Travel diary: New Urbanist town centres

The last few weeks I’ve been on holiday in California, visiting friends and family up and down the length of the state. As always, I’ve been surprised at how familiar – and how different – the state seems. In some ways, it’s ahead of New Zealand. In others, it’s behind. And in many more, it’s simply off on a quite different path of development.

One thing I noticed was the surprising ubiquity of New Urbanist town centre upgrades. Cities and towns up and down the state are upgrading sidewalks, adding sharrows (or even painted bike lanes), installing planter boxes and parklets, and doing up historic buildings in old downtown areas. This seems to be a bit of a new trend – or at any rate, I don’t remember it being so common when I was growing up in California.

So, for example, here’s downtown in Walnut Creek, a suburban city in the San Francisco Bay Area. It sits at the junction of two freeways, but there’s also a BART station, a rails-to-trails cycleway, and public parking buildings that allow less surface land to be devoted to parking. As a result, the core of the shopping centre is surprisingly walkable and leafy:

Walnut Creek town centre

However, Walnut Creek hasn’t always been developed this way – here, for example, is retail frontage a few blocks over. It’s the pretty classic Californian design of big parking lots out front and big boxes in the back (plus a few street trees). But the city seems to have undergone a transition away from building more uninviting carparks and towards walkable, efficient places.

Walnut Creek car-based retail

The same ideas are also being implemented in smaller places. Here, for example, is the historic town centre in Grass Valley, a town of around 13,000 people at the foothills of the Sierras. A decade or so ago, many of the shopfronts were empty, but now they’re full of various boutique-y shops catering to tourists. (Including a lot of wine tasting rooms – there are a number of wineries in the area.) They’ve installed complementary retro-kitsch like the clock on the left side of the picture:

Grass Valley town centre

We saw similar things in other small towns around the place. But the small towns generally also illustrated the limitations of New Urbanist town centre upgrades. Unlike Walnut Creek, which is larger (and more affluent), they didn’t usually succeed in drawing back in major retail chains and supermarkets, which continued heading for suburban shopping centres. Hence the tourist-oriented retail in Grass Valley.

Finally, New Urbanist design is hardly a panacea or a remedy for other ills. Take this development on the main highway in Torrance (in Los Angeles). It conforms to many New Urbanist strictures – traditionalist building design, ground floor retail facing the street, etc. But because it’s also included a great big parking garage with two gaping entrances (one of which is pictured), it hasn’t gotten rave reviews. Apparently the neighbours, some of whom live in condos or apartments themselves, have cited it as an example of why it’s necessary to “protect” the area from “overdevelopment”.

Torrence New Urbanism

As an aside, I quite like the way that LA strip retail is built. Major at-grade highways in the older areas of the city are densely packed with street-front retail. The building styles are eclectic and entertaining, and the businesses within are usually pretty varied as well.

Redondo Beach PCH retail

Sunday reading 3 August 2015

Scott Lazenby, “Why We Should Pay for the Highway Miles We Use“, Governing. We expect to pay for services like phones and electricity and water that are reliable. Shouldn’t we treat roads the same way?

When you live or travel in a third-world country, you can’t take basic infrastructure for granted. Water might come out of a faucet when you turn it on, or it might not. Electric lights might work, or they might not. Something might happen when you flush a toilet, but you probably don’t want to know where the sewage goes.

Here in the U.S., we don’t accept these kinds of conditions. We have little tolerance for outages of services like cable TV and cellphones, water, electricity, natural gas, garbage collection and Internet access. We insist on, and pay for, reliable provision of all the basic services. Except one: roads and highways.

David Z. Morris, “Oregon just debuted this radical alternative to the gasoline tax“, Fortune. Some quibbles with the pricing structure proposed here, but the real story is the maturing technology (Azuga) that enables pricing distance, time-of-day, and other factors.

The program, called OreGo, is currently voluntary, with space for an initial 5,000 participants. Drivers in the program will install a small dongle into their on-board diagnostics (OBD) port, standard on all cars after 1996. The device will track miles driven, and report that information via 3G to Azuga, the private company handling the technology.

Darren Davis, “For whom the road tolls?“, Architect this City. Davis (@DarrenDavis10) follows up his black-box busting piece on traffic modelling with this on road tolling.

In a world where time is money, we are constantly berated about the economic costs of congestion. In 2011, the Toronto Board of Trade estimated that congestion in the Toronto region alone cost the regional economy $6 billion a year, rising to an estimated $15 billion in 2031 should no action be taken. More recent research by the CD Howe Institute pegs this figure at up to $11 billion.

Given these sorts of eye-watering figures, one might be tempted to think that car drivers, and in particular the goods industry, would be flinging their wallets open at the chance to buy their way out of congestion…

This brings up a fundamental paradox: Congestion costs the economy a fortune and congestion is a top-of-mind frustration, yet people seem reluctant to pay even comparatively small amounts to bypass congestion.

Adele Peters, “Downtown Dublin Is Getting Rid Of Cars“, FastCo. Dublin joins the growing list of European cities limited car access in its city core.

In the proposed plan, the city wants to route cars around the city center, and turn major streets into car-free plazas and passages for buses, bikes, pedestrians, and a new tram line. Along the banks of the River Liffey, polluted roads will become promenades. On Grafton Street, a former car lane will turn into a tree-shaded terrace with cafe tables, while the other lane has tram tracks. New bike lanes and wider sidewalks will be added as well.

(via @cowanrob)

(via @cowanrob)

Bob Dey, “Another contortion on development capacity“, commenting on a recent report which looks at how much housing development is likely to be economically feasible under the Proposed Unitary Plan:

[The report] raises the same questions as were raised in initial modelling 2 years ago, again without answering the primary question. That primary question, which is political, is: Should you allow the Auckland urban footprint to expand without constraint, or should you contain it?

…although I’d hope that question has been answered, it’s certainly been given enough attention over the years…

That’s before considering the second question, in the form of ‘how long is a piece of string?’: Which population projection for the next 30 years is the real one?

Will Penrose remain the heartland of Auckland industry? Will the poorly used Eden Park remain a stadium? Will South Auckland grow new types of business for a more educated population? Will Aucklanders occupy a whole range of different housing types as they move into quite different futures?

And the question that’s always waiting for planners who think in terms of finite frames: If we get the million extra people projected (on the high side of the scale) in 30 years, what happens in 30 years + 1 day?

Matthew Iglesias, “At last, a convincing theory about why the tech boom’s days are numbered“, Vox.

To keep growing, the technology sector needs to keep adding skilled workers and office space, and both San Francisco and Silicon Valley are running out of both. That means that even companies with perfectly plausible business ideas are going to find costs rising faster than revenue, and the sector is going to need to stall out until some companies fail and free up more resources for the others.

….So why not locate in Detroit, Cleveland, or Christchurch?

The problem is that almost any move you could make to mitigate your real estate problems is going to exacerbate your skilled labor problem.

The reason is that startups are, inherently, risky places to work. But if you have the kind of skills to get a good job at a startup, you can greatly mitigate that risk by living in a city that’s full of similar startups that need people with similar skills. You mitigate that risk, in other words, by living in Silicon Valley or San Francisco.

