Category Archives: Real Estate

Learning Curve

For most people finding your home is an exciting process. Some people start by calling a realtor, some people go out for a drive and see what’s out there to be had, and some people sit down at their computer and start their search online. Regardless of how you start your property search, unless you belong to the portion of the population that is involved in construction, trades, professional consulting or the engineering fields, you may know a minimal amount about the physical property you are about to invest in. Sure you can research the market, find what houses are going for in the area, explore the financial aspects of the deal, make sure you get all the tax credits you qualify for, and be ‘smart’ about one of the biggest purchases of your life – but how much can a person really know about the important issues in buying a house.

As a recent homebuyer myself I can remember discussing the purchase of our home with the bank, our family, our friends and our realtor. We talked about what we liked about certain homes and what we didn’t like, what area we would like to live in, and what features in a home we wanted such as square footage, an updated kitchen, three bedrooms and a large enough backyard for our growing boxer puppy. Touring through houses we discussed whether we liked the finishes, the flooring, the layout, and what changes we would have to make to allow the house to feel more like our home.

When we finally settled on a house we took all of the usual steps. We had a home inspection, got our finances in order, and when they accepted the offer – we had purchased our first home! We felt that we had done our homework, been diligent, and made an informed decision.

For most people this is how they go about researching and purchasing a property.

After all – what else is there to know?

The answer is there is A LOT more to know.

Ok, so admittedly I am still learning all the things there are to know about a property. But I’ll start by sharing a few things I found most shocking recently through my work at John MacDonald Architect, as I participated with the principal and staff in a house-hunting exercise: (laugh, but I bet you didn’t know some of this either)

  • when you buy a property, whether its a $100,000 fixer-upper or a million dollar mansion, you may own it but you can’t do whatever you want with it. You heard me right: if you happened to buy a house in a heritage district, or a heritage designated house itself, your ability to alter, add, change, paint, or demolish, are – hold your breath- not completely up to you. Permissions are needed, and they aren’t always predictable. Some properties are designated, but sit on a list of properties of special interest that you might not know of.
  • Next, if your property is in a floodplain – wait for it – yes, you guessed it! It’s also not under your total control. Want to build that three car garage you’ve been dreaming of since you bought the place? Think again if the GRCA flood lines say otherwise. And those floodlines show up in the most unlikely places, adjacent the tiniest of streams. You’d never think to check until it’s too late!
  • Zoning. Yes zoning! Dont chuckle and think I hadn’t heard of zoning before, we all have. But who knew there were these binders and binders of rules, and subrules of subrules!? Did you know that you can buy a house in a residential area that might not even be zoned residential? What on earth is “legal nonconforming” anyway? Well, it’s a status that can jump up and bite you.
As if these weren’t enough things to think about, some other points of consideration include:
  • is your house located on a road that is subject to a road widening? Either now, or coming soon? That might cause you to lose a chunk of your front property, and all its trees. In five years your house might be 10 feet closer to the road. Who knew?
  • is your house located in an area that has significant changes planned for it in the near future (hint- find the Region or City Official Plan for your area). Your plans are only some of the plans at work.
  • what are the variances on the property, and what are your chances of getting some too, if you want to make changes?
  • what shape are the structural, plumbing and heating systems in? Does the house have enough electrical services to support your families needs? The architects kept talking about houses with “good bones”. I’m not sure I ever looked at the bones.
  • Did you know that the Region of Waterloo did a study of properties on septic systems, only to discover that about a third of the owners didn’t even know they weren’t connected to the municipal sewers? That they even HAD a septic system?
  • did you know that houses are full of designated and hazardous substances that we don’t even think about? What’s in those old kitchen floor tiles? If they’re 8 inches square, it’s might be asbestos.
All of these things can amount to frustration and disappointment. But don’t be discouraged. Just like you call for investment and legal advice before you leap, there are people who are knowledgeable and happy to help, often for little or no charge,

so that your dream home with the three bedrooms, updated kitchen and large enough backyard for the growing boxer puppy can be just that.
Your dream home.

Some helpful resources include:
  •  local architect offices like ours
  •  city planning departments
  •  building permit offices
  • registry offices
  •  city or regional websites
  •  zoning (usually available online)
  • the GRCA  (their website here) under “map your property”
Happy house hunting!

Cailin Radcliffe

Too School for Cool

This probably makes me a complete dork but my favorite place in the tri-cities’ area is my school. I am not sure whether I’ve grown so attached to it, spending an unhealthy amount of time there, having met some really great people, or whether it is actually just a really great example of a well (re)designed building.

