City councils are defining new ‘walkable catchments’ of tall apartment blocks around shopping centres and transit stations, with ambitious new expectations of how far residents should walk each day.

JANUARY 2022 UPDATE: Moves towards intensification continue. Parliament passed an amendment to the Resource Management Act in December 2021, in a bipartisan accord between Labour and National. It dramatically expands the areas in the five fastest-growing cities in which three storey dwellings may be built, without needing resource consent.

ANALYSIS: The lift slowed to a halt at the bottom of Auckland Council’s 29-floor office building in the central city, and I stepped out into the ground floor lobby. Council managers had just briefed us on plans they would be taking to councillors this week, to implement the Government’s new National Policy Statement on Urban Development.

The columnist from the NZ Herald unlocked his electric bicycle. I bought myself a coffee, eyed up the road cones, and started walking. We’re all going to be doing a lot more of that, it seems.

Of course, the headline could write itself. “High rise apartments coming to Auckland’s traditional suburbs under new Government edict,” reported one news site. In accordance with this new policy, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and the other fast-growing “tier one” cities will be required to green light six-storey-plus apartment blocks throughout their CBDs, and around their metropolitan centres and their rapid transit stops.

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But what will provoke the most discussion is how councils define those areas. Where will developers be mandated to bulldoze single-storey bungalows and build up, and up, and up?

And that’s why I was walking. Because city councillors have been left just two levers to influence where those tall apartment blocks are built: they can decide what “qualifying matters” like Auckland’s 30,000 designated special character houses should be grounds to protect a neighbourhood from the high rises. 

And they can define the size of the “walking catchments” around their CBD, metropolitan centres and transit stations. The question they must decide is, how far is it reasonable to ask a person to walk to get to the shops, the train, their work?

Cones line Queen St in central Auckland, but there is little evidence of any residential property construction. Photo: Jonathan Milne

I crossed Wellesley St West, wove my way through the scaffolding in Aotea Square, and began walking up Queen St.

The office in Kingsland was 3km up the hill, so I knew I had a good half-hour’s walk ahead of me. But of most relevance was that it was about 1200 metres from the perimeter of Auckland CBD. It was right at the limit of what government and council officials believe is “walkable”.

50% increase to walk times

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said any person who would learn to fly must first learn to stand and walk.

Now, central and local government are challenging us to forget about flying, to forget about driving, and instead to rediscover walking.

They have raised expectations. Driven from Cabinet down, the new expectation for urban development is intensive high-rise apartment blocks around every big city’s CBD, metropolitan centres and fast transit hubs. Lots of apartments, very few carparks.

A regulatory impact statement reveals Ministers were presented with three options: the first was an enhanced status quo with more effective guidance in the existing National Policy Statement; the second was new provisions to give local authorities a stronger focus on urban outcomes, without actually providing direction on how to achieve them.

The Symonds St motorway overbridge. Photo: Jonathan Milne

But the third option – preferred by officials and embraced by ministers – directed local councils to set in place intensification and responsive planning policies, and to open up urban land.

“Option three would provide strong direction and methods to help achieve the desired outcomes,” ministers were advised. “City centre zones will need to enable as much height and density as possible; metropolitan centre zones and areas within walkable catchments of metropolitan and city centres and rapid transit stops will need to enable development of at least six storeys in height.”

As recently as September last year, Wellington City Council told a resident that five minute and 10 minute walking catchments (that’s about 400m to 800m) were used in transport and land use planning exercises, here and overseas. The capital was using that as its starting point for discussion and community feedback.

“A lack of investment in urban design, and prioritising vehicle movement over walking, cycling and place-making has created communities that are hard or unsafe for the young, elderly, or people with disabilities to get around and access services.”
– Ministry of Housing and Urban Development discussion paper

Those catchments allowed officials to draw 800m lines outside the perimeter of Wellington CBD, and 400m lines around the metropolitan centres of Johnsonville and Kilbirnie.

But that has now changed. Last year’s National Policy Statement on Urban Development didn’t specify the size of the catchments, but backroom briefings have left councils in little doubt about the Government’s expectations. 

