New Zealand can’t put the urban genie back in its bottle

Although the majority of New Zealanders have lived in towns and cities for almost a century, it sometimes seems like we’re in denial that we live in an urban nation. This unease came to the fore during the debate over the Auckland Plan and the Unitary Plan. As it turns out, some people are uneasy about Auckland’s emergence as a large and increasingly sophisticated city.

At that time, the NZ Herald published several articles calling for a “national population strategy” to forestall further growth in Auckland. Here’s one example from May 2013:

Redirecting people away from settling or living in Auckland would be a positive step. A good example is in Invercargill where students pay no fees. The fees at Auckland learning institutes should be increased and those elsewhere removed or reduced significantly.


As so much of the population increase is likely to come from an increase in births, a decrease is urgent. Incentives need to be provided such as free contraception, especially to those under 20 years of age. The provision of family benefits regardless of whether you have two or 10 children should be looked at.

Here’s another one from June 2013:

Short of putting contraceptives in the water supply we are unlikely to do much about our rate of natural increase – so realistically any policy needs to focus on migration patterns, particularly within New Zealand – the so-called “northward drift”.

Realistically we cannot talk about Auckland in isolation from the rest of New Zealand. We have no national population strategy – though some useful work has been done in the past. Neither do we have a regional development strategy, an essential mechanism for achieving a more equitable sharing of economic and population growth.

This is a seductive idea, but it won’t work. Developing policy to redistribute growth is bloody hard without spending massive amounts of money and tightly controlling economic activity. If we seriously tried to subsidise or regulate growth away from Auckland, we’d probably just end up misallocating resources and reduce our wellbeing. As urban economist Edward Glaeser is fond of pointing out, good policy should aim to help poor people rather than poor places.

Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about the consequences of regional growth policies, as we have a real-world historical example to draw upon. From the 1930s to the 1980s, NZ tried a massive policy experiment – it invested heavily in regional development and used regulatory controls to spread investment and employment around the country.

Looking back on it, the reach of these regulations and investments is extraordinary. So, for example, you had:

  • Economically costly production and export subsidies for farmers were propping up uneconomic farms. By 1984, subsidies accounted for almost 40% of the average sheep and beef farmer’s income.
  • The Transport Licensing Act 1931, which banned trucks from moving goods more than 150 kilometres before its repeal in 1982. This imposed high costs to distance, encouraging small-scale local production rather than centralising plants.
  • Regulations that virtually prohibited the opening or closing of meatworks and other rural processing plants between the 1930s and 1980s. When the Patea meatworks closed in 1982, they were the first meatworks to close in half a century – which is bizarre when you realise how much cheaper refrigerated shipping got over this period.
  • A policy of distributing major industrial facilities around the country – an aluminium smelter for Bluff, a steelworks for Glenbrook, a pulp and paper mill for Kawerau, etc.
  • The use of the Railways Department and Forest Service as rural employment schemes.

So it’s worth asking whether these policies worked. We know that they were economically costly – but did they actually succeed in redistributing growth from Auckland to the regions?

The data suggests that the answer is no. Here’s a graph of population growth in New Zealand’s major cities from 1926 to 2006 from Grimes and Tarrant (2013). As it shows, Auckland’s population growth began diverging from Wellington and Christchurch early on – probably after World War II.

NZ city population growth 1926-2006

Furthermore, the almost total removal of rural subsidies during the 1980s doesn’t seem to have accelerated Auckland’s divergence. In fact, Auckland’s annual per capita growth rate seems to have fallen after deregulation, although growth slowed more in other places.

In short, we should accept the reality of urban growth: People want to live in Auckland and start businesses here for good reasons, and we can’t (and shouldn’t) try to stop them. The idea that we can put the urban genie back in its bottle is sheer fantasy. If we try, we’ll only make ourselves worse off.

Our only choice is whether we will have a good city – an interesting and prosperous place – or a crippled, unsuccessful city. Given that, our focus should be on making the best urban places we can. We need Auckland to be a dynamic and liveable city rather than an overgrown small town. And that means investing and planning in a city-like way: getting ambitious about rapid transit, celebrating our mixed-use public spaces, and accepting that density and amenity aren’t mutually exclusive.

Is this Auckland 2040?

Is this Auckland 2040?


New Zealand’s population growth highest in a decade

New estimates from Statistics NZ based show New Zealand’s population is growing at the fastest rate for over a decade

New Zealand’s population is growing at its fastest rate for over a decade, according to new estimates released by Statistics New Zealand today.

