A week ago I took a look at some of the issues with our planning system here in Auckland, and how some of the basic rules around residential development seem to have consequences that don’t exactly seem to fit with our over-arching goals like promoting intensification and trying to provide some affordable housing. In actual fact, many District Plan rules seem to promote exactly the opposite: forcing massive houses to be developed because that’s simply the best way for developers to make money. Because they can only build a single unit on their sites, they make that housing unit huge because that’s where the profit lies.

What’s quite interesting is to have a look at different eras of urban development in Auckland, and to prove a bit of a point I’m going to take a couple of extremes: one of the very oldest residential parts of the city and one of the very newest. First, for the oldest we have Renall Street in Freemans Bay, part of which from the street looks like this:

 Renall Street was developed in the late 1860s, as artisan housing and is an incredibly rare survivor of its type. Its characteristics are described in a ‘character statement‘ from the Auckland City District Plan:

The street was set out in 1865 with a reserve width of only half a chain (10m). The typical narrow lots of 7-8 perches (180-200m²) have survived to this day. The houses sit tightly together with minimal side yards, so that the houses are orientated entirely to the front and rear. The lots are shallow, and the houses sit well forward with little or no front yard. Planting is small scale and delicate. Only a narrow footpath separates the properties from the carriageway, a characteristic of artisan housing of the period. The ambience, at both the front and rear of the houses, is of very compact, close-spaced, tight density. 

Unsurprisingly, even though this is one of the most characterful streets of Auckland, building anything close to this type of development these days would just about break every planning rule imaginable. From above, you can see how high density the street is – at least compared to most parts of Auckland:

 Yet what’s interesting to note is because the houses are so close to each other, so close to the street and of a fairly modest size, they actually end up having surprisingly decent areas of private outdoor open space in their backyards. Let’s take a look at a part of the street to work out its area:

 So we have five houses in a little over 1,000 square metres – an average lot size of around 200 square metres. By contrast, generally the smallest lots these days are about twice that size and even then they feel very cramped – largely because of the size of the house put on there. Now let’s look at the outdoor open space that each of these places has:

 All up these places have nearly 500 square metres of usable backyard – around 100 square metres each or half the lot size. What makes this space particularly useful is that it’s all in one area, rather than split amongst a tiny front yard, pointless sideyards and then a backyard that’s pretty small too. Because the houses are so close together, and so close to the street, the private open space is actually useful and serves a purpose of being private open space.

So even though we have some pretty high densities here – and we’re still talking about detached houses rather than terraced housing which would achieve such density and open space outcomes to an even greater degree – this type of urban development is still providing people with a pretty good back yard. Not massive, but usable and with a good shape, rather than split up all over the place.

Now let’s turn to one of Auckland’s newest development areas – around Dannemora, near Botany Town Centre. Here’s what this area looks like from above: The aerial photo above is obviously “zoomed out” quite a bit more than what we had for Renall Street. At the same level of zoom you can see that we actually have much lower densities than was the same in Renall Street – for example the highlighted property is just under 450 square metres and it’s one of the smaller ones in the area: Now obviously the houses in Dannemora are bigger than those in Renall Street (though probably not as valuable, interestingly enough) as Auckland has a curious pattern of falling household sizes but rising house sizes. But when we look at the “usable area of private outdoor open space” we actually see that Dannemora’s lots are struggling to provide what we found in Renall Street – even though they’re far bigger:

 Some of the lots do a bit better than this (for example the one immediately to the right has a backyard that might be around 100 square metres), but overall the amount of backyard open space in these areas is surprisingly low, given that these houses are often built in 500-600 square metre sections. Looking at the broad area around this lot, I’m struggling to find too many backyards that would match the 100 square metre average we found in Renall Street, even though our average lot size for these 15 properties is over 500 square metres: two and a half times greater than in Renall Street: So where on earth does all the space go? Well, one thing I found very interesting was to measure what could be considered the “excess carriageway width” around Ardee Close, plus the front yards of all the properties on this particular street: I must say I was pretty surprised to find this had an area as large as 5,063 square metres. Now obviously we are always going to need a street through here to provide accessibility. But let’s say for argument’s sake that what we provide is actually just something similar to Renall Street: a ten metre wide road reserve, including footpath width:

 In this situation the road area would be just a fraction of the area previously dedicated to the roadspace and to the front yards. The 4,000 square metres that we’ve saved by narrowing down the street and building right up to it, would provide us with 20 additional houses at Renall Street densities. Each potentially with a private backyard as big (if not bigger) that what Dannemora gets. If each house could be built to two or three levels, depending on owner preference, it might also be possible to provide a “modern-sized” dwelling  too (complete with pointlessly empty rooms I suppose).

