The case for free-market urbanism

In the National Review, a conservative American magazine, Reihan Salam takes a look at the confused state of the American debate over intensification. His article, entitled “The Great Suburbia Debate” criticises the position taken by Joel Kotkin, a long-time campaigner for low-density suburban development. He writes:

Though I’m an admirer of Kotkin, and though I can’t speak for every conservative who has made the case for denser development, he gets a number of important things wrong…

For example, Kotkin claims that “some conservatives” (again, no names) have been “lured by their own class prejudice” into turning against market forces. “In reality,” Kotkin writes, “imposing Draconian planning is not even necessary for the growth of density.” Of course, this is exactly the argument that Edward Glaeser makes in The Triumph of the City, a manifesto for the pro-market, pro-density right. “In places that have both liberal planning regimes and economic growth, such as Houston and Dallas,” he observes, “there has been a more rapid increase in multifamily housing than in cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York.” Indeed, this is why many conservatives, myself included, have explicitly argued that cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles should look to the liberal planning regimes of Houston and Dallas as a model. (To be clear, by “liberal” planning regimes, Kotkin means less-restrictive, more market-oriented planning regimes, and so do I.)

The global cities that manage to be both highly productive and affordable, like Tokyo and Toronto, tend to have liberal planning regimes, which allow for rapid growth of housing stock, and in particular of the multifamily housing stock. These regions are characterized by rapid housing development in the suburbs and in the urban core, and their “suburbs” tend to be more urban than low-density suburbs in the U.S. governed by stringent planning regimes that tightly restrict multifamily development. When Glaeser makes the case for density, he does so not by calling for “imposing draconian planning” on cities and towns. Rather, he explicitly calls for the relaxation of land-use regulation.


Kotkin relies heavily on the work of Wendell Cox, a transportation consultant who seems to believe that denser development is necessarily a product of central planning. In desirable regions, however, less restrictive planning regimes will naturally lead to higher densities, as property owners will naturally seek to maximize the value of their investments. Restrictive land-use regulations tend to limit density, not impose it on unwilling landowners.

Salam’s article is excellent and I recommend reading it in full. I pulled out these excerpts as they highlight a few essential facts that often go missing from the debate over urban policy:

  • Denser development cannot be imposed by fiat – it will happen if and only if there is market demand for it (as there often is in places that are accessible to jobs and amenities). If nobody wants to buy apartments, then no apartments will get built!
  • Urban planners can’t simply require people to build at higher densities – but they can limit density to below what the market wants.
  • The rising demand for higher density development isn’t a market distortion, but evidence that the market is working.

The market’s been at work in New Lynn (see also: Transportblog’s development tracker)

In short, we must interpret rising population densities as the result of many individual decisions rather than the whim of an urban planner. My research shows that population densities are rising rapidly in Auckland and several other large NZ cities, which suggests that we’re voting heavily for density with our feet and our wallets. This is, as Salam suggests, a natural outcome of market forces and should be accepted with equanimity. We should recognise this demand where it exists and make complementary public investments in walking and cycling facilities and public transport.

Lastly, I’d note that people from all across the political spectrum should be able to appreciate cities. As Jane Jacobs observed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a good urban neighbourhood demonstrates many of the virtues that conservatives celebrate, such as small business ownership, a close-knit community that watches out for itself, and independent-minded civil society (often battling against big government bureaucracy in the form of overreaching traffic engineers).

Jane Jacobs campaigned against this Pharaonic act of bureaucratic hubris (Source)

Jane Jacobs campaigned against this Pharaonic act of bureaucratic hubris (Source)

As a result, we often see centre-right mayors implementing good urban policies. Big-city mayors such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg, London’s Boris Johnson, and Buenos Aires’ Mauricio Macri have been right at the forefront of the movement for better cities. They’ve realised that better cities are more prosperous, and that it’s possible to improve a city by improving the choices available to people.

Three Quick Wins for Auckland Walkability

This is a guest post by Brent Toderian & Darren Davis. Brent was recently in the Auckland. They have requested we post it although it originally appeared on the Shape Auckland site.

