Three storeys does not equal highrise

The debate about intensification has come roaring back to life in the last day or so following a beat up by Bernard Orsman in the Herald about the unitary plan process.

Tens of thousands of homes in Auckland’s leafy residential suburbs are being rezoned for multiple townhouses and apartments and Auckland Council says homeowners will not be notified about the changes.

The central isthmus suburbs of Pt Chevalier, Epsom, Mt Eden, Mt Albert, Glendowie and St Heliers; the North Shore suburbs of Birkenhead, Glenfield and Takapuna; Whangaparaoa Peninsula, rural towns such as Kumeu and the southern suburbs of Howick and Mangere Bridge are among areas affected by the changes taking place behind closed doors.


Tomorrow, the Unitary Plan committee will meet behind closed doors to approve changes to the single house zone in north, south and east Auckland.

This follows a decision by the 11-member committee on November 10 to approve changes to the zone on the Auckland central isthmus and West Auckland.

The council has rewritten the rules for the “single-house zone” where one- and two-storey houses are typically set amongst trees and gardens. New rules mean tens of thousands of houses no longer qualify and will be rezoned to a “mixed-house” zone to allow for townhouses, studios and apartments of up to three storeys.

Are we really down to the stage of scaremongering about three storey townhouses, a housing typology found frequently overseas and even in many parts of Auckland already? In fact for a city like Auckland three storey townhouses are perhaps the ideal missing middle of the housing. On top of being fairly spatially efficient they can be built in existing suburbs and not look out of place as they’re often no higher than a two storey house with a pitched roof. They’re also generally cheaper and easier to build than apartments as they don’t require expensive features like lifts or complex sprinkler systems.

One vs three storeys

Three storey terraced housing alongside some single storey houses in Epsom

So what’s really happening? The answer is much less secretive and much less alarmist than the herald like to make out.

The Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (PAUP) was notified by the council in 2014 and since then an independent government appointed panel (IHP) has been going through the almost 10,000 submissions and supporting pieces of evidence submitted by the public and the council. The IHP will eventually issue a recommendation back to the council on the PAUP based on the submissions and evidence and that is almost certainly going to be different from what the council originally started with.

Along the way the IHP have been challenging the council on various topics and also issuing interim guidance on issues such as around the levels of heritage protection and viewshafts. As part of the process the council have been required to consider rezoning changes which is exactly what they are doing based on what’s happened so far it’s what’s likely to happen based on the interim guidance issued so far.

Notified UP - Central

The council are looking at changing some of the lighter coloured areas to allow for more development

I know I’ve skipped a lot out but kind of brings us roughly to where we are today with the council are looking at better defining where development can occur. From what I’ve read it seems they are looking at expanding the mixed housing suburban and mixed housing urban boundaries.

It seems to me that a lot of the angst in the article probably originated with the 2040 group who have long opposed much of the intensification planned. As a result of this the interim guidance my guess is they’ve been seeing the writing on the wall that more intensification would be allowed so they’ve complained to the Herald.

Following the article a number of politicians have heaped on the idea of intensification. One of those is David Seymour who based on his party’s politics you’d think would support removing restrictions to property rights claims it will have enormous implications for congestion, character and school zones. He is also quoted as saying

“It’s also a betrayal of young people in its assumption that they can never own a house and must live in apartments

The real betrayal of young people is by those who have opposed any change to the city, especially in the area of housing where prices have been pushed up or some people have been pushed out half way to Hamilton.

Six Sisters John St

The ‘Six Sisters’, John Street, Ponsonby – three storeys is hardly highrise

Of course many young people would live in an apartment or terraced house if more were able to be built to bring prices down in the areas they want to live. Part of the reason for this is often they are quite different from their parents in that they don’t aspire to a house in the suburbs where driving is the only option and they have to frequently do things like mow lawns and manage gardens. As for driving, well Auckland Transport have already said they’re looking at building a light rail network across the central isthmus which will help in moving lots of people without suffering from congestion.

Disappointingly it also appears that new mayoral candidate Phil Goff is starting to go down the line of backing off intensification in some areas. Stu has more on this in a post later today.

It will be interesting to see what the council come up with in terms of rezoning. Ideally the ishmus would look much more like West Auckland in the map above with a lot more mixed housing urban allowed (3 storeys).

Auckland Rapid Transit Network

This is AT’s official future vision for  the Rapid Transit Network in Auckland. I feel the need to show this again in the context of a number of uninformed views about the CRL popping up again, as one of the chief misunderstandings is to treat the City Rail Link as a single route outside of the network it serves.

All successful transport systems are designed through network thinking and not just as a bunch of individual routes, this is true of our existing and extensive motorway network just as it is true for our rapidly growing Rapid Transit one. The Waterview tunnel is not being built just so people can drive from Mt Roskill to Pt Chev, and nor is the CRL just to connect Mt Eden to downtown.

The CRL is but one project on the way to a whole city-wide network, as is clearly shown below, and as such it doesn’t do everything on its own.

But then having said that because it is at the heart of  the current and future city-wide network it is the most crucial and valuable point of the whole system. That is true today and will continue to true for as long as there is a city on this Isthmus. In fact it is hard to overstate the value of the CRL as by through-routing the current rail system it is as if it gives Auckland a full 100km Metro system for the cost of a pair of 3.4km tunnels and a couple of stations. This is simply the best bargain going in infrastructure in probably any city of Auckland’s size anywhere in the world and is certainly the best value transport project of scale in New Zealand. Because it is transformational* for the city and complementary to all our existing systems, especially the near complete urban motorway network.

Additionally the capacity it adds to the region’s whole travel supply is immense: taking up to 48 trains an hour this can move the equivalent of 12 motorway lanes of car traffic. All without flattening any place nor need to park or circulate those vehicles on local roads and streets. And all powered by our own renewably generated electricity. This is how the city grows both in scale and quality without also growing traffic congestion.

