Unitary Plan Fantasies


In this post I discuss two related questions that concern common “fantasies” about the Unitary Plan, specifically:

  • Question #1: To what degree has Auckland’s density changed during the last few decades?
  • Question #2: To what degree does the balance of brownfields/greenfields development in the Unitary Plan differ from the past?

We might be able to agree on answers to these two questions. Why? Well, they are positive questions, insofar as they refer to attributes, i.e. density and brownfields/greenfields development, which are able to be subject to empirical measurement and testing.

Ideally people would agree on answers to important positive questions before moving onto normative questions, because the latter are not empirically testable. An example of a normative question would be: “How much weight should we place on the preferences of existing homeowners versus potential homeowners? I hope the difference is obvious; normative questions tend to be gnarlier.

It’s often helpful to separate positive from normative statements. People can often vehemently disagree on the answers to normative questions, while still agreeing on the answers to positive questions. Hence, in this post I will try to provide clear answers to two important positive questions that seem to be frequently misunderstood by those who oppose the Unitary Plan. Rest assured that I hope to tease out some of the important normative questions in more detail in a subsequent post.

Question #1: To what degree has Auckland’s density changed during the last few decades?

The answer to this question is simple: In the last 10-15 years the population density of Auckland has increased. In this working paper, Peter quantifies the density for various New Zealand cities, which are summarised in the following table. We see that Auckland’s population-weighted density (i.e. the density at which the average resident lives) has increased by around one-third (33%) in just over a decade.

As Peter discusses in this post, increased density is consistent with other empirical data. When we look at population growth in Auckland, we find that the population of central areas, especially the city centre, is growing faster than other places in the region. Waitemata (which covers most of what we refer to as the “Isthmus”) stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of population growth, both in total and relative (%) terms, as shown below.

The increase in density observed in central areas doesn’t seem to be caused by regulations on urban expansion. Instead, Auckland seems to have grown denser primarily because there is increasing demand from people to live and work centrally, i.e. as a result of people’s preferences. Research by Arthur Grimes, for example, has found that Auckland’s central areas have become much more valuable relative to less central areas, as illustrated in the figure below.

This change is significant, and is mirrored in cities elsewhere, such as Amsterdam (NB: Amsterdam has always controlled urban expansion, providing further evidence to suggest that controls on urban expansion are not behind changes in the relative values attached to centrality). Increasing density in Auckland are also consistent with the experience in Sydney and Melbourne, as illustrated in the figure below (NB This figure is taken, incidentally, from the excellent ChartingTransport website). Here we see that density in both Sydney and Melbourne increased by a similar % to that observed in Auckland. 

So from where I’m sitting the answer to the first question is fairly clear: Over the last 10-15 years or so Auckland has become a much denser place, and it’s become denser because more people and firms want to locate in central areas. As far as I know the sky hasn’t fallen on our heads. Indeed, from what I can tell Auckland has been doing relatively well of late. 

In this context, the imposition of regulations preventing intensification would seem to have the following impacts:

  1. Reduced development and higher property prices;
  2. Fewer people and jobs being located in central areas;
  3. Increased urban expansion, with associated infrastructure, congestion, and energy costs; and
  4. Transfer of wealth from those who have less to those who have more (further reading).

The likes of Richard Burton, Dushko Bogunovich, and David Seymour may argue that the costs of regulations preventing intensification are outweighed by the benefits, e.g. maintaining the “character” of inner-city suburbs.

I know of no quantitative evidence to show this is the case. On this basis I think it’ fair to say that their claims are unsubstantiated, at least in quantitative sense. I note that recent changes to the RMA (passed, incidentally, with the support of the ACT Party) places a higher bar on the economic evidence needed to support restrictions on development. In the absence of such evidence, and given the large body of quantitative evidence that demonstrates the costs of regulations that prevent intensification, arguments against intensification would seem to be rather flimsy. I can only hope that the IHP agrees.

Question #2: To what degree does the balance of brownfields/greenfields development in the Unitary Plan differ from the past?

The answer to this question is hinted to in the previous discussion: In the last two decades most development has happened within the existing urban area, i.e. brownfields. More specifically, development has been split 71% and 29% between brownfields/greenfields respectively. Data supporting this analysis is summarised in the table below, which is extracted from the Development Strategy published by the Auckland Council (available here).

The historical percentage of brownfields/greenfields development is similar to that enabled by the Unitary Plan (60-70% and 30-40% for brownfields and greenfields respectively). At this point I think it’s worth highlighting a rather extraordinary exchange from Peter’s recent post on the linear city (source).


To explain:

  • “Brian” asks Duskho Bogunovich (who works for Unitec and has publicly criticized many aspects of the Unitary Plan) what proportion of Auckland’s historical growth has been accommodated within the urban area (“brownfields”) and what proportion has been outside (“greenfields”); and
  • Duskho replies with “I don’t know” but then suggests a ratio of 1 part brownfields to 5-10 parts greenfields. Converting this into percentages would imply that Dushko believes 9-17% of historical development has been brownfields, with the balance in greenfields.

Dushko’s numbers are at odds with the data presented above. Indeed the data flips his percentages around completely. Now, in Dushko’s defense this particular question asked about the last *30* years whereas the data presented above goes back only *20* years. On the other hand I can’t see this ratio changing too dramatically though even if we went back one more decade.

The key takeaway message from this exchange is that 1) Dushko doesn’t know the actual brownfields/greenfields ratio and 2) the data which is available suggests a brownfields/greenfields ratio that is at odds with his intuition. I personally would expect that those who oppose the Unitary Plan, such as Dushko, would spend some time familiarizing themselves with the empirical evidence, especially when such evidence is crucial to the argument they are themselves advancing.

Keep this issue in mind when you consider another one of Dushko’s comments (source):

But forcing massive intensification inside Auckland cannot fix the housing crisis anyway … The city must grow both ways – up and out – to allow the land and housing market work properly. And getting the ‘up/out’ ratio right is crucial … this ratio for Auckland is probably 1:2. That is, 1/3 should be growth by intensification, and 2/3 by growing out (new suburbs; satellite towns; redistribution to the outer region – Waikato and Northland). Sadly, the council, in its ‘compact city’ ideological zeal, managed to get this ratio exactly the opposite – 2:1. The ‘70% fantasy’. This is PAUP’s fatal flaw. That’s why the Plan is a dud. And will never be implementable. Unless we use the North Korean approach.

