Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Upping the Ante - Where can we Afford to Live?

Auckland fiddles, Sydney makes its move

The Auckland Council has released a Housing Action Plan that will be an addendum to its encyclopaedic Draft Unitary Plan.  It contains seven objectives, 12 priority areas, and 32 actions.  The Housing Action Plan will now be subject to the submissions and appeal process  associated with the Unitary Plan, whatever form it takes, and presumably also subject to the red tape associated with trying to implement it.

Compare this non-action with what is happening in Sydney, where the State government has just announced the   planned release of greenfield and brownfield land for up to  171,000 new homes across 31 new and existing suburbs. Alongside that will be land for new jobs, shops, schools, and transport. 

By moving on a variety of sites and promoting real volume construction, and by providing for diverse housing types the State is hoping to make housing affordable once more with a mix of multi-unit and detached housing.

Which city will be more liveable?

In Auckland, we are not sure if we have even 2,000 sites ready to build and maybe 15,000 in the pipeline.  And by the time we get the grab-bag of policies in the Housing Action Plan sorted and refined into something workable, it's not clear that we will have many more.

Certainly the Sydney plan will take some time to get traction, but with this announcement it is underway.  And that may create even more grounds for New Zealanders who cannot afford a house in Auckland to head west to Sydney and beyond.  Abstract notions of liveability - and comparisons of liveability rankings - may be irrelevant if you cannot buy the house you want in one city but can in another.

The Auckland challenge 

The New Zealand Productivity Commission and the Government have challenged Auckland to cut the red tape and introduce substantial new capacity to the market as a means of increasing the affordability of housing.  The Council is resisting. It has, after all,  produced many documents on the issue - but not much else.

The time is over-ripe for bold action in Auckland.  Allowing this issue to get caught up in the red tape surrounding the Draft Unitary Plan means going backwards. We knew at the time of the original Auckland Regional Growth Strategy in 1998 that we were facing a significant shortage of housing capacity. Yet we wasted the following decade writing reports that estimated theoretical capacity, projected theoretical demand, and  proposed impractical responses. 

Going by the increasing press and social media comment, people are finally realising that we are now faced with a housing (ownership and rental) crisis and that this will have significant long-term economic and social consequences.

Let's not waste another decade

Here are some simple if challenging  actions:
  • Identify sufficient land in green and brown sites for, say, 60,000 new dwellings immediately. This is not so difficult.
  • Some of that land will be available in and around satellite centres including but not confined to existing  rural centres and townships. Plan today for the necessary transport corridors. 
  • Some of the land might be developed by pushing out the urban limits on the edge of the city, but this somewhat conventional response promotes sprawl, diminishing the quality of the metropolitan environment. 
  • And some of it will be brownfield sites around town centres, some close to the harbours and Gulf, and some close to -- but not right on -- transport corridors.  The secret is to have multiple sites on the go at a time to create diversity and to avoid disrupting any one sector of the market.
  • If necessary create a community controlled organisation (or expand the mandate of and resources of the council controlled Auckland  Council Property Ltd) to consolidate ownership in land parcels large enough to sustain efficient development.  Such an agency would work with the private sector and central government to achieve packages and put to tender such sites or the right to build on them .
  • Streamline the regulatory processes through which the quality of development can be managed and maintained.
  • Ensure that adequate provision is made for community amenities and services, including medical centres, education , retailing and commerce, recreation areas and green space.
  • Zone and develop accessible and well-connected employment centres in association with new housing areas.
  • Ensure that we are realistic  in our infrastructure prescriptions, that we do not over-specify, overbuild, or overcharge.

Moving ahead

Developing new capacity need not destroy Auckland's green and blue image.  In fact, done right it will enhance it and enable more people to enjoy it. 

The figures show that the expansion of Auckland in the past has not devastated the output of the rural sector in the way many people seem to think.  Nor need it do so in the future.  Indeed, the figures suggest that it may even increase rural productivity.  In any case, efficient urban form is important to sustain economic development. In contrast, inefficient, ad hoc, incremental development that offers too little too late may add more costs than benefits,
We need to move quickly, with due sensitivity to Auckland's diverse living environments, and provide flexibility if the city is to grow in the way this Council thinks it will, or should. This does not mean development at any cost.  But it does mean moving away from the piecemeal and ponderous approach to the City's future that is constricting housing at the moment.

 A bold vision is needed to replace the report-ridden,  incremental, abstract, and partial policies developed to date if we want to protect the quality of the Auckland environment and develop the housing that enables more Aucklanders to enjoy it.

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

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.