Sunday, July 14, 2013

City of bites: urban design and eating in Auckland

The café culture in action
For some time now Auckland’s planners and politicians have been spending up on the central business district to attract people back to the city.  A major element of the CBD sell has been the attraction of a burgeoning café, bar, and restaurant culture. 

Well, as I said a year or so ago, it’s working:

The irony is that the new Queen Street reflects the inner city café and restaurant culture so extolled by those who promote central city revitalisation: Queen Street from Mayoral Drive north looks and smells a bit like a glorified food court, a strip of fast food joints, where inner city residents and visitors can wander up and down and grow fat.”

And now KFC wants to join the 42 fast food outlets counted by a Herald reporter on Queen Street, the heart of the CBD.  (This count excludes ethnic food shops - I have no idea what the moral or nutritional grounds were for this exclusion). 

Better design equals better eating??
How reassuring that Auckland Council is responding to this travesty of taste.  Its urban design champion Ludo Campbell-Reid said it would speak to KFC in an attempt to avoid ‘visual pollution’. 

Because evidently we’re not getting the eating culture that Mr Campbell-Reid expected or intended.  He says that there is still work to be done to see a “better mix of retail and healthy eateries”.  

"In the future, wouldn't it be amazing if there were restaurants in the middle of the street (and) the street was closed to the traffic in places? Wouldn't that be wonderful if people were able to sit outside and there would be high-end restaurants like the French Cafe, but also cheap and cheerful as well?"

Well good luck.  Let’s not let economics get in the way of good design; that way we can spend even more public money on urban design solutions to problems of public taste.

It’s all about demand and supply
It’s fine to take the nutritional high ground – and I empathise with obesity experts concerned that takeaways on Queen Street are contributing to growing waistlines. But that’s about personal taste and means, market offerings and messages, education, and perhaps even food regulation, but not urban design.  It’s about what individuals choose (and can afford) to eat.

Anyway, the proliferation of fast food cafes is not surprising.  The development of new, up-market precincts off Queen Street promoted by the Council to pander to middle class tastes has left something of a vacuum there.  Couple this with the restructuring of retailing and what is a poor Queen Street landlord to do?

Well, an obvious option is to lift yields on high value properties losing business to other precincts by intensification: subdividing and refurbishing ground floor space to increase rentals.  And it just so happens that fast food outlets (and trinket shops) can generally attract enough custom to carry the resulting small space rentals. 

And don’t forget that the Council supported this restructuring of Queens St retailing with a $43 million facelift aimed at making the street more pedestrian friendly.

And now they seem worried that it is not leading to the Auckland – or Aucklanders – that the designers evidently want.

But others seem to be more than happy with it – some lease the space out, others take up the leases, and yet others consume the goods.

Beer and burger, cocktails, coffee and desert
Coincidentally, there was a neat little advertisement placed in Canvas Magazine in the weekend Herald by “BIG Little City”.  This is the central city marketing campaign funded by Auckland's Downtown Business Association, Heart of the City.  Heart of the City is funded primarily by rates targeted on inner city properties.

The advertisement listed “191 reasons to love your city” (for city, read CBD).  It’s not a bad advertisement, and I have no problem with the BIG Little City campaign.

But here’s the interesting bit.  At least 98 of the reasons involve food or drink (or both), with plenty of pizzas, burgers, sweets and beers among them.  (The figure may be higher – I couldn’t quite work out some of the offerings).  The other reasons, incidentally, covered mainly movies and shows, beauty treatments and shopping. Nothing unique in that lot.

Selling the CBD – our very own city of bites
So how are we selling Auckland’s CBD?  Why, as a great place for a bite and a shake, or a beer.  And that’s exactly what Queen Street is offering.  It may not be to your personal taste, and it may not be particularly healthy.  But does that make the more expensive off-Queen Street bars and restaurants, their steaks, pork bellies, desserts, wines and liqueurs any more healthy or any less indulgent? 

Is that what defines Auckland?
So let’s not get too precious about our CBD.  Surely we don’t plan to design a city that excludes half the population? The 2006 Census showed that 48% of Aucklanders earned less than $30,000 a year.  (The median was $26,000). I doubt that many of them could afford the French café, or even cheap and cheerful restaurants offering al fresco dining in the middle of main street. 

And by the way, the 191 reasons to love our city apply to most largish cities in the world.  That’s okay – it’s good to remind Aucklanders, at least, that our city stacks up on measures of middle class living.  But it’s not going to sell Auckland to others.

An alternative vision
The 191 reasons aren’t going to make Auckland’s CBD stand out from the pack.  Perhaps a livelier, less indulgent, and more diverse downtown is called for (check out Wellington waterfront for an example).  Let’s have more action, assert our city of sails, indulge in our distinctive seascape and landscape, and acknowledge, embed, and celebrate our city’s Pacific and Polynesian heritage.  The real Auckland is a smorgasbord of places, people, and experiences, not just a smorgasbord.

So if we must get down to micro-planning (and I don’t think we should), let’s plan for urban spaces and amenities that are inclusive rather than aiming for a sanctuary of gentility remote from the real Auckland.

And let's recognise that cities, like eating, are a bit messy: and that we can't urban design them to order.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Cities Don’t Consume Resources, People Do

Urban form or urban consumers?
If we want to reduce the environmental impacts of modern society let’s prioritise consumption, not city form.  The evidence suggests that large cities (and especially city centres) are associated with a bigger environmental footprint than modest cities or suburbs. 

This post looks at incomes and consumption, especially the consumption of housing and transport services, asking how far can local regulation really influence environmental impacts?