David Henbrow, “How problems which could be seen 40 years ago have not been solved and how an obvious solution was overlooked“, A View from the Cycle Path. Using Wellington as an exmaple Henbrow illustrates how  transport decisions made 40 years ago influence urban mobility.

Here’s my hypothesis about why it is that cycling is still so unpopular in and around Wellington: The city and the surrounding area are treating cycling no more seriously now than they were in 1971.

The post is based on this fascinating video discussing the increasing traffic congestion and social isolation coming with Wellington’s suburban growth.

Adrienne Lafrance, “When You Give a Tree an Email Address“, CityLab. The city of Melbourne assigned trees email addresses so citizens could report problems. Instead, people wrote thousands of love letters to their favorite trees.

Officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The “unintended but positive consequence,” as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees, which have received thousands of messages—everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas.

Kevin Montgomery, “This Is What Happened When Bicyclists Obeyed Traffic Laws Along The Wiggle Yesterday“, SF Weekly.

Hundreds of cyclists rode through The Wiggle yesterday evening in protest of a San Francisco police captain’s calls for a crackdown on bikers coasting through stop signs. But instead of breaking the law, protesters wanted to show the city just how bad traffic would be if every bicycle approached intersections just as a car does.

(photo via: @sfkale)

(photo via: @sfkale)

Sunday reading 26 July 2015

Jarrett Walker, “Explainer: The Transit Ridership Recipe“, Human Transit. An epic post by Jarrett where he outlines the fundamentals to delivering high ridership public transit

The most successful transit, in terms of ridership achieved for a fixed operating budget, is called mass transit for a reason.    The busiest transit lines — a big city subway system, for example –succeed precisely because they are not designed around the details of anyone’s needs.  Riding them you will not get much assurance that planners of the system understand you in particular, or know what trip you’re making now, or care much about your unique point of view. Instead, you’re likely to notice how many different people are finding the same vehicle useful.

The end of minimum parking requirements?

Paul Young, “One dumb regulation is driving up the cost of your house and your flat white“, Gareth’s World.

By wasting valuable land and pushing up construction costs, MPRs make housing and basically everything more expensive. Now of course, there’s nothing wrong with building car parks so long as people are happy to pay for them. The problem is when they aren’t given any choice.

To what extent are MPRs actually causing an oversupply of parking? Estimating this can be difficult and will differ case by case. As an example, removal of MPRs in London resulted in a 40% decrease in the number of car parks provided with new developments. Clearly the regulation was forcing people to build significantly more parks than they wanted to.

Josh Cohen, “Minneapolis Chooses Affordable Housing Over Parking“, Next City.

Minneapolis previously had a one parking space per unit requirement for all development outside of downtown. The new ordinance does away with parking requirements for new developments with 50 or fewer units that are within a quarter mile of high-frequency transit. It reduces requirements for larger developments within a quarter mile of transit to .5 parking spaces per unit…

“There’s a lot of demand for smaller buildings in neighborhoods with underutilized or vacant parcels where you just couldn’t build a project with our previous parking requirements. Either you couldn’t make the numbers work or you literally couldn’t fit a parking garage on the site,” she explains.

Melanie Curry, “Bill to Reform Parking Minimums Passes CA Senate Transportation Committee“, StreetsBlog California. Recently the State of California reformed the counterproductive, sprawl-inducing, Level of Service (LOS) rules. Parking requirements are the next hand brake under the microscope.

The bill, A.B. 744, would reduce parking requirements for affordable housing developments, making it less expensive to build affordable housing and using federal tax credits to build housing rather than unnecessary parking.

The purpose of the bill is to fix existing unintended consequences of current parking requirements. Those consequences include unnecessarily high construction costs that make affordable housing infeasible to build, thus exacerbating an already dire shortage of housing for low-income people.

Julie Hill, “No space for parking?! New solutions for a new generation“, Auckland Design Manual Blog.

Cars, it seems, are becoming uncool. In the United States, Canada, the UK, Sweden, Norway, Japan and Australia, the coveted Y Generation demographic has propelled a downturn in car use. Gen Y likes to get from A to B by riding a bike or hopping on public transport, or just looking up a map online and walking. It marks its entry into adulthood not with a dangerous, polluting, expensive car, but with a fancy new phone.

And this trend may be catching on here. Transportblog challenges the government’s view that the drop in driving is a temporary blip caused by the after-effects of the global financial crisis, and that more roading capacity is necessary and crucial to our economic growth. It argues we are driving less and buying fewer cars due to concerns about health and the environment, high petrol costs, smartphone-assisted carpooling and cheaper flights.

The end of the office park?

office_space_lumbergh1

Dan Zak, “The old suburban office park is the new American ghost town“, The Washington Post.

The American ghost town has assumed different forms: the abandoned gold-rush towns out West, the silent Floridian subdivisions of underwater McMansions. Now, we have fiefdoms of mid-Atlantic office space, on streets named Research Boulevard and Professional Drive, thinning out in the sprawl. They are hobbled by changing work styles and government shrinkage. People telecommute. People move into the city or into faux-urban areas that are friendlier to pedestrians, that aren’t barnacled on a highway.

Most analyses of the market indicate that office parks simply aren’t as appealing or profitable as they were in the 20th century and that Americans just aren’t as keen to cloister themselves in workspaces that are reachable only by car.

Robert Steuteville, “Firms move downtown and change workforce geography“, Better Cities & Towns.

Last fall, the US commercial real estate association NAIOP reported that 83 percent of office tenants want to locate in walkable, mixed-use places.

By far the most prominent reason companies cited for their move downtown was to help recruit and retain talented workers, notes SGA. “As companies compete for new hires and the best talent, being located in a vibrant neighborhood is considered a crucial selling point. The businesses in our study report that current and potential employees want neighborhoods with restaurants, cafes, cultural institutions, entertainment, and nightlife as well as easy access by public transportation.” This motivation is particularly strong for businesses hiring millennnials—-now 18 to 34 years old.

lockwood

Artist/Traffic Engineer: Ian Lockwood

Henri De Groot, “What led to the revival of the world’s cities?“, Agenda: World Economic Forum.

What explains this unexpected reversal of fortunes? Why have cities emerged as hubs of economic activity in this era in which the internet seems to be the ‘cul-de-sac’ of physical distance? That is the question we ask in our new book ‘Cities and the Urban Land Premium’. ..

The growth of human capital has been key to the economic miracle of the 20th century, but the fruits of this capital could only be harvested when great minds and well educated people clustered together in cities. The rise of the city and the knowledge economy are therefore intimately related…

Knowledge spill-overs imply that cities are a focal point of location-driven externalities. Land rents are the expression of these externalities. A location’s rent is high not because of the characteristics of the location itself, but because of what happens at locations in their direct proximity.

Generation Rent?

Danny Dorling, “‘Generation rent’? We’ve been here before“, The Guardian.

We may never get back to the fantasy of a home-owning majority, where so many of us get up housing ladders to maintain our own property. We may not want to do so again. After all, when house prices finally stop rising, because a younger generation successfully demanded mild rent regulation, what would be the point of speculating and buying at today’s prices?

