Friday, March 27, 2009

Dense Cities

March 25, 2009

Pack them in, build them up

A 6.5m population is fine. Dense cities thrive by attracting smart people

By Tan Hui Yee

IF YOU feel uneasy about the fact that Singapore is gearing up for a population of 6.5 million, Professor Edward Glaeser has this to say: You've nothing to worry about.

'Density is underrated and undervalued and the pleasures of density are in fact quite remarkable,' he declares.

'Living with 6.5 million people doesn't mean you necessarily have less private living space. There is absolutely nothing unhealthy about having lots of tall skyscrapers and people walking around between them. Not only is it good urban policy, it is a good environmental policy as well.'

If urban density ever needed a salesman, it would be Prof Glaeser.

The 41-year-old economist at Harvard University made his name studying what made cities tick.

In Singapore earlier this month to give a talk at the Civil Service College, he stressed that cities survive and thrive by constantly reinventing themselves, which is only possible if there are enough 'smart people' present to generate a creative buzz.

His view is shared by urban theorist Richard Florida, who famously argued that a 'creative class' of talented professionals flocks to vibrant global cities for work and lifestyle opportunities and in turn contributes to their growth.

Except, both men differ on what constitutes talent.

Dr Florida's idea of a skilled worker, Prof Glaeser says half in jest, 'is a 28- year-old who wears a black turtleneck' and frequents coffee houses.

'My model of a skilled worker is that 42-year-old biotechnology worker who has a husband and two kids and is trying to live a decent life.

'Those lead you to very different views of what the fight for talent is all about. Florida thinks you need a lot of coffee houses, and I think you need good schools and safe streets and fast commutes. And I'm pretty sure I'm right.'

If he is, Singapore - seen as clean, safe and sterile - is in a good position.

Cities, he says, need the right kind of buzz to bring them forward. 'The things that people define as what makes a city buzz, a lot of them have to do with public spaces and restaurants and bars and cafes. But I don't think it's at the heart of what makes cities well-functioning and successful. It's a mistake to think that the buzz is just the number of pages that you read in Time Out magazine.'

Take the buzzing research triangle in North Carolina in the United States, home to companies like IBM Corporation.

'It may not be the hippest area to spend a Saturday night but there sure is a heck of lot of new innovations going on. A lot of Silicon Valley is pretty boring from the perspective of an urban hipster. But in terms of what really matters, there's a lot of buzz there.'

To maintain what he refers to as an intellectual edge, he says Singapore needs to constantly expose itself to cutting- edge ideas and have a sizeable pool of skilled workers.

Asked what skills are valued in the context of recurring discussions over the value of an arts degree versus a science degree here, he says: 'Studying Shakespeare does not make up for innumeracy. It certainly does enrich our lives. The more prosperous a country is, the larger the role of arts.'

He points out that a recent study on the effect of mandated science and maths curricula in American schools found that they improved the earnings of the less advantaged significantly. 'It suggests that forcing the school to teach maths and science ended up being very good for them.'

The arts, he says, is 'a bit of a luxury good'. 'If you told people of my great- grandfather's generation that a thriving arts scene was going to determine which city you were going to go to, they would have thought you were mad.

''Can I put bread on the table?' and 'Would we be shot?' - those would have been the primary issues that would have driven people two generations ago.'

A small country like Singapore, with a four million population, he says, need not worry that its size will disqualify it from the big league as long as it has enough quality and diverse talent.

'The question is more an issue of the high human capital people you have, how many potential entrepreneurs you have, how much diversity there is, rather than the actual body count. You can add on an extra five million unskilled labour and it is not going to make a difference to your ability to innovate.'

But primarily, he maintains that cities should serve people's needs rather than exist for their own sake.

In 2005, he wrote an article against the rebuilding of New Orleans after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, saying that its residents were better off getting money to rebuild their lives elsewhere if they wished. The city, he said, had been declining way before the hurricane hit, and it was not doing a good job of looking after its poor residents either.

Putting people first means getting rid of unnecessary rules that make business and housing unaffordable. From his studies of New York and Boston over the past 30 to 40 years, he contends that the cities' recent surge in home prices is more a result of tightening building regulations, rather than anything else.

Logically, if there is enough supply of homes, housing prices will converge around the cost of building that next floor up. In places where land is scarce - like Singapore - height restrictions act as a dampener on housing supply.

