Making Room for a Planet of Cities

As cities in developing countries expand, is smart growth the right approach? The conclusions of a new report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy may surprise you.

It was a different time when Daniel Burnham famously suggested, "make no little plans." But today, as rapidly growing cities in the developing world anticipate a great surge of urban population, planners really do need to think big.

Bangkok, Thailand grew 16 times larger since 1944. Image: klimenko.

Over half the world's current population lives in cities, including many millions in informal settlements. Demographic forecasts indicate that the world's urban population will double from 3 billion in 2000 to 6 billion in 2050, with nearly all urban growth occurring in developing countries. While the urban population in these nations doubles between 2000 and 2030, the built-up area of their cities can be expected to triple. This is clearly a mandate for preparation and planning.

Our most recent Policy Focus Report, Making Room for a Planet of Cities, launched at an event last month hosted by the Cities Alliance and the World Bank in Washington, suggests that key components of such planning in developing countries include generous metropolitan limits, an arterial grid of streets spaced one kilometer apart that can support transit, and selective protection of open space. The goals of densification, infill, and containment may be generally appropriate for U.S. cities, but not for cities in the developing world where average urban population densities are over four times higher than in the U.S. A lack of realistic preparations for urban expansion there will result in land supply bottlenecks putting residential land out of reach for the urban poor as well as in massive informal and illegal settlements with little or no transport, water, or sanitation infrastructure.

The need for a new paradigm is informed in part by looking at how cities worldwide have expanded over time. Our research team, led by visiting scholar Shlomo "Solly" Angel, lead author of the report, looked at four data sets: satellite images from 1990 and 2000 for a sample of 120 cities having over 100,000 people ; geo-coded census tracts in 20 U.S. cities from 1910 to 2000; historical maps documenting how a global sample of 30 cities expanded from 1800 to 2000; and satellite images of urban land cover for over 3,600 cities in 2000.

The team looked at five key attributes – urban land cover, density (population in relation to built-up area), centrality (population share near the city center), fragmentation (the amount of open space within cities), and compactness. They found that average densities declined as population and wealth grew, not just in the U.S., but worldwide. Reviewing the historic expansion of cities showed that 28 of the 30 sampled cities increased their area 16-fold during the 20th century. Bangkok, for example, increased its urbanized area 16-fold from 1944 to 2002. Spatial expansion outpaced population growth in all of the data sets but not in all cities: Los Angeles is a notable exception where densities have been slowly increasing in recent decades, making it now one of the densest metropolitan area in the U.S.

The population and area measures produce consistent urban built-up area average densities that range in the sample of 120 global cities from 555 persons per hectare in Dhaka, Bangladesh to only 15.7 in Tacoma, Washington. Average densities in urban built-up areas vary systematically across country groups, ranging from 25 persons per hectare in land-rich developed countries (United States, Canada, and Australia); to 50 in other developed countries (Europe and Japan); to 130 in developing countries-a level that exceeds average urban densities observed in the U.S. 100 years ago. Analysis of built-up area densities across cities supports the predictions of urban theory: for example, higher incomes and land availability are associated with lower densities; and larger city populations are associated with higher densities.

The busy streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Image: John Pavelka..

This is not to suggest that future cities in the developing world should foster development at low densities such as those in the U.S., nor that higher densities should not be encouraged in cities such as Tacoma. Angel's point is that the magnitude of growth expected in high-density places like Mumbai requires a different approach.

The history of urban planning suggests far-reaching preparations for urban expansion, Angel points out. The New York Commissioners Plan of 1811 extended the street grid northward from Lower Manhattan covering the entire island – all of which came to be. Other examples include Barcelona's Ensanche plan of 1859; Singapore's open space planning of parks and recreation areas; and the transit-supporting grid of Toronto, home to the 3rd largest public transport system in North America.

Failure to plan for expansion is evident in congestion-plagued Bangkok, with its lack of arterial roads, in San Salvador where zoning regulations are ignored, and in Sao Paulo where there has been little effective protection of open space within municipal boundaries.

