Everyone should care about urbanism, and here’s why

by JOHN POLKINGHORNE

New housing in Waterview, Auckland

New Zealand cities have so many good things going for them, but they’re let down by inadequate housing and transport. Mouldy old homes rent for exorbitant sums. Traffic-clogged roads are unpleasant (or even unsafe) for anyone not in a car.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can rethink where we live and how we get around, and transition to a society that is more affordable, more equitable, healthier, and with much lower greenhouse gas emissions. This will be better for all urban residents, especially low-income and vulnerable people.

What Do Urbanist Cities Look Like?

Urbanist cities should be inclusive and offer a range of housing and transport choices. Affordability is key to becoming inclusive: everyone should be able to afford a lifestyle that satisfies their basic needs (see ‘the human right to housing’) and allows them to participate in society.

That doesn’t mean everyone gets everything they want: cities are limited for space and there are tradeoffs involved. New Zealanders expect to be able to drive wherever and whenever they want, and that has to change.

Why Aren’t We There Already?

Since the 1950s, New Zealand governments and councils have spent the vast majority of their transport budgets on roads, with almost nothing for public or active (walking and cycling) transport. That has resulted in the car-dominated society we have today.

Working-class neighbourhoods were starved of public transport – not because the wealthy neighbourhoods have gotten all the investment, but because too much money went on motorways and non-driving modes only got crumbs.

Working-class communities suffer when there aren’t good alternatives to driving. Low-income households are more likely to be carless, and this can cut them off from accessing jobs, educational opportunities and the other places they need to get to. With better alternatives to driving, low-income households can manage without a car more easily, or manage with one less car and save money without making their lives any harder.

Since the 1970s, new homes in New Zealand have been built on the edges of our cities, with little regard for how the residents will get around if they don’t have a car. The rate of housing construction has also slowed since the 1970s, and it fluctuates with economic ups and downs. Auckland was especially hit by the post-GFC downturn, even as the city’s population kept growing – and that was when the housing shortage really started to escalate into a crisis.

Auckland’s housing crisis shows up in all sorts of data. Most of the Western world has an ageing population and the average number of ‘people per household’ is falling as a result – but Auckland stayed flat at 3.0 people per household over 2001-2013 and has now risen to almost 3.2. The statistic might sound bland, but it has real-life consequences, with people struggling to find homes that are right for them. It hits low-income areas hardest and results in overcrowding and substandard living conditions.

Rents in some cities have skyrocketed since 2015, as faster population growth hit a wall of inflexible housing supply. Even in Auckland, rents have steadily crept upwards year after year (now over $560 a week), whereas a stronger supply response would see them flatten out or even decline. Landlords haven’t had to compete for tenants, so they haven’t bothered to upgrade their properties – 38% of rented homes in New Zealand are damp, and 20% are mouldy.

Decades of bad decisions have brought us to our current situation. Neither housing nor transport are good enough, and it’s not good enough to say that they’ll take decades more to fix. We need rapid action on all fronts.

Creating Better Choices

At a government level, both left and right-wing parties agree that “we need more housing supply”, but they can’t quite agree on what that means. At the council level, things are even more disjointed as many councillors feel the need to appease NIMBY (not in my back yard) voters.

As for me, I want to see lots of new homes in places that are central, well-connected or highly desirable. This often isn’t allowed under current planning rules. This will deliver real housing choices and bring down rents everywhere, not just the places where those homes are built.

Cycleways and bus lanes can be rolled out very quickly (and cheaply!) with political and community will, and in just a few short years they could cover much larger parts of our cities. Building busways or light rail is more expensive and takes longer, but we will need that too.

Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá, said “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation”. To unpack this: driving is expensive for the poor to afford. If they have good public (and active!) transport options, that’s a start. If public transport is so convenient that even the rich want to take it, that’s job done.

I grew up in a central Auckland suburb, and flatted in Mt Albert and Sandringham while studying. I never considered living in an apartment until I moved to the city centre in 2009. 12 years on, I’ve never wanted to leave. Large parts of the city centre have transformed around me, creating shiny new apartments and hotels but also public spaces and waterfronts a short walk away. I’ve never been more than a 15-minute walk away from university and (subsequently) work, and now that I have a toddler I’m a similar distance from his daycare.

I’ve chosen this lifestyle, which comes with pros and cons, and I’ve been lucky enough to have the choice. Living close to work is a luxury in Auckland, and not having to sit in (and contribute to) traffic is a luxury as well. Many Aucklanders have chosen something different to me – maybe they really enjoy suburban living, or being out in the wops even if it means a lot of driving – but many Aucklanders feel like they don’t have good choices about where and how to live.

The Auckland and Wellington city centres offer a glimpse of the future (albeit with room for improvement), but there’s currently no ‘middle ground’ between them and car-dependent suburbia. Providing middle-ground housing options in more places is a big part of the solution.

The Outcome

What would an urbanist city in New Zealand look like – Auckland or Wellington after ten years of focused change? It would be densest in the central suburbs, and around transit lines and town centres. Land here is valuable so people would mainly live in apartments, but these would range from small to family-sized with floorspace quite affordable. The buildings themselves could be at suburban scale, well designed and integrated with their surroundings. Further out, housing would trend more towards townhouses, terraces, and walk-up apartments. And further out again, homes would predominantly be detached houses as they are today.

Public transport would be so reliable and practical that we’d take it for granted – and we’d take it all over the city. Bus lanes and signal priority would mean buses arrive when they’re supposed to, with crosstown routes connecting town centres and suburbs. “Rapid transit” lines, including rail, light rail and busways, would help to shift people in and out of the city centre and other high-demand areas.

Active transport would be equally reliable and practical, with people on bikes protected from those in cars so that 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds could cycle without fear. The world is already in the early days of an electric (e-bike) revolution – these incredible machines can cover distance quickly, and ‘smooth out’ hills for much easier riding. They will have a profound impact globally. In New Zealand they will be relevant in every suburb of every city, and even in smaller towns and rural areas. E-bikes might just save us all.

It’s not about forcing people into chicken coops or out of their cars. There should be good choices available for everyone in the city, meaning:

  • Housing everywhere becoming more affordable (i.e., lower rents), with new options that don’t exist currently: high or medium-rise apartments in town centres, and walk-up apartments or terraces close by.
  • Shortening your commute – because you might want to move closer to work, in one of the new homes. Most of us would like to spend less time on the road. Many areas will see improved public transport, and everywhere will be easier to bike around.
  • Bringing people closer together, and giving them better alternatives to driving, brings more opportunities within reach. It’s a powerful thing for economic development to increase the number of jobs that can be accessed within 45 minutes of a suburb.
  • The public benefits are huge. Continuing to sprawl out into the countryside will be very expensive for Auckland, with the infrastructure costs alone almost $150,000 per home.

All of this is completely achievable. We must choose whether to keep doing what we’ve always done or strive for something better. That “something better” will create better choices for the people who live in our cities, or who might someday. It will benefit people throughout those cities: high income or low, central or suburban. Even people who continue driving will be able to enjoy safer, less congested roads.

Urbanist cities are fairer, more affordable cities. That’s good news for everyone. As to how we can get there? I suggest advocating to your council for a vigorous NPS-UD response on intensification (look the acronym up!) and pushing for bus lanes and cycleways, the transport ‘quick wins’.

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