Together alone: Why McMansions appeal

At #76 on the Things Bogans Like list, McMansions are a symbol of the culture of overconsumption and a triumph of marketing over common sense. Built on the urban fringe, kilometers away from services and public transport, McMansion owners are doomed to spend hours in their cars. And with all that open plan space, these supersized houses are costly to heat and cool. Critics deride McMansion buyers as greedy, environmentally irresponsible and lacking in taste.

At Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony, Helen argues that McMansion buyers are being duped into buying substandard housing by developers and their slick, manipulative marketing campaigns. She argues that, if developers and their advertisers wanted to, they’d have no trouble convincing buyers that "they’d be happier and more comfortable (and richer!) in a smaller but better constructed and environmentally intelligent house." But is it really that simple?

When land prices as high as they are in Sydney, the urban fringe has little to offer battlers and first home buyers. Increasingly it is the domain of second and third home buyers stepping up to something better. As Peter McManus writes:

Consumers are not necessarily moving to the Western Sydney Fringe to build McMansions, but this is where the land is the cheapest in addition with building costs low in comparison to the price of land. People can now afford to build the large extravagant home they have always wanted, with all the added extras – at no sacrifice.

Like the extra 50 cents for a supersized meal at McDonalds, the extra cost of additional space seems a small price to pay. As McMansion critic Terry Burke points out: "as a purchase (but not necessarily in terms of ongoing costs) they are incredibly good value."

Builders can provide extra floor space far more cheaply in detached houses in greenfields sites on the fringe than they can in apartment blocks or urban infill developments. So for the price of pokey terrace house in walking distance of a train station near the city, buyers can get a brick veneer palace on the fringe. It might not be hip or high status, but at least the guests won’t be tripping over bicycles, clothes drying racks and the kids’ toys as they stumble through hallway and across the living room. In a McMansion, there’s always somewhere to hide the clutter.

Critics point out that cheap space comes at an environmental cost. Helen complains about the lack of eaves, insulation and proper orientation. In NSW the Carr government tried to deal with this problem. Since 2004 new houses have been required to comply with a Building Sustainability Index (BASIX) designed to ensure that they "are designed to use less potable water and be responsible for fewer greenhouse gas emissions by setting energy and water reduction targets for house and units."

McMansion haters hoped that BASIX would prevent builders from constructing ugly oversized houses, but as Elizabeth Farrelly reported in 2005:

BASIX may not make any significant visual difference to the standard overstuffed McMansion-burb. It’d be nice to think that the McManufacturers might respond to BASIX with a little ancient wisdom – slab huts with a full set of verandahs, eaves and tanks. But they don’t have to.

They can simply insulate and re-orient the existing McMansion and keep the look, if that’s what the market wants.

It’s hard to be energy efficient in a house with three bathrooms and hundreds of downlights, but as a couple of Helen’s commenters point out, older houses aren’t always a lot more energy efficient or better built than today’s McMansions. For example, this $725,000 three bedroom house in Turner ACT has an Energy Efficiency Rating of 0.0 while this brand new $625,000+ six bedroom, two story home in Bonner has a rating of 5.0. Many 1950s houses were hastily built during a period of materials shortage and are badly designed and shoddily constructed. Canberra’s monocrete houses of the 1940s and 50s, for example, are hot in summer, freezing in winter and almost impossible to insulate properly.

Of course new McMansions would be more energy efficient if they were smaller and designed to take better advantage of the sun and breeze. And their location on the fringe means that almost all trips will be by car. But on its own, access to public transport and nearby services doesn’t automatically mean lower emissions. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation: "despite the lower environmental impacts associated with less car use, inner city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption."

According to the ACF one of the biggest drivers of high emissions is the trend towards small and single person households. Living alone is almost always less efficient than sharing with other people. So on a per person basis, empty nesters living in older family sized homes and affluent singles living in inner city apartments may be as real a threat to the environment as families in outer suburban McMansions.

The desire for space and privacy contributes both to the growth of McMansions and to the increase in small households. In the past elderly parents often shared a house with their adult children. Children shared bedrooms with each other and everyone shared the same bathroom and toilet. But as Australians grew richer, one of the first things they did was spread themselves further apart. Older people increasingly decided to live alone and families with children moved into bigger houses with extra bedrooms, extra bathrooms and rumpus rooms so that everyone could enjoy more time apart. Population ageing has intensified the trend by increasing the numbers of older one an two person households.

In a presentation on McMansions, the University of Western Sydney’s Emma Power quotes a research subject’s idea of her ideal home: "enough space for us to lose ourselves and there’s enough room for us to come together as a family basically.” It seems that people are using space to manage relationships. This craving for personal space also affects transport decisions. Many people prefer driving to public transport because their car allows them to travel alone in an environment they can control.

So perhaps the rise of the McMansion isn’t about people who are too stupid to resist a slick advertising brochure. If hell is other people (when you’re not in the mood), then the McMansion promises bliss.

See also:

Are huge homes irresponsible? Alan Davies, The Melbourne Urbanist

Are apartments the answer to ‘McMansions’? Alan Davies, The Melbourne Urbanist

99 thoughts on “Together alone: Why McMansions appeal

  1. I live in one of these large houses with 3 bathrooms, 3 living areas and a swimming pool. It’s also got a large garden. I have got to say that in every sense it is a much more attractive place to live in than the tiny weatherboard house I lived in as a kid with a single bathroom that was chronically congested. Yes you can now enjoy privacy if you wish and different family members can do different things at the same time.

    Large homes on 1/4 acre blocks are a desirable consequence of affluence for many. People pay for them because they get utility from living in them. Others of course like more compact dwellings close to city centers and good luck to them.

    As far as I can see the only externality involved in large homes is that suburbs become more dispersed partly as an unintended consequence of the failure to adequately price infrastructure provision in some areas and traffic congestion. The answer to these externalities is of course to price them adequately not to criticize one of the attractive consequences of affluence.

    Otherwise lefty critiques of suburban sprawl and McMansions are nothing more than cultural arrogance. How dare the masses enjoy high living standards in large homes!

    Where’s the chardonnay? Oh, I see, it’s next to the flat screen TV….

  2. I think, since good climate- efficient homes were being built well before Federation, the comment concerning Canberra’s moncrete houses of the 1940′s and fifties..” should indicate an excellent cross comparison when compared to earlier housing that further strengthens the argument that the problem is old and that governments, nagged by developers, have shirked dealing with it for a generation or two.
    Re Emma Power, “atomisation”.

  3. “Otherwise lefty critiques of suburban sprawl and McMansions are nothing more than cultural arrogance. How dare the masses enjoy high living standards in large homes”

    I think that’s an unfair statement. Once we hit peak oil (which really can’t be too far off — if petrol is $1.50 now when our dollar is soaring and the world economy is going poorly, how much will it be when those two things go away?), then people living in some of those suburbs are never going to stop complaining about how badly they off are for public transport and how the governmet has to provide it, even though they bought their houses having perfect knowledge there was no transport in those areas. If the government responds to this, and puts transport in these very low density zones using a massive subsidy, then it’s a complaint against the government and not a lefty critique.

