Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, we’re starting with an article for the bird-lovers. The NZ Herald’s science reporter Jamie Morton reports that city tuis are changing their song:
Tui are renowned for their wide repertoire of songs – it’s been estimated at more than 300 – yet we’re only just beginning to find out how urban environments are influencing their singing behaviour.
As with all songbirds, the melodies of tui are used to select a mate and an impressive song can make a male more attractive to a female during breeding season.
Suspecting that tui tailor their singing patterns to fit with the constant racket of city life, Massey University researcher Dr Weihong Ji and colleagues set out to investigate song differences between tui at spots around Auckland…
They found that tui songs at locations closer to the motorway were less complex than those of the other two groups.
“Basically, the noisier the area, the more simple the song became,” said Dr Ji, who will outline her findings at the New Zealand Ecological Society’s conference in Christchurch today.
The songs typically had fewer syllables and trill components, but a higher proportion of harsher elements which enabled their calls to cut through the noise.
One more reminder that life in cities is rife with unintended consequences and unplanned outcomes. On that note, Alex Cummings (Tropics of Meta) reports on some interesting-sounding new research on “The Politics (and Non-Politics) of the Unplanned City in the US, UK, and Germany”:
As the GDR commenced a flurry of construction of new housing estates, often on the fringe of traditional urban centers, older neighborhoods were often left abandoned. Meanwhile, by the late 1970s, similar policies in capitalist West Berlin left many empty buildings and people with low incomes, especially students, started a squatter movement. Illegal or semi-legal occupation flourished on both sides of “the wall,” but as Pugh points out, there were key differences: groups of squatters often took whole buildings and announced that they were doing so in West Berlin, creating a visual culture of defiance that politicized housing actions and became a big part of their appeal. In the East, “black dwelling” was covert: squatters took pains to be discreet, and “To take over a whole building was unthinkable.” East Germans looked for buildings with no curtains to occupy and put up their own to make the dwelling seem normal; they even paid rent to the authorities, unlike many squatters in West Berlin. They just wanted housing, Pugh argues; they wanted “a rich and fulfilling private life” and to become independent, difficult tasks in the bureaucratic and personally invasive society of the GDR. “West Berliners sought to collective private space,” she argued, “while East Berliners sought to privatize collective space.”
Cities are in many respects intrinsically unplanned spaces. If they work, they work due to the fact that they contain multitudes of people, each doing their own thing, in their own particular way. Sort of like this animated gif of rush hour in Copenhagen:
Cities work best when urban transport makes efficient use of space and other scarce resources – again, as shown in the gif of Copenhagen. Which leads onto this interesting bit of fact-checking from Politifact’s Ian Kullgren: “Portland mayor Sam Adams says Portland spent on its bike infrastructure what it would normally spend on a single mile of highway”. Summary: the mayor’s basically right:
Portland’s biking infrastructure is the stuff of legends. For the people who support it, we’re Biketown U.S.A. — the city that boasts (at least among medium and large cities) the highest bike commuter rate. For those who are less into that title, our investments in cycling paths and signs are monetary drains on the city budget.
You’d think, then, given the strong feelings, that Portland has made significant investments to get a significant infrastructure.
But something Mayor Sam Adams said recently caught our attention. In a video on Streetfilms.org, Adams touts our biking culture while adding that we built our bike network for about the same amount of cash that a mile of highway would set us back.
“You know in 1993 we weren’t the bicycling capital of America,” he says. “Seventeen years later, for the equivalent cost of a single mile of freeway, we have a bike infrastructure.”
Further to the north, Calgary has been racing ahead with its own cycle network. Chris and Melissa Bruntlett look at the pace of change in the Canadian city. As in Auckland, change has come through a fortuitous combination of independent activists and a city government that’s picked up the vision:
Led by visionary Mayors, predictable players like New York, Chicago and Vancouver – alongside less likely ones such as Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Memphis – have assembled ‘minimum grids’ of protected bike lanes – piece by piece – over the past 10 years.
