How to Spot a Fake Chinese Ecocity

A very brave post from Li Xun secretary of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies and vice-director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design.

Interviewer: “Low-carbon city” and “eco-city” have become buzzwords in China’s urban planning and construction circles, while manufacturers are producing products with “low-carbon” labels. It seems we’ve been swept up by a low-carbon fever. Many western nations have already attempted to build low-carbon cities, with mixed results: will we see the same problems when that model is applied in China?

Li Xun: The term “low-carbon” covers several concepts. One is the use of absolute values to measure whether something is high or low carbon. Unlike with the term ”ecological”, where we talk about circular development, the degree to which you are low carbon can be measured in per capita emissions – in one year, how much carbon does one person create?

For example, Shanghai citizens emit an average of 10 tonnes of carbon each per year, higher than Beijing’s eight tonnes. The main reason for Beijing’s high emissions is the number of cars on the road: Beijing people love cars. In Shanghai, the issue is concentration of industry.

What’s high carbon, what’s low carbon? For cities, we can use a relative measure: in the process of growth – of creating one dollar or one yuan of wealth – how much carbon is emitted? This is carbon intensity of the economy and it can be used as a measure. Or the low-carbon concept could be seen as a process. For example, if Beijing’s per capita emissions fall from eight tonnes to six tonnes, or to the world average of four tonnes, we would say that process is a low-carbon process.

Describing cities as low-carbon, ecological, green – for me, the first thing is biodiversity: the people in the city, the things, the animals, all co-exist. Second is the circular economy. In the industrial revolution, development was linear, meaning that resources turned into rubbish. In circular development, everything can be restored to its original state, and waste made valuable again.

To date, there’s no city in the world that can genuinely call itself an ecological city – they’re just moving in that direction. Malmo in Sweden, Freiburg in Germany, they’ve done more than most in pursuit of that target.

Of China’s 600 cities almost 200 have low-carbon city or eco-city targets, with some already building actual projects or even proposing standardised systems. From what you’ve seen, are these projects actually low-carbon?

I don’t want to say how many are “fake”, but I can say that about one fifth are being carried out in accordance with actual low-carbon and ecological principles. Overall, cities contribute 75% of total greenhouse-gas emissions.

What’s the root cause of all the fake low-carbon projects?

I think people aren’t clear what the label means. Academics aren’t clear, the people aren’t clear. Everyone just has a fuzzy idea.

So how do you think all these confused ideas of low-carbon will evolve in the future?

Are we turning our backs on low-carbon and ecological ideals, all the while believing we are moving towards them? Are they fake low-carbon schemes? Or are there even cases that are actively anti-low carbon, anti-eco? Well, yes, there are.

Do you have any actual examples?

At the Shanghai World Expo last year, they had an underground refuse collection system, actually under the Expo park. The Tianjin eco-city also has one, as has Caofeidian eco-city. Beijing’s CBD and the CBD east expansion will follow suit.

But to analyse its effectiveness, you need to measure how much material was required to build it, what it cost, how much carbon was emitted to produce the material, how much carbon is emitted in order to power the system, and add it all up. Then compare it with normal collection by refuse trucks – have emissions actually decreased or not?

Was the Expo itself a fake low-carbon project then?

I’m not saying that the Expo shouldn’t have used the refuse system, just that if it’s going to be used everywhere, then we need to work out if it’s high-carbon or low-carbon. It needs to be measured. I think it will only be meaningful if it’s used in densely populated areas, where the demand for environmental quality is highest, like at the Expo or in Beijing’s CBD.

It’s the same principle as when we compare air and train travel. Which has higher emissions? Generally people think air travel does, and that train travel is low-carbon. But others have worked out that, per kilometre travelled, planes aren’t necessarily higher carbon. This rests on the concept of “whole lifecycle” – where you include the travel, the depots, the tracks, the land used, from route design to construction. And planes actually use very little material.