  4. I’m genuinely curious about the ACF research supposedly showing that inner-urban dwellers necessarily have higher ecological footprints. Maybe I just know an unusual cross-section of people, but the people I know who live close to the city:
    a) rarely drive anywhere
    b) are typically reasonably conscious of their energy usage, and surely on average use less to heat/cool their smaller houses (certainly for me, my bills have fallen dramatically since moving from a somewhat larger house)
    c) are far more likely to have eating habits with a lower environmental impact (e.g. vegetarian or low-meat diets)
    d) typically engage in hobbies that have relatively low environmental impact
    e) simply don’t have the space in their houses to fill them with large/cheap consumer goods

    Whereas almost on every count those I know who live in larger houses further out are the precise opposite. It may be true that those of us lucky to earn more and hence live closer to the city have the incomes to acquire more resources, but my general observation is that we tend to spend our extra incomes largely on:

    a) the real estate premium for being close to the city (no extra environmental impact)
    b) entertainment, especially dining out – which seems unlikely to have a significantly higher impact than eating at home or at less expensive eateries
    c) to a certain degree, buying better quality products that are likely to last longer (e.g., I’ve almost certainly spent more on furniture for my 5-room single-fronted house than many families have on their 10+ room multi-story houses, but that includes splashing out on a grand piano and various custom-made items)

    I’ll accept we probably take more international trips than families in outer-suburbs, which evens things out somewhat, but there’s more to environmental impact than just carbon pollution, so you’d surely have to be flying a *lot* more for it to outweigh all the other factors.

    Another comment I wanted to throw in – in one article (can’t remember where sorry) somebody noted that it was hypocritical to complain about the “sameness” of McMansions in newer developments, when living in one of a row of terrace houses that were very much built to be all the same. And indeed, it’s fair to say that 8 McMansions in a row would typically exhibit more variety than 8 such terrace houses. But there’s two problems with that: a) 8 McMansions in a row probably take up the space of something like 30 terrace houses, and b) it’s never just 8 – it’s more like a development containing a hundred or so. In inner-city areas at least in Melbourne it’s very very rare for there to be long stretches of housing with minimal variation – it’s always broken up by shops or green spaces or more modern developments, and if any criticism was to be fairly leveled at many such areas is the lack of much sense of overall architectural coherence, rather than any sense of ‘sameness’. Further, I’d suggest from an aesthetic point of view, there’s a big difference between repetitions of smaller items of which you can easily fit several into your field of view (nobody complains about the sameness of all the bricks in a given building), and repetitions of much larger ones. I’d also add there’s one more factor that adds to the sense of ‘sameness’ when driving through many newer developments – the fact that you rarely actually see any people walking about. Ultimately to me I suspect that’s what makes them seem so devoid of life and character.

  5. One thing that did occur to me – I’d accept that between the 3 (2.5 technically) in my own household and the lady that lives on her own next door, we would potentially have a higher ecological footprint than a family of 4 living in a large house on the suburban fringe. But is that even a meaningful comparison? There’s no degree to which you could blame that on our choice of house type – sure, it would be possible for all of us to reduce our footprints further by moving in with other families, but so could the outer-suburban families.

  6. wizofaus – The ACF study estimated indirect as well as direct impacts of consumption. Indirect impacts include the domestic and overseas impacts of industries producing the goods and services households consume. The study found:

    … that indirect impacts of consumption outweigh direct household use of energy, water and land. That is, the major environmental impacts occurring in the production and distribution of goods and services that households consume far outweigh the direct household impacts.

    The authors complained that:

    Several letters to the editor in the days following major stories about the Consumption Atlas challenged the results and argued that inner city suburbs had lower impacts, meaning direct-only impacts. This response demonstrates that, despite the clear media messages, and in fact the good representations of most of the articles, the public can still choose to rely on their traditional thinking and understanding. It is clear from some of the reactions that the results were an affront to members of the public who consider themselves good environmental citizens.

  7. The two examples you give of Canberra Real Estate is a bit of an oranges and apples comparison.

    Clearly the Turner home is touting for a buyer who will knock it down and build a medium density development:

    “Located on beautiful tree-lined Forbes Street, this property presents a rare opportunity to secure a prime location in the RZ4 development zone in Turner.

    Situated on a 771m2 block, the zoning allows for a building of up 3 storeys with an 80% plot ratio, subject to planning approval through ACTPLA.”

    The high price reflects almost completely the value of the land.

    As a counter example, here is a 3 bedroom house in Holt, an outer suburb of Belconnen that is the same distance to the city centre as Bonner:

    http://www.allhomes.com.au/ah/act/sale-residential/6-grimmett-close-holt-canberra/1316789542311

    It has an EER of 2.5 and is only $369,000. A handy saving of $256,000 over the Bonner property.

  8. Don, I suppose the reason I might see it as an affront is because there’s no possible way I could reduce my environmental impact by moving into a large new house in a fringe suburb – I’d then have *more* money to spend on products and services (*), and certainly more room to put them all.
    I do also wonder to what degree their study took into account specific purcashing choices that are made with a view towards minimising environmental impacts. I guess I’ll have to read the whole study…

    (*) Depending on *how* fringe and large it is, of course

  9. The reason this issue gets so many folks all het up is that it’s quite multifaceted.

    Unfortunately, one of those facets is aesthetic. This means that in addition to being environmentally judged by their detractors (for which there is an easy stock response – “fuck you greenie commie” – so no biggie) McMansion owners also know they’re having their taste judged. I, for instance, think that many such houses look utterly frightful individually, and in the aggregate create suburbs that feel utterly alien to my sense of what a livable neighborhood ought to feel like.

    There is no easy comeback from this one. Many McMansion owners would have grown up in the sort of places I’m talking about, with trees and footpaths and mixed-use zoning, and corner stores. Some of them were/are probably hoping to provide a similar environment for their own kids, and the buyers’ remorse prevents them from addressing the fact that they have not been able to do so. So they lash out and claim it’s all about lefty ‘elites’ not wanting the poor to have nice things.

    I’m sure there are plenty who genuinely love these places, de gustibus non disputandum and all that. And for these people I am genuinely happy. They have exactly what they want, at a cheap price… lucky them! I don’t have to be happy about what they’re doing to the environment though. I don’t even have to agree that they’re doing the best thing for their kids.

  10. FDB

    I tend to have a similar aesthetic reaction to most McMansions and the suburbs in which they proliferate. However I don’t see how you manage to segue from the re to “I don’t have to be happy about what they’re doing to the environment though” in the face of the ACF study that Don cites.

    Moreover, to the extent that outer suburban development currently exacerbates greenhouse and other environmental problems, I suspect it has as much to do with the reluctance of governments to invest in the necessary rail and highway infrastructure to make it easier for outer suburban residents to commute by public transport as with problems inherent in preserving the Oz dream of the quarter acre block and roomy house. That in turn seems to flow in part at least from the public aversion to government debt irrespective of purpose that pervades the modern Australian psyche. Nicholas Gruen’s proposals for a RBA-style independent fiscal responsibility commission might go some way to addressing those concerns over time.

  11. BTW Don’s primary point that both McMansions and small (inner urbanati) households spring from the same innate desire for both sufficient space and privacy rings true for our family at least. We’ve been making long range plans for quite a while to relocate from Darwin to Melbourne in due course. But for various reasons we want to do it without having a significant (or preferably any) mortgage hanging over us. That means we could only afford a relatively modest apartment around St Kilda, Elwood, Windosr, South Yarra etc which is where we would ideally like to live.

    Because we’re likely to have daughter Jessica with us for a while yet, we really need somewhere with at least two separate living areas to give us something even approaching the personal space and privacy to which we’re accustomed from living in Darwin. In fact it’s even more important in Melbourne in that you can’t comfortably escape to the outdoors for a good part of the year because it’s too cold. However we can’t afford a place with two decent living areas and no mortgage around St Kilda etc. Thus we’ve also started looking around Belgrave, Upper Ferntree Gulley etc because it’s quite congenial and you can get nice spacious houses (not a McMansion though – ugh!) for a reasonable price. OTOH it’s a fairly long commute to town, and one of the major reasons we want to move back to a big city is to take advantage of the cinema, theatre, restuarants, bookshops etc that Darwin lacks. Our current plan is to leave it another 2-3 years by which time Jessica might well have gone solo so that Jen and I will have enough space to get away from each other when we want within the confines of the sort of inner urban apartment we can comfortably afford to buy for cash. I suspect that these are just the sorts of lifestyle trade-offs that people consciously make when deciding to build or buy a McMansion.

