The key to vibrant and sustainable cities is mixed-use development in main activity centres, yet New Zealand has taken the path towards American suburbia. Urban systems expert Dr Tom Logan calls for an integrated response to the climate and housing crises which could rejuvenate our downtowns.
The news often covers the housing emergency, the climate emergency, or how another burst pipe is fountaining water over some dilapidated street. Other times, it’s discussing how shops are struggling in a stagnating downtown or that nurses are being told to leave work carrying scissors for protection.
The good news is we can address many of these challenges simultaneously. The bad news is it’s possible to exacerbate some issues while attempting to solve another. Without integrated thinking, we’re on track for the latter. Labour’s latest action to solve the housing crisis appears to pit renters against homeowners. Meanwhile, National’s call to rezone greenfield development, intended to fast-track development, would lock in significant future transport emissions and further deteriorate the hospitality and retail sectors in our downtowns.
Instead, we must seek solutions with synergies.
The key to vibrant cities—identified by the famous urban planner and journalist Jane Jacobs—is density and diversity. The ballet of the street, as she described it, is the complex composition of a diversity of people using the street in various ways. Such disorderly order enables our neighbourhoods to thrive and makes us safe: People, day and night, using and supporting the city in their unique ways.
Beyond the benefits to our economy and community are benefits to our sustainability and public health (by reducing vehicle trips), benefits through more efficient use of infrastructure, and benefits for housing. The key to achieving this density and diversity is mixed-use development—residential alongside or above retail—in main activity centres.
New Zealanders need to realise that not everyone shares the quarter-acre dream. In fact, the people aspiring to that suburban dream should be most vocal in their support of dense, affordable urban living.
Sadly, New Zealand cities have diverged from this path in favour of American suburbia. The result is we have under-utilised and under-funded infrastructure, stagnating community centres, and one of the highest number of vehicles per capita. Our housing crisis is worsened by the fact that New Zealand homes are, on average, among the largest in the world. As a result, the cost to build is among the highest in the world.
New Zealanders need to realise that not everyone shares the quarter-acre dream. In fact, the people aspiring to that suburban dream should be most vocal in their support of dense, affordable urban living. If not, they’ll be sharing a worse commute with everyone else who lives in the far-flung suburbs for the cheap property, ignorant to the detriment to the environment, their mental and physical health, and often their relationships.
Increasingly there are people who want to live in a mixed-use fashion (think American college town or European-esque). A lifestyle where you can walk to work or pop to your friend’s house, favourite cafe or local bar. A lifestyle that does not involve the excessively long driving commute.
But our choices are limited by how our cities are designed. Councils and government can no longer blame personal behaviour when we’re provided with a false choice. A council or government that consents sprawling development or the roads to induce demand for that area have no understanding of what their declared climate emergency means. Instead, they must provide the infrastructure and opportunity so we have real freedom. In doing so, we can simultaneously address our crises and revitalise our community centres.
Long-term sustainability is achieved by the diversity of multiple uses, including residential. People are the key to a vibrant and safe neighbourhood.
Among the necessary steps is, as Nikki Mandow has reported, removing the banks’ minimum floor area for mortgages. The Government should change the fact that you can’t get a mortgage for homes under 40 square metres.
Our urban planning must also depart from the mentality of anchor projects and imposed order. Stadiums and pool complexes (as we’re seeing in Naenae and New Brighton) will provide infrequent pulses of activity, but leave the area quiet and eerie once it closes. Long-term sustainability is achieved by the diversity of multiple uses, including residential. People are the key to a vibrant and safe neighbourhood.
Christchurch, having been described as a model 20th century city, still has the opportunity to modernise. Filling empty lots with mixed-use development and residential would rejuvenate the downtown. Although it is considered expensive land, developers build car-parking buildings despite “not actually making a great deal of money… [as they’re] a critical part of central city survival.” Residential development provides those same benefits and more.
Unfortunately, the co-benefits through intelligent urban design are being missed by the Government and councils. Such changes are absent from the housing crisis policy and the climate strategy. Even Christchurch, with its aspiration goal for downtown residents, claims it can do nothing more than promote urban living and rely on private developers to make it happen. Failing this while investing in sprawl-enabling infrastructure is the epitome of short-term thinking.
Instead, it’s time to transform our cities, bringing density and diversity to our town centres. We should look to mixed-use development to simultaneously alleviate the housing crisis, improve our health and sustainability, and return people to the heart of our communities.
Dr Tom Logan is a lecturer of civil systems engineering and the co-director of the cluster for community and urban resilience at the University of Canterbury.
Submissions on the Draft Ōtautahi Christchurch Climate Change Strategy 2021 close 25 April.