No, the Anglosphere isn’t Especially NIMBY

There’s an article going around social media on Financial Times, by John Burn-Murdoch, making the case that slow housing growth, with consequent rises in rents, is a pan-Anglosphere phenomenon. A non-paywalled summary can be found on New York Magazine by Eric Levitz, reproducing the FT graphs showing changes in the number of housing units per capita in various developed countries, and making some general comments about Anglo culture. The problem with this analysis is that it’s completely false. As someone who did once err in an analysis of the Anglo problem of high construction costs – a problem that Britain did not have until the 1990s and Canada and Australia until the 2000s or even 2010s – let me throw some cold water on this Anglo NIMBY theory.

Housing construction rates

Housing construction rates per capita show no generic Anglosphere effect. The highest rates are in Austria, the Nordic countries and Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Here are the numbers as far as I’ve been able to find, all expressed in dwelling completions per 1,000 people in 2021:

Australia (starts): 9
Austria: 7.9
New Zealand: 6.9
Finland: 6.8
Denmark: 6.1
Canada: 5.8
Norway: 5.3
Switzerland: 5.2
Sweden: 5
Belgium: 4.9
France (starts): 4.7
Netherlands: 4.1
Ireland: 4.1
US: 4
Germany: 3.5
UK: 3
Portugal: 2.2
Spain: 1.7
Italy: 1.5

The FT article’s data mostly ends in 2020, whereas the above list is from 2021. But looking at earlier years doesn’t change much. The annual average in 2016-20, relative to 2018 and not 2021 population, was 8.2 in Australia, 5.8 in New Zealand, and 5.2 in Canada – slightly lower per capita than in 2021, and yet higher than in all comparison countries. In those other comparison countries the numbers are usually fairly stable as well going back to the mid-2010s recovery from the Great Recession; the only notable changes are in Spain, Portugal and Denmark, which saw sharp rises in construction from the mid-2010s (in Spain’s case, still a far cry from pre-Great Recession rates).

Some trends can be discerned. Southern Europe has low construction rates, owing to the poor state of its economy – but note that Europe’s top builder, Finland, was hit hard by the Great Recession, when coincidentally the smartphone revolution devastated Nokia, and took until last year to recover to its pre-recession GDP per capita. Germany builds the least in Northern Europe; Austria builds the most, for which difference I have no explanation. However, there is no trend separating the Anglosphere into its own group. The US and UK build less than most countries they’re like to be compared with, but those comparison countries include their Anglo peers.

So why does Burn-Murdoch think there’s an Anglo trend here?

FT’s statistics

Burn-Murdoch uses a different statistic from construction rates per capita. He instead looks at the rate of change in the overall number of dwellings per capita in the above countries I listed, minus Austria and Switzerland. The Anglo countries have stagnated at 400-450 dwellings per 1,000 people since the 1980s; the non-Anglo European countries have kept developing housing and are now in the 500-550 range.

The problem is that housing per capita is the wrong measure to use. It’s influenced by both housing construction rates and population growth, the latter coming from birthrates and immigration. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are all notable for their high immigration rates, and therefore Canada and Australia have seen slow rises in dwellings per capita and New Zealand has even seen decreases. The same is true of Sweden and Norway, which build a fair amount of housing but are not seeing a large increase in the dwelling stock per capita, because people keep coming in to fill these new apartments.

Instead, on FT’s graphic of growth in housing per capita in the last 10 years, the standouts are France, Portugal, Italy, and Finland. Finland indeed builds a lot of housing, but its issue is that its weak economy in the last 15 years has not been able to attract as many immigrants as Sweden and Norway. Italy and Portugal are literally the two lowest per capita builders on this list, and have negative population growth thanks to weak economies and very low birthrates, so their per capita housing stock looks like it’s doing well.

Where is the housing built?

A real distinction, motivating YIMBY movements even in fast builders like Canada, is where the housing is built. This is an important question at both the national level and the regional level. At the national level, one should expect housing to be built where there is the most demand, typically in the richest city regions. At the regional level, one should likewise expect housing to be built in the areas with the best access to work, which can be infill near city center, or new areas opened by the construction of urban rail lines.

The links on the list above often include subnational breakdowns that one can peruse. Thus, for example, in Norway, we find that Oslo built less housing per capita than the rest of the country in 2021, only 3.7/1,000 people, but Viken, a gerrymandered county collecting Oslo’s suburbs, built more, 7.5/1,000, averaging to 6.2 regionwide. France is less certain, since my regional data is approvals and not starts or completions. In Ile-de-France in 2021, the approval rate for new dwellings was 5.9/1,000 people, with Paris itself at a pitiful 1.2, and same source gives the national rate as 7/1,000. But going a few years back, the French rate is still around 5/1,000, whereas the Francilien one is about 7/1,000 (still with little construction in the city).

A uniquely American misfeature is that while the overall rate of housing construction is below average for a growing country rather than terrible, the interregional pattern of where housing is built is awful. The richest regions of the United States don’t build very much, with the exception of Seattle. New York, the largest by far of these regions, builds well below the national average. Thus, while in stagnant Italy, Spain, and Portugal (or for that matter Japan) the rich main cities are still growing, in the United States the richest city regions have below-average population growth, which is seen at every congressional reapportionment once per decade.

But even this is not an Anglo feature: there’s a detailed local breakdown for England, and while London does build less than the rest of the country, it’s not by a large margin, about 2.5/1,000 people averaged over the last few years versus 3 overall. And in Canada, there’s a detailed local breakdown by metro area and within each such region, and there we see 2021 completion rates of 7.3/1,000 in Toronto, 4.8/1,000 in Toronto’s suburbs, 7/1,000 in Calgary, 9.1/1,000 in Edmonton, and 9.5/1,000 in Metro Vancouver (of which 9.9/1,000 were in Vancouver proper – this isn’t sprawl).

To temper my praise for Vancouver and its high growth rates, I should specify that while Canada is building housing in decent if not eye-popping quantities, in the regions where it’s most needed, it’s not building housing in the neighborhoods where it’s most needed. Metro Vancouver builds transit-oriented development on SkyTrain but not in its richest places: the West Side of the city remains strongly NIMBY, despite its excellent location between city center and UBC, forcing students into hour-long commutes; an indigenous West Side housing project built without needing to consult local NIMBYs is deeply controversial among those same NIMBYs.

That said, “housing is not built in rich urban neighborhoods” is not a national-scale statistic, nor a particularly Anglo one (very little housing is built in Paris proper). So why is it so appealing to posit NIMBYism as a uniquely Anglo problem?

The false appeal of deep roots

Middlebrow writers love talking about deep roots – that is, processes that are said to be part of a shared cultural heritage that stretches a long way back, and is therefore by implication hard to impossible to change through policy. An American bestselling book argued that the South’s political institutions come from its unique history of Scottish rather than English settlement (and not from, say, slavery) – institutions that are nowhere in sight in modern Scotland. Often (but not always!), it’s a thin veneer for racism, normalizing the idea that non-Westerners could never perform on a par; until the growth of the Asian Tigers was impossible to ignore, there was a common belief in the West that Confucianism was a deeply-rooted obstacle to growth, which now has flipped to an argument that it’s a deeply-rooted accelerator of growth.

In the case of housing, it’s therefore important to note that even in the US and UK, there’s no longstanding pattern of NIMBYism beyond what’s found in every non-city-state. The US had rapid urban growth around the turn of the century, which romantics found offensive – but that’s little different from the concurrent urbanization of Germany. Romantic and nationalistic interests fought against this urban growth throughout this era, from the 1870s to World War Two. Japan and South Korea today are famous in YIMBY circles for their high capital-region housing growth rates, but neither country is happy with its capital-centricity, and South Korea is even relocating capital functions to a new city in the far suburbs of Seoul.

There’s a real longstanding difference between London and comparable Continental cities like Paris and Berlin, in that London’s housing typology, the rowhouse, is much less dense than the mid-rise apartment blocks of the Continent. This goes back to early industrialization, when Paris, Berlin, and other Continental cities were walled for tax purposes and British cities were not. Thus, Britain evolved a culture of “gentlemen don’t live on shelves” whereas the French and German urban middle classes were happy with mid-rise apartments.

However, New York behaves in exactly the same way as Continental cities: there were historic impediments to urban sprawl coming from the width of the Hudson and East Rivers, leading to a mid-rise urban form and the now-familiar pattern in which middle-class city residents live in a single-story apartment in a multistory building (British dwellings were multistory even for the working class). And New York’s elite hated the city, fleeing to segregated suburbs more than a 100 years ago far away from Jewish and Catholic immigrants, and inventing modern zoning to keep Jews out of Fifth Avenue department stores. The city is fiercely NIMBY today, building little housing by the standards of Berlin or of Paris with its inner suburbs.

Very little of the problem of NIMBYism in either Britain or the US – or for that matter Germany – is especially deeply rooted. The US has an unusual problem with democratic deficit at the local level, which YIMBYs seek to resolve through disempowering local actors and creating national networks that push for more pro-development policy; they are starting to see some success in California. New Zealand, without federalism, imitated some of the California YIMBYs’ proposals and is seeing a wave of new construction and falling rents in parts of the country. Germany is the NIMBYest place in Northern Europe, but high rents are understood as a problem and so SPD has, in its usual slow pace, sought to embrace YIMBYism, Olaf Scholz pledging to increase the housing construction rate here from 250,000 units a year (3/1,000) to 400,000 (4.8/1,000) and the party’s next generation within Jusos openly calling themselves YIMBYs. The UK has a parliamentary casework system that lets petty actors constrain the otherwise unitary state, but not when the state makes something a priority, and so Labour runs on increasing housing production.

In fact, in the US, UK, and Germany, we’re even seeing the same political pattern emerge: in response to slow housing production and high rents, national and nationally-looking center-left forces are politicizing the issue in order to flush out urban NIMBYs, who vote center-left as well but are locally rather than nationally rooted and so have opinions out of touch with those of the median voter or party supporter. Even there, we see a difference: the UK also has center-right thinktanks pushing for the same on neoliberal grounds, and this is also seen in Canada, whereas CSU is proudly NIMBY and the Republicans are, from their origin of embracing housing construction in Texas, slowly trending that way too.

