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Exploring our planning problems

A couple of days back I proposed that we need to look differently at the way in which we intensify in Auckland – because a simple focus on building apartments hasn’t seemed to work particularly well over the past decade. Ironically, although most of Auckland’s ‘high level’ planning strategies and policies strongly promote intensification – in a variety of ways – when it gets to the “nitty gritty” District Plan rules, these actually pretty much do everything possible to stop intensification and promote urban sprawl.

An example that I often use when trying to explain the somewhat perverse outcomes of our current District Plan rules relates to a property in Sandringham where I used to live a couple of years ago. It has a land area of just under 600 square metres – as shown below: The house (which is quite nice and I wouldn’t really want it to go, but that’s beside the point for this example) takes up around 28% of the site – with an area (excluding the carport) of 164 square metres:

 The site sits within the Residential 6a zone, which is the most common zone throughout the isthmus area of the former Auckland City District Plan. While it’s not a zone specifically designed to allow a large amount of intensification, it is also not a zone that seeks to really limit development on any character or infrastructure grounds. In effect it’s considered the “normal zone”.

Now let’s just say that I want to develop this site – what are my options under the planning rules? Well the rules for residential activities in this part of former Auckland City are outlined here (yes, it’s complicated). While there are a lot of different rules, the key one is shown below:As the site falls short of being 750 square metres, the minimum size to build two units on it, I’m limited to the one unit. I can’t even split the existing house into two independent flats without really significant problems trying to get consent. But other rules in the District Plan mean that the unit can be pretty damn big. The two main rules covering the “bulk” of the building that could possibly be built are site coverage and building height. Simply put, in this zone you can cover up to 35% of the lot in a building and that building can be up to eight metres (two floors) in height.

So, if I were to push the limits of this (and I would be restricted by other rules such as height-to-boundary controls and frontyard setbacks but let’s put those aside for now) and cover exactly 35% of my site, and build to two floors – I can have a 403 square metre house: utterly massive, but I can’t divide that into two quite large 200 square metre houses let alone three medium sized townhouses or four smallish (but not tiny) apartments. That seems weird, and pretty counter-productive to efforts to provide affordable housing.

The origins of this somewhat crazy density rule can probably be seen in what sit on both sides of this house – typical 1960s “sausage flats”. You can see when you zoom out a bit that there are quite a lot of sausage flats in the vicinity of this place – in fact immediately on both sides of it.

Now I’m the first person to say that these sausage flats are pretty ugly – but it’s interesting to also have a thought about their positive effects. They provide affordable housing in a pretty central part of Auckland, they provide quite a high level of density (the property to the left had 10 units on a site of just over 1200 square metres. That’s a reasonably high density a 30 second walk from a pretty frequent bus route, and a 5 minute walk from Sandringham shops: just out of view to the top of the picture.

But sausage flats are ugly right? But is that a planning problem or an architectural/urban design issue? If the “sausage flats” had been designed in a much nicer way (an interesting debate is whether that’s possible within this type of subdivision pattern) then could this have been a very good urban outcome – something to encourage rather than look to ban? Building this type of development was pretty popular in the mid-2oth century – just look at the area around Royal Oak and you get a concept for the level of density they helped create: Who says Auckland’s suburbia is low density?

Personally, I would somehow like to turn many of these buildings 90 degrees so that they’re parallel to the street, as terraced houses with their own gardens. But we have density here, we have attached housing, we have the potential for a pretty sustainable urban form – but for some reason we’ve gone and banned this form of development (or anything like it). In favour of this:

 There doesn’t seem to be much more open space in the new form of development, compared to the old. There doesn’t seem to be much more privacy, in fact the only difference is that because of our obsession with forcing standalone houses (remember the key thing we’re worried about now is minimum lot sizes per unit) the type of development above is around half the density of what’s in Royal Oak. So we lose half our units, but don’t really get much of a gain – just bigger (and less affordable) houses.

