Sunday 16 June 2013

Dey Turk Er Land!

I sometimes point out to my Economics & Current Policy Issues class just how little land in New Zealand is taken up by all the things folks like to worry about.

It's pretty common to hear worries about how we're going to run out of land. Back of the envelope, I'd reckoned that if Christchurch burned through a Kate Valley every year instead of every 30 years, and even if they decided to put it all on prime dairy land instead of out in the scrub, the cost of buying land for landfill for Christchurch would still be about $2 per person per year. And so exhortations to recycle in order to save our land seem a bit overwrought.**

Luke Malpass points out just how much room we here have:
If someone asked you how much of New Zealand was built upon, what would your guess be? 5% or 10%? More? Less? And to what extent would this affect your views on urban development and expansion?

There is a widespread view that too much of New Zealand is being built upon: along with cows, the main thing we are growing are houses, and that not only are there too many houses but they are also eating into valuable farmland and nature.

There are many reasons for this view, but at a popular level the main reason might be that growth and development happen in areas where people tend to move or travel. People also tend to go where other people are and then complain about there being ‘too many people’. Many folk see new development and extrapolate out to development they cannot see, which often does not exist.

A look at the numbers bears that out: less than 1% of New Zealand is built up, including landfill and highways. Clearly New Zealand is not filling up. Compared to other countries in Europe, New Zealand has very few people and very little land built upon. About 9% of the United Kingdom is built up and 15% of the Netherlands. Even the United States, with more than 300 million people, has only 5% built on land.

Of course, not all of New Zealand can be developed, but the notion that there is cause for concern at this point in time (or in the next few hundred years) is untrue.
There is absolutely no absolute shortage of land in New Zealand. There is a shortage of land on which city councils will allow development, but that's a regulatory phenomenon, not a fact of the physical world. As land gets bid away from agriculture into housing, the price of agricultural land rises. That makes it more expensive to turn the next bit of farmland into a subdivision and makes infill densification incrementally more cost-effective.

Dey Turk Er... (explained)

** I rather like Steve Landsburg's suggestion that we not turn these sorts of things into moral crusades.


  1. Bit out of date, but this is interesting:

    If you're more interested in "land used for human activities" than the subset "land used for buildings, roads, landfill", you'd be looking at 40%. Having said that, I had no idea that half of New Zealand is native forest. If we ever get worried about wearing out our "clean, green NZ" brand again, slapping a "50% native forests" sticker on everything NZ made should do the trick.

  2. The counter argument to no shortage of land is that any urban increase beyond the current boundaries will affect the most productive land on which we grow veges, fruits and crops.. and the counter counter argument is why don't we just leapfrog over that productive land and build on the hills and less fertile land.


  3. Agreed, but why must we have an ever bigger city when we could move just 20-40km up the road to less productive land.. transport is hardly an issue because the true bottlenecks occur in town.. not in transiting the country.

    Places like Auckland already have whatever it is that big cities need to attract human capital and infrastructure but surely dormitory and/or leafy suburbs less than an hour away are an integral part of the process?

    Sure, I agree the orchards will go and they are but I'd also be making it *very* easy to develop suburbs and towns a little further out.


  4. I'm not against such bedroom communities, but I wouldn't want to force them to come into existence by barring development in a green belt around town. If they emerge because people want to live in them rather than closer to town, that's great!