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Saturday, August 13, 2022

Debunking Leafy Suburban Myths – Greater Auckland

This is a guest post by Francis McRae. It was originally published On his Substack.

The recently enacted two-party housing bill will release planning rules to allow for the development of three floors in almost all existing residential areas in New Zealand’s five major cities.

It encountered howls of rage from the well-housed residents of the shady inner suburbs, and encountered opposition from a planning profession that showed little interest in solving plausible problems that the bill was intended to address.

I want to dispel three myths that are being pushed by opponents of the bill:

  1. That the bill will lead to a reduction in the quality of homes and urban design.
  2. That the bill would disperse the growth and as a result increase the costs of transportation and emissions.
  3. And that the bill would increase infrastructure supply costs.

The idea that this bill will inevitably lower the quality of homes is wrong.

Our existing stock of apartments is of extremely low quality. The main way to regulate the quality of housing is through the building law that this bill does not change anything. The Building Act now enforces higher quality standards than those that were customary when most existing homes were built. Improved building standards mean that every new home is going to be hotter and drier than the vast majority of existing homes.

Nor do the planning rules set out in the Housing Bill create quality apartments or guarantee good urban design. In fact they often do the opposite. Restrictive withdrawals and height rules for the border create ugly homes that are pushed to the center of the site. This limits the usable outdoor areas as they take up space in tasteless front yards. It also makes it difficult to achieve the principle of urban-based design of houses facing the street.

Existing restrictions on construction such as height controls and density restrictions reduce the amount of floor space per person across the city, forcing density into existing homes. Providing more construction means more space per person overall and less density.

Picture through California YIMBY on Twitter

Larger quantity encourages greater quality. When there is a total shortage any shit will be sold. The more housing supply there is in total, the more developers are forced to compete for quality. It does not require a naive view of the good will of developers. And this is not theoretical. We have real examples.

Lower Hutt City recently changed its plans to allow for urban homes and low-rise apartments throughout the city with little control over design enforced through planning rules. This led to a construction boom of urban homes that were generally of reasonable quality.

Like the ones in the picture below. Snobs will find a reason to choose these, but they look good from the street and are warm, dry and well-dispersed inside.

Rated houses in the Lower Hut built by Williams Corporation

The housing bill will not disperse growth

The Oakland Council’s only plan was based on the idea of ​​a ‘compact city’. The idea was that growth should be concentrated in existing urban areas, especially where accessibility is high and transportation costs, both in time and money, are extremely low.

In practice, the perception of the compact city in the uniform plan was undermined by the political intervention of councilors representing the internal “leaves”. As a result, little intensification is possible in the inner suburbs where it makes the most sense, and a tone is activated in the outer suburbs of western and southern Auckland, where there has been less political opposition. The single plan creates a donut city more than a compact city. It pushes intensification to the outer suburbs, and drives significant growth in green field areas, all while preserving the inner suburbs in amber. This showed in Auckland Council data itself on housing construction, with more significant growth in the outer suburbs and green fields than in Isthmus or the Lower North Coast.

Map through Twitter user @gallicist

Distorted then, commentators and even some in the planning profession argued that the housing bill would disperse growth, and increase transportation and emissions costs. This is not true. In Oakland in particular the biggest impact it will have will be on removing restrictions that prevent development in inland areas. Growth will move from green-field sites to the existing city, and from the outer suburbs to the interior.

An absurd version of the “compact city” has taken hold in an innumerable design profession based on renovating a small block around a collection of shops or a train station and leaving most of the land best located for empowerment reserved for individual homes. This approach neglects the scope of the problem. Small blocks of renovation around a group of shops no

Enough to enable the necessary growth in housing. So growth is being pushed further out of the city center. The current design rules are ones that promote diffuse growth.

However, the bill allows for growth all over the city, so that while some growth will occur in the outlying areas. But cumulatively the growth will be greater in the inner suburbs both because there market demand is highest, and because it is where the current planning rules are most restrictive. It’s also not bad if the outer suburbs get a bit crowded. This means that more areas can have access to a wider range of services that a larger population can support, that more people can stay in their neighborhood as they move through life stages, and this means that infrastructure costs can be spread over a larger number of people. .

The housing bill will not increase overall infrastructure costs

There are two key factors that determine the demand and cost of infrastructure. One is the number of people in the city, and the other is the total scope of the infrastructure network.

Buildings themselves do not drive the demand for infrastructure, people do. Two families crammed into one house will place about the same demand for infrastructure as two families in two separate apartments. Population growth drives the need for new infrastructure, and this demand exists whether people are well housed or not.

Also, because the housing bill will divert growth from green fields to existing urban areas, it means a more compact overall infrastructure network, and therefore less infrastructure spending overall.

There is significant work for the government and councils in investing and upgrading the infrastructure required for our growing population, but this will have to be done regardless of whether sufficient housing is allowed through the bill. The Oakland Council’s approach of not renovating enough areas around shops and stations and pretending the work has been done, may seem like managing pressure on infrastructure, but in fact it leaves both the housing shortage and infrastructure unanswered.

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