Obviously there’s a market for both types of development, while obviously each type also has its flaws. I guess what I struggle to understand is why every District Plan in Auckland now privileges this newer form of development: large houses in close proximity to each other. I don’t think this gives us a higher amenity urban form, it just eats up a lot more land and – especially when coupled with the messy street network shown above – makes running public transport extremely difficult.

In short, to make Auckland a better city, to enable better intensification, I don’t necessarily think it’s a matter of more or less regulation. It’s actually about sorting out the contradictions and conflict within our existing planning rules and regulations to ensure that it’s actually possible to achieve what our overarching planning goals want. Because at the moment we have some really stupid outcomes like what’s possible and not possible with my former house in Sandringham: a 400 square metre monstrosity of a house is OK, but splitting that into two, three or four smaller units is banned. No wonder we have a housing affordability problem!

20 comments to Exploring our planning problems

  • merc

    I think it may be all about the Rates.

  • Stanley

    Maybe this is a personal preference, but I would prefer to live in an apartment rather than in a sausage flat ~. After all, what’s wrong with apartments and why does the admin think they are ugly?

    Btw, the Auckland City Council District Plan is not the most complex one, look at the former North Shore City’s one and you would be horrified ….

  • Stanley

    And the former Waitakere City Council’s one is also terrible too ~

  • merc

    Density is the responsible thing to do, also if we could share power, gas and water reticulation services with savings returned to the grid as credits back to a collective (the Dutch allow this?)…

  • Sanctuary

    I may have missed it in the post, but exactly why did we build flats perpendicular rather than parallel to the road 30-40 years ago anyway?

    Oh and I’ve lived in a couple of those sausages flats – they all seem to have a terrible dampness issue.

    • swan

      Over on the shore, there are examples of these where they were essentially ‘in-fill’. The orginal road goes along the crest of a ridge and there was originally a single row of houses. But the houses had a large, probably bush covered, section that ran down into the bottom of the gully. So you end up with a lot of long thin sections. The sausage flats then got put in behind the original houses on the moderately sloping ground.

      This may also go some way to explaining the poor light a lot of these places have.

  • LucyJH

    I don’t mind sausages flats – one thing I like about them is you do sometimes get a little garden for each unit which you can’t really achieve in an apartment. but my mother has a theory (which may or may not be correct) that a lot of these blocks of unit in Auckland were built on sites that don’t get a lot of sun where the developer was like “Oh, this isn’t good enough for a real house – I’ll put in some crappy units” (NOTE – although, of course, a crappy unit in the 1960s when we still had building standards was still probably better than a crappy house in the 1990s after National abolished our building standards).

    It certainly does seem to be true that they are often deeply enshaded. This might be partly due to the thing of them not facing the street but running backwards in a line – so they get shaded by nearbye houses?

    Anyway, the question is – how does one go about changing these planning rules? Do they ever come up for consultation? Could you change them without massive uproar from people worried about their house values dropping? Who makes the decision?

  • Those sausage houses are just the wursthauses of Auckland.

    My mum always said to buy the wursthaus in the best street. I think she wanted me to be a butcher and make smallgoods or something.

    Sorry. Was that a bad pun? I’ve mettwurst.(Hey I’m from Adelaide – that’s what we call salami, because of all the 19th century Prussian immigrants to South Australia)

  • Matt L

    I think the big issue we have in NZ with higher density is a perception one caused by a poor quality developments. Not only have many buildings been really poorly designed they have often used cheap low quality materials. As such many peoples views are that apartments are all shoeboxes and are only good for people on low incomes like students.

  • LucyJH

    Would it be helpful, for example (just hypothetically) if national government published a national policy statement on urban design which required councils to change their zoning regulations in certain ways by say, 2020, to achieve different outcomes? Or maybe didn’t require but certainly pointed them strongly in a particular direction.

  • Max

    @MattL – correct, though Council shouldn’t enshrine that perception in their rules, as Admin explains.

  • AdG

    The opportunity to bring about some change is coming – Off the back of the spatial plan currently doing its rounds of consultation will come what will be known as the unitary plan – essentially to “give effect” to the spatial plan through district plan provisions. This document too will be out for consultation – I think next year – so it behoves us all with an interest in this to make submissions and have more of these discussions here. I am sure Josh will be onto it to make us aware closer to the time and perhaps create some direct links from the blog to make submissions easier?