After six packed days working with staff from Auckland Council and Auckland Transport last month, it was very clear to our international urbanism consultant, and co-author of this article Brent Toderian, that there are a lot of great things happening in Auckland city-making! From a growing shared streets and spaces network and double-phased scramble intersection crossings on Queen Street, and the revitalization of the Britomart area following the return of rail to the downtown, to the high value, low-cost placemaking in the harbourside Wynyard Quarter, and the innovative redevelopment of a former airbase into the Hobsonville Point new urban community, Auckland is building great momentum around a culture of strong urban design. But that’s not to say that tremendous work isn’t still needed! If Auckland is to achieve its ambitious and admirable aspiration to become the world’s most liveable city, another level of achievement is necessary.

Brent’s work with staff covered the gambit of city-making issues large and small, from their new Unitary Plan and City Centre planning and implementation, to housing, transport, design, density & culture. Still, some of the most interesting work focused on how a liveable city for people often comes down to walkability. The following “top three” relatively quick wins for a more walkable city, written below from the perspective of Brent’s observations, reflect some relatively low-cost opportunities toward a more liveable & successful Auckland.

1. Create “eye candy” for pedestrians!

Brent Toderian - Motorway landscaping

Lush motorway landscaping: Eye candy for car drivers

Auckland’s motorway system has some of the best and lushest landscaping I’ve seen anywhere – what I call eye candy for car drivers! Unfortunately, I saw a lot less evidence of such attention and effort dedicated to improving the walking experience. It’s time for more attention to the pedestrian at eye level, such as addressing all those blank walls, including all the glazing at street level that is misappropriated for advertising (which defeats its intended purpose of having eyes on the street, and providing something interesting for walkers to see).

The key to walkable streets is providing an interesting and engaging pedestrian experience. Although the horizontal details of public realm design are important, as discussed in the next section, the vertical view at eye level along the street wall is particularly critical to get right.

This could start with conducting a visual walker’s audit of the downtown and inner-city, perhaps engaging the public to participate through a photographic competition, and committing to quickly address the 10 worst offenders.

The blank walls could be seen as a canvass for artistic expression (and by this, I include commissioned or sanctioned graffiti). Another thought I’ve shared with staff – when the cut and cover section of the City Rail Link is built along Albert Street, why not let artists and kids loose on the inevitable construction hoarding, turning it into an arts project, and turning an eyesore and source of scowls into a creative and cultural opportunity and source of smiles?

Brent Toderian - Street Art

Street art near Karangahape Road

2. Fix up the sidewalks!

Even in the city centre, the quality of the walking environment is very much hit and miss, with some excellent pedestrian and “shared” streets in a rapidly connecting network, but plenty of mediocre areas and shoddy stand-out spots. Further out, walking through areas like Eden Terrace exhibits “billiard table” smooth road surfaces combined with narrow, uneven and poorly maintained sidewalks. On top of this, slip lanes with no provision, let alone priority, for pedestrians, reinforce the feeling that pedestrians come last in the mobility food chain.

Brent Toderian - Eden Terrace

It should be the other way around, putting pedestrians at the top of the hierarchy. Even balance will not do, as this is frequently code for business as usual. To be more specific, the prioritisation should be walking, biking, and transit, in that order, which makes the city work better for all modes of travel, including driving!

I’ve suggested walking audits of the pedestrian networks, building out from the most heavily walked streets in the city centre, to areas on the edge of the downtown, and then to the second tier centres, so that investment can be targeted at the most heavily walked areas. This could be in the form of an action plan of pedestrian improvements to be implemented within six months.

Brent Toderian - Elliott St

Elliott Street shared space, City Centre

3. Activate & Get More Out of Streets!

Many streets in Auckland seem scaled for peak hour traffic (and sometimes apparently well beyond peak traffic, on streets such as Hobson & Nelson Streets). This means that for 20 hours a day (and perhaps 24 hours a day on weekends) they are over-scaled for the volume of traffic using them.

A simple way to strategically make use of such surplus car space for place-making and walkability is to convert it to other uses when not needed for peak car movements. A good example of this is the Saturday farmers market, which takes one city block at Britomart downtown, and positively contributes to the vitality and people-friendliness of the whole Britomart area. Such ideas could and should be used more widely – for example, activating parts of Queen Street on weekends.

Brent Toderian - Britomart Market

Britomart Farmers’ Market

New York City, a favourite city of mine, has powerfully shown what you can achieve with simple things like green paint and basic street furniture, in converting dull car-dominated areas into lively people-oriented places. The counter-intuitive irony of such improvements along Broadway in New York, is that they’ve delivered better outcomes not only for the people using the great new public spaces, but for all road user groups, including car drivers (and only 25% of Manhattan households own a car).

Vancouver has embraced this approach as well, through our “Viva Vancouver” street activation program that I formerly co-chaired. Building on the observation during the 2010 Winter Olympics that streets closed for civic celebration don’t translate into the world ending, seasonal and pilot street installations, “parklet” transformations of parking spaces into public places, and other placemaking approaches are becoming common around the city. The streets have become our civic living rooms, our stages for civic life. It’s nothing short of transformative.

Auckland has shown it already understands this “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach (as New York’s Project for Public Spaces calls it) with many of its simple but powerful pilots and designs on the Auckland waterfront.

“Lighter, quicker, cheaper” in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter.

“Lighter, quicker, cheaper” in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter.

Similar treatments could start in streets such as Victoria Street as a precursor for the planned linear park in this street. Some may be put in as pilots, and others as “bridges” to a more permanent redevelopment. If they don’t work for whatever reason, they can simply and inexpensively be pulled out. If they succeed, which frankly they usually do, they can be made permanent with more investment in the lasting design, when funding becomes available.

While my six days working in Auckland hardly qualify me as an expert on your city, my suggestions here are somewhat universal in idea (if not in application), and based on proven successes in cities around the world. Efforts to enhance walkability are being prioritised in many global cities as a key way of making them more people-friendly, while positively contributing to both liveability and economic success. My fervent hope is that Auckland will make some quick positive steps in these directions, amongst your many important city-making efforts!

Brent Toderian is a global expert and consultant on city planning, design and advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, the former Chief Planner for Vancouver Canada, and the founding President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian.

Darren Davis is the Principal Public Transport Planner: Network and Service Policy at Auckland Transport with 20 years experience in transport in Auckland, including being a public transport lobbyist, planner, strategic advisor and consultant. Darren hosted Brent’s recent visit to Auckland on behalf of Auckland Council. Follow him on Twitter @DarrenDavis10

Jeff Speck: The walkable city

Here is a great TED talk by Jeff Speck about the economic, health and environmental benefits of having a more walkable and less car dependant city. It is described as:

How do we solve the problem of the suburbs? Urbanist Jeff Speck shows how we can free ourselves from dependence on the car — which he calls “a gas-belching, time-wasting, life-threatening prosthetic device” — by making our cities more walkable and more pleasant for more people.

If you don’t know who he is then here is his bio

Jeff Speck is a city planner and architectural designer who, through writing, lectures, and built work, advocates internationally for smart growth and sustainable design. As Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2007, he oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design and created the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, a federal program that helps state governors fight suburban sprawl. Prior to joining the Endowment, Mr. Speck spent ten years as Director of Town Planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co., a leading practitioner of the New Urbanism, where he led or managed more than forty of the firm’s projects. He is the co-author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream as well as The Smart Growth Manual. He serves as a Contributing Editor to Metropolis Magazine, and on the Sustainability Task Force of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. His new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, is now available in print, digital, and audio format.

If you get hit by a car, it’s probably your fault

If you are a pedestrian crossing the road and get hit by a car, it is apparently your fault. This morning the herald came up with this beauty:

Failure to pay attention to vehicles is the cause of most intersection accidents involving pedestrians.

Crossing the road is among the most dangerous of everyday activities – and police say even the slightest loss of concentration could have disastrous, if not fatal, results.