The country’s population grew by 67,800 people, or 1.5 percent, in the year to 30 June 2014. This came from natural increase (births minus deaths) of 29,500 and net migration (arrivals minus departures) of 38,300. New Zealand’s estimated resident population was 4.51 million at 30 June 2014.

“This is the first release of population estimates using results from the 2013 Census and Post-enumeration Survey,” population statistics manager Vina Cullum said.

The estimates are the best available indication of how many people currently live in New Zealand because they include people missed by the census, including those who were temporarily overseas on census night.

New population estimates at the earlier date of 30 June 2013 are also available for broad ethnic groups, and we have revised population estimates for subnational areas.

“These estimates confirm increases in all ethnic populations since 2006. Even the broad European ethnic population has grown to 3.31 million despite its older age structure,” Ms Cullum said.

The June 2013 estimates put the Māori ethnic population at 692,000, the broad Asian population at 541,000, and broad Pacific population at 344,000. An estimated 53,000 people identify with Middle Eastern, Latin American, or African ethnicities.

Population growth was 1.5% over the last year compared with an average for the 2006-2013 period of 0.8%. The graph below shows the change in population over the last decade.

NZ Population Change 1992 - 2014

One of the big factors has been a strong increase in net migration

NZ Net Migration 1992 - 2014

Traditionally the majority of that net migration increase ends up in Auckland so it will be interesting to see if that trend continues when the regional information is released later this year.

More migrants! Sweet.

Several recent reports and articles have discussed trends in migration and its impacts on New Zealand.

In terms of trends, net migration is at a 10-year high. The recent surge in net migration trends is shown below.

Net migration

The simple reason advanced for the positive net migration trend is that our economy is doing relatively well compared to most of the countries with whom we compete for skilled labour. This is both 1) reducing the number of kiwis departing these shores and 2) attracting more people from elsewhere to come live/work here (some of whom will of course be NZers). Put simply, less out and more in = higher net gain. Trends in long term departures and arrivals are illustrated below.

Arrivals and departures

So what might be the impacts of higher net migration?

Usefully, the people at NZIER have been researching the impacts of migration on New Zealand’s economic performance. They find that for every 40,000 additional net migrants, our GDP per capita increases by approximately $400 p.a. Why? Well, there are apparently a number of microeconomic channels through which migration contributes to economic output, specifically:

  • They provide firms with new skills
  • They increase innovation and entrepreneurship
  • NZ businesses benefit from greater scale and competitiveness
  • They increase returns from public investment

The general message is fairly simple: Migrants increase the diversity and scale of our labour market and firms, while also increasing the returns on public investment (which typically have relatively fixed costs, such as infrastructure and institutions). It’s worth pointing out, however, that only the first two economic channels listed above are actually specifically linked to migration. The last two microeconomic channels are pure economies of scale, which would also result from a higher domestic fertility rate.

Which brings me nicely to another (potential) benefit from migration: Greater diversity in potential partners.

I know this sounds flakey, but I’ve just recently been struck by how many of my NZ friends (including several of my fellow bloggers) are partnered up with people of foreign origin. Which raises an interesting proposition: Is it possible that higher rates of net migration have an indirect impact on domestic fertility rates? I’ve been asking my mates but they’re a bit coy on the topic. But it seems reasonable to suggest that if migrants introduce diversity/specialisation into the labour market then perhaps they do the same for the “partner market”.

I guess the net effect depends not only on the quality of the match, but also migrants’ relative preferences for making babies compared to the existing NZ population (to which they are added). This is an area that may warrant further NZ-specific research (NB: The World Bank has analysed migration and fertility impacts in this paper. The key finding appears to be that migration reduces home country fertility and increases destination country fertility, as I would expect. However the World Bank appear to attribute this to simple differences in preferences, rather than better matching).

Are there negative impacts from migration?

The most obvious is the additional demand for housing that results during times of high migration, which could in turn lead to higher property price inflation and ultimately higher interest rates. This will not only curb domestic demand across the economy, but it will also tend to inflate the currency and undermine NZ’s export competitiveness. This issue is all the more relevant in the Christchurch context and, in my opinion, supports the Reserve Bank’s decision to implement loan-value requirements as a temporary curb on housing demand in these relatively exceptional circumstances.

Some people suggest that higher net migration might reduce social cohesion, although specific details on exactly what is meant by social cohesion are difficult to come by.