What can local governments do about the environment?
Local governments have two core roles.  One is to ensure that the infrastructure and services necessary to sustain everyday life and commerce are in place and working well.  In fulfilling this role they should aim to enhance the quality of the urban environment and limit any environmental impacts of infrastructure. 

The other role is to plan and manage development in a way that reduces conflict among land uses.  In doing that they should aim to contain or control adverse spill-over impacts. 

However, for councils to use their investment in infrastructure and land use regulation to determine in detail how and where people should live and consume pushes the boundaries of these roles, particularly when they try indirectly to reshape household behaviour by reshaping the city.

The key to understanding the environmental impacts of urbanised society is not urban form but household consumption, a function of income, not city plans.

Urbanisation and environmental impacts
In my last blog I showed how policies to increase residential densities around city and town centres assume a relationship between urban form and environmental impacts that is not supported by the evidence . In Australia, for example, residents of the New South Wales state capital, Sydney, particularly central Sydney, have by far the largest environmental impact per head.  Much lower levels are recorded in suburbs, smaller cities, and towns. (The same pattern is evident in all Australian states: have a look using the Australian Consumption Atlas).

The environmental impacts of intensive urban living outweigh any advantages of increasing scale and density. This means that policies that push agglomeration and intensification will increase rather than lower the impacts of urban living.

Household spending is the issue
The Australian study confirms that a city’s environmental impacts simply comprise the collective impacts of its residents.  Income is the driver of their consumption and thereby their demands on the environment. 
If we really believe city form can in some way over-ride income- and consumption-driven environmental impacts, then we should heed the evidence, and plan for modest, small scale, dispersed urban settlement. 

Spending on housing and transport in New Zealand
Household Expenditure Survey data for New Zealand (and elsewhere) provide an opportunity to explore the role of income in consumption generally. 

First, take a look at the distribution of spending on housing, transport, and discretionary goods (recreation and cultural services is used to represent the latter category) according to household incomes in 2010. Average spending levels have been organised by income decile for this purpose, each group containing 10% of households. Average incomes increase from decile 1 (the lowest earning 10% of households) to decile 10 (the highest earning 10%).

The pattern is pretty predictable.  Housing dominates the spending of low decile households.  It accounts for 34% in the lowest decile, falling to 22% in the ninth.  It rises again (to 24%) in the highest earning decile (10). This lift between decile 9 and 10 households no doubt reflects higher discretionary spending in the latter group by way of additional space, the quality of fit-outs, and second homes. 

Shares of Household Spending to Selected Categories, by Income Band
Do lower housing costs lead to higher transport spending?
Rent theory suggests that lower household spending is offset by higher transport spending.  This is because low income households can only afford cheaper, less accessible properties and so end up commuting further at a higher cost than high income households. 
It turns out that it’s not that simple.  Contrary to the theory, higher income households actually spend more of their income on transport.  That makes sense when we realise that commuting accounts for only around 25% of time spent travelling by New Zealanders.  The capacity to take discretionary trips is a bigger determinant of transport consumption than non-discretionary commuting and work-based trips.

The Relationship Between Spending on Housing and Transport

Lower incomes leave a lot less to spend on discretionary goods and services once housing and essential transport spending are covered.[1] Higher income households can and do travel more and consume more.  Their behaviour is unlikely to be significantly influenced by changing city form.  

Who spends how much?
Not surprisingly total consumption in New Zealand is dominated by higher income households: the 20% highest earning households (deciles 9 and 10) account for 35% of total spending on goods and services, while the lowest earning 20% (deciles 1 and 2) account for just 20%.

And decile 10 households account for 7 times more spending on transport than decile 1 households.  They spend 5.5 times more on recreation and cultural services, and 3.5 times as much on food.
The Contribution of Household Total Expenditure by Income Band, Selected Categories

The highest income households spend three times more on housing than low income households, an average of $476 per week compared with $161.
If refurbished housing in high amenity inner city living is expensive, guess which income groups will be living there?  The high consumers, obviously.  And in Auckland, at least, it seems that city planners and policy-makers are keen to deliver them the high order consumer services that will promote ever-more discretionary spending around the CBD(although much of central city resident travel may be taken up with recreational and social trip-making away from there).   

A high social cost for little environmental benefit?
The conclusion is straightforward: higher incomes mean more expenditure on additional housing, transport, and discretionary goods and services with correspondingly high environmental impacts.  If incomes are higher in cities, then their collective impacts will be high too. 

Planning policies won't change that much - except to the extent that they erode consumption by inflating the basic costs of living, something that impacts most heavily on lower income households.  

Fiddling with city form is unlikely to significantly reduce the impact of higher incomes and associated spending on the environment.  Increasing dwelling and living costs by promoting larger cities, higher residential densities, and uneconomic transit systems simply penalises low income households already committing substantial shares of their spending to housing and transport.  And this is the group that, by dint of constrained consumption, has the lowest impact on the environment. 

Better to address environment issues directly
From a policy perspective, environmental issues are better tackled directly.  This may mean promoting environmentally friendly goods and services, promoting low impact technologies (including low impact housing, fuel efficient vehicles, and the like), and encouraging responsible consumption. If we are really serious about environmental threats, we need to examine the efficiency of current pricing practices and even taxation measures, rather than leaning so heavily on clumsy, indirect, and ultimately spurious urban planning policies. 

[1]           Overseas spending is omitted from discretionary spending here as it is included in the catch-all category “Other Expenditure", which accounts for 6% of decile 1 spending and 11% of decile 10.