In meetings last week and this week, Wellington and Auckland councils are refining and defining new urban development policies enabling six-storey-plus buildings in developed areas. Hamilton, Tauranga and Christchurch are required to do the same. All agree on the importance of new-builds and, if we are to also meet our decarbonisation targets, these should be well-designed intensive inner-city developments rather than urban sprawl.

On Thursday last week, Wellington adopted its new spatial plan, with councillors agreeing to a 15 minute walking catchment from the central city boundaries, and a 10 minute walking catchment from the boundaries of Johnsonville, Kilbirnie, and the city’s rapid transit stations, including bounding the commuter lines to the north. “In Wellington we have chosen to define walking catchments in minutes rather than distance due to our topography and street and path network,” says Vida Christeller, the city council’s design and space planning manager.

Retailers and other businesses on Symonds St are taking the chance to renovate, while borders are still mostly closed and business is slow. Photo: Jonathan Milne

Hutt City Council is proposing between 400m and 1km (five to 13 minute walks); neighbouring Porirua is considering walkable catchments of about 800m from train stations on the Kāpiti Line for urban intensification.

Up state highway 2, Upper Hutt City Council is setting in place 10 minute walking times based on the moderate walking speed detailed in Ministry for the Environment guidance, taking into account local walking networks, time delays for crossing, and topography impediments, which results in variable distances from urban train stations and the CBD boundary.

Upper Hutt is candid about its need to redefine “walkable” in response to local housing demand. “The extent has also been increased based on projected local housing demand and supporting other local amenities, such as bus stops and local shops,” said Richard Harbord, the council’s director of planning and regulatory services.

If it seems the councils around the lower North Island are taking disparate approaches to defining the size of their intensified housing area, they agree. Cynthia Ward, the principal policy adviser at Horowhenua District Council, said there was a collective interest in developing a uniform approach.  Councils like Horowhenua had been using 400m, 800m and 1200m walking catchments around metropolitan town centres and commuter railway stations – such as five-storey apartments in a 400m radius around the Levin railway station.

But they and neighbouring councils were now looking to a bespoke solution for the region. “Some of the discussion in Wellington is to look at a more tailoring approach to the typical definitions of a ‘walkable catchment’ to recognise the topography, and recognise that Wellingtonians are a community who are well used to walking longer distances, and over a varied landscape to access work or public transport,” Ward said.

Queenstown Lakes District Council is not in a tier 1 area and says it is not subject to such “prescriptive” requirements. Nonetheless, it plans on setting in place 400m and 800m walking catchments, and deciding whether there is sufficient housing shortfall to push forward with more intensive residential development in those areas. Timaru District Council says it is working with Kāinga Ora to set in place a 2km walking catchment in the Highfield neighbourhood.

Hamilton hasn’t taken a vote yet, but city planning manager Luke O’Dwyer said it was considering walkable catchments around the central city and other places. These would likely be somewhere between 800m and 1200m, as well as enabling the construction of apartments in locations accessible by public transport, walking and cycling to a range of services, facilities and jobs.

Auckland councillors will consider the size of their walking catchments at a planning committee meeting this Thursday. They will vote on a recommendation to define walkable catchments as around 1200m from edges of the central city, subject to modifying factors such as topography and physical barriers such as motorways.

And subject to similar challenges like existing land uses and the availability of public transport, they are advised to set the walkable catchments at 800m outside the edges of metropolitan centres, and rapid transit network stops.

So what drove the increase to the size of the catchments? Clearly, the demand for more housing is a major impetus.

But it’s also based on evidence of our willingness to walk. Both the Census, and location specific research projects, have shown that councils weren’t sufficiently ambitious for their residents’ wellbeing.

The old Auckland and Manukau city councils had taken the view that about the maximum distance they could ask people to walk was 800m – but then, back in 2010, Auckland Regional Transport Authority conducted a survey of commuters using the Papatoetoe railway station.

“The NPS-UD plan changes are expected to be more complex and will likely receive many appeals.”
– regulatory impact statement

It showed that the median walking distance to the train station was 1200m, rather than the assumed 800m. So after the supercity merger, the fledgling Auckland Council’s research team conducted similar surveys of passengers arriving at New Lynn, Glen Innes and Mt Albert train stations.

