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Is NIMBYism and conservation culture stifling our cities?

Sydney NIMBY

Harvard University economics professor Edward Glaesar is a strong advocate for the traditional and emerging high-density vertical city. In his book The Triumph of the City, first published in 2011, Glaesar takes aim at the NIMBY approach to city management that is twisting and perverting the natural energy of US cities. Over the summer break, urban planner Philip Bull took the opportunity to apply Glaesar’s argument to the Australian context.

The suburbs (or what Glaesar calls in Orwellian speak the “exurb”) are the isolating, car-dominated and energy-hungry bad lands of modern urban life. He’s a strong advocate for the traditional and emerging high-density vertical city.

Yet he admits he moved to the suburbs of Boston because he has three young children and that car commuting to a designated professor car space and the tax deduction on housing mortgage interest payments available in the US are irresistible. He portrays his own housing choice as symptomatic of the anti-city movement that even the most enlightened give into sometimes.

Glaeser dwells on what can be described as “the paradox of progressive politics” in American cities. That paradox is how the peculiarly American regulation of land by local government (in Europe and Asia it is more of a federal activity) has created local outcomes that on the national level become perverse. Those local outcomes are restriction and preservation that on the national level then distorts city opportunity and efficiency. This effect is multi-layered and familiar.  

The planning of high amenity places with good employment (such as San Francisco and New York) have become dominated by restrictive density policies. That’s a rational approach for existing homeowners that like a place as it is and seek preservation policy as a form of housing insurance to enforce scarcity for their most expensive asset. However, this approach goes well beyond any reasonable protection of place and has become a force for inequality and inefficiency. 

And then there are the national and global impacts of this approach. When housing is not built in the high value but low carbon footprint “nice places” that demand wants to flow to, the less restricted and higher carbon footprint states of Texas and Arizona get the growth. In America, less restricted high carbon footprint places have lower paying jobs but are much cheaper for young households. He does the maths and these places have an irresistible advantage to households, just as a young family in Sydney might weigh up a small two-bedroom unit in Ashfield versus a four-bedroom home in Ingleburn.

That’s the great strength of this book for Australian readers, it tells stories about other cities that resonate with the current dilemmas of our own.  

Detroit: The Silicon Valley of the late 1900s

The great auto city of Detroit is a focus of this book. The city’s initial success sprung from its location at the end of a rail network on the Detroit River that allowed good access for mid-west farmers to New York dinner tables. Mechanical industries (such as shipbuilding) clustered around the dry docks and warehouses that sprung up to service this trade. 

Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the late 1900s with its many small entrepreneurs huddled together in its urban spaces, first building engines for ships. Those engines got smaller and found their way into cars. The great inventions of the auto age were not actually made in Detroit but collected there and refined into the mass production concepts of Henry Ford. 

And then that city became the victim of its own success, a formula for the mass production of cars displaced other industries and because this model of manufacturing was so successful it was suburbanised (isolated from urban innovation). It prospered for a while but was ultimately rendered vulnerable to change. Detroit became a mono-cultural place where workers lived a company town lifestyle in the suburbs. When car production became globalised by the 1970s the city was doomed. It’s buzzy waterfront district of frozen hogs and small entrepreneurs tinkering with refrigeration and small engines had long since disappeared. 

Now almost a quarter of Detroit’s population has left, the price of housing is well below replacement costs, incomes have declined and there is increasingly no good reason to brave the harsh winters.

Detroit is an unlucky anti-city story. Over the last 50 years, the world has become increasingly urbanised and that trend is viewed by Glaeser as overwhelmingly positive, continuous and part of human evolution. Even slums, ghettos and favelas are worthy places; those that live there are still richer there than in the rural poverty they left.

Apparently, the larger brains of humans developed because we lived in groups more than other animals and there was a need interact to make those groups safer and more productive. Cities are a continuation of that trend. The downtown cafes of internet entrepreneurs are the natural extension of pre-humans picking parasites off each other’s backs as they kept an eye out for hyenas.  

Detroit, 1973. Photo: Joe Clark

Glaeser argues for a more permissive approach to development 

Firstly, in the book Glaeser argues that all city regulation should be simple and transparent and generally permissive. When developers want to demolish an old building and put up something bigger and better, he views that not as despoiling a place but building it. This is an uncommon theme in Australian cities where we are too quick to see change as a threat to “character” and not a healthy city dealing with demand.  

This is an economic theme of his writing, that it is human needs in cities that are important not the innate buildings that are already there. The issue in a well-located place should not be “should we build” but “how much can we?”  The emphasis for regulation should be on pricing externalities of new development, not restricting it. And externalities are not the unquantifiable fears of existing residents about retaining neighbourhood character but bigger picture matters such as augmenting infrastructure and affordable housing. 

Preservation culture stopping better cities

Secondly, he calls out city preservation as a generally negative and an overblown force that should be more measured. The concept of locking away prime city areas as “finished” foils the great productive capacity of cities. When you build in an historic downtown area the emphasis should be maximising development not pandering to the scale or form of past city building. 

The most powerful and relevant messages for Australian cities is that the real impact test for whether an old building is redeveloped is “what is the cost of not allowing that development?” In America, environmental impact assessment is all about the impacts of the approved and incomplete building because, in his opinion, the impacts of not approving that building are not considered. 

