Cities do it (land use) better

by Yule Heibel on December 12, 2007

Here’s a “must read” piece by Edward Glaeser, just republished in the CEO for Cities blog, The Greenness of Cities, and first published in the New York Sun on January 30/07. It explains why, from an environmentalism perspective, it’s far better to build highrises (and use land efficiently) than to oppose development (and force development into other areas, which typically don’t have the efficiencies in place that cities do).

How I wish that every board member of Victoria’s own Fairfield Community Association and James Bay Neighbourhood Association and Vic West Community Association would read this piece. I’m naming these groups specifically for their extreme NIMBYism, which they wield over the city’s core. Wedded to some obscene notion of a city forever preserved in aspic (which, if it’s kept up, will kill our city), they retard progressive development by defending what they consider Victoria’s “character,” “quaintness,” and “charme” (yes, with an “e” at the end — it’s all so veddy veddy English, don’t you know?). They do not understand what a city is or what it needs at all, and to shore up their inability to understand, they refuse to understand that Victoria is a city. “Their” Victoria is denial made manifest. The real Victoria suffers because of this.

Since they don’t understand the real Victoria at all (having no understanding of cities), they therefore fight development not just in their own neighbourhoods (for which they could be forgiven), but also in the city’s downtown (for which they cannot). The James Bay Neighbourhood Association is a particular thorn in my urbanist side, since this group insists on arrogating to itself areas that any sane person would recognize as belonging to downtown and having nothing to do with James Bay. But, as in all power trips, the more “authority” you can claim, the better your chances of inflating your importance.

They fight tooth and nail against any development that exceeds the city’s insanely arbitrary (and niggardly) height limits or that transgresses density limits established in a bygone age (the fifties?) when land was cheap. And they cling to strange fantasies, for example, that all of Victoria could do well with buildings kept to 6 floors — “like Paris,” they dreamily say, conveniently forgetting that their romantic notion of a low-rise Paris was born at the expense of massive expropriations and the destruction of the medieval city by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century. If anyone proposed anything remotely similar today, they’d be institutionalized. They also forget that those 6-story Parisian behemoths sit on land parcels approximately one square city block in size, hence the possibility of creating nifty enclosed courtyards for the residents. Given our comparatively tiny city lots (ranging from 9,000 to at most 15,000 square feet), it’s impossible to make the numbers come out right unless you go tall.

Oh, and how I wish that our supposedly “Green” city councilor, Sonya Chandler (who hasn’t been seen or heard from since she became a mother some months ago), would read this piece. Sonya — from Vic West, incidentally — who balks when a concrete high-rise proposal comes before council, because (in her mind) anything that isn’t “small” isn’t “green.”

How I wish the luminaries and wanna-be politicos from the various community associations, who think they have what it takes to lead a city and who plan to run for council seats, would read Glaeser’s article. I shudder to think what will happen if some of the Waynes or Dianes or Cornelias or Tims actually were to get elected next year: they, with their punitive attitude toward developers, with their firm belief that development is just another way of being a pervert (especially if the new building isn’t in some Disney-esque faux heritage “style”) and that it must be brought into line, ladies and gentlemen!

And what is this article I want them all to read actually saying?

Here are some key excerpts (pay attention, Sonya!):

If the environmental footprint of the average suburban home is a size 15 hiking boot, the environmental footprint of a New York apartment is a stiletto-heeled Jimmy Choo. Eight million New Yorkers use only 301 square miles, which comes to less than one-fortieth of an acre a person. Even supposedly green Portland, Ore., is using up more than six times as much land a person than New York.

New York’s biggest environmental contribution lies in the fact that less than one-third of New Yorkers drive to work. Nationwide, more than seven out of eight commuters drive. More than one-third of all the public transportation commuters in America live in the five boroughs. The absence of cars leads Matthew Kahn, in his fascinating book, “Green Cities,” to estimate that New York has by a wide margin the least gas usage per capita of all American metropolitan areas. The Department of Energy data confirm that New York State’s energy consumption is next to last in the country because of New York City.


…the ground troops of the environmental movement haven’t yet got themselves around to being pro-development, even in places, like New York, where development makes the most environmental sense. All of those years of opposing new development have made many activists reflexively anti-growth. Almost every act of neighborhood anti-development Nimbyism, or Not In My Back Yard, gets wrapped up in a mantle of environmentalism. The great problem with being reflexively anti-growth is that development in America is close to being a zero-sum game. New homes are going to be built to meet the needs of a growing population. If you stop development in some areas, you are ensuring more development elsewhere. [emph. added]

Some of my friends in the pro-urbanism camp have used this argument when speaking before council, albeit without the nuance it apparently requires to get through to councilors. As a result, when they now speak at public hearings to remind council of the sprawl in our Western Communities and to argue that highrises downtown could allay this, councilors shrug and pretend the argument is invalid. It isn’t. Certainly we’ll still see more single-family-homes (SFHs) going up in the suburbs, but that’s partly because of our overall growth here. We could — and should — still be doing a lot better in building downtown up, higher and denser.

