Welcome back to Sunday Reading. Here are a bunch of articles I’ve been collecting over the last month. I’ll start off here with housing, or more specifically zoning. Recently published research reveals the outrageous costs that zoning adds to housing in Australia. Eryk Bagshaw, “Homebuyers are paying a heavy price for zoning restrictions: Reserve Bank“, The Sydney Morning Herald.

Government zoning of residential areas has pushed the average property price up by 40 per cent in Sydney and Melbourne, fueling inequality and locking out new homeowners from the property market, the Reserve Bank has found.

Up to 70 per cent of a house’s value was made up by the land zoned for residential purposes in Sydney and Melbourne, according to the report by economists Ross Kendall and Peter Tulip.

Like parking regulation (mandatory minimums), zoning as we know it today will be unrecognisable in 10 years. As cities grow and re-centralise, zoning remains the key barrier to the natural, iterative scaling of cities. Zoning reform comes in different forms. In Minneapolis, Minnesota there is a proposal to simply allow four-plexes in single family zones. This broadscale approach can also be seen in California where granny units are allowed by right. There are also trends where local planning control is taken away from local governments and managed at a higher level as is proposed in the UK.

The most ambitious zoning reform is happening in California where San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener is proposing a statewide re-zoning of most properties close to transit services. Here are some articles…

Lorie Leilani Shelley, “A bid to solve Califonia’s housing crisis could redraw how cities grow“, Wired.

Housing costs are crushing American cities, perhaps nowhere as severely as in California. It’s catastrophic—homes are priced 2.5 times the median in other places; rents are sky high; the population is increasing (but construction of places to live for them is not); poor people are getting pushed out; homelessness is severe, and on the rise.

Wiener says his fix can, over time, address all that without worsening the state’s drumbeat of evictions. And it’ll do even more: “If you want to limit carbon and reduce congestion on freeways, the way you do that is by building a lot more housing near public transportation,” he says. “You get less driving, less carbon emissions, less sprawl so you can protect open spaces and farmland, and healthier families.”

It might even work.

Matthew Yglesias , “The myth of ‘forcing people out of their cars’ It’s about more options, not fewer“, Vox.

It’s important to be clear about this because land use is an important issue in America. It’s only going to become more important as steadily falling unemployment raises the salience of supply-side issues in the American economy. Personal liberty and the concept of freedom are, rightly, important to Americans and to American political culture. And in the case of proposals for high-density zoning, nobody is trying to force anyone to do anything.

In particular, SB 827 would change two important things about transit-adjacent land use:

  • Cities and towns would have to allow taller buildings that fit more units on a given piece of land if developers and landowners want to build them.
  • Cities and towns would not be allowed to require the construction of off-street parking spaces to accompany the construction of new dwellings.

On the subject of road safety, here is an example about how politics, not technology is the key driver of road safety. For decades proven safety devices have been available for adoption, including methods to slow cars. Charlie Lawrence Jones, “A case for making speed limiters in cars mandatory“, CityMetric.

But there is a technical solution: devices that cars can be fitted with, to prevent them from breaking speed limits. Called ‘limiters’ or ‘governors’ (perhaps appealing to the East End gangster demographic), these cap the top speed of a vehicle by restricting the fuel supply to the engine.

Some larger vehicles already have mandatory limiters built in, preventing any naughtiness with the speed restrictions. If you see any vehicle with more than eight passenger seats, or any goods vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes, they will have a top speed of 70mph. These limiters were brought in to reduce accidents. So why not cars, too?

If past history is any indication, the introduction of new transport technology like AV’s will be supported by industry boosters and a status quo political and technocratic culture. This history is described in Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic. If you are interested in transport planning, public health, vehicle technology, or urban history Fighting Traffic is a MUST READ. I wrote a review here.

