The earthquakes have given the city a new start -an opportunity to explore better ways of doing things
There is an enticing opportunity to transition Christchurch, especially the inner-city suburbs, into new ‘liveable’ neighbourhoods with a greater variety of housing types and transport options -rapid transit, cycling, new transport modes like electric scooters, MaaS… in large enough quantities to meet the needs of all the people who want to live in this kind of environment.
Unfortunately the cadastral form of Christchurch i.e. the layout of plot size and shape within the geography of city blocks makes this transition difficult.
This difficulty risks Christchurch under supplying housing in the places where people want to live. An under supply could manifest itself by land banking and gentrification or by only partially transitioning, to poorer quality and quantity infill type housing. If this happens housing in Christchurch will be more expensive and poorer value for money than it could be.
Cities where public entities can access large plots of land make it possible to provide a better housing product for a lower price. Especially if an Urban Development Authority can co-ordinated all the various factors -infrastructure, master planning, construction, public transport, consenting, social housing, market rate housing…. Auckland is beginning this process, in Unitec, Mt Roskill and Mangere which will deliver tens of thousands of kiwibuild, state and general market homes.
The Minister of Housing, Transport and Urban Development Phil Twyford has indicated there will be a twelve to fifteen such developments throughout Auckland. Probably most of the large plots of land will be accessed from low density older state housing areas that can be intensified. Porirua in Greater Wellington is also a beneficiary of this type of process, gaining a $1.5 billion housing project based around rebuilding older state housing in the city.
In Christchurch this top-down, urban development authority approach with CERA, did not go well in rebuilding the CBD. More recently though there has been some good examples of intensifying state housing in Christchurch suburbs. Although there is unlikely to be much state housing land left available, given how many older low density state houses were damaged in the earthquakes and replaced as part of the rebuild.
The public provision of medium or high density housing works well for some cities, such as Vienna (last year’s most liveable city) and Singapore, so it is a viable urbanisation strategy.
The problem is the opportunity to develop large sites in public ownership is relatively rare in New Zealand cities because the vast majority of existing suburbia is in private ownership. For instance, there is nearly 200,000 houses on private property titles in Greater Christchurch, yet only about 6000 state houses.
This shouldn’t cause a problem for transitioning to a more ‘liveable’ city. Urban economics indicates private land owners will respond to increased ‘liveable’ city demand by building more intensely. Somehow though this supply is not resulting in New Zealand, or at least not as affordably as it could.
Maybe the problem is planning restrictions? Perhaps if all the unreasonable planning restrictions were removed -car parking minimums, unnecessarily low height restrictions, density restrictions…… then more housing could be built more affordably?
Spatial economic theory and the practical example of Tokyo indicates removing planning restrictions would help, unfortunately there are reasonable planning restrictions that do cause ‘nuisances’, that the public do not want removed. For instance, suburban households do not expect that multi-story buildings will be built right up to their boundary, because it would cause a genuine cost to them in the form of losing sunlight and privacy. For this reason boundary related planning restrictions -recession planes and setbacks rules -are very difficult to change in New Zealand.
In Auckland there has been a multi-year process to change the Unitary district plan to make it more permissive. Many Auckland suburbs relaxed some planning rules to enable more building intensification. Yet these more permissive changes did not include changes to boundary effects, because there isn’t public support for this sort of change.
The problem for Christchurch wanting to transition to a more liveable urban form is these reasonable planning restrictions significantly limit change to existing suburbs.
One proposed solution to get around this problem is to allow agreeable groups of collaborating neighbours the power to control aspects of land-use at a more local level than local government. This allows neighbours to drop these ‘reasonable’ planning restrictions and maximise the build potential of their collective land holdings on a case by case basis.
This way neighbourhoods have an option for balancing externality (nuisance) loss versus the developmental gain of being able to build more height and bulk. This will result in a greater variety of ‘liveable’ urban forms with more floorspace. More ‘missing middle’ housing will be possible. Hopefully liveable housing supply will be responsive enough to meet the needs of all the people who want to live in this desirable urban environment.
As more collaborating neighbourhoods demonstrate they can build aesthetically beautiful housing, for greater profits to the original landowners, to more new home buyers, at lower prices, then this building pathway should become more popular.
You can read more about how this concept -which is called hyperlocalism -developed here.
The specific proposal for large scale neighbourhood collaboration is here.
These sort of housing intensification initiatives need to be considered to ensure more bang (more houses, more businesses, more customers, more employment) for the buck is achieved from government investment in rapid transit.
Do we need to think small to solve big problems like rising housing and transport costs?
Getting ‘bang for your buck’ is an important consideration when it comes to infrastructure. How many houses will be…
A rapid transit scheme which would help revive and balance growth in Greater Christchurch is described here.