I thought a commenter on a recent post about a new apartment development on Great North Road had a really great point about the state of the debate:

…the fact is the intensifiers are not winning the argument, as was noted by someone else above. I wish they were but with the tin-ear people have here for this sort of argument, it doesn’t surprise me that it is being lost. Compare the nuanced arguments made here about transport (expansive, studied proposals like the CFN) to the “developers and freemarkets will sort it out” type arguments around intensification and you’ll see what I mean.

This rings true to me. Although I would argue that a lot of thought has gone into Transportblog’s analysis of policies like the Unitary Plan or the effects of limits on density, it’s often difficult to tell the good news stories about market-led intensification.

This is challenging in part because there appear to be trade-offs. Building an apartment building in Ponsonby is obviously a good thing for new residents, as they get to live in a nice area that they might not otherwise be able to afford. But it also has some disadvantages for existing residents, who may feel like they have to put up with more traffic, less sunlight on their porches, and so on and so forth.

In short, it’s easy to fall into an “us versus them” narrative – which is what I was arguing against in the earlier post. I don’t think this is necessary. There are many positive stories about rising residential densities and a lot of benefits for existing residents. We should start telling these stories.

Basically, it boils down to this:

If more people live in a neighbourhood, more services will be available locally for all residents.

Higher population densities make it more efficient for transport agencies to run high-frequency bus routes. They make it easier for supermarkets to open up in closer proximity, competing down prices for groceries. They make it easier for councils to justify improving local parks, improving streetlighting, and upgrading streets. Density allows there to be a cafe or two on every block, so residents can easily step out for a hot drink in the morning. This is all good stuff!

Essentially, having more people around you means that there’s a bigger local market for all sorts of useful things. As densities increase, neighbourhoods will become more convenient for the people who live in them. But if they don’t, there’s never going to be a reason to run a bus every ten minutes. There’s never going to be an incentive for Countdown to open a shop one kilometre down the road from New World. The cafes and drycleaners and florists will never set up across the street.

Here are a few examples of the kinds of environments that could be enabled by intensification. Importantly, these aren’t high-density neighbourhoods – they tend to be composed of terraced houses, row houses, and 4-6 storey apartment buildings rather than massive high-rise towers.

Here’s Greenwich Village, Jane Jacob’s old hood and one of Manhattan’s medium-density neighbourhoods. Look at how many retail and dining choices the residents have:

manhattan greenwich village

Here’s a typical cafe in Paris, another city that’s great due to its density and mix of uses. The city’s awash in local cafe and restaurant options because it is dense enough to support lots of them.

paris_cafe-rainbow_tours

Here’s an example from San Francisco – the Castro district, which is one of the spiritual homes of gay and lesbian culture in North America. Medium densities in the area support fantastic (if a bit off-the-wall) nightlife.

san francisco the castro

And finally, one from Auckland: this is the Elliot Street shared space, which never would have happened without the apartment boom in the city centre. I bet a lot of people around Auckland are looking at how great this is and asking, “when will my neighbourhood get something like this?” The answer is: When your neighbourhood has enough people to support it!

ELLIOTT ST

So, what would you like to see happening in your area? Do you think that having a few more people around would help it happen?

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43 comments

  1. Yes, and one other important point is that intensifying appropriate areas well means less population and development pressure on other places that can stay low density suburbia for those who prefer their relationship with their lawn mower to the more urban experiences outlined above, and without having to drive half way to Hamilton to get there.

    1. The trouble is that faced with density near them many NIMBYs will say “we must stop growth” and start talking about restricting immigration, encouraging people (never themselves) to move to Napier and questioning the moraility of building homes that aren’t 1/4 acre and 3 bedrooms.

      Personally I thought their would prefer for 1/2 the population (young people, weirdos) to live in 10% of the city at high density while the other 90% was nice 3-bedroom suburbs for the normal “families with children”.

  2. All very good examples of great intensification but on the other side of the coin are Tower Hamlets in London,Clichy sous Bois in Paris, Brownsville in New York or Tenderloin in San Francisco. Whilst building apartments in Auckland could be a great idea it could also turn a boring CBD into a dirty dingy gheto if the housing is aimed at low incomers/

    1. And if you go to Auckland, the “ghettos” tend to be low-density suburbs full of detached houses. We haven’t looked at Glen Innes and said, right, better stop building subdivisions!

