A plainly daft piece on the proposed Auckland Plan by Bill Ralston recently appeared in the NZ Listener. In it he claims, completely without any reason, that the plan sets out to demolish where he lives, as well as every other desirable part of Auckland in the name of instensification. This is simply untrue. It is true that the Plan hopes to encourage Auckland to continue to become a more intensive city, but not by demolishing the very best bits, or even very much of it at all. In fact it is decidedly half-hearted about containing the spread outwards, even proposing 140,000 new detached houses be built in the next 30 years under one scenario. All on what is currently productive and attractive distant countryside, and all to be served by endlessly and expensively rolling out new services: From the current 385,000 detached houses to 526,000! Did you actually read the thing, Bill?

In any case, intensification is clearly a matter of degree and the areas proposed for the kind of high density high rise growth that so alarms dear old Bill [but of course not everyone], is all carefully allotted to currently empty or underused commercial ‘brownfields’ sites on transport corridors in areas like the CBD, Glen Innes, and New Lynn. Not Bill’s neck of the woods. Other areas are intended to be encouraged to move from low to medium density. Bill’s place isn’t on this list either.

Ironically, in light of this reaction, the type of intensification that would go a long way to both accommodating Auckland’s growth and greatly improving our quality of life is about trying to help more of Auckland more closely resemble Bill’s very own suburb. His suburb is, in fact, a role model for how much of Auckland ideally could be. But that isn’t by repeating the thing that Bill thinks his ‘burb is all about, the appearance of the buildings, but rather about how they are organised. Not architectural design, but urban design. Really, how?

Freemans Bay is, along with St Mary’s Bay, Herne Bay, Parnell, Devonport, Northcote, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, and Mt Eden, a highly sought after and therefore expensive bit of old Auckland. So it is worth asking what is so good about it?

Well most of the buildings are old. That’s it isn’t it? Most people love old houses, with their mature trees, and in Auckland that means Victorian and Edwardian houses, usually detached wooden dwellings. Unlike Sydney, Auckland isn’t old enough to have Georgian buildings and also unlike Sydney or Dunedin there wasn’t the resource of stone or even much brick to compete with the pillage of the native forests that our forebears felt so entitled to use so completely. Furthermore, in a reversal of the trend of the second half of the last century we have recently been rediscovering the advantages of these close-in old suburbs. So instead of looking on these areas as slums and bulldozing them wholesale in order to build motorways as we did from the 1960s we have recently been turning houses like this one:More and more into houses like this one:

But that isn’t the whole story is it? Properly understood three factors make Freemans Bay such a great place to live, and only one of them is the irreplaceable age of the structures. And this is important because while we can’t time-travel and build real Victorian houses again we can take the best urban design features from these areas to improve what we build next, and even fix other parts of the existing city with these ideas too. The three essential features, in no particular order, that make Freemans Bay so desirable are:

1. Physical Heritage

2. Proximity to the centre

3. Population density

All the things that you may like about Freemans Bay flow from these; for example, great cafés and shops? They are a function of the quantity of people around and the desirability of the place, which in turn is because of the density of the housing and the proximity to the centre of town. Retail businesses need enough customers, and specialised ones need an even higher number going by because their appeal is, by definition, narrow.

But hang on, waddaymean population density?, this is just a suburb with detached houses and some shops isn’t it?, same as Dannemora or Botany? Well it isn’t high density but it is medium density and is considerably higher than most more recent suburbs. And here’s how: As this post by Admin shows, when looked at in detail you can see that the narrow streets and painted shiplap conceal a clever spatial order that maximises private space yet retains public charm. It is in fact this spatial order, and its resultant density of population that sustains the local businesses and other amenities all at close proximity.

