And now for something completely different.

One of the best things I’ve read recently was Australian economist John Quiggin’s discussion of “peak paper”, which the world apparently reached in 2013. It’s an optimistic story: showing how the slow accumulation of efficiencies can result in a more sustainable economy. But it also shows how long it takes to reap the full benefits of technological innovations – information technology, in this case:

For most of us, the industrial economy is a thing of the past. In the entire United States, large factories employ fewer than 2 million people. Even adding China to the picture does not change things much. And yet the conceptual categories of the 20th century still dominate our thinking. We remain fixated on the industrial model of economic growth, where ‘growth’ means ‘more of everything’, and we can express our rate of development in a single number. This model leads naturally to the conclusion that economic expansion must eventually run up against constraints on the availability of natural resources, such as trees to make paper.

And yet in 2013, despite positive growth overall, the world reached ‘Peak Paper’: global paper production and consumption reached its maximum, flattened out, and is now falling. A prediction that was over-hyped in the 20th century and then derided in the early 2000s – namely, the Paperless Office – is finally being realised. Growth continues, but paper is in retreat.

Quiggin goes on to discuss peak oil (per-capita consumption peaked in 1979), peak coal, and peak steel (already happened in the developed world). Conclusion: the economy of the future will be different.

More locally, Catherine Leining from the Motu Institute has written a good history of changes to the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme, which was designed to create incentives for Kiwis to cut their carbon emissions. For a variety of reasons, the ETS has never delivered on its aims:

The timeline shows how the government’s NZ ETS policy emerged in a series of stages, some of which overlap:

December 2005 to August 2007Assessment of mitigation policy options after the decision to abandon the carbon tax
April 2007 to September 2008NZ ETS design and initial legislation for phased implementation over 2008-2013
November 2008 to November 2009First NZ ETS review and amendment to moderate its price impact through 2012 and defer the entry of biological emissions from agriculture until 2015
December 2010 to November 2012Second NZ ETS review and amendment to both extend moderated price settings and defer biological emissions from agriculture indefinitely
September 2011 to May 2015Adjustment of international linkages, ending with full delinking from the international Kyoto market
November 2015 through 2016Third NZ ETS review; outcome to be determined…

For the sake of the planet (and economic efficiency), let’s hope that the current review reverses course and makes the ETS more effective.

And while we’re on the topic of poorly-managed externalities, let’s take a look at Los Angeles. Josh Stephens of the California Planning and Development Report writes about “Los Angeles’ moral failing“:

In 1970, the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles areas ranked, respectively, numbers four and one in per capita income in the United States. In 2009, after both areas grew by more than 50 percent in population, they were, respectively, numbers one and twenty-five.

You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to wonder: What happened?


L.A.’s and the Bay Area’s divergence depends largely on what [UCLA urban planning professor Michael] Storper referred to as the “dark matter” of public policy. Lurking behind every data point and every policy are forces like curiosity, relationships, open-ness, diversity, civic self-image, and values. These factors are often disregarded by short-sighted wonks and bureaucrats not because they’re not crucial but because they aren’t easily quantified.

Storper argues that people in Los Angeles are lousy collaborators. Scholars in L.A. cite each other less often. Patents made in L.A. refer less frequently to other L.A.-based innovations. Los Angeles’ great universities – UCLA, USC, and Caltech – are not nearly as entrepreneurial as Stanford, Berkeley, and UCSF. He cites L.A.’s Amgen as a successful, once-innovative biotech company but says that it’s nothing compared to the Bay Area’s biotech cluster. And it’s in Thousand Oaks — nowhere near a major university.

Agglomeration, agglomeration, agglomeration. San Francisco has it, but Los Angeles doesn’t – in significant part due to its unfriendly built form.

Meanwhile, some tech companies are trying to disrupt face-to-face meetings. Virginia Heffernan reports on some of their efforts in the NY Times. Click through for the tech buzzwords, but even if you don’t it’s worth considering Heffernan’s parting words:

What’s so bad about meetings, after all? At bottom, they are nothing but time with your fellows. Which suggests that hating meetings might be akin to hating traffic, families or parties — just another way to express our deep ambivalence about that hard fact of existence: other people.

Ambivalence about sharing space with other people is, of course, a perennial issue in cities. As Glen Koorey writes on the Cycling in Christchurch blog, this ambivalence – or even hostility – comes to the fore when building safe cycleways. The best way to respond, he argues, is with kindness and patience: “The subtle art of supporting cycleways“:

Like all forms of feedback, it’s even more powerful when you can relate personally to the matter at hand. I could (and do) write plenty of supportive things about projects like the Papanui Parallel cycleway, but the simple fact is that I don’t live on that side of town and I don’t have regular occasion to use that route. That’s why it great that locals like Robert can provide that closer-to-home perspective. You might not think that you can write eloquent words of wisdom, but often far more important is that you can truly speak from personal experience.

