In their ongoing efforts to tackle the housing crisis in New Zealand and reshape urban development, the government put forward a bipartisan RMA amendment at the end of last year, which most notably introduced the so-called Townhouse Nation standards to allow 3 homes of 3 stories on almost any suburban site. The bill also changed several components of the NPS-UD, the other major plank in their planning reform.

One of the more surprising steps of the bill was to replace a provision that demanded “commensurate” zoning around places with good PT access or high demand, with the following:

In relation to tier 1 urban environments, regional policy statements and district plans enable:…(d) within and adjacent to neighbourhood centre zones, local centre zones, and town centre zones (or equivalent), building heights and density of urban form commensurate with the level of commercial activity and community services.

The original provision was good and ideally should have been retained or lightly modified, but upzoning near to centres like this is very important: people require access to a set of basic services which these centres typically provide such as supermarkets, barbers, bank branches, etc. Likewise, having more residential density within the walkable catchment of these services will make them more viable, and support demand for more services to move in. In turn, this makes it more desirable for people to live in the area, kicking off the Virtuous Cycle of Density.

Not only does this help build more liveable and economically vibrant neighbourhoods, but basic trips like these make up a significant proportion of Auckland’s car use – and consequently transport emissions. Moreover, this kind of “Living Local” has become more important in the COVID-era, where the willingness and impetus to travel to the major centres has dwindled.

Council staff noted in their latest report to the Planning Committee that upzoning based on the existing uses there today is a bit narrow. Indeed it is. Commercial activity can change overnight, but buildings and zoning do not. Instead, we should be looking at not just the current use, but the future potential uses. The two main metrics that council officers have devised are size and accessibility of centres, relative to their tiers (neighbourhood, local, town).

What could this look like?

Auckland has approximately 400 neighbourhood centres (which can be understood to be generally corner stores, or a small row of shops), but has an urban area about 600 sqkm, or 1.5 sqkm of urban area to neighbourhood centre. This is a massive area to cover for something which is meant to function as a corner store. And many of these are clustered close together, meaning large swathes of the city require a car to access only the most basic of services. With MDRS allowing urban living anywhere, it must come with more neighbourhood centres.

One way to accomplish this would be to simply allow basic services like dairies to open on corner sites. Already under the Unitary Plan we make corner sites more permissive as they are less bound by recession planes and setbacks to bordering sites (by virtue of having fewer bordering sites). We could double down on this approach by allowing the 3 storey form proposed by the MDRS by adopting an approach I’ve suggested previously: letting corner sites act as a “wildcard”, which allows for greater site coverage and more ground floor uses like shops.

Likewise, over time you’d expect the size of centres to expand. Allowing commercial use adjacent to existing commercial use will allow centres to expand over time. For a neighbourhood centre that might be just a handful of land parcels, whereas for a town centre that might be within a few hundred metres, to allow larger scale activities like supermarkets or big box retail to emerge. In practice, this could be done with a “buffer” of Mixed Use Zone between the centres and residential zones.

It’s also important to change what kinds of activities can occur within these commercial zones.

Access to a supermarket is a major amenity that these kinds of centres can provide. The Commerce Commission’s market study looking at the Supermarket duopoly identified zoning as a barrier to entry for new supermarkets and supermarket chains: supermarkets are hard to consent, and the few sites big enough for a supermarket often already have a supermarket on top of them, a supermarket chain holding the land out of productive use, or are held up in covenants barring new supermarkets. Supermarkets will always require consent for things you need to manage for public interest, such as vehicle crossings, but the system could be broadly less suspicious of them.

A proposal for a new New World on Dominion Road (with residential above), for instance, has had to go through the government’s Fast Track Consenting process after local residents complained to a very sympathetic council that it could cause additional traffic.

Supermarket with housing above on Dominion Road

Housing within Town Centres is also often fraught. Despite the fast track process, the “expert panel” recommended to lop off the top story for “urban design” reasons. Similarly, a developer wanting to add housing above one of the most pleasant and accessible town centres in the country, Mission Bay, has recently been forced to go back to the drawing board after a local NIMBY coalition sued their proposed medium density development, which exceeded the allowable height limit of 14 metres.

Scuppered development in the Mission Bay Town Centre

Likewise, some low-rise apartments were killed in the Eden Valley town centre just a few years ago, when independent commissioners took the side of the locals who would prefer nothing ever changes:

Scuppered Eden Valley apartments on Dominion Road

Some controls within commercial zones might also need to be strengthened to include levers like frontage controls, to avert outcomes like this:

The only thing that can be done is to make it clear in our zoning code and urban design guidelines that these mid-rise, mixed use with good street activation are the kinds of outcomes we need to be seeking in and around our centres. So with all this in mind, how council responded to the updated NPS?

Characteristically timid.

Council’s Response

  • No change within centre zones
  • No additional intensification (beyond the MDRS) for:
    • All neighbourhood centres
    • Local centres that are small in size and/or have low accessibility
    • Town centres that have low accessibility
  • Apply the THAB zone to residential zoned sites adjacent to the edge of a centre zone (up to 200m) for:
    • Local centres that are large and accessible
    • Town centres that have low accessibility
  • Apply the THAB zone to residential zoned sites adjacent to the edge of a centre zone (up to 400m) for:
    • Town centres that are large and accessible

These could have been disappointing but small fry – if they had better defined “large” or “accessible” in a sensible manner. However, rather than test these against concrete metrics, they are simply defined relative to the median of all centres. Consequently, half of all centres are defined as small, and half as inaccessible. The definitional word games render a large number of centres which otherwise seem well-suited for intensification.

For instance: Mission Bay, St Heliers, Jervois Road, Kingsland, Morningside, Market Road, Mt Eden, Mt Roskill, Mangere Bridge, Sandringham, and West Lynn are all excluded from any change. Many the excluded centres have supermarkets, while many of the included ones are only large enough due to swathes of car parking, rather than any real activity. Particularly absurd is Blockhouse Bay and Lynfield: a pair of town centres, almost right next to one another, similar size. But Blockhouse Bay falls on exactly the wrong side of the size threshold, despite being the more accessible of the two.

A more reasonable approach would have been to use size as a way of filtering local centres that function effectively as neighbourhood centres, but otherwise treat the medium-sized local centres simply as future town centres in-waiting.

Even those that do receive change get very little: a 200m radius has one sixteenth of the area as a 800m radius, which is roughly a 10 minute walk — the metric used for metro centres and rapid transit stations elsewhere in the NPS-UD. But the value of transit is that it takes you to somewhere to work, live, and play. To upzone less in the areas you actually do that makes no sense.

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  1. While I’m all for some local development, it has to be said that the Mission Bay project looks like it has landed from an inter-galactic mission drawn by a cartoon artist from a 1950s Dan Dare comic….

    1. With a rapid transit link and a great beach/reserve to relax in, where better would there be to put a medium density/medium rise development?

      The housing units have to go somewhere and every part of the city will need more t some point

      1. Rapid transit in Mission Bay? Thought the Tamaki Link only counted as part of the frequent transit tier?

    2. I agree, it looks space age and a bit dated already.
      Being by the beach I would of thought
      Some design aspects could be borrowed from the traditional NZ beach house.

        1. +1, it’s also really in keeping with a lot of the medium density architecture in the area. It’s ok to have buildings that some people don’t like, and it’s ok for different bits of the city to look different.

        2. A bit too rounded perhaps. I like how the original colours have come through in the design showing on the RHS buildings.

  2. Great post Scott – with lots interesting ideas to think about
    Here is example in Hamilton of a 1960s neighborhood a long side a new planned town.
    Melville and Bader we had about 500 dwellings (1,300 people) per Neighbourhood Centres/shops (NC) or one NC per nominal 50 hectares
    The new town in the consultant’s opinion (Configuration 1) this would increase to 868 dwellings (2,204 people) per NC, or one NC per 81 hectares.

  3. Big box supermarkets are so painful. So much land use and a stressful experience. I really miss London with its mini Waitrose/ Tesco/Sainsburys on most corners (or off licences/green grocers).
    All of these new developments just encourage more driving. Sad to see the Shakespeare dairy go my parents owned it in the 80s

      1. Given that there are many small supermarkets which aren’t a short walk away from underground stations…..

  4. If there was a large increase in local shops to match that 600:100:10 rule noted above; does that then mean that the big box drive n shop areas become less tenable?

    1. Certainly it’d give options to people who don’t like going to them. To make them less tenable, you might need a bit of user pays. Parking levies to cover the urban form damage and transport emissions, for example.

  5. It is all going to get more difficult due to PC71. It is the Council’s response to the removal of minimum parking rules in the NPS-UD. The intent of the Government was to make stuff easier but Auckland Council is philosophically opposed to making stuff easier in any manner so they are going to require travel planning and assessments of the road network for developments 1/10th the size of the current thresholds. ie 100 houses currently doesn’t need a traffic assessment in future that effectively drops to 10 houses. Worst part is anything discretionary allows the Council to consider parking as an effect but there are no longer any standards to act as a guide. All because some twerp added a last minute parking rule onto the NPS-UD. Parliament should stick with stuff they understand.

    1. Yes. And the philosophical opposition isn’t just about not wanting to make stuff easier, it’s specifically about not wanting density or regeneration of the city so it is less car dependent. For example, they could be requiring developers to ensure the streetscape is not dominated by vehicle crossings. But no; they have been ignoring the AUP’s provisions for frequency, spacing and width of vehicle crossings in consents, resulting in outcomes that worsen the environment for walking and cycling, when they should’ve focused on improving those outcomes. But “making things harder” didn’t extend to requiring those sorts of improvements.

      But I think putting in travel planning and assessments requirements is fully the fault of Council, not the NPS-UD. I hope the government take this to the next level.

      1. The problem is the NPS-UD had a little tack-on at the end that went directly at parking rules. They didn’t think it through. It didn’t say parking was not an effect. So now things will be a lot harder for discretionary activities. Add to that the staff at this Council and you get not just travel planning (which AT’s engineer claimed didn’t work in his Drury PC evidence – also adopted by ‘Council as Submitter’). But you get a reduction in permitted activities and a requirement for assessments of effects beyond the site.

        The Mission Bay picture above had 100 apartments so that part didn’t require a traffic or transport consent for them. Now it will. It complied with parking rules of 1 space per 30sqm retail and no spaces required for residential. No consent required there either. Under the new system a neighbour could challenge on the grounds of effects somewhere up the street. Both traffic effects and parking, as it is discretionary overall, become issues. Blaming central or local government for this is like blaming the left or right scissor for cutting.

        1. “Blaming central or local government for this is like blaming the left or right scissor for cutting.”

          How? The council is the only party trying to enforce an arbitrary restriction out of spite. The government is desperately trying to take the scissors off of them!

          I completely agree though, that the government should just clarify that an increased demand for on street car parking isn’t an adverse effect.

        2. Let me guess, the adverse effect is actually on the council itself, who now has to actually manage on-street parking.

        3. Can’t they just make Twyford a Minister without portfolio, like they did with Jonathon Hunt, to stop him doing any more damage? Central Government worked up an NPS and did the work to make sure it would actually achieve what they wanted. Then they shoehorned a parking bit at the end because someone didn’t like minimum parking rules and the duffed it. Blaming the Council staff for being control freaks is like blaming water for running down hill. Did anyone expect any other result?

    2. Wasn’t Framework Planning supposed to be the answer? Defining neighbourhood centre requirements along with education and health facilities, so that you can relate density to accessibility and also commercial viability. And then identifying locations for these, based on existing and potential future locations. To measure accessibility, take the travel time from each dwelling to each of the destinations (shop, school, health & social, work). Where superlots can take apartments or terraces, count the number of bedrooms to derive the number of trips. Divide the trip by the time, sum for all trips (by mode and by purpose). You then have an accessible density score with penalties for long or car-dependent trips, which will identify holes in the plan.
      This will also show why corner shops struggle in low density neighbourhoods and how clustered density can transform that.

  6. The Eden Valley development on Dominion Rd went through Environment Court, got consent and is progressing. Probably just need to double check stuff before it gets posted.

  7. 1) “so-called Townhouse Nation standards to allow 3 homes of 3 stories on almost any suburban site” – this does little to achieve zero carbon. People will still have to drive to the shops.

    Where I currently reside the buildings are G+7 to G+10. I can walk to the supermarket x 2, medical centre, bike shop, cafes, pet shop, optometrist, etc.

    2) Council’s Response
    No change within centre zones
    No additional intensification (beyond the MDRS)

    This is simply not zero carbon. Councils get away with this as they dont have to bear the costs that they impose.

    There should simply be not density limitations, with all limitations limited to an Effects based assessment, not arbitrary Council decisions.

  8. This government like to invent some “well intended” policy and ends up having so many unintended consequences and failing to achieve the intended goals.

    Instead we just need to copy proven legislation that worked overseas.

  9. Sadly, this post uses throwaway commentary and the usual name calling (“coalition of NIMBYs”) to paint a false picture around both the effects of legislative change and the reality of what is being consented. In that it reminds me of the anti-vax approach to discussions.

    I appreciate that Greater Auckland is a long way down the anti-plan rabbit hole but to paint an accurate picture you need to actually look at the decisions in each of these cases cited as problems with the AUP. You also need to know what else is happening. I know some of them and the argumentation in the decisions is pretty sound. At the same time literally hundreds of medium density projects have been consented.

    Too often it seems like GA’s position is that the property developers are unheralded angels of salvation who will deliver masses of affordable housing and great neighbourhoods if only evil NIMBYs and planners can be struck down.

    This cartoon-like deregulate and hope approach is the opposite of human-centred, climate-friendly development, and at odds with 40 years of global experience with creating liveable urban form. The neoliberal approach to cities is rhetorically seductive but practically nonsensical.

    The reality of current planning is of course is very different – most consents are granted (close to 99%) and most are granted on a non-notified basis (more than 99%). Auckland is building medium density and higher hand over fist at the moment under the AUP. And there is still vast areas of “lazy land” due to land-banking in the CBD and inner-city.

    Getting more neighbourhood centres is a very important step in creating walkable, human-scale centres rather than car-dependent sprawl. Doing that though requires planning to actively create neighbourhoods not deregulation “Medium density” and “mixed use” are best thought of as properties of a neighbourhood, not a single building. The Sprawl Repair Manual and the book Retrofitting Suburbia have lots of examples and suggestions around this.

    Creating a workable hierarchy of development and scale is critical If we are to build a web of urban villages linked by high quality active and public transport networks to each other and sub-regional centres. This needs to be closely linked to infrastructure investment and transport investment as well as the creation of islands of green. Those interested in the global evidence on this point may like to review the work of Robert Cervero and others. Beyond Mobility is a good start.

    Doing all those things requires careful integrated planning along the lines of Northern Europe or Curitiba rather than deregulate and hope – down that road lies the climate disaster of pepper-potted “density” ala parts of Los Angeles. We are already seeing that in Auckland because the AUP lacks spatial granularity.

    1. “Doing all those things requires careful integrated planning along the lines of Northern Europe”

      Sorry, is the the same northern Europe that was primarily developed before urban planning even existed as a concept?

      Why do you want to stop people building homes?

    2. Which nice neighbourhoods built in the last 40 years are you thinking about? I have the impression that all the “nice” neighbourhoods in Auckland are closer to 100 years old.

      I sometimes wonder about urban villages as well. I think the most important reason they don’t exist in Auckland is that our density is so uniformly low. So everything just spreads out like an ink blob.

      I don’t see how urban villages can possibly exist if you don’t allow higher density development in their surroundings. A development right in a town centre being cancelled is a bad thing if you care about this.

      1. I absolutely agree that urban villages don’t exist because Auckland is so sprawled out.

        My point is that creating density around nodes in ways that build community and the great medium density. mixed use communities we all want requires active planning.

        The change to the NPS allows some more nuanced approaches to this and so is a good thing but still lacks any overall coherence – cf neighbourhood planning in Copenhagen for example.

        Perhaps the difference is in how we see language – I don’t see blanket upzoning as “allowing density” but rather allowing random development that is likely to deliver LA style outcomes.

        You might be interested in Robert Cervero’s observation that reductions in VKT and emissions come not from increases in average density across wide areas but from increases in focal density in areas which have all the aspects needed to create an urban village?

        Planning that integrates infrastructure, density, transport and greenspace is active planning and – based on what we see around the world – looks very different to MDRS and NPS which are basically deregulation tools.

    3. What about pushing the desired density clumping through a quasi land tax?
      Land banking is a huge issue I agree, and the way our taxation system is set up, it encourages it.

      Shifting rates to be based on what “should” be on that land, rather than what is currently on it. Ie this lot downtown should be paying the basically same as its neighbours, but its not. It should be an untenable position to hold, carrying the rating burden while gathering nothing off the property. Instead our system rewards it.

      1. Hi Jack

        Yes I agree some form of targeted land tax / rating would be very helpful. I have been thinking about how we can get the best of both land and capital systems of rating…

        Land value rating creates much stronger development incentives – which is a mixed bag for things like heritage conservation and urban tree cover but a great incentive for vacant / underutilised land.

        Those incentives arise because rates are less related to what is on the land and more to its area.

        Capital Value rating is much closer to a wealth tax – and so tends to hit the less well off less severely. Capital value rating means if your property (meaning the land and the buildings on it) is worth relatively more then you pay more. So for a mature developed landscape capital value is fairer . Land rates can be brutal for older people for example who now live in wealthier areas. Capital value tends to smooth this effect out.

        Blanket use of Land value rating and land taxes tends (at a very broad generalisation) to be advocated by people who are less concerned about equity, heritage protection and greenspace and more concerned about efficient use of land. People like me of course want development, heritage and greenspace!

        To get the development incentives without the adverse impacts, local councils need the ability for targeted rates to apply to in “development areas” – land value rating for underutilised sites would create a much stronger development incentive.

        1. I’m not a big fan (to say the least) about how heritage restrictions are done at the moment, and I find no value in having broad blankets over the city and I think govt significantly overvalues it to bring an overall detriment (due to voter demographics etc). Buildings, ok, or even a clump of buildings, but what we have today is not ok, so I see the land value rating as a win in this regard.

          The concerns for older people, I think can be mitigated by allowing rates to be paid at the time of sale of a property in these circumstances. Or some sort of deal where they can age in place for the rest of their days, and the property (or some portion) is given to the council on their death. If they have significant attachment to the home then they will have been living there for a long time and likely have significant equity which the rates could be levied against.
          This would conveniently get land for pocket parks or social development into the hands of the council.
          Further mitigation would be from a more robust social housing system.

          I do not think councils can be trusted with such a tool for discretionary heavy targeted rates like that, or if they can, whether they would use it at all. There are a few examples in Auckland that would likely be a success, but we would quickly run out of places. I could see it quickly turning into an exercise of getting rid of Aucklands industrial heart, and building density on the fringes, which wouldn’t solve our problem of existing residential sprawl being too much of a financial burden to pay its way, which dense areas have to pay for, to subsidise suburban lifestyles. For example, I cannot see how low density parts of east auckland’s sprawl would be able to have this targeted onto them. It would be a political disaster to expressly target residential areas, but neo-liberal style economic heralding can do what politics cant.

  10. Your response is factually untrue – Copehagen for example has built vast amounts of housing using the principles set out in material I have referenced above. There are numerous other examples across Europe eg new housing in Freiberg etc.