In Dushko’s world, Council via the Unitary Plan is “forcing massive intensification” that is at odds with the “right ratio” for intensification. Dushko’s sees evidence of “ideological zeal” and “fantasy”, ultimately concluding that the PAUP is “fatally flawed” and a “dud”, which will not be able to be implemented unless we resort to North Korean style policies. Hyperbole much?

Especially when one considers the empirical data. Put simply, the Unitary Plan simply is proposing to continue long-established trends in Auckland’s urban development, which have resulted in steadily increasing density with a 70%/30% brownfields/greenfields split.

People like Dushko might argue that we would be better off if changing these trends. I’d disagree but, hey, let’s have that debate. It’s fair game.

What doesn’t seem fair game is for people like Dushko to criticize Council’s Unitary Plan and suggest it represents a “radical” change from the past, when in most respects it’s business-as-usual. Perhaps the only way the Unitary Plan can be described as “radical” is that it provides for only 80,000 new homes to be developed over coming decades, when official population projections suggest we will need approximately 400,000.


I started this post by posing two “positive” questions, to which I have since suggested the following answers:

  • Question #1: To what degree has Auckland’s density changed during the last few decades? Auckland has become 33% denser since 2001. This change appears to be driven more by the growing desire of people and firms to locate centrally, rather than regulatory controls on urban expansion. The increase in density observed in Auckland, and the increasing value placed on central locations, is consistent with trends observed in cities overseas, such as Sydney, Melbourne, and Amsterdam; and
  • Question #2: To what degree does the balance of brownfields/greenfields development in the Unitary Plan differ from the past? The last two decades of Auckland’s developent has seen a 71% to 29% split between brownfields/greenfields development respectively. This data seems to be at odds with the views of many people that oppose the Unitary Plan, who argue that Council is forcing “intensification” and a “compact city” on Aucklanders.

What do you think is fact or fantasy when it comes to the Unitary Plan? And on that note, what is your fantasy for Auckland. In 20 years time would you prefer to be 1) more dense; 2) less dense; or 3) about the same as now? Vote below.

Housing NZ’s Unitary Plan zoning

When the councillors voted to withdraw the councils Unitary Plan evidence three weeks ago, one of the arguments against doing so was that other parties – and Housing NZ in particular – were pushing for much greater density than what the council were proposing. It was said that the council should be involved and at the table to provide a more balanced viewpoint and councillor Alf Filipaina even highlighted the extent of intensification Housing NZ were calling for. While councillors had obviously seen or been briefed on the HNZ Submission, it wasn’t public, but that changed late last week and the level of changes they want in some areas is substantial. HNZ are important as they are the biggest land owner in Auckland with around 6.5% of all residential property.

Firstly, at a high level the images below show the level of change possible under the notified unitary plan, what was expected in the Auckland Plan and what is in the HNZ submission. What you can see is that under the notified plan there is almost no change to large swathes of Auckland and even where there is change, it is mostly in the some to moderate category. By comparison the HNZ submission is like the Notified version of has been put on steroids. They have also indicated that they’ll be calling the council’s expert witnesses for cross-examination to support their submission where needed.

PAUP - Notified vs HNZ submission PAUP - Notified vs HNZ submission - legend

There is also this version which shows how much the HNZ position has changed since their original submission.

Another way of showing the extend of change is the percentages of housing in each residential zone – this is based on housing stock identified in submissions. This is included in a presentation (55MB) to the Independent Hearings Panel (IHP) and is also broken down at a local board level – Rodney, Waiheke and Great Barrier boards are missing. As you can see in the areas where they’ve made submissions there is significantly less single house zoning and greater emphasis on the mixed housing zonings which allow for sections less than 500m². It’s interesting that even in this submission the Waitemata Local Board area remains as one of the areas with the highest levels of single house zoning.

PAUP - HNZ submission - zone changes - all

These figures are also backed up with map examples of some areas showing what was originally proposed in the notified plan, what was proposed in December in the now withdrawn changes, what it would be based on HNZ principles and what HNZ have actually submitted. Below are a few of the more dramatic examples, white is single house, cream is mixed house suburban, tan is mixed house urban and the strong yellow/gold is Terraced House and Apartment Buildings.

Grey Lynn/Westmere

You can see the HNZ plan would remove the single house zoning from the entire area.

PAUP - HNZ submission - Zones - Grey Lynn Notified

Grey Lynn/Westmere Notified Plan

PAUP - HNZ submission - Zones - Grey Lynn Jan Proposal

Grey Lynn/Westmere January Proposal

PAUP - HNZ submission - Zones - Grey Lynn HNZ

Grey Lynn/Westmere HNZ Submission

Pt Chevalier

Similar to Westmere you can see significant extension of the mixed housing Urban zoning and in addition also much greater use of the THAB zone around the town centre

PAUP - HNZ submission - Zones - PT Chev Notified

Pt Chev Notified Plan

PAUP - HNZ submission - Zones - PT Chev Jan Proposal

Pt Chev January Proposal

PAUP - HNZ submission - Zones - PT Chev HNZ

Pt Chev HNZ Submission

Mt Albert

In the notified Mt Albert map you can also see one reasons why the council proposed changes to the zonings. The notified version has many anomalies such as a single section with different zoning to all of its neighbours. This was tidied up in the now withdrawn proposal.

PAUP - HNZ submission - Zones - Mt Albert Notified

Mt Albert Notified Plan

PAUP - HNZ submission - Zones - Mt Albert Jan Proposal

Mt Albert January Proposal

PAUP - HNZ submission - Zones - Mt Albert HNZ

Mt Albert HNZ Submission

They don’t cover the entire city but there are many other examples shown in HNZs presentation who say the changes are enough to enable double the increase in capacity of the notified plan. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes out of the hearings and what the panel recommend. With the council out of the picture HNZ will have a much stronger chance of getting their desired changes though. In many ways what HNZ have suggested is much more in line with what the Unitary Plan should have been all along, perhaps creating a silver lining to decision of late February.

If a final plan more in line with what HNZ suggest ends up being recommended by the IHP it will be fascinating (probably quite frustrating) to see how groups like 2040 and the councillors who oppose the plan react.