Again, the team found that most respondents walked further than 800m to get to a train station, and one in six walked more than 1500m. Indeed, to their surprise, the respondents revealed that walking was their most significant mode of travel for trips less than 2km.

A further 12 train stations and five Northern Busway stations were surveyed in 2013, with the same findings. The average Papakura commuter walked 971m – nearly 1km – to the station each morning, and then made the same walk home at the end of the day.

No place for pedestrians, New North Rd is soiled by the stream of trucks up and down it, to nearby construction projects. Photo: Jonathan Milne

All of this data informed the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, when it published a discussion paper in June this year. It quoted the freshly-published final report of the Climate Change Commission: that in order to meet the recommended 2050 emissions reduction targets, New Zealand’s transport system would need to almost completely decarbonise

“Achieving this will require urgent investment in better transport options (including more walking, cycling and public transport) and better urban land use to accelerate development in the places that increase access and reduce travel times,” the Ministry said.

“As our cities and towns have grown, we have enabled low density development and provided infrastructure to support that. As a result, our population is now largely car dependent, our roads are congested, and we’ve hampered our capacity to build enough houses. A lack of investment in urban design, and prioritising vehicle movement over walking, cycling and place-making has created communities that are hard or unsafe for the young, elderly, or people with disabilities to get around and access services.”

The City of Cones?

Continuing my walk up to Kingsland, I was expecting to have to skirt around countless building projects. This is, after all, the so-called City of Cones.

But no. Once I’d got beyond the City Rail Link and Aotea Centre pits and scaffolds, there was very little. There were some small roadworks, some renovations to commercial buildings and to the historic public toilets by Grafton Bridge.

But to my surprise (and somewhat to my alarm) I saw not a single residential construction project on my 3km route up Queen St, Karangahape Rd, Symonds St and down New North Rd.

There is a real urgency around opening up inner-city housing. The fact that I didn’t see any house-building on my walk is evidence of that. And that’s why the Government feels the need to force councils’ hands.

It won’t come cheap.

According to the regulatory impact statement, city councils will need to do significant ground work to determine and test “walkability” and what is a “walkable catchment” relative to existing topography and other constraints and to evidence and apply the exceptions policy.

And they can expect many legal challenges to their intensification plans. The average cost of plan changes citing the old National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity as their cause was $135,000. The most was expensive topped $325,000 – even before appeal costs. “But the NPS-UD plan changes are expected to be more complex and will likely receive many appeals,” the officials warn.

Nearing the office at the city end of Kingsland, and the Auckland Council will be looking to open up more footpaths. Photo: Jonathan Milne

There will also be ongoing increases in council parking management costs, to manage the congestion impact of removing most of the parking spaces – unless councils can impose congestion charges to pass on the costs to motorists. If ratepayers pick up the cost, that will be from $67m to $100m, just for the five Tier 1 growth cities.

There’s a high likelihood of significant economic costs stemming from that congestion: the officials forecast $1.5b to $2.1b.

All up, the officials project $2.5b to $3.1b in new monetised costs stemming directly from the new intensification, but they weigh that against an estimated $9.4b to $10.4b in benefits from firms and workers being closer to one another, lower prices for new housing market entrants, and developers being able to maximise profits by turning over land to apartments that might otherwise have been needed for carparking.

There’s one other benefit to councils that is not spelled out in the regulatory impact statement. The dramatic urban intensification of large parts of our biggest cities will be met by inevitable resistance from many existing property owners, who will see their homes and rental properties overshadowed – sometimes quite literally – by new urban apartment living. This would be a very tough sell for councillors, as Auckland already knows from the tribulations of setting in place its unitary plan.

By choosing “option three” and taking the biggest decisions out of the hands of councils, the Government is agreeing to take the public pushback itself. 

A bridge too far?

The walk from Auckland Council’s high-rise on Albert St to our somewhat more humble office in Kingsland took 40 minutes.

A lazy stroll, really, stopping and observing the construction projects along the way. Until the rain came down and I ran for the New North Rd underpass.

The test for Ministers and city council leaders will not be how far residents are asked to walk. The real test will be how far the high-rises expand into established neighbourhoods.

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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