I was recently ask by Radio NZ to write an opinion piece on the Council’s sudden rush of courage in the face of intransigent officials and the dumping of the knee jerk proposal for more inner suburbs to be absorb apartment buildings. They wanted it short and sharp. As anyone who has ploughed through my blogs knows, I am never short. But the subeditors made a great job of distilling the essence. You can read it here.
And here’s a long version with a bit of cross-referencing thrown in.
The wisdom of the crowd
The fact that the ad hoc push by Auckland planners for more apartments in suburbs was rejected by the Council is more evidence that the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (PAUP) is a misguided bureaucratic commitment to turning Auckland into a compact city. For the moment the wisdom of the crowd – or perhaps plain old local democracy – has prevailed.
The risk is that in the aftermath, some people will still assume that building apartments in an ever-intensifying inner city as the only way in which Auckland will be able to accommodate “a million more people”. It isn’t, but prolonging that thinking is a sure way of ensuring we don’t get a million more people, or even half a million for that matter because it is an impractical, expensive and ultimately undesirable solution. The real problem we are faced with is that the fall-back position is a proposed plan excessively dependent on intensification, a plan that will create more problems than it solves, and is sadly deficient in the narrow land use prescription it is built on.
There has never been sound evidence supporting intensification and centralisation as the core strategy for making Auckland more attractive, affordable, or sustainable. Among other things, this prescription reflects a tenuous belief that multi- dwelling structures are in some way more environmentally beneficial than detached homes (which can, of course, also be built at much greater densities than we have been used to, as demonstrated by the ever growing village housing movement).
In essence, the compacting of Auckland, a policy inherited without question from the defunct Auckland Regional Council, ignores the geography of a city on an isthmus constrained by the Waitakere and Hunua ranges, the Hauraki Gulf, and the Tasman Sea. And on that isthmus the original city site sits on another isthmus, this one bounded by the Manukau and Waitemata Harbours. And within this intensively developed area the CBD is fast becoming the region’s choke point. Here are some numbers:
· In 2006 (I haven’t updated this to 2013) around 54,000 commuter trips went past the CBD, nearly as many as destined for it (58,000). And 127,000 went to other parts of the Isthmus,
· In 2013 there were 32 dwellings/ha in the CBD, 66 people, and 230 employees. These are high densities in an area already beset by transport and congestion problems.
And all this in an area 13% of which is reclaimed land, including key arterial routes, transport nodes, and redevelopment sites.
The idea that we could defy our geography by building up in the centre rather than stretching along the axis that has long defined Auckland is based on a number of beliefs.
(1) Apartments are more efficient. Not necessarily. Apartments cost more per square metre so the only way to make them affordable is to make them smaller. So they are not particularly well suited to large households, and the evidence is that average household size is increasing – a function perhaps of migration gains.
Assembling sites in inner city locations, land rehabilitation, and foundation work mean the costs of getting out of the ground are high. Public spaces in apartments, which include foyers, lifts, service areas, and, ideally, shared amenities, need to be paid for. Individual fit outs are not noticeably cheaper than in larger houses and the services (such as plumbing and electricity) are more complicated. Apartments also take longer than detached housing, terraces, and low rise units to design, plan, and consent – another source of high development costs and risk.
(2) Apartments are better for the economy. No they aren’t. Infrastructure to handle sewage and water, for example, often needs retrofitting or upgrading. High Council charges testify to that.
On top of that, the congestion created by apartments in the CBD, in town centres, and on our arterial roads is an externality that is expensive to mitigate in terms of investments in public transport and roading (the majority of apartment dwellers in the inner city own cars). And providing carriage ways for alternative transport modes – cycle-ways, off-road light rail, and of course heavy rail (our currently favoured option, together with on-road light rail) -- is expensive.
In fact, greenfield sites offer better design opportunities for achieving efficient urban form, effective transport investment, modern services and amenities, and medium to high density living.
(3) Apartments are more affordable. Well that’s true only if standards are allowed to slip. Given the time taken to get started and construction costs apartments may be affordable only if enough of them can be crammed onto a site, if fit out costs are minimised, and if common areas are treated as utilitarian rather than as places where people might come together. In other words, they are affordable only if they are small, cheap, and crowded. This will limit the market for them to the desperate, the needy, or the transient. Under these conditions they are unlikely to make serious inroads into Auckland’s long-term housing needs.
Alternatively, developers will favour roomy apartments on sites that enjoy ample sunshine and views, can be well fitted out – and sell for high prices (often as second homes for the well-heeled).
Suburban apartments are more likely to fall into the former category than the latter.