While on the Unitary Plan there was also this piece on the recent debate by TV3s The Nation on Saturday. One of the most bizarre parts is where Auckland 2040 head Richard Burton claims the issue is all about young people trying to buy their first home as a villa in Ponsonby – I doubt many are trying that – and that instead suggests they’ll have to buy somewhere smaller or further out. Yet his organisation has been the one leading the fight to prevent smaller dwellings being built and further out in 2016 is quite different from what further out was when he was young.


Should council investment follow where growth occurs?

A couple of days ago Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse raised a point that I’ve suggested from time to time for years, that the council’s investment should match the areas experiencing the most growth. It was part of an article in which she also decried the argument used by some in the recent Unitary Plan debate that suburbs close to the city should not have any change as they are “aspirational suburbs”, something she calls distasteful.

“Not only is more money being spent in these suburbs closer to the CBD, there’s also an expectation that there is not going to be much growth in them,” Hulse says.

“And as someone who lives out west – that really strikes me as being fundamentally not right.”

Zoning along the main transport corridors and close to town centres should be equal “whether it’s Remuera or Glendowie or Glen Eden”, she says.

Hulse says the concept of “aspirational suburbs” has been a recurring theme over the past few months.

Residents of inner-city suburbs have espoused the view that their suburbs “should pretty much stay as they are because they are leafy and beautiful and that people out west and down south should simply accept that their suburbs aren’t as worthy of preservation”.


“And there’s a certain amount of prejudice creeping into this discussion, which I find distasteful.

“Their preference is that the west is probably of less importance, and to save some of the ‘lovely suburbs’ in their area, the west should just suck it up and grow more.

“Now if the south and the west were also going to accept the bulk of the expensive infrastructure investment, like light rail which is being promoted in places like Dominion Rd and through the Eden-Albert area, then maybe this would be a more equable discussion.”

It’s an interesting point and as mentioned above, one I’ve suggested before. Population growth across Auckland needs to be supported by a range of physical/social infrastructure and more services. Whether that be better public transport and bike lanes, improvements to our streets, water supply, parks, community centres or a range or other things, the growing population needs to be supported. And in an environment where there is a great desire to reduce rates or keep rises to a minimum that means we have to get better at prioritising what we invest in.

So let’s look at a few examples, below are the zoning maps in the Unitary Plan as it was when notified. If you had $400 million to spend would you do so on a single road to create an additional connection to a peninsula where almost no growth is allowed to occur or would you spend it the area/s that aren’t scared of change and as such have been zoned to allow a lot more people to live in them. In case you need a reminder the darker yellow/orange areas are Terraced House and Apartment zones while the dark peachy colour is the mixed housing urban zone. By comparison the Whangaparaoa Peninsula is almost exclusively a single house zone. That means unless someone is holding vacant sections, the look of the peninsula isn’t going to change much any time soon.

PAUP maps - West vs Whangapararoa

If local politicians knew there wouldn’t be any investment in improvements – or at least much more limited investment I wonder how that would change perceptions on the housing debate?

Of course as usual it would never quite be that simple. I suspect that whatever sense of entitlement that exists around housing will also exist around council investment too and there would be a lot of complaints about paying rates and “not getting anything in return”

There are also other complicating factors, such as where investment is needed due to the impact somewhere else. Auckland Transport’s plans for light rail are a good example of this. They have suggested up to four routes on the isthmus though some of the most hostile anti-change areas in Auckland. As I understand it, one of the key reasons for looking at light rail is the limited space within which buses are already struggling. In that case the primary beneficiary might be someone who lives on/near one of the four isthmus routes who would have better transport options but it may mean that city dwellers and visitors also have big benefits from reduced bus and car volume, noise, pollution, congestion etc.

All up it’s an interesting idea and one that might have merit in some form but it also isn’t likely to be practical for all situations. What do you think, should the focus as much investment as possible on the areas that allow for growth?

Unitary Plan Roosting Chickens

The council’s decision to withdraw their [not really] out of scope changes is already seeing it’s chickens starting to come home to roost. As Radio NZ’s Todd Niall reported yesterday

Auckland Council has withdrawn staff from crucial hearings on the city’s future, saying its hands are tied by political revolt.

Few of the council’s planning staff and expert witnesses are to appear at the Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel, which is set to begin considering future zonings tomorrow.

The withdrawal follows an unprecedented defeat for council leadership 10 days ago, when councillors overthrew some higher-density housing proposals already before the panel – by a vote of 13 to 8.

In legal advice prior to the vote, councillors were told they should not withdraw any evidence and that doing so would have significant legal consequences.


Auckland Council chief executive Stephen Town wrote to councillors and the chairs of the local boards, explaining the withdrawal.

Mr Town said the only exception would be if the panel itself called council staff, or if other submitters sought to cross-examine them.

While council staff would be unable to argue in person over the housing zonings that a majority of councillors opposed, the written arguments remained before the panel and could be argued by others.

On Thursday, Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel chair Judge David Kirkpatrick told a packed hearing room that it would not be removing any evidence already before it, nor would the panel refuse to call any witnesses.

Thanks to the decisions of councillors under the fake pretence of process, they’ve now turned the whole process into a farce and an even bigger process mess. Instead of representing the views of the city and its people, the council are now sitting on the side lines and not representing anyone. Those 13 councillors shot their own feet at point blank range.

Areas shown in red are those where the residential zone was “upzoned”

Areas shown in red are those where the residential zone was “upzoned”

Perhaps they might claim it was an unintended consequence but the outcome is exactly what they were warned would happen. Below is the independent legal advice Radio NZ reference that the council received over the matter. It is pretty unequivocal that the councillors should not have voted to withdraw evidence.

Despite this councillors like George Wood and mayoral candidates like Mark Thomas continue to believe that council staff should be able to merrily turn up and pretend the evidence, the panels interim guidance as well as other factors simply didn’t happen. Here’s George Wood on Morning Report yesterday.

or listen here.

While most of this recent Unitary Plan episode has been frustrating, one the positive in recent days has been MP David Shearer injecting himself into the debate. First with this comment

Then this excellent piece.

There’s an old saying that Auckland is great at planning – for yesterday’s needs.

So I was disappointed at last week’s decision by Auckland Council to reject the plan for greater housing density in Auckland City. It betrayed short-term thinking and a lack of vision by our city leaders, and will leave our city about 200,000 homes short of what we will need by 2040.


