And now for something completely different.

One of the best things I’ve read recently was Australian economist John Quiggin’s discussion of “peak paper”, which the world apparently reached in 2013. It’s an optimistic story: showing how the slow accumulation of efficiencies can result in a more sustainable economy. But it also shows how long it takes to reap the full benefits of technological innovations – information technology, in this case:

For most of us, the industrial economy is a thing of the past. In the entire United States, large factories employ fewer than 2 million people. Even adding China to the picture does not change things much. And yet the conceptual categories of the 20th century still dominate our thinking. We remain fixated on the industrial model of economic growth, where ‘growth’ means ‘more of everything’, and we can express our rate of development in a single number. This model leads naturally to the conclusion that economic expansion must eventually run up against constraints on the availability of natural resources, such as trees to make paper.

And yet in 2013, despite positive growth overall, the world reached ‘Peak Paper’: global paper production and consumption reached its maximum, flattened out, and is now falling. A prediction that was over-hyped in the 20th century and then derided in the early 2000s – namely, the Paperless Office – is finally being realised. Growth continues, but paper is in retreat.

Quiggin goes on to discuss peak oil (per-capita consumption peaked in 1979), peak coal, and peak steel (already happened in the developed world). Conclusion: the economy of the future will be different.

More locally, Catherine Leining from the Motu Institute has written a good history of changes to the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme, which was designed to create incentives for Kiwis to cut their carbon emissions. For a variety of reasons, the ETS has never delivered on its aims:

The timeline shows how the government’s NZ ETS policy emerged in a series of stages, some of which overlap:

December 2005 to August 2007

Assessment of mitigation policy options after the decision to abandon the carbon tax

April 2007 to September 2008

NZ ETS design and initial legislation for phased implementation over 2008-2013

November 2008 to November 2009

First NZ ETS review and amendment to moderate its price impact through 2012 and defer the entry of biological emissions from agriculture until 2015

December 2010 to November 2012

Second NZ ETS review and amendment to both extend moderated price settings and defer biological emissions from agriculture indefinitely

September 2011 to May 2015

Adjustment of international linkages, ending with full delinking from the international Kyoto market

November 2015 through 2016

Third NZ ETS review; outcome to be determined…

For the sake of the planet (and economic efficiency), let’s hope that the current review reverses course and makes the ETS more effective.

And while we’re on the topic of poorly-managed externalities, let’s take a look at Los Angeles. Josh Stephens of the California Planning and Development Report writes about “Los Angeles’ moral failing“:

In 1970, the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles areas ranked, respectively, numbers four and one in per capita income in the United States. In 2009, after both areas grew by more than 50 percent in population, they were, respectively, numbers one and twenty-five.

You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to wonder: What happened?


L.A.’s and the Bay Area’s divergence depends largely on what [UCLA urban planning professor Michael] Storper referred to as the “dark matter” of public policy. Lurking behind every data point and every policy are forces like curiosity, relationships, open-ness, diversity, civic self-image, and values. These factors are often disregarded by short-sighted wonks and bureaucrats not because they’re not crucial but because they aren’t easily quantified.

Storper argues that people in Los Angeles are lousy collaborators. Scholars in L.A. cite each other less often. Patents made in L.A. refer less frequently to other L.A.-based innovations. Los Angeles’ great universities – UCLA, USC, and Caltech – are not nearly as entrepreneurial as Stanford, Berkeley, and UCSF. He cites L.A.’s Amgen as a successful, once-innovative biotech company but says that it’s nothing compared to the Bay Area’s biotech cluster. And it’s in Thousand Oaks — nowhere near a major university.

Agglomeration, agglomeration, agglomeration. San Francisco has it, but Los Angeles doesn’t – in significant part due to its unfriendly built form.

Meanwhile, some tech companies are trying to disrupt face-to-face meetings. Virginia Heffernan reports on some of their efforts in the NY Times. Click through for the tech buzzwords, but even if you don’t it’s worth considering Heffernan’s parting words:

What’s so bad about meetings, after all? At bottom, they are nothing but time with your fellows. Which suggests that hating meetings might be akin to hating traffic, families or parties — just another way to express our deep ambivalence about that hard fact of existence: other people.

Ambivalence about sharing space with other people is, of course, a perennial issue in cities. As Glen Koorey writes on the Cycling in Christchurch blog, this ambivalence – or even hostility – comes to the fore when building safe cycleways. The best way to respond, he argues, is with kindness and patience: “The subtle art of supporting cycleways“:

Like all forms of feedback, it’s even more powerful when you can relate personally to the matter at hand. I could (and do) write plenty of supportive things about projects like the Papanui Parallel cycleway, but the simple fact is that I don’t live on that side of town and I don’t have regular occasion to use that route. That’s why it great that locals like Robert can provide that closer-to-home perspective. You might not think that you can write eloquent words of wisdom, but often far more important is that you can truly speak from personal experience.

Those of us who already cycle regularly (and confidently) need to remember that mostly these proposed cycleways are not about us. Sometimes I see comments to the effect of “I cycle and I don’t see why they’re spending so much on this cycleway when a cheaper cycle lane would suffice”. That may indeed work for you, but there’s every chance it will do little to attract the “interested but concerned” who need a bit more encouragement. If you can’t understand this viewpoint, go and chat to someone who doesn’t currently cycle but would like to.

On a related note, Jarrett Walker (HumanTransit) wrote a fantastic post on consultation at the start of this year: “Who is not in the room? (A question for 2016)“:

For 2016, let me propose a resolution that’s a little more concrete, maybe a little easier to bring to bear in any situation.

Whatever room I’m in, I resolve to ask “Who is not in the room?”

In other words, ask:  What real points of view, and real dimensions of the human experience, are not represented in this conversation? How could their absence lead us to make a bad decision even with the best of intentions, and how do we compensate for that?


The larger reason transit planners tend to notice small-room problems is that transit is intrinsically a win-win proposition with a long-term payoff.  In fact, the longer-term your view, the more win-win it is.  The most successful transit services of all — rail rapid transit in big cities — work because of the huge diversity of people who find them useful, and because they’ve had a chance to pay off in the long run, by helping the city grow around them. These are the consummate win-win services, not just because there are so many riders from every part of the society, but because so many people benefit from the economic, environmental, and social opportunities that these services create.

But it’s politically hard to develop those kinds of services, because so many people assume that all issues are win-lose…

Speaking of the people who were in the room, and apropos of little else, here’s Mitchell and Webb’s take on how we ended up with some of the many odd place names in the New World:

Elsewhere, Slate has published a selection of Valérie Anex’s photographs of Ireland’s “ghost estates”: housing developments left unfinished or under-occupied after that country’s catastrophic housing meltdown:

From the mid-1990s through 2006, home prices in the Republic of Ireland increased steadily, fueled by a period of economic prosperity known as the Celtic Tiger. In 2008, the property bubble burst, and investors who’d built housing developments in remote rural areas found themselves unable to sell their properties or, in many cases, even finish their construction.

Valérie Anex, an Irish citizen who grew up in Switzerland, was in County Leitrim in 2010 when she first came across ghost estates—defined by the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis as a development of 10 houses or more in which 50 percent or less of homes are occupied or completed. Anex was astonished to learn that ghost estates were common all around the country. “The house is an object full of very strong symbols,” she said via email. “It is inevitable that when people discover through my images the existence of these inhabited brand-new houses, they start to ask themselves: What has happened? What are the historical forces that lead to this absurd situation? How is it possible to construct houses if there aren’t any people willing to live in them? Where does this surplus come from? Why this waste of labor, resources and energy?”


The New Zealand agricultural economy is currently waking up to the fact that booms can just as quickly become busts. NZ Herald business columnist Fran O’Sullivan reports on the hard questions facing Fonterra:

On January 20 – just seven weeks ago – Spierings told Bloomberg Fonterra would maintain its $4.60 per kg of milk solids forecast payout for the current season.

On January 28, Fonterra lowered its forecast for the 2015/2016 season from $4.60 per kg of milk solids to $4.15 per kg of milk solids.

Yesterday – in what was a “black Tuesday” for the dairy company – the Fonterra chief executive announced the current season forecast payout had been reduced to $3.90 per kg of milk solids, marginally ahead of the August 2015 forecast of $3.85 per kg of milk solids which had sharply brought its farmer shareholders to the realisation that the “white gold rush” had finally collapsed.

Dividend allocations will bump up the overall payment for Fonterra’s 10,500 farmer shareholders to $4.25-$4.30 per kg of milk solids for the current season. But with DairyNZ estimating farmers need a payout of $5.25 per kg of milk solids to break even – and some 80 per cent of farmers said to be under water on a cash-flow basis – this new forecast is undoubtedly a bitter pill for stressed farmers to swallow.

While there is more to the New Zealand economy than dairy production, the shake-out in global dairy markets will undoubtedly have an impact on the country. But it’s possible that it won’t all be bad. Dairy farming has destroyed water quality throughout much of the country. Winding it back a bit could give some lakes and streams a chance to recover.

National Institue of Water and Atmospheric Research  figures show that more than 60 percent of the length of New Zealand rivers fail the health standard for swimming, and  the “wadeable” standard proposed as the bottom line by government sets an E.coli count of 1000/100ml which is unsafe for humans and  twice the recommended safe count for stock drinking water.

Lastly, Charlie Gardner takes a data-driven look at the reasons that people have for opposing new development in their area. He finds that perceived impacts on amenities, not property values, underpin the majority of the opposition:

Because I always prefer a helping of data with my anecdotes, I charted out all the “NIMBY” comments — more than 80 of them in this case — based on the concerns they raise in the chart below:

Increased car traffic is far and away the most mentioned concern, with overpopulation/overcrowding second, neighborhood character third, school overcrowding fourth and parking fifth.  Notably, there were no comments citing home values or privacy concerns.  One or two comments did refer obliquely to people deciding to sell in response to the arrival of apartments, but these were linked to changing neighborhood character (a less family-friendly environment) rather than falling neighborhood property values, and implied greater rather than lesser demand.

Again, I think this is strongly supportive of Chris’ thesis.  The neighborhood in question is “under-zoned” relative to its capacity, particularly in light of transit access, and enjoys amenities that are underutilized.  The repeated references to traffic, strain on schools and overcrowding are simply different ways of stating opposition to more intensive use of neighborhood amenities by additional residents.  Issues such as increased noise, crime, anxiety over renter populations and similar concerns were cited much less often.

The tone of the comments also provides a window into NIMBY psychology.  Comments are rarely measured in their language and frequently employ hyperbole.  The majority are devoid of any optimism, and one gets the overriding sense that there can be no positive change, only a constant battle against further decline and decay.  This NIMBY mindset, pessimistic in the extreme, appears to be behind the despairing tone evident in much of the commentary.

Interesting. I suspect that it would be similar in most places.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

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