Hilary Osborne, “Generation rent: the housing ladder starts to collapse for the under-40s“, The Guardian.

House price rises of 5% a year and a shortage of affordable homes are set to swell the ranks of “generation rent” over the next decade, so that by 2025 more than half of those under 40 will be living in properties owned by private landlords.

Courtney Barnett, “Depreston”, Pedestrian at Best.

You said we should look out further, I guess it wouldn’t hurt us
We don’t have to be around all these coffee shops
Now we’ve got that percolator, never made a latte greater
I’m saving twenty three dollars a week

We drive to a house in Preston, we see police arrestin’
A man with his hand in a bag
How’s that for first impressions? This place seems depressing
It’s a Californian bungalow in a cul-de-sac

It’s got a lovely garden, a garage for two cars to park in
Or a lot of room for storage if you’ve just got one
And it’s going pretty cheap you say, well it’s a deceased estate
Aren’t the pressed metal ceilings great?

Then I see the handrail in the shower, a collection of those canisters for coffee tea and flour
And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam
And I can’t think of floorboards anymore, whether the front room faces south or north
And I wonder what she bought it for

If you’ve got a spare half a million
You could knock it down and start rebuildin’

Literature: W.G. Sebald on urban growth

A while back, I read the following passage in W.G. Sebald’s spectacular novel The Rings of Saturn. In the book, Sebald tours the coastline of East Anglia, along with his own memory and England’s history. In a book full of striking, thoughtful passages, I was particularly struck by the following one:

Over the centuries that followed, catastrophic incursions of the sea into the land of this kind happened time and again, and, even during the long years of apparent calm, coastal erosion continued to take its natural course. Little by little the people of Dunwich accepted the inevitability of the process. They abandoned their hopeless struggle, turned their backs on the sea, and whenever their declining means allowed it, built to the westward in a protracted flight that went on for generations; the slowly dying town thus followed – by reflex, one might say – one of the fundamental patterns of human behaviour. A strikingly large number of our settlements are oriented to the west and, where circumstances permit, relocate in a westward direction. The east stands for lost causes. Especially at the time when the continent of America was being colonized, it was noticeable that the townships spread to the west even as their eastern districts were falling apart. In Brazil, to this day, whole provinces die down like fires when the land is exhausted by overcropping and new areas to the west are opened up. In North America, too, countless settlements of various kinds, complete with gas stations, models and shopping malls, move west along the turnpikes, and along that axis affluence and squalor are unfailingly polarized.

Does this ring true to you?

Sunday reading 19 July 2015

Yonah Freemark, “For rail services, downtown sometimes isn’t the right place for a terminus“, The Transport Politic:

There’s a romantic notion of the downtown rail terminal in the American popular culture, often expressed in movies and books. It’s a scene that is easy to conjure up in one’s mind: The steaming locomotive comes slowly to a halt at the end of a track, passengers stream out into a giant waiting room, and from there they exit into the bustling metropolis. The railroad terminal is the physical manifestation of the end of a journey and the exciting moment of arrival…

But what if this orientation towards rail terminals is actually reducing the effectiveness of our rail system? What if we eliminated terminals downtown altogether and just replaced them with regular old stops on the line, leaving terminals for outer suburban places?

European cities from Basel to Brussels have done just that, replacing commuter rail services ending at central depots with through-running operations where trains stop at several places in the city rather than one thanks to new rail tunnels. They’re expensive investments, but they may make commuting a faster and more enjoyable experience…

Leipzig’s investment in its new urban rail tunnel has brought new vitality to its center city but it is in some ways late to the game. In fact, many of its European peers have built similar center-city rail lines over the past few decades in order to provide through-running rail service stopping at many downtown destinations…

Each of these cities has identified the benefits of combining frequent and fast regional rail networks with through-running train services under their centers. The benefits are clear: More destinations for riders; more accessibility to locations downtown; and the ability to get from one side of a region to another without transferring between trains. They’ve also saved their rail operators considerable expense by allowing them to turn their trains around somewhere other than downtown, which is the most difficult place to do so.

Eric Jaffe, “The clearest explanation yet for why millennials are driving less“, Citylab:

The ongoing discussion about Millennial driving trends is not about whether they’re declining, but why. It’s clear to all that young people are driving less today than they did in the past. But the reasons for these shifts in car use are what remain locked in seemingly endless debate.

Two theories lead the charge. The first is that demographic or economic factors are primarily to blame. Since so many Millennials are out of work or delaying the start of family life, they have less daily need to drive. That certainly makes sense. The second idea suggests that young people fundamentally have a different attitude toward cars than previous generations did at that age, instead preferring to live in the city longer and travel by multiple alternative modes. That’s also a logical conclusion, if a bit harder to quantify.

The truth might be a little of this, a little of that, and even some of the other. That’s the takeaway from a new analysis of Millennial driving habits from transport scholar Noreen McDonald of the University of North Carolina. Writing in the Journal of the American Planning Association, McDonald attributes 10 to 25 percent of the driving decline to changing demographics, 35 to 50 percent to attitudes, and another 40 percent to the general downward shift in U.S. driving habits.

Natalie Angier, “The bicycle and the ride to modern America“, NY Times. A fascinating history of the development and mass manufacture of the bicycle:

“I have a deep question about the bicycle,” said Andy Ruina, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell University who studies bicycle dynamics. “Was the bicycle invented or discovered? It’s such a pure concept, it seems like it existed in the universe even before people thought of it, like the wheel itself, or a prime number.”

The bicycle certainly is among the purest means of transportation. It’s roughly 50 times more energy-efficient than driving and four times more efficient than walking.

Bicycles also seem to have minds of their own. Though often mistakenly considered inherently unstable, bikes can balance themselves. “It’s called ghost riding,” Dr. Ruina said. “We don’t really understand why, but all bicycles are close to stable.”

If you push one on level ground at a fast enough clip, it will just keep going, balancing itself en route just as a bike rider does. When it starts to fall to the left, it automatically steers to the left; when it leans right, it self-corrects by turning right.

Learning to ride a bicycle, then, may be less a matter of taking charge than of letting go, of suppressing the impulse to overcorrect the bicycle’s inherently stable momentum.

Eric Jaffe, “Iowa makes a bold admission: We need fewer roads“, Citylab:

Iowa DOT chief Paul Trombino recently took that logical conclusion one step further. During an Urban Land Institute talk, Trombino told the audience he expects the state’s overbuilt and unsustainable road network to “shrink,” according to Charles Marohn of Strong Towns. Iowans should figure out which roads “we really want to keep” and let the others “deteriorate and go away.”

[…]

Trombino might be more candid about the problem than most officials, but others have recognized it. Last year the Washington State DOT made a severe adjustment to its vehicle mileage outlook in the coming decades based on a recognition that driving trends weren’t growing as they had in the past. Instead of expected continued gradual growth, WashDOT instead called for 0.4 percent growth through 2019 then a 0.4 percent decline through 2043.

The Economist, “Reinvention in the Rust Belt: Do former industrial cities in the Midwest have a future?”

Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, says that industrial cities must reinvent themselves to survive. His suggestions are not new, but almost a return to fundamentals: they have to use their geographical advantages (meaning, these days, tourism and logistics rather than geology) and build as much as possible on “anchor” institutions such as universities and hospitals. What they must not do is distract themselves by constructing an enormous stadium or a theme park that may turn into a white elephant. It is a very rare city that has helped itself by hosting international sports.

Eric Frykberg, “NZ’s climate change target condemned“, Radio New Zealand:

A international group of scientists based in Europe says New Zealand is not doing its fair share to combat climate change.

The comments follow the Government’s pledge last week to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below the level of 2005 by the year 2030.

The Government says this is a significant increase on current targets but it is still only 11 percent below 1990 levels, which is a more commonly used date for calibration.

[…]

Climate Analytics CEO and senior scientist Bill Hare said New Zealand’s commitment needed to be greater, to be on a par with the US or the European Union.

“New Zealand’s climate target shows it’s far from doing its ‘fair share’, and is anything but ambitious,” he said.

“While most other governments intend cutting emissions, New Zealand appears to be increasing emissions, and hiding this through creative accounting. It may not have to take any action at all to meet either its 2020 or 2030 targets.”

Andreas Fuster and Basit Zafar, “How sensitive is housing demand to down payment requirements and mortgage rates“, Liberty Street Economics:

When a household is looking to buy a home, financial considerations are usually very important. In particular, in deciding “how much house to buy,” a household must ponder how large a down payment it can make at the time of purchase, and also how much it can afford to pay each month. The minimum required down payment and the interest rate on available mortgages (which determines the monthly payment) are key elements in the decision. When these variables change, this likely affects the price a household is willing and able to pay for a home, and thus the housing market overall. However, measuring the strength of these effects is notoriously difficult. In this post, which is based on a recent staff report, we describe a novel approach to measure these effects. We find that a change in down payment requirements tends to have a large effect on housing demand—households’ willingness to pay for a given home—especially for current renters, whereas the effects of a change in the mortgage rate are modest.

Glen Koorey, “What can Christchurch learn from the Netherlands?“, Cycling in Christchurch:

Having had a month ranging far and wide around The Netherlands (and a month since to reflect), I think I’m starting to see some common trends emerging in terms of what makes the Dutch get on their bikes so much more than us (or indeed, almost anyone on the world). After showing you the sights of various interesting places like Utrecht, Groningen, Enschede and Houten (not to mention all the other cities I visited but didn’t write a post about, like Apeldoorn, Delft or The Hague), let’s put all that together to see what bubbles to the surface.

I had a few colleagues in The Netherlands ask me my thoughts on how different Dutch cities differ between each other. And yes, they often have different little ways of doing things in terms of the markings used, or calming features, or certain traffic signals. But actually what I noticed after a while was the consistency from one city to the next at a higher level in simply providing for cycling. Basically it seemed to boil down to these same aspects time and time again:

Lots of cycling here in Apeldoorn - and lots of medium density land-use

  • Good mixed-use higher-density land use planning: As I alluded to with Houten, if you don’t get this right to start with there will always be a limit to how many trips can be made by cycling – because all the other trips are too far (although public transport can fill some of that gap; see below). I didn’t actually pick this up initially but, on reviewing my Netherlands photos later, much of the building stock that I was looking at comprised 3-4 storey structures – contrast that with the typical 1-2 storey buildings you see around New Zealand. Not surprising really when you have to fit 16 million people into something a quarter of the size of the South Island, but it still provides a very human scale to communities. And those buildings might be a mixture of shops and offices down below, with apartments above. The net effect is that often it is easy to live quite close to where you work, shop, go to school, catch a train, etc; distances that are easily cycleable. The entire city of Enschede, for example, fits within a circle less than about 6km in diameter – have a look at what kind of distances would encompass urban Christchurch…

John McCrone, “How much is the government really spending to fix Christchurch?” The Press:

How much has the Government actually been spending on Christchurch once you examine its books? Indeed with the insurance flowing though the city, will it earn about as much as it ultimately spends because of the tax take on the resulting construction boom? Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee frequently mentions the headline figure of a $16.5 billion Crown contribution to Canterbury, although half of that is insurance payouts from the Earthquake Commission (EQC). And with the Government now playing hardball over the cost of fixing Christchurch’s horizontal infrastructure and the timelines on its central city anchor projects are stretching out, a closer look is being taken at precisely what it has ended up committing to the rebuild.

One recovery critic, Cam Preston – a chartered accountant who after the earthquakes had contract jobs with both the EQC and Housing New Zealand – says he was surprised when he started to comb the Treasury figures. Boil it down, says Preston, and the Government is provisioning to spend a total of $6.7b on “core Crown” contributions like the anchor projects, the fixing of roads and sewers, the repairs to (mainly insured) Crown-owned schools and hospitals. Which no doubt is a fair sum of money to be promising. But what his accountant’s eye has noticed is the fact that the Government’s accounts up to 2014 show only $2b of this $6.7b has been cash actually spent –operational expenditure.

And as any accountant knows, it is dollars out the door rather than provisions on balance sheets that give the true picture. “You just need to take a walk around the CBD or cycle around the suburbs to witness the reality of this low Government cash investment in Canterbury to date. There’s lots of talk, but not much cash. Perhaps not much more than it would spend on schools, roads and hospitals in any normal year,” Preston says.

Alan Davies, “Can apartment residents be trusted to make their own decisions?“, Crikey:

Victoria’s Planning Minister, Richard Wynne, released a further report last week on improved design of apartments, Better apartments: Minister’s forum context report

The new report provides a lot (but by no means all) of the contextual information that unfortunately was missing from the earlier discussion paper.

For example, it explains that apartment residents are mostly young and see their sojourn as temporary. It explains that the minimum internal floor area in NSW is 50 sq m for a new-build one bedroom apartment and 70 sq m for a two bedroom apartment.

But it really hits the mark – although perhaps not quite in the way the Minister intended – with some key numbers on apartment size. It draws on data from a sample of 10,373 apartments across 110 projects currently being marketed or under construction in metropolitan Melbourne.

As the exhibit shows, around 80% of one bedroom apartments have an internal area that is less than the 50 sq m minimum in NSW. The smaller ones tend to be in the city centre where the median size is 45 sq m.

What do these extraordinary numbers tell Victorians? One reaction might be to cringe with embarrassment that so many “dogboxes” are being built in Melbourne compared to Sydney and NSW generally.

A more logical conclusion, though, is that the vast majority of buyers and renters in Melbourne are happy with the trade-off between space/amenity on the one hand, and the price they’re paying – whether in purchase price or weekly rent – on the other.

They’re sentient beings who know they can’t have everything. Given what they have to pay in order to live in an accessible location like the city centre, they’re overwhelmingly choosing apartments that are smaller than the minimum the law allows in NSW.

I don’t doubt almost all of them would prefer to live somewhere bigger, but they either can’t afford to or, more likely, they’re choosing to live in a smaller apartment so they have more money for other things, like enjoying all that activity on their doorstep.

If they really thought a sub 50/70 sq m apartment is as unliveable as the Minister contends then they could have chosen to live elsewhere.

