Turtle, grasshopper, Jar Jar Binks, or…? (source: Redditt/evil buildings)

In this week’s TW3, The Urbanist comments on:

  • Melbourne is ‘most liveable city’ again. But it’s also harder, crueller, out of reach
  • Ill-judged and random – why Britain’s system for saving old buildings is a farce
  • Congestion Pricing Finds New Life in New York City
  • Is congestion pricing fair to the poor?
  • Pace of renewable energy shift leaves city planners struggling to keep up
  • The slowest street in Melbourne’s CBD: Three ways to get us moving faster
  • Walkable neighbourhoods boost health, build communities and deliver liveability, productivity and sustainability says Lucy Turnbull
  • Infrastructure for Mature Cities
  • Is There a Perfect Density?
  • Streetlights and crime in Houston: what’s the connection?
  • Forget the Past. Statues Represent Who We Want to Be
  • Residents in Brighton are outraged two blocks worth almost $4 million will be used to house five homeless people in temporary units
  • Opal figures show skyrocketing passenger demand on Sydney train lines
  • Food Deserts and Real-Estate-Led Social Policy.

Melbourne is ‘most liveable city’ again. But it’s also harder, crueller, out of reach

You have to go a long way off the red maps of the Melway to find affordable housing in Melbourne… This is the year homeless people became a visible and critical mass in the city… It’s peak hour all the time, everywhere: the whole city becoming one big Punt Road.

This is one of several stories last week that knowingly used Melbourne’s ‘most liveable city’ gong as a straw man to tell readers what a shit place the city actually is. It’s true Melbourne has serious problems, but so have Paris, London, New York, Copenhagen, San Francisco, etc (see Is Melbourne’s liveability gong mostly bullshit?). What’s lacking in The Guardian’s article is a comparator.

If the editor of The Guardian wants to give her readers an objective assessment of how “liveable” Melbourne is, she should commission a comparison of its virtues and evils relative to peer cities. Something like Monocle’s 2017 Quality of Life survey would be a good place to start. Like any metric it’s got issues too, but unlike the EIU’s league table its focus is permanent residents. It ranks Melbourne a highly creditable fifth, behind top-placed Tokyo but ahead of the usual darlings like Zurich, Portland, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Vancouver, and all the Scandi cities.

Ill-judged and random – why Britain’s system for saving old buildings is a farce

A fairly ordinary house on Northmoor Road in Oxford is listed just because JRR Tolkien wrote his novels there. While this is no reason to immediately demolish the place either, it’s not like he carved the original draft into the walls, or rebuilt the roof to look like a dragon. Is there really that much to be learned from observing the outside of a house where someone imagined a thing that everyone may have lost all interest in a hundred years hence?

Unless they house a museum, buildings that famous people lived in rarely convey anything substantial about the person or why they’re significant. Tolkien is already remembered – and more importantly, understood – by the huge number of people who’ve read his books and seen the blockbuster films they spawned. How could anyone who’s immersed themselves in Tolkien’s imaginative universe possibly think preserving his home in the real world is so important it must be listed? (see Should this movie set get heritage protection? and Does this building tell us much about social history?).

Congestion pricing finds new life in New York City

Eight years ago, a proposal to charge drivers entering the most congested parts of Manhattan was soundly defeated when it moved from the city to the state. Now the idea is being revisited again, with support from the governor.

Manhattan needs to charge for car use. It’s disappointing that one of the densest cities in the developed world and a world economic power house still struggles with such an obvious idea. It needs to reduce private car use and use roads more efficiently e.g. buses, bicycles, scooters. So do Australian cities.

Is congestion pricing fair to the poor?

It is appropriate to worry that priced roads might harm the poor while helping the rich. But we should also worry that free roads do the same, and think about which form of unfairness we are best able to mitigate. People who worry about harms to the poor when roads are priced, and not when roads are free, may be worried more about the prices than the poor.

We need a wiser, better informed discussion of congestion pricing. Time to review arguments like “we can’t have road pricing” and “we can’t tackle climate change” because they’d be unfair to those on low incomes (see Is congestion charging just too unfair to bother with?).

Pace of renewable energy shift leaves city planners struggling to keep up

An easy win for planners is to devise codes and planning scheme provisions to protect rooftop solar installations from overshadowing.

In some cases yes, but the risk here is solar access becomes yet another excuse (like heritage and neighbourhood character) to oppose increases in densities. We addressed sewage disposal via large-scale treatment plants rather than by local ones like septic tanks; and we’re increasingly addressing urban mobility by large scale systems e.g. trains instead of cars. On-site solar collection has a place, but we should be thinking in terms of large-scale solar collection too, preferably in locations where it’s most efficient.

The slowest street in Melbourne’s CBD: Three ways to get us moving faster

The report argues it’s time for traffic police to get much tougher on drivers who break that law. It proposes installing traffic cameras to catch and fine drivers blocking intersections.

Yes, drivers who queue across intersections are a pain but that’s not the main game. The article also says, “pedestrians are not blameless in blocking busy city intersections” and that clarifies the key issue; there’s too much space for vehicles in the CBD and not enough for people on foot. This is one of the densest and most productive few square kilometres in the country and has very good public transport service from all parts of the region, so the warrant for giving over so much surface space to cars is very weak. Restricting vehicle use (including taxis) would impose a cost, but there’d be a payoff in better amenity and faster walking trips.