So when it comes to designing low-carbon and ecological cities, we might think we’re on the road to heaven, but actually we’re going the opposite direction. I’d like to propose two principles. First, suitability for local conditions: that is, in urban planning, local circumstances need to be considered when deciding what is low-carbon or ecological.

Take green buildings as an example. In the north of China, green buildings mean insulation. Winter is freezing, so energy-saving is mostly achieved by insulating structures. But the south is different. In the south, one of the things green buildings need to provide is natural ventilation. So you can’t do what you’d do in the north and have windows that don’t open. The north needs to retain warmth, the south needs ventilation. In the south, you also need shade.

The second principle is to calculate emissions over the whole lifespan of a project. You can’t just say something is low-carbon – start with the equipment and materials: where did they come from? And then move all the way through the process to what happens to the materials when they are discarded. Use that whole lifespan to work out if something is high-carbon or low-carbon.

What changes do we need to fulfil our low-carbon aims?

We can’t pursue luxury lifestyles anymore – we need to be more moderate. If you just think about the individual, then the whole system, the whole planet, will collapse. China can’t live the way the Americans do. We’ve had that dream for decades, but it’s time to wake up.

The Ice Lolly Test of a Well Designed Neighbourhood #NPPF

The ‘Ice Lolly Test, or the’popsicle test’ as our American Cousins call it is a test used by quite a lot of New Urbanists in the States as a test of a well designed neighbourhood. Noone is quite sure where it came from but heres a good statement of it.

Popsicle test? It’s this…is it possible for an 8-year-old to buy a Popsicle on his or her own and return before it has completely melted? If so, chances are it’ll be a good place to live.

How so?

Well, first of all, if a kid can get around on his own, that means the streets must be pretty safe. There are probably sidewalks or wide shoulders to walk on – things that benefit all pedestrians. And the intersections must not pose a big threat, either. There are probably stop signs, or the traffic lights are red long enough for a dawdler to make it all the way from one side to the other. ….

Then, too, if a third-grader can hoof it to the store, that probably means that the stores aren’t so far away from the houses that shopping requires a car.

The freedoms that this creates for parents and kids alike has led to the Free Range Kids Movement and the idea of a playborhood.

Scott Doyon asks what kind of adults you produce when you dont have this kind of environment and instead you have helicopter parents who never let their kids outside, adults

whose every whim has been accommodated, every move scripted, every moment scheduled, every unpredictability or challenge sidestepped, and every decision made for them. [universities] term for them? “Teacups, because they’re so fragile that they break down anytime things don’t go their way.”

I riase this because it struck me – what’s in it the NPPF for kids, what in it for my own daughter. Indirectly lots, and lots of stuff about school – hiss boo – but from the centre of a childs simple and wonderful priorities its all about the ‘grown up’ obsessions with making money, driving and living in a big house.

Not all of the Libertarian Right are Pro-Sprawl

From the Independent Concerns Blog

I hope our friends at the Policy Exchange are reading.

Libertarians Against Sprawl Push Mixed Use Agenda

Posted by Kevin Carson on May 29, 2009 compliments of Center for a Stateless Society

..there’s a highly vocal libertarian contingent (“You’ll take away my car when you pry my cold, dead foot off the gas pedal”) that defends sprawl as the result of free market forces, and equates opposition to sprawl and the car culture with statist paternalism. John Stossel, for example, attacking the “myth” that “urban sprawl is ruining America,” strongly implied that the current pattern of suburban development reflected the average person’s preferences, and dismissed opposition to sprawl and suburban monocultures as a movement of elitist social engineers. And he cited James Kunstler as an example of that breed.

Interestingly, though, a libertarian need go no further than Kunstler’s book “The Geography of Nowhere” to get a clear idea of the role of the state in promoting suburbanization and the car culture. Kunstler devotes an entire chapter to the role of Robert Moses’s intergovernmental authorities in the first large-scale experiment with urban freeway systems on Long Island.

Since then, local governments have been almost universally dominated by an unholy alliance of real estate developers and other commercial interests whose agenda centers on building new freeways. … In a typical election, all the candidates for city council give “building more roads” as their top priority–which means building new roads to “relieve congestion,” most of it generated by the housing additions and strip malls that sprang up along the last new road they built to “relieve congestion.”

