Welcome back to Sunday reading. One of the best things I’ve read in the last few weeks is a 2014 article about water in the New Zealand Geographic. Dave Hansford tells the story of New Zealand’s water problems: “Liquidation“. It’s a broad-ranging and troubling tour through a policy with some sizeable benefits:


Some sizeable costs:


And some vexing questions about the way that our society and economy works:


Read it in full.

Meanwhile, other interesting things are happening around the way we manage our natural environment. This one has slipped almost totally under the radar in New Zealand, so it took an Australian to highlight it for me. In the New Matilda, Thom Mitchell writes about how, “In New Zealand, the land can be a person. Meanwhile in Australia…

Something revolutionary happened quietly across the Tasman in 2014: A very special statute was passed, transforming the Te Urewera National Park into a unique entity with “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person”.

Now, that tract of more than 200,000 hectares of remote wilderness on New Zealand’s North Island has the capacity to go to court. With a little help from its Traditional Owners, the Tūhoe tribe, Te Urewera can defend itself from the damage that corporations – which have long had legal rights – are wont to inflict on it.

Stretching almost 300 kilometres, the Whanganui River winds its way through a remote valley, also on the North Island. If legislation conferring similar rights on the River to those that the Te Urewera already enjoy passes Parliament (as expected later this year), the Whanganui might one day wind up in court as a ‘legal person’, too.

What a difference a Treaty makes….

At its bare bones, the concept of ‘legal personhood’ was devised to break a stalemate over the notoriously sticky question of ownership. The government has a policy of not returning National Parks to Māori ownership, but the Tūhoe tribe had always demanded it do just that.

By granting ‘legal personhood’ to Te Urewera the land was placed above ownership.

As the country’s then Minister for Māori Affairs, Dr Pita Sharples, observed at the time: “The Settlement is a profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world.”

In an age of environmental crises brought on by Western expansion, the Indigenous worldview reflected in the novel concept of ‘legal personhood’ may have arrived just in time to point the way down a regenerative path.

This relates to something that I’ve been thinking about lately: Land ownership is not, and has never been, a straightforward concept. There are almost always multiple parties with overlapping interests in the ownership and use of the land. This inevitably makes land use decisions messy and contentious.

Land use in a Russian village prior to forcible land reforms. Households did not have absolute rights to any individual plot but were allocated strips of land across multiple fields through a communal process. (Source: James C Scott, Seeing Like A State)

We have only been able to entertain the fantasy that land ownership is simple – one lot, one owner – on settler frontiers where large amounts of land have recently been violently alienated from previous inhabitants. And, as the Te Urewera and Whanganui River cases show, that fantasy cannot be maintained indefinitely – eventually, complex new forms of ownership and rights to land emerge to reflect social realities.

These complexities and ambiguities are especially apparent in cities, due to the large number of people interacting with each other. This is probably why some people advocate a continual flight from the city to the next suburb in a paddock where the romantic fantasy of simple frontier land ownership can be re-enacted.

Speaking of land use, two good pieces from the Pacific Northwest, where cities like Seattle and Portland are coping with growth pressures much better than San Francisco, but still coming under pressure.

In the Portland Monthly, Randy Gragg (great name!) asks: “Portland is growing like never before. What should we do next?” On the whole, a pretty pragmatic set of policies:

Right now, almost 60 buildings at least 100 feet tall are in the pipeline for Portland’s central city—including at least 15 destined to rise more than 200 feet. And those are the projects we know about. Among Portland’s architects and builders, there’s talk of more—many more. Then there are the 14,000-plus apartments that have sprouted since 2012, across every neighborhood. And the 1,700 new hotel rooms expected by the end of 2017. And the 11 new buildings the Goodman family aspires to grow on its downtown parking lots, five proposed at more than 400 feet tall. (For comparison, Big Pink stands just over 530 feet.)

Some call it a boom; others, another bubble soon to pop. But imagine, for a moment, that all the cranes swinging above the streets, all the new, bigger buildings rising where little old ones once stood, the moving vans arriving from across the nation—imagine that this is Portland’s new normal…

Meet six imperatives of Portland’s urban future.

1. Build more—lots more—especially family housing. Now-trendy ideas like demolition taxes, tiny houses, and even inclusionary zoning are just political hyperventilating when it comes to keeping Portland affordable. We need to take deeper breaths. We’ll need major subsidies (bonds, tax breaks, and waived fees). But most of all, we simply need to build more housing—so much that older buildings start to become affordable.

