Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Cities and Sustainability: Is Intensification Good Policy?

Evidence on urbanisation and conservation from New South Wales ...

Squeezing up to save the environment
This post examines the idea that we can promote sustainability by increasing the densities of large cities around their centres.  This compact city paradigm presumes that we can reshape the consumption of citizens in environmentally benign ways by reshaping the cities they live in. 

The sustainability challenge is the challenge of consumption: how much and what we consume drives our impact on the planet.  But presuming that by enforcing urban intensification we will transform ingrained patterns of consumption in favour of the environment may be a step too far.  Will obliging more citizens to live at higher densities in smaller dwellings around city centres really pave the way to environmental salvation?

Some evidence of urban impacts
The Australian Conservation Foundation is committed to ecological sustainability, tackling the social and economic causes of environmental problems.  Among other things, the Foundation publishes the online Australian Consumption Atlas. This is a useful source for addressing the role of urbanisation and urban form.

The Atlas is based on methodology which traces the direct and indirect demands on the environment of different goods and services.  Consumption patterns from Household Expenditure Surveys are related to household size and type, members’ age structure, incomes and education, and the statistical areas they live in. Using this information the environmental impacts of individuals living in different areas can be mapped. 

Three indicators of impact are displayed in the atlas: tonnes of greenhouse gas emitted, litres of water consumed, and ecological footprint.  The latter estimates the area of resources required to support a person’s lifestyle.  You can read more about the methodology here.

The data underlying the atlas is dated – based on the 2001 Census and 1999 Household Expenditure Survey, among other things.  But I do not expect the relativities it demonstrates, or the conclusions it supports, to have changed much.

Cities don’t consume; people do
Here is the authors' key conclusion. Our urban planners, designers, and politicians should consider carefully:

despite the lower environmental impacts associated with less car use, inner city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption. Even in the area of housing, the opportunities for relatively efficient, compact living appear to be overwhelmed by the energy and water demands of modern urban living, such as air conditioning, spa baths, down lighting and luxury electronics and appliances, as well as by a higher proportion of individuals living alone or in small households.

In each state and territory, the centre of the capital city is the area with the highest environmental impacts, followed by the inner suburban areas. Rural and regional areas tend to have noticeably lower levels of consumption.
(Consuming Australia: Main Findings, 2007, Australian Conservation Foundation, p.10)

Looking inside Sydney
I explored the indicators for different parts of Sydney.  Here are some results.

Indicators of Environmental Impacts: Sydney Centre and Suburbs
People in Inner Sydney generate 92% more greenhouse gas than the New South Wales Average, and well over twice as much as people in the lower income western suburbs, like Penrith and Blacktown. The levels are a bit higher for people in the more prosperous northern suburbs. Despite proximity to major employment centres, and an efficient commuter rail service, the consumption patterns of Willoughby and Ku-ring-gai residents generate high levels of air pollution.

Looking East to Sydney CBD
A similar pattern is evident for water consumption – residents of the hot, dry, western suburbs account for the least consumption, Inner and North Sydney residents the most.  They also have the biggest ecological footprint.


So what does this tell us?
The lesson is not necessarily that location in the CBD is less sustainable; but that the lifestyle associated with it is.

I have discussed the potential inefficiency of small, multi-unit dwellings elsewhere.  Over and above that, the high cost of redevelopment in central locations calls for housing construction strategies that add little to sustainability. 

One strategy is to build to modest standards.  This keeps the price down and rental yield up for investors; or creates opportunities for ownership by low income earners.  Another strategy is to adopt high standards of fit-out and install luxury appliances in favoured locations to make multi-unit dwellings attractive to wealthier households. 

Neither option is particularly environmentally sympathetic. 

Smaller is still better
I also reviewed the indicators for smaller cities and towns in New South Wales.  (In some cases these included surrounding rural settlement). 

Indicators of Environmental Impacts: New South Wales Towns and Small Cities

This suggests that smaller towns hold the key to environmentally sustainable lifestyles, even more than city suburbs.  For example,  Coffs Harbour's 73,000 residents generate greenhouse emissions at 88% of the state average, and just 46% of inner Sydney residents.  They consume water at 81% of the State rate (and 60% of North Sydney), and have an ecological footprint just 60% of their inner Sydney counterparts.  Similar patterns are evident in coastal settlements like Byron Bay (33,000 residents), Ballina (42,000), and Port Macquarie (77,000) and inland towns such as Griffith (26,000), Tamworth (60,000), and Wagga Wagga (64,000).

