How are we going to accommodate Auckland's growth? As Auckland Council's CEO, Stephen Towns recently said, "how do you accommodate over a 1000 people a week moving to Auckland"? These are difficult and challenging questions, which require new and innovative approaches to urban growth which can provide new housing, meaningful employment, retail and recreation opportunities that is accessible to all the elements of our community. Where are people going to 'work live and play'? It's not just about housing; it's about developing successful communities. Its also about how are we going to pay for all this. These questions must be addressed in a detailed, critical, honest and meaningful way.
It's clear that the business as usual approach that we have predominately followed for the last 50 years is not going to solve these complex issues. I would argue that simply zoning more peripheral land for housing, without thinking about how to develop effective and successful communities will not solve these issues nor effectively address Auckland's housing affordability issues. Think about the potential travel costs, loss of productivity, infrastructure costs (including its on-going maintenance costs) and the opportunity costs we are imposing on future residents by doing this? A one size fits all approach of 500m2 sections kilometres away from your nearest services is not housing choice, nor does it meet everyone needs, what about young couples who may not want a large home and section, or the elderly who want to stay in their community and are looking to downsize?
We developed cities and towns for a reason; very simply, they provide access to goods and services, exchange and employment opportunities. Historically city's spatial patterns were limited by travel opportunities and it's only when 'cheap' travel opportunities were made available that our cities started to sprawl. This was especially noticeable after the WWII with the rise of suburbia. However, I would argue we have reached the end of the 'unlimited travel' approach as we realise this unlimited travel is neither 'cheap' nor 'free'. To make services work require a particular density and catchment of people, for example, how many people do you need to made a supermarket financially viable? How many people for a café to work etc. They require population density and for people to be easily able to move to these services.
There are three major types of urban suburban growth / redevelopment approaches we could follow. The first is the traditional approach to sprawl, which I would argue is cost prohibitive when you consider all the real and hidden costs of this option, and unsustainable, both environmentally and economically. A second approach is to base growth around existing or new town centres, creating easily walkable communities (which also provide significant health benefits) where the needs of the community are within easy reach; or thirdly, looking at using the existing suburban spaces we have in a more effective and efficient matter. In reality a combination of both these last approaches will be required to address Auckland's housing crisis, as we retrofit our existing suburbs and town centres, along with more carefully designed greenfield growth, not "sprawl", but based around town and neighbourhood centres that can assist in providing suitable population catchments that will support the level of services individuals need and want, without generating significant travel demand.
However, as we all know, any suggestion of increased densities through the urban planning process raises a high level of community concern, which is a natural and realistic response, given much of the development in Auckland over the last twenty years. In these discussions, however, people are usually associating density with height and a form of development often (unfortunately) expressed by poorly designed and cheaply built apartment blocks that sometimes look completely out of place within their communities. And as a result, with "density" being tarred with this brush, we have not discussed in a meaningful way the trade offs and benefits that different housing options can provide and how these are currently not well provided for in our traditional suburban spaces. Density does not have to equal height, it can be achieved at three, four or five storey levels, creating a humanistic scale people can relate to and engage with. When designed and built well, medium and high density developments can be a great asset to a community. This does require a high quality of design to be achieved for the new built form. I would argue that good design quality does not cost more, but actually add value to the developer's product, the future residents housing values and the benefit of the community overall.
In the suburban areas, we can increase density without radically altering the urban fabric and appearance of our suburbs. For example, through 'invisible or silent density' where existing dwellings are subdivided internally, not altering the building's appearance but doubling the size of the residential catchment. We could allow small-scale dwellings to be built behind our existing dwellings, again doubling density and allowing start up or first home buyers easier entry into the market. We could maintain the existing building envelope controls, including the height (usually 8 metres), site coverage etc. but allow unlimited density, 'pop up' or 'pocket' density. We could then provide more residential units at different sizes and scales on the same land area, within the same building envelope, which would not radically alter the structure of our neighbourhoods, an approach currently used by a number of property developers to good effect. All these options would increase our access to services, assist with housing affordability issues, and provide housing choice while not adversely affecting existing housing values and community amenity.