Sunday, October 17, 2010

Urban plans, density and the middle class

Noel Pearson's 2010 John Button Oration (highly recommended - listen here) got me thinking about the relationship between urban plans (such as Melbourne 2030) and the relationship between it and various economic classes (especially the middle class).

To summarise, the intellectual middle class says what ought to be built and the capitalist landowning class goes off and builds, taking a risk in return for a possible profit. While planning regulations (largely drafted and interpreted by the middle-class) have some influence, the capitalist can apply the ultimate sanction, ie choosing not to build if they see no profit. This puts a limit on the strictness (or 'unworkability') of planning regulations, otherwise undersupply will be the result.

Urban planning can be seen as a tussle between a portion of the middle class (either as bureaucrats, academics or activist residents) and the capitalist upper class. The working class has a role as consumers through housing and shopping preferences. There is thus a consumer-producer relationship between the working class and the capitalist (if buying a project home for example), but the relationship between the working class and middle class is very limited.

I previously described Melbourne 2030 as a plan that favours the grouping of certain land uses (cafes, galleries, educational establishments and higher density housing) around transport hubs.

Favoured land uses represent the interests of the humanities-educated portion of the middle class plus some perceived working-class wants (or should haves). The latter being desirable to foster 'diversity' and 'inclusion'. Certain other land uses, such as bulky goods retail, fast-food and (especially) light industrial, are not part of the academic's world so tend not to feature prominently in their plans. Ignoring them does not make these uses go away, instead they go to the periphery without public transport or pedestrian access (Tullamarine and Laverton North spring to mind).

Lacking capital, the interested middle classes (especially academics, bureaucrats and council planners) use plans to advance what they see as the public (or is it their?) interest against the capitalist landowning class. To the extent that they are implemented they advance the former group's quality of life and aesthetic sensibilities. A Marxist analysis would also see city planning as part of a broader contest between intellectual and capital, with each group wanting their strength to prevail.

The middle class, even its humanity educated portion, is not homogeneous. As often played out in The Age, it is deeply split on the question of housing density.

There is what I would call the 'technocratic' or 'urbanist' middle class which favours higher densities for a more compact, less sprawling city better able to be served by public transport and other services. A substantial proportion of this group would have lived in or visited overseas cities with higher densities than ours. Some may work in planning. Their arguments are both environmental and economic, with the economic one being an echo of Le Corbusier's vision of cities as being 'machines for living in'. While it is another debate, this group may be quite relaxed about the city's capacity to house a higher population (though being quite well paid they will always be able to afford to live in the city's 'better' areas).

There is common ground between this group and developers (whose profit increases with density, since fixed costs can be spread across more units). The developers need this group to argue their case, while the urbanists need the developers to allow their preferred city form to be built.

Opposed to densification (at least in their backyard) is another faction of the middle class. 'Suburban protectionists' are less enamoured with high-rise and go by names such as 'Save our Suburbs'. This group professes a wish to preserve their neighbourhood's quiet streets, leafy verges and an always-free parking spot in front of the house. High-density is also thought by residents to be associated with crime, especially if 'outsiders not like us' (eg public housing tenants) move in. Hence NIMBYs ('Not in My Back Yard') are vulnurable to accusations of xenophobia or selfishness. While another (though related) debate, protectionists often question the benefits of continued population growth in our big cities, and may propose decentralisation (for others of course) to lessen pressures on our bigger cities.

As homeowners,suburban protectionists' key economic interest is their house value.

This is especially so for the middle-class.

The biggest determinant of wealth in Australia is whether you live in your own home or rent (those who both rent and invest are a small, savvy minority). Poor people are by and large not homeowners, so values are irrelevant to them. Then there's the rich. While they may live in nice homes the genuinely financially independent hold most of their wealth (80 - 99%) in other assets, such as their own businesses, rental properties, shares and the like. In contrast the middle-class person's home is their biggest asset, with most of their other wealth (superannuation) being untouchable until retirement. Hence concern that a development may lower house values is quintessentially a middle-class concern.

