One of the saddest and most frustrating parts of the Unitary Plan deliberations being held at the moment is the misinformation about density controls and their effects. Phrases such as “unlimited density” create images of high-rise apartment buildings in suburban areas or tiny “chicken coop” sausage flats squeezed onto small suburban sites.
Both of which are simply not possible. Not because some fluffy urban design assessment criteria will stop such things – but because of hard rules like maximums height limits, maximums site coverage controls, minimum dwelling sizes, private open space requirements and more. If we take a look at the residential rules of the Unitary Plan from prior to the Councillors’ changes throughout last week and yesterday (I have been asking the council for a list of all of the changes agreed to but they are ignoring my requests) we find out that a so-called unlimited density development in the different parts of the Mixed Housing zone would have the following development controls applied (as well as requiring a resource consent to even apply to build more than four units and requiring a large site to start with!)
- A building height limit of 8 metres
- Height in relation to boundary rules requiring heights of no more than 3m plus 1m for every metre back from the boundary the part of the building is located.
- Yard controls, including a (stupid in my opinion) front yard requirement of 4m.
- A maximum impervious area control of 60 per cent (i.e. building or paving can’t exceed 60% of the site).
- A maximum building coverage of 40% for sites 400m² or more or 50% for sites less than 400m².
- A requirement to landscape at least 30% of a site, including covering at least 10% of the site in plants or shrubs (including a further requirement for at least one large tree!)
- Outlook spaces of at least 6m by 4m from each main living room, from the principal bedroom of at least 3m by 3m and from other rooms of at least 1m by 1m.
- Building separation requirements, including a requirement for separation from main living rooms of 15m.
- At outdoor living space of at least 40 square metres, including dimension requirements.
- Minimum amounts of glazing in the main living area, bedrooms and out to the street.
- Maximum garage size and impact on the front façade including additional set back controls.
- Maximum building length restrictions.
- Minimum dwelling size requirements of at least 40 square metres for studios and 45 square metres for one bedroom apartments.
- Minimum dimension requirements for living rooms and even bedrooms.
Most of these rules have some logic and good intentions sitting behind them and are an attempt to ensure that development is of a sufficient quality. But, importantly, all the rules will limit the development density which can occur on a site – at least indirectly. What all these controls really do (aside from the minimum dwelling size and to a lesser extent the minimum dimension requirements) is influence the bulk, location, scale and layout of development – how the development will be perceived from the outside world. What density controls do, over and above these other controls, is basically determine how a building envelop is ‘sliced and diced’ into different dwellings.
Density controls have been pretty common throughout Auckland’s planning documents for the past few decades – with the result being this:
What stands out in the image above is the monotony of this urban form. Each site is roughly the same size, each dwelling takes up roughly the same amount of land on the site, each place is basically the same.
- Large houses on 400-500 square metre sites.
- None of them with particularly large backyards.
- No variety of building types.
Importantly, these areas also lack the provision of any affordable housing – because the only thing being built are huge standalone houses. And the reason why the only things being built are huge standalone houses is because the density controls mean a minimum amount of land needs to be set aside for each dwelling, leading to effectively a minimum size of house in order for the developer to make a profit and therefore a minimum sale price that’s often well north of $500,000.
The frustrating thing about density rules is that the urban form above does not necessarily result in more greenspace or less building bulk or a more spacious urban environment. Those aesthetic outcomes are controlled through the use of regulations like height, site coverage, yard controls and the like.
Sadly, yesterday the Council effectively banned the provision of affordable housing in the widespread Mixed Housing Suburban zone by requiring a density controls to be applied for all developments in that zone. Supposedly they did it to protect the character of the suburbs, but as explained above, density rules don’t affect the bulk, scale and location of development.