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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Recipe for Unlivable Cities in New Zealand

The Auckland Council?s great vision is to make Auckland one of the world?s most livable cities. Yet the outcome of its currently proposed plans will be a city which is second best for most Aucklanders.

Some 60% to 80% of residents of New World cities state a clear preference for a single family home with its own backyard. In Victoria state, where Melbourne is located, 70% of the population, for example, preferred a single family home according to one government study. There have been similar findings from US based groups like the National Association of Realtors.

Yet even when this is acknowledged, many in the media, taking their clue from planners and urban theorists, seek to change this reality.� The May 9 issue of the NZ Herald carried a story titled ?The Dying Backyard Dream? tells us ?Many Auckland suburbs will become home to high-rise apartment blocks with the quarter acre dream (1,000 sq m) reserved for the privileged few.?

This fairly represents the intended outcomes of Council?s Spatial Plan as outlined in the discussion paper ?Auckland Unleashed?.� But if this new vision is realized how can Auckland be a ?liveable city? for all those residents who are unable to realize their preference for a low-density suburban home? Instead, they must ?learn to accept? life in ?terrace houses, duplexes, courtyard houses, maisonettes, and 4 -5 storey apartment buildings?.

When working-class and middle-class households find they are priced out of the market for the housing of their choice, they will simply move to some other location, here or overseas. This has long been the case with British migrants to places like New Zealand and now people from China and the diaspora countries, currently the largest source of new immigrants.

Yet these households provide the core labour force for the productive sectors, and for the manufacturing sector in particular. For some reason engineers and scientists tend to place more emphasis on home life and work life balance than financiers, and other members of the ?creative classes?. (i.e. those who are creative with other people?s money). Hence, in the Bay Area, engineers and scientists gravitated to suburban Silicon Valley while the ?creative classes? gravitated to downtown San Francisco.

The New Geography team have documented the recent changes in the diverse states of the U.S. using the data from the 2010 U.S. Census. Their findings deserve careful study if we want to provide livable cities for the mass of New Zealanders, rather than for a wealthy elite. �In the U.S., according to the most recent Census, middle class people and companies have moved to Texas and the Southeast, because these areas are business-friendly, have low housing costs, reasonable taxation, and regulatory environments that encourage industrial expansion.

This suggests it may be time to propose urban visions that are more humane for the vast majority by rejecting intensification and concentration in favor of the more adaptable and resilient environment of more dispersed cities and suburbs. �A key advantage of smaller dispersed cities such as Raleigh, Austin, San Antonio and Indianapolis, is their more affordable housing means up to four out of five households can afford their preference for a suburban house with a backyard.

The densifiers insist that dispersal increases commuting times and yet the average commute in low-density urban areas like Salt Lake City and Kansas City is slightly above twenty minutes. (Aucklanders should be so lucky). �If the aim is economic growth and job creation, the transport system must provide genuine mobility throughout the entire labour market of the metropolitan area, not just to the central business district.

Auckland?s Spatial Planners should take note of this recent research, and Christchurch leaders should seize the opportunity to be the Number One City in New Zealand if they don?t.

A major source of evidence in support of Unleashing Auckland is the ARC?s ?Future Housing Demand Study? which assumes that Auckland?s density must increase to develop a healthy and growing urban economy. Unfortunately these assumptions are not supported by any evidence from the rest of the New World. In fact, forced densification is as often as not a� �recipe for failure.

The Auckland urban area is already the second densest in the New World and the street network was never designed to cope with such high densities. Rather than reducing congestion, doubling the density on a given street increases the vehicle trips on that street by at least 70 ? 90%. How can such densification reduce congestion?

These surveys of housing preference also tell us that the growing number of smaller households will not NEED three bedrooms, and hence will not prefer them. Such inferences ignore the growth in the spatial demands of home occupations, home arts and crafts, telecommuting, and the need for spare rooms to accommodate visiting friends and relatives ? not to mention a lifetime?s accumulation of stuff. Even single people will buy a three bedroom house to guarantee long term salability and value. The rooms soon fill it up.

Aging couples are presumed to want to be rid of their backyard ?burden?. Yet we are a nation of gardeners, and retirees are some of the keenest gardeners of all. It?s a healthy hobby.

The Wellington Regional Strategy Report also assumes the need for intensification, and also presumes ?need? determines ?preference? as in:

The eventual decrease in two-parent families will have implications in terms of reducing demand for larger dwellings on larger sections, resulting in a surplus of this stock.

So larger dwellings must be getting cheaper. Sorry, they are not.

The report also presumes that ordinary folk just don?t know what they are doing when they make their choices. Researchers find that people actually make their trade-offs very well ? especially the trade-off between travel times and distances, and price and amenity.

Evidently, the early development of Silicon Valley was a dreadful error because? ? having centrally located and compact form of residential development provide greater benefits to the city than lower density forms.? But what would those scientists and engineers know? They built the world?s premier technology region in the suburbs, just as had been done a half century earlier in Los Angeles or in scores of other tech belts scattered from Austin, TX to the outer rings of London, Paris and Tokyo.

The report also claims a ?large proportion of retirees are currently moving to Kapiti Coast, which indicates there is an insufficient housing supply in other locations to meet their needs.? Maybe these retirees have actually chosen to live on the Kapiti Coast, an area of smaller, low density development sixty kilometers from Wellington, because they prefer it. Many people would share their choice. Similarly, who speaks for the children who lose the freedom to enjoy spontaneous outdoor play, and to benefit from a free-ranging life?

There is nothing wrong with medium and high-density living for those who make a free choice within a functioning and affordable market. Councils should be maximizing our freedom to choose by focusing on general affordability. They must start by reducing the cost of land by freeing up supply.

Owen McShane is Director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies, New Zealand.

Photo by Pat Scullion

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