Data from StatisticsNZ (as discussed here on KiwiBlog) suggests people of Asian ethnicity in New Zealand have much lower rates of criminal offending than the general population, while the opposite is true of Pasfika ethnicity. However, this difference may be attributable to differences in the relative incomes of these two migrant groups.

I can’t help but wonder that if 1) more kiwis are staying here and/or returning from overseas (where approximately 1 million currently reside) and 2) kiwis who hook up with migrants are generally happier than they would be otherwise, then it seems possible that current trends will actually bring people/families together and thereby supports greater “cohesion”. So ultimately I think this supposed “negative” effect of migration is likely to be over-stated and that, on balance, migration has net positive impacts for NZ’s socio-economic performance.

So what should we expect from future trends in migration?

Well, if the results of this international survey are anything to go by then NZ can expect to see positive net migration numbers for some time. The survey ranked New Zealand ranked fifth overall for preferred destination and subsequently estimated that our population would increase to over 9 million in the event that everyone who wanted to migrate here was able to do so. Of course, the relative performance of NZ’s economy will be the main determinant of whether current rates of migration are sustained.

All I hope is that we start to get people like Emma Watson and/or Hayley Williams migrating here to vie for my affections. Sweet.

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.

The real surprise from the census data

Maurice Williamson was right. The census data does contain a surprise “bigger than Ben Hur”. But the real surprise isn’t in the half-baked comments about total population growth. To find it, you need to look at the new “usually resident population” counts for local areas as at 5th March 2013, and see where they have have diverged from what was expected (based on the latest population estimates, which were for 30th June 2012).

And the real surprise is this: the Auckland CBD has a population much larger than what was expected.

Population Estimates vs. Usually Resident Population in the Auckland CBD, 1996-2013

According to the latest census counts, the central city now has a usually resident population of 26,307 people. This is much higher than the latest population estimates suggest – as shown in the graph above. Generally, population estimates are higher than usually resident population counts. They add in an estimate of the number of people who were overseas on census night, and an estimate of the people that were missed (didn’t fill out a census form).

Now, we know that there haven’t been many new CBD apartments completed in the last year, so the obvious conclusion is that the estimates were way too low. Looking back at 2006, the CBD’s usually resident population was adjusted up by 7% to reach the population estimate. Applying a similar ratio here, it’s now likely that the CBD has a population of at least 28,000 people – and this is the kind of estimate Statistics New Zealand will end up with when they re-calculate their estimates next year.

Why is there such a big difference? It’s hard to say for sure – and we should get a better idea when more info comes out, i.e. household numbers – but here are some possibilities:

  1. More people per household in the CBD – singles are out, couples are in. Perhaps there are even more children?
  2. Fewer apartments being used as ‘holiday homes’ or serviced apartments, meaning more are available as permanent private dwellings?
  3. On a similar note, there are fewer international students these days – they don’t get counted as residents if they’re staying for less than a year. Again this frees up more apartments for “residents”.
  4. Reduced undercount – perhaps Statistics New Zealand have really stepped up their efforts to improve their coverage of the CBD?

Maurice was even correct in saying that some infrastructure plans will need to be reviewed as a result of the latest census data. The case for investment in the CBD just got stronger. The Ministry of Education should be taking a serious look at putting some schools in. The data should also improve the case for Council to invest further in various facilities. As for the City Rail Link, well, this news certainly doesn’t hurt it.

More detailed Census data released

While there ended up being other news yesterday afternoon that stole the headlines, the more important announcement was that of the census results. Like the week before, the results released were still only the numbers from the census night and so didn’t include those out of the country or those that didn’t fill in their census forms – and those numbers will come later – but they did include the results down to the census area unit level which gives a good indication of where the population growth is occurring.

As expected from the results, Auckland saw the greatest growth with a population increase of 110,592 people. To put that in perspective, that’s 51.6% of all of the growth that has occurred in New Zealand since the last census and Auckland’s growth is similar to having added the entire city or Tauranga (114,789) or Dunedin (120,246) to the region.

In total the population of Auckland increased by 8.5% over the seven years since the last census, an average growth of 1.2%. That is less than the 12.5% (2.4% per year) that the region saw between the 2001 and 2006 censuses however is roughly in line with the trends seen in the rest of the country. Auckland’s share of the country’s growth actually increased slightly as for the 2001-06 period Auckland had 49.8% of all NZ growth. Further as pointed out by John yesterday (and by the council at a briefing on the results), the numbers can be dramatically impacted by changes in migration which tends to go in cycles – and we are just starting to come out of a lull in this regard.

