Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Another Middle Class City Vision

Roads or cafes? That is not the question.
Dr Joel Cayford says that we are throwing away money when we invest in roads but creating value when we invest in downtown infrastructure (New Zealand Herald, 17 September 2012).  It’s a mistake to think state highways are not a critical part of our urban infrastructure, a mistake too many central road planners make – failing to appreciate that the highway's main role in and around Auckland is in the provision of urban arterials, the roads that keep the city itself connected and working.

And while I share Dr Cayford’s concern over the shaky rationale behind some current over-the-top  inter-city road projects, I cannot accept the idea that throwing a lot public money into the CBD is a rational alternative.  Nor do I accept that we should persist in a cargo cult mentality, demonstrated in his suggestion that the taxpayer should deliver more central city goodies to Aucklanders.

Creating a central city sink
Dr Cayford’s vision is one of even more public spending in an area already at risk from over-investment in public amenities.  This simply means that the city’s ratepayers will have to cough up even more because of over-optimistic – or plain misleading - extrapolations of demand and dollars and a contrived vision of what a central city might be.  Except that he would also have the taxpayers help pay for the party.  

At least he is in good company: Auckland’s spatial plan promotes the CBD as a sink for the city’s rates.
Even the occupants of the latest flagship quarter, the Wynyard Wharf, are said to require further rental subsidies from the city.   And while it was great to have Wynyard set up  for the Rugby World Cup – and we were lucky enough to have fair weather most of the time – it is more often echoing and empty than thriving and buzzing. 

The CBD is doing fine
Dr Cayford suggests that the problem is that the city centre is not a great place to visit.  I disagree, and I doubt that never-ending spending on me-too inner city infrastructure will drag more tourists down to New Zealand as he suggests. Incomes and exchange rates drive tourist numbers, as years of analysis for the tourism sector have demonstrated, topped up a little by awareness campaigns and airfare promotions. Having a city that bears a vague resemblance to the Mediterranean won't make any difference.

(He is right to diss a new convention centre, though: there is good reason not to gamble too many public dollars on a sunset industry).

Anyway, things  already look pretty good.  To quote Dr Cayford, :

Go down and sit at a table outside the old netshed on North Wharf about 5pm on a balmy, sunny afternoon, Saturday, Sunday, Friday - whenever - and watch the promenading that's happening here in Auckland. You could be on the Mediterranean. Kiwis have style and they like to show it, given an opportunity.

One problem is that the promenaders that Joel likes to watch are spread ever more thinly spread through fashionable quarters, and therein lies the risk. 

There has been a string of such initiatives, local nodes promoted by public investment in the built environment.  And they are all great places to be on their day, but they are also struggling to retain tenants and stay that way.   Princess Wharf, Queens Wharf, High Street and Vulcan Lane, the Chancery Quarter, Britomart, the Vector Centre, the University precinct, the Viaduct Basin: they are all worthy destinations, great spots to kick back in on a sunny day.

They are  nodes that, as long as they  retain some vibrancy, create the frame of a great CBD. Individually and collectively they contribute to a city centre that’s well worth a visit.  But we need to be thinking strategically now about how much more we can sustain, and how we are going to keep what we already have buoyant.

Time for fine-tuning and coming out
For a start, when it’s wet and blustery, winter or spring, the Mediterranean idyll goes out the window. 

There are things we can do to reduce dependence on our uncooperative  elements, and they needn’t cost a lot.  Wellington has created sheltered pedestrian ways in a climate  less comfortable (if somewhat drier) than Auckland’s.  We certainly do not need new tracts of paving, new collections of cafes, and over-capitalising infrastructure to get our CBD working better.  The new rail loop that Joel cites, for example, might make it easier for a few more residents from outer suburbs to visit the CBD, but it won’t do anything for the ambience and quality of places within it.  

Much current thinking seems simply to pander to the cafĂ© set and an image of our climate that is only true some of the time.  Queen Street appears to have bucked the trendy trend, though.  It caters increasingly to the take-away crowd and night owls.  While this perhaps reflect some of our much-touted diversity it seems to be a source of middle class angst.

Democratise the CBD
We need to consolidate what we have and to do so within a budget that reflects our means.  We should ideally aim to make the CBD relevant to citizens other than just the coffee set.

Maybe we could pursue initiatives that will democratise it: improve pedestrian links among existing nodes; open up  hidden spaces (St Patricks Square, Myers Park come to mind); create more places for kids to play; promote more informal gardens and greening; provide capacity for people to perform and not simply promenade in public places; provide for street art, street theatre, and street life; and  promote places where our local cultures can inject new life, all the time recognising the need for sheltered places and paths. 

These are the sorts of things that might put a little flesh on the CBD bones without relying on the begging bowl or  pandering to middle class conceits.  And they just might turn it into an asset for more Aucklanders.

No more LBF
If we need to do more, let’s do it within our means and in a way that is relevant to our citizens. Focus on what we’ve got and who we are.  And get off the me-too middle class spending bandwagon that seems to be driving Auckland’s civic leaders and planners, and amounts to little more than rates (and taxes?) being treated as some sort of central city Landlords’ Benevolent Fund. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Answer Is Urban Consolidation – What Was The Question?

Perpetuating the Myth
The Green Party is perpetuating the claim that development beyond Auckland’s “city limits” imposes a high cost on ratepayers.  A spokesperson claims that the current Auckland plan which allows for some new development outside the current urban area, “will cost ratepayers $42b billion to 2042, an annual levy of $200 per ratepayer”  according to a report in the New Zealand Herald.   

