Thursday, March 7, 2013

Out Might Just be Better than Up - the Housing Density Debate is Not Over

The fall-back position – let’s not be LA

New Minister of Housing Dr Nick Smith is determined to “smash the city limits”, so that Auckland grows out, as well as up.  The Mayor of Auckland responded with the claim that allowing the city to expand outward is tantamount to advocating a “flawed Los Angeles model of suburban sprawl and unbridled land availability", and that it would be a throwback to the 1940s and 1950s.

That rather simplifies an argument that has to be had. 

Los Angeles works

For a start, the comparison with Los Angeles is misleading.  Greater Los Angeles has close to 13million people in an area of 4,230  Auckland has 1.4m in 560sqkm.  Los Angeles occupies a broad basin with generally benign topography. Auckland occupies a fragmented isthmus with significant physical constraints.  Los Angeles is reportedly the highest density urban area in the US at 2,730 people per square kilometre, and it works well because it has multiple city centres.

 Melbourne lags

The Mayor suggests that we look to Melbourne, Hong Kong, and London as exemplars.  These are hardly helpful, either. Melbourne with more than 4m people is by no means a compact city.  With 2,660 people/ it has a lower residential density than Los Angeles or Auckland (2,700/  And it’s apparently the 15th most expensive city in the world to live in – compare this with Auckland’s 56th ranking.   

Hong Kong makes the eyes water

Hong Kong – now there’s an urban design success story, the 9th most expensive city in the world.  Seven million people living in 1,104sqkm, that’s 6,480/  Maybe we could emulate that.

But why would we?  Hong Kong may be a great place to visit but few Aucklanders are likely to choose to live there.  Any notion of reproducing Hong Kong here would destroy what already makes Auckland a great place to live.

But it sure would cut down on migration, and that would ease our growth pressures.

Hong Kong is crowded, congested, polluted.  There is limited accessible green space.  It might work for the small group of elite and wealthy who dwell above it all on Victoria Peak.  But the lifestyle of the majority is not one that most New Zealanders would aspire to.

Sprawling Metro, Crowded City, Congested Streets - that's London

The London Urban Area has a population of nearly 12m and occupies 8, The density is some 1,336 persons/  But this includes extensive green belts.  The City comprises around 8.2m people living in 1,, or 5,210/

The majority of Londoners live out their lives in urban villages in an area settled in one form or another for 2,000 years. It occupies gentle rolling down land which has enabled it to extend outward in all directions.  

Interestingly, despite high residential densities and high charges aimed at reducing it, congestion today is a critical problem.  Look at this from a recent report by the Transport Committee for Greater London:
20 per cent of the UK’s congestion is concentrated on just five per cent of the road network in London. These economically and strategically important areas will continue to face pressure as billions of pounds in regeneration funds are concentrated on areas where the opportunity to add new infrastructure is severely limited. According to the Mayor’s Transport Strategy, congestion could rise by as much as 14 per cent, even with the Strategy’s proposals implemented in full.

Does that hold out any prospect that pursuing London-like densities will make Auckland a better place to live?

So does what we say line up with what we do?  

The Mayor said that Aucklanders have already agreed on the city's "compact footprint". He is presumably relying on responses to surveys conducted in the shadow of heavy council promotion of the idea that improved amenity and easier traffic will result from consolidation.  But that’s simply an abstract response to an unproven vision.

The theory is different from the practice.  The apartment alternative – which tends to be what people think about when confronted with the idea of higher residential density -- doesn’t hold a lot of appeal.  More to the point - it doesn’t reflect the choices people are making. 

Look at the graph below: the mix of building consents issued for dwellings in Auckland between 1996 and 2012 shows that the great majority of participants in the market for new homes prefer detached dwellings.  Not many appear to want to live in the housing conditions more commonly associated with Hong Kong or London.

The share of consents issued for all residences comprising detached houses


Some conversation starters

The Minister and the Mayor are clearly going to engage on this matter.   Here are some ideas that may help the discussion.

1  Please, avoid misleading international analogies.

2  Don’t uncritically lean on potentially flawed studies from overseas (and that includes Australia) to support policies that risk imposing large costs on the community and reducing the quality of Auckland as a place to live. 