Now I’m not suggesting that we would want a Dannemora style of urban development at one unit per 200 square metre densities, but it’s really interesting to see what impact all these building setbacks plus a fairly wide road reserve has on the efficiency of the land-use. It’s also interesting to see how few of these houses in Dannemora have backyards as big as those in Renall Street – even though their properties are up to three time the size.

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  1. Excellent work again, admin.The wasted space in the new suburbs explains why these areas are so depressingly lifeless even when every house is occupied…A dull world made by giving too much over to the car and to enforced separation…. Can’t we change this?

  2. You also notice how all those streets and some of them are pretty big in the area have no pedestrian crossings from what I can see, dull lifeless suburbs in which you’re forced to get everywhere by car. I’d rather live in an apartment any day.

    1. RTC – on that count, I would slightly disagree. Dannemora has reasonable cross-connections – if you look closely, almost all of those cul-de-sacs have at least 1, sometimes 2 links to other nearby streets via walking/cyclable paths. And the “bigger streets” you mention actually do have ped crossings (as one can see in the aerial) and/or actually have reasonably little traffic.

      So while it has many deficiencies, at least it doesn’t have that one nearly as much as you claim. If you want, you can walk & cycle reasonably well there.

  3. What I find worse about uncontrolled sprawl is it’s just more and more of this rubbish, and it’s expensive rubbish at that, and we’re subsidising it all through our rates, and ironically forcing developers to build it through apparently ridiculous planning rules.

    1. That final bit of your comment, that the rules actually force this rubbish, is what I’m really trying to hammer home. It’s not the market that creates sprawl – actually the opposite is true.

  4. The weird thing is we are often involved at the early stages of setting these road reserve widths and it is an uphill battle against the traffic engineers and the underlying Code of Residential Subdivision, and of course they can’t see the irony of the Renall Streets being ‘character’ , but impossible to recreate today.
    On some large developments we have been successful in rewriting the height-to-boundary controls and allowing zero-lotting (no side yards), but each house then becomes a resource consent application. We are designing houses for 180- 320 square metre lots on some new subdivisions, which have tight front yards, 10-12 metre site widths, and generous back yards, it just means throwing out the District Plan, having a visionary developer with large pieces of land, deep pockets and time to make plan changes, but Councils often sees these as one-off, and design quality (design panels, etc.) has to be a factor to avoid poor outcomes.
    Good to see the diversity of your posts.

    1. Thanks for your insight Paul. What do you think would be the better approach? Just to make development of residential houses a restricted discretionary activity with as few rules as possible but much more of a focus on urban design & assessment criteria?

      I think that’s the way forward rather than using extremely detailed development controls to force permitted activities to be a certain type of development we don’t actually want, then making anything else really difficult.

  5. Its actually worse that you indicate here as many of the new subdivisions have rules about what you can do at the front of your property so as not to impact the look of the neighbourhood. As an example so you can’t even build a small fence so effectively all of that land becomes pretty much completely useless. At our house we have over 250 sq m of open land out to the boundary (including the driveway) and about 370 sq m if you count it out to the street yet all we can do is mow the lawns and try to make the gardens look nice.

    Another thing that is common is what you see on the house to the left, what private space there is is spread around the section rather than being in one area which has the effect of making the space even smaller. By comparison, at those houses in Renall St the backyards are all pretty much square so all of the open area is concentrated in one place.

    1. I can understand rules about front fences – or at least rules limiting their heights to ensure we don’t end up with massive walls everywhere like you get in South African cities.

      However, creating maximum setbacks from the street rather than minimums would mean that the need to create a private frontyard would be lessened as there’d be plenty of space out back.

  6. A thorough post on a worsening problem, thank you admin.

    Your suggestion to
    “make development of residential houses a restricted discretionary activity with as few rules as possible but much more of a focus on urban design & assessment criteria”
    could be a real winner.
    Thought about pitching it to City Hall?

  7. “But without that extra front yard where are you going to park the third and fourth cars?”

    Nick, if there are enough occupants to clog up the font of the house with 3 or 4 cars, there’s enough population density to support decent public transport!

    1. Well there is my commuting car, my weekend car and my work-in-progress car…

      Admin, I can’t agree enough with your arguement. How do we get the council to change these rules? It seems like madness.

        1. Talk to your Councillor by all means but more importantly, talk to your Local Board. At the end of the day it’ll be the Local Board that will have a large say on rules in the Local Board area, while Councillors can only focus on items of regional interest such as common earth work rules.

          Christopher Dempsey
          Waitemata Local Board.

        2. Christopher – not wanting to slag the Local Board’s good work, but if Councillors don’t end up having a major influence on the overarching District Plan rules like zoning, I’d want my money back. That is one of their CORE responsibilities. Zoning rules and their impact on land use integration is about as regional as one can get…

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