My post earlier today about the real reasons behind the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” generated some interesting discussion about urban sprawl, intensification and typical “how should Auckland grow” questions. A really big problem in all these discussions is the fact that most of the time Auckland has done intensification, it hasn’t done it very well. Case in point, Symonds Street apartments:Or Newmarket (this one’s not quite so bad except the giant blank walls facing the intersection of Remuera Rd & Broadway):
Quite often we have equated intensification with apartments, and while apartments will inevitably be part of the intensification, I tend to think that we have ignored other ways of implementing urban intensification – particularly housing types like terraced houses, townhouses, row houses and so forth.
On this note, the excellent “Old Urbanist” blog has a very interesting post comparing the densities of traditional rowhouses with those of apartments in Hoboken, New Jersey (just across the Hudson River from New York City).
In Hoboken, New Jersey, the fourth densest incorporated place in the United States, there is a two-block stretch between 6th and 7th Streets where the “hypertrophic” fabric of the great majority of the city, consisting of walk-up apartments and large brownstones on wide streets, abruptly gives way to a series of smaller rowhouses on narrow streets cut through a single larger block.
The five-story brick apartments lining the block to the right are the so-called tenements of the type which Jacob Riis wrote about and which menaced the Little House in the animated Disney film of the same name. They are emblematic of New York’s urban growth in the 19th century and are still abundant throughout the city. Occasionally mixed among them, up large and ornate stairways, are brownstone townhouses with garden apartments.
Here’s what the area looks like from an aerial photograph:
To the left, the standard Hoboken city block has been subdivided into three smaller blocks by use of two narrow streets along which, with no setback, are built a series of modest two- and three-story rowhouses more typical of Philadelphia or Baltimore than the New York area. The apartments across the street tower over these small houses, certainly giving the visual impression of much greater population density.
Indeed looking at the area on Google Streetview reinforces this perception, once again with the apartments on the right and the smaller houses on the left:
However, the Old Urbanist blog post has looked at the actual number of units and then, most importantly perhaps, the number of bedrooms within the respective areas. This gives some interesting results:
The stark juxtaposition of these characteristic urban forms virtually begs a comparison of the densities in play here. Since population figures aren’t available, I use the objective substitute of bedrooms instead, counting northwards from where the rowhouses begin:
Rowhouses: 2.5 blocks of 32 rowhouses each = 80 total units
80 x 3 bedrooms apiece = 240 bedrooms
Apartments: 17 apartments (10 and 8 unit) + 13 brownstones (2 unit) = 182 units
182 units x (169 1br + 13 4 br) = 221 bedrooms
So, despite the height advantage of the apartments, the rowhouses actually contain a slightly greater number of bedrooms, due mainly to 1) the spatial efficiencies of having multiple bedrooms per unit, compared to one bedroom units, and 2) the narrow streets, which by subdividing the block more than double the number of street-fronting rowhouses which can be accommodated in the same space. Adding street frontage has the potential to add both value and density to the land, but is dependent on the use of narrow streets lest the benefits be canceled out by the loss of space to new rights-of-way.
And what kind of densities does this sort of building typology add up to? Well pretty damn high actually:
As for overall population density, a neighborhood built of such rowhouses could potentially exceed 50,000 people per square mile, assuming one person per bedroom. This is a density comparable to Paris and higher than Brooklyn or the Bronx. If higher densities are possible, they may not necessarily be desirable for various reasons relating to infrastructure, transportation and overall crowding.
The potential for this kind of approach in parts of Auckland seems quite attractive. While I hate to try and second-guess the ‘psyche’ of potential tenants in different building typologies (and I get really annoyed when people make all sweeping assumptions like “Aucklanders won’t live in apartments”), some level of private outdoor space tends to be quite attractive: something that the rowhouse/terraced house typology can provide at high densities in a way that’s just not possible in either apartments or standalone houses.
So what stops this kind of development? The blocks in Hoboken look like they were probably built in the 19th century, the closest Auckland probably has to anything like this are the older parts of Freemans Bay and Ponsonby (but even then the houses tend to be standalone). Why aren’t we seeing much more of this way to achieve the higher densities that help support a more sustainable urban form?
I largely put the blame in the hands of our poor planning rules. Minimum setbacks, minimum lot sizes, units per lot restrictions, building to boundary controls, minimum parking requirements and a vast myriad of other rules make the type of development in those blocks of Hoboken pretty much impossible to get consent for. Even though they’re high density without being ugly, even though they’re probably extremely sustainable and energy efficient, even though they have the kind of character that would probably end up being protected. For some reason our planning rules deem this sort of development to be completely unacceptable – while actively promoting McMansion based urban sprawl.
I wonder if the Unitary Plan will sort out this contradiction so we can actually start to properly intensify in Auckland and therefore avoid having to sprawl to North Rodney and beyond.