For example, they could’ve chosen a larger apartment in the city centre; but that would cost more! Or they could’ve chosen a terrace, town house or detached dwelling; but that would’ve been in a less accessible/exciting location and might’ve required sharing.

And finally, this isn’t really about transport or urban policies, and nor is it new. But it is amusing:

Submit on the East West Connections

Post from Ryan Mearns of Generation Zero

In June NZTA and Auckland Transport finally came out with a new proposed route for the East-West Connections, which is a new road route long pushed by business groups that would link SH1 and SH20 either north or south of the Manukau Harbour. An earlier proposed route that cut through the heart of Mangere was dropped in January 2014 after a huge public outcry, and an excellent local campaign. This new route effectively involved joining SH1 at Syliva Park with SH20 at Onehunga, with a direct connection that looks a lot like a motorway.

East-West Preferred Option

This area does suffer from traffic congestion, and does have a large amount of truck traffic, much of it leading to the major Kiwirail terminal and inland port along Neilson Street. So this is one area where we would support some investment to reduce congestion hotspots. However NZTA admitted that it would cost over $1 billion dollars. This is a huge amount of money, and for example is roughly equivalent to the government contribution of the CRL. There is already severe strain on the transport budget from the government spend-up on RONS and the Auckland accelerated motorway projects, so this is bad news for those of us that want the government to progress projects such as the Northern Busway extensions and North-Western busway.

 

The primary concerns we have for the project are that;

  1. The design of the proposed new motorway makes it even more difficult to build rail to the airport. To ensure either light or heavy rail can one day go to the airport, any designs for the motorway should preserve the rail corridor.
  2. The only public transport upgrades proposed are discontinuous shared bus and truck lanes which are poor quality and potentially unsafe. The project should focus on improving public transport in the area to reduce congestion with a network of high frequency bus services with continuous bus lanes.
  3. Current bike infrastructure in the area is disconnected and of low quality. The solution is to provide high quality bike connections linking Onehunga, Penrose, Mangere, Mangere Bridge and Otahuhu.
  4. The new motorway proposes to block off the limited public access there is to the Manukau east of Onehunga, with the cycleway on the land side of the motorway. The project should not have to reclaim the Manukau Harbour and should ensure any works near the harbour improve public access, rather than separate the community from the harbour.
  5. Congestion is an issue in the area, but a billion dollar motorway is not the way to go. The Government should focus any road spending on cheap upgrades to fix localised congestion spots.

NZTA are taking feedback on the East West Connections until the end of Friday. They do have an online form, however it bizarrely focusses on the bus-truck lanes, which are effectively an entirely different project. To help people get the key points across Generation Zero have created a quick submit form, which will send your feedback straight to NZTA.

Click here to go to the form to submit your feedback to NZTA.

More information on the project is available on the NZTA and Auckland Transport websites.

Waihorotiu

A short documentary on Waihorotiu – the stream beneath Queen St

A watery portrait of our urban landscape reveals that when it comes to our cities, there is more than meets the eye.

Sunday reading 12 July 2015

Matt Yglesias, “Here’s what the world would look like if every country had the same population“, Vox:

Maps are a great way to illustrate the world, but I’ve always been fascinated by maps that illustrate worlds that might have been. To me, redditor frayuk’s new map of the world divided into 200 countries with equal populations hits both of those bugs. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Neil Freeman’s plan to redraw the US states to be equal in population, but since frayuk’s map is global in scale, it’s less familiar.

Here’s the whole thing:

map countries with equal population

As you can see, New Zealand would become part of an Oceanian super-state also containing the Pacific Islands, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.

Bob Dey, “That colour house is not available, sir“, PropBD:

What kind of home would you like? “I’d like a house at least 40km from my job, inadequate public transport so I have to sit in traffic an hour each way. It can be near the sea but I don’t want to be able to see the water. It will be far more expensive than the many old places on big sections with sea views. Ours will be a big house on a small section, so it will have stairs.”

That’s not quite how the latest study on what kind of housing we’d like was summed up, but it is the way we’re headed if big changes aren’t made to housing stock, and the use of existing stock.

The study, The housing we’d choose, was headed by senior researcher Alison Reid, of the council’s research & evaluation unit (RIMU). Report authors were Market Economics Ltd analysts Rodney Yeoman & Greg Akehurst.

[…]

What’s needed now is bolder work on how to make a more tightly populated city a more enjoyable place. Amenity & privacy are the keys: amenity for leisure activities close to home, privacy so you can escape to your cubby hole. For apartments, that means more than one room (and the toilet/bathroom doesn’t count), and it also means a balcony to give the outdoors feeling to make up for reduced indoor space.

Derek Thompson, “A world without work“, Atlantic Monthly. Not quite about urban issues, although it’s mainly set in cities. The anecdotes from Youngstown, Ohio, a former factory town, are particularly good:

Work is really three things, says Peter Frase, the author of Four Futures, a forthcoming book about how automation will change America: the means by which the economy produces goods, the means by which people earn income, and an activity that lends meaning or purpose to many people’s lives. “We tend to conflate these things,” he told me, “because today we need to pay people to keep the lights on, so to speak. But in a future of abundance, you wouldn’t, and we ought to think about ways to make it easier and better to not be employed.”

[…]

The factories that arose more than a century ago “could make Model Ts and forks and knives and mugs and glasses in a standardized, cheap way, and that drove the artisans out of business,” Katz told me. “But what if the new tech, like 3-D-printing machines, can do customized things that are almost as cheap? It’s possible that information technology and robots eliminate traditional jobs and make possible a new artisanal economy … an economy geared around self-expression, where people would do artistic things with their time.”

In other words, it would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production.

Something like this future is already present in the small but growing number of industrial shops called “makerspaces” that have popped up in the United States and around the world. The Columbus Idea Foundry is the country’s largest such space, a cavernous converted shoe factory stocked with industrial-age machinery. Several hundred members pay a monthly fee to use its arsenal of machines to make gifts and jewelry; weld, finish, and paint; play with plasma cutters and work an angle grinder; or operate a lathe with a machinist.

Steve Maas, “Are cities losing their edge?“, NBER digest:

Nearly a century ago, the eminent economist Alfred Marshall hypothesized that ideas were more likely to germinate into useful inventions in large cities than in smaller ones. Innovators working in close proximity to other creative minds, he argued, had a greater opportunity to learn of the latest advances and to engage in brainstorming.

In Cities and Ideas (NBER Working Paper No. 20921), Mikko Packalen and Jay Bhattacharya test this conjecture. They study U.S. patents granted between 1836 and 2010, and calculate the population density per square mile where the inventor resided. This enables them to distinguish patents that were developed in urban areas from those that were developed elsewhere…

The authors find that, on average, patents that were filed by inventors in densely populated areas relied on newer science than patents filed by their more-isolated peers until the middle of the 20th century. In 1900, for example, a two standard deviation increase in the population density of an inventor’s home town was associated with a 20 percent increase in the probability that the patent would be one that relied on the latest scientific advances. The study defines a patent as using “latest advances” if the age of the patent’s key concept falls in the youngest 5 percent of the concept age distribution.

