This is a guest post from Brendon Harre
In a previous series on the rebuild of Christchurch CBD I have suggested a fundamental issue for urban design is how to increase amenity value without increasing property prices? How to return the amenity value created by the presence and enterprise of the community back to that community? I wasn’t able to give a general solution but I did propose at the time a specific option that might help –greater use of Euro-bloc urban form.
Two urban design theorists hint that the general solution may involve finding the right balance between top down state control and bottom up community initiative. Writer Charles Montgomery whose work generally focuses on increasing amenity values and former World Bank Chief Planner Alain Bertaud whose work usually focuses on improving affordability and mobility have both written on the importance of finding this balance.
Charles Montgomery in his book “Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design” has a section titled: Errors from above (P.93-95) using the process that led to –Brasilia-Itis to explain this problem.
Unfortunately, when choosing how to live or move, most of us are not as free as we think. Our options are strikingly limited, and they are defined by the planners, engineers, politicians, architects, marketers and land speculators who imprint their values on the urban landscape…….
Take the most fully realized modernist city. Architect Oscar Niemeyer’s plan for a new capital city of Brazil on a wilderness tabula rasa in the 1950s was meant to embody the country’s orderly, healthy and egalitarian future. Early sketches of Brasilia resembled an airplane or a great bird with its wings outstretched. From above, the plan was exhilarating. Niemeyer segregated functions across the dual axes of his great bird’s body. At its head, the Plaza of the Three Powers, a gargantuan square lined with blocks of government ministries and crowned with the national congress complex. Monumental avenues were paved along the bird’s spine. Identical residential super-blocks were stacked in orderly rows along its wings. The intention was to use simple geometry to free Brasilia of all the chaos of the typical Brazilian city: slums, crime and traffic jams were banished by the architect’s pen. Pedestrians were separated from cars. There was exactly 269 square feet of green space for every resident. The principle of equality ran right through the design: all residents would have similar-sized homes. Everything had its place. On paper, it was a triumph of straightforward and egalitarian central planning.
But when the first generation of residents arrived to live and work in Brasilia, the simple approached showed its weakness. People felt disorientated by the sameness of their residential complexes. They felt lost in their perfectly ordered environment and its vast, empty spaces. They missed their old, cramped market streets, places where disorder and complexity led to serendipitous encounters with sights, scents and other people. Residents even invented a new word –brasilité, or Brasilia-itis –to describe the malaise of living ‘without the pleasures –the distractions, conversations, flirtations and little rituals –of outdoor life in other Brazilian cities’. The simple, rational plan extinguished the intrinsic social benefits of messy public space and loaded the city with a psychological burden that was entirely new for its residents. (Eventually the city spilled beyond its plan, and now messy barrios spread like a tangled nest beyond the wings of the great bird.)
Alain Bertaud describes the balance of where top down should meet bottom up in the following way in his December 2014 article Housing affordability: Top-Down Design and Spontaneous Order. (Abstract, P.1, 2)
The spatial structure of large cities is a mix of top-down design and spontaneous order created by markets. Top-down design is indispensable for the construction of metropolitan- wide infrastructure, but as we move down the scale to individual neighborhoods and lots, spontaneous order must be allowed to generate the fine grain of urban shape. At what scale level should top-down planning progressively vanish to allow a spontaneous order to emerge? And what local norms are necessary for this spontaneous order to result in viable neighborhoods that are easily connected to a metropolitan-wide infrastructure? Examples from Southeast Asia show that an equilibrium between topdown designed infrastructure and neighborhoods created through spontaneous order mechanisms can be achieved. This equilibrium requires the acknowledgement by the government of the contribution of spontaneous order to the housing supply…..
Spontaneous order appears in the absence of a designer’s intervention when markets and norms regulate relationships between immediate neighbors. Most evolving natural structures, from coral reefs to starlings’ swarms, are created by spontaneous order.
Top-down design is indispensable for the construction of infrastructure that spans urban metropolitan areas. Spontaneous order cannot create a metropolitan road network or a storm drainage system. However, as we move down the scale from metropolitan area to individual neighborhoods and toward individual lots, top-down design becomes less useful and should progressively disappear to let spontaneous order generate the fine grain of urban shape. At the neighborhood level, unfortunately, top down design often usurps the role of spontaneous order in allocating land between households. This substitution of spontaneous order by top-down planning is responsible for the existence of slums in developing countries and for very high housing rents unaffordable to the lowest income population in developed countries.
Urban managers are suspicious of spontaneous order, associating it with chaos and anarchy. They try to replace it with top-down design. Top-down design could be direct and explicit as in Brasilia, or it could be indirect and take the form of detailed regulations and zoning maps, as in most of the world’s large cities……
This paper will not attempt to dispute all the aspects of the “need to plan” logic used by planners. It will only address the impact that minimum land and floor consumption regulations have on housing affordability. These regulations fix minimum sizes for lot, floor space, parking, and access street width. They also set the permissible ratio between the area of a lot and the floor space that may be built on it by setting a maximum floor area ratio…..
Because regulations usually set minimum consumption of land and floor space and not a maximum, they have a high negative impact on the poorest households who might trade-off a lower consumption to be able to settle in a preferred location. For low income households, regulations rather than consumers’ choices are therefore driving individual housing consumption…….