You’d have to be pretty obtuse to miss a central point of Kunstler’s book: suburbanization and the car culture were central to urban planning in the decades after World War II, and were in fact mandated by the planners.

The typical urban design platte excluded all businesses from residential areas, and mandated large setbacks and enormous front lawns. An amusing (if appalling) illustration of the latter is Georgetown. The old prewar houses, with their front porches cozily situated fifteen feet or so from the tree-lined sidewalks, were grandfathered in to the post-WWII plattes. But when a house burned down, a new house built on that lot had to follow the new mandates: so one house on the block was a Brady Bunch-style split-level ranch, set far behind its neighbors, with a front lawn like a golf course.

We see the same pattern endlessly repeated. Not only is the corner grocery or drug store prohibited in the suburbs, but affordable walkup apartments are also prohibited over downtown businesses. (Incidentally, Amory Lovins and the other authors of “Natural Capitalism” cited a study’s estimate that reinstating the corner grocer woud by itself reduce gasoline consumption by 6%.)

… libertarians are far from universally being cartoonish defenders of sprawl like Stossel. For example Michael Lewyn, in “A Libertarian Smart Growth Agenda,” advocates an anti-sprawl coalition focused on eliminating government subsidies to the car culture and regulatory impediments to mixed use development.

Fighting sprawl isn’t a matter of imposing new government mandates. It’s a matter of scaling back existing restrictions on mixed use development, and prying the mouths of the real estate industry and the automobile-highway complex off the taxpayer teat.

Debt Deflation AD33

Read this from the Cautious Investors blog and think about lessons for todays economy, as well as asking yourself whether the Roman Empire was truly a capitalist economy? The more we learn about it the more the objections to that fall away. Remember too that the Roman Empire/Capitalism collapsed. There will be a lot more on this thesis in future posts.

The famous “panic” of A.D. 33 illustrates the development and complex interdependence of banks and commerce in the Empire. Augustus had coined and spent money lavishly, on the theory that its increased circulation, low interest rates, and rising prices would stimulate business. They did; but as the process could not go on forever, a reaction set in as early as 10 B.C., when this flush minting ceased. Tiberius rebounded to the opposite theory that the most economical economy is the best. He severely limited the governmental expenditures, sharply restricted new issues of currency, and hoarded 2,700,000,000 sesterces in the Treasury.
The resulting dearth of circulating medium was made worse by the drain of money eastward in exchange for luxuries. Prices fell, interest rates rose, creditors foreclosed on debtors, debtors sued usurers, and money-lending almost ceased. The Senate tried to check the export of capital by requiring a high percentage of every senator’s fortune to be invested in Italian land; senators thereupon called in loans and foreclosed mortgages to raise cash, and the crisis rose. When the senator Publius Spinther notified the bank of Balbus and Ollius that he must withdraw 30,000,000 sesterces to comply with the new law, the firm announced its bankruptcy.
At the same time the failure of an Alexandrian firm, Seuthes and Son due to their loss of three ships laden with costly spices and the collapse of the great dyeing concern of Malchus at Tyre, led to rumors that the Roman banking house of Maximus and Vibo would be broken by their extensive loans to these firms. When its depositors began a “run” on this bank it shut its doors, and later on that day a larger bank, of the Brothers Pettius, also suspended payment. Almost simultaneously came news that great banking establishments had failed in Lyons, Carthage, Corinth, and Byzantium. One after another the banks of Rome closed. Money could be borrowed only at rates far above the legal limit. Tiberius finally met the crisis by suspending the land-investment act and distributing 100,000,000 sesterces to the banks, to be lent without interest for three years on the security of realty. Private lenders were thereby constrained to lower their interest rates, money came out of hiding, and confidence slowly re-turned

Lessons from the Housing Pipeline for the #NPPF

Given the row between the CPRE and the HBF over the meaning of the precipitious fall in Q2 of 23% of housing completions I thought id look into the data in a bit more detail.