Those of us who already cycle regularly (and confidently) need to remember that mostly these proposed cycleways are not about us. Sometimes I see comments to the effect of “I cycle and I don’t see why they’re spending so much on this cycleway when a cheaper cycle lane would suffice”. That may indeed work for you, but there’s every chance it will do little to attract the “interested but concerned” who need a bit more encouragement. If you can’t understand this viewpoint, go and chat to someone who doesn’t currently cycle but would like to.

On a related note, Jarrett Walker (HumanTransit) wrote a fantastic post on consultation at the start of this year: “Who is not in the room? (A question for 2016)“:

For 2016, let me propose a resolution that’s a little more concrete, maybe a little easier to bring to bear in any situation.

Whatever room I’m in, I resolve to ask “Who is not in the room?”

In other words, ask:  What real points of view, and real dimensions of the human experience, are not represented in this conversation? How could their absence lead us to make a bad decision even with the best of intentions, and how do we compensate for that?


The larger reason transit planners tend to notice small-room problems is that transit is intrinsically a win-win proposition with a long-term payoff.  In fact, the longer-term your view, the more win-win it is.  The most successful transit services of all — rail rapid transit in big cities — work because of the huge diversity of people who find them useful, and because they’ve had a chance to pay off in the long run, by helping the city grow around them. These are the consummate win-win services, not just because there are so many riders from every part of the society, but because so many people benefit from the economic, environmental, and social opportunities that these services create.

But it’s politically hard to develop those kinds of services, because so many people assume that all issues are win-lose…

Speaking of the people who were in the room, and apropos of little else, here’s Mitchell and Webb’s take on how we ended up with some of the many odd place names in the New World:

Elsewhere, Slate has published a selection of Valérie Anex’s photographs of Ireland’s “ghost estates”: housing developments left unfinished or under-occupied after that country’s catastrophic housing meltdown:

From the mid-1990s through 2006, home prices in the Republic of Ireland increased steadily, fueled by a period of economic prosperity known as the Celtic Tiger. In 2008, the property bubble burst, and investors who’d built housing developments in remote rural areas found themselves unable to sell their properties or, in many cases, even finish their construction.

Valérie Anex, an Irish citizen who grew up in Switzerland, was in County Leitrim in 2010 when she first came across ghost estates—defined by the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis as a development of 10 houses or more in which 50 percent or less of homes are occupied or completed. Anex was astonished to learn that ghost estates were common all around the country. “The house is an object full of very strong symbols,” she said via email. “It is inevitable that when people discover through my images the existence of these inhabited brand-new houses, they start to ask themselves: What has happened? What are the historical forces that lead to this absurd situation? How is it possible to construct houses if there aren’t any people willing to live in them? Where does this surplus come from? Why this waste of labor, resources and energy?”

Bailieboro Road, Virginia.

Valérie Anex

Battery Court, Longford.


The New Zealand agricultural economy is currently waking up to the fact that booms can just as quickly become busts. NZ Herald business columnist Fran O’Sullivan reports on the hard questions facing Fonterra:

On January 20 – just seven weeks ago – Spierings told Bloomberg Fonterra would maintain its $4.60 per kg of milk solids forecast payout for the current season.

On January 28, Fonterra lowered its forecast for the 2015/2016 season from $4.60 per kg of milk solids to $4.15 per kg of milk solids.

Yesterday – in what was a “black Tuesday” for the dairy company – the Fonterra chief executive announced the current season forecast payout had been reduced to $3.90 per kg of milk solids, marginally ahead of the August 2015 forecast of $3.85 per kg of milk solids which had sharply brought its farmer shareholders to the realisation that the “white gold rush” had finally collapsed.

Dividend allocations will bump up the overall payment for Fonterra’s 10,500 farmer shareholders to $4.25-$4.30 per kg of milk solids for the current season. But with DairyNZ estimating farmers need a payout of $5.25 per kg of milk solids to break even – and some 80 per cent of farmers said to be under water on a cash-flow basis – this new forecast is undoubtedly a bitter pill for stressed farmers to swallow.

While there is more to the New Zealand economy than dairy production, the shake-out in global dairy markets will undoubtedly have an impact on the country. But it’s possible that it won’t all be bad. Dairy farming has destroyed water quality throughout much of the country. Winding it back a bit could give some lakes and streams a chance to recover.