Although the demand for housing reflects the attractiveness of a city, its ability to produce enough affordable housing to meet that demand is 'a sign of urban health'. He notes in some parts of the US, 'it feels as if every neighbour has gotten the right to say no to every project'. In suburbs, it is all about zoning and minimum lot size. In cities, it is about maximum heights.

He is quick to admit that his model applies to cities where housing is supplied by the market. The fact that more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in public housing makes it trickier to apply here, but he ventures: 'I think you want to think of how well you are delivering pleasant affordable housing. The Government has played such a heavy role in housing, not inappropriately so, that I think the ability of the private sector to deliver cheap affordable housing is potentially not as strong as it could be.'

Not only does density make housing affordable, he says it is also sustainable. 'Crowding more people on less land is fundamentally good for the environment. Partly because people have lower transportation costs, live in smaller homes, and use less energy.'

A 2008 US study he did found that the carbon footprint of the people who choose to live 'close to nature', surrounded by woods or lawns, was higher than that of city folk. 'If you want to be good to the environment, stay away from it,' he advocates.

Density is also exciting. 'Chicago's lakefront has grown and strengthened the city. The high-rise buildings in Boston have been associated with an increasing vitality in that city's downtown. Philadelphia only recently broke its height restriction, and the high rises there have been able to support more stores and night life.'

If he had it his way, all cities would be planned around actual human dynamics rather than according to preconceived notions of what they should look like.

During his walks around Singapore, he noted that its hot, humid climate keeps people off the streets in the day.

'There's a huge amount of pedestrian traffic but it's indoors. It's all in the air- conditioned malls, which is really where the street life is. That means connections between those malls are actually what city planning needs,' he prescribes.

Still, by any standard, Singapore has a lot going for it. 'The density levels are remarkable...if you love the ability of cities to bring people together and experience a collective world, there's a lot to admire there.'

March 27, 2009

Thriving density? Be wary of potential pitfalls

I REFER to the report on Wednesday, 'Pack them in, build them up'. Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard University suggests that a population of 6.5 million in a densely built-up city could give Singapore a thriving density attractive to 'smart people' who would generate new jobs and a 'creative buzz'. In turn, this buzz would spur new growth, making Singapore an even better place to live and work, for natives and foreigners alike.

On this rosy feedback cycle, seemingly loaded with an infinite chain of goods, I suggest caution: Beware of possible pitfalls of this model.

The first lies in the possibility of overcrowding. Beyond the obvious speculations of ever more crowded hawker centres, trains and roads, a thriving density cannot be automatically assumed, even with a 6.5 million population on an island as small as Singapore. A thriving density must be deliberately encouraged and designed, or it will turn into overcrowding. A thriving density is the result of people interacting with other people, people wanting to interact with other people; while overcrowding is by default, people brushing by other people.

A thriving density fosters social understanding and productive interaction, culminating in greater social solidarity. On the other hand, overcrowding exacerbates alienation and unproductive competitiveness, consequently turning into open conflict.

Common sense tells us that, while skyscrapers may provide the vertical solution to the problem of overcrowding, they are least ideal to foster a thriving density, since vertical use of skyscrapers via elevators tends to compartmentalise lives, minimise social interaction and reduce chance meetings.

The second pitfall lies in the unqualified emphasis on 'smart people'. No one would deny that Bernard Madoff or the many Wall Street financial wizards who have exacerbated the current financial crisis are 'smart people', or part of the creative class. Yet 'smartness' or creativity without morality, scruples or responsibility - as the current crisis has demonstrated - is a liability rather than a benefit to society.

From what is happening in the world today, being satisfied with a mere 'creative buzz' is likely to alarm many, while trying to foster a 'moral creative buzz' is likely to reassure, and intuitively attract post-financial crisis workers, investors and citizens.

This model of a densely built up, creative city growing on its own dynamics is nevertheless very seductive. But as with any other model to be pursued on a practical level, one should be wary of its potential pitfalls.

Jeffrey Chan

[I take two issues with this forum letter.

'No one will deny that Bernard Madoff and (others)... are "Smart People"'

I would disagree that Madoff was smart. He had no exit strategy. Cheating does not require smarts. just audacity. Pretending to create value and actually creating value are two different things. One just requires the ability to lie. The other requires ability.

The other reason I included this letter is the argument that skyscrapers or highrise living dampens social interaction. Or is not conducive to social interaction. That is probably very true. It is the common space or shared space that leads to interaction. See this online comment:]

Has the professor stayed in a 2 bed room Hong Kong apartment of 350 sq. ft.?