The tendency for patents filed by inventors in densely populated areas to rely on newer scientific breakthroughs has waned in recent decades. There was a decline between the 1950s and the 1970s, and, after an uptick in the 1980s, a decline again in the 1990s and 2000s. “Taken together,” the authors write, “our results suggest that in the late 20th century agglomeration has become less important to innovation both in absolute terms and relative to other factors—like collaboration—that predict the use of newer ideas.”

I can’t help but wondering whether these results are inflected by the author’s choice of a citywide average population density measure, which tends to hide the existence of dense city centres by lumping them in with the sprawled-out hinterlands that most American cities have developed since the 1950s. Most of the other research I’ve read suggests that dense city centres have retained or increased their importance as places where knowledge can be transferred efficiently.

Cycle Action Auckland, “Notes towards a pre-history of Skypath: voices from the 1970s“:

Something that became clearer than ever, over the course of the Skypath resource consent hearing, was how long Aucklanders have yearned to solve this missing link for our city. To be able to walk and bike over our most iconic harbour crossing would be an immense gift to our city, its people, and its visitors.

In our files, we found some eloquent evidence of this longterm longing for a shortcut from Shore to City. We’re not just talking about a decade ago, when Bevan Woodward signed the petition asking for a feasibility study. We mean even further back than that.

Back in 1979, PATH (Pathways Across The Harbour) was set up to advocate for a cycleway across the AHB, and made a bit of a splash in the local papers with an article by Michael Bland of Friends of the Earth (following the lead of FoE in England, they were proto-cycle advocates in Auckland).

Here are five fabulous examples of the many letters PATH received in support…

Daniel Hertz, “Urban residents aren’t abandoning buses: buses are abandoning them“, City Observatory:

“Pity the poor city bus,” writes Jacob Anbinder in an interesting essay at The Century Foundation’s website. Anbinder brings some of his own data to a finding that’s been bouncing around the web for a while: that even as American subways and light rail systems experience a renaissance across the country, bus ridership has been falling nationally since the start of the Great Recession.

But it’s not buses that are being abandoned. It’s bus riders.

…it turns out that when you disaggregate the national data by urban area, there’s a very tight relationship between places that cut bus service between 2000 and 2013 and those that saw the largest drops in ridership. If you live in a city where bus service has been increased, it’s likely that your city has actually grown its bus ridership, despite the national trends. In other words, the problem doesn’t seem to be that bus riders are deciding they’d rather just walk, bike, or take their city’s new light rail line. It’s that too many cities are cutting bus service to the point that people are giving up on it.

Eric Roston and Blacki Migliozzi, “What’s really warming the world?“, Bloomberg View. I highly recommend clicking through – the interactive version of the graphics is even better:

bloomberg view greenhouse gas chart

Dita Di Boni, “It’s war… but don’t tell Tim Groser“, NZ Herald:

The US military and the CIA are actively preparing for a world in which civil and political unrest is caused by catastrophic weather events which are caused by climate change.

Those in charge are conducting a review of all US military bases around the world – assessing how they’d cope with weather-related disasters, and converting them into water and green-energy dependent installations…

But hang on a minute, mate: in New Zealand, we know better than all that. They may have the CIA and the Pentagon, and scientists and researchers on the case, but do they have the indefinably excellent Climate Change Minister Tim Groser?

Because surely if they did they could dispense with all that expensive research. They could do what we’ve done here in New Zealand: not even bother pretending they’re interested in climate change science. For example, they could publish a consultation document talking up the costs of getting greenhouse gas emissions under control (while downplaying the cost of inaction). Hold public meetings where no lawmakers appear. Force people to make public submissions in a very short space of time.

After getting up to 17,000 submissions, they could “go Kiwi” and ignore the vast bulk of them. In particular, ignore one from the Royal Society of New Zealand, made up of the country’s top scientists.

The society says the world has to stay below the global average warming of 2C, after which droughts, temperature extremes and wildfires will wreak havoc.

“Significant action must be taken as a matter of urgency,” it warns. “It is not appropriate to do nothing now, for example by claiming that we must wait for the quality of predictions to improve or other, larger, emitters to take action.”

And, “as one of the globe’s highest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases, New Zealand has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in reducing its emissions”. The society recommends a target for New Zealand of 40 per cent reduction in net emissions (below 1990 gross emission levels) by 2030.

In fact, 99 per cent of people submitting their thoughts to this so-called “consultation” believed New Zealand should aim for a target of 40 per cent reduction or more.

Josh Fagan, “Auckland’s ambitious $111 million cycleway plan“, Stuff:

Auckland is starting at the back of the cycling pack, statistically speaking, with just 1 in 100 (0.97 per cent of employed adults) using a bicycle as their main means of commuting to work, according to 2013 census data.

While the sprawling suburbs could be a factor, the figures were notably behind every other New Zealand city – Christchurch (5.6 per cent commuting to work by bike), Wellington (3.5 per cent), Hamilton (3.1 per cent) and Nelson (6.7 per cent) – and well short of Amsterdam and Copenhagen (both above 33 per cent).

[AT cycling manager Kathryn] King wants to change that.

Her main goal since relocating from London in January to take over as Auckland Transport’s walking and cycling manager has been to get more Aucklanders on their bikes…

Karangahape Rd, for instance, will see an instant increase and become a “spaghetti junction for cyclists” when the separated cycleway is built sometime between 2016 and 2018.

“We’re looking at developing a connected network from the inner city around Ponsonby, Parnell, Grey Lynn down to the city centre, all of it along separated cycleways.”

While there is criticism that the focus is only on inner suburbs, King said there are cycleway plans for Mt Roskill, Mangere and a major link from Glen Innes to Tamaki Drive.

And finally, this is awesome:

Sunday reading 5 July 2015

Emily Badger, “The Pope’s wise advice on traffic, parking, and public transport“, Washington Post:

Here the Pope is arguing that our communities have been spoiled by all our cars:

The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation. Yet some measures needed will not prove easily acceptable to society unless substantial improvements are made in the systems themselves, which in many cities force people to put up with undignified conditions due to crowding, inconvenience, infrequent service and lack of safety.

In short: The Pope, formerly and famously a transit rider himself, knows that Metro is constantly overcrowded and breaking down, and that this reality complicates political battles to improve it.

The Economist, “The race for space: Free parking is not all it’s cracked up to be“:

Free parking may sound like an unalloyed good, but the refusal of Americans to pay for—or indeed charge for—parking has created all sorts of bizarre incentives, says Donald Shoup of the University of California. People choose to drive when, if they paid the real cost of parking, they would walk or take a bus. And congestion is made worse. In some cities, Mr Shoup estimates, as much as a third of traffic consists of people searching for a space to park.

In Adams Morgan, a bustling part of Washington, DC, the problem is immediately apparent. The streets are clogged and drivers circle, looking for spaces to come up. Residents pay just $35 a year for a street-parking permit, but since demand outstrips spots, finding a space can be fiendishly difficult. Time-strapped commuters often don’t use their cars for fear of being unable to park when they return home.

