Planning and Trend-Setting: Are we being conned into higher density living?

Credit fireballk2558/Flickr Creative Commons
I am sitting in a forum listening to some research on changing work practices, particularly the changes resulting from technology and telecommuting, but a big issue is missing from the approach. Institutions. 

In their broadest sense, institutions are the formal and informal rules, routines, and procedures used to order society. Put simply, institutions are the "rules of the game".

There are some theoretical debates about whether institutions influence behaviour or whether institutions are a result of desired behaviours that are then reflected in society and so on. Nevertheless, it is clear that institutions can limit behaviour, and the presence or absence of institutions can lead to certain behaviours becoming normalised.

Take private cars, for instance. As I drove into work today, there was a line-up of cars waiting to enter the campus. The line extended all the way back to the entrance. Except for mine, every car had one person in it. This is a common story.

But why do people insist on driving their cars to work, paying for fuel, parking and maintenance, not to mention the frustration of driving through ever-increasing traffic? The reason seems simple: There is no alternative.

But sometimes it is just out of habit (a form of institution). This applies to other areas, too.

Some recent feedback from my "flipped classroom" teaching was surprising. For this approach, I produce video lectures and have longer, more focused tutorials available in a variety of flexible formats. This means that students can choose not to drive to the campus - they can even study fully online.

Yet a small sample of the feedback suggested that students should get a discount because they were not attending a "proper lecture". The rationale was that video lectures were somehow easier for me and therefore required less effort than face-to-face lectures. In fact, the opposite is true!

While most appreciated the flexibility, I was surprised that providing people with a "telecommuting" choice meant that it was somehow "cheaper". Never mind that there was no need to drive through traffic, park one's car, carry books and laptops for almost a kilometre during a heatwave and then sit through a lecture for two hours! But this attitude tends to reflect broader trends in planning, and brings me to my major point.

There is a major shift in planning that somehow higher density living is a good thing. The idea is that the closer to work you live, the easier it is to commute by walking, cycling or light rail services. Many urban renewal projects in Sydney and Canberra reflect this growing trend.

What concerns me is that telecommuting, despite the endless promises of the NBN (now nbn), is barely happening - at least formally. In the meantime, higher density living is winning the battle over "changing work practices". Higher density living changes the mode of commuting, maybe changes the way employees dress (at least to and from work), but it relies on the traditional measure of performance - attendance. 

An employee's physical presence at work is clearly an institution. If you are not physically at a formal workplace, you are not working. Sure, for many careers the physical presence of the employee is a necessity that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. But it is an institution nonetheless.

Which brings me to planning. Higher density means higher prices for smaller parcels of land. It also means greater value capture for governments relying on land taxes (like the ACT Government). It also means more people in smaller spaces. The three bedroom house with the 1/4 acre block is fast disappearing. Some think this is a good thing, but is it?

The now mostly-out-of-reach Australian dream of the house on a 1/4 acre is often blamed for increasing greenhouse emissions, suburban sprawl, pockets of poverty and drug abuse and so on. Too often, the lack of infrastructure is to blame for such situations and the reliance on cars as the major means of travel in Australia is somewhat a cause and a consequence of all the bad things about the Australian dream. 

However, there are many small towns around the major metropolitan centres that still offer the opportunity to own the Australian dream at an affordable price. The problem, of course, is commuting. If you live out of town, then you have to drive. 

What strikes me most is that in a country with so much space we don't know what to do with it, we would be conned into living in higher density housing in the middle of already bursting-at-the-seams cities. Yet these areas are becoming trendy, expensive and gentrified. And these areas are getting most of the investment in transport infrastructure. This is the part that doesn't make much sense. Unless the idea is to force more and more people into cities to improve the return on investment in infrastructure and the value capture through land tax. Yet flock to high density housing they do. Another institution.

In the meantime, the NBN (nbn), the largest investment in infrastructure in Australia's history, is being underutilised for telecommuting. Instead of enabling a decentralised Australia to flourish, the NBN is barley catching up on the shortfall from previous years of neglect. Further, our reliance on the car as the primary means of transport restricts one's ability to live outside of major centres, much to the detriment of smaller communities. Unless of course investment in high speed rail and other alternatives happens soon. And it should. Only Australia and parts of the United States seem hell-bent on relying on private cars as the major transport strategy. Another institution no doubt.

It would seem that higher density housing is one big con job. Governments, developers and real estate agents are having a field day. In the meantime, affording a house with enough land to grow a decent vege patch is fading into mythology. So much for telecommuting. Maybe it just isn't trendy enough. Or maybe "workplace presence" is the institution that no longer orders society appropriately.

Either way, there is a strong correlation between high density housing and workplace presence that no longer makes sense in the digital age. Unfortunately, we often focus on solutions to the very problems that we created, rather than looking at the "rules of the game" and how these determine the score.