The master bed-room is able to accommodate a 4ft wide "queen" bed and a 2 door wardrobe with barely enough space to walk. The second room is exactly the size of two single beds. You can touch the opposite walls of the kitchen with outstretched hands.

Some apartment blocks are so close to each other that you can touch them with a bamboo pole.

Staying in such an apartment will make you realise why Hong Kong has such a vibrant night life? Hong Kongers youth only go home to sleep and spend the evenings in shopping centers, restuarants etc.

I don't want this kind of life because you are tired everyday and spend your income on "enforced entertainment".

Posted by: hubhubhub at Fri Mar 27 12:52:07 SGT 2009

[The next article is an example of forum replies that don't read original articles properly and fill in the blanks with their own assumptions.]

March 27, 2009

Who wants a densely packed Singapore?

I REFER to Wednesday's article, 'Pack them in, build them up'.

I am both shocked and dismayed by Professor Edward Glaeser's short-sighted and highly flawed opinion that a population of 6.5 million would be essentially beneficial for Singapore. His notion that there is nothing unhealthy about living in skyscrapers does not take into consideration the many Singaporeans who wish Singapore would lose its tag as a concrete jungle and focus on creating a city with more 'green spaces'.

[So who's calling Singapore a "concrete jungle"? If anything, we're called "Garden City" or "City in a Garden". Compare Singapore with other cities and then it becomes clear what is a "concrete jungle".]

He also welcomes the addition of more 'smart people', whom he defined as a typical man in his 40s with children, without considering whether these individuals would be able to assimilate into Singapore culture with no accompanying problems which are already plaguing many immigrants here.

[First two mistake. Glaeser's "skilled worker" (he didn't say "smart people") is a 42-yr-old biotech worker with a HUSBAND. So no. It's not a typical MAN.]

He also mentioned that a city with high density would also serve people's needs but he has conveniently forgotten that the basic human need of privacy, comfort and space would be severely compromised in public spaces if the population hit 6.5 million.

As it is, many of my peers have expressed a sincere wish to emigrate, not because of the high cost of living or the stressful lifestyle. It is primarily because they are appalled by how Singapore has been transformed into a city where it is difficult to find a seat on the MRT on a weekday afternoon, or seek peace and solace even in the suburbs, when Sembawang Mall is now as crowded as Plaza Singapura. Homes are getting smaller and more expensive, and people feel blessed to secure a seat in a foodcourt at any time of the day.

Prof Glaeser also claimed that packing individuals close together in smaller homes would reduce transport costs and energy usage, but this is overly simplistic and short-sighted. There is every possibility that smaller homes may use more energy if more time is spent on home entertainment.

[Third error. Glaeser talked about packing more people on less LAND. Nothing about smaller homes. Here the writer is filling in the blanks with his (or her - Robin could be a man or woman's name) own preconceptions or concerns. Theoretically, the same size unit built to more floors would increase density, without need to decrease size per unit. Unit size decrease when land costs increases while height restrictions are in place. Then it becomes necessary to shrink unit size to affordable ranges. Also as lifestyle changes, less space is required. And people are willing to make do with smaller units.]

Prof Glaeser's view that a city with high population density would reduce transport cost is also problematic as recent research shows that individuals living in residential zones which are overly crowded have a higher tendency to travel out of their residential area to seek leisure arenas that are 'less congested' and where they are 'less scrutinised' than in flats built in close proximity to each other.

[Doesn't say which research or on what city or the context or the circumstances. But even if true, the frequency of a daily commute from suburbia to the city to work would mean more costs than living in the city and going off to the suburbs on the weekends for recreation. In other words if you need to go to the office 5 days a week, and the golf course 1 day a week, where should you be living closer to? Does it make more sense to live within walking distance of your office or your golf course? If you say golf course, you have your priorities wrong... unless you are a professional golfer.]

Prof Glaeser's comments are certainly not representative of most Singaporeans who seriously wish for a less crowded living environment.

Robin Chee

[I personally think Orchard and the shopping districts are just too crowded. So i avoid those places. I haven't been to an IT/PC/COMEX/SITEX for over a year as I detest the crowds. But apparently thousands of Singaporeans don't mind. So I'm not sure that while Singaporeans may voice their preference of open spaces, they would really want that. There is a cost to a smaller population in terms of convenience. In less dense cities, public transport is less frequent (tho less crowded). You may do more walking. Or else you'd buy a car, or a bike. If Singaporeans want less crowded places, they won't be rushing down to Orchard, Suntec, Vivocity and their heartland malls.]

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