Glaeser adds:

Good environmentalism requires a national perspective, not the narrow outlook of a single neighborhood trying to keep out builders. As a nation, we need to think clearly about where new housing causes the least environmental damage, and we need to make sure that our land-use policies help that happen. A local approach can do more harm than good because dense areas are rich in protesters who push new housing out to where there are fewer people to oppose it.

If one wrote, “[g]ood environmentalism requires a regional perspective, not the narrow outlook of a single neighborhood trying to keep out builders,” we could apply that entire paragraph to the situation in Victoria. For a perspective on the missing regional approach as it relates to municipal infrastructure funding and our overreliance on property taxes, see my recently published piece in Vibrant Victoria, Victoria’s Choice: to be or not to be …is not the question.

The “local approach” referenced by Glaeser is in our case a “neighbourhood approach” that seems to compound a peculiar political dysfunction of the region: the City of Victoria is a small political entity, but it’s the heart of regional entity of 350,000 people. The problem is that the city is but one municipality — out of 13. Within walking and biking distance are the municipalities of Oak Bay, Saanich, Esquimalt, View Royal, and so on, which have their own mayors and councils …and their own this-departments and that-departments. And so, the councilors — the politicians — in the City of Victoria are unhealthily dependent — to the detriment of the region — on the few neighbourhoods (some of whose organizations I listed above) for their voter base. It’s deadlock: the politicians dare not piss off the neighbourhood activists (who are often the only ones who bother to vote), even when this causes harm to the region as a whole — and certainly causes harm to what is the region’s downtown.

Next month (January 2008) I’ll have an article in FOCUS Magazine, which also tackles the stranglehold of the neighbourhoods over the city. I plan to post it and my other pieces from FOCUS (which unfortunately is not available online) to my blog soon.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

melanie December 12, 2007 at 11:27 pm

The bizarre thing about suburban development here in Sydney is that the blocks are getting smaller relative to the houses. So you entirely lose that feeling of being near nature. Developers do this, to squeeze more people and more profit out of a given space. In my inner city location, on the other hand, a number of office blocks have recently been converted to apartments – that’s good – but again the profit motive means lack of space for people to live in, which I think is the whole reason why people with kids move to the suburbs. They build little boxy apartments and you really have to be a millionaire to get a good sized one. The only people who want to live in these buildings are the DINKS – who also are the only ones who really want to live amongst the cafe life, etc.

Yule December 13, 2007 at 10:45 am

Smaller house lots in the suburbs: that’s the case here, too, and this reflects the higher value of the land. Obviously developers aren’t solely responsible for rising land values, and I can’t agree that they’re building “to squeeze more people and more profit out of a given space.” They’re typically trying to find a price point that people are still willing (or able, or both) to pay.

It’s a business, and they can’t build stuff that no one can afford to buy, nor can they be exempt from market forces (i.e., do it without being motivated by profit — very few people would go to work unless you paid them, but we don’t call that unreasonable).

Similar factors kick in to create the increasingly smaller units in downtown condos. I’ve sat down with developers and told them that I’d like to see more family-friendly units included. But the bottom line (literally) is that if they built those, the price of such units would be way higher than any average family could afford.

At the same time, the developer knows there’s a real demand for housing — to own and to rent, and a demand for units that first-time buyers can afford. So they build these smaller units that, around here, run to $270K (about the same in US$ now), which to me is still staggering since my husband and I found it hard enough to find the money to buy a house (in ’91) for $185K. So $270K for a small condo seems just unreal. And yet those units meet a real demand — and further, some people buy them “for later” or (gasp!) “for investment,” which means they rent them out in the meantime. That helps with our vacancy rate, which officially is near zero.

Many people in my city believe that all developers are making out like bandits. They’re making a living, but they don’t make a killing on average. One major company out of Vancouver has actually taken a loss with a first class project they’ve just completed here. They’re a very experienced company, but the way construction costs are going here, it’s increasingly difficult to predict what will happen by the time x-number of years have passed, your proposal finally had the go-ahead, and you start to build, only to finish 5 or more years after you pencilled out your initial predictions and estimates for the budget.

There are many debates about land value/ land use. Some people, upset by all the changes, think that development drives up the value of land. But the actual state of affairs seems to be much more complex, with developers responding to increases in land value. A place becomes more and more desirable to live, has more amenities, more attractions, more culture, more business, more people. That’s what drives the land value up. Developers aren’t going to build if people don’t want to buy the stuff — if they could “create” land value just by building stuff, you and I could build houses in the woods or the desert and get rich. Instead we’d lose our shirts.

