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City for People (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
City for People (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONWellingtonFebruary 8, 2024

City for People: The five things we want from Wellington’s new District Plan

City for People (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
City for People (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

Wellington needs to build more homes, ASAP. But at the moment, the council’s planning rules are too restrictive, writes Elena Wood of housing advocacy group City for People.

There are few sports more ruthless than flat-hunting in Wellington. My first season – fresh out of the university halls of residence – was fiercely competitive. As students, we tried every trick in the book: pretending to be yo-pros, calling in favours with property manager relatives (no relation is too distant), swearing that our male flatmates are actually very, very tidy.

All of us, desperate to secure the grand prize: an asthma-inducing, hundred-year-old bungalow. The alternative was an apartment, which I liked the idea of, until I started viewing the rooms in my price range. One had been an office in its past life; it had windows, but they didn’t open. Another was a former brothel, which had no windows at all. I gave them all serious thought, though. Why? There’s a housing crisis and I was running out of options.

Wellington is a great city. More and more people want to live here, but over the last decade, we’ve built new homes at half the rate of Christchurch and Auckland when adjusted for population. We’re brewing a toxic potion of more demand, no supply, that has led to rents doubling since 2006.

People are fleeing Wellington and moving to cities like Auckland that are taking meaningful action to address the housing crisis. Auckland as a more affordable choice than Wellington? Unthinkable a decade ago. Nurses, teachers, students, and creatives are calling it quits, to our collective detriment. 

Clearly, we need to build more homes, ASAP. But at the moment, the council’s planning rules are too restrictive. Rules, like building height limits, make it too hard to build enough homes in the parts of the city where people actually want to live. At the moment, “special character” zoning covers 88% of residential land parcels within walking distance of the city centre – preserving huge swathes of low density, pre-1930 houses and preventing re-development, no matter their quality.

We have an opportunity to fix the planning rules and build the homes we desperately need. This March, city councillors will vote on a new District Plan for Wellington.

City for People is calling on Wellington City Council to do five things:

Raise building height limits in the city centre or (ideally) remove them altogether

Exciting cities like New York, Amsterdam, and Singapore have vibrant city centres because lots of people are able to choose to live close to each other. But right now in Wellington, we don’t have enough apartments for people to make this choice. There are parts of the city centre where the maximum height allowed is six storeys. It’s giving… small town energy. In the capital city.

Take a reality check on what a ‘walkable’ distance is

Central government says councils must allow buildings of at least six-storeys within “walkable catchments” of urban centres and any “mass rapid transit” stops (public transport stops with frequent services, like train stations). This would enable more homes in the well-connected suburbs. But the definition of “walkable”, according to the draft District Plan? Ten minutes. What a joke. Wellingtonians walk everywhere. I channel Edmund Hillary every time I hike home – its why I’ve got such strong calves. “Walkable” should be at least fifteen minutes. 

Recognise that the Johnsonville train line and the Newtown bus route are ‘mass-rapid transit’ routes

If a train is not mass rapid transit, then what is? 

Apply the Medium Density Residential Standards throughout the city.

These standards allow three homes of up to three storeys on any section by default, unless there is good reason for an exemption. Applying these standards everywhere would help distribute development across the city, rather than concentrating it into a few places. In 2016, Auckland applied similar “gentle density” zones in large parts of the city. Six years on, this zoning change was found to have made a significant contribution to lowering rents.

Keep special character areas the same size agreed to in the Spatial Plan in 2021

The Spatial Plan made a sensible compromise, preserving well-maintained pockets of Wellington’s history, while also allowing more homes in the suburbs closest to the city centre. Our city has already had that conversation and made that decision, why rehash it now? 

The bottom line is, we need to build more homes, and denser urban living is the most sensible way to do it. Building more homes is the only way we can meaningfully address the housing crisis, and changing the zoning rules is a huge piece of that puzzle. It’ll help us finally fix the damn pipes, too. More people living in Wellington means more people paying rates to help pay for infrastructure. Denser urban form would also save the city money – it’s cheaper and more efficient to deliver infrastructure to homes that are closer together. 

Density done well would also help the city achieve its climate goals. It’s easier to live low-carbon lifestyles when we can access everything we need quickly and easily in our immediate surroundings, we don’t need to rely on private vehicles to get around, and we don’t need to use so much energy heating large, standalone homes. The council would be able to invest more in low-carbon transport options – like light rail, more frequent buses, cycle paths, and footpaths – because more people means more potential riders. We’ve already copied Auckland’s housing crisis, we don’t need to copy their grid-lock too. 

We all want our city to be a community-driven, vibrant, and exciting place to live. But Wellington can’t be the “coolest little capital” with a red-hot housing crisis. It’s oxymoronic, and we’ve got to fix it. We need our councillors to work together and pass a pragmatic District Plan that reflects the real needs of the people in our city. Let’s prioritise people, think of the future, and keep community at the centre of this new District Plan.

Elena Wood is a volunteer for City for People, a coalition of individuals and organisations working together to advocate for affordable housing in Wellington.

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