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Jason Krupp cautions against allowing urban planning idealogues to have their way, looking at the examples of Brasilia, Johannesburg and Moscow

Jason Krupp cautions against allowing urban planning idealogues to have their way, looking at the examples of Brasilia, Johannesburg and Moscow

By Jason Krupp* 

One of the most commonly held views on cities you will hear is that urban centres need to be carefully designed by town planning regulators in order to be efficient. That is to say, that without trained professionals telling private developers what to build and where, cities will descend into chaos. 

It is a view that is often expressed by those who advocate for compact cities, the urban planning ideology that states we should build up instead of out to prevent urban sprawl, and use local regulations as the means to do this. 

Alain Bertaud, an urban planner and academic who The New Zealand Initiative hosted on a nation- wide lecture tour last year begs to differ. In his view, if we want efficient cities, we should leave it to a decentralised market process to determine land use.

His market logic is pretty straight forward. Those who value proximity to the CBD the most will pay the highest premium for land in a city. Since this land is expensive, it tends to be put to its most efficient use, namely multiple units built on each parcel of land. As distance from the city centre increases, so land prices and density fall, with the result that nearly every city has a downward sloping urban density profile. This holds true whether cities are monocentric, like London, or polycentric, like Auckland.

Bertaud’s point is a cautionary one: interfere with the nature of the market process and you are likely to produce unintended and undesirable outcomes. That is because cities are essentially labour markets, places where firms and individuals come together to buy and sell their skills. Interfere in the functions and you are likely to add costs and sap benefits to residents.

So who is right? That is a difficult call to make, but Bertaud has taken a stab in a recent paper. The work looked at a number of centrally planned versus market-driven cities, and the respective population densities as distance from the CBD increased. 

The focus on the research was on Brasilia, Johannesburg and Moscow, all urban centres shaped by differing ideologies that had nothing in common other than to determine land use by non-market means. 

In Brasilia, urban designers in the 1960s planned the city to match the shape of an aeroplane, a sign of industrial progress at the time (no joke – look it up on Google Maps). Land use was, and still is, allocated according to a set plan. In Johannesburg, the Apartheid government determined where people could live based on race. The favoured white minority was allocated land close to the city, while non-whites were forced to live on the urban fringes. Moscow was shaped by three waves of communist development, which resulted in three concentric rings being built around the original city.

The first was a ring of heavy industry one built in the Stalin era, followed by medium density apartments under Khrushchev, and finally a high density residential ring built under Brezhnev. The result of this central planning is that the density profiles of all three cities slope upwards as distance from the CBD increases. This is unsurprising since land use was allocated without the benefit of prices. What was surprising was the effects of this on the population. 

Compared with 13 market-based cities ranging from Hyderabad to Paris, residents of the planned cities were on average more likely to live further from the CBD than in unplanned urban centres. The magnitude of this distance was also significant. For example, Brasilia is of a comparable size to Budapest, but the average resident in the Brazilian city was likely to live three times further from the CBD than their European counterparts.

On the same basis, distances from the CBD were 80% farther in Johannesburg compared to similarly sized London. Moscow, meanwhile, is two-thirds the size of Paris, but the average resident was likely to live 5% farther away from the CBD than their Parisian counterpart. Controlling for factors like the shape and size of differing cities, Bertaud found populations of the three planned urban areas were significantly more like to be dispersed than in market-based centres. Furthermore high population densities did not reduce dispersion.

This has real world implications. The higher the dispersion, the longer transport networks have to be to move people to work and back. This increases energy use and air pollution. Bertaud notes this is an economic cost that is seldom factored into the analysis when urban design regulations are being considered. 