  12. “I suspect it has as much to do with the reluctance of governments to invest in the necessary rail and highway infrastructure to make it easier for outer suburban residents to commute by public transport”

    An alternative view of this is that putting public transport to very low density districts is extremely expensive, requires huge recurrent subsidies, and is therefore benefitting the minority over the majority. In addition, since it is usually so poorly done, almost no-one takes it anyway (try getting the bus from, say, one of those suburbs outside Werribee in Melbourne to the city).

    Now consider an alternive. Off the top of my head, one thing that clogs up traffic in Melbourne is that a lot of railways don’t have fly-overs. This means that whenever it’s peak hour, cars just get stuck waiting for trains and the fact that the boom gates are not well coordinated with them. I don’t know what percentage of the time they are down in peak hour, but it’s lot. If this was fixed, it would presumably be vastly cheaper than making entire new train lines, and you could simply fix them in order of population density. This would benefit many more people than any new outer suburban lines. An even cheaper alternative would be just to add more trains in peak hour and fix the lines they are on, in which case more people would take them. Again, this is going to benefit far more people at much less expense than servicing these low density outsuburban neighborhoods.

  13. Aidan – How about this $688,000 home in O’Connor — EER 0.0?

    The location is wonderful. And that’s what you’d be paying for.

    FDB – I agree, there’s more to this debate than concern about the environment. A lot of people discount the environmental impact of behaviours that well motivated while exaggerating the impact of those that seem to be motivated by greed or vanity.

    And taste probably plays a role too. People who are architecturally aware have always been appalled by the choices of the nouveau riche. Stockbrokers’ Tudor was a popular large home style in the 1930s but was often considered a bit of a joke.

  14. I’m with Harry. A lot of the stuff about McMansiosn is just a moral panic – no different in psychological motivation from the prudery of the 1950s; the panicker want to ban behaviour of which she disapproves. Sorry, but in a democracy you don’t have a right to insist others live the same lifestyle you do.

    There are valid concerns about internalising full costs (including sustainability) – but most of these problems apply to an awful lot of other behaviour than buying overlarge houses of questionable taste on small blocks. And those blocks are bloody small by previous generation’s standards; that’s what rising fuel prices, traffic congestion and insisting developers pay costs of sevice provision does; that’s what getting the prices right does.

    As for the bit about “shoddily built Mcmansions”, its simply the reverse of the truth. By every metric you can think of people building a house today get a better built product than their parents did. Not only that, but I’d wager the build quality of your average new McMansion considerably exceeds the build quality of new Meriton apartments. It’s a simple agency problem – McMansions are mostly built by those who live in them, apartment blocks by rentiers.

  15. “Not only that, but I’d wager the build quality of your average new McMansion considerably exceeds the build quality of new Meriton apartments.”

    Much the same in my experience (as an erstwhile installer of home theatre and AV gear). But point taken – lots of “sustainable” inner-city apartment developments are really crappily made. And I mean basic shit like gutters which drain towards downpipes, suspended ceilings with sufficient support for the weight of the installed lighting specified in the design, and the building of almost everything to just within the material tolerance of each piece.

    I’ve got a few mates who bought brand new conversions off the plan in Melbourne’s inner North. I bit my tongue because I’m such a nice guy, but now they’re getting expensive wall reinforcements, plumbing and roofing repairs done only two or three years in.

    I guess nostalgia for past construction is an easy indulgence though. After all, housing built really shittily any more than a few decades back simply isn’t there to make a comparison with now.

  16. This goes way beyond mcmansions. Every brick veneer building would need less heating and cooling if the brick was on the inside and the insulated stud wall was on the outside.

  17. Don said, “People who are architecturally aware have always been appalled by the choices of the nouveau riche”.

    I assume you include among this “aware” group architects. Those who gave us Federation Square in Melbourne and buildings where the plumbing runs along the outside. I find these constructions appalling.

    Its not an issue of taste but of different people having different tastes

  18. d.d. “but in a democracy you don’t have a right to insist others live the same lifestyle you do”…true, but if you CAN demonstrate that others are making choices that will have negative impacts on future generations I’d say there’s definitely a case for looking at whether some sort of further state involvement in the planning stages of newer developments is justifiable (or likely to be worthwhile).

  19. (Also, who said anything about banning? I suppose, fine, I would ban governments from zoning huge areas as purely residential without any sort of reasonable transit options. And yes, you might be able to find a crackpot or two that wants to ban plasma TVs or jetskis, but let’s just agree crackpots are what they are, and their ‘moral panic’ as you fairly call it for has no bearing on the validity of concerns the rest of us have).

  20. Don, I like Federation and pre-Federation architecture for city buildings. I admire the Flinders Street Station in Melbourne and the Immigration Museum. So yes I detest what is described as brutalism. Of course a lot of modern buildings are fantastic to work in even if they look terrible.

    Housing built in new styles tends to look horrible when it is first built. It softens as landscapes develop and age. Suburbs in Melbourne such as Bundoora looked horrible when I first moved here 20 years ago. Now they look attractive. Trees and greenery help.

    If you grow good gardens a basic issue is repetition. Plants look good when they are repeated as they are in nature. Gardens with 100 different species look like a hodgepodge. Suburbs can look the same if every house is different – harsh on the eye. Again nature and that weathered look can soften the divergencies. And, as with city offices, people living in these modern homes can enjoy a very positive lifestyle given the space and the quality of modern constructions.

  21. “Of course a lot of modern buildings are fantastic to work in even if they look terrible.”

    And there are modern buildings that look fantastic but are terrible to work in — I work in one of these where the moronocrats were obviously so concerned about making an environmentally friendly building that looked good they didn’t actually worry about whether people could work efficiently in them (or staff turnover and all the other things associated with poor workplace environments).

  22. Pingback: Are McMansions about class warfare? « The Melbourne Urbanist

  23. hc, maybe, but suburbs like Rowville developed about 20 years ago now still look pretty bland and soulless to me, and still suffer from the same problems of endless car-dependent residential-only development. The problem isn’t a particularly new one – the worry is if anything newer developments only seem to be getting worse.

  24. wizofaus, it’s not just the big new developments where quality is a problem — The problem of poor quality construction and low density living are essentially orthogonal questions. I work in an exceptionally crappy building built this year, for example. I’m also willing to bet that many of the skyscrapers being built don’t have good insulation, walls that stop sound etc., yet people don’t sneer at them in the same was as McMansions (I’ve lived in such a building). So I think the real problem is that it’s cheap to build poor quality stuff, and many people are willing to sacrifice quality for price (or can’t afford quality at all). Indeed, it may well be that ignoring environmental externalities, the extra expenses used in terms of things like really good quality insulation are not worth it in the long run.

  25. The problem isn’t a particularly new one – the worry is if anything newer developments only seem to be getting worse.

    I’m not so sure, as you’re seeing a great deal more stratification. There are some developments I’ve seen that look pretty decent. They would obviously cost more , but they appear pretty decent to me. Previously they all looked the same.

    As for housing, get a good architect. It’s the most enjoyable thing in life if you can to build a home with a decent architect as s/he can teach you tons of stuff you didn’t know. If a person goes this route, it’s essential the architect should have most of the say for the important parts of the assignment, otherwise just hire a designer.

  26. I could be missing Conrad’s point, but fixing (eliminating?) railway level crossings would seem likely to increase road usage, not rail. Not a bad idea, but if the objective is increasing PT use, better to take the low-hanging fruit – as you say, make the stations longer to accommodate larger peak-hour trains (with a split-carriage system for existing small platforms in the interim). This could be implemented almost immediately.

