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Stranded in suburbia

Written By: - Date published: 2:00 pm, July 20th, 2012 - 30 comments
Categories: housing, peak oil - Tags:

We know that more sprawl is actually twice as expensive to the rate- and tax-payer than increasing density within existing urban limits because of all the additional infrastructure that’s needed. But there’s added cost to the residents of the sprawl as well. Not just more time lost to commuting, but a more oil-dependent lifestyle that’s only getting costlier.

Check out these maps of the average spent on transport by Sydney households with petrol at $1.50 a litre:

And $2 a litre

And then, think about what happens when oil doubles in price in real terms in the next decade.

It’s no coincidence that the US housing market collapse and the ensuing global financial crisis began when oil prices skyrocketed. And it’s no coincidence that the hardest hit locales were the so-called ‘exurbs’ – places like Victorville.

Housing and transport are two sides of the same coin. Adding more sprawl without considering the impacts of peak oil is stupid.

30 comments on “Stranded in suburbia”

  1. Tom Gould 1

    The closer you live to the CBD the more residential property costs, right? So what makes you think that increased density near the CBD will result in lower cost housing? The commute might be cheaper, but the house costs more.

    • Draco T Bastard 1.1

      The ongoing costs of sprawl outweigh the one up cost of the home.

      • Do you think we should build more high density apartments?
        While there is nothing wrong with that – I would still prefer to live in a house as opposed to an apartment block.

        • Draco T Bastard

          Do you think we should build more high density apartments?

          Yes, specifically around multiple community hubs.

          I would still prefer to live in a house as opposed to an apartment block.

          I used to think that way – until some acquaintances of mine moved into an apartment block (actually, I believe it was once an old hotel) and I realised it wasn’t that bad and had some advantages – services and shops in walking distance etc. Since then I’ve looked for such accommodation and found it better for my needs than single dwelling buildings.

          • TheContrarian

            I have lived in both apartments and houses and have found houses much more livable. I always feel rather ‘penned in’ when living in apartments.

            Each to their own I guess. 

            • ChrisH

              That’s exactly the point. Unfortunately it’s usually apartments that are in shortest supply, which is why “flatting” in NZ means students living in a family house and getting on each others’ nerves. Anyhow, with properly designed townhouses, it’s possible to achieve surprisingly high density while preserving outdoor patios and so forth, especially if garaging is centralised off the property (it’s conflict with the car and driveway that is the killer once sections get below 300 square metres or so, something has to go).

            • lostinsuburbia

              Yep and it’s about creating a system that creates that choice. Unfortunately the number of crap leaky townhouses and apartments in the 90s and early 2000s has not been good for promoting higher density living in Auckland.

          • Populuxe1

            Apartment living makes it difficult to be self-sustainable – vegetable gardens in particular. And after the Christchurch earthquake you have no idea how much I would have liked to have been able to build a long drop.

    • lostinsuburbia 1.2

      Higher density living has been held up in part by out dated density controls in district plans while innnovative design is held up by a cumbersome RMA process where the fear of notification leads to plain and lacklustre development.

      The RMA is not suited to urban development and the planning system needs to be overhauled. I have worked as a consent planner and our current system just does not provide good urban outcomes. It needs to be far more like the UK system where all applications are notified but the range of appeals are more limited – it results in faster, better decisions (although of course not everyone can be kept happy in such a process).

      Our system needs to be focused more on outcomes e.g. good urban design, flexible building types, energy efficiency, mixing housing typologies rather than being slaved to decisions on notification or creating upteem rules on heights, coverages, etc.

  2. captain hook 2

    all that and more James, but dont forget that people love to stick their key in the hole and get instant throb for as long as the gas keeps going.
    Marvin Harris reports in his book “our kind” about experiments done with monkeys hooked up to an orgasm machine.
    they would not stop pulling the lever up to the point of death!

    • aerobubble 2.1

      I have a neighbor who believes its a right to have a rotory engine car. Now I can’t even have a rooster because it’ll wake the neighbors, but this National government lets my neighbor have a rotory engine. I just want to know where I can buy one, and then use my right to stop anyway so as to use my mobile phone outside my local MP’s home at 4am in the morning.

