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Sustainable Living    

Earth from spaceDo you want to live sustainably, reducing the impact of climate change on our planet?

Planning of the way we live, can have a significant impact. Sadly, our own NSW government is implementing a discredited and unsubstantiated urban planning ideology, one that actually reduces sustainability and increases the human impact of Climate Change on our planet Earth.

How can this be so?

          • Doesn’t a policy of urban consolidation mean fewer car trips?
          • Surely packing people into existing urban spaces at higher densities means less impact on the environment, not more?
          • Why would our own government make such a major error?

We should first acknowledge that the urban consolidation ideology does have a certain beguiling appeal on the surface. It just sounds right the first time we hear it - and so we never question it again.

But, as is so often the case, something that seems commonsense at first glance, is actually proven wrong once we have exposed the hidden facts.

For example:

  • We (well, most of us anyhow!) have learned that our world is not flat, even though it seemed obvious to early explorers that they might fall off the edge.
  • We have learned to accept that the sun does not go around the earth, even though it certainly appears to do so at first glance.

We are about to learn that the Urban Consolidation ideology being followed by our government, is not sustainable. It actually increases the human impact of Climate Change on our planet rather than reducing it!

Let's start by understanding more about sustainable living, and then continue by addressing each of the points in turn..

Sustainability – what do they mean?

The Department of Planning has specified the sustainability aims for its high-density policies. In response to our article “Dictatorship of the high-density bullies” the Department replied with an article that described its policy claims for sustainability. Click below to learn the facts versus the furphies.

1. More use of public transport

public transport by trainA principle claim of our high-density ideologues is that the high-density policies they are imposing on the community will result in our abandoning our cars and predominantly use public transport. They urge that the planning of Australian cities simulate their image of European cities, such as Paris. Copenhagen, Stockholm and Vienna. Congestion will be a thing of the past.

But they are deluded by the images that the tourist has in mind of the centre of Paris where public transport is excellent and can be used extensively. But this comprises only 1% of the area of the city. Typically the rest of Paris looks like this and is poorly served by public transport.

Look at the figures that relate to transport in the larger European cities. Firstly you will see that the proportion of journeys by public transport there is not materially different from that of Sydney. Secondly you will see that the trends in public transport use in European cities are nearly all down.

In Sydney in spite of more than a decade of urban densification, latest available figures show public transport percentage share is down by 12%. The reason is that while public transport is excellent for travelling to a central location, it operates linearly and cannot go from everywhere to everywhere. In common with other large world cities, the trend in Sydney is for employment to move to low-density suburbs. Only 13% of employment is now in the CBD.

To get public transport to be used for most of peoples’ journeys throughout a city, exceedingly high densities are needed. With 80% of journeys by public transport, Hong Kong is the only successful example. Hong Kong’s density is 50,000 people per square km, the highest in the world. This density results in such severe traffic congestion that travelling by car is not an option for most people. To attain Hong Kong density, all of Sydney would have to be jam-packed into an area of radius 5 km around Central Station. Do we really wish to live like this?

Contrary to what the high-density advocates tell us, average journey time to work increases in dense cities and not the other way around. We all are now well aware that as Sydney has become denser so have our journey times become longer. You can see that journey times are longer for the denser cities. Note also that Sydney travel times now are worse than those in Los Angeles. This is not surprising. The road system here has not kept up with the increased population – Sydney has a shocking road system. Looking at our freeway capacity compared to other cities we see it is way below that of Hong Kong, Singapore, Barcelona, Athens, Paris, Toronto, Milan and Tokyo.


2. Less car travel

car densityWe all know that traffic congestion increases with density. This graph shows that as densities go up so do the total vehicle hours per square kilometer of the city. This is because, even if a greater percentage of people in high-density use public transport, this is more than outweighed by the greater number of cars in a given area.

If we look at Australian cities we find the same trend.

As all developers know, units can’t be sold in Sydney if they do not have car spaces - even if adjacent to the best public transport facilities.


3. Better air quality

Traffic congestion generates a serious health problem. With higher densities there is more pollution due to the reduced volume of air available for dispersion. Vehicle exhausts contain very dangerous microparticles which are especially hazardous in congested conditions. The World Health Organization calculates that 3 million people die from these particles every year - 3 times as many as from traffic accidents. Traffic congestion from high-density increases greenhouse gases.

In summary, there is no evidence to support the claim that retrofitted higher densities in the Sydney situation will result in any meaningful reduction in car use or increase in public transport use.

Nor will there be better air quality.


4. Health

There are other aspects of health adversely affected by high density. In decades past high-rise developments were also called suicide towers. A study of over 4 million Swedes has shown why. The researchers found that the rates of psychosis were 70% greater for the denser areas and there was a 16% greater risk of developing depression.

In confirmation, Professor Cummings in his comprehensive Australian Unity Well-being Index, reports that the happiest electorates tend to have a lower population density.


5. Less pollution from stormwater runoff

a natural water soakHigh-density causes more pollution from stormwater runoff.

Single-residential dwellings typically are surrounded by natural ground surface to absorb rain water.

The increased proportion of hard surface resulting from high-density leaves less surface to perform this function. The original storm water systems cannot cope and storm water rushes into creeks carrying pollution with it. A testing program by schools has found creeks in higher density areas of Sydney are more polluted than those in less dense areas.


6. Reduce pressure on land

landA highly emotive contention is that urbanisation causes the loss of bush and farms, promoting the notion that Australia is short of land. It is argued that Australia is so short of land that in the face of an increasing population the area of Sydney should not be increased.