Katharina Knoll, Moritz Schularick, and Thomas Steger, “Home prices since 1870: No price like home“, Vox EU:

The (unweighted) mean and median of the 14 house price indices are shown in Figure 1. Adjusted by the consumer price index, house prices in the early 21st century are well above their late 19th-century level, and increased in all advanced economies in the long run. Yet their trajectory is distinctive. Using the new dataset, we are able to show that they follow a hockey-stick pattern – real house prices remained broadly stable from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, and increased strongly in the following decades. Real house prices have approximately tripled since 1900, with virtually all of the increase occurring in the second half of the 20th century, as Figure 1 shows.

We also find considerable cross-country heterogeneity in long-run house price trends. While Australia has seen the strongest, Germany has seen the weakest increase in real house prices. Moreover, in the paper we also demonstrate that urban and rural house prices as well as farmland prices display similar long-run trends.

Figure 1. Mean and median real house prices, 1870–2012

Note: CPI-deflated nominal house prices for 14 economies.

[…]

What explains the fact that residential land prices remained stable until the mid-20th century and increased strongly thereafter? Our explanation focuses on the different dynamics in land supply in these two periods. From the 19th to the early 20th century, the transport revolution – mostly the construction of the railway network, but also the introduction of steam shipping – led to a massive and well-documented drop in transport costs (Jacks and Pendakur 2010). An important side effect of the transport revolution was to substantially augment the supply of economically usable land.

In the paper, we develop a model with land heterogeneity to demonstrate how a sustained decline in transport costs endogenously triggers an expansion of land, such that the land price may remain low despite continuous growth of income and population. We also show that this land-augmenting decline in transport costs subsides in the second half of the 20th century, so that land increasingly became a fixed factor.

This is really interesting stuff. In particular, I found their observation that farmland prices have followed the same trend as house prices – see Figure 22 in the paper – surprising.

Tim Duffett, “Time to rethink renting in New Zealand“, NZ Herald:

Tenants need to feel as if their rental really is a place to call home while they are there. Along with that comes flexibility to decorate, feel secure that (provided they meet their obligations under the tenancy agreement) they cannot be given short-term notice.

This security, however, is balanced with some responsibilities. For example, USA tenancy agreements include the need for tenants to organize and pay for all repairs under $150. The property is to be handed back to the landlord in the same state of repair it was rented.

On the flip side the landlord needs to give tenants the opportunity to settle down without the potential for a tenancy to be terminated with as little as 45 days notice.

The common culture of using periodic tenancies can be updated to take advantage of the security offered through fixed term contracts. Landlords can consider suggesting this option and prospective tenants seeking a more permanent place to stay should feel confident proposing a fixed term.

Kriston Capps, “Every single county in America is facing an affordable housing crisis“, CityLab:

New research from the Urban Institute shows that the supply of housing for extremely low-income families, which was already in short supply, is only declining. In 2013, just 28 of every 100 extremely low-income families could afford their rental homes. Than figure is down from 37 of 100 in 2000—a 25 percent decline over a little more than a decade.

Using data from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, researchers built an interactive map to illustrate the nationwide reach of the problem. In no county in the U.S. does the supply of affordable housing meet the demand among extremely low-income households. (Families who made no more than 30 percent of an area’s median household income were considered “extremely low income.”)


A closer look at affordable-housing access for the extremely poor in Travis County. (Urban Institute)

In Travis County, Texas, for example, the extremely low-income cutoff for a family of four is $21,950. There are about 7,000 safe, affordable rental units to meet the needs of these poor Austin families. But there are more than 48,000 extremely low-income families living there.

Dylan Cleaver, “Lost playgrounds“, NZ Herald. A great bit of local history on sports grounds like Carlaw Park that have been redeveloped or paved over:

In many respects, the disappearing parks and sports ground shuffles shine a light of Auckland’s uniqueness, or what historian Professor Emiritus Russell Stone calls “exceptionalism”.

A century ago, Auckland’s population was 134,000, about one-tenth of what it is today. After WWII in particular, it started growing at a rate that was far outstripping the rest of the country.

“One of the fundamental problems was always where to distribute the people and where to locate the sports grounds,” Stone said.

Sport was no less popular than it is today, although it was far less of a business. For many Aucklanders, there were only three reasons to leave the house in the weekends – church, the movies or sport. All three had comparatively far higher attendance in the days before television and home-entertainment systems.

They didn’t mind walking. Auckland was, says the professor, a pedestrian city, so those in Ponsonby, on the city’s western fringe, would have thought little about walking 8km to Potter’s Paddock to see the All Blacks play their first test in Auckland, against the Anglo-Welsh in 1908.

And now for a rural version of the same phenomenon:

Geoff Manaugh, “Where the roads have no name“, New Yorker:

Sooner or later, every road comes to an end—but not in Vermont. In other states, a road that goes unused for a reasonable period of time is legally discontinued; in Vermont, any road that was ever officially entered into a town’s record books remains legally recognized, indefinitely. It doesn’t matter if the road has not been travelled in two hundred years, or if it was never travelled at all, or if it was merely surveyed and never actually built. Any ancient road that exists on paper—unless it has been explicitly discontinued—is considered a public highway in the eye of the law.

As a result, over decades and centuries, Vermont has become filigreed with rural roads and pathways that hardly anyone but the law can see. In 2003, a couple in the town of Chittenden was denied permission to build an extension onto their home when an independent researcher, hired by the town, discovered an ancient mail route passing right through their property. In the tiny hamlet of Granville, a survey revealed a long-lost, invisible throughway passing through the wooded front yard of a mountain home; a pending lawsuit may open the road to traffic from timber-company trucks. In 2006, prompted by a groundswell of complaints from Vermonters unable to obtain title insurance for their properties or to keep snowmobilers out of their flowerbeds, the state government passed Act 178, which aimed to brush away the infrastructural cobwebs. The act gave the towns until February of 2010 to identify and map any potential ancient roads within their borders; these would then be reviewed by the state and added to Vermont’s official highway map over the next five years. Any ancient road not added to the state map by July 1, 2015, would be considered discontinued.

The Act’s passage inspired a kind of statewide archive fever. Interested citizens, outdoors enthusiasts, industrial forestry advocates, and concerned homeowners began visiting town-records offices and poring through vaults, shelves, and filing cabinets stuffed with yellowing and re-bound handwritten notes, property transfers, mortgage deeds, and step-by-step narrations of particular routes across the landscape dating back as far as the seventeen-nineties. In a few cases, the ancient road under review actually predated Vermont’s statehood.

Sunday reading 21 June 2015

Mark Kinver, “Active cities boost bottom lines“, BBC:

Cities that actively promote physical activities enjoy an economic advantage, research has suggested.

It says areas designed for physical activities have increased retail activity and revenue, and lower healthcare and crime costs.

The report’s authors describe active cities as urban areas with easy access via cycling or walking to parks, schools and workplaces.

The details have been presented at an Active Cities Summit in Bristol, UK.

The findings – compiled by a team from the University of California, San Diego – identified five “settings” in an urban environment that encouraged physical activity:

  • Open spaces and parks: ensuring residents lived near a green space; accessible and safe fitness trails
  • Urban design: mixed-used communities; streets designed for safe and enjoyable cycling and walking
  • Transportation: infrastructure to support cycling an walking; access to safe and reliable public transport
  • Schools: located near students’ homes; recreational and exercise facilities
  • Buildings and workplaces: encourage physical activity, eg visible stairs etc

Jamie Morton, “Bigger cities make brighter ideas“, NZ Herald. They seem to have mixed up the headline – the study has actually found that diverse firm ecosystems are more important than size:

Having a blend of brains and not just a bulk of them is what makes big cities like Auckland more likely to produce clever new inventions, Kiwi researchers have found.

