Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why compact cities aren't so smart

More advocacy for a compact city
I was interested to read the views of Rick Boven of the New Zealand Institute about central and local government needing to resolve their differences about the future of Auckland.  Well, they have worked on that since the establishment of GUEDO in 2005 (now the Auckland Policy Office). 

But that’s not what the article was really about.  Under the pretext of calling for “new ways of working together” Rick promotes urban containment and greater train travel for Auckland’s future. Well, we’ve heard all that before.
What Rick may have noticed by way of differences is not a failure of cooperation, but growing realisation that the old prescription for a compact Auckland is not working.  And while it may pain me to say so, in this instance the centre may be looking ahead, while the city continues to look to the past.  Any differences, Rick, arise from diverging views, not from a failure to work together.

Fallacies and frailties
And in this case I’m on the side of the centre.

I’ve picked away at the frailties of urban consolidation planning previously.  I can’t put it all together in one blog. But consider the following propositions about the compact city:
  • A focus on centralisation guarantees congestion;
  • A focus on centralisation reduces green space and concentrates urban pollution;
  • Consolidation prejudices old infrastructure, increasing overload and the risk of failure;
  • A focus on rail transit escalates costs, reduces flexibility, and caters for only a minority of trips among even those (relatively few) households that have ready access to it;
  • A focus on rail transit commits us to developing unattractive brownfield sites with high remediation costs if we intend to increase residential densities nearby;
  • A commitment to centralisation and higher densities increases vulnerability to extreme climatic events, rising sea levels, and other natural disasters;
  • Medium to high density living is socially flawed, as it is associated with transience, increased urban crime, diminished quality of life, and loss of a sense of community, especially for households in middle to lower income brackets (and, ultimately, razing of failed apartment blocks);
  • The market does not favour medium to high density housing unless well located, well appointed, and therefore out of the price range of most households;
  • Refurbishment and restoration of inner city suburbs for higher density living leads to gentrification that displaces lower income households;
  • Mixed use developments reduce the amount and push up the price of land for business while lowering the quality of life of residents;
  • Limiting new business land and expecting to take up new employment by increasing densities on existing sites forces up business costs, reducing the attractiveness of investment and competitiveness of business.
None of this makes compact city policies look very smart.

Pushing for alternatives
The current council vision is for Auckland to be the world’s most liveable city.  Well, we won’t achieve that by “me-too” urban consolidation.  Don’t forget, in the corporate world consolidation is a defensive strategy, associated with stagnation not growth, holding the line, not forging ahead.

A better answer may be to take advantage of our distinctive physical environment and make sure that our urban form complements and takes advantage of it as we move ahead.

Here are some very broad ideas.
Allow decentralisation to continue.  It’s happening, don’t fight it.  Provide for it.  That means ensuring that people can meet most of their needs close to where they live.  A sustainable city won’t work without sustainable suburbs.  These should be at the heart of our plans.  And some of them might just have to spill over the urban limits.  Now there’s a real opportunity to practice some innovative urban design.

Let the city breathe:   We want a CBD which stands out among cities.  Well, by promoting sustainable suburbs we can lay off simply playing with structures and instead seize the opportunity to restore a green (and blue) heart to our city.  A timid but worthy start was made to Queen Street with the (re)introduction of Nikau palms, but we can go a lot further than that.  Barry Lett had great idea for the radical conversion of mid-Queen Street and Myers Park into an urban garden.  What a great place to visit!
If we take the pressure off forcing housing into the CBD, among other things, we could do a lot more of that.  We could think seriously about creating a pedestrian precinct the length of Queen Street. I would also push for my hot spots to be green – and forge walkways and cycle ways among them.  We could better Integrate the CBD with the quality areas around it.  On the harbour front we need to find ways to cross Quay Street, for example, to merge water and land.  We might start by taking note of Lambton Harbour in Wellington, and how it blends hard and soft surfaces, restores the harbour edge, and creates a place for all people. 

Develop Smart Sub-Urbs:  Forget Jane Jacobs’ nostalgia for the lost American city.  Those images belong to another age and another place.  Our life, our cultures, and our communities are in the suburbs.  Let’s ensure that strong communities can develop and thrive around urban villages and suburban centres throughout Auckland. 
If we are serious about sustainability, the suburbs are where it must happen. Here we can deliver smart urban design, strengthen social relationships, and provide capacity for improving the quality of life at all levels.  It’s also at a sub-regional if not suburban level that labour markets operate most efficiently, and employment opportunities might best be promoted.

