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What will it cost for Auckland to grow up? (Image: Archi Banal)
What will it cost for Auckland to grow up? (Image: Archi Banal)

PartnersJune 6, 2023

The cost of Auckland growing up

What will it cost for Auckland to grow up? (Image: Archi Banal)
What will it cost for Auckland to grow up? (Image: Archi Banal)

Aucklanders have been paying the costs of a city sprawl built for cars for too long. The council’s new Future Development Strategy proposes that the city slows its spread and focuses on growing in existing urban areas.  

There’s one tall building that defines Auckland. It looks like a needle, and no one can live in it. Much of the rest of the city is sprawling suburbs of standalone houses with front lawns and back lawns and a whole lot of roads laid out in no discernible pattern, jammed with people sitting in cars moving at a snail’s pace.  

But, there’s a new city being built within the old. Along aerial routes like Great North Road, new apartment blocks are on the rise. Two kilometres from the Papakura train station, developers are planning a car-less, solar powered neighbourhood. In Northcote 1,700 homes are being built, they’re a mix of apartments, terraced and standalone homes. The local Councillor Richard Hills has noticed, “People want to live close to amenities. People want to live close to transport. People want to live close to schools, and maybe, you know, their friends or family.” And so they’re buying those homes. “We’re becoming a bit of a big grown-up city,” says Hills. 

Rendering of the new Point and Miller housing development on Miller St, Point Chevalier, designed by Paul Brown & Associates

Auckland Council’s new Future Development Strategy (FDS) is a high-level spatial vision for the city that looks to the next 30 years. It is updated every five years, responding to the changing city, values of its residents and growing population, which is expected to hit two million by the early 2030s. The most recent draft, being put forward for public consultation, proposes more growth in existing urban areas, clustered around infrastructure like transport, education and jobs.  

Want to have your say on the Future Development Strategy? Consultation is now open – head to the website here to make your voice heard.

Auckland’s shape for the past six or so decades has been defined by cars, and it’s not something that’s working for us. Jacques Victor, Auckland Council’s General Manager of Auckland planning, strategy and research, wants Aucklanders to consider “all the things you forego, when you spend half your life in a car.” –Through the FDS, he wants to “give more Aucklanders, all Aucklanders, the option to spend less time in cars.” 

Time spent sitting in cars is one of many costs of pushing the city fringe further and further out. A sprawling city “does have an impact on society, and often the poorest carry the biggest burden,” says Victor. He thinks the costs of developing on the fringes are too often forgotten. There’s the financial cost of having and maintaining said car, because public transport will, inevitably, be patchy. There’s the environmental costs of its emissions over the many kilometres it will have to travel. These emissions, and sedentary travel, have health costs. There’s the social cost, living far away means that accessing jobs, education and civic spaces like libraries is that much harder. There’s also the things we build over, productive soils and natural environments, that we lose. Yet when we talk about housing and development, we focus on the monetary value of property. “People conveniently ignore those other costs,” says Victor. He wants them factored in. 

Still, the price of housing is important, and cheap, undeveloped land looks, well, cheap. It’s this which has fuelled criticism lobbed at the FDS. The criticism claims that by confining the city on its outskirts, the FDS will add to our problem of housing unaffordability. 

A render of the proposed Mercury Lane pedestrian plaza.
A render of the proposed Mercury Lane pedestrian plaza. (Image: Auckland Transport)

Victor believes that this kind of thinking is narrow and “conveniently ignores all externalities, they’re much bigger costs. You know, we have a responsibility to think about broader society and those costs.” The environmental costs weigh heavy on his mind. “The FDS is about the long term. It isn’t just about tomorrow. There are big issues that we have to think about for the future. Climate change is a really big part of that.”  

Yet we do need more affordable housing, and theoretically, heavy restriction on development can lead to higher land prices. But calling Auckland’s housing capacity restricted is dubious. There is already capacity to build 2,345,500 homes, more than triple what will be needed for our population growth over the next 30 years. The housing question, for Victor, is not all about land. “The question is, what can you do on the land? If you want to only build single houses on acre sections, we will need land from here all the way to Hamilton!” 

But I don’t want an acre in Hamilton, I press. Do we need to choose between growing up and out? Can’t we have both? 

“Yes, we can have both. That is exactly what the FDS does. The FDS says we go up, but we also go out. I’m not sure where this narrative comes from that it doesn’t do both, because it actually does. The FDS tries to strike a balance between going up and going out,” says Victor. 

And as the FDS report suggests, sprawl doesn’t in fact equal cheaper housing. Building in undeveloped areas often means huge costs for expansion of infrastructure that urban areas are already served – in particular, transport infrastructure and ongoing maintenance costs.  

“Development in the existing urban area supports the most efficient use of infrastructure for the least monetary cost over time. This allows for use of existing services, infrastructure and infrastructure corridors. When infrastructure in existing urban areas needs to be renewed, growth can be accommodated for a marginal cost,” the report says. 

Still, the retreat from undeveloped land on the edges of the city proposed in the FDS is minimal. Mostly, it avoids areas which are prone to hazards like flooding, where “it is really inappropriate to have more development,” says Victor. The capacity lost in these areas has been shifted, so that overall, these changes equate to less than 10,000 fewer potential homes. In other areas, planned development has been staged, so that investment in infrastructure can keep up.  

The key here is infrastructure. The FDS envisions that we don’t plonk development where there is none, in order for people to stop paying those less tangible prices for sprawl. “You don’t want to create communities where there are no services or facilities, say like public transport, where there are no buses, or trains. That’s not good for that community. That’s not good for society at all,” says Victor.  

Auckland’s development is still held hostage by private car use (Getty Images)

In Northcote, city councillor Richard Hills has seen benefits of the new mixed development already. People can walk to the town centre for their food, or their jobs, or to look at art. The density means there are more resources, and so the park and waterway have been upgraded. While they don’t have private back yards, Hills says that “these communities probably have more access now to green spaces and recreational opportunities than before”. A new library is being planned. 

Intensifying areas already within the city, “steers us to a city where we’re close to jobs and businesses and sports fields and family and cultural institutions like art galleries, community centres, and libraries. If we keep just pushing outwards, where we know that infrastructure isn’t, we won’t be able to afford to build everything. We can’t put those things in every flung part of the city. So I guess it’s more about bringing people together,” says Hills.  

It’s maths that Victor agrees with. “Providing infrastructure in those new greenfield areas, where there is nothing, is so expensive. There’s only so much money to go around. When you put money towards providing that infrastructure, it means you forego spending money in other places. You have to make a choice.” 

Want to have your say on the Future Development Strategy? Consultation is now open – head to the website here to make your voice heard.

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