For the rapid and inevitable urban expansion in developing countries to lead to equitable, inclusive, and green growth requires a different approach to urban development. William Cobbett, manager of Cities Alliance, a global coalition of cities and their development partners housed at the World Bank, said the new paradigm suggested by Angel's research should challenge the current reflex in many cities in developing countries, which is to try to keep out the poor. It can provide an opportunity to have a game-changing debate about urbanization. Planning for future urban growth and introducing long-term scenarios can set the stage for an alternative to the Mike Davis vision of a Planet of Slums.

There is no doubt this is a daunting task, requiring elected officials to plan and make investments with payoffs far beyond election cycles. But in contrast to Burnham's time, we have much more information about the spatial structure of cities. Data from global information systems and new technologies for processing digital maps are facilitating the study of urban expansion on a global scale. The Lincoln Institute has posted all the data, images, and methodology from Angel's research on its Web site, at the Atlas of Urban Expansion. Let the data be our guide.

Gregory K. Ingram is president and chief executive officer of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass.



Note land price effects; and the link (or not) with incomes

Good work.

For what it is worth:

I have come to regard undistorted urban land prices as the first vital indicator of the future success of any city, and "auto mobility" as the second.

Fringe land or other "lowest cost" land is the "denominator" of the price of all other land within the same metro. Location advantage premiums result in land price graph "slope" from fringe to CBD centre, on a ratio of around 100 times.

When land prices inflate INDEPENDENT of incomes and GDP, the traditional "sorting" of land among the populace and businesses is distorted; the higher prices start to be associated with REDUCING density and agglomeration efficiencies (rather than increasing density and agglomeration efficiencies). This is because incomes have not risen commensurate with land prices, and therefore FEWER and fewer people and businesses can afford the higher priced locations.

Manhattan, and any truly "international" CBD, will be at least partly shielded from this effect, by "international" capital that is able to "pay in" for the location advantage. But even then, it will be noticed that other cities may start to gain "international" clientele at the expense of the "inflated land price" city. Any NON international city is doomed to decline, once its land prices inflate, disconnected from incomes and GDP.

On the "automobility" question; planners wishing to support the extra high densities of their CBD's, should welcome with open arms, "vehicles" like the Smart Car, and everything else that is a proxy for our traditional concept of automobility, such as folding cars, and even Sedgeways. It is quite impossible to achieve equivalent results with ANY public transport system.

Ironically, Transit is viable in Manhattan because of the density; not the other way around. The density does not exist because Manhattan has Transit. The density exists because of Manhattan's lane-miles of roading and car parking; AND because of New York's competitive fringe land prices up till recently.

I predict in any case, the decline of ANY city that has median multiple house prices persistently over 6; and that has a land price to GDP ratio that has doubled in defiance of historical norms. Using public transport subsidies to save the city will be like trying to push water uphill. The way to save such a city, is to restore affordability to land prices by restoring fringe pricing to its historical norms, and by providing for maximum "automobility" including by baby cars, foldables, mobility scooters, or whatever. No network of public transport routes is an adequate substitute.

Fringe land pricing almost everywhere in the world, should derive from the price of land in NON urban uses, eg agriculture. If there is a serious "discontinuity" in prices of RAW land, at the urban fringe, it is necessary to look for the regulatory interferences and possibly collusion between public officials and land owners, that is responsible for the pricing inflation. This is vital because this land "denominates" the price of all the other land in the metro.

Here are some of the negative impacts of inflated land prices that I have identified so far. (Using median multiple house prices and the ratio of land value to GDP as a guide)