A study led by University of Auckland researcher Dr Dion O’Neale, presented last week to a conference in Spain, investigated the relationship between the mix of technological specialty in more than 4000 places and cities, and the novelty of the patented products that sprouted from them.

It found that the rate of innovation didn’t necessarily reflect the number of researchers in a particular place – and that having a wide range of different work going on was often the real difference.

Study co-author Professor Shaun Hendy, the director of Te Punaha Matatini, a new Centre of Research Excellence hosted by Auckland University, said the same could be said of a rainforest.

“In natural ecosystems, you find rarest species in the areas with the highest biodiversity – the same applies to innovation,” he said.

“It’s consistent with this idea that has been around for a while, that new ideas are the recombinations of old ideas – and we’d suggest the more diverse technological base you have, the more opportunities you have got for combining things in new ways and coming up with novel ideas.”

John McCrone, “As is, where is houses are Christchurch’s new gold mine“, The Press. A great bit of investigative journalism on one of the many odd phenomenon to follow on from the earthquakes:

So for the insurer, it was better to cut the owners a cheque for the $700,000, a quick cash settlement that lets both sides walk away.

Ka-ching, I suggest. Park nods agreement.

Without wanting to reveal too much, he says the owners in their mid-50s now have enough dosh to buy a new house closer to town and also stick what is left-over in a rental investment property. Plus they are free to sell their original home for whatever it might get in an as is, where is sale.

Of course the property is officially stuffed, fit only for demo, says Park. But you know the equation. Someone will snap it up for about its land value – around $160,000 – and turn it into cheap rental.

After all, the bungalow is still standing. It’s a substantial dwelling in a great location. So plug the worst cracks to make it water tight and legally habitable and you could let it for maybe $280 or $300 a week…

Paul Cheshire, “Are they green *belts* by accident?” LSE Spatial Economics Research Centre blog:

Thus the idea of Green Belts, the accidental innovation – aimed at adding green space to high-density ancient Vienna in place of the city walls, then adopted in unaltered form in England as an idea to improve urban life for all – has been transmuted into a protective device for the wealthy. If you really want to plan to protect and provide better access to green space and open countryside without artificially constraining land supply and forcing up house prices, then Green Fingers (or Green Wedges) would seem to be the best solution. That is what more egalitarian Scandinavians have. Copenhagen has its Green Fingers – really brown urbanisation along the radial routes out of the city with protected countryside each side. Denmark has not just got cheaper housing: according to the Dallas Fed’s data, the real house price has increased by a factor of 1.6 in Denmark compared to 3.4 in the UK since 1975 but new houses in Denmark are a lot bigger: 80% bigger in fact.

Now green wedges seem like a quite sensible idea.

Michael Forbes, “Death of the car: Why Generation Y is turning to public transport“, Stuff:

Generation Y is turning its back on cars and jumping on board buses and trains.

The high cost of home ownership, not being in a rush to have children, concerns about climate change, and the difficulty of obtaining a driver’s licence are all reasons behind the shift, according to new research commissioned by the New Zealand Transport Agency.

The study also suggests current assumptions may underestimate the extent to which today’s younger generation has embraced public transport – and how many more would do so if more money was spent on it.

Eric Jaffe, “The one chart that explains all your traffic woes“, CityLab:

If you’ve ever found yourself stuck in traffic in your metro area, you might want to print out the chart below, tape it to your wall, and use it for dart practice. It comes via a guest post at the Transportationist by Wes Marshall, and it explains so very much of your earthly woe.

The red line represents vehicle flow along a given road. Traffic steadily rises until someone decides the road needs to be widened. Then the original trend line (dotted red) gets replaced with an even greater travel forecast (dotted orange), as we’d expect by creating more road capacity. But the actual new level of travel developed by this widening (solid red) is even greater than the forecast predicted.

In other words, widening a road invites more cars onto it. That principle, known as “induced demand,” is captured by the grey arrows showing the gap between a travel forecast and an actual travel outcome.

Rob Kuznia, “Rich Californians balk at limits: ‘We’re not all equal when it comes to water’“, Washington Post. Make sure to read the entire article. It’s just one constant parade of insane self-importance in the face of environmental catastrophe:

Drought or no drought, Steve Yuhas resents the idea that it is somehow shameful to be a water hog. If you can pay for it, he argues, you should get your water.

People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful,” Yuhas fumed recently on social media. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he added in an interview. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”

Yuhas lives in the ultra-wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, a bucolic Southern California hamlet of ranches, gated communities and country clubs that guzzles five times more water per capita than the statewide average. In April, after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called for a 25 percent reduction in water use, consumption in Rancho Santa Fe went up by 9 percent.

This was my favourite bit:

“I think we’re being overly penalized, and we’re certainly being overly scrutinized by the world,” said Gay Butler, an interior designer out for a trail ride on her show horse, Bear. She said her water bill averages about $800 a month.

It angers me because people aren’t looking at the overall picture,” Butler said. “What are we supposed to do, just have dirt around our house on four acres?”

Lane Nichols, “Breakthrough for first home buyers“, NZ Herald:

Major banks are set to drop deposit thresholds for apartments, making it easier for cash-strapped first-home hunters to get a foot in Auckland’s rampant property market.

The Weekend Herald can reveal that several major banks are reviewing their apartment lending policies, with tentative plans to reduce minimum deposit requirements from 20 to 15 per cent.

The proposal is aimed at owner-occupiers rather than investors. It is being pitched at the first-home-buyer market ahead of changes to Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan that will allow more high-density housing and apartment developments.

The changes are yet to be signed off but could mean someone buying a $500,000 inner-city or city-fringe apartment could potentially secure finance with $75,000 deposit – down from the current $100,000 minimum.

Michael Anderson, “Two experts on the words and images that defuse anti-bike sentiments“, People for Bikes:

Words and images shape thoughts. But inside and outside of city government, too many of us stumble with finding the right words and images to explain the advantages of biking.

There’s a word for the wave of public misunderstanding and anger that often happens next: bikelash.

Fortunately, bikelash is a curable condition…

safe streets language

And finally, I give you this week’s hilarious economic paper abstract, from Martin Micheli, Jan Rouwendal, and Jasper Dekkers recent paper “Border Effects in House Prices“:

We estimate the effect of the Dutch-German border on house prices… Using different estimation strategies, we find that ask prices of comparable housing drop by about 16% when one crosses the Dutch-German border. Given that price discounts from the last observed asking price are substantially larger in Germany, we interpret our findings as indicating the willingness of Dutch households to pay up to 26% higher house prices to live among the Dutch.

Personally, I would have interpreted it as evidence of cross-border differences in tax, financial, and housing market policies, but I’m informed that the Dutch aren’t too keen on the Germans after a few unpleasant incidents in the first half of the 20th century.