Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post was first published in May 2013 as one of John Polkinghorne’s first guest posts. Six years on, John has never quite gotten used to referring to myself in the third person. He’s still living in Auckland’s city centre, albeit with a much worse commute – it’s gone from a 10 minute walk to 15 – now has an actual baby rather than hypothetical kids, and a much larger apartment. I, I mean John, thinks the city centre is better than ever. And he reckons he’ll stay there until well after his baby starts going to school in 2024.

I really enjoyed Matt’s post on why he wants intensification in his neighbourhood. I thought I’d write one on why I love it in mine. First off I should explain that I live in a CBD fringe apartment.

1. Work is a ten minute walk away. This is hard to beat, and you can believe me when I say that I don’t miss long commutes. This means more time to do the things I want, and less money spent on petrol. It was also great to be close to the university when I was doing postgrad (again, pretty much a ten minute walk).

2. A slightly longer walk takes me to Britomart, Wynyard Quarter, Queen St, the movies, you name it. There are 650 cafes, restaurants, takeaways and bars in the CBD, there for the taking (subject to budgetary constraints).

A short walk from the finest eating destinations
A short walk from the finest eating destinations
A slightly longer walk may lead to spontaneous singing of The Lonely Island songs
A slightly longer walk may lead to spontaneous singing of The Lonely Island songs

3. I’m a five minute walk from the supermarket. Sure, it’s a Countdown and pretty expensive, but it’s good for top-up shopping. We try to do bigger shops out at Pak N’ Save, and this is one of those situations where the car comes in handy.

4. In summary, we are very well set up to do a lot of walking to places, rather than driving. This is presumably good for my fitness level.

5. This all means that my partner and I get by very well with one car between us. We’re thankful we’ve got the car, it gives us a lot of options and we wouldn’t want to be without it, but we don’t need two. This is probably saving us at least $1,000 a year.

6. There’s always something happening in the city. Lantern Festivals can break out at a moment’s notice.

World Cups also just come out of nowhere
World Cups also just come out of nowhere

7. My apartment complex has a tennis court, a gym, a lap pool and a sauna. I don’t use these facilities as much as I should, but it’s nice to know they’re there! If I go for a run, I can take in Princes Wharf, Victoria Park and other enjoyable locales. Or I could head the other way out to Tamaki Drive.

Tennis court provided. BYO coordination.
Tennis court provided. BYO coordination.

8. There’s better security. You need a swiper to get in the front door of the complex, and then again for each floor, and you’ve only got access to your own floor. Plus there are surveillance cameras at the main entrances. It’d be pretty hard for people to get robbed here.

9. Higher density living is low maintenance. There’s no worry about mowing the lawn, less outside area to clean up and so on. I actually enjoy the small amount of cleaning up I do get to do outside, but looking after a whole house would stop being fun pretty quickly.

10. This apartment is the warmest place I’ve ever lived, including my parents’ houses and any number of flats. The best insulation you can have is another dwelling attached to yours. In my case, the only surface exposed to the elements is a single wall. I’ve got a little fan heater which I put on now and again in winter, but I can’t even tell the difference between my power usage in summer and winter (I’m the kind of person who records this). On average, we pay $90 a month for power, water and water heating combined. Which includes my share of the water used in common areas and the pool.

11. I’ve got friends living in the same building as me, and I can go and annoy them any time I want!

Sure, there are down sides. If other friends come round, it can be tricky for them to find a park, and of course this is even tougher in the centre of town. But you’re always going to get that in the CBD, and if friends want to take public transport – perhaps it’s a Friday or a Saturday evening and driving home doesn’t seem like a good idea – then it couldn’t be any easier.

Soot and black dust builds up in the courtyard and, to a lesser extent, inside. I’m not too sure what the air quality is like but it’s probably a bit worse than, say, a lifestyle block in Karaka. Our neighbours tried to grow some lettuces in those ready-made potting mix bags that you get from Mitre 10, and that stuff actually built up inside the lettuces as they grew. So growing stuff you’re going to eat is a no-no here. This situation probably has a bit to do with cars and a lot to do with the trucks from the port, but hopefully cleaner vehicles will make it better over time.

