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How revolutionary is a focus on intensification?

As the debate over intensification versus urban sprawl seemingly intensifies, there is one assumption that seems to underpin a lot of the discussion – from both sides of the debate actually. That assumption is that achieving most of Auckland’s future growth through intensification will be an enormous challenge, a ‘step change’ from what Auckland has done before, requiring a huge change in mindset away from living in a traditional (mythical) “quarter acre paradise” and towards living in different housing typologies like terraced housing and apartments.

The Auckland Plan’s development strategy – which generally (at least in words) supports a compact city approach – runs this “story” quite significantly:

Over time, the viability of attached and higher-density housing will improve, and provide choice for Aucklanders. Chapter 10: Urban Auckland shows examples of housing types across a wide range of densities and formats, and indicates the types of locations where we can expect them to be built. This is also explained in the following section on the Development Strategy maps. A healthy supply of high-density housing has the potential to address the challenge of housing affordability, through efficiencies in land use and infrastructure provision. The delivery of housing choices depends on many organisations, notably the private sector.

While it’s true that detached housing has typically constituted the majority of dwellings built, this doesn’t mean that Auckland’s recent growth has predominantly been through urban expansion – therefore making a “70/30 split” between intensification and expansion supposedly aspirational. Well some information we have managed to obtain from the councils research unit shows that when you look at the proportion of housing comprising either ‘intensification’ (additional dwellings within the existing urban footprint) or ‘expansion’ (additional dwellings outside the existing urban footprint) over the past 15 years a significant majority of new dwellings are ‘intensification':

consent-locations

Source: Auckland Council research unit – covers April 1996-December 2011

Looking at the numbers in terms of proportions it’s clear that in every single year many more dwellings have been consented inside the current urban area than outside – with 2005 being the year with the lowest proportion of intensification at 61%:

proportion-consent-locationWhile of course many of the ‘easier’ intensification opportunities, such as infill housing, have been used up over this time (and the decades before it – Auckland has been significantly intensifying since the 1970s), what this information clearly shows is that achieving most growth through intensification is not really a challenge. We’ve been doing it quite well for quite some time. Clearly Aucklanders seem to have preferred the choice of living somewhere within the existing urban area – even if it meant a smaller section or an apartment or some other form of housing – than the urban edge.

Given this background, the Auckland Plan aspiration of 70% of development being within the 2010 urban limits (which actually go significantly beyond the 2010 urbanised area) seems nothing but business as usual and anything below that is actually a shift away from what Auckland has been doing for the past 15 years towards a greater focus on urban expansion. A focus on most growth through intensification is not revolutionary or aspirational or ‘requiring a step-change’ at all – it’s what we’ve been doing for quite a long time.

19 comments to How revolutionary is a focus on intensification?

  • JohnP

    The problem here is that a fair few of the dwelling consents within the pre-existing urban area are likely to be “replacement” houses, not “additional” houses. But it might be tricky to tell which were which. Perhaps one way of doing it would be to look at the number of households over time (using 1996-2006 census data, plus 2013 data when it comes out) in “fully developed” area units?

  • obi

    There is a lot of “greenfield” (meaning previously unbuilt) land available inside the limit. I’m thinking the rural areas around Manukau or near Albany. So a suburban house could be built on a greenfield section on the edge of the city and whether it is considered intensification or not in your table and graph is just a matter of an arbitrary line. For instance, Flatbush presumably counts as intensification by this measure, but it isn’t.

    As far as I can see, developers are building on infill sites like golf courses but most of this development comprises a traditional NZ detached house on a plot of land. We’ve also seen plenty of subdivision over the years where people with large sections have managed to fit a second detached house on the back of the section. But apart from apartment blocks in the CBD, I don’t think we’ve seen any development of real high-density housing, anywhere. And I’m sure sure how we will… There are a limited number of brownfield sites where you could build apartments, but Council seem to have backed off even allowing apartments to be built on an old supermarket site in Milford. We’re certainly not going to be bulldozing Ponsonby and building apartment blocks, which is the sort of thing that often happens in Australian cities.

    • The idea of the bulldozing of Ponsonby is a straw man that will never happen because nobody wants its… it is not required nor desired by those, like me, in favour of a better and no longer sprawling city. Fugggetaboutit. Nor any other established and quite dense old suburb. But the addition of apartments to the ridge of Great North Rd, the further intensification of Ponsonby and Jervois Rds; retail below 3/4 stories of apartments above should and will happen. Well will happen if the Council sorts it’s own regs out.