None of this is deeply-rooted or Anglo. Sometimes, social trend evolve in parallel in multiple countries. It’s easy to pattern-match this to Anglo or not; I do this for infrastructure construction costs and have to constantly remind people that until the 1990s, London built urban rail tunnels for the same per-km cost as Milan and Rome, and Canadian cities only lost their ability to build efficiently 10-20 years ago. The same is true of housing: first of all, there’s no Anglo-wide pattern at all, the UK and US differing profoundly from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and second of all, their shared characteristics are also shared with Germany.


  1. Ryan Kennedy

    I can speak to Austria. My educated guess is that the majority of the housing (or at least the majority of the surplus vis-a-vis the other countries are due to Vienna’s social housing programs. The city of Vienna is one of the largest landlords in the world and has been know for its social housing program since the 1920’s. This support for public housing is only matched by Singapore as far as I know.

    Something like 75 percent of households qualify for social housing and many apartments not explicitly social still receive heavy subsidies. This is in with new city districts served by new, modern extensions to the u-bahn, and massive redevelopment within the city of areas like dished train yards. New districts are always highly integrated from an income perspective and even older parts of the city.

    Vienna, even compared to places like Paris or London has very little single family or even townhome style housing aside from perhaps the Villa districts bordering the Vienna Woods. New districts built in industrial areas or greenfields are going to have far fewer NIMBYs. Vienna is an urban city and region without amazingly little suburbanization, and already dense benefit from more people in that they support more services without traffic concerns (ownership of cars is low and public transit is to much better than almost anywhere else in the world, even counting Europe.)

    I’m not sure why Germany is so different, but Austria has a very strong building industry so the support for housing (along with evens out the boom and bust cycles that tend to plague development elsewhere leading to underbuilding, bankruptcies and an inability to use economies of scale in construction. In the US this is most evident in the way the housing industry still relies on stick construction on site over panelization or modular construction which always show promise in good times and go belly up in bad times.

    Austria and Vienna specifically have the trifecta:

    1. Abundant social housing and subsidies.

    2. Powerful and cost-effective construction industry.

    3. Pro-urban flavor with massive public transit investment, low car ownership, and mainly renters who do not see their home as an investment and the risk averse behavior that comes with that.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s not about Vienna. Look at the link again and click on the “by federal state” tab. It’ll show new completions in the 10 years and 2 months, 2011-21. Austria overall is 625,544, which is 7/1,000 annually using 2016 population as the midpoint; Vienna is 107,456, which is 5.7/1,000. I didn’t mention this in the blog post because that would require a digression into the peculiar Austrian pattern in which Vienna is poorer than both its suburbs in Lower Austria and the country at large, so the below-national-average construction rates in Vienna are not like the situation in New York.

      • Ryan

        Ah. I see. Thanks for this. My knowledge of Austria and Vienna is quite dated. 5.7 1000 is still a pretty good number. Lower Austria has quite dense patterns and several towns are quite urban.

        What really struck me on the sit was the growth in multifamily construction and the flatlining of single family/duplex housing, which does suggest that most development is happening in dense areas. I also still hold that the construction industry is very powerful.

      • Borners

        Its not just that Vienna is unusually poor for a capital. Vienna is still smaller than its 1918 population peak. And the epicentre of the postwar economy wasn’t suburban Lower Austria but the western states which are plugged into the Alpine industrial zone. Add in the long years of Postwar Grand Coaltions allowed the Vienna SPO to do things incrementally without the boom-and-bust quality of a UK or Sweden. I.e. Government provided housing in Austria is playing on easy mode.

        If we are looking for a social housing success that lasts for more than 1 generation with large cities and consistent population growth its France.

  2. Luke

    The narrative about the systemic roots of NIMBYism has always seemed a convenient deflection by left-NIMBYs from why they have no short-term answer to housing shortages, imbalances, and high costs. There was a recent proposal for redevelopment of a Denver golf course that the local DSA opposed on grounds that it was a private, market-led scheme (still too few socialists seem to know about market socialism), ipso facto it wouldn’t do anything to improving the housing situation in the area.

    It’s not even that I find the deep-roots argument completely uncompelling. Especially in a country with as weak a social welfare net as the U.S., putting wealth security all in the basket of ever-rising housing values means that there’s going to be pushback against anything that would lower them–like increasing supply. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of non-issue issues that we could easily just deal with if we were honest about how surmountable they really are if we want them to be.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t really get the social welfare argument. Germany’s pretty NIMBY and also has fairly low inequality and a low home ownership rate (I think in the first world we’re #2 from the bottom, ahead of just Switzerland). Japan and South Korea for that matter, while having low market income inequality levels, have stingy welfare states, and are also rather YIMBY; Turkey has no labor protections whatsoever and is also aggressively YIMBY (on the same population levels, Germany builds 250,000 dwellings a year and Turkey 1 million). The commonality between the US and Germany is atypical empowerment of adversarial local actors, which also makes it harder to build infrastructure unless the state draws a line in the sand.

      DSA is just an enfant terrible. We have these in Germany too (Die Linke, FDP, etc.).

      • Luke

        My point was more that NIMBYism anywhere will generally always have some deeper roots and some shallower; which roots are which in which places is of course going to vary. Focusing on only the big-picture problems when there are more feasible first steps is just scapegoating.

        People in the U.S. will sometimes rely on the equity given through home ownership to, e.g., take out loans to pay medical bills, a particular situation that I can’t say I know to exist in other rich countries. Lowering the value of that equity by making housing more abundant is therefore a perceptible threat, though I admit I’m not sure how many consciously perceive it that way.

        • Tiercelet

          I think it’s more subconscious than conscious, but it is there.

          The bigger issue is that American culture is rooted in denial–the belief that we can somehow move away or outpace population growth. (And, given our racial history/present, it’s also often That Population’s growth.) Which never happens; people keep having kids, but we refuse to plan for dealing with them; people keep wanting there to be jobs growth without growth in the number of local workers. Magical thinking.

          So we sell the fantasy of the suburbs and pretend there will never be traffic; and when reality comes crashing in, the NIMBYs crop up with their universal rallying cry of “I’ve got mine” and try to make sure nobody else can ever move in. And somehow we even let them do it most of the time, and shuffle everybody else off to ever-more-distant exurbs, and never acknowledge that the appeal of car ownership and an acre of grass are not fundamental human nature but deeply socially constructed.

        • Alon Levy

          The Greens cut a deal with SPD to allow the construction of 20,000 annual dwellings in Berlin and then Die Linke blew it up.

          FDP is an enfant terrible on other issues; the analogy with Die Linke isn’t the NIMBYism, it’s the love of acting as internal opposition and blowing up agreements in the last minute. Cf. CSU, which is NIMBY (e.g. toward wind farms in Bavaria) but doesn’t really try to delegitimize coalitions it’s part of.

    • Coridon Henshaw

      Left-NIMBYism is the art of supporting double-digit appreciation in property values while saying the words ‘ property values’ as infrequently as possible. Proposing actionable solutions to rising housing prices would defeat the entire purpose of the gambit.

      It is not surprising that left-NIMBYs keep their mouths shut about cost control to let people imagine that they are hypocrites instead of opening their mouths and removing all doubt.

      Refusal to propose solutions is also in keeping with the institutional/electable position of offering the victims of economic rentierism every possible support short of actual help.

      • Tiercelet

        > offering the victims of economic rentierism every possible support short of actual help.

        This is such an insightful description. Now I’m thinking about Section 8–federally provided housing subsidy vouchers that some poor people get in the US–and how it’s really just a transfer of public funds to private slum lords. We could be building supply to actually help the shortage, but instead we once again pretend that with the right subsidy, everybody can win at Musical Chairs.

        • Brendan

          Actually, Section 8 is good. It’s very good that rental assistance rates are high enough to support new construction oriented around section 8 .

          It is extremely bad when you have a housing system that doesn’t produce affordable rents and your countervailing subsidies for low income households still leave them homeless

          • adirondacker12800

            Or you have a pay system that leaves full time workers homeless.

          • Eric2

            The “pay system” is simply that jobs are concentrated in locations where it’s illegal to build additional housing. If paychecks were higher, real estate prices would rise until about the same number of people were homeless. This is because when there are more people than housing units, a certain number of people are forced to be homeless, like in musical chairs. Pay levels, government subsidies/taxes, rent controls, and any other factor based on money just shifts around who has housing. When zoning limits the housing supply, money factors do not create housing.

          • adirondacker12800

            There is life west of Ninth Avenue. There are homeless people in places where housing prices are low.

          • Alon Levy

            There aren’t, is the point. The top US states in homelessness are NY, HI, CA (link). The main correlate is housing prices, and not poverty – Mississippi has a lot of poverty but poor people in Mississippi are not homeless, they just have no access to health care or good food.

          • adirondacker12800

            Your link enumerates how many there are. The correlation could be that there are too many rich people.

          • adirondacker12800

            They can move to another state. Their employers want all that lovely money that can be made in Honolulu, they can pay their employees more.

          • Eric2

            adirondacker12800, are you a human being or a chatbot? You don’t seem to have a coherence window longer than about 2 comments.

          • adirondacker12800

            If they were paid more they could afford to tear down existing buildings and build condos on the land. What part of that don’t you understand?

  3. James S

    I never see any housing people talk about Italy.

    Oh look at that, they barely build and yet rents are low. Curious. Curious indeed.

    • Eric2

      They barely have kids (1.3 per couple) and not much immigration. A constant amount of housing is fine if your population is constant or decreasing. Not the case for most countries.

      • James S

        Then maybe it would be more prudent to learn from Italy when it comes to addressing the population issue instead of the Sisyphean task to build a few more apartments with windowless bedrooms.

        • Onux

          The “population issue”? More like the population problem. Italy hasn’t addressed anything it has a relatively poor economy leading to a lower standard of living and is heading to serious demographic issues and even lower standard of living when the needs of the aging and not-working population exceeds what the younger working population can provide.