At this level of density, it’s not practical (or allowed, in the case of my building) to have pets like cats and dogs. But renters struggle with this everywhere in New Zealand. For medium density, side-by-side townhouses and so on, I can’t see there being any problem with cats and dogs.

I’m also lucky to live in a fairly large one-bedroom apartment (60 m2 plus a sizeable courtyard). It’s not a shoebox and I wouldn’t want to live in one, but some people do and I’ve got no problem with that.

On the whole, high-density living isn’t for everyone, but it doesn’t have to be. This is a point which has been brought up on this blog time and again. People aren’t going to be forced to live in apartments, or even townhouses. But there should be choices available. For me, right now, high-density living is great. I’ve been here three years so far and I could be here another 3-5 years easily.

After that, maybe I’d want to start thinking medium-density, somewhere with a little more space where my hypothetical kids can run around and be closer to schools (which the CBD is not well endowed with). If there were more good 2-3 bedroom apartments available in town, and if there were better facilities for kids, maybe I’d stay in the CBD instead. But low density? Big house, big backyard, long commutes? Not for me.

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  1. Roughly speaking these were my observations:

    There’s nothing really wrong with apartments, but you’re much more exposed to the surrounding public space. And this being Auckland…

    — Almost all that public space is reserved for cars. Your kids will not have any room to roam outside. Will it stunt their development? I am not willing to do that experiment.

    — The sheer intensity of traffic is a significant downside (!) compared to the suburbs. Things like Access for Everyone cannot come soon enough.

    — Terms and conditions of getting around on foot with preschoolers: your kids may die. The large majority of car drivers will make no attempt to avoid collisions. It is the parent’s responsibility to make toddlers run-off proof.

    — Once I take preschoolers into account, I had no parks within walking distance. Not even a small pocket park.

    — Even for adults the environment outside is sufficiently hostile and dangerous to keep you cooped up inside most of the time.

    — Partially thanks to the magic of single land use, having your kids play outside is extraordinarily time-consuming. There are playgrounds in Victoria Park or Myers Park, but do you see anything the adults can do while the kids are playing?

    And about a few things mentioned in the post

    — My nearest supermarket was almost 10 minutes away on foot, despite living in a high density area. But: that supermarket is often so crowded you have an hour long wait at the checkout. Odd combination.

    — Despite being called the ‘city centre’, my apartment was very cumbersome to reach by public transport. Enough so that I would not expect anyone to ever come in by bus. Driving is also difficult (our midwife was barely able to visit us). Walking is extremely unpleasant. That, combined also with a lack of shared space in our building, means you’re pretty isolated in there.

    — Whatever black stuff is building up in your plants, I suspect it is also building up in your kids and yourself.

    1. Hmm – I think it depends both on exactly where you’re located and what your expectations are. I also live in a city apartment and have done for nearly fifteen years – my experiences are much closer to John P’s than to yours.

      * “a hostile and dangerous environment for adults” – not where I live (and that’s very close to K Road)
      * “nowhere for kids to play” – two quite decent parks within five minutes
      * “nothing for adults to do while kids are playing” – same as most parks, the adults tend to watch the kids
      * “supermarket was ten minutes away and you spend an hour(!) at the checkout” – mine is ten minutes away as well and I’d never spend more than ten minutes at the checkout
      * “cumbersome to reach by public transport” – absolutely not at all – my PT mobility is really great and will get to be even better (actually, much, much better) when the CRL comes into operation
      * “walking is extremely unpleasant” – I walk all the time, from choice, and love the freedom it gives me. I don’t find it at all unpleasant.

      The two main downsides that I acknowledge:

      * Visitors who want to bring cars are constantly searching for parking spaces. Maybe in another fifteen years they’ll have realised there’s public transport from most parts of Auckland.
      * The plants on our balcony some floors above ground level don’t like the wind. It galls me having to pay up to $40/kg for limes (depending on season) for the G&T.

