Green Space for the Few or the Many

One British urban economist says, “the child playing in a narrow street with nothing but concrete and tarmac in sight can console themselves with the thought that wealthy people have mansions overlooking the Green Belt”.

If your urban planning is only catering to the rich, then you have obviously failed in your planning. So seem to imply that if one form of planning exists which favored the rich, then naturally absolutely no planning should favor the disadvantaged.

That does not logically follow. The remedy to bad planning is better planning not the absence of planning.

I can bring up my own city, Oslo as a good counterpoint to London. Our green belt or whatever you make call it is something enjoy by every Oslo citizen regardless of income. And it has been like this for generations. For working class people like my grandparents living in Oslo, the green belt was their way to get away from city life. A cheap option for people without means to travel on long vacations to distant lands. There they would spend hours every weekend hiking, looking at nature, picking flower, blue berries or going picnicking.

In the winter time almost the whole population would at some point go out there skiing. It was a class levelizer. My grandfather could on occassion meet old King Olav skiing out in Nordmarka (our green belt). I have at times gone there with my whole workplace. Sometimes when we have visitors from abroad we take them hiking there.

Nature is something we all enjoy in Norway and which we have fought hard to preserve for everyone of all classes. There are those on the right who want free for all building. You know what that causes?

The rich will buy up beautiful beach property and make it their own, denying everybody else access to the joys of hanging out on the beach in the summer months. That is what happens without urban planning. The left have been good at stopping the rightwing push to let the rich steal beautiful nature from the common man.

The Oslofjord has many beautiful islands accessible by ferry or pleasure boats. If you had your way those islands would be all covered by summerhouses of the rich. Yes we have some houses there, but a lot of the island area is protected from building such that people can travel out to the islands and do things like BBQ on the beach.

I care about increased rates of crowding, a return to the trends of the Victorian era, gross inequality in the sharing of public amenities, spatial sorting of population “by income”, unintended consequences in land prices “pricing out” people and businesses from efficient co-location decisions, needlessly reduced economic productivity.

This world does not follow from urban planning. It may follow from particularly bad urban planning. In fact I would claim the opposite. In the US where you see much less planning and where developers seem to call the shoots, you see large homogenous subdivisions where houses exist in a very narrow price range.

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Mortensrud in Oslo, and area of Oslo where minorities are the majority.

I would hold up the very area Mortensrud where I live in presently as a good counterexample. This is an area where the immigrant population is larger than the native Norwegian population. It has among the lowest average incomes in Oslo. Yet there are all sorts of people living here because urban planners deliberately let there be a mix of different types of houses. As you can see in the picture there are row houses, appartment complexes, as well as seprate houses for single families. There is a great variety of incomes and people of quite a lot of different professions living in the area.

Nor has deliberate planning created some kind of urban jungle. I think you will have to look hard on this picture to see where the poor urban kid playing on the tarmac is supposed to be living.

The only reason I can live out here is because there is a subway that connects Mortensrud to downtown Oslo. The schools take the children on hikes in the forrests outside which is part of the green belt. Everybody is enjoying nature here. There are no rich people with mansions.

Britain has had 70 years to adopt strategies that would reduce the unjust impacts of their planning system and they have failed to do so.

You cannot remove from the equation that Britain is a class society where conservatives have mostly been in power favoring the well to do. We used to spend a lot of time in Britain when I was young. My father studied there and my aunt lived there for many years. As they say Margareth Thatcher created a 2/3rds society. An electoral majority secured by making life nice for 2/3rd while screwing 1/3rd over. That is also easier I believe in a political system based on winner-takes all. Smaller parties which could have championed more marginal interests are squeezed out.

Also let us not forget that Britain has championed home ownership to a higher degree than almost any other European nation. In fact conservatives used this as a deliberate strategy. With ever increasing house prices, people could be lured into having an interest in maintaining the capitalist system and expanding it. Rocketing house prices created a large class of wealthy people among those who got in early.

I am in favor of the ways countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Japan mitigate those distortions

Then we can agree on some things. I cannot really comment on Japan as I don’t understand their setup too well. However all these countries have proportional voting unlike Britain. Special interest parties have a much easier time getting represented in the political system.

When you complain about certain policies and ideas failing to gain ground, you also have to take into account the political system of the country where the idea fails to gain ground.

Maybe you need to explore the regions around Houston better.

It is not just me who had a bad experience with Houston. Everybody I talk to thinks it is a terrible place except for the house prices. Houston works for your narrow aim of keeping house prices down. But it pretty much fails in all other aspects.

This green space tends to be much more evenly distributed than Green belts with high property prices around them.

I don’t think you can generalize that. The Netherlands is quite strict and not sprawl like. Yet in my experience there are far more parks around in Dutch cities close by then what I experienced in the American and Canadian cities I have visisted with more of a sprawl like makeup.

It is easy to live near a Park in Houston or Dallas.

The whole setup is wrong though IMHO. In Norway e.g. and often in the Netherlands you have small neighborhood playgrounds and parks, which are integrated with the neighborhood. Children can go to playgrounds, to their school etc usually without crossing any roads. In the US things tend to be built at an entirely different scale. Sure maybe you have a big park not far away, but you need to cross a big highway to get to it, so not very child friendly. That is kind of what happens with motor car oriented cities.

You have an interesting regard for Green space, rationed, and planned; and yet you object to free people gaining far more aggregate enjoyment of nature because they are free to build a home with nature all around it!

Yes, because if you don’t restrict it private individuals with money can steal the best part of nature and keep for themselve. I gave you earlier examples of how the affluent snatch beautiful beach property, unless you keep strict regulation in place.

Proximity, Concentration and Centralization

You actually make the same point I make about dispersion of amenities when you say “Yet by making larger units of everything, you cannot have stuff in close proximity.”. Exactly! That is exactly what I want! I want stuff in close proximity.

But you don’t get that from your unregulated approach. American sprawl cities both concentrate and disperse facilities and shopping. With a car oriented city you get large big box stores you have to drive to . Now these big box stores may be scattered about. You are a right about that.

However they kill all small neighborhood stores. And because large specialist stores get scattered about you need a car to get to them. I could use my experience from the US and the Netherlands as an example. In the US I had to make 3 bus changes to get to a grocery store. It was at a strip mall with Wall-Mart and Super-Target. In the Netherlands I could easily walk to a local grocery store.

Now the Wall-Mart of course had everything, so I could get all sorts of things there which I could not get on my local dutch grocery store. However if I needed more specialized things I could bike to the downtown of my dutch city of take a single bus ride. Yes, no changes, despite living in a much larger city than I lived in the US. That is the benefit of centralized locations for more specialized shops.

In the US if I needed some electronics stuff and I was at Wall-Mart I may have needed to go to Best-Buy, but that was on the other side of the highway. Difficult to access by foot. You where meant to use a car to get there. That is what these sprawl cities do. They turn the car into your feet. You are not meant to walk anywhere.

In the Netherlands because public transportation and biking is easy, Duch people don’t use big-box stores very much. They shop in regular city centers or in neighborhood stores.

In a sprawl city you have efficient networks for cars. Because cars can then easily drive fast and far, you end up creating large highly dispersed stores, rather than having multiple smaller stores spread around the whole city. In a non-sprawl city it is not as easy to move really far in any random direction. Hence it encourages smaller and more spread out units for doctors offices, schools and grocery stores.

A public-transport oriented city will create various nodes which you can transport to quickly, such as the city center or stops along say a subway line. From these nodes you typically have a plethora of stores in walkable distance. That means you can go to a city centre with a subway or buss. Once you get there you can walk to a large variety of store.

With a sprawl setup there is no pressure to put individual stores close to each other since it is quick to drive. Hence individual stores get very spread out, making walking and biking between these stores highly impractical. In a public-transport city it is possible to say first see a movie and then walk over to a stor to buy a computer. In a spraw-city the movie theatre and the computer store would be far apart. You would have to get into a car again.

The centralization in things such as hospitals and police stations is quite detached from the centralization one pushed for public transportation. In the time when almost nobody had cars, these kinds of functions tended to be much closer. It is the appearance of the car which has driven this type of centralization not the usage of public transport as you seem to suggest.

The reason I say walking, cycling, and cars are part of the same paradigm is that they are all flexible.

Yes but you mistankenly thing they reinforce each other. Quite the contary high car usage crowds out walking and cycling. Cities oriented towards public transportation encourage biking and cycling, because they would not work if people didn’t do it. Once somebody takes a train to a city centre they have to walk. You don’t have trains going to every store.

With a car oriented city, you don’t need that. You can drive directly to every store. That is what you see in America. Every store, restaurant and movie theatre is surrounded by a large parking lot. You can drive between each of them and park each time. It is not only ugly but also a humongous waste of space.

These cities end up with insane amounts of space for roads and parking. All these roads and parking creates massive distance between anything which destroys biking and walking as viable solutions. For cars it doesn’t matter, because they move fast.

There is nowhere near the same “premium” for land at a given location, if trip destinations (jobs, amenities) are dispersed.

Downtowns in American cities have very high value. So this claim does not match reality. Houston would not have tall high rises all over downtown if that was not prime real-estate.

I have lived in suburbs all my life, and I do not believe I have had to pay a premium price, ever, for a home from which I could walk to the local library, pharmacy, medical centre, fitness centre, cafes, restaurants, bars, post office, drugstores, butcher, baker, etc.

Depends on what sort of city you live in. I live in the surburbs too, and have access to a lot of things. But Oslo isn’t a typical American spraw city either. Although it is certainly way more spread out than a Dutch city and that has some clear negative consequences. I had access to far more stuff in a convenient manner when I lived in the Netherlands than I do now. Although I have far more access to nature in Oslo.

I once had a collision with a waiter carrying a tray of glasses! “Shared space” is a disaster; people walking dogs, wheeling pushchairs, etc give no thought to bicycle riders who want to get from A to B.

That probably depends on where you live and the bike culture that exist there. You cannot claim this is universal. I lived for years in the Netherlands and use quit a lot of these shared space areas without ever experiencing any problems with them.

Movie theatres and supermarkets are easily reachable by bicycle if I choose to travel that way — notice my author icon, I am a lifelong cycling enthusiast. I would far rather ride in low density suburbs with wide roads, than in the chaos of “vibrant urbanism”.

If they are, I suggest you don’t really live in a sprawl city. And I could add a question to that. How easy is it for you to go to the movie theatre by bike and then travel to a grocery store afterwards before going home? I would bet that is not very convenient if you live in anything resembling urban sprawl.

E.g. Mortensrud while obviously being a surburb, isn’t built like a typical American sprawl suburb where everything is built to cater primarily to cars. It is built to have in mind that people can use subways and busses as well.

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Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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