A good part of the decline in Q2 is the spending cuts to the Housing Corporation working there way through the system.  However this does not disguise the 20% drop in Q2 year on year for general market unit permissions.

The contraction in London would be much greater were it not for a major approval.

The figures though dont look behind the reasons for the declines and falls.   

A landbank is a ‘stock’ for a housebuilder.  They go from ‘stock’ of options to ‘stock’ of banked ‘consents’ if there is opportunity to profit they will commence development creating a ‘stock’ of completions – which could ‘flow’ into purchasers who can finance new housing at the price offered.

We have to bear in mind the sage advice of Hyman Minsky that Economics is the ‘Science of Confusing Stocks and Flows’

Just how large are housebuilders landbanks?  290,000 dwellings was claimed in 2009, but since then the it has built up to over 500,000 (but much of this on sites that are highly speculative) .  That seems large but isnt.  It amounts to just over 2 years requirement for new housing in the UK (which varies from 250,000 to 280,000 a year by differing estimates).  

The OFT studied landbanking in 2008

It is useful to think of a landbank as a pipeline, a homebuilder will have land at a variety of stages in the planning process. Having a stock of land helps a homebuilder cope with fluctuations in the housing market and also helps to reduce risk. Before anything can be built on land, planning permission must be granted. The combination of these two factors may explain why homebuilders require a pipeline of land which is at different stages of the planning process to ensure they can build homes at a rate at which they will sell….

The study also found no evidence that homebuilders have the ability to anti-competitively hoard land or withhold a large amount of land with planning permission on which they have not started to build. Instead, it is likely to be the case that ‘landbanking’ reflects the need for firms to have a pipeline of land at different stages in the development process.

So how large is a healthy landbank?

Again from the OFT study.

Then it typically took 22 months ‘end to end’, of course today it might take less.

What this means is if the ‘flow’ of consents is less in time than required turnover of stock to meet increases in housing housing need over 1 year then over a year the backlog of consents will grow, there will be a shortfall in housing land, and vice versa.  So if as above it takes 22 months to get consent on average you need a landbank of 22 months. Therefore the landbank equivalent to 1 years supply is dangerously low.  

As the OFT concluded

A planning timeline of almost two years, and a refusal rate of about one in three, would correspond to the need for a pipeline of land equivalent to three years worth of production going through the planning system at any one time.  

Which works out at landbanks of about 750,000 dwellings.

So I would conclude that both the CPRE is right, the main reason at the moment for low housebuilding is lack of demand, and the HBF is also right, we still face a supply shortage.

I would also say the CPRE press release was slightly misplaced as it dealt with a statistic relating to supply of consent when their argument related to demand for completions.

The HBF were also misleading in not pointing out that it will only be when we have economic recovery, a recovery in demand that this will at all matter.  No housebuilder will return big time to large scale building until we have that recovery.  Without that stimulus we wont get growth, we will get ghost estates.

Fed Chairman Ban Barnanke said this about the States today but it could equally apply to England.

the housing sector has been a significant driver of recovery from most recessions in the United States since World War II, but this time–with an overhang of distressed and foreclosed properties, tight credit conditions for builders and potential homebuyers, and ongoing concerns by both potential borrowers and lenders about continued house price declines–the rate of new home construction has remained at less than one-third of its pre-crisis level. 

What really matters is that when demand recovers we have enough ‘shovel ready’ (to use that much overworked phrase) zoned sites for housing ready.

Even at a time of weak demand the housebuilding industry has adjusted,  It now seeks to build fewer high margin ‘executive’ houses rather than flats.  These would have come from two sources in the past.  Redevelopment of existing dwellings and development of phases on green field sites.  

Since March last year we have seen a dramatic cutting back of these sources of supply, with policy shifts against garden grabbing and of course the abolition of regional planning – and the estimated loss of over 200,000 dwellings (a figure growing by the day) that that has resulted in- were bound to feed through after a period to housing consents.  Which is exactly what we have seen.