AT Rapid Transit Network - 2041

This map will evolve over time as each addition is examined in detail. For example I expect the cost-effectiveness and efficiency a rail system over the harbour, up the busway and to Takapuna to become increasingly apparent well before this time period. In fact as the next harbour crossing, so we are likely to see that in the next decade, otherwise this is that pattern that both the physical and social geography of Auckland calls for. Additionally Light Rail on high quality right-of-ways, although not true Rapid Transit, will also likely be added in the near term.

Welcome to Auckland: City.

* = transformational because it substantially changes not only our movement options, the quality of accessibility between places throughout the city and without the use of a car, but also Auckland’s very idea of itself; we have not been a Metro city before: It is doing things differently.


Matt suggested adding this more recent version. I agree this is a good idea, it shows just how quickly ideas are changing in Auckland right now. This is a very fluid and exciting time for the city as the new possibilities are becoming acknowledged by all sorts of significant players. It remains my view that extending our existing rail system is better for Mangere and the Airport, but that taking AT’s proposed LR across the harbour in its own new crossing is a really good option:

RPTP potential LRT + RTN Map

And just this morning we get wind of these very big changes for those making plans for Auckland. It looks like the funding roadblocks [pun intended] for the necessary urban infrastructure that the growing and shifting Auckland needs may be melting away….?

Treasury Tweets


Optimal heritage zoning: an empirical perspective

Back in July, I went down to Wellington for this year’s New Zealand Association of Economists conference. I really enjoy NZAE – people attend because they’re genuinely excited about sharing their ideas and learning from other people. (Stu Donovan and John Polkinghorne were also there.)

I was presenting a paper on using hedonic analysis of property sales to assess and compare the costs and benefits of planning regulations. The empirical side of the paper was an analysis of the impact of dwelling size, lot size, location, and amenities such as the presence of old buildings on property sale prices.

I used these results to consider the rationale for heritage preservation policies. In doing so, I asked three key questions:

  • Is there evidence of positive spillovers (“externalities”, in economese) associated with old buildings?
  • How large are those spillovers relative to other things that people value, such as living close to the city centre or having more living space?
  • Is a blanket heritage control that limits the demolition of building likely to be optimal? In other words, are the positive spillovers from old buildings large enough to justify making it more difficult to develop in some areas?

The first question is very important. As I discussed the other week, people argue that old buildings should be preserved because they are valuable to their inhabitants. To my mind, that is not a good case for government to get involved. If heritage buildings are mainly valuable to their inhabitants, then those people can probably sort things out without the need for any rules.

But if there are positive spillovers from heritage, there may be a case to regulate. That’s because decisions made by a property owner about whether to demolish a heritage property may not take into account the impacts that their decisions may have on other people.

Many – although certainly not all! – old buildings have aesthetically pleasing exteriors. Simply put, they’re nice to look at. (This may simply reflect a selection process – i.e. people built ugly buildings 100 years ago, but they’ve been demolished.) The presence of these buildings can make an area more attractive for passers-by and other residents.

Central Post Office 1921

Central Post Office – now known as Britomart (Source)

There are a number of ways that we can measure the public value of aesthetically pleasing old buildings. For example, people may visit areas with more old buildings more often and spend more time walking the streets. (Although I caution that there’s a risk of omitted variable bias here, as areas with older buildings also tend to have older, more walkable street networks.) They may spend more money in shops in these area. Or, importantly, they may be willing to pay higher prices to live around old buildings and enjoy their aesthetic characteristics more frequently.

In my paper, I used residential property sale data to identify the existence of positive spillovers from old buildings. I’ll spare you the details of the number-crunching, but basically, I used four years of recent property sales data to determine whether people are willing to pay higher prices to live near old (pre-1940) buildings.

The results suggest that there are modest positive spillovers from old buildings. On average, every additional pre-1940 building in a neighbourhood was associated with a 0.3% increase in the price paid for neighbouring dwellings. Some individual buildings are likely to have stronger spillovers, of course – not all old buildings are created equal! And there are likely to be some spillovers that aren’t captured in residential property prices.

But as heritage policy is often a very local event – people tend to advocate for the preservation of buildings in their suburb or neighbourhood – it’s likely that this measure captures many of the spillovers that matter. Which leads us on to the third question: When is a blanket heritage control likely to be optimal?

The downside of a blanket control is that it will make it more difficult (or even impossible) for people to redevelop sites or make additions to existing homes. My analysis of recent property sales showed that the quantity of floorspace has a strong effect on property values. I estimated that a 10% increase in the size of a dwelling was associated with a 4.8% increase in its sale price, holding all other factors constant.

Based on this result, I asked: How much additional floorspace would be required to fully offset the loss of aesthetic spillovers from neighbouring pre-1940 buildings? In other words, what’s the point at which people might be indifferent between preserving heritage and getting opportunities to intensify their properties?

The results are mapped below. Darker greens and blues indicate areas with larger positive spillovers from old buildings. Yellow colours indicate areas where there are few if any spillovers. Of course, there are likely to be a number of subtleties that I wasn’t able to pick up in the data, such as the quality of heritage properties in different areas.


Change in floorspace required to offset loss of heritage spillovers (Source: Nunns, 2015)

One interesting thing about this map is that it suggests that the value of heritage preservation may be relatively low compared to the value of opportunities for intensification almost everywhere in the city. Even in the most heritage-y parts of Devonport and Ponsonby, it would only take a 30-40% increase in floorspace to fully compensate for the loss of localised spillovers from all the pre-1940 buildings in the neighbourhood. That isn’t an unreasonable possibility given that these areas have standalone houses sitting on crazily expensive land. (And the fact that many of these buildings would be preserved by their owners anyway.)

So what should we make of this?

First, an important caveat: these results are not definitive. They’re based on a piece of quantitative analysis that captures overall trends but omits qualitative aspects of the aesthetics of old buildings. In some areas, it may under-estimate the contribution of individual buildings that are especially attractive. In others, it will over-estimate the magnitude of spillovers, because the old buildings in the area are simply not that flash.

