Let’s settle this: inner city living is more sustainable

The Conversation

There’s plenty of debate over the future of sustainable urban planning. Is it outer suburban sprawl that’s unsustainable, or is it high-density inner city living that’s at fault?

Brendan Gleeson recently proposed that inner city living is just as unsustainable as the outer suburbs. But let’s check the facts on that.

Professor Gleeson declared:

Mounting evidence shows that high density development in inner areas performs very poorly in terms of resource consumption and greenhouse emissions. The idea that outer suburbs are inherently less sustainable than inner ones doesn’t bear scrutiny.

Many readers were surprised by the implication that higher density might actually cause greater emissions. Could something with the evidence have gone awry?

Intuitively, we feel that the outer suburbs are structured around unsustainable and frustrating automotive transport. Outer-suburban living after all requires the equivalent of our body-mass in petrol each week. Dense developments are much likelier to encourage walking, cycling and public transport.

A lot hangs on the claim either way. It matters a great deal to legislation and planning if we believe that greater density improves sustainability or not.

To satisfy readers’ curiosity, Gleeson provided a reference to a recent article of his, “Make No Little Plans”: Anatomy of Planning Ambition and Prospect.

Turning to Gleeson’s article, however, you find that the evidence isn’t very conspicuous.

He quotes another study with similar rhetoric: “In recent years, an accumulating evidence base, including data on revealed consumption, has thrown shadows of doubt over the bright generalisations linking density and sustainability.”

But then when you dig out the article where this quote is from (by Michael Neuman, which has the impressive title The Compact City Fallacy) you find none of the suggested data on consumption and emissions. The only notable empirical evidence in Gleeson’s paper is this:

The 2007 urban consumption analyses produced for the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) by the Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis at the University of Sydney revealed a consistent geographic correlation between high density and high energy consumption, based on a “full assessment” of (direct and indirect) household energy consumption.

By the author’s own admission, the denser areas are the richer ones. We can explain the higher energy consumption by almost anything except density.

With wealth comes greater luxury and less constrained consumption. Rich people worry less about the setting on their heating, importing designer furniture, and travelling overseas. If I’m rich, I don’t care if I have two or three unoccupied bedrooms, all serviced by central heating and cooling. The relatively lavish pattern of consumption in inner city has no match in the outer suburbs.

The statistics that show inner-city carbon footprints as heavier than the outer-suburb’s reveal nothing about building type, density or planning. They don’t show what kind of development is better for sustainability.

Science isn’t about sets of data. It’s about hypotheses that explain observations by identifying causes. If you can’t distinguish income from density or planning, lots of data just confuses the issue.

Urban planning, like economics, has huge problems attributing statistical patterns to causes. Clearly the attempt in both disciplines is laudable; and nobody is going to call for less scientific ambition. But relying on the level of science that we have so far witnessed to make deep and lasting decisions in urban planning is a mistake. You’d be better off using common sense for the foreseeable future.

Robert Nelson is Associate Director Student Experience at Monash University. He receives funding from the OLT.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Oh thank you for telling us all how to live based on your gut feel. The route you are advocating eliminates the choice of being able to choose between living with plenty of space with which to raise a family, or as rates in a cage with the limited scope to raise more than one or two children at best in tiny apartments. Urban boundary program's which you are effectively advocating massively forces up land prices, and as a consequence shrinks down living space.

Witness the UK and the product of 40 years of such policies - the smallest house sizes in Europe, new apartments are smaller than your average train carriage required to have no more than a single window. For all its sprawl I would prefer to live in Dallas than London, if I wanted to raise a family - I would probably be able to live closer to work too, as average commuter times to work are far less than for those living in London.

Although it probably wouldn't be a problem for childless hipster doofus student such as yourself, who'd be happy to live in a cramped train carriage of an apartment, as you hop from one govt sponsored program to the next, telling them how much money you will save them and how much better off we'll all of us will be because of it. Yeah right.

Stewie, it's not just these policies that have reduced living sizes, and massively increased commuter times and property costs.
The policy of allowing foreigners to purchase your property has led to a surge in UK prices and a compression in living size.
Middle East oil money and Chinese RMB have purchased large sections of the UK property market resulting in the locals being forced into tiny boxes or face longer and longer commutes, while many of the inner London homes sit empty.
The exact same thing is starting to happen here in Sydney with foreigners snapping up our homes as investments.
The question I keep asking, but no one can answer is - Why?
I know why foreigners would invest, but why would anybody allow foreign investors to make the roof over your own head totally unaffordable?
It benefits our society naught!

But it adds to Govt revenue via Stamp duty and land taxes. Those in power are only ever interested in easy solutions to hard problems, and bugger the consequence. The only difference is in what we consider a hard problem, for Govt's it is how to save money, for everyone else it is how to get affordable accommodation that you could actually want to live in and raise a family.

Hence the reason why muppets like Robert Nelson get employed as noddy men by the Govt, to try and tell us what is best for us.

Science is "hypotheses that explain observations by identifying causes" Wow. Only on a climate site would you expect to see an idea that promotes confirmation bias.
Science is about (1) Constructing an hypothesis. (2) Observing. (3) Testing if your observations match your hypothesis. If it doesn't your model is wrong - See Richard Feynman on this. After that don't get me started on Correlation is not Causality... This guy is in a University - Doing what ?

Hello Robert

The use of the term "sustainable" in this context is misplaced. Until we stabilise the population (ideally globally but we could do this country by country to start with), then we are all living unsustainably no matter where we live. You know the stats we need 1.6 Earths etc etc. Few people want to own and live in the tower blocks that developers are building in inner cities (prices more expensive that the equivalent large house on a block in the suburbs or ridiculously small in area to make them "rent affordable" for those on low incomes). People buy units and then rent and we are just setting up places of transition, not places people want to live but have to through necessity (price). I for one LOVE my unsustainable living in the suburbs and will not have any govt or "do-gooder" telling me that inner city living is better until they get us to a zero growth and sustainable basis and set us up for a balanced existence for the next couple of centuries at least (why do we supposedly want more traffic, crowded places, higher prices; beats me). Tap into what the public really think and you will get a very different view to that pushed by vested interests only looking for the next profitable project.

People need to be able to commute easily to work. Sitting in a car for hours each week is bad for our personal health and is ruining the environment. Long commutes also put a strain on family relationships as we all have less time to spend with our spouses and children.

The biggest problem right now is that politicians and bankers have encouraged house prices to soar well above wage increases over the past decade. Inflation in house prices as a result of cheap and easy credit along with negative gearing and First Home Buyer Grants have forced many people to live far from where they work. No wonder the economy is suffering when many Australians have very little disposable income thanks to huge mortgages and high rents.

Get rid of negative gearing and eliminate First Home Buyer Grants. Raise interest rates and regulate banks so that customers are required to have a substantial deposit before being approved for a mortgage. Multiple property owners should also pay higher taxes.

People need to be able to commute easily to work. Sitting in a car for hours each week is bad for our personal health and is ruining the environment. Long commutes also put a strain on family relationships as we all have less time to spend with our spouses and children.

The biggest problem right now is that politicians and bankers have encouraged house prices to soar well above wage increases over the past decade. Inflation in house prices as a result of cheap and easy credit along with negative gearing and First Home Buyer Grants have forced many people to live far from where they work. No wonder the economy is suffering when many Australians have very little disposable income thanks to huge mortgages and high rents.

Get rid of negative gearing and eliminate First Home Buyer Grants. Raise interest rates and regulate banks so that customers are required to have a substantial deposit before being approved for a mortgage. Multiple property owners should also pay higher taxes.