The University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture moved into an old silk mill in Cambridge in 2004. The building, redesigned by Levitt Goodman Architects, with extensive consultation from staff and students, [aka a lot of cooks in the kitchen] is now a bright studio space for its students and faculty with spectacular views of the Grand River and downtown Galt. The design is simple and clean – they took an existing building, carved out a large atrium, and then built out around it. The material palette is simple and lets the main feature of the building – tons of natural light – dominate.

I know I can’t attribute all the experiences I’ve had at the school to the building itself but it certainly is one of the best things about it. Here, the students take pride and ownership of the building; it truly feels like yours. Sure, having your own desk space and a 24-hour access helps, but its uncomplicated design and simple aesthetic makes it a little easier to envision your next few years in this place.

 

Guest Blogger Milda Miskinyte

 

The Hillborn House

My favourite building in the Region of Waterloo can be found hidden away on a quiet street, sitting atop a steeply sloping site, surrounded by trees, overlooking the Grand River in Preston. It is neither a vaulted hall of academic learning, nor a time capsule for our artistic heritage. It is not burdened with the task of resurrecting our downtown cores, nor with convincing taxpayers that their money was well spent. My favourite building serves a much humbler, but no less important purpose: as a house and home.

Designed by acclaimed Canadian Architect Arthur Erickson is 1974, Hillborn House is an example of a modern architecture that is sensitive to place and that takes its cues from the surrounding landscape. Where the threshold between interior and exterior space, between the built environment and the natural is blurred.

The Design of the house is simple in its conception: a series of monolithic masonry walls, set parallel to one another following the contours of the land. They seem to hold back the earth to create space and organize the programme into a series of terraces that step down towards the river. The space between the monoliths is filled with glass, framing views up and downstream to the river. The entrance and main circulation stair cut through the masonry walls, down the centre of the plan, with rooms and spaces organized to either side. As the stairs step down, the ceiling seems to heighten, amplifying the feeling of space as you move through the house. The masonry walls protrude up through the roof – the interior design articulated on the exterior – creating and enclosing exterior patios and gardens up on the roof. The material palette of stained wood and clay brick is of the land, reinforcing a connection to the site. When the sunlight hits these surfaces it fills the home with a warm, soft light.

The house is by no means a modest one, boasting an interior swimming pool and sauna, a space designed to house a baby grand piano, and an amazing soaker tub in the master ensuite. The tub is sunken into the bathroom floor so that you are looking out level with the forest floor. An incredible place to let one’s mind drift, lost in daydreams.

I was fortunate enough to have visited the house once, nearly11 years ago, when the Owner invited my first year architecture classmates and I over for a tour. So, maybe I am remembering the house though a nostalgic lense. Or perhaps it is more important that it has made such a lasting impression, or that I could see myself living there. I would love to see it again!

Guest Blogger Matthew Muller

The Subsidy Cascade

Let’s play a game.

I’ll write about municipal taxes and utility fees, and you try to stay awake. Yes, It’s that season again, in which a tale of two certainties, Death and Taxes, should be revised to Death by Thinking about Taxes, Followed by Taxes. Notwithstanding, we will now add our contribution to the subject by writing about writing about taxes. Insane, I know.

If ever a column risked banishment to the bottom of the bird cage, I think this is it.

So, dear reader, why can’t this architect and designer resist dragging the pond for the putrid evidence of tax rate imbalances, development charge cross-subsidies, and the evils of postage stamp pricing that we will shortly discuss? Well, maybe three reasons.

First and foremost, we’ve somehow got to maintain the communities we’ve built, and to hand them over to our children in a fiscal and physical shape that’s actually affordable and sustainable. The evidence is fairly clear that for decades we’ve not been doing this, and the reckoning is nigh. Understanding how we fund our municipal costs, and the actual price of the services we so take for granted, is critical to the public discussion of decisions we face for the future of our communities.

Second, it seems that planning and environment departments at every level haven’t been paying attention to what the finance departments are doing, and vice versa. In a classic case of silo thinking, the planners and environmentalists have been busy promoting and regulating compact, sustainable communities that we can afford, while our system of revenue and expenditure continues to subsidize urban sprawl that we cannot. This has got to stop. A critical first step is to get the conversation and the evidence out into the open, and out of the hands of the experts.

