No, more density doesn’t mean more traffic – and other widespread myths about the effects of increased housing, busted by Greater Auckland’s Heidi O’Callahan.
Aucklanders would do well to get more involved in the discussion around how our city develops. Leaving the struggle to the techno-centric planners – with their unwitting NIMBY supporters – and the “urbanists”, whom many dismiss as idealistic, isn’t going to deliver the city that families, businesses and residents of all ages need.
To achieve “good density” we need to steadily and consistently take steps in the right direction. But disappointingly, it seems that even when decision-makers understand the benefits of a compact city, they still end up making regressive decisions. Perhaps they’re just trying to pick their battles, hoping that these individual poor decisions won’t really matter. But they do matter. Each shift away from good density is closing doors for ordinary Aucklanders to benefit from the best possible environmental and social outcomes.
In this post I want to dispel some myths around how housing, traffic, carparks and trees interact, in the hope that the public steps up to demand more accountability of Auckland Council, local boards and the CCOs.
Myth 1: New housing in existing suburbs is responsible for the loss of tree canopy
Trees are important because they sequester carbon, and because they improve our lives and the city’s ecosystem in hundreds of different ways. Auckland can increase its tree canopy and its density, just as Singapore has done.
“One of the reasons for Singapore’s livability is the provision of high-quality urban greenery throughout the city, thanks to policies such as mandatory roadside plantings, which have ensured that trees have been introduced systematically with enough growing space to provide substantial canopy cover… Between 1986 and 2007, green cover in Singapore grew from 36% to 47%, despite a 68% increase in population, and reduced average temperatures by between 0.5 and 5°C.” [source]
It’s right for people to want to protect trees. The problem is that many are under the misapprehension that housing developments are mainly responsible for our loss of trees.
According to this Auckland report, that just isn’t the case. Over 61 hectares of tree canopy were lost from the Waitematā Local Board area in the 10 years from 2006 to 2016, from 12,879 different ‘events’.
“More than half of tree canopy clearance had occurred for no obvious reason. That is, no new structures such as new houses or other buildings, pools, house extensions, decks or driveways had replaced the space that was beneath the cleared forest canopy. Developments, improvements and extensions to existing buildings were the second most important reason for tree canopy clearance (33 per cent).” [source]
So only a third of canopy loss was due to development of any kind, and even that development would have included house extensions, decks, driveways, pools, garages, sheds and so on. A very small proportion of the loss would have been due to housing development at any kind of density.
“It was evident throughout the aerial analysis that newly established canopy and canopy growth of existing trees has also occurred within Waitematā Local Board, in some cases quite extensively.”
“Good density” involves:
- Ensuring any development has a high height:footprint ratio, to honour the land that could be otherwise used for trees by putting it to very good use.
- Focusing on the already-paved areas as the best places for new housing, instead of areas with trees.
- Ensuring new housing does not waste land on paved areas like driveways that could instead be green space.
- Not allowing any greenfield development, as this simply extends the reach of poor ecological outcomes further into the countryside, and delays “repair” to our overly sprawled city.
- Planting lots of new trees, especially along our streets, and looking after them.
- Limiting the removal of trees to when there’s a very good reason, and actively planning to retain the large trees because, as the Waitematā report observes, “larger trees provide exponentially greater environmental, amenity and social benefits compared with small trees.”
The image above shows some new houses that are nearing completion. The development has just a narrow strip of land on its north, sunny side, and a driveway on its south:
The agents have advertised it as if the neighbouring property has been turned into a park:
The development is in the Terraced House and Apartment Building (THAB) zone, one of the four residential zones covered by the Auckland Unitary Plan. According to its own guidelines, the THAB:
“Require[s] the height, bulk, form and appearance of development and the provision of setbacks and landscaped areas to achieve a high-density urban built character of predominantly five, six or seven storey buildings in identified areas, in a variety of forms.”
