A couple of days back I proposed that we need to look differently at the way in which we intensify in Auckland – because a simple focus on building apartments hasn’t seemed to work particularly well over the past decade. Ironically, although most of Auckland’s ‘high level’ planning strategies and policies strongly promote intensification – in a variety of ways – when it gets to the “nitty gritty” District Plan rules, these actually pretty much do everything possible to stop intensification and promote urban sprawl.
An example that I often use when trying to explain the somewhat perverse outcomes of our current District Plan rules relates to a property in Sandringham where I used to live a couple of years ago. It has a land area of just under 600 square metres – as shown below: The house (which is quite nice and I wouldn’t really want it to go, but that’s beside the point for this example) takes up around 28% of the site – with an area (excluding the carport) of 164 square metres:
The site sits within the Residential 6a zone, which is the most common zone throughout the isthmus area of the former Auckland City District Plan. While it’s not a zone specifically designed to allow a large amount of intensification, it is also not a zone that seeks to really limit development on any character or infrastructure grounds. In effect it’s considered the “normal zone”.
Now let’s just say that I want to develop this site – what are my options under the planning rules? Well the rules for residential activities in this part of former Auckland City are outlined here (yes, it’s complicated). While there are a lot of different rules, the key one is shown below:As the site falls short of being 750 square metres, the minimum size to build two units on it, I’m limited to the one unit. I can’t even split the existing house into two independent flats without really significant problems trying to get consent. But other rules in the District Plan mean that the unit can be pretty damn big. The two main rules covering the “bulk” of the building that could possibly be built are site coverage and building height. Simply put, in this zone you can cover up to 35% of the lot in a building and that building can be up to eight metres (two floors) in height.
So, if I were to push the limits of this (and I would be restricted by other rules such as height-to-boundary controls and frontyard setbacks but let’s put those aside for now) and cover exactly 35% of my site, and build to two floors – I can have a 403 square metre house: utterly massive, but I can’t divide that into two quite large 200 square metre houses let alone three medium sized townhouses or four smallish (but not tiny) apartments. That seems weird, and pretty counter-productive to efforts to provide affordable housing.
The origins of this somewhat crazy density rule can probably be seen in what sit on both sides of this house – typical 1960s “sausage flats”. You can see when you zoom out a bit that there are quite a lot of sausage flats in the vicinity of this place – in fact immediately on both sides of it.
Now I’m the first person to say that these sausage flats are pretty ugly – but it’s interesting to also have a thought about their positive effects. They provide affordable housing in a pretty central part of Auckland, they provide quite a high level of density (the property to the left had 10 units on a site of just over 1200 square metres. That’s a reasonably high density a 30 second walk from a pretty frequent bus route, and a 5 minute walk from Sandringham shops: just out of view to the top of the picture.
But sausage flats are ugly right? But is that a planning problem or an architectural/urban design issue? If the “sausage flats” had been designed in a much nicer way (an interesting debate is whether that’s possible within this type of subdivision pattern) then could this have been a very good urban outcome – something to encourage rather than look to ban? Building this type of development was pretty popular in the mid-2oth century – just look at the area around Royal Oak and you get a concept for the level of density they helped create: Who says Auckland’s suburbia is low density?
Personally, I would somehow like to turn many of these buildings 90 degrees so that they’re parallel to the street, as terraced houses with their own gardens. But we have density here, we have attached housing, we have the potential for a pretty sustainable urban form – but for some reason we’ve gone and banned this form of development (or anything like it). In favour of this:
There doesn’t seem to be much more open space in the new form of development, compared to the old. There doesn’t seem to be much more privacy, in fact the only difference is that because of our obsession with forcing standalone houses (remember the key thing we’re worried about now is minimum lot sizes per unit) the type of development above is around half the density of what’s in Royal Oak. So we lose half our units, but don’t really get much of a gain – just bigger (and less affordable) houses.
Obviously there’s a market for both types of development, while obviously each type also has its flaws. I guess what I struggle to understand is why every District Plan in Auckland now privileges this newer form of development: large houses in close proximity to each other. I don’t think this gives us a higher amenity urban form, it just eats up a lot more land and – especially when coupled with the messy street network shown above – makes running public transport extremely difficult.
In short, to make Auckland a better city, to enable better intensification, I don’t necessarily think it’s a matter of more or less regulation. It’s actually about sorting out the contradictions and conflict within our existing planning rules and regulations to ensure that it’s actually possible to achieve what our overarching planning goals want. Because at the moment we have some really stupid outcomes like what’s possible and not possible with my former house in Sandringham: a 400 square metre monstrosity of a house is OK, but splitting that into two, three or four smaller units is banned. No wonder we have a housing affordability problem!