Monday, April 18, 2011

Auckland – not the only town in the game

Do people prefer small cities?
Leading US urbanist, Witold Ribczynski, in his recent book Makeshift Metropolis (2010), places the past growth of major metropolitan areas in context:
the majority of us still appear to prefer dispersed, small cities, a significant minority want to live in concentrated big cities, and a tiny fraction is prepared to pay the price of living in the very centre of things” (page 179).
Despite signs of dispersal, he still sees increasing urban densities as the way forward for America “while taking into account people’s desire for dispersed living in smaller cities”. 
One implication is that advanced urbanisation does not depend on centralisation or the ever-increasing expansion (upward or outward) of the largest urban areas.  Equally, decentralisation does not necessarily mean sprawl.  It may even be that the more compact settlement planners have been pushing over the past two decades is best achieved through dispersal – decentralised intensification – because that lines up with what more people want.
And, if more people prefer small cities, we need to be asking questions about what that means for public spending and economic growth, as well as for the quality of life.
Do small cities feature in New Zealand’s growth?
I thought it would be interesting to see if New Zealand’s changing settlement pattern reflected a similar preference for smaller cities. 
Of course, New Zealand is not North America.  It is distinctively dependent primary production, something which has traditionally supported a wide level of dispersal of a small total population.  At the same time Auckland in the northern North Island  has evolved into a strong primate city, something I have touched on elsewhere.  A productive hinterland, nodal advantages, import substitution, the cumulative concentration of services and consumption, and immigration have all contributed to this.  Today, Auckland accounts for a third of the nation’s population, something that guarantees that it will continue to dominate growth.  

I have looked at recent population change to see if there is any stirring among New Zealand's smaller cities, though. 
The data I used
I have used Statistics New Zealand’s population estimates for territorial local authority areas (TLAs) from 1996 to 2010 for this.  I divided Auckland into the inner city area, the balance of the built up metropolitan area, and two predominantly rural areas or ex-urban areas.  These are based on TLAs in existence (Rodney and Franklin) before the 2010 reforms rolled them up into the city's jurisdiction. 
I then grouped into several categories: the second tier cities (Wellington and Christchurch); ex-urban areas (TLAs immediately adjacent to metropolitan Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch); those TLAs dominated by provincial cities, ranging from Marlborough/Blenheim (TLA population 39,000, urban population 30,000) through to Hamilton City (143,000 people); those TLAs with mixed rural and urban (town) populations; and the predominantly rural TLAs. The inner city population figures for Wellington and Christchurch were added to those of Auckland (and deducted from the balance of the city population in each case).
Auckland remains dominant
In 1996 metropolitan Auckland accounted for 27% of the population, but over the next 15 years it accounted for 52% of the country’s population growth.  There’s not a lot of obvious support for the small city hypothesis in those numbers. 
Of course, Auckland at around 1.4m (inner, metropolitan, and ex-urban areas rolled together) is not an especially big city by North American standards.
But something is happening.  This shows if we compare the first five years of our data with the last four years.
Between the 1996 and 2001 censuses the three inner cities, with less than 1% of the population jointly, exploded (at least in relative terms) to account for 7% of growth recorded between 1996 and 2001 (see chart, below). 
And, Auckland’s metropolitan area, with just 27% of the population, recorded almost two thirds of the nation’s growth.  Exurban areas also grew their share of population (with 20% of the growth).  The second tier cities (once we take out inner city growth) and rural areas declined.

Shares of Population (1996) and Population Growth (1996-2001)

But centralisation is slowing down
Between 2006 and 2010, however, this pattern moderated.
Metropolitan Auckland still dominated but with 29% of the national population in 2006, its share of growth slipped back to 47%.  Inner city areas dropped their share of growth, too, back to 4%.  Exurban areas dropped back to 13% (chart, below).  
So where did the balance go?  Well, between 2006 and 2010 provincial cities accounted for 22% of growth compared with 15% between 1996 and 2001.  Mixed rural/township areas were also up.  They accounted for 12% of national growth, up from just 3.5%.  Rural areas were back in the black. 

Shares of Population (2006) and Population Growth (2006-2010)

This is by no means an end to Auckland’s dominance.  But centralisation is no longer a one way street.  New Zealand, like the United States, is experiencing an increasingly complex pattern of population growth reflecting, presumably, greater variety in residential choices.
A time for rethinking?
We’ve raised this earlier, but its time to take a more balanced view of New Zealand’s growth, one that is less Auckland-centric.  Sure, with around a third of the population and employment, it is important that Auckland operates efficiently, that we invest wisely in the city’s infrastructure, and that it provides a great lifestyle to its citizens and continues to attract (and hold) skilled migrants. 
We can also acknowledge, like Rybczynski, the desirability of inner city living for some citizens.  This is reflected in the growth rates of inner Auckland and Wellington in particular.  But, like him (page 178) we also have to acknowledge what a small minority that is.  Using our generous definition of the inner city,[1] less than 60,000 people lived collectively in inner Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch in 2010, or 2.6% of their joint population. 
Let's not stop thinking about Auckland and its needs, but let’s also invest some thinking and planning in how to realise the opportunities that arise out of more dispersed settlement. 
A national view
When we look at the annual compound growth rates of the top 15 growth areas in New Zealand since 2006 the movements that stand out for me are: the revival of rural and small town South Island; the increasing pervasiveness of growth across the wider northern North Island; and the significance of ex-urban growth around our major cities. 
Fastest Growth Areas in New Zealand, 2006-2010