          Conversely plenty of places are able to address a growing population by building more housing that doesn’t include windowless bedrooms from Texas (single family homes) to Vancouver (tall towers with views of the mountains). There are criticisms of both (Texas is sprawl, Vancouver too much towers-in-a-park) but your choice between no growth and Hong Kong-style vertical concrete gulags is a false one.

          • Alon Levy

            (Standard reminder: Hong Kong has East Asia’s lowest per capita housing growth, thanks to MTR monopolization of land development.)

          • Onux

            This exactly supports my refutation of James S. High housing growth does not automatically equal tiny cramped apartments or vice versa.

          • James S

            Excuse me, lower standard of living in Italy? They have the second highest life expectancy in the world, after Japan. Curious how low growth countries have the healthiest people.

          • Alon Levy

            In 2020 all of these places in Europe had a life expectancy of around 82. Southern European cuisine is healthy; conversely, Southern European overcrowding is unhealthy in a respiratory pandemic.

    • Bryan Anderson

      “Rent is low in low-demand places, therefore we don’t need to build supply in high-demand places” is not the checkmate you think it is.

    • Alon Levy

      Marco does, but yeah, Italy just doesn’t build much. It is also so economically stagnant that on the eve of corona, its real GDP per capita was at the same level as 2000 (link), which has also contributed to population decline as immigrants skip it in favor of Northern Europe.

      This also leads to bad positive feedback loops. The Italian welfare state, as in most of Europe, is highly retiree-weighted (in fact Italy has British inequality – there isn’t much aid to working-age poor people by French, let alone Swedish standards), and if immigrants aren’t coming, the old age dependency ratio worsens. Italian poverty also means young adults usually live with their parents, unlike in France, Germany, or especially the Nordic states, and this led to more household transmission of corona, forcing Italy (and Spain) to enact far harsher corona lockdowns than anywhere in Northern Europe, leading to a worse economic contraction in 2020.

      • Eric2

        Probably, living with one’s parents also decreases the birthrate, which further hurts the old age dependency ratio in the future.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, maybe. But note that German birthrates are very low with way lower rates of living with parents; here it’s usually ascribed to a harsh motherhood penalty – women face a much larger decline in earnings here and in Austria than in the US, UK, or Scandinavia. Japan and South Korea are even worse about it.

          • Jsb (Andreas)

            This might be because of Emanuel Todd’s theory about Germany and Japan having similar inheritance patterns…

      • Astro

        The feedback loop as states with negative demographics start to take hold is going to be an interesting shift.

        It seems necessary for countries deep into population aging to open up immigration with the intent of stabilizing the population graph. Will they? Who’s to say?

        I am most interested in how Japan will respond, given the social pressures from their long-standing apprehension to permanent immigration (~2% of the country are foreign-born residents). Even the current discussions of addressing labor shortages focus on ‘temporary’ short-term importation of labor from abroad, and not on attracting people seeking permanent resettlement.

        • Alon Levy

          In Spain and Portugal, the answer to “will they?” is yes: both countries have open borders with the entire EU, and liberal migration and naturalization policy toward people from their former colonies in Latin America. The question is not “will they permit people to come?” (they do) but “will people want to come?”. Spain had fast population growth in the 2000s and stagnation since.

          • Astro

            It is interesting that more economic opportunity does not flow towards Spain and Portugal to take advantage of the low personnel costs. Both states have their… interesting business and regulatory climates, which likely inhibit that from happening.

            Visiting those countries, both Spain and Portugal seem in many ways like paradise. Good weather, good transit, and plentiful housing. It’s the economic side of the problem that’s so difficult, with wages in both so depressed. What specific things are holding them both back from enjoying the unemployment levels and income levels seen in the rest of Europe?

            Digging more into the Japanese question, I did find citations that there are few applicants for Japanese residency in general. That can be framed as some combination of:

            Low demand (people don’t find Japan an interesting place to live)

            Low expectations (Japan does not typically frame immigration as a permanent way to integrate into society)

            Low economic opportunity (if you’re emigrating because you have to go, not because you want to be somewhere specific, there’s more money to be made in Australia/New Zealand/EU/USA if you can get that visa instead)

        • Frederick

          Does the average Japanese look happier than the average Western European? If the Japanese are happy, why won’t they make babies? So, for potential immigrants, why would they emigrate to Japan instead of Western Europe? In the West, people have four-workday week and you can drown yourself in so much welfare! (Warning: Hyperbole)

          Everybody in the Far East knows how horrible the workplace culture in Japan is. Japanese language is hard to learn and even harder to master. There are so much social etiquette that shackles you even in your free time.

          What I said above also applies to South Korea, and it is even worse there.

          • Lee Ratner

            The Japanese on average take their identity more seriously and have firmer ideas on what it means to be Japanese than other developed democracies on average. South Korea might be another exception. Yes, there are plenty of French people that believe Arabs or Africans can’t be real true French people or don’t like the religiosity in some immigrant communities that much but there is still at least official government teaching/propaganda that Arabs and Africans or other immigrants can be real true French people. Japan has had a sizeable Korean population for over a century at this point and they still aren’t perceived as real true Japanese people despite being in Japan as long as my family was in the United States.

          • Lee Ratner

            I don’t think Japanese is that particularly hard a language to learn to speak. There are only two irregular verbs and like most languages, the actual spoken language is a lot more informal than the formal rules. It is learning to read and write Japanese that is the hard part.

          • Alon Levy

            From the perspective of an Indonesian, I don’t think Japan is inherently less accessible than Germany? The etiquette is weird either way.

          • Lee Ratner

            Germany might be more legally accessible for immigration than Japan is.

  4. Coridon Henshaw

    What Vancouver is doing isn’t enough. The region has some of the worst housing affordability in the OECD and non-shared housing is not available to people earning less than 60% of the median income. As a result, a non-trivial percentage of the working population, particularly young people, is underhoused or is unhoused entirely.

    Under-construction has put Vancouver over a demographic black hole as young people either leave the region or forgo having children because family housing is grossly unaffordable. It’s pretty clear where this ends, and it’s not pretty for Vancouver’s long term prospects.


    On a global scale, it’s curious that virtually every western country decided, essentially at the same moment, to cause an apocalyptic increase in housing costs. Channels of cultural transmission between western countries (and especially between Anglo and non-Anglo western countries) do not seem strong enough for anti-housing cultures to spread over such a wide area in such a short time period.

    Overnight emergence of anti-housing policies over such a wide area smacks of behind-closed-doors coordination rather than legitimate changes in public attitudes. I would not be surprised if the idea of increasing the value of residential land equity was floated–at the G7, WEF, BIS, or some other transnational neo-liberal organ–as a means to ‘make up’ for stagnant wage growth. Maybe in 40 years someone will find a smoking-gun memo.

    • Patrick Jensen

      There was no conspiracy, don’t be ridiculous.

      The reason for the slowdown in construction is the emergence of public outreach and consultation in the late 1960s and 1970s in response to the excesses of the urban renewal era (late 1940s–early 1960s). This coincided with a surge in interest in localism and grassroots democracy among the emerging baby boomer intelligentsia.

      The extent to which this became a tool for NIMBYism in each locale is explained by three factors:
      – What was the extent of cultural exchange with New York (and to a lesser extent Chicago and the Midwest) in the 1960s and 1970s?
      – Did the issue of heavy handed top-down urban renewal with imposing tower blocks resonate with the locale?
      – Did urban renewal projects become the abodes of “the other” i.e. poor people and immigrants?

      A fourth factor, the structure of regulation, explains why the weaponization of public consultation is so unevenly distributed. Land use decisions and legislation are unusually hyperlocal in the US and UK, which explains why there is so much variation between New York and Phoenix. More unitary systems reflect the anxieties of the (cultural) capital.

      The peculiar urban form of London on the other hand reflects the fact that England and Wales had no form of joint ownership of buildings until condominiums (commonholds) became possible in 2004. That’s why multi-family homes are almost exclusively rentals. The extent to which condominiums are considered equivalent to real estate as a security determines whether there is private production of multi-family housing. This is less prominent in German-speaking countries, where renting is also considered socially acceptable.

      • Matthew Hutton

        There are leasehold owner occupied flats older than the early 2000s. It’s just that leasehold means there is a separate owner of the building structure rather than commonhold which is newer and better.

        There are quite a few leasehold flats built after commonhold became a thing too.

    • Alon Levy

      I saw a really cool parody a few years ago that tried to posit what if showers had only been recently invented – how critical theorists would have reacted to them. They’d talk about luxury consumption, elite notions of cleanliness, etc.

      The really cool aspect of it, which I don’t think the original tweet made, is that the reason it’s so self-evidently ridiculous is that critical theory could only have taken root after showers were invented. In 1965, the Swedish left wasn’t talking about how cleanliness is a bourgeois notion, because a large fraction of the working class still didn’t have showers, so instead it built the Million Program. But in New York in the 1960s, there was sufficient prosperity, and had been for a while, that the middle class could just go ahead with consumption theory-oriented politics and petty localism, and by the 1970s this was universal in the then-first world (note that South Korea and Taiwan have approximately none of the NIMBYism you think of in the West or even Japan).

      • Eric2

        Are you saying there is a specific level of prosperity which is “sufficient”, and living below that level is self-evidently horrible, while amenities above that level don’t make much of a difference to quality of life? That is a big, though interesting, claim and I would like to see more elaboration.

        • Alon Levy

          Yes? A society with 10 m^2/person will just want housing. A society with 30 m^2/person will start worrying about quality, which can mean important things like insulation, maintainability, and lack of vermin, but can also turn into pure aesthetic sniping, especially toward the top end (i.e. if the average is 30 then some people have 60+).

          • Lee Ratner

            Once you reach a certain wealth level, organic urban development starts to seem like a source of bad things to many people so they go after things like SROs or whatever the developed democracy equivalent of Brazilian favelas was in favor of something that looks more orderly even if it results in a net loss of housing.

      • Patrick Jensen

        I don’t think the intention was to empower petty localism and xenophobia. The world in which public consultation was born was a world that was demographically incredibly young and one where the United States was seen living 20 years in the future.