It does no good to knock down old 750- square-foot single-family houses to build 3,000-square-foot single-family houses. It does make sense to knock down some—maybe many—little houses to make way for new tri- or fourplexes. We also need more apartment buildings, located near existing water, sewer, and transit infrastructure. We already have models: look at areas like Northwest and King’s Hill, where single-family homes sit among multiplexes, row houses, and small apartment towers—most dating to the early 20th century—ironically, when we had more land and resources and fewer cars. Given the state of the planet, it’s time to loosen our zoning and cozy up again.

2. Quit complaining about how hard it is to drive. Fretting about parking in front of your house? You’re a GBB: grumpy baby boomer. Millennials increasingly don’t own cars. And as Portland’s street grid gets more packed, you won’t want to sit idle in one anyway. Portland was an early leader in biking and car-sharing and just started bike-sharing, finally. But for today’s transportation avant-garde—electric bikes and micro-cars, both shared—visit Madrid, Copenhagen, Mumbai, or San Francisco. Portland’s tiny blocks and streets are ready for matching transportation.

The other four suggestions are also pretty good.

Second, at the Sightline Institute’s blog, Dan Bertolet does some myth-busting about zoning and growth: “No, Seattle does not already have ‘plenty’ of land zoned for housing.” It’s a wonky but important point about how we measure what our city will deliver us:

Seattle’s 2014 evaluation estimated that the city has a zoning capacity for 224,000 new homes, on top of the existing 308,000. Official population projections for the year 2035 anticipate an extra 120,000 people, in addition to the 684,000 already residing in Seattle in 2015. These figures and simple arithmetic give anti-growth voices all the ammo they need to push back on proposals for upzones, that is, changes to zoning to allow more homes. It makes for a powerful talking point, conveniently glossing over the fact that zoned capacity is exceedingly difficult to estimate correctly and is employed by planners only as a crude yardstick.

In a minute, I’ll go over the ways error creeps in. But first, a more important point—in fact, the most important thing to know about zoned capacity: in every city, zoned capacity is a side show to the main event. The main event is housing prices.

Housing prices are the crux of the matter. They reveal if people have enough housing choices. If vacancy rates are low and rents and housing prices are rising, then a city needs more homes. Period. The city needs to remove zoning-code barriers to more housing, so that builders can construct more homes. Compared with the evidence of the actual housing market, zoned capacity is just fuzzy math.

Bertolet also has some sharp points about the location of zoned capacity. The areas that cities ‘upzone’ for new residential development are often in unpleasant locations – declining industrial parks, next to freeways, or far away from parks and coastlines. While some disamenities can be mitigated or fixed, perhaps it’s better to start by asking where people would enjoy being, and zone accordingly.

On a completely different note, here are three articles about climate change, technology, and urban design. First, as the oceans warm up, prepare to be awash in jellyfish during the summer trips to the beach. Eleanor Aigne Roy reports (in the Guardian) on New Zealand’s impending epidemic:

Thousands of kilometres of New Zealand coastline have been invaded by giant jellyfish, a phenomenon that has been linked to warmer sea temperatures.

In the last month mass jellyfish landings have been reported on beaches from Nelson in the south island to Whangarei in the top of the north island…

Gershwin said multiple factors could have contributed to a population explosion this season, but likely contenders included warming sea waters providing fertile breeding grounds, nutrient rich seas and a lack of natural predators for the juvenile jellyfish due to over-fishing.

“Increased risk of jellyfish” is among my top 10 reasons to do more to halt climate change.

Fortunately, there are some tentative reasons for optimism. As Daniel Wood at Energy.gov shows, US uptake of new renewable technologies has been faster than expected, and costs are coming down rapidly:


While the first large wind farms were installed 35 years ago, wind power really began to surge around the year 2000, when wind costs dipped into the cost-competitive range of 5 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour (¢/kWh). Since then, wind installations have grown substantially, and now we have nearly 74 gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity.

So what does this mean? It means that wind is poised to overtake hydroelectric power as America’s number one source of renewable energy. Wind power accounts for nearly 5 percent of total U.S. electric generation and reduces annual carbon dioxide emissions by 132 million metric tons, all while supporting nearly 90,000 U.S. jobs. This is exciting stuff, and it’s only going to get better. As wind turbines get taller, more affordable and more efficient, the Energy Department predicts that an additional 700,000 square miles of land will be suitable for wind development. That’s more than twice the size of Texas.


Here’s one more chart that sums up just how far prices have fallen for each of these five technologies.


