The Quarter Acre Pavlova Paradise, density, containment and housing choice in New Zealand

The Quarter Acre Pavlova Paradise

Density and urban containment are not new planning strategies internationally, rather they have been practiced for decades in space scarce Europe. However, the concepts are beginning to become prominent in local government policy throughout New Zealand as a comprehensive remedy to the urban ills of sprawl. Medium density housing has become the common means that territorial authorities utilise compact city concepts to contain urban growth. Medium density housing involves the spatial concentration of dwellings on smaller lots, often this development is of the brownfield/infill variety, thus preserving the urban periphery and increasing population densities in the built urban environment. This article will provide point of view analysis on the benefits of compact city urban form in New Zealand. In addition, this article will also consider what this means for planners balancing the influence of political agendas and public preferences for detached housing at lower densities.

Urban Sprawl is suggested to take up too much space…

A significant implication of medium density housing is the proposed positive environmental externalities. Sprawling cities take up too excessive amounts of productive land, which inevitably leads to traffic congestion and air pollution as urban populations spread further away from places of employment and play. In contrast, medium density housing is suggested to encourage public transport patronage, as medium density developments are encouraged to be located near major public transport modes. This creates the principal environmental benefit of compact city urban form, bringing significant reductions in urban air pollution. It is suggested in literature that the combustion of fossil fuels which produce carbon dioxide are thought to contribute about fifty per cent of the global warming problem. Therefore, a clear implication of medium density developments in New Zealand’s urban centres is that positive environmental externalities exist from encouraging people to utilise active and public alternatives of transport, being the potential to reduce fossil fuel degradation of the environment. However, these environmental benefits are irrelevant if the compact city urban form and higher density housing doesn’t provide socially stimulating spaces for the people that have to live in these dense neighbourhoods.

Medium Density Housing in Wellington, New Zealand

Social sustainability is key to any housing development, as housing outcomes are long standing, with dwellings being utilised for in excess of 50 years. It is widely advocated that the compact city and high housing density is socially equitable. The benefits that density provides are, lower rates of mental illness, reduced social segregation, increased opportunities for walking and cycling, job availability for the lower skilled, and access to facilities, collectively these benefits contribute to an increased quality of life. Providing housing choice is also part of social sustainability, and medium density housing represents an opportunity to increase the diversity of housing styles available to residents. Housing choice leads to creating cities that are spatially diverse, as it enables a range of socio-economic and ethnic groups to live in close vicinity. It is argued that inner-city decay and segregation problems resulting from sprawl can be resolved through the compact city and increasing density. Compact cities are ethnically diverse, due to the spatial concentration of people, evidence for this assumption stems from historical evidence of increased segregation through sprawl and decentralisation of facilities. Therefore, higher densities produce less ethnic and economic segregation, and thus the compact city urban form represents a socially sustainable urban form. While societal outcomes are core to planning practice, they are intrinsically linked to economics, thus it is critical that compact city urban form is affordable. This is significant as compact living spaces will become nothing more than an assemblage of the wealthy if they are not affordable, which is counter to the ideals of planning practice.

Significant benefits exist in economic terms when considering housing affordability, a key influence on house prices is the supply of homes outnumbering the demand. It is widely suggested that affordability can be achieved through increasing density and providing diversified housing options other than single-family units on quarter-acre sections. Therefore, diverse housing options is key to satisfying supply, in addition to increasing the density of dwellings on land. Through the compact city lens which endeavours to encourage contained high density living, planning controls can increase the number of dwellings allowed on a lot of land, which has a positive effect on supply. Therefore, it is suggested in the compact city the number of dwellings are increased along with diversity of housing choice, leading to housing being in a perpetual state of surplus supply, and thus affordability issues are mitigated. Having discussed the environmental, social and economic benefits of the compact city approach and established the concept as a superior alternative to the sprawling city, I will discuss what outside influences are impeding the implementation of the compact city and what this means for planners.

Housing preferences are key to any discussion about housing development and urban form, as they form a mandate whether the urban spaces planners create are desirable or not, which is a core objective of planning practice. In New Zealand housing is placed upon a significant mantle, much alike other developed countries housing is representative of the residential dream that politics often sells society, they also are a substantial avenue for private investment. Therefore, societal preferences for housing are important, in rational terms the benefits of compact cities will be irrelevant if nobody desires to live in them. What planners are advocating for, the containment and increasing density of urban space, is in stark contrast to what many conceive to be the residential dream, symbolism that has been sold for in excess of a century. What this means for planners is if progressive compact city policy is to be implemented, a skirmish with communities is highly likely, along with NIMBY resistance to any sort of change.

Politics and planning are intrinsically intertwined, as planning is fundamentally the intrusion of property rights, property rights that are guaranteed by government. Government decision making is heavily influenced by political ideology and thus so is planning practice, I argue that the current ideological climate segregates planners from doing their job of ensuring societies wants and needs are balanced. Neoliberalism places a premium on the mechanisms of the market to regulate land use, therefore housing is developed by the market, which is driven by desires to make the highest profit possible from a lot of land. This model encourages 3 or 4 bedroom detached houses on cheap sections distant from urban centres. Therefore, I would argue the compact city model of smaller houses on smaller sections nearby city centres and public transport facilities is disregarded in New Zealand. Due to economic pressures on insufficiently funded ‘small-time’ developers housing developments do not encourage best planning practice. Rather, it ensures minimums are achieved for resource consent followed by the maximum number of rooms in homes to attain the highest possible capital gain. This process erodes planning legitimacy, producing housing developments that reflect economic gains over societal and environmental considerations.

The housing market as presently constructed without the influence of the state and planners

I suggest that the political agenda of neoliberal policies adversely effects the legitimacy of planning practice. Eroding the interventionist ability of planners significantly restricts the professions ability to encourage compact city policy such as medium density housing. Persisting with the theme of planning legitimacy as a barrier to environmentally, socially, and economical sustainable housing, the existence of a gap between what house buyers perceive to be important in housing and what practitioners argue is good for them acts as an example of the eroding of technocratic specialist knowledge.

The perspective of planners is underpinned by the belief that high residential densities along with other initiatives provide tangible benefits to people. As I have outlined significant benefits exist in relation to implementing compact city policies, however they are impossible to include in land use plans when market economics and housing preferences are marginalising the expertise of planners. Therefore, I suggest that in order to create diverse housing stock that satisfies environmental, social and economic issues in New Zealand planners need to be allowed to intervene in housing developments, not be hampered by political discourse that rejects market intervention. This could range from land use regulation that specifies certain housing typologies, to local and central government developing housing themselves. Housing preferences reflect the stock that is available, consequently by supplying a diverse range of options it is suggested that preferences will also then become diverse. What the compact city means for planners is plenty of issues, however this is a fight tailor-made for planners, as creating exciting and enticing spaces for people is core to the profession, and the alternative of developer produced landscapes is particularly dire.