Yet there has been more local opposition to nearby five-storey developments than to this low-rise development which dedicates much of its footprint to car infrastructure. At four or five storeys, many more homes can be provided in a far more efficient use of space, so land can be retained for actual, not imagined, parks.
Myth 2: New housing in existing suburbs is responsible for the increase in traffic
Aucklanders generally understand that a more compact city offers superior public transport; they know that more people living or working in each block supports the public transport network so it is more efficient to run.
But when it comes to adding housing in a particular location, they fear it will increase parking and traffic problems. Perhaps it’s because they see new residents driving out of their driveways, or parking beside the street, and feel they “know” the new housing has created traffic issues.
The reality is that good density reduces vehicle use. This 2016 submission to the Productivity Commission’s Better Urban Planning draft report covers the evidence of the progressive effect of urban density on reducing vehicle travel:
“We conclude that the weight of international evidence, contrary to the Commission’s conclusion, is that higher residential density is generally associated with reduced car use (e.g. vehicle kilometres travelled) in cities, and that urban planning policies should be framed accordingly.” [source]
That the Productivity Commission rejected this evidence and continued to downplay the importance of higher density in its 2018 Low Emissions Economy Report illustrates the ideological resistance we’re facing. Without overt institutional focus on promoting “good density” over greenfields development, we’ll continue to see myths buoying the resistance to urban housing developments. This has the effect of pushing housing into greenfield areas on the outskirts, where residents have no choice but to be car dependent. The result?
- Households with far higher “vehicle km travelled” than average households, meaning increased traffic danger throughout the city.
- A lost opportunity for improvement in public transport that the urban development would have brought.
- Political pressure for more roading to serve the people stuck in long commutes, leading to wasted transport funds, less money available for quality public transport, and more roading-enabled sprawl.
“Enabling urban sprawl leads to increased carbon emissions and other pollutants, congestion, and increased infrastructure and health costs, and results in poor community formation and cohesion.” [source]
Myth 3: New housing with limited off-street parking is the cause of streets filled with parked cars
Auckland streets are already filled with parked cars, much more so than 10 or 20 years ago. To blame this on high density housing, which barely exists in most suburbs, is being blind to the real causes: high car ownership rates, high driving rates, high car dependency and sprawl. The households to emulate, with the lowest rates of car ownership and driving, are apartments and higher density developments with minimal off-street parking:
- They are more affordable (not having to use land and resources on parking).
- Instead of wasting land on driveways and parking, that land can be used for trees and gardens, or the added housing units can mean higher development contributions towards public parks.
- They attract people preferring the sustainable transport modes, encourage low car ownership rates, and decrease vehicle travel.
Streets lined with parked cars are a huge problem. The solution is to reallocate space to initiatives based on good density such as public spaces and sustainable travel modes, enforce the parking rules, and price the parking that is retained.
Myth 4: With more people, we need more parking at Auckland facilities
I’m seeing decisions based on the myth that with more people, or with more facilities offered on the same piece of land, more parking is necessary. This is a dangerous misunderstanding – parking induces traffic, so providing more parking makes our traffic safety worse, as well as adding to congestion and climate change.
“There is also no discussion of other externalities associated with a car-dominated transport system, including the vast amount of public land required for parking and movement of private vehicles. Providing this space in cities contributes to urban sprawl, increases the cost of transport for everyone and pushes up house prices.” [source]
In compact cities, people arrive at sports and cultural facilities by public transport, and by walking and cycling. Auckland Council is clearly willing to improve the transport amenities for people arriving at their facilities by foot and cycle, but for “good density” we need to reduce the amount of parking provided, at every opportunity, and no-one seems to be tackling that.
Having declared a Climate Emergency, Auckland Council must now acknowledge the problem they’re creating by increasing parking at facilities, and start reducing it instead. Urgently.
Aucklanders, we must move towards “good density” at every decision, so let’s support our leaders to make the right decisions, reminding them that, as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez says
“Leadership is about doing things before anybody else does them. Leadership is about taking risks. Leadership is about taking decisions when you don’t know 100% what the outcome is going to be.”
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