It can be rational to trade off space for location and affordability as Lily Duval explains from personal experience with her 14 sqm Christchurch house. Alain Bertaud explains it is quite natural for people to make these trade-offs to best maximise their needs. (P.14, 15)
Low-income households looking for a dwelling in large cities have to make trade-offs between location, lot and floor area, width of access streets and availability of urban services. As seen above, they should not rely on government planners to make these trade- offs for them. A number of countries allow low-income households to select the set of housing standards that would maximize their welfare. In these countries, households who can only afford very low standards are not stigmatized by living in informal settlements. Governments recognize that their low standards are the result of very low income and as a consequence subsidize part of their infrastructure, instead of attempting to subsidize their entire housing consumption. Three successful examples, described below, occur in Indonesia, Vietnam, and China. In these countries, within a given perimeter, low-income settlements with no top-down regulations are organized in small condominium-like communities that set their own internal rules. The governments deal with them as communities. They have to follow government standards only for their connections to city-wide networks like water, sewer, power and refuse disposal.
Kampongs constitute an invaluable stock of affordable housing to those who cannot afford a car or are ready to trade-off the convenience of a car for the centrality of a kampong’s location. The original rights of ways for narrow lanes and footpaths have been kept intact even after significant improvements in drainage; water supply has been made available and streets have been paved. As a result, most of the houses located inside the kampongs are hardly accessible by cars. These low road standards prevent land prices from aligning themselves with those of the more traditional houses built along vehicular roads in adjacent communities. The housing stock located in kampongs constitute a parallel housing market for low-to-middle income households. Most kampongs are densely populated, centrally located and close to commercial areas and job clusters…. The lack of car access or at least the impossibility of parking a car on a residential lot makes the kampong’s population more likely to make motorcycles, electric scooters or public transit their preferred means of transport.
Kampongs are making an efficient use of land. (P.17, 18)
Vietnamese vertical urban villages
Vietnamese cities have adopted similar policies and urban development ideology as Indonesia’s kampong program (note Bertaud’s description of China’s mega-project developmental process in this 2012 article would be an apt description of Christchurch’s Crown/Fletchers CBD development). As cities expand, planners carefully avoid encroaching on existing villages while connecting them to the city-wide infrastructure network.
Within an urban village’s perimeter, no specific top down regulations are applied. Houses are mostly townhouses built on narrow plots about 3 meters wide. They are traditionally 2 or 3 levels high. But as demand for housing increases the village townhouses can often grow up to 6 or even 7 levels. The village house owner expands vertically, eventually renting rooms or apartments to new households, adapting the standards to the demand. There are no city-imposed standards in these villages, only good neighbour norms. The supply for new market-provided low cost housing is extremely elastic because of the possibility of vertical expansion compatible with local tradition. Some recent migrants rent only one room, others an entire floor or two. (P.19, 20)
Shenzhen evolved into a megacity, reaching about 15 million people in 2014, from what was in 1980 a cluster of fishing villages.
Like in Vietnam and Indonesia these villages have been given freedom to adapt from the bottom up. Alain Bertaud describes (P.21 -26) how a group of ‘handshake’ villages, 2.5 km from the centre of Shenzhen occupy an area 31 hectares and provide housing for about 100,000 people.
This extreme density has some pitfalls such as a lack of natural light -not so much of a problem for the local tropical climate. This design configuration would not be appropriate for more temperate climates such as New Zealand.
But as an example of bottom up control over urban development it has some important lessons, especially in aiding low income residents to find affordable housing. A full reading of Alain Bertaud’s article would be recommended….
Has New Zealand got the right balance between top down and bottom up? What do you think?
Alain Bertaud believes (P.2, 3);
Planners use a number of rationales to justify the extension of top down design to the micro aspects of individual consumption of land and floor space. Planners have to plan infrastructure and social services based on future population densities. Therefore, they must estimate future densities in different parts of the city. Too often, planners transform these density projections into zoning plans, which become regulations.
Estimating future density is a legitimate urban planning task. It is wrong, however to transform a planning projection into a regulation, thereby putting households into a regulatory straightjacket……. In constraining land supply planners create an artificial land scarcity resulting in high land prices and high housing prices, reducing the housing consumption of the lowest income households.
High property prices reducing housing consumption for the lowest income households is true for New Zealand too, the urban areas with the highest land costs and lowest incomes has the most overcrowding.
Figure 3.2 Crowded households (2013)
Proportion of households living in a crowded home (per cent)
Figure 3.2 shows the proportion of households that live in a crowded home. Auckland and Gisborne top the list. Some households are forced into living in places too small for their needs, as they cannot afford a suitable home. The cost of housing, the cost of transport, location and many other factors are among the causes. Crowding is most prevalent for people on low incomes, who are already spending a large share of their income on rent and cannot afford a larger home.
Sources: Statistics New Zealand, Generation Rent (P.82) by Shamubeel and Selena Eaqub
Should it be possible in some localised blocks within New Zealand’s high cost urban areas for communities to bypass planning rules? Perhaps if say more than two-thirds of the residents agree? Creating something like a community controlled body corporate with the purpose of becoming a small high density zone.
The community’s norms like in Indonesia, Vietnam and Shenzhen, China could govern what type of high density is allowed by setting the rules for car parking, shade, height, set-backs….. Normal planning rules would be set aside. Only the building code would apply as a top down regulation. Top down institutions –the Local Council and the Crown only taking responsibility for bringing services to the edge of the community controlled zone.
Would this sort of process help address New Zealand’s housing crisis?