Grow Up Auckland! Mature Cities Thrive with Density and Diversity

Shortly before Christmas, the Herald ran a story about pending zoning changes in Auckland. Pitched to existing property owners, the digital version even included links to 43 regional maps, so residents could check if the view from their particular slice of heaven was slated to be blocked by a monstrosity arising from a new dreaded Mixed Housing Urban zone. Rightwing Councillor Cameron Brewer predictably moaned that, "Glendowie in particular has been hit hard by Auckland Council's intensification measures," even though the plans won't be finalized until August, after public debates and notifications.

As we all know, Auckland is growing. What perhaps isn't as well known is that most of this growth, 58% of it over the past 24 years and a projected 62% over the next 30, is caused by natural increase, i.e. Aucklanders having baby Aucklanders. Unless you welcome a regime that is going to actively interfere with its citizenry's childbearing proclivities, this means that all a responsible local government can do is to plan for the increase.

In this attempt, Auckland Council is up against two strong collective mental blocks, the quarter acre dream and the mistaken belief that apartment living is undesirable.

Other commentators such as Selwyn Nogood have dissected the ongoing Kiwi obsession with owning a quarter acre plot replete with detached home, fence, multi-car garage, and expansive lawn. Properties like these fly in the face of rational city planning and put unnecessary strain on the environment, yet the ongoing trend has been for bigger and bigger single family homes. Did you know that the size of the average Kiwi house has doubled since the 1960s? As the house grows, so too the pressure to fill it up with ever more shiny appliances and toys. As the city sprawls, more people feel forced farther and farther from the centre, tolerating absurdly long commutes alone in their cars, just to own their own home and provide a certain lifestyle for their children, even if this means a child spends precious little time with one or both parents on weekdays. To say no to such a materially-driven lifestyle, indeed to not aspire to property ownership at all is viewed as the aberrant behavior.

Well-functioning cities have a dense and lively urban core, with a variety of housing options including high rise rental apartment buildings. I can't think of a better model than Denver, Colorado, where I lived in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood for five years in the mid-1990s. It should be mentioned that Denver, like other American Midwestern and Western cities, was developed in a pattern of homogeneous blocks, with streets running perfectly east to west or north to south, although Denver's CBD is at a 45 degree angle to the rest. It is also relatively flat and the distant Rocky Mountains provide a reliable compass point. Navigating Denver as a driver or pedestrian is thus an order of magnitude easier than navigating Auckland, and I imagine Denver's geometric orderliness also makes it easier to provide mass transit and other services. Despite these differences, there are other positive aspects that Auckland would be wise to emulate, namely an abundance of communal green space and a mixture of low and high density housing with commercial properties mixed in.

Denver is an ongoing beneficiary of the City Beautiful movement which flourished for several decades starting in the 1890s. This heritage lives on at the micro-level, where street trees grace many right-of-ways, and can also be seen in the number of small "pocket" parks and larger expanses of green. Lawns of private homes tend to be small; who needs the hassle of mowing and watering grass and maintaining shrubs when there's a mature, leafy, city-maintained tree just outside the front door and a park just a short walk away?

Denver: A City Beautiful

Another distinguishing characteristic of Denver's inner suburbs is that, unlike the soul-crushing monotony of my native Baltimore's row houses or indeed the cookie-cutter subdivisions of Albany or Botany, you will never find one property exactly like its next door neighbor. On one single block, it's not uncommon to find single family residences of different sizes and grandeur, a six-story apartment building, and a high-rise building, with a commercial property on the corner. There are also more than 100 heritage buildings scattered throughout the CBD and surrounding neighbourhoods. Like their housing stock, Denverites themselves are a beautifully mixed bunch: naturally racially integrated, Denver sees the poor and the rich, the young and the old, living right around the corner from each other, shopping at the same supermarket. There is also a vibrant gay community.

Density and diversity foster communal assets, be they a pocket park, a convenient bus route, and even safety itself: in a diverse neighbourhood including elderly people, young families, apartment managers, and small businesses, someone is always "home", discouraging burglaries and other crimes. When those with more resources and leisure time interact routinely with those of more modest circumstance, compassion thrives. Some of the most innovative NGOs I've encountered were in Denver: among them the Women's Bean Project, an active business providing chronically impoverished and unemployed women practical job training; Project PAVE, which ran violence prevention programs for school children but also worked with victims and perpetrators of violence to stop the cycle; and the Crossover Project, which ran exchanges to allow urban kids to experience life in the countryside and vice versa.

Apartment living should be valued as a lifestyle as valid and enjoyable as the traditional quarter acre. Apartment dwellers can partake of collective amenities such as central heating and cooling, swimming pools, exercise facilities, and meeting rooms that might be beyond their reach otherwise. On-site management means a swift response to plumbing or electrical problems, as well as someone to clean common areas, trim the verge, and collect the post when you go out of town.

Although it is true that most Kiwi apartment buildings that went up in the 1990s and early 2000s turned out to be leaky, it is clear that standards for a range of building types must be improved and maintained. It is also true that large buildings of more recent vintage are often eyesores, though to my mind this applies as much to the aforementioned oversized, cookie-cutter suburban home as to buildings like St Helier's controversial 387 Tamaki Drive. The greater problem is that property development has become solely about making as much money as possible; aesthetics and addressing the actual needs of the entire community have gone by the wayside.

Auckland as a community needs more housing, closer to the city centre. As Denver's example shows, intensification need not be feared. Aucklanders should lend their support to the Council's plans and demand that communal green space remains plentiful and that the new buildings that will arise are well-constructed, aesthetically pleasing, and attractive to a wide range of demographics.


An American expat living in Auckland since 2000, Julia Schiller is a graduate of Washington University in St Louis, a former ESOL teacher, a Labour Party volunteer, and a self-employed entrepreneur.