Thursday, March 14, 2013

Flat Out - Reflections on Apartment Living

The writing on the walls
The debate about intensification is hotting up just as Auckland Council is about to unveil its Unitary Plan. The New Zealand Herald has just run four articles together, two advocating a high density city and two pointing to its flaws.

The Deputy Mayor suggests that the Unitary Plan will give us good urban design, “through the mix of apartment living, terrace houses and some land release and development around the edges of Auckland”.  She makes the point that “a lot of young people and a lot of retired people want to live where they can give up their car, live close to public transport, and live in town.” 

Of course, there are a lot more people in the city who are not young or retired and cannot afford to reduce their mobility.  If we fail to cater for their needs and respond to their aspirations for where they might live, then there may be fewer of them in the future as they fuel the exodus to Australia.  And as they tend to be in the young family cohorts the population predictions on which the plan is based will be even less likely to come to fruition.
Can we mandate good design?
The Deputy Mayor’s assertion that the plan will enshrine “good urban design” is a worry.  Good urban design for whom?  And by whom?   Because the recent rejection by the community and planning commissioners of an apartment above the Milford shopping mall in one of Auckland’s coastal suburbs suggests once more that the planned lift in density may not be seen as good design by the communities affected.  And simply rejecting their concerns as nimbyism is a failure to engage in the issues. 

Anyway, how do we enshrine such a subjective, time-bound notion as good design in a statutory city plan?  Urban design reflects setting, culture, and circumstance. How can all that be locked down in a rule book?  That seems to be the antithesis of good design.
Getting personal
The impending plan and the emotions it is raising led me to reflect on my own experience of apartment living, which most recently covers Sydney and Singapore – each time at a point of transition in my own life.

The Ups and Downs of City Living
When moving to Sydney in 1999 I spent a couple of months in the West Tower of The Forum development at St Leonards, above the North Shore Line and 10 minutes by train from the CBD.  I was on the 15th of 38 floors, in one of 440 apartments. 
The Forum, St Leonards, North Sydney

The apartment had a great (but narrow) view.  With only one external wall fa├žade it didn’t see a lot of sun. Consequently, natural air flow and temperature regulation didn’t work so well, meaning comfort depended on running air-conditioning for prolonged periods.

You could turn the aircon off and open the sliding door onto the small balcony if you did want fresh air.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t that fresh.   If you hung washing on the deck it would come back dusted with the grime of busy city streets. 
Fortunately, there was a clothes dryer in the cupboard by the kitchen.

Unfortunately, the kitchen was central to the apartment.  The clothes dryer had to compete with the air conditioning.  Still, the rumble of the dryer was generally preferable to the rumble, squealing brakes, and sirens of busy city streets.
Of course, cooking smells lingered long in the small apartment with the window closed.  Fortunately, there was a selection of fast food places in the foyer between the escalator from the station and the lifts to the apartment.  Great for the waistline.

The complex had a pool for exercise.   Unfortunately, it was usually crowded with young people who I think also lived in the complex.  Fortunately I had television as an alternative. 
I tried to maintain my jogging routine but heavily trafficked main roads and pedestrian barriers on one side and the broken down paving of the ageing suburban streets in the shadow of the towers on the other were discouraging. 

So I got my routine established – toast in the apartment in the morning, lift down to the foyer, coffee to go, train to the city, lift up to the office, work, lift down and two  minute walk back to the station, train home, fast food in the foyer, lift up to the apartment, washing in the dryer, television, bed.  
(Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately - I did not know people to hang out with in nearby pubs and cafes, the other obvious form of recreation for city apartment living).

Fortunately, family joined me so we moved on to a 20 storey block close to the harbour and further from the CBD, and three months later a nine storey block, and 12 months later a six apartment block, each one more liveable than the one before it. 
Another Singapore Success
And then there was time spent living in  high rise Regent Heights apartments in Singapore for several months, three towers with 645 apartments.  This worked well, perhaps because in Singapore there are few choices.  There is a pride in design, and a willingness to allow it to flourish, and a solidity in construction all-too-often absent in some of the apartments in central Auckland.  In Singapore apartments built in the last twenty years or so are also generous in grounds, gardens and amenities.

Region Heights Apartments, Bukit Batok, Singapore

Regent Heights had a driving range and putting greens, tennis courts, its own gym, swimming pools, restaurant, and barbecues.  And I was assured that this level of design and appointment was not unusual.  Slightly older complexes nearby had open food courts at their base - important community meeting places -- gardens and children’s’ play areas.
Regent Heights - Ground Level

 Apartments are not built as add-ons to old town centres or to exploit airspace above commercial premises.  They are central to achieving the high levels of open space and greenery which is a mark of the confined and crowded city-state, providing areas of ambience and respite from commercial activity.  They are not imposed on an existing, low rise fabric, or part of a plan that see open space as houses in waiting, or “mixed” with non-residential uses. 
Quality not quantity
We don't need to copy Singapore, but the experience suggests that apartment living can be done well – provided it’s not a matter of retrofitting and sacrificing the quality of existing city spaces.  And providing some freedom is given to design apartments that add to the quality of life.  So far in Auckland our experience has been decidedly mixed.  Let’s hope that the Unitary Plan pushes us towards the quality rather than quantity end of the medium density spectrum.
Apartment Living, Hobson St, Auckland


Matt said...

Apartment living can be great, and it can be crap. Just like suburban housing. There is no black and white!
The problem with apartments is the economics, especially in NZ. A developer would struggle to build and sell a 2 bedroom 70 square apartment in even a low value suburb in Auckland for anything less than 380-400K, if he or she wanted to make a reasonable profit (say 20%). Would he / she get 380-400K for such an apartment in say Glen Innes, when you can still buy a detached house on a full section in the neighbourhood for 400-450K???? Probably unlikely. So not much apartment development will occur, and the planners' dream will become a housing affordability nightmare.

With all due respect to Ms Hulse, and the planners, there HAS TO BE be trade offs. If apartments are to be built, then usually design / quality will suffer (except perhaps in very high value locations) because the economics dictate it. That's why most apartment developments in Auckland have been crap. Its not usually because the developers don't know what good design is, its because usually good design kills the feasibility of a project.

Some planners argue that good design can be realised at lower development costs, but to be frank that's garbage. Lower costs will always demand budget cuts, whether its in material quality, design articulation, amount of glazing etc. etc.

Andrew D Atkin said...

Years ago I had the idea of a "personal mini-lift"...kind of like the vertical version of a PRT (personal rapid transit) system. Think of: A cylinder that only takes one person, and shoots up (in a tube) to your apartment, directly, and without any intermediate stops. It would not use cables but instead wheels (easy done for a light, narrow structure like this). It's position would be on the outside of the building. The effect? You walk to the lift and travel quickly and privately to your apartment, for when you're traveling by yourself (which would be most of the time, I assume). Otherwise you use the conventional lift inside the building.

Without going into details, these lifts would actually be cheap to make/operate, and have a high productivity relative to their cost (because they transport people quickly). For me, anyway, they would do a lot to make the idea of apartment living more attractive. I wouldn't want to have to constantly get into a slow lift to "escape" and have to get cosy with strangers all the time, especially when I'm prior settled into my private zone.

Anonymous said...

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