        There was great faith in America at the time that the community would set things right, if only the man would back off. Northwestern Europe in turn, was convinced what America was doing was the future. It seems quaint today, but hindsight is perfect.

        Japan, South Korea and Taiwan took a different trajectory because of land reforms enacted in the 1940s and 1950s. This entrenched strong property rights, because everyone was a landowner. The other reason the local control wave missed South Korea is the same reason it didn’t really take root in Portugal, Spain or Greece – all were military dictatorships in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

          • Patrick Jensen

            One could argue France had strong elements of a military dictatorship during de Gaulle’s reign between the Algiers putsch in 1958 and de Gaulle’s resignation in 1969, but that’s not very relevant for the topic at hand.

            I suppose construction on the continent had greater legitimacy, because the postwar housing situation didn’t really allow large scale “urban renewal” i.e. wholesale razing. A lot of European cities had wild redevelopment plans made but were fortunately too poor to act on them.

            The bigger and more interesting contemporary difference between the anglophone New World and the old continent is the flavour of NIMBYism. Appeal to demographic consequences and property values are more salient in the anglophone new world, where electoral constituencies are often small and local governments are dependent on property tax incomes, whereas appeals to environmental and historic values, which came into the spotlight in the late 1970s and 1980s, dominate in Continental Europe.

        • Matthew Hutton

          There was some NIMBYism in Britain as early as the early 19th century.

          I believe both Abingdon and Buckingham rejected the railway initially. And there are stories about Oxford doing the same – perhaps that’s why the London-Birmingham line doesn’t go via Oxford.

          • Owen Michael

            Earlier I think – there was essentially a Tudor Green Belt policy, enforcement of which ceased along with most other planning rules in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, though I think there was a last ditch attempt to reinstate it a generation later and prosecute Nicholas “If-Jesus-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned” Barbon for building on the Strand which failed when he ran for election to Parliament to get immunity.

          • Owen Michael

            Also Southampton grew seemingly out of nowhere because Portsmouth refused to be a terminus of the London and South Western

  5. John D.

    “Japan [is] famous in YIMBY circles for [its] high capital-region housing growth rates”

    This I find interesting because, outside of housing, Japan has a long and storied history of NIMBYism against railways, airports, power plants, waste management facilities, military bases…

    • Sassy

      I think part of Japan’s transport infrastructure “successes” might be this weird duality between YIMBY for buildings and NIMBY for infrastructure. The mild inability to build infrastructure, and the shockingly high ability to build buildings around existing infrastructure, tends to maximize the benefits of any infrastructure that manages to get built.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, Japan has a tradition of very strong property rights on your own lot and none on other people’s. So it’s difficult for the state to engage in compulsory purchase to build infrastructure like highways, which has contributed to Tokyo’s rail-oriented characteristic; a Japanese-American planner also told me that this is why the Tokyo subway has so many missed connections – the tunnels between the platforms would go under private property. Conversely, if you own a lot in the city, you can redevelop it based on the national zoning code without getting the approval of local power players who think impact fees are praxis.

    • Borners

      ? Japan overbuilds “infrastructure” overall, its still stuck with its Postwar Growth Machine. NIMBYism is real but that’s because it exists everywhere. But actually I’d say NIMBYism against infra has been less successful than elsewhere people talk about cases like Narita but Narita got built. Parochial interests in Japan are geared towards bringing in pork, not keeping undesirables out.

      The contradiction comes from the LDP being a rural construction patronage party that neglects inner cities particularly the poorer bits (Eastern Tokyo) or the regional cities (Okayama, Sapporo etc). Hence overbuilt rural community centres, libraries and roads and underbuilt urban railways and parks. (there are also other cases with distinct problems, nuclear power, wind power and military bases). Ministry of Finance rules exist for urban infrastructure in way they don’t for rural projects.

      • John D.

        “I’d say NIMBYism against infra has been less successful than elsewhere people talk about cases like Narita but Narita got built”

        I think of Narita as a Phyrric victory for the locals, in the sense that the airport has never been as large or busy as intended, never became a 24-hour airport, and never got its true HSR connection. More generally, it seems Japanese NIMBY success lies not in terminating the projects outright, but in extracting various concessions and compromises.

        “a rural construction patronage party that neglects inner cities”

        I agree with the general point, but I’m hesitant to draw an overly neat rural-urban distinction. For one, projects like remote road tunnels don’t really abut anyone’s backyard. For another, we do see rural complaints on grounds of water drainage/contamination, disposal of construction spoil, and so on.

        • Borners

          I did simplify, 地方創生 is “regional revitalisation” not rural revitalisation. And outer Japan is pretty urbanised. The LDP machine isn’t what it was in the Tanaka years, but the failure of alternatives since 1993 means the machines continues on grinding.

          That isn’t the only Phyrric victory, as the anti-nuclear movement showed, wasting a decade of time only to collapse at the first major oil/gas price spike since 2011. And those people didn’t spend the decade getting wind farms built.

          And then don’t get me started on US and JSDF bases which need 1. More space 2. More hardening 3. Get the hell out of the major cities.

  6. Borners

    You see this Anglophone exceptionalism in other aspects. For instance you get lots of Left-NIMBYs saying its due to “obsession with homeownership”, there was a recent quite silly article in the Atlantic recently. Anglosphere countries are hardly remarkable in homeownership cults let alone owner-occupier rates. The Germanic rental societies are very much the exception (and Germany is still what plurality owneroccupier?).

    Indeed Japan’s commitment to “mai homu” was way greater considering Japanese homes are depreciating assets and that prices relative to incomes use to be way higher.

    • michaelj

      The Anglosphere exceptionalism relates to treating housing as an asset. In Australia and UK (I don’t know about Canada) it has been like this for at least 40 years and has been supercharged by the cheap money, deregulation (on borrowing limits) and in Australia by absurdly generous tax concessions for so-called property ‘investors’ (ie. speculators). Combine this housing Ponzi scheme (banks lend you more the more houses you own) with one of the highest immigration in the world, and like the rest of the Anglosphere a low rate of building social housing, and a housing affordability crisis was inevitable. Generational inequity. It’s happened.
      The new Labor government is proposing building more social housing, as reported in today’s Guardian (below) though it turns out to be deeply inadequate.
      What is Labor’s $10bn social housing fund and will it be torn down by parliament?
      The government wants to pass the bill as a priority but it needs the support of the Greens, who warn it is a ‘gamble’ and want direct investment in affordable housing
      Paul Karp, 22 Mar 2023

      The construction union, which is affiliated with Labor, has said that the housing Australia future fund doesn’t go far enough because its promise to create 30,000 homes over five years is dwarfed by demand for 650,000 social and affordable housing.

      The incoming national secretary, Zach Smith, said “Australia is in the grips of one of the most serious housing crises in our history so what’s on the table simply doesn’t cut it”. “Labor must be more ambitious on social housing,” he said. “The future fund proposal needs its funding to be dramatically increased if we’re going to go anywhere near meeting the skyrocketing need for housing.”

  7. PB

    Thanks for writing this. From my experience, people that give out “cultural” reasons for why a specific group of people/region/country is the way they are, tend to be incorrect. People saying that Anglo countries have a deep history of NIMBY are just trying to find an excuse for bad public policy. These problems are fixable but if you keep saying that they are deeply rooted in culture, you create a perception that they are not fixable.

  8. Borners

    Most developed or half developed societies treat housing as an asset. Including your beloved France. Japan and the Germanic-renters are partial exceptions. But only partially.

    “Speculation” is not just something evil developers do, uncertainty about when, where and who etc means social housing programs show similar boom-and-bust cycles. The difference under less NIMBY systems is that private developers mobilise the demand for housing from the upper and middle classes to increase the wider housing stock while social housing is dependent on the taxpayer generosity and how NIMBY the system is. French success at social housing is reliant on private housing construction to taking the majority of the weight. France outbuilds the UK on private housing alone every decade since 1945. The French real estate is less “regulated” and more “neoliberal” than the Anglo-Saxon systems which are the most state directed after pre-1992 Marxist-Leninist systems (China has a freer land market than any Anglo-saxon system).

    Its important to keep in mind that the reason the US and UK are worst is because their micro-managing political discretion systems. In the UK the 1947 planning act makes all planning decisions subject to local nimby councils whose only real power is to say no to development. In the US the local vetocracies and the proliferation of local zoning ordinances managed to get a similar state of affairs, at least in the Urban states.

    As for the “financialisation” thesis, its really a smoke when there is fire problem. When you have an anti-building consensus (which the UK has had since 1947) the price rises for real estate distort everything, including your financial system. Its politically easier for those system to kick the can down the road by increasing leverage, and banks have been able to do so because lower interest rates globally. The banks have been rational, once the NIMBY state guarantees high returns to land, it combines with housing’s superior collateral legibility and that the wage income that pays mortgages is diversified and distinct from the return from the housing asset. NIMBYism creates financialisation not the other way round. See Korea vs Taiwan or Texas vs California.

    I was at a British Labour party event last night, I had to explain that unless you are willing to expropriate land without compensation there just isn’t the fiscal room to have a large scale council housing expansion like in the 1950’s, both economically and politically (too many homeowners). Mobilising the middle class desire for space outwards and upwards is the only sustainable way to get affordable housing (see Japan and Switzerland).

    • Frederick

      Michael probably doesn’t mean asset, but “financial instrument”. A liquid financial instrument, like company shares or gold bars.

      A fridge is an asset, but it will be difficult for a rich person to buy 100 fridges at once (the shop doesn’t have that many in stock), or to transport and store 100 fridges at once. Most importantly, if you are in a pinch and need cash, it is very difficult to sell 100 fridges at once, even if you have an appliance shop. We can say that fridges have a low market liquidity.

      On the other hand, depending on the market and the law system, real estate can have high liquidity. This is true when the market have a lot of hoarders and “professional investors” who hold real estate through some company, probably offshore. By using a shell company, taxes can be evaded, and trading becomes very easy.

      It will be extremely difficult to defeat these investors just by building more private housing, because they have very deep pockets and can easily lap up any surplus housing. You need to raise taxes, enact laws, and build social housing for that.

      • Borners

        ? Examples of “easily lap up any surplus housing” countries please? This is a very vibes assertation. Speculators need to sell/rent out at some point to realise returns.

        The only one which fits that description is Taiwan which has high vacancy rates and high prices. Which is mostly a product of its extreme position vis a vis the PRC with its capital controls plus the distortions created by Taiwan’s own weird forms of financial repression. Everywhere else vacancy tracks affordability.

        Waving the magic “((evil foreign)) speculators” wand is a distraction from the reality of Left Wing NIMBYism’s culpability and stealth alliance with right NIMBYism. Especially since the main vector for foreign speculative flows into housing markets is through inter-bank lending to normie middle class mortgagors. YIMBY housing markets take that money and put it into expanding new build, NIMBY housing systems just get price rises.

        Social housing has a spotty record at best of improving overall affordability. Everybody misses the Social housing golden ages of the 30 glorious years were really private housing ones first. But as long as the mythos stand it means Left wingers don’t have to face up to their conservative nostalgia for the 1950’s.

        • michaelj

          Most developed or half developed societies treat housing as an asset. Including your beloved France.

          That is not true, except with Frederick’s nuances. You don’t find the urgent desire to own 4 houses like you do in Australia, with the expectation of automatic windfall profits from our apparently magical never-ending economy and cheap money. In Oz most people have never experienced a real housing downturn. In France even your principle private residence is subject to capital gains tax –on a reducing basis with time owned (reducing to zero after 15 years IIRC). In Oz there is zero CGT on first home and a 50% discount on second, third etc homes (when Labor suggested reducing this to 25% in 2019 election they were clobbered, not to mention negative gearing on rented properties, another huge tax giveaway to the wealthier property owners). The Conservatives even allowed people to “invest” part of their superannuation (pension) in property, and again Labor can’t/won’t change it for fear of the backlash.
          Then the macro prudential rules on lending are consistent and tend to do as intended, ie. ensure people don’t over borrow/over pay for housing. The opposite in the Anglosphere (remember CDOs that caused the GFC?).
          French people don’t in general have ‘spare’ houses in their back pockets that they can sell if necessary. French (and most Euros) consider their house as a place to live. If some have a second house in the provinces (often inherited family home and often shared ownership with sibs etc) it won’t be of high value or easily sold. Increasingly they end up getting sold for the usual reasons –to help fund house ownership in the city they live in; I recall a Juliette Binoche movie with that very premise, ie. drama among siblings over the sale.
          Finally, building adequate social housing units, or at least truly ‘affordable’ housing, makes a difference, certainly to any housing crisis like the UK has, and now Australia (absurd for one of the richest countries with tons of land).

          Doubling housing production in the Paris region: a multi-policy, multi-jurisdictional response
          Yonah Freemark, 19 Dec 2019.

          …recent policy reforms in the Paris region that have successfully doubled that area’s housing-unit completion rate. I show that a focus on social housing, harnessing of publicly owned land, new financial and regulatory incentives, and the enforcement of municipal policy by higher level governments have effectively encouraged development.
          The first approach—providing additional permanently affordable units— counters declining per-capita government support for subsidised units, a trend in countries such as the UK and US (Scalon, Whitehead, & Arrigoitia, 2014; Vale & Freemark, 2019), and addresses lower income family needs.
          These policies had a real impact. First, a large share (31%) of all units built between 2011 and 2017 were social (Poncelet et al., 2018). Second, more were built; in 2017, 30,183 social-housing units were completed, compared with 13,219 in 2003—the contemporary nadir (Prefet d’Île-de-France, 2018c). Third, cities concerned by the SRU increased social-housing shares from 13.2 to 15.9% on average between 2002 and 2011 (Cour des comptes, 2015). The city of Paris, fulfilling the ambitions of socialist councils, took the goal particularly seriously, funding 100,000 units from 2001 to 2019 and increasing the permanently affordable share of units from 13.4 to an estimated 22.2% between 2001 and 2020 (Paris, 2019). This broad increase in social-housing construction contrasts dramatically with global trends of privatisation and reduced social support (Fields & Hodkinson, 2018).

          However, it may be true that social housing doesn’t suppress (much) the cost of the rest of the market because these tend to be siloed markets, especially in Euro type markets. But in the Anglosphere, esp. UK & Oz, building social housing has been suppressed for decades to keep pressure on the overall housing market and of course to provide those renters for all the investment properties. Ditto HK, which has nothing to do with MTR development at prime sites but the powerful property barons applying their political power to suppress social housing since 1997.

          • adirondacker12800

            Social housing is a subsidy to business. They can pay their employees less.

  9. Astro

    California’s push to elevate housing policy above local control is exciting, but leaves me apprehensive. All the pieces are in place to do something good, but until these projects truly start topping out and accepting residents I fear a reversal. It would appear that the groundswell sentiment is YIMBY enough that the current administration/their replacements will be able to fend off challenges from NIMBY-backed opponents, but who can truly tell?

    When housing is built in the ‘wrong’ or ‘suboptimal’ place, how does that shift the centers of power and industry over time? San Francisco, New York, and LA build far too little to justify their own continued prosperity. What keeps the businesses there, instead of fleeing to housing-friendly locales such as the Sunbelt?

    • Onux

      “What keeps the businesses there, instead of fleeing to housing-friendly locales such as the Sunbelt?”

      Nothing, the list of companies leaving California is long and growing, the vast majority moving to Texas (Arizona, Florida, and the mid-South are other big destinations) everything from tech (Oracle), finance (Charles Schwab), real estate (CBRE), healthcare (McKesson), to manufacturing (Edelbrock). Some companies are leaving key R&D staff in California to exploit the tech/biotech base but moving everything else out. Others are not formally leaving but are downsizing and moving staff to Texas (Chevron) or focusing all expansion out of state (Tesla).

      • Astro

        And yet, California continues to be close to net-neutral, and maintains the high-wage status it’s enjoyed for a long time. That’s the part I find interesting. Population has declined slightly in the part two years, but not some mass exodus. And furthermore, housing crisis has been red-hot for well over a decade. This trend should have been seen far sooner, in a perfectly rational world.

        • Onux

          “I know population dropped during a nationwide baby boom, and the Packard and Lincoln plants recently closed, but Detroit is still home to the three largest manufacturers in the world and population remains where it was in 1940, so I don’t think there is anything to worry about.” -Someone in 1960, probably.

          California’s population declined 500k in just two years. That is more than slight. Stretched out over a decade that would be an over 6% decline; for comparison the state with the greatest % decline from 2010-2020 was only 3.2% The 1.25% population loss in two years was in fact a greater percentage drop in two years than any other state saw in 10 years except that 3.2% outlier (W. Virginia). A few years back it was projected to top 41M by 2023, instead it may drop below 39M this year. If wages are so high in CA that should mean people would be moving there to take advantage, but they are moving away instead. This is a problem.

          Also, its worth noting that despite high median wages, California has the highest poverty rate of any state when adjusted for cost of living, because housing costs are so high. This is also a problem.

          Housing and business real estate are not highly fungible or liquid. I would absolutely expect it to take a decade or more for housing issues to cause businesses to leave. A company will not abandon (tens/hundreds of) millions of dollars in real estate and go through the trouble of relocating all of their staff because rent spikes for a year or two.

          • adirondacker12800

            If they are renting the real estate belongs to someone else and disposing of it or finding a new tenant is someone else’s problem.

          • Alon Levy

            Commercial leases are long-term – for New York stores I think 10 years is standard, which is where you see media stories of huge rent hikes on small businesses (i.e. 10 years of rental inflation).

          • Onux

            Companies like Chevron and Oracle were not renting their huge corporate campuses. Even if you were renting, there are non-trivial costs to moving a business thousand(s) of miles (do you hire hundreds of moving trucks to ship thousands of desks and chairs and screens or buy all new furniture in the new city? shipping or buying large specialist manufacturing equipment for a company like Edelbrock is even more expensive and then there is a cost to customize the power and other services even if you move into a pre-existing factory space, some people won’t move so now you have to spend money to hire new staff, during the transition you have to pay utilities, insurance, etc. for two locations)

          • adirondacker12800

            Pick your argument. If they own the building there won’t be any rent increases because they are the landlord. None of them stop whole industries from moving.

          • Onux

            The companies are not leaving because THEIR rent is going up, they are leaving because their employees’ rent/mortgages are going up, which means that they either have to raise salaries higher than competitors in housing friendly places to get people to work for them (bad for the bottom line), or they don’t get the talent at all because they can’t convince people to come to California and pay a lot for an older/smaller home than they can get elsewhere (bad for productivity).

            As I mention below it might not all be housing, high taxes and regulation may also be driving businesses away. But they are leaving.

          • adirondacker12800

            If they aren’t leaving because of their rent why does it matter if they rent or own?

        • Eric2

          If the amount of housing is essentially constant (NIMBYism), then of course the population is essentially constant too. (The decrease in population is because young couples with kids are moving out while homes remain occupied by one or two elderly people.)

          • Onux

            And yet this scenario is still not “net-neutral” as Astro claimed, and is also bad. If the majority of your population is elderly people, who is going to collect the garbage, perform surgeries, build subway extensions, or any of the other of thousands of things working age people do to keep society running?

          • Onux

            Yet this scenario is still not “net-neutral” as @Astro claimed, and is still bad. If the majority of your population is elderly people, who is going to collect garbage, perform surgery, build subway extensions or any of the other of thousands of things that working age people do to keep society running?

            California has amazing weather, fabulous natural wonders (surf at Trestles, ski at Tahoe), and huge amounts of wealth pouring in from the tech industry people can tap. If people feel like they have to move away with their kids instead of being able to enjoy/benefit from all those things, that is a net social loss.

  10. Jsb (Andreas)

    Being from Germany myself, I don’t understand why so many Anglosphere Yimbys view it so much as a positive example.
    IMO, while Germany lacks the strict typology-based zoning of the US and Canada (not sure about the other Anglosphere countries), there’s still not enough housing being built in Germany. A large problem seems to be the aversion towards high-rises, which means less density in areas close to transit like you would see in East Asia or even Canada…

  11. Frederick

    There is one thing common to the Nordic countries, Canada, Australia, and NZ: these countries as a whole have very low density. They have so much barren, unused land. (Okay, Denmark doesn’t. But Denmark is still less dense than even the bordering German state of Schleswig-Holstein.)

