Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Peter was originally published in March 2015.

One of the many reasons that people choose to live in cities is that cities offer variety. As Stu Donovan has argued before, being around more people sometimes seems inconvenient, but it also exposes you to new ideas, new people, and new consumption choices.

I’ve previously written about the value that people place on choices in housing and transport markets, and how having more choices is particularly valuable for people on low incomes. This week, I want to look at how cities provide us with choice in the retail and restaurant markets.

My hypothesis is that there are economies of scale in the provision of both public and private goods. In more straightforward terms, that means that if you live closer to more people, you can have more public transport, more parks, more good restaurants, more shops, and so on and so forth. If this intuition is true, the best way to obtain variety at an affordable price is to live in a dense area of the city.

In order to test this hypothesis, I took a look at Statistics New Zealand’s Business Demography statistics, which provide information on the number of businesses (“geographic units”) and employment within particular industries. Very helpfully, Stats NZ publishes this data at a suburb level (“area units”, in Stats-speak).

I’ve focused on two particular types of businesses that serve households’ daily needs:

  • ANZSIC industry H45, which includes restaurants, bars, and clubs
  • ANZSIC industry G41, food retail, which includes supermarkets and other small-scale food retailers.

I mapped the density of these businesses throughout different Auckland suburbs. Blue colours show higher densities of restaurants/bars or food retailers; yellow colours show lower densities. A few clear patterns emerge. First, densities tend to be highest in inner city suburbs, and even more so in the city centre. Second, there are also pockets of higher density around satellite centres like Takapuna and New Lynn. Third, the density of retail and restaurants tends to be much lower on the fringe of the city.

Auckland restaurant and food retail density maps v1

How can we explain these patterns? Why are some areas so much better supplied with retail and dining options than others?

We can get some insights by looking at the built form retail and restaurants areas in different areas of the city.

Here’s what a retail street looks like in the city centre, where high residential and employment density sustain a lot of activity both day and night. This is O’Connell St before and after its shared space transformation. Notice how people are just walking up:

O'Connell Before and After 4

Here’s what retail looks like in an inner-city shopping and dining district, Ponsonby Road, which is surrounded by old suburbs of medium population density. It has lots of shops right on the street, plus a bit of parking tucked around the back:

Ponsonby Rd St Johns

And here’s what retail looks like in a newer suburb at the edge of town – Albany centre. It’s physically separated from nearby residential areas, highly car-dependent, and as a result, it requires large swathes of parking to support each shop or restaurant:

Albany Mall - Aucklands most modern Metropolitan Centre...
Albany Mall – Aucklands most modern Metropolitan Centre…

In other words, less parking is required to get shoppers to the door in densely populated areas – which should make it easier to sustain more shopping and dining options per square kilometre.

A simple econometric analysis seems to support this view. I attempted to explain the density of restaurants and food retailers in suburbs in terms of the population density and employment density of those areas. (Using Census and Business Demography data from Stats NZ.) As I hypothesised, there is a statistically significant, positive relationship between higher population and employment densities and the density of restaurants and food retailers. These two factors predict roughly 85% of the variation in restaurant and retail density in Auckland suburbs.

Regression results are reported in the table below, for anyone who’s interested. These aren’t perfect models – I suspect that it would be worth testing some spatial regression models, as retailers often attract customers from a wider catchment than a single suburb. Furthermore, we’d have to analyse changes over time in order to establish that increasing population density in an area will in turn increase retail diversity. But these results do provide a reasonable indication of the underlying relationships.

OLS regression models for restaurant and retail density
Dependent variable:
Adjusted R20.8560.834
Residual Std. Error (df = 339)0.6320.664
F Statistic (df = 2; 339)1,011.219***860.694***
Note:*p<0.1; **p<0.05; ***p<0.01

What do these figures mean? The coefficients from the model – highlighted in bold – display the relationship (or “elasticity”) between population or employment density and density of restaurants or food retailers. They show that:

  • Areas with 10% higher population density have, on average, 4.6% more restaurants/bars and 6.0% more food retailers (including supermarkets)
  • Areas with 10% higher employment density have, on average, 6.2% more restaurants/bars and 4.9% more food retailers.

In short: Higher density can benefit people by giving them more choice in restaurant and retail markets. Having a mix of residential and commercial uses around is even better, as it can sustain activity throughout the entire day rather than just in the evenings or at lunchtime.

Stats NZ’s data isn’t granular enough to say, but I suspect that denser areas also have a greater diversity of dining and retail options. (This is intuitively obvious – if there are already two fish-and-chip shops in the neighbourhood, why would anyone choose to open up a third?)

What do you make of this data on density and retail choices?

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  1. It would be good to get the original comments with these flashbacks as some good discussions have already taken place.

  2. Good post, thanks. I can also see how if the blue map you made was more granular, it would show even more information. Some residential-only areas there are coloured dark blue because they’re in walking distance of not particularly well-served areas. Has anyone produced a similar map which nicely shows the available services and businesses along the main roads? It would be interesting to see how it changes over time as some main roads return to being public transport corridors and other remain as car corridors.

    1. That sort of data is only available at the Census Area Unit level. Would be interesting to see it in more detail clustered along roads, but I don’t that data is out there.

  3. “if you live closer to more people, you can have more public transport, more parks, more good restaurants, more shops, and so on and so forth.”

    I’m assuming developers still pay a contribution to parks? We also have a Parks and Open Spaces Acquisition Policy to enable Council to buy land to provide those parks, necessary as an area becomes more intensified.

    I’d love to hear about new acquisitions and new parks in the intensifying suburbs, if anyone’s got stories.

  4. High density renewal is certainly the way to go, but it has to be done well and the planning to try and attempt it has to be competent.

    For example, I don’t know how much was spent on the “redevelopment” of the Mt. Albert strip around the Mt. Albert road/New North road intersection but it has to be the most bungled waste of ratepayers/taxpayers money I’ve ever seen. The intersection itself is now an utterly destroyed abortion of made worse for no reason other than trying to make more pedestrian friendly an area that has no more foot traffic than before – because it is still a downmarket, unfriendly, windswept dive of low rent retail. The removal of the left hand slip lane and the narrowing of the road means you now get queues back past Asquith ave even during light traffic. It can, I hear, take up the twenty minutes to get through this intersection at rush hour. I mean, what moron thought it was a good idea to simultaneously get rid of the slip lane, narrow the road, keep the carparking, and put a light controlled pedestrian crossing in at Ballast lane?

    Honestly. And they plan to build thousands of new houses at Unitec? God help the users of New North road.

    It really is a monument to incompetence and the price you pay for cutting corners and listening to know nothing retailers. It is what happens when timid and shoddy planning is allied with shitty and low cost execution. A huge amount of money was wasted and nothing was achieved except to make the current situation worse.

    1. We’re hopefully going to get rid of all the slip lanes, Sanctuary. They’re really dangerous. The Mt Albert area should have had a big clear-out of traffic with the Waterview tunnel; perfect time for reducing the road capacity there. I was really pleasantly surprised to realise I can now cross the intersection as a barnes dance… bit time saving for pedestrians compared to what was there before, when you couldn’t trust the left-turning traffic to stop anyway.

      BUT… why is the bus to train connection so very, very poor?

  5. This is mostly true.

    However the opposition has a point that some existing resources enjoyed by current residences will be taken away.

    For example, the loss of on street parking, views, open space, noise, privacy are the concerns

    Young people who doesn’t own many cars, live in well insulated secured apartment may be okey with that.

    However older wealth guy who owns multiple SUV, have a huge backyard, wants privacy and enjoy a million dollar view who drives to shop in Ponsonby may object.

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