Friday, 5 September 2014

Garden Cities

[Posted by Prof Henry G. Overman]

I'm fairly ambivelant about Garden Cities. We clearly need additional housing. The idea of finding some fast growing urban area, taking a bit of greenbelt land and building decent housing on it with good transport links and open spaces would probably help (such a suggestion won the Wolfson Prize). Whether it's the solution to our housing supply problems is another matter. I'd certainly want to see whether such a development proved attractive to people in general (rather than to the people who designed it) before rolling it out across the country. I'm also a believer in properly incentivising local people to agree to development - so I don't like the idea of a blue print that we'd impose on lots of places.

However, while I may be ambivelant about Garden Cities, I find our housing minister's response to the Wolfson Prize deeply depressing. According to the Independent: "the Housing minister, Brandon Lewis, has now condemned the scheme as “urban sprawl” that would build nothing other than “resentment” among local people and has said the Government would have nothing to do with it."

We have to stop this knee jerk reaction - that anything built on the green-belt is urban sprawl - if we are going to have a proper debate about increasing housing supply. Historically, towns and cities have had to accomodate some of their growth by expanding outwards. A sensible housing policy would allow for this, while also ensuring that huge amounts of countryside are not swallowed up by very low density housing (the real urban sprawl that we see in so many US cities)*. You would hope that a sensible housing minister would recognise this and try to do more to encourage considered debate about how to meet our housing needs. On the basis of his reported comments (assuming accurate) our current housing minister fails that test.


* Interestingly, even in the US, some of the claims about urban sprawl may be overstated. For example, in a 2005 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics we found little evidence that urban sprawl was increasing at the metro level. Using remote-sensing data to track the evolution of land use on a grid of 8.7 billion 30 × 30 meter cells, we measured sprawl as the amount of undeveloped land surrounding an average urban dwelling. Our findings suggested that the extent of sprawl remained roughly unchanged between 1976 and 1992 (although it varied dramatically across metropolitan areas). Of course, new development does tend to be less dense. But when you zoom out to the metro level you find that infilling of what used to be the urban fringe tended to leave a very similar pattern of development - just one that occured on a larger scale to house new population.