This more even-handed approach to impact assessment is seen through the eyes of many America cities where people and capital are mobile. It’s hard to build houses in the Silicon Valley not because of any physical constraints but because of restrictive zoning requirements. It‘s better to build in temperate California rather than the hot and humid cities of the southern states (where there is little regulation). But in the US you can’t build where people want to live because success in an urban place creates regulation that restricts development and enforces scarcity (and the attendant lack of affordability).

Preservation and environmental movements presume restricting development at the local level is an environmental good. This is the paradox of progressive urban politics. The urge to restrict and preserve nice places is never the best environmental decision, as demand then goes somewhere more spread out, harder to cool and heat, more distant and with less access to jobs and activity.  

For Glaeser, the choices are the historic centres of New York or San Francisco versus the car-based sprawl of mid-west and southern cities. Whereas in Australian urban life it is more of an intra metropolitan contest – the sea breezes of the coastal suburbs or urban bohemia of the inner city versus the distant urban fringes. 

Most cities are timid and built in the wrong places. The wrong places are the distant and more environmentally sensitive fringe city areas whereas the inner city areas are given an exaggerated environment significance based on emotive and undefinable characteristics of character and heritage. A block of units in the inner city has access to transport and services and is not building into a food bowl or is near bush fire prone land, nor does it require new roads/sewers to service it or dam walls to be raised to avoid flood risk. 

But Glaeser does not object to some conservation, or preservation as he calls it. His issue is its wholesale use to retain whole neighbourhoods and keep the built form at a limited historic scale.  He thinks heritage is a NIMBY ruse. 

Sydney is a prime example of this ploy. Whole areas of Mosman, Waverley and Woollahra are developed with big contemporary houses and have prohibitions on medium density housing and two-storey height limits. Character has been erroneously linked to scale and density in NIMBY cities.

NIMBYism is corrupting city management

And finally, Glaeser takes a side in the city debate and strongly calls out the NIMBY approach to city management that is twisting and perverting the natural energy of US cities. Not surprisingly, an urban economist does not understand the emotive and restrictive views of the city preservationist. Why are communities so interested in heritage and then able to deny the historic processes taking place in their own city? A love of old buildings and then a static view of cities is perverse.  

The NIMBY observations ring true for Sydney and there are other messages.  Cities that focus too much on one industry are vulnerable – is Sydney too property and car focused? City interaction (some call it congestion) drives creativity and should be encouraged and managed. In Sydney, we think congestion is evil and we plan, rather hopelessly, to alleviate it by building more roads and a bigger footprint city. 

The issue with congestion is not alleviating it but managing it, and like fat in the diet, there is good and bad congestion. A busy footpath full of pedestrians feeding a vibrant retail district is good congestion, roads choked with half-empty cars is bad congestion. Smart cities demand-manage bad congestion.

Sydney should use its harbour and coastlines more efficiently

His views on good city management are highly pragmatic and based on what works from place to place. For Sydney, that may be embracing the urban character of our great coastal and harbour spaces. He is affronted by the idea of preserving whole historic precincts – we call these places conservation areas. Inner, lower northern and eastern Sydney have taken to the conservation area with NIMBY zeal. 

I suggest we heritage-list the historic land subdivision and a few landmark buildings and otherwise allow the place to development into a quirky mix of dense buildings competing for sea and harbour breezes that it could be. The city has the economic clout to build like this and make Sydney a fairer, less energy intensive and more interesting place.

But there is the argument that a less restrictive development regime could lead to poor-quality high-rise buildings and the loss of amenity, such as less sunshine and fewer public spaces. However, a portion of poor-quality development should be expected as part of city development. At the moment, development is so restricted in our cities that even rubbish housing stock is selling. We would be better off with a more permissive development culture where developers compete on quality. 

Also, most government regulation is linked to NIMBY hindering that means consent authorities don’t regulate quality. They are too hung up on existential questions about building the development or not. Consent authorities are “yes or no” regulators, not “improve quality” ones.

Cars are inefficient, but we need to look beyond tram and rail cities

And on the transport front, he is firm about not romantically looking back to the tram and rail cities of the past but future transport can’t rely too much on cars. This is based on the need to reduce our carbon footprint. Cars consume too much energy and space to be the prime mover in cities in a world reducing its carbon footprint. Future city transport will be different and about tall, mixed-use structures and new transport technologies (this includes more sophisticated demand management).

The case study provided by Glaeser of former London mayor Ken Livingstone’s congestion tax in London rings true for tollway-obsessed Sydney. Maybe it’s about time there was a metropolitan congestion authority in Sydney other than Transurban and its banking associates running an increasingly opaque tollway monopoly? 

Glaeser’s ideas are well evidenced and make sense but will the idea of the ambitious developer as city hero catch on? 


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. For a more detailed brief please send an email to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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Comments

2 Responses to “Is NIMBYism and conservation culture stifling our cities?”

  • Philip says:

    Adam, I suggest you lodge a DA in a conservation area in Woollahra, the Inner West of City of Sydney. The planning practice in these areas is extreme and treats anything with a whiff of heritage as finished. Sydney is not a pragmatic city when it comes to conservation these days.

  • Adam Ford says:

    Correct about NIMBYism, wrong about heritage. Which doesn’t promote the idea of streetscapes being ‘finished’ at all, instead it most normally allows the streetscape to be redeveloped behind an existing facade

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