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What if we really were doing “social engineering”?

An article on Planetizen a few months back highlights an issue often missed in the debates over roads versus public transport or sprawl versus intensification – the fact that for the last century most government spending and policy has supported car use and lower density development. Yet this is seemingly often ignored by those moaning about how planners are supposedly  ‘forcing’ people into dense living environments while transport planners are supposedly ‘forcing’ people onto public transport.

Michael Lewyn, the post’s author, asks an interesting hypothetical question to set up his argument that really public investment and policy (essentially public sector intervention) has for an incredibly long time been tilted towards urban form and transport outcomes epitomised by car dependent urban sprawl:

After reading yet more blather about the “war on cars” or “density-pushing planners” I recently had a thought: what if government really did favor transit and compact development as aggressively as they had favored sprawl in the 20th century?  How different would planning and transportation rules be?…

For example, in the first half of the 20th century, government at all levels spent public money on roads for automobiles, while giving limited or no support to streetcars (which at first were private).  As transit providers began to lose money, government took them over, and the federal government started to support public transit in the 1960s.  Today, the federal government spends about four times as much on highways as on public transit.   As a result of these policies, many cities have weak public transit systems, while many people and jobs have moved to suburbs served by highways.

This cartoon from Andy Singer springs to mind (he has a heap of other great cartoons on many of the issues we talk about on the blog)

Public Investment - Wasteful Subsidy

Some examples are then outlined to give us a bit of an idea about how extremely pro public transport and urban intensification policies would need to go in order to truly counter-balance what has existed for around a century in the USA (and in New Zealand). For transport funding:

So if government completely reversed course in the 21st century, it would reverse funding ratios: that is, spend half a century spending several times as much on public transit as on highways, and then spent another half century completely defunding highways (much as it ignored transit in the early and mid-20th century). 

For how mortgages for greenfield development were subsidised:

In the 1950s, government heavily subsidized suburbia, through Federal Housing Administration (FHA) lending criteria that favored suburbs.  For example, FHA refused to subsidize mortgages in racially diverse urban neighborhoods, and favored new single-family homes (which tended to be in suburbs) over renovating existing homes- a policy that encouraged middle-class homeowners to move to suburbs.  So to completely reverse course, the FHA would have to spend a couple of decades refusing to insure mortgages in any neighborhood built after the New Deal, while subsidizing mortgages in older neighborhoods. 

For density controls:

Since the 1920s, most American zoning codes have mandated that huge swaths of land be limited to low-density residential use, ensuring that many Americans do not live within walking distance of public transit.  To truly reverse this policy, government would have to spend the 21st century mandating that new development be at densities sufficient to support transit, and would require a mix of residential and commercial uses to the extent possible.

And how about parking?

Since the 1950s, most zoning codes have also required that commercial landowners and multifamily dwellings provide visitors with parking lots and garages, thus effectively subsidizing driving by making parking more abundant.  And because zoning codes also required buildings to be set back from the street, these parking lots were usually in front of buildings, thus ensuring that pedestrians must waste time walking through ugly parking lots in order to reach their destinations.  To reverse this policy over the next 60 years, government would have to establish maximum parking requirements (as a few cities have in fact done) and require buildings to be in front of sidewalks so pedestrians could reach them more easily.

Of course this is just a series of hypothetical questions, which highlight that many of the changes to land-use and transport planning that we promote on this blog: things like removing parking minimums, removing/lessening controls that limit development density and promoting a better balance between public transport and road spending are really pretty mild and attempt to shift planning policy and transport spending back much more towards a ‘neutral’ situation. If we really were promoting bias towards intensification instead of sprawl, public transport instead of road spending, that was to the same extent (but opposite direction of course) as what has happened in the past century – we’d have to be WAY more extreme.

Transport costs & housing affordability: part 2

Last week’s post about how considering transport costs is an important consideration when really understanding housing affordability has led to a fairly epic comments thread. This is perhaps because many sprawl advocates are so used to hammering the “sprawl is the only way to improve housing affordability” line that they feel quite threatened by a more comprehensive analysis of the situation.

To summarise many of the points made by blog authors within the comments thread:

  • The research validly highlights that transport costs rise as you get further from the centre of Auckland and this counter-balances – to some extent – the higher housing prices experienced in some inner areas.
  • We think it’s highly hypocritical for people to bang on about the need to remove urban limits while maintaining strong support for the majority of planning rules that limit development potential in already urbanised areas. Councillors such as Dick Quax and Cameron Brewer are particularly bad when it comes to this hypocrisy – surely height limits, building setback requirements, parking minimums, density controls and the like are just as much “social engineering” as urban limits.
  • In places where sprawl has resulted in affordable housing (Texan cities are often given as the example) there has been huge (billions upon billions) spending on highways and other infrastructure to support that growth. Hardly the ‘market outcome’ that the proponents suggest.