      The problem with these areas is not that they provide housing for people on low incomes – low-income housing is a good thing! – but that they concentrate the problems of poverty in a single place. And remember, the flip-side of having areas that are exclusively for the wealthy is that you must also have areas of concentrated poverty.

      We’d be better off if more suburbs offered options for people on a mix of incomes. I think the city centre has actually been fantastically successful in this regard. There are the ritzy waterfront apartments as well as smaller (but much more affordable) apartments a bit up the hill.

      1. Peter, nothing reduces income-related spatial sorting of populations like a low, flat urban land rent curve. See this comment and the earlier comments I made on the same thread:

        http://www.economist.com/comment/2549430#comment-2549430

        The guy I was arguing with ended up saying this:

        jgunncin reply to Phil Hayward Oct 28th, 12:16
        Food for thought – thanks!

        I wish there was a bit more of this kind of open-mindedness in NZ. Mind you, there is in the right forums – I think the economists at Treasury and various bureaucracies and consultant firms in NZ have largely come round. It is just the local government bureaucrats and the advocates whose work they rely on (including the advocates posing as Professors at Urban Planning Schools() who are still digging in for a fight.

  3. Good post Peter,
    The nub of the opposition to intensification is this:

    A lot of residents might object to intensification – and that is because they see dis-benefits (traffic, loss of sunlight,nice views of the sea or Rangitoto, other amenity, free/easy parking outside their house,crappy building design in the new buildings, half completed buildings that never get finished with lose stuff flapping in the wind) occur almost immediately that the intensification happens – but the many benefits – and there are many benefits – take quite some time to build up, and the exact timing, where and when or even if these benefits will occur is uncertain.
    Only many years later can the balance of benefits versus dis-benefits be weighed up.

    All those trendy walkable neighbourhoods that people want to move into were once earlier generations intensification battlegrounds.

    We need a way to spread the dis-benefits out over time (and place) and also bring some of the benefits sooner to help balance the scales sooner than the usual decade or more timeframe.

    That way, these developments are not seen as another “The Block” re-development in some dead end street – where the neighbours see that they cop all the downsides.
    And the only winner here seems to be a TV company running a reality show at a handsome profit. While everyone else looks on via their TV sets.

    And to me, many of the complaints people raise are about the actual building process and the design process that leads into the build.
    When we plan the CRL as much thought goes into the mitigation for existing users of nearby buildings and how they can be least disrupted, as goes into the actual tunnel process.
    For any redevelopment in the ‘burbs, its seen by the council and developers that the residents don’t get a look in after consent is granted – so its lump it or leave.
    Its a pretty brutal approach and we need a way more nuanced approach, akin to what happens with bigger projects.

    And thats where a lot of the analysis and thought into staging of build, and managing the and delivery of benefits at the same time as the actual intensification, while trying to minimise dis-benefits need to be done.

    This is why council getting involved in big over-arching redevelopment plans (like SHAs) will ensure that the promises made about what will or won’t happen, will come to fruition in a timely and agreed fashion.

    There is of course a critical mass required before some benefits will accrue, so not all good things will start on day one. But if the timescale is clear and stuck to then everyone benefits longer term.

    And most developers are not evil Darth Vader types, but there are a few rat bags out there, and they need to be reigned in (or relegated to the outskirts if they can’t be controlled), where they can do less damage.
    There is also ample evidence that its not just the developers and planners who need a rethink – the building process and the many sub-contractors involved in the building industry need a complete rethink too.

    I noted a comment from the Block company on their open days over the weekend that many of the complaints and consent violations were not caused by the the contestants or the TV Company, but were in fact the sub-trades not playing ball with the strict conditions – despite being told well in advance how to behave, where not to park etc.
    This is not a isolated incident. And I’m sure we can all come up with examples where on a building site the tradies all park their vehicles anywhere they can get away with ruining the very amenity the residents value is it any wonder people get a bit jaded about this sort of thing – and we see the same in the CBD when building refurbishment goes on in the CBD – park your van or ute where you like if you’re a tradie.

    1. Auckland has already intensified to the point that it is European in its density, not North American at all by a wide margin. Auckland is very close to Amsterdam in density. There are almost no 1/4 acre sections left, they have already been carved up. We have had 30 years of mania for hocking off the back yard to developers for a nice little windfall gain.

      It is the next level of intensification that people are opposed to – the actual tower blocks.

      And I would suggest that the people who live in a predominance of these conditions, created by proscriptive planning, would take some convincing that there are in fact benefits at all. All the evidence in the UK, both revealed, price signals, and surveys, show that people are pining for a bit more private space.

      Not to mention that the UK shows no benefits to its outlier-high density, in terms of congestion, commuting, fiscal sustainability, social justice, and productivity. Rather the opposite on all these counts.

      1. “Auckland has already intensified to the point that it is European in its density, not North American at all by a wide margin. Auckland is very close to Amsterdam in density.” – Evidence Phil.

        I call bollocks on that entire sentence – I mean what is European? You realise the EU alone is 27 countries – all different? You are probably again defining Amsterdam as some massive conglomeration and including parks and interurban areas.

        “It is the next level of intensification that people are opposed to – the actual tower blocks.” – Rubbish – typical scaremongering. In my area of Bayswater, Ngati Whatua are proposing to build two storey townhouses as an SHA on the existing naval land with four storey apartment facing the sea and Roberts Ave – so not overlooking any existing houses or blocking sunlight.

        This is opposed by almost everyone in my neighbourhood who are all complete NIMBYs who want the area frozen in amber to some mythical age in the 1960s. There are very few people asking for tower blocks outside of the metropolitan centres. We are talking 3-4 storey townhouses or apartments, probably terraced in most of Auckland. I have lived in those in Europe and they are a very nice place to live.

        Luckily Richard Burton of Auckland 2040 can’t oppose these as he lives in a 3 storey house himself – I mean otherwise he would be a complete hypocrite wouldn’t he?

        1. If you go to the last page of this report comparing Stockholm with Auckland. You can see that Auckland is missing medium and high density housing from the 2 to 13km radius. That is assuming the market wants a European type city solution. Or that Stockholm and Auckland share similar geographic constraints so need to find similar solutions -they probably do IMHO.

          http://nzier.org.nz/static/media/filer_public/58/8b/588ba32f-5a69-4154-a4c5-73318e473a40/bertaud_markets_and_design_and_housing_affordability_bertaud_nzier.pdf

  4. I personally am not, but i think many aucklanders (perhaps mainly older types) are afraid of that manhatten picture. I remember a beautiful/tragic quote from a herald article to the effect of: “…will our children get to own a home or will they be forced to live in an apartment.” Ahem – an apartment is a home (or can be), not everyone wants the same thing or is catered for by the status quo or historical norms, boomers and older are not well placed to make decisions for younger cohorts or for a future they will not see.

    1. If the older generation cared so much about us, they would be doing something about climate change. As it is my generation will either be cleaning up the mess or living in it.

      1. I wish they would just support direct, effective fiscal incentives and stop rorting the young on housing costs and inter-generational wealth transfers via absurdly inappropriate policies for “mitigating climate change”.

        Fiscal incentives and price signals cause immediate changes in behaviour via 100 different mechanisms according to what individuals work out to be the most efficient. Anthony Downs said in “Still Stuck in Traffic” (2004) that urban form approaches to this problem are like trying to adjust the position of a picture on a living-room wall by moving the wall rather than the picture.

  5. My brother (42) is a typical nimby living the good life in Devonport. He understands the point that his three children will probably not be able to afford to live in that neighbourhood when they are adults but sees this as a neccessary evil because him and his wife are protecting the heritage of the area. You can’t get around this point. To densify his and many other suburbs the villas for the most part have to go. You can’t have a conversation with him about this; he has no answers and just evades all engagement and responsibility and in the past has gotten downrighteously shitty when pressed. He will never change his mind and wants Devonport to remain as is for ever. My point is they don’t want any carrots and it is only lots and lots of stick that will get us anywhere.

    1. I live in Bayswater. Between Hauraki corner and Devonport there are hectares of land with crappy houses built in the 1980s and 1990s with no heritage value and no aesthetics. Sure we can preserve the villas in Devonport but they are a minority of the housing stock in the whole area.

      Put heritage protection in place and designate whole swathes (like the Bayswater peninsula where I live – no NIMBY here) as high density, mixed use living. The shops down at Belmont are struggling with empty shops and very low value businesses.

      Then as the businesses in Devonport and Stanley Bay continue to languish in the 1950s, the area bounded by Hauraki, Belmont and Bayswater can boom with young families and dynamic mixed use development. The Bayswater ferry can be massively expanded in its service easily. Also a cycle bridge from Francis Ave across to Esmonde road would give a great connection for getting to Akoranga busway station and on North or South.

      It is not a matter of one size fits all. But we need to identify areas where intensification can work. The conversation happening is just not very sophisticated.

      1. If you recently returned from living in a 4 story apartment block in Europe why did you choose Bayswater to move too? Why did you not buy an inner city apartment? I think the will of the majority is for Auckland and NZ to be a country of mostly housing and space for the kids to kick a ball around in the yard.
        The argument that intensification is going to make housing in Auckland affordable misses the point that they have high rise in European and American cities that are not affordable. A bedsit in London is not affordable, a condo in Manhattan is not affordable. We are in danger of just building a lot of shitty apartment blocks and still not helping the next generation of Aucklanders own their own homes.

        1. People already build walkable retail spaces in low density areas. They’re called malls, and people drive to them.

          If you tried to replicate Elliot St in low density suburbs, there simply wouldn’t be enough foot traffic to support the shops and restaurants. Retailers would need to provide big parking lots to attract customers. And at that point any street amenity would be drowned out by the traffic.

          1. This comment ended up in the wrong place – it was intended as a response to Dave B (Wellington)’s post below. Bloody smartphones!

        2. Maybe he doesn’t want to live downtown? I don’t see why that is the only option, live in a tower block downtown, or live in a separate house in a car dependent suburb.

          I live in a medium density unit in an leafy older suburb, it’s definitely not downtown but it sure isn’t suburban sprawl either. We need more of this.

        3. Because there are no nice 4 storey apartment blocks in that area. If there were we may well have bought one. As it is we bought a small house with a minimum of land. As I said above, Ngatui Whatua wants to build density that would be cheap and the NIMBYs are fighting it tooth and nail.

          That is the problem, there is no choice. The 4 storey apartment block I lived in wasn’t in the inner city. It was in a leafy, sought after suburb in the north of Bucharest. You are giving examples of dense housing in the inner city of major world cities and then saying that is proof that dense housing doesn’t lower costs. What about the dense housing is Stuttgart? Is that affordable? I don’t know, do you?

          “I think the will of the majority is for Auckland and NZ to be a country of mostly housing and space for the kids to kick a ball around in the yard.” – Then why is there plenty of affordable housing on the fringes of Auckland? Surely it should all be snapped up for the “Kiwi dream” (whatever the hell that is). And what is the majority – 51% – only in Auckland or nationwide? So that means 49% of NZers would like to live somewhere denser with better walking and cycling facilities.

          If that is the case, then you should be comfortable with all limits to housing (up and out) being released – so no urban limit but also no density limits like minimum lot size – some height limits may be appropriate. Then if no-one wants the high density stuff, developers won’t build it and everyone can live in the suburban paradise you want.
          Funnily enough though, wherever density limits are relaxed developers put up heaps of smaller units. They are also selling them as fast as they can build them.

    2. I don’t have a problem with people who purchase property and elect to preserve it. I do get nervous when they presume rights over other people’s property, and try and force them to preserve it. So your brother should be free to not develop his property, but similarly his neighbour should be free to develop it more intensively. Agree with you though – I don’t think we need more carrots necessarily. If anything there already is a huge financial incentive for intensification: Because it tends to make your property more valuable.

      What we need is some stick, i.e. elected representatives who recognise that imposing regulations on someone else’s property requires a clear intervention logic that not only responds to the presence of externalities, but also that the economic costs created by the regulation are less than the benefits that they confer.

      Evidence would suggest that most restrictions on development do not fall into this category, and in turn suggests that professional planners and elected representatives are shirking their responsibilities. Although of course these two groups are in turn responding to the incentives: 1) planners want more work, and regulations are good on that front while 2) elected representatives want to be re-elected, and keeping existing residents happy (at the expense of potential new residents) is an effective way of achieving that outcome.

      So it’s a tricky problem. But one that we have to collectively solve; step-by-step Auckland will have to break down regulatory barriers to intensification.

      1. So you see no value in the idea of a heritage neighbourhood Stu? I’d be pretty sad to see areas like Herne Bay south of Jervois road where there are a few blocks of wonderfully preserved villas broken up. But saving every last villa and bungalow is certainly not the way to go either…

  6. “. . .The answer is: When your neighbourhood has enough people to support it!” – – – this, in relation to the Elliot Street shared space.