I completely understand what you’re saying about ricky-ticky architecture, chintzy-sized condos, low quality housing, etc., but why that happens is more complex than just the developers wanting to make a profit. If anything, developers are reactive creatures — and all sorts of stuff has to be in place before they even appear on the scene.

melanie December 13, 2007 at 6:00 pm

Well, developers are also profit maximizers. that’s a fact of economic life. I didn’t mean to suggest that they are forcing up land values to suit themselves. The main reason land values are increasing is that availability of suitable land is decreasing as the urban sprawl extends ever further from the city centre. People are faced with a choice – buy something poky in closer or go for enough space and put up with a long commute. And the experience of Sydney is that it isn’t until the middle classes start moving (being pushed) into the outer regions that you get any sort of urban amenity at all in those areas.

I’m not sure why there is no demand for high density (apartment) living among families with kids. Europeans are used to it, but we seem to have some deep culturally rooted desire for the (ever diminishing) private yard. I don’t know, maybe it’s also cheaper to build single story boxes on separate blocks than it is to put people on top of each other.

There was a period before I moved here (in the 60s?) when the state Housing Commission built some high-density low-cost housing in inner city areas. There is one in my otherwise very bourgeois suburb. They’re ugly, but as far as I know, they have not created problems for the ‘nice’ people. But they don’t do that sort of stuff anymore because of the land value and the shortage of funds (back to your problem of starving the municipalities, only in this case the state govt, not to mention the post-Thatcher condemnation of the ‘nanny state’). The private sector has to do it and they have to make a profit. That means that poor people have to go to the suburban desert – where there are problems.

Yule December 14, 2007 at 12:25 pm

Yes, developers try to maximize profits, but there are many things they have no control over (which is why they often take a bath, too). It’s not an industry for the risk-averse, that’s for sure. Land value typically goes up because a place becomes desirable for all sorts of other reasons, or because exclusionary zoning rules (set by policy makers) drive prices up.

As for land values & urban sprawl (“…availability of suitable land is decreasing as the urban sprawl extends ever further from the city centre”), I’m not convinced that’s always true. In the Boston area, the suburban sprawl extended all the way to New Hampshire (i.e., the next state north of Massachusetts). It seems to me this happened because the people who moved all the way to NH did want something cheap, but most importantly they wanted something new. The desire for a brand new house overrode their ability to pay for something old and comparable in price, but closer to the core. Maybe that’s why we blame the developers — as in, “Look, they’re putting up yet another new subdivision, and sprawl is getting worse.” It looks like they’re driving it, but on the other hand, if we think about how they’re trying to minimize their risk (which is already quite high), what they’re really doing is satisfying a demand.

People want new stuff. On the whole (exceptions notwithstanding), they mistrust old dwellings, just like most people mistrust used cars.

In that sense, maybe we can all thank Martha Stewart and Norm-This Old House-Abram for making DIY and fixer-upper stuff chic and high class. Suddenly it was desirable to live in something “used.” (Not sure how this translates to mid-20th century condos, though! Norm & Martha certainly made quality an issue.)

At the same time, we yell at and/or mistrust the so-called “gentrifyers,” who take on the task of moving into neighbourhoods no one wanted anymore (and which possibly had become home to artists and “creatives” because the rents were cheap, but which were otherwise totally without amenities), and who fix the place up so that even Martha and Norm would like it. Ditto the folks moving into the new condos in the until-recently despised downtowns — we think they’re just latte-sipping leeches. But are they? I don’t think so. Sure, their demand for housing contributes to prices going up, but they’re also the ones willing to follow the “bohemians” into low-rent areas that the middle-class folks have eschewed or to repopulate downtowns that other people had given up on.

I hope that there will be a shift in mind-sets about raising kids in cities. Cost of securing a place big enough to raise kids is obviously a huge factor, but I wonder if the same mistrust (and sometimes hatred) of old stuff that makes people sprawl ever further into new housing isn’t also what makes so many of them afraid of raising kids in cities. Psychologically, perhaps it works like this: new stuff gives you the illusion of being able to control it. New beginnings, new start, everything shiny and new, etc.: you are in control, the Master/ Mistress of Your Domain. Old stuff makes you think the train already left the station and entropy is built into the very fabric of the setup: outta control, totally. Doesn’t have to work like that, but I suspect it does for many. (If you want to read an interesting article about one kid, Alex Goldberg, who’s born and raised — and hustling — on the NYC streets, read New York Magazine‘s The Littlest Hustler; Portrait of a New York childhood, in the extreme by Geoffrey Gray. Note that his very comfortably middle-class parents lucked into a rent-stabilized loft/ spacious apartment decades ago: i.e., housing availability made much of this possible. Judging from the many comments, most people don’t think Alex is living a good life, but I wouldn’t judge, based on just this one article. He’s certainly living a very richly textured life.)

Interestingly, Vancouver — which has built many brand-spanking new residential condos (often w/ townhouse podiums, many of them suitable for families) — is experiencing “stroller gridlock” in some areas. But: these are all new developments. In addition, perhaps because Vancouver has such an Asian flavour, there is perhaps less resistance culturally to living downtown in multi-family housing (MFH).

The MFH aspect also contributes, psychologically, to the “in control/ out of control” dilemma. I think many people feel more in control when they’re in a SFH (single family home) — although MFHs, if built well, can be just as private.

So, if we want more families downtown, we need to build MFHs of high enough quality to ensure privacy, and we can keep hoping for a sea-change in attitudes toward old-vs.-new housing. That’s why branding of neighbourhoods becomes important, too: often people will put up with less individual “control” if they feel that they’re able to buy into an overall environment they really value.

And we absolutely need policies — the creation of which is out of the control of developers, and in the control of city governments — to ensure that some component for family affordability is in place.

Sorry I’m going on at such length — I’m in bed with a bad sinusitis, which I hope isn’t going to compromise my lungs now (and yes, I went to the doctor, she wasn’t in, and her replacement was an old guy who had no clue, sent me home with a pat on the back — I might call again to ask when my regular MD is coming back), and the combination of boredom and pain (and concommitant inability to concentrate fully) is making me garrulous. 🙂

melanie December 15, 2007 at 9:15 pm

I agree with what you’re saying about the desire for newness. You do have to be fairly well off to be able to afford the house and THEN the renovation costs. But it should be possible to build high density new. The state government here has just released a whole lot of land for development in what it calls ‘growth centres’ in the NW and SW of Sydney, i.e., at least an hour’s commute to the city centre. (Since these areas will fill up with SFH, they’ve also reserved a large area, 3,800 ha, for nature.) In a different culture, with a different type of demand, this sprawl could be turned into high-density satellite cities. Maybe they’d need to build a few stroller freeways though 🙂

The whole east coast of NSW and much of the Queensland coast is covered by this suburban sprawl now too. Which is bizarre because people move there to get away from the big city (it’s known as ‘sea change’ and ‘tree change’) as you mentioned in your initial post, but the only trees to be seen are palm trees planted by the developers so it’ll look like Las Vegas or something. Land values are not different from those in the city and these people have effectively moved from suburbia to, well, suburbia. They’re also no less choked with traffic than suburbs in the city proper.

If you’re poor and have to live in one of these suburban sprawls, you are stuck with a bad public transport system – the density just isn’t high enough to make a decent one cost effective.

Yule December 15, 2007 at 9:55 pm

You’re absolutely right — we should be able to build high density new, and I guess that’s sort of what has happened in places like d/t Vancouver, which boasts huge residential increases (some say to the detriment of businesses).

What Vancouver (and Victoria) still need to figure out is how to solve the “affordability” issue. That’s a biggie.

As for the new suburbs, and what they can mean in addition to all the transit woes if you’re poor, take a look at how quickly these places can become total hellholes in the Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer article, New suburbs in fast decay; Foreclosures lead to vacancies and crime (found via CEOs for Cities).

Take a subprime mortgage / lending crisis, add a gazillion foreclosures, and suddenly you have these low-density sprawl places without people or amenities or density, which lets the lowest of the low take over, i.e., the gangs and criminals.

A typical story:

In east Charlotte, Laurie Talbot was recently awakened by gunfire in her 7-year-old subdivision. One bullet crashed into her house, through her son’s bedroom, then landed on her bedroom floor.

“I thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville,” says Talbot, who moved from New York last year. “I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen.”

She can’t get out, she says. “With all the foreclosures … there’s no way I could sell my house for what I have in it.”

Now that’s sad.

melanie December 15, 2007 at 11:22 pm

We have an area out west called Macquarie Fields which is currently pretty much like that. Not so much shooting, but street brawling, vandalism, rape and the like.

It used to happen in the inner suburbs when they were emptying out into suburbia. But all you need really is a high rate of youth unemployment, a couple of gangs (preferably of different ethnicities), a drug pusher or two…

I know the govt is trying to encourage businesses to move out there too, but it’s an uphill battle once you’ve laid the foundations of a suburban desert. The commercial areas are full of huge warehouses that you drive up to, park, load up and drive away. Completely lifeless, unless you think shopping with musak is life! They’re planned that way.

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