  3. bad12 3

    How silly tho are the Humans to structure most of their activities for a long period of their lives round the majority of them all traveling at the same time during 2 periods of the week-day,

    i would have thunk that as a supposedly enlightened species they all would have re-arranged their schooling and work hours so only half of that majority were traveling in that city at any given time instead of most of them…

    • Bill 3.1

      And the ones at the bottom of the heap get a life – a shortened life – of nightshift…and dream of the day they can progress up the ladder of convenience to back shift. And the ‘important’ people on the high salaries get day shift as a matter of course.

  4. Carol 5

    What about decentralisation of a city the size of Auckland? The shift to the supercity seems to be one that involves increasing centralisation, with more people needing to travel in to Auckland city centre.

    On the other hand, I think that it’s good to have co-ordination of planning and organisation across the city. Is it possible to have increased co-ordination, along with decentralisation?

    There was a report on RNZ’s Morning Report this morning, titled ‘uncertain future for council HQ after new building bought’.


    Apparently, at the moment, a lot of people working for Auckland Council are traveling across the city for meetings in the CBD. The plan is to have more of these workers based in the Council HQ in the city centre. Now that may be preferable to all the cross city traveling happening now, but wasn’t it a better system to have 4-5 different council HQs under the older system?

    I seem to remember reading in the latest Auckland Plan:


    that they were aiming for cultural institutions that attracted tourists (museums, special library collections etc) were going to be located in the central city in order to be more accessible to the tourists. But what about Aucklanders needing to travel more to access them? Whereas there was more of that stuff in their home area up til the advent of the supercity.

    PS: Sorry about the mis-post above – hit something that jettisoned me to another page when I started this comment.

    • lostinsuburbia 5.1

      The new hq is more for staff based already in the CBD, as there are offices across the CBD at present. I think there will still be area offices across Auckland for more local teams and services.

      There is a push for a more “world class” CBD it’s more a case if you spend mega bucks on a new theatre etc it prob should be central to the region.

      It is certainly interesting times but it will be a struggle to avoid the sprawl wanted by big business and the Nats

      • Carol 5.1.1

        The bit I heard on RNZ this morning said that, at the moment, some people are coming from places like the North Shore for meetings in the central city. It can take some people 2 hours to get to a half hour meeting, is what they said. And the plan is to have more of them more centrally located.

  5. Colonial Viper 6

    31% of NZ’s population living on top of each other on just 0.5% of NZ’s land area. That’s what Auckland is.

    Good luck with that.

    • Lanthanide 6.1

      There are many cities in America and elsewhere that have much higher population densities of Auckland and aren’t doing too badly.

  6. weka 7

    Australian sustainability expert David Holmgren offers an alternative – retrofitting the suburbs. He talks about how in NZ and Australia, we now have ‘dormitory suburbs’, where people use their homes predominantly for sleeping in, and do much of their the rest of their lives elsewhere. His solution is to bring food production back to the suburbs, increase the numbers of people living in houses back to full occupancy, and promote ‘cottage’ industry that allows more people to work from home or within walking/biking distance of where they live. Essentially he is talking about decentralising from CBD focussed cities, and creating hubs that are more self reliant around food and job security as well as many improvements in quality of living, community resiliency and security, and a marked decrease in reliance on fossil fuel use.

    Along with “sprawl” has developed an increasingly dysfunctional economic situation. We see speculative inflation of land values, capital invested unproductively, declining household (non-monetary) production of food and “backyard industry”, and a massive rise of consumer addiction based on rising household debt.

    Large areas of our cities have become “dormitory suburbs”. The average household size is declining while ever-larger homes are increasingly empty during the working day. Their blind windows look out onto streets empty of people (but all too often filled with cars). There is an alienating lack of community resulting, ultimately, in increased crime and fear.

    The conventional responses to this situation are familiar to us all. The first is a change of planning regulations to encourage increasing density, promoting smaller housing blocks in new developments, dual occupancy infill development, and medium-density redevelopment of older areas.

