This is a guest post from reader Liz
I have to start by saying that I grew up in Ponsonby/Grey Lynn, a ‘heritage’ area, and count myself as very lucky to have had this chance. I have stayed involved in the area even since moving to other, less expensive, parts of Auckland. In particular, I attended the Waitematā local board Unitary Plan meeting last year, and was frustrated to see it hijacked by a few loud people arguing that density and the Unitary Plan would damage ‘heritage’ areas.
Since then I have wanted to write a post about WHY we like ‘heritage’ and ‘character’ areas, and how focusing on the real reasons could actually benefit the rest of Auckland. I’ll be using the Ponsonby area as an example, although this will be a rough area and some of my examples or pictures may show parts of Freemans Bay, Grey Lynn, etc.
We all know that Ponsonby is desirable and unaffordable. But WHY is it desirable? Why did people want to live in old, cold, run down houses? Before the houses were renovated I can assure you that many were freezing and damp! Why do people pay millions for a small house on a small section? Sure, the neighbourhood looks nice these days, the houses are pretty, cafes are everywhere and Ponsonby Road is booming. But that came with gentrification, it wasn’t the driving force behind it.
The real reason can be seen in the pictures below. Ponsonby, and most other heritage areas, are WALKABLE. They are real, mixed use, functioning neighbourhoods, and this came about by designing neighbourhoods around the needs of people as pedestrians.
The main aspects of this are not confined to Ponsonby, but can be seen in all the thriving and desirable heritage areas of Auckland.
- Availability of amenities
- Ease of connection to other parts of the city.
There are secondary characteristics that fall under these:
- Walkability and availability of amenities
- Housing/building density
- Permeable grid street network with small block sizes and pedestrian walkways
- Easy access to local shops, services, parks, and other amenities
- Safe pedestrian environment (footpaths, narrow streets, fewer driveways)
- Activation and interest at street level (house fronts instead or walls and garage doors)
- This last point is where the look of houses comes in, as part of the overall look of the neighbourhood. As you can see, it’s much less important than the other factors.
- Ease of connection to other parts of the city.
- Proximity to CBD
- Good bus/train/ferry routes (assisted by grid networks)
It is frankly hypocritical to campaign against any densification in heritage areas, as density is one of the main reasons that heritage areas are so lovely to live in now. What we should be aiming for is ‘density done well’, and seeing how we can allow more people to enjoy the benefits of these areas. We should also be taking the good examples set by heritage areas and applying these to other parts of the city.
These are what we should be embracing and expanding to the rest of Auckland. The sad fact though is that it’s currently ILLEGAL to build a neighbourhood like Ponsonby. Our zoning regulations enforce low density areas, wasted space around houses, mandatory parking whether or not you have a car, single purpose zones that require you to get in a car to go to the shops or to a café or to work. I find it funny that we zone for all this unnecessary space around houses, and appear to have a phobia of density, and yet places like Ponsonby are the ones where the property values go through the roof – not the new spacious suburbs on the edge of the city. We should be concentrating on fixing our zoning regulations to prioritise people as pedestrians.
Anti-density arguments are often also hidden in campaigns against demolition, change or development in heritage or character neighbourhoods. I do understand that there is a genuine desire to protect neighbourhoods, and that campaigning is seen as the only option because our heritage protection seems almost useless at times. But I worry about scaremongering and about residents’ concerns being co-opted to prevent ANY change or development.
I have to state now that I do not believe that old is always good and new is always bad. It’s not that simple. And I have a degree in Ancient History, for goodness sake. I LOVE old buildings, I love seeing the history in the fabric of a city. The problem is that if we get caught up in the old=good vs. new=bad dichotomy, we forget the reasons that those heritage areas WORK in the first place. We also forget that cities are all about change, and no development means no vitality or renewal in that area.
It is also a mistake to talk only about the type of and ‘look’ of buildings. You could take the nicest villa and set it in an auto-dependent suburb like Howick, and I doubt it would be as desirable as an ugly house in Ponsonby. The fact is that although the heritage and character styles are nice to have in a neighbourhood, they are never going to do the trick if the neighbourhood isn’t functional and walkable already.
It’s also important to remember that the desirability of house styles changes, whereas a walkable, functional neighbourhood can be desirable independently of the house styles within it.
The draft Unitary Plan included increased density allowances and suggested mixed use zoning in many parts of Auckland, focused around town centres and transport links. Most local boards voted down this density, under the misapprehension that it would damage their neighbourhood and ‘heritage’ areas. We need to change this attitude, and encourage neighbourhoods that make it possible and safe for residents to walk to the local shops, walk to school, walk to a café and bump into their neighbours. A neighbourhood wiWe need to allow other parts of Auckland to be desirable through walkability, not just confine this desirability to a few inner suburbs.
We can make submissions to the Unitary Plan until 28 February 2014. Mine will be arguing in favour of walkable, dense, mixed use neighbourhoods for all Aucklanders, not just those who are rich enough to afford Ponsonby.