And while we’re at it, we need to make sure that the suburbs are well interconnected by generous arterial corridors. This call for some difficult retrofitting.  It may mean reviewing how we use motor-ways; thinking more creatively about buses and bus-ways; and getting over an all-consuming desire to focus everything on the CBD, turning it into a giant interchange instead of a great destination.

Launch the Satellites: Some of the best places to live in Auckland are beyond the bounds.  We seem so desperate to cling to urban limits that we ignore the fact that people like Auckland because of what lies beyond them. Let’s see if we can encourage smart growth in places like Warkworth, Bombay, Pokeno, Wellsford and Drury, Beachlands, Pukekohe, and others.  Let our rural villages prosper, too. These are all places where we could do some exciting planning and design.  And let’s make sure that we have wide, green corridors linking them, corridors that can cater for whatever modes of transport the future might throw at them – electric cars, light rail, and the like.

There’s more, but I’m over my word limit.  If nothing else, let’s lift the discourse so that our ideas begin to match our aspirations.  The last thing we need to do, Rick, is to get together to recycle the old stuff.


Todd Litman said...

Mr. McDermott's criticisms of compact development misrepresent key issues. I will respond to a few of them here, and I invite anybody seriously interested in these issues to review the extensive academic literature on the costs of sprawl and the benefits of smart growth.

"A focus on centralisation guarantees congestion." This depends on specific conditions and how congestion is measured. Increased density tends to increase congestion intensity, particularly if an area lacks grade separated public transit, but as described in "Driven Apart: How Sprawl is Lengthening Our Commutes and Why Misleading Mobility Measures are Making Things Worse," ( ), sprawl increases travel distances, and therefore the total time people spend driving and delayed by congestion.

"A focus on centralisation reduces green space and concentrates urban pollution." Higher density development tends to reduce greenspace within the urbanized area, but by reducing urban expansion it preserves total farmland and wildlife habitat. For discussion see Chester Arnold and James Gibbons (1996), “Impervious Surface Coverage: The Emergence of a Key Environmental Indicator,” APA Journal, Vol. 62/2.

"A focus on rail transit escalates costs, reduces flexibility, and caters for only a minority of trips among even those (relatively few) households that have ready access to it." This reflects a misunderstanding of the role rail transit plays in an efficient transport system. Rail provides a catalyst for more compact, walkable neighborhoods which leverages additional reductions in per capita vehicle travel. Residents of regions with high quality transit tend to drive 10-20% fewer annual miles than in regions that lack such services. See Litman (2005), “Impacts of Rail Transit on the Performance of a Transportation System,” Transportation Research Record 1930; at .

"Medium to high density living is socially flawed, as it is associated with transience, increased urban crime, diminished quality of life, and loss of a sense of community, especially for households in middle to lower income brackets". This statement is wrong. In fact, crime rates are higher in rural areas than cities (at least in the US and Canada), and residents of more walkable, mixed communities are more likely to know their neighbors and participate in community activities than residents of sprawl. For an amusing discussion of this issue see, “The Debate Over Density: Do Four-Plexes Cause Cannibalism” 1000 Friends of Oregon ( ).

"Refurbishment and restoration of inner city suburbs for higher density living leads to gentrification that displaces lower income households." Current demographic and economic trends are increasing demand for housing in more accessible, multi-modal neighborhoods. The smart solution is build more new urbanist neighborhoods to increase supply and reduce prices so lower- and middle-income households can afford them. See "Where We Want To Be: Household Location Preferences And Their Implications For Smart Growth" ( ).

For more information:

Pamela Blais (2010) "Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl," UBC Press (

Robert Burchell, et al (2000), "The Costs of Sprawl – Revisited," TCRP Report 39, Transportation Research Board (; at

Todd Litman (2010), "Understanding Smart Growth Savings," Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

William Lucy (2002), "Danger in Exurbia: Outer Suburbs More Dangerous Than Cities," University of Virginia (; at

bluesteel said...

I will have to agree with Todd on his arguments - I really don't find sprawling cities with their associated long commutes and often complete lack of walkability charming at all. Cities should be as compact as possible, that way they are easy to get around, a lot of services will be available nearby (the whole point of a city, actually) and dense cities are even healthier to live in - just see US statistics showing that residents of a city like New York (where you walk to public transport) vs. residents in Houston (where you walk to your car) are considerably fitter. Preferably cities should be built as ultra compact cities, as described here: