In this post I discuss two related questions that concern common “fantasies” about the Unitary Plan, specifically:
- Question #1: To what degree has Auckland’s density changed during the last few decades?
- Question #2: To what degree does the balance of brownfields/greenfields development in the Unitary Plan differ from the past?
We might be able to agree on answers to these two questions. Why? Well, they are positive questions, insofar as they refer to attributes, i.e. density and brownfields/greenfields development, which are able to be subject to empirical measurement and testing.
Ideally people would agree on answers to important positive questions before moving onto normative questions, because the latter are not empirically testable. An example of a normative question would be: “How much weight should we place on the preferences of existing homeowners versus potential homeowners? I hope the difference is obvious; normative questions tend to be gnarlier.
It’s often helpful to separate positive from normative statements. People can often vehemently disagree on the answers to normative questions, while still agreeing on the answers to positive questions. Hence, in this post I will try to provide clear answers to two important positive questions that seem to be frequently misunderstood by those who oppose the Unitary Plan. Rest assured that I hope to tease out some of the important normative questions in more detail in a subsequent post.
Question #1: To what degree has Auckland’s density changed during the last few decades?
The answer to this question is simple: In the last 10-15 years the population density of Auckland has increased. In this working paper, Peter quantifies the density for various New Zealand cities, which are summarised in the following table. We see that Auckland’s population-weighted density (i.e. the density at which the average resident lives) has increased by around one-third (33%) in just over a decade.
As Peter discusses in this post, increased density is consistent with other empirical data. When we look at population growth in Auckland, we find that the population of central areas, especially the city centre, is growing faster than other places in the region. Waitemata (which covers most of what we refer to as the “Isthmus”) stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of population growth, both in total and relative (%) terms, as shown below.
The increase in density observed in central areas doesn’t seem to be caused by regulations on urban expansion. Instead, Auckland seems to have grown denser primarily because there is increasing demand from people to live and work centrally, i.e. as a result of people’s preferences. Research by Arthur Grimes, for example, has found that Auckland’s central areas have become much more valuable relative to less central areas, as illustrated in the figure below.
This change is significant, and is mirrored in cities elsewhere, such as Amsterdam (NB: Amsterdam has always controlled urban expansion, providing further evidence to suggest that controls on urban expansion are not behind changes in the relative values attached to centrality). Increasing density in Auckland are also consistent with the experience in Sydney and Melbourne, as illustrated in the figure below (NB This figure is taken, incidentally, from the excellent ChartingTransport website). Here we see that density in both Sydney and Melbourne increased by a similar % to that observed in Auckland.
So from where I’m sitting the answer to the first question is fairly clear: Over the last 10-15 years or so Auckland has become a much denser place, and it’s become denser because more people and firms want to locate in central areas. As far as I know the sky hasn’t fallen on our heads. Indeed, from what I can tell Auckland has been doing relatively well of late.
In this context, the imposition of regulations preventing intensification would seem to have the following impacts:
- Reduced development and higher property prices;
- Fewer people and jobs being located in central areas;
- Increased urban expansion, with associated infrastructure, congestion, and energy costs; and
- Transfer of wealth from those who have less to those who have more (further reading).
The likes of Richard Burton, Dushko Bogunovich, and David Seymour may argue that the costs of regulations preventing intensification are outweighed by the benefits, e.g. maintaining the “character” of inner-city suburbs.
I know of no quantitative evidence to show this is the case. On this basis I think it’ fair to say that their claims are unsubstantiated, at least in quantitative sense. I note that recent changes to the RMA (passed, incidentally, with the support of the ACT Party) places a higher bar on the economic evidence needed to support restrictions on development. In the absence of such evidence, and given the large body of quantitative evidence that demonstrates the costs of regulations that prevent intensification, arguments against intensification would seem to be rather flimsy. I can only hope that the IHP agrees.
Question #2: To what degree does the balance of brownfields/greenfields development in the Unitary Plan differ from the past?
The answer to this question is hinted to in the previous discussion: In the last two decades most development has happened within the existing urban area, i.e. brownfields. More specifically, development has been split 71% and 29% between brownfields/greenfields respectively. Data supporting this analysis is summarised in the table below, which is extracted from the Development Strategy published by the Auckland Council (available here).
The historical percentage of brownfields/greenfields development is similar to that enabled by the Unitary Plan (60-70% and 30-40% for brownfields and greenfields respectively). At this point I think it’s worth highlighting a rather extraordinary exchange from Peter’s recent post on the linear city (source).
- “Brian” asks Duskho Bogunovich (who works for Unitec and has publicly criticized many aspects of the Unitary Plan) what proportion of Auckland’s historical growth has been accommodated within the urban area (“brownfields”) and what proportion has been outside (“greenfields”); and
- Duskho replies with “I don’t know” but then suggests a ratio of 1 part brownfields to 5-10 parts greenfields. Converting this into percentages would imply that Dushko believes 9-17% of historical development has been brownfields, with the balance in greenfields.
Dushko’s numbers are at odds with the data presented above. Indeed the data flips his percentages around completely. Now, in Dushko’s defense this particular question asked about the last *30* years whereas the data presented above goes back only *20* years. On the other hand I can’t see this ratio changing too dramatically though even if we went back one more decade.
The key takeaway message from this exchange is that 1) Dushko doesn’t know the actual brownfields/greenfields ratio and 2) the data which is available suggests a brownfields/greenfields ratio that is at odds with his intuition. I personally would expect that those who oppose the Unitary Plan, such as Dushko, would spend some time familiarizing themselves with the empirical evidence, especially when such evidence is crucial to the argument they are themselves advancing.
Keep this issue in mind when you consider another one of Dushko’s comments (source):
But forcing massive intensification inside Auckland cannot fix the housing crisis anyway … The city must grow both ways – up and out – to allow the land and housing market work properly. And getting the ‘up/out’ ratio right is crucial … this ratio for Auckland is probably 1:2. That is, 1/3 should be growth by intensification, and 2/3 by growing out (new suburbs; satellite towns; redistribution to the outer region – Waikato and Northland). Sadly, the council, in its ‘compact city’ ideological zeal, managed to get this ratio exactly the opposite – 2:1. The ‘70% fantasy’. This is PAUP’s fatal flaw. That’s why the Plan is a dud. And will never be implementable. Unless we use the North Korean approach.
In Dushko’s world, Council via the Unitary Plan is “forcing massive intensification” that is at odds with the “right ratio” for intensification. Dushko’s sees evidence of “ideological zeal” and “fantasy”, ultimately concluding that the PAUP is “fatally flawed” and a “dud”, which will not be able to be implemented unless we resort to North Korean style policies. Hyperbole much?
Especially when one considers the empirical data. Put simply, the Unitary Plan simply is proposing to continue long-established trends in Auckland’s urban development, which have resulted in steadily increasing density with a 70%/30% brownfields/greenfields split.
People like Dushko might argue that we would be better off if changing these trends. I’d disagree but, hey, let’s have that debate. It’s fair game.
What doesn’t seem fair game is for people like Dushko to criticize Council’s Unitary Plan and suggest it represents a “radical” change from the past, when in most respects it’s business-as-usual. Perhaps the only way the Unitary Plan can be described as “radical” is that it provides for only 80,000 new homes to be developed over coming decades, when official population projections suggest we will need approximately 400,000.
I started this post by posing two “positive” questions, to which I have since suggested the following answers:
- Question #1: To what degree has Auckland’s density changed during the last few decades? Auckland has become 33% denser since 2001. This change appears to be driven more by the growing desire of people and firms to locate centrally, rather than regulatory controls on urban expansion. The increase in density observed in Auckland, and the increasing value placed on central locations, is consistent with trends observed in cities overseas, such as Sydney, Melbourne, and Amsterdam; and
- Question #2: To what degree does the balance of brownfields/greenfields development in the Unitary Plan differ from the past? The last two decades of Auckland’s developent has seen a 71% to 29% split between brownfields/greenfields development respectively. This data seems to be at odds with the views of many people that oppose the Unitary Plan, who argue that Council is forcing “intensification” and a “compact city” on Aucklanders.
What do you think is fact or fantasy when it comes to the Unitary Plan? And on that note, what is your fantasy for Auckland. In 20 years time would you prefer to be 1) more dense; 2) less dense; or 3) about the same as now? Vote below.