High density is nothing to fear. It’s bad design we need to guard against.

It’s bad design that has frightened some Aucklanders off the high-density living our city so desperately needs. Look at the Scene One, Scene Two and Scene Three apartments at the bottom of the city: they’re ugly, towering examples of where we’ve got it wrong.


So the need for higher housing density in Auckland is clear. It’s obvious. Let’s get on with it.

And instead of fighting what Auckland so desperately needs, we should embrace density and henceforth put our energies into insisting on good planning, thoughtful rules about building envelopes and heights, robust restrictions that protect privacy and light and – always- quality materials that will further beautify our city and stand the test of time.

This is good to see from an MP whose electorate contains some of those most opposed to change. It’s a shame other MPs have been so silent about it – perhaps like their council colleagues out of fear of angry property owners resistant to change.

The linear city and other science fictions

Last week, urban designer lecturers Dushko Bogunovich and Matthew Bradbury published an article on their vision for transforming Auckland into a “linear city”:

Instead, we suggest a linear, city-region that follows the opportunities and respects the constraints in the landscape. Its central spine would connect many nodes of density, functioning as centres of commerce and production, with high-rise living. There could be 20-odd nodes between Whangarei and Hamilton.

This is what we call the “working city”. In contrast – the “lifestyle city” would be situated on the glorious east coast. We see it as part of the larger “NZ Riviera”, stretching from Whangarei to Whakatane. Here, the world-renowned qualities of Auckland’s superb suburban lifestyle would mature to the level where Auckland would truly become the “world’s lifestyle capital”.

New infrastructure technologies, such as localised sewerage and water systems, super-efficient solar panels, internet and electric cars, mean that any new urban settlement is not necessarily reliant on expensive centralised infrastructure systems. We no longer have to get our power from the South Island or by burning fossil fuel, and we don’t have to drive two hours to work.

If this sounds a bit like science fiction, that’s because it literally is science fiction. The ur-form for the linear city – and its most complete expression – is a 1975 utopian science fiction novel by Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia.

Ecotopia imagined an environmental utopia in a future US West Coast that had seceded from the rest of the country. Urban space and economic life have been upended: the new nation has pursued radical decentralisation and sustainable living.

Bogunovich and Bradbury don’t go as far as Callenbach in calling for an end to investment capital, radical downsizing of central government, and a ban on all cars, but they do harp on many of the same themes when it comes to transport and urban form. In the book, for example, San Francisco has been downsized to a mere village, its population spread out into “minicities” on rapid transit lines:

the great concentrations of people in San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and even the smaller metropolitan areas began to disperse somewhat. New minicities sprung up in favorable locations, with their own linkage necklaces of transit lines: Napa, on its winding, Seine-like river, at last pollution-free; Carquinez-Martinez, stretching out along rolling hills dropping down to the Strait; and others throughout the country.

Bogunovich and Bradbury echo Callenbach’s language when they speak of a central transit spine connecting “many [small] nodes of density”. It’s a seductive idea. But, as public transport guru Jarrett Walker pointed out in his review of Ecotopia, it’s an intrinsically unworkable one from a transport perspective:

A gleaming high speed rail system delivers his hero through a transbay tube to an intimate, shrinking village called San Francisco. But real transbay tunnels and high speed rail require major cities to create the demand around their stations. Those cities need the big infrastructure of power and water and transit. That infrastructure may sometimes require cutting down some trees, accepting the impacts of a dam, building densely where somebody already lives, or creating space for efficient movement on a street that could otherwise have been a park, a creek, a kiosk, a gathering place.

The contradictory, fantastical nature of Bogunovich and Bradbury’s vision becomes even more apparent when we consider the real-world examples they cite for Auckland to follow. These places, they argue, combine a low-density linear form with highly efficient rapid transit and natural amenities:

Frankfurt is a famous example of a super-efficient city that consists of more than 70 local authorities. It prides itself on its inclusion of agriculture into the metropolitan fabric, its first class, evenly distributed, recreational green open spaces, and international airport amidst a forest, which serves three major cities.

Other famous models of successful, decentralised and polycentric development are metropolitan Munich and the urban region of the Ruhr. Both cover large areas, include plentiful open spaces, and have managed to contain urban sprawl in the form of a coherent polycentric pattern.

Let’s take a look at these places. Here’s a map of the Ruhr region. According to Wikipedia, the region is home to 8.5 million people – over five times as many as in Auckland. From end to end, the main urban corridor – from Duisberg to Dortmund – is around 80 kilometres long. That’s about the same as the distance from Pukekohe to Silverdale.

So if we wanted Auckland to be more like the Ruhr, we would have to increase the population of urban Auckland fivefold. That’s a level of intensification far, far beyond anything contemplated in the Unitary Plan.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

We run into similar problems with Frankfurt and Munich, which are roughly comparable in population to Auckland but considerably denser. Charting Transport has helpfully published comparative data on population-weighted densities in Australian and European cities. (Population-weighted density is the most accurate measure of density – it measures the density of the neighbourhood the average resident lives in.) According to that data, Frankfurt is twice as dense as Melbourne, and Munich is almost three times as dense. (Auckland and Melbourne have pretty similar densities.)

For the visual learners, here’s a randomly selected neighbourhood several kilometres from the Frankfurt city centre. Observe how this kind of medium density would be totally illegal under existing Auckland planning rules:

Frankfurt neighbourhood

So rather than making the case for a sprawled “linear city”, Frankfurt, Munich, and the Ruhr illustrate Jarrett Walker’s point that population density is necessary to obtain efficiencies in infrastructure provision, including well-utilised rapid transit. Those cities have developed intensively where there is demand to do so, especially in inner-city suburbs. As data on infrastructure costs for low- and high-density developments in Auckland shows, this can save money:

CIE and Arup Auckland infrastructure costs by density

Bogunovich and Bradbury’s problems in distinguishing between science fiction and reality get worse when they start discussing Auckland’s existing urban form and infrastructure. They argue that:

Being located on a land-bridge, Auckland has mainly grown in the northern and southern directions. After 100 years of growth and amalgamation, it has grown into a linear conurbation some 70km long. By 2040 it could be 150km long. This is not bad news; linear cities are famously efficient.

Are they really? As Bogunovich and Bradbury concede, Auckland already has a relatively linear urban form. If this does indeed improve efficiency, shouldn’t we already be reaping the benefits in terms of lower house prices and more efficient transport outcomes?

Or, to put it another way, isn’t continuing to do the same thing and hoping for a different outcome the very definition of insanity?

In response to this concern, Bogunovich and Bradbury say that they want to continue doing the same thing – urban expansion into nodes up and down State Highway 1 – but differently in an unspecified way:

Growth is already happening along this corridor anyway – witness the boom in Te Rapa, Pokeno, Silverdale and Warkworth. However, this development is haphazard, exacerbating traditional urban sprawl and commuting distances. It also relies too much on expensive and vulnerable infrastructure.

This is also very problematic: they don’t provide any specific explanation of how their linear city would differ from the one that actually exists. This has serious cost implications. As Auckland Council found when devising a “Future Urban Land Supply Strategy” last year, urban expansion is expensive. They are expecting network infrastructure costs to rise to $100,000-$200,000 per dwelling for greenfield development.

In Bogunovich and Bradbury’s vision, “distributed, small scale, clean, green and smart infrastructure” would bring down these costs. This, again, echoes the science fiction world of Ecotopia. But without details – or better yet, costed and implementable plans – “technology will transform the way we live!” is an empty slogan. It means nothing.

Their discussion of the transport and labour market implications of a 150-kilometre long linear city “that extends at least from Wellsford and Helensville to Pokeno and Orere Point” is equally unsatisfying. They state that considerable horizontal expansion will lead to lower, not higher, transport costs: “we don’t have to drive two hours to work”.

For this to work, it would require people in the outer nodes to work locally, rather than commuting to other areas of the city. That would represent a significant change from the way that Auckland (and every other large city) works. At present, people who live further out commute longer distances, on average:

Trip Length residential 2013

Previous attempts to decentralise the city have not changed this pattern, because it is intrinsic to the way that urban labour markets work. As former World Bank urban researcher Alain Bertaud observes, normal cities involve people commuting between a lot of different points, which enables the agglomeration economies that make cities work. An “urban village” model, in which everybody commutes short distances to the nearest “node”, occurs in planners’ dreams but never in real life:

Bertaud urban structure graph

This isn’t to say that Bogunovich and Bradbury’s ideas are all bad. Given Auckland’s geographical constraints, there is a good case to build a better rapid transit network focused on key corridors with high demand. That’s exactly what Transportblog has proposed in its Congestion Free Network, and it’s what Auckland Transport is planning to build:

AT Rapid Transit Network 2015-2045

Enabling more housing in areas that have good transport accessibility is also a good idea. In fact, that is exactly what the Unitary Plan’s Regional Policy Statement says should happen:

2. Enable higher residential densities and the efficient use of land in neighbourhoods:

a. within and around centres and within moderate walking distances from the city, metropolitan, town and local centres

b. in areas close to the frequent public transport routes and facilities

c. in close proximity to existing or proposed large open spaces, community facilities, education and healthcare facilities

d. adequately serviced by existing physical infrastructure or where infrastructure can be efficiently upgraded.

But, as I’ve explained above, the vision of Auckland as an exclusively “linear city” simply isn’t grounded in reality. It may be fine as science fiction, but it would fail in practice.

In fact, the examples chosen by Bogunovich and Bradbury make that very clear. Auckland’s low-density, linear urban form has led to our current housing affordability and transport problems. The German cities, which are much more densely populated, have been more successful in avoiding those problems. Emulating them would mean allowing more mid-rise housing to be constructed near the centre, not less!

The consultation problem: Who submits on the plan? [Repost]

In light of the recent debate over whether the Unitary Plan hearings process is sufficiently democratic, this is an appropriate time to revisit a post I wrote last year on the demographics of consultation feedback. Essentially, local governments don’t hear from all their citizens equally – submissions are weighted towards older, whiter, and probably wealthier people. This is a critical issue for local democracy. As the Productivity Commission wrote last year:

Some existing residents – especially homeowners – benefit from restrictions on the supply of new housing, as these help keep up house values. The Commission has identified a “democratic deficit”, where homeowners have a disproportionate influence in local council processes, including elections and consultation. This creates a “wedge” between local and national interests.

On with the post.

Auckland Council is currently [in March 2015] consulting with residents on its 2015-2025 Long Term Plan (LTP). This is an important document, as it sets out the Council’s budget over the next ten years. This is a period in which Auckland has to make some tough choices, including whether it should raise more money to pay for an expanded transport plan. (The City Rail Link, a key project for the city, is expected to start regardless, but it’s going to be harder to pay for other public transport infrastructure without additional money.)

If you haven’t yet submitted, I’d encourage you to do so via the Council’s online submission form. Or, if you want a more straightforward way to submit Generation Zero has released their submission guide following up their alternative LTP. You can read their plan at fixourcity.co.nz. [Note: submissions closed a year ago; don’t bother!]

The other week, Matt put up a post summarising the data on who had submitted on the LTP as of 19 February. (More data was published on 1 March.) He highlighted a few interesting aspects of the feedback, including what submitters were highlighting as priorities for spending. There is a big desire for more spending on public transport and cycling, which is great to see.

The most striking data was on the demographics of the submitters. Simply put: Council isn’t getting feedback from a representative set of Aucklanders. Some groups are systematically underrepresented, while others are massively overrepresented.

To illustrate this point, I compared the demographics of LTP submitters with Auckland’s actual demographics from the 2013 Census. Here’s the summary table:

LTP submitter demographics vs Auckland demographics

As you can see, there are some groups that show up in large numbers to have their say:

  • Men – 49% of Auckland’s population, but 62% of LTP submitters to date
  • NZ Europeans – overrepresented in LTP submissions by 50%
  • People aged 55 or older – overrepresented by 80% or more in LTP submissions

Other groups are underrepresented by comparable margins:

  • Maori, Pasifika and Asian people – underrepresented by 62%, 81%, and 73%, respectively
  • People aged under 25 – underrepresented by 70% or more.

In other words, Auckland is a young, multicultural city where young people and non-European people don’t have much of a say in Council feedback.

Here’s another view of the data on the age of submitters versus the age of Aucklanders as a whole. The age profile of LTP submitters is almost the inverse of the age profile for the whole population!

LTP submitters and Auckland age structure chart

This poses some serious challenges for Auckland Council (and other local governments, probably). Councils rely heavily upon submission and consultation processes to help inform their decisions about what to build and how to write urban planning rules. It’s not the sole input to decisions – which sometimes causes some people to kvetch that Auckland Council’s not listening to them – but it is an important one.

If the demographics of submitters are biased, we can’t necessarily rely upon consultation feedback as a guide to what the public wants. If half of Auckland is under the age of 35, and almost half are Maori, Pasifika and Asian, while most submitters are middle aged to retired and disproportionately white, should we trust the data? And what could we do instead to gather more representative data?

Fortunately, Auckland Council does seem to be using a few alternative approaches to getting feedback on the LTP. This includes an independent phone survey of 4,200 Aucklanders selected to be demographically representative. Depending upon how they ask the questions, this may be a more valuable source of insight into actual Aucklanders’ preferences than the standard consultation forms.

The Council is also running a series of meetings, recognising that some people prefer to talk about the issues rather than fill in an online form. In a comment on Matt’s post, Ben Ross reported back on the discussion at an LTP meeting in the Otara-Papatoetoe local board:

the Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board Have Your Say Sessions in which the Pacific (and Maori) people were VERY vocal in making their thoughts known.

I was the sole white person there at the Otara-Papatoetoe LB session last night (didnt bother me one bit) and their views were consistent:
Better east west transport links especially from Otara to Wiri and the Airport
Upgrade of Otara Town Centre
And socio-economics was a big concern as well

It is definitely good that Auckland Council’s using a few different mechanisms to get feedback on the LTP – provided that it’s all weighted up and reported together. But even if it puts the effort into getting a meaningfully representative set of views on the LTP, it probably isn’t doing the same thing in the multifarious consultations it does on smaller issues.

I don’t have a good solution to this – although I have a few ideas. What are your thoughts?

A brief explanation of what just happened with the Unitary Plan

Over the past week Transportblog has published several posts on the brouhaha (or is that kerfuffle?) about Auckland Council’s position on Unitary Plan rezoning.

However, we haven’t really taken a higher-altitude view on the issue. So here’s a quick summary.

The underlying issue is that Auckland’s home prices are really, really high, and rising rapidly. Rents are also rising faster than incomes. That’s great news for people who already own homes, but terrible for everyone who doesn’t.

The housing affordability crisis is particularly bad for young people and low-income households, who may be renting or trying to save up to buy a home. These people directly bear the costs of rising prices.

Home prices are high and rising because Auckland isn’t building enough homes. If there isn’t enough housing to meet demand, prices must rise until some people give up and go away. This may mean living in overcrowded flats, living in unheated garages, staying in abusive relationships to stay housed, or simply packing up and leaving Auckland.

Residential zoning rules determine how many homes can be built in the city. The Unitary Plan originally proposed by Auckland Council applies low-density residential zoning to much of the city, including many of the areas of highest demand. This means that few new homes can be built in Auckland.

On Wednesday, Auckland Council voted against considering changes to zoning to enable more homes to be built in areas that are accessible to jobs, education, and transport.

The most likely outcome of this is that Auckland will continue to build too few homes and prices will continue rising. The social ills caused by that dynamic – poverty and unhealthy housing, crimped opportunities for young people, unsustainable levels of car-dependent sprawl, and high rates of outward migration among the young – will also continue.

Locking up the isthmus: a catastrophic strategy

A number of Councillors who voted to withdraw the council’s Unitary Plan rezoning evidence on Wednesday referred to their supposed support of intensification “in the right locations”. Usually this appeared like code for “not in my ward”, especially by those on the isthmus. One of the main changes proposed in the rezoning was to “upzone” parts of the isthmus – in some areas to remedy “downzoning” that had occurred when putting together the Proposed Plan and in other areas because the zoning changes fitted with the criteria that had been signed off by the Council to guide such changes.

The map below (from here) shows reasonably clearly the location of upzoning, downzoning, no change and reclassified zoning between the Proposed Plan and the Council’s now withdrawn evidence. Areas shown in red are those where the residential zone was “upzoned” (that is, changed to a zone likely to enable more development).


Interestingly orange indicates downzoning from what was in the Proposed Plan to what was in the Council evidence. It’s amusing that both George Wood and Chris Darby, who represent the North Shore, yesterday voted against suggested zoning changes that would most likely, on balance, have reduced development intensity within their ward.

So where does the absence of these zoning changes leave us in terms of providing the necessary development capacity for Auckland over the next 30 years? This has become a bit of a vexed question with all sorts of different numbers being bandied about. So I had a dig through the Council’s (soon to be withdrawn I suppose) evidence on the issue, particularly the quantitative work that has been done to assess how much capacity the plan enables as well as the likelihood of that capacity being taken up. This piece of evidence is useful because it reflects an analysis of capacity (both total and feasible) enabled by the changes to the residential zone provisions that were generally agreed at last year’s hearing, but has not yet analysed the impact of any changes to the location of zones.

Overall quite a lot of “feasible” capacity is enabled by the Unitary Plan, even without the zoning changes. The quantitative modelling work referenced in the Council’s evidence highlights between 200,000 and 250,000 dwellings could be reasonably expected to be built within the existing urban area over the next 30 years – with the range dependent on a number of quite complex assumptions. This is shown below (and compared against a previous iteration of the modelling that took place):

ACDC-model-output However, what’s really interesting are the maps that show in what parts of Auckland this ‘feasible capacity’ exists. I’ll take the ‘maximum percentage return’ option above to show this:


What is startling from the map above is just how little feasible capacity there is on the isthmus. Because of its high land values, redevelopment to houses appears to become infeasible, yet because there is not enough upzoning on the isthmus it is only possible to built terraced housing in a fairly small number of locations (shown in blue). The likely outcome of this is most new housing would be built in areas outside the isthmus and, by the look of it, most new housing would be standalone rather than terraced or apartments that are able to offer more affordable options.

Looking at this map what most startled me was how it related to another map of Auckland I’ve looked at recently – from the ATAP Foundation Report looking at change in job accessibility over the next 10 years:


One of the ATAP Foundation Report’s most notable findings from analysing the current transport plan – and this was specifically mentioned by Minister of Transport Simon Bridges when he launched the report – is the very poor relative performance of the west and south, compared to the isthmus and the north.

And the Unitary Plan has gone and put most of our future growth in these locations and essentially locked up the isthmus from future housing growth. This is a catastrophically bad strategy for the future of Auckland, putting the growth in areas which will have increasing difficulty in getting to work and shifting it away from areas with good and improving access by car and public transport. It could also call into question projects like Light Rail which while supposedly justified based on bus volumes, may need to compete for resource with projects focused on where the growth is occurring.

Unitary Plan and the issue of “scope”

So yesterday the council decided to withdraw its evidence on residential rezoning yesterday. A big part of the Council’s reason was the issue of “out of scope” zoning changes. Councillor after councillor highlighted that they (supposedly) support intensification, but for it to be somewhere away from their area. It’s worth noting that most of these councillors from both sides of the political spectrum have opposed intensification at every step of the way. This time they used the excuse that they had significant concerns with the process of how the zoning changes have been made, in particular the inability of people to respond to changes that were not asked for in submissions – known as “out of scope” zoning changes.

There’s some logic in having an issue with this process – it doesn’t seem fair and would be against natural justice – if the changes sought weren’t highlighted in any submissions. However, this actually isn’t true. For example, our submission on the PAUP in February 2014 highlighted a number of areas where we wanted zoning changes to upzone areas and enable more growth capacity – I’ve highlighted our submission point requesting upzoning of the central isthmus area from Mixed Housing Suburban to Mixed Housing Urban:

Section Suggested Amendment Reason(s)
Maps – Central Isthmus Areas zoned Mixed Housing Suburban within the area bounded by New North Road in the west, the city fringe in the north, SH20 in the south and Great South Road in the east should be considered for rezoning to Mixed Housing Urban. The central isthmus has the best public transport accessibility of any part of Auckland, plus a gridded street network and frequent centres of various scales. It also has significant market demand for development.

Rezoning areas from Mixed Housing Suburban to Mixed Housing Urban would enable a wider variety of housing typologies in an area suitable for growth because of its public transport access and other amenities. Mixed Housing Urban would still retain the broad character of the area.

Mixed Housing Suburban area generally avoid places where Special Character overlays are applied.

There are also bunch of other areas where we have also requested zoning changes – like Meadowbank, Greenlane, Morningside, Grey Lynn and Mt Roskill. We specifically highlighted these requested zoning changes for the reasons outlined in the right-hand column and we expected the Council to consider changing its zoning pattern in the Unitary Plan due to our submission.

The way the public notification process works, to ensure natural justice, is that once submissions have been made they are then published and people can make further submissions for or against submissions they are interested in. We would fully expect people in the areas concerned who oppose the idea of our submission to make a further submission against it (from memory some did) enabling us to then go to the hearings and argue the case. But hey, we’re just a blog and I guess some people might not think to check out our submission.

However, the submission made by the Minister for the Environment (at the time) Amy Adams, on behalf of the government is the kind of submission that interested people should have looked at – given the Independent Hearings Panel was appointed by the Government and, hey, because they’re the Government. So what does that submission say about upzoning?


Some pretty big concerns there – especially about the extent to which the Proposed Plan provided the level of necessary development capacity – including a specific concern about a misalignment between where demand is (i.e. in central areas) and where capacity has been provided (i.e. not in central areas). The Minister then goes on to be more specific about the Government’s concerns in relation to the level of capacity enabled by the Proposed Plan:


This is a pretty clear direction that a major submitter has requested significant changes to the plan’s zoning pattern to provide more housing supply, especially in market attractive areas. This is what the Council’s now withdrawn evidence went and did. Fundamentally Council staff made a gigantic mistake by calling some of the zoning changes “out of scope”. There is good reason to argue the changes were very much in scope, responding to points made in our submission, the Government’s submission and others (like Housing New Zealand who argue in a lot of detail that the changes are in scope). Had they done that then today wouldn’t have happened.

Given that the resolutions passed only excluded “out of scope” evidence, I wonder whether there will be some legal arguments about whether the Council’s evidence truly was out of scope. I certainly hope so as at the moment it seems like our submission has been able to be ignored solely because we didn’t identify the individual address of every house we suggested should have its zoning changed. Where’s the natural justice in that?

In fact, I’ll go further, the council’s decision to remove withdraw its evidence of the basis that people affected didn’t get a chance to have a say is insulting to all of those like us who put in a lot of time and effort to understand and respond to both the draft and Proposed Unitary Plan. To suggest this late in the piece that some who couldn’t be bothered before to make a submission should suddenly get to jump on a bandwagon is outrageous, especially as those behind this opposition only want others who oppose the plan like them to have a say.

So where to now?

From what I understand it’s not as simple as just reversing the wrongly called ‘out of scope’ changes made in December. Those changes were made based factors such as a result of analysing submissions, updated evidence and interim guidance from the hearings panel. As mentioned by council staff yesterday, they now can’t stand up and defend the plan as proposed in 2013 without breaching profession standards as doing so would mean them deliberately ignoring evidence or using evidence they know to be false.

Submitters like Housing NZ who have very detailed submissions are likely to have a greater say in the outcome decided by the panel. During the debate Councillor Alf Filipaina highlighted the extent of intensification Housing NZ were suggesting in their submission compared to what the council proposed. This is shown below and as you can see is a significant increase (he didn’t mention the numbers for south or east)

HNZ Intensification figures vs Council

It’s also clear that the council need to do a better job of enabling better representation. Those at the meeting to try and support the Unitary Plan, especially anyone young, were heckled and jeered at by the largely elderly crowd. Is it any wonder it’s so hard to get youth to participate in the democratic process when people act like a pack of two year olds throwing a tantrum.

Ultimately the fate of the zoning will come down the Independent Hearings Panel who will report back to the council in July. Within 20 days of that the council will need to decide whether to support or oppose what the IHP suggest. This vote suggests many of these councillors will oppose the plan if it enables intensification or even just maintaining what’s possible now. If that happens it will open up the plan to challenges in the environment court delay it for possibly many years to come. Ultimately I think the be approved for the simple fact is it’s supported by the evidence.

Leadership needed in Unitary Plan Decision Today

So once again we reach that point in the roller-coaster ride that has been the Unitary Plan were we have no idea what will happen. Councillors will vote today on whether to withdraw the council’s submission on zoning and remove their ability to be involved in the hearings process over it – it’s frankly absurd we’re even in this position. Without going over everything again, I thought I would highlight a few good comments and articles recently about what’s happening.

Yesterday Simon Wilson from Metro Magazine wrote an open letter to councillors calling on them to show leadership. He notes that while the process has been messy, backing away now would undermine all of the work over many years.

We get it. It’s pretty tough, being a city councillor right now – at least, if you’re a councillor who has supported the Auckland Plan (AP) and its vision for a liveable city, and you’re standing for re-election. But you have to do better than we’ve seen from you – all of you – in the last three months.


However, as you go about fixing this, please, please, do not indulge in rhetoric – or take any material steps – to undermine the whole Unitary Plan. Remember, despite the noise of protest right now, we already know that most Aucklanders want the city to grow up as well as out, especially in town centres and along transport corridors.

There were a number of Op-eds over at the herald

This one by Jason Krupp from the NZ Institute talked about the impact of preventing young people from being involved in the housing market.

Research by the Grattan Institute clearly shows that locking young people out of the housing market saps productive capacity.

That is because it restricts their access to the inner city services nexus, which is vital to increasing human capital.

And he also raises the issue of the impact of density constraints on house prices.

Research shows lifting density constraints tends to decrease capital value but increase land value and residents are better off on a net basis.

Another study examined the housing market in the San Francisco metropolitan area in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was characterised by artificially restricted supply and high house prices. As a result, demand for housing was weak and home ownership rates low – a situation strikingly similar to Auckland today.

When the US economy contracted in 1990 the most restrictive property markets were hit hardest. In California, San Francisco and Marin County saw prices fall by 3 per cent and 5.3 per cent in a year, while less supply-constrained areas further north saw only a 0.4 per cent dip.

Phil Eaton from the Property Council and who held no punches in a press release on the matter last week has continued in the same vein in this piece. Phil might represent commercial developments but it’s quite refreshing to see parts of our business community so unequivocal on issues like sprawl and the high costs it imposes.

We now have many decades of indecision and lack of master planning to make up for.

This unfortunate period has given us suburbs without appropriate infrastructure, the wrong housing typologies for what most people need (mostly too big), a shortfall of close to 50,000 dwellings and insane house price escalation.

We are only just getting the planning in place for a connected public transport system. We must start now, not next year or the year after. No more backward steps. There seems to be a lack of acknowledgment that in the next 15 years we need to fit a city the size of Wellington into Auckland.

Visualise a map of Auckland, then increase its geographical coverage by a third and you will see the sort of trouble we will be in if we do not create options for smart, intensive housing.

Imagine the motorways that will be required to get people from home to work because of sprawl. Efficient housing and public transport will not be feasible with massive urban sprawl. We will all pay for that inefficiency.


The councillors who have come out against density proposals are aiding the Nimby mentality of baby-boomers who will leave behind an intergenerational legacy of social injustice and inequality.

There will never be Auckland suburbs covered in ghetto apartments. Fewer than 6 per cent of suburbs will have apartments with more than three storeys.

Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse was a bit more subdued in saying:

And we already know current plans cannot supply the 400,000 extra houses needed to accommodate one million more people over 30 years. Issues about natural justice and property rights have been raised but I am equally concerned about social justice and the rights of tens of thousands of people who don’t own property.

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub coined the term “Generation Rent” and the Property Council of New Zealand, community housing providers and this publication have all called for solutions that increase housing supply, choice and affordability. It’s an issue too important to play politics; this must be a cross-party and an all-of-Auckland approach.

She also noted that the government are calling for much more intensification than the council is.

The Ministry for the Environment’s submission, endorsed by the Cabinet, calls for zoning of higher densities in areas that are market-attractive – areas, frankly, where zoning is most controversial.

This is interesting when you consider what the outcomes could be should the councillors vote to withdraw the evidence. She made this comment on twitter last night.

The government through the the likes of the Minister for the Envrionment, Housing New Zealand and other ministries have called for significantly more intensification to be allowed in the Unitary Plan and in the areas where there is currently the most opposition. The council withdrawing their evidence and position leaves the hearings panel much more open to views of other submitters. That likely gives more weight to the likes of the government submissions. There would be quite some irony – and perhaps not such a bad outcome – if by withdrawing their evidence the councillors opposing the plan ended up enabling even greater intensification than they’re opposing now. As Penny says, this would be a bit of an own goal. It also goes to the heart of this debate, do the councillors want the council being involved in the process or having the process happen to them.

There’s another even scarier scenario. Given the importance addressing housing supply in Auckland is to the national economy, if councillors start to block the Unitary Plan could the government start to think about replacing the council with commissioners as they’ve done to Environment Canterbury? I suspect it would be too politically fraught but it wouldn’t surprise me if the thought was starting to cross their mind.

Puketāpapa Local Board Chair Julie Fairey put together this good and simple illustration of one area in her area showing what is allowed currently under the existing Operative Distract Plan, under the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan and under the changes in the December submission. As you can see in many cases the zoning is still lower than what is currently allowed.

Julie Fairey - UP Changes

I wonder what the outcome would have been if the council had been more clear and the Herald more responsible in its reporting about how what was proposed compared to what actually existed. Instead the Herald has been more interested in manufacturing controversy by showing pictures of apartment towers next to single houses when talking about changes that allow for more two and three storey dwellings.

On the other side of the debate the was this absurd piece from ACT MP David Seymour containing many of the fallacies we’ve come to see from those pushing for unfettered sprawl. Included in there is Demographias use of average density to portray Auckland as denser than New York

Auckland is already denser than New York, and most American and Australian cities.  The 1.6 million people in Manhattan may live cheek-by-jowl, but not the other 20 million inhabiting the wider urban area.

This was addressed to a degree by Thomas Lumley at Statschat and another good post on the issue is from Nick here a few years ago. In short it is explained by this image. Each dot represents a set number of dwellings and each box has the same number of dots in it. That means that overall they have the same level of density but they would both feel like very different cities to live in.


In the end it seems Seymour didn’t like living in an apartment so no one else should. It’s always funny when politicians claim to be about letting people make their own decisions and letting the market decide then then turn around and advocate for restricting options and dictating what can be done.


I hope sanity prevails today and the councillors don’t put the future of Auckland at risk. I guess only time will tell now.