Walkable neighbourhoods boost health, build communities and deliver liveability, productivity and sustainability says Lucy Turnbull

Really? Small country towns are often walkable, but they’re not necessarily sustainable, healthy or productive. Country folk seem to like driving. Some minority groups find that despite the walkability of small towns, they’re often not included in the community. Sydney’s CBD is walkable and so is Adelaide’s, but the former’s an economic powerhouse and the latter isn’t. It’s down to much more complex factors than walkability.

This sort of ‘silver bullet’ mentality is reminiscent of the ‘Cargo Cult’ that’s built up over decades around technology parks. Every town in the world builds one in the forlorn hope they’ll become the next Silicon Valley (see Do technology parks work?). Walkability is good in neighbourhoods, but it’s not the second coming; it’s not even close.

Infrastructure for Mature Cities

The serve model flies in the face of the belief that public transit can induce profound changes in urban layout. In reality, some local transit-oriented development is possible, but the main center of New York will remain Midtown; so far Hudson Yards seems like a flop. In the suburbs, more extensive redevelopment is possible, with apartment buildings and mixed uses near train stations. But these suburbs, built after WW2, are less mature than the city proper. In fast-growing cities in North America outside the traditional manufacturing belt the shape model still has validity – Vancouver, still a relatively new city region in the 1980s, got to shape itself using SkyTrain. But in New York, there is no chance.

The proponents of infrastructure projects routinely describe them as “city shaping”. Sometimes they are, but mostly they’re not because they’re usually additions to mature networks (see Does this freeway make any sense?). The great transport shapings of Sydney and Melbourne happened in the second half of the eighteenth century, when the new technology of trams and trains provided a huge advance on walking, and again in the mid nineteenth century when ready access to cars provided the scope for private transport. But there are limits e.g. there’s not much evidence that Melbourne is different in important ways to other Australian cities because it alone had trams for the last fifty years. The biggest city shaper of the last 50 years was arguably the contraceptive pill.

Is There a Perfect Density?

In recent years, I have read numerous references to the phrase “Goldilocks density“: the idea that there is one level of density that is neither too high nor too low, but just right. For example, Lloyd Alter wrote some years ago that this perfect density is “dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch.

No there isn’t; and as a question it mostly makes sense for large tract development, principally on the fringe. The key challenge in Australia’s big cities is increasing density in established suburbs. What largely determines density is what’s viable given that the supply of sites for redevelopment is often limited, lots are small and difficult to amalgamate, they’re in diverse ownerships, they’re expensive, they’re often protected by heritage overlays, and even modest redevelopment is opposed by existing residents.

Streetlights and crime in Houston: what’s the connection?

Long story, short, the report argues, “given the complicated relationship between streetlights and crime, cities should not expect a direct impact of additional streetlights on reductions in crime.”

This finding highlights the need for a more sophisticated understanding of how design affects behaviour. The impact of planning and architecture on crime is routinely overstated by designers who want to increase their own importance. It’s routinely overdone by politicians who want to appear to be doing something without having to address the underlying causes.

Forget the past. Statues represent who we want to be

So if you’re considering the worthiness of a particular statue, here are three pointers: Pretend you’re from some very distant foreign country and view the dispute through that more objective lens. Second, focus on the future, and third, don’t be afraid to make some changes.

Important old books, films and art works that come to be seen as unworthy or even offensive by succeeding generations can be easily ignored. Not so with built objects; they’re in the public sphere. Moreover, there’s an opportunity cost if there’s an alternative use for the underlying land. Maybe protections on all public monuments, place names and heritage buildings should be sun-setted i.e. have a finite life that must be “reset” via a review process every (say) 50 years? Perhaps The Fourth Plinth program provides some inspiration.

Here’re some interesting takes on the topic: Confederate monuments aren’t history, they’re a cheap cultural memory and The Confederate statue debate: 3 essential reads.

Residents in Brighton are outraged two blocks worth almost $4 million will be used to house five homeless people in temporary units

Locals say their new neighbours could bring serious social problems and are angry at the lack of consultation by the Government.

This would make a classic episode of Utopia. Residents are outraged because they’re getting temporary accommodation for five homeless persons on their doorstep; advocates are outraged because the filthy rich residents of Brighton are outraged! So-called temporary buildings often become permanent (look at primary schools). This is a big site and it’s presumably in public ownership; it can accommodate many more than five people. It should be developed for multi-unit housing, including social housing.

Opal figures show skyrocketing passenger demand on Sydney train lines

Passenger demand for trains in Sydney has risen by almost 20 per cent on some lines in just a year, new figures show, underscoring the strain on the city’s rail network.

There’s a parallel with the rapid growth in train commuting in Melbourne over 2005-09 (see Can we have a mature discussion about the future of public transport?). At the time, public transport’s mode share in Sydney was static. Now the roles are reversed, suggesting the economic climate is a key explanation for the transit boom in Sydney.

Food deserts and real-estate-led social policy

The article contributes to widening critical discussion of the food desert paradigm and the policy interventions with which it is associated. It calls on urban researchers and practitioners to reframe discussions of food access and nutrition around the shortage of basic income and a need for higher wage floors.

There’s so much exaggeration of the issues around food security and food deserts. The problems aren’t caused by the physical environment and they can’t be cured by planning. The issue is income, not geography (e.g. see Are these outer suburbs “food deserts”?).