Forced urban consolidation raises energy use

ScreenHunter_899 Jan. 17 09.48

By Leith van Onselen

I have been a long-time skeptic of the purported environmental benefits of forced urban consolidation, which seeks to ameliorate concerns that excessive suburban sprawl is increasing humanity’s ecological footprint and greenhouse gas emissions. By restricting urban growth, it is claimed that these ‘costs’ can be reduced via less car dependence and energy usage, as well as more efficient (intensive) use of resources.

My view is that many of the policies implemented by planners to restrict growth and reduce urban sprawl tend to have the opposite effect, thus eliminating many of their purported benefits (in addition to reducing housing affordability).

Perverse outcomes occur principally because measures aimed at excluding growth from one jurisdiction – whether via urban growth boundaries (UGBs), greenbelts, or slow land release (restrictive zoning) – naturally generates pressure to accommodate it elsewhere, and exurban, underdeveloped jurisdictions well beyond the metropolitan limits tend to be more inviting.

Take, for example, UGBs, which seek to channel new development into built-up areas and exclude it from undeveloped ones. In practice, the imposition of UGBs causes many lower income households to ‘leapfrog’ the boundary and settle in far flung exurban towns where housing is more affordable. UGBs, therefore, can act to exacerbate urban sprawl and increase car reliance and energy usage, which has detrimental distributional impacts in particular on lower socio-economic groups.

A related unintended consequence of urban consolidation is that ‘densification’ has often ceased to occur at its historically natural locations nearer the urban core and has instead shifted further away into less efficient locations (i.e. far away from employment and amenities). The reason for this is that the price of land is forced up so much by the growth constraint that households are unable to afford the ‘premium’ price commanded by more efficient locations, and are forced to locate instead at ‘less unaffordable’ but also less efficient locations. Essentially, budgets are squeezed so much by high land prices that households are forced to trade-off both space (smaller homes) and location efficiency (i.e. live further out).

This phenomenon is reflected in dense fringe suburban development, whereby postage stamp sections are crammed into cul-de-sacs in patterns that have been mathematically designed to maximise the number of salable properties. They typically also have narrow streets, minimal number of intersections (as it’s a waste of valuable space), and minimal public green space. Such conditions also allows little room to plant trees or veggie gardens, and means that homes are so close together that many do not contain roof eves or verandas and have poor air flow, thereby requiring greater air conditioning in the summer.

My concerns about the pernicious impacts of forced urban consolidation have received inadvertent support today from Helen Brown, Lecturer in Health, Safety and Environment at Curtin University, who argues that the lack of trees in new housing developments is significantly increasing the use of air conditioners and energy use:

Air conditioners across the country are running on full this week as Australia battles a heatwave – but are we missing an obvious, leafy solution?

Trees, which provide shade and act as natural air conditioners, play an important role in helping to create cities that are more resilient to extreme temperatures as the climate warms. In urban areas, however, trees are under considerable pressure.

With last year’s record hot weather, and projections for more frequent and severe heatwaves, this week’s weather may be a sign of things to come.

So why are all the trees removed in so many of our developments?

The population of major Australian cities is expected to double in the next four to five decades. Planned increases in urban density are likely to result in the removal of a significant number of trees from urban areas.

Fewer trees in cities help create urban heat island effects – that’s when buildings and footpaths absorb the sun’s heat and then radiate it back out. Increases of up to three degrees are common and, in extreme cases, night-time increases of up to 12 degrees have been recorded.

It’s worth noting that housing developments built in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Rowville in outer Melbourne, typically have large blocks, ample green space, and lots of tree cover. In short, they are a desirable places to live. Now compare these 20 to 30 year-old developments with the cluttered rubbish produced today, and tell me which is better for the environment (let alone housing affordability)?

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43 Responses to “ “Forced urban consolidation raises energy use”

  1. Quite right, UE and reinforcing of your existing views. :-) Looked at another way, the lack of physical amenity in new subdivisions (small blocks, narrow streets, leafless) exactly suits established landowners as it boosts the relative attractiveness of their holdings, however modest. We may expect them to be firmly in favor of draconian planning controls, Amen.

    What fresh injury can this society discover to heap upon FHBs and the marginally attached to ownership? These troubled eras always end badly.

    Don’t Buy Now!

  2. Dogbert says:

    We have to plant street trees and we have to do it as soon as possible in new developments if we want to make areas cooler, shadier and more enjoyable 10+ years in the future.

    • Ino says:

      OH&S – no-no
      Cost – the councils will have to maintain them, trim the branches, clear the leaves … all that.