Some people have already said the lower population growth means the council should cut back on the Unitary Plan however these figures are just one part of the story and there is a lot more detail to come from Stats NZ including updated population projections before any changes to planning might be needed. Anyway if there is lower growth then the first parts of the Unitary Plan that should be scaled back are those that allow for huge expansion into greenfield land in the North, Northwest and South.

As mentioned the most interesting parts of the information released was the population by census area unit which is the second lowest level of data that Stats NZ release (the lowest being meshblock but that hasn’t been released yet). The Herald have already whipped out these maps showing the population density in Auckland for 2006 and 2013 however it is worth noting that the scale isn’t exactly even as the first six colours combined represent the same range of density as the 7th and most common peachy colour.

Population Density 2006-2013

Unsurprisingly the densest part of the region is in the CBD and some of the surrounding areas. However there is also quite a lot of density in the Mangere, Papatoetoe and Otara areas. These likely reflect much larger household sizes rather than smaller and more intensive dwellings like we see in the CBD.

There has already been some talk about the pure numbers of population change in some of the urban fringe areas and while in absolute terms that might be true, it is also worth noting that often the area units can be quite large and that growth is spread over a large area.  For example the area unit with the single biggest population growth was Ormiston in the South East which has seen quite a bit of greenfield development associated with the new Flat Bush town centre. It grew by 4,263 people since the last census 7 years ago when it was almost exclusively rural. There has some quite strong growth in the neighbouring area units too. However compared to other parts of Auckland the area unit is extremely large at roughly 9.8 km². As a comparison, in just over half of the total area (5.0 km²)  there are five area units that cover the CBD (and a little bit outside of it) and combined they have seen an extra 9,978 living in the area over the last seven years . In other words they have had roughly twice the population growth occur in half of the space.

To help show the changes, Kent has put together this map together showing the change in density between 2006 and 2013.

Population Density change 2006-2013

When you combine the info in here with that of the map above what you can see is that not only is the central city the densest area in Auckland but it is growing denser faster. There are a few patches of increased density outside the central city but they do tend to be places where long planned greenfield development has taken place.

While on the subject, here is the council’s press release and so far they have only really looked at the data at a local board level.

Auckland Council’s Chief Planning Officer says today’s 2013 Census results, which show Auckland’s population has hit 1,415,550 people, provide vital insights to help plan for Auckland’s future.

The results, released by Statistics New Zealand, show Auckland’s population has grown by 110,592 people since the 2006 Census. Auckland now represents 33.4 per cent of New Zealand’s total population.

“The results reinforce that Auckland continues on its strong growth path, and the prudent thing to do is plan and prepare for that growth,” says Chief Planning Officer Dr Roger Blakeley.

Auckland experienced the largest growth in New Zealand between 2006 and 2013. This was in line with the rest of the country, however the rapid rate of population growth that was seen in Auckland between 2001 and 2006 appears to have slowed.

Dr Blakeley says it’s important to note that census counts are snapshots in time.

“The population growth over the past seven years is not a reliable guide for Auckland’s next 30 years, however the growth rate remains strong and we need to plan for it,” he says.

Contributing factors to the lower population growth rate in New Zealand over the past seven years include a reduction in net immigration caused by the global recession and an increased number of departing New Zealand citizens, mainly to Australia. Auckland also has more migrants and higher fertility than other parts of the country.

The distribution of growth within Auckland’s local board areas has been variable. Growth has been particularly strong in the urban fringe areas and city centre.

Between 2006 and 2013, the five local boards that grew the most were:
1. Waitematā – increased by 14,208 people
2. Howick – 13,620
3. Upper Harbour – 10,797
4. Henderson-Massey – 8898
5. Hibiscus and Bays – 7974.

The five local boards that experienced the least growth during the same period were:
17. Devonport-Takapuna – increased by 2817 people
18. Māngere-Ōtāhuhu – 2808
19. Puketāpapa – 2133
20. Waiheke – 543
21. Great Barrier – 45.

What was odd is that the council held a briefing on the results and the cities chief anti intensification campaigner – Bernard Orsman was there. Despite the extremely strong growth in the city centre he made the statement more than once that if we just ignore the CBD (perhaps he thinks apartment dwellers are lesser beings) that it somehow proves the “compact city model” and the unitary plan was flawed, not what people want and therefore should be dumped. There are of course a couple of issues with this with the primary one being that you can’t just ignore the a huge segment of the growth that has occurred. He was also told on numerous occasions that the growth over the last 7 years is no reflection of where the growth will occur over the next 30. The reason I mention all of this is to highlight that Orsman seems to have quite an agenda that he is pursuing when it comes to the unitary plan. It will be interesting to see what he says in any article he writes about it.

We will be doing more posts on the Census data over time.

Will someone think of the children

From what I can tell, during the week it appears that our councillors tore up the idea of a compact city and instead pushed ahead with opening up greenfield land. Next week when they become available, I will publish all of the relevant voting records of the various amendments that impact on development so people are well aware of who voted for what. However one of the common arguments that people opposing density have pushed can be summed up as “Will someone think of the children“. One such example of this was a push by Dick Quax to increase the minimum size of backyards from 40m² to 80m².

Cr Quax moved the following amendment to replace d) seconded by : Cr Stewart

d) development controls mixed housing suburban – that 7.13 be amended to require an outdoor living space of 80sqm.

A division was called for, voting on which was as follows:

Councillors: Cameron Brewer
Mike Lee
Calum Penrose
Dick Quax
Sharon Stewart
Wayne Walker

Councillors: Anae Arthur Anae
Len Brown
Dr Cathy Casey
Alf Filipaina
Hon Chris Fletcher
Michael Goudie
Ann Hartley
Penny Hulse
Des Morrison
Richard Northey
Noelene Raffills
David Taipari
Glen Tupuhi
Penny Webster
George Wood

Thankfully the amendment was lost however many of those agreeing with the change – both councillors and the general public – often put forward arguments that more space is needed for kids can play in. Perhaps it relates back to their childhood of living on a large section when Auckland (or in the country) and they want kids to grow up like them, perhaps they are trying to impose what they personally want out of a property or perhaps they are just wanting to derail the Unitary Plan process because they don’t agree with the direction the city is going. Whatever the reason the issue of kids and families is an interesting one.

Below is one of the graphs that councillors were shown as part of the debate and is based off the Statistics New Zealand projections for household and family types out to 2031 using medium population growth projections. Behind the numbers are some key trends like that couples are having children later and that people are living longer. This means that within the next decade, there are expected to be more couples without children than those with them. The other area that is increasing sharply is expected to be the number of people living by themselves.

UP - Auckland Household graph

All of this presents an interesting situation. There will be far more people living without kids than with them and as such what they need out of a house will be very different. Many people might not want a backyard to maintain and instead prefer a smaller section but with access to a nice neighbourhood park that they can use. It also means that a big 3/4/5+ bedroom houses might not be ideal and instead smaller 1&2 bedroom places might be more suitable. This isn’t to say that all couples or even individuals will want smaller places but the important thing is we give people the choice and having the Unitary Plan allow for diversity is critical to that.

Further I have even heard that developers are starting to wake up to this trend. One I was talking to recently told me how he decided to put a handful of small one bedroom places into a development he was building and they sold so fast to a huge variety of people (including a guy who brought one as a place to go where his wife couldn’t find him) that he is changing the mix of housing types he is will build in future developments to include more smaller dwellings.

Of course for those that do want a larger house and land the good thing is there will still be heaps of it available. We already have hundreds of thousands of dwellings in that category. Just because a site might be zoned for higher density it doesn’t mean it will ever be developed any further than what it is now. Perhaps instead of asking “will someone think about the children” we should be asking “will someone think of those without children”.

Is Auckland sucking the life out of NZ?

This post is based on an opinion piece I wrote a few weeks back for my employers at RCG – thanks to them for letting me put it up here as well!

TV3’s The Vote program last month featured a debate on the topic, “Is Auckland sucking the life out of NZ?”. I missed most of the episode, unfortunately, but I did catch the results… essentially, most of the people who voted on the TV3 website, Facebook or Twitter agreed that Auckland was sucking the life out of NZ. The studio audience (in Auckland!) disagreed.

OK, so the voters might not have been a representative sample, but this is certainly a charged issue, especially for people outside of Auckland who feel that the city is getting more than its fair share.

At the moment, Auckland is home to more than 1.5 million people – 34% of New Zealand’s population. It’s growing much faster than the rest of the country, and in fact around 60% of New Zealand’s population growth in the next 20 years is likely to be in Auckland. Those are the facts, but they can be interpreted in a number of ways! As for my own interpretation, read on:

Where’s this rapid growth coming from?

Two-thirds of Auckland’s growth comes from “natural increase” – births minus deaths.  Aucklanders giving birth to Aucklanders. The city has a young population, driving this part of the growth. The other third comes from migration, and this is probably the part that other Kiwis get up in arms about. Are we hogging international immigrants? Are Kiwis from heartland NZ upping sticks and moving to Auckland, leaving ghost towns behind?

Well, people move to Auckland from other parts of New Zealand, there’s no doubt about that. But of course, the same thing also happens in the opposite direction. In fact, census results show that in the 1996-2001 and 2001-2006 periods, more people moved out of Auckland, to other parts of NZ, than the reverse. We’ve had a decade of negative migration, in domestic (or “internal”, i.e. within NZ) terms. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues when the 2013 census results come out. The “northward drift” of population, which certainly has been a factor in the past, doesn’t seem to be happening any more.

Internal migration


Then there’s international migration. Over the last 20 years, Auckland has consistently attracted more international migrants than it has lost people to overseas. And this is where our migration is coming from, for the most part. It could be argued that, if not for Auckland, international immigrants would otherwise settle in other parts of NZ. But maybe some of them wouldn’t come at all. And if Auckland wasn’t here, would we be losing more people to Australia than we are already? It seems likely.

External migration



The other side of the story is money. Does Auckland pay its fair share? Again, the facts seem to suggest that it does. Aucklanders pay a larger share of national infrastructure than other parts of the country – at least for state highways, health and telecommunications, and quite possibly for other sectors too. Auckland is receiving government funding for high-profile projects, like the City Rail Link and Roads of National (ahem) Significance, but this is simply in recognition of the fact that so much growth is expected to occur here.

Auckland also receives a major share of “foreign direct investment” – overseas people and companies investing in NZ businesses, properties and so on. This is fortunate, perhaps, because the city doesn’t contribute as much when it comes to exports, and New Zealand has a persistent current account deficit (four decades and counting). Auckland will hopefully be able to boost its exports in the future, including some of the technology and service industries which will benefit from the city’s scale.

Overall, I’m strongly in the “Auckland is not sucking the life out of NZ” camp. There are some valid questions to ask, though, such as: what could be done to stimulate growth and activity south of the Bombay Hills, without it simply coming at Auckland’s expense?

Accept that Auckland will continue to grow

NZ Herald business columnist Brian Gaynor has a good extensive article yesterday about the need to accept that Auckland will continue to grow in size and to ensure that its growth is adequately planned for.

Auckland is at a major crossroads. We can either accept that the city will grow dramatically over the next few decades and plan accordingly or we can do nothing and allow Auckland to become more and more congested and less attractive to live in.

The early signs are that we will take the do-nothing approach as community groups oppose developments that will have a positive impact on the city as a whole. This is unfortunate because international trends clearly indicate that Auckland will experience strong growth even if we don’t develop the facilities to cope with this growth.

We’ve often noted that Auckland does sit at the crossroads at the moment – perhaps more obviously than at any point since the 1950s. We need to decide whether we’re going to be a “real city” or just an overgrown provincial town.

Gaynor touches upon some reasons for why improved technology over the past couple of decades hasn’t (as had been expected in some areas) undermined the benefits of urban living – instead perhaps even adding to the allure of inner-city living and working:

Cities continue to expand even though the general consensus 20 to 30 years ago was that they would stop growing because technology would allow people to work from the beach, skifields or a remote office.

These predictions were totally wrong for a number of reasons.

The first is that our work and social lives have become intertwined.

In the past we went straight home after work, particularly if it was a manual or blue-collar job.

We rarely worked from home or at weekends. Now we go to work and have coffee with friends at 10am, go to the gym at lunchtime and stay in the city for a drink or meal after work. We shop, either real or online, at lunchtime and email and text our friends and families.

The demarcation between work and non-work has become blurred, particularly as we can work from home if we have access to the office through cloud computing.

Cities offer a mix of coffee shops, bars, restaurants, theatres, gyms, sports stadiums, medical facilities, parks and shops that encourages us to work in the city rather than in isolation at home.

In the modern world we are able to mix and match our work and social life and our dress style, which is increasingly similar for both work and social occasions, reflects this.

Twenty years ago the Auckland CBD was dying. The 1987 sharemarket crash had left huge swathes of empty sites when new plans for office buildings didn’t eventuate. Barely anyone lived in the CBD. These days – while still not without its flaws – my general feeling is that the centre of Auckland is in better health than its been for decades. Not just as a place for people to work and shop, but increasingly as a place to live, to visit for events and as the real hub of growing tourist activity.

Gaynor then turns his attention to transport:

Transport is a major issue in Auckland and we spend most of our time arguing whether the city should provide more public transport or more roads and who should pay for these.

There is a clear need for more public transport and better roads and we all have to contribute, even those living in the inner city who don’t use transport.

It is vitally important that there is full connectivity between trains, buses, taxis, roads, and cycling and walking facilities. There is no point in having a train, road, cycling or bus system that ends in a part of the city with no connectivity with other transport facilities.

The observation that Auckland needs a properly connected transport system that works for all different modes is consistent with what we’ve been advocating on this site for years. Once a few key roading projects underway at the moment are complete – like the Western Ring Route and upgrades to key bottlenecks like around AMETI – then we’ll have the roading side of the equation pretty well sorted out. Time to focus on the other stuff.

Helpfully, he also picks up on the need to focus on improving walkability:

The next and most important feature is the ability to walk from one facility to another. Walkability is one of the most important features of modern urban planning.

Hong Kong has a network of elevated walkways that connect one city block with another and Singapore has a network of underground connections allowing pedestrians to walk between hotels, residential facilities, social meeting places, work and important urban landscapes.

One survey ranks Zurich, Amsterdam, Singapore, Munich and Hong Kong as the best cities in terms of walkability. Melbourne also has excellent walkability in addition to its trams and urban rail system.

Many of the benefits that arise from cities relate to the ability to be in quick face-to-face contact with other people and the ability to ‘bump’ into others frequently. In an inner city area where this is most likely, walkability is a crucial factor to enabling easy connections and maximising the ease of chance encounters and pleasant locations for discussions. Walkability is still something that Auckland does terribly – even/especially in the CBD.

Gaynor finishes by looking to the future – and noting how it’s really in our best interests for Auckland to grow – because it’s such a good wealth generator:

Auckland now accounts for 33.4 per cent of New Zealand’s population compared with just 16.7 per cent in 1950. In the past 60 years Auckland has contributed 46 per cent of the country’s population growth.

The city is projected to have a population of 1,844,000 by 2025 when it will contain 36.8 per cent of the country’s total population. The 2025 projection for Auckland may be on the light side as Statistics NZ believes that Auckland’s population could exceed 1,950,000 by the mid-2020s and 2,100,000 by 2031.

A population of 2,100,000 by 2031 would represent growth of over 50 per cent since 2010. We shouldn’t be surprised by this as Auckland’s population surged by 68 per cent between 1990 and 2010 while New Zealand’s overall population increased by 31 per cent over the same period.

One of the main road blocks towards planning for the future is the unwillingness of a large percentage of Aucklanders to accept that their city will continue to grow and the need for more and more infrastructure to cater for this growth.

Submissions to the city council, and letters to the editor, continue to promote policies that would stop people from moving to Auckland or encourage Aucklanders to move to Otago or Southland.

This is naive because Auckland is a very liveable city and the earnings gap between the country’s largest city and the South Island continues to increase.

For example, Auckland’s median income is now $126 a week higher than Otago and $163 a week greater than Southland compared with $76 and $115 respectively in 2005.

We have to accept that Auckland will continue to experience strong population growth, as will most major urban centres, and the city will be less liveable unless we plan carefully for this growth. 

I certainly think Auckland will be a much more exciting, prosperous and fantastic place to live in with a population of 2.5 million than it is now. Just like Auckland’s a much more exciting, prosperous and fantastic place than it was at 500,000 people or 1 million people.

Overall a really good article.

Population Growth Continues to be Questioned

Groups like Auckland2040 bemoaned three storey terraced houses as potential “highrise” slums that will end the world – if they are allowed near rich beach side suburbs of the North Shore or high amenity areas of the isthmus – have become a common theme since the consultation on the Unitary Plan began a few months ago. As the consultation period drew to a close they also adopted another tactic, questioning the population projections that the council is using. They question whether we will have 1 million people in the region in 30 years’ time and even went so far as to suggest their followers make the following statement in their submissions.

Re-evaluate the projected population growth used as a basis for the plan based upon census information and consider other ways of reducing population growth in Auckland rather than just accepting that the projected growth is an inevitable fact.

Now the council hasn’t just plucked a number randomly out of the air, they are using projections from Statistics NZ to guide the planning process. People familiar with the numbers – or who read some of the numerous posts we have done on the issue – will know that there are actually three sets of population projections for Auckland, a high growth scenario, a medium growth scenario and a low growth scenario. The council has also frequently pointed out that historically Auckland has tended to grow faster than predictions. Here are the current population projections for the region.


Now I’m not sure if this was pre planned or if it was a response to people questioning the projections but last week the council held one of their Auckland Conversations events to talk about the issue. The speakers were Len Brown, Chief Planning Officer Roger Blakeley and special guest Len Cook who was formerly the countries chief statistician and who has also performed a similar role in the UK. You can watch the full discussion from all three speakers here (you have to sign up to watch but it is free)

Len Brown - Population conversation.

You can also follow the presentations separately if you want:

Len Brown

Roger Blakeley

Len Cook

What I took from watching this is that the council is on the right track. They are planning for the highest projected population growth just in case it happens instead of planning for less and crossing their fingers and hoping the growth doesn’t occur. But even with this approach is still being questioned with the likes of Auckland2040 – who were at the event – seemingly thinking we should take the crossing our fingers approach. Yet Bernard Orsman from the NZ Herald who was also at the event seemed to present the information as if the mayor was desperately holding on to using the figure for some sort of political reason.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown is sticking with a projected population growth figure of one million more Aucklanders to justify controversial plans for apartments in the suburbs and urban sprawl in the countryside.

Last night, Mr Brown said Auckland’s history of exceeding high-growth projections made it prudent to provide for the high-growth scenario of a million more residents by 2041.

The figure of an extra one million people has been the basis for the council’s asking Aucklanders to adapt to a new way of life in the draft Unitary Plan that includes high-rise and small-size apartments in the suburbs and 160,000 homes outside the existing urban boundaries.

The council’s use of the high-growth projection has provoked debate about the figure and whether something should be done to slow the city’s population growth.

Mt Eden resident Alan Kemp is typical of many, having called the Unitary Plan a “rotten plan” based on bad numbers that allowed multi-storey buildings at odds with their surroundings.

This is how Radio NZ saw the talk which seemed much more balanced.

Or listen here.

The issue has come up again in the Herald this morning with another piece by Orsman regarding the use of high projections used for planning in the Auckland and Unitary plans vs the medium projections used in the planning of infrastructure.

The Auckland Council is talking up another one million residents in the city by 2041, but it is taking a prudent line when it comes to providing transport, water and other services.

The council has adopted a Statistics New Zealand’s high-growth scenario of a million more residents by 2041, but its water body is using a medium-growth scenario of 700,000 more residents.

The mismatch has raised questions, but council chief planning officer Dr Roger Blakeley says it is prudent to provide for the highest likely population growth and to be cautious to avoid over-investment.

He said the council required council bodies to be cautious about capital spending ahead of time to avoid high borrowing, interest and depreciation costs.

Underspending on infrastructure, he said, could be addressed through regular budget reviews and incremental increases to facilities, such as wastewater treatment plants.

During feedback on the draft Unitary Plan, concerns about a lack of infrastructure planning have been a hot topic at public meetings.

Councillor Cameron Brewer has called for an independent review of the most likely population growth, saying the council’s projections are out of kilter with the Government’s national infrastructure unit’s mid-range projections

I think that the point Blakeley makes is perhaps the most important in this entire debate, effectively we should be planning for the worst but investing for what is most likely. If the worst does happen then we can adjust our investment levels accordingly but if growth falls short then so will the amount of intensification. With Auckland’s having a history of under planning for growth, I’m actually surprised that we still have people – especially politicians – suggesting that we carry on that tradition. I guess it is because the politicians who have to deal with the mess under planning causes will almost certainly be different to those currently in office.

Lastly perhaps my favourite graph from the presentations is this one from Roger Blakeley’s presentation which shows the population changes between 1961 and 2011 by migration and natural increase. What is clear is that population increase from natural means is consistently increasing and now with the exception of a couple of years makes up the vast majority of the population increase.

Roger Blakeley presentation - Population growth by type

 Edit: and with almost perfect timing, the council has just put up this post on the issue which answers the question of:

Q1. What population growth projection do we use for the Unitary Plan, and why?

Q2. What population projection do we use for infrastructure planning, and why?

Q3. How do we monitor for changes in future population projections?