      • obi

        I agree that it is out of the question for Auckland, but it happens all the time in Australia. Think of the mass of apartments around North Sydney or Bondi Junction. These were areas of old low density housing that have been redeveloped in to dense areas of high rise apartments. The same is true of the Gold Coast where the old Queenslanders have given way to skyscrapers, and even Darwin has seen the old elevated houses that were typical of the tropics replaced by apartments. So why does this happen in Australia, but it is absolutely not going to happen in Auckland? Is it zoning laws? Or land values? Or an ability to consolidate multiple small sections to allow large development? Or they don’t care about “heritage”? Or are they just serious about intensification and urban lifestyles, while we’re still clinging to the quarter acre paradise while we pay lip service to density?

        If the proposal to redevelop the supermarket site in Milford was for detached suburban homes rather than apartments then would the locals have protested, and would the Council have lost their nerve?

        • Simply because heritage controls trump density provisions. Easy. Ever tried to improve a villa in Res 1?

          Milford is a sad tragedy because the locals are fearful and frankly stupid, a perfect site for improvement which would have increased the value of the existing detached houses, improved viability and amenity of the shopping centre, and giving these stupid NIMBYS somewhere to downsize to while staying in their neighbourhood… unlocking the new value in their big houses to retire in comfort and security…. i can’t think of one good reason that that proposal shouldn’t have been forced through somehow. Win/win/win.

          And yes apartments are going up in my neighbourhood and I’m delighted.

          Locals are not always the experts on their own best interests like they think they are; especially as so many just seem unable to imagine that change can include improvement…. so they angrily oppose everything. So now these idiots will have to keep staring at the blank concrete walls of a dull mall and end up retiring miles away… spectacular planning/consultation fail.

          • Just an aside on the Milford situation. The plan to wrap the mall in terraced houses and relocate surface parking behind them is, I believe, still going ahead. That bit fit within the general high controls and didn’t require a plan change. The contentious part was the plan to build two mid rise towers above the middle of the mall.

          • Greg N

            “especially as so many just seem unable to imagine that change can include improvement…”

            Probably they are sceptical because the majority of many such developments done to date haven’t been overly sympathetic to the existing area or residents and so the locals get stuck in an “all change is bad so I won’t have any” mode. There are many reasons I see for this, but some I can think of include:

            A lot of developers put up a straw man first/second proposal which is then knocked back by locals the council so that they get the actual design they want in place.(by a process of wearing down the locals/council officiers).

            Once the design is agreed the developer changes the development around (or more likely – reduces its quality) because of “market factors” so that what was “shown on paper” and what actually is built are two different things.

            Scant regard is paid to managing traffic issues, and its assumed by the developers that the traffic issues both during and after are not their concern.

            Developments take far longer to start/build/complete and/or sell than originally planned, so the development remains an unsightly half finished construction site for ages.

          • Geoff Houtman

            Locals are not always experts in their best interests?

            But you’re a local Patrick…

          • Daighi

            my parents live in milford and my mother is convinced that that development could only end up being some kind of terrible eyesore. i tried my best to explain that milford could be quite nice with a little cosmopolitan flair. she didn’t buy it…

            i guess milford will remain a suburb where old people go to die for the time being.

          • Retiring to an apartment is a great option to delay the rest home… my parents did it when the garden became too much, no stairs, fantastically secure, no external maintenance, great views when looking is about all you’re up for… and to be able to do it in the neighbourhood you love, or at least are used to is a great option. So weirdly what i am suggesting is that those very objectors could very well end up taking advantage of this amenity once built, if built. I know they probably say they’d never live in an apartment, only for poor immigrants and all that, but it’s funny how things change… My neighbour fought hard against the supermarket taking over the factory at the end of our street, only to guiltily confess later [after she lost] how handy it is…. So yes Geoff people are daft about change, and of course I’m a local; isn’t everybody?

          • Bryce P

            The low rise Milford apartments are high density which the locals had supported and as Nick has pointed out, had consent. It was the towers that the locals are against. In fact, if you drive around Milford, there is actually quite a bit of medium to high density housing already built.

    • As a person who has recently been looking for a house in the $400k bracket, I can tell you there have been a lot of terraced housing developments in Auckland. All the agents I spoke to told me that they can basically sell those types of properties as fast as they can be built. Leaky buildings are a problem however in that bracket and we really need to ensure that fiacso never happens again.

      They are small terraced houses on maybe 200 sqm with a small terrace and off street parking. The developments are normally gated, which I am not a huge fan of, but it does mean you have a safer space for children to ride bikes and play. Ideally these should be done on a larger scale with parks available.

