European Housing Disasters

Land-use planning has made British housing so expensive that more than half of all homeowners expect to have to downsize the next time they move while only 22 percent expect to upsize. Home prices in Britain and other European countries with lots of land-use regulation tend to bubble as much as prices in California and other states with strict land-use rules.

This Swedish apartment building slated for demolition due to planners’ overbuild of multi-family housing looks a lot like many so-called transit-oriented developments recently built in Portland. Photo is from the Swedish “abandoned places web site.

Meanwhile, Swedish planners so overbuilt multifamily housing that, since 1995, they’ve had to demolish 20,000 units, and many more wait to be torn down. The apartments were built as part of what planners called the “million programme,” in which a million dwellings were to be built in the 1950s and 1960s. About 110,000 of these units were built in three- to eight-story apartment buildings during the 1950s and 1960s. They were so uniform and boring that, in 1971, people took to the streets to revolt against government policy and demanded the right to build and live in single-family homes. As a result, where before 1970 three out of four dwellings built in Sweden were multifamily, after 1970 three out of four were single family. Here are some photos of apartments waiting for demolition.

In some places, Sweden built entire new towns of apartments that today are mainly inhabited by immigrants as native Swedes have moved to suburban single-family homes. The new towns were built using a slab or Plattenbau form of architecture and closely resemble East Germany’s Halle Neustadt, which the Antiplanner visited in 2005.

In his massive book, Cities in Civilization, planning historian Peter Hall asks, “Why, in a country so affluent, with high car ownership, so recently rural, and with so much land, was it necessary to put so many people into small high-density apartments?” His answer is that planners favored high-density development and they were able to get their way because rent controls, instituted in the 1940s, had created a housing shortage and people were initially willing to accept any housing they could get.

The fact that Swedish voters kept the Social Democrats in power continuously from 1932 to 1976 didn’t hurt, nor did the fact (true in nearly all western European countries) that a parliamentary form of government gives the party in office far more power than parties ever enjoy in the United States. Planners thrive best, it seems, when they don’t have to answer to the people.

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23 thoughts on “European Housing Disasters

  1. bennett

    I’m not familiar with the plans produced these Corbusian gremlins, but I don’t believe that the inevitable increases in density have to sacrifice the single family form and feel of neighborhoods (especially in the US). We can have significant increases in density without multistory apartment buildings.

    The increase in densities is not a question of “will” it happen but when. That said, density increases have much more to do with population than form, however form can make the increase more comfortable.

    Dan Reply:

    I really liked Quebec City and how they did their density. You could walk through a freedom-loving single-fam neighborhood and sprinkled in were some apartments. The streets always had walkers or bike riders, the buses were often mostly or completely full, the place was clean and neat. Montreal had more of a big-European feel and you could easily find block after block of 3-4 story apartments. What was interesting was to see whether the ‘for rent’ signs were bilingual or what language they chose…

    DS

    bennett Reply:

    There’s a cool neighborhood in Austin not far from my office that is almost all duplexes and SF with ally/garage/granny flats. It has the look and feel of a SF neighborhood. The duplexes are slightly larger than the average SF house but barely enough to notice. All the houses have yards, garages, driveways, etc. The streets are wide. It looks like your typical SF Austin neighborhood. According to the 2010 census this neighborhood as roughly twice the density of the (primarily SF) adjacent block groups, but looks and functions almost exactly the same.

    I think this is one issue that has potential to bridge the Antiplanner/planner gap, and it starts with the relaxing (or reworking) of some overly stringent zoning codes. From what I’ve seen, this pro-planning/pro-market approach results in market driven changes that allow for horizontal integration appropriate of land uses, increases in density but the preserving of the “American” (it’s a broad generalization, but y’all know what I mean) form.

    The one hangup (always the one hangup in land use/growth mgmt planning and development) is parking. For some reason people loose their friggin’ minds when it comes to parking.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Dan, the outskirts of Canadian cities are just as automobile oriented as cities in the USA.

