(Image: Richard Parry)
(Image: Richard Parry)

PartnersApril 7, 2022

Good density: How solid planning can turn neighbourhoods into ecosystems

(Image: Richard Parry)
(Image: Richard Parry)

Under challenging circumstances, Auckland is changing faster than it ever has before. We asked local and global experts to explain how Tāmaki is moving forward, and what action is still needed to turn it into a truly modern city.

Skye Duncan is a New Zealand urban planner who has spent 15 years working in New York, eight of those with the city’s planning department. She has taught urban design at Columbia University and now runs a not-for-profit that helps cities improve sustainability, resilience and public health through better streets and mobility. And while Auckland isn’t New York City, the challenge of providing more homes in the right places and backing that up with the right infrastructure is certainly not unique.

“Land is a finite resource and it’s so contested. We’ve got to house people, we’ve got to move people, grow food, produce goods, we’ve got to protect it and look after our biodiversity. There are all these pressures on it.”

It is possible to get all these things working in harmony, she says, but it means embracing a more complex model. 

“It means breaking down the silos – not the ones in Wynyard Quarter, I love them and I’ve shown pictures of them around the world to convince cities to keep theirs. It requires strategic planning where you design communities, as opposed to just focusing on housing.”

While allowing more safe, affordable places to live is critical for a good life in the city, if you can’t get anywhere without a car or are unable to easily access schools, jobs, healthy food, healthcare, or recreation, the system breaks down. 

Lighthouse Apartments by Leuschke Group Architects on Karangahape Road, Auckland (Image: Supplied)

Safe as houses

The idea of a quality compact city is certainly not new. It’s city planning 101, really, says John Duguid, who heads up Auckland Council’s planning team, and turning Auckland into one was a major reason for the amalgamation of several different councils to form Auckland Council in 2010.

The Auckland Unitary Plan, which was adopted in 2016, enables over 900,000 new homes to be built within Auckland’s existing residential areas over the next 30 years and a lot more when the city centre and other large centres are added in. And the government’s new planning reforms that direct councils to allow six storey buildings within a walkable distance of public transport hubs and large town centres has pushed everyone further down the high-density road.

“Most people have a grasp of the fact that greater housing choice in a planned way means you can plan the infrastructure with that,” he says. “… One of the benefits of more height and density in some areas means you can invest wisely. It’s a limited, hotly contested pool of money that council and government has, so you need to spend it where you have a plan in place.”

Spare change

Duncan often says that urban design and planning is not for the shortsighted or the faint-hearted. It can take generations to get these things right, she says, but we are adaptable creatures when we need to be and it’s empowering to know that culture can change over time. 

She points to shifting attitudes towards things like road safety and indoor smoking, and to cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam that have gone from car-centric to bike-mad in just a few decades. 

There is an element of chicken-and-egg – and also carrot-and-stick – when it comes to urban planning. Duncan says we often change our behaviour when we are forced to, when we are affected personally or when a better option is presented to us. High petrol prices have forced many to reconsider their transport options. Spending an hour in a car may be reconsidered if there’s a new option that only takes 20 minutes. And if the price of buying a house with three bedrooms and a lawn is too high, more people will consider living in smaller, cheaper apartments. 

In Mount Albert, when Ockham Residential was granted consent to build a six-storey apartment building on a New North Road site where there had previously been just one house, the reaction from the online neighbourhood group was mostly fear, says co-founder Mark Todd. 

“But by the time we completed the project, there were about 250 posts and 95% were super positive. They love what it’s done for the community. It looks good, it sets a new tone, it’s led to more developments like it, it improves the viability and quality of the shops in the area, and it drives economic and social velocity. You get to live in high-amenity areas, there are low travel times, more affordable house prices and you contribute to using less carbon.”

Todd loves apartments, and lived in one for six or seven years before he had an inkling he’d be an apartment developer. 

“If you’re bored, you can just catch the lift down, walk outside and go do something. It’s a really special way to live, if you live in an apartment that’s well-located.”

Modal, Ockham Residential’s all-rental development in Mount Albert, Auckland (Photo: Supplied)

Choice architecture

In Auckland and most other major cities around the world, affordability is still a major issue. Many of the causes of property price increases are out of local council’s hands and not entirely linked to supply and demand, but offering different housing options is a crucial part of the puzzle, says Todd. And relaxing the density rules has unleashed a wave of creativity in Auckland: small apartment blocks, three level walk ups, terraced houses, super-high-density buildings.