More than 700 pedestrians have been hit by cars at Auckland intersections over the past four years, and most victims were not paying attention to vehicles around them, distracted by cellphones or music players or succumbing to their own impatience.

The intersection of Albert and Victoria Streets is said to be the worst, and of course it is the pedestrian’s fault for either not paying attention or taking unnecessary risks. What I find frustrating is that there seems to be no thought given as to why pedestrians are so willing to step out in front of moving vehicles. Is it that while waiting for their turn to cross they hear the buzzer go off for a different leg of the intersection? Is the risk-taking due to ridiculously long vehicle phases? There also seems to be little questioning of the role that vehicles have to play – almost every time I go to the Albert/Victoria St intersection there are drivers who are running red or late yellow lights, or trying to drive through pedestrians that are crossing. My wife has had some close calls at this intersection due to careless drivers, whose only concerns are getting to the next set of lights a few seconds faster.

In other threads on this subject we tend to get a lot of debate from some engineers, saying that they design streets and intersections to follow ‘the standard’ and whose only consideration is about maximum throughput (of both cars and pedestrians). They go as far as saying that we should only look to increase pedestrian priority when we get more pedestrians, but what they often fail to realise is that we won’t get more pedestrians until the priority for them improves. It’s a kind of logic that gets us stuck going round in circles. What we need to do is look at what the best cities internationally do and learn from them, while at the same time recognising that the primary way to get around the city centre is by walking.

Finding Lost Space

Williamson Ave dragstrip. Auckland

The “flush median” is a pernicious road design that lingers in many places around Auckland and is still being utilised in many new road designs. I can only guess that its genesis originated in the late 60’s as a way to separate cars from the most severe of collisions, the head-on. It remains today, as that pesky give-way rule did, as a sort of monument to a particular era of traffic planning.

Besides providing a buffer distance between moving vehicles the flush median’s main purpose is to let cars turn left or right whenever they want, as infrequently as it may happen, while not obstructing the almighty flow of traffic. The flush median by design reduces the friction between vehicles moving in opposite directions and raises driving comfort and ultimately speed. Other such safety-minded designs such as the introduction of wide lanes, the removal of hazardous objects (aka trees), and over-scaled intersection geometry all are a form of “passive” design, an effort to physically design safety features into the environment. With the benefit of hindsight we know that this well-intended design philosophy combined with the desire for unimpeded flow often makes streets more unsafe, since it leads to speeding and driver inattention.

The unintended consequences of modern traffic engineering has now been widely documented on blogs like Strongtowns, and general audience books like Walkable City and Traffic, where Tom Vanderbilt sums up the situation nicely:

The pursuit of a kind of absolute safety, above all other considerations of what makes places good envrionments, has not only made those streets and cities less attractive, it has, in mnay cases, made them less safe.

So back to the flush median. There are opportunities in Auckland to recapture this space for better uses that in coordination with more progressive street designs will serve a wider range of users, notably people walking and on bikes. I’ve seen example of this wasted space along parks edges, in town centres, and even remnants lingering in the cbd– all places you would never need a turning lane, let alone a street design that encourages speeding.

A little trickier perhaps, but I see a street like Williamson Ave in Grey Lynn as a good candidate for such a rethink. The street is primarily residential in context, though it does serve a  morning peak hour pulse of traffic (including buses) in a sort of “grids gone wild” way.  Does it really need a flush median from end to end? I think it would be better served by a single central stripe with a few devoted (and short) turning pockets at a couple key intersections. This would open up the street to bike facilities which would have a significant network function of bringing people into the city centre.

Looking east along Williamson Ave towards Ponsonby Road, Auckland, 1963. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries)

There’s a lot that can be done in a street cross section when you “find” an extra 2.8m.  With changing values,  different economic circumstances, and a better understanding of how cities work, there’s no better time to reconsider the simple allocation of space in our urban environment. To return to a quote used before on this site from Enrique Penalosa:

“Urban transport is a political and not a technical issue. The technical aspects are very simple. The difficult decisions relate to who is going to benefit from the models adopted.” -Enrique Peñalosa

Residential through street, Melbourne. (Google Streetview)