Space is expensive in cities, so why don’t we use it more efficiently?

Land is a scarce and expensive resource in Auckland, as the city’s strong economy and natural amenities (sunlight! beaches! bush!) mean that a lot of people want to live in a relatively small area. But we often insist upon acting like urban space is worth nothing – why else would we have so many underutilised parking lots around the place?

To an economist, this is perplexing. Econ 101 predicts that when one factor of production becomes expensive, firms and households will respond by substituting other inputs instead. This is easy and intuitive to grasp in practice. For example:

  • If your local fish and chip shop puts up the price of snapper fillets, some people will choose to buy terakihi instead.
  • If wages for checkout operators increase, supermarkets will consider installing self-checkout counters to save on staff costs.

We should expect the exact same thing to happen in the housing market. Broadly speaking, developers produce housing (H) using a mix of land (L) and capital (K), which we can loosely think of as the size of the building constructed on a site. So, for example, a ten-story apartment building will tend to have a quite high K/L ratio, while a detached house constructed on a large lot will have a low K/L ratio.

retrofitting suburbia density gradient

Gradient of low to high K/L ratios (Source: Retrofitting Suburbia)

Warning: Arithmetic ahead. Come back after three paragraphs if you don’t like that sort of thing.

If we assume (as economists so often do) that housing production follows a standard Cobb-Douglas production function, then total dwelling supply can be modelled as a function of land and capital inputs, where a is the input share of land:

Housing equation 1

We can use this equation (plus a little bit of simple calculus) to estimate the marginal rate of substitution between L and K. Or, in other words, the degree to which rising land prices will encourage us to build up to save on land. If we assume that PL is the price of land and PK is the price of capital, then the ratio of K to L is given by the following equation:

Housing equation 2

We can immediately observe a couple of crucial relationships from this equation. First, if the price of land increases (and the cost to build up doesn’t), we’d expect the K/L ratio to rise – in other words, we expect people to build taller buildings on more expensive land. Second, if the cost to build up decreases – for example, through a technological innovation such as steel-framed buildings or elevators – the K/L ratio should also rise. This explains the emergence of high-rise Manhattan in the early 20th century. Third, the relationship between changes to prices and changes in the K/L ratio will hold true in both low-density and high-density areas, although changes will occur at different rates.

Armed with this economic framework, we can start to make sense of the way that various cities look.

Here’s New York. It doesn’t look like this because it’s full of people who, unlike Aucklanders or Texans, have a mysterious preference for tall buildings. It looks like this because land is expensive and people have responded in a rational way.

Manhattan

Here’s an aerial photograph of a suburb in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the world’s true hellholes. Once again, it doesn’t look like this because Georgians have some oddly-shaped utility function. It looks this way because land is cheap in Atlanta (and motorways are large).

atlanta suburbs

And here’s a picture of a typical Paris boulevard that somebody has photoshopped an enormous woman into for unknown reasons. While I’m sure many Parisians would claim that they have a unique cultural preference for seven-story apartment blocks with cafes underneath, Paris actually looks this way because land is expensive and developers have responded accordingly.

paris street with giant woman

With that in mind, how does Auckland stack up in terms of efficiently using its expensive land? Well, as it turns out we’re doing some smart things and some blitheringly idiotic things. Here’s a brief tour.

The Northern Busway: Really smart. Adding two lanes for buses has enabled the capacity-constrained Auckland Harbour Bridge to carry many more commuters than it otherwise would have been able to do. Today, 40-45% of the people crossing the bridge during rush hour are on buses. It’s the most revolutionary transport investment to hit the Shore since the Harbour Bridge’s completion.

Northern Busway efficiency

Manukau Centre’s sea of carparks: Mind-bogglingly irrational. As the map shows, Manukau actually devotes more land to parking lots than to commercial uses. Whoever laid it out obviously hadn’t paid any attention to Auckland’s real estate prices.

mcc-coloured

City centre shared spaces: Bloody clever idea. Turning service lanes and carparks into spaces for businesses to expand and people to enjoy allows us to make much better use of space in the city.

Fort Lane Before and After

Spaghetti Junction: A tortured trade-off. Demolishing a tenth of the city’s housing stock and abandoning much of the city centre to urban blight was undoubtedly an audacious gamble. The motorways move a lot of people, but we’re never going to reclaim the valuable, centrally located land that they occupy.

Newton then and now

Vancouver’s Skytrain – a future option for Auckland? Now this is about as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University. Vancouver built a space-efficient (and cost-effective) transport system that created an incentive to build more densely. A perfect example of the virtuous cycle in which better transport options encourage more efficient use of land.

Vancouver’s Skytrain also provides an impressive contrast to the effects of Spaghetti Junction on Auckland’s city centre, which raises the question – are we smart enough to start building like that, or are we going to carry on with the pretense that urban space is free?

Vancouver skytrain development

View the full video showing changes from 1985 to 2012.

Auckland’s Chief Economist speaks up for future generations – Auckland needs to grow “up and out”

Auckland Council’s Chief Economist Geoff Cooper was in the paper on Thursday with a few interesting arguments about urban planning. The article is refreshing because in it Cooper challenges a few of the many sacred cows in the debate over growth and housing affordability.

In particular, Cooper discusses the “up versus out” narrative that has been wrapped around Auckland’s urban growth. In recent months, for example, both the New Zealand Initiative and consultancy NZIER have published research papers arguing that Auckland should open up greenfield land to improve housing affordability.

Cooper argues that these analyses have failed to notice the fact that the proposed Unitary Plan already does this:

Despite this complexity, discussion on Auckland’s urban policy is often reduced to “up” (intensification) or “out” (sprawl).

This simplification overlooks three key issues — Auckland Council’s proposed urban limit policy, the policies underlying a compact city, and the political economy of urban policy.

The proposed plan vastly extends the urban limit, aiming for an average of seven years infrastructure-ready land supply available at all times. Once implemented, around 20 per cent more urban zoned land will be available.

This is enough for up to 76,000 new dwellings (roughly equivalent to all of Hamilton).

Calls for more land supply miss the solutions being implemented.

In my view, a policy of greenfields growth could result in not insubstantial economic costs. These risks are discussed in a range of new studies,evidence which present evidence suggesting outlying locations are not necessarily more affordable once transport costs are taken into account (often difficult to do in advance). So while house prices might be cheaper, the costs of getting around can offset those savings. Not to mention the external costs of congestion wider society must bear from more development in peripheral urban locations.

On the other hand, Cooper also critiques debates over residential intensification. He points out that removing *restrictions* on urban intensification development, so as to enable more compact and diverse forms of housing, doesn’t amount to “forcing intensification upon communities”, as some have claimed. Instead, the Unitary Plan tends to remove barriers that prevent people from living at higher densities in locations that provide the attributes they seek, such as amenity and accessibility. Cooper comments:

Proposed policies for a compact city are also misunderstood.

Compact living policies are about creating choices, by reducing existing regulations that stop people living in higher density areas, when they want to.

The inherited planning framework by Auckland Council is heavily biased towards the “quarter acre section” through rigid regulations. This creates a push for urban sprawl.

The city’s rules prevent the supply of housing people want in the areas they want to live in – close to the city, with good transport and other amenities.

These preferences are clearly shown in soaring house prices on Auckland’s isthmus.

The draft plan was designed to create greater housing choice. But this has been scaled back significantly during public consultation.

Residents want to preserve their lot, but it comes at a cost to future Aucklanders. New height limits have been introduced in many suburbs, while existing height limits have been tightened, as have density constraints which means it will be harder to gain access to attractive suburbs.

The important thing Cooper highlights here is how policies that restrict housing  supply in desirable areas come with a significant cost. There’s a wide range of international evidence suggesting restrictive planning regulations, such as minimum parking regulations, density controls, and building height limits, tend to raise the cost of housing. A 2002 paper by Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko, for example, found American cities with more restrictive zoning were less affordable:

The bulk of the evidence marshaled in this paper suggests that zoning, and other land use controls, are more responsible for high prices where we see them. There is a huge gap between the price of land implied by the gap between home prices and construction costs and the price of land implied by the price differences between homes on 10,000 square feet and homes on 15,000 square feet. Measures of zoning strictness are highly correlated with high prices… [I]f policy advocates are interested in reducing housing costs, they would do well to start with zoning reform.

New evidence from Auckland suggests that our planning regulations may have a similar effect, driving up housing costs above construction costs. While the proposed Unitary Plan loosens some regulations, it arguably doesn’t go far enough to truly improve housing choice and housing affordability. Indeed, in some locations it proposes much more onerous regulations than exist under existing district plans, such as on minimum size requirements for apartment. Such requirements have the potential to exacerbate housing costs for the households that can least afford it.

Finally, Cooper also highlights the sometimes perverse nature of the political economy of urban planning. As many people have pointed out, planning regulations have significant effects on intergenerational equity. While restrictive regulations might be good for existing homeowners, they’re extremely bad for new homeowners – and by extension future generations.

It seems fairly obvious to me that if a city is systematically unwilling to allow new housing supply to be built in desirable, accessible areas, then skilled young people will increasingly face a Hobson’s choice: Either pay too much for housing in an accessible place, or pay too much for transport in a cheaper fringe location. And in the long run, we can expect these people to choose another city to live in. Indeed, unaffordable cities place will tend to be disadvantaged in the increasingly global competition for skilled young labour. In this other recent article Cooper actually makes this very point: Auckland competes for people, business, and capital more with Brisbane. Sydney and Melbourne than with other places in New Zealand.

Unfortunately our political system seems especially bad at solving the intergenerational problems even though this is arguably one of its core functions.

This Government’s inability/unwillingness to make headway on carbon emissions being the prime example. As a young Aucklander with many Kiwi friends living overseas. I am fairly sure that the people who will benefit from better housing policy are, for the most part, not voting in elections or going along to consultation meetings. Many more may have not even been born yet. It is these voices that are so often not heard, nor even acknowledged, in the debates on the Unitary Plan.

Responsibility for this issue lies jointly with our political representatives and mainstream media outlets, who tend to lack the courage to push back on even the most blatant self-interested objections to urban development.

Ultimately I think it’s really useful to have Auckland Council’s Chief Economist speaking out on these issues and highlighting that Auckland needs to both grow “up and out”. Now it’d be nice if more people at a central  government level started to champion the same issues.

Campbell Live’s great urban episode

On Monday night Campbell Live dedicated an entire show to urban issues.

The first segment looked at density in Seattle showing that done well it can be popular and not a blight on the landscape.

Campbell Live - Seattle

Next up was an interview with Janette Sadik-Khan

Campbell Live - JSK

And lastly a few vox-pops from what appears to be on Ponsonby Rd.

Campbell Live - city views

I do find it funny when people slam the central city but then say they haven’t been there for five years. Back then Wynyard Quarter didn’t exist, the shared spaces didn’t exist and places like Britomart weren’t as developed and neat as they are today. It’s easy to forget that they are only really new additions to our urban landscape.

All up it was a great show and I hope more mainstream media start looking at these issues.

Vancouver and Transit Oriented Development

When it comes to intensification one of the things we have long supported is the idea that it’s critically important that density is done well. It’s no use just building high density on its own and it’s the access to local amenities that will determine just how liveable a place is. As the amenities in an area increase it helps to make development much more viable and transport is one of the most important in that regard. Build a motorway through an area and it’s not going to be very conducive to residential development, build a rapid transit line and you can get quite the opposite.  Vancouver is one of the best examples of this and this video from last year shows the impact over 30 years that the initial Skytrain line has had on the area it passes through.

In 2009 Vancouver built the Canada Line which is another line on their Skytrain network. This article from The Atlantic Cities is about some of the impacts that have occurred along the route.

But the light rail line is also becoming a model for spurring environmentally responsible growth around stations, where people will ride transit more and drive less. The Canada Line has sparked a development boom unlike anything in the region’s history.

The most striking transformation is happening in Richmond, a suburb south of Vancouver. Richmond was a bedroom community for decades. Since the late 1990s, it’s turned into the region’s primary settling point for Chinese immigrants. However, Richmond has still retained the look of a North American suburb, with a highway-like main street pocked with large malls and parking lots on either side.

Now, Richmond is the southern terminus of the Canada Line, with easy transit access to both Vancouver and the international airport. The train runs on an elevated track above the main street, No. 3 Road. Since the rail line opened in 2009, clusters of mid-rise apartment towers have gone up around stations. More are in the works. By 2040, Richmond expects to see 30,000 more people living around the line in its city center, and all the parking lots covered with buildings.

It would be interesting to hear how the local retailers near train stations are doing. But it’s not just Richmond benefiting from the Canada Line:

Vancouver is also seeing a development boom around the Canada Line. Near one station, a 1950s era indoor shopping mall called Oakridge is being redeveloped with 13 new apartment and office towers and more retail space. Oakridge is owned by a subsidiary of the Quebec credit union that is one of the main investors in the Canada Line project.

Elsewhere on the line, Vancouver currently has 12 projects approved, 13 applications underway, and 10 more inquiries. If everything gets built, that will add another 4,100 housing units to Cambie Street, whose previous life was as a sleepy row of single-family homes.

“The province and the city made a significant transit investment and now what we’re seeing is that people are greatly attracted to it,” says Brian Jackson, Vancouver’s general manager of planning. “It’s been a magnet for new development.”

Vancouver got to its planning work a bit later than Richmond did. A Cambie Corridor plan was not finalized until 2011. But even before that happened, land values along the line soared and properties started trading hands.

The city’s major developers say they have one priority when they look at project sites these days – access to transit. “It used to be about location, location, location,” says the city’s most influential real estate marketer, Bob Rennie. “Now it’s transit, transit, transit.”

One of those is this development I talked about a few months agoClearly the Skytrain has been immensely successful on many fronts in reshaping the city.

Over the next few years I think we’re going to increasingly see similar activity along parts of our rail network – although not likely as high and we won’t truly see any major change on the western line until the CRL is built dramatically reducing travel times to the CBD and elsewhere. The only thing that will hold this back is going to be the Unitary Plan however I suspect we will likely be on to a second version by then which will hopefully address some of these issues. Morningside is a good example of where there could be substantial changes if the zoning allowed for it.

On the issue of development Kent has kindly created this map which shows the location of the apartments in our development tracker and also shows how they would relate to the Congestion Free Network which would further open up large areas to vastly improved transport options.

Why we like heritage areas, and how this could help the rest of Auckland

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.

Tram built suburbs

The main aspects of this are not confined to Ponsonby, but can be seen in all the thriving and desirable heritage areas of Auckland.

  • Walkability
  • 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.

Terraces Norfolk St

Terraces Norfolk St, Ponsonby

Six Sisters John St

The ‘Six Sisters’, John Street, Ponsonby

Raycourt apartments

Raycourt apartments, Jervois Road, Herne Bay

Cottages Summer St

Cottages, Summer Street, Ponsonby

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.

Tui Lodge

Look, no setback! (Tui Lodge, John Street, Ponsonby)

John St

No off street parking (John Street, Ponsonby)

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.

Terraces George St

Terraces, George Street, Newmarket

The Issac

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.

Ponsonby Mixed Use

Botany Unmixed Use

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.

Renall St

Renall Street, Ponsonby. Once considered a slum and was planned to be demolished.

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.

World Population Density

An awesome detailed map showing the population density of the entire world.

Note: click the link for a much bigger version

Source: http://studiosimpel.nl/map/hiresmap.png

Small can be good

Something strange seems to be happening at the Herald. Recently we have started to see an increasing number of stories that talk about the positives of apartments and higher density living which is completely opposite to the scaremongering we saw during the draft Unitary Plan debate last year. This one was in the herald yesterday – yes it’s the Herald on Sunday which is technically a different publication but we have seen it in the normal herald recently too.

Welcome to your new home. Step inside the flexible living space, which converts into an extra bedroom for guests and a home office during the week.

The two bedrooms also morph into multi-use spaces as needed – an office, a TV room, a studio or workroom. The walls are double insulated against the sound of the high-speed trains passing nearby, and the big, north-facing windows provide passive solar heating.

There’s no garage but you can hire a car just down the street and park your bike in the lock-up.

That aroma? Your neighbours are firing up a welcome barbecue down in the communal courtyard. Grab a lettuce from the rooftop garden for a salad and tuck in.

That’s one vision for how we could be living in 20 years. As demand grows for scarce city land, the population grows and property prices soar, it could well be a reality.

It’s not just a vision of our children’s future, either. It’s already the urban way of life in some parts of the world and has been for generations.

For some the idea of this won’t be appealing but for many others – like many in our younger generations – it’s an idea that doesn’t concern them and for many may even be desirable. in 2012 Patrick put together this wonderful post highlighting people who choose to live in an apartment.

Not everyone wants to live in apartments – and not everyone wants them next door, either. Submissions are open on Auckland Council’s proposed Unitary Plan, the planning document that replaces the region’s 13 existing district and regional plans. Much of the public reaction has been opposition to medium and high-density residential developments in the suburbs.

Generation Zero, a youth-led organisation focused on climate change, found itself aligned with the Property Council and developers in their support for more intensive housing. “The current housing stock doesn’t reflect the changing attitudes of young people in terms of what housing they want,” says spokesman Carlos Chambers.

“There’s certainly a willingness to take hits on things like having your own private garden or section.”

He says new housing models have benefits like healthier lifestyles, less traffic congestion, people walking more and feeling more connected to their communities.

One of the comments we frequently make when discussing density is that it is important not just to put lots of dwellings in but that access to amenities is key; otherwise it’s just amplifying the really negative aspects of the lower density development that is so common in the suburbs – especially those built after 1950. It’s a point picked up well in the next section.

Ingrained ideas may not be easy to shift. Auckland University professor of urban design Errol Haarhoff and lecturer in urban planning Lee Beattie studied developments in New Lynn, Onehunga and Albany. Residents felt they were a good place to live and raise children but half still aimed to one day live in a stand-alone house on a full section.

Haarhoff is sceptical of this aspiration, which he says would be unrealistic for many. “If you then went on to explain that if you had a house in Botany Downs or Orewa or one of those urban fringe subdivisions, your kids would no longer be able to walk to school, there would be no amenities, there wouldn’t even be a dairy within 5km, I imagine the response would be more considered.”

He says the key to creating quality apartment developments is thinking outside the home as much as in it: Where are the shops, parks, schools and cafes? Can you walk there?

“You’ve got to design viable neighbourhoods and communities,” he says. “You can go out there and build 3000 houses but you have to deliver the schools, shops, cafes and connections.”

Good examples of medium density housing exist, often in inner-city suburbs like Freemans Bay, Kingsland, Ponsonby and Mt Eden. The amenities in those neighbourhoods – cafes, shops and parks – help negate the need for more space at home. “The cafe downstairs in the apartment block is the extension of the living room,” he says.

“You go to my local park (in Grey Lynn) and it’s full of mums and dads playing with their kids, meeting each other. Those spaces are there to be used to create a sense of community instead of coming inside and closing the drawbridge. We’re going to reach a point where those big 200sq m houses on the edge of the city are going to start not finding a market.”

One part that did catch my attention was about the change in the size of dwellings over time.

Why, then, are Kiwis still so firmly attached to living big?

If you’re building a new house today, it is probably at least 50 per cent bigger than what your grandparents would have built.

On an international scale, New Zealand’s houses are huge, and keep getting bigger. The average floor area for a new build last year was 197sqm -in crowded Auckland it was 203sq m. Nationally, that’s up from 135sq min 1990 – equivalent to a couple of extra bedrooms.

The size of new-builds was steadily climbing until 2010, when a stutter in the property market saw a drop. In Auckland, it peaked at 217sq min 2010, then dipped to 209sqmin 2011 and to 203sqm last year.

That’s perhaps because the number of apartments built in the region took a steep upturn last year-from 616 in 2012 to 1059 in the year to November.

But even the apartments are roomy – the average size last year was 113sq m. Compare that to the 45sqm average dwelling size in Hong Kong, 76sqmin the UK, or 95sqmin Japan.

Bigger dwellings have been a trend in not just NZ but other countries too. Seeing how much I like charts, I thought I would show just how much the average dwelling size has changed the result is below.

Average Dwelling Size

The big dip in 02-08 period ties in with when larger numbers of apartments were being built. The graph below shows the size of Auckland houses and apartments compared to the rest of New Zealand. Due to some apartments averaging well above 100m² I assume the figures must be including the likes of terraced houses.

Average House Sizes

What I find most interesting is the average house size in Auckland was roughly identical compared to the rest of NZ from about 1999 through to mid-2004 before getting substantially larger just before the GFC. I’m guessing there are multiple reasons behind the trend and that one of those is due to a desire to get more out of the land which is generally more valuable in Auckland than other parts of New Zealand.

The data also includes information about subsections of Auckland based on the old council boundaries providing some very interesting information at a sub-regional level. The next graph shows the average dwelling size consented for the different areas of Auckland (I’m not sure why the North Shore is so spiky at times).

Auckland Dwelling Size

As would be expected, Auckland City saw the lowest sizes for some time which was primarily due to it being where the majority of apartments were built. As apartment construction dried up, the average size of houses increased.

The next graph shows the average house size. What I find interesting is how house sizes in the old Waitakere City Council area have been consistently lower than in the rest of Auckland while in the last 5 or so years the area with the largest homes being built has been on the North Shore.

Auckland House Size

Unfortunately while the data is available, it isn’t really possible to show apartments at this granularity clearly and the graph just looks like an even bigger mess of colours

It will be interesting to see where average house sizes go in the future.

Brent Toderian on “Density Done Well”

Former City of Vancouver Chief Planner Brent Toderian was in Auckland last week and spoke at a very well attended Auckland Conversations event on a range of planning issues that Auckland has much to learn from. We will elaborate on some of the key messages for Auckland coming out of this event during the next week, but for now here’s a different presentation given by Brent back in 2012 which touches on many of the same issues:

While the Unitary Plan does enable some level of increased intensification and certainly places a far greater emphasis on requiring good urban design, the jury is probably still out on whether it truly enables the future that Auckland desperately requires.

Greatest intensification …. pfft

Most regular readers will probably know that I haven’t been all that impressed with the stupid berm debate that cropped up a month or so ago. I said at the time of my post on the subject that it would be the one and only post on the matter and that is still the case however I do want to pick up on a comment made in the article today about the issue as it relates to the Unitary Plan rather than the berms as such. The part in bold is the bit that really caught my attention.

But Waitemata councillor Mike Lee, one of three from areas of the old Auckland City who opposed the decision, said the council should not take the findings as vindication of it.

He said the council should heed discontent from the central district, where residents’ rates had paid for berms to be mowed, given that it was earmarked for the greatest intensification. “It would seem the council is relying on people in intensified housing to go out and buy a lawnmower to mow the berm that the council owns,” he said.

To me this shows that either Mike hasn’t actually read the plan or that he is trying to score political points over it. Sure there will be intensification in the CBD and perhaps some in the fringe suburbs but they don’t tend to have berms anyway. For the rest of the isthmus area there is very little intensification allowed for other than a few patches around town centres in the lower value areas. Almost all of the isthmus area has been locked in amber as what exists today by either imposing the single house or mixed house suburban zone thus preventing intensification. This was scaled back from the earlier draft.

Notified UP - Isthmus

Here is the legend

Notified UP legend

If Mike really wants to see the area that has been zoned for the huge intensification looks like then he should look to the west which has been zoned mostly Mixed Housing Urban or Terraced Housing and Apartments.

Notified UP - West

Oh and I doubt any of the people out west are also whinging about berms.

More details on Auckland’s population growth

Last year the Auckland Plan set a target for 70% of intensification to happen within the existing metropolitan urban area (note that includes greenfield land out to the imposed urban boundary). This was seen as a too radical step for many, something completely different from what Aucklander’s were used to and that would result in people being forced into apartments. The council ended up chickening out on the target and so included a fall-back position 60% intensification.

The debate on intensification heated up again earlier this year during the discussions on the Unitary Plan with again some people claiming that most people want to live on the traditional mythical “quarter acre paradise”. However I’ve always been a bit sceptical about just how much sprawl has been occurring and back in January I looked at the building consent figures which showed that over 70% of the consents issued occurred within the existing urban area.

The first batch of detailed census data was released last week and as you would expect with the information, there is a lot of interesting results hidden within the figures. The first response of many when the data came out was understandably to look at where most of the growth has occurred – the answer to that was generally the CBD and some of the greenfield developments to in the Northwest and Southeast. The seemingly strong greenfield growth caused some to immediately question whether the councils compact city model was really the right direction for the city should be head – despite the compact city model being a forward looking plan and the census being a backward looking exercise.

However looking at where growth is occurring it can be very easy to overlook some key points. In particular a lot of low level growth across the suburbs may not look that important but it can easily add up to a significant amount when combined together. With that in mind and thinking about the intensification targets that were set I thought I would go have a look at what has happened population growth in a slightly different fashion to what has happened so far. To start with for each of the Auckland Census area units I have put them in to one of the following categories.

  • City and Fringe – CBD, eastern Side of Ponsonby Rd, Newton, Grafton, Newmarket and Parnell.
  • Metro Centres – e.g. Albany, Takapuna, Henderson, New Lynn, Manukau, Papakura.
  • Suburban – Rest of the urban area.
  • Mixed – Had some suburban development in 2006 however has also seen some greenfield development.
  • Greenfield – Most of the population growth has through greenfield development.
  • Rural – should be fairly self-explanatory.
  • Rural towns – Settlements outside the existing urban area e.g. Pukekohe, Huapai, Warkworth etc.

Now admittedly it isn’t perfect and we really need the meshblock data to do this exercise properly but still it’s a useful indication. The results in the table below shows that while the suburban areas saw the least growth as a percentage increase figure, they did see by far the most overall growth and accounted for 51% of all the growth that did occur within the region. On the whole population growth within the existing urban areas of Auckland was 64% of all the growth that occurred while greenfield developments accounted for just 24% of the population growth. Perhaps unsurprisingly these results are similar to the building consent ones.  What it does mean is that a target of 70% intensification is not only realistic but not that different from what has been happening in recent years.

Census - where growth occured

Further, as you would expect this growth is having an impact on the density of the city. For each area unit I have rounded the density to the nearest 500 people per square km and use that to create a density profile for the region. The graph below shows that density profile for the entire region based on the percentage of people living in each of the density buckets. It indicates that the density curve is shifting higher while also flattening out with the change generally being less people living at lower densities and more people living at higher densities.

Population Density Profile Percent

However the question is not just whether there are more people living at higher densities but whether the suburbs themselves are getting denser. To help answer this, the graph below shows the density profile based on the total number of people living in each density bucket. What this shows is that there are actually less people living in some of the lower density buckets. For example in 2001 almost 285,000 were living at a density of roughly 2500 people per km², by 2006 that had dropped to 247,500 and in 2013 is at just over 218,500.

Population Density Profile Total

What this suggests is that the density is changing due to the suburbs getting denser. It is important though to point out that at this stage that it’s unknown whether that is due to there being more dwellings, more people in each dwelling or less vacant dwellings. We will need to wait for future census data to come out before we can tell that.

One thing that is really noticeable is that there is an almost complete absence of people living in the medium-high densities. Something between the really high density seen in places like the CBD -which reaches over 10,000 people per km² and the low-medium densities in the suburbs. We should really be seeing a lot more people in the 4,500-6,000 range however we will need to address that in a separate post.

Based on what we know so far it is pretty clear that Auckland is getting denser and when you consider the change since 2001 the impact is quite substantial. One useful way of measuring density as a whole is to look at the weighted density which measures density based on what the average density that people experience rather than a simple calculation of total number of people divided by total land area. One of the reasons for using this metric is that otherwise you get some very odd results like that Auckland is more dense than the urban area of New York due to the large amounts of low density housing in places like New Jersey and Long Island. Based on the weighted density measure, the Auckland region comes in at roughly 2,650 per km² which is an increase of 17% over 2001.

One last point that is worth mentioning in all of this. Census area units are very broad and include parks, industrial areas and other pieces of land that can have negative impacts on density calculations. As such the figures in this post are very rough and we will need to wait for the more detailed meshblock data to emerge before giving more accurate results however it does mean that the density calculations are likely to increase. That more detailed data will also eventually allow us to look more closely at how we compare to other cities in NZ and overseas.

So Auckland has been getting denser already and the sky hasn’t fallen, someone should tell the residents of St Heliers and Milford that it’s ok to come out of their single storey houses now.