      Energex will have to butcher them on regular basis because of the power-lines.

      May I interest you in this little bonsai? :)

      • Dogbert says:

        Haha yeah, someone might get hurt out in the big bad world, I keep forgetting :)

        Are new residential subdivisions mostly underground power now in aus cities? NZ seems to be.

        Sure, I’m sure you’ve already bundled the bonsai into the land price anyway!

      • PhilBest says:

        Is the penchant of “Dogbert” for trees, intentionally humorous?

    • PhilBest says:

      And as Leith points out, we can’t do that because the land is so expensive; crammed-in houses have to sell for prices that are already unaffordable.

      Ironically, there is no middle ground. Either you have no UGB and you have low cost land, low density development, AND affordable housing (median multiple 3); or you impose a UGB, get crammed housing AND unaffordable prices.

      • China-Bob says:

        Ironically, there is no middle ground. Either you have no UGB and you have low cost land, low density development, AND affordable housing (median multiple 3); or you impose a UGB, get crammed housing AND unaffordable prices

        Interesting phenomenon isnt it Phil.

        In Control System Engineering we label such systems as “positive feedback” any movement in a certain direction forces it still further in that direction and so on until some natural system constraint prevents the system going any further. Most positive feedback control loops quickly accelerate to one limit or another and than lock there or become oscillators that jump between unstable end states.

        There are Control Systems applications that demand positive feedback but interestingly most systems engineers would rather chew on a mouthful of broken glass then attempt to stabilize any complex system with positive feedback. Instead they design systems where negative feedback dominates the control loop AND where the magnitude of the feedback that can affect the system is deliberately restricted.

        Seems to me we had just such a housing system before we discovered the existence of external (foreign) capital. If housing got too hot than demand for loans forced up interest rates and thereby made saving a worthwhile activity. Under the old system Balance is achieved directly and locally. With today’s system balance is only achieved when all possible sources of foreign cash are exhausted (QE3/4 …Chinese Infrastructure build, BoJ’s easing) In control system theory this delay creates a phase shift in the feedback, if delay gets too extreme we find we’ve inadvertently created an oscillator.
        As the old engineering joke goes:
        All Amplifiers try to oscillate and all oscillators try not to!

        I wonder who profits from an unstable housing system?

      • PhilBest says:

        Glad you find it fascinating too, ChinaBob. That is an interesting point about engineers and feedback loops.

        I have often said it like this: urban planners think a UGB is like a flow control valve where it can be opened a little bit to control prices; but in fact it is an on/off switch for a nuclear chain reaction. You can fiddle with an on/off switch kidding yourself that it really has quite a broad range of positions after all – but it is always only ever either on or off.

  3. Peter Fraser says:

    Not energy related, but an interesting poll on the “go up or go out” city planning policy question.

    • PhilBest says:

      That article is flat wrong that the solution is to “upzone everywhere”.

      All that ever does when there is a UGB or proxy for it, is allow site owners to capture more land rent.

      Only the absence of a UGB (or proxy for it) makes housing affordable. I don’t know when all the real world evidence about this is going to be accepted by the mainstream.

    • The Claw says:

      Interesting article Peter, thanks.

      It is a good idea to have zoning densities automatically creep up.

      • Peter Fraser says:

        It was the residents attitudes that interested me.

      • PhilBest says:

        “…..It is a good idea to have zoning densities automatically creep up…..”

        I agree with that, along with “no UGB”.

        Any city densifies efficiently closer to the centre if you let it. Even LA did this, and even Houston is doing it now. Both those cases had or have some zoning preventing it – nevertheless it happened.

        Portland Oregon is absolutely ludicrous, it has a UGB but not much provision to intensify its miles and miles of ultra low density suburbs closer to the CBD. The result is the spatial distribution of density graph on page 12 of this paper by Alain Bertaud:

  4. Tassie Tom says:

    I agree with most of this (many people who live in Murray Bridge for example work or school in Adelaide, 80km away)..

    However, the residents of Stoneville WA might not agree with the bit about trees right now.

  5. RobW says:

    I actually rent in the outer areas of Melbourne and the harsh and expensive reality is I do have to drive long distances to get to various jobs. Many services are also inferior to those enjoyed by many other Melbournians. Businesses and governments just don’t seem to want to make the expensive infrastructure investments that make these areas more liveable and sustainable. I just wonder how many advocate of urban sprawl actually live the realities of it.

    • Would it be as painful to live in the outer burbs if a house and land package was $200k instead of $350k, and rents were lower? Also, you fail to recognise that if you inflate land values on the fringe via artificial scarcity, you also inflate values in the inner city, which makes infill developments more unaffordable for people on modest incomes (forcing them to the fringe, which is relatively cheaper but still not “affordable”).

