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Monday Melbourne: CXI, February 2006
Russell Degnan

Tropfest patrons departing. St. Kilda Road. Taken February 2006

Melbourne 27th February, 2006 16:36:56   [#] [3 comments] 

Creative Cities, Creative Tourism
Russell Degnan

On the recommendation of BridgeGirl I went along to the Melbourne Conversations series yesterday, to hear four speakers discuss what makes cities creative. Or more specifically, to engage with the unwieldy and overly broad set of questions relating to creativity and the urban form.

How does the design and built form of a city impact upon its public life? What elements contribute to communities and promote cultural interactions. Is it possible to design for sustainability, in the broadest sense of sustainability, to support a creative city? What are the lessons from our heritage? What are the leading examples of innovation in architecture and design for modern cities?

Needless to say, given such a broad brief, each speaker became remarkably adept at turning the topic into to a discussion of their own recent research, and for one, their forthcoming book. Nevertheless, because I think it is an interesting question, and one I have (fairly badly) already attempted to answer; I think it is worthwhile disentangling the various statements from the talks and the mostly decent discussion that followed to try and find an answer.

The most interesting contribution, and one that I think makes the most sense in the context of what governments can or should do to encourage creativity came from Kate Shaw. She identified a contradiction between the way artists improve an area, and the gentrification that raises house prices and eventually forces poor artists to relocate elsewhere. The implication being that creative areas contain the seeds of their own destruction.

On one level this isn't a good argument. As Leon van Shaik pointed out, when house prices rise, the artists merely move to another spot, leaving behind a trail of gentrified neighbourhoods. Because house prices will always operate on a curve related to wealth and income, as long as sufficient housing exists, some of it will be low cost. The question is really whether some low cost housing is unsuitable for artists and the bohemian subset of society that supports them, and therefore, whether some urban design kills creativity.

Needless to say, the underlying context here is anti-suburban, propounded by a group of people devoted to dense, walkable communities propounding their views to a like-minded audience.

The most significant argument in favour of this view is cultural. For van Shaik, who opened his talk by saying that all cities are creative, good design creates a culture that responds, and expects good design. Poor design does the opposite. Thus, the predilection for good design in cities like Milan or Paris, is different to the gross indifference of say, the Gold Coast, or Canberra. For Melbourne, some parts are obviously well designed, and some not. But in a city of this size, and with so much contact with other cities throughout the world, and their own creative impulses, it seems highly unlikely that those influences can be completely killed. Transformed, certainly, but that transformation would be a good thing.

Following the argument of Richard Florida however -- an argument oft-mentioned, but neither properly explained nor refuted -- creativity is not just the artists and their endeavours, but the combination of creative economic start-ups, and other value-adding service providers that Marcus Spiller identified as the main drivers of economic growth. Historically, no really creative city has not also been undergoing extraordinary economic growth -- Athens, Venice, Florence, Amsterdam, London, New York -- and there is little evidence that artists are more important for a creative community than their (mostly young, well educated and high disposable income holding) consumers. Nor that the latter are less attracted to the cheap housing that attracts the artists. However, if cheap housing attracts both, the question becomes what aspects of cheap housing are important. Or rather, why a Carlton slum and not a Broadmeadows one?

Often this is ascribed to immigrants in the inner suburbs, and there is no question they brought great vitality and diversity to the culture of the inner city. But the main reason seems to be simple economics. After World War II, the housing shortage was so great that any sort-of house would do, and would still cost quite a bit. Immigrants being the least financial, they made-do in the suburbs of the inner city in cramped, unsanitary conditions. By the late 1960s, when home-ownership rates peaked and levelled off, this was no longer the case. At this point, housing was cheap enough for the owners of different housing stock to become, and to continue to become self-selecting: families move into the suburbs and young singles and poor artists move into the inner suburbs.

The difference between Broadmeadows and Carlton is space and access to cultural services. In the former you can have a large land-lot, perfect for a young family. In the latter, you have no land, but access to cultural services that for historical reasons, convenience, and by political preference, reside in the CBD and immediate surrounds.

The ability of governments to provide for creativity is limited, but the current focus for events, festivals and venues in the inner city raises house prices in that area, and makes it harder for new creative areas to emerge where housing is cheaper. However, because the housing in the inner city remains smaller than the suburbs, there will always be a tendency for creativity to reside in those houses, even when, as now, the people in that demographic are growing faster than housing to accommodate them.

In a sense then, this is a discussion, not about creative cities so much, but about a demographic, where they live, the type of city they create for themselves, and their size. The trend of the past few decades has been for this demographic to expand, and to create an interesting environment, somewhat regardless of what government does.

