QIMBYs needed to pass the 5 minute pint test

Last week Kent and I attended the talk by Hank Dittmar from the Princes Foundation on sustainable cities and design. Many of the things that Hank talked about are things that we discuss on here so they shouldn’t really come as a surprise but it is useful to cover them anyway. The first thing to to consider what sustainability actually encompasses. It is actually more than just how we build houses and what materials are used but actually goes much deeper into how we design our communities. This will become increasingly important as the city looks to have intensify by having 60-70% of all future development within the existing urban area. One of the benefits of intensification is that by having more people in closer proximity it allows for more local businesses to become viable. That in turn means that people often don’t have to travel as much for many of their basic needs which can make them both happier and healthier.

Hank suggested that one good thing that can be used to help determine just how sustainable a place is, is by using what he calls the 5 minute pint test. What that means is that you should be able to get either a pint of beer or a pint of milk within roughly a 5 minute walk from your home. These aren’t the only things to worry about but are a good indication none the less and both of those things are something that the area I live in fail at quite noticeably as I will show in a later post. The key though is making communities more walkable which means there is less need to car travel but is something that is also helped by having good quality public transport. It means that the times you are going outside your local community, you would more likely be to places more easily served by PT.

In many ways though it is the communities aspect where the real challenge is because people tend to dislike change. It is the fear of change that brings out the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) who often fight to keep things the way they have always been. One person who attended tried to claim that we don’t have them in Auckland but in reality they are everywhere and a classic example was in the Herald on Sunday.

More than half a century ago Toni Geux moved to the other side of the world for more space.

She swapped the crowded terraced housing of Amsterdam for the quarter-acre paradise of New Zealand, eventually settling in the South Auckland community of Mangere Bridge.

“I came here so I could have some space, so I could have a bit of a garden,” Geux, now 81, said.

She fears that way of life could be lost.

Council staff and a working group which includes Mangere-Otahuhu Local Board members have been developing a draft plan for future land use within the board’s boundaries.

The draft includes proposed mixed housing of buildings up to four storeys high around central Mangere Bridge village and mixed housing of buildings up to three storeys high in other parts of the village – including along the waterfront street of Kiwi Esplanade.

The move has left some Kiwi Esplanade residents, including Geux, flabbergasted.

“Does the city have to grow? We’ve got a unique community. I don’t want it to turn into Mission Bay.

“People come here to walk their dogs, because it’s quiet. I’m 81, but I feel very strongly about this.

Thankfully the local board member who the herald spoke to asserted one of the major points that Hank made which is that whether you like it or not, change is going to happen. Instead of being fighting it, we are better off getting people involved in the process and instead demanding that the change that occurs is done in a quality way that benefits everyone. Effectively we need to turn NIMBYs into QIMBYs (Quality In My Back Yard) and the way to do that is through plans that have active involvement from both council as well as the community rather than the top down approach of the past where consultation was seen as a box to tick. Here’s what a local board member had to say in response to the NIMBY above:

Mangere-Otahuhu local board member Carrol Elliott, a member of the working group, said the plan is for the whole area, not just Mangere Bridge.

“Mangere Bridge is a lovely village, but there has got to be change, because it’s going to happen. It’s no use saying ‘not in my neighbourhood’.”

The community was informed in September and she could not understand why Kiwi Esplanade residents were upset.

“There’s already a house there that’s three storeys high. It’s a storm in a teacup.”

The other key are Hank touched on that I felt was important was how we build our buildings and communities. He said the foundation had spend time and money to develop materials and techniques to build more sustainably and the foundation has taken the knowledge to design and build some test houses which actually ended up performing even better than expected. As part of the process they needed to forge relationships with local suppliers of various materials and to commit to buying certain quantities from them. That effort has now paid off and has helped to see the construction costs drop dramatically to the point where a 3-4 bedroom home only costs about 5% extra to build in a sustainable way compared using more traditional materials yet is of a much higher standard. It is at a point where a number of large construction firms in the UK have now picked up the plans are are using them to build homes to the same specifications comercially.

The foundation are still working to refine techniques for smaller dwellings to me it highlights an important part the council can play in achieving the intensification targets that they have set. Effectively I think the council either directly or through one of its CCOs need to be leading the intensification drive by refining a couple of examples of good and attractive developments which can then be picked up on by private developers to spread out across the region. Examples which can be built quickly but are sturdy, well insulated, are places that people want to live in and also will pass through the consent processes easily. Auckland needs to build dwellings much more quickly than has been done in the past, it is estimated that we require 10,000 new dwellings to be built every year yet we are currently only building around 3500 so this is one thing that could help bridge that gap.

It  also raises another point Hank made about building quickly. Doing has traditionally (well recent tradition) resulted in row after row of identical houses or apartment buildings. Having no variety may save on cost but makes such dwellings unattractive places to live and acts to turn people off intensification. One way to help mitigate this is to build fast but to add a craft layer to the construction. The example he used was Georgian town houses in the UK which were all built the same except for things like the colour of the doors, the look of the windows, the cornices and even inside with things like the design around the fireplace. The subtle little changes don’e add much to cost or construction time but are enough to make each dwelling different from its neighbour.

The last bit I found interesting was the use of natural features to deal with issues that result from urbanisation. One of the big problems we have is that as we pave over more land, it gets harder and more expensive to deal with things like storm water. The traditional technique has been to use drains to move the water away while more recent developments like where I live tend to have ponds/lakes to help mitigate the effects and the need for really expensive infrastructure however the foundation has taken that a step further and integrated storm water treatment into the community itself. In a community the foundation designed they installed a rain garden which they also managed to convince health and safety officials to not require fences for. As a result the area is also used as a playground by the local kids. This saved on the space needed which would have allowed for more houses to be developed, increasing intensification while not reducing amenity.

Sustainable transport

Yesterday I was invited to speak on Sustainable Transport, as part of the “Friday forum” which is run by the Sustainability Society. My fellow speakers were David Warburton – CEO of Auckland Transport, and Julie-Anne Genter – transport consultant and (on currently polling) likely to be a Green Party MP after the upcoming election.

A PDF version of my presentation can be found here, while the presentations given by David and Julie should be available online in the not too distant future here. I won’t run through the entire presentation in this post, but rather just touch on some key points that I tried to make about sustainability and transport, and how we might seek to change things in order to make transport more sustainable: economically, socially and environmentally. This is working out how transport fits into the traditional “three overlapping circles” definition of sustainability – which I tried to have a quick go at:
There are obviously many ways we can make transport more sustainable in all three areas, but I chose what I think are three key factors we would want to focus on:

  • Reducing the adverse environmental impact of transport (construction impacts, impacts of faster traffic on urban quality, ongoing environmental effects like CO2 emissions and so forth).
  • Reducing what I’ve called “transport poverty” which I think of as situations where people have to pay so much to get around they struggle to pay other bills – or transport is so expensive they can’t effectively participate in society.
  • Ensuring we have cost-effective investment in transport that thinks long term.

A lot of focus generally goes on environmental matters when we discuss sustainability, but the two slides I think are perhaps most worth sharing relate to the social and economic aspects of sustainability. I don’t quite think we’ve really got our head around the social impact of different transport policy options in the past – you just need to travel around the poorer parts of Auckland and see all the cars to recognise how much income must go into transport out of people who are probably struggling to put food on the table each week. It’s not just petrol prices, but also the cost of owning that second car which is considered so essential. The map below shows an interesting overlay of both PT accessibility and social deprivation – quite nicely highlighting the parts of the city you would probably want to focus on if you were improving public transport for social reasons: I’m not quite sure how “PT access” was defined by ARTA (who put together this map) because I struggle to believe that Papatoetoe and a part of Mangere have vastly better public transport than Bayswater, but putting aside the details the map is overall quite interesting.

In terms of economic sustainability, a key factor I highlighted was the need for us to think long-term in our decision making processes about which projects should be funded. Many projects do have a very quick return, and that’s fine in some circumstances, but I think we need to be aware of whether the way we measure our projects’ benefits locks out long-term thinking. Here’s a graph I have referred to in earlier posts, comparing the cost-benefit analysis of the City Rail Link under the UK and New Zealand systems: Another “economic sustainability” matter that I referred to is ensuring that we focus on changing trends rather than simply proceeding with something because we’ve always thought that it’ll be needed at some stage. The particular project which falls into this category is another harbour crossing, which has historically seemed like something Auckland would always need to do, but when you look more recently has falling traffic volumes, an increased proportion of its users on public transport and may actually suffice for quite a long longer.

With “sustainable” being the crossover of taking social, economic and environmental matters into strong consideration, I wondered whether the key transport target for increasing sustainability is to reduce car dependency:There’s quite a lot more in the full presentation, particularly about Auckland’s transport history, where we sit now and where we may go in the future. Sustainability is a concept that I studied a lot at university and has probably become a highly overused word in helping to justify pretty much anything in recent years. But it is still a valid concept, the question of how we can ensure we don’t take out more than we put back in (to society, the environment and the economy). With transport having such a vast impact on sustainability, I think it is essential that we do develop a better understanding of this issue. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but it’s an issue which probably needs a lot more discussion.