We have supported urban limits in documents such as the Auckland Plan and the Unitary Plan. In fact we support stronger control over the release of greenfield land in the Unitary Plan compared to what’s currently proposed. The reasons for this are obviously multi-faceted but basically come down to the significant public cost of providing new areas with sufficient transport, water, wastewater, stormwater, schools, parks, medical facilities etc. With so much public investment required to make new development areas liveable, quality communities it’s critical for there to be a carefully staged plan of what areas will be developed when. Not having an urban limit makes this process extremely difficult and potentially undermines the efficiency of public investment because you often see “leap frog” development or a mismatch between where development happens and where public investment has occurred.

Putting that never-ending debate aside though and returning to the issue of how transport costs change our understanding of housing affordability, there are some additional maps in both the journal article referenced in our original post and in the thesis the article is based upon, which provide interesting further information. Please note that we have been asked by the thesis author Kerry Mattingly to not publish the thesis online.

The first interesting map looks at the proportion of household income that is spent on rent across different parts of Auckland. The author provides a number of reasons for using rent rather than mortgage repayments, which appear sound and supported by previous academic studies.

rent-proportion-incomePerhaps what’s most interesting about this map is the lack of a clear pattern, with proportions being high in some areas (North Shore, southeast and parts of the isthmus) but low in other ‘patches’ – generally areas that appear to correspond to concentrations of Housing New Zealand property.

One map that does show a clear pattern is the mean annual commuter variable cost – which broadly tracks the amount of money each household annually spends on commuting.

annual-commuting-costEven though the methodology for preparing this map obviously didn’t assume everyone worked in the city centre, we still get a clear pattern that indicates the further you live from the city centre the more you spend on transport. Relatively employment-rich South Auckland sees lower commuting costs than employment poor west Auckland, but still generally not as low as the commuting costs for the inner isthmus.

The upshot of comparing these two maps is simply that when you add transport into the mix, the true ‘affordability’ of different areas changes quite significantly. That’s perhaps best illustrated in this third map – which shows how much (as a percentage of housing cost) transport adds onto the cost of living in a certain area.

transport-increases-costsThis map is a little bit challenging to interpret initially, but basically it shows what proportion of housing cost would need to be added on to reflect the additional cost of commuting in that area. For most of the inner isthmus it’s less than a quarter of the housing cost that’s added on – so the housing costs make up most of the “combined housing and transport cost” that would be faced by someone living here. For areas further out – particularly it seems in the south (despite its relatively large number of jobs) – the proportion is much higher, often meaning that someone may need to add half again to the cost of housing to truly recognise the combined housing and transport cost of that area.

As a final point, I’ve overlaid (just roughly) the approximate location of land zoned future urban in the proposed Unitary Plan on top of the map above (excluding Warkworth as it was too far north to fit for me).

transport-increases-costs-addFUZThe concerning conclusion from the map above is that most of the land we’re proposing to urbanise over the coming years lies in areas where transport costs will be a huge added burden. In essence, even if the additional greenfield land does provide cheaper housing costs (and the high costs of Flat Bush give reasonable reason to be skeptical of that outcome), that ‘gain’ will probably be significantly undone by the high transport costs experienced by those living in these new parts of Auckland.



From the Ground Up: Rebuilding Christchurch as a Sustainable City

Dr. Susan Krumdieck is an energy researcher and a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Canterbury. I met her earlier this year at the 2013 NERI Energy Conference, where she gave a spoken presentation and was listed as an author for five different posters being presented!

Susan argues that the current recovery and growth strategies for Christchurch, put in place since the earthquakes, are taking the city down the wrong path. For example, the  Land Use Recovery Plan (LURP) “is a short sighted and dangerous plan for the city in several ways: it puts the cohesion of the city at risk, pulling the people from the city center, it will be very expensive to build, and people will lose a lot of money in property that will not give a return on their investment”.

The LURP seems likely to be ratified today, although things seem to be complicated

Working with other researchers, Susan has proposed an alternate growth plan for Christchurch: “to redevelop within the city in a way that would re-energize the city, boost the economy and provide affordable housing”. In particular, the team suggested more intensive redevelopment of the Riccarton area as a way of beginning this process.