But none of that relates to urban design. Urban design itself cannot create a creative class, although it can inspire them, and it does afford different potentials. As I discussed here, Melbourne's laneway culture and relaxed atmosphere would be different with a differently laid out city and different building materials. Leon van Shaik noted the importance of local input to local architecture, the way stories interact with what is built, and the poor quality of buildings done by outsiders in cities like Barcelona. But if the creative class moved elsewhere in Melbourne, they would still be a creative class. They would (and already do) produce different things in a different style.

Urban Design 26th February, 2006 19:08:48   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CX, February 2006
Russell Degnan

Something different. Slightly suburban Parkville. Taken September 2002

Melbourne 20th February, 2006 21:59:03   [#] [2 comments] 

Notes on Traffic Congestion
Russell Degnan

There have been quite a few notewoethy blog posts on traffic congestion the past few days. In particular, Harry Clarke makes several forays into the area on his new blog. In one post he makes reference to several others worth reading: by Gary Becker; Richard Posner; and an older paper by Richard Arnott.

The latter is particularly broad, noting that political opposition to widespread congestion charging makes alternative methods worth considering, then works through them in some detail. It is worth reading in full, but I'll highlight a few points I thought were interesting. One aspect -- the bottle-neck approach to congestion, instead of the capacity approach -- I have covered before so won't again, except as it relates to some other parts.

First, a quote from the conclusion:

Let me start with an obvious point, but one that tends to get overlooked, even by economists and even by myself on occasion. The costs of congestion go hand-in-hand with the benefits of travel; zero congestion could be achieved if there were no travel. The optimal level of congestion has two characteristics. First, for a given level of benefits from travel, the costs of congestion are minimized. Second, when this efficiency condition is satisfied, the optimal level of congestion occurs when the benefits from increased travel are offset by the increase in travel costs induced by the increased travel. The optimal level of congestion could well be very high.

This can be seen easily by looking at a (not necessarily accurate) graph of the congestion costs versus the value (which needless to say looks like a demand-supply curve):

The red line represents the congestion costs as the number of commuters increase. It is well understood in engineering terms, and rises very quickly once a certain threshold is reached. The blue is the benefit each new commuter on the road makes from travelling. Because congestion costs aren't fixed -- they depend on traffic conditions -- the red line will move dramatically and unpredicatably from day to day. Similarly, the blue line refers to a specific time slice of a day; it will move as the time of day changes, and with changes in the weather (more people will benefit from driving on wet days), and from other intangibles. Thus, although it can be depicted prettily, it is not a stable cost, and difficult for individual commuters to optimise themselves to.

What a congestion charge does is shift the red line vertically, adding a fixed (or perhaps a shifting) monetary cost to the commute (without affecting the travel time cost) to reduce the number of commuters. What Arnott correctly notes is that on a highly congested road (which by nature must have a high benefit to the commuter), the benefits conferred by adding road capacity (by shifting the red line to the right) are very high, while a congestion charge needs to be quite high to shift many commuters off the roads.

Unless, as he explains, you can either shift demand onto a different time-slice without congestion problems, or (as was done in London) shift demand onto a different service (such as mass transport).

Two further quotes from this area got my attention:

It is remarkable that economists have such a well-articulated theory of congestion, but such a poorly-integrated body of theory related to the benefits of travel.


Remarkably, second-best transit policy with underpriced auto congestion has not, to my knowledge, been analyzed in the literature. Here is not the appropriate place to analyze it. But let me make a couple of comments. The first is that with constant long-run costs to auto travel and decreasing long-run costs to mass transit, a representative individual, and perfect substitutability between auto trips and mass transit trips, the unrealistic solution is obtained that either all trips should be by car or all trips should be by mass transit. Thus, to obtain a sensible solution, imperfect substitutability between car and mass transit trips should be assumed, which rules out simple geometric analysis. The second is that the problem is intrinsically complex. In the previous section, we analyzed how the plannerís choice of optimal road capacity is affected by the constraint that congestion is unpriced. That problem was complex enough. But now we have two imperfectly substitutable modes and three instruments -- road capacity, the transit fare, and transit capacity -- that the planner can adjust to mitigate the distortion associated with auto congestion being unpriced or underpriced. Thus, it is fair to say that, given the current state of the theory, little can be said about optimal transit policy in the presence of unpriced auto congestion.

This presents all sorts of problems. Even setting a congestion price becomes more difficult because the imperfect substitutability of different modes [1] and different times of travel, means that a price change, will not just shift the congestion curve upwards, but also cause some commuters to jump from the car-based commuting demand curve to the (differently shaped) rail-based curve, or the (differently shaped) car-based curve at another time of day.

In other words, although we can predict reasonably well that a change in the capacity of a road with a given demand will attract demand and justify (or not) the expenditure. The results of changing the inherent costs of existing roads, where alternative travel choices exist, is basically unpredictable.