      Of course, apartment living isn’t for everyone. But it obviously suits a LOT of people and it’s obviously good for Auckland not to be spreading (as fast). As I say, choose your apartment carefully and understand the benefits (and drawbacks) of the location before you move in.

      1. Well yes — expectations. You have to manage your expectations before moving.

        I ended up on Hobson Street. I was aware of the crappy state of the streets over there. But the lack of PT took me by surprise. Coming in from the North Shore? Be prepared to run across Fanshawe Street. Trains? Half an hour before you’re even on a train. And so on. I don’t think I did even a single journey which was viable on PT (I did try it, eg. a round trip to Newmarket takes about 2 hours on PT, vs. about 40 minutes by car, including looking for parking).

        Over here as well the CRL will make a difference. 5 minutes to Aotea Station vs. 15 minutes to Britomart.

        I walked all the time as well. Cars are quite cumbersome and clumsy in comparison. But with kids… if one of them runs off, he’ll be 100% dead. How confident are you that your kids will absolutely never do that?

        (* in suburbs you usually can drive your car. Which is somewhat expensive and a PITA in its own way. But it is well established that it is much more dangerous outside cars than inside. If you walk you often have a verge between you and the roadway, and you’re much more often on relatively quiet streets. Running across 2 lanes is easier than running across 6 much more busy lanes. Suburbs have a large advantage here.)

        This is an artefact of council policy. For instance have you seen the footpaths over there? If this were a regular suburb, those footpaths would have gotten maintenance a long time ago. Why not here? Not for lack of rates money, given the sheer amount of ratepayers on a single block. And here we are, wondering why people revolt against anything called ‘high density’. Looking at you, council. You can’t leave those areas behind like slums and then expect people to like it.

        I don’t doubt things are moving in the right direction. But I certainly will hold off for another couple of years before I recommend an apartment in Auckland to anyone.

      2. I think Roeland has called it as it is for parents of young children. The same traffic environment that has led to Auckland having the second highest fatality rate for people walking (out of 26 OECD cities) has led to a city centre that is dangerous for children.

        We need to make our city centre suitable for all of society, not just for able-bodied adults. In a city that must address its safety crisis, it’s clear to me that the changes needed will be found if we listen to the voices of people who understand what its deficiencies are.

        1. Bring on Access for Everyone! For the city centre and the rest of Auckland too.

  2. Do you think the advantage of being a ‘Motorway city’ with wide roads, is that once public transport is up and running efficiently, there is the ability to reclaim some of the width, and have wide, tree lined footpaths? Makes intensification a lot more bearable.

  3. Intensification just doesn’t have to be in the city. We live two minutes walk from the Takapuna town centre and it brings a huge range of benefits:
    – walking distance to a movie theatre
    -walking distance to a threatre
    – dozens and dozens of restaurants and bars on our door step
    -12 minutes to the beach
    -bowling clubs, library, croquet club, leisure centre

    While we live in a house currently, in future years we will be just as comfortable in an apartment that of course offers all the same nearby

    I also wonder whether in buying houses people buy what they want rather than what they need. The three houses that we have lived in since the kids were teenagers have been characterised by very small yards. It was not to the detriment of their physical development with two being good sports persons.

    Each of them, and their friends made great use of the facilities at local schools, both after school and at weekends.

    Two of my kids are currently looking for houses. I ask them to consider how much it will cost them to drive in years to come as there is nothing more certain that there will be carbon charges of some description as the current efforts to curtail emissions have been completely ineffective.

    1. There is a big difference between the minimum outside space required for quality passive enjoyment, and young childrens play and that required to be effective for more active play by older children. I get the impression that most backyards are larger then required for the former, but far too small for the latter. Using the same space we would be better off with smaller house lots, but more local parks and sports grounds. Also needed is taming the streets to provide a shared use culture to allow on street play, as we enjoyed as children in the suburbs in the early fifties, and is still practiced over much of the world.
      I enjoyed watching street football in a European town where motorists would happily wait for the first break in play, when the participants readily withdraw as they did so signalling the cars through, before the game could resume. They had obviously grown up with that culture and etiquette to make the best of their very limited space.