    Houses are being built hand over fist at the moment – so much so that Gib board is now being rationed and is the subject of speculative hoarding.

    “Stop people building housing” is a cheap talking point from the check list of the anti-plan movement. You may like to engage with the reference material I have provided instead.

    Building houses is like any other activity – people need to consider the effect on others. You and others here are arguing for selfish indifference to the way our actions affect others.

    1. “Building houses is like any other activity – people need to consider the effect on others. ”

      Yes, I would encourage you to consider the effects of not building housing on others. People are routinely dying of diseases caused by the terrible quality of houses in New Zealand. People are homeless. People are living in vastly overcrowded homes. People are living in cars. People are malnourished because they can’t afford food on top of extortionate housing costs.

  11. We are building houses hand over fist at the moment. New Zealand as whole and many cities have more houses per capita than ever before in history.

    The real question is how do we create more warm, dry, affordable homes in thriving low-emission communities. Leaving that to the market is a recipe for disaster.

    I appreciate that you are deeply committed to the anti-plan world view. But the real world is different.

    My question back to you is: do you feel any qualms about using other people’s sufferring to as cover to champion a deregulatory approach that will worsen inequality and homelessness.

  12. “My question back to you is: do you feel any qualms about using other people’s sufferring to as cover to champion a deregulatory approach that will worsen inequality and homelessness.”

    No. Because the deregulatory approach improves inequality and homelessness. Believe it or not, your approach of banning homes worsens inequality and homelessness.

    Do you feel any qualms telling homeless people that we can’t build homes for them because they might shade the neighbours gardens or because the house might not have enough car parks?

    1. “The deregulatory approach improves inequality and homelessness.” Well its great to have that stated openly and honestly.

      We have no shortage of housing. We are desperately short of affordable housing. We are desperately short of housing that meets the needs of people without large amounts of money.

      You presumably believe deregulation has generally improved inequality and reduced homelessness in the last 25 years?

      Or perhaps you mean specifically that the replacement of public housing investment with the accommodation supplement has helped keep rents down?

      Or perhaps Housing New Zealand did a much better job than Kainga Ora?

      Or that despite having a record number of houses per person and a building industry running white hot, we have both more overcrowding and more homelessness than ever before?

      I appreciate there are a few papers without peer review saying “ooh planning is bad look how the magical development fairies would bring beauty and joy if only they were unshackled”. All that I have seen in relation to Auckland – including the analysis on this blog which got a lot of attention – start with the idea of a unipolar Auckland. which is spatial nonsense.

      We saw claims about the benefits of deregulation in the 80s and 90s too when deregulation advocates promised greater equality and prosperity if only markets were unshackled and middle-class capture removed. The result was of course the complete opposite – with New Zealand seeing the fastest growth in inequality of any OECD nation and a collapse in productivity.

      The existence of large areas of vacant and under-utilised land gives the lie to the idea that the planning system is a constraint on housing development. Its the Inconvenient Truth confronting the seductive rhetoric of anti-planners.

      I struggle to understand how people can believe that if developers could just do what they want without having to care about others the world would be a better place. Do you really want people behaving like that, or are you just confident you’ll always be on the winning side?

      In the real world – countries with affordable housing have active planning and active public investment. The places with great urban design and quality urban environments have active planning and active public investment.

      The idea that the planning system is a barrier to affordable housing is the “Big Lie” of the anti-plan conspiracy theorists. As a movement and a discussion, the anti-plans have a lot in common with the Anti-Vax movement, climate sceptics and the US Voter Fraud movement.

      The similarities I see are that no-one ever fronts up for evidence-based discussions, people who disagree are written off as either self-interested or deluded, and the entire movement survives on networking between blogs which feed off each other.

      The difference of course is that anti-plan got a toehold in public policy and risks doing great damage to our cities before evidence and experience reassert themselves. Still at least a few people will get very rich as a result 🙂

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