For the young freedom means a smartphone not an automobile

For several years I have taken an interest in housing affordability. It has been a kind of a hobby. Writing about housing affordability is time consuming but rewarding. It has introduced me to new areas of knowledge in economics, politics -both local and central, policy debate for transport, housing and the built environment. Housing affordability has introduced me to aspects of history and overseas culture that I would otherwise not have known about.

A common theme in these readings is that housing practices and policies are underpinned by commonly held beliefs. There are different beliefs about what constitutes rural versus urban and the desire to arbitrarily divide geographical spaces into these categories. In New Zealand there is talk about which cities are properly urban and those which are only provincial rural market towns. Around the world there are differing beliefs about housing being somewhere that provides the fundamental human need of shelter, versus housing being property -a wealth creating investment vehicle.

It would be impossible to explore all these beliefs in detail in one article (although I may return to some of them at a later date). What I want to look at is a particular belief about the built environment that I believe is changing, both in New Zealand and overseas. I want to talk about beliefs about density -the very thing which defines what a city is -places where masses of humanity congregate.

Cities are a great human invention. One of the greatest economic stories of the last two centuries has been the urbanisation of humanity. More than half of the world’s population now live in urban environments and there is no evidence this process will change or reverse.

Auckland’s Mayor Phil Goff on the campaign trail looked like an elderly ‘Fonzi’ (my mum thinks he is cool). Now that he is elected can he jump the gap to meet the needs of both the ‘Happy Days’ and the ‘Friends’ generations?

Urbanisation in many places around the world in the post-war period was dominated by the growth of new suburban areas. This process has been celebrated in popular culture. It was captured in the high rating TV series Happy Days, that was produced from 1974 to 1984. Happy Days was set in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the show revolved around the Cunningham family’s stand alone home in suburbia and Arnold’s drive-in diner. Fonzie was the cool-guy character in the show who rode a motorbike. Happy Days presented an idealised version of life in the United States, in the 1950s and 1960s. It had background themes of driving cars and riding motorbikes for freedom, opportunity and as a rite of passage into adulthood.

Manhattan's population and density history: Population and density in the 1800’s increased rapidly due to the high rate of immigration. This over-crowded tenement living period is best captured by the photojournalism publication -How the other half lives. Population and density then declined from 1910 to 1980 in response to the desire for more residential living space, greater transport options and rising incomes. Also of note -although population density declined for significant periods, it is likely that Manhattan’s built environment as measured by floor space constantly expanded -although some of that space may have been used for commercial not residential purposes.

Since the 1980’s a revival of inner city growth has joined the urbanisation process. This can be seen in Manhattan’s population and density numbers.

This urbanisation process has been illustrated in popular culture by the TV show Friends, which was produced from 1994 to 2004. The show was set in the various Manhattan apartments of the six main characters and in a local cafe.

None of the twenty-something year old characters owned a car so the cultural values of the private automobile were no longer applicable and were certainly not depicted in the TV series. Friends being set in high density Manhattan highlighted values of community, connectedness and the vitality of city life.

Twenty years on from when Friends first aired, technology has enhanced the advantages of medium to high density built environments. Young adults nowadays want to connect with the urban environment using their smart phones not with automobiles. The modern-day young city dweller is more likely to see their smartphone as representing freedom. Driving an automobile is often considered a nuisance rather than a rite of passage into adulthood.

I believe the changing nature of these popular culture TV series are indicative of changing cultural beliefs about the built environment. It is now a widely held belief that a diversity of built environments and transport arrangements are desirable.

In New Zealand we have the same division of belief systems about the built environment (among others). We have an older group who have been served well by stand alone suburban housing with its reliance on the private automobile. This Happy Days generation frequently misunderstand a younger Friends generation who would like the option of higher density living using public transport, walking and cycling to meet their daily needs.

The exact time the quaxing word was created was 1203 pm, 26th April 2015, with a tweet including the above photo by Melissa Laing, starting the #quaxing hashtag. Another tweeter -Non-motorist 156 minutes later then defined what quaxing meant.

This is best illustrated by a new word -quaxing. An odd word created in New Zealand two years ago that is now used around the world in pro rapid transit and cycling circles. It means, “to shop, in the western world, by means of walking, cycling or public transit”.

The word was created following a twitter disagreement initiated by an elderly Auckland Councilor Dick Quax who made the following tweets in January 2015 -“no one in the entire Western world uses the train for their shopping trips…the very idea that people lug home their supermarket shopping on the train is fanciful”. This resulted in hundreds, maybe thousands, of tweets with pictures of people using public transport or cycling to take their shopping home. By April of 2015 this activity had a new word to describe it based on the twitter hashtag #quaxing.

It will be a challenge for New Zealand politicians like Auckland Mayor Phil Goff to balance these widely held, yet differing belief systems on what constitutes a good built environment. It will be doubly challenging because economic forces in New Zealand of unaffordable housing and fast population growth are forcing a rapid resolution of these differing cultural belief systems.

Update 1.3.2017

Already New Zealand has examples of politicians taking the low road and using dog-whistle politics to ramp up ill-feeling between the generations -the Prime Minister of NZ -Bill English has accused young workers of being work-shy stoners and that is why New Zealand needs to run one of the world’s largest immigration programmes (with all the consequent effects on housing and infrastructure shortages). Bill English has only anecdotal evidence supporting his drug-use claims. The data that is available refutes what Bill is saying but the PM knows these sorts of coded attacks on the young will resonate with the constituency he is targeting.

Update 4.3.17

Radio New Zealand (RNZ) interviewed author Joel Kotkin about his belief in the “cult of density”. Joel attacked contemporary thinking in urban planning circles, which he believes too much favours the Friends built environment and no longer allows the Happy Days option. I think he has a point that the pendulum may have swung too far.

In my opinion though, Joel goes further than that to selectively use evidence, especially around density to deny that intensification can contribute to the housing of future generations. Joel by the way he used longer time periods implied when interviewed that inner city population figures were still falling, when in fact this effect has slowed down and reversed in many cities.

The population of Manhattan -the centre of New York has risen by several hundred thousand people in the last 30 years (see above graph). The population of Minato-ku, an inner city precinct of Tokyo, has risen by about 70,000 between 1995 and 2015. I have recently written an article collating a fair amount of evidence that Tokyo’s lack of restrictions on inner city suburban densification is a factor in its affordable housing. Whereas Joel in one sentence dismissed the Japanese example by stating that 90% of new Japanese housing since the 2nd World War was from peripheral development.

What I think Joel’s interview illustrates is that not only do people in the community have preferences for the Friends or Happy Days built environment, but at the political level there are opposing camps of advocates arguing for one or the other. Joel himself in the RNZ interview states this -saying in the US the Democrats support the cult of density.

In my opinion for housing affordability reasons we should give people a free choice of either the Friends or Happy Days built environments. Although New Zealand should learn from past mistakes and ensure new suburban areas have protected walking/cycling and rapid transit corridors connecting to city networks from the outset, because those public land corridors are cheap and easy to protect before the fact, but very expensive to retrofit after suburbs are filled. New Zealand should move away from unplanned ‘facts on the ground’ limiting the built environment choices we have.