Acceptance of good MDH grows

By , and - , Build 183

When it doesn’t dominate the streetscape, is well designed and well located, Aucklanders are warming to medium-density housing – seeing it as a necessary part of responding to housing need.

New MDH development in an established neighbourhood.

A RAPID CHANGE in built form is occurring across Auckland. The city’s Unitary Plan has created a regulatory landscape for densification, and recent analyses of building consents and Code Compliance Certificates indicate that the development industry is responding at pace.

Medium-density housing (MDH) is on the rise, with over half of new consents in the 12 months to March 2020 for townhouses and apartments. Significantly, the Unitary Plan has also reduced the legal avenues for opposition available to local residents in neighbourhoods where these new developments are occurring.

How are Aucklanders responding to MDH?

The starting point for this research was the enduring expectation that New Zealanders are opposed to density and aspire to detached suburban housing, gardens and travelling by car. Research has mostly backed up this contention, with a recent BRANZ survey indicating most New Zealanders would be resistant to MDH in their neighbourhood.

The media has tended to portray neighbours fervently opposed to new MDH developments in their streets, feeding a popular discourse of resistance to urban densification. But do these portrayals represent the views of residents living near new developments that do not generate headlines?

The word on the street

Our interest in this research was to go beyond the rhetoric of resistance to question how widespread these views actually were across Auckland. We also wanted to consider whether such views change over time as local residents get used to having these new types of buildings in their neighbourhoods.

The research was funded by the Building Research Levy and involved 114 interviews with neighbours of 14 new MDH developments across the city. Neighbours were interviewed at eight sites during the construction phase and at six sites several years post-occupation. Sites were selected to provide diversity in terms of development size, distance from Auckland’s CBD, neighbourhood socioeconomic status and whether the developments included K¯ainga Ora dwellings.

New houses needed – in the right places

In the interviews, Aucklanders displayed many signs of acclimatising to higher suburban densities. Importantly, there was widespread recognition of the need for more housing, and MDH was mostly seen as an appropriate response to this need – when built in the right places and surrounded by the appropriate infrastructure.

Aucklanders seem to have taken on board the need for densification and identify local transport options as an essential aspect of providing appropriate places for higher-density living. Integrating active and public transit options as viable alternatives to private vehicle use will be fundamental to further acceptance of MDH.

Shifting attitudes, yet familiar views remain Many common tropes opposing MDH in low-density environments were still evident, particularly during construction-phase interviews. Examples were that MDH does not provide appropriate housing for ‘Kiwi’ families, that they would become slums, that they destroy the peace and quiet of residential neighbourhoods and that they lack privacy and will reduce the privacy of others.

However, it was also apparent that many Aucklanders now accept and expect to see a greater diversity of housing in their neighbourhoods. Factors often noted were Auckland’s pressing need for new housing and that MDH could be more affordable than stand-alone housing.

New MDH was also seen as a good use of scarce urban land, a chance to replace older dwellings with fit-for-purpose warm and dry places to live and, in lower socio-economic neighbourhoods, an investment in the area and a boost for local business.

Fears dissipate over time

The construction-phase interviews revealed a range of fears of which traffic congestion and parking problems were the most widespread. Other concerns included future residents behaving badly and the impact of new developments on their properties.

However, fears around future residents, privacy, lack of sunlight and property values were seldom, if ever, raised in post-occupation interviews. Over time, emotions tempered and developments and their residents just became part of the neighbourhood.

Conversely, the fears of increasing traffic and streets crowded with parked cars were more often realised, and a design feature that continued to cause angst was the positioning of windows facing directly into the living and bedroom spaces of adjacent dwellings.

Location, location, location

Acceptance was strongest when MDH was well situated on main roads, near transport hubs, in high-amenity areas, of reasonable scale and perceived to be a high-quality build.

Conversely, developments located on quieter streets away from hubs were more likely to generate traffic woes and be seen as out of scale and generally more problematic. Resistance was greater if residents perceived a transport disconnect – MDH designed with limited parking but located where active travel and public transit options were limited.

Growing acceptance when designs match infrastructure

While, nationally, New Zealanders may remain apprehensive about the development of MDH in their neighbourhoods, our research indicates that many Aucklanders are acclimatising to the city’s changing urban form.

When MDH is situated, designed and built well, neighbouring residents tend to recognise these attributes and accept new developments as part of the neighbourhood.

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New MDH development in an established neighbourhood.