Medium Density Housing in Auckland

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Overview of Medium Density Housing

Urbanisation and Intensification in Cities

For the first time in human history since 2007 over half of the world’s population was recorded as residing in urban areas (Madlener and Sunak, 2011). As urbanisation continues to increase globally, the immense problems of this current paradigm are significantly, and increasingly being noticed in the 21st century (Madlener and Sunak, 2011). Though cities cover only 2% of the world’s surface, they consume 75% of its resources and are accountable for much of the global energy demand (Madlener and Sunak, 2011). Due to this highly demanding nature of urbanization the process has affected not only local, but also global issues, including climate change and scarcity of resources. As with much of the Western world, urban growth in New Zealand’s largest urban centre, Auckland, has taken on a sprawling, low-density paradigm. This prominent form of urban growth is being recognized as extremely problematic and is now viewed as unsustainable, and responsible for high costs of infrastructure and energy (Auckland University, 2010). Urban growth management strategies throughout the world are instead encouraging urban consolidation and housing intensification with compact urban forms viewed as having the ability to improve environmental, social and also economic performances of cities (OECD, 2012). The implementation of medium-density housing is often viewed as a major platform for containing urban growth and can be a successful means of implementing urban intensification goals (Dupuis and Dixon, 2003).

What is Medium Density Housing?

The New Zealand Ministry for the Environment defines medium density housing as:

“Comprehensive developments including four or more dwellings with an average density of less than 350 m2 per unit. It can include stand-alone dwellings, semi-detached (or duplex) dwellings, terraced housing or apartments within a building of four storeys or less. These can be located on either single or aggregated sites, or as part of larger masterplanned developments”. (Ministry for the Environment, 2013)

This definition is along the same idea as academic literature where medium density housing is viewed broadly as terrace housing, low-rise apartment buildings and cluster housing (Dupuis and Dixon, 2003).

History of Medium Density Housing in Auckland

Statistics gathered from the last New Zealand Census show that Auckland is New Zealand’s largest urban centre, with a population of 1, 303,068 throughout the greater region (Census, 2006). The city also plays an extremely important role in the country’s economy.In relation to the rest of New Zealand, it is estimated that Auckland’s average productivity is 45% greater and contributes to around 35% of the country’s overall Gross Domestic Product (Statistics New Zealand, 2013). Despite this important role that Auckland plays, the city has been growing in a dysfunctional, and unsustainable manner. Since the 1950s, incompetent public transport, state funding of motorway developments and economic support for housing on the urban fringes have enabled the city to sprawl, with the urban area growing 24% between 1987-2006 (Dupuis and Dixon, 2003). This pattern of growth has resulted in the separation of activities, goods and services which makes mass public transport difficult. This growth has also led to urban encroachment on upon the outer rural land. Furthermore, before 2010, the region was characterised by an extremely complex governance structure comprising of seven local councils and one regional council. The result of which was a highly complicated planning processes in the city, limiting the implementation of medium-density housing.

Historically, it is evident that medium density housing has not played a large role in the Auckland region, as urban growth has been characterised by sprawling stand-alone dwellings. These dwellings have come to represent home, family life, privacy and space (Dupuis and Dixon, 2003). However, recent attempts have been made to intensify urban development in Auckland, predominantly through growth strategies. A Regional Growth Strategy was implemented in 1999; this strategy encouraged a compact city model and a variety of housing forms, including medium-density. However, in 2006 75% of private dwellings were still detached houses (New Zealand Statistics, 2006).

The amalgamation of the city’s councils in 2010 to create one unitary authority, is however, leading to a more focused and improved planning system in the city. The result of this amalgamation has been 'The Auckland Plan’, a unified spatial plan overseeing the entire region and looks to proactively lead urban growth in a sustainable manner.

Pressures for Medium Density Housing

Rising Population

In the wake of neoliberal agendas, Auckland has developed into the economic capital of New Zealand. As a result, population density within the Auckland region has attributed to over half the country’s population growth during the 1990’s and the 2000’s (Statistics New Zealand, 2006 and The Auckland Unitary Plan, 2013) . Currently, Auckland has a population of 1.5 million people, this figure is proposed to grow by 33% to over two million inhabitants by 2032 (The Auckland Unitary Plan, 2013).

