planning Melbourne’s future growth. Read the rest of this entry »