Thursday, September 1, 2011

Living in the city – the path to CBD redemption?

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.
Common hopes
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.
False expectations
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:
Extracts from Key Points
It is important to understand the nature of ... demand ... as adoption of medium density housing has not matched expectations.  This may reflect:
  • The limited market for centralised, multi-medium density housing;
  • A mismatch between where plans are directing housing and where the market lies;
  • Supply difficulties with recent development that feed negative market perceptions.
...  New Zealanders’ long-standing cultural preference for detached housing on individual sections has been reinforced by the leaky homes episode and failures in the developer driven, retail investor apartment market.  People see medium density housing as inferior: characterless, drab, monotonous, cramped, leaky, subject to the complications of bodies corporate, lacking privacy, noisy, insecure, lacking an outlook, lacking hobby and storage space, having parking problems, not allowing pets, and with poor prospects for capital gains. 
Changing tastes and experience could lift long-term acceptability of residential intensification ... The influences on choice can be organised across three levels spatial resolution:
  • accessibility to activities at the city or sector-wide level, including how easy it is to get to jobs, higher order services and retailing, formal recreation and cultural activities, and the like.  In some respects this can be treated as a necessary condition, although the level of accessibility required will vary according to household characteristics;
  • domain, which encompasses the area over which day-to-day social relations are formed and regular or lower order transactions take place. This corresponds broadly with suburb or neighbourhood, and may include elements of the medium density complex itself; and
  • sanctuary, which refers to the dwelling, and may be influenced by the relationship of the dwelling to the complex and the immediate neighbourhood.
The must-have parameters people look for in their sanctuary are much the same in medium density as in conventional housing: a safe and secure environment, privacy; space, light, and warmth; and flexibility in how it may be used;
Domain preferences are influenced by lifestage:
  • Younger people (usually in non-family households) at the beginning of their working careers, housing ladder, and relationships tend to favour central city locations;
  • Young families tend to favour familiar neighbourhoods;
  • Family households tend to favour suburbs and town centres ...;
  • Older families and post-family households tend to remain in their established neighbourhoods ...
The resolution of preferences around sanctuary and domain will influence where and what style of housing is generally favoured according to lifestage segment, with the actual choice conditioned by limits of affordability and usually confined to geographic submarkets.  ..
...  future demand for new housing will be driven increasingly by the preferences of empty nester and retirement households, many of whom own their dwellings.  This gives them the capacity to purchase well-appointed medium density housing that satisfies their expectations for domain and sanctuary.  They are less likely to favour small, centralised apartments than younger households and are more likely to have a commitment to particular residential submarkets, built on a stronger sense of domain.
Consequently, residential intensification is more likely to be achieved with plans allowing for diversity of locality and form.  This, in turn, means meeting supply challenges in suburban environments ...
Source: CityScope Consultants (2011) Improving the Design, Quality and Affordability of Residential Intensification in New Zealand, Centre for Housing Research Aotearoa New Zealand, Wellington

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.