Duguid says another benefit of all these new housing options is that you can stay in the same neighbourhood as your housing needs change over time, rather than be forced to move to a new suburb.

Developers are still making plenty of money from chopping up farmland on the outskirts of the city and building big, unaffordable houses, Todd says, so we need to look at the legacy of continual sprawl, where the cost of new roads, new schools and new infrastructure falls largely on the public.

And Duguid says we also need to factor in the significant environmental cost. Not only does continual sprawl make people car-dependent, it also affects water quality in the harbours and streams, terrestrial biodiversity, native wildlife and wetlands.

A fine balance 

When density is done poorly, Todd admits it can create “economic vandalism” rather than vibrancy. And Duguid says some are concerned that the rules may lead to uniformity of height and style. But, as he points out, a lot of people see uniformity in other cities around the world and think it’s fantastic.

“That classic five or six storey, 18th and 19th century perimeter block that you see in cities like Paris, a lot of people love those places. Uniformity of height and style aren’t necessarily a problem if buildings are well designed.”

The government’s new planning reforms cover large parts of Auckland, including where places called ‘special character areas’ are located. But when it comes to preserving character housing areas, many of which were built around the public transport network and town centres of a far less developed Auckland, it can also be a balancing act.

“When people visit Auckland, or think about Auckland, they might think about the sky tower, the harbour, the maunga, the beaches,” says Duguid. “But when they think about the built form, the mind might turn to these streets of villas and bungalows. They do play an important role in the history and identity and character of Auckland. But with central government’s recent changes to that requires greater heights and density across our city, keeping it all is not an option. I’m quite supportive of a balanced approach to this one.”

Sharing the love

Behind a lot of these planning and regulatory decisions is a reasonably simple uniting idea: the best bits of the city should be more accessible to more people. And while many of the suburbs with character attributes have good active and public transport options and are close to employment, shops and recreational opportunities, the government believes that only by loosening restrictions and directly encouraging development will we be able to make a meaningful change to equality of housing access in these areas.

Duncan says opening up these accessible areas to different types of housing will attract a mix of incomes and demographics.  

Or, as Todd likes to put it, make them more cosmopolitan. 

“I love that word. That’s what cities are. That’s what a city should be… When you’re doing high intensity projects, you need to contribute to the commons; what is of value that they can use together and how can they use it to create the community they want. There might be playgroups or a creche up there. You might be playing bridge up there eventually.”  

A row of classic Ponsonby villas (Photo: Getty Images)

One for all

On a larger scale, this is exactly what cities need to think about when they’re intensifying, says Duncan. If you take something away, like lawns or car parking, what public shared assets do you need to replace it with to look after the most people – and the most vulnerable people?

Many New Zealanders have been brought up with the suburban dream. Alongside the car, it was sold as a solution, but we don’t have a planet big enough to cope with that. If we’re going to ask people to shift the way they’re living –“because we have no choice, frankly,” Duncan says –we need to provide more and better public transport, more trees, more green spaces, better recreational facilities and safe ways to walk or bike to school or work.

“What’s really exciting is you’re getting examples around the world where they are transforming the streets to serve more people, rather than giving it all to cars. When you look at something like cycling, unless you take some of that space on the street to provide a protected safe space where people are comfortable taking their five year old or their grandfather, it won’t be used. Let’s look around the world to places that have done this well. Let’s copy them. There’s no shame in copying and stealing and adapting it to fit.”

The younger generation love living in high density, public and active transport-dominated overseas cities, says Todd. 

“And we are taking that seriously here with the City Rail Link, the bus networks, the cycle networks, and the unlimited density zones across large parts of the city now. That needs to be encouraged.”

He is confident that Auckland is on its way to becoming the most vibrant cosmopolitan city in the South Pacific. Before Covid – whether it was music, nightlife, arts, or hospitality – “it was humming up here” and increased density is a major contributor to that hum.

“We will bounce back from Covid, and we know we’re heading towards a city the size of Sydney or Melbourne … I’m hugely optimistic for Auckland’s future. I think we’ll get there. We are getting there.”

Keep going!