The benefits of medium-density housing such as connectedness, a sense of wellbeing and diversity should be celebrated as we move away from mostly building stand-alone homes in far-flung suburbs. The key is well-designed developments done well.
OUR URBAN POPULATION is growing across Aotearoa, with medium density, mixed use and compact urban development becoming the norm in our larger cities.
In many of our smaller centres, residential density is new or yet to arrive. The quarter-acre dream is held tightly here even though we face entirely different personal and collective challenges to previous generations and our lifestyles and household make-ups are vastly different. This doesn’t make sense any more, nor will it deliver environmental, social or even economic wellbeing in the long term.
High-quality medium density has benefits
It’s time to embrace high-quality medium density in locations right across our motu.
Well-designed medium-density neighbourhoods can offer housing diversity, affordability and supply while encouraging community connections, neighbourliness and social equity. Compact urban development uses our land well, optimising urban or developable land while retaining and protecting productive and ecologically valuable landscapes.
It can make local business more viable, reduce energy consumption and increase uptake of active modes and public transport, contributing to decarbonisation.
When done well, higher densities can unlock improved health and wellbeing, improved wealth – for both households and the city itself – and improved environmental outcomes.
It’s often misunderstood
Density and overcrowding aren’t the same thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean high rise, and it certainly shouldn’t mean ghetto.
High-quality medium-density living can feel green and open, residents can enjoy privacy and safety and a neighbourhood’s desirability and value can be in balance with diversity and equity.
Bad examples help no one
We need to understand high-quality medium-density and its benefits to be open to it. When seeing is believing, the stakes are high to get it right.
Unrelenting vigilance against bad