why Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, let’s start with a look at one of nature’s hardest-working organisms: the urban tree. In the New Yorker, Alex Hutchinson asks: what is a tree worth?
The emerald ash borer, which has killed a hundred million trees across North America in recent years, offers a grim natural experiment. A county-by-county analysis of health records by the U.S. Forest Service, between 1990 and 2007, found that deaths related to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses rose in places where trees succumbed to the pest, contributing to more than twenty thousand additional deaths during the study period. The Toronto data shows a similar link between tree cover and cardio-metabolic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. For the people suffering from these conditions, an extra eleven trees per block corresponds to an income boost of twenty thousand dollars, or being almost one and a half years younger.
What is most interesting about this data, though, is one of its subtler details. The health benefits stem almost entirely from trees planted along streets and in front yards, where many people walk past them; trees in back yards and parks don’t seem to matter as much in the analysis. It could be that roadside trees have a bigger impact on air quality along sidewalks, or that leafy avenues encourage people to walk more. But Berman is also interested in a possibility that harks back to Ulrich’s hospital-window finding: perhaps it is enough simply to look at a tree.
The city of trees is very different from the city of cars. A city built around fast-moving cars is also a city that lacks visual diversity and nuance. It also tends to lack street trees, as they are fixed hazardous objects in traffic engineering parlance.
Designing a 70km/h or 30km/h city: Slower speeds support greater density, reducing the need to cover long distances. pic.twitter.com/a3zIH9TAYl
— Mitchell Reardon (@MitchellReardon) November 22, 2015
While trees are a proven and, one hopes, persistent amenity, not all amenities will last. At Bloomberg, Patrick Clark reports on the decline of the golf course in the US. Golf courses experienced a building boom in the 1990s and early 2000s, as real estate developers added them to subdivisions to boost property prices. But as demand for golfing plummets, the golf courses are being abandoned:
The dark clouds rolled in over Phoenix’s Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course in 2013, when its owner declared that the costs of keeping it open had outstripped what he was collecting in green fees.
Wilson Gee, a California businessman, shuttered the golf course, erected barbed-wire fences, and began looking for a buyer, telling reporters the land would never be a working golf course again. Homeowners, complaining he was turning the course into an eyesore in order to win approval to redevelop it into single-family homes, sued to reopen it. Gee shanked his first attempt to sell it in 2014, when one homebuilder walked away from a deal, but last year found a buyer in a Denver-based developer…
More than 800 golf courses have closed nationwide in the last decade, as operators grapple with declining interest in the sport and a glut of competition. Many of those shuttered courses were built on land proscribed from redevelopment by local zoning codes seeking to preserve open space—or, as with Ahwatukee, by deed restrictions intended to protect homeowners who had paid a premium to live near a golf course.
That leaves some golf course owners with the real estate equivalent of an unplayable lie: They can’t make money running the course, and they can’t recoup their investment by selling it.
“If you open a restaurant in a strip mall and you fail, you close shop and move on,” said Jay Karen, chief executive officer of the National Golf Course Owners Association. But for golf course owners, it’s much harder to pull the plug on a failing business; as courses fall into disuse, they become suburban zombies—not quite dead, yet far from alive.
Memo to Americans who bought a home next to a golf course: if you want it to stay a golf course, you should be willing to pay the green fees. Otherwise, perhaps accept that securing the value of your home against a declining sport is a bad idea.
Speaking of sports with troubled finances, Clay Dillow (FiveThirtyEight) explains why hosting the Olympics is a terrible investment:
When Rio de Janeiro won its bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics back in 2009, the Brazilian government estimated that costs directly related to hosting the games would run just shy of $3 billion. But by the time Vanderlei de Lima lit the Olympic torch at last week’s opening ceremonies, the country had already spent some $4.6 billion on venues, administration, transportation and the like, putting the games roughly 50 percent over budget. By the time the games close on Aug. 21, the tally for the games will likely be higher still.
But it could be much worse. The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi blew their budget by 289 percent. The 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid overtopped projections by 324 percent. And the 1976 Games in Montreal ran a staggering 720 percent over projections; the city spent three decades paying down the bill. While outliers such as these distort the average cost overruns somewhat (176 percent for Summer Games, 142 percent for Winter Games), the median cost overrun for all games for which we have data is 90 percent, making Rio’s cost overrun somewhat lower than the historical norm, at least so far.
The modern Olympic Games, in other words, are wildly expensive — and wildly more so than host cities expect when they make their bids. The Olympics have a well-deserved reputation for accelerated construction schedules and poor oversight, as well as for the cost overruns associated with them. Since the 1960 games in Rome, every single edition of the Olympics for which data is available has been more expensive than originally projected.
Oh well. At least the Olympics give New Zealand an opportunity to enjoy its national sport: per-capita bragging. Inga Ting at the Sydney Morning Herald has the figures on medal counts:
Closer to home, Victoria Carter and Lincoln Tan have written two good NZ Herald articles on the diversity – or lack thereof – of local governments. Carter shines the spotlight on age, experience, and gender balance:
Over half of those on the Auckland Council have been around a council table for 10 years or more, either as a former mayor or councillor. Some have been in local body politics even longer, and it’s the same all over New Zealand.
Auckland and many other councils desperately need some new, energetic, younger thinkers and more people under 55. They also need people who know how to question bureaucracy and some people who know how a business is run…
Just like a healthy commercial or charitable board, the council needs to have a diversity of people to ensure a range of opinion. We need people of different age groups, work experience, ideally some with a business background so that there are voices at the council table who can add value.
Fifteen years ago I was one of the youngest to be elected to Auckland City Council. I was lucky that one third of us were a “new face”. We came to the council with a bushy-tailed enthusiasm, desire to change the way things had been done and probably a naivety that bureaucracy wasn’t going to get in our way.
The other good thing about that new group elected was that we had significantly shifted the dial on the age of the council and half the council were now women. Nearly half were under 50 too – a huge shift from the previous council age group.
Tan focuses on ethnic diversity – new research shows that Auckland’s councillors are outliers in an increasingly diverse city:
Auckland may be one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world but nine in 10 elected representatives on the Auckland Council are white, a study has found.
Ethnic minorities are being urged to stand as local body candidates, after AUT University research found the 23 per cent who identify as Asian had just 1 per cent representation on the council…
The study found 88 per cent, of elected representatives were European, despite just 59 per cent in the city identifying as European.
Overall, ethnic minority groups were under-represented: 6 per cent were Pacific members of a 14 per cent population, and 4 per cent Maori against a population of 11 per cent.
Report author Karen Webster said Auckland Council needs to ensure the needs of Maori and diverse communities are understood and met. “The successful growth and future prosperity of Auckland will depend on this.”
Everything yellow: we could add a ton of housing w/o displacing anyone or losing a single rent stabilized unit. https://t.co/WgVvpkFaw5
— LetsGoLA (@VamonosLA) August 15, 2016
And now for three articles on urban planning and housing affordability. The first article, by Daniel Hertz at CityObservatory, argues that “housing can’t be a good investment and affordable“. He points out, contra the conventional wisdom emanating from real estate brokers and politicians (who are, incidentally, the only two groups of people in New Zealand who drive cars with their own names and faces on the side), capital gains from housing are irreconcilable with long-term housing affordability:
What if housing were a low-risk, can’t-miss bet for growing your personal wealth? What would that world look like?
Well, in order for your home to offer you a real profit, its price would need to increase faster than the rate of inflation. Let’s pick something decent, but not too crazy—say, annual increases of 2.5 percent, taking inflation into account. So if you bought a home for $200,000 and sold it ten years later, you’d be looking at a healthy profit of just over $56,000.
Sound good? Well, what if I told you that such a city existed? What if I told you it was in a beautiful natural setting, with hills and views of the ocean? And a booming economy? And lots of organic produce?
Maybe you’ve guessed by now: The wonderland of ever-increasing housing prices is San Francisco. When researcher Eric Fischer went back to construct a database of rental prices there, he found that rents had been growing by about 2.5 percent, net of inflation, for about 60 years. And this Zillow data suggests that San Francisco owner-occupied home prices have been growing by just over 2.5 percent since 1980 as well.
Like I said, over ten years, that gives you a profit of just over 25 percent. But compound interest is an amazing thing, and the longer this consistent wealth-building goes on, the more out of hand housing prices get. In 1980, Zillow’s home price index for San Francisco home prices was about $310,000 (in 2015 dollars). By 2015, after 35 years of averaging 2.5 percent growth, home prices were over $750,000.
…this sort of wealth building is predicated on a never-ending stream of new people who are willing and able to pay current home owners increasingly absurd amounts of money for their homes. It is, in other words, a massive up-front transfer of wealth from younger people to older people, on the implicit promise that when those young people become old, there will be new young people willing to give them even more money. And of course, as prices rise, the only young people able to buy into this ponzi scheme are quite well-to-do themselves. And because we’re not talking about stocks, but homes, “buying into this ponzi scheme” means “able to live in San Francisco.”
