Book Review: Drivers of Urban Change, edited by Philippa Howden-Chapman

Available now at selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_drivers_of_urban_changeThis book is a product of an ongoing research project by Otago University’s Centre for Sustainable Cities, based in Wellington. It is part of a series of research findings on urban change in New Zealand, which appear to be in equally attractive books. This seems to be a rare example of applied social science research, which has depth and accessibility for the non-fiction reader. It is also a very topical project, given the challenges facing all the major cities, but particularly Auckland and Christchurch.

The main text of the book is based on interviews with experts, local government planners and politicians, and some involved in the policy-making process for central government agencies. There are also 18 case studies within the book, which involve a page or two on a particular urban topic, and reflect some new research undertaken by post-graduate students. Besides chapters on the main cities, there is an extra chapter called ‘sentiments about cities’, which is based on an on-line opinion poll. And, of course, there are a number of figures and tables that provide a lot of statistics as well.

There is something in Drivers of Urban Change for anyone living in the main urban centres, who is interested in policy issues. I think that the main text reflects the particular political context of the time that it was written, and most chapters refer to government Ministers frequently. Perhaps this is a strength and weakness. I seems to suggest that central government could and should be the key driver of urban change. Then again, there is certainly critical reflection on the current government’s attitude, which seems to favour urban property developers, or ‘the market’. As a social scientist I would have liked to see a bit more on the role of public housing, with a comparative aspect. In terms of publishing, some of the figures appear a bit fuzzy, and there is no index.

I believe that I actually took part in the Horizon online poll that forms the basis of chapter 7 in Drivers of Urban Change. This was particularly interesting, especially to see the results of other people’s views on social inequality. But there were also some specific questions on housing density and cities, and this is a critical issue now. As someone who does live in an apartment (for at least part of the week), I don’t recommend it for most people, and it is certainly not a panacea for urban issues, but a partial solution at best. Including the views of people on the ground, as opposed to policy-makers, is always a challenge, but this book is a very useful starting point.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Drivers of Urban Change
Edited by  Philippa Howden-Chapman
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9780947493042


Book Review: Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis, by Philippa Howden-Chapman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_home_truthsHousing – particularly its availability, quality, and cost – is a common feature of news broadcasts and publications in New Zealand. There can be little doubt that the state of housing in NZ is a critical factor in many of the major issues affecting this country: the economy, employment, immigration, health, sustainability are all affected in one way or another by the housing situation.

Phillipa Howden-Chapman is a frequent commentator on housing issues. She is a Professor of Public Health, and is currently the Director of the University of Otago’s Housing and Health Research programme. She brings to this succinct survey an extraordinary mass of facts, figures, and opinions. She believes that comparatively recently we have lost a lot, and moved towards third-world conditions in many areas. She firmly believes too that access to dry, warm and safe housing should not be determined by a household’s income.

She begins with a survey where we have come from in housing policy. There’s more in this 25-page chapter (they are small pages too!) than might be expected. New Zealand has neglected its heritage of enlightened policies, and a case is made that we now have some of the worst housing in the developed world, especially for the approximately 50% of families in rental accommodation.

The second chapter deals with the interaction between the housing market, and the welfare state, and the third with the importance of housing in the national economy. Here she challenges some of the assumptions commonly made in economic discussions, and demonstrates the role of housing in the recent rapid increase in inequality in our society. And why this matters to both rich and poor.

The fourth chapter ‘Why Does the Quality of Housing Matter’ is, for me, the guts of the book. It is astonishing that in a ‘light-handed’ regulatory environment, legal costs are so high. As might be expected for a health researcher, the author canvasses the health issues caused by poor living conditions. She is scathingly critical of the lack of properly collected data available, and the thin layer of evidence that supports the development of policy. She does not accept current policies around rental houses, and regards current government measures as lukewarm at best. Her proposal is a strong, standardised Warrant of Fitness for all rental accommodation.

The final chapter sets out some directions that the author believes housing policy must move in. She considers policies to make more housing available; to make housing affordable, healthy and sustainable. She describes some successful models from Europe – especially Scandinavia. Changes are needed, she says, at both national and local government levels in the ways that planning and monitoring are done. She advocates mixed-tenure communities, and has several examples. She also calls for greatly increased regulation of the private rental market, in the interests of both tenants and landlords.

Don’t be mistaken: this is not a dispassionate book! The author has done the research (over some decades) and she has a firm conviction that the country can do better. She also knows what she means by ‘better’, and takes no prisoners in allocating blame. In brief, she has an axe to grind, and the facts to grind it on.

On one level, this is an easy book to read. It isn’t long (BWB bills the series as ‘Short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’) and the writing is fluent. At another level, it can serve as the gateway to much more: there are extensive notes and references, and it would be easy to follow up the statistics and graphs here in more detail. If you have any interest in society’s well-being, I recommend you read this book.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis
by Philippa Howden-Chapman
Published by BWB, part of the BWB Texts series
ISBN 9780947492335