Friday, 24 April 2015

Subsidising sprawl: Why sprawl is bad for us and how public policies lock it in

By Louise Sherrell

© Karenfoleyphotography | - Driving In Atlanta Photo
A recently released report has found that urban sprawl costs big money and has long-term climate change implications, and yet public policy often encourages this approach to planning. The report clocks the economic cost of sprawl in the US at over US$1 trillion a year, in addition to substantial environmental and social costs such as greater emissions from vehicle use and poorer population health and fitness. Acting to implement smarter urban growth policies globally “could reduce urban infrastructure capital requirements by more than US$3 trillion over the next 15 years.”
“Americans living in sprawled communities directly bear an astounding $625 billion in extra costs. In addition, all residents and businesses, regardless of where they are located, bear an extra $400 billion in external costs. Correcting this problem provides an opportunity to increase economic productivity, improve public health and protect the environment.”
The report, An Analysis of Policies that Unintentionally Encourage and Subsidise Sprawl, comes from the New Climate Economy, the flagship initiative of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate – an amalgam of heads of state, finance ministers, and economists. While the data are US-centric, the study’s findings offer important insights for New Zealand; many of our planning regulations are similar, and our urban population densities for our three largest cities are comparable on a global scale to those of cities in the US. The report also details smart growth policies that can counter the planning and market distortions that foster sprawl.

Discussion of this topic is perhaps particularly relevant for Auckland, with current sprawl and transport woes to be compounded by a predicted population increase of over 700,000 people over the next 30 years. Auckland Council is currently battling with how to deliver the required increase in infrastructure. Current developments underway include the fast-tracking of housing development in Special Housing Areas, and investment in improving transport infrastructure with projects such as the City Rail Link.

The report highlights the implications of lower densities in urban areas, primarily through increased vehicle reliance. Increased vehicle reliance, the report states, results in increases in greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions, sedentary behaviours, infrastructure cost, and traffic accidents.
“Traffic death rates are halved when an affluent city is compact rather than automobile-dependent, and more than halved again when strong transportation demand management is implemented.”
Smart growth policies fall into three main categories: improved consumer options, more efficient pricing and more ‘politically neutral’ planning. Policy shifts facilitating smart growth could include:
  • removing minimum parking requirements,
  • prioritising multi-modal transport planning over automobile-focused transport planning, and
  • applying location-based pricing, for example by charging higher property rates in areas of sprawl.
Successful policies encouraging smart growth would meet demands of housing, accessibility, and availability of quality public services and spaces, creating substantial social and environmental benefits and savings for both government and residents.

Smart growth does not exclusively demand high-rises in place of single-family housing. Rather, it “ensures that diverse housing options are available and incentivises households to choose the most resource-efficient options that meet their needs.”
“Shifting to more compact housing types significantly reduces residential land consumption. A mix of 80% single-family, 10% attached and 10% multi-family housing requires about two times as much land as an equal mix of housing types, and more than three times as much land as 10% single-family, 40% adjacent and 50% multi-family.”
There are significant benefits associated with smart growth, including substantially reduced CO2 emissions. The report refers to the key case studies of the relative emissions of Atlanta and Barcelona, where with similar population and wealth levels “sprawling Atlanta produced six times more transport-related carbon emissions than relatively compact Barcelona.”

Social and economic benefits could be greatly beneficial for low-income residents, too. Specifically, lower infrastructure costs would be reflected in lower rates (and hopefully lower rents), reduced automobile-dependence would increase mobility for those without access to private vehicles, access to schools and public services would be improved, and mixed-income communities would be implicitly fostered. “Research shows that lower-income children tend to be much more economically successful if they grow up in smart growth communities.”

Smart urban design can help avoid lock-in to a future of high emissions. The choices we make now have the potential to improve our quality of life today and for decades to come.

The full report is available here.

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