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Why is urban sprawl bad?

By Ross Elliott - posted Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Cue Barbara Streisand singing “Send in the Clowns” and tune into Youtube for a piece of viral public policy which plumbs new depths of sentiment over substance, of faith over fact. As a piece of propaganda, it scores well, but as a piece of reasoned, evidence-based policy, it’s a disgrace.

“Brisbane, don’t be a NIMBY [Eye on Milton]” is the title of a Youtube slideshow which bears every resemblance to something interests associated with current high density housing proposals for Milton in Brisbane might underwrite. You can view it here but be sure to have some tissues handy to dab at the tears. The authors have also setup a Facebook page (here), but with only 20 members so far, it’s got a long way to go before Corey Worthington (that brat child of the Y Gen with the white sunglasses) gets worried.

Perhaps I shouldn’t find it so objectionable - we live in a free society and expressing opinions is, after all, what this site is all about. But I can’t help but recoil at the overtly moral rectitude of the tone. The sentiment (it fails as an argument) is that residents who reject moves for much higher urban densities are doing the wrong thing by society, because the alternative is “sprawl” outwards (always a pejorative term).


And why is sprawl bad? The slideshow’s answer is simply “Urban sprawl is bad, VERY bad.” Yes, it’s very bad. Better stop it, or you’ll go blind. Not that some reasons aren’t offered in support: “It’s bad for both the environment and society as a whole” it says.

There you go, surely you don’t need more proof than that?

So having “proven” that sprawl is bad, very bad, we are asked to conclude that density, lots of density, is good, very good.

The video makes a few more claims, including the assertion that the taller the buildings are, the more open space there will be. It then goes on to say that “it is proven to create more sustainable, social environments whereby people don’t need cars” (without offering any of that “proof”).

The masterful conclusion would make Goebbels proud: object to these developments or question the density dogma and you are therefore anti environment and pro sprawl. You’re a NIMBY, and that’s bad, very bad.

Now before you start shooting the messenger here, I am not opposed to infill nor to transit friendly development. But I do object to “silver bullet” arguments which claim moral right on their side, and propose that only one form of housing development is sustainable while another is clearly evil. I object to the lack of evidence and, more to the point, worry that we’re becoming so caught up in this emotional clap trap that the facts are fast becoming irrelevant.


What is the available evidence saying about the density dogma then? Here’s a snapshot:

Urban land boundaries which seek to prevent so called sprawl and enforce higher density have created a chronic land shortage and an uncompetitive market, which is driving housing prices to preposterous highs relative to average incomes and average families’ ability to pay. We have a serious problem with housing affordability in this country and in this region. This fact is rarely commented on by density advocates, let alone a solution suggested.

As a region of just 3 million and growing to 5 million, alleged problems of sprawl on the scale experienced globally are simply not there. What we have done is to short change our infrastructure investment which is now below capacity, creating issues of congestion and infrastructure pressure not attributable to “sprawl” but to under investment in transport and related infrastructure over a 20-year period.

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First publisehd in The Pulse on May 18, 2010.

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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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