(4) Apartments offer “lifestyle” opportunities. So do our suburbs, of course, with intimate and accessible corner shops, parks, pedestrianised environments, tree lined streets, and established local amenities. And so do small holdings beyond the city edge, or small towns in the hinterland, or retirement villages, and the like. It’s all a matter of taste and preference.
It’s a conceit on the part of planners to think intensification and particularly multi-storey dwellings will satisfy much of the diverse demand for housing. The evidence shows that most apartment dwellers are short term: students, recent migrants, young people not yet set in their careers, or in permanent relationships, and those very few empty nesters who value the concentration of cultural activities in the central city (even if it means owning a second home on the coast).
Let’s think about how a growing city might accommodate all those preferences, and not simply assume that the answer lies in greater density.
(5) Apartment living is healthy –supporting active commuting, public transport, and getting people out of cars. I really struggle with this one. For a start, apartment living encourages sedentary lifestyles. Sure there may be cafes and restaurants to kick back in, or shows to attend. But there are fewer and fewer green spaces, particularly in the inner city. Where can the kids play?
And let's not under-estimate the ecological benefits of wildlife corridors in our cities, or the health benefits of nature in the city, and urban open space.
In any case, reliance on buses and trains is no healthier and probably more stressful than reliance on cars. (Paradoxically, the proliferation of park-and-ride facilities suggests that long-haul public transport can only be justified on the back of private car use any way). In many locations public transport takes longer, especially when it involves switching vehicles and modes, cutting back leisure time.
And there’s something disturbing about how the acolytes of high rise living tout the café, bar and restaurant inner city lifestyle as a substitute for the active outdoors and green spaces of the suburbs and beyond.
(6) Apartment living enables people to more easily access work, either by public transport, by foot or bike. Well that might work for some, especially those few who work in the CBD (where just 14% of Auckland employees work and where public transport use is already high). But what about accessibility to the other 86%?
The Foundation Report of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project published this week lays out the deluded nature of this thinking. Based on current plans, developed I support of the PAUP, it points to deteriorating private vehicle accessibility to employment over the next 30 years, widespread and increasing congestion, and a slowing and uneven rate of growth in public transport use. This raises major equity issues:
- … the central (isthmus) area benefits the most while other parts of Auckland experience a much more mixed and patchy transport future. The west and south appear to face the greatest private vehicle access challenges into the future and are also the areas where public transport improvements appear most muted (p.10).
So is it Sustainable?
Some people will always enjoy the convenience of high rise living in the right place. Sure, let’s provide for that. Others will be stuck with it – but will move on when they can (or if they can). But committed apartment dwellers’ lifestyle preferences for the buzz and bars of the central city are unlikely to be satisfied in the suburbs.
So the knee jerk reaction of Auckland planners to finding out that they have under-catered for their population projections in the proposed plan was probably not going to satisfy the proponents of apartment living anyway (quite apart from the small matter of short-circuiting the democratic process).
This is not an argument about whether we should have apartments or not. They have a place in any city of substance. But let’s not pretend they provide a solution to Auckland’s housing shortage and affordability issues, or that they help resolve the transport externalities arising from consolidation.
Is the PAUP environmentally responsible?
Apart from its likely impact on green space in the city, can we even assume that promoting high density living in central city areas is environmentally responsible. The Australian Conservation Foundation concluded in 2007 that:
despite the lower environmental impacts associated with less car use, inner city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption. Even in the area of housing, the opportunities for relatively efficient, compact living appear to be overwhelmed by the energy and water demands of modern urban living, such as air conditioning, spa baths, down lighting and luxury electronics and appliances, as well as by a higher proportion of individuals living alone or in small households. (p.10)
The Real Message
Most media commentary seems to support with the reversal of the apartments in the suburbs policy because they see it as a failure of local democracy working. That’s good. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is not NIMBYism, it’s not baby boomers versus millennials.
This really is about the wisdom of the crowd: intensification and its reliance on high density living will hurt a whole generation of Aucklanders, and ultimately destroy the very character of the city that makes it attractive.
Forget the highly paid mobile executives for whom it may be an attractive (although temporary) option. Don’t treat the preferences of lobby groups as representative of the majority of current and future Aucklanders. Overdoing apartments will consolidate the wealth of an ageing generation by offering them a rental investment option built on denying the young and the poor the opportunity of home ownership. High-rise deprivation is not going to make Auckland more liveable. Coupled with centralisation it is about reinforcing the status quo and protecting old money.
Only when we get past the urban myths and address the underlying land use issues and, in particular, stop arbitrarily rationing land for housing (or business, for that matter), will we make real progress. Let’s hope that this latest reality check has not come too late to prevent the identification of a much realistic strategy for housing Aucklanders.