I wrote my 2005 thesis on Auckland’s Regional Growth Strategy, so it is interesting having a read through the evaluation of that strategy, that the ARC has undertaken over the past couple of years. There are a lot of lengthy PDF documents that I haven’t made my way through yet, but it is good to see that the ARC has been so thorough in examining the effect of the Growth Strategy. I think the general conclusion has been “yeah great idea, but we haven’t provided enough quality urban intensification yet”. However, leaving that aside for now, what is particularly interesting in some respects is the analysis of International Trends and Lessons in Growth Management. Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Portland and Vancouver have all been looked at to analyse what kinds of growth management strategies they have put in place, and how successful things have been for them. Furthermore, there has been a detailed literature review of the whole sprawl/intensification debate, which makes for interesting reading – particularly with regard to linkages between transportation and land-use. As a planner, but with a strong interest in transportation, this linkage between land-use and transportation is of key interest to me. Hopefully one day people will be convinced that a “Transport Planner” should have a planning degree (or a geography one in my case) rather than a Civil Engineering degree, to properly recognise the linkage between transport and land-use. I think perhaps until then transport will ignore planning and planning will ignore transport – and our auto depedence will perpetuate. Anyway, there are some interesting snippets from the literature review that I think are worth noting and commenting upon:
Economic Costs and Benefits of Urban Form The literature on this subject strongly supports the conclusion that pursuing a more compact urban form will lead to benefits in terms of improved economic development. This research identified also generally supports the notion that densification has the potential to better utilise existing infrastructure and limit infrastructure expenditure. Where existing infrastructure requires upgrading, this often has greater benefits than the provision of new infrastructure at the city edge. The literature outlines that there is no final agreement on whether a sprawled or densified urban form causes the most pressure on the provision of infrastructure, however there is agreement on the consequences of such a pressure: higher costs and/or decreased efficiency of that infrastructure. The resultant impacts on urban form might be very high both directly, as a cost of building and maintaining the necessary infrastructure and through negative effects on economic growth from under-investment or from inefficient provision of infrastructure. Not only will the need for infrastructure upgrading differ across a city to reflect the type and rate of intensification, but there may be thresholds for densification after which infrastructure upgrading will become critical.
It is interesting that the economic benefits of intensification appear to come across as some of the strongest. I guess that’s a pretty strong counter-argument to the “leave it to the market” crowd.
Accessibility and Urban Form The literature review revealed two opposing views on how to best improve urban accessibility. One view is increasing car mobility – where the car is seen as the best, most popular way of providing mobility, convenience and flexibility, being more effective in transporting people and much cheaper for infrastructure provision than public transport. The opposing view is an increased emphasis on alternate modes and mode choice – where the focus is on positive health and sustainability outcomes of walking, cycling and public transport use, as well as the negative impacts of car dependency, such as congestion, pollution, health impacts and social inequality. These outcomes and impacts can be addressed by providing alternative accessibility patterns through changes to urban form, more public transport, and further opportunities for nonmotorised modes such as walking and cycling. The OECD Roundtable notes increasing research into the importance of urban form and its relationship to transport and the impacts on the competitiveness of economies. The perception among many urban theorists and practitioners is that it is possible to affect the amount and type of traffic through urban form strategies by considering a number of interacting elements. Changes in travel patterns are partly explained by changes in social conditions like attitude and lifestyle. However factors such as levels of density, connectivity/accessibility, mixed use activity, and good public transport provision combined with initiatives to increase walkability and encourage cycling all have an effect. There is no consensus on how significant that effect is. Much of the research indicates that land use measures, by themselves, do not lead to large changes in transport behaviour, but that the right combinations of land use measures and the provision of alternate transport modes, and corresponding incentives for these modes together with disincentives for car use, will cause reductions in private motorised transport use and its associated negative impacts.
This is the crux of the issue really, and something I grapple with frequently. It is interesting to note that Auckland has a higher population density than Perth and Brisbane (to a quite significant extent), but at the same time has far lower public transport usage. Furthermore, Los Angeles actually has one of the highest population densities of any US city (yet, surprising I know!) but has a very low level of public transport use. This would point towards the quality of the public transport system being far more important than the land-use development patterns. Yet at the same time this seems to be contrary to most planning ideas – that the higher the urban densities are the more likely people will use public transport.
I guess the real answer is that it’s a bit of everything together that makes a difference. I don’t really believe that a low-density sprawled city is ever going to be anything but auto-dependent, and I imagine that while Perth and Brisbane have good public transport usage figures for work commuting, they are still quite auto dependent for other activities. This is probably why public transport usage for these cities is still well below what you might expect to find in a European city, where people would catch the metro or a tram to conduct most of their daily activities and wouldn’t need to own a car quite as much as someone from a place like Perth or Brisbane.
Some interesting points are made about links between growth management and housing affordability too. This is of particular importance as rising house prices in Auckland over the past decade are often linked to the imposition of urban limits throughout that same time period. It appears that international examples back up the idea that those cities that have controlled their outward expansion have created higher house prices and reduced affordability compared with those cities that have continued to allow development to sprawl. There’s an obvious demand/supply argument happening here, and overall I agree to some extent that the MUL has had a significant role to play in driving up Auckland’s house prices. However, I would also say that Councils have certainly not helped by refusing to rezone much land for higher residential densities. Furthermore, where they have rezoned land, council rules that are still based around a “sprawl good, high-density bad” ideology have made life really difficult for higher-density projects. I suppose that the glut of poor quality apartments in Auckland has backed up this approach to some extent, but surely there must be a way of ensuring good quality developments are possible without making life nigh on impossible to build at the kind of densities the Regional Growth Strategy envisages.
Housing Affordability and Urban Form
Research around the relationship of housing affordability and urban form does not provide conclusive evidence on whether the Regional Growth Strategy will cause housing to become more or less affordable. The evidence generally falls within four categories: International research on the relationship between land use regulation and housing prices where results are conflicting; research showing that higher density, in itself, does not lead to higher housing prices; Auckland-specific research that indicates that the Metropolitan Urban Limit is just one of many contributors to increasing housing prices, although this is perceived to be part of a desirable trade-off for other benefits; and research arguing that factors other than land use supply and regulation explain housing price increases to a lesser or greater extent. Since no predominant contributor can be said to cause rises in housing prices, strategies to create more affordable housing would be best focused on adjusting a whole range of different factors, including local, regional and central government policies, rather than attempting to improve housing affordability through changing a single factor such as the release of new residential land outside the MUL.
This research seems to back up my viewpoint, that the issue of housing affordability (or the lack of it) is more complex than simply blaming the MUL. If we were to remove the MUL the other consequences would be so significantly negative that I think we should look at all possible other ways to improve housing affordability before turning on the sprawl tap.
There are also some interesting points made in this document about the adverse economic, environmental and social effects of an auto-dependent city that I will comment on in the future.