  27. You are missing his point, which was to relieve congestion and facilitate transport to and from the outer suburbs, not to promote rail for the sake of rail.

  28. JC, sure. But 100 years ago they could build suburbs intended for working class families that we still think look decent today. I struggle to believe that we’ll think the same of many suburbs built today primarily for middle-class families in another 100 years.

  29. Aidan – How about this $688,000 home in O’Connor — EER 0.0?

    The location is wonderful. And that’s what you’d be paying for.

    Don’t get me started on Canberra’s crazy house prices.

    You can get a 3 bedroom house which is 10 minutes bike ride away (I know, I cycle it every day) for $238,000 LESS.

    http://www.allhomes.com.au/ah/act/sale-residential/67-shannon-circuit-kaleen-canberra/1316787542011

    It even has a half decent solar aspect (much better than the O’Connor place which has it’s long axis pointing north-south). It is listed as EER 0.5. This could be beefed up quite a bit with some retrofitted insulation, but I’m a little skeptical of the EER system. We got points off when they rated our house because it has a lot of north facing glazing with no blinds or awnings!? It has eaves. They are cunningly designed to keep out high angle summer sun and let in warming winter sun. If there were west facing glazing then yes blinds would be necessary. And yet I see new houses go up all the time with massive west glazing, no eaves on any window at all, and yet they must comply with the mandatory 5-star EER. It is a bit of a crock I reckon.

    Is it really so much more wonderful a location? I don’t think so. Clearly I am out of step with a fair chunk of the populace who would happily pay over $200K more to live 10 minutes bike ride closer to … well … a “geographic central point”.

    That extra cost represents more than $15000/year in interest payments. Mad.

  30. Oh, and they bought it for $131,000 14 years ago. Which shows what a crock these prices are. A whole cohort of young people, who used to live in Inner North as students, grew up, got incomes and decided that it was where they wanted to live. They have been madly bidding up each other’s house prices ever since.

    Not sure what this has to do with McMansions. Sorry.

  31. Well, more than you might think Aidan.

    The nicest places to live in Melbourne or Sydney are undoubtedly the very pretty inner-suburban houses. These of course cost a real fortune, any of those suburbs would be likely more expensive than Canberra as a whole.

    Failing that, if you don’t need much space and have a quite healthy income you can live in urban or inner-inner suburban apartments/townhouses etc. These are extremely pleasant indeed.

    The added bonus of living in those areas is that one can easily ridicule the poor bogans who earn a bit less but really would like enough space for their kids, themselves, a pet, a nice TV, a big kitchen and both (all three?) cars. Oh and the camping gear.

    These people are easily ridiculed because they prioritise that space, and access to bogan amenities like supermarkets and football fields and bunnings, and don’t even realise that they are supposed to give a stuff about some inner-city wanker’s aesthetic preferences or personal cost-benefit weightings.

    Hence you have a whole subject called ‘McMansions’, which as a number of people above have noted is really just a covert means for inner-city wankers, probably including most of the cohort of Canberran Inner North ex-students you mention, to try and impose their minority aesthetic and cost-benefit preferences on everyone else.

  32. Patrick, out of the (relatively) inner-suburban households I know, probably half have kids/pets/nice TVs/decent-sized kitchens/camping gear and at least 1 car (the one thing mine is missing currently is a pet, but that may well change in the near future), plus there’s far more access to supermarkets, football fields and hardware stores than the newer fringe developments have, so I’m not sure what your point is…again, I suppose I must know a weird sample of people…

  33. FDB,

    the other thing I think needs to happen with trains to make them more viable is for them to be reliable and on time — I think this issue is more important than having packed carriages for most people (obviously one would lead to the other in the medium term). I also can’t see why they can’t sort it out apart from incompetence, since I presume it is more of a management thing rather than an expense thing given trains have dedicated lines (unlike trams). So this really is low-hanging fruit. The alternative to this is you just have so many trains at peak times people don’t care. This would cost more.

    One of the ironic things about this is that the people now responsible for the trains in Melbourne are the same people responsible for the trains in HK. Having just spent a few days in HK, not a single train I took was late (i.e., more than 2 minutes outside its schedule), and the very few times I remember trains being late when I lived there, you would get some person apologizing prefusely (and the single time I remember a train being very late — i.e.,15 minutes out — the company let people travel for free the next day).

  34. Further, virtually all the people I know that live in further-out low density suburbs would happily sacrifice a certain amount of space in order to move at least somewhat closer to the city in areas better served by the conveniences made possible by higher density mixed development. The one reason they don’t is that the cost difference is just astronomical – which, as I’ve suggested before, suggests a serious supply and demand problem: true, we can’t make more land in the most desirable locations, but there’s a lot more we could with existing land that’s not all that far from the CBD.

  35. conrad, true, though I’d also think most people would be happy if trains came sufficiently often during the day that it wasn’t a big issue if they didn’t run exactly to schedule. Interestingly if I’ve noticed anything, it’s the peak hour trains that are full of people and run every few minutes that are LESS likely to be late than the ones going the other way (which are the ones I tend to catch several times a week).

  36. I guess my point about Canberra is that it is a microcosm of Sydney/Melbourne, where there are still “inner/outer” price differentials without the actual distance/amenity/aesthetic differential.

    The example I gave above was of a similar-ish 3 bedroom house that was 10 minutes bike ride, or about 3kms as the crow flies, but 35% cheaper. There is no objective difference in amenity or even, I would argue, aesthetics. Which leads me to the conclusion that most of this stuff is a complete confection and is mostly tribal, valuing the sensation of living amongst “your own people”. People you believe share similar values. I think that is mostly a crock as well, but there you go. I would say that wouldn’t I?

  37. aidan, where I live now isn’t especially close to many of the people I know, but at least it’s reasonably central and on a train line, meaning I can reasonably quickly to get to the various locations where I need to be for work or family and friends (which are scattered all over the city, from Sunbury to Ringwood to Williamstown). Now “centralness” certainly *is* worth paying a premium for, and obviously is in necessarily limited supply – but a better transport network could definitely reduce the degree to which that was so.

  38. “I guess my point about Canberra is that it is a microcosm of Sydney/Melbourne, where there are still “inner/outer” price differentials without the actual distance/amenity/aesthetic differential.”

    Actually, I think it isn’t particularly representative. I think in Canberra you can live essentially anywhere and still get to work or visit your friends easily. Thus differentials between suburbs are really in large part imaginary excluding who you want to live next to. With Melbourne and to an even greater extent Sydney, if you live far out, you really will have problems with some things. In Sydney, for example, people spending 1.5 hours driving to work is not unusual, which means that people are spending 3 hours travelling a day, so there really is an imperative to live in expensive but convenient places. If you live with someone that works on the opposite side of the city to you, for example, it’s hard to see what else you could do (excluding spend your life travelling and then break up because of it).

  39. JC if McMansions were only ever built in clumps or 2 or 3 (taking up about the same frontage of 5 victorian terraces) and with easy access via multiple transport options to shops/amenities etc.*, I for one wouldn’t think them worth commenting on.
    But am I curious what sort of socio-economic class those were originally built for. I’m also drooling a little :-)

    * Admittedly Middle Park itself isn’t quite as well served in this regard as many suburbs that are somewhat further out, and less expesnive, but it’s still a damn site better than parts of, say, Berwick (two ex-partners lived or had close friends there – definitely not a place I miss visiting).

  40. Actually regarding terrace housing, I have to say, Melbourne’s the only city I’ve seen where it is consistently been done and perserved well. Much of the terrace housing in London, say, is a drab as many of the newer housing developments here, and I seem to remember very ordinary looking blocks of them in Sydney.
    San Fransisco’s one of the few other cities I’ve been to that comes close here.