These networks had another thing in common: they were completed one street at a time, pulling off the proverbial Band Aid slowly (and rather painfully). But on the morning of June 17, 2015, Calgary announced its own arrival on the international scene, cutting the ribbon on an entire network of downtown cycle tracks – the first of its kind in North America.
Unlike their counterparts, Calgary’s network wasn’t the product of a ‘top down’ approach from a single political entity. Rather, they were the result of a non-partisan, grassroots campaign (paired with a strategic measure of brokering and championing by Mayor Nenshi) that captured an entire city’s imagination, and demonstrated the undeniable demand for safer cycling facilities.
Cycling infrastructure can be cheap and fast to roll out. But, as Alex Zimmerman at Atlas Obscura discusses, infrastucture in general has gotten harder to build, at least in the US:
The image of a single engineer wielding a piece of technology no more sophisticated than a hammer isn’t what most people have in mind when they think of modern infrastructure projects. But it may be the fastest technology available to New Yorkers, even now—especially now, as the Second Avenue subway, a project that began planning in the 1910s, has been under construction since 2007, is not yet open. By contrast, workers laid over 9 miles of track across Manhattan in only four years after initial groundbreaking. “The fact that we still don’t have a subway under Second Avenue is kind of amazing,” says Polly Desjarlais, a senior educator at the New York Transit Museum.
So if we could build a new subway line in four years back in the early 1900s, why is the Second Avenue line taking so long? Why are we still using so much infrastructure that’s more than 100 years old? What has changed in the last hundred or so years for the subway?
On a different note, migration has been in the news here and abroad, due to the hundreds of New Zealanders locked up in Australia’s Christmas Island detention centre and the Syrian refugee crisis. So it is probably worth a reminder that migration is a very good thing in general. In the New Yorker, John Cassidy writes about “the economics of Syrian refugees”:
Since 2012 the European Union has received about 1.9 million requests for asylum, and even that number is dwarfed by the number of people who have sought refuge in countries adjacent to Syria. According to the United Nations, Turkey has taken in an estimated 2.2 million, Lebanon 1.1 million, and Jordan six hundred and thirty thousand.
Based purely upon these figures, you might think that the economies of these countries would be sagging under the burden, but they aren’t. According to a new report from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the Turkish economy will expand by three per cent this year and by four per cent next year. Lebanon’s economy is also growing, at a rate of about two per cent this year, which will expand to more than three per cent next year, the World Bank reckons. Despite an influx of refugees that now amounts to more than ten per cent of its population, Jordan, too, is bearing up. Its gross domestic product will rise by about three per cent this year, the International Monetary Fund says.
These figures make the point that, even in countries facing huge influxes of refugees, the impact on the economy as a whole is usually not very large. The biggest challenges in accommodating refugees are social and political, rather than economic. To be sure, there is a cost to screening, housing, and feeding the entrants, but even in Turkey, which has received more Syrian refugees than any other country, this cost has proved manageable. In a blog post in September, Massimiliano Calì and Samia Sekkarie, two economists at the World Bank, noted, “The Turkish government has spent nearly 5.37 billion euros since the refugees first began arriving, entirely funded through its own fiscal resources. While this is undoubtedly a lot of money, there is no indication that this spending has jeopardized the country’s fiscal sustainability.” If you think about it, that’s not surprising. Turkey’s annual G.D.P. is about eight hundred billion dollars. At about one and a half billion dollars a year, the cost of resettling the Syrian refugees has been less than 0.2 per cent of the G.D.P.
In Lebanon, which is much smaller than Turkey, the cost of dealing with the refugee crisis has been greater relative to the G.D.P., but much of it has been met using money provided by international donors. Indeed, a recent study carried out under the auspices of the U.N. concluded that the refugee-aid packages actually boosted Lebanon’s G.D.P. by more than one per cent. (At the same time, though, the spillover from the carnage in Syria has hit tourism, one of Lebanon’s biggest industries, hard. Overall, the U.N. study estimated, the crisis in Syria has lowered Lebanon’s G.D.P. by about 0.3 per cent.)