  2. Scott

    Global density has been increasing for centuries & will until population starts declining, which has been occurring in developed nations, particularly Japan, and also among native, Caucasians in the EU & US (replacement level below 2.1).

    Do you mean that urban densities will increase substantially?
    Not necessarily needed & has many negatives.
    There is still large rural to urban migration, among the LDCs, but many nations have plenty of available land, especially northern Europe.
    Consider how much land is built on — not very much.

    Consider if the US population doubled (~2080 at recent rates): If on the same amount of urbanized land (3%), density among the UAs would be 6,000, still below the current two densest (LA & SF Bay). That density with half residential, could hold all “houses” at 10 DU/acre, as you are suggesting.
    It’s those greedy wealthy people who hog the land with their large estates (that’s sarcasm).

    How much high density & how desirable? Look at SF, the 2nd most dense large city in the US at 15,000 (NYC @ 26,000), but only medium density globally. At that density, the whole US population could fit in the area of San Bernardino County (20,000).

    bennett Reply:

    “Do you mean that urban densities will increase substantially?
    Not necessarily needed & has many negatives.”

    The density increases in the US have been rather predictable and steady. Significant increases in urban densities are not necessary because there are slight density increases in the urban, small urban, suburban and rural areas. City centers will continue to get more dense as will everything else. The bell curve will grow as a whole for the most part (some regions/cities/communities are limited by geography or stringent growth management. These cities may have a steep curve).

    http://www.phaidon.com/resource/252-3-density-and-urbanity-spread.jpg

    Scott Reply:

    Additionally, densities in many core cities have decreased in the last 60 years.
    Detroit is an extreme, w/ pop going from 1.8 million to 700,000.

    Attribute that to unions & liberal policies. Look at the amount of taxpayer supported moochers & the HS grad rate of <40%.

    Even healthy cities have lost people, moving to more desirable suburbs — Chicago's pop went from 3.6 million to 2.7 million.

    Unclear on what a "bell curve" represents & what its "growing" means. What is the average & how does it decrease in 2 directions? Do you mean a graphical depiction on a regular X-Y coordinate system w/density & distance from the CBD?

    Although, some CBDs have been getting denser, usually by adding upper income persons. Chicago in particular w/many more residential skyscrapers, but then for high rises [in US], the 3rd place city does not come close. Globally (high rises) Chicago ranks 3-5, depending on criteria (NYC goes to 2nd).

    bennett Reply:

    “Unclear on what a “bell curve” represents & what its “growing” means.”

    It’s a theoretical concept in understanding cities. The bell curve can be height (higher downtown going to lower is rural areas), density (ppm in downtown compared to rural areas), or price per square foot. Basically, if you take a literal or theoretical cross section of a city, a bell cure is what you get.

    Obviously this is a crude description and the curve is not perfect or symmetrical and there are always areas that are exceptions to the rule. My point is that over the long haul cities grow as a whole. Certain areas may grow more in a given decade, but population growth dictates the increases in density at all scales. It is inevitable (baring the black death or something like that).

  3. Dan

    In some places, Sweden built entire new towns of apartments that today are mainly inhabited by immigrants as native Swedes have moved to suburban single-family homes. The new towns were built using a slab or Plattenbau form of architecture and closely resemble East Germany’s Halle Neustadt, which the Antiplanner visited in 2005.

    Well, every ecology conference I’ve been to in the past several years says different. I had a nice chat two weeks ago with a Swede who presented something she recently worked on – a project that integrated mixed-use and single-fam and multi-fam for all those people who enjoy the large cities and don’t want to live far out. So I guess you can pretend that everyone loves America and its built environment patterns, but it doesn’t pass the sniff test to travelers or others outside the bubble.

    DS

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    Well, every ecology conference I’ve been to in the past several years says different.

    U.S. Smart Growth promoters who have visited Sweden also say different – though unlike them, I have visited Rinkeby and Tensta and some of their sister developments myself – several times since these projects started to open to new residents in the early 1970’s. Unlike them, I also speak fluent Swedish and know the ugly reality behind the “Million Program.”