      1. “I enjoyed watching street football in a European town where motorists would happily wait for the first break in play” – This may also apply in Aurora, Illinois, based on my study of Wayne’s World! Although that was roller hockey.

      2. ‘There is a big difference between the minimum outside space required for quality passive enjoyment, and young childrens play and that required to be effective for more active play by older children. I get the impression that most backyards are larger then required for the former, but far too small for the latter.’
        Yes. I grew up, and raised children, on a 1950s ‘quarter acre block’ (actually about 800 square metres). For small kids imaginative play (hiding in teh bushes and so on) it’s twice as much as needed; for bigger kids ball play it’s nowhere near enough. Trying to play cricket in the back yard, with elaborate precautions to protect the windows, was an utter frustration.
        Add to that that the period of big kids playing ball is relatively short. Now that they’ve gone, the big yard is just a burden.
        A private yard suitable for recreational gardening and small kids play, with a better public park down the street for ball games, would be much more practical and much more economical of space.
        With better urban design of the whole street block (including not wasting quite so much space on bitumen), the typical low density suburbia could probably be twice as densely populated without any detriment to the separate house and garden lifestyle that most people want.

        1. There has been at least one memorable post on this blog using aerial photographs showing that contemporary Auckland suburban residential subdivision and building practice is actually failing to deliver functional outside spaces for passive recreation and small kids play in spite of relatively low density. The backyards are too small and/or an inefficient shape, inefficient side yards, and a large front yard, almost totally taken up by the driveway to the double garaging.

        2. Yes our suburban property has somewhat use for older children but sloping front and cluttered back means not that great. Probably OK for middle aged kids but the pain of up keep has you wondering. The sunny days are often ruined a bit by endless nearby mowers, weed trimmers and such. If we fenced the front to our actual boundary we would have less effective space. Cars sometimes rip along nearby which has always been a worry but we can’t really afford a huge fence and gate along the front.

        3. Yes I’ve noticed that before. We’re the absolute bottom of the barrel here when it comes to designing subdivisions.

          Here’s one way to create 300m² lots starting with an 80m wide block (we have lots of these):
          – your lot is 40m deep, so your width becomes 7.5m.
          – put terraced houses on your lots. 7.5×12m footprint, 3 storeys. That is a more than decent size for a house (or it can contain a couple of walk-up apartments)
          – 7m setback in the front to park your cars, or a front yard.
          – Which leaves you with a backyard of 7.5 by 20 metres. More than enough for your barbecue.

          (I did not make this up of course, this is what I actually encountered where I grew up)

          Here’s what you usually get in Auckand. 300m² would be impossibly cramped over here. Let’s do 500m².

          – some stupidly sized house, 200 to 250m² floorspace single story. The shape of your lot doesn’t matter much because that house can fill it up like a liquid.
          – 2m between the house and the fences left, right and behind. Maybe a little L shape in the back so at least you can put a table outside.
          – The rest is your huge front setback, part of it covered with your driveway.

          So, no real usable outdoor space in the back. You could do that barbecue on your front yard… maybe? But hey at least you can park 6 cars up front.

          The other thing is the streets. Important because otherwise kids can’t get to that bigger park. The right way to build most streets inside those subdivisions is:
          – 5m roadway.
          – Speed limit 20 km/h, shared zone.
          – That’s it. No footpaths, no cycleways. No lines. Add some flourishes like street trees and speed bumps.
          – Tell drivers not to nilly willy kill people while driving. It works in Europe and Japan, there must be a way to get that working over here. Nobody would bat an eyelid at a few kids cycling down that street.

          – For those who want to drive you can easily have every house within 250m — 1 minute of slow driving — of a bigger collector or arterial road.