Figure 1: Projected population trends within the Auckland region in the next 27 years (New Zealand Statistics, 2006)

Figure 1 as analysed by the Auckland Council indicates the projected population trends within the Auckland region over the next 27 years. In order to cope with this future housing demand, the region must supply adequate housing options for the proposed influx of residents. It is recommended by the Auckland Council (2011) that in order to satisfy the future demand of population growth, an average of 13,000 new homes per year are needed; this number is significantly higher than the present figure of 2000 dwellings currently built per year. If these housing options are not catered for then stress placed upon the urban property market to increase inflation rates and as a result, the region becomes unaffordable for most working/middle class. As a result, the majority of this class is forced to move outwards into the urban periphery in order to afford cheaper housing therefore resulting in urban sprawl.

Urban Sprawl

An increase in population influences the spatial and social phenomenon of urban sprawl. Urban sprawl occurs when people choose to live further away from the centre of the city, preferring to live on the urban periphery in order to buy more land for less money. Urban sprawl is a significant restrictive factor in achieving the compact city strategy (Arbury, 2005). In Auckland, the majority of sprawl is occurring lengthways due to the physical restriction of the coastline alongside the traditionally favoured notion of a low-density lifestyle. This lifestyle has resulted in a higher proportion and frequency of households commuting large distances into the urban centre from suburbs situated on the urban periphery. In an effort to restrict this broader urban sprawl, incorporating medium-density housing is imperative to the development of the region.

Public Perception

The wider public perception throughout New Zealand is central to that which is representative of the embedded notions of the early ‘baby boomer generation’; this idea is known as the ‘Quarter Acre Dream’. This idea holds the notion that in order to have a successful lifestyle, a house on a quarter acre block is required (Schrader, 2013). This viewpoint is an obsolete notion that is not applicable to the current property market available to the middle/working class. This public perception significantly restricts medium density housing as accepted form of property development across the wider society, this is because it defies the idealistic New Zealand lifestyle/property tradition.

Ageing Population

New Zealand has an ageing population and as Auckland is home to one in three New Zealand residents; there will be a significant effect considering the types of housing available to these ageing generations. By 2032 it is projected that 23% of New Zealand’s population will be aged 65+ (Statistics New Zealand, 2006). this will become an issue as our ageing population will be likely to sell their larger dwellings for smaller, more easily managed properties. This older generation will place a higher demand on smaller dwellings in centrally located urban areas, and in turn place further pressure on the housing market. If medium density housing options were available for the elderly, these dwellings would remain affordable while creating a more affordable lifestyle for those on the urban periphery.

Housing Affordability

According to the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (2013), as of May 2013 the average house price across the Auckland region was $531,000 which is a 37% increase compared to the national average of $385,000. In 2013, property deposits regarding mortgages for private homeowners have also increased to a minimum of a 20% downpayment (Reserve Bank of New Zealand, 2013). Trends over the last five years have indicated that housing is becoming more expensive, however coinciding with rising living costs while working for a low minimum wage does not relieve the financial pressures regarding property investment. As housing affordability for the working or middle class is continually placed financially out of reach; the idea of smaller property sizes that are less expensive are sought after. Medium density housing is the solution to ensuring housing in Auckland remains affordable for our ageing population and lower classes, however the popularity of such dwellings has ensured that demand is currently outweighing supply.

Quality of Housing

Housing contributes to many social dynamics of the New Zealand lifestyle, a dwelling provides the basic necessities of this lifestyle, i.e shelter and space for living. Where this dwelling is located influences access to work, education, services and recreational activities.The individual standard of housing adds to the health, safety and well-being of the inhabitants. Good housing can create positive social environments for households while poor housing can create the opposite. Substandard housing environments are an optimum environment for health related issues, coupled with the growing trend of overcrowding in lower income households, these housing options are hazardous to the overall social framework of an area. Toi Te Ora Public Health (2011) identifies prominent features of substandard housing, these include:

  • Lower indoor temperatures.
  • Higher moisture content resulting in mould and fungal growth.
  • Mites and cockroaches.
  • Lack of basic chattels such as carpet and curtains.
  • Structural deficiencies
  • Inadequate outside areas for children to play with unsafe driveways.