Of course old buildings add texture and charm, but it is important urban design features and not architectural ones that make the real structural differences. Let’s look at Bill’s favourite café, mentioned in his article: Agnes Curran.Yes it is in a building pleasingly made of plastered brick and the door to the rooms above are surrounded by Georgian style decoration, lovely. But let’s look at everything else that makes this a really successful streetscape and business. The café occupies a tiny space about the size of two car parks, it is right up to the generous footpath, a footpath separated from the traffic by mature Plane trees [with a new one recently added on the right], the trees also accommodate a limited number of on-street car parks. A small apartment building to the left of the shot is smack up the boundary with the cafe and the footpath, and there are other levels of accommodation above retail spaces on the main road. Thus there is an extremely tight integration of the residential and commercial functions of this neighbourhood; so everyone walks, no need to drive when your destination is already right there. Here it is from above: The cafe is in the alley between the grey and reddish rooves at bottom left. Occupying the space that would have to be given over to off-street parking were this a new building- by current council regulation. Note that the houses are closer than is currently allowed in new subdivisions, and that their garden space is all together in one piece at the rear of each house. Small, but all usable, and private. And Ponsonby Rd is, by Auckland standards, relatively well served by public transport, especially in the form of the frequent new Inner Link bus service, connecting this place to the CBD, the universities, the hospital, everything really.It is easy to see that this is quite an intensely built place, but also pleasantly leafy, and is in fact at the intersection of two pretty busy roads; Ponsonby and Franklin. How can it be of such density but still be so pleasant, it must be the design of the buildings? Well that is of course important, but how much they appeal to you is really a matter of personal taste, no, it has much more to do with what is not visible in this picture. To show what that is lets have a look at a cafe in a more recent part of town:Dunkin Donuts at Botany Downs courtesy of Google [sorry but I’m not going there]. And from above:Well in fact there’s a whole lot of food outlets on in this image, a KFC, a seafood place, as well as Dunkin Donuts. And yup they are all pretty nasty new buildings, built to a price and without any conviction that they mean to stay. But also note  there are no houses or apartments of any kind here and no one walking. But there is the one amenity that is almost entirely absent from the earlier scene. This is a place rich in carparking. Viewed from above or from street level it is clear that this is a place entirely made for the movement and storage of cars. Yes you can argue that that what most distinguishes the natures of these two places is the age and design of the structures, but it is also clear that the spatial organisation is at least as important a difference. Put simply the first is designed for people and the second for cars. The first has a higher density of humans and the second of machines. The first, of course, commands much higher values and is where Bill wants to live. And the first, while more expensive to buy into, is actually cheaper to live in, because the intensity of the place means the costs of movement are much lower. It is a place that you can easily function without a car at all for example [As local resident, Bill, says in this article].

But of course the people living Freemans Bay do still use cars, but unlike those that live in the these new areas, they don’t have to use them just to get to their local café or other common local amenity, like schools, workplaces, or bars. They walk more and they use public transport more. Why? not because they are cleverer than the people in Dannemora but because their area was designed for those choices to be the most obvious, most productive, and most enjoyable things to do. And we can spread more of this simple genius to other parts of our city, even Botany, if can just reverse the insane auto-centric planning priorities of the last fifty years. This means putting people at the centre of the spatial organisation of places. It means repealing the rules that insist that the car must be catered for first. And it means for many of our primarily residential areas mixing the living and working and playing in the kind of intense proximity that Bill enjoys in Freemans Bay.

And it also means that we must provide systems of movement that do not devalue the very places they are meant to serve. Which of course means fast, frequent, smart, public transit. Something lacking in the newer suburb.

Furthermore, if we can get those planning settings right and are able to encourage the kind of spatial organisation that Bill enjoys so unconsciously in Freemans Bay, it is highly likely that we will see the design of the individual buildings in these places improve significantly, because increased intensity of humans also means increased intensity of economic activity. And, of course, because it involves unlocking the land and the resources currently tied up so unproductively in providing so much amenity for vehicles.

We can have Freemans Bay’s qualities of urban design in other places with contemporary design and technologies, after all Freemans Bay isn’t all old buildings and is all the better for it. It isn’t a museum. Here are two quite different and award winning recent detached houses there, The first by Marsh Cook: And the second by Malcolm Walker:Freemans Bay also has contemporary buildings by Mitchell + Stout, Stevens Lawson, Fearon Hay, Andrew Patterson, and more. Along with council pensioner flats, town houses, and apartment buildings.

And remember, while The Plan doesn’t envisage the core of Freemans Bay changing much at all, it does for some other underperforming areas of Auckland. And as the picture below of Freemans Bay in 1877 shows change is always possible, and can be a very good thing indeed……… Anyway, why shouldn’t more Aucklanders get the chance to enjoy their neighbourhood as much as our friend Bill Ralston enjoys his?

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  1. To be fair to Ralston, if you read through the details of the plan it is pretty unclear about what’s envisaged for the “city fringe” area. It lumps Newmarket in with Freemans Bay, Ponsonby, Parnell and other inner suburbs. Then it says a whole range of typologies envisaged for the area.

    Now it’s plainly obvious that heritage protection for the inner suburbs will get stronger, not weaker (every Paget Street situation makes that more and more of a certainty). But the Auckland Plan doesn’t get that message across as clearly as it should. In short, if you wanted to interpret the plan as enabling apartment towers in Freemans Bay, unfortunately the plan gives you some scope to do that.