Another concern that has been voiced frequently about refugees, especially in Europe over the past few months, in response to the influx of refugees there, has been that refugees take jobs from native workers and reduce wages. The evidence from the Syrian experience suggests that this can happen, but that the effects aren’t very large. In many cases, refugees take jobs that natives don’t want. They also set up businesses of their own and provide more customers for domestic enterprises.
So migration, even in very adverse circumstances, can be a positive-sum game rather than a negative-sum game. Migrants can enrich the countries they migrate to, especially if those countries are willing to welcome them. And as Chris Dillow observes, drawing upon new research from University of Waikato researchers, migration tends to be good for migrants, even if they’re not fleeing a civil war:
Immigration is a great way of reducing poverty. A new paper (pdf) by John Gibson at the University of Waikato and colleagues has established this in a neat way.
Each year, Tongans wanting to migrate to New Zealand are randomly given permits to do so. Comparing permit-winners who migrated to those who didn’t win the ballot allows us to see the impact upon incomes of migration: because the ballot-winners, being drawn at random, are otherwise similar to the losers we get a relatively clean measure of the effect of migration.
Gibson and colleagues estimate that a ballot winner who migrates earns an average of NZ$340 per week, compared to NZ$126 for losers who stay in Tonga. That’s almost a tripling of income. It amounts to a lifetime gain of well over £100,000. Controlling for the difference in cost of living between Tonga and New Zealand doesn’t much affect the results.
Accommodating growth has its challenges and downsides, although these are far better than the challenges of urban decline. Rising house prices are one. The Economist reports that even efficient Scandinavian countries are not immune to this phenomenon:
Swedish house prices have doubled in the past decade, their rapid ascent only briefly interrupted by the financial crisis (see chart). So far this year they have risen by about 14%. Apartment prices have been even giddier, rising by more than 150% in ten years.
In part, this is a simple function of supply and demand. Stockholm is among Europe’s fastest-growing cities, with the recent influx of Middle Eastern refugees only adding to the demand for housing. Last month the country’s migration agency said it expected as many as 190,000 new arrivals by the end of the year, double its previous estimate. Sluggish and restrictive planning procedures limit supply: the current shortage of around 150,000 homes is expected to triple by 2025. A counterproductive rent-control regime has crimped the supply of flats in particular, and led to long waiting lists. Earlier this year an apartment in central Stockholm went to someone who had been in the queue since 1989.
What could be done about house prices? A pair of University of Auckland lecturers suggests, in The Conversation, that a land tax could do the trick:
Over a century ago, American economist Henry George suggested instead of taxing workers and entrepreneurs, governments should raise their revenue from land via a land value tax (LVT).
Indeed, both Australia (land taxes at the state level) and New Zealand (property rates at the council level) already have some taxation of land in place. But over the last century these taxes have become significantly debased due to the influence of various interest groups that secured exemptions or low rates. It is time to reconsider shifting the fiscal balance back onto land.
Unlike the land taxes already in place or the often suggested capital gains tax, LVT does not punish anyone for constructing houses or factories in the way that our current taxes do. As the supply of land is fixed, LVT becomes a cost of owning it. Consequently, it can bring in a decrease in prices as the owners of inefficiently used sites might feel compelled to sell or lease them to those willing to use them productively. Increasing the cost of owning land would drastically reduce the incentives for speculation.
Imagine central Auckland or Melbourne without vacant sites or dilapidated buildings. What is more, encouraging more efficient use of land is not only beneficial to economic growth and housing affordability, but also has a potential to substantially lower the costs of public infrastructure and encourage more efficient use of space and natural resources.
Meanwhile, others argue that there’s gold in them thar golf courses. Bob Dey reports on two new studies that Auckland Council commissioned on alternative funding sources other than rates. Both reports shone the spotlight on the city’s publicly owned golf courses.
— Michael Sergel (@michaelsergel) November 12, 2015
That’s all for the week. See you next time!