Building to thrive at density

This Issue This is a part of the Intensification and urban planning feature

By - , Build 187

The shape of our neighbourhoods is set to change even more with recent announcements making it easier to build multiple dwellings up to 3 storeys. How we do this will contribute to the ability of our communities to thrive rather than just survive.


BUILDING BETTER HOMES, TOWNS AND CITIES research shows there are four major considerations to successfully designing, building and placing medium-density housing (MDH) that supports occupants and communities to thrive. These are privacy, accessibility, adaptability and community collaboration.

Our researchers worked with three recently developed MDH neighbourhoods in Tāmaki Makaurau – Hobsonville, Waimahia and the Glen Innes community, who were part of the Tāmaki Regeneration project.

Privacy and fresh air matter

Post-occupancy evaluation with residents at Waimahia and Hobsonville strongly showed that quality communal green space and pockets of privacy are highly valued. Having a small amount of private outdoor space – no matter how small – is important to us. Therefore, it’s vital to design not only the inside of the house but also the landscaping, connection to the house and street and the relationship with neighbouring properties.

There is tension between occupants wanting privacy and neighbourhood residents having streetscapes that are good to walk around in. We don’t like walking past big fences or back walls, but equally, we don’t want people to see in. Having some small, private outdoor space also gives us access to fresh air.

Build for whānau and the future

A key finding of our research with the Waimahia community was the need to design not only for the persona of the young professional couple but also their wider whānau, such as grandparents who will visit or live as part of a multi-generational family. We learned that open-plan living works well and having the ground floor accessible including a ground-floor toilet and level entry is important. If people can’t get upstairs, the space still works for gatherings.

Many generations of families are also now choosing to live together. It’s important in the design and planning stages to consider how parts of MDH developments could be adapted to provide inter-generational spaces and build to enable this. For example, garages may be insulated and double glazed so they can be turned into additional living space easily.

A third key finding was that mechanical cooling in upper floors of MDH is critical, with many homeowners retrofitting systems due to overheating.

Make sure people can easily get around

At Hobsonville, the research showed another very important way to ensure we can thrive and not just survive at density is to make sure we have as many active transport connections as possible when designing and building. Plus, there are basic principles of good walkable neighbourhood design such as having footpaths on both sides of the road so it’s safe and easy to walk around.

By contrast, residents in Waimahia, who did not have good public and active transport connections, relied heavily on cars and noted that provision for parking was critical. When thinking about an MDH development, what are the transport options? How might this affect your design?

Work with the neighbours

Our research with existing residents of Glen Innes and Waimahia highlighted the significance of disruption associated with redevelopment and that often there are few if any benefits for existing residents.

At the micro level, construction noise, dust, congestion from construction traffic and increased heavy traffic through residential neighbourhoods generally have negative impacts on existing residents. Uncertainty about what is happening is another cause of heightened anxiety.

Even though it may not be a requirement, consider engaging with neighbours at the design stage. There will always be those who struggle with change, but understanding the neighbours’ concerns and suggestions at the design stage may give you the opportunity to make small changes that have big returns.

Often there are simple ways to mitigate impacts. For example, parking on the street can make it difficult for neighbours to exit their properties at peak times. Taking a few minutes to guide them safely into traffic goes a long way. Got a concrete pour scheduled? Let the neighbours know when it is happening. Likewise for extra-noisy activities such as concrete cutting.

In larger-scale projects, the development and redevelopment of neighbourhood amenities and facilities can also present great opportunities to integrate existing communities with new. In Glen Innes, rethinking the process of designing a park helped build community relationships and trust. By engaging in co-design with the community, it honoured the existing residents’ knowledge and connection to their neighbourhood as well as connected the community to the new park because they had a say in its development.

Developing for welcoming communities

As well as considering adding amenity, another way to make sure we thrive with the rise of MDH is to do things to support the wellbeing of neighbourhoods as they change.

Activating transition zones between existing and new developments through the use of things like bumping spaces where people meet – for example, a seat or a swing on a tree – encourages community building and cohesion, which is critical for thriving rather than surviving as our environment changes.


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