The positive outcomes of good quality housing can also be attributed to stable housing, home ownership and underlying neighbourhood effects (Department of Building and Housing, 2004). There are little national or regional figures to determine the overall quality of housing in New Zealand, literature only provides descriptions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ quality housing which is an unreliable and inefficient source of data.

Current State of Medium Density Housing in Auckland

It is evident that although growth strategies have been in place in Auckland for the last two decades, relatively few indicators can be found for the presence of medium density housing in the city. The most predominant of these is provided by the New Zealand Census,as seen through the information given on dwelling types which supplies an estimated overview of the amount of medium-density housing in the city. However, it is evident that the validity and accuracy of this data is not adequate. Primarily, New Zealand Census data does not recognise the Ministry for the Environment’s incorporation of stand-alone dwellings into the medium density-housing category. This creates confusion as it is evident through successful urban design that detached, stand-alone houses can fit this classification (Dupuis and Dixon, 2003). As a result, previously collected Census data does not accurately reflect medium density housing trends and therefore there may be a higher number of these dwellings within Auckland than is officially documented. However, although this data should not be taken at face value, it is still useful to analyse as it provides an overview of intensification in the city.

Figure 2: Graph showing trends in amount of medium-density housing in Auckland as portrayed through Census data

Due to this, New Zealand Census data from 1996, 2001, and 2006 interpret negative trends towards the development of residential medium-density housing. Figure 2 for example demonstrates a 27% decrease in medium density housing options available in Auckland from the year of 1996 to 2006.

Unlike stand alone and high density housing options, the latter is seen to have experienced a relatively sharp increase in popularity over the last 17 years; as a result, census data portrays medium density dwellings as representing a minimal role in Auckland’s overall total housing sector.

Figure 3: Graph showing trends in amount of medium-density housing in Auckland as portrayed through Census data

Furthermore, Auckland Census data illustrates that 11.9% of housing is characterised as medium density, as opposed to the wider national trend of 14.3%.

Figure 4: Graph showing different housing types in Auckland against national trends

Of the occupied homes in Auckland, stand alone dwellings remain the most common type of housing structure. Trends gathered from New Zealand Census data alone thus indicate that urban intensification through policy based methods appears to be favour an increase in growth of higher rather than medium density housing options.

Due to the problems with the New Zealand Census data definition as outlined above, it is evident that there is an obligation to gather spatial data on a local scale across Auckland. A localised review is required in order to analyse more appropriate trends that are reflective of the Ministry for the Environment’s and the academic literatures' wider definition.

The quality of these developments is another indicator which can be utilized to assess the state of medium-density housing in Auckland. However, like data for the amount of medium-density dwellings in the city it is evident that this is also quite limited in scope.

Several case studies produced by the Ministry for the Environment, and The University of Auckland have demonstrated how medium-density housing is implemented successfully in many parts of the city. As public perception plays a vital role in the success of higher density housing forms, it is imperative that these are carried out to a high standard of quality. As previously outlined, in the past Auckland has struggled with lower quality high and medium density developments which have fostered largely negative public perceptions surrounding the implementation of these housing types, reinforcing already dominant societal and cultural perceptions of the ideal home.

Figure 5: Photo of a Medium Density Housing Development at Stonefields, Mt Wellington

Stonefields, a master planned development in the Auckland City suburb of Mt Wellington has been assessed by the Ministry for the Environment and provides a good case study for Auckland’s successful implementation of medium density housing in the last 20 years (Ministry for the Environment, 2012). The construction of the community began in 2008 and is planned to be finished in 2014, with up to 2900 total units upon completion. The development was assessed against 20 urban design criteria and was found to successfully address a range of urban design principles, earning a 79/100 on the researcher’s rating scale. Public satisfaction with the look and feel of the development also rated very highly.