In a nutshell Fighting Traffic tells the story of how traditional streets where changed from a place of social exchange, slow movement, and even children playing to become dominated by car movement. The fascinating part of the story was that this transformation did not happen without a concerted effort by the automobile industry. When first introduced to American cities, cars and their drivers were considered pariahs and held accountable for their actions. Local newspapers articles, cartoons and editorials depicted the automobile as a purveyor of death which included macabre imagery such as gravestones, weaping mothers, and the grim reaper. This was easy to understand since even as early as 1930 as many as 16,000 people were killed in automobile accidents every year, mostly pedestrians.

This is a neat look at the densest areas of Europe. Most square kilometres have around 20,000 people. Alasdair Rae , “Europe’s most densely populated square kilometres – mapped“. The Guardian.

And here’s another one on housing/zoning by Richard Florida: “Density’s Next Frontier: The Suburbs“, CityLab.

The reality is that most of the housing stock and most of the land area of America’s metros is made up of relatively low-density suburban homes. And a great deal of it is essentially choked off from any future growth, locked in by outmoded and exclusionary land-use regulations. The end result is that most growth today takes place through sprawl.

While urban densification can house some people—mainly affluent and educated ones—the bulk of population and housing growth is shifted farther and farther out to the exurban fringe. That leads to more traffic and longer commutes, and the social and environmental consequences that flow from them, as this old suburban-growth model is stretched beyond its limits.

But if America’s dormant suburbs are a big part of its housing and growth problem, they can also be part of the solution. Relaxing zoning rules in these neighborhoods would spread population growth more equitably and sustainably across a metro, relieving the pressure of rising housing prices and gentrification around the urban core, and unsustainable growth at the periphery.

The feature image is of the Embarcadero Freeway just before it was finally pulled down in 1990 (it was badly damaged an earthquake in 1989). The source of the photos is David Gardner Photography.

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  1. So what might be the effect of SB827. It doesn’t get rid of zoning at all. It keeps zoning but would make it easier to build up to 100 feet high near transit. So if people don’t want 100 foot tall buildings near them then of course there best course of action will be to oppose any new transit stop near them.

    1. Isn’t the concept of zoning the problem? Fixed (or relatively so) controls, and a deterministic spatial pattern? Neither encourage or allow meaningful evolution.

      1. I think zoning remains a very good planning tool. But I also think it is often far too rigid and prescriptive.
        Like many things it doesn’t need to be an ‘either/or’ conversation.
        I like the Japanese approach to zoning. Some key bulk and location rules such as height, and limits on noxious activities – each of which vary across a small number of zones.
        Then just get out of the way!

        1. In Japan houses are frequently replaced every few decades. Houses (not the land) are seen as a consumer not investment goods. It is a cultural thing….. perhaps adapted to a shaky geology… hard to know why… but there is definitely a difference in attitude. Japanese culture has a tolerance for messiness in their urban environments which facilitates change. I write about it here https://medium.com/land-buildings-identity-and-values/what-is-the-secret-to-tokyos-affordable-housing-266283531012

        2. Brendon @3:39: My understanding is that the Japanese model of replacing many buildings on a very short lifecycle is in large part a result of deliberate government policy response to their economic crisis of 1990. The country struggled to export goods after the financial collapse, and the government promoted a focus on the internal economy to compensate. As their industry was already highly geared towards manufacturing, and like many countries had some degree of prefab sector (I’m not sure what scale of capacity), selling homes with a fairly short lifespan became an effective way to keep money flowing. Selling the homes with long warranties helped them be attractive, but the materials used, particularly light board-based decorative cladding veneers, often don’t have the potential for lifespans much longer than that.

          I’ve never actually been to Japan (its on the list!), and getting a reliable sense of their outer areas without this is difficult, but I suspect that this short-lifecycle product is only a (possibly moderate) fraction of the total building stock. I don’t think this consumer goods attitude would work with anything other than single-family detached homes for fairly obvious reasons.

        3. Maybe it is just a historic thing of houses being made of bamboo with paper walls and all the earthquakes meaning you can’t build anything to last. It just needs to survive the next earthquake.