    But is it really true that traffic-calmed, shared-space requires large numbers of people to make it work? What we see in the above picture is a pedestrianised area with a few scruffy tables and chairs laid out. No high-cost infrastructure here and hardly a huge throng of people, but what there is works! A traditional village green in rural hampshire can support tables and chairs and a handful of people relaxing as long as the ambience is not ruined by traffic.

    Surely the issue is one of providing pleasant, people-friendly, traffic-free spaces, rather than costly large-scale developments which are dependent on a critical mass of population to support them??

    1. You do need enough people to support the businesses who are the ones who scatter the chairs and tables about and serve food to the people who sit at them. You don’t get this happening often in the middle of suburbs because there isn’t the footfall to allow it to.

    1. He is right in a way – there is plenty of affordable housing in some areas. Places like Mangere and Otahuhu have cheapish housing that isn’t being bought.

      So he is basically saying that young people just have to choose what the market supplies. And the rules are massively skewed so that the only cheap housing supplied is on the fringes in less desirable areas – we can only assume from the reluctance to buy them that they are less desirable.

      The market is not being allowed to supply what a lot of those people would like. Good quality apartments or terraced housing close to areas where things are happening – socially and work wise.

  7. What I do not understand is, why the apparent conflict between intensification and sprawl? Both have benefits and advantages that should be complimentary. Equally they have disadvantages that are most apparent when one is practiced exclusively. Shouldn’t we have intensification and sprawl?

    Intensifying gains the amenity values shown above, creates critical mass for liveable spaces. Sprawl through unfettered land use lowers the price of property. If the two work together we gain communities that have high amenity values and low cost. The less wealthy can afford intensified living within apartments that are not constrained to being extremely small, gaining amenity values with no downside.

    It is only in isolation that they fail. Unfettered sprawl without allowing intensification leads to low prices, but with less wealthy people consigned to the lowest amenity value land far away from anything. Intensification without sprawl leads to great amenity values, but where high real estate prices lock the less wealthy people into cramped living arrangements.

    It seems in Auckland we are going from one extreme to the other without pausing in the middle.

    1. Obviously there are some benefits to having exclusively one or the other. Urban sprawl means poor people live further away. Intensification means land values go up.

    2. I would disagree we are going from one extreme to another. There has been very little quality intensification in Auckland over the last 30 years except some infill. It is very difficult to buy a good quality apartment or townhouse in an inner city area.

      All the rules are designed to stop that kind of development or make it prohibitively difficult while encouraging further greenfield development on the fringes. Things like minimum parking, minimum lot size, minimum set back and maximum coverage all make it difficult.

      Yes we need both. So why have any rules stopping either up or out? Yet those in favour of sprawl only want the limits on outward expansion scrapped while keeping all the anti-density rules – and then claim that will be a free market and people can choose. That is dishonest.

    3. I’ve addressed these trade-offs in a previous post: http://greaterakl.wpengine.com/2014/09/29/the-importance-of-housing-choices-in-cities/

      While cities can (and should) grow in both directions, it’s much more important to make the case for having a planning regime that enables, rather than stifles, market-led intensification in built-up areas. In practice, the regulatory and community barriers to plonking another couple dozen houses in a cow-pasture are quite low. There seem to be a hell of a lot more roadblocks to creating affordable dwellings through intensification.

      In short, I think we all need to focus more time on the hard questions (barriers to intensification) and less on issues like urban growth boundaries that are no longer a binding constraint as a result of the creation of large greenfield SHAs and the removal of a fixed MUL under the Unitary Plan.

      1. Auckland may have got large greenfield SHA’s but Christchurch for instance didn’t. So the issue of turning cow paddocks to housing is by no means a painless process, at least on the outskirts of Christchurch. Something like half the new developments in Canterbury have been in satellite towns and lifestyle blocks because of the difficulty and expense of developments in Christchurch. Of course the government run CBD rebuild has not gone smoothly. So no high density housing in the centre either.

      1. Not only is there little land zoned “Terraced House & Apartment Building”, most of the land that is zoned is either already developed or in market unattractive areas for intensification.

  8. There should be a minimum density and higher height restrictions for new mixed used developments near transport interchange and town centers.

    Any objections from neighbors should not stop the development. Instead some kind of standard compensation will be paid.

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