I’ve spent the last couple of days at an interesting conference, based around trying to be smarter about how we intensify our urban areas. There seems to be general agreement – at least amongst planners, architects, policymakers, urban designers and so forth – that we do want to intensify our urban areas, for important sustainability reasons, but also for simple economic efficiency reasons (that I’ve discussed before). The problem is the disconnect about actually making it happen. For a number of reasons, it seems that developers just don’t want to, or can’t, build the type of intensive urban development that our regional policies want. Something’s getting lost in the process.
There were many reasons for this discussed at the conference, issues like a misalignment between regional policies and ‘on the ground’ District Plan rules, the effect of minimum parking requirements, the mis-match between the location of “growth nodes” and where the market for higher density development actually is, the practical difficulties in amalgamating land – and so forth. Perhaps one of the most useful parts of the conference was learning about things a bit more from the developer’s, or real-estate expert, point of view. Trying to work out why they’re not particularly keen on building apartments next to the New Lynn rail trench, but instead want to build massive houses on 400 square metre sections in Flat Bush – and then discussing what interventions might be useful in turning this around so that the reality can match the regional strategies for once.
Interestingly, most of the discussion was about residential intensification. It seems that when we talk about intensification we often tend to really focus on answering big questions like “Auckland’s going to need another 350,000 dwellings by 2041, where the heck are we going to put them?” Incidentally, that number is true and we certainly will have to work hard to find out where to put those dwellings: in centres, along development corridors or through urban expansion? That is perhaps the biggest question that the upcoming Auckland Spatial Plan will need to answer.
But that’s only half the story in many respects. In 2041 Auckland will also have a whole pile more jobs, and probably will have jobs of a different kind than we do now as the economy changes and develops over time – particularly in response to technological advancements. An equally interesting question is “where are we going to put those jobs?” Are we going to sprinkle them around the region or are we going to concentrate them in the city centre and in a few key growth nodes? Drilling down a bit further, we obviously have different kinds of business activity – some being very jobs intensive (like offices) and some being very space intensive (such as warehousing and industry). Where are the most appropriate, efficient and sustainable locations for offices, where are the best places for less concentrated employment zones? Should we be letting offices establish in areas originally set aside for light industry and/or warehousing?
Now this being a transport blog (primarily) one thing that I find interesting is thinking about the different transport patterns that might result from different ways in which we structure the location of our employment nodes in the future. Furthermore, the decisions we make about what transport infrastructure to invest it will have a huge impact on where the market may wish to locate – improving access to the city centre through a project like the CBD Rail Tunnel is likely to make that area more attractive, and therefore in the longer run would encourage office space to locate there. Similarly, if we make planning provisions to focus office development in the city centre, Newmarket, Manukau and another couple of locations with excellent public transport links – both by encouraging it there and by discouraging it elsewhere – we can support investment in our public transport network.
If we looking internationally, it actually seems as though it’s the location, concentration and density of employment that has a bigger impact on the popularity and effectiveness of public transport than the density of residential dwellings. In fact, if we look at population density and try to compare it to public transport use we get confusing results: Sure, those are just four cities I’ve plucked results from, but they seem to clearly show that the relationship between population density and transit modeshare is somewhat more complex than one might think. I would suggest that perhaps a focus on employment density might be more useful: after all Los Angeles have highly dispersed employment compared to New York City, which has, in the form of Manhattan, some of the highest employment densities in the world. (Oddly enough though, Vancouver has a similar percentage of its jobs in the CBD as Auckland, yet has well over twice the PT modeshare – they just to PT well in Vancouver I suspect.)
If we bring this back to Auckland, statistics show that our employment is incredibly dispersed:
The region’s biggest single growth “hub” since 1996 has been in what Statistics NZ calls “North Harbour East”.
That and neighbouring Albany have grown from having 0.8 per cent of the region’s jobs in 1996 to 2.7 per cent in 2006.
The other two biggest growth areas are East Tamaki/Otara/Flat Bush (up from 2.9 per cent to 3.7 per cent of the region’s jobs), and Auckland Airport (up from 1.9 per cent to 2.3 per cent).
There has been modest growth at Mt Wellington/Penrose (up from 5.9 per cent to 6.1 per cent) and around Manukau Central and Wiri (up from 3.2 per cent to 3.4 per cent).
Two other traditional business centres, Newmarket/Grafton and Takapuna/Westlake, have had their shares of the regional workforce shrink slightly, although with 3.2 per cent of the region’s jobs Takapuna/Westlake is still marginally ahead of its upstart rival at Albany.
But the overwhelming pattern in the region is that jobs are scattered widely – almost two-thirds are outside all of the “hubs”.
The last line is quite amazing. Two thirds of jobs in the Auckland region aren’t actually within any particular employment hub. While in some respects that might be good, if people live and work locally, what it also probably means is that if they don’t work near where they live, they’re almost certainly going to be driving to work.
Furthermore, in growing employment hubs, we aren’t exactly designing these places to be public transport friendly. This is an aerial photograph of “North Harbour East”: All those buildings are 2 to 3 levels of offices. They’re located in a way that’s actually fairly difficult to service with good quality public transport (even though the Constellation bus station isn’t too far away, it’s probably just beyond walking distance). This means that two-thirds (at least) of the land “needs” to be dedicated to parking – a somewhat inefficient use of land one would think.
There are some interesting debates to be held around the question of whether we want to concentrate or disperse employment – particularly where we want to locate office buildings that naturally will have a higher intensity of employees compared to warehouses of the same building size. Certainly having more employment on the North Shore has reduced peak-time pressure on the Auckland Harbour Bridge (peak time flows haven’t increased since the early 1990s in terms of vehicles), in south Auckland the development of new employment areas around East Tamaki and the Airport has certainly provided some people with the ability to work locally. Once again, if we look at the statistics we certainly see this happening:
Obviously breaking this down into former council areas is somewhat out of date, but it provides some useful patterns. We can see that around 60% of people living on the North Shore work there too, with a similar percentage in Manukau City. For Auckland City around 80% of people worked ‘locally’. Only in Waitakere City did more than half the population have to leave the area for work, but even there more Waitakere City residents worked locally than in Auckland City. It goes without saying that the shorter the distance people have to travel, the less pressure they place on the transport system and the more sustainable our outcome is. So employment dispersal certainly appears to have had some benefit.
But I can’t help but think there is also a cost here. It was probably reading through the business case for the CBD Rail Tunnel, and subsequently doing more research to learn about wider economic benefits, that I started to wonder whether Auckland is missing out on something by having such dispersed employment patterns. The enormous amount of money we have to spend on providing parking, the enormous amount of time our businesses must spend getting from “North Harbour East” to see their various clients and suppliers, the enormous cost that employees are burdened with when it comes to ensuring they’re able to drive to work, what is the economic impact of that? Furthermore, what is the cost when it comes to not enjoying the agglomeration benefits that may arise from a greater concentration of employment activity?
One theme of the conference was highlighting areas where we don’t know enough, where we haven’t undertaken enough research to really know what the best way forward is. I certainly think that the question of whether to concentrate or disperse employment is something we need to understand better – and should form a critical part of the Auckland Spatial Plan. I suspect that Auckland would benefit hugely, in economic terms, from having more concentrated employment patterns – because it would unlock agglomeration benefits, because jobs located in the higher concentration areas are likely to be more productive, because we won’t have to spend so much money, and two-thirds of our city, on providing parking. Of course, the fact that we’re also likely to be less auto-dependent in a city with a greater concentration of employment is also a positive, but I tend to think of public transport as the enabler of higher employment densities, not the reason for them.
Ultimately, I think we need to know whether it makes a difference to Auckland’s prosperity if a particular job is located on Apollo Drive in “North Harbour East” or whether it’s located on Albert Street in the CBD. I suspect, through agglomeration benefits and productivity effects, that Auckland would be better off having that job on Albert Street. But I think it would be helpful for the Auckland Spatial Plan to provide more clarity on this matter.