Major cities have become less dense

This graph is from Croaking Cassandra. He comments:

These numbers shouldn’t really be a surprise.  Space is a normal good –  people typically want more of it, all else equal, when they can afford it –  and technological advances make longer distance commutes feasible.

No doubt there will be some issues with how the data are compiled/estimated –  quite where are the boundaries around the “built up area”, and how well is that known for, say, 1855.  But the general proposition shouldn’t be surprising: it is easy enough to think of the cramped tenement dwellings of New York in the late 19th century.

So what does this mean for today:

And the constant refrain locally is for “more density”, when there is little or no evidence that such densification is what residents would prefer for themselves.  Indeed, it would be surprising if the revealed preferences across time and across countries/cultures had suddenly reversed.

I have no particular problem if people wish to live in high-rise apartments, or in small townhouses with no garden.  And people will choose to do so if regulatory constraints limit their options –  eg if land simply becomes too expensive –  but it doesn’t look like a first-best unconstrained preferred choice for most people.  We don’t, for example, see such bunching in our own provincial cities –  where is less unaffordable than in, say, Auckland –  and of course by international standards even our own largest city, Auckland, is not much more than a large provincial city (just a bit smaller than, say, Nashville).

Freeing up the use of land around cities remains the key to making housing affordable again and providing the choices/options that people value.  Experience suggests more populous cities will cover more space.  That isn’t something officials and politicians should be trying to stop.

I agree. I’d do what Phil Twyford proposed and abolish the MUB for Auckland. Let people build out and up.

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