1) land price volatility and periodic spikes and crashes
2) actual cost to businesses, of land and leases
3) workforce income demands through cost-of-living pressures
4) social inequities; intergenerational wealth transfers putting pressure on younger generations
5) reduced “churn” of land use, and increased incumbency advantage leading to oligopoly effects and loss of potential efficiency gains
6) diversion of capital from productive uses, to land price bubbles (it is typical for banks lending portfolios to “flip” from one-third mortages: two-thirds business lending; to the other way around)
7) reduced business start-ups (the major source of new employment)
8) REDUCED location efficiencies by households and businesses
9) REDUCED participation in agglomeration efficiencies
10) REDUCED social mobility and increased “ghetto-isation”.
11) REDUCED discretionary household expenditure on non-mortgage items, including on items that would benefit children.
12) Inequitable, icome-related "sorting" of participation in social amenities, enjoyment of nature, and "peace"
13) reduced social mobility
14) homelessness, hopelessness in youth, and other social pathologies
15) increased cost to government/taxpayers of the cost of land for social amenities and infrastructure
16) increased opportunity cost of "green space", conservation, and heritage land
17) increased demographic-economic pressures: cost of living and "space" pressures on younger generations result in reduced birth rates
18) increased racial and cultural minority ghetto-isation
19) reduced replacement of substandard old homes and buildings, health issues
20) overcrowding in substandard accomodation, health issues
21) reduced ability to recover from serious negative economic impacts (compare the economic history of Pittsburgh with Newcastle upon Tyne)

That's it so far......

"Automobility" or the lack of it, is also a powerful input in many of these factors.

I have not yet seen any response from Todd Litman or others in his camp, as to whether they are prepared to attempt density increases under a regulatory framework that does NOT inflate the price of land, costing the economy many times more than any "benefits" they hope for. The papers of Paul Cheshire and his colleagues at the London School of Economics are "essential reading" for those wishing to learn about the real life effects of urban containment policies, utilising 5 decades of British experience. Britain's cities illustrate all the points I list above, and Britain's economy suffers from a serious and entirely avoidable lack of competitiveness through its policies of urban growth constraint.

Still working on my list.

Here's number 22) Disaster risk increased, disaster recovery and aid rendered more difficult.

(By enforced urban consolidation and reduced automobility).

Besides "limits", there is "form"

I also wish to point out, that dispersed employment and mixed land use, leads to dramatic "democratisation" of land values. I pointed out above that in a mature monocentric metro, it is typical for land values to slope up from the fringe to the centre of the CBD, by a factor of as much as 100 times.

However, in metros with dispersed employment and mixed land use, it is possible to achieve a "range" of land values with as small a factor between "lowest" and "highest", of "3".

I suggest that massive economic competitiveness advantages will accrue to cities that have these features as well as an absence of fringe development limits and the consequent land price discontinuities across boundaries. In this way, even cities in the USA can maintain a competitive advantage against "developing nation" cities with corruption and oligarchies and gouging driving their land use policy. The "most expensive land in the world" is now in Mumbai??????? This bodes ill for Mumbai.

The bottom line to all this is; making Transit viability the trumping factor in urban planning, is doomed to failure just as Procrustes' approach was in legend. "Transit" driving densification intentions, driving enforced monocentricity, driving urban growth boundaries, will "kill" the city, just as Procrustes killed his victims with his "one size fits all" complex.

"Procrustean solution" is a beautifully aposite term.

Let the data be our guide. Amen to that.

I can't recommend this paper more highly.

Do read the executive summary and browse the whole thing.

Here are some points that were hugely useful additions to my knowledge.

Page 23. "Fragmentation"; i.e. undeveloped land leapfrogged by developed land; is actually efficient in the long term, because the leapfrogged land ultimately gets developed at higher densities/more efficient uses than if it had been developed as typical "fringe" development.

Page 33. Comparing the "infill of fragmentation" in Portland and Houston: Houston beats Portland hands down.....! The authors do not discuss this, but this is major confirmation of exactly what I have been saying for a long time, that inflated land prices are a BARRIER to "infill" development and densification.

Page 38. Fragmentation seems to be an ineradicable feature of cities, and planners should not count "fragmented" undeveloped land within their boundaries, as part of "supply"; 20 to 30 years supply of land beyond the existng fringe is essential to maintaining land price stability and affordability. The fragmented land WILL be developed, and at greater levels of efficiency, once the "built" fringe has expanded beyond a certain point. The evidence from Houston and Portland suggests that this development will take place more effectively under conditions of a free market in land.

Page 40. Historical evidence shows that cities in modernising economies have consistently expanded their footprints 16-fold in 70 years. "How" could these cities have been "contained" without seriously distorting the economic growth and beneficial outcomes for humanity that resulted? What do Western advisers think will happen to developing nation cities today if they attempt to "contain" them?