Metropolitan and inner city growth are up there, but Auckland is no longer the only game in town.
In any case, a preoccupation with fixing Auckland must now make space for the imperative of recovering and rebuilding Christchurch.  The numbers used in this blog predate the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes there, and right now we do not know what long-term effects they will have on housing preferences and settlement patterns.  But the analysis here suggests that decentralisation to smaller, nearby centres may be an attractive option to a significant share of Christchurch citizens, and perhaps a reasonably affordable one from a national point of view.
In a mature urban society – and especially one facing an uncertain economic outlook – we may need to think about a future in which we don’t bank too much on the prospects and opportunities associated with large-scale urbanisation.  That, in the New Zealand case, would be too much like putting all our eggs into one basket.  The time may be upon us when we have to seriously consider  the role of smaller cities and towns play in our economic growth, if only to support the fact that more people are choosing to live in them.
The prospects for New Zealand and the prosperity of New Zealanders demand that we think long and hard about how we are going to exploit the advantages and attractiveness of our smaller cities.

[1]               For those interested, the following Census Area units: Auckland – Harbourside, Central West, Central east, Newton, Freemans Bay, Grafton East and West; Wellington – Thorndon-Tinakori, Lambton, Willis-Cambridge Tce, Aro-Nairn Streets; Christchurch – Cathedral Square, Hagley Park, Avon Loop


Owen McShane said...

Wwe need to remember that in the post war years it was illegal to sleep overnight in the CBD unless you were sleeping in a hotel or similar visitor accommodation.
When, during the mid-sixties, a group of us in Council deregulated land use to allow town houses and building on the small sections in Freemans Bay etc we also wanted to get rid of the ban on central city living. We failed. However, inner city suburban densities increased rapidly as town houses took off.
And the ban was not lifted until the crash of 1987 left a huge surplus of CBD office accommodation either in place or under construction.
There was an immediate boom in CBD living because there was forty years of pent up demand.
Understandably the pent up demand driven boom is now running out of steam.
However, many thought that the late rapid growth in central city living was a major and permanent shift in living preferences, instead of a major but temporary blip.
OF course demographics count. I lived in Freemans Bay as soon as I was able to (Mid sixties) and when I came back from American. Then I was actually allowed to buy an apartment in Westminster Court so I could walk to and from Club Mirage etc. I also had a beach house at Karekare.
I loved my central city living period but its behind me now. I'm happy on my 1 ha lot in Northland.
There are three families from Karekare in the neighbourhood.

Phil McDermott said...

Our firm did some work for the Town and Country Planning Division of the Ministry of Works and Development and the Auckland Regional Council in the early 1980s suggesting that changing demographics and growing diversity in values required a relaxation of planning rules to allow more inner city dwelling. But we were interested in increasing choice, not creating a movement or developing a prescription!
Today the diversity you allude to , Owen,is certainly evident in Auckland: luxury harbourside apartments (32% vacant on Census night indicating their frequent status as one of two homes for well-to-do households) a few hundred metres from small, low amenity apartments in multi-storey blocks bounded by busy roads and adjacent to commercial buildings. The latter are typically occupied by non-family or low income households, renters, and people in transition - in tertiary education, early career formation, etc - and often transient. Of course, there are also good examples of middle income medium density development around the inner city, or just beyond it.
Demand for medium/high density living in and around city centres will no doubt grow especially as we get design and pricing right, but it is likely to be only a minority of demand for new housing for a long time to come.

Mark said...

Phil - yes the new industry of foreign education has had a major impact. But in my experience prescriptive "compact" city planners tend to ignore and down play this. They still talk about a CBD Primary school being needed. They basically have a "vision", and don't let facts get in the wau of that!

With some 20,000 foreign students in Auckland, many are based in the CBD. This has allowed re-cycling of "C" grade office buildings, but it has also accounts for probably 60-70% of the CBD apartment population. The CBD apartment lifestyle still doesn't appeal to many New Zealanders - apart from students and in some quality areas the empty nesters.

As Kiwis we still desire the suburban lifestyle. If we find we're pushed into "compact" re-zoning of land, we'll up and move. Also when congestion etc gets too tough there have been anecdotal instances of returning Kiwis and migrants by-passing Auckland for the Napier/Nelson destinations.

With many jobs now distance is no barrier - you can run an IT company from anywhere.....

Owen McShane said...

We seem to want free range hens.

How about free range people?

And why are so many advocates for free range hens advocates for battery raised children?

Phil McDermott said...

One of the arguments trotted out for compact cities is that they are good for our health – less time in cars, walk to work or the shops, etc. Well take a look at this research by Karen Witten of Massey University: , and this:
We risk concentrating households in areas where, unless they have a second home or can afford a spacious harbour-side apartment, the quality of family life is reduced: 24/7 noise, crowded streets and unsafe roads, air pollution, lack of green space (or any play space for kids), and small apartments. If we expect families to live in medium density housing we are going to have to invest a lot more in public amenities as well as the quality of the housing stock. This is almost impossible to achieve in central locations if it is to be affordable.