    For many of today’s urban residents, where food comes from beyond the supermarket is barely on their radar. We are still fixated on the high-density European-style city that gets its food from somewhere else. Most are unaware of different patterns of urban living such as those of Japan, China and other Asian countries where cities have traditionally contained interspersed gardens and rice paddies.

    So, in an energy-descent future, what are the prospects close to home – here where we live in suburbia? Will it be the end of suburbia? What if we can no longer afford to commute to work by car? What if we are dependent on food and energy supplies that are transported long distances at increasing expense? What if the services and functionality of our communities decline further so that there is ever-diminishing support from local councils and police, for example?

    There is a real and viable alternative to this seemingly alarming scenario – a retrofit of suburbia – a remodelling of local neighbourhoods and communities for the energy-descent future. The “refit manual” will bring together and integrate features such as:

    Home-based work, telecommuting, and cottage industries serving a local clientele;
    Extended families, lodgers and shared households;
    Recycling of storm water, waste water, and human waste;
    Soils of improved fertility, and the water supply and infrastructure for urban agriculture;
    City farms, cooperative gardening, Farmers’ Markets, and
    Community Supported Agriculture schemes (CSAs). Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a scheme in which customers undertake to buy a regular box of in-season fruits, vegetables, eggs, etc. from one or more local producers, thus providing the latter with a secure income and the ability to diversify the types of produce they provide.

    ‘Suburban sprawl’ in fact give us an advantage. Detached houses are easy to retrofit, and the space around them allows for solar access and space for food production. A water supply is already in place, our pampered, unproductive ornamental gardens have fertile soils and ready access to nutrients, and we live in ideal areas with mild climates, access to the sea, the city and inland country.

    There is an outline in the article of how this could work in a specific suburb, and his presentation of these ideas is on youtube and his website.

  7. Bill 8

    Erm. Since the basic problem appears to be the distance from house to workplace, then why not reconfigure our geographic relationship to the workplace by dispensing with the dislocation? Which would also deal with issues around child care, etc and see a lot of crappy jobs that only exist to service dislocated job environments disappear.

    edit just noticed that Weka commented along similar lines above

    • Herodotus 8.1

      Not just work and home but also schooling/education/social/spiritual & recreational ( I am sure that I have missed some other aspects of life ). Life is more than just bed and work !!! But that would result from planning and that word cannot be associated with our council. Who I note continual in their PR manipulation (Auckland) to promote the limited rates rise of 3%, this has been offset by ever increasing debt, and increased charges in development-And no LTCCP I have ever viewed shows any planning into debt reduction- just how to enable more debt by changing their debt covenants/ratios.
      The elite will be able to life in the CBD and the masses will have to do best on the fringes. Issue I have with the rail loop better services those in the expensive inner burbs who work in the CBD. Not those who work outside the banks, uni and council in the CBD

  8. thomas 9

    How about aim for a stable population and then sprawl will also end. In 2001 NZ’s population was projected to stabilise at about 4.8 million around 2046. That’s only 400,000 more than currently in NZ. However the latest projections show a population 5.5 million in 2041 and 6 million in 2061. Thats a fair amount of extra suburbia if we keep doing what we’re doing. At current suburban population densities, an extra million people by 2041 could cause about 1000 sq km to covered in asphalt and ticky-tack – thats 10 times the crafar farms! I don’t care if its on the outskirts of Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton or where-ever – that amount of productive land removed at a time when the world is and will be desperate for food is morally repugnant.

    • Colonial Viper 9.1

      Auckland = 31% of the country’s population in 0.5% of the land area. Its madness.

      • weka 9.1.1

        As someone who lives in rural SI I’m not too worried about so many people living in Auckland 😉 But I agree with thomas, stabilising population seems the only rational thing to do at this point in time. Why do we need an increasing population anyway?

    • Draco T Bastard 9.2

      … that amount of productive land removed at a time when the world is and will be desperate for food is morally repugnant.

      We knew about the dangers of over-population centuries ago and yet we went on a population explosion that has helped bring about ACC and left the world in a position that will bring about untold suffering. No matter what happens we can’t feed the world from here thus the world will have to live with it’s decisions that has left the majority of people without access to food.