In other words, possibly the only thing worse than a world in which homeownership doesn’t work as a wealth-building tool is a world in which it does work as a wealth-building tool.
Whoah. That’s a grim truth. Here’s a video of a kiwi bouncing around merrily:
Second, a hopeful story. At Grist, Ben Adler writes about how cities are learning to relax and love life without minimum parking requirements. Regulated parking oversupply turns out to be bad for housing affordability:
For the last half-century, zoning codes in many American cities and suburbs — even relatively walkable, transit-heavy ones — have typically required developers to provide a certain amount of parking for each new home or business, often far more spots than are needed. The costs of building that parking get passed on to residents and customers whether or not they drive. By subsidizing parking in that way, we encourage people to drive. And surrounding every building with parking makes cities less friendly to walkers and eats up green space.
But there’s been a spate of good news on this topic in the last year. New York City recognized that people who live in low-income projects with public transit access were very unlikely to own cars. So, in its recently passed rezoning, the city eliminated parking requirements for low-income, “inclusionary” (meaning some units are affordable for low- or middle-income families), and affordable senior housing developments that are within a half-mile of mass transit…
Other big, progressive cities are making similar moves. Chicago has a surplus of mandated free parking. But, last year, it expanded areas targeted for transit-oriented development, where parking requirements are minimal or nonexistent. In January, Washington, D.C., reduced parking requirements for multi-family buildings and commercial buildings near metro stations and along high-speed bus routes.
The impetus is economic as much as environmental. Hot cities such as Chicago and D.C. suffer from spiraling housing costs, and eliminating expensive parking requirements can help alleviate that burden. “Builders find that parking minimums are high-cost, and for a high-cost city like D.C., that is one of the issues with affordability,” says Christopher Coes, director of LOCUS, a program at Smart Growth America that advocates for sustainable, walkable development. In fact, cities can use the reward of reduced parking requirements as an incentive to get developers to build more affordable housing…
Even smaller cities far from the coasts are breaking the habit of forcing free parking on their residents and businesses. Last year, the Fayetteville, Arkansas, city council eliminated parking minimums for every new building except homes. Previously, for example, a restaurant was obligated to provide one parking space for every 100 square feet. In Buffalo, New York, that dowdy emblem of industrial decline, Mayor Byron Brown’s proposed “Green Code” would eliminate parking requirements entirely.
The days of MPRs are numbered, I think.
Lastly, at the Spinoff Jenny McArthur writes about the need to make Auckland a livable city, not just an affordable one:
Liveability is a useful frame of reference, but I’d like to see Auckland re-appropriate it to serve not only the city’s international reputation, but Aucklanders themselves. French sociologist Henri Lefebvre talked about the “right to the city”, arguing that for cities to thrive, the people who live there need political agency, and to use that to shape the city’s development toward the common good (not just to preserve private property values). It doesn’t require a revolution, just that the public get involved. Exercising our “right to the city” means lobbying to shape urban development for a fairer Auckland, rather than leaving decisions to the politicians and bureaucrats.
It’s plain that liveability means something different to everyone: that is exactly the point. Cities are nearly always diverse; with an ethnic migrant population of 40%, Auckland is officially “super-diverse” and has a unique Māori heritage. Instead of focusing solely on housing, urban planning should consider and support Auckland’s unique diversity. The things we share in cities, including public spaces and infrastructure, can be designed in a way that works for different needs and preferences. At a recent Auckland Conversations event, Colombian urbanisation expert Gil Peñalosa framed it like this: “People who are 8 and 80 are the indicator species for good places to live. Redesign our cities to keep them safe, healthy and happy, and we’ll have a place that works well for everyone”. Simply expanding the design requirements for streets, public space and transit infrastructure so that they can be used by elderly or disabled residents, and allow children to play safely, makes a huge difference.
Factoring diversity into city planning means responding to the changing needs of the people who live there. Right now, London is partway through a £4.2 billion roading project – not to build more roads or expand capacity, but to retrofit dozens of major arterials and junctions. Currently, most of the road space and priority for movement is given to vehicles, while tens of thousands of pedestrians and cyclists shuffle around the edges each day, enduring unsafe levels of air pollution and an unreasonable risk of being hit by a vehicle. Redesigning transport infrastructure can open up new areas for locals to use, replacing busy intersections they’d previously try to avoid.
Good thoughts. Until next time!