Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Kent was first published in October 2014.

Suburban sprawl is a radical, government-led re-engineering of society, one that artificially inverted millennia of accumulated wisdom and practice in building human habitats. Charles Marohn

In the recent article The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs Charles Marohn (@StrongTowns) takes on the awkward relationship between conservative Americans and cities. He questions why conservatives not only perpetuate myths around the suburban experiment but also cede urban issues to the left. Like Peter’s post on Monday this The American Conservative piece is a response to geographer Joel Kotkin’s love letter to the suburbs in Why Suburbia Irks Some Conservatives.

Marohn cites the federal largess of central government programs- the FHA, Fannie and Freddie and the interstate highway system – all of which have underwritten and subsidised the smudging of cities over the landscape.

The sad reality is that, despite the marketing, the suburbs were never about creating household wealth; they were about creating growth on the cheap. They were born under a Keynesian regime that  counted growth from government spending as equivalent to that coming from private investment. Aggressive horizontal expansion of our cities allowed us to consistently hit federal GDP and unemployment targets with little sophistication and few difficult choices.

That we were pawning off the enormous long-term liabilities for serving and maintaining all of these widely dispersed systems onto local taxpayers–after plying municipalities with all the subsidies, pork spending, and ribbon cuttings needed to make it happen–didn’t seem to enter our collective consciousness. When all those miles of frontage roads, sewer and water pipes, and sidewalks fall into disrepair–as they inevitably will in every suburb–very little of it will be fixed. The wealth necessary to do so just isn’t there.

He also questions why conservatives tend to entrench the notion of an urban left and a rural right when cities could benefit from a closer look at inefficient market distortions.

These are places that have been abandoned to the left for decades. Many urban dwellers are hungry for better government. They want a more responsive bureaucracy. They favor unwinding many of the stifling regulations and perverse subsidies that have built up over the years. They are angry with the political patronage systems run by a governing class that has been unchallenged for decades. Why would conservatives cede this ground so easily?

Strongtowns has been covering a wide range of transport and urban issues over the last several years including some highly critical pieces on the traffic engineering profession, transportation economics, and street design. During that time I never considered their work to be following a particular left/right political paradigm.

I’ve written a few things inspired by the Strongtowns aproach.  Below is a diagram calculating the property value of various land development types (land value+capital value)/area. Note how poorly suburban/horizontal/car-based typologies perform compared to traditional land developments (see for example the Onehunga Mall property). This is how the ponzi scheme of suburban car-oriented development pencils out. Atlantic Cities wrote a great piece calling this “the simple math that can save cities from bankruptcy” which describes the thought process:

We tend to compare buildings to each other, without looking at their unit value. This would be like comparing the fuel economy of the tank of a Ford F-150 to the tank of a Prius. We don’t shop for vehicles that way, because that makes no sense. We look at miles-per-gallon, not miles-per-tank, because tanks come in all different sizes. We should look at buildings, Minicozzi argues, the exact same way.

In a country where many people derive income come from land productivity, it seems that this approach would resonate. But maybe not. One  example is Westfield (malls) pleading in the Unitary Plan hearings to maintain minimum parking regulations.

Parking minimums, set at reasonable and appropriate levels, are essential to ensure that sufficient parking is provided for identified activities and localities.

Such regulation, requiring spatially inefficient development, ensures that the return on public investment – roads, pipes, footpaths – remains very low.

Property value - location and form
Property value – location and form

Here’s another example. This 3D graphic illustrates property values (land value+capital value/area) not height. The new, modest, 4-story apartment block (Ockham Building) has 13 times the property value as it’s neighbours (mostly one-story stand alone homes). This property value also translates to rates which for the most part fund ongoing road maintenance but also city services like community pools, libraries and berm mowing.

Doing the math – property value premium of infill intensification

This above image was cross posted to Facebook and someone (I assume) with a “conservative” disposition said:

It probably generates more than 13 times the cost involved to provide additional council services – plus additional congestion costs!

Lets take this comment at face value. Here is a project that has few car parks, is located on a frequent bus line, next to rail station, and within cycling (if not walking distance) from the largest concentration of jobs in the city. This part of town has a very active mode share and the shortest journeys to work averages (0-6km). Worrying about congestion in this context is a failure to understand the spatial implications of congestion mitigation (see image 1 above) or a very optimistic expectation about vehicle travel time contributing to economic productivity.

As far as the additional council services – I don’t know the specific impacts that 20 additional households has on existing schools or the pipes under the street, but a recent Council study has determined that attached dwellings are only 60-80% as costly to serve. (link)

Overall it seems very likely that 20 households in an existing neighbourhood close to the city centre in the space of 20 meters is much more cost effective than serving the same across 200m in a greenfield scenario. And it seems reasonable, and even fiscally responsible, that someone should do this math.

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  1. I guess that someone has already done the math, with regard to the cost (and value) of both New York (Manhattan) and Hong Kong (Kowloon / Wanchai) vs the cost of providing Houston / Los Angeles with the same degree of amenities. Would be interesting to see how it stacks up….

  2. “Parking minimums, set at reasonable and appropriate levels, are essential to ensure that sufficient parking is provided for identified activities and localities.”