  41. Actually, I think it isn’t particularly representative. I think in Canberra you can live essentially anywhere and still get to work or visit your friends easily.

    Sorry for expressing myself poorly, but that was my point. Canberra has high price differentials without the corresponding differentials in amenity.

    My point was, yes there are real differences in levels of amenity between inner/outer Sydney/Melbourne, but perhaps there is also this element of tribalism present, as it clearly is in Canberra, but masked somewhat by other factors.

    It is hardly a controversial or even original thought, there have always been “good areas” and “bad areas”, it is just particularly evident in these examples.

  42. Ugh I have to stop posting…should’ve added that Paris does have some very impressive terrace housing too.

    Interesting tidbit from wikipedia:

    In 2005 the English Heritage report Low Demand Housing and the Historic Environment found that repairing a standard Victorian terraced house over thirty years is around sixty-percent cheaper than building and maintaining a newly-built house. In a 2003 survey for Heritage Counts a team of experts contrasted a Victorian terrace with a house built after 1980, and found that:
    “The research demonstrated that, contrary to earlier thinking, older housing actually costs less to maintain and occupy over the long-term life of the dwelling than more modern housing. Largely due to the quality and life-span of the materials used, the Victorian terrace house proved almost £1,000 per 100 m2 cheaper to maintain and inhabit on average each year.”

    Wonder if that’s true here.

  43. From what I understand Albert Park lake and the immediate surrounds was the city dump at the time, so I couldn’t imagine middle park being a salubrious burb at if the wind blew the wrong way.

    I’d guess those homes were possibly borderline middle class…. which is just about the same as some of the better outer macmansion burbs.

    but it’s still a damn site better than parts of, say, Berwick (two ex-partners lived or had close friends there – definitely not a place I miss visiting).

    True, but it depends on what exactly is your point of reference. From what I recall reading only about 15% of commutes these days are to the CBD. So if you live in Berwick and work in Dandenong the commute ain’t that bad. Certainly it’s a better than say from Middle Park to Dandenong.

  44. Actually regarding terrace housing, I have to say, Melbourne’s the only city I’ve seen where it is consistently been done and perserved well. Much of the terrace housing in London, say, is a drab as many of the newer housing developments here, and I seem to remember very ordinary looking blocks of them in Sydney.
    San Fransisco’s one of the few other cities I’ve been to that comes close here.

    Have you lived in one Wizo? They are freaking awful for the most part, i reckon. I despise them. They’re dark, cold and most suffer serious dampness issues you can’t get rid of and as a result they stink. They were the original estate houses by the way by developers of the time.

  45. The house I’m in now is essentially a terrace house, though technically there is a ~50cm gap with the wall next door – that’s actually quite common around here, for whatever reason.
    But I’m exceedingly lucky – on the other side is a large park and I get plenty of light in. Certainly lighting is often a problem in ‘proper’ terrace houses, especially if it’s the lower of two floors. But I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in many of them and can’t say I’ve ever noticed smell issues.

    As far as “point of reference” goes – I suppose if you’re lucky enough to have a circle of family/friends that all live around Berwick and the employment/ entertainment opportunities in the general area are sufficient for your regular needs, sure. But I do wonder how many people would fit that. What I have heard of more than once is people moving to such areas then realising they’ve largely stopped seeing their friends/family regularly or going out much because it’s all too hard (and they’re spending 3 hours a day commuting!). I did the same after living for a few years out in Doncaster East (*), though my circumstances were more affected by other things going on in my life.

    (*) in an area walking distance to plenty of shops and restaurants, mostly very good ones. Further, I worked from home. But while essential, that was the really only thing going for it, and it wasn’t enough.

  46. I don’t think anyone is going to seriously argue that people shouldn’t use as much energy or space as they chhose, as long as the two are priced properly.

    MacMansions are indeed ugly, but then so is most of the attire and music that people refuse to let me choose on their behalf.

    The main problem with most recent suburban housing is that it involves free-standing buildings that are too big for the blocks, leaving wind tunnels between them too narrow for any purpose, and hence a waste of scarce space. Developments where the houses are ‘terraced’ look better, and for a given sized block, imply that there will be more usable space at the back. If the developments include communal childrens play areas, pools, tennis courts and parks as an alternative to poky and underutlised back yarrds, that’s even better.

    So it comes down to planning and regulation of new developments. Where old fibro houses are being randonmly replaced by MacMansions, as in our street, it’s up to the neighbours to be vigilant and mount sensible objections when the plans are advertised.

  47. I think it is worth noting that there’s a significant difference between ugly architecture and ugly fashion/music – the latter will pass along soon enough and at most takes up a small percentage of your sensory input during the day. The same is not true of the former. Developers *do* have a responsibility to contribute towards our cities in a way that maintains the aesthetic quality of our environs. Unfortunately I don’t reallly see how you can enforce it in newer developments where there isn’t an existing population of citizens who can be ‘viligant and mount sensible objections’ as you say. As it is the ‘ugliness’ of McMansions is just about the lowest on my list of concerns – I’d even admit that on average they’re not especially uglier than a good percentage of the housing stock built in the last 3 or 4 decades.

  48. “The main problem with most recent suburban housing is that it involves free-standing buildings that are too big for the blocks, leaving wind tunnels between them too narrow for any purpose, and hence a waste of scarce space.”

    Except space is not scarce in any meaningful sense, just restricted by planning laws.

    “Developments where the houses are ‘terraced’ look better,”

    But sound worse.

    “and for a given sized block, imply that there will be more usable space at the back.”

    Yes, but you’re begging the question of whether such a high density is a good idea. Terrace homes are most often cheaper homes.

    “If the developments include communal childrens play areas, pools, tennis courts and parks as an alternative to poky and underutlised back yarrds, that’s even better.”

    Except lots of people don’t want to be in a body corporate, and for good reasons. The sharing of such stuff leads to lots of disputes. I reckon developers make a pretty good fist of working out what people want to buy, and lots of people do not want high density.

  49. “The same is not true of the former. Developers *do* have a responsibility to contribute towards our cities in a way that maintains the aesthetic quality of our environs. ”

    They have to get plans approved so who do you think is to blame if you don’t like what they build? In Brisbane the cost of inner city apartments is inflated by the requirement for public art (which also applies to commercial buildings). Most famous is Hopoarte House. Locals will know which building I mean.

  50. Who said anything about blame? I don’t certainly think public servants should be rejecting plans simply because they don’t like how the houses look. But I seriously question whether we need to zone SO much new land as residential when there’s plenty of capacity for making better use of the space we have. And at least in the latter case, developers can’t get away with building anything obviously inappropriate as locals will and do object (of course this is often the reason that attempts to increase the residential capacity of existing areas get stalled – but given enough time the right developer will come along with the right plans that don’t trigger immediate NIMBYism).

  51. I don’t think anyone is going to seriously argue that people shouldn’t use as much energy or space as they chhose, as long as the two are priced properly

    It would be really interesting to get your take on how we should price those… space particularly so. You do realize the cost of a new home in an estate has about 35% of the cost in taxes.

    The main problem with most recent suburban housing is that it involves free-standing buildings that are too big for the blocks,

    but then:

    If the developments include communal childrens play areas, pools, tennis courts and parks as an alternative to poky and underutlised back yarrds, that’s even better.

    So you don’t want small blocks but also object to large blocks. I can’t see how your demands could be physically met.

  52. What I find interesting is that up until the 50′s there wasn’t much res code, yet people then got along pretty well and their wants were satisfied. We now have res code which is a couple of fools cap folders to the point where there is a code on how to mount a basketball hoop.

  53. JC – sure. Except for obvious safety requirements, I’d be perfectly fine if the only “res code” as you call it was that plans for new houses had to be displayed in some basic form for public inspection for some sensible period before construction commenced, and rely on a petition process to ensure that any obviously inappropriate plans were revised or rejected. Block-size allocation is a trickier one – I’m certain it can be done much more intelligently than it is now, but that’s about the limit of my expertise on the matter.