Those quick to dismiss central design as a relic of the past should note that Bertaud found similar dispersion effects in Portland, a paragon of compact city planning (albeit to a lesser degree). This was largely due to the imposition of an urban development boundary, which pushed up the costs of land. Thus residents who were price sensitive, as well as those who did not want to live in high densities developments, were pushed to the edges of the city. As a result population densities 30km from the Portland CBD were as high as those 8km from city centre. The effect, Bertaud notes, has been to “increase the accessibility of suburban shopping malls at the expense of the relative accessibility of the CBD. This is not the outcome that the planners intended”.

The points raised in this paper are worth considering, especially in places like Auckland. The city maintained an urban growth boundary line for decades, which has only been partially relaxed in recent years. Furthermore, long-standing height restrictions, especially near the CBD, have prevented land markets from operating efficiently. Based on the paper, the city should be highly cautious of any measure that is likely to constrain the market functions of a city. 

This is not to say that there is no place for urban designers as distinct from regulators. But Bertaud argues that their interventions should be limited to individual projects, so that the market can sort the ideas that work from those that don’t. Urban planners, likewise, should restrict their work to delineating between private and public spaces. The rest, should be left to the market to determine whether to build up, out, or both. It would make for better and more liveable cities that work.

Jason Krupp is a Research Fellow at The New Zealand Initiative. This is the NZ Initiative's weekly column for

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A goodish piece, although I tend to think this writer is just a bit too free market.
Good planning has a vital role in getting regulatory settings rights. But once the settings are there via District Plans, there should be less planning involvement in resource consents.
Worth people looking at Queenstown's just released District Plan. Got much more liberal height and density settings, but arguably is still a bit too controlling.

The thrust of the expert Bertaud's argument seems actually to support compact cities, and that they would form naturally with removal of height restrictions in particular. Mr Krupp seems mostly to then interpret that the main constraint to be avoided is the urban boundary. My interpretation of Bertaud's argument for Auckland is you either drop both constraints or you manage both. To not remotely liberalise height restrictions in the centre, but allow free building on the fringes, would likely result in a Brezhnevian city going upwards further out.
Unstated are the requirements of infrastructure, transport in particular, of the most successful cities. It is far from clear that markets will somehow provide such infrastructure, but most very successful cities have achieved it. One suspects with good central planning and strong and bold political leadership. Which is probably why Krupp doesn't talk about it.

Yes, I picked up the disconnect as well. The line "cities as markets" might sound snappy but there are so many examples (transport infrastructure being a great one you mentioned) that plain and simply HAVE to be planned. View shafts are another. Take Wellington's waterfront - a perfect example of keeping lowish density at the waterfront to the great benefit of the cityscape and feel. That thoughtful planning has (in my opinion) made apartment living all that much more widely attractive as so many apartment blocks have unobstructed views of the harbour. Same goes for Wellington's green belt as a backdrop to the city - just beautiful. Same goes for Queenstown - the build restriction on the Remarkables is what makes it unique/outstandingly beautiful.

Problem as I see it for Auckland is that it's almost unsalvageable from a design perspective - and hence in trying to apply good urban design principles, you are trying to turn the clock back .. and that (from an existing private rights perspective) is always fraught with difficulty. The recent port expansion project a case in point.

Yes buildings can get in the way of the view, but so can mountains. Imagine how much further you could see in Queenstown if those bloody mountains weren't in the way.

Disagree about Queenstown
Development has turned paradise into an eyesore(with nowhere affordable for the proles, despite all the planners)

Development has been great for Queenstown. There is so much more choice there now compared to 10 years ago. Plenty of great dining options. Town is looking sharper, it was really shabby 10 years ago. NZ needs it's development and growth hotspots. And it's hardly Gold Coast, still very low rise.
There are plenty of largely untouched locations if you want them. How about Glenorchy? Te Anau? Even Wanaka is nice and sleepy.

As someone who attended one of the Bertaud talks last year I can say that Stephen and Kate have seen the missing point of Jason's otherwise good article.

Bertaud believes it is the responsibility of some level of government to plan and implement a transport infrastructure grid in advance of development. That it is government's responsibility to plan the division between public and private spaces.