    This makes Belgium and Netherlands interesting. They are already very dense countries (looking at Wikipedia, countries denser than Belgium or Netherlands are mostly small island states or city states). Every place that can be built up has been built up. How do they still build housing at a rate equal to or higher than other Western European countries with more available land?

    • Tom M

      Looking at average density hides the fact that Australia etc. do have a lot of barren, unused land, precisely because nobody wants to live there. You build housing where people want to be (e.g., Melbourne) not where they don’t want to be (e.g., Telfer Western Australia). You’re better looking at some kind of weighted average population density (e.g., arithmetic, geometric, see here: than a simple population density metric. Doing that, you’ll see Australia and New Zealand are as dense, or more than, many countries in Europe.

    • Alon Levy

      Metro Vancouver is extremely hemmed in: unbuildable mountains to the north, water to the west, the US to the south. It doesn’t matter for the purpose of its construction rate that there’s plenty of land in Yukon. None of these places is genuinely fully built out.

      • Onux

        Although Vancouver is building plenty of housing now, I am concerned that the “grand compromise” model followed by Vancouver and more recently Seattle will have long term negative effects. These cities/regions have gained support for dense, high rise housing in some areas (‘urban villages’, transit oriented development) in exchange for preserving less dense single-family zoning in most other areas. The problem is that one acre of fifteen story buildings and nine acres of two story buildings is less dense than ten acres of four story buildings. It doesn’t seem or look this way because high-rise buildings are visually more impressive while four story buildings are at the same scale as two story, but it is true. The differences are even greater when considering single-family vs flats/apartments, and setbacks/detached vs rowhouses. These areas are getting impressive results now, but at the expense of total regional density once the high-rise zones are built out and other areas are entrenched in the notion that they are single-family only and resistant to any upzones when the only example is lots of high-rises.

        Although high-rises have the highest spot density, and shouldn’t be restricted in downtowns popular enough to need them, generally the highest overall density and affordability comes from widespread adoption of “missing middle” housing types in low to mid-rise buildings (rowhouses, townhomes, small apartment buildings, etc.) See Paris and Montreal, see the 6-story “semi-fireproof” apartments in NYC before 1961, see garden apartments in LA during mid-century (despite the impression of booming suburbs, California built almost equal numbers of single and multi-family dwelling units in the boom years of 1960-1989, single family units have been double multi-family in the housing drought since), see ‘Texas donut’ apartments now.

        This isn’t an idle concern. San Francisco’s rezoning in 1978 made apartments illegal across about 75% of the city in response to angst over the cities first downtown high-rise boom in the 60s/70s. Although it wasn’t part of a deliberate compromise to allow high-rise development, the high-rises kept being built downtown yet the city kept becoming more expensive since they couldn’t meet demand. Same with NYC: the continued building of super-talls in Manhattan has not offset the housing missing when mid-rise apartment buildings became largely illegal in 1961. I fear that Vancouver and Seattle are following the same path instead of building a foundation for healthy long term – and *affordable* – housing growth with widespread medium density zoning. San Francisco and California are furiously backtracking and now banning single family zoning, allowing height/density bonus, etc. but it is too little too late.

        • Alon Levy

          The Vancouver compromise is not politically enforceable in the long run. The informal promises made to snobs in single-family neighborhoods can be broken and whenever these neighborhoods get access to jobs by mass transit thee political pressure to upzone them rises. Most of the NIMBYs I’ve talked to, even the ones who believe in conspiracy theories about Asian investment and empty houses, hate Shaughnessy and have little solidarity with it and its opposition to upzoning.

          Moreover, as the city grows, it fills with new residents who care little for preserving single-family neighborhoods; in the short run those new residents don’t vote, because in Vancouver the migration is largely international rather than domestic, but eventually they do naturalize. In the US, this is related to the concept of cultural displacement, i.e. the admission that rents don’t actually rise in the presence of redevelopment but the influx of new people who don’t vote like the preexisting residents reduces the latter’s ability to extract surplus; for example, the people who’ve moved to Astoria in the last 25 years move in US-wide networks, fly out of LaGuardia, and support the subway extension there or are neutral.

          Economically, single-family neighborhoods are the best thing to redevelop, because they have the highest ratio of new to old housing. From my migrant perspective, a single-family house is like a parking lot; to the developer who’s about to plop a building with 20 apartments on that lot, they’re not too different, whereas if the lot had a townhouse with six dwellings it would require a higher rate of profit to justify.

          The long-term risk to Vancouver and especially Seattle is that they can’t build a lot of rail lines at their current costs.

          • Onux

            The San Francisco informal compromise lasted almost 45 years, and by the time the city got around to repealing it and allowing four-plexes on any lot (not close to the 20-unit building you reference) the housing crisis had been red-hot for over a decade and the city was long past unaffordable.

            Promises can be broken, but they can be kept. Once you establish a pattern of “single-family-here high-rise-there” it becomes easy for people to point at the high-rises and say “there is plenty of housing, we don’t need more” or “build over there!” (They will then object to specific plans to expand or add more buildings in the high rise area, but that is life, people are emotional and irrational). Plus while the population of the single-family areas will be committed against denser housing, new residents only *might* be for it (if you already have a high-rise condo, why do you care if a low rise is built somewhere else? If high rises are proposed, you might be against them if you think they will interfere with your view, that hypocrisy happens all the time) Future residents would love to turn single family lots into apartments they can move into, but future residents can’t vote on that.

            As an empirical refutation of your claim, the population of San Francisco somehow managed to grow from 700k to almost 900k between 1980 and 2020 (oh how many illegal sublets and units are there….) without any major re-zoning for “apartments everywhere” and half measures for increasing housing coming only the last few years – and even then often imposed by the state not chosen by new residents. 200k voters should have been enough to sway any city-election (only about 250k ballots are cast for mayor each election) but it didn’t actually happen.

            Relying on dramatic change later is also a problem because housing is not a reactive market. Even in the best situation (no regulatory hurdles that tie projects in planning review) it takes years for buildings to be planned, built, and then sold/rented, and up to a decade for a cascade of projects to make a major swing. This is why it is so important to have missing-middle housing allowed widely, so that one SFD can become a triplex, another can become a four story apartment, a run down retail complex can become row houses, etc. Only by constant development/redevelopment in response to demand can you keep housing prices from becoming a problem.

            I’m sure the NIMBYs you speak to hate Shaughnessy, but I’m guessing none of them live there, do they. Everyone is always in favor of some other neighborhood being changed. If they wanted their own neighborhood to be upzoned, they wouldn’t be NIMBY’s would they? This is why the Vancouver/Seattle compromise is so problematic in the long term. By establishing strict boundaries between growth/no-growth areas it ossifies those categories and opinions about them, while reinforcing hyper-local political concerns (already a problem in municipal politics, pretty much everywhere). Only if organic growth is allowed and expected everywhere (I have a small apartment building on my corner, my best friend has row-houses across the street) can you get the population to widely support growth because they won’t see it as radical change and it will be perceived as change for the common good not one neighborhood winning or losing over another.

          • Alon Levy

            San Francisco never built high-rise TOD at the rates of modern Seattle or Vancouver. The California smart growth ideology was never the same as what the Pacific Northwest has and centered avoiding building housing, not building TOD; the fast midcentury growth rates in California came from sprawl or from small-building infill, like the Los Angeles dingbats, and not mostly from high-rise residential development in city center or near train stations.

            The new residents of San Francisco are exactly the voter base of YIMBY. Sonja Trauss pointed out in 2018 that the median voter in District 6 moved to the city in something like 2011; she lost that election but even then the winner, Matt Haney, became YIMBY-ish and keeps approving housing in the district. Citywide, whenever a city election turns on housing, the YIMBYs win (cf. Breed in the 2018 election and Wiener in the 2020 primary), and Builder’s Remedy is popular there, as are Wiener and Breed personally. The individual Board of Supervisors seats usually return NIMBYs, because neighborhood-scale voting is marred by democratic deficit and city politicians like it that way and speak in code about their agendas rather than in plain English.

            Vancouver does not have the same democratic deficit. British Columbia has state parties rather than California-style court politics; Vancouver has an at-large city council and its suburbs, like Burnaby and Surrey, are large enough to have recognizable politics, which the much smaller suburbs between San Francisco and San Jose do not (the five-county San Francisco MSA and Metro Vancouver have about the same population in 100,000+ municipalities, 2.1 million each).

          • Onux

            Your argument wasn’t people moving into high-rise TOD will be particularly inclined to vote for re-zoning, it was that new residents would change the calculus. SF got the new residents (28% growth) but didn’t get the political change.

            Although the quantity of high-rise TOD is less than Vancouver/Seattle, SF de-facto had the same compromise those cities adopted since virtually all new housing has been in high-rises in a few small areas of the city (Transbay/SOMA, Mission Bay, and the Market/Van Ness intersection). All of this was TOD in the sense that it was by BART/Muni although it was also all effectively inside the CBD versus the “string of pearls” TOD seen in Vancouver or the Ballston corridor in DC. It hasn’t worked out the way you suggest it will in Vancouver/Seattle. I suppose we will have to wait and check in on those cities in a few decades.

            The new residents may in fact lean YIMBY base, but it hasn’t been enough to change anything the way you said it should. You cannot say that SF is YIMBY when its big proposal is to allow four-plexes in the Richmond District instead of 7-story apartment buildings, let alone 4-story apartments that would be within the current height limit. All of Weiner’s successes have come from his time at the state level, no change has come from within SF.

            Does Seattle have state parties or “court politics”? Because if the ‘Northwest Compromise’ will only work long-term under Vancouver’s specific political environment then it is still a bad model.

            I feel you are leaning too much on “California politics” as a way to dismiss things. After watching the machinations of the Fords in Toronto and Ontario I have a hard time believing that the US has a unique democratic deficit while Canada has a highly responsive model that guarantees outcomes preferred by the population. If Vancouver is so effective with its at-large council why do people even have to hate Shaughnessy, why hasn’t it already been upzoned together with a string of Metrotowns under construction down Broadway in anticipation of the UBC Skytrain extension?