3  Instead, focus on Auckland, its distinctive and constrained physical geography  and its distinctive and expansive culture, and be prepared to apply some rigorous and relevant analysis to unitary plan objectives and policies for accommodating its growth.

4  Consider that perhaps the claimed cost differences between greenfield growth and redevelopment are illusory.  For starters, take fully into account the price of retrofitting ageing and under-capacity infrastructure to achieve the latter.  Think about how – and how much it will cost – to cope with the congestion that comes with intensification. 

The visible and invisible spending associated with supporting higher densities can lead to very expensive step changes in public capital expenditure and ongoing costs, especially transit costs  (think Auckland’s proposed underground central rail loop).  These and their fiscal impacts need to be honestly costed into your equations.

5  Think about the benefits of the alternative to going up. What do people want? Any apparent economic advantage favouring inner city living may be a lot less than the price people are prepared to pay to purchase a house in a suburban locality.

In any case, analysis generally reveals that any savings that might arise from increasing housing density follow a U-shaped curve.  After a preliminary fall, unit costs begin to rise again with increasing densities (at precisely what point depends on where you start from).  Given Auckland’s geography diseconomies are likely to set in quickly as density increases.

7  Recognise the opportunities to put into place highly efficient urban design that responds to local conditions and incorporates modern infrastructure in well-connected greenfield and satellites sites that retain Auckland’s and Aucklanders’ access to country and coast.

8  Look seriously into the long-term health effects of exposing many more people to high doses of air pollution in inner city housing.  And try to resist the idea that open space in urban areas (including golf courses) is just housing land in waiting.  In their green and accessible state such spaces make a major contribution to the well-being of city residents.

9  Consider the prospects for environmental and economic savings by increasing suburban employment centres (and encouraging public transport to serve them). It makes economic sense to have employment opportunities close to where people live rather than require mass commuting to a few central nodes.

10  There are social equity issues here, too.  We could have our own Victoria Peak by preserving just a small amount of greenspace in the quest for greater density.  We can bias our policies and plans for the young and restless, the transient and the dispossessed – the people who will occupy those apartments that lack water views and designer kitchens.  The rest of us, planners and politicians include, can take refuge in the remaining leafy suburbs, hoping that we are not left with imitations of London’s depressed housing estates or Scotland’s tenement slums in twenty years’ time.  Now that would really be taking us back to the 1950s and 1960s.

We need a solution that works for Auckland and Aucklanders, old and new

Economics, household demand, equity, environmental outcomes and – yes, that overused word –liveability demand a lot more imagination and flexibility than comes with simply copying overseas cities, especially the wrong ones. 

Certainly look up a little.  That will work for some of us.  But don’t forget to look out for the majority.

Auckland is already eminently liveable.  That’s why so many people live here – including many migrants from the sorts of places the Council would apparently have us imitate.  Let’s not bury what we already have by gazing up if out is a better fit. 


Mark said...

Very good post - and summarises the key issues well.

Under the social equity, I think there is also a major issue for blue collar workers under the CBD centred up/not out mantra.
The city planners tend to think of their own limited work experience, and don't cater for factory workers, shift workers etc, who need to have close access to large industrial sized areas, which are too difficult to serve by PT.

Without proper nodal based business areas (not just offices) a whole portion of society will see their job opportunities shift to other areas eg Hamilton/Tauranga

Anonymous said...

Building out not good in long term. Raises infrastructure, service delivery costs and leads to bias in service delivery. Aukland should look to Europe. UK experts already know their sprawl makes infrastructure costs higher. They have already studied this subject.

Phil McDermott said...

There are many reasons we might learn from looking to Europe, but should not emulate it emulate it in urban planning. Hopelessly overpriced housing and over-the-top congestion are two obvious ones. Ageing, inflexible public transport is another - look at how much indebted Paris is reported as having to spend to revamp its transit system (that's on top of needing to address ageing underground infrastructure in the near future). Growing social disparities are reflected in run-down housing estates. We have the opportunity to do it so much better in New Zealand. Let's not blow it by trying to imitate urban form in Europe.