Like both housing and heritage advocates, Auckland Council is rushing to put out a response to the recently announced Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS) which are currently going through select committee. Last week, they had their monthly public planning committee meeting, much of which revolved around their submission.
There seemed to be a broad consensus between both councillors and their officials that somehow the changes would both produce little-to-no additional development, and yet would be ruinous for the “special character” and urban design outcomes for the city. Planner-in-chief John Duguid proclaimed that allowing enabling more housing than the Unitary Plan would be like “a farmer placing additional fertiliser on crops when we’ve already fertilised the crops, and it’s getting to the point where we’re damaging the very thing we’re trying to grow and nurture”.
No evidence nor explanation was given to explain how enabling more housing during a crippling housing shortage could possibly harm the city. Instead, the changes were just dismissed it as ineffectual – the real issue is apparently (a lack of) infrastructure while the Unitary Plan has already enabled “enough” capacity.
The cost of provisioning infrastructure is a common refrain from those in and around local government – with the typical policy recommendation being that it should be stumped up for by central government. While there are some infrastructure funding and provision issues to be worked through, this is mainly driven by councillors who want to deliver goodies to their electorate without raising rates to pay for them. More importantly, it’s not “upzoning or infrastructure”, it’s “upzoning and infrastructure”. And this upgrade is way overdue. Our streetscapes and transport systems are causing ill health, injury and death. Council and AT need to roll out a safe cycling network, a new programme of street trees and better footpaths, and an efficient, prioritised bus network over the entire city. But this isn’t something that needs to happen just where new development is happening, or just because development is happening. These networks are required now, to transform the whole city.
Likewise, zoned capacity is a distraction. A city-wide number misses the context of each site – what is the demand to live there and what is the infrastructure capacity to enable people to do so? Just zoning capacity to “meet demand” means that sites with more permissive rules will be more valuable to developers, so will continue to carry a land value premium which will be passed on to first home buyers and renters. Enabling everywhere will eliminate that premium, and is the pathway to proper housing affordability and choice.
A council more serious about the converging climate, housing, and congestion crises would not be so dismissive, but would rather be attempting to mould the new rules to correct past mistakes and ensure quality on the pathway to housing abundance.
Council’s appeals to urban design ring hollow given that there’s little evidence that they’ve cared for design up until this point. Auckland’s relationship to suburban intensification, both recently and historically, has been primarily driven by two primary typologies: infill and the sausage flat.
Developers trying to build multi-unit housing within typical suburban planning rules – which limit the ability to build to the property boundary at each edge to avoid imposing upon neighbours – has created housing oriented along the depth of New Zealand’s typically deep sites, with shared walls like width-wise cuts of a sausage.
With the walls parallel to the street front, this necessitates windows primarily overlooking neighbouring properties. In this way, planning rules which attempt to mitigate the issues with new developments, have the unintended consequence of actually exacerbating them.
The placement of the building within the site also serves its residents poorly: a sausage flat leaves thin strips of outdoor space adjacent to each boundary, too small to be useful for anything. If an entire neighbourhood were to be built out as this typology under the proposed MDRS rules, they’re likely to leave each other in semi-permanent shade.
‘Infill’ is a variant of the sausage flat, where you built several detached buildings within the same envelope. This can provide more outside space (although still compromised as a series of thin strips between buildings), but often with windows facing in all directions, exacerbating privacy issues.
These issues have led to a common notion in NZ that multi-family housing inherently has issues with privacy, lighting, and lack of space. This is completely unnecessary.
The planning envelope proposed by the government’s new MDRS rules weaken, but don’t eliminate, the planning rules which historically created these perverse urban design outcomes. This will ultimately reduce the amount of additional dwellings enabled by MDRS, as the risk of having your view and/or sun built-out makes medium density living less appealing, especially to families looking to put down long-term roots in a community.
What would an earnest attempt at shaping this mandate, and correcting these historic planning mistakes look like?
Enable Perimeter Block Housing
By bringing development right up to the front and side boundaries of the property, windows can become oriented towards the street and back, and all the open space gets unified as a single, large backyard.
This typology can be enabled simply by waiving all setback and recession plane requirements in the front 20 meters of the plot, and adding a shallow (for instance, 45 degrees above 3m) back recession plane, or deep back setback to disincentivise subdividing for rear infill.
