We often hear that Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Queenstown, and to a lesser extent Wellington and Christchurch, are facing a housing crisis that needs urgent action. While I agree housing issues must be addressed in all these centres, we also have a community or neighbourhood crisis that will only be resolved if all future housing developments are linked in a meaningful way with concepts of liveability and resilience.

What this means in terms of a community is having easy and walkable access to jobs (meaningful employment), suitable open space, civic amenities like community centres, schools, childcares and hospitals. It means having access to active travel (walking and cycling), public transport and affordable housing options.

These concepts should be central to any discussion about housing because, without them, we will continue to build car-oriented developments or CODs, where the nearest form of employment and services are outside the active travel range for the majority of the population. CODs create dormitory commuter suburbs with all the social dislocation problems they deliver. 

We just have to think about the travel costs and loss of productivity caused by congestion which has significantly increased in the last 10 years. And then there are carbon emissions, infrastructure costs (including its ongoing maintenance) and the costs we are imposing on future residents by developing residential subdivisions of 15 to 20 dwellings per hectare which will not sustain effective public transport options. 

We need a transformational change to the way we plan, provide for, manage and deliver urban growth. In the absence of this, and any meaningful national economic and immigration strategy, the main centres will continue to sustain significant growth and population pressures, and Auckland will continue to drive New Zealand’s overall population growth and economic output.

I accept there are other factors beyond the control of urban planners and urban designers, and other built form professionals who have a significant influence on the type and location of housing, employment activities and local services provided for in New Zealand. 

We consistently hear complaints about land supply and urban planning regulations as if they were the sole cause of our housing supply and affordability issues, but these are just two elements in a much larger combination of factors. There is the high cost of construction in New Zealand which is having an impact on the type of dwellings being constructed and, in some case, preventing more intensive development coming forward. It would be interesting to understand why construction costs are so high in New Zealand when compared to Australia.

Other issues relate to the size of the majority of our construction industry which lacks the large private developers of Australia and North America, dominated instead by smaller construction firms which cannot usually take on the risk associated with larger-scale developments. These firms tend to follow business models which favour single or terrace housing on greenfield sites. 

The implications of health, safety and risk management also has to be considered. Comments from senior building industry players suggest health, safety and risk management issues have added 10 to 15 percent to the end cost of a dwelling in the last five years alone. Yet it appears we have not seen the reduction in workplace incidences that would be expected from this level of investment. 

Finally, the banking and financial industry views of housing construction have to be considered, and these tend to favour low-risk greenfield development.

It’s clear the business as usual approach we have followed for the last 50 years is not going to solve these complex issues. The Auckland Unitary Plan has enabled significant development and as a result we are seeing more intensive housing throughout the region. However, anecdotal evidence suggests most new residential apartment developments are still providing significant car parking as there are insufficient employment and local services in local walkable catchments to meet residents’ needs, and limited access to active travel and public transport options. 

In saying this, the majority of urban growth is still in peripheral locations with no real requirement to provide for liveable and resilient communities. But following this model to provide housing in the short run, without access to employment and services, will not solve these issues nor address Auckland’s housing affordability, nor create a liveable city. We need to link housing development with all the key elements of liveability. Imagine if all new housing developments were required to show where future residents were going to work and play within easy travelling distance from their homes? This would change our growth patterns and require delivery of communities, not just continuing delivery of COD.

Such change requires council and central government to link infrastructure with land use, fund it accordingly and stop favouring car-based solutions to our growth issues, which only create further induced traffic demand. We also need to think about different ways of funding urban growth, rather than relying on rate and taxpayers, methods such as value capture uplift and the use of road pricing should be considered. While these approaches may be unpopular at first, they would prevent the ongoing, continuing subsidy of CODs.   

The new National Policy Statement for Urban Development touches on these issues, but it needs to go further. It must link all these issues and insist district plans are developed with meaningful policy and methods to achieve these outcomes.  

And only then, with these inclusive foundations in place, will we have a chance to resolve the housing and community crises blighting our cities and towns.

Dr Lee Beattie is Director of the University of Auckland's Urban Design programme and a practicing urban planner and urban designer.

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