The last and most important reason to talk about these issues is to link them to our responsibilities as citizens. Not as taxpayers. Citizens. A healthy discussion of the common good involves some fundamental principles that are sorely lacking when we make everyday choices. Where subsidies are hidden from us, or where others foot the bill for lifestyle preferences, we make poorer decisions.

Pamela Blais, an urban planner and principal of Toronto-based Metropole Consulting, has recently published a book detailing the many ways we encourage sprawl through cross-subsidy and the mis-pricing of taxes and services, Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl. Blais’ work is based on a simple truth often overlooked: that our communities are shaped not by policy, but by the repetition of a few key location and density decisions made by developers, builders, homeowners, business owners, employees, families and institutions every day. “These decisions are shaped in no small way by prices – both absolute price levels and the relative prices of different types of development in different locations – and of different modes of transport.” Plans don’t make urban form. Everyday choices do.

When the true costs of our decisions are clearly reflected in the prices we pay for housing, transport, and utilities, we make informed decisions and finance our own preferences. Blais chronicles the many ways that taxes and fees work against this principle, and more seriously the ways that inefficient choices are subsidized by efficient ones.

Chief among the culprits for Ms Blais is the concept of Average Cost Pricing, which might also be called Feet in Oven, Head in Icebox Pricing. For example, public finance departments take large swaths of cost (like the cost of new infrastructure to support community growth) and divide these costs by the number of new residential units and amount of non-residential floor space that is anticipated in this growth. This creates an average development charge of many thousands of dollars that is assessed against each new unit, regardless of where that unit is located and how that unit affects costs! Although the total amount of required funding is thereby collected, this approach means the creation of a unit at the periphery of our communities, in a sprawling suburb, with its heavy cost burden on density-sensitive service networks, is not only given a price break, but actually subsidized by the pricing of units built in compact urban form and central locations. Buyers, unaware of these factors buried in pricing, are given a discount in the first case, and a penalty in the second.

Much is made of “free market choice” by advocates of laisse-faire planning approaches, but with cross-subsidies like the example above the market is anything but free. Blais sides with most economists in arguing for marginal cost, rather than average cost pricing. This determines the public cost of growth and network upgrades as the actual cost of adding more units both at the periphery and also within the existing network, as well as the effect of density on the cost of services. In each case the appropriate price is charged.

Municipalities are starting to tailor development charges to reflect these large differences in development costs imposed by growth, but the little done to date looks more at where growth is located, rather than equally critical factors of density and mix of use.

Once initial housing and business choices are made, using the assistance of cross-subsidies that reinforce inefficiency, the situation gets rapidly worse.

Perverse Cities does an admirable job of setting out the myriad of ways that the initial subsidy is reinforced, through our tax and utility bills. At each step the application of Average Cost Pricing subsidizes the operating and maintenance costs associated with sprawl, using dollars collected from people who have made more sustainable choices. Blais uses a term coined by others to describe this system: “Postage Stamp Pricing”. The postal system is a classic network distribution system, with highly variable costs to deliver letters along a far-flung street of 60 foot wide single family lots rather than by standing in an apartment or office mailroom stuffing slots. The cost of the first is many times that of the second, yet the price of a stamp is equal for letters to both locations and densities. Repeated not once or twice, but millions of times a day across all our service systems, the subsidy for inefficient growth is enormous.

But can we establish efficiency in our low density ex-urbs? A common well, perhaps? In snow plowing? Road repair? Sewers? No. Can we ignore all the vehicle kilometers generated by new subdivisions, retail strip malls and fast-food restaurants, and simply ask downtown condominium owners to pay the average operating cost of these networks through their property tax and utility bills? Yet we do. Each day we pay bills, and each spring we debate property taxes, with little thought to the massive transfer of money from efficient and sustainable areas of our communities to those areas that create very high costs, from areas where the transit system covers its costs through revenue to areas hopelessly subsidized.

The effect of subsidized location, building, and transportation decisions made again and again and again is played out in a cascade of network services, billings and taxes, all reinforcing last-century’s utopian dream: the sprawl that we know is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

For Pamela Blais there are clear solutions to price distortions that require changes in how development charges, property tax, and utility bills are calculated. The solutions involve data that in many cases is already collected. She advocates that subsidies should be identified, debated, and consciously applied, rather than hidden. Only then will our choices begin to tackle the sprawl that is as rampant as ever, and the future civic costs that leave our children in an economic and environmental straightjacket.