    FWIW, I’d also defend ‘poky’ backyards. They’re par for the course around here. The up-shot is that everybody uses the park instead, and it’s one of the few areas I’ve lived in with a real sense of community. I can’t help but smile everytime I walk with my 6-yo to the station to get him to school and he seems to know every kid on the block.

  54. Wiz

    My solution to all this is a simple one. Stop hitting buyers with all these taxes. Limit the dead weight cost of res code where you now require a code interpreter to explain even to architects what is going on, remove height restrictions, tell nosy nimbys where to get off and leave people alone, as they will find what suits their needs.

    (Only last week people in inner city Paddo objected to an underground car park for lords sake).

    The macmansions argument is also quite simple to understand. It’s about one class of people disapproving how another class act and behave because they do things differently to demonstrate accomplishment etc. However the one constant is and has always been that home sizes and higher living standards correlate 1 to 1.

    You can’t legislate taste.

  55. “But I seriously question whether we need to zone SO much new land as residential when there’s plenty of capacity for making better use of the space we have. And at least in the latter case, developers can’t get away with building anything obviously inappropriate as locals will and do object (of course this is often the reason that attempts to increase the residential capacity of existing areas get stalled – but given enough time the right developer will come along with the right plans that don’t trigger immediate NIMBYism).”

    One thing we are not short of is land. Lord Jim Soorley wanted to increase inner city densities in areas like mine and sparked a furious campaign about the sardine city. The evidence is that locals don’t want the density, unless they are the ones selling to the developer. That is why planners and architects insist on the Govt doing it for our own good.

    “FWIW, I’d also defend ‘poky’ backyards. They’re par for the course around here. The up-shot is that everybody uses the park instead, and it’s one of the few areas I’ve lived in with a real sense of community. I can’t help but smile everytime I walk with my 6-yo to the station to get him to school and he seems to know every kid on the block.”

    FWIW I live in an areas with larger blocks, mainly around 800. We have parks but the kids mainly play in the backyards, footpaths and streets. Sense of community is great, mainly I think because there are kids which gets the parents meeting each other. OUr newest neighbours moved here from a higher density, but otherwise similar suburb, for the sake of their kids. The local parks also get lots of use and we often run into friends when at the park. You don’t create a community with planning.

  56. JC, the infrastructure charges is an interesting problem. If those taxes aren’t applied then the cost has to be covered by other taxes. My services were bought with Council borrowings and then repaid through rates. Now that the new suburbs have the charges built into them I am getting an increase in property value because the charges push up the cost of competing homes. On the down side my rates are going up with the increase in values and I have no intention of realising the gain for a long time yet.

  57. Pedro, if that’s your view on land, then I suppose we have fundamentally different views on the degree to which it’s ethical, sustainable or desirable to allow the human species to continue to assume it has an unviolable right to take over as much of it as it likes, particularly for urban development.
    Leaving that aside though, I’m struggling to think of any problem (including affordability) that would be solved by releasing masses more land for development (apparently developers worried about flooding the market are already sitting on plenty of zoned land).

  58. Can’t speak for the other states JC, but here the infrastructure charges (which have just been partly capped for political reasons) are supposed to be properly worked out.

    Wiz, how can using land be unethical? All the squillions of extinct species are mute testimony to the lack of ethics in creation. Sustainable has the same issue. Nothing in the world has been sustained so far. As for desirable, well that’s just your desires against mine. In the old days we’d have gone our separate ways in the wilderness or beat each other with rocks, now we can vote for some dickhead who will end up beating the both of us with rocks.

    As for affordability, I don’t know where all these developers are sitting on land. The ones I work for are not land banking. I can think of places where there is developed land without much of a market for it and other places where sales are going fast and perhaps local bubbles are developing. Afforability doesn’t require masses of land, just enough to sufficiently cover demand. It costs you money to sit on zoned land; usually land banking is done with unzoned land that is waiting for the market to reach it. But maybe you know something I don’t.

    According to a builder mate, the big issue with affordability is the stupid ESD requirements being imposed on home construction.

  59. Pedro you may be right about the land being officially zoned. But if there are developers sitting on land “waiting for the market to reach it” with some reasonable certainity that it will be zoned soon enough that would seem to demonstrate just as well that releasing more land is not going to solve very much even in the short term.

    As for the ethics debate, we could argue for days on that and get nowhere (though I will note that I do accept the human species has no choice but to put its own needs first, as nobody else will do that for us). As for sustainability/desirability, my primary desire is that as much as possible what we achieve now is considered worth preserving by future generations.

    And seriously – even if ESD requirements added 10% to cost of house building and subtracted nothing at all from the cost of living in them – nobody could seriously suggest that this is ‘the big’ issue. In the areas with the biggest affordability problems the land is up to 75% of the value of the properties. I don’t believe it’s ESD requirements that are preventing such land from being better utilised.

  60. Wiz, waiting for the market to reach it means areas that, in the future, will likely be able to be rezoned, but currently are too far from the existing developed areas. I think it is uncontroversial that zoning restrictions are constraining land supply. Wasn’t there a PC report on this a few years ago?

    My simple point about ethics is that I think it is wrong to dress up a competition between different personal preferences as the ethical against the unethical. I think ideas have to be broadly agreed to qualify as ethics. Otherwise you simply have the misuse of terms to frame a debate. Like calling things progressive. Honesty is ethical and dishonesty is not, anti-development is not ethical and neither is pro-development. It could be unethical to misrepresent your personal preferences as being morally superior. ;-)

    In the areas where affordable housing is likely to be found, the cost of the new home is usually more than the cost of the land. But as JC pointed out, even then the land is inflated by taxes.

  61. “In the areas where affordable housing is likely to be found…”

    But that’s what we should be able to change…ensuring that decent/affordable housing is available in areas with high land values. Realistically that means more higher density developments, but I don’t believe the only alternative is oversized and inappropriate high-rise apartment buildings. I suppose what I’m most interested in is how government policies can be refined and culled in order to encourage developers to buy land that’s within existing urban boundaries and maximise its potential for supplying new housing for our growing population at a reasonable cost, because it seems to me something must be actively working against that at the moment (and I suspect, actively working in favour of encouraging excessive sprawl at the fringes).

  62. One question that somehere might be able to answer – why can’t we build over the top of rail yards? Even in Europe there are large sections of density-populated cities dedicated to rail yards that strike me as something of a waste of space, but maybe there’s some technical reason it’s not feasible?

  63. From my post before “so you’d surely have to be flying a *lot* more for it to outweigh all the other factors”

    Unfortunately it does actually seem that isn’t really the case – just a single flight to Europe and back is more than enough to make a huge difference to most estimates of environmental footprint, for fairly solid reasons. And there’s no question that the people I know that live in denser inner suburbs (myself included) fly more than those living further out. And yes, how much one chooses to fly is as much a lifestyle choice as how big a house you live in or how much you drive. Damn radiative forcings…

  64. Wiz, I’ll answer both your questions.

    1 Remember what I said about the sardine city backlash? In qld we now have the urban land development authority, with unappealable planning powers to push through higher density in selected areas. The ULDA is even using some of its development income to support affordable housing initiatives. In fact, Nicholas, if you read this, you might be interested in what they are doing with their competitive neutrality fund.

    You can’t make affordable housing with highrise, because it’s expensive to build, and cheaper forms of not-so-high density still face land price constaints in the inner city. If the govt tried to control land prices you would end up with either high profits for those who buy the original releases at the affordable price or slums because the govt tries to protect affordability by retaining ownership and providing public housing.