Page 43. These statistics are incredible. Just HOW MUCH land in the world/ each region/ each country, is "urban"? Worldwide: 0.47%. Sub-Saharan Africa: 0.12%.
Between 1% and 2%: USA, India, Bangladesh
Between 0.5% and 1%: China, Indonesia, Pakistan

As a percentage of ARABLE land: Worldwide: 4%. Sub-Saharan Africa: 1.5%
Between 4% and 8%: USA, Egypt, France
Between 2% and 4%: China, Russia, Spain, Mexico
Between 1% and 2%: India, Bangadesh, Canada, Vietnam, Ethiopia
Less than 1%: Afghanistan, Sudan

So much for "paving over paradise", eh?

Page 53: "Containment is inappropriate in urbanizing countries". Read the whole section.

Page 59: Naseem Taleb quote:
“Invest in preparedness, not in prediction. . . The probabilities of very rare events are not computable. . . We can have a clear idea of the consequences of an event, even if we do not know how likely it is to occur. . . All you have to do is mitigate the consequences.”

This suggests that erring on the high side of projecting urban land cover in a particular city expansion plan may be the correct strategy........

Page 60: " Land prices on the urban periphery are always subject to speculation, and once they become inflated it takes them considerable time to decline, even if land shortages are no longer an issue. Speculation leading to high land prices on the urban fringe can only be avoided if limits on urban expansion are generous enough and credible enough to ensure that land will be in plentiful supply for years to come, and that hoarding it will not be profitable in the long run. In Chinese cities, for example, current real estate values are exorbitant. In July 2009 a developer reportedly paid US$446.5 million for 21 hectares of suburban land in Shanghai, an average price of $21 million per hectare ($8.5 million per acre) (The Wall Street Journal 2009). These high land prices are a testimony to the lack of investor confidence in the ability of the Chinese government to ensure an adequate supply of land for urban expansion in the future......"

"......While projecting the realistic land needs of urban areas is an important first step in making room for urban expansion, only the creation of generous urban growth boundaries for metropolitan expansion and enshrining them in state, provincial, or national law can initiate the necessary legal framework for orderly growth. This framework need not necessarily mandate new structures of governance within the areas of metropolitan expansion, but it does need to limit the power of governments at all levels to block the conversion of land from rural to urban use in areas designated for urban expansion."

Page 61:

Selective Protection of Open Space

There is no question that urban dwellers around the world put a value on proximity to open space. Homes adjacent to or within
walking distance of parks and playgrounds command higher prices, and people who move to the outer suburbs often cite their desire to be closer to the open countryside as a reason for their move.

Singapore has an enviable hierarchy of large and small urban parks distributed throughout the city-state area of 710 km2,
including nature and riverine parks, city and heritage parks, and botanic gardens. These parks are clearly in permanent use as open space, and are available for all urban dwellers.

Not every city can institute a publicly accessible open space hierarchy within its city footprint comparable to that of Singapore, but many cities could create permanent public open spaces in designated areas of expansion, where land is still inexpensive and in ample supply......"

"......In short, instead of a greenbelt on theperiphery of the city, the making room paradigm opts for a green city full of varied open spaces. Instead of surrounding the city with a greenbelt that aims to contain its inevitable expansion and likely failing in the attempt, this strategy calls for built-up areas and open spaces to interpenetrate each other as the city expands outwards....."

An Arterial Grid of Roads

Assuming that the objections to expansion can be overcome, the obstacles to a new urban boundary can be surmounted, and that designated green areas can be effectively protected from urban encroachment, the question arises: What needs to be done, at
a minimum, to prepare new lands for urban use (Angel 2008a)? The answer in urbanizing countries is straightforward: to secure
the rights-of-way for an entire arterial road and infrastructure grid in the area within these new administrative boundaries.

The arterial grid pertains only to the network of major arterial roads—the urban roads that typically carry intraurban traffic,
public transport, and trunk infrastructure, especially water and sewer lines. The main difference between an arterial grid and
the local street grid can be seen in Detroit, Michigan, where the arterial grid encompasses 1.6-km-wide urban superblocks with
local streets that can be arranged in various ways to provide access to all plots (figure 5.8).

