A couple of excellent posts by Stu Donovan over the last couple of weeks have highlighted a fundamental change in transportation trends across not just New Zealand, but many developed world countries: we’re not driving more – in fact, on a per capita basis, we’re driving a lot less. After a century of almost uninterrupted increases in the use of private vehicles, this is a pretty enormous change – something far too challenging for the small minds at the Ministry of Transport or NZTA, for example.

But this is not the only fundamental change that’s occurring. Just as we have always assumed traffic volumes will increase, we have also always assumed that the land-use development market wants to sprawl. Limiting urban sprawl has been seen as an important planning ideal for a long time (for a variety of reasons), but it has always been pitched as a battle between planners (who want to contain it) and ‘the market’ (which supposedly wants to sprawl). This simplistic situation dominates discussion in Auckland, for example, about how the city should grow. Allowing most development to occur through intensification is seen as “unrealistic”, “contrary to market forces” or even “authoritarian” – based on the assumption that it’s working against a natural desire of people to want large sections on the edge of the city.

Until relatively recently, this simplistic approach may well have been true. If you look at the USA, population change in 2006 showed a huge amount of growth (shown in red) taking place in suburban and rural areas (map from here): 
However, if we look at 2011 the pattern is quite different: So generally a lot less growth in the larger rural/suburban counties that show up clearest in the map above. But the US population is still growing, suggesting that a lot more of the growth must be concentrated in urban centres that don’t show up as obviously in the map (because they’re geographically much smaller). The USA Today article that put together these maps discusses this:

Almost three years after the official end of a recession that kept people from moving and devastated new suburban subdivisions, people continue to avoid counties on the farthest edge of metropolitan areas, according to Census estimates out today.

The financial and foreclosure crisis forced more people to rent. Soaring gas prices made long commutes less appealing. And high unemployment drew more people to big job centers. As the nation crawls out of the downturn, cities and older suburbs are leading the way.

Population growth in fringe counties nearly screeched to a halt in the year that ended July 1, 2011. By comparison, counties at the core of metro areas are growing faster than the nation as a whole.

A bit of analysis of where growth is actually happening:

All but two of the 39 counties with 1 million-plus people — Michigan’s Wayne (Detroit) and Ohio’s Cuyahoga (Cleveland) — grew from 2010 to 2011.

Twenty-eight of the big counties gained faster than the nation, which grew at the slowest rate since the Great Depression (0.73%). The counties’ median growth rate was 1.3% (half grew faster, half slower).

Those 28 — including California’s Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Florida’s Broward and Hillsborough, Texas’ Harris and Dallas — generated more than a third of the USA’s growth. Before the recession and housing bust, when people flocked to new development on farmland, they contributed just 27%…

…Central metro counties accounted for 94% of U.S. growth, compared with 85% just before the recession.

And some further discussion:

“This could be the end of the exurb as a place where people aspire to go when they’re starting their families,” says William Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution. “So many people have been burned by this. … First-time home buyers, immigrants and minorities took a real big hit.”

During the ’70s gas shortage and the ’80s savings and loan industry crisis, some predicted the end of suburban sprawl. It didn’t happen then, but current trends could change the nation’s growth patterns permanently.

Aging Baby Boomers, who have begun to retire, and Millennials, who are mostly in their teens and 20s, are more inclined to live in urban areas, McIlwain says.

“I’m not sure we’re going to see outward sprawl even if the urge to sprawl continues,” he says. “Counties are getting to the point that they don’t have the money to maintain the roads, water, sewer. … This is a century of urbanization.”

Demographic change really is the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to predicting future trends. While it’s early days for us to make completely confident pronouncements over the future of urban sprawl, just as changing trends relating to traffic volumes require us to fundamentally rethink much of what we’ve previously taken as gospel, changing demand patterns for urban development need to be given serious consideration. Perhaps the real urban development debate is not so much about the market wanting sprawl and planners trying to fight the market; but rather more about the market wanting different housing types in inner urban areas and our planning system being unable to cope with how to provide these in an attractive yet affordable manner.

Share this


  1. One only needs to read stories from many of our local news organisations to see that the most demand for houses is in the suburbs surrounding the CBD. I have yet to see any story saying how it’s hard for someone to get a house out by Papakura.

  2. I don’t think traditional fringe suburbs are the future. I think that ignores the transportation technologies that are currently state of the art — the automobile, the jet passenger plane and — the Internet. I think the Internet is changing the built environment faster and more thoroughly than did the automobile. I think the future is face-to-face contact — wherever people want. It’s aggregation *and* dispersal. It’s the rise of the urbane far far beyond our traditional concepts of urban or even fringe suburban. (As well as in those portions of 19th-century downtowns and 20th-century suburbs that are good at face-to-face.)

    I elaborate here:


    and here:



  3. Peter, I think the last sentence is profoundly right. While there are lots of people in Council who understand and work really hard to see great outcomes, there are still real issues with DP rules and how consenting is handled.

    From what I see the consenting stage is only getting worse as liability positions (the legacy of leaky homes) increasingly make it difficult to get good medium density schemes through even in development schemes where this has been strategically sought by many parties.

    As for rules, they pretty much are the enemy of medium density. The RMA is poorly framed in relation to urban considerations, let alone something which requires as much complex design integration and sensitivity as good medium density housing.

    That’s not to say the challenges are only with consenting. Developers do increasingly see value in inner locations, but its pretty clear that rampant land prices are a real barrier to central medium density currently. Cooling prices using mechanisms other than just physical supply and demand is within the governments grasp…but there’s no will there.

    1. Surely the new Unitary Plan will resolve these issues by making it a heck of a lot easier to develop higher intensity housing in areas selected by the Auckland Plan as being suitable for such development? Otherwise we might as well give up now and start building more sprawl.

      1. I hope it does. I do think the market demand is shifting, and the kiwi dream is more diverse than it once was, and that is without the extreme market shock that the US and other countries have experienced.

        The challenge that we face is pulling together, both at an aspirational level and a systems level. People need to be on the same page, or at least in the same book at all sorts of levels, across public, private and professional bodies. The ‘surely’ bit in your response is the tricky bit. I’ve seen few evolutions of plans that make outcomes easier to secure – lets hope, and work on, this one being an exception.

      2. Be interesting to learn what you think might be key elements to ensure are included in the Unitary Plan to make intensification easier. Things that have been discussed previously on this blog include getting rid of minimum parking requirements, specific density controls and many of the setback controls. I’m sure there are plenty of other changes that need to be made though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *