I have long argued against urban sprawl as a pattern of development, because of its inevitable car dependency, its poor sustainability and its general soullessness. With the government undertaking a serious overhaul of planning regulations that relate to urban areas – potentially making it easier for our cities to sprawl – I read with interest an article from the USA which argues that our changing demographics and cultural preferences mean that the demand for sprawl is simply unlikely to be there in the future. Instead, as our population ages and as younger generations place greater emphasis on living in vibrant and exciting town centres, we may already have more than enough low-density single-dwelling houses out there. What we’re likely to end up having a shortage of are smaller places in walkable urban areas.

It’s well worth a read. Here are some sections:

We’re unlikely, however, to see a real estate recovery based on a continuation of the type of development that has driven the industry for the past few generations: low-density, car-dependent suburbs growing out of cornfields at the edge of metropolitan areas. That’s because there is now a massive oversupply of such suburban fringe development, brought on by decades of policy favoring it—including heavy government subsidies for extending roads, sewers, and utilities into undeveloped land. Houses on the exurban fringe of several large metro areas have typically lost more than twice as much value as metro areas as a whole since the mid-decade peak. Many of those homes are now priced below the cost of the materials that went into building them, which means that their owners have no financial incentive to invest in their upkeep. Under such conditions, whole neighborhoods swiftly decline and turn into slums. This happened in many inner-city neighborhoods in the 1960s, and we’re seeing evidence of it in many exurban neighborhoods today. The Los Angeles Times reports that in one gated community in Hemet, east of L.A., McMansions with granite countertops and vaulted ceilings are being rented to poor families on Section 8 vouchers; according to the Washington Examiner, similar homes in Germantown, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., are being converted to boarding houses.

In New Zealand we never ended up with quite the same extreme level of “over-building” during the real-estate boom years – perhaps because of planning restrictions such as the MUL. This has meant that house prices haven’t crashed in the way they have in parts of the USA.

Meanwhile, the Great Recession has highlighted a fundamental change in what consumers do want: homes in central cities and closer-in suburbs where one can walk to stores and mass transit. Such “walkable urban” real estate has experienced less than half the average decline in price from the housing peak. Ten years ago, the highest property values per square foot in the Washington, D.C., metro area were in car-dependent suburbs like Great Falls, Virginia. Today, walkable city neighborhoods like Dupont Circle command the highest per-square-foot prices, followed by dense suburban neighborhoods near subway stops in places like Bethesda, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia. Similarly, in Denver, property values in the high-end car-dependent suburb of Highland Ranch are now lower than those in the redeveloped LoDo neighborhood near downtown. These trend lines have been evident in many cities for a number of years; at some point during the last decade, the lines crossed. The last time the lines crossed was in the 1960s—and they were heading the opposite direction.

It would be very interesting to see a comparison across Auckland as to which suburbs have held their real estate values the best over the past couple of years, and which suburbs have experienced declining real estate values.

But while looking back to the past provides something of an economic argument against encouraging too much sprawl, the really interesting things emerge when we start to look forward into the future – and start considering changing demographics and changing social preferences:

But the biggest factor, one that will quickly pick up speed in the next few years, is demographic. The baby boomers and their children, the millennial generation, are looking for places to live and work that reflect their current desires and life needs. Boomers are downsizing as their children leave home while the millennials, or generation Y, are setting out on their careers with far different housing needs and preferences. Both of these huge demographic groups want something that the U.S. housing market is not currently providing: small one- to three-bedroom homes in walkable, transit-oriented, economically dynamic, and job-rich neighborhoods.

The baby boom generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, remains the largest demographic bloc in the United States. At approximately 77 million Americans, they are fully one-quarter of the population. With the leading edge of the boomers now approaching sixty-five years old, the group is finding that their suburban houses are too big. Their child-rearing days are ending, and all those empty rooms have to be heated, cooled, and cleaned, and the unused backyard maintained. Suburban houses can be socially isolating, especially as aging eyes and slower reflexes make driving everywhere less comfortable. Freedom for many in this generation means living in walkable, accessible communities with convenient transit linkages and good public services like libraries, cultural activities, and health care. Some boomers are drawn to cities. Others prefer to stay in the suburbs but want to trade in their large-lot single-family detached homes on cul-de-sacs for smaller-lot single-family homes, townhouses, and condos in or near burgeoning suburban town centers.

Generation Y has a different story. The second-largest generation in the country, born between 1977 and 1994 and numbering 76 million, millennials are leaving the nest. They may sometimes fall back into the nest, but eventually they find a place of their own for the first time. Following the lead of their older cousins, the much smaller generation X (those born between 1965 and 1976), a high proportion of millennials have a taste for vibrant, compact, and walkable communities full of economic, social, and recreational opportunities. Their aspirations have been informed by Friends and Sex in the City, shows set in walkable urban places, as opposed to their parents’ mid-century imagery of Leave It to Beaver and Brady Bunch, set in the drivable suburbs. Not surprisingly, fully 77 percent of millennials plan to live in America’s urban cores. The largest group of millennials began graduating from college in 2009, and if this group rents for the typical three years, from 2013 to 2018 there will be more aspiring first-time homebuyers in the American marketplace than ever before—and only half say they will be looking for drivable suburban homes. Reinforcing that trend, housing industry experts, like Todd Zimmerman of Zimmerman/Volk Associates, believe that this generation is more likely to plant roots in walkable urban areas and force local government to fix urban school districts rather than flee to the burbs for their schools.

While New Zealand is certainly not a carbon-copy of the trends being experienced in the USA, there are many similarities. I think there has been a growing embrace of urbanism in Auckland over the past decade or so – perhaps partly as a result of our emerging ‘cafe culture’, perhaps as a result of our growing ethnic diversity with many new arrivals from parts of the world used to large, busy and high density cities. Obviously we are also experiencing the same demographic shifts as the USA. It remains to be seen to what extent baby-boomers want to abandon their suburban homes for something more ‘inner-city’ (as opposed to shifting to other parts of NZ or to lifestyle blocks), but certainly it’s easy to see how the demand for your typical suburban family home is not going to increase as much as other housing forms in the future.

Furthermore, there is likely to be a growing realisation – particularly for “generation Y” people like me – that living in places where you’re not dependent on your household owning two or three vehicles will make a big difference to your financial situation.

Most importantly, the very act of moving to more walkable neighborhoods will free families from the expense of buying, fueling, and maintaining the two or more cars they typically need to get around in auto-dependent suburbs. Households in drivable suburban neighborhoods devote on average 24 percent of their income to transportation; those in walkable neighborhoods spend about 12 percent. The difference is equal to half of what a typical household spends on health care—nationally, that amounts to $700 billion a year in total, according to Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. Put another way, dropping one car out of the typical household budget can allow that family to afford a $100,000 larger mortgage.

An interesting way of putting it. Owning one fewer car frees up enough of your income to make it possible to service a mortgage $100,000 greater.

Roads-focused transport spending and planning regulations that encouraged urban sprawl formed a self-reinforcing cycle throughout much of the second half of the 20th century and produced a series of more and more auto-dependent suburbs in Auckland, as well as throughout the USA. But there’s nothing stopping the same process potentially working in reverse in the future:

The coming demographic convergence will push construction inward, accelerating the rehabilitation of cities and forcing existing car-dependent suburbs to develop more compact, walkable, and transit-friendly neighborhoods if they want to keep property values up and attract tomorrow’s homebuyers. All this rebuilding could spur millions of new construction jobs. But more importantly, if done right, with “smart growth” zoning codes that reward energy efficiency, it would create new markets for power-conserving materials and appliances, providing American designers and manufacturers with experience producing the kinds of green products world markets will increasingly want.

In the end, we cannot escape the consequences of demographic change.  Our population is getting older, our household sizes are getting smaller, the stereotypical “mum, dad and two-and-a-half-kids” family is getting rarer and rarer. Isn’t it time our planning system, and our transport policies, starting catching up with these changes?

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  1. I agree that this is happening, younger people want to be closer to town as there is more going on and it is easy to get around without having to drive for ages to do something as simple as buy some food. The problem is that because of the demand the prices for inner city houses has really taken off and we now have the situation of people complaining that they can never afford to buy anywhere. We took a different approach, we moved out to the suburbs so we could get a nice house but we made sure we were within walking distance of a train station so we still had mobility and weren’t reliant on a car to get around, as a result we still only need one car and have no intention of getting another one.

    There were also positive noises from the new chief planning officer the other day in the paper, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10683011

    He says Auckland cannot keep spreading outwards indefinitely, but needs to improve the quality of urban intensification.

    There is no reason, he says, why Auckland cannot follow cities such as Paris, with low-cost, high-quality medium-density housing.

    “We are currently 1.4 million people. By 2031 we will have a population of two million people. That’s an extra 600,000 people to accommodate over 20 years.

    Dr Blakeley says following the current patterns of growth would add 20,000ha to the city’s urban area by 2030 – or 40 per cent more than the current 55,000ha.

    1. I was quite hopeful reading that article actually. It seems like he has his head screwed on the right way. We just need to figure out a way of ensuring there’s a decent supply of affordable housing without having to allow sprawl. I’m sure it’s possible – building masses of three level terraced housing on bus routes and around train stations would probably do the trick.

    2. He is right that Auckland cannot spread out indefinitely. New Zealand is currently o.7% urbanised, so in a thousand years or so (a time when we will be populating space?) we might start cutting into arguably too much land.

      Other than that Bernard Orsman is talking out his bottom. Spreading out a bit more from Auckland is a perfectly ‘posible’ option for today.

  2. One other option (or more likely part of a package of options) is to still grow outwards to some extent, but not to sprawl outwards.

    What about ‘suburban’ growth with a mix of mid rise apartments in compact transit oriented village centres, surrounded by terraces and some detached homes, with good public transport and most local services within walking distance.

    You can have a new suburb of 200 hectares where no point is more than 800m from the central activity centre and transit stop, if you simply plan it that way to begin with. As a comparison the entire flat bush development is only a little larger than this.

    This still consumes fringe land of course, but in a much more efficient way. You get more housing and jobs per hectare and much less reliance on car transport and motorway extensions.

    1. That is one think I have thought about and agree with, I think the perfect place for this is in the Northwest, put in a busway along SH16 then out into the current farmland past Westgate. Build a station and develop residential land out from there. You could carry this on with all the way to Kumeu, if the stations were spaced about 2km apart then there would be 3 between there and Westgate.

  3. One only hopes that those in the market wake up to this. There is a blind desire to keep doing what you’ve always done, usually till it’s too late, but there are signs that the property sector is starting to see things a bit differently. This from the commercial property section in today Granny [not on line though] about a building in Mt Eden:

    STATION UPGRADE PUTS BUILDING ON TRACK FOR FUTURE RETAIL USE…. ‘Recent and impending improvements to the rail network… will create foot traffic to the station from the sizable suburban catchment, putting this property in a strong situation for a change to retail in the future.’ It mentions both the upgrade to Mt Eden station and the ‘future’ line to K’rd and Britomart. Of course Mt Eden Station itself may actually get a bit quieter when the CBD line is in as traffic goes to the new Newton station, but of course the whole network will be much fuller then too.

    Also real estate agents will talk anything up but that doesn’t stop this being true… people speeding by on a motorway do not buy things and proximity to a station raises the value of property. Interesting.

  4. “we may already have more than enough low-density single-dwelling houses out there” how do YOU know? If people want it, and can’t afford to buy one, then there aren’t enough.

    The whole anti-urban sprawl argument is a myth, because what low density housing is about is improving one’s standard of living by having space, privacy and quiet. If people want that, then they make choices about not being near retail or commercial properties or other people. To claim they are “car dependent” implies they are fools, who haven’t decided to make the tradeoff between being near public transport or using a car to get around. That isn’t a bad choice (assuming car use is priced appropriately), it is a tradeoff. It isn’t “unsustainable” as long as the person doing so pays for the land, energy costs and transport use.

    New Zealand has no shortage of land for people to build homes they want where they want. The only issue that arises is when lots of them want to travel along corridors that are inadequate, and the answer to that is to price. Even simple flat distance charging (like RUC) means those costs are internalised.

    New Zealand does NOT have world class major cities with high densities of employment, entertainment and excitement that mean people will sacrifice space and money to live close to town. Quite simply if people wanted to live in downtown Auckland and Wellington, the apartment boom would have continued, and it didn’t. Smart Growth has been a flop in many parts of the US, as seen by empty retail premises adjacent LRT stops in Portland. Planners thinking they know what people will want. Funnily enough property investors tend to know better because their money is on the line. You don’t know any better, what you can do is let people live how they want. Restricting low density housing helps fuel prices for those homes that remain, and tightens the supply of housing, in other words you can’t meddle with the market without creating consequences.

    Real estate booms get fueled because of cheap fiat money supplied by central banks to retail banks who then eagerly lend to people who perceive money is made in land – these booms becomes busts and even themselves out, and people become more able to buy the homes they want. Planning laws are not an answer to a transport problem that did not arise out of them in the first place.

    1. I’m surprised that you’re so supportive of urban sprawl Liberty. Surely you see the enormous amount of regulation (minimum lot sizes, minimum parking requirements etc.) that have effectively ‘forced’ sprawl on Auckland over the past many decades. And the huge subsidies that are eaten up by such a development form.

      If we take Flat Bush for example, a simply mind-boggling amount of public money has been spent to make this greenfield development possible. The Ministry of Education has spent upwards of $100 million simply acquiring the land for its schools there. Manukau City Council has spent masses on building new roads to service it, plus the need for projects like AMETI or the Highbrook interchange.

      ARC’s research into land-use patterns and the infrastructure requirements to service them clearly show that compact intensification is by far the cheapest option in terms of requiring less public expenditure per unit.

      Have a read: http://greaterakl.wpengine.com/2010/06/04/further-confirmation-that-sprawl-sucks/

    2. I would say that part of the reason why people in NZ don’t want to live in apartments is because they have generally been built to a low quality due to developers trying to cut corners to make a few extra dollars. Most town houses now have the leaky homes stigma even if they are fine and many of the apartments around the CBD are extremely small it is hard to find people who want to live in them. If a bit more was done to improve the quality of these developments more people would be interested in living in them.

      I do agree that the true costs using a car to get around needs to be covered and that alone would make a huge difference to where people want to live.

      1. I’ve always thought three-level terraced housing built at around one unit per 120-150 square metres could be pretty popular in Auckland. You’d have your own piece of land – enough room to hang the washing, put in a small vege garden and have a BBQ, but no big lawns to worry around.

  5. The term “sprawl” is emotive and deliberately negative, when those who counter those who oppose it are mostly doing so out of free market and pro-property rights perspectives. In other words, if people buy land and want to develop on it (and respect the property rights of others) then it isn’t anyone else’s business if a city expands. I wouldn’t advocate anyone developing land get a cent of public money to do so, it’s how it has been in many areas. If that were the case then expansion of urban areas would occur according to willingness to shoulder the full costs of development.

    The great myth is that intensification doesn’t encourage people to live further out, what it does is increase the price which of course has significantly regressive effects. London is cited as an example of intensification, but that is distorted given the significant number of commuters to London from well outside the greater London area. Those commuters don’t live in medium or high density housing, but travel in by rail (and car to the outer environs) over considerable distances, because development of housing in London is blighted by urban growth limits and severe regulations upon development. Of course the price of housing is particularly high as a result.

    Advocates of public transport in new world cities have been chasing the chimera of intensification for years, knowing that even if it was to make a difference, it would take generations to do so (if at all). The urban transport problem has remained one of ignoring basic economics for decades now, fiddling with land use regulation exacerbates this further with those who pay being those unable to afford the size of home they want, because supply has been choked by those with good intentions.

  6. Oh Liberty, such a whine, ‘urban slum’ is an emotive term too, that was/is the catch cry of the flatteners of Freemans Bay for the great liberating motorways of the late twentieth century. Like ‘Sprawl’ it isn’t all untrue. But to your main point: The thing is you’re just plain wrong, Auckland is intensifying, and doing it despite the dated planning codes written to prevent Dickensian slums that hinder it, yes essentially Victorian laws. And despite the vast social investments on the outskirts that essentially subsidise the extension of soulless deracinated exurbs that serve very few except those businesses that have no other model to operate under. People live there through lack of choice: the market tells us this, they will pay more to live else where if they can. Your argument seems to me to be the highly illiberal: The people want what the people get. As well as condoning [at the very least] the extraordinarily socialistic practice of state distortion of that great chimera; the level playing field.
    [One of the great problems for the neo-liberal ideologue in NZ is that so many businesses seem so intent on only working that great Kiwi business plan: socialise the costs, and privatise the profits.]

    I’m sorry but your views on urban patterns are just dated now, last century’s flight to the suburbs is reversing, especially in the extremely low density US cities, where the houses furthest from the centres have lost their value fastest and to a greater extent, causing terrible negative equity problems. And perhaps you haven’t been to Auckland City for a while, the CBD has a vitality the even a decade ago was unthinkable? London is a different case as it is already intensified, and has such varied number of forces operating that you can find examples for just about any trend.

    Like those that argue that people won’t catch trains it is now completely clear that here, in Auckland, if we provide the service it is really desired. It is an interesting phenomenon, and I pick that some of it is to do with social changes around the digital age, and that we have reached the point where the freedoms afforded by car ownership are getting outweighed by the costs and frustrations. A function of quantity, but not necessarily of density; ie when everyone uses the car it no longer offers freedom; auto-dependent systems have an inbuilt self-contradiction; success leads to failure.

  7. “In other words, if people buy land and want to develop on it (and respect the property rights of others) then it isn’t anyone else’s business if a city expands. I wouldn’t advocate anyone developing land get a cent of public money to do so, it’s how it has been in many areas.”
    So when those people then demand a library or a park can the state then turn around and say “we didn’t want you to settle there and you have, so no”?

  8. Scott, who pays for the on-going maintenance of the reticulated services to this sprawl? Or do you advocate septic and water tanks for everyone? Even if developers pay for the costs of build and connection for new subdivisions, the councils have to pay for upkeep and they also have to pay for upgrades and maintenance associated with the extra demand on existing services. That demand effect is diminished with intensification. So public money has to be spent in support of sprawl, unless we stick with tank-only services. That has other costs, but I’m sure the idea of requiring everyone to be self-sufficient warms the cockles of your libertarian heart no-end.

  9. The problem with sprawl is it tends to be too high density on average. It needs to be broken up with more chunks of substantial greenery, and most housing areas need to be structured like cul-de-sac’s, to protect everyone’s home from traffic noise and the sight of main roads. Then it is ideal.

    But then that is just my personal taste. I only advocate for being able to have this if I want it, and for the people like me to have it too. I don’t want planners making my decisions for me. So long as I pay a fair cost for my ideal, and so long as there is no unacceptable environmental fallout from my decision, they have no rightful business interfering with my personal choices. I alone should be able to decide if my lifestyle is “soulless”.

    1. Andrew, the thing is that sprawl is exceedingly expensive to service and is never user pays. Have a look at the ARC’ study on this and you can see that the sprawl option is the most expensive and yields the worst results.

      If sprawl was made to be totally user pays, and important environmental considerations taken into account, then I wouldn’t have much of a problem with it. I also doubt there’d be much demand for it as the development contributions would be through the roof.

      1. Admin, Thanks for your reply.

        Exceedingly expensive to service? That to me reads like “$10,000 per year per household”. Can’t see it. And how much of it exactly is subsidised?

        Maybe you could provide a direct link to the ARC’s study? I would like to see it. Personally I would not trust their reasoning out of hand, or their research studies. I know they are absolutely committed to “Smart Growth” and will only want to find ways to “justify” it.

    2. Andrew you are right in that the sprawl growth of Auckland is unpleasantly over dense. What we have the worst of both worlds: we are killing the lovely and productive countryside with low value but high cost [total cost, the cost of roads, drains, schools etc] ugly little single family two car dwellings on tight treeless sites, while preventing the urban centre from intensifying. Instead we could have a vibrant exciting urban centre connected to leafy suburbs and great country towns. How to do this? Certainly not by telling people where to live but by removing the current policy biases and subsidies that support sprawl AND using our current transport spend make the centre accessible and liveable for those that want [and will want] to live there and and easy, pleasant, and efficient for those that prefer to live further out and who will often need to commute. How? By investing, urgently, in a modern, clean, efficient, networked [ie strategically connected with other modes ot movement: buses, park and rides, walking, cycling], wifi-ed, non-petrol powered, non-carbon burning, electric rail system. That’s how.

      Don’t buy into the idea that that your life isn’t already proscribed by planning: it’s just that it’s done so badly and by people who love to pretend they aren’t doing it.

  10. Andrew, here’s the link to a summary of the study (pages 5-16) the short answer is that the sprawl option required something like 50% more infrastructure spend than other options, but produced results (in terms of economic productivity and trip reliability) worst of all options considered.

    I would also ask if you’ve ever actually read a council’s district plan. If you did, you might find that around 95% of the rules actively encourage sprawl (minimum lot sizes, maximum building heights, minimum setbacks, minimum parking requirements etc. etc. etc.) Back in the days before urban planning cities were generally very high density, mixed use places – the same is generally true in parts of the world without much planning. So I would actually argue that planning “forces” sprawl, not the other way around.

  11. Admin,

    Thanks for the link, I will have a look at it when I get the time (and yes I have read plans – but tend to bypass details that are not relevant to me). How much is that extra 50% exactly(?) Obviously it would depend on a lot of factors, but I would imagine (crudely!) anywhere around the 5,000-15,000 per house mark, which is trivial on the scale of things. But I don’t know.

    The idea that low-density living costs more in infrastructure for new-builds can make sense depending on how far you take any particular form, but sure those costs can be (and I believe should be) passed on to those who want lower (or higher) densities. Hence, I’m interested in what the subsidies are.