        4. I’ve done similar maths to Roeland.
          My current 20x40m 1950s lot in Canberra faces a minor access street an absurdly wasteful 20m wide between boundaries (pavement 7m, nature strip on each side 7m). So including my share of the street to the centreline, I account for 1000 sq metres.
          After subtracting the compulsory, ridiculously wide front setback (10m), the useless side setbacks, and the footprint of the house (150 sqm) I have about 400 sqm useful private back yard. Which is about twice as much as I want.
          Alternative: halve the width of the lot (10x50m) and halve the width of the street. My share of the street goes down from 200sqm to 50sqm. Turn the house by 90 degrees and have zero setback on one side. A house 7m wide, short side facing the street, leaves enough space for a drive beside it. You have roughly doubled the overall density while still giving everyone a separate house of about the same size and a 200sqm back yard.
          The catch is that this approach does need intelligent integrated planning of the whole subdivision to make it good from the point of view of aspect and privacy. That’s the part we don’t do.

  4. Hi all, thanks for commenting! I’ve probably wrung all the humour out of the mixed first person/ third person thing already, so I’ll just stick to first.

    Interesting points all and clearly people can have different impressions of the city centre depending on where exactly they are (and whether we’re childless, have a baby, preschooler or school-age no doubt). I’m down on the flat (reclaimed land), so I’m away from the heavily trafficked streets. Generally I find walking or cycling much more amenable in my area than it would be in the suburbs. Probably true in much of the city centre, with Hobson/ Nelson (and Union, Pitt etc) the main exceptions.

    The quality and availability of public space does vary… I’m pretty lucky where I am, have a park pretty much on my doorstep so I don’t think Baby will miss out on running around, kicking a ball etc. There are kids playing in the park most days so he won’t be lonely, I hope!

    Anyway, kids seemed a long way off when I wrote this post; the tales of having kids in the city will have to come later, when I’m getting more sleep! Or read Alex Bonham’s excellent guest posts. The main reason I wanted to revisit the post was it’s a love letter to intensification generally; giving me stuff to do close by and a stress-free commute. Which it still does. As John Wood says above though, many of these points are just as applicable to somewhere like Takapuna.

    1. This’ll be a future post as well, but the other thing is that the city centre is changing (and I think, improving) faster than anywhere else in Auckland. I could list a dozen major public amenity improvements since 2013, there are many more on the way (Access for Everyone! City Rail Link!), not to mention many new developments which have brought more jobs, residents, tourists etc.

      Quality of life here is better than it was in 2013, and it’ll be better still in 2025. And hopefully that keeps spreading to other parts of Auckland as well.

  5. So I’m super late to this party, but I have a few things to add…

    I live in a Hobson St apartment. I’m a stay-at-home dad, and I now have three preschoolers. And I still have no desire to move to the ‘suburbs’.

    For us, buying an apartment, it was a question of what can we afford, and what are the compromises associated with that. For the price of our three bed apartment, double glazed, insulated, and in the city, we could have bought some kind of drafty do-up in Onehunga or Titirangi or somewhere on the North Shore. And that would have meant that my wife, who is the go-to-work parent, would have spent an extra two hours per day either with her car, or with public transport, instead of with family. So I know that Aucklanders are supposed to love their cars, but, more than their families…?

    Every other consideration was secondary to this. We can afford $xxx,000 dollars of home, and this will put us Y hours commute time away from work, leaving Z hours each day to spend with family while they are awake.

    Everything else was made to work around this. But honestly, it’s really great. We live a fifteen minute walk from the largest public library in New Zealand. Similarly Aotea Square, where my nearly-four-year-old old has already learned to ride a pedal bike sans-training-wheels, and the two-year-old is on the balance bike. Their cousins look at their freedom in the square and are really jealous – their pokey 1/12th acre backyards don’t have that much space.

