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12/04/2017

Solving Auckland’s affordability challenge

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Auckland is looking at greenfield development to meet its housing needs, but "Londoner-in-Brexile" George Weeks feels there may be a better option for New Zealand's most populous urban area

As a Londoner-in-Brexile, I might have expected to have escaped both from political turmoil and never-ending conversations on the cost of living. But 18,000km round the world, Auckland has an even more pronounced lack of affordable housing. 

A combination of factors including cheap credit, population growth and chronic undersupply has led to the world’s fourth least affordable major housing market. The average house in Auckland now costs over $1 million. 

It never used to be expensive; take the AirBnB house in gentrifed Ponsonby, where I stayed when I arrived in January. The owner bought it for $40,000 in the 1980s. Despite being a tiny, three-bed bungalow, it would now sell, he assured me, for about $1.6 million. 

This is familiar to people in London, but there is a big difference in the approach taken to its alleviation here. While ‘greenfield’ in the UK is a shortcut to political oblivion, in Auckland 40 per cent of the city’s housing need is scheduled for delivery on greenfield over the next decade.

"Adaptive reuse of the existing urban fabric may yet prevail as the long-term solution"

A more fluid Rural-Urban Boundary (RUB) has replaced the previous Metropolitan Urban Limit (MUL). By allowing the city to grow outwards, housing supply can expand to meet demand while satisfying developer preference for supplying single-unit low-density housing.

Planning law here is based on the Resources Management Act (1991). Local planning authorities are tasked with explaining why a developer/landowner cannot do what they wish – very different to the UK, where a developer (or their planner) must make a case for why a scheme should proceed.

Auckland’s recently published Unitary Plan stipulates the aim for a ‘Quality Compact City’, but this is open to interpretation on a site-by-site basis. While the quality of public space in new greenfield suburbs can be good, the underlying land use/transport relationship could be better. 

The city’s relatively linear geography should in theory lend itself well to alignment along public transport corridors, but such joined-up thinking does not sit easily with the fairly laissez-faire approach to planning. This ties in with Aucklanders’ other favourite topic; traffic jams. While Auckland’s public transport has improved beyond recognition, the delivery of transit-oriented development can still be hit-and-miss. 

The main spike in residential development is in Auckland’s compact city centre. Its population of 40,000 is 15 years ahead of predictions and is increasing at six times the rate of the Auckland region. Contrary to received wisdom on suburban dreams, adaptive reuse of the existing urban fabric may yet prevail as the long-term solution. 

George Weeks is an urban designer at the Auckland Design Office, New Zealand

Photo | George Weeks

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