Jamie Hosking: Build up, not out to become world's most liveable city

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Cities are meant to be vibrant places with lots happening, close to where we live, says Hosking. Photo / Supplied
Cities are meant to be vibrant places with lots happening, close to where we live, says Hosking. Photo / Supplied

Urban intensification is the elephant in the room when it comes to affordable housing.

Former Reserve Bank governor Don Brash recently called for the opposite of intensification: relaxation of the metropolitan urban limits. The accord between Auckland Council and central government includes plans for more greenfields development on the edge of town. And the Budget suggested that if councils do not free up greenfields land for development, central government will over-ride them.

Much of this is being done in the name of affordable housing. Yet the main solution to the spiralling cost of land is staring policymakers in the face: intensification. Because it's not the cost of building houses that is driving affordability woes, it's the cost of land.

Intensification means "building up" rather than "building out": density instead of urban sprawl. Crucially, it requires no new land. Building two storeys instead of one doubles housing capacity and uses no additional land.

The cost of land is divided by the number of storeys.

"Building up" can't deliver quarter acre sections. But it can deliver something much more important: liveability.

In denser communities, we can have more destinations close to our homes: more local businesses, shops and cafes, as well as more public services and amenities such as libraries, swimming pools and schools. Density means more council rates income, so it makes it affordable for councils to invest in improving public spaces and parks, as well as rapid, convenient and efficient public transport. Denser cities also boost economic productivity, helping raise our standard of living.

Four of the top five cities in the Mercer quality of living survey are intensified. The fifth is Auckland. We have the advantage of a wonderful natural environment, with bush and beaches on our doorstep. Yet land-hungry development is eating into our countryside, and runoff from our extensive roading network is polluting our harbours. Sprawl threatens the best things about Auckland.

Greenfields development on the edge of town fails to deliver liveability and is less affordable than intensification. As well as the cost of new land for housing, the distances involved make it more costly to provide infrastructure and services, driving rates up. Services and amenities are spread more thinly, fuelling the need for car use, and requiring more costly motorways.

Transport costs to families are higher: a 2006 report by the Centre for Housing Policy in the US found families in the central city, compared with families in suburbs with no employment centre nearby, spent similar amounts on housing but much less on transport costs. In other words, overall affordability in distant suburbs is lower.

Cities are meant to be vibrant places with lots happening, close to where we live. But whereas "building up" brings new amenities into our communities, greenfields housing out on the edge of town takes amenities with it.

More greenfields housing is not in the interests of Aucklanders, especially those in need of more affordable housing. "Building up" provides more affordable housing than "building out".

It keeps transport costs and rates lower for families. It makes for a more productive economy, and a more vibrant and liveable city.

Intensification of housing needs to be matched by intensification of amenities. It must be sensitive to heritage and design values, and needs to proceed in a way that takes communities with it. But surely, intensification is what we need.

Dr Jamie Hosking researches healthy urban design and is a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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