Right Density: How Sound Planning Can Turn Neighborhoods into Ecosystems

Under difficult circumstances, Auckland is changing faster than it has ever done before. We asked local and global experts to explain how Tāmaki is progressing and what actions are still needed to make it a truly modern city.

Skye Duncan is a New Zealand urban planner who spent 15 years in New York City, eight of them in the city’s planning department. She taught urban design at Columbia University and now runs a non-profit that helps cities improve sustainability, resilience and public health through better streets and better mobility. And the challenges Auckland is currently facing in delivering more homes in the right places and supporting that with the right infrastructure are challenges it has seen before.

“Land is a finite resource and it is so contested. We have to house people, we have to move people, we have to grow food, we have to produce goods, we have to protect it and take care of our biodiversity. There are all these pressures there.

It’s possible to make all of these things work in harmony, she says, but that means adopting 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 all over the world to convince cities to keep theirs. It requires strategic planning where you design communities, instead of just focusing on housing.

While enabling safer and more affordable housing is essential for a good city life, if you can’t get around without a car or can’t easily access schools, jobs, healthy food, healthcare health or leisure, the system stops. down.

Lighthouse apartments on Karangahape Road, Auckland (Image: Supplied)

safe as houses

The idea of ​​a compact, quality city is certainly not new. It really is town planning 101, says John Duguid, who leads the Auckland council’s planning team. The transformation of Auckland into one was a major reason for the merger of several different councils to form Auckland Council in 2010.

Auckland’s Unit Plan, released in 2016, allows for around one million new housing units in existing urban areas of Auckland over the next 30 years. And the government’s new planning reform which directs councils to allow six-storey buildings within walking distance of public transport hubs and major town centers has pushed everyone further down the road at high density.

“Most people understand that having more housing choices in a planned way means you can plan the infrastructure with that,” he says. “One of the benefits of more height and density in certain areas means you can invest wisely. It’s a limited and hotly contested pool of money that the council and government have, 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 short-sighted 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 changing attitudes towards things like road safety and indoor smoking, and cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam going from car-to-bike mania in just a few decades.

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

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

“But by the time we finished the project, there were about 250 posts and 95% were super positive. They love what it’s doing for the community. It looks good, it sets a new tone, it’s driven to more developments like this, it improves the viability and quality of stores in the area, and it boosts economic and social speed.You live in high-convenience areas, travel times are short, prices for houses are more affordable and you are helping to use less carbon.”

Todd loves apartments and lived there for six or seven years before he realized he would be an apartment developer.

“If you’re bored, you can just take the elevator, get out and go do something. It’s a really special way to live, if you live in a well-located apartment.

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

Architecture of choice

In Auckland and most other major cities around the world, affordability remains a major issue. Many of the causes of rising property prices here are beyond the local council and are not entirely supply and demand related, but providing different housing options is a crucial part of the puzzle, says Todd . And the relaxation of density rules has sparked a wave of creativity in Auckland: small apartment buildings, three-storey walk-ups, terraced houses, very high-density buildings.

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

Developers are still making a lot of money carving up farmland on the outskirts of town and building big, unaffordable homes, Todd says, but we need to look at the legacy of this continued sprawl, where the cost of new roads, new schools and infrastructure are largely the responsibility of the public.

Duguid says we also need to consider the significant environmental cost. Not only does living in these remote places usually require a car, but it also affects water quality in ports and rivers, terrestrial biodiversity, native wildlife and wetlands.

“The degradation is still ongoing. I would like this to stop so we can focus more on improving.

A nice balance

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

“That classic five- or six-story 19th-century perimeter block that you see in cities like Paris. Many people like these places, but they cannot transplant them to their own environment. »

The government’s new planning reforms cover large parts of Auckland, including where there are places called ‘special character areas’. But when it comes to preserving characterful housing areas, many of which have been built around the public transport network and town centers of much less developed Auckland, it can also be an exercise in balance.

“When people visit Auckland or think of Auckland, they might think of the Sky Tower, the harbour, the maunga, the beaches,” says Duguid. “But when they think of the built form, the mind may turn to these streets of villas and bungalows. They play an important role in Auckland’s history, identity and character. isn’t an option. I’m all for a balanced approach to this one.

Share the love

Behind many of these planning and regulatory decisions is a fairly simple unifying idea: the best parts of the city should be more accessible to more people. And while many suburbs with character attributes have good active and public transport options and are close to jobs, shopping and recreation opportunities, the government believes that only by easing restrictions and by directly encouraging development we can bring about meaningful change to equality. access to housing in these neighborhoods.

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

Or, as Todd likes to say, make them more cosmopolitan.

“I love that word. That’s what cities are. That’s what a city should be… When you do high-intensity projects, you have to contribute to the commons; “they can use together and how can they use it to create the community they want. There could be playgroups or a nursery up there. You could possibly play bridge up there.

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

One for all

On a larger scale, that’s exactly what cities need to think about when they scale up, Duncan says. If you take something away, like lawns or parking, what shared public goods should you replace it with to care for the many – and the most vulnerable people?

Many New Zealanders were brought up with the suburban dream – home, land, car. If we’re going to ask people to change their way of life – “because we have no choice, frankly,” says Duncan – we need to provide more and better public transport, more trees, more green spaces, better leisure facilities and safe ways to walk or cycle to school or work.

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

The younger generation enjoys living in high-density overseas cities dominated by public and active transportation, Todd says.

“And we take that seriously here with the City Rail Link, bus networks, cycle networks and unlimited density zones in large parts of the city now. This should be encouraged.

He is convinced that Auckland is on the way to becoming the most dynamic cosmopolitan city in the South Pacific. Before Covid, “it was buzzing here,” he says, and increased density is a major contributor to that buzz.

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