This is common across Europe, and is sometimes called the “Traditional Eurobloc”. Named for when an entire block is built to this form, it creates a boundary of dwellings surrounding an internal greenspace or courtyard, which can either be a common space, or split into a number of private backyards.
With visibility towards the street and backyard, there’s no risk of peering into others’ living rooms. The outlook towards the street in fact brings a benefit: a phenomenon identified by Jane Jacobs as “eyes on the street”, which is thought to make neighbourhoods safer and build stronger community ties.
Unlike the sausage flat typology, the Perimeter Block Housing typology can readily be built side-by-side without imposing any issues upon each other. There is never any risk of being built-out as both outlooks (the street and backyard) are inherently protected. A direct neighbour building taller will have negibile effect on access to sunlight or views.
This means the typology can be incrementally built, creating a fine-grained streetscape, and can be responsive to demand: as an area becomes more desirable, stories can be added to existing buildings. You don’t have to destroy a building of one typology and build a denser typology in its place.
Corner Site Wildcards
Corners sites are generally the most preferable to redevelop, as they have the fewest neighbours to disturb. They’re also most accessible in the neighbourhood to other blocks, and can readily support multiple entrances. It would make sense to treat corner sites as a “wild card”, having no restrictions on the planning envelope (except the 3 story height limit) as well as allowing ground floor commercial (shops, cafes, retail, etc). The more permissive envelope would encourage those sites to be developed before others on the block, allowing shops to open and start providing amenity before future residents move in. This is particularly important as a significant proportion of New Zealand’s transport emissions come from short trips, which could easily be replaced by more local shops in walkable neighbourhoods.
New Zealand is also chronically lacking ‘third places’. Most people have two primary social environments – the first, home. The second, the workplace. Third places are “where you relax in public, where you encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances”. These facilitate the spontaneous urban interactions that Jane Jacobs argued build the social capital which is a foundation for building communities.
Urban planning in New Zealand has been largely reduced to mitigating the negative effects of change, which planners have figured out is easiest when you just stop change in the first place. But true planning needs to look ahead, and see the needs that change will bring. Intensification can’t just be stacking people in houses, it has be building communities.
Increase dwelling threshold for consenting
One of the parts of the proposed legislation which made the most waves — allowing 3 homes by right in every major city — is also the least radical. Auckland’s Multi-Housing Suburban (MHS) Zone and above already allow 3 units per site as a permitted activity. This covers the vast majority of residential areas in Auckland. The primary change in the legislation is a more permissive envelope, allowing more floorspace per site. Allowing more floorspace per site without allowing more dwellings per site is likely just going to mean bigger (and consequently more expensive) homes.
As I’ve outlined previously, high quality townhouses can often be at a density of 5 or 6 per site. It’s not clear what value the dwelling limit provides, particularly if it’s limiting these. Raising or eliminating the dwelling threshold for resource consents would help create much more liveable housing.
We are likely to get greater urban design outcomes by putting our faith in architects rather than urban planners. But no matter who is in charge, any mass building program will be plagued by at least some decision makers with poor taste. Fortunately, there is no house ugly enough that they cannot just be hidden behind a couple of street trees.
Keep and expand these rules to rural areas
While the discourse has focussed primarily on intensification within urban centres, the proposal is not just “Auckland rules”. Eliminating minimum subdivisions sizes and weakening setbacks will enable a wide range of diverse “tiny house” typologies:
These typologies enable densities greater than the typical suburbia that characterises our small towns, without imposing large structures to those who are looking to escape a more urban form. Auckland Council have labelled small townships that fall within its border like Beachlands getting “Auckland rules” as a perverse outcome. They are mistaken. In fact, Parliament should consider extending these rules to Tier 2 cities – places like Queenstown, Dunedin, Nelson, and Napier/Hastings would all benefit from these rules.
If you – like me – are worried about parliamentarians only hearing bad-faith fear-mongering by those who just oppose, please submit before the 16th in favour of housing and suggest changes like these to improve urban design outcomes.
Council’s whinging response to the MDRS proves the government was right to do it. With the NPS-UD, Three Waters, & MDRS, the government’s appetite for taking power from local governments is only growing with time. Unless Council change tack, they will have progressively less and less power. After last week’s performances, Ministers could be seriously questioning whether to retain any local government control of zoning powers under the new RMA.