    I had a nice chat two weeks ago with a Swede who presented something she recently worked on – a project that integrated mixed-use and single-fam and multi-fam for all those people who enjoy the large cities and don’t want to live far out.

    Sweden has some superb mixed-use developments. Ironically, one of the best mixed-use developments I have ever seen anywhere is located less than 10 kilometers south of Rinkeby and Tensta. It is called Vällingby (literal translation means “porridge village” or “gruel village”). What is the difference? Vällingby was designed and built in the 1950’s, without the overwhelming cheapness (mandated by government) and without the strident anti-auto and anti-highway planners and architects (with strident anti-auto ideology) that designed the Million Program projects. And curiously, all three have their own heavy rail transit stations (Tunnelbana in Swedish) at their centers (the one at Vällingby dates to the 1950’s, and is out in the open, unlike the stations at Tensta and Rinkeby, which are underground and much nicer).

    So I guess you can pretend that everyone loves America and its built environment patterns, but it doesn’t pass the sniff test to travelers or others outside the bubble.

    Nope. Plenty of people in Sweden like and prefer single-family detached or attached homes, and some of them travel pretty far from outside the urban areas to get them (does that sound familiar?). In southern Sweden (also home to the Million Program disaster Rosengård), there are a fair number of Danes that have moved to Sweden in search of less-expensive housing and now commute by car or by transit across the Øresund Bridge-Tunnel to jobs on the Danish island of Zealand.

    Dan Reply:

    Color me amazed that ecology conferences are defending what the Antiplanner is criticizing

    Yes, the ecology conferences with the Swedish ecologists are stating things that I presume are true (as they provide evidence) and that conflict with Randal’s assertion. If that amazes you, great.

    DS

    Dan Reply:

    Not sure how that reply got in this mini-thread, but OK.

    I forgot, CPZ, that you travel there. I agree that there are SFD houses being built, but the generalization that Swedes don’t like living in cities just like America! is just a story. BTW, the first time I went to Malmo, I had to take a hydrofoil from Copenhagen, as that bridge was little more than a dream at that time (dating myself here).

    DS

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    My late Mother was born in the Swedish city of Malmö, though she grew up in Stockholm.

    Regarding the Øresund Bridge-Tunnel, there was plenty of opposition to the project, especially from the Swedish [Soviet-Russian controlled] Communist Party (it now goes by the name of the Left Party) and the Swedish Green Party.

    I suspect the Communists were against it on direct orders from Moscow, perhaps because there were fears that the bridge would limit operations of the Soviet Navy’s Baltic Fleet and probably because the Russians did not wish to see Sweden better connected to the EU (after the Cold War ended, it became clear that the Swedish Communists were a wholly-owned and wholly-subsidized arm of the Soviet Union).

    The Greens were opposed because they oppose and and all highway improvement projects.

    the highwayman Reply:

    The Oresund Bridge-Tunnel is a beautiful structure.

  4. Jardinero1

    Money talks and bullshit walks. The swedes are voting with their pocketbooks.

    the same is true in America. Every city in America has a wide range of urban densities/styles and people pay to live in the density/style that they prefer. If a city is lacking in range, it is usually because the political elites who control the planning and development process deem it so.

    In cities with few constraints on development like Houston, developers develop to meet every taste and budget; and there are areas/developments with market driven high density and areas/developments with market driven lower densities. The upshot is that the law doesn’t make it so, the market does.

    bennett Reply:

    “In cities with few constraints on development like Houston…”

    Should read, “In cities with slightly different constraints on development like Houston…”

    “The upshot is that the law doesn’t make it so, the market does.”

    Not entirely (at all) true. There is land use planning and growth management everywhere in Houston. It looks a little different but it’s there. I agree with you that more options should be made available as the market sees fit, but Houston is not some regulation free planning-less utopia. The law does make it so (in cooperation with the market) in Houston despite everybody chirping about the lack of zoning. They zone in Houston, it’s just a little differently than everybody else.

