Last week Kent and I attended the talk by Hank Dittmar from the Princes Foundation on sustainable cities and design. Many of the things that Hank talked about are things that we discuss on here so they shouldn’t really come as a surprise but it is useful to cover them anyway. The first thing to to consider what sustainability actually encompasses. It is actually more than just how we build houses and what materials are used but actually goes much deeper into how we design our communities. This will become increasingly important as the city looks to have intensify by having 60-70% of all future development within the existing urban area. One of the benefits of intensification is that by having more people in closer proximity it allows for more local businesses to become viable. That in turn means that people often don’t have to travel as much for many of their basic needs which can make them both happier and healthier.

Hank suggested that one good thing that can be used to help determine just how sustainable a place is, is by using what he calls the 5 minute pint test. What that means is that you should be able to get either a pint of beer or a pint of milk within roughly a 5 minute walk from your home. These aren’t the only things to worry about but are a good indication none the less and both of those things are something that the area I live in fail at quite noticeably as I will show in a later post. The key though is making communities more walkable which means there is less need to car travel but is something that is also helped by having good quality public transport. It means that the times you are going outside your local community, you would more likely be to places more easily served by PT.

In many ways though it is the communities aspect where the real challenge is because people tend to dislike change. It is the fear of change that brings out the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) who often fight to keep things the way they have always been. One person who attended tried to claim that we don’t have them in Auckland but in reality they are everywhere and a classic example was in the Herald on Sunday.

More than half a century ago Toni Geux moved to the other side of the world for more space.

She swapped the crowded terraced housing of Amsterdam for the quarter-acre paradise of New Zealand, eventually settling in the South Auckland community of Mangere Bridge.

“I came here so I could have some space, so I could have a bit of a garden,” Geux, now 81, said.

She fears that way of life could be lost.

Council staff and a working group which includes Mangere-Otahuhu Local Board members have been developing a draft plan for future land use within the board’s boundaries.

The draft includes proposed mixed housing of buildings up to four storeys high around central Mangere Bridge village and mixed housing of buildings up to three storeys high in other parts of the village – including along the waterfront street of Kiwi Esplanade.

The move has left some Kiwi Esplanade residents, including Geux, flabbergasted.

“Does the city have to grow? We’ve got a unique community. I don’t want it to turn into Mission Bay.

“People come here to walk their dogs, because it’s quiet. I’m 81, but I feel very strongly about this.

Thankfully the local board member who the herald spoke to asserted one of the major points that Hank made which is that whether you like it or not, change is going to happen. Instead of being fighting it, we are better off getting people involved in the process and instead demanding that the change that occurs is done in a quality way that benefits everyone. Effectively we need to turn NIMBYs into QIMBYs (Quality In My Back Yard) and the way to do that is through plans that have active involvement from both council as well as the community rather than the top down approach of the past where consultation was seen as a box to tick. Here’s what a local board member had to say in response to the NIMBY above:

Mangere-Otahuhu local board member Carrol Elliott, a member of the working group, said the plan is for the whole area, not just Mangere Bridge.

“Mangere Bridge is a lovely village, but there has got to be change, because it’s going to happen. It’s no use saying ‘not in my neighbourhood’.”

The community was informed in September and she could not understand why Kiwi Esplanade residents were upset.

“There’s already a house there that’s three storeys high. It’s a storm in a teacup.”

The other key are Hank touched on that I felt was important was how we build our buildings and communities. He said the foundation had spend time and money to develop materials and techniques to build more sustainably and the foundation has taken the knowledge to design and build some test houses which actually ended up performing even better than expected. As part of the process they needed to forge relationships with local suppliers of various materials and to commit to buying certain quantities from them. That effort has now paid off and has helped to see the construction costs drop dramatically to the point where a 3-4 bedroom home only costs about 5% extra to build in a sustainable way compared using more traditional materials yet is of a much higher standard. It is at a point where a number of large construction firms in the UK have now picked up the plans are are using them to build homes to the same specifications comercially.

The foundation are still working to refine techniques for smaller dwellings to me it highlights an important part the council can play in achieving the intensification targets that they have set. Effectively I think the council either directly or through one of its CCOs need to be leading the intensification drive by refining a couple of examples of good and attractive developments which can then be picked up on by private developers to spread out across the region. Examples which can be built quickly but are sturdy, well insulated, are places that people want to live in and also will pass through the consent processes easily. Auckland needs to build dwellings much more quickly than has been done in the past, it is estimated that we require 10,000 new dwellings to be built every year yet we are currently only building around 3500 so this is one thing that could help bridge that gap.

It  also raises another point Hank made about building quickly. Doing has traditionally (well recent tradition) resulted in row after row of identical houses or apartment buildings. Having no variety may save on cost but makes such dwellings unattractive places to live and acts to turn people off intensification. One way to help mitigate this is to build fast but to add a craft layer to the construction. The example he used was Georgian town houses in the UK which were all built the same except for things like the colour of the doors, the look of the windows, the cornices and even inside with things like the design around the fireplace. The subtle little changes don’e add much to cost or construction time but are enough to make each dwelling different from its neighbour.

The last bit I found interesting was the use of natural features to deal with issues that result from urbanisation. One of the big problems we have is that as we pave over more land, it gets harder and more expensive to deal with things like storm water. The traditional technique has been to use drains to move the water away while more recent developments like where I live tend to have ponds/lakes to help mitigate the effects and the need for really expensive infrastructure however the foundation has taken that a step further and integrated storm water treatment into the community itself. In a community the foundation designed they installed a rain garden which they also managed to convince health and safety officials to not require fences for. As a result the area is also used as a playground by the local kids. This saved on the space needed which would have allowed for more houses to be developed, increasing intensification while not reducing amenity.

