Development that can wash its own face

In NZ our most common urban landuse – the suburb – starts out looking financially good, then absolutely gobbles money from the city, i.e. everyone not living in the suburb. How’s that? And is there another way to do suburbs?

The western world has been doing the “suburban experiment” for a few generations now and the results are in: car-dependent, low-density suburbs are terrible for public finances (as well as a host of other things). Essentially they’re a publicly-funded Ponzi scheme.

But loads of us have now grown up knowing nothing else, and have had perfectly nice upbringings and plenty of fondness for the places we grew up.

Most of us grew up in nice NZ suburbia

For a few generations we’ve been able to pretend for a few generations that it’s all fine, because the accumulating harms are spread across the public and the taiao. (Such as our city authorities gradually becoming too broke and indebted to do the basics of public-good services; residents spending thousands of hours sitting in traffic every year; regular surface flooding and perpetual water pollution from a waterproofed land surface; our most productive soils locked under concrete, bitumen and one- or two-storey detached houses.)

And we, the voters, have been consistently voting for leaders who built us more stuff we could see, and that they told us “will bring in more rates”, rather than investing in boring invisible stuff like functioning water networks.

But for NZ towns and cities, those proverbial chickens are coming home to roost and they are big.

A great watch

This excellent explainer – one of many out there – unpacks the pretty basic aspects of our towns’ and cities’ addiction to outwards growth and what it means for city finances. The graphs are pretty striking and once you’ve seen them, you’ll feel very differently about authoritative statements that Wellington is “running out of developable land” and Porirua/Kāpiti/Hutt leaders’ feverish enthusiasm for “unlocking land for development”.

Companion listening

The excellent and prolific podcast When The Facts Change has a great episode out on exactly this stuff for New Zealand, where host Bernard Hickey talks to the head of strategy at Te Waihanga – NZ Infrastructure Commission, Geoff Cooper. How to Ensure Fairer Infrastructure Costs For All

Te Waihanga are another one of those independent advisory superbrain institutions whose job is to give free, frank and fearless subject-matter-expert advice to the government of the day on what to do, and not do. Hickey does a great job of making abstract concepts accessible and relatable.

In the course of this great public service this episode, he comes out with timeless quotes like:

“How do you make sure the people who benefit from the stuff are the ones paying for the stuff even when they maybe don’t use that stuff but definitely do use other stuff?”

Bernard Hickey wrapping his brain around geoff cooper’s work

Highly recommended.

Some things to ponder:

  • The sprawl addiction is new because prior to about WWII we grew cities and towns without sprawling. Longer-distance travel between cities by train, or bus; everything within “destinations” (including within a city) within walk or mass transit ride. And then we dug all that up, and started sprawling because Private Cars Are Progress.
  • The idea that “growth must be maintained by the rates it will bring in” is excellent and the best bit of National’s proposed housing policy – see 2.2. (But do we trust councils just to “declare” this? )
  • Better Things Are Possible has a great exploration of whether it’s in fact possible to do greenfield in a financially sustainable way
  • For some startling graphs of the finance situation for different densities and mixes of urban landuse, check out Auckland (and other cities) in this great talk

What other great watches or listens have you come across in your travels? Share your reccs in the comments!

Image credits:

  • kids in suburb – The Cul de Sac, NZonscreen
  • banner image – Cuttriss consultants

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