    There are lots of affordably housing initiatives it seems. However, the affordable housing corporation set up some years ago in Brisbane went bust.

    2 You can build over railways and people do. Think St Leonards for an example. However, it’s not happening much because it’s really expensive. You have to put in a massive structure to build on all the while not interfering with the train service. I’ve been involved in a few proposed and actual developments so I have some knowledge of what makes it hard.

    The Roma St railyards in the Brisbane CBD were redeveloped as park and high density homes, not very affordable though.

  65. “cheaper forms of not-so-high density still face land price constaints in the inner city”

    No doubt, but certainly in Melbourne I’d suggest for most suburbs within 10 or so km of the city there are quite a few areas where if you could fit houses for 2 or 3 families in the space that 1 typically takes up there’d be no trouble finding buyers for both.

    Admittedly that’s not really enough, because that on its own, even if we managed to build on every piece of currently underutilised land (including green spaces) would probably raise the average density by at most 50%.
    Every projection out there says our city will have double the number of residents by 2050. The thought of it spreading out to anything like double the area it is now is just…actually it doesn’t bear thinking about.

  66. wizofaus there is no trouble finding buyers within 10km of Melbourne for anything. The average house price in that radius is very high, especially on the Eastern side.

    The only plausible way to deal with the increase in density you describe is largely that adopted in the Melbourne 2020 (2050?) planning program, which calls for areas like Camberwell Junction (8km), St Kilda beach complex (7km) and Glen Waverley (18km? – can’t remember) to become medium-rise hubs. Camberwell is now on the track to doing so, despite the absurd Geoffrey-Rush led nimbyism slowing things down.

    Also I’m very cheered to see that you now concede that the concerned elites are actually the problem – which strongly suggests that they should STFU fast. Luckily for me I think air travel (and large-screen tvs and air-conditioning and large cars) is(are) absolutely totally awesome and much more worth having than my whatsitsfootprintything, so I don’t face any ethical dilemma in my own continued existence.

  67. I think air travel, nice tvs and air-conditioning and cars are pretty awesome too, and don’t want to give them up particularly, even though my usage of the latter 3 is pretty modest (I don’t even think this house justifies having an A/C, but there were a couple of days last summer it was nice to have)

    However I also accept the innumerable studies that outline the difficulties future generations are going to have in attempting to deal with the environmental impacts of choices we’re making now, and if we can make alternative choices that reduce those impacts without sacrificing quality of life, we’d be fools not to do so.

    Unfortunately long-haul flights is one area there really are no substitutes – for the time being I suppose the best I can do is invest a (admittedly very modest) portion of my income into programs that do actually look like they can go towards improving environmental outcomes elsewhere.

    Funny you mention Camberwell Junction – I live very close to it, and it was precisely Camberwell rail yards I was thinking of when I asked about building over them. Of course your judgement on the absurdity of Rush’s NIMBYism is just as personal as my judgements on the aesthetics of McMansions. I never saw the plans personally so I can’t comment, but I don’t believe he (or others) was objecting to increased density in general.

  68. However I also accept the innumerable studies that outline the difficulties future generations are going to have in attempting to deal with the environmental impacts of choices we’re making now, and if we can make alternative choices that reduce those impacts without sacrificing quality of life, we’d be fools not to do so.

    That’s really a bet against a rise in Global real GDP. I wouldn’t take a bet against a rise and willing to place a serious bet world GDP will be higher 10, 20 30, 40 years from now. (40 years though would be a stretch :-))

    The problem with worrying about future vs present human is that you’re essentially taking a regressive view by redistributing from the poor to give to the rich…. present to poor generations.

    The easiest thing to do if a style of housing bothers you is to move from the area. We did. There were what we considered to be horribly designed homes going up and we decided to move. The other alternative is not to look at them.

  69. Wiz, these aren’t easy problems, but I noticed a comment the other day to the effect that, in the US, the big cities without affordability problems are the ones with little limit on urban sprawl and land development.

    I don’t worry so much about sprawl because I live 4ks from the CBD where I work, plus have a great neighbourhood backing onto a large green reserve and no major roads through our area. Also, most people with homes way out actually live way out, if you know what I mean. Relatively small numbers are CBD commuters. I’d also speculate the lots of the cross-city traffic is either school dropoffs and tradies.

    “I never saw the plans personally so I can’t comment, but I don’t believe he (or others) was objecting to increased density in general.”

    I don’t know the detail, being from up here, but often people are in favour of something in principle, but, strangely, against any actual proposal for particular reasons. But in my experience Patrick is correct about the typical suburban nimby, they got theirs and you’re not having it.

  70. JC explain how I’m asking for any redistribution? I explicitly said *without* sacrificing quality of life. Further, future generations of Australians may, as you suggest, almost be certainly be a good deal more materially better off than current ones, but I would hardly be so sure about other parts of the world. And no matter how materially better off you are, there is always damage that can never be fully reserved.

    “The easiest thing to do if a style of housing bothers you is to move from the area”.

    Well there’s plenty of things wrong with that statement, but onerous stamp duty is probably the only one you’d agree with :-)

    Pedro, re US cities/affordability, I’d have to see the data. As it is I’m skeptical of extracting excessively between cities, let alone entire countries.

  71. JC explain how I’m asking for any redistribution? I explicitly said *without* sacrificing quality of life.

    It would have to be a redistribution by default Wizo. If you ask people to collectively act not to maximize their wealth potential for the purpose of ‘leaving something to future generations” that is by nature a redistribution…. a attempt at a transfer.

    Further, future generations of Australians may, as you suggest, almost be certainly be a good deal more materially better off than current ones, but I would hardly be so sure about other parts of the world.

    Frankly i don’t see how that’s possible. Global real GDP is accelerating and I’m in the camp that believes that curve may actually go parabolic, so I don’t see how the vast bulk of humanity will miss out. If you think so, you need to explain how.

    And no matter how materially better off you are, there is always damage that can never be fully reserved.

    I wouldn’t call it damage per se. Humans use their surroundings and change things around. That isn’t damaging the surroundings in of itself.

  72. “If you ask people to collectively act not to maximize their wealth potential…”

    Where did I ask that? At any rate, nobody comes close to maximizing their wealth potential, governments need to collect revenue, and doing it in such a way that encourages choices that minimize long term environmental impacts seems somewhat preferable to doing it such a way that potentially discourages investment/productivity/real-estate relocation decisions etc. etc.

    I didn’t mean to suggest the *vast* bulk of humanity will miss out, but there is plenty of evidence that people in the poorest parts of the world (and worse, parts of the world with minimal prospects for growth) are going to suffer some of the worse side-effects of environmental damage.

    And yes, damage is the right word – there’s basic laws of thermodynamics involved that you can’t just neutrally dismiss as “change”.

  73. I didn’t mean to suggest the *vast* bulk of humanity will miss out, but there is plenty of evidence that people in the poorest parts of the world (and worse, parts of the world with minimal prospects for growth) are going to suffer some of the worse side-effects of environmental damage.

    You mean places like Haiti? I would argue that would be one place that has been almost completely degraded as there are very few trees left on the island as people use them for fuel. However I would say poverty is the cause of that….. grinding poverty where people were/are eating biscuits made of dirt in order to gain some nutrients. But where else? Africa? The larger part of Africa that isn’t at war is doing decently these days. With growth rates around 7% to 10%.

  74. Even if the whole of Africa somehow manages to average 10% growth over the next few decades (*), there would still be a lot of very very poor people that will be suffering from the environmental impact caused largely by first-world lifestyles (and I don’t just mean from CO2). So even if I *was* asking Australians to make measurable sacrifices now in order to minimize that suffering, I hardly see anything regressive about it.

    (*) You casually dismiss the parts at war, and perhaps those suffering severe drought too, as though it’s somehow the collective fault of all those living in such parts…but I certainly accept the prospects for much of Africa look somewhat better than I thought they might be 5 years go, I gather largely thanks to Chinese investment.

