26 Feb 2016

'Urban myths' about apartment living

12:32 pm on 26 February 2016

OPINION: The ad hoc push for apartments in suburbs rejected by Auckland Council is just more evidence that the proposed Auckland Unitary Plan represents a misguided commitment to turning Auckland into a compact city.

A model of the finished product.

A model of the finished product. Photo: SUPPLIED

The 'compacting' of Auckland, a policy inherited from Auckland Regional Council, is founded on principle - or pure faith - rather than evidence that multi-storey dwellings are in some way more environmentally beneficial than detached homes.

And, it ignores the fact that the city is on an isthmus constrained by a combination of hill country and water - and that the CBD and central suburbs represent something of a choke point.

More on this week's Auckland Council housing vote

The idea that Auckland could somehow defy its physical geography by building up instead of along the axis that has long defined the city is based on several - flawed - assumptions.

Apartments are more efficient.

No, they're not. Apartments cost more per square metre so the only way to make them affordable is to make them smaller. Assembling sites, often in difficult inner city locations, land rehabilitation, and foundation work usually mean the costs of getting out of the ground are high. Public spaces, which usually include lifts, need to be paid for and fit outs are not noticeably cheaper. Apartment buildings also take longer to design, plan and consent - another source of high costs.

Apartments are better for the economy.

No, again. Services - noteably sewage and water - are usually expensive, requiring retrofitting or expanding old pipes in established streets, so council financial charges are high. On top of that, congestion created by apartments in the CBD and town centres incurs huge costs in terms of public transport demands - and demands on roading, given most apartment dwellers rely on cars, if not for commuting, for recreation and schooling.

Apartments are more affordable.

Well that's true only if standards are allowed to slip. Given the time taken to get started and construction costs, apartments might be affordable only if they can be crammed onto a site, fit out costs are constrained, and common areas treated as utilitarian rather than as places where people come together and communities are formed. In other words, they're affordable if they're small and cheap.

Apartments offer lifestyle opportunities.

So do green suburbs of course, smallholdings beyond the city edge, small towns in the hinterland, or retirement villages. It's all a matter of taste and preference. It's a conceit on the part of planners and others to think intensification and multi-storey dwellings are likely to attract high demand. Anyway, apartment dwellers' preferences are unlikely to be satisfied in the suburbs.

Apartment living is healthy, supporting active commuting, public transport, and getting people out of cars.

I really struggle with this one. For a start, it encourages sedentary living. There are fewer and fewer green spaces for the kids to play in. And reliance on buses and trains is no more healthy and probably more stressful than reliance on cars. I don't accept that the so-called café, bar and restaurant lifestyle touted as a benefit of apartment living is a substitute for the outdoor lifestyle that we seem to intent on turning our backs on.

Some people will always enjoy the convenience of high-rise living in the right place. I've enjoyed apartment living when working in Sydney and Singapore. So, sure, let's provide for that.

Others will be stuck with it - but will move on when they can, or if they can.

But let's not pretend it's any sort of solution to Auckland's housing affordability or transport woes. And we definitely cannot assume that promoting high-density living in central city areas is environmentally responsible.

The Australian Conservation Foundation concluded in 2007 that despite the lower environmental impacts associated with less car use, inner city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption.

Only when we get past the urban myths and address the underlying land use issues and, in particular, stop rationing land for housing and forcing ill-informed high density options on citizens and communities will we make progress on the housing front.

Let's hope that this latest reality check has not come too late to prevent the identification of a much more realistic strategy for housing Aucklanders.

*Phil McDermott is an Auckland planning and development consultant.