Building acceptance

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A study of the acceptance of medium-density housing development shows better transport options and family-friendly designs are the key to densification success.

Figure 1: Dwellings consented in Auckland inside rapid transit network walking catchments. (Source: Auckland monthly housing update, October 2021.)

RESOURCE CONSENTS for medium-density housing (MDH) – terraced houses, low-rise apartments and other types of attached dwellings – now exceed those for detached housing in Auckland.

MDH needs to be well situated, designed and built

As the city’s urban form changes, residents are also acclimatising to living in higher-density neighbourhoods, recognising densification is necessary to reduce the acute housing shortage.

These are the conclusions reached in Community acceptance of medium-density housing development, a study that surveyed and interviewed neighbours of 14 new MDH developments across Auckland. Of the study’s 114 interviewees, 64% thought MDH was a good way to solve the city’s housing shortage.

Acceptance of MDH increased when it was seen to be well situated, designed and built, and initial fears of loss of amenity and the familiarity of a neighbourhood tended to diminish over time. The new dwellings and their residents become just part of the neighbourhood.

Traffic increase is a frustration

However, resistance remains, with enduring perceptions that MDH is not suitable for Kiwi families and continuing frustration over increased private vehicle traffic in residential streets where alternative transport options are lacking.

Neighbouring residents interviewed during the construction phase of MDH developments commonly anticipated increasing traffic congestion and verges crowded with parked cars. Unlike other initial resident concerns such as reduced privacy or sunlight, increased noise and impacts on property prices – which largely dissipated post-construction – traffic and transport-related concerns endured.

When alternatives to private vehicles, such as access to rapid public transport and active travel infrastructure, were unavailable and new residents arrived with additional cars, the experience of densification affirmed and justified fears around traffic volumes and parking conflicts.

Conversely, where higher-density developments were near shops and transport hubs, MDH developments made sense to residents. Acceptance was higher and complaints fewer.

Access needed to rapid transit network

As well as increasing the supply of more affordable housing, urban densification is a promising strategy for reducing transport-related emissions and increasing residents’ physical activity. But for a significant shift away from dependency on private vehicles, it needs to be coupled with frequent rapid transit services and active travel infrastructure.

In Auckland, progress has been slow on the transport front. Figure 1 shows the percentage of new dwelling consents in Auckland between 2013 and 2021 that are within 500 m, 1,000 m and 1,500 m respectively of a rapid transit network. Although the percentages increased steadily, by August 2021 over 75% of newly consented dwellings were still outside a 1,500 m walking catchment of rapid transit.

There are pockets of good walking and cycling infrastructure in Auckland but also numerous gaps in the network, particularly in the suburbs. Likewise, the frequency and coverage of public transport services is variable across the city, becoming increasingly threadbare as it approaches the urban periphery.

Connecting services and infrastructure to create an effective multi-modal transport network will be crucial for supporting higher-density living and avoiding the significant downsides of further congestion, delays and parking conflicts. Without it, local resistance to densification is likely to continue.

Figure 1: Dwellings consented in Auckland inside rapid transit network walking catchments. (Source: Auckland monthly housing update, October 2021.)

Changing negative perceptions

Perceptions that MDH is unsuitable for Kiwi families and associated with rental accommodation also need to be addressed. Although it was understood that families overseas lived in apartments, the house with a backyard and garden was still depicted as ‘full Kiwi’, and a belief endured that families living in MDH ‘won’t have a good life’.

Further, home-owning families are still seen as the most-favoured neighbours, stable and committed to the area. By contrast, tenants are seen as transient and the least-favoured neighbours, and of relevance here, as the most likely inhabitants of MDH.

Clearly, MDH can be designed to meet the needs of families, and tenants who live in all types of housing can be long-term members of communities. Recent changes to the Residential Tenancies Act to increase security of tenure for tenants in rental accommodation may in time reduce perceptions of tenants as transitory neighbours and facilitate stronger place attachment.

Well-designed MDH can change minds

Wider public exposure to examples of MDH that meet the needs of different sections of the community – including families – and are loved by those who live in them is needed. This will help to dispel the negative connotations that persist in some quarters.

Many examples of successful MDH exist, from large master-planned estates like Waimahia Inlet in South Auckland and Hobsonville Point, to numerous smaller developments of well-loved homes.

The National Policy Statement on Urban Development provides impetus for urban densification and in Auckland builds on the provisions of the Unitary Plan. In addition to development around town centres, it advocates increasing housing density in the catchment areas of rapid transit networks. The goal is better integration of transport and land use planning, which is essential for creating medium-density neighbourhoods suitable for all types of households, with easy access to community amenities and workable alternatives to private vehicle use.

Substantial benefits of MDH

The momentum for increasing density is growing in many of our cities. Proposals for MDH in neighbourhood streets can trigger alarm and the fear of loss for local people.

However, the Auckland experience has been that adapting to greater diversity of housing types and more-compact neighbourhoods is not as dire as is often anticipated. On the upside, the benefits of MDH for social and environmental sustainability are substantial.

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Figure 1: Dwellings consented in Auckland inside rapid transit network walking catchments. (Source: Auckland monthly housing update, October 2021.)