To accommodate urban expansion, an arterial grid on the urban fringe must have five essential properties......"

Page 63:
The early introduction of an arterial grid into expansion areas would help attain five important objectives.

An antipoverty objective.
The proposed arterial grid is meant to open up sufficiently large areas for urban expansion to ensure that land supply is not constricted, and that large numbers of residential plots remain
affordable. In contrast to earlier affordable housing strategies in developing countries that focused on the provision of a limited
supply of individual plots—commonly referred to as sites-and-services projects—the proposed strategy aims to provide a large number of superblocks that can then be subdivided by formal and informal developers into individual plots. To create the desired impact of the proposed arterial grid on the urban land
market, the entire network should be initiated early, with individual road segments being improved to higher standards as demand for travel along them increases.

This strategy minimizes the risk of land speculation that typically occurs when only a few fully paved roads are put in place, as
well as the risk of paving roads at the wrong time and in the wrong places. In a land pooling and readjustment scheme, for example, when only a portion of the rural periphery is converted to urban use and a full complement of infrastructure services is introduced, then land prices increase dramatically, rendering
access to the scheme beyond reach for the urban poor (Larsson 1993). Only a comprehensive approach to the land supply issue can keep land prices in metropolitan areas from rising steeply, especially in rapidly urbanizing cities where there is strong
demand for land.

A planning objective.
Urban infrastructure plans and investments in cities in urbanizing
countries typically follow rather than guide urban expansion. Developers pressure municipalities to extend infrastructure services in piecemeal fashion to areas that the developers have chosen, often blatantly disregarding municipal plans. The arterial
road grid would function as a basic framework for planning the city. Participatory planning would be considerably more effective
if it focused on an individual superblock rather than on the metropolitan area as a whole. By locating the grid before development begins, municipalities can actively shape growth in the future. They will then be leading the developers into new areas rather than following them......"

A transport objective.
For an arterial grid to function as the road network for a public transport system three conditions must hold: (1) residential densities must be sufficiently high to sustain public transport;
(2) the roads need to be spaced not more than one kilometer apart, so the great majority of people can walk to a bus stop
from any location in less than 10 minutes, as in Milton Keynes (figure 5.9); and (3) the width of the rights-of-way for the roads needs to be on the order of 20–30 meters....."

An environmental objective.
To the extent that a good public urban transport system can reduce our future reliance on private automobile travel, the arterial grid provides an essential building block in meeting the goal of reducing our carbon footprint. The organization of the urban periphery into a set of superblocks will also increase the chances that environmental justice concerns will be addressed. The superblock system created by the arterial road network also makes it possible to demand and ensure that each superblock contains an adequate amount of public open space; that environmentally unfriendly facilities are evenly distributed; and that human-scale communities and neighborhoods have a say in the planning, designing, and making of their physical environment......"

A financial objective.
Budget constraints typically prevent putting in place a completed arterial road network incorporating a system of well-paved, well-drained, well-lit, and signed roads in advance of development. That said, cities in rapidly urbanizing countries can acquire the land needed for such a network now, and then individual road segments can be improved to higher standards as demand increases. If demand along a particular road segment never increases, no great harm was done. If demand does increase, it can be met at a cost several decimal orders of magnitude lower than putting an arterial road through a fully built neighborhood.

This is the essence of the strategy proposed by Taleb (2007) for mitigating the uncertain consequences of unforeseen expansion at the lowest possible cost.

What does initiating the advance acquisition of the arterial road network now mean in practice? There is no global ready-made
answer, but the case of Milagro, Ecuador, offers an example (box 5.1)......"

Economic Sabotage?

"......Page 40. Historical evidence shows that cities in modernising economies have consistently expanded their footprints 16-fold in 70 years. "How" could these cities have been "contained" without seriously distorting the economic growth and beneficial outcomes for humanity that resulted? What do Western advisers think will happen to developing nation cities today if they attempt to "contain" them?.....

"......Page 53: "Containment is inappropriate in urbanizing countries"....."

Wodehouse comments: Unless Western planners are attempting to sabotage the competitiveness of the economies of the nations they are advising.....? See my earlier comments below.

No response yet from anyone? Is the worm turning?

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