        4. I agree to a large extent, although in many places some or all envelope controls are unnecessary.

          I just wonder whether you would then call it zoning. More than just semantics, I think the word is representative of a whole undesirable history of purpose and use, most of which is focused on exclusion not enablement.

          If planning controls reducing it to the core elements you identify, I suggest it would be positive to give it a different name, if only to achieve a behaviour change in communities and planners. As Kelvin says below, the RMA arguably did not mandate use of zoning, and I think it was only used as a lazy way of creating a formal framework. We simply replace the former UK-based system with a US-based system, and wonder why it did not move us forward in a meaningful way.

        5. Yep nice points. But I guess I still see a place (altough reduced) for variation in the regulation of development intensity and to some extent land uses. I feel that this could still be a form of zoning, although one that is less rigid.

        6. My undergraduate degree was in Japanese history, and I lived in Japan for 2 years in the 1990s. I started (but stopped) a phd on the Japanese housing and planning system. There are both cultural (religious) and economic reasons why many or most Japanese place less permanent value in the house.
          One key aspect is buddhism and shinto.
          The great shrines at Ise have been rebuilt every 20 years for a long time.

      2. In 1989 I saw a ground floor apartment in Bangkok that had become a steel fabrication workshop. Steel stock was being passed in the windows while I was there. The people above just had to put up with the noise and fumes. I hadn’t understood the value of zoning until I saw that.

        1. Yes, but of course we overdid it here, creating travel needs between work zones and residential zones, which added the noise and fumes of traffic everywhere. And when it suited the corporates, zones here could be changed at whim anyway.

        2. Yes it’s a good point. There are definite potential downsides to minimal zoning / planning. Which is why I think there is a sweet spot somewhere on the spectrum between light handed Asian planning and heavy handed western planning.

        3. I’d be reasonbly confident that the threat of damages by the rest of the building would prevent an apartment owner converting their apartment into a steel workshop.

    2. Zoning is the problem, & designed by urban planners who don’t have to bear the costs.

      We have a housing crisis with people living in garages because of land zoning limitations. The market would have responded much more elastically to the high immigration rate without the zoning (near inelasltic response due the cost of trying to zone change).

      Not only that, the low density enforced by the urban planners, results in the low density sprawl in which car travel is the only viable alternative. Transport planners are left to treat the symptoms as best they can, as they can rarely deal with the cause (zoning).

      There should be no zoning, only effects based limitations. This was the original intent of the RMA.

      1. I think NZ needs some sort of simple zoning system like Japan’s. The RMA intent was good. But in reality it just led to a massive power grab by planners -who think they are omnipotent. They think they can determine all the effects down to every single possible change in the urban environment. I call bullshit on the whole edifice…..

        In reality Local governments in NZ have become a horribly inefficient tax on urban development….. https://medium.com/land-buildings-identity-and-values/developer-contributions-inclusionary-zoning-and-council-fees-521e67a4f595

      1. I am thinking through adapting it for NZ as a way of creating new streets too, which would have wider urban access benefits for our street deprived cities -so local/central government could be a partner -a UDA for instance might contribute seeding capital, design expertise, financial advice…. Maybe this approach could be called a “laneway by laneway” approach? It could be a mixture of terraced housing, small walk-up apartments or even larger/grander Mansions…. whatever was appropriate for the local community…. Google maps shows lots of small groups of houses/plots -maybe 6 or 8 which if reconfigured around a through lane could have 12 plots on either side of the lane for terrace housing. So 6/8 houses could become 24 terrace houses or more dwellings if small apartments or larger mansions were the option….. surely in our growing cities this would be economically viable?

  2. I think some of the battle between car based automobile sprawl and multi-modal transport aided intensification is about geometry. Back when cities were small and built-up the invention and use of automobiles gave a huge one-off increase in developable land, competitive land supply ensured houses were affordable.