  75. Even if the whole of Africa somehow manages to average 10% growth over the next few decades (*), there would still be a lot of very very poor people that will be suffering from the environmental impact caused largely by first-world lifestyles (and I don’t just mean from CO2).

    Compunding works best over longish periods of time, so I don’t exactly understand the point as it would be self evident there would be relative poverty. How exactly would first world living standards impact on the rest, as I don’t see it.

    So even if I *was* asking Australians to make measurable sacrifices now in order to minimize that suffering, I hardly see anything regressive about it.

    How would asking Australians to make sacrifices (what sort) minimize poverty in Africa?

  76. JC, if you’re implying that even if every Australian gave up, say, every form of carbon-generating good and service for the next 2 decades it would barely make a dint in the degree to which climate change might exacerbate severe weather in Africa, then sure, but I assumed you’d realize I was using ‘Australians’ as a proxy for ‘first world residents’.

  77. And I bet in certain quarters of 2009 it was likely negative, Wizo. Do I need to tell you what occurred in 2009? Should I ask why you picked that year?

    I’m talking about normalized global GDP. It appears to be accelerating and has been since the industrial revolution.

    In terms of it going parabolic.. 20 years or so ago, Global GDP was around 2 to 2.5%. It now appears to be normalizing at 4% to 4.5% ish. I think its accelerating and the long term trend line suggests I could be right.

  78. JC, if you’re implying that even if every Australian gave up, say, every form of carbon-generating good and service for the next 2 decades it would barely make a dint in the degree to which climate change might exacerbate severe weather in Africa, then sure, but I assumed you’d realize I was using ‘Australians’ as a proxy for ‘first world residents’.

    No I didn’t but no matter. I think it still applies though, even if you took all first worlders into you assertion. Why do you think global wealth creation has a tendency for zero sum? I would argue that past history suggests the opposite is the case and you can see it in operation right now. China’s rising living standards are raising ours. Both nations are getting wealthier. That to me seems like a marvelous combo. I don’t think we would have seen our living standards rise without the merging world… emerging.

  79. Well I did manage to generate a graph with Excel, but the only data was from 1971 to 2009. 2009 indeed was a very bad year (that was the only year the wikipedia article listed btw), but even leaving that if there’s any type of trend discernible it’s pretty flat – global PPP growth has sat between 1-2% pretty consistently.

    I can’t say I really understand your final post. Who said anything about zero sum wealth creation? The point is whether it’s cheaper/fairer for us to make a few changes now in order to reduce the long-term costs associated with our current consumption patterns, especially given it by and large won’t be us having to pay for them. As it is, ultimately there are going to significant mitigation costs to pay anyway (though by and large I don’t imagine it will tax future generations massively to do so), but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth making some effort to reduce them.

    Anyway, this conversation has got seriously side-tracked – if you really think things are just fine as they are now, then I’d rather discuss something we both agree is a problem worth finding solutions for.

  80. Wizo

    Out of the last 10 years (this decade) global GDP has been above 4.5% in 7 years. This has been accelerating both over the short and long term. 100 years ago global GDP was lucky to be growing at .5%. I think it’s going parabolic with the short and long term trend supporting my thesis, with the obvious caveats, such as we don’t blow ourselves up.

    Here.

    I can’t say I really understand your final post. Who said anything about zero sum wealth creation?

    You more or less alluded to it by suggesting the wealthy world would need to make sacrifices for the less well off. I suggested that in fact the opposite is true.

  81. Wiz, you might find this interesting.
    http://www.demographia.com/

    “You more or less alluded to it by suggesting the wealthy world would need to make sacrifices for the less well off. I suggested that in fact the opposite is true.” I recall reading Krugman explain how ultimately it’s all about productivity and trade. Pop Internationalisam.

  82. …except I never made such a suggestion. I don’t consider any of the changes I’ve made in my lifestyle in an attempt to be more aware of its environmental impact ‘sacrifices’, and indeed, virtually every one of them have had unexpected benefits elsewhere.

    Don’t quite see the revelance of the Krugman explanation – though I’m curious – surely trade is just a way of being more productive?

    That site looks unreadable Pedro, sorry.

  83. Wiz, I’ve not actually through that site, but those guys have been around for yonks calculating affodability. Some years ago they were here frightening everyone about our capital city house prices.

    The krugman point is that people in developing countries will only get an improved life if they have improved productivity, mainly gained through trade. Fair trade, BTW, will often hurt more than help. We don’t have to make sacrifices for africans to have improved productivity. But we will be making a sacrifice if we restrict their productivity growth. But I might have come in late and misread a bit of your discussion with JC.

    As for changes in your life, I expect that’s right. Most people do stuff they want and so are rewarded by it. Even the god bother wearing thorns and dragging a cross up golgotha as penance is actually doing something they feel is rewarding.

    I always liked the Misean idea that people act purposefully rather than rationally. Reason implies objectivity, but values are subjective.

  84. Wiz, hope its not a dead thread, but yesterday Matthew Quinn of Stockland got stuck into the state and local govts at a COAG meeting showing them how they were forcing his company to give up on trying to do the clever medium density mixed development and focus on housing. naturally it won’t get reported.

  85. Well it’s not necessarily a subject I’d expect to be of great interest to the general public, but hopefully he wasn’t just getting ‘stuck in’ for the sake of it, and actually putting up constructive arguments as to what policies in particular were making such development difficult.

  86. Pingback: Hating McMansions: not class warfare | Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony

  87. Allan, not yet, but they will presumably publish notes on the COAG website. One of the delegates told me about it that night. She thought he was very impressive in the arguments and examples about the way the various levels of govt were getting in the way of the developments they claim to want. BTW, my friend is from a leading environmental lobby group (albeit from the sensible end of the spectrum) and so relatively disinterested.

    Yes, Wiz, that is exactly what he did, I’m told.

  88. …the thread that just won’t die.

    Interesting article: http://theage.domain.com.au/real-estate-news/speculators-locking-up-empty-dwellings-that-could-be-homes-20110724-1hvf0.html

    If there is any truth to it, it does tend to suggest to me there’s a problem with the way that taxes are structured so that there is actually a financial incentive to hold onto undeveloped or unoccupied land/property.
    One idea I think has merit, for instance, is council rates based purely on *undeveloped* value. The one downside to this is that you’d potentially be reducing progressivity on a tax that’s very hard to avoid paying, but as long as this is compensated for in other ways, that doesn’t seem like a showstopper.

  89. It’s the Age, so I should wait for independent corroboration before I bother thinking about it… ;)

    But I will say that sounds really unreliable. To start with, I could be wrong, but I wasn’t aware that there are any houses in Docklands. Presumably apartment-owners pay no or minimal tax on the ‘land’ component of their property’s value..??

    One thing which might not be obvious to Age writers is that many apartments (which are found in places like, oh wait: Docklands, East Melbourne and Carlton) would have low water use over a six-month period for the following reasons:
    – they are empty because they are for sale, not rent, but are not selling because the majority of people aren’t really looking to buy apartments (yet);
    – they are rented out for short-term business/leisure travellers who only occupy them less than half the total time (my friend’s do this, it works really well because the charges are much higher than rent, but their place can be empty for weeks at a time);
    – their owners are actually away for extended periods or actually live in the country/suburbs and only use their apartments one or two days a week (my Aunt and Uncle do this, for example).

  90. Well underutilisation of space is arguably just as much a problem as non-utilisation. I’ve no interest in interfering with an individual’s free choice to own property that they only occupy some of the time, but I can see plenty of advantages in ensuring that taxation measures (and for that matter, regulation over rental agreements) encourage people to make the most of our most scarce resource.

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