Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Redesigning a City: Planning an Affordable Future for Auckland

At last some urgency ...
The Government has responded to the analysis of housing affordability by largely adopting the multifaceted approach proposed by the New Zealand Productivity Commission.

My interest is in what it says about boosting the supply of houses, a necessary but not sufficient condition to improve affordability and sustain the liveability of our two largest cities.  The government response acknowledges the urgent need to boost dwelling numbers in Auckland and Christchurch by providing sufficient brownfield and greenfield land accessible to the market in a regulatory environment that no longer unduly impedes development. 

This posting explores where some of this land might come from. 

The Government concedes that land supply is largely the responsibility of local government.  Having said that, it suggests that legislation will be needed to support the regulatory tools councils need to accelerate consent processes.

The risk is that the Auckland Council (and others) will offer up an all too familiar response: “We agree, and we are doing it already”.  Because that would belie the performance that got us into this fix and suggest a complacency unjustified by current plans.

It’s time to get beyond the glib.  A failure to rise to the challenge – and it is a challenge – that faces Auckland risks continuing distortion of the housing market and all that entails.  This in turn undermines the labour market, as employers are obliged to pay higher wages to offset high housing and living costs to attract and retain skilled and experienced employees.  And wage inflation detracts from any advantages of scale associated with operating in New Zealand’s biggest city.

We need jobs as well as houses
A failure to ensure the availability of suitable land for business in the right places has also prejudiced development.  This was a hole in the 1999 Auckland Regional Growth Strategy, subsequently squeezing the supply and lifting the price of industrial land.  It has continued to receive scant attention, despite the gloss in the Auckland Plan.  It was not addressed by the Productivity Commission.  But a failure by the Council to move with alacrity on deficiencies in land for industry will undermine any response to the housing shortfall, continue to exacerbate costly cross-region commuting and congestion. 

An integrated response is needed to ensure that sufficient business land is released in the right places to facilitate investment and employment accessible to growing residential areas.

Where will the houses go?
Simply pushing housing up or out is not a sufficient response. There are limits to demand for medium density housing in central locations, and cost impediments as well as community resistance to their proliferation. 

At the same time, the usual form of greenfield development – the tack-on model of occasionally stretching  urban limits – is not good enough.  It risks all the inefficiencies and social shortcomings of undifferentiated sprawl by creating extensive, contiguous, tracts of housing – often large houses on small sections – with minimal local employment and poor transport connectivity

There is a real risk that Auckland Plan’s centrepiece for urban expansion – the Southern Initiative – will simply  go down the path of continuous development of limited merit, limited amenity urbanisation, and little by way of local employment.

Here, instead, are some options available to create a truly interesting and liveable Auckland.

Some options
Thinking brown? Then think big
One of the problems of brownfield and infill development is finding sufficient land for comprehensive development. Piecemeal development that simply fills in the spaces, including green spaces (such as golf courses) is not especially exciting.  And squeezing multiple units onto scattered sites demands a lot of care and innovation in design, cost, and development. 

We need substantial brownfield sites where the amenity and variety associated with greenfield sites can be incorporated.  The existing public housing estate is a start, but hardly enough. This is where the Council and the Government might most usefully work together, assembling sufficient land and, once done, calling tenders for substantive, integrated (re)development.
There are few obvious areas for doing this, though. Henderson central may be one. The head of the Manukau Harbour may provide an opportunity close to industrial and commercial areas.  Ageing industrial areas on the Isthmus  may work, although the costs of land remediation will mean that some public funding is inevitable.   With imagination, though, and the clout of council and government backing, there must be more brownfield opportunities of substance.

Decentralised intensification
Greenfield sites on the fringe are okay if based on integrated suburbs or urban villages which meet many if not most residents’ needs locally – for community activities, recreation, shopping, and work.  They may include a mix of housing options, townhouses, low-rise apartments, detached and semi-detached homes.  Ideally they will be on sites that offer some interest by way of contour and the natural environment.  The secret is in smart design. And not all such development need be contiguous.  Let’s bring green space – and nature -- back into our city as it expands.

Satellite towns
Ideally, small and medium-sized towns will be promoted in a green hinterland, linked by effective and flexible transport corridors which allow for a variety of modes..

Pokeno in the south is leading the way (with the added benefit of a potential rail connection), building on existing infrastructure and community in an attractive physical environment, well removed from the urban limits but utilising good urban design and providing for substantial local employment. 

The growth of nearby service town Pukekohe over the past decade tells us something about the market's positive view of this sort of setting.  Warkworth and eventually Wellsford will follow the Pukekohe path, providing real grounds for plans to push the motorway corridor north.

The opportunity of progressive expansion through rail-linked towns to the west is an exciting one, through Kumeu, Waimauku to Helensville and Kaukapakapa.  This is an  area of significant natural amenity and an opportunity for effective commuting to new employment precincts around the north-western motorway.

Village Life
Some consolidation and growth can be founded on existing villages. Already Matakana and Whitford are showing the way, acting at the same time as centres of rejuvenated rural economies.

There are similar opportunities elsewhere – Waitoki, Wainui, and Coatesville stand out in the north, all reasonably close to a north-western rail commuter service in  one direction,  and the commercial infrastructure of Albany, in the other.  Tuakau, Waiuku, Bombay and Te Kauwhata offer similar opportunities in the south.

We might also encourage the emergence of totally new villages and hamlets, catering in compact, contained sites of character for those who might otherwise opt for sprawling and wasteful countryside living under the current planning regime.   

Detached greenfields
Greenfield areas beyond the city edge could be the focus of substantial new townships: Dairy Flat on the Hibiscus Coast, Riverhead near Albany, and Drury in the south are opportunities where land and land use would be enhanced by sensible urbanisation.  Each is far enough removed from existing development to protect extensive green belts but close enough to offer efficient connection. 

This is perhaps how the Auckland Plan's Southern Initiative might work – developed as a new community at Karaka, rather than as an  extension of Manukau.  It would be detached but close to the southern urban edge in an area where the landscape calls for sensitive and comprehensive planning rather than piecemeal enlargement of the urban boundary.

Moving markets
There is the risk that good quality development will maintain a tendency for new houses to be the preserve of established households already well up the housing – and income – chain.  Mixed communities with a variety of styles and tenures might offset this.  But the ideal outcome of a multi-faceted supply shock like the one outlined will be a more active market in existing dwellings.  Moving on means someone else can move in.

And here’s the how
It goes without saying that this all has to be done within environmental constraints.  The council may have to develop a new mindset, a new culture; one that ensures good things - innovative and varied -- can happen, rather than that they can’t.  

And to achieve some momentum, it may need  adopt a project-managed approach to a whole range of new initiatives , rather than attempting to spread planing, evaluation and design  through various divisions of the council focusing on just one or two models for boosting the land and housing stock

It may even mean creating a new public land development agency that can work with central government and the private sector to rise above currently constrained thinking and remove impediments to large scale development in a number of localities. Only when we get a variety of development opportunities and move away from the monotony of contiguous development might we realise the variety of housing models available.   Multiple initiatives may reduce the incentive  to land bank at the city boundaries-and encourage new players into  the development and housing field where a prolonged downturn has left competition weak.

Land assembly must be high on the list of actions so that a growing and hopefully increasingly efficient supply sector gets the opportunity to respond in a comprehensive fashion to a diverse market that has for too long had its material needs and diverse preferences curtailed.

1 comment:

Andrew D Atkin said...

Speaking in terms of personal taste, I like the satellite town model the best.

Karori in Wellington is a satellite town in that you 'go to' and not 'through' it. It gives it a feeling of place which is nice and makes a big difference. Other suburbs, like Mirimar, are classic flat grid-like developments (mostly) that feel like drab industrial towns and they don't have a happy feeling to them. It's like they've been built by a mentality focused on just surviving and getting things done - not living. They are "functional" but depressing.

Creating a nice feeling in a satellite town is easy. You can create "green rings" around the shopping center, of say 50-100m width, that create a striking aesthetic contrast between the main residential and commercial/shopping areas; walk/bike-ways segregated from vehicle traffic so they are a real pleasure to use; and if you're on flat ground then you can deliberate mess it up a bit with a grader to make shallow waves in the topography to lose the nasty sterility that pure-flat areas are notorious for...etc.

If you develop in big clumps, rather than piecemeal, then you can create some beautifully coordinated developments. And it surely doesn't need to cost much more?