    Jardinero1 Reply:

    Let me qualify by saying there is much, much less governmentally imposed, politically driven euclidean zoning and planing like in Austin, Portland and most other cities in America. Yes, there are deed restrictions, and there are various building code requirements depending on the location and the nature of the construction. In some places there are minimum parking requirements but otherwise there are very few constraints to buying a piece of land and developing it as you see fit.

    PhilBest Reply:

    Absolutely correct – there is a world of difference between top-down planning imposing on people, such as the long-suffering people of the UK, and local preferences expressed democratically in covenants and so on. The latter are NOT responsible for system-wide housing unaffordability, the former certainly is.

    There is not ONE market where median multiples are “affordable”, where average density in new developments is high. There is not ONE market where “affordability” is the result of the trade-off of space per household; this trade-off of space in every case, is a trade-off in the face of relentless inflation in the cost of land, which always outstrips the ability of market participants to “downsize”.

    The fact that affordable, median-multiple “3” cities have numerous suburbs with large minimum lot sizes and height restrictions, has made not a jot of difference to their “affordability”, and in contrast, no amount of 20-to-the-acre dog boxes in Vancouver has made the slightest dent on their median multiples of “9” and higher.

    “Smart growth” is worse than incompetence, it is malice.

  5. Craigh

    Well, every ecology conference I’ve been to in the past several years says different.

    Color me amazed that ecology conferences are defending what the Antiplanner is criticizing. Not much of a point in the end, is it.

  6. Sandy Teal

    It is great they build different various densities in Europe. Good idea to ponder for U.S. cities too. Vive le difference.

    Just don’t mandate it or subsidize it in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

  7. PhilBest

    There is more that the “density” utopians need to be made to answer for. How do the growth-restrained high-density cities that they love, compare on average trip-to-work times? This is a far better measure of efficiency than the invalid ones they like to use. Well, London and Stockholm are among the very worst anywhere in the OECD, and I do know that the UK’s cities are mostly far worse than cities of comparable size anywhere else.

    There are 2 basic reasons for this. One is that congestion is higher. The other is that when all the housing is inflated in price, increasing numbers of households have to make “trade-offs” in terms of what they can afford, not just for size of home, but for efficiency of location. Peter Hall et al in the 2-volume report “The Containment of Urban England” way back in 1973, noted that the practical effect, besides relentless housing unaffordability, was longer average commutes.

    So where are the “benefits” alleged from pro-density “planning”? The advocates should not just be sacked from any influential positions they hold, for their sheer incompetence, they should be prosecuted for malice as well. Other attributes of housing that the lowest income people end up sacrificing besides “space” and “location”, is age, condition, quality, and amenities. It is no surprise that some medical studies are starting to suggest that the strong link between lower incomes and poor health outcomes in the UK, is the housing that people on lower incomes are forced by necessity, to live in. The higher housing costs are, the worse this will be.

    Because the rationing by income ends up applying to all attributes of housing and location, those on the lowest incomes tend to end up with “housing” with the least space, the lowest quality, the least local amenities, the greatest deterioration in condition, and the lowest “location efficiency”. The urban planning profession itself, bureaucracy, environmental activism, NIMBYism, and “big property” interests, are arrayed against truth and common sense. Inequality, social exclusion, and the denial of opportunity are the inevitable consequences. We can expect to see more and more social breakdown in the UK, while interestingly, although the USA’s cities have a reputation for “colour” riots, nowhere is this LESS evident than in the cities with low urban density and affordable housing, both of which are a legacy of unrestricted automobility and freedom to build. The rate of suburbanisation of once-deprived inner city minorities will be found to correlate with social stability. In fact there are now UK studies on “Urban Density and Social Capital” that are finding the inverse correlation I expect.

    Some of the advocates of urban growth containment will argue that higher housing costs will be compensated for by reduced transport costs. This is a particularly repulsive lie, given the reality described above about the households choices of attributes of housing INCLUDING LOCATION, when urban land prices are inflated.

    Scott Reply:

    You confronted the statist desifiers with results & other facts. They don’t like that, but then they don’t care & pretend reality is not there.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Scott, you don’t care about reality either.

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