  9. Lindsey 10

    Thee are lots of older people retiring to apartments. Close to everything, no lawns to mow, safe and secure for older women, often with great views, and a supermarket on the same block. More would do it if there were more apartments in their suburbs so they did not have to leave their friends, doctors etc.

  10. Robert M 11

    My general perception of Auckland after 2.5 years of living here that it is a very difficult city for a pedestrian and impossible for a cyclist. Like Christchurch its a sprawling LA like low rise city. While its easy enough to walk around the leafier suburban areas walking any significant distance or cycling is very tricky here and obviously considered undesirable by the authorities, where in Christchurch it was easy enough. Even on the secondary thruways any distance from shopping areas in Auckland sees narrowed footpaths to see a few more feet of road and car space.
    Despite the perception here Auckland is definitely not the productive party of the economy and large white working class suburbs of East Auckland between Remmers and Epsom and Botany and the Western White suburbans are an immense load on the economy which I percieve as created by the lunacy of the Sutch and Jack Lee work creation of low grade uneconomic jobs which taken here far furthur her than in UK and Aus if never to Argentinian or Greece.. The core of low grade low value pointless work in Auckland creates a working class male hardness than is far worse than existed in most of the provincial cities in the 1960s and 1970s where working class jobs tended to be real and fairly highly paid.
    I have always favoured more apartment living and intense infilling in the areas within 8km or 10km of Christchurch or Auckland or CBD. I don’t favour cheap apartments of the sort of 60% of apartment living in Auckland CBD. Most rents are still low to give residents and couples extra space and hinder the affordablity of extra accomodation. I would favour about $400 rentals for any viable apartment in Auckland and somewhat lower in Chrsitchurch. I intensely dislikle Quax on grounds of his politics and his stupidity in believing Act is any sort of real right centre libertarian party. I agree with him that cheap apartments in the CBD are undesirable and the plan for cheap council high rises along the far out rail lines, disastorous. I would however allow extensive mid range apartments in middling and upper suburban areas and the North Shore and Devonport. But they would specifically priced to exclude large families and the poor. They would have to offer adequate space for a couple and one kid, but would not be available for less than $400.
    Len Brown would say the time for the full rail scheme is long overdue and must happen now, but the reality is Mayor Robbie plans and Lens are totally grandiose and unaffordable. The sort of popualtion the council apartments along the rail lines are designed to attract and maintain in Auckland are no longer needed by an advanced economy and are an economic and social líability, even creating work for such people let alone servicing their excessive needs for health and education is just a massive drain on the economy and society.
    Immigrants to NZ should be good looking and of at least high average intelligence. There has already been too much from the Pacific Island and those from Islam nations and nations like Lebanon are not intergratable into advanced free society.
    Im even more hostile to Act type ideas of Owen McShane than Quax. Auckland is one of largest sprawl on earth even if the houses on the fringe were cheap they would undesirable to an immense and be forms of regional slums almost as bad as the council apartments on the rails lines. The actual construction of these fringe new McShane settlements would in reality be the creation of middle class ghettos for the managers and social controllers of the new Socialist Green and Act type society. A Sort of warped version of Hamiltons, Cambridge and Napiers, Havelock North.
    In reality I probably would have approved a limited local rail electrification from Papakura to Swanson but the central station would have been Newmarket which would have been the rail terminus. The furthur development would be light rail double track from Newmarket-Remuera and across to Koromiko and Mission Bay- with single links through parnell and the hospital ( a sort of tram replication of the 1980 Trolley Bus system with double track up College Hill , single thru Ponsonby and Herne Bay – linking in Grey Lynn to run through Westmore to the Zoo and Port Chev Beach. I would cost the light rail proposal part at about 1.5 billion but it would be relevant to the middle class and tourism and generally I think the working class needs better served by cars.
    The real road congestion will be eased by tax tolls and difficult entry arteries, which create US style unofficial segregation which will again return Auckland to be two or three admin entities.
    Yes I am fairly right wing , but I believe more realitic about social transport and economic realities

  11. Draco T Bastard 12

    Excellent talk about doing density well.

    You’ll note that it’s not achieved by leaving it to the ‘free-market’ but by planning – setting up the correct rules and regulations.

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