    The rules you speak of are not about outlawing sprawl, but regulating its form. To me that’s a secondary issue. The primary issue is taking away (effectively) the low-density option via MUL’s, which is where my focus is. I have nothing against high-density development for those who want it.

    Also, effectively removing the low-density option from the (claimed) lost productivity is not an argument to remove the sprawl option in itself, because you can’t justify forcing people to live a certain way on the grounds that they will produce more if they do. We are not slaves.

    1. No Andrew, the fact that District Plan rules force sprawl and the fact that our unbalanced transport policies over the past 60 years have actively promoted it is the primary issue.

      You’re saying that we shouldn’t force a planning outcome on people if they don’t want it – I’m agreeing with you, I’m just saying that the forced outcome is sprawl, not intensification. I work as a planner, I see every day that developers want to build to higher densities, they want to intensify, just they’re stymied by District Plan rules at every step of the way.

  12. Admin,

    I must say that’s not the kind of presentation I’m after (from your provided link). Ticks and crosses provide no quantifiable perspective – they mean nothing.

    1. That’s just the summary of the report. I’m sure if you contacted the new council they’d send you a hard copy of it – I have one somewhere. The work that goes in behind those ticks and crosses is quite substantial though – essentially a whole computer modelling system was developed to study the interaction between land-use and transport patterns.

    1. They want to make the most of what they’ve got, which would relate to land prices. Or they want to develop for changing demographics.

      Remember that as our population ages, the demand for 4 bedroom standalone houses is likely to reduce – as the proportion of households being “parents with kids” gets less and less.

      1. And that people are getting lazier and don’t want to have to look after a house and section anymore. Also most people want to be closer to town rather than an hour or more away and with good parks and urban spaces living in an apartment isn’t so bad. In fact when I was living in an apartment in town the only thing I really wanted added to the building would have been to turn the roof into a garden/courtyard area that all residents could use, it would have been great to have a BBQ in the summer up there with great views.

      2. Indeed Matt. That would be awesome.

        In terms of affordable housing, I think we need to look at ways to provide more affordable housing in places where people want to live – in centralish areas with good access to transport options.

        While sprawl advocates tend to quote studies saying “people prefer to live in a standalone house with a big garden”, I doubt they also say “I want to live a million miles from anywhere in a suburb with no shops and only one bus a day.”

      3. Sure, so the developers are just reacting to the ‘new’ market demand, as induced by the hiked up land prices. And I would agree that the worst thing you can do is make intensification impossible (or difficult) if you are going to hike up prices: because you go from not just making low-density unaffordable, but making housing unaffordable full-stop…which would lead to in-house overcrowding which is the most unhealthy form of overcrowding of all.

        As for retiring baby-boomer’s with the kids gone – will that retracted demand be offset by immigration? It will be the governments call.

  13. Andrew
    One of the main issues is how [and where] can we provide affordable housing. At the moment that is at the outer limit of the city as the land is cheaper. But the real costs of building out there are not included in the prices for two reasons. One because of old policies from last century that socialise the infrastructure costs, including all that new roading out there and endless motorway upgrades to cope with the addition car movements and two, because of the hidden transport costs that are born by the people in those new suburbs that are increasing all the time and help to keep them poor. Furthermore this does not lead to lovely leafy suburbs but spread out declining suburbs that are not desirable. We know they aren’t desirable because they do not hold their value like closer in suburbs.

    Also every bit of NZ has rules that tell you what you can and can’t do there…. Those of us in favour of encouraging more intensity want if anything to free up the existing rules rather than make draconian new ones. However along with the carrot of, for example, doing away with minimum carparking requirements there is also one very important stick that, in my view, is vital. And that’s the retention of the MUL. How can it be good for Auckland to just dribble out endlessly eating all that beautiful and productive countryside? We will end up with the most expensive place to get around, thinly spread lacking in vitality and productivity, with no hinterland. A low quality city set in a violated landscape.

    1. Patrick,

      Remember less than 1% of NZ is covered over in residential urbanisation (I did a crude measure from a map – others think it is much less than that even). Farm land has value but so does land with a backyard and a garden (which can be a “Micro-farm” in its own right). And sprawl *can be* very green and tastefully built. MUL’s are a brutal tool.

      Another point: most of us live in somewhat low-density suburbs, so we basically pay for our own subsidies. I don’t like subsidies because they lead to distortions. I believe they should be removed with things like fair road-user charges and the like, but that’s as far as this issue should go. Also, “sprawl” developments can still provide efficient access to most things, as infrastructure follows people and not just the other way around. This is why we now have polycentric cities.

