Smart Growth and Australia

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

As managing editor of Planetizen, I'd like to make a quick note on today's op-ed, Resisting Dickensian Gloom by Tony Recsei. Mr Recsei asked for a chance to respond to a recent criticism of his work by Planetizen regular Michael Dudley. It is our policy at Planetizen to allow points of view that are critical of the status quo in urban planning, so I agreed to run the piece. I did ask Mr. Recsei to tone down some of the more personal attacks on smart growthers so that his points could be presented more clearly to our audience, and I believe he has done that.

I did do one bit of fact-checking, because I was interested in the work of the Australian Conservation Foundation, which Mr. Recsei cites. His interpretation is that inner-city residents of Australian cities create more greenhouse gas emissions than those who live in suburban areas. I asked Charles Berger, Director of Strategic Ideas at the ACF, if that was the case. Here is his response:

Yes, the ecological footprint of Australians living in urban centres is very substantially higher than for Australians living in suburban or regional areas. This is largely a consequence of higher wealth and higher consumption patterns in inner-city areas in Australia, rather than having anything to do with urban form per se.

The findings are quite challenging for some environmentalists. In particular, they suggest that merely increasing urban densities and using public transport will not necessarily reduce total or per-capita ecological footprints. In Australia, wealthy inner city residents are driving less than others, but have increased consumption in nearly every other category of goods and services. Whatever savings are being achieved by bicycling and walking are being more than counterbalanced by increased airplane flights, food, clothing, and much else besides.

We are aware that some commentators have used these findings to encourage unsustainable peri-urban developments, and we categorically reject their conclusions. Eco-footprints in suburban areas in Australia are lower than in the urban core in spite of, not because of, lower residential densities. What the pro-urban sprawl groups also miss is that fact that Australian ecological footprints are across the board far higher than any reasonably sustainable level. Neither inner urban nor outer suburban development patterns are currently anything like sustainable.

Neither consumption-intensive inner city lifestyles, nor vehicle-dependent suburban lifestyles, are compatible with ecological imperatives. The main finding of our Consumption Atlas is that both need to change, and change dramatically.
The Atlas is available online here: - have a look at the "Main Findings" report and see what you think.

Chuck Berger


Tim Halbur is communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).




If only other editors were as rigorous about their fact checking!

While we like to think of Australians as our nearest national cousins*, just with funny accents, it is always a shock to look more closely at the demographics of their cities and realize that they are the reverse of ours. In a 2003 speaking tour of Australia, audiences made me aware of this fact over and over - not to question the philosophy of more compact new growth, but simply to point out that Australians are proof of the hypothesis that urban centers can be and are attractive to people with a choice of where to live. This reversal has such profound implications that it can be very difficult to replicate any policy or advocacy strategies from Australia to the US or visa versa. Thank you for reminding us.

Elizabeth Schilling


do you fact check the pro smart growth op-eds as thoroughly as you do the critics of smart growth? For example, as an interesting parallel, would you question an article that bashed suburban living because "research shows" people in suburbs are fatter even though the reasons for this result aren't likely due to urban form? If you do, great, but I don't recall that sort of questioning/fact checking on those articles. But, if you want to be a reputable site on growth and the planning of it without dogma, it would seem to enhance your credibility. By focusing on this critique, you suggest that anti urban sprawl articles are above critique and get a free pass and those who question or advocate against smart growth policies will be subject to the highest standard of proof. If, however, you just want to be a planning news site that accepts conventional planning dogma in its editorials and alternate views are wrong until "proven" correct, then maybe it doesn't matter.

Allowing alternative views alone doesn't make planetizen an open, tolerant, thought provoking website. The follow up treatment and characterization of those authors and articles makes or breaks it. Unless this goes on with all op-eds, in this case, it breaks it. Sorry.

Buillding the 100% Sustainable infrastructure of Tomorrow

Thank you for all the great work that you are doing! As an American designer who has lived in Europe for 31 of the past 34 years and been interested in both Peak Oil and sustainability for the past 27, it seems that smart growthers and their attackers are all missing the large elephant in the room. How will we produce food and deliver it to cities of any kind as oil supplies dwindle until there are none left? The end of oil certainly also implies the end of food as we know it, as over 90% of the inputs, from fuel to fertilizers and pesticides, come from oil!

I haven't sat idly with this question, part of it as a professor at one of the best regarded car design school in the world, during those 27 years! My conclusions and suggestions can be found on my website at, along with the scientific case for extreme urgency in building the solutions that our descendants will require for their survival!

I returned to my native Michigan after those 31 years with the express purpose to lay the foundations for a 100% sustainable infrastructure but, so far, people seem to be more interested in their own navels than in the future of their own genes, in the form of their offspring.

I challenge anyone to build a better 100% sustainable infrastructure, that complements what we already have and produces all of the energy, food, transportation and jobs that we will require, because we're all going to have to work very quickly together on this one! Please read what a group of UK business leaders consider the challenge to be at that is we have at best another 5 years before we can expect serious disruptions in the supply of petroleum products!

Thank you very much for your time and energy!

Yours sincerely!

Kim Gyr

PS. Please consider that the last 2,000 years is only 20 times the 5 generations, grandparents to grandchildren, that we have met in our own families! What are we leaving for those same genetic components in the next 2,000 years?

Inner City Living of 2 types

What is being missed here, is the role of land prices and the way they are affected by urban limits. Land generally increases in price around tenfold from the fringes to closer to the center; it increases even more, exponentially, as the center is reached.

Raw fringe land used to bear a direct relationship to the price of farmland, and still does in "free" jurisdictions. Tighter urban limits, under modern planning fashion, however, have resulted in RAW fringe land prices being ten, twenty, or thirty times that of the farmland. This has altered the relationship between land and dwelling values; fringe house prices now consist of 60% land value and 40% house value instead of 10% / 90%.

The price of land closer to the urban centers, being ten times that of the urban fringe land, becomes unaffordable for virtually ANY use other than for luxury condos for the wealthy. Consider some figures: $30,000 fringe lots = $300,000 lots closer to the urban center; a developer can still do something practical with this. But when you have $300,000 fringe lots and $3,000,000 lots closer to the urban center?

The irony is, and I believe that this would stand scrutiny under study; is that in Texas, you get the students and artists and strugglers living at quite high density closer to the urban centers, (because they cab afford it) and thus "proving" the thesis about superior sustainability. The planning ideologues are looking in the wrong place for the results they want. They will not find it in places where they have driven the proletariat out with high land prices.

Central City Agglomeration.

Tighter urban limits, under modern planning fashion, however, have resulted in RAW fringe land prices being ten, twenty, or thirty times that of the farmland.

The empirical literature has found this statement to be false. This is basic microecon, first semester.



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