      • fitzroy says:

        You have to spend money on infrastructure to make these places attractive otherwise it is unfair on those occupants of the new community. The taxpayer subsidises the developer in order to prevent a slum forming down the track (as does happen in the US). It is the land with the accompanying services that is scarce, not the land per se.

      • PhilBest says:

        But the cost of putting services in is only a fraction of the increased housing costs paid by oncoming generations. The cost of services has been calculated as $80 per household per year, relative to “containing growth”.

        That is a lot less than the several thousand per year in housing costs that result from “containing growth”.

        The other problem with urban planning, is “city centre first” zoning. There is plenty of academic literature on “decentralisation and the stability of travel time”. This is why Los Angeles has far shorter average commute-to-work times than London or Stockholm, or, for that matter, Sydney. And Los Angeles is one of the worst in the USA.

    • The Claw says:

      I just wonder how many advocate of urban sprawl …

      If you can identify one such advocate, I will ask him/her your question.

  6. Lori says:

    The high density option is the best option for electricity and FIRE companies. Their control over the disposable incomes of Australian citizens living in a high rise building is almost complete and will get firmer and more efficient, as they get total monopoly over pricing of their so called “services”. High density building is a dream cash for those companies, so don’t be surprised that the government supports them strongly via urban planning, zoning and other bull s***ts, including media.

    • Hector says:

      Agree 100%

      It’s a huge trap.

      A time of use pricing ant farm.

    • The Claw says:

      Agreed. We are trying to move away from battery cages for chickens. Yet the push is to move citizens, families with children, into the human equivalent. Whilst possessing abundant plains.

    • PhilBest says:

      The worst aspect is actually economic land rent and the usurping of consumer surplus and discretionary income by economic rent.

  7. any8 says:

    Also, in my area, Fig Tree Pocket (brisbane west) there has been a lot of in-fill development by subdividing large house blocks, which is effectively getting rid of tree’d areas or leafy green space. Overall this must be having quite an impact on the wildlife in the suburb, of which there used to be quite a bit. The alternative is developing what are cleared cattle grazing paddocks 5-10 kms further west for more affordable housing. They have been sitting there undeveloped for decades because I suppose it’s costly for State and local government to provide the transport and other infrastructure required. Much cheaper (and revenue friendly with more stamp duty) just to chop down more trees for in-fill development.

    • Peter Fraser says:

      Fig Tree Pocket is only about 8 Klm to the GPO and it’s well serviced by the Western Freeway (Centenary H’way). Plenty of sporting amenities and 3 major shopping centres within easy drive, several pubs/taverns easy commute. Even UQ is close.

      Some of the lots in that area are acreages – why wouldn’t the BCC encourage some resubdivision into smaller lots?

    • drsmithy says:

      I suppose it’s costly for State and local government to provide the transport and other infrastructure required.
      There is certainly a big problem in that area (heading out to Brookfield, etc) around providing transport or more road capacity thanks to the geography.

  8. RickW-MB says:

    With current technology I believe it is possible for a family to enjoy a good life on a 1000sq.m block in Australia without any reticulated amenity. The savings on these services could be used to reduce the capital cost of development and be redirected to installing the necessary systems – water collection and storage, energy collection and storage, sewerage treatment and recycling.

    With more paid work being done from home and/or it being a service provider home base, housing of this sort really is a productive asset.

    • The Claw says:

      housing of this sort really is a productive asset.

      Exactly. We should produce 1/4, 1/2 or even 1acre plots on the fringe with no reticulated amenity.
      To allay fears of epic commutes to work, such places could apply very high peak hour tolls on the existing road into the city.
      Let’s try it somewhere and see how it works.

      • PhilBest says:

        Employment dispersed in balance with housing is what makes US cities so efficient, totally contrary to the myths put about by the haters of cars and freedom.

      • Hector says:

        So glad to hear mention freedom. So few do.
        Unfortunately, I suspect many people actually don’t want it.
        And the smart city/sustainable types are absolute authoritarians.
        I want freedom as much as possible.

      • PhilBest says:

        I think many people don’t realise it is at risk, and who from. Many people think, oh yes, saving the planet is important, and they assume “other people” will be living in apartments and catching trains. And “other people’s” children. And the apartments will all be in “other people’s” neighborhoods.