What does it all add up to?
A simple overview can be derived by summing the percentage deviations of each area from the New South Wales average across the three measures. Admittedly this is a course approach: it weights each indicator equally, and ignores differences in how much centres vary across each individually.  Nevertheless, it provides a sufficiently meaningful overview to confirm that towns and small cities are generally more sustainable than a large city, and that the suburbs perform better than the inner city.

Summary Index of the Environmental Impact of Urbanisation
Explaining the sustainability dividend of small towns
There can be any number of explanations for this, the obvious one being that it is all about income.  Perhaps the advantages of lifestyles outside Sydney simply reflect lower average incomes in smaller cities and towns.  As people become more affluent or seek more income, they migrate into the main cities taking their high consumption expectations with them; or by living in large cities they are more likely to earn - and consume - more.

Conversely, living in smaller cities and settlements may reflect lifestyle preferences which are intrinsically less environmentally intrusive.  At the same time. small settlements make less travel demands given the greater proximity to work, shopping, service, and recreation opportunities.  In addition, lower density housing may provide more opportunities for passive energy efficiency, directly reducing resource consumption for comparable activities.  

Flawed policy
Until we know more, however, we need to avoid the trap of determinism.  It would be short-sighted simply to invert the current paradigm, for example, and decide that policies to encourage people to live outside large cities and city centres will somehow enhance sustainability.

Ultimately, how we live is more important than where we live.  What the evidence here confirms, though, is that under current patterns of consumption promoting large scale urban consolidation is flawed as environmental as well as urban policy. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

At Last Some Action on Housing – Getting Past Planning Paralysis

Daylight through the gloom
Even as the public begins to react against the over-simplistic approach to urban growth underlying the over-complicated draft Auckland Unitary Plan, there is a little light on the horizon.  The Tamaki Redevelopment Company, a joint venture between Auckland City and central government, has put together a plan to add up to 6000 new homes to an existing 5,050 in a special housing area under the Housing Accord signed last month.

Hopefully this urban regeneration project will be more than just a gentrification exercise. I suspect that government participation will ensure that the need for continuity among current residents including tenants of state housing, will be met.  Ideally, the plan will enable the low income households that currently occupy much of the area to stay and first time buyers to purchase there, in a neighbourhood of quality amenities and services, and sound, affordable, new homes.

Central government taking the lead
It is ironical that this good news story should be accompanied by news of continuing resistance to collaboration by the Council.  It has been so myopic in pursuing the grail of consolidating growth and in its reluctance to explore alternatives for an expanding city that it has created a complex web of policies that many of its diverse residents will struggle to come to grips with, or welcome. 

Given this track record, it was inevitable that the council should emerge as the junior partner in this arrangement. 

It’s no good wringing political hands over a threat to autonomy. The Council’s own failure to advance Aucklanders’ housing hopes with any urgency left central government to take the decisive stand. 

A threat to local autonomy?
A loss of autonomy may simply be the price we are paying for the council confusing its priorities – putting process ahead of form, and principle ahead of practice.  It had known about the housing supply and affordability issue that threatens to undermine Auckland’s growth for some time –it’s the core problem it inherited from the eight councils that came together on its formation. 

Despite all the good intentions, the new council continued simply to pay lip service to the issue.  It preferred to pick up and promote the old Auckland Regional Council shibboleth, trying to change the way Aucklanders live by shifting the emphasis of development to consolidation and centralisation. 

Sharing responsibility
A loss of local autonomy may, however, be more apparent than real.  The Government has had a long-standing role in the provision of social housing in New Zealand.  It also has the resources and clout to make things happen.  So it makes sense for it to take the lead. 

By contrast, with the jettisoning of social housing by councils their role has been confined to one of regulation to mediating what’s done rather than doing it.  That’s the model Auckland was following in its planning.  Unfortunately, it’s mediation looked like exacerbating rather than resolving the housing issue.