            The ‘Northwest Compromise’ is towers-in-the-park writ large. It will be equally ineffective over the long term.

          • Alon Levy

            The Fords won in Ontario because the voters preferred a conservative government. It was an ideological election. It’s similar to the Swiss minaret ban, which accurately reflects the level of racism of Swiss society. It’s distinct from the situation in California, where NorCal voters keep electing YIMBYs at the state level, often in elections that hinge on housing, and then are locally governed by NIMBYs; this is why I harp on the distinction between citywide votes for Wiener and Breed, who remain the city’s two most popular politicians, and district-wide votes for homeowners. (The latter isn’t unique to California – the Northeastern cities have the same problem, e.g. Eric Adams.)

            Vancouver hasn’t upzoned Shaughnessy because SkyTrain isn’t there. The pattern in Vancouver is, construction first, then upzoning; there’s a local criticism by YIMBYs of how it took until 2011 to upzone near the Canada Line stations when the line began construction in 2004 and opened in 2009, and by the 2010s Vancouver was enamored with the rare incorrect idea of Jarrett Walker to upzone the farthest from city center to make the buses look fuller, leading to more extensive TOD upzoning around Marine Landing. So the likely sequence is, Broadway subway opens and then Kits is upzoned, as in the pattern for the Canada Line rather than that for the Expo Line.

    • Coridon Henshaw

      Canada doesn’t have very much unused but usable land. Most of the country is unsuitable for construction (mountain, rock, tundra, etc) or is farmland essential to the global food supply (Canada is the second largest global wheat supplier). We do have some unused land to develop, but covering the entire country with midrise housing is not an option.

      I suspect similar limitations apply to Australia, with the addition that Australian development may also be limited by water availability.

      • michaelj

        Almost all of Australia’s population lives in a narrow coastal strip (the human donut), and mostly in the 3 big east coast cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Sydney is the most geographically constrained with water/national parks to north, east and south and mountains to the west. However the sprawl and the sheer distances to new SFH housing developments (now >55km for Sydney in its NW ‘Hills’ districts) is creating densification in the centre and its inner-fringes. This is happening in the other cities too as people fall out of love of being on the outer rim and totally car dependency. Unfortunately it is getting higher and higher.

        covering the entire country with midrise housing is not an option

        That is an odd thing to say because a relative small area of midrise housing creates lots of housing and hi density. It is exactly this type of housing that will prevent humans sprawling over everything. Naturally, inner Paris is the best example (2.1m residents in 89km2) but also Paris banlieus (Petite Couronne ≈7,000/km2).
        A circle with r=1.6km and 8km2 area (a 15 minute city) at two-thirds of Paris density (to allow bigger apartments), and Haussmannian building height houses about 200,000 people. r=2.4km, about 400,000.


  12. Matthew Hutton

    Looking at the list of countries, I do wonder if the reason construction in the Netherlands and England is low is partly due to their very high population density.

    Personally when I’ve spoken to the voters I’ve seen very little sign of any centre-left NIMBYs – I’d have to assume that they are mostly hardcore conservative voters.

    • Sassy

      One of the highest housing construction metro areas in the world is Tokyo. While Tokyo is not Hong Kong, it is certainly a very dense metro area.

      When I lived in California, I met plenty of center left and far left NIMBYs. While I don’t really talk about politics in Japan, isn’t NIMBYism here a fairly left leaning movement? The main opposition to the upcoming Hokuriku Shinkansen extension to Osaka is lead by JCP, the main opposition to Narita decades ago was lead by JCP.

  13. Onux

    “no longstanding pattern of NIMBYism”

    I think this is a very key point. Forget the reaction of 19th century romantics to urbanization, sufficient housing development persisted in NYC until 1961. That it stopped was a deliberate choice by government – the 1961 Zoning Resolution made it illegal over much of the city to build the 6-story apartment buildings that were a major component of the city’s housing stock ever since the 1901 New Law outlawed old-style tenements and set modern fire code standards. The change was a result of studies that suggested the city would have a population of 55 million if fully built out under existing zoning and called it a “nightmare”.

    In California the “NIMBYs” took hold even later – California built an average of 9-10 units per 1000 pop all the way up until 1989. There were boom years of 12-18 units, and recession years of 3-5 units. But something changed and after the recession of 1990-91 housing production never picked back up, instead stagnating even further to a low of less than 1 unit per thousand in the recession of 2009. I don’t know exactly why it happened, there wasn’t a single law passed as in NYC, and it could be a combination of factors (environmental laws, general business regulation, easy money from the tech boom allowing municipalities and the state to get away with economically poor policies without feeling budgetary pain are the stereotypical culprits). The key point is that with a median age of 37 years, sufficient housing production occurred within the lifetime of the majority of the population, it isn’t some dream of a long ago age that modern society cannot obtain.

    • Eric2

      I think the main point in California is that they ran out of developable land sufficiently close to the major coastal cities.

      • Onux

        Not even close to remotely true. Look at at satellite and terrain map north of Livermore, CA along N Livermore Rd. Concord Naval Weapons Station and Alameda Naval Air Station are two former bases with around 6,000 acres of land that have sat virtually unused for decades despite transfer to their respective cities – Alameda NAS is right across the Bay from downtown SF, in size and distance from Midtown this is like leaving all of Hoboken or Bedford-Stuyvesant empty. Its insane.

        What’s more, housing isn’t just about land but the intensity of use. 75% of San Francisco was zone single-family only for over four decades. Of San Francisco(!), not some post-war inland empire suburb of LA. What’s crazy is that San Francisco has a population density of over 18k, which isn’t achieved with single-family homes. The areas downzoned to single family have duplexes and townhomes and up to 5-6 story apartment buildings scattered throughout them from before 1978, but then you couldn’t build those anymore. If you could it opens up plenty of opportunity for new homes. Building 16 new homes on 1/4 acre lots needs 4 acres, but zero acres if you put an 18 unit condo building on two former single family lots (this wouldn’t even take a large building, it could be 3-4 stories high among 2-3 story single family homes).

        Similarly, Oakland right across the Bay from San Francisco has half the population of SF in around 125% the area, even though much of Oakland is closer to downtown SF than outer areas of SF (in time if not distance). Build it out to SF density (and remember most of SF has no high-rises) and there is room for 400k-500k more people. Heck, build it out to the density of near-south SF suburbs like Daly City and you still have added housing for 250-300k. That’s before we get to almost as close areas like Berkeley, to say nothing of the far larger area surrounding Silicon Valley in Santa Clara county or my outer suburb examples of Livermore and Concord.

        California’s problem isn’t lack of land, it is a lack of desire or inability to build anymore after 1991, for some reason.

        • Matthew Hutton

          California could build modern British style housing and massively increase its density.

          If it was done to a good standard I can’t see there being masses of fuss either.

        • Eric2

          A brief look at Wikipedia reveals that Alameda Naval Air Station was vacated by the military in 1997 and planning for development began in 2000. Since then planning has been ongoing, but it’s been slowed by the Superfund site and other environmental concerns. Such issues didn’t really exist when private developers were filling up San Jose or Orange county with greenfield subdivisions, but now there is no remaining room for greenfield subdivisions in viable commute range of the major cities.

          Yes the LA and Bay areas desperately need upzoning, but for pretty obvious reasons there is lots of local opposition to upzoning, very little local opposition when an uninhabited farm is turned into a sprawling subdivision. That’s why development stopped all of a sudden – there were no more farms to be developed in commuting range of the cities. It’s not some mystery.

          • Henry Miller

            There are always farms to develop in commuting range of the city. sure you cannot commute to downtown, but LA is known for a very weak downtown so it doesn’t matter. There are plenty of jobs on the edge of the city that you can commute to. Getting “downtown” or the opposite side of the city is not reasonable, but there is more than enough to do on the edge part that you can reasonably reach. Even in CA where the mountains to the east and ocean to the west means you have to go north/south there is still plenty of room to grow the city area if you want to.

            I’m not saying that is the right answer, but it is an answer.

          • AJ

            Which is why development in the Inland Empire has not stopped. It would be hours to commute to LA downtown, but reasonably close to jobs in other edge cities, which is why farms continue to be converted into homes (and warehouses) east of LA.

  14. fjod

    I’m not sure the analysis for London being much less dense than other cities fully works – I think it’s got quite a lot of confusion around time periods and would be interested to hear where you sourced it from. There’s an element of truth but it misses the main reason for London looking like it does, which stems mainly from how it industralised earlier.

    In the pre-Victorian period, London was building single units up to 4/5 stories on thin plots, i.e. the same typology as most European cities of the period (including Paris!) – but these would often/usually be inhabited by more than one family. In the mid-to-late Victorian period – the point when cities across Europe were pulling down walls – inner London was replacing a lot of older stock with tenements not too dissimilar from those found elsewhere in Europe (e.g. these). This resulted in a early-20th century (i.e. pre-state intervention) pattern of mixed housing in London, with a mix of subdivided older buildings and purpose-built flats. Compared to other cities’ greater share of purpose-built flats, I would argue this is mostly because London built out earlier – and didn’t subsequently get Hausmanned.

    There are other factors in London being lower density at this point. Probably there’s a little bit of influence based on how it was building in brick rather than stone so height was harder to achieve without subsidence – but this is shared with e.g. Amsterdam too. Another contributory factor is that London’s streets during this period are laid out by landowners field-by-field, who for historical and crop-based (i.e. growing fruit and veg for London) reasons hold small landholdings. This also contributes to lower and mixed density as there’s a lack of planned growth in blocks laid out by the city or large landowners, which you see in some other European cities.