But is just so happens that  study on which these calculations are based is a flawed commissioned report  rather than a peer reviewed academic study (Roman Trubka, Peter Newman and Darren Bilsborough (2008) Assessing the Costs of Alternative Development Paths in Australian Cities, Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, Fremantle, Report commissioned by Parsons Brinckerhoff Australia)

Oops – Contradictory Claims
The authors of the Curtin report acknowledged at the outset that

"The challenge ...  is that infrastructure costs are so heavily dependent on area-specific values.  For instance, road costs among different prospective development areas may vary based on the necessity for major arterial roads, costs for sewerage and water infrastructure could vary immensely depending on terrain and trenching conditions, and many infrastructure components will differ depending on the level and degree of excess capacity” (p.4)

So why did they try to develop a generic tool for estimating the cost of urban development in Australian cities based on a mishmash of evidence from different cities and suburbs in Australia and the United States?  And why would anyone even contemplate applying such “findings” to Auckland with its distinctive physical geography, so different from its Australian counterparts? 

A Quick Critique
The Productivity Commission actually considered the study, among others, in a brief review of housing costs and urban form (Appendix B of the final report).  It noted substantive differences in the physical and social settings  behind the data assembled to support the  study’s claim to some sort of universal cost relationship between development and distance from the city centre.

And there are glaring methodological deficiencies:

An obvious one is mixing discount rates (zero for infrastructure capital costs, 7% for transport-related costs, and 3% for health and emission costs), and omitting operating costs for some items (non-transport infrastructure) and not others (pp. 295-296)

To these flaws can be added the assumption of a cost of Aus$170/tonne for carbon emissions when the carbon floor price set by the Australian government (of $15) has since been rescinded and figures at or below $10.00 may be more appropriate based on today’s European prices.  So the environmental argument is seriously overstated.

And the analysis fails to deal with the costs of expanding the capacity of ageing infrastructure in long-established urban areas, of remediating services designed for far lower loadings than they are now expected to sustain, of the health impacts of apartment living in an increasingly brown – not green – environment, and of reductions in the physical and socialresilience of high density and often congested urban areas in the face of possible natural disasters or infrastructure failures.

Penalising the Household - is that Socially Sustainable, or Politically Justified? 
Even if it can be proven that the balance of public benefits favours medium or high density living, is there any evidence that such savings will not be offset by the better affordability of traditional suburban housing and the benefits residents derive from living into it?

Putting aside  flawed data and methodology for the moment, the results indicate that 70% of the differences in costs between decentralised and central locations is attributable to travel and transport.  Over half of these comprise travel costs and  time carried  by households.  If we take these private costs out of the equation the authors' estimate of the difference  between centralised and decentralised development falls by 40%.  

The resulting "present cost" for the average household (whatever that might be) of A$22,000 is easily  justified by savings on land and housing in “outer” areas, the benefits households get  from  additional space, greater choice over housing style, and the security and community benefits of suburban environments.

So who pays if we deny people the choice of living in medium to low density housing?  Mainly new households through exclusion from household ownership, or commitment to punitive mortgages, or through the insidious extension of housing poverty through ever higher income brackets. 

So what about the Auckland case: where does the evidence really lie?
Surprisingly-- given the obstinacy of the planners and politicians pushing the consolidation barrow --   no-one has actually done the analysis required to determine the relative economic benefits of different urban development paths for Auckland.  

A technical analysis of the gaps in the Auckland Regional Growth Strategy made the point that the planning  model that informed it was hardly up to the task.  The principal conclusion that came from using the Regional Council's land use and transport  model was that there is “little [identified] economic difference between growth options”.(McDermott Fairgray Ltd (1999) Gap Analysis, Review and Recommendations: Auckland Regional Growth Strategy, Technical Report, Auckland Regional Growth Forum )

The failure of the model to demonstrate economic differences between alternative urban forms was used to suggest that intensification imposes no additional costs than traditional  decentralised development.  Of course, the converse is true – although it has been conveniently ignored: there were no demonstrable economic benefits from consolidation or net cost penalties to decentralisation.  This suggests that it would make most sense to let the market prevail, subject  to broad environmental standards and fiscal constraints.   

The  conclusion  that consolidation was the best option for Auckland ignores other shortcomings  in the  model that could  tip the balance  in favour of strategic decentralisation:
  • The failure to actually define realistic alternatives that would  clearly demonstrate economic differences;
  • A failure to evaluate the marginal rather than average impacts of differences in urban form;
  • The failure to identify the costs of implementation.
  • Ambiguous measurement (both omissions and double counting);
To this list we can add underestimation of the high infrastructure and development costs associated with brownfield development and urban consolidation.  These are turning up today in high financial and development contributions for inner city projects.

Calling for  Consolidation – a Case of Artificial Intelligence
So why is the Auckland Spatial Plan so fixated on consolidation –despite the begrudging lip service the final version pays to decentralisation (a small concession to market reality that appears to have  upset  the Green spokesperson)?

I can only think it is "artificial intelligence": if enough people say the same thing, it must be right.  Consensus becomes an excuse for lack of evidence, critical analysis, or even common sense.  Groupthink prevails,: a phenomenon defined by psychologist Irving Janis as:
A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action (Janis, I L (1972). Victims of Groupthink Houghton Mifflin p. 9)

Contrary evidence is dismissed while reports favouring an emerging consensus, such as the Curtin one, obtain a degree of currency which, while unjustified,  plays into the hands of policy makers looking for easy (or ideologically comfortable) answers to difficult problems.

And so we blunder on, potentially building our cities on myth and misconception and reinforcing the gap betwen generations as we do it.