A New Year of Tax Fraud

 

Municipalities will be ringing in the New Year by ringing the cash registers, once again collecting their revenue from one slice of citizens, and using it to subsidize another. Their New Year’s resolution should be to stop this fraudulent practice, and bring tax fairness to forms of urban development that are economically and environmentally sustainable.

This practice was highlighted at a recent conference held in Toronto, called “Retrofitting and Planning Sustainable Suburbs”. Although the conference was short on answers, a presentation by Peter Katz (Director of Smart Growth for Sarasota Florida) on long-term fiscal stability for communities was most revealing. In it, Katz compared tax revenue to urban density, with surprising results.

Both our regional and local governments generate their revenue, and incur their expenses, across a specific geography. A local comparison of three different properties in this landscape shows the subsidy from higher density to lower.

The three properties?

1) A 14 storey Downtown Kitchener condo (66 units, .7 acre including its associated street area, located on a street corner used by many of us)

2) a 7 storey historic and well-kept rental property (36 units, .5 acre including its street area, 90 feet of frontage along a street used by many of us)

3) a typical suburban home (1 unit, .12 acre, 45 feet of frontage, along a street used by only its inhabitants)

The typical suburban property is valued at about $200,000, and generates $2,250 of revenue for City and Region (ie., provincial education taxes excluded).The condo property carries $9.9 million of assessment on the municipal rolls, and generates $110,000.The rental building is valued at $2.55 million, but by virtue of its more than double tax rate relative to condo and single family home assessment, that $2.5 million generates $55,000 of revenue for the City and Region.

By comparing the revenue to the area of property and street necessitated by each, we can begin to see the enormous disparity, and the size of the suburban subsidy. The suburban home sends about $14,000 per acre to City Hall. Astonishingly, the condo sends $160,000 per acre even when the corner streets are used in the calculation. That’s more than 10 times the revenue of suburban development. The rental units cough up $115,000 per acre, taken in large part from citizens with little or no savings or net worth.

Multiply these numbers over and over, and you get the picture. Katz, in his presentation of numbers for his community, shows a similar effect on the commercial side. Strip malls and local suburban malls, with their massive parking and wasteful use of adjoining streets, generate about the same tax revenue per acre for Sarasota as suburban residences. No more.

What do our local condo owner or renters get for their tax bill? Garbage and recycling pickup, like the suburban homeowner? No. They pay extra for that, on top of their tax bill. Given that about 50% of municipal expenses are dependent on response times and density (25% of Kitchener’s costs are related to fire coverage alone over its network of streets), the tax bill could be seen as a fraud perpetrated upon sustainable development by suburban voters. Worse, the 36 unit rental property requires snow plowing, police drive-by, asphalt repairs and replacement, for only 90 feet of street. Its equivalent in the suburbs, on a dollar for dollar revenue basis, requires 1200 feet. Worse, that thirteen times length of infrastructure, paid for with utility rates common to all electricity, water and gas users, is maintained by all users equally. In addition to that subsidy, the renters must maintain their private pipes common to the units within the building, through their rent.

We’ve known for a long time that municipal property taxes transfer money from those without the means to pay to suburban voters with net worth, and the Ontario Government has directed municipalities years ago to end this practice. This directive has for the most part been ignored. Now, to grind salt into the wound, let’s add the subsidy: from sustainable, walkable, transit-friendly existing or new development to unsustainable existing and the suburbs-to-come, paid year after year. Properties generating $100,000 or more per acre are paying for municipal services for other areas of the city that incur the costs, yet generate only about $14,000 per acre. In business terms, it makes no sense whatsoever.

And what is the attitude of suburban voters to this largesse? On transit investment to support densification, or quality downtown urban infrastructure? Don’t do it. On taxes? We need relief. On municipal services? We don’t get our fair share. On change to allow density and a greater variety of uses? Don’t touch us!

Given that “Smart Growth” apparently means 40% residential development within built-up areas, and 60% outside it, and given that commercial and employment development can go where it wishes to chew more farmland, our municipal leadership will continue to massively subsidize low density development with capital and operating dollars, while talking a good game.

For this New Year, let’s resolve to end this fraud. It’s not enough to promote sustainable development. We’ve got to stop penalizing it.

Commuting for the Common Good

Downtown London has the John Labatt Centre (the “jail”, I think it’s known as), and Hamilton its Copps Coliseum. Sundry dreams of replacing Kitchener’s Aud, and inevitably the subject of a location for it, contain the seeds of a dilemma: build on the outskirts where land is cheap, in a sea of surface parking, or struggle with a central site that brings citizens and event visitors alike to the heart of the community.

