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16 January 2020

Accelerating Density

All over Auckland in areas zoned for density, the NIMBY’s are winning the battle against change as a climate of fear stops good developments from making headway. The Unitary Plan rezoned Auckland so the city can go up to accommodate more people. So, what are the roadblocks and how can we accelerate intensification?


Often when design plans for new buildings move through the appeals process and they are non-complying, which means there’s a need to get approval from neighbours and stakeholders, they reach a stumbling block. Everything stalls.

Look at what happened along Dominion Road, a major arterial road which will one day be the route of the multi-million dollar light rail. The 102 unit apartment development by design firm Isthmus Group, put forward by Panuku was turned down by Council architects and planners because it was deemed out of character and delivered adverse visual effects to neighbouring properties.

Scott Donnell, principal of Isthmus Group is heavily involved in how to do density well in Auckland. He says increasing density to make more space, involves making change.

“People are generally resistant to change. That’s not always a bad thing. But people often see it as threatening.”

In a democracy, he says, it’s important people are allowed a voice. But when that overrides everything, thousands of other people who want to live in the city are missing out.

He says, we need to work with the NIMBYs by doing density in a sensible, smart and intelligent way, producing high quality design that adds amenities in areas where it makes sense.

“It must be around transport hubs. It makes sense to put people there too as they have access to transport. That’s been done all over the world in places like Vancouver, Sydney and Melbourne. They have much more sophisticated transport networks than Auckland.

“We’re young and immature in our approach to how we live with one another so we’ve got a long way to go. Change is happening, but slowly. When you’re involved in a profession that’s the generator of density, the change seems glacial.”

There’s a need to shift the mindset of Aucklanders so we can accelerate intensification.

“This is probably one of the most important factors in creating the right conditions for greater density to flourish."

“Many people are there already, particularly younger generations. They've travelled. They know how things work in other parts of the world, and we know that there is significant demand for housing at higher densities.”

“The term 'density' often sends a shudder down the spine of the layperson, because it conjures up images of high-rise monstrosities blocking out sunlight and becoming crime-ridden ghettos. Combined with rose-tinted glasses of the long-defunct quarter acre dream that still persists at the edges of the New Zealand psyche. The term 'density' needs a make-over.”

But NIMBYs, he says, are not so much the problem as it is human nature to fear change.

It is the decision makers and politicians who don’t do the right thing because they have understood the issues. They know the city’s aspirations and they let a minority of individuals sway the whole process. The consenting process is heavily weighted towards consultation with neighbours and stakeholders.

“It’s not really the fault of ‘the person next door’. They might have good reasons. It’s to do with a lack of leadership and gumption. If councils and planners and people are processing the applications, they should say, in the interests of the greater good, it’s great that you have a house, but there are thousands of other people who live in this city as well and you’re preventing them from having a shot. It’s a question of fairness.”

Donnell adds, it gets very political.

“Wealthy landowners are also supporting certain political campaigns. That’s where a lot of difficulties lie. It lies in the process.”

Another roadblock to change he says is design quality in new medium or high-density is often low or moderate, but price points are high. It’s expensive to build in New Zealand because we’re a small market with a low level of competition in the building supplies market.

“In Sweden, up to 80% of houses are prefabricated in factories. In New Zealand, many players have tried to get large-scale pre-fab operations off the ground but usually experience cashflow problems within a few years and fold. Government intervention and sponsorship is needed to set this in motion, but this faces a lot of resistance from building companies who stand to lose out on market share.

“We don't build in an efficient manner, we don't make good use of land, and we aren't building the highest densities where they are needed most - close to where people work, study and play, and close to mass-transit hubs.”

The draft Unitary Plan was visionary in the way zonings were applied but there was a big downward shift between the draft and operative plans, largely in response to the appeals process where existing landowners protested the potential increased densification of their neighbourhoods.

Again, he adds, density is seen as a threat.

Planner David Wren says it’s the Council’s ability to get consents out fast and efficiently that’s the problem. He thinks there’s plenty of room for density in the city, and the Unitary Plan really increased the ability to achieve density. The problem is how to get there.

