A tale of two city centres
Auckland and Christchurch councils see housing playing a much greater role in the central city. They have released plans for transformation (or bits of a plan in Auckland’s case), both with visions of more active, exciting, and greener central cities. Auckland is already on its way, with the recent extension of public waterfront amenities into the Wynyard Quarter.
For Christchurch, the path is more difficult but the council’s vision for the CBD following the devastation of repeated earthquakes over the past year is a bold one: increasing green spaces in a low-medium rise centre, an ambitious combination of restoration and remembrance, public spaces, public transport, and a revival of inner city retailing and housing. It is an ambitious blueprint for creating certainty from chaos.
Both cities share a hope that the redemption of downtown will be sustained by an influx of city dwellers, people trading off the space of the suburbs for the buzz of the centre.
Will it work? I am not sure. The quest to revive the CBD by relying on expanding residential precincts within what are already quite confined spaces raises conflicts between accommodating residents' needs and catering 24/7 for many more visitors and a wider variety of educational, entertainment, recreational, professional, and employment activities.
In any case, the plans appear founded on a vision of place more than people: views of structures, precincts, and building controls define them, rather than consideration of dwelling needs and lifestyle preferences. Where are the people (other than as stylised figures in rose-tinted renderings)?
Even though the rhetoric is strong on getting people there (although preferably not by car) little attention seems to have been paid to who will live in expanded central dwelling precincts, how they might live, and what their housing and neighbourhood needs might be.
Recent experience suggests that land purchase and aggregation, remediation, and redevelopment, and building costs mean affordability will only be achieved by sacrificing amenity and quality. This in turn implies that inner city residential development will continue to displace the less well-off, with gentrification leaving no room for the sort of social housing envisaged in the Christchurch mix.
At least Christchurch central does not lend itself to the shoebox blocks that have become part of inner Auckland’s apartment scene over the past decade. On the other had, more of the same may be the only real hope of squeezing in the inner city resident numbers Auckland Council hopes for. Either way, it is questionable just how many more young, unattached professionals and students there will be to occupy large numbers of additional medium-density dwellings in either city.
This is one of the questions considered in a report by CityScope Consultants just published on the website of the now discontinued Centre for Housing Research Aotearoa New Zealand. It examines the international evidence, looks at the numbers, and reports primary research (interviews with buyers and residents) to identify what might make medium density housing more attractive. (By medium density we mean anything from single storey units, through low rise apartments of 2-3 storeys, to medium-high rise apartment blocks – all of which involve a significant shift from New Zealand’s suburban tradition).
Here are some of the relevant findings:
Putting future housing in its place
Meeting residential needs, achieving higher residential densities, and restoring the CBD are not objectives that necessarily converge. A liveable city calls for an emphasis on where most people will be living – the suburbs. Meeting housing needs and demand will not be achieved by building undifferentiated, small footprint apartments in the centre for what is essentially a minority, transitional and diminishing market segment.
Equally, reviving the central city will not happen as a result of creating more swathes of medium density housing, and nor should it depend on such a strategy.
It is likely that residential densities will increase in mature cities over the next thirty years naturally: just don’t expect this to favour the CBD. Certainly the central city has an exciting future as a place to visit. Let’s not rely too much, though, on getting a lot more people to live there, especially not in medium rise apartments.