Isthmus

Thinking

Density Done Well—10 tips for Aotearoa.

More homes are needed in all corners of Aotearoa. Isthmus Principal Haylea Muir argues that housing density is something that we need to embrace even in our smaller towns and cities and offers 10 tips on how to embrace this change.

 

These days “embracing density” is a relatively easy thing to say up here in Auckland; at the top of the NPS-UD 2020’s Tier 1 table, increased housing density is slowly but surely becoming a way of life in Tāmaki Makaurau. But Auckland is not the only city facing large population increases; densification is not something our smaller cities and regional centres have much experience in yet. Density can be scary, seems expensive and is often misunderstood.

It’s only scary because it’s new.

Even though research says it’s good for us, we’re just not used to living so close to our neighbours in Aotearoa. Our parents might have lived the quarter acre dream, but we are facing entirely different personal and collective challenges. Our lifestyles and household make ups are vastly different to the generations before us, so why would the majority of us living in that type of environment still work? The health and wellbeing stats alone will tell you it doesn’t.

It’s not so expensive when you look
at the
whole picture.

And money isn’t the only thing we need to worry about depleting through our patterns of development. Our pricing models let us down because they don’t measure or account for future value. Acting now avoids costs later.

In more compact communities residents can save money through reduced house prices, cheaper transport costs, lower energy bills and more. While there’s a significant cost outlay for infrastructure up front, the city could ultimately make money through more ratepayers in a consolidated area. Plus, there can be prosperous business supported by critical mass of population.

Density, especially in a mixed-use context can be more socially equitable. Stranding low-income families in sprawling suburbia can so easily result in a variety of poor social outcomes with expensive knock-on effects to society.

Right Hobsonville Point

A medium-density suburb designed with the infrastructure necessary to generate socially successful and sustainable communities.

View project

Compact development means that land can be retained for food production thus lowering the cost of what ends up on our plates. The Climate Change Commission’s Draft Advice to Government even cites compact urban form as an important component of our overall efforts. Failing to slow global warming will be a lot more expensive than compact urban development.

It doesn’t have to involve really tall buildings and lots of hard surfaces.

Density and overcrowding are not the same thing. Increased density can be green! It can be low rise, and it can be friendly. It can be safe, it can feel familiar, and you can still have privacy.

I’m not suggesting there should only be medium or high-density development. Low density living suits a lot of people and isn’t necessarily bad! It just gets bad when that’s all there is, and all there continues to be.

When done well, higher densities can unlock improved health and wellbeing (yes, even in a pandemic), improved wealth (for both households and the city itself) and improved environmental outcomes.

The trick to all this of course is those three words: when done well.

In many of our smaller centres, the district plan isn’t geared to hold a high enough bar for this type of development. Council officers don’t have the experience, resource, or mechanisms through which to educate their local designers and developers (if it’s even their job to) or push back against applicants proposing development that would most certainly lead to poor outcomes for the future residents.

In some places there’s easy, open land out on the edge that’s likely to see diggers before the city centre gets the attention it needs, and many don’t have the funds to pay for the high-quality public amenity that higher density living needs for it to be successful.

Left Roskill South

Using the land more efficiently. Kāinga Ora’s regeneration of Roskill South is replacing approximately 260 old state with up to 920 new, warm, dry, healthy homes.

All going well, the RMA reform should help encourage density rather than sprawl. Shifting the planning focus toward positive outcomes is surely an improvement on mitigating and avoiding bad ones. Statutory spatial plans—which district plans will have to then comply with—have the potential to lock in smart land use decisions for the foreseeable future.

The recent Infrastructure Funding and Financing (IFF) Act sets up a new model which can help skirt, for otherwise viable projects, the potential roadblock created by the lack of debt capacity a local authority has. These are frameworks and mechanisms that set the stage for success. So what can our smaller towns and cities do to make sure the right things walk out on that stage?

1. Have, and hold onto, a vision.

It’s a tough road into what will likely feel like unchartered territory; know where you’re going and why, and constantly remind yourself.

The vision needs to have people and planet at its core, out live political cycles, stand strong against economic pressures, and allow innovation and adaptation in the delivery of its intent and principles.

2. Make sure people get it.

Density cannot remain misunderstood and too scary to try or support. Help people view it with curiosity and openness rather than suspicion. High quality, highly liveable compact urban living should be a common goal, it’s for a common good. This can be achieved in a couple of ways:

Active education.
Important for the team involved with facilitation, design and delivery. There are Councils, consultants and communities in NZ that have been on this journey already. Drain them of their knowledge. Visit their sites and understand their wins and losses.

Buy in over time.
Important for the community. Positive messaging alongside meaningful community engagement and collaboration in the design and development process. “Nudging” toward higher densities: start with small sites, stage development to build up to the big stuff. Unrelenting vigilance against bad versions which will set bad precedents.

3. Be place-based about it.

Everything must be in context. What is right and where it is right will vary throughout our motu, just as our lifestyles and landscapes do. An urban design textbook approach is not going to nail it.

4. Take a multi-pronged approach.

Do some (strategic and efficient) greenfield development in parallel with regeneration and intensification of existing neighbourhoods. Put more thought and momentum into town and suburban centres (a residential population will be critical to their vitality and viability going forward. In a post-COVID, carbon-reducing world this cannot be ignored).

5. Get creative with house typologies.

It doesn’t have to be apartments! Maybe work-live units, a small home village, courtyard terraces or urban papakainga are more appropriate. We can still minimise our urban footprint and achieve good outcomes for people and planet without relying entirely on a vertical build.

6. Double down: active modes
and mixed use.

Making sure everything a person needs to live well is close to their home and associating density with irresistibly safe and enjoyable ped and cycle networks will serve you well in the environmental, liveability and popularity stakes.

7. Develop for diversity.

The best, most resilient neighbourhoods include homes for everyone from babies to the elderly. The days of homogenous subdivisions are over.

8. Be future focused and lay the groundwork early.

Build for increase now. Invest with intent. It may not quite be time to add the number of homes predicted to be needed but any infrastructure or planning decisions being made in the meantime should facilitate them.

9. Shop local.

Our team of 5 million includes smart, experienced people working in this space. Don’t be too proud about staying too tightly local, but also don’t feel like you need overseas experts to solve problems.

10. Good design.

We could do 1-9 and still mess it up if we don’t design things well. Insist on good design at all scales.

Other things that help:

— Policies and rules that help fix the crucial frames but allow flex for the market.
— Design Guidelines that show the standard you expect and create comfort around investment by holding everyone to the same bar.
— Treating amenity as base infrastructure.
— Thinking of the streetscape as more than the road reserve.
— Building the right team, extracting value from designers experienced in kiwi urbanism.
— Involving the people that use it and live there, they will tell you if they need it to be better.

 

Left Hobsonville Point pioneered a new wave of medium density housing in Auckland with a set of design controls that balance density with liveability. Streets and green spaces are designed to support the community.