Furthermore, as another indicator of success, research conducted through the University of Auckland shows it is evident that public perception of medium-density developments is increasing. The perception of residents from three developments in the suburbs of New Lynn, Albany and Onehunga demonstrated positive perceptions (for the most part) regarding living in medium-density developments (University of Auckland, 2012). Furthermore, opinions gathered in the research also indicated that the largest percentage of people living in the three developments believed that these developments were a good place for children to live in. This would represent a shift from traditional societal and cultural beliefs of the ‘ideal’ home for families to be that of a detached dwelling.


Policy Changes

Policy changes reflect the dynamic trends, demands and responses in regards to development. In Auckland, policy changes are enabling medium density housing developments to be achieved. There are numerous policies, plans and strategies that are influencing development in Auckland (Auckland Council Spatial Plan, 2013), some of which are shown in figure 6 below:

Figure 6: Policies and plans influencing Medium Density Housing in Auckland

Through policy and plan developments Auckland is executing many changes while working towards its goal of becoming the most liveable city in the world (Auckland Council Spatial Plan, 2013). Under the Auckland Spatial Plan there has been a push for compact living which has ultimately led to the proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (Auckland Council Spatial Plan, 2013). This has a strong focus on quality development. Figure 7 shows the way in which different policies are shaping Auckland’s growth. Policy changes in regards to medium density housing have been both encouraging and unsupportive of what Auckland is trying to achieve. On one side there has been a push in strategies to encourage medium density housing and more compact living, but recent policy changes and submissions under the Auckland Unitary Plan have seen restrictions placed upon some developments. The recent Plan Change 32 to the Auckland Council District Plan on 27 September 2013 have highlighted the importance of better design for medium density housing and mixed housing models appropriately located to infrastructure in Swanson, Auckland (Auckland Council District Plan, 2013). But on the contrary, it has also encouraged larger lot sizes for houses while placing further restrictions such as a maximum of two stories for housing (Auckland Council District Plan, 2013).

Figure 7: Flow Diagram of interacting Auckland Unitary Plan Policies (Auckland Council, 2013)

The Auckland Housing Action Plan is one way in which Auckland is ensuring the availability of secure, healthy and affordable homes for the well being of the Auckland community (Auckland Council, 2013). This plan has four key priorities:

  • To increase housing supply to meet demand
  • To increase housing choice
  • To improve quality
  • To improve affordability

Integrative Strategies

In response to medium density housing plans, groups are often excluded or misinformed during the decision making process (Centre for Housing Research, 2011). An important response to plans and policies regarding medium density housing is the ability to work with all affected parties, especially within the early stages of development. As Medium Density Housing creates a constrained financial environment (The Auckland Plan, 2013) there is a need to carefully analyse, negotiate, implement and monitor any developments in an integrative way for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Figure 8 shows how the Auckland City Council plans to engage with stakeholders and how these groups are being encouraged to stand by these key values under ‘the working together continuum’. (The Auckland Plan, 2013)

Figure 8: Diagram showing how the Auckland Council plans to engage with stakeholders (Auckland Council, 2013)

In response to this the Auckland City Council has ensured that it will “align its internal, actions and investments” (The Auckland Plan 2013) under the Auckland Plan. This will enable the action and investment of many parties to co-develop Medium Density Housing projects between local government, the private sector, institutions, neighbouring regions, local Iwi, non-governmental organisations and the community.

The Auckland Plan will ensure integrative strategies on five different levels:

  • Integrate Auckland Council internally (Auckland ‘Super’ City in 2010)
  • Central Governments contribution
  • Financial strategies used in Auckland complement housing plans
  • Build partnerships with all stakeholders
  • Ensure shared funding for redevelopment and infrastructure

Auckland Unitary Plan

Auckland Council Unitary Plan Logo, 2013

The Auckland Unitary Plan enables Auckland to respond to the growing pressures of urban development. The Unitary Plan was initially introduced on the 30th of September 2013 and aims to be operative by 2016. The Unitary Plan replaces the existing regional policy statement and existing regional and district plans to ensure Auckland can deliver its vision under the Auckland Plan. It will determine what buildings and associated infrastructure can be built and where while also aiming to create a higher quality and a more compact Auckland (Auckland Council Unitary Plan, 2013). Under the urban zone the plan has strategies for:

  • Single house zones.
  • Mixed housing in urban and suburban zones.
  • Terrace housing and apartment building (THAB) zones.
  • Large lot zones.
  • Special purpose and major recreation facilities zones.
  • Business centres.
  • Public open space.

Terrace housing and apartment building zones are reflective of medium density housing in Auckland. These zones are created to enable higher residential densities and to influence an efficient use of land through having medium density housing located in areas within moderate walking distance of appropriate infrastructure, near transport routes and close to goods and services (Auckland Council Unitary Plan, 2013).

Urban Design

Medium density housing is a relatively new design type in New Zealand which requires a high urban design quality (Ministry for the Environment, 2012). The Ministry for the Environment has set up medium-density housing assessment methodologies based upon both national and global case studies of current developments including Stonefields, Auckland, The Altair, Wellington and Chester Courts, Christchurch (Ministry for the Environment, 2012). This assessment criteria is created in order to gain wider community support through comprehensive guidelines surrounding medium density housing developments.

The Auckland Design Manual is a tool that the Auckland City Council is implementing to promote better urban design strategies. This manual offers guidance for improved ways in which to build, develop and design Medium Density Housing. The manual provides practical advice, best practice processes and detailed design guidance. Sections are based upon each individual housing type, including terraced and apartment living to ensure that they are sustainable and are built to last. The Auckland Design Manual is working in conjunction with the Unitary Plan where the Unitary Plan is used as a ‘rulebook’ and has a set design statement as a way to control urban design (Auckland Design Manual, 2013). The design statement includes a variety of different elements including site detail, building placement, street fronts, outdoor spaces and floor plans. Free urban design advice is offered from the Auckland City Council for any consents as a way to regulate the design process (Auckland Design Manual, 2013). The Auckland City Council is involved in the design process in order to help applicants achieve better quality designs from an earlier stage.

Conclusions and Future Planning Recommendations

Current indicators and data regarding medium density housing in Auckland are inadequate. Improvements need to be made in order to successfully map trends of local growth, this is important because specific localised data regarding indicators for density in Auckland are essential for future development plans. This issue is imperative to address because national data collated via the New Zealand Census regarding housing, is insufficient. In the future the lack of data collected from the Census could be rectified by adding more questions relating to housing and housing standards, specifically through incorporating detached dwellings into the category of medium-density housing. Despite negative trends portrayed through the available Census data, case studies are demonstrating a success regarding medium-density housing and it is evident that this type of dwelling offers a neutral ground between high density and detached houses. Therefore, it is clear that, given the opportunity medium-density housing will act as a vital construct in achieving and implementing compact cities goals. This is imperative for creating sustainable cities through counteracting the detrimental effects of urban sprawl. Auckland is vastly improving it’s policy framework and governance structure through the dissolution of district councils and the development of one unitary authority. In order to offset contradicting planning practices, the authority has also unified the original district plans. This collaboration will provide a stable foundation for the implementation of medium density housing in the future. However, public attitudes are still creating a prominent barrier as contemporary cultural and societal notions of the ‘ideal’ home in regards to the ‘Quarter Acre Dream’ still perpetuate. Therefore, urban design as a response to these issues is evidently imperative in order to encourage the purchase of medium-density dwellings by the public. The involvement of the public through collaborative and integrative processes will also be key in medium-density developments, this is because in order to address any negative public perceptions, integration of ideas will be needed in order to achieve positive outcomes for all involved stakeholders.

Trends indicate that in the future Medium Density Housing will be an integral part in the future development of both the urban centre and the urban periphery of the Auckland region. Policy frameworks are available to achieve the idea of a compact city, however it is conferring with stakeholders and the community that will be the deciding factor of whether Medium Density Housing will become the dominant housing model in the future. If Auckland is successful in becoming a compact city, the plans, policies and overall design initiatives will become a representative example for other urban settings within both New Zealand and the global scale.


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