National Institue of Water and Atmospheric Research  figures show that more than 60 percent of the length of New Zealand rivers fail the health standard for swimming, and  the “wadeable” standard proposed as the bottom line by government sets an E.coli count of 1000/100ml which is unsafe for humans and  twice the recommended safe count for stock drinking water.

Lastly, Charlie Gardner takes a data-driven look at the reasons that people have for opposing new development in their area. He finds that perceived impacts on amenities, not property values, underpin the majority of the opposition:

Because I always prefer a helping of data with my anecdotes, I charted out all the “NIMBY” comments — more than 80 of them in this case — based on the concerns they raise in the chart below:

Increased car traffic is far and away the most mentioned concern, with overpopulation/overcrowding second, neighborhood character third, school overcrowding fourth and parking fifth.  Notably, there were no comments citing home values or privacy concerns.  One or two comments did refer obliquely to people deciding to sell in response to the arrival of apartments, but these were linked to changing neighborhood character (a less family-friendly environment) rather than falling neighborhood property values, and implied greater rather than lesser demand.

Again, I think this is strongly supportive of Chris’ thesis.  The neighborhood in question is “under-zoned” relative to its capacity, particularly in light of transit access, and enjoys amenities that are underutilized.  The repeated references to traffic, strain on schools and overcrowding are simply different ways of stating opposition to more intensive use of neighborhood amenities by additional residents.  Issues such as increased noise, crime, anxiety over renter populations and similar concerns were cited much less often.

The tone of the comments also provides a window into NIMBY psychology.  Comments are rarely measured in their language and frequently employ hyperbole.  The majority are devoid of any optimism, and one gets the overriding sense that there can be no positive change, only a constant battle against further decline and decay.  This NIMBY mindset, pessimistic in the extreme, appears to be behind the despairing tone evident in much of the commentary.

Interesting. I suspect that it would be similar in most places.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

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  1. Mitchell and Webb have made the usual mistake – most scholars and thinkers people knew that the world was round – Columbus just had the size wrong.

  2. On the last link; NIMBYs and gloom; this is clearly the case. NIMBYISMism is fearfulness. It is fear of change, where change can never be good.

    The disappointed and those who feel their futures are diminishing are always over-represented in groups opposing change, and generate so much hyperbole.

    There is a tendency to project their personal disappointments onto the proposed project; this is why they so often present as over emotional and catastrophysing. This explain wild claims of death and mayhem theses types make about harmless things such as cycle tracks or 3 storey dwellings….

    1. Personally, I don’t mind apartments going up locally because New Lynn is not that amazing and I think it’d actually be more amazing if it were a bit more “cosmopolitan”
      However if I lived in a beautiful leafy Mt Albert street (or Remmers street) with a bunch of fantastic shops within walking distance, I’d probably be as NIMBY as anybody else.

      So, simplified: if you already live in a beautiful place it’s logical to oppose local intensification; if you live in a place with a lot of untapped potential, then support it.

        1. Wait a second buddy. I don’t disagree with apartments and intensification. I said “if I were in a leafy suburb I’d probably oppose it around me.”

          That’d be a selfish viewpoint and not necessarily the best one.

  3. I hope the peak paper thing is correct from an environmental perspective, BUT…
    1. people have been saying it for years (1970s, 1980s, 1990s…) and
    2. there is good scholarly research showing people retain more from reading on paper than from reading on screen

  4. Great post. The most common reasons for opposition are telling – its not about externalities after all, its about protecting under priced rivalrous resources. Essentially unjustifiable

  5. The “traffic” bogeyman could easily be solved with some relatively low-cost research. As part of the environmental impact statement for an apartment proposal, gather data from automated traffic counters at the car park entrance of several recent equivalent developments. I expect that those who have chosen to live there would have relatively low peak hour car travel. Residents of the new development would also be expected to choose its location for its close proximity to shops, and bus or train routes.

    It would also be great to have more peer-reviewed research on this topic.

  6. I notice a lot of NIMBYs bring up how the water and sewerage can’t handle more people. I doubt this is generally true and would assume Watercare would know if this is really the case in specific places (and would charge developers or veto specific projects)?

    Anyone know what the actual story is for water/sewerage?

    1. Yes. I was discussing this with a hydrologist just yesterday. Building additional kilometres of new water infrastructure is incredibly expensive and also adds to maintenance costs for everyone. Furthermore when older water infra needs upgrading in existing areas new residents and employment places there [if there are any] essentially fund the new capacity as well as that upgrade from Victorian kit for existing residents and businesses. Sprawl is absurdly costly; and to keep it going simply adds that cost burden to everyone by greatly expanding the scale of the problem; and its not just water or transport, but also social services such as schools, police, fire etc… even down to the vast additional distances that parents drive their kids for sport when schools are further and further apart…

      Additionally in AKL’s case our water supply and waste treatment in largely on the southside of the city, so huge new subdivisions north and northwest involve building huge new pipe across the centre of town to service them, as well as the kilometres of new distribution in the new subdivisions. Nuts, when we have so much capacity for absorbing increases within the reach of existing infra.

      1. + 1

        Nick Smith and Bill English seem to be making noises that they aren’t going to pay for new schools, hospitals, police and fire stations, etc., in sprawl areas, so sprawl is a non-starter.

    2. Parts of central Auckland have recently been upgraded (e.g. Mt Eden/Kingsland) as recently as 2009.

      Other central suburbs still have 100-year-old combined wastewater and stormwater systems, and those require replacing anyway as they don’t meet modern environmental standards with the development we have today, regardless of whether there’s any increase in development.

      1. + 1

        Yes, I said basically the same thing in a comment on this blog recently; it’s the practical and pragmatic way to go: up-zone in central/more established areas where infrastructure is older and needs replacing anyway, so can upgrade its capacity for future higher density development at only a marginal extra cost than replacing the infrastructure with the same capacity as exists now. Much much less costly than expanding the infrastructure networks to places they’ve never been before (e.g., Dairy Flat).

  7. How about instead of calling people “Nimbys’ call them realists. At some point intelligent people must question the endless breeding and “sardinisation” of the human species. At what point are you all happy about concentration of humans vs quality of life and the protection of the environment. You don’t see European cities endless expanding or concentrating citizens endlessly. Surely this is the overarching question. How many people are too many? What population of sardined people do think viable in Auckland? We are fast running out of space. Do we want Auckland to become like an overpopulated Asian city with little quality of life or environment? A lot of Asians are coming here to avoid that very thing they are leaving behind.

    1. Wher I grew up it was hundreds of metres to kms between houses. I now live in a townhouse with row houses and apartments down my street. I prefer the latter. ie there isnt an obvious link between density abd quality of life.

    2. I generally like people, and don’t mind having a few more of them around. If that means moving towards European densities – 3-7 storeys, human-scale mixed-use neighbourhoods – that’s fine. We don’t have to go any further than that!

      “At some point intelligent people must question the endless breeding and “sardinisation” of the human species.”

      Please don’t try to revive the eugenics movement.

      1. Except that 3 storey townhouses are the worst of both worlds – we destroy the backyard, and we also destroy the parks because we need so much land for the townhouses. At least 15 storey apartment blocks allow us to green the city

        1. 3 storey townhouses are the best of both worlds, courtyard gardens for all residents and medium density possible. A 150m section can be quite generous with outdoor space.

          1. Disagree. Apartments mean you can have big commons for games of cricket, touch, and soccer.
            Can’t do that in a courtyard garden

            Intensification is good but it needs to be real intensification

          2. Towers in the park has historically not led to awesome urban design outcomes.

            One thing I thought was impressive about Vauban (see below) was that their medium-density development and traffic-calmed streets left a lot of relatively continuous urban parkland. Basically, children can go out and roam through the city while staying mainly in parks. That’s pretty cool. Exploring green spaces (or urban spaces) is a lot of fun as a kid.

          3. Early Commuter, obviously you can have soccer fields between townhouses as well.

            The worst of all worlds is how we build new subdivisions by default: huge houses, as close to the property boundary as allowed. With 3 useless strips of grass on the back and the sides, and a huge driveway at the front.

            If we would keep a similar lot size, but build townhouses instead, that would be a huge improvement. There is a reason those things are called townhouses.

            And for reference, If you say “townhouses” I think about this:

            This is in Brussels, about 2.5 km from the Grand Place, similar to the distance between Three Lamps and Aotea Square.

            And there is plenty of room between the houses to have a lot of trees. On the other hand, as usual in Europe, there’s not a lot of space between the houses, just over 10 metres wall-to-wall. Not sure about lot sizes, but I’d estimate a typical size would be 7 by 25 metres, or just under 200m², which is tiny by Auckland standards. This is one possible compromise between wanting a backyard and not having enough money for a larger lot. In my opinion it definitely beats buying a larger lot 30 km away and commuting for 2 hours per day.

        1. Nice attempt at guilt by association, but (a) being an economist doesn’t mean subscribing to Malthus’s theories and (b) being an environmentalist doesn’t mean agreeing with the creepy views of some Victorian conservationists.

          Moreover, I’d note that eugenics was – a century ago – a widely-held view. As with any widely-held view, you could find proponents in most sub-sets of society. Some conservationists partook, as did some birth control advocates and feminists. But the biggest supporters were race theorists and opponents to liberal immigration policies. For example, in the US, the first organisation to officially support eugenics was the Immigration Restriction League, who wanted to ensure the “purity” of the Anglo-Saxon race. Their ideas provided a model for Nazi Germany’s “racial hygiene laws”.

          That’s not to say that everybody who wants tighter restrictions on immigration is a eugenicist. But if they start speculating about restrictions on “endless breeding”, they’re flirting with an unsavoury history.

          1. Wasn’t trying to label you in any way Peter- not this time. Nice summary of the history of that dire movement but you left off the bit after WWII when it resurfaced as Population Control. Same old nonsense and some of the same people even, but using a softer sell. But still based on the mistaken idea that an elite should tell poor people how many children they are allowed.

          2. Coercive population control measures have only been enacted in totalitarian (or at least authoritarian) states – China is the most prominent example. So if there is a “population control” movement, it’s been wildly unsuccessful in most places.

            There has been a dramatic fall in world fertility rates over the last five decades. But by and large this has been the happy unintended consequence of other beneficial technological and economic changes, e.g.:
            * Economic and social empowerment of women – education and job opportunities have given more women a choice about how and when to have families
            * Sustained growth in living standards in many places, including a shift away from labour-intensive subsistence agriculture, which tends to incentivise large families
            * Increased accessibility of better birth control technologies have made fertility a choice, not an inevitability.

          3. Not quite as benign as you seem to think. The UN gave Indira Gandhi an award for the work done in camps. As you say it has been unsuccessful and most believe that improving living standards will result in the global population peaking through people making their own choices.

            The point of the above link is not that India did this but that it was funded by the UN Population Fund, the World Bank and the Swedish International Development Authority. It was mainstream.

  8. When people say they are opposed to a development because of traffic it is either because: A/ they are opposed to the extra traffic or B/ they think saying traffic as their reason is gives them a better chance of stopping the development than saying their house might go down in value. Having done this stuff for years I think there are plenty of people in the B camp.

    1. Exactly. Yet both reasons (house prices and traffic), are simply pecuniary externalities (at least traffic would be if it was priced properly), and therefore difficult to justify as being relevant in terms of policy.

      1. How would you price the adverse effects of traffic on local people? Give the roads to the neighbours so they could charge a toll on traffic past their door? I would love that – any prick on a loud motorbike travelling between 11pm and 7am $250.00

        1. The RCA owns the road so they would set the charges and reap the revenue. This could offset rate revenue or be used in some other way. Once you have road pricing, congestion doesn’t increase with increasing demand (similarly for parking). It is just that the market price increases. This is a good thing – the resources is being put to a higher value use – and hence should not be hindered by regulation.

        2. Ok the above comment was about congestion and parking. Unlike congestion/parking, noise is a real externality. We could deal with noise by regulation or taxing it. I would advocate an increase in petrol tax (or a tax on top of the market price for road pricing) that deals with externalities due to road use including noise, pollution, accidents etc (the last one is partially captured through ACC levies). If taxes are too tricky we could use regulation – maximum decibels of vehicles, maximum speed etc. Of course this would apply to all road users.

          1. > If taxes are too tricky we could use regulation – maximum decibels of vehicles, maximum speed etc. Of course this would apply to all road users.

            We already have both of those, the limits for them are just too lax. You can drive at 50km/h down a residential street, with a car producing 90dB. That’s fast enough to be even odds of killing anyone who gets in the way, and loud enough that if you were at work your boss would be required to make you wear earmuffs.

            Cars should be regulated to be as quiet as practical, not be allowed to be just not quite loud enough to cause hearing damage.

        3. Noise is probably one of the main reasons why living in a city centre is such a dystopia. There is definitely some charm in the idea of being able to open your window and still being able to have a conversation without having to shout over the traffic noise.

          These motorcycles, that should be easy. (1) impose a noise limit. I think around 90 dB should be plenty. Boom, motorcycles are de facto illegal. (2) find a way to measure exhaust noise level, and as mfwic said, anyone exceeding 90 dB gets fined, and preferably gets some demerit points.

          And look, those demerit points are already in our road code:

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