  • arnie03

    It is easy to see why these planning rules exist- generally they were introduced for all the right reasons- to stop the worst case of damage been done to the city. So the requirements of residential 1 for example was introduced to protect the nature of the inner city suburbs and stop renovation and rebuilding that doesn’t fit within the character of this area. The general problem is that the majority of developers will look to maximize their returns and not necessarily take the wider community (or even their potential customers) into account. You also get the crazy DIYer with a bulk deal on fake brick veneer and aluminum windows that needs to be contained.

    But it’s really hard to create planning rules that restrict a certain activity and not create unforeseen issues for others. I recall the outcry over infill housing in the 1980s and 90s and how it wasn’t good for the character of the now Residential 2 areas. This is what the council responds to. Of course the quality of the infill development left a lot to be desired which didn’t help the perception.

    It is strange that the new suburbs, generally on the fringe of the city, have way smaller sections (and generally much bigger houses) than the inner suburbs. I thought the whole idea of these suburbs (according to the Herald and Owens at least) is pursuing the 1/4 acre ‘dream’.

    And there have been some high quality dense developments in Auckland. The general ‘new’ Freemans Bay area, particularly the council flats in the area are an example of that done right. And just down the road is Beaumont Quarter that much denser and is also done well. Unfortunately the bulk of development to this density are done terribly. The block behind upper Symonds St is a particularly bad example.

    • Oh yes I can certainly see where the rules came from and I would be the last person to want to undermine controls over our heritage/character zones (in fact I spend a lot of my life trying to strengthen those rules).

      The point is that in our general residential zones, where we want some level of intensification, the planning rules encourage giant houses on small sections as opposed to smarter ways of getting higher densities (like terraced housing or even well designed modern equivalents to sausage flats). That seems weird.

      • arnie03

        Yep, I agree. While the fringe developer lobby wants the city boundary extended I believe there is plenty of land left within the city for additional development that isn’t just apartment blocks on the city fringe (and there is nothing wrong with that specifically, it’s just we will need more options than that to house the growth of the city).

  • John Dalley

    I was just talking today to a building company in regards to a Minor Dwelling in the old Auckland City. This was because even thought the property is ideal for sub-devide, it does not me the (Old) Auckland Standard.
    THey tell me that auckland City does not allow minor dwellings. Waitakere does/did at 65m2 and North & South at 60m2. This property is actually ideal for firstly sub-divide or secondly minor dwelling but the W***ker council will not have a bar of it.

  • Jarbury,

    I really don’t agree with you on this one. Basically you are encouraging substandard housing. You might cut a house in half, but how do you ensure each household has a practical outdoor area and parking on a site which was designed for only one house?

    To me, dividing up single houses is akin to infill development. Its the lazy approach to town planning and let us off actually having to build well planned, proper intensity in the right place.

    In the end, the Council needs to take a more active role in intensification of town centres. This means buying land and taking a strategic interest, rather than hoping that development of individual sites will get you there.

    • Scott, I guess I’ve only explained half of the approach. The other half would be a rigorous assessment of all new developments against urban design codes etc. Make the development of any residential unit a restricted discretionary activity, subject to a number of assessment criteria to ensure that you have high quality urban design outcomes.

      The point of this post is simply to highlight the counter-productiveness of many of our existing planning rules.

  • LucyJH

    @ Scott. Have you seen some of the new townhouses? They are MASSIVE. I remember once visiting a friend who had 4 sisters and brothers (all living at home) and looking at their house and they each had a bedroom and then like 3 or 4 spare rooms. Their house was about the same size as every other house ontheir street in Saint Johns. And I juts remember thinking “Who really needs a house this size in NZ?” You could easily have divided it in half and had plenty of space for 2 normal sized families.

    I also think the council is only really likely to build and plan intensification on a site if it’s a pretty big one – they can’t just run around buying up all the vacant one or two house sites in Auckland can they?

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