Bertaud quite sensibly states government's have the power of compulsory purchase which is necessary to use to buy the network of roads, rapid mass transit systems, foot and bike paths and utility infrastructures -3 waters, power, telecommunications etc. Without compulsory purchase the taxpayer would be exhorted their hard earned income to pay the land holdouts.

It is only once this 'playing field' of urban private and public spaces is created does Bertaud believe that the market best manages the most efficient use of private spaces.

As an aside I wrote an article about Christchurch's CBD redevelopment a month or so that I think is consistent with Bertaud's ideas.

Agree, Brendon. London and some of the eastern cities in the US are the example here: London grew outwards along the tube lines (themselves a mesh of private companies - they weren't nationalised/amalgamated until 1932 and US cities via horse and later electric tramlines. Read Lanchester for a good take on London, and Kunstler for a good exposition about the US experience.

Planning in the mode we are stuck with in NewZild - the Brit post-war Town and Country Planning Act schemozzle (motto: 'We finish what the Luftwaffe started') has SFA to do with it.

Shows how ignorant this guy is when he thinks Paris or even Budapest are cities that naturally developed in response to market driven urbanization processes. Pure comedy. Does the name Haussmann, not ring any bells? Ring a ding ding

Yes I found the reference to Paris a bit gratuitous.

Bertaud would not disagree with you. Haussman is no guide to Auckland's planning, Haussmann had no pesky property rights, and value capture by site owners, to contend with.

As Brendon noted above, Bertaud argues that government SHOULD set aside rights of way at least, for street networks, well in advance of growth, and even compulsorily acquire space for known public uses. However, Bertaud says "leave the rest to the market" - that is, the actual utilisation of sites.

The other point you miss, is that Haussman designed the centre of Paris as it was in the middle of the 1800's, but most of the modern-day footprint of the total urban area of Paris is in fact post-WW2 automobile-based suburban development. One thing Paris' planners in this era got right, was the ringroad system, which gives Paris far lower overall traffic congestion delays than its European rival London.

Absolutely right, Phil. There are three Parises.

The Haussmann Paris exists only inside the Boulevards and today is the domain of the tourist and the political, bureaucratic and cultural elites. Although Haussman did some planning he largely inherited a network of unplanned streets, open spaces and major buildings that he preserved. Paris between the Boulevards and the Peripherique doesn't look much like the inner city: more modern buildings, lots of repurposing of former industrial sites as they naturally found their way to more economic sites. And most of metropolitan Paris lies outside the Peripherique and is a real mix of industrial, nasty project housing and quaint villages of suburban housing. But, as you say all of it extremely well served by way of transport links.

Very little of the Paris that isn't blatantly preserved for tourists owes anything at all to Haussmann. (I also note that transport is not run by the local councils).

by their inherent nature cities are not amenable to fee market forces. Far too many externalities and implicitly defined property rights. Where does Mr Krupp live? Perhaps I can open a coffee roasting business next to him #freemarkets.

A rather contradictory article, uses examples where central planning has forced non-compact ubran forms, to argue against changing planning laws to allow compact cities. Reading between the lines it seems Mr Krupps believes we should live our lives according to the urban planning ideologues that have forced a pattern of low density single use sprawl on Auckland for the last 60 years.

I's about time we dropped much of the planning restrictions and bring in a more market based approach to allow more compact city mixed use forms to develop.

Auckland is polycentric and London is not? So London has for instance the square mile and canary wharf, Tell me which other town centres in Auckland are competing for our corporates to locate their headquarters?

And distances from the CBD, are you measuring in physical distance or time? 5% further away in Moscow may actually be a shorter commute due to the efficient Soviet metro system.

Is there some sense in Moscow?
Like the skins of an onion an inner core , a ring of industry, a ring of accommodation etc etc
Good transport connecting the rings?
High density CBD is the capitalists dream, but is it the residents dream?