    So in the late Victorian period London is towards the lower range of density of counterparts, but is not exceptional (this video, which is basically accurate, shows it occupying a similar extent to intra-muros Paris in the 1840s, with a population of 2 million). The real divergence starts to happen in at the end of the 19th century. Three trends mark this out: firstly, England has already urbanised far more than European counterparts, so few people are coming into London. Secondly, the garden city movement takes a hold on various sides of the political spectrum (and this is where your social attitudes come in, but it’s less about gentlemen and more about working people – this sort of attitude is commonplace among the late Victorian and Edwardian social reformers). And thirdly, suburban railways are built, earlier and more densely than anywhere else in Europe, encouraging people to move further out. As a result, Inner London begins to depopulate really early by European standards. This has two consequences which influence why inner London became low density:
    – no infill of remaining low-density buildings because no market pressure to do so
    – clearance – initially of slums, later just of any non-middle-class housing – with no demand to replace them with anything nearly as dense as what was there before (see before and after). Slum clearance particularly targeted apartments, tenements and subdivided houses, which by that point had become the preserve of the very poorest in society (why live in a flat when you could live in a whole house?), if not entirely abandoned.

    So the previous outer suburbs remain as two- and three-storey terraces (this *is* a peculiarly English typology, but it wasn’t odd for builders to be building it in the early Victorian period at the distances from central London that they were doing so), suburban sprawl expands rapidly, while the inner areas depopulate. As a result, inner London is lower density than comparable European cities. This is only marginally because of social norms, and I think it’s even less because of city walls.

    Your analysis regarding the terraced house however might hold up better for Manchester and elsewhere in England – crucially almost always in places that urbanised later than London. But I’m less familiar with those contexts so can’t speak to them as easily.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s from a few sources. CityLab’s series on traditional housing forms repeats the walled city story, and I think so does The Victorian City; The Victorian House talks a lot about how the mid-Victorian middle class lived in London and has a contemporary citation for how Londoners divide their blocks differently from Continentals: Londoners divide blocks vertically, so a family has multiple floors, with two rooms each, and doors opening to the street; Continentals divide them horizontally, so a family lives in a one-story apartment with many rooms, with the stairs and doors to the street shared with other families in the same building.

    • michaelj

      On first read that sounds about right.
      Both cities built their sewers at the same time–in the 1860s–and it was critical in making the crowded parts of cities livable. In Paris this made the city acceptable to all those middle-class and above but, like you say, their equivalent in London had long quit the city for the suburbs. Also there may have been some 3-4 storey residential in London (though mostly townhouses, ie. effectively SFH) but the 6 to 7 storey Haussmannian type provided much more scope for the non-rich and for multi-family homes (apartments) and therefore also more commercially viable for developers. In London even if those suburbanites wanted to return to the city proper, high prices would have kept them away. Haussmannisation may have ejected the lowest social strata but made the city viable for the great swathe of the rest.

      However political and social mores play a big role. That of course played a big role in why Paris was Haussmannised and why London resisted such a makeover from the Great Fire onward. It took the dramatic Great Stink of 1858 for the politicians to finally allocate money to build the sewers; it was so bad Parliament had to be relocated away from the river. (Paris didn’t have it so bad, partly because its river swept it all away while the Thames at London was tidal and kept bringing it all back! Still, no accident that Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862) featured the newly built sewers so prominently.)
      Parisians of all sorts treated the city as theirs with a right to live and enjoy, much more than the majority of those London suburbanites. There is also the lingering impact of Paris’ walls which acted the same as today’s growth boundaries–this was a continental thing, not English. Even though the Thiers Wall was no longer used from the middle of the century (almost from the point it was finished 1846), the massive 400m wide ring of vacant land remained into the 20th century.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Britain does have differences in the 19th century which changes stuff today.

        We were richer than other countries in the late 19th century so we have a lot of working class terraced housing that still stands – whereas in other countries presumably it has fallen down.

        Plus to at least some degree we were a democracy pre-1832 which is a lot earlier than other countries. In Oxford ~2000 people voted, so basically everyone who might respond to a public consultation had the vote.

        • michaelj

          Could be some faulty logic in some of those assumptions.
          Do riches and democracy really lead to better, fairer urbanism? Do we consider NIMBYism a valid expression of local democracy, or merely of the entrenched wealthy and privileged blocking newcomers?
          It was the wealthy landowners who killed Wren’s plan to rebuild London in a rational plan after the great fire. And IMO, and supported by data, London is the European capital with the worst inequality (certainly in housing). For a mega-city Paris is one of the better ones. Haussmannisation was the result of Napoleon III being the first elected president of France.
          Australia, on some counts the oldest fully-democratic country (full suffrage including women), and now one of the richest in the world hasn’t managed urbanism that well. Of course it’s easy for the first hundred or two hundred years. But later, relegating the next gen to the far outer reaches of sprawl (which unlike the US sunbelt, is not much cheaper) without adequate (or any) public transit is not good planning. Unfortunately the densification occurring now is mostly hi-rise in various versions of towers-in-a-park. Not totally terrible (yet) but not democratic, rather the simple result of our greedy developer class.

          You’ve said several times that Brit-style terrace housing would “massively” increase density but that is not true. That’s why it is never the choice for any redevelopment and densification project anywhere.

          It happens I lived in that style of housing for my first year in Oxford. In the workers’ terraces surrounding the University of Oxford Press in Jericho (just a km north of central Oxford). They were built for the OUP workers and are still owned today by OUP who were my ultimate landlords, and my backyard abutted against the Press (which is a big modern industrial complex today). Outside of the colleges they must be some of the oldest housing in central Oxford. Cute as they are (see link at bottom) and in a terrific location (and bordered by the canal; I recall when I lived there, Tom Yorke of Radiohead had a big house on the northern edge overlooking the canal) the reason I ended buying elsewhere was that they were really tiny. Upstairs the main bedroom would barely fit a double bed (and the second bedroom only a single) and then no real room left for wardrobe (no built ins).
          And, funny after my mention of sewers: from Wiki:

          Reports from the 1870s suggest that early homes in Jericho were built with very poor drainage. Low-lying land and lack of basic drainage in these homes would result in flooding. Flooding, open sewers, and overcrowding resulted in deaths from diseases such as typhoid and dysentery, with five out of eleven typhoid deaths [in Oxford?] in 1873 originating from Jericho.[4]

          Wiki doesn’t give the area but I estimate it is about 0.4km2, which with 6,995 residents it has a respectable density of about 17,000/km2! Probably one of the densest urban areas in all of the UK. As nice as it is, it only barely survived demolition and nothing would be built like it today because those 2-up 2-down houses are really too tiny for most people. For the kind of terrace house you are thinking of, go a bit further north to Summertown and they are much bigger; Wiki gives neither population nor land area but I’d guess the density is less than half, probably one quarter of Jericho’s, which makes it no more than San Francisco (about 7,000/km2). So you wouldn’t replace the existing fabric for such little (if any) gain.

          These terraces are not the ones bordering the OUP but give an idea. Incidentally a lot don’t have any real backyard; these are seriously minimalist houses.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Well I made a lot of claims and you’ve countered some for sure!

            With population density you are right about San Francisco itself, 7000 people per square kilometre is denser than built up Oxford or to be fair London which is at 5500 per kilometre. However if you look at the suburbs such as Cupertino they have a density of just over 2000 people per square kilometre. Whereas Abingdon or Bicester have a density of just over 4000 per kilometre and unlike Oxford they don’t have extensive flood plains to bring the figure down!

            Now is 4100 massively more than 2100? Perhaps not, but it is denser for sure.

            With regards to NIMBYism I mean that it was an issue in the early 19th century in southern England a) shows that it isn’t a recent issue, but also b) shows how unrepresentative it is – basically it’s often just the top 10-20% being against change!

          • michaelj

            It happens that there is an article in today’s Guardian that relates to this subject. It is an obituary/appreciation of architect Peter Tábori and the low- to medium-rise social housing he built in the 60s-70s. At first glance of the main photo in the article I thought it was Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road Estate (which most will recognise thru its distinctiveness and frequent use in TV and movies, and now heritage listed; see link below) and it turns out that Tábori was one of a group of architects including Brown who developed this typology. Anyway this style of building was a solution to Camden council’s need for more housing but without the usual hi-rise towers built elsewhere (because of Highgate and Hampstead’s NIMBYism in that regard). The dominant typology in those areas was your standard (or somewhat above average) terraces, and some semi-detached houses. This modern style also lent itself to stepping up the sides of the hills in Highgate which comprised some of the undeveloped land there.

            They don’t say what densities were achieved by these 3-4 storey apartment blocks but I have previously made an estimate of the similar Alexandra Road Estate: 520 flats; 1660 residents in mostly 4-storey buildings and one 8-storey building; area estimated 21,700m2 [2.1 Ha, 0.0217km2], gives ≈76,600/km2. This seems incredibly dense so I may not have got the estate’s boundaries accurate but even at a factor of two lower, 38,000/km2, it remains very high. As high a density as any of those hi-rise estates and within a log order higher than standard terraces. Or compare it to the burnt-out Grenfell Towers of 24 storeys with only 120 apartments. Although built in brutalist style they are a relatively soft form probably due to their human scale and details. They have a high resale value today. I have no idea why more were not built or why something similar isn’t built today (not necessarily brutalist or all concrete etc) because they obviously work to achieve high density in a form that residents actually like. Of course they can’t be sold for millions to footloose international capital.


  15. Jack Harman

    Quibble on the UK numbers – you should use the net additional dwellings figures not the annual completions figures as the annual completions figures are more comprehensive. Based on the net additional figures, the UK is 4.2/kcapita, while London is 4.1/kcapita (
    More detail, the completions numbers are submitted by the National Housebuilding Council and don’t capture all housebuilding. The reason they are used is that they’re more timely than the official figures from local authorities which are used for the net additional dwellings numbers.

    • Alon Levy

      I use completions throughout. Net additions include subdivisions of existing dwellings – for example, the NL link shows a precise breakdown.

      • Jack Harman

        The net additional figures for the UK are broken down by source of additions/reductions. You should still use those, rather than the incomplete stats from the “completions” table

        • Jack Harman

          e.g. Table 118 has 31,620 new build completions for London in 2021-22, compared with 17,800 in Table 217. I emailed the ONS a while ago to ask about the difference, and they said that Table 217 and the other “indicators of new supply” tables are incomplete but more frequent.

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