  14. Andrew – Why stop at only fair road user charges, sprawl also increases the cost of providing other infrastructure like water, waste water, power and communications that end up getting subsidised by the rest of us even if they are provided by private companies because a company like Telecom isn’t going to be able to turn around and say “all Aucklanders pay X price except for that small pocket who has to pay more”. Of course the installation costs will be paid for by the developer but their are ongoing maintenance costs that are incurred that would be higher than putting the same number of people in a more compact area and why should I pay more, even it is only a small amount, just because you or someone else wants to live in a sprawling wonderland.

    The reality is that living in a libertarian utopia where everyone pays for only them might sound like a great idea but it doesn’t work because our entire society would have to change with no guarantee it would work.

  15. Ok Matt – perspective. How much are those maintenance costs exactly? I’m not sure myself, but would love to see an approximate cost breakdown if anyone on this blog could provide one.

  16. Andrew, please, exact numbers? Who knows? But think about it, a new apartment building in, say, Brown St in Ponsonby [there is a new one I just saw] where there is already water, electricity, gas, wastewater reticulation. Schools, complete with 100 year old histories, cafes, takeouts, drug dealers and brothels… what else do you want? there’s a WINZ on Ponsonby Rd, a Video Ezy, broadband cabinets etc…… OR let’s roll all of that out on the outskirts of town…. let’s see which is more efficient? which one costs us all more? Also you are talking in ideals?, have you seen the new suburbs in east Auckland? Are they lovely leafy big plots with pigs and chickens? No they aren’t, they’re a vapid plastic box surrounded by a fence about 50 cm away on all sides. Not the leafy dream.

    I am a fan of quality living and can appreciate it in both urban and rural styles but these distant ‘nowhere’ suburbs are neither. Offer intensification for those that want it and preserve the rural world for all.

    Also where do you your 1% figure? Are you counting every mountain range and National Park? Does that make it a meaningful number? It isn’t about total land, it is about accessible land near the city. That’s all going to low value, but high cost crap.

  17. Hi..I live in South Korea. I live on the third floor of an apartment..it’s 23 stories. Apartment is really well done..would be small if comparing with an NZ house but suits us perfectly(us being me, my wife and my 7 month old son). I don’t own a car and probably won’t ever buy one at least here..bus systems great and the city council provides bike system which I use to get around everywhere..more info about where I live can be found here>


    Anyway..my point is..apartment living can be great if they are built well and infrastructure is good. I think you’ll find many examples of where apartment living can be done really well around the world.

    1. Nice example, and making the point for apartment living to work, FOR THOSE WHO WANT IT, good design is important but so is good infrastructure. Access to open space but above all, clean modern, interconnected transit.

      A we can still have lovely leafy outer suburbs and people travelling efficiently between them. Incidently using much less increasingly expensive imported fuel and emitting way less carbon….. Oil hit USD89 over night

  18. Matt: Yes – you should go to full costs, not just road-user charges. The latter was only an example. My point was that the costs should be passed on, not used as a reason to justify inhibiting sprawl.

    Patrick: Intensification can make more sense where existing infrastructure is operating under-capacity. Apparently (and understandably) intensification can be very costly when it is not operating under-capacity, because you have to build up services for extra demand within restricted space which can be particularly expensive. But again, it just comes back to letting people pay their own way if they want to create a new development, regardless.

    The 1% figure I got (which may not be totally right) relates to total NZ land area. And also, a lot of that “sprawl” can be satellite towns which may have virtually no impact on the lifestyles of establishes Aucklander’s. (And even if they do to some degree, “not in my back yard” should not equate to “and therefore the other guy can’t have a back yard at all”)

  19. Andrew, yes of course, and very hard to legislate for taste and I don’t think we should try. I’m talking about the site sizes, the spread out distance to any amenity, the auto-dependency. Over wide roads with no street character… these are all urban design issues and lead quality of life outcomes, I don’t give a damn what style is built, let the market sort that- or individual whimsy….

    So perhaps we agree there? What of my other points?

  20. Patrick, my essential response to your points is a couple of posts up (there was delay in publishing it for some reason).

    Spreading out and auto-dependency are not necessarily bad things. Cars *can* be very efficient. You might like to try my integrated (to my name) link. We can’t be blind to where auto-technology is going.

    1. Andrew I must say your position is a bit difficult to take seriously when your blog says one reason you oppose smart growth is because it encourages “social mixing”. What do you mean by that?