Susan has put together a couple of videos explaining her team’s proposals. The first one, below, is four minutes long and a pretty good introduction to her take on the situation.

The second one, below, is a 48 minute public seminar, and goes through the Christchurch situation and the researchers’ proposals in more detail.

Note that both videos, if you open them in Youtube rather than here on the site (click the “Youtube” button in the lower right of the video screen), have notes and comments which explain a bit more. In brief:

The ‘From the Ground Up’ project had the simple objectives of developing a plan to house 15,000 people within the urban boundary in a way that provides a rate of return on investment over 10% for developers, provides warm, low-energy sustainable housing for 20,000 people across the spectrum of income levels, which can adapt to zero oil-based transport and which can drive development of urban infrastructure like electric trams and the central city. The project used a methodology based on science, engineering, and research of best practice. The project resulted in a plan for “New Riccarton” a re-build of an old suburb into a new urban area with all the amenities.

We’ll hopefully be hearing more from Susan in the future – perhaps including some guest posts.

Reaching Peak Sprawl?

An interesting recent article in Atlantic Cities asked the question of whether we’ve reached “Peak Sprawl”?

Metropolitan Atlanta, long a symbol of car-dependent American sprawl, has recently passed a threshold where a majority of its new construction spending is now focused in high-density, “walkable” parts of town.

Since 2009, 60 percent of new office, retail and rental properties in Atlanta have been built in what Christopher Leinberger calls “walkable urban places” – those neighborhoods already blessed by high Walk Scores or on their way there. That new construction has taken place on less than 1 percent of the metropolitan Atlanta region’s land mass, suggesting a shift in real estate patterns from expansion at the city’s edges to denser development within its existing borders.

“This is indicative that we’re seeing the end of sprawl,” says Leinberger, a research professor with the George Washington University School of Business, who led the study in conjunction with Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Regional Commission. “It does not say that everything turns off. There will still be new drivable suburban development. It’s just that the majority will be walkable urban, and it will be not just in the redevelopment of our downtowns, but in the urbanization of the suburbs.”

Sure Atlanta is just one place, but in recent decades it has taken over from Los Angeles as the real poster child of urban sprawl – which really makes one think that if sprawl seems to be on its way out in Atlanta then it’s really time to sit up and take notice.

There’s also a really interesting connection between the different shape of our built environment going forward and the road to economic recovery:

“People might be saying, ‘Oh, get real Leinberger.’ But we invest 35 percent of our wealth in the built environment,” he says. That refers to both infrastructure and real estate. “So, it’s a pretty significant sea change in how we build the country. The country’s going to look fundamentally different over the next generation than it has over the past two generations.”

Plenty of other people will inevitably argue that it’s too soon to declare sea changes of any kind while the recovery is still ongoing (we have, after all, been having the exact same conversationabout trends in the decline of driving). Won’t we go back to building how we’ve been building for decades once the economy picks back up? Perhaps it’s the economy, and not changing consumer tastes, that’s holding sprawl at bay?

Leinberger looks at his data, and then looks at this question differently.

“I think there’s a cause-and-effect issue here,” he says. “I think that when the economy picks up steam, it’s going to be because we learn how to build walkable urban places. Real estate caused this debacle, and real estate has always acted as a catalyst for economic recoveries.”

He figures we’re sputtering along at 2 percent growth precisely because we’re not building enough of the walkable urban product that the market wants. “And it’s signaling with pretty flashing lights,” he says, “to build more of this stuff.”

The connection made with driving trends is a particularly interesting one because I think that fundamentally they both relate to two particularly important demographic changes going on in both the USA and New Zealand (and obviously other developed world countries):

  • The baby boomers are shifting into retirement age and therefore both not driving as much as well as wanting different housing options from the large standalone houses they’ve lived in for decades.
  • Younger people (Gen Y, Millennials or whatever you want to call them) aren’t following the same housing and travel trends as their parents – instead driving less and often preferring more urban and walkable environments. Technological change may be playing an important role in this shift.

I think that this cuts to the heart of why we find the gutting of the Unitary Plan’s provision for intensification in inner areas so frustrating. It’s not (just) that providing for intensification will lead to better transport and other outcomes, it’s that all signs suggest the type of housing Auckland will most need in the future – to respond to these changes demographics and in step with international trends – will be smaller apartments and terraced housing in walkable, inner suburban areas with good access to public transport.

Will the Councillors be as worried about Sprawl?

The past few days has seen a pretty sad process of watering down the Unitary Plan to provide much less affordable housing and intensification within the existing urban limits. The push to limit intensification has come from a somewhat strange mix of councillors who I don’t think would often find themselves on the same side of the debate. Those most commonly opposing provisions that allow for intensification were: Calum Penrose, Cameron Brewer, Dick Quax, Sandra Coney, Sharon Stewart, Mike Lee and Wayne Walker.

I’ve only watched bits and pieces of the debates and deliberations over the past week, but it seems as though one of the key concerns from many of the councillors opposing what they see as widespread intensification relates to whether Auckland needs to plan for quite this much growth all in one go. To some extent there’s a bit of validity in the argument – the Auckland Plan is a 30 year strategic document while the Unitary Plan is a ten year statutory document: they aren’t the same thing and there’s nothing which says that the Unitary Plan needs to enable all 30 years worth of growth outlined in the Auckland Plan all at once. Particularly when significant infrastructure spending on transport, water, wastewater, stormwater, parks and schools to support the growth will take decades to come to fruition.

The main problem with that approach, aside from neglecting the massive housing shortage which exists and the moment and providing for significant pent up demand in inner suburban areas, is consistency with the approach being taken outside the current urban area. As we’ve noted many times, the more development is constrained inside the current urban area the more there will be pressure for further sprawl to take place.

And the Unitary Plan contains a lot of areas where sprawl could take place. The latest documentation online shows in yellow the areas proposed to be zoned “future urban”, indicating that they will be urbanised at some point in the future. Here’s the map for the southern area:


At least on the bright side it seems that the horrific Karaka-Weymouth Bridge idea has been killed off with the development seeming to largely following the rail line.

Looking out to the northwest, there’s a heap of growth planned around Whenuapai, Westgate and even Kumeu/Huapai and Riverhead:


The positive story here is that with this scale of growth in the northwest, the Northwest Busway is assured to be an essential project and the real question simply relates to when it will be built. I wonder if Kumeu/Huapai will grow large enough to justify an extension of electrification and therefore passenger services from Swanson.

Shifting up north, perhaps the biggest surprise is the massive amount of land set aside for future urbanisation around Dairy Flat, which hadn’t really been signalled in the Draft Unitary Plan maps. If it were to happen soon then an extension of the Northern Busway to Silverdale would almost certainly be needed. It is also interesting as I have heard a few rumours about people with good connections buying some large blocks of land in the area recently on the expectation zoning would be changed in the Unitary Plan.

silverdale-sprawlAnd finally there’s even pretty massive growth proposed around Warkworth, which by the look of it would eventually see Warkworth to grow to many times its current size:


It’s a bit difficult to figure out exactly how the Unitary Plan enables land to go from this gigantic future urban zone into actual development, but critically what the Unitary Plan is doing is putting a huge heap of land into the same bucket of “future urban”. Presumably this will mean massive value appreciation for people who end up inside the RUB, which will put pressure on for redevelopment (due to increased rates). Stopping little bits of future urban zoned land from being developed ‘willy nilly’ all over the place could actually be really difficult – as the Resource Management Act is fairly generous in allowing private plan changes.

What would be a better approach, in my opinion, is effectively splitting the future urban zone into two zones: a short term future urban zone and a longer term “urban reserve land”. This approach would signal that the longer term land isn’t intended to be urbanised for 15-20 years and therefore would allow infrastructure providers to focus their efforts on serving the areas that actually will be urbanised in the near future. After all there is little point in building something expensive like a busway if the development it is to serve doesn’t happen for 20+ years. We also don’t want the situation where development occurs and key infrastructure like a busway is built 20 years too late.

So our challenge to all those Councillors who have stymied intensification every step of the way in the Unitary Plan so far, particularly those who aren’t that fond of sprawl either, is to have a think about the other side of the coin and look at ways to ensure that we aren’t cutting out intensification while enabling widespread urban sprawl. Perhaps if we have eased back on the boldness of the push for intensification, we also need to ease back on the extent to which the Unitary Plan enables sprawl.

After all, the Unitary Plan’s meant to be a 10 year regulatory document, not a 30 year strategic one.

Federated Farmers continue to oppose sprawl

There are some interesting comments yesterday from Federated Farmers in a Herald op-ed. While much of the piece was related to farm emissions their relation to the ETS, something we wouldn’t blog about, there was also some interesting comments on land use policy.

The New Zealand Initiative think-tank argues that because less than 1 per cent of New Zealand is built upon, fears of using up all our farmland are grossly exaggerated.

Should not the first question be what percentage of New Zealand is suited to pastoral farming?

You see, about 12.3 million hectares is in pastoral farming out of 26.8 million hectares.

This is the same criticism I have had of people who claim NZ is only 1% urbanised so it won’t matter if we sprawl a bit more. Put simply not everywhere in NZ is suited to farming and/or urban development. The areas most suited to urban development i.e. generally flat, also tend to be those most suited to farming because as beautiful as the mountainous areas of the country are, we can’t really farm them or build cities on them. The article continues

In other words, only around 46 per cent of New Zealand is suited to pastoral farming and as Mark Twain famously opined: “Buy land, they’re not making it any more.” Landcare Research has also pointed out that Auckland’s urban growth between 1990 and 2008 has seen 4.1 per cent of its best farmland go under tarmac with another 35 per cent lost to lifestyle blocks.

What we need is more efficient urban land forms, the reuse of old industrial sites next, with greenfield sites becoming the last and not first resort.

We also need to take the lids off our cities. Only by building more compact cities will the cost of inner city rail loops be truly justified.

I think the lifestyle block issue is a very serious one being perhaps the worst of each world, land that is not urban but that is no longer practical to use for large scale farming, effectively becoming extremely unproductive. However I don’t agree that we need a more compact city to help justify the City Rail Link, in fact my understanding is that the way our transport and land-use models are set up, the greater the amount of sprawl around the rail network the greater the patronage predicted. This is because historically the rail network has performed better at attracting commuters making longer trips. It was perhaps one of the great ironies that the government pushed the council to adopt less a ambitious intensification target in the Auckland Plan but by doing so they unknowingly boosted the case fore the CRL. But of course that doesn’t mean I think we should have substantial amounts of greenfields development just to justify the project.

This isn’t the first time we have heard Federated Farmers make these comments, back in January we saw a similar op-ed while in April we saw them backing the councils Unitary Plan. Even so it is good to hear them continuing to push this. An example of just how much land different growth options would require is below

Sprawl options 1

Karaka-Weymouth bridge gets rubbed out

We have written a couple of posts on the sheer stupidity of the Karaka to Weymouth Bridge that was being proposed by the council as part of the Unitary Plan process. The need for it primarily arose from the suggestion of allowing for a lot of greenfield development to occur around the Karaka area as part of the council opening up land through the Unitary Plan process. The bridge would have to be over 1km long and so it wouldn’t come cheap though with earlier estimates suggesting it would be over $600 million. The proposal also upset a lot of locals in Weymouth who faced the prospect of having a lot more traffic funnelled through their neighbourhood.


Well there was some great news this week with the Papakura Courier reporting that the plans for the bridge had been shelved as developing the transport infrastructure for greenfield options that required the bridge would be 3 times higher than the other options, presumably those based around the rail line.

Plans for a Karaka to Weymouth bridge have been put back on the shelf for now.

The bridge had been pencilled in as one option in plans to extend Auckland’s urban boundaries for housing in the draft Unitary Plan.

It would have opened up the Karaka area for development and included putting a two-lane highway through the heart of the Weymouth.

In a Unitary Plan workshop with the Manurewa Local Board last week discussing the Rural Urban Boundary, council officers confirmed feedback on the draft plan strongly favoured development along the rail corridor and not westwards towards Karaka North, board chairwoman Angela Dalton says.

That was further endorsed at the Auckland Plan Committee workshop at Auckland Council on Monday.

Mrs Dalton says one of the crucial factors against building the bridge was the cost of developing the roading and public transport infrastructure.

”Council officers said the option, which would include the bridge, would cost approximately $935 million dollars, compared with approximately $300 million for a RUB which would not require the bridge.

”Ultimately, this is what we have been saying all along – that there is no budget for this bridge, there is no need for the bridge if the right planning decisions are made and ultimately the community don’t want or need it,” she says.

Board member and transport lead George Hawkins says the move is an important victory for Weymouth residents who fought hard to stop the bridge.

”We have supported Weymouth throughout this process and we are pleased with this result.”

The board will continue to keep an eye on the issue in case the bridge idea comes back to the table.

This is excellent news on so many fronts and it’s great that the council have been able to show just how horrendously expensive the bridge option would have been.

Sprawl and Housing Affordability

Whether or not having a ‘limit’ around the edge of Auckland (call it a MUL or a RUB of whatever) drives up the cost of housing is a fairly long-running debate. The argument in favour of this assumption is encapsulated by an opinion piece in the NZ Herald a week or so back by Don Brash:

At the moment, less than 1 per cent of New Zealand’s area is urbanised. We are one of the least densely populated countries in the world. The council has quite deliberately chosen to make land expensive.

And the consequences of that decision are disastrous, socially and economically.

It’s disastrous socially because for most low and middle-income families, buying a house in Auckland is now not even remotely possible, and for those families who do make the attempt, it almost inevitably means both parents working outside the home. Most low and middle-income families can’t even make the attempt, and often live in over-crowded, poor quality rental accommodation.

At the moment, the median house price in Auckland is some seven times the median household income. It should be about three times, as it was 20 years ago and is now in many of the fast-growing cities in, for example, the United States.

Why is it possible to buy 500sq m sections on the outskirts of Houston for $40,000, whereas 400sq m sections on the outskirts of Auckland cost $400,000? The answer lies simply in the fact that in Houston there are relatively relaxed attitudes towards using land on the outskirts of the city, whereas in Auckland that has been prohibited.


We’ve recently discussed the question of whether or not sprawl is a good idea, and I think that’s largely a separate debate to this one. What’s particularly worth testing here is the question of whether opening up large amounts of greenfield land will improve housing affordability or not. The Auckland Housing Accord and its accompanying (although rather contradictory) legislation means that we may well be testing this question in the relatively near future – but recent evidence suggests that standalone housing built on the urban periphery is generally very expensive. Let’s take a look at what was noted in a Central Government report on housing and affordability  recently:So standalone houses on the urban periphery generally aren’t that cheap to build, whereas most higher density housing types are comparatively affordable to construct on a per unit basis. And it seems that the availability of affordable housing units is very much linked to the number of higher density units being built:Now one of the reasons why recent standalone houses might be so expensive is because there’s (apparently) not a lot of greenfield land going around – which means that it’s fairly scarce and therefore high value. Expensive land means that a developer needs to put a big house on the site (or two or three smaller ones, which is generally banned through planning rules) in order to make a profit. So maybe opening up more greenfield land could lower the price of that land (more supply leading to lower prices at a set level of demand) and therefore result in it being “economically sensible” to build cheaper standalone dwellings on that greenfield land.

An interesting question then, however, is “how much extra greenfield land would be needed to make a difference?” Plus, perhaps, also a question around whether there really is a shortage of greenfield land being supplied. Let’s refer once again to the Central Government report, this time in relation to land supply:land-supply
The key ‘takeaway’ point from the above slide is that only a small proportion of land which is zoned for development and served with infrastructure has actually taken the next step to being developed. As “boosting housing supply” requires a lot of extra houses to actually end up being built, we find ourselves with two further questions:

  1. If we want to go from around 2,000 sections being “ready to go” (i.e. subdivided) up to around say 10,000 – does that mean we need five times as much land zoned and serviced as we have now? In other words, is the market always going to drip-feed the subdividing of zoned and serviced land into sections, no matters how much land is available?
  2. Do we instead need to focus on what’s holding up the 15,000 sections worth of land that is zoned and serviced from actually being split up into subdivided sections and eliminate those barriers?

Option 1 may well lead to achieving the desired amount of increasing housing supply, but at a truly staggering cost to ratepayers and taxpayers in the form of new roads, new schools, new water pipes, new wastewater pipes and so on. Furthermore, if it’s only around 13% of zoned and serviced land which is actually going to be split up for development to occur on it, then we’re going to be building an absolutely vast amount of roads, pipes, schools and all the rest which are totally surplus to requirements – at least in the short term.

Undoubtedly this post raises far more questions than it has answers, which is unsurprising. There just doesn’t appear to be much evidence that the best way to improve housing affordability is by building more houses on the edge of the city. Or that it’s a lack of zoned and serviced land which is holding up the release of new greenfield sections onto the market. Or that increasing the supply of land zoned for greenfield development will actually do anything – especially not in the short or medium term, to improve housing affordability.

It’s all a bunch of questions, a bunch of very expensive questions if the Auckland Housing Accord does decide to open up greenfield land in the vague hope of improving housing affordability.

parking lot_01

Fran O’Sullivan on the Unitary Plan

Ok so while the Unitary Plan submission period is over and I intended on not writing about it for a while, I really couldn’t go past a piece in the Herald today from Fran O’Sullivan. She seems to have picked up many of the points that we, and others have made.

The so-called debate on Auckland’s draft Unitary Plan has become disconnected from the big-picture narrative that it serves: that contained in the overarching Auckland Plan, which aims to transform Auckland into the “world’s most liveable city”.

Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse admitted as much when I challenged her about this at a lunchtime discussion on the plan this week. Hulse was adamant the council would respond to the formal consultation when the plan is notified around September-October.

“It’s simply the first draft, or a draft draft plan,” are the words Hulse and Mayor Len Brown are using as they explain there is a great deal more formal feedback to come this year before the Unitary Plan is finally bolted down. And even then there will be an evergreen aspect to it, as the plan must be responsive to changing conditions in years to come.

But Hulse is also pledging to be “robust”. I read this as shorthand for not allowing the council to be bullied by the ill-informed and those spreading misinformation into backing down on plans for Auckland to be a compact city and caving in to the lobby that advocates for increasing urban sprawl by pushing the city’s limits to gobble up more prime farmland.

Good stuff. After weeks of listening to and reading self-interested Nimbyism masquerading as objective concern, it was a relief to hear some common sense from Hulse.

This is Auckland’s chance to get it right.

Yes, the council will give way a bit on the margins to accommodate more housing. But there is an additional infrastructure cost to this which proponents overlook: more roads, more rail links, more sewerage, water, electricity and phone lines and more schools. It’s not simply a matter of plopping down new cookie-cutter houses on vacant farmland.

She even notes an important point missed but many of those who complain as well as making a surprising and almost out of context comment on supporting the CRL although I’m not to sure about the comment on paying for it by selling assets.

The great irony is that much of what the Nimbyists complain about can already take place under Auckland’s existing planning rules.

As a CBD dweller, I welcome the added vibrancy Auckland will enjoy as more people make the city their home in coming years. The CBD and inner suburbs in particular could do with a massive injection of people. Auckland needs a beating heart. It would be terrific if there were more inner-city dwellers – young and old.

There are three issues that concern me: first, the insane way that central Government continues to throw roadblocks in the path of Brown’s CBD rail loop plan. Brown could settle it once and for all by flicking council shares in other assets and reinvesting the equity in the new rail kit and borrowing the difference.

And finally she even gives a nod to our friends at Generation Zero including:

Their argument for intelligent density and against sprawl is compelling. Couple that with their insistence on giving the urban design rules statutory weight and Auckland would be on to a winner.

A nice refreshing piece from the Herald. Only shame we didn’t see it earlier to help inform the debate.

While on a similar topic, another article in the herald caught my attention. This one was on land prices, specifically how some people/companies are land banking huge chunks of land within the existing urban boundaries to get massive profits.

A land banking business with a big piece of residentially zoned real estate on Auckland’s outskirts has made more than $6 million a year for almost two decades – doing nothing.

QV records shows Yi Huang Trading Company owns 39 Flat Bush School Rd, which it bought in 1995 for $890,000.

Now, this 29ha block is listed on the market for $112.6 million, promoted as “the land of opportunity, vacant but close to Barry Curtis Park”.


Now we obviously can’t force anyone to develop land if they don’t want to but before we go opening up the cities urban boundaries it would probably be a good idea to start being smarter with what land we already have. We know that there are potentially 15,000 sections that could be developed within the existing urban limits and without addressing the issue of land banking, we are likely to see similar behaviour happen with the opened land as owners drip feed sections to the market to maximise the return they are able to get.

Out of interest, the section mentioned above is listed in the unitary plan as a mixed housing zone allowing sections down to 300m². Assuming around 25% of the land would be used for the likes of roads and parks that leaves enough potential space for over 700 dwellings.

The cost of growth

If there is one thing that both supporters and opponents of the Unitary Plan agree on it is that the councils communication over the plan has been less than ideal. Personally I think one of the biggest failings has been that the council didn’t put any effort into showing people what plans existed currently so they could accurately judge what change was occurring. We know that height has been the biggest sore point however as I pointed out the other day, the height limits in much of Auckland is actually no different under the Unitary Plan as it is under the current operative plans that the UP is eventually replacing. Some simple information like this would have gone a long way to helping address concerns that people have had.

Likewise it is a shame that more work wasn’t done to enable the council to show the impact of the various kinds of development options. If people object to intensification that is fine but it needs to be understood what that means. If more development occurs through sprawl then we need to know what the costs of that are. So yesterday I actually found myself slightly agreeing with Bernard Orsman and even Dick Quax over the unitary plan.

The Auckland Council hasn’t done any work to compare urban and rural infrastructure costs as it asks Aucklanders to adapt to a new way of life that includes a mix of residential intensification and urban sprawl.

The council is commissioning an “Auckland cost-of-growth study” that doesn’t begin until after feedback closes on a new planning rulebook which has huge implications for the city’s urban, rural and coastal environments.

The issue of infrastructure arising from the rulebook – or Unitary Plan – has been a hot topic at public meetings, where people have expressed concerns about the effects of a more-compact city on water, transport and open spaces and costs in rural subdivisions.

An expression-of-interest document for the growth study says there is some overseas evidence that it is more expensive to provide infrastructure outside urban areas than inside, “but no specific work has been done for Auckland”.


Councillor Dick Quax said it was unbelievable that the council was only now seeking evidence that the compact city being promoted was better in terms of infrastructure to “peripheral expansion”.

“I would have expected that before plans are drawn up to change forever the way people in Auckland live … there was some hard evidence to guide council. Sadly this has not happened and is another failure of the draft Unitary Plan,” he said.

Council chief planning officer Roger Blakeley said the Unitary Plan was a resource management document and did not include funding for infrastructure.

“The council knows about the costs of infrastructure. The long-term plan 2012-2022 includes provision for funding of roads, water supply, wastewater, stormwater and parks,” he said.

Dr Blakeley said it was well established that infrastructure costs for new “greenfield” developments were higher than the costs for urban “brownfield” developments. One Sydney study had put greenfield costs at more than twice those of brownfields.

I kind of agree with both Quax and while Roger Blakeley is technically correct in that this is a resource management document it has some fairly wide implications as we are seeing with the debates that have been had over the last few months. As mentioned earlier this is being hampered by a failure to properly communicate which is something that a study like this could have helped with.

But being a long time reader (and then author) of this blog I was sure I remembered seeing a post on something similar to this that was produced by the former Auckland Regional Council. So I went looking and managed to find this post.

It reports on a study completed by the ARC called The future land use and transport project. The study looked at a couple of growth scenarios and narrowed them down to three for further comparison. They were:


As a comparison I would suggest that the Unitary Plan actually sits somewhere in between scenario 4 and 5. Option 4 is within the blue shaded areas while option 5 also includes the areas are shown in Pink.


The study then went and ranked each of the options against a large number of criteria which sat under the headings of Environmental well-being, Social well-being, Economic well-being and Cultural well-being. For this post I’m not so interested in the evaluation criteria but instead the section on infrastructure costs. Perhaps a failing is that the study only seems to have looked at transport infrastructure costs rather than the costs for all infrastructure like I hope this new study will do however there is still some useful information. The ARC study says:

Infrastructure costs

The compact scenarios utilise current infrastructure more efficiently, thus reducing the need for additional infrastructure investment. Transport infrastructure costs are greatest, with the expansive scenario requiring the greatest additional investment in the transport network. The expansive scenario would require additional road infrastructure worth approximately $31.4 billion compared with around $15 billion for
the compact scenarios.

However, when the costs of providing passenger transport is taken into account the investments needed to support the compact scenarios significantly increase, see table 3 below. Overall the model outputs signalled that the compact scenarios would require around $30 -$32billion expenditure, whereas the expansive scenario would require about $40billion. Yet despite the additional investment in transport infrastructure, the expansive scenario provided the worst accessibility compared with the compact scenarios.


This quite clearly shows that for transport at least, the sprawl based options end up costing us considerably more and I’m not even sure if road maintenance costs are included in these figures. But of course these are only the transport costs. We really need to also be considering the costs of all of the other forms of infrastructure for various options.

So where does this leave us. I get the feeling that within the council, there is already a lot of fairly detailed information about the exact costs of growth via sprawl vs. more intensive development. However it might be the case that while the info exists, it hasn’t been easy to pull it all together. Hopefully this study will be able to do that as well as consider the costs of infrastructure and services that haven’t traditionally been considered by councils, like the costs of more schools and emergency services. I also hope that the study is able to break down in a concise way the actual impacts so it can easily be explained to the general public.

At least I was able to say that I agreed with Bernard Orsman and Dick Quax on something for a change. Assuming that this study would likely come out with similar results to this and other international studies which suggest that sprawl is much more expensive, it will be interesting to see they continues to campaign against intensification.

Note: If you haven’t done so, make sure you get your submission in for the Unitary Plan.