    This will be a very interesting discussion in the lead up to the Zero Carbon Act. There has already been a strong focus on the agriculture sector regarding how they will change farming models to achieve greenhouse emission targets. What are Kiwi Properties with their 5000 parking spaces at Sylvia Park, or Westfield with their gazillion spaces in Newmarket going to be required to do to reduce carbon emissions? I think a levy on every new car park constructed to enable AT to provide non polluting transport options (unless the business does that themselves) and a parking levy over the life of the car park? It seems fair that the polluters should pay the cost?

  3. Why should Westfield be listened to when pleading for minimum parking regulations to be maintained. Surely it has nothing to do with them the amount of parking spaces other building owners chose to provide for their clients. If Westfield believes that it needs to provide a gazillion parking spaces for its malls, then that is its business, but it should not be legislated that everyone else has to follow suit. _ I presume I read the article correctly.

    1. They have a business model based around masses of parking. Their argument is that if there isn’t a law forcing everyone else to also have an oversupply of parking, then there is a chance that people going to other nearby businesses might occasionally park in a Westfield lot instead, which might sometimes lead to their customers not getting a park.

      If that happened then Westfield would have to manage its own parking to make sure it’s used by their customers and not just taken by other people, you know, like any other business has to do with it’s property, products and services.

      But that’s all a bit too hard for them, so they lobby for a law to force everyone to have more parking than they need.

  4. The way the maths works in Auckland is they add up every little cost item associated with greenfields development and exclude every cost associated with intensification and conclude intensification is cheaper. Remember Panuku’s stupid video claiming all the infrastructure is in place?
    Of course eventually they have to admit that much of the older bits of Auckland city don’t have separated sewers or sufficient capacity so then they try and float an idea of a toilet tax for everyone to build a billion dollar pipe which they expect us all to pay for, despite the fact we have already paid for the trunk sewers we need.

      1. Doesn’t that make it cheaper for NZTA. Instead of paying for a commercial wharf they will just pay for a promenade.

    1. Two problems:
      -The donut problem – walking away from maintaining our existing infrastructure because cheaper-to-build greenfields infrastructure which will suffer the same fate of not being maintained.
      -The supersize me problem – engineers like giant-sized solutions instead of fixing many little things.

      Bringing in issues around equity between different areas is not particularly helpful. We need to focus on the need to maintain, upgrade, and make fit-for-purpose what infrastructure we have, and if we can’t do that (as is shown by our inability to separate the combined sewers) then we shouldn’t be building more infrastructure.

      1. It may not be helpful but it is true. North Shore rated people to build the Rosedale plant to deal with sewage for the next 50 years. Then watercare grab it and build a bloody big pipe to take West Auckland’s crap to Rosedale and try to charge us to deal with the lack of spending by Auckland City.

  5. I enjoyed the second half of this article, especially the points about
    – costs to government of providing services to the same 20 households in suburbia would be much higher than in central city apartments
    – comparing the price of two properties makes no sense unless you normalise for area. Price comparisons should be per-square-metre, not “the average price in suburb A was $1M”. If they’re big estates then that’s cheap, not so much if they’re apartments.

    The bit about US politics in the beginning didn’t really resonate.

    1. Chris – it may not resonate with you, but politics and urban planning are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. One case in point to illustrate this: the terms “urban youth” and “black” are often used interchangeably in the USA – they talk about the urban vote, urban clothing, urban music, etc. Largely meaning black. Largely because of substantial white flight to the ‘burbs, with just poor black folk left behind in the cities.

      Luckily, it’s not quite the same in NZ.

      1. I guess that’s why it didn’t resonate with me – I don’t think our politics align with the US on many aspects. And most of the time I’m pretty glad about it 😉

        My own perspective is more European influenced. European town centres are extremely high value and well looked after. In some cases they are even so highly valued as to be exclusive, in an interesting inversion of the US class dynamic. Having seen how that type of city works, the advantages for transport and other infrastructure is blindingly obvious for me.

  6. “Overall it seems very likely that 20 households in an existing neighbourhood close to the city centre in the space of 20 meters is much more cost effective than serving the same across 200m in a greenfield scenario. And it seems reasonable, and even fiscally responsible, that someone should do this math.”

    Kent, a well written and thought provoking post.

    Yes the cost of sprawl is indeed huge and we don’t need to look any further than Penlink and the Mill Road project to see just how expensive it is. As someone who lives closer to the city; who pays very high rates already because of that; and who uses public transport to move around because it is economic to provide this to areas of high population density, I am becoming increasingly frustrated by those who make poor economic choices by living in the wop-wops and expect the rest of us to pay the cost of this. (Yeah I know someone is going to say, who is going to pay for the cost of a second harbour crossing and they are absolutely right and it should be the people of the Shore who do this). I don’t mind paying more than my share (and I am probably doing that already because I am sure the Takapuna/City bus route is profitable), and I am a firm believer of providing low cost public transport to outlying areas, but as you say, as a country we need to look at the huge cost of sprawl.

    I note that there are currently four medium rise apartment towers being constructed in Takapuna with two more selling from the plans.Contrary to the opinion of many. the fabric of the area has not been torn apart. The construction has occurred without the need for the development of further infrastructure, just as you would suspect in most infill situations. I suspect this is an example of density done well.

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