    We initially had really nice stroller, and walked everywhere. Then I bought and built a really nice electric cargo bike, and we can go anywhere we want to really quickly, and I get exercise in as well. By bike, Myers Park is single digit minutes away. Albert Park, Victoria Park, the waterfront and Silo Park, Western Park are all under ten minutes, Grey Lynn Park in 15 minutes, and I never have to worry about parking. Or Devonport in 25 minutes, if I time the ferry right, without having to worry about traffic on the bridge or Lake Road. We can be at the Wintergarden or the Museum in the Domain in 20 minutes, or the zoo in about 25. I don’t go out on the bike in downpours, but in Auckland much of the rain blows through pretty quickly, and our travel time is no less unreliable than getting stuck in traffic.

    I take them to Freemans Bay Playcentre four mornings a week, and they have plenty of space and time for running around and getting messy there.

    We get groceries delivered, because the opportunity cost of shopping for your own groceries is significant.

    You have to manage your expectations wherever you live. When we came back to New Zealand, while we were looking for a home, we stayed (with a single one-year-old) with my aunt and uncle in their rather nice house in Remuera. And it was pretty, but SO BORING. Twenty five minute walk to the library, which was pokey, no playgrounds that I found within comfortable walking distance, there were some grassy reserves, even convenience stores were inconvenient… it was all really rubbish if you didn’t want to pack everyone in the car and make a journey of it.

    I still have a minivan, and find it necessary on occasion with preschoolers, but I have only used a single tank of fuel so far this year.

    Maybe if we doubled our household income we could have the same family time and amenity in Ponsonby or other city fringe neighbourhood.

    I’d like the city to be better, to have fewer cars and better pedestrian and bike facilities, and better public transport. But really, for amenity per dollar, there is nothing that can compare.

    1. Thanks Anthony, and here’s me only coming back to the party another couple of days later!

      I completely agree with you re: commute times, I should have mentioned in the ‘update’ bit at the beginning. Having a 15 minute walking commute makes a big difference in terms of how present I can be in my child’s life. He’s in bed between 7 pm and 7 am; even having a 30 minute commute, still pretty good by Auckland standards, would mean I would have half an hour less with him each day. I’m very grateful for that extra time!

      I’m certainly not implying that people with longer commutes are bad parents, people sacrifice everything for their kids; I’m just saying that I do really value having such a short commute so that I can spend that little bit of extra time with the anklebiter.

      Who actually has literally started to bite our ankles in the last week, I don’t know what that’s about.

  6. We live at the top of Nelson St, with 2 and 5 year old kids. I agree with all of the points in the original article, these are absolutely all the reasons we chose to stay living in the city when we started a family. But I also agree with the downsides. We moved from being close to Britomart to our current location, and the lack of PT close by is difficult. It’s a 10 min walk (make that 20 mins if you’re trying to get a reluctant child there) to K Rd to catch a bus. And the street environment is incredibly hostile. Awful footpaths, nothing but lanes and lanes of traffic hotfooting it to or from motorways. When walking outside our complex, my kids can’t walk ahead of me, it’s just not safe. There are always vehicles parked on the footpaths, and cutting red lights to get onto the motorway more quickly.
    Our saving grace is we live in a complex which has plenty of shared, vehicle free public space, so bikes can be ridden safely, kids can run and chase bubbles etc. I am always conscious that there are a number of residents who think children should be seen and not heard, which speaks to the anti-children attitude in the city. But for all the reasons listed above, it’s good in so many ways.

    1. Thanks, Claire. It may be that lots of New Zealanders cannot imagine a place in Nelson St “which has plenty of shared, vehicle free public space, so bikes can be ridden safely.”

      If you ever have a chance to post photos or even better, to write a post, that would be great.

      1. I can easily imagine it. What if we close Nicholas Street for through traffic and clean it up a bit? And done.

        I just have never seen such a thing over here in person. Your real world kids are not going to chase bubbles in your imaginary yard.

        Count your lucky stars. All the courtyards I’ve spotted so far were just filled up with car parks. Looking at Hobson Street on aerial images is infuriating.

        I took some photos of Hobson Street when I lived there a few years ago. It will not be an uplifting post though…

        1. That’s a great spot to choose. There are walls to kick a ball against. And it even comes with its own two dolls houses.

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