    Check out page 5 of here: http://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/SiteCollectionDocuments/aboutcouncil/planspoliciespublications/theaucklandplan/aucklandplanchapter8.pdf

    1. That is a good point, Freemans Bay and everything inside Ponsonby Rd is lumped into the CBD zone. But one assumes heritage controls would still override that? The intensification corridor along Great North Rd is perhaps the more pertinent part of the plan for that area of Auckland.

    2. Peter, that’s a big leap, to imagine that the plan erases all existing heritage regs, especially when it doesn’t propose to….

      1. Fair point Patrick. I guess what I’m trying to point out is that the Plan lumps Freemans Bay in the city fringe area and it highlights the city fringe area as being a location for high rise development.

        Of course Ralston wilfully ignores the reality that heritage controls would override this, but the Plan still gives a bit too much scope for idiots to misinterpret it I reckon.

        1. Yes fair enough, i guess the plan is a broad brush affair, however they should have seen this panic coming and just noted the continuation of heritage controls.

          Good lesson; never let a baby boomer have the impression he could be devilla-ed. They love to pretend that all sorts of problems don’t matter but they’ll fight through all their publications against even an imaginary attack on their picket fence.

  2. Ralstons article is pure ignorant scare mongering. He is suggesting the whole of Ponsonby, Freeman Bay, etc are going to be forcible sold by the council then bulldozed to build high rises. In the next 10 years too? I don’t recall this being a communist state.

    Great well thought out post. Yes it seems Bill doesn’t realise he already lives in a medium density area and has a great lifestyle because of it.

  3. Pretty idiotic to just lump so many highly diverse areas into the same lot. That said, I’m sure heritage overlays will take precedence. But that doesn’t stop Ralston from scaremongering with a little bit of justification.

  4. What I like best about this post is how it illustrates that you don’t need high-rise for high-density. The Old Urbanist Blog has been discussing this matter for ages now, in really insightful ways.

    I discussed it in this post – looking at a part of Hoboken in New Jersey:

    Old Urbanist compares the residential densities of the two adjacent areas:

    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 also notes overall that we’re talking about some really high densities here.

    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.

    All with places that aren’t more than 2-3 levels high.

  5. Great post, Patrick R, insightful and entertaining. Like one of the letter writers in the Herald today, I welcome graceful intensification to make buying in central parts of town more affordable rather than a subdivision 2 or 3 hours daily commute from the city, which the sprawlers seem to want for me.

    They always roll out the “If I wanted to live in Hong Kong…” argument, but frankly I’d rather live in most examples of high density in New York, Paris, Barcelona or London than the cheap detached houses we bought here. As you point out, in Auckland it certainly isn’t the buildings that make the place.

    It would be a good feature article for Metro or The Listener contrasting the good cases of intensification with the reality of recent low density on the fringe. The examples where we have got it right, like Gwilliam Place in Freemans Bay, are worthy of recognition. I’d even be interested to see a top 10 best/worst list – maybe some other readers can offer examples?

  6. The irony is that even with the new council plans for intensification you would still not be able to build houses in the style of Auckland’s innercity suburbs with their minimal separation between properties (Terrace housing on one title being the exception)

  7. Patrick,

    Having read the Ralston arcticle and got all het up about it, I’m overjoyed to see a thorough, well-reasoned and illustrated response debunking Ralston’s nimbyism.

    Can i suggest, then, that you forward this to the Listener as a direct reply to his article? After all, it seems that if he is able to air his erroneous views in a national publication, those who disagree might be allowed the space to respond.

  8. Patrick- I love your thinking here, but I must take issue with a couple of things..

    The Marshall Cook hodge podge was put in by demolishing an Edwardian villa that matched the rest of the street very nicely. Then Marshall builds this and get upset that people don’t like his new building that clashes with everything else in the street and moves out of the neighbourhood leaving his building behind. Round here that is known as “littering”.

    18 months ago a few pals and I did an unscientific questionnaire of 300 Western Bays residents. The five top responses to the open ended question “What do you like about living round here?” were-

    Old houses.


    Sense of Community.

    Proximity to town.

    Diversity of population (i.e. not just white-bread).

    Your top three list is pretty good.

    I think you’re underestimating the desire people have for Villas. We don’t need a time machine to make Victorian villas, all you need is a builder. As Doloras posted recently- she’d rather live in a split villa than an apartment. If one were to build giant Victorian villas with insulation and sound proofing built in between the residences (like Picton Street, Anglesea St) they would sell like hotcakes. People would be intensifying the area without ruining it’s charm and living in apartments without even knowing it!