      As a young family expecting our first baby, a cheap well built terraced house is ideal. I just hope the Baby Boomers running this country can broaden their minds to comprehend that it isnt 1970 and we dont all want to live in a semi-rural city. Most people under 40 want an urban lifestyle. If not, they would go and live in the countryside.

    • The (somewhat) arbitrary line is kinda the point Obi. All this talk of a 70/30 or 60/40 split in the current Auckland Plan is simply in reference to what is inside or outside that boundary. That discussion doesn’t take into account the form of the housing that is built, so it isn’t quite a discussion of intensification so much as a discussion of outward growth (which aren’t opposites, you can have both or neither).

      So the demands for extending the boundary to ‘free up more land’ are perhaps misguided given that the current goal is no different to the norm over the last two decades, and there is enough land within the boundary to meet that goal.

  • Angry Bob

    Substantial amount of the building within the existing urban boundary identified has been since the 70s of the type infilling the existing “quarter acre sites”.
    This “intensification” has the adverse outcome of now blocking further intensification as the cost of removing multiple buildings from a site to create apartments is not financially viable.

  • Luke C

    So if Len says there is land for 15,000 sections then that is between 7 and 15 years supply. Even the property council’s 4000 is still 4 years at current build rates, and this gives time for the remaining 11,000 to be developed.
    However the real issue is capital for development, so the only development underway is by those with large capital reserves. This restricts it to probably just Fletcher, Todd and Fulton Hogan who like developing large scale undertakings, not sporadic intensification.
    Therefore no sporadic intensification, like the terraced houses described above, a they relied on bank or finance company capital that now doesn’t exist. Hence the great thing about Kiwibuild as it provides very cheap capital for this type of development to go ahead.

  • ricardo

    Luke C, good comments about development finance. Obviously National are trying to engineer a market driven supply response, and they propose achieving this by loosening Council zoning. However the lack of development finance is clearly a problem that needs to be solved too. Kiwibuild would fill the void nicely.

  • JeffT

    It’s certainly well known that subdivision has been occuring for a number of decades now. Travelling along the rail corridor, it’s impressive to see the amount of apartment development that has occurred.

    I too have been looking at apartments/terraced housing and like Goosoid have been disappointed at the properties I have looked at (from the mid ’90’s) with possible water damage issues.
    I would expect that without these major issues, these intensified, smaller dwellings would be more popular than they are today.
    What a travesty the bodies concerned have created here.

  • Filde

    It quite simply is a matter of regulation; as mentioned in many posts on this blog before. If the council threw it all away and let Auckland grow organically then arbitrary lines would be irrelevant. We wouldn’t have to worry about achieving this density and that density; people would organise themselves based on what they value the most. If they want to live in the burbs; then good on them. Likewise for 15 storey apartment dwellers. We wouldn’t have to worry about subsidising PT because it is more efficient and cheaper than the private car. As long as they don’t make me pay for it, I couldn’t care less; as long as I’m not paying for people to choose a certain lifestyle, I’m not in their lives determining their values for them.

    The irony is that, if we had avoided this miasma of planning we wouldn’t have the hyper-subsidised transport systems (roads + cars mainly) we have today which I suspect has determined the polarised urban form we see. Where suitable density can only be achieved (or afforded) in extremely concentrated, towering areas (e.g. CBD) and the rest of the city is left spatially disconnected from themselves. I’m confident that eliminating the subsidies for mobility will simultaneously increase transport costs and thus densify lower-level urban forms which would in turn reduce the dependency on the CBD for agglomeration benefits. In other words, removing planning and the associated subsidies would drive up the demand for medium density which would result in less extreme forms of housing.

    I’m so bored by this discussion tbh, mainly because we know the solutions. But I guess the planners and their paternalistic/maternalistic attitude will never relinquish us from this urban nightmare because they’d lose the right to determine other peoples lives (and their jobs).

    Maybe I’m better off in a car… PAH! When will society be allowed to grow up? Most likely, never.

    • I agree 100% as long as it is based on a level playing field. So no height restrictions, no minimum lot sizes and no minimum (or maximum) parking. We could have some outcome based controls whereby if I come up with a plan for a develepment, it would be up to other people to explain why it wont work. As opposed to now where the planning rules determine the boundaries of what is possible and if I want to go outside those boundaries, I need to justify that.

      Then we will really see what the market wants.

      Of course, it could also lead to complete chaos.

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