E. John List: Forget about LA - check out Charlotte

E. John List says Auckland's leaders and planners are boxing at shadows in pushing high rise development.

In Charlotte, California, expressways are built before any development occurs. Photo / Getty Images
In Charlotte, California, expressways are built before any development occurs. Photo / Getty Images

As a Kiwi who has recently returned to live in New Zealand after 50 years overseas I am distressed at the growth management policies that the mayor, Len Brown, and his planners seem to have adopted with respect to the wonderful city of Auckland.

These proposed high rise, high living density, in-fill housing policies, currently the vogue in urban planning, seem intent upon destroying the very nature of the NZ quality of life that everyone else in the world admires. Most Kiwis do not want to live in 50sq m flats that look out on a wall of concrete. Those who have done it in London, New York and Toronto cannot get back to NZ fast enough.

Suppose that in-fill structures were built to house another million people in the current city footprint. Constructing the necessary additional sewers, water supply, gas and electricity conduits in the current utility corridors will be very disruptive and very expensive.

It is obvious the surface street capacity to handle this population simply does not exist. Already Auckland has a gridlock situation pretty much every time the Southern Motorway has a hiccup. The cost of the infrastructure changes and public services needed to handle any significant increase in population density will be much more expensive than if these services were laid on to a clean slate.

Far from providing affordable housing it will simply drive the costs up even further and degrade the quality of life for everyone. There have been so many economic studies that have shown that the per capita cost of all public services in cities with more than 500,000 escalates with population density, and the rates have to increase to cover these increased costs.

Do we really want Auckland housing to be as expensive as Vancouver, or Toronto, which is where it is heading?

Mr Brown keeps saying he does not want Auckland to be a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles. Raising the issue of greater LA sprawl is simply a red herring. For a start, there never will, in the foreseeable future, be 13 million people in Auckland.

Auckland is a relatively new, small city and an appropriate model can be provided by similar small cities in the southern US, which have a similar car ownership culture and other cultural similarities to NZ (I have just spent 13 years living in South Carolina and have travelled widely elsewhere in the US).

If a model is needed for how Auckland should develop the ideal to my mind is Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte, despite being the banking capital of the US, has managed to keep the quality of life that NZer's love - lots of green space, easy access to the city, comfortable neighbourhoods, inexpensive housing on a section that most Aucklanders would die for, a system of freeways and expressways that allow rapid and relatively uncrowded traffic, and a central city with a strong arts core. Development is planned and expressways implemented long before the development occurs.

Pasadena, California, where I lived for 27 years, is a perfect example of how what is planned for Auckland will be a disaster. As a result of implementing the in-fill high density plans similar to what the mayor favours for Auckland, Pasadena has gone from being a beautiful, leafy, quiet suburb of LA to an overcrowded mess that only the merchants and politicians love. (Living in the US for so long I came to understand what motivates many politicians, and that is cash flow derived from rates. The more people you can stuff into a given area the greater the available municipal cashflow and the worse off everyone but the merchants and politicians becomes).

Mr Brown and his planners seem to believe that crowding more people into ever smaller living spaces and hoping they will ride public transport (and raising independent travel and parking costs to extreme levels in an attempt to accomplish this goal), will improve the quality of life for everyone.

Do they really think all the extra citizens the high rise plans will bring into the area will forsake their cars to stand in the rain to wait for a bus, or walk to the train station in the rain? Dream on!

A really smart mayor would be doing what was done in Frankfurt to accommodate growth.

Instead of trying to cram more people into the city with high rise apartment houses that would destroy the nature of the city and create more traffic and other infrastructure problems, the city government engaged architects to design a completely new satellite city (Kalbach-Riedberg), with green space, university, industry, housing, roading, shopping and public transport, connected by high speed public transport and autobahns to the main city.

The Clevedon valley is a site that comes quickly to mind.

E. John List now lives in Whitford, southeast of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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