But even taking that caveat into mind, there may be room to optimise heritage preservation by focusing blanket heritage controls in areas where evidence of positive spillovers is strongest. So it’s encouraging to see that Auckland Council is refining its position on heritage controls in the Unitary Plan. (And dispiriting to see the NZ Herald’s alarmist one-sided take on the issue. Pro tip to the editors: articles like this are why I do not buy your newspaper. I spend money on other print media, so you’re missing out.)

It’s also worth remembering that blanket controls aren’t the only way to preserve heritage. Heritage schedules can be used to target protections to individual buildings with notable aesthetic or historic value. And councils can directly fund the preservation of notable buildings by buying up and renovating them. In some cases, these may be a more efficient way of ensuring that we maintain the good bits of the city at a reasonable cost.

What do you think an optimal heritage preservation policy would look like?

Apartments and Housing Affordability

Below is a schematic of current apartment development in a small area of Melbourne just north of the City Centre, next to the Victorian Markets. These are pretty tall; one already under construction is 88 stories.

North Melbourne development

And here is a blog post from our Melbourne friends OhYesMelbourne on another City Centre adjacent development site; Docklands. And I thought Auckland is experiencing a building boom. Well it is, and this growth is impressive, but of course Auckland is a small city by global standards, and the current boom is well in proportion. Across the world it looks like we are in a phase that is concentrating development pressure in primary cities.  So while urbanisation is widespread it seems to be especially concentrated in the cities that dominate their regions, like the Australian State capitals and Auckland in the South Pacific. It’s not just in the new world either; that classic primary city; London, is building up at a new rate too.

Aside from issues of about the balance of this growth from a nationwide perspective or architectural style [blingy is the term that springs to my mind], what is the likely impact of this kind of additional dwelling supply coming onto the market in these cities? Currently Melbourne is getting about 1500 new residents a week [1838 per week last calendar year, in fact]; which at current household sizes means there is fresh demand for about 500-1000 new residences each and every week; pretty hard work to satisfy that demand you’d think?

Well think again; the boffins at the Reserve Bank of Australia are worried about oversupply according to this report from Business Insider. Here’s the recent apartment supply growth:


So while the RBA couches this situation as a warning to financial stability, or at least risk to property developers loosing their shirts in a saturated market, isn’t this exactly the sort of quantity of new supply that overheating urban property markets need, like Auckland?

Price growth is already slowing for inner city apartments in Melbourne and Brisbane, and there are signs that activity in the Sydney property market is beginning to slow after two years of breakneck activity. Supply and demand in all three regions appears to be nearing equilibrium, with significant more supply scheduled to come. It’s clear that downside risks to prices are building.


It seems there is a lesson from the cities across the Tasman that supply/demand equilibrium in cities can be achieved most effectively by building up, although at the risk of supply overshoot. But then isn’t that always the case in any attempt to rebalance a market? So what are the barriers to this sort of solution occurring in Auckland? Is it even possible? One problem is inner city land supply, is there that much available space? Melbourne certainly has a lot of city proximate available land. Auckland is likely to need this sort of growth to also occur in metropolitan centres as well as the Central City simply from a space perspective; given how tightly bound our City centre is. But in that case we will also need to complete the Rapid Transit Network in a timely fashion to make that model function properly. But then we have to do this however we grow; or we are just planning traffic gridlock.

Then there are our planning regulations, especially height restrictions and view shafts, limiting spatial efficiency, and Minimum Parking Regulations adding unnecessary cost to construction [as well as feeding traffic congestion]. I’m sure some will argue that Aucklanders won’t live in apartments, but recent growth in inner city living shows that we have yet to find the limit of those happy to make that choice. It seems likely that out of 1.5+ million there still more willing to live this way, especially as the quality of city amenities and distractions improve [especially public transport, the cycling and pedestrian realm, street quality and waterfront spaces]:

City Centre Population - 1996-2015 2

And this is even more likely to be the case if new supply is sufficiently scaled to affect property price growth; then these dwellings will become even more attractive; more affordable as well as proximate. Perhaps, if the RBA’s handwringing is prescient, at the cost of one or two over-ambitious property developers’ businesses…?

Auckland Dwelling Consents

Is it happening already? Certainly all the growth in dwelling supply in the last couple of years has been in attached structures: Stand alone houses used to completely dominate Auckland’s housing supply; at three-quarters of the market four years ago to around half now.

The evidence from these nearby cities suggests that ‘up’ may well be a more immediately effective solution to rampant dwelling inflation in Auckland than distant, hard to service, and slow to deliver detached houses out on the periphery. Certainly in as much as it is a supply-side issue.

Geography and housing supply dynamics

Last week, I introduced the concept of elasticity of supply with respect to price as a useful measure of housing market dynamics. Supply elasticities measure how responsive builders are to an increase in demand. In other words, when people turn up wanting dwellings, how quickly do the tradies start building more?

Supply elasticity can in turn have a big, long-run effect on prices. If the building sector is consistently slow to respond, it creates the condition for an ongoing shortfall in supply, which means that people will bid up prices more.

My post last week took a look at some of the (limited) international comparisons of planning regulations, which seem to indicate that New Zealand is not an especially poor performer. For example, consent processing time is relatively fast and efficient compared with other OECD countries.

However, regulations are only part of the picture. For example, Patrick wrote a good post a while back looking at Auckland’s geographic constraints:

AKL from space

Intuitively, we’d expect Auckland’s limited supply of developable land to have an effect on housing supply dynamics. But how much of an effect should we expect?

The empirical literature provides us with a reasonable estimate. A 2010 paper by MIT economist Albert Saiz (Massachusetts, not Manukau) measures constraints on land availability in large US cities and uses them to estimate the effect on housing supply.

Saiz finds that there are large differences in land availability between different cities. For example, “flatland” cities like Atlanta or Houston have very little area constrained by lakes, rivers, oceans, or steep slopes. Over 90% of the area around these cities is available for development. Coastal cities like San Francisco, San Diego, or Miami, on the other hand, might be able to develop less than 1/3 of the surrounding area.

Saiz concludes that:

Quantitatively, a movement across the interquartile range in geographic land availability in an average-regulated metropolitan area of 1 million is associated with shifting from a housing supply elasticity of approximately 2.45 to one of 1.25. Moving to the ninetieth percentile of land constraints (as in San Diego, where 60% of the area within its 50-km radius is not developable) pushes average housing supply elasticities down further to 0.91.

Translated from economese, this means that cities with less developable land have housing markets that respond more slowly to increased demand. (Or, as non-economists might say, duh.) For context, an elasticity of 0.91 indicates that a 10% increase in house prices is met by a 9.1% increase in housing supply. Even if regulations are held constant, a “flatland” city is expected to have a more responsive housing market than a coastal city with lots of hills.

In other words, when people compare Houston’s house prices with San Francisco’s or New York’s, they’re not comparing like with like. Geography matters quite a lot!

So what does Auckland’s geography look like? A 2014 NZIER paper modelled the effect of geographic and regulatory barriers on the city’s house prices. The authors conclude that: “relative to even Australian cities Auckland’s twin harbours severely restrict the availability of well-located land close to the city centre.” Overall, they estimate that less than one-third of the area around Auckland is available for development – most of the rest is water:

NZIER Auckland's narrow geography

In other words, Auckland has very severe geographic constraints. In terms of the availability of developable land, it’s similar to hilly coastal cities like San Diego. Saiz estimated that a city of around Auckland’s size with an average level of planning regulations would have a supply elasticity of 0.91. So: does Auckland perform better or worse than this in practice?

A 2010 study by Arthur Grimes and Andrew Aitken provides some relevant data. Using data at a district council level, they looked at how quickly new dwellings were built in response to “shocks” in demand such as increases in net migration. Their key conclusion was that housing supply in New Zealand’s urban areas tends to be a little bit more responsive than supply in rural areas:

If we divide regions into urban and rural, we find faster adjustment in urban areas (average γ1i = 0.0093) than in rural areas (average γ1i = 0.0064). This result is consistent with an active development industry, based principally in cities, facilitating new construction.

In other words, the authors estimate a supply elasticity of around 0.93 for NZ’s urban areas (principally Auckland). This is almost exactly what we would predict based on Auckland’s geography. The implication of this is that Auckland’s housing market functions more or less as expected given its geography – we don’t have to assume unusually restrictive planning regulations to explain the observed outcomes.

There are a couple lessons we can draw from this.

First, Auckland’s geography is a primary driver of the city’s housing supply dynamics. If we have higher house prices than we’d like, it’s partly because we have less land for housing. As I’ve written before, some analyses of Auckland’s high house prices fall prey to omitted variable bias – i.e. ignoring important causal variables and thus over-estimating the impact of specific policies. This can result in flawed policy recommendations.

Second, we shouldn’t compound constrained geography with bad policy. Because Auckland doesn’t have much developable land, there is an even stronger incentive to use land efficiently. (A fact with implications for transport policy, planning policy, tax policy, and publicly-owned land.) Land-hungry policies might not be too bad in a land-abundant place like Houston, but requiring Auckland to follow a similar pattern is economically calamitous.

As most New Zealand cities are also heavily constrained by geography, this challenge isn’t unique to Auckland. But it’s also not all bad: the interplay of mountains, volcanoes, harbours, and oceans is what makes New Zealand such a beautiful place to live. Let’s build cities that enable us to get the best out of it.

Double EMU Orakei Basin

Mt Albert Town Centre Upgrade

With the projects that Auckland Transport has planned the Mt Albert town centre will be one the best connected in all of Auckland for public transport. With the CRL the train station will only be 10-15 minutes from the centre of town. The proposed new bus network also sees the four frequent bus routes pass through the town centre including:

  • New North Rd from Avondale to town
  • Crosstown to city via the western suburbs before heading out to Onehunga
  • Crosstown service from Pt Chevalier to Glen Innes via Orakei
  • Crosstown service from Pt Chevalier Beach to Sylvia Park

While public transport from there will be fantastic in coming years the town centre itself can feel a little neglected and overly dominated by vehicles. The Albert-Eden Local Board want to change that and are consulting on a plan to do just that.

Mt Albert Town Centre Upgrade

The Albert-Eden Local Board is upgrading the Mt Albert town centre and wants to hear your thoughts on the design. The town centre upgrade is a key project for the board and the aim is to create high-quality, attractive and safe streetscape, that provides a significant increase in pedestrian amenity for the community to enjoy and more opportunity for local businesses, including street-based trading. The proposed improvements include enhanced pedestrian connections to the recently upgraded train station, via an overbridge, to encourage the use of public transport.

Key design features:

  • Wide footpaths.
  • Improved safety on Carrington Rd.
  • 106 public car parks retained.
  • More cycling infrastructure.
  • Ten new trees, to replace five trees being removed.
  • New paving and street furniture.
  • Improved bus travel times.

This is the first stage of the Mt Albert town centre upgrade, which is an important project for the area and we want to make sure the town centre is not only enhanced, but future-proofed to make sure it retains its character and vibrancy. Regular users of Mt Albert Town Centre are being asked for feedback and this will help finalise the design. Feedback will be gathered online and at the open day. Once the design has been finalised and approved we will begin looking for a contractor to carry out the work and plan to have construction completed by August 2016.

Not everything on the plan will be built straight away. The immediate works proposed include widening the footpaths through the town centre by removing the odd slip lane/ parking lane on the Northwestern side. Other aspects of the proposal don’t have firm dates.

Mt Albert Town Centre Upgrade - stages

Here are some cross sections of what’s planned for the streets.

Mt Albert Town Centre Upgrade - NN Rd South 2

Mt Albert Town Centre Upgrade - Carrington Rd

Mt Albert Town Centre Upgrade - NN Rd North Plaza 2

I like that the current slip lane is proposed to make way for a plaza area

One of the projects for the future is to build a new bridge across to the train station – which was designed with this in mind. They will also eventually turn the carpark into public open space.