“The people I deal with are risk averse to getting past the permitted activities. They just want to put three houses on a site, rather than going further. It’s the time it takes and doing the following up.

“If it requires some sort of assessment it prolongs the process. It should be quick but it’s not. That’s the way Council operates. It’s the bureaucracy.

While it’s easy to get compliant developments through, things come unstuck when they go for a non-complying design.

“Council tends to interpret plans rather strictly rather than giving the benefit of the doubt. It should be easy. They’re too conservative. I don’t expect that to change. Nothing is on the horizon that leads me to believe it will change. It doesn’t get easier from a consenting point of view. Though reform is coming in terms of the Resource Consent Act over the next year or so.”

Two things could speed up intensification, says Wren; making the processing faster and infrastructure improvements to make it attractive to develop around public transport hubs.

But there is still the difficulty of being able to put enough land together.

“It’s in small blocks and you can’t get intensification on small blocks. You need to buy three to four blocks and that takes time and money. Council isn’t in the business of putting land together. Rate payers wouldn’t be happy about that.”

Rod Marler, director design + place, Panuku Developments works with local communities and stakeholders to facilitate delivery of strong community neighbourhoods, great public spaces and quality developments.

He says change takes time. Even with the planning provisions in place, it doesn’t mean mixed use developments or apartments will be built everywhere straight away.

“We’re working very closely with our development partners to deliver new ways of living that demonstrate living in a smaller space doesn’t mean giving up quality of life.”

“More compact living, designed and built well, can provide greater access to amenities, improved privacy, greater quality, reduced living costs, greater security and helps build strong communities and neighbourhoods.”

He says the best way to convince the doubters is to show them examples of where great density has produced great outcomes, like Hobsonville Point and Wynyard Quarter.

“We should be encouraging more people to get out and explore and experience these places for themselves.”

Innovative construction consultant, Pamela Bell, founder of Prefab NZ agrees we must demonstrate density with events that illustrate how it can work well with great examples.

“I’m a big believer in the Steve Jobs quote, ‘people don’t understand something until they see it’.

“Make it interactive and understandable.

“I live in a block from Wellington that’s 100 years old. It’s eight apartments with a shared laundry. It’s becoming fashionable to explore these ideas again. We need to look at alternative models to address home affordability. We can all play by enabling density in our own backyards.”

Some early adopters are leading the way as our children are starting to question how they enter the housing market, she says.

“Start-ups are bringing new solutions outside the single house paradigm. They will provide ways for investors to get involved.

“Ikea in Sweden have interesting building typologies. Skanska – flat-pack homes are specially designed for single parent households. It’s these typologies we’re missing out on through always building three to four bedrooms. Alternatives open up gentle density.

Bell says people need to remember, density is not just 50 storey high-rise buildings. People can take hold of their own destiny by considering other alternatives.

She talks of ideas like selling part of your house back to a friend.

Density is enabling alternative pathways to home ownership. Because there are all sorts of situations.

“Housing should be intergenerational. It’s about how you enable your own family to look after an elderly parent. There are lots of reasons to have a more flexible, resaleable asset in your back yard or front yard.

”Then there are tiny homes. Bell refers to Prefab NZ’s SNUG competition, whose aim was to re-determine design so the market has a choice. Launched in March 2018, it opened up the conversation about alternative housing options to provide a pattern-book selection of finalists for prospective homeowners to pick-and-choose the SNUG option that suits them and their backyard.

Density is many things to many different people. It’s as diverse as the people it serves to house.

Considering change means embracing new options. On that, the last word goes to long serving Auckland councillor Penny Hulse, chair of the Environment and Community Committee.

“We need to throttle back on listening to people over 60. There’s a point where we need to say ‘thank you, we’ve heard that’. Now it’s time to listen to young people who’ll be responsible for fixing all the problems we’ve left.”


Please Note: Not all views or quotes in our articles represent the views of Ray White Damerell Group, whether you believe the interviewees to be right or wrong, the articles are designed to provoke thoughts and commentary inside of our community.


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