Through the Tamaki initiative, the council can once more become a contributor and not simply a gatekeeper in the housing sector, playing a direct role in shifting the city up a gear.

Collaboration: the way ahead?
The Government had hoped that combining councils struggling to collaborate would lead to more decisive and better directed policy in Auckland.  In practice, the one council model so far seems no more enlightened than the eight councils it replaced. 

At least when we had alternative local councils within the wider metropolitan area we could see where the strengths and weaknesses of their various policies lay and rely on differences and debate among them to lift transparency and engagement.  Consequently, we got policy diversity to match our social diversity, rather than a single (and singular) plan and policies over-ambitiously intended to reconcile the variety of needs of different communities in a comprehensive set of rules. 

Under the new model, the search for super policies is beginning to look a little too lofty, and fraught.  And if the council is not prepared to work much more closely with local boards to resolve local issues in practice rather than in principle, then collaboration has to be taken to a whole new level, with central government.

It is positive, then, that the Tamaki project looks set to be delivered by collaboration at two levels: between central and local government in planning, processing, land consolidation, and development initiatives to get the project off the ground; and between the public and private sectors (including social and commercial providers of housing) to put it all in place.

A better council, putting citizens’ needs up front
At least now we have some action, and an opportunity to learn from it.  We can put the Housing Accord to the test, and put the commitment and capacity of a range of agencies together towards achieving a common goal – a better Auckland for more Aucklanders. Through it we can put people back into politicians’ visions and planners’ pictures.

But Auckland Council will have learnt nothing if it continues to dictate terms to communities, to ride roughshod over the concerns of current citizens and the needs of future ones in pursuit of a single vision that doesn’t fit our city.

By participation in the Tamaki initiative, the council should be strengthened to pursue more such initiatives in other localities, to achieve better balance between principle and practice, and step up actions and delivery relative to promises.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Just Another Stake in the Sand: Planning, Demographics, and Uncertainty

Another million or another myth?

The Mayor, Len Brown, reiterated the Council view that Auckland is facing an increase of around one million people over the next 30 years, and that planning for this level of growth is the prudent thing to do.  I cannot be so sure. 
The Mayor is pretty bullish about growth, though.  He even claimed that “our actual rate of population growth has been well above the highest projection” since 1999. 
That doesn’t quite match the evidence. The actual population in 2011 was well below the high projections contained in various Statistics New Zealand projections and revisions since 2002. These include the one it prepared for the Auckland Regional Council in 2009 which suggested that under high growth assumptions Auckland could have another million people by 2051, forty years out.  
Successive Auckland Population Projections to 2011
(Source: Statistics New Zealand)
So how safe is a bet on another million in thirty years?  And incidentally, what do ratepayers and residents stand to lose from over-the-top plans and investment in infrastructure beyond what is needed if that growth doesn’t occur? Surely addressing the risks and the cost of getting it wrong is what would be really prudent.
So what do the numbers really tell us?
We can acknowledge that Auckland’s growth has exceeded Statistics New Zealand's medium projections. Perhaps more interesting, as these were updated through the decade, the medium projections became progressively more accurate (helped, of course, by the 2006 Census). This confirms that the longer the projection period, the greater the uncertainty, and the greater the risk of getting it wrong.

I draw two conclusions. First the magic million is highly arbitrary.  
Second, we need to address the inevitable uncertainty around long-term projections and develop plans that can cope with the risk that what we plan is not what we get, or takes a lot longer than we think it will.   

This uncertainty is not news. The 2009 ARC projections show a significant spread. The medium one is for growth 36% lower than the high projection.  The low projection is 52% below the high.  Incidentally, in 2011 (two years after the projections were prepared) we were already tracking on the low line.

     Source: Auckland Futures Growth Model, Auckland Council 2012

And if we were to stay with the Statistics New Zealand recommendation that planning should be based on the medium projection, we would be planning for another 800,000 people over 40 years rather than one million over 30.
Digging beneath the lines on the chart
I don’t know what the long-term future holds for Auckland and Aucklanders. No one does. However, it’s worth considering the possibilities by exploring the assumptions behind the projections. This will give us some idea of the growth drivers we need to plan for (or perhaps against).  These include assumed mortality fertility, and migration rates.