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  1. What that means is that you should be able to get either a pint of beer or a pint of milk within roughly a 5 minute walk from your home.

    yay for the Hop Garden in Mt Vic (wgtn) meaning that my pint can be a decent drop of craft beer 🙂

  2. Good on the local board member for articulating such a principled and clear position: Someone get that person a pint.

    I’ve often wondered about the “prisoners dilemma” aspect of intensification. The fewer areas that allow intensification, the more intensive it will be in the areas where it is allowed. So if we permit medium density development (say up to 5 storeys) across a wider area then we might reduce the need for big apartment blocks. I can’t help but wonder if one of the factors driving the (frequently condemned) intensive apartment development in the city centre, for example, is the tight controls on height and bulk that exist elsewhere in the city. Flipping it around, the more areas where we allow intensification the less intensive the intensification will be that actually eventuates.

    I like the 5 minute pint test. I think general tests are very useful: My favourite is the “can we build Amsterdam test”. Basically, if your planning system does not allow people to develop in a way that is similar to what is found in Amsterdam, i.e. medium density, no car-parking, no set-back, and retail/residential mix, then the planning system needs to change. That’s a basic metric by which I’ll be evaluating the draft Unitary Plan: If it does not allow me to bring a little piece of Amsterdam to Auckland then it’s failed in its mission, likely because it will have been over-prescriptive about what you can and can’t do.

    That’s my challenge to AC planners!

    1. Yes she did well.

      I also like the pint test and will be doing a post on it looking at my area in more detail soon. One thing that would be good to know is how many people are needed in an area to support such things i.e. if we were to loosen the planning rules and retrofit our suburbs, what kind of walk up catchment is needed to support a small local pub/cafe?

      1. Here’s retail guru Bob Gibbs’ metric for a corner store:
        1. Corner Stores (from 140 m2 to 279 m2)
        Approximately 800 to 1,000 households are necessary to support average corner store (this equals the number of households in a 65 hectare TND)
        -require convenient, nearby parking
        -locate on major local roads at busiest entryway into the neighborhood
        -store can benefit from traffic generated by community buildings, parks, schools

        1. > require convenient, nearby parking

          Bleargh. All THAT part of the metric leads to is this:


          Tons of car parking on-site, yet AT is unwilling to lose 2 on-street car parks for a cycleway along Vera Road…

          Show me a retailer who thinks car parks are the key metric for a corner store, and I’ll show you a retailer who doesn’t get it (or who lives in Auckland and knows he has to provide it anyway, due to planning regulations, so he might as well roll with the flow…)

      2. I can see where you’re going… but is predict and provide where it’s at? Isn’t that the problem with how Planning interacts with this type of neighbourhood facility?

        If there is nothing in your area right now, is that because of the planning rules preventing business setting up or because the bones of the neighbourhood prevent business thriving?

  3. Through the Character Coalition we’ve been pushing IMBY(LP).

    In My Back Yard (with Local Planning) could be a great way of getting community buy in for the Auckland and Unitary Plans. Unfortunately the Top Down Planning community doesn’t like the idea of “grassroots” involvement.

    Takes two to tango…

    1. Don’t worry Geoff. There is a lot of support for the Character Coalition. Being in Te Atatu, I’m not too concerned about the heritage bit (but I know some areas are and I’m more than happy with that) but we need QIMBY and that is where I think the Coalition will help us.

  4. Well I can certainly get a pint of milk or beer within 5 minutes’ walk, although why would you buy milk at a dairy/corner store? There’s also a variety of cafes within that range, which I regularly frequent. Some are licenced…

    That’s one thing I enjoy about suburban London – pubs, restaurants and cafes all within a few minutes’ walk of most residential areas. And the point about small differences in otherwise identical town houses also applies to terraced houses. Often those at the end of a block are quite different from the rest, as well as the subtle differences in between.

    1. If you live in the right part of town the dairies are cheaper then the supermarkets…. They’ve been listening to Hank in my neighbourhood apparently.

    2. More importantly, the stuff about how to handle denser, more consistent, more urbane housing is really important – although I vary from Hank in the stylistic ethos. We don’t have to mimic the look and feel of other places (or periods in history) but the way designers think about them and the way developers build them needs to change if we want to avoid the pitfalls.

      What applies to standalone houses in aesthetics, spatial configuration and construction is simply not directly transferable. Much of the poor medium density housing we see around us reflects a misunderstanding of this. The issue of consistency vs individuality/expression is particularly challenging for us Kiwis I think…

  5. Kiwi Esplanade (the Mangere waterfront) is one of the most beautiful places in Auckland. I’m a little biased, I still consider Mangere home and grew up sailing the Harbour, but it appears that increasing numbers of Aucklanders are realising the same. The stigmas associated with Mangere are dissolving, and the realisation that the Manukau Harbour is in fact clean and beautiful rather than a sewage pit is becoming normalised.

    So, when a resident says that she wants to protect what she has, I think we have to understand what she’s saying. Intensification can and should happen in Mangere Bridge, but it needs to happen in ways that respect the natural beauty of the place, and don’t leave those who have vast ‘space’ feeling too cramped. I believe this is possible. More importantly though, change needs to be presented and explained in ways that leave residents such as this one as weak opponents at worst, and neutral at best. That’s important. As we’ve argued here before, current discourses and legislation in NZ favours incumbents – those who benefit from what is, rather than those who will benefit from what will be. It’s conservative. We need to work around that.

    Of course, I’m not quite the fountain of ideas on how to manage this process. Perhaps we can start by ‘peppering’ singular examples of high quality, to demonstrate what some increase in density means. It’s also important to realise that Mangere has much higher population densities than many other parts of Auckland, on account of higher household sizes. This isn’t often recognised. With infill, we’re already moving in this direction.

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