      • Frederick says:

        Are cars inherently freedom? Be careful not to enforce your views of freedom on others.
        Cars are large machines that must be parked somewhere. This can cost time and money.
        If you park your car and walk around an area, you must return to your car. You may not walk or take public transport home. You are not free to chose your mode of transportation.
        Cars tend not to interact well with other modes of transportation. As cars become the dominant mode of transportation in an area, people find that they must have a car to fully participate in society. They are coerced into cars.
        On the other hand, an area dominant on either trains, buses, bicycles or walking for transportation does not necessarily rule out other modes of transportation. You can walk somewhere, and take a bus home.
        A road network will likely still exist for deliveries and emergency services. Cars can be driven on these roads. If there are few enough cars, they can be parked on the side of the road without a problem, and parking lots may be provided where they are demanded.
        Bus routes can be provided to open up as much land as necessary, and connect travelers to the wider network (eg. trains, BRT).

      • drsmithy says:

        If you park your car and walk around an area, you must return to your car. You may not walk or take public transport home. You are not free to chose your mode of transportation.

        And if you miss the last bus home, what choice in your transportation do you have then ?

        Public transport makes one a slave to its schedule. Cars allow you to set your own.

        Your idea of “freedom” is very strange.

      • Frederick says:

        You can take a taxi home. Also, irrelevant if there is overnight service.
        Frequent public transport makes the schedule irrelevant.

      • PhilBest says:


        You only say that because you are not living in a system riddled with the problems that automobility has solved. Automobility is responsible for the reduction of economic land rent, democratisation of home ownership and living space, and massive increases in economic productivity via new forms of agglomeration efficiency.

        Dispersion and automobility are inevitable unless prevented by totalitarian government. The former USSR’s cities were gigantic Transit-Oriented Developments in 1989, but people have flocked to cars regardless of the results in congestion. It was already built and they ran away. “Build it and they will come” is nonsense.

        The Mayor of Moscow was recently criticised for building roads rather than trying to “encourage people back to public transport” and he retorted, “public transport is for losers”.

        Another illustration of the inevitability of (auto) mobility, is that in many developing countries, the transport mode share for motorcycles is many times higher than that for public transport. Those people are not going to give up their motorcycles for public transport. It is impossible to provide public transport to where they are all now living, spread out with far more space per person. Which is what they want. Which is what all humans have done as soon as they have the means.

        Modern western enthusiasts for high density living and public transport riding, fail to understand that modern day high density living is only as pleasant as it is because the great majority of people have abandoned it and left the now-gentrified amenity of it to the few who still want it.

      • drsmithy says:

        You can take a taxi home.

        So no different to having a car then.

        Also, irrelevant if there is overnight service.
        Frequent public transport makes the schedule irrelevant.

        Frequently public transport in most Australian cities, outside of the morning and evening home-from-work rushes, is rare.

      • Frederick says:


        Public transport can also open up land to reduce economic rent and promote home ownership. Many cities expanded this way, through self-funding public transport networks. Public transport can also serve agglomerations better as capacity is higher.

        The USSR was very much dispersed. Rather than densifying their inner cities, they decided to build new suburbs on the outskirts. As land values were invisible, it was cheaper to build an apartment block on free land in the outskirts than to make land available in the inner city for it, even though there would be more demand in the inner city for housing.

        The Mayor of Moscow is entitled to his opinion, but it is not grounded in any logic.

        Motorcycles are more efficient than cars, as they are cheaper, require less space and might possibly be portable. Even so, developing countries often have insufficient public transport capacity, so if there is more public transport that avoids congestion is provided, people may well use it if it is faster than motorcycles. Public transport also opens up land to greater development, and can ease crowded housing conditions.

        The cities were abandoned in great part due to industrial pollution and poor sanitation. These are not problems anymore, as much industry is gone, and had it stayed, anti-pollution devices would have been developed, and sanitation standards are higher. We could’ve solved the root of air pollution problems, but instead we ran away into single-use suburbs.

        Perhaps only few want high-density living because under supply has made it expensive. Whenever an amenable inner city area becomes desirable, demand explodes, rising faster than supply (gentrification). If many more inner city areas were developed, and land rents were captured, that untapped demand could be satiated, and existign residents would not need to be kicked out.

  9. PhilBest says:

    “…..Fewer trees in cities help create urban heat island effects – that’s when buildings and footpaths absorb the sun’s heat and then radiate it back out. Increases of up to three degrees are common and, in extreme cases, night-time increases of up to 12 degrees have been recorded…..”

    Which of course is shouted about as evidence of “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming”……

    US Meteorologist Anthony Watts has a section of his site devoted to temperature recording stations that have been affected by the urban heat island effect and indeed other obvious adjacent influencers of temperature.