Guelph’s solution to the issue was pure serendipity. Commission a study of various locations for a replacement to Memorial Gardens, throw in the combination of failed mall, the vision of an overreaching developer, City guarantees, a dash of reality, and “voila”, the City owns a perfectly viable sports, small convention and entertainment complex in the heart of the community (with a few twists and turns!)

Waterloo has, admittedly, its centrally-located Recreation Complex, but the decision regarding Rim Park took another approach than reinforcing the vibrancy of the Waterloo core. Let’s not dwell on the twists and turns of that project, set down in reams of court documents and electoral ballots. Let’s just look at the location decision.

Years ago a Waterloo taxpayer riding the transit system to its last stop tried to hijack the bus, to actually get the driver to take him far enough out of the City to see what he was paying for, Rim Park. No kidding! I read it in the paper! No transit route actually went there at the time, and Mayor Woolstencroft was overheard to say that transit wasn’t an item that got much priority in the location decision. It got me thinking. With speedskating season upon us, and our family once again making the long trek to Rim Park three times a week, it’s reminded me again that the decisions we make in the pursuit of the cheap, “greenfield” solution never seem to include the long term costs.

Let’s take Rim Park as an example. Bear with the math for a minute.

Voodoo Math 101

Forgetting the outdoor fields, we’ll concentrate on the four ice surfaces, two basketball courts and three soccer fields. Maybe 6 hours of activities each day, say 250 days a year? An average of 20 people using the surface each hour. Give or take, (and at least in an overly optimistic business plan, if not in reality) that’s 270,000 car trips to Rim Park each year. Over the life of the facility (hopefully 50 years, given a few repairs and renewals) that’s 13.5 million trips.

Voodoo Math 102

Rim Park is a 7.5 km drive from the centre of Waterloo at King and Erb. Using incredibly silly assumptions about how easy it is to get around in this Region, and gross generalizations about who is using Rim Park’s facilities, let’s consider the commute we’ve set up with that location decision.

If the facility is used by Waterloo residents only, and it sits about 7 km from centre, in the far upper corner of Waterloo, AND users are equally dispersed across the City, AND nobody carpools, AND we don’t make too many mistakes with all this, then I figure the average commute to Rim Park for each user is about 8 kilometres. The same calculation for a location in the centre of the City is 4 kilometres. So the “difference” we can assign to the location decision is 4 km. Commutes go there and back, so 8 kilometres in total!

Voodoo Economics (with apologies to Mr. Reagan)

Assuming the minivan with the hockey bag in it gets 10 km to the litre, and the litre of gas is $1 CDN, and we drive the extra 100 million kilometers involved with the choice of Rim Park’s location (13.5 million times the eight kilometre “commute difference”), then we’ve spent $10 million dollars on gas alone.

Could we have picked up a site in the core of Waterloo for $10 million more than that cornfield cost? Likely.

Would that central site hold its value if Rim Park and the Recreation Centre created a powerhouse of leisure, conference and event possibilities for Waterloo’s core? Absolutely.

Would children be able to get to those ice pads and ball courts using public transit, helping to create ridership and cut our subsidies for 50 years to come? You bet.

Would all those hockey teams have to jump in the car during all those tournaments to visit the same ersatz roadhouses they visited two weeks ago in Mississauga, or would they sample some uniqueness and authenticity within Waterloo’s core (large LCBO excepted)? I suspect the latter.

Had I been asked to contribute a few dollars a year to buy a valuable site for Rim Park, rather than a few more dollars a year to drive to a cheap one, I’d hope that I’d choose some exciting possibilities for the heart of my community, and save a few bucks. Not that I was asked, mind you. I live in Kitchener.

Oh, I see. My turn next. Hopefully any decision about a new Aud for Kitchener will keep the commuting costs in mind. The lure of cheap land to park the very cars needed to get there is a no-win proposition.

Locating our high schools using the same logic might help with that school bus bill we pay each year. Teenagers taking anything other than public transit to get to high school makes no sense at all, and yet our school boards’ choice of high school locations is driven by the same lure of cheap land involved in the Rim Park decision. The dislocation between the transit system and our high schools is no laughing matter. It costs us big time.

Let’s locate our major institutions for a larger efficiency. Our forefathers knew better. The taxes, the gasoline purchases, and the cost to our environment all come out of one pocketbook.