The focus here is on migration, but acknowledging that if gains from overseas continue to contribute substantially to Auckland’s growth they will also impact on mortality and fertility because of the different ages of people moving in and out of the city.

Migration: the great unknown
Although net gains from overseas are lower than Auckland’s natural increase (which is the annual excess of births over deaths), they are key drivers of population growth. Over the last twenty years net migration accounted for 30% of growth, a share ranging from 15% between 1996 and 2001 to 42% between 2001 and 2006 (and back to 30% since).

Annual Gains in Migration and Population, Auckland 1997-2012

The high population projection on which the council is placing so much store depends on substantially higher migration gains than we have sustained in the past. It’s a little difficult to envisage the conditions under which this might happen, yet it is the basis for projecting population growth of one million by 2051 (or is that 2041?), and hence an important prop for the Unitary Plan.
Actual and Assumed Net Migration Gains for Auckland

Getting past the numbers
Statistics New Zealand terms its projections “scenarios” and (wisely) not forecasts.   So what are some of the things that might influence the migration scenarios towards the higher or lower assumptions?

In fact, there are good reasons to favour lower rather than higher migration gains. For a start, a booming Asia over the coming decades should create competitive demand for skilled people, and could supplement Australia by increasing attractive opportunities for young New Zealanders. 
And an ageing and more prosperous Asian population will lower the supply of working immigrants – and increase competition for them from Australia, Canada, the US, and, increasingly, Asian countries.
Beyond that, poor housing affordability and the ambition (encapsulated in the Auckland Plan and its handmaiden, the draft Unitary Plan) of transforming Auckland from a unique South Pacific city into something resembling Vancouver, or Hong Kong, or London, or Melbourne, or Paris (exemplars cited by the Mayor and his advisers, not by me) are likely to lower Auckland’s attraction.  Somewhat perversely, the planned transformation to a higher city may also encourage older households to move out if the recent groundswell of concern is anything to go by.
Auckland –engine or anchor?
These possibilities highlight another feature of the projections.  They imply that Auckland will dominate national growth in a way that stretches recent history. While there is no denying Auckland’s primacy, there are threats to this and no reason to assume that city will – or should -- take up an ever-increasing share of New Zealand’s population growth.  .
For a start, issues around the availability and price of dwellings need to be resolved if a much larger population is to be housed.  Congestion, crowding, and associated pollution issues need to be dealt with, particularly if the Unitary Plan’s particular  penchant for lifting densities carries the day. And with little more than lip service paid to the needs of business, the Plan might make it just that much harder to do invest – or get a job -- in Auckland.  The difficulty imposed by a tight housing market might also make it difficult (and expensive) to attract and retain the right labour, so there is no guarantee that Auckland will dominate economic growth in the long-term..

The limits to primacy
So how far can we assume that Auckland will take ever increasing shares of New Zealand’s population growth?
Over the past 15 years Auckland accounted for 55% of New Zealand’s population gain. The high population projection behind the Unitary Plan, though, would see that climb to 64%.

Auckland Share of New Zealand Population Growth, 1996-2011 and Projected 2011-2031

The only way for Auckland to lift its long-term share of growth is to resolve housing problems speedily, and open up the opportunities for investing through a Unitary Plan that provides for expansive employment as well as housing.
In any case, growth may need to be more widely distributed within the country as a whole, if only to support our principle source of wealth, the primary and associated sectors.

A solution in search of a problem
The million person myth looks rather like it is being employed to support the Unitary Plan, rather than the other way round.  The planners have for searched for reasons to consolidate Auckland for well over twenty years now.  Well, so far this one’s no more convincing than the reasons that went before.  (And I suspect that a rushed job on the economic rationale for the plan will be no more convincing).

Numbers are important – but they are never definitive.  Projections are useful for what they tell us about the drivers of change as we understand them at the time we compile them. But they should be the starting point for discussion, debate, and policy development – not the end point. 
Planning is not about tracking a line (or even lines) on graph.  It is about identifying community needs and preferences, and responding to them in a way which enables citizens to get on with their lives without undue impact on the environment, or each other.  Right now, that does not seem to be the way the Council is tracking.