The relationship that high density leads to better public transport is also disputed. 2004 - 2008 for instance saw a train patronage boom but no commensurate service increase. And if higher traffic slows buses and trams, their efficiency will fall without priority. Academic support (in the sense that successful public transport is more a function of service planning than density) is offered by Paul Mees of RMIT.

To conclude, planning and the argy-bargy that goes with it, is a game between a protectionist middle class and a capitalist class (legitimised by a technocratic middle class). The middle class has brains but no capital. The capitalists have money and can co-opt as many middle-class minds as necessary. The middle-class itself is divided. Hence we generally get a largely market-oriented plan with some urbanist features such as denser activity centres and protectionist features such a (movable) urban growth boundary.


BG said...

Enjoyed this concise summary of the forces shaping Melbourne transport etc. Good work.

mc said...

As always, yet another useful and insightful analysis. But I will still have a go at picking at the edges...

I'm not sure how VicUrban fits into the "capitalist class" concept. Perhaps it is best seen as a fascist entity.

Light industrial and big box retail are low density development. This explains the lack of interest in them by high-density worshipping academics.

But they are not entirely ignored by planners. The Mildura planning scheme certainly acknowledges them strongly.

While somewhat coincidental, Mildura's big box retail strip is relatively well served by PT. But by far the best served area is home to most of the major fast food outlets. The main university campus, in contrast, is poorly served. As is the main art gallery.

The connection between population density and the "Save our Suburbs" middle classes is not predominantly about property values. It is more about quality of life.

If someone owns a low density suburban dwelling surrounded by other low density dwellings, and likes living in this environment, it's not surprising that they want to continue to do so.

In most cases a low density property will have a greater value if it is subdivided or a multiple unit dwelling is built on it.

But, yes, higher density developments are often designed for poorer people, and so can increase crime and reduce the property values of the surrounding properties.

But certainly not always - there are many medium and high density developments for the middle classes.

Melbourne's Kensington Banks development is an example of an area's lower density properties rising in value because of a new, more up-market and higher density development was constructed next door.

I expect the same has happened in the newly gentrified suburbs to the south of the city, and is happening elsewhere in the inner suburbs.

But whether or not the quantified measure is "property values" or "quality of life" or whatever, the underlying drivers for all classes overlap significantly.

Generally, more very poor people is bad (it increases crime).

More people like you (unless you're very poor) is good - it means more amenities that you'll appreciate.

More people much richer than you is fairly good if you own the property, but is bad if you don't. Rents generally rise, and the local amenities become less suitable for you.

Infrastructure works similarly. If it benefits you, good for you. If not, it will attract people unlike you, which will make the place less suitable for you to live in, but might make your property worth more.

"Urbanist" (high density) and "protectionist" (low density) features are not counter-market, they are different halves of it. Most new developments on greenfield sites are lower density, most new developments on brownfield (and infill greenfield) sites are higher density.

The capitalist class doesn't have an ideological desire to build more low density estates without train stations and arty cafes, it just often finds it profitable to build such developments. And often it finds it profitable to build high density developments in places with good PT and cafes like the Docklands or on top of Camberwell station.

Riccardo said...

Read Robert Kiyazaki if you want a real understanding of what being rich actually means.

I agreed with much of this analysis and tend to see the world in this way.

The middle class has at least 3 portions, upper middle and lower.

The upper middle and middle middle, to some extent, are an auxiliary class, there to mind the rich man's assets, account for them, lawyer them and so on.

These people do not make money, nor do they have the wisdom to actually do what the rich man does, but they know what he does, what works and what doesn't.

They practice 'symbolic analysis' where real concepts of wealth and income production are translated into symbols or abstractions, analysed, then converted back into the real concept.

The working/bogan classes don't actually understand these processes, having skipped the higher parts of education, so they sneer at them. Sour grapes.

Bogan votes are very harvestable by politicians because they are malliable to whatever cause the rich men are promoting.