    We mentioned a few of the things you do in our Draft Auckland Plan submission-

    “No-one wants to see rich, productive countryside gobbled up by a growing Auckland- but then again no-one wants their neighbourhood ruined by over-intensive development.

    Here are two options that may not have been explored;

    Paragraph 486 mentions the high density of Ponsonby and Freemans Bay. The majority of dwellings in both these suburbs are over a century old yet their desirability has never been higher.
    Is the answer to increasing density to provide small sections like the above neighbourhoods? 200-300m2 sections seem large enough for a house, lawn, gardens and trees while cutting down the spread of McMansions.

    The current apartment-focussed plan is more apartment-focussed than Auckland residents currently are.
    We all know the best way to make people do what you want is by making it “cool” then telling them they can’t have it, then letting them have it and they consider themselves lucky.
    Apartments could be made “cool” by building “cool” apartments. Something with character, something that says” Auckland”.
    Something that’s a few levels up from steel and glass boxes.”

    Great post Patrick, you and Bill need to have a public debate about this- it would be action-packed. Live on stage even?

    1. “Paragraph 486 mentions the high density of Ponsonby and Freemans Bay. The majority of dwellings in both these suburbs are over a century old yet their desirability has never been higher.”

      How protected is the area? Perhaps the Soho development, and other developments along Ponsonby Rd, don’t give a lot of cause for confidence?

      “Is the answer to increasing density to provide small sections like the above neighbourhoods? 200-300m2 sections seem large enough for a house, lawn, gardens and trees.”

      Sounds a little like the Hobsonville Point development. Small 250-300m2 sections with 200-250m2 2-storey townhouses, duplexes, and “terrace” houses. A bit short on cafes and the like (as yet), but walkable “affordable” (at $600,000?!) waterfront living…

      1. The way to get increase dwelling affordability is to go up, on the right sites, exactly like the SOHO site, where there were no villas, but a vinegar factory. Like the Great North rd ridge. On the ridge no one’s view is blocked, no one is shaded. There are people who do want apartments. http://greaterakl.wpengine.com/2012/01/27/auckland-density-illustrated-i-the-inner-city/

        The medium density things you mention are right for any gaps in the residential neighbourhoods. But they’ll never be cheap in those inner areas, but will help keep the population up so we can all enjoy the businesses, services, and culture that a population supports.

        The thing to watch in both cases is how much car parking is buried within them, nothing degrades a ‘hood like more and more cars.

  9. “The Marshall Cook hodge podge was put in by demolishing an Edwardian villa that matched the rest of the street very nicely. Then Marshall builds this and get upset that people don’t like his new building that clashes with everything else in the street and moves out of the neighbourhood leaving his building behind. Round here that is known as “littering”.

    Um…Who doesn’t like Marshall’s house? That is one of the best pieces of architecture I’ve seen and had the pleasure of visiting for a long time. The way the spaces work as a modern family home are what make this place truly special. His house is the modern version of a villa – A home for a family to live.

    There is a misconception that Franklin Road is full of villas and other old houses, this is simply untrue. What makes Franklin Road ‘special’ over some of the other streets is the plane trees, proximity of houses to the footpath and the community that gets in behind the yearly Xmas lights. If you want streets that more conform to the villa sterotypes then the Avenues off Jervois Road are probably a better bet.

    Disclaimer: I live in a Franklin Rd villa (a few doors down from Bill)

    1. “There is a misconception that Franklin Road is full of villas and other old houses, this is simply untrue.”

      That’s odd.

      When I walk down Franklin Rd (west of Wellington at least) I can plainly see that it’s full of villas and other old houses.

      Very odd indeed.

      1. Geoff you need to learn the difference between a villa and a bungalow for starters. There are quite a few of those 20th century upstarts among the villas there too. Anyway when does your approval stop.; 1930?, 1940?, 1950?, anyway what about renovation? Are we allowed inside loos? You don’t like the Cook hse? Well there are houses I don’t like too but that’s not the point. I’m trying to unpack the difference between the spatial organisation of the place (urban design) and the appearance of the individual buildings. You are stuck what look you like. Read it again.

        Replicas. Yuck. Do you want a totally homogenous and utterly bogus place, set when? Say 1905? How is that good?,all villa like but made with plastic Marley shiplap and underground garaging for 3 bemmers?

        I think it is better how it is now, a cheerful, slightly mad car-crash of eras and styles, imperfectly updated and rich in its variety. A palimpsest. And every era should add its mark. And always something there to love and hate. BUT, with that genius intensive spatial organisation. It’s already intensified.