We Are What We Measure

The media runs a business story every so often about how the growth in consumption of oil or some other commodity was down some enormous percentage. Yeegads! It has a graph and everything, so it must be true. It takes a while to extract some facts from the dour headline, storyline, graph, and article itself. Underlying it all is that world consumption of the item had risen once again. It just hasn’t risen as quickly as it had the year before. No mention as to whether the previous year was a historical anomaly, or what the continued growth in consumption might mean. But the tone in these articles is always glum. The news? That growth has taken a nose-dive through one statistical unit measure, one year-over-year. Why exactly would we present a story about one of our planet’s more pressing matters (consumption and resources) in this way?

The old adage: “You get what you measure!” might well apply to these “rate of change” statistics. Might the media be debasing our sense of real value, our connection to real issues? No longer content with its moniker as “dismal science”; or even to measuring a real and even-handed relation between real people, their needs and their means; economic reporting and statistics are now rife with sophisticated “moving averages” and tracks of trends. The up and down of it all no longer seems to matter. It’s whether the up is more upper! It’s not the getting from here to there, or even the speed at which we’re moving. It’s about the trend, the acceleration! Our economic attention span has shifted from planning the quality of our future to planning for speculation. The year-over-year is becoming the thing itself, because the only decision is whether to buy or sell.

There are very few places in a mature and stable system (whether an eco-system, an economy or a community) where a focus on acceleration, where a perception that moving is standing still, is a good thing. A start-up company, an emerging market, a child’s learning; sure, we can understand that zoomier is better.

But once up to speed, is it logical or even safe to continue this focus not just on growth, but on rate of growth?

When forecasts predict fewer cars on the road, That’s a “negative growth” in yesterday’s terms, and a practical free-fall on the year-over-year growth chart, if we use our handy “change in growth” graph. But do all of these statistical trends, no longer climbing so optimistically, really spell doom for our quality of life?

Grow or die!! Growth is inevitable! No growth means no jobs for our children, no increase in tax revenue. These are the mantras of planning, chanted religiously at shareholders’ and council meetings alike. But perhaps, just perhaps, these are the chants of the speculators rather than the true stakeholders.

Those who focus on year-over-year statistics; changes in car sales, housing starts, or increases in tax revenue to name a few; have an overriding interest in acceleration rather than the quality of the thing itself.

We’d all love a little 7% return on our investments. It’s a modest year-over-year increase that will keep pace with inflation and leave a little something to increase our spending power through the “magic of compounding” with which our mutual funds have made us so familiar.

Consider this rate of growth in a community context, however, and it may not seem quite so modest. 7% per year growth means roughly a doubling each 10 years. Regional population 500,000 to a million by 2015. Two million by 2025, four by 2035. Bigger certainly, but better? Shall we double our water consumption each ten years, double the footprint of the cities on our landscape? Double the services or pollution needed to support a quality of life just to the level we enjoy today? Every ten years? Our Region faces the possibility that water consumption will hit a supply wall. Ditto for converting rural to sprawl (although not anytime soon, and over quite a few dead bodies). Setting aside the question of whether we should, is it even possible?

And yet in spite of it all, growth is still our great sacred cow.

Do we make our plans for balance, stability, or maturity?

No, we worship quantifiable, compounded growth, using an ROI-al mentality. We measure it and report it and graph it ad nauseam. By doing so we embed in our decision-making a conventional belief in the power of numerical acceleration to change our lives for the better, to increase the quality of our lives.

The factual evidence for this belief, some would argue, is really quite scarce. Eben Fodor, in his 1999 American study “Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community”, takes issue with whether the urban growth machine really lowers taxes for individuals, makes more or better jobs and housing available to them, or creates a better quality of life. The logical extension of the “Bigger is Better” argument is that more of things makes for better things. Where we measure some items but ignore others, the statistics are used to prop up the conventional wisdom of growth. Yes growth has impact (so the explanation goes), but to others! To us, the benefits! The costs will fall elsewhere.

This is the illusion of economics, where the “externalities” are never measured, and the qualitative ignored where it cannot fit.

In a world of finite resources, in a regional landscape of finite size needing careful balance, as we increasingly turn to issues of quality over quantity, the growth in statistics of growth will hopefully take a downturn. We will no longer be persuaded by “intensity reductions” that plan for increased pollution at, wait for it…, a slower rate each year per unit produced. We will finally start to ask “Is it better?” rather than “Is it bigger?”