The ‘dead cat bounch’ of both completions and permissions in Q1 can be explained also.  Partially as a rexult of the ‘billionaires boom’ in London (the one area not scrapping regional targets), partially for the reasons set out in the excellent Brickenomics Blog concluding

 house builders restocking their development pipelines after slamming on the breaks in the face of the recession. The precise effect of this is hard to predict.

But with starts running at extremely low levels for a year and a half from late 2008, as firms ran down stocks, there would always be a need at some point to boost the numbers of homes in the pipeline. This point appears to have been early to mid 2009.

A common effect in such circumstances is an overshoot in the numbers above the “new normal” level as the stocks are rebuilt. Most likely what we are seeing now is a readjustment down to match the pipeline closer to the expected demand.

There are also macroeconomic reasons for this overshoot before a double dip – check out Steve Keen’s work.

Brickenomics also points out today something very interesting

on the face of it, if planning authorities were in the first quarter of this year granting permission to 81% of the applications they received compared with about two thirds as was the case for the period 2003 to 2008, it doesn’t immediately smack of a system in crisis.

The problem is not that planners are not saying ‘yes’ enough to planning applications. Planning ‘bureaucrats’ are not the ‘drag anchor’ on growth. Rather it is that planning applications are not coming forward quickly enough because of the shortage of allocated sites for housing, a problem caused by failed central government reforms and footdragging by local politicians equally, and because of the lack of effective demand when they are built.

For once the government, the CPRE and the HBF are all equally wrong about planning for housing.


The High Cost of Free Parking – Why Pickles is Wrong About Town Centre Parking

Just a quick plug for the ideas of American Professor of Planning Donald Shoup

He has found that 45% of town centre/downtown parking is people cruising around looking for a free space. His solution is simple price parking at its marginal cost rate – i.e. the amount necessary to get one, and only one free space, and so eliminate 45% of town centre traffic. (styrictly speaking you need around 85% occupancy rather than precisely one space but I wont go into the maths of that).

Something any economist or traffic planner would say, although something very hard for politicians, both American and increasingly British, to accept.

Ideally the price would fall and rise throughout the day, perhaps signalled by variable message signing and texts, and if the price is just right everyone will find a space.

His main research paper is here.

Sewerage Works and Urban Expansion

As urban areas expand they often get closer and closer to existing sewerage works. Water companies will object because of fears of statutory nuisance. Often they will set arbitrary thresholds such as 400m.

Few planners seem to know about the tactics to employ here, you can for example

-Cap the plant with the developer paying for that

-Use odour mapping to test if the issue is real

-See if controls are reasonable if lots of other houses within 400m.

Odour consultant Dr Micheal Bull (no im not making this up) has posted an interesting appeal on the third issue here.

Other odour consultants are available 🙂

There is also a landmark appeal from Dartford on the issue, sadly I seem to have lost it. Perhaps my friend from Dartford District can oblige.

Hope beyond the Dark Retreat

For those of you who have been reading my regailing the ‘turn against civilisation’ here is a hopeful story.

A team of U.S. volunteers is developing an open-source database they say will ultimately provide a do-it-yourself guide on how to construct each of the 50 industrial machines needed “to build a small civilization with modern comforts.” Launched in 2003 by Marcin Jakubowski, who describes himself as a “self-made industrial engineer,” the Open Source Ecology project so far has made prototypes of eight of the 50 machines, including a high-volume brick press, a hydraulic tractor, and a 3D printer. All the designs, instructional videos, and budgets are posted to an online wiki. The project, which is supported through small donations, ultimately hopes to provide inexpensive, accessible, and materially sustainable technologies for any setting, whether urban or rural, or in the developed or developing world. “We want a repository of published designs so clear, so complete, that a singleburned DVD is effectively a civilization starter kit,” Jakubowski said during a TED presentation this year. He hopes to prototype all 50 machines by early 2013, and by 2014 to exhibit a functional, small-scale, industrialized community demonstrating that “we can lead self-sustaining lives without sacrificing our standard of living.”