        1. I think it is better how it is now, a cheerful, slightly mad car-crash of eras and styles, imperfectly updated and rich in its variety. A palimpsest. And every era should add its mark. And always something there to love and hate. BUT, with that genius intensive spatial organisation. It’s already intensified.


      2. From memory, the hse on the Cook site was a sort of ‘Buga-villa’ with garage rammed in the front and in a horrible state. Will see if I can find an image of it somewhere.

        No question in my mind that the new building is a vast improvement of even a trat-up of that.

        As I said it will become heritage itself in a couple od decades ( that fantastic early 21st century style), where else can heritage come from? All buildings were new once.

      3. So walking up Franklin Road home from work you can plainly see that it isn’t full of villas (excuse the quality – 7pm isn’t the best time for lighting).

        Flickr Set of Franklin Road

        West of Wellington certainly has more older buildings but it is far from exclusively villas (and I use that term to encompass general oldish 3 bedroom houses…). even some of the renovated buildings have big garages out in front which essentially take away the villa style anyway.

        The first photo is Parnell and is an ad for a architect who does replica housing. I fail to see how we would want that.

  10. Demolish them all.

    Well, not literally. But there is a tendency to declare things sacrosanct in New Zealand merely because they are 100 years old.

    When people set up cities in NZ they weren’t building for eternity, or setting out to create artefacts. They were merely putting up houses and buildings to use in the present day. This is something mostly overlooked. They made mistakes. They built things with high roofs, tiny windows, low insulation values, without consideration for wiring, and for historic lifestyle patterns. Any city of a certain age is the accretion of hundreds of layers of building and destruction, growing organically. This is especially so in those cities with the greatest age and the greatest heritage.

    The current situation is certainly better than one with no protection, which is how things were before the 1990s. Some things do have outstanding heritage value. And some of them have value because of, or even despite their age. Buildings of incredible cultural significance can often be bowled easily, yet things with little are frequently blanket protected. Things which are beautiful, useful, and have significant emotional value should indeed be protected. But this is a subset of heritage. We haven’t yet worked out where the balance lies.

    1. “When people set up cities in NZ they weren’t building for eternity, or setting out to create artefacts.”

      I think this is a strength of building in wood. It is easy to change, in many cases can be worked on by people without specialist skills, and is generally impermanent. The UK is full of old houses and while some are nice and should be treasured, millions of others are mean ugly little places that could benefit from rework or replacement if it wasn’t so hard to do anything with a giant pile of bricks. In NZ if you want a deck for barbecues and some french doors to let in a ton of light then you build them. In the UK you’re stuck with the design decisions made in an era when glass was expensive and windows were small. And, if a wooden house isn’t going to last much more than 100 years then you always have an opportunity to build something new and cool every few generations.

  11. Great article Patrick. It seems fairly straightforward to me, but Mr Hautman appears to be having some difficulties – the discussion is about the manipulation of the urban space not the manipulation of the houses. Patrick, I believe is not speaking strictly architectonically but rather how a city or suburb actually functions – and when it comes to Auckland, isn’t that analysis past due?
    I am from Auckland but I live Los Angeles where the devastation caused by auto- dependant developments and the crushing environmental impact of the urban sprawl is impossible to ignore. Leapfrog communities connected by fast food chains and IKEA stores is hardly the vision most Aucklanders (or indeed New Zealanders) have for the future of their landscape. The Auckland Plan, even if it is “decidedly half-hearted about containing the spread outwards” is an attempt to improve the city. It’s not a manifesto by aggressive architects desperate to tear down your precious villas and build Hong Kong style apartment buildings.

    Finally “The Marshall Cook hodge podge was put in by demolishing an Edwardian villa that matched the rest of the street very nicely. Then Marshall builds this and get upset that people don’t like his new building that clashes with everything else in the street and moves out of the neighbourhood leaving his building behind”

    If you think the house that once stood where Marshall Cook’s now does “matched the street quite nicely” – you can’t have thought the street was too nice. I doubt Marshall gets “upset” you don’t care for his house, and as far as I know he has no plans to leave the neighbourhood.
    I know the “hodge podge” house on Franklin Road rather well. I am a frequent long-term guest. I’ve lived there along with my husband, children and….even my parents! (gasp)
    It accommodates all 3 generations with ages ranging from 2 years to 72 years very well…(plus there is the added bonus of a great in-house cook with a bottle of wine ready to share)……surely that’s the definition of a modern family home.

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