Nevertheless, I thought the conclusion was excellent:

I have no panacea for traffic congestion; indeed, I think there is none. But there are so many distortions vis-ŗ-vis travel behavior which are so large that there is considerable scope for improvement. Traffic congestion will get worse. But as it does, the political opposition to ameliorative changes will diminish. As well, policy innovations will occur and those policy innovations that are successful will be widely adopted. Our politico-economic system is adaptive and we shall muddle through.

[1] And it should be noted here that none of the authors mentioned cycling or walking as alternative modes, despite their suitablity over short distances of up to 10km. For those wondering, just over one million people live within 10km of Melbourne's CBD, 300,000 of them within 5km walking distance. American cities are different in this respect, but to ignore those modes completely is a serious blind-spot.

Planning 16th February, 2006 23:40:59   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CIX, February 2006
Russell Degnan

Another photo from my grainy summer line. This time from the MSO concert last Wednesday, attended by all and sundry. And nice, except for Rob's correct comments regarding the sound. Taken February 2006

Melbourne 13th February, 2006 12:31:00   [#] [2 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CVIII, February 2006
Russell Degnan

The South Lawn and Old Arts Building, Melbourne University. Taken March 2003

Melbourne 7th February, 2006 12:52:00   [#] [5 comments] 

Favouring local transport
Russell Degnan

Long time readers of this blog -- if any -- will have noted that I'm generally opposed to transport infrastructure that doesn't improve the structural integrity of the cities transport network; such as a freeway or railway line to the outer suburbs that means people 95% of people still drive everywhere, but they can get to the CBD in 30 minutes. It is nice therefore, to see that Melbourne City Council agrees with me.

A plan that favours cyclists and pedestrians is not before time. This is, after all, a council that has had a connection with one of the world's most reknowned advocates of urban design favouring 'people' for over a decade. But things are never simple in politics. Take the RACV for example, who knowing it wouldn't be wise to advocate the wholesale removal of footpaths and the running down of pedestrians with lorries, gave us this:

RACV public policy general manager Ken Ogden said that while he supported improving public transport, he was concerned the strategy was "anti-car".

"It's a pity they have chosen to go down this 'roads versus public transport' path, rather than looking for a truly integrated solution," he said.

Don't believe this tripe for a second. Fast public transport, and more importantly, safe and convenient cycling and pedestrian paths come at the expense of cars. You can have streets with a mix -- see the work of David Engwicht for instance -- but it won't be a fast moving street, and therefore comes at the expense of a driver's natural instinct: to get where they want to go as quickly as possible.

However, the CBD is a different beast to the suburbs, and so it is worth considering what is and isn't possible when considering an article such as this one by John Grant. He recognises the major problem as follows:

But it is harder to make the changes we need than it sounds. We have to make it possible for people to walk more, with better-planned suburbs, well-maintained footpaths, appropriate speed limits, safe road crossings, responsive traffic lights, seats, signs, more "local" shops - all of those important things that often get forgotten when the focus is on getting vehicles to their destinations.

Better planned suburbs is the biggest hurdle. Suburbs don't move much. In fact, short of a fairly major re-location program, places don't move at all once they are laid out. You can still see the Roman road patterns in Bologna and Verona, and you can still see the medieval streets in London and even Paris (the king of relocation programs). Melbourne's suburbs are good and bad. Some, certainly will never be walkable, although I think they are cycle-able, given sufficient incentives.

And it is incentives that are all wrong. Regardless of how locals would like their local streets and shopping centres to be, the major roads -- that serve to cut off walking and cycling paths, and in strip-shopping centres, reduce the footpaths to narrow byways -- into them are controlled by VicRoads, a body devoted to the movement of cars. Similarly, major shopping centres don't care about walkers. They want to cast the broadest net across the metropolis, so it suits them to be a little island in a well-connected road network.

It is equally unrealistic to expect a lot of 'local' shops to spring up in suburbs. Residents hate commerce, they kick up a stink like you've never seen when it threatens to encroach on their quiet back-streets.

But walking and cycling is the key. The great difference between Europe and Australia is not public transport usage, as often claimed, but that they walk and cycle at rates ten times ours. And they do that because those methods are favoured above cars in all ways and in all places. Melbourne won't walk or cycle until it is easier to walk or cycle to the shops, or to public transport that will take them there, than it is to drive. And that means that local communities need to take road space for those methods, at the expense of outsiders that drive to them.

I suspect however, that doing that means changing the structure of transport funding and control that currently exists. Melbourne CC can do it because they are symbolically important, because they are in the middle of the city, and because they have public transport to burn. I'd be much more impressed if Yarra or Darebin produced a similar plan, and acted on it.

Planning 2nd February, 2006 19:47:22   [#] [3 comments] 


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