    Almost a hundred years later, some housing affordability advocates are still looking for that greenfield land-use ‘hit’. But the problem is that geometry of a growing city means the land immediately adjacent to the city grows linearly -there will be no additional exponential ‘hit’ of new land supply as big as that first hit (in proportion terms).

    Further, the land inside the growing circle of a cities urban footprint becomes relatively larger compared to the land immediately adjacent to the city.

    This means as cities grow, competitive housing markets become more about removing the restrictions on building up compared to those for building out. Both are important, but increasingly as cities grow they need to find ways to more efficiently allocate space internally and this is hard….

    Check out my article here. https://medium.com/land-buildings-identity-and-values/geometric-considerations-intensification-vs-extensification-316f1f801db6

    “Conceptually, cities have two urban growth boundaries -up or intensification and out or extensification. The intensification margin is determined by factors such as infrastructure provision and zoning laws regarding density, setbacks, shade planes, heritage, car parking minimums etc. While the extensification margin is again determined by infrastructure provision and zoning laws regarding greenfield growth.

    So as cities get bigger the intensification margin becomes larger relative to the extensification margin.

    Does this mean as cities get bigger, policies which could improve the efficiency of the intensification margin become relatively more important?”

    1. Interesting way of thinking. I think currently the land supply is contracting, due to congestion.

      That reminds me of how the Dutch dealt with this problem. See the post here a while ago about Almere, near Amsterdam. Extend long distance rail and build a proper town around that extension. What about developing Dairy Flat this way? In both cases you’re about 30 km from the main city centre. Regional transit can cover that distance in about half an hour.

        1. Well it’s a blob of future urban zone on the Unitary Plan. If we are going to develop that area I’d rather see it like that, instead of the usual pattern we got in eg. Millwater.

        2. Yes.

          The rational way of building more houses is to build them in central areas, where we can get proper public transport, where distances travelled are short, were we’re actually getting cycle lanes, etc.

          But let’s lock those areas down with single housing zone instead.

          And then, between all this low density single housing… “the Sanctuary Garden and Food Forest at Unitec has been saved from the bulldozers”.

          It’s a sad “if” but there’s plenty of much more boneheaded ideas floating around.

  3. Speed-limiters in cars seem like a good step forward. But they also make me wonder how much extra energy and resource is going into each car anyway to enable it to go at silly speeds.

    1. I think rather than speed limiters in cars (i agree with the idea, I just think it’d be really expensive to implement), and without GPS controlled speed areas, it won’t stop people doing 60-65 in a 50 zone.

      I think traffic light cameras and more fixed speed cameras (especially around schools).
      Although that might be expensive to implement, at least the fines generated may pay off some of the cost?

    2. Or everyone just gets a GPS unit in the car. It is very easy to do and its an essential step to universal road user charges. Then tax people based on how fast they drive. They can drive fast if they want, but it will cost them with an exponential increase in price. We know this works because we see this behavior everywhere where unavoidable taxes can rapidly change behaviour for good or bad.

      Speed limiting the car is also silly. Anyone that tries that will be voted out. I drive a tiny granny car for fuel economy so I can afford annual trips to Europe. But others invest their personal identity into their expensive cars with big motors. Limiting the car would be an unwelcome limit on their ability to express themselves. What next? Time limits on social media to reduce suicide? Limits to the amount of food you are allowed to eat to reduce obesity?

  4. Off-topic, but I just heard that the Sanctuary Garden and Food Forest at Unitec has been saved from the bulldozers!

    I think there were some contributors here who might have been involved with that, so THANKS! A wonderful refuge on fantastically fertile, ancient soil now retained for all to enjoy, including the residents of the new intense development there.


    1. Fantastic news thanks Heidi, I visited the garden for the first time on the Star Ride ( and immediately signed the petition) and it is just wonderful and a fabulous asset to the present and future community.

  5. Hoping that the new Kiwibuild version of the Unitec development might have some serious transport changes too, like car share spaces instead of private garages…

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