Mt Albert Town Centre Upgrade - future plaza

There are a couple of things that I think need to be improved. The key one of these is the lack of bus lanes which will be critical given the number of buses that will pass through here, this especially on Carrington Rd. I love the wide 6m+ footpaths in the town centre but also wonder if there’s a possibility for cycle lanes on New North Rd

What do you think, what do you like or dislike – and if this affects you don’t forget to make a submission.

What will the heart of Whangarei be like in 20 years?

This is a guest post from Tony Horton, Senior Strategic Planner at Whangarei District Council

What will the heart of Whangarei be like in 20 years? This is the question currently being asked by Whangarei District Council.

But this is not being asked through the usual myriad of planning documents, strategic frameworks or growth strategies. This time the Council has put together a new website showing a list of key projects, such as turning a waterfront car park into a park or a new theatre complex.

The idea is that these projects are a more tangible way to talk to the community about the future of their city rather than using alien planning language and RMA speak.

It is also an opportunity to celebrate some of the great projects that have been completed over the last few years which have had a focus on connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists.

Te Matau A Pohe, Completed 2014 - Photographed by Patrick

Te Matau A Pohe, Completed 2014 – Photographed by Patrick

Te Matau A Pohe, Huarahi O Te Whai cycleway/walkway and the Canopy Pedestrian Bridge are world class projects that have had a meaningful impact on Whangarei. They have opened up the waterfront for pedestrians and cyclists.

Since opening the use of the cycleway around the Whangarei waterfront has increased by over 130%. It is being used by both commuters and recreational users, it is being used by the young and old, by residents and visitors.

Canopy Pedestrian Bridge, Completed 2012

Canopy Pedestrian Bridge, Completed 2012

The challenge for Whangarei now is how best to build on these successes. Although we are the 8th largest district and growing, we do not have the spending power of the likes of Auckland.

One answer has been to see the Councils role as creating the canvas on which the community then paints a picture. A good example of this is since delivering the basic infrastructure of the cycleway/walkway, community groups and charities have contributed park benches, art works and fitness equipment and commercial enterprises are looking providing cafes, cycle hire and food outlets. This helps create community cohesion and sense of ownership.

Reyburn House Lane

Reyburn House Lane, future CBD living along the waterfront

So moving to the future, there are number of projects and ideas which could be catalyst for further quality developments and economic growth. The ideas range from a new theatre with conference facilities, to a new cycleway along a city river connecting the waterfront to Whangarei Growers Market, to enabling more inner city living.

Reyburn House Lane 2

Reyburn House Lane, future CBD living along the waterfront

The website gives an overview for each project, including those that have been completed, those in the planning and finally those which are still just ideas or future concepts. It then allows you to make a comment or just simply click that you like the idea.

Proposed cycleway along the Raumanga Stream

Proposed cycleway along the Raumanga Stream from the waterfront

So the Council is seeking feedback on these ideas, from residents and visitors to Whangarei, but also from the developers, architects, planners, engineers and community organisations. We want to hear from people from all walks of life.

So tell us what you like about each of these projects and what you would change? What do you think is missing? And what should be a priority?

AT October Board Meeting

The AT board meet next week and here are what I think are the highlights from the reports.

As always the items in the closed session. This time there isn’t too much interesting on the agenda with only the following items (non bold are my comments)

  • LRT – Approval to appoint technical advisor – Hopefully this means we’re going to start seeing some more progress on this project soon
  • CRL update – not cutting any more station entrances I hope
  • Deep Dive – Major BT Infrastructure – This is just an item for noting to do with Business Technology.

On to the main report. Items are in the order they appear in the report.

AT have a prospective purchaser for the old diesel trains and have sent them a Heads of Agreement. All of the old diesel stock has been moved to Taumaranui to reduce vandalism incidents and they’ve containerised all of the spare parts. There is no information about how much they will sell them for although NZ First claim they’ve being sold to Mozambique for just $5 million.

AT worked with Environment Canterbury on a training video for bus operators on how to better serve those with disabilities with different sections focusing on different disabilities. They say they’re also going to produce another corporate video to promote other areas they’re working on to improve the PT experience for those with disabilities.

AT and the NZTA are working together to work out what transport infrastructure will be needed over the next 30 years to support the greenfield development planned. This includes new/upgraded roads, PT and cycling infrastructure and all sounds suspiciously like forward planning – something that has been missing more often than not over many decades. Interestingly they also say that work on a business case for the Northwestern Busway and assessment for a new Northern Busway station as part of the busway extension to Albany has started. Both of these are good news.

On specific projects

  • Waterview Shared Path – Site investigations for the bridges have begun and construction is expected to begin in January 2016. This will see a shared path added through the current green space near Unitec.
  • Newmarket Crossing – The council have told AT that a decision is due in May 2016 which is roughly 4 months sooner than anticipated.
  • Parnell Station – The works on the platforms are nearly complete – as many train users may have seen. Kiwirail are working to get the old station restored and all up they anticipate the station will be open in June 2016.

AT are trying to improve their journey planning programme and as part of that they’re doing analysis so they can target areas that will enable them to be more successful. They want to focus on the areas where people are most likely to use PT which is showing in the image below. As you can see those in the inner west are far more likely to use PT – which isn’t a great surprise.

Most likely to use PT

There’s a chart and discussion in the report about rail punctuality which as I mentioned yesterday in the patronage post achieved an Auckland record 94.9% of trains arriving on time. One interesting fact to emerge from the business report is that more trains turned up on time in September than were run across the entire network prior to July. Later in the report it also mentions that the best ever day was on Monday 7 September when they had only 4 services cancelled out of 500 that were scheduled and of those that ran, 97.6% were on time.

2015-09 - Rail punctuality - board report

An update on some of the PT initiatives underway.

  • Integrated fares development continues and is due to roll out in July next year.
  • AT are still evaluating the tenders for the new bus network in South Auckland. They also say the tender will go out for West Auckland services by the end of the year and the other areas early to mid next year. Implementation of the South Auckland network will be mid-2016 with the rest in either late 2016 or in 2017.
  • The last of the new electric trains has completed its routine testing and they say it will be ready to carry passengers this month.
  • The new platform canopy’s in Ellerslie and the upgrade to Puhinui station are both due to finish this month.
  • A concept design for the Manukau bus station has been completed.
  • On the plans to improve the performance of the rail network (the increase in frequency to the Western line can’t come soon enough).
  • Resilience initiatives have been agreed with KiwiRail and Transdev and are currently undergoing assessment for time and cost benefits, however, some resilience
    initiatives may take longer to implement to align to scheduling of track works and to minimise rail closures. The Middlemore extension (freight relief road) was
    commissioned on 31 August and is operational. A review on whether this is electrified in preference to Tamaki and Southdown sidings is now being assessed.
  • Roster optimisation was conducted for 20 July timetable which resulted in 10 less drivers being required than originally planned. Driver availability for a service increase
    subject to timetable modelling of the Western Line to 6 trains per hour peak and 3 trains per hour inter-peak will follow driver school completion in April / May 2016.
  • Run time reviews are currently being conducted for the Western and Southern Lines and any benefits targeted for an optimised timetable that may be delivered early
    March 2016 or as part of any service level increase in April/May 2016.
  • ETCS reliability improvements have been progressed with ETCS filters now fitted to 14 EMU Units, with further Units to be fitted in October.
  • AT are investigating a number of ideas to improve the first and last leg of PT journeys, this includes car sharing and retail development at Metro stations (I assume this means the large stations like New Lynn).
  • A New Lynn wayfinding trial will start in November and include a trial of “enhanced Metro information for stations and stops” – whatever that means. They say it will help inform their strategy for rolling out information as part of the deployment of the New Network.
  • Also as part of the wayfinding project platform markers are being trialled at four stations (New Lynn, Fruitvale Rd, Avondale and Sylvia Park) and includes markings to show where the low floor carriages will be.
  • The road travel signs on the motorway at Oteha Valley Rd now also show a comparison with the Northern Express. They’ve also been doing this on twitter

If anyone is interested there’s also a paper in the open session on ATs IT Security Risks and Mitigation Strategies.

Gentrification and heritage buildings

K Road is changing. The city’s long-time boho heart is, in a way, sitting between a rock and a hard place. On the one side, there’s a city centre that’s bursting at the seams with university students and suit-clad professionals; on the other, post-gentrification Ponsonby.

A recent post on Public Address by Tina Plunkett took a look at the potential impact that some new developments on K Road might have on the area’s culture:

The shutting down of cultural institutions across Auckland to make way for towers of small, shoebox apartments is becoming almost epidemic – but at the same time we need growth of quality, spacious, inner-city living areas.

In the past year Karangahape Road has lost every single one of her original sex shops – but is this a bad thing? The landmark Las Vegas Girl is the last to succumb to closure. K Road is definitely in the throes of switching over.

But there are shimmers of hope popping up. In recent years we’ve had additions to this strip that are community focused, culturally aware and importantly, kind. Coco’s Cantina and Flying Out records are both prime examples of new businesses that are wholeheartedly embraced by our  community, and by their own cultural communities. We need to support them. By supporting them, we keep our dream alive.

But what is next on the chopping block? The King’s Arms? Whammy Bar? The Old Folks Ass?  Can they survive in a market of growing rents, amid the sound of the developers’ diggers?

This is an interesting and important issue. There isn’t necessarily a single right answer, but there is the possibility of a useful conversation.

Tina asks the following question about the trade-off between culture and growth:

We need to ask at what point we draw a line and stop sacrificing the culture for accommodation. The outer wings of our city highlight our relationship with heritage, history and culture.  K Road has been a haven for ideas, community, music, arts, freedom and a shitload of fun for successive generations. Are we happy to toss that aside?

What’s worth more to us in Auckland? Our identity in our music, culture and arts – or six more flats?

This is a good question to ask, but I think we have to re-phrase it to get a meaningful answer.

In particular, I think it’s important to distinguish between two things that people often conflate:

  1. The buildings that exist (or no longer exist) in a place, and
  2. The social and economic function of a place, which is mainly about the people that use it.

There’s a relationship between built environment and social and economic functions, of course. Run-down warehouse space with high ceilings is famously amenable to starving artists in search of live/work space and punks in search of squats. But it’s not as direct a relationship as you might think.

That’s because buildings change uses over their lifetimes, and cycle through periods of high rents and low rents depending upon when they were built, vacated, depreciated, renovated, etc. Think of Ponsonby – twenty years ago, many of the pre-war wooden houses in the suburb were run-down and quite cheap. As a result, they provided housing for people on lower incomes.

203-209 Ponsonby Rd in 1960s

Terraced houses on Ponsonby Road in the 1960s. (Source)

Today, the buildings are largely the same from the outside, as heritage preservation rules and changing aesthetic preferences have kept people from demolishing them. But they now serve a totally different social and economic function: housing rather well-off people at a premium price. In the process, the old Ponsonby society has been displaced – or simply melted into thin air.

203-209 Ponsonby Rd in 2010s

The houses remain the same… but the place has changed. (Source)

Apply these lessons to K Road. What do they tell us?

The first thing is that we should be less concerned with the buildings on the street (and the ownership of the buildings) than we are about the social and economic function of the place. Old buildings can be important and interesting and there are valid arguments for their preservation.

But if the aim is to preserve K Road (or any other place in Auckland) as a place for culture and creativity, only focusing on the buildings will result in failure. The buildings may not be demolished, but if there’s demand for the space rents will rise, the spaces will be renovated with sleek Danish interiors, and culture will be priced out in the process.

So what can be done?

Tina’s post offers a few insights about what might work.

We need to start by recognising that some degree of change is inevitable and probably beneficial. New buildings will be constructed, and some old ones will be torn down in the process. This is good for several reasons.

First, as Tina notes, Auckland’s got a shortage of affordable living space at the moment, so more apartments would be helpful. More small, affordable dwellings will make it easier for the people who make K Road what it is to keep living in the area.

Second, although it would obviously be bad for K Road if it were all dynamited and rebuilt in one go, a steady trickle of new construction tends to support the ongoing cultural vibrancy of an area. It means that there will always be some buildings that are getting a bit shabby and thus providing a low-rent place for various creative endeavours.

In short, new buildings are probably alright. But, as Tina notes throughout her article, we need to ask whether they will function in a way that reinforces (or undermines) the existing culture.

The existing community can influence this process for the better by engaging with developers and new entrants to help them to understand what makes the place tick. This obviously works best when a place already has a strong community and identifiable values – as K Road does. It’s certainly encouraging to see examples of new businesses in the area that want to enhance K Road rather than replace it.

What do you think about what’s happening on K Road?

Where does top down meet bottom up?

This is a guest post from Brendon Harre

In a previous series on the rebuild of Christchurch CBD I have suggested a fundamental issue for urban design is how to increase amenity value without increasing property prices? How to return the amenity value created by the presence and enterprise of the community back to that community? I wasn’t able to give a general solution but I did propose at the time a specific option that might help –greater use of Euro-bloc urban form.

Two urban design theorists hint that the general solution may involve finding the right balance between top down state control and bottom up community initiative. Writer Charles Montgomery whose work generally focuses on increasing amenity values and former World Bank Chief Planner Alain Bertaud whose work usually focuses on improving affordability and mobility have both written on the importance of finding this balance.


Charles Montgomery in his book “Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design” has a section titled: Errors from above (P.93-95) using the process that led to –Brasilia-Itis to explain this problem.

Unfortunately, when choosing how to live or move, most of us are not as free as we think. Our options are strikingly limited, and they are defined by the planners, engineers, politicians, architects, marketers and land speculators who imprint their values on the urban landscape…….

Take the most fully realized modernist city. Architect Oscar Niemeyer’s plan for a new capital city of Brazil on a wilderness tabula rasa in the 1950s was meant to embody the country’s orderly, healthy and egalitarian future. Early sketches of Brasilia resembled an airplane or a great bird with its wings outstretched. From above, the plan was exhilarating. Niemeyer segregated functions across the dual axes of his great bird’s body. At its head, the Plaza of the Three Powers, a gargantuan square lined with blocks of government ministries and crowned with the national congress complex. Monumental avenues were paved along the bird’s spine. Identical residential super-blocks were stacked in orderly rows along its wings. The intention was to use simple geometry to free Brasilia of all the chaos of the typical Brazilian city: slums, crime and traffic jams were banished by the architect’s pen. Pedestrians were separated from cars. There was exactly 269 square feet of green space for every resident. The principle of equality ran right through the design: all residents would have similar-sized homes. Everything had its place. On paper, it was a triumph of straightforward and egalitarian central planning.

But when the first generation of residents arrived to live and work in Brasilia, the simple approached showed its weakness. People felt disorientated by the sameness of their residential complexes. They felt lost in their perfectly ordered environment and its vast, empty spaces. They missed their old, cramped market streets, places where disorder and complexity led to serendipitous encounters with sights, scents and other people. Residents even invented a new word –brasilité, or Brasilia-itis –to describe the malaise of living ‘without the pleasures –the distractions, conversations, flirtations and little rituals –of outdoor life in other Brazilian cities’. The simple, rational plan extinguished the intrinsic social benefits of messy public space and loaded the city with a psychological burden that was entirely new for its residents. (Eventually the city spilled beyond its plan, and now messy barrios spread like a tangled nest beyond the wings of the great bird.)

Alain Bertaud describes the balance of where top down should meet bottom up in the following way in his December 2014 article Housing affordability: Top-Down Design and Spontaneous Order. (Abstract, P.1, 2)

The spatial structure of large cities is a mix of top-down design and spontaneous order created by markets. Top-down design is indispensable for the construction of metropolitan- wide infrastructure, but as we move down the scale to individual neighborhoods and lots, spontaneous order must be allowed to generate the fine grain of urban shape. At what scale level should top-down planning progressively vanish to allow a spontaneous order to emerge? And what local norms are necessary for this spontaneous order to result in viable neighborhoods that are easily connected to a metropolitan-wide infrastructure? Examples from Southeast Asia show that an equilibrium between topdown designed infrastructure and neighborhoods created through spontaneous order mechanisms can be achieved. This equilibrium requires the acknowledgement by the government of the contribution of spontaneous order to the housing supply…..

Spontaneous order appears in the absence of a designer’s intervention when markets and norms regulate relationships between immediate neighbors. Most evolving natural structures, from coral reefs to starlings’ swarms, are created by spontaneous order.

Top-down design is indispensable for the construction of infrastructure that spans urban metropolitan areas. Spontaneous order cannot create a metropolitan road network or a storm drainage system. However, as we move down the scale from metropolitan area to individual neighborhoods and toward individual lots, top-down design becomes less useful and should progressively disappear to let spontaneous order generate the fine grain of urban shape. At the neighborhood level, unfortunately, top down design often usurps the role of spontaneous order in allocating land between households. This substitution of spontaneous order by top-down planning is responsible for the existence of slums in developing countries and for very high housing rents unaffordable to the lowest income population in developed countries.

Urban managers are suspicious of spontaneous order, associating it with chaos and anarchy. They try to replace it with top-down design. Top-down design could be direct and explicit as in Brasilia, or it could be indirect and take the form of detailed regulations and zoning maps, as in most of the world’s large cities……

This paper will not attempt to dispute all the aspects of the “need to plan” logic used by planners. It will only address the impact that minimum land and floor consumption regulations have on housing affordability. These regulations fix minimum sizes for lot, floor space, parking, and access street width. They also set the permissible ratio between the area of a lot and the floor space that may be built on it by setting a maximum floor area ratio…..

Because regulations usually set minimum consumption of land and floor space and not a maximum, they have a high negative impact on the poorest households who might trade-off a lower consumption to be able to settle in a preferred location. For low income households, regulations rather than consumers’ choices are therefore driving individual housing consumption…….

It can be rational to trade off space for location and affordability as Lily Duval explains from personal  experience with her 14 sqm Christchurch house. Alain Bertaud explains it is quite natural for people to make these trade-offs to best maximise their needs. (P.14, 15)

Low-income households looking for a dwelling in large cities have to make trade-offs between location, lot and floor area, width of access streets and availability of urban services. As seen above, they should not rely on government planners to make these trade- offs for them. A number of countries allow low-income households to select the set of housing standards that would maximize their welfare. In these countries, households who can only afford very low standards are not stigmatized by living in informal settlements. Governments recognize that their low standards are the result of very low income and as a consequence subsidize part of their infrastructure, instead of attempting to subsidize their entire housing consumption. Three successful examples, described below, occur in Indonesia, Vietnam, and China. In these countries, within a given perimeter, low-income settlements with no top-down regulations are organized in small condominium-like communities that set their own internal rules. The governments deal with them as communities. They have to follow government standards only for their connections to city-wide networks like water, sewer, power and refuse disposal.


Indonesia Kampongs

Kampongs constitute an invaluable stock of affordable  housing to those who cannot afford a car or are ready to trade-off the convenience of a car for the centrality of a kampong’s location. The original rights of ways for narrow lanes and footpaths have been kept intact even after significant improvements in drainage; water supply has been made available and streets have been paved. As a result, most of the houses located inside the kampongs are hardly accessible by cars. These low road standards prevent land prices from aligning themselves with those of the more traditional houses built along vehicular roads in adjacent communities. The housing stock located in kampongs constitute a parallel housing market for low-to-middle income households. Most kampongs are densely populated, centrally located and close to commercial areas and job clusters…. The lack of car access or at least the impossibility of parking a car on a residential lot makes the kampong’s population more likely to make motorcycles, electric scooters or public transit their preferred means of transport.

Kampongs are making an efficient use of land. (P.17, 18)

Indonesia Kampong land use

Vietnamese vertical urban villages

Vietnam Vertical Village

Vietnamese cities have adopted similar policies and urban development ideology as Indonesia’s kampong program (note Bertaud’s description of China’s mega-project developmental process in this 2012 article would be an apt description of Christchurch’s Crown/Fletchers CBD development). As cities expand, planners carefully avoid encroaching on existing villages while connecting them to the city-wide infrastructure network.

Within an urban village’s perimeter, no specific top down regulations are applied. Houses are mostly townhouses built on narrow plots about 3 meters wide. They are traditionally 2 or 3 levels high. But as demand for housing increases the village townhouses can often grow up to 6 or even 7 levels. The village house owner expands vertically, eventually renting rooms or apartments to new households, adapting the standards to the demand. There are no city-imposed standards in these villages, only good neighbour norms. The supply for new market-provided low cost housing is extremely elastic because of the possibility of vertical expansion compatible with local tradition. Some recent migrants rent only one room, others an entire floor or two. (P.19, 20)

Shenzhen China


Shenzhen evolved into a megacity, reaching about 15 million people in 2014, from what was in 1980 a cluster of fishing villages.

Like in Vietnam and Indonesia these villages have been given freedom to adapt from the bottom up. Alain Bertaud describes (P.21 -26) how a group of ‘handshake’ villages, 2.5 km from the centre of Shenzhen occupy an area 31 hectares and provide housing for about 100,000 people.

This extreme density has some pitfalls such as a lack of natural light -not so much of a problem for the local tropical climate. This design configuration would not be appropriate for more temperate climates such as New Zealand.

But as an example of bottom up control over urban development it has some important lessons, especially in aiding low income residents to find affordable housing. A full reading of Alain Bertaud’s article would be recommended….

Shenzhen street

Has New Zealand got the right balance between top down and bottom up? What do you think?

Alain Bertaud believes (P.2, 3);

Planners use a number of rationales to justify the extension of top down design to the micro aspects of individual consumption of land and floor space. Planners have to plan infrastructure and social services based on future population densities. Therefore, they must estimate future densities in different parts of the city. Too often, planners transform these density projections into zoning plans, which become regulations.

Estimating future density is a legitimate urban planning task. It is wrong, however to transform a planning projection into a regulation, thereby putting households into a regulatory straightjacket……. In constraining land supply planners create an artificial land scarcity resulting in high land prices and high housing prices, reducing the housing consumption of the lowest income households.

High property prices reducing housing consumption for the lowest income households is true for New Zealand too, the urban areas with the highest land costs and lowest incomes has the most overcrowding.

Figure 3.2 Crowded households (2013)

Proportion of households living in a crowded home (per cent)

NZ Household Crowding

Figure 3.2 shows the proportion of households that live in a crowded home. Auckland and Gisborne top the list. Some households are forced into living in places too small for their needs, as they cannot afford a suitable home. The cost of housing, the cost of transport, location and many other factors are among the causes. Crowding is most prevalent for people on low incomes, who are already spending a large share of their income on rent and cannot afford a larger home.

Sources: Statistics New Zealand, Generation Rent (P.82) by Shamubeel and Selena Eaqub

Should it be possible in some localised blocks within New Zealand’s high cost urban areas for communities to bypass planning rules? Perhaps if say more than two-thirds of the residents agree? Creating something like a community controlled body corporate with the purpose of becoming a small high density zone.

The community’s norms like in Indonesia, Vietnam and Shenzhen, China could govern what type of high density is allowed by setting the rules for car parking, shade, height, set-backs….. Normal planning rules would be set aside. Only the building code would apply as a top down regulation. Top down institutions –the Local Council and the Crown only taking responsibility for bringing services to the edge of the community controlled zone.

Would this sort of process help address New Zealand’s housing crisis?