        1. If you’ve got population growth and no where for people to go except through intensification, then you can end up with existing suburbs becoming home to new cheap (high density) housing. If you let a city expand out you can grow while leaving existing suburbs alone.

        2. Well most proposals for intensification are based around developing brownfield sites next to public transport and within short walking distances of existing town centres, so there would be fairly minimal impact on existing suburbs. The idea that ad hoc subdivision was a good idea died in the early 90s when they realised that doubling the density of car dependent monozonal dormitory suburbs only doubled the problem.

          …But what you are saying is it is better to maintain high housing costs in existing suburbs and build new housing in the most expensive way possible, than to lower the cost of housing across the city by providing cheaper alternatives within established areas?

          Here I was thinking Auckland had a problem with excessive house prices!

  21. Andrew, I see no answer to my points, in your earlier posts or on your site. Auto dependency is not working now and will not work in the future, no matter how the vehicle is operated. The economics and logistics just won’t fit. I appreciate that some people find the private space that the car offers the most important thing to try to retain in a transport system. It isn’t and it is unsustainable as an ideal, especially as populations grow and resources are used up. PRT is a chimera, it is a way of pretending to discuss transit solutions without doing so. I think you should just enjoy driving while it is still relatively affordable to do so.

    1. Nick – yes, expensive if it’s elevated. But in a *new* development it can be built at-grade.

      The ULTra guide-ways, for example, cost about as much as a footpath to build on the ground. The loading is tiny. In a new development PRT can support, say, 100 houses like an elevator supports units in a high-riser (in fact it can be a very effective feeder to a bus-stop, and other). In this context you can save a lot of money on roading, with the bonus of having a *much* greener and quieter suburbia.


  22. Andrew, ‘If you’ve got population growth and no where for people to go except through intensification, then you can end up with existing suburbs becoming home to new cheap (high density) housing. If you let a city expand out you can grow while leaving existing suburbs alone.’

    Clearly these are not the only options, there is absolutely no need to do anything bad to Auckland’s existing suburbs, there are plenty of vacant and developable sites within the MUL to absorb population growth for decades to come. Apartments, terrace houses and single houses at every price point and style and quality…. you are stuck with a zero sum idea that does not reflect reality. What we don’t have is endless countryside to despoil nor endless sums of money to cover the on going costs of sprawl.

  23. Patrick: I can appreciate that in Auckland’s case intensification might be achieved without too much disruption to existing suburbs on the social level, depending on what is done exactly. I will take a closer look at that. But we do have virtually endless countryside for urban development (take a look at a map), and I really don’t buy the idea of ongoing sprawl being expensive at all. That’s why I wanted someone to specify actual costs.

    1. As I originally said Andrew, contact the Council and get a copy of the study that my post refers to. I’m sure they have a few hard copies lying around.

      While NZ may have a lot of empty land, don’t forget that around Auckland much of the land is protected forests and water supply area (Waitakeres, Hunuas, many forest areas to the north) or it is extremely fertile soils around Pukekohe – very useful for growing food so close to be a big city. So I think our realistic scope for sprawl is actually a lot less than what you might think.

      Perhaps the most suitable area for development on the urban fringe would be between Waitakere station and Kumeu/Hupai to the northwest – as it could be built around the railway line (plus a Northwest busway continuing from Westgate). But I’d like to see the numbers on that. It seems to me that our last “new town”, in the form of Flat Bush, has been pretty damn expensive. The Ministry of Education alone has probably spent more than $100 million acquiring land and building new schools.

        1. That’s because I don’t have any. I really just want to know (as I said earlier). I have long been under the impression that it costs about $40k to develop the infrastructure for a typical suburban dwelling, but I have never seen a specific cost breakdown. I was hoping someone could help me. If not, then that’s fine.

    2. Off the top of my head I believe the figure the state of Victoria worked out for infrastructure costs was $50,000 per unit within the urban area and $110,000 per new house in the outer growth corridors.

      I’ve just had a quick look for the article I was reading on this last week but I can’t find the link again.

    3. “I can appreciate that in Auckland’s case intensification might be achieved without too much disruption to existing suburbs on the social level, depending on what is done exactly. I will take a closer look at that”

      Have a look at my post the other day for just one idea of where we can easily develop next right next to a rail line, there are heaps of other sites near major corridors that in in a similar situation of easily being able to be intensified providing that planing rules allow it http://greaterakl.wpengine.com/2010/12/01/guest-post-developing-glen-eden/

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