We need to look at Sydney’s ecological “footprint” if we really wish to see the impact of the city on land. Each household uses energy and materials that require considerable land resources to supply. You can see the total area to supply the energy and materials and to absorb wastes, is 150 times greater than the current Sydney area. This ecological footprint depends on the number of people and does not decrease if the city gets denser. What is more, the actual dimensions of the city change little with densification because residential areas typically comprise only 40% of the area of a city (extra schools, hospitals, etc are still required) and the linear dimensions change only with the square root of the change in area.


7. Conserve city’s natural setting, green space and biodiversity

urban bushland, birds and flowersDensification decimates much valued urban bushland within the city with disastrous results for the diversity of wildlife in the city and for climate change. Sydney’s natural setting is being devastated.

We see the working harbour together with its tree and sandstone surrounds being sacrificed as a duckpond for yet another sterile residential assemblage.

High density does not allow people to grow their own fruit and vegetables.

Lower density is more sustainable.


8. Lower infrastructure costs

The high-density advocates allege that retrofitting high density into suburbs designed for low density has saved on infrastructure cost. The reality is that the suburbs were designed for the density then built. Adding more people overloads infrastructure and merely postpones expenditure. The authorities kept very quiet about this 10 million dollar-plus sewer that had to be installed in Chatswood using highly specialised directional drilling techniques. This was because of sewer overloads resulting from the additional density there.

The $10 million sewer did not solve the problem. These children are walking past toilet paper and worse. Chatswood has been plagued with dozens of sewage spills.

Add more people than the suburb was designed for and you must overload the sewers, our roads, the electricity and water supply.

In these 700 United States cities, council sewer and water service charges are highest in the high-density core of cities and lowest in lower density rings around the city. Retaining existing densities result in the lowest public sector costs.


9. Lower housing cost

We are in the midst of a housing cost crisis.

Since the onset of urban densification and the restriction of the release of land for housing, housing costs in Australia have rocketed. Policies that restrict the supply of land must result in a shortage and cause a scarcity. Scarcity causes prices to rise. We all know that. In 1997 the land component of the price of a house in Sydney was 32%. This component of the price has now gone to 60% or more.

An increase in house prices may seem OK to those of us lucky enough to own a house but what about the many unfortunates who do not – the underprivileged and the young? Sydney is now less affordable than most major world cities. These bars represent the number of years’ income (here termed the Median Multiple) needed to buy a house in a number of countries. In order of decreasing cost the cities are: 1. Los Angeles – the highest 2. San Diego 3. San Francisco 4. Sydney 5. London – less than Sydney

Sydney is in the very expensive league.

The chart depicts in red those cities that implement densification policies. Note it is these cities that have the most unaffordable houses. There can be no doubt that the densification policies enforcing growth boundaries around a city result in high-priced houses.

How are our industries going to be able to compete on world markets? They have to pay high wages because people have to pay disproportionate rents or mortgages. Additionally they have to pay excessive factory rentals. I suggest that the long-term consequences are already being felt.


10. Choice

low income familiesfree standing homes preferredTo own their own free-standing home has been a major goal of most families notably those of low income. In fact families with children are finding housing choice increasing limited. Data from the Census shows that, in the inner suburban ring of Sydney where density is highest, the proportion of homes with children is much reduced.

A study of social trends during the past two decades shows that 83% of Australians prefer to live in a free standing home. They mostly want single-family homes on large lots, safe communities with good school systems, and metropolitan locations far from the pace and problems of concentrated urban populations.

Surveys also demonstrate that there is no shortage of multi-unit housing for those who prefer this style of living.

Forcing high-density into communities who do not want it, does not increase housing choice.


11. Climate Change

Is high-rise more sustainable in the context of climate change CO2 emissions? Under certain conditions there could be a little less CO2 from cars although there would be more congestion. But transportation fuel is only a small proportion of the average household greenhouse gas emissions.

One can see that operational energy and embodied energy cause three times as much emissions. High-rise generates as much as twice the operational carbon dioxide per person as does single-residential. Think of lifts, clothes driers and common lighted areas. In the United States, buildings are responsible for about two-thirds of all electricity use. This is mainly due to cooling which, unlike heating which can be contained and is relatively inexpensive, involves moving large amounts of air. On a hot day in Los Angeles there's more energy used in just cooling buildings than the energy used by all the cars.

solar roof area per personThen one must also consider the lower roof area available on high-rise per occupant for solar energy for electricity or hot water or for collecting rain water.

The energy needed to construct a building is significant. Here are the CO2 emissions involved in construction, spread over the 70 year life of the building. This energy turns out to be very much more per person for a 50 storey high-rise.

Overall there is more Carbon Dioxide generated per person living in high-rise than in single-residential. What is more and not taken into account here, is the wasted life of single residential buildings that are torn down before their time. Also not taken into account is that, unlike steel and concrete constructed high-rise, timber framed houses act as a carbon sink. Low density housing is better for climate change.

What we need to appreciate is that the basic underlying factor affecting ecological sustainability is an increasing population. But if we have to have more people, there are alternatives to high-density housing. Refer to the Save Our Suburbs population density policy. To try to achieve sustainability by merely cramming us closer together in Sydney is like trying to nail jelly to a tree.


The final picture

retrofitted high densityStrathfield - creeping cancerUnder Australian conditions it is clearly apparent that retrofitted high density is less sustainable than single-residential. This may be counter-intuitive at first glance, just like saying the earth is spherical not flat, was initially considered heresy. But both these conclusions are born out by the facts.

We need to be guided by the simple insight that what works is what matters. We should not have policies driven by unsubstantiated ideology or by political donations.

It is harmful to continue forcing these policies on the Australian people. Urban consolidation is an imposed cancer growing unchecked throughout our suburbs.

It is a cancer of increasing high-rise monotony, minimal variety, paved surfaces, worsening mental and physical health and a drain on the resource and well-being of our people and of our environment.