The cost of each of these technologies has dropped between 41 percent and 94 percent since 2008.

What’s remarkable is not just the speed at which these technologies have become cost-competitive, but also how quickly they have been adopted across the country.

The other good bit of news is that we can make substantial improvements just by doing things differently with existing technology. The examples are obvious in transport (enable more use of bikes, more walking, more use of buses, trains, and ferries), but simple design decisions can also make a big difference. Mona Quinn (Houzz) discusses how “white is the new black in eco-friendly roofs“:

For centuries, white or light-coloured roofs have been cooling buildings in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. Traditional Mediterranean buildings were made of volcanic stone and, before paint was so easily accessible, they were whitewashed to help deflect heat from the dark stones.Eclectic Exterior by Carolyn ChadwickCarolyn Chadwick

This process gives us the wonderful scenes we see of places such as the Greek Islands, but also helps explain why it’s more than just relaxed holiday vibes that help us feel cooler…

Six years ago, Ian Montanjees, who has degrees in engineering and architecture, and has worked in physics and as a hands-on builder, had a big goal – to make a positive contribution towards reducing global warming. He launched the New Zealand White Roofs Project to share the worldwide movement locally, backed by a depth of science.

He found that the majority of commercial buildings built in the last 20 years in Auckland have white or off-white roofs, including the airport, major shopping centres and warehouses.

While Montanjees unfortunately didn’t get funding to keep the organisation running full-time, his goal is to see the white-roof trend spread to houses. His calculations conclude that 100 square metres of flat white roof cancels the global warming of roughly 10 tonnes of CO2 emissions, so if one third of New Zealand roofs were white, then that would equate to taking up to 70,000 cars off the road for the 20-year lifetime of the paint.

Final article of the week: Mark Vink, a researcher at the New Zealand Treasury, has taken a look at savings patterns of young and old people today and yesterday. His findings roundly contradict condescending stereotypes of feckless, consumption-obsessed young people:

Each line in the chart shows the average saving rate of a generation of New Zealand households at different ages. For example, the chart shows that households with a household head born between 1960 and 1969 saved at average rates of around 5 per cent during their twenties.[1]

10-year-birth cohort average saving rates by age of household head
10-year-birth cohort average saving rates by age of household head.

The chart shows that younger New Zealand households do indeed generally have lower saving rates than middle-aged and older households, consistent with the common perception. This pattern is also consistent with the predictions of economic theory, based on the idea that people like to “smooth” their expenditure on consumption over their lifetime. In other words, it makes sense for a person to save less (or borrow) when their income is low as a young person, and to save more (and/or pay off debts) when they start to earn more later in life. The chart also shows that saving rates fall for older households. This, again, is consistent with what one would expect as older people work less and draw down on their savings.

A surprising feature of the data is that the saving rates of younger generations appear to be generally higher than those of the generations preceding them. To check this result I used a variety of econometric techniques, and all suggested that this pattern is robust. Contrary to popular opinion, successive generations of households appear to be saving at significantly higher rates than earlier generations did at the same age. One plausible explanation for this rise in saving rates, supported by other related research, is that it reflects the precautionary response of younger generations to an economic environment with higher unemployment and less generous public welfare than faced by their parents.

Add this to my list of reasons we should urgently try to raise voter turnout among young people: We seem to be substantially more financially prudent than previous generations. So if you care about fiscal responsibility, encourage a young person to vote.

See you next time!

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  1. isn’t it interesting; some environmental entities can be given personhood and “a future planning system should clearly distinguish between the natural and built environments because they muddle each other” (prod comm). Bawaka Country (Australia) is an author in recent cultural geographies journals too.

  2. The treatment of our waterways is a national disgrace. I have some sympathy for farmers, but there comes a time when their well-being is just placing too much of a cost – perhaps a permanently negative one – on our environment.

    I can’t help but think the day of reckoning is coming for the industry – and our economy – when these costs (mitigation and/or remediation) have to start to be borne by the farms. And how long before a member of the WTO, who imposes such costs in their own jurisdiction, claims this to be a de facto subsidy in order for NZ farms to remain competitive?

    I don’t think anyone underestimates the contribution of farming to the country, but degradation of our waterways surely cannot go on much longer.

    And the above is before discussing how intensive this kind of farming is on water use. I have seen figures of 600 litres to make a Big Mac. So they seem to reconcile.

  3. How National got away with sacking a Regional Council and their appalling record on the environment is beyond me. Just shows how pathetic the media are in this country.

    Nick Smith comes across as little more than a dangerous control freak.

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