Auckland Needs To Grow Up

March 14, 2014
Iain MacLeod

It’s time for my home town, Auckland, to grow up.


Debate has begun raging across the isthmus that is home to the fast growing city of Auckland over whether to grow out or up. The Auckland Council’s proposed Unitary Plan released for discussion several months ago, among other things, plans for rezoning many suburban areas allowing medium density housing and apartments.

Including my own in Mount Eden, a suburb that was settled and built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leafy streets and old Victorian villas line these pretty neighbourhoods. And some see their preservation as critical to the character of the city.

I am not sure I agree. Cities change. Cities grow. Who is to say that pressed steel ceilings, bay windows and dark, gloomy often cold in winter and hot in summer Victorian houses represent the peak of urban architecture? Yes they speak of our ancestry and our forebears, but the truth is they are in many ways an architectural oddity and are out of place in a South Pacific setting. Designed by British Architects for a British climate (which Auckland demonstrably is not) they are certainly pretty but having lived in two they are terribly impractical and not suited for the sub tropical climate of Auckland.

Over recent years we have seen, particularly on the fringe of downtown Auckland but also in other more traditionally suburban areas, the rise of apartment blocks. Now the suggestion is to expand the footprint of increased urban density into suburbs like my own and in particular, along major (public) transport arteries. As might have been expected, the n.i.m.b.ys (not in my back yard) are out in force seeking to ‘preserve’ both historical architectural styles and a lifestyle many view as sacrosanct.

Where I live in Mount Eden our end of the street, which lies close to a major arterial transport route, has been designated for change from single dwelling units on land parcels of at least 350 – 800 square meters to low rise (4-6 floor) mixed use apartments/commercial.

My neighbours are up in arms and my letterbox is being stuffed full of prepared submissions ready for my signature to forward on to the Auckland Council demanding my street not be touched. All around me I am being exhorted by local groups to sign petitions and demand that our street not be ‘destroyed’ by this proposed intensification.

People are outraged. I am excited.

I want to tell the Auckland Council I am well on board with the changes. They will be good for the suburb. Good for our part of the city. Good for a greener Auckland through more efficient and regular public transport services with potentially (if we do it right) less use for single occupant cars.

And yes it will see many streets altered visually and part of me believes that bowling a beautiful old house like our own is a form of cultural vandalism but who says something better, warmer, drier and lighter cannot replace it? Architecture does not stand still.

The thing is we have a choice in Auckland – keep growing the city out (it is already among the largest cities by area in the world – 94 kilometres from its northern tip to southern) over highly productive farm lands and forests or do what all modern cities before us have tended to do – build vertically. As Auckland has grown in recent years public transport is certainly better than it was (buses and trains are now frequent but need greater densities of people that a larger scale brings) but there are all sorts of other benefits to what is in fact very modest intensification that seem to be being missed by the naysayers.

For starters more people living within, say ten minutes easy bus ride from downtown Auckland, is going to bring more vibrancy through concentrating people, shops and other urban amenities in a smaller area. Who does not love the idea of more places to eat, more places to socialise with frequent public transport? I believe it might, as proposed, make communities closer not tear them apart. We are not talking about anything more than 4-5 stories in most parts of the city. People want our train services to be more regular and convenient and not cost the rate payer in subsidies. That will only happen with greater population densities along the feeder routes and station hubs.

No one is talking Hong Kong or Singapore with shoeboxes and people living cheek by jowl high in the sky. We are talking north Manhattan with three to four storied apartment buildings. We are talking a vertical village here, not Gotham.

We are blessed with a lot of green space in Auckland and no one is talking about changing this. Except to expand them.

With an ageing population there is a demand shift already taking place where those of my generation are increasingly looking forward to the day we can move into a reasonable sized apartment of perhaps 120-150 square metres, free up some capital from our houses and land and spend less time maintaining the house and spending more time travelling and enjoying the city, rest of New Zealand and the world. Lock and leave. Those of us who bought into the more central suburbs when we were younger can easily buy an upmarket apartment for NZ$450,000 – $800,000 in the same area, thus freeing up at least as much cash from the sale of our existing freestanding properties owing to the high value of the land upon which our houses stand.

The time surely arrives in most big cities when a portion of single dwellings need to be replaced by apartment living – it not only makes sense in terms of making our city more efficient, vibrant and exciting, it is what a growing percentage of the population is demanding. In Auckland we will have within the next year more than 20,000 apartments and around 3000 are coming on stream each year. There is clearly growing demand. Many migrants would prefer low rise apartment living (bigger than the shoeboxes many live in now high in the sky in Singapore, Hong Kong and Jakarta) to a freestanding house (although it has to be said many of my clients are in love with the thought of a back lawn and garden) and New Zealanders returning home after living overseas are also sold on the concept.

As with all such transitions this will create tensions in neighbourhoods but that is part and parcel of urban living anywhere. I have little doubt, however, that for decades to come there will still be plenty of freestanding houses with a patch of grass and gardens for those that want them. We will preserve, and indeed increase, green spaces for the citizenry to walk the dog and play with the kids. But equally there will be more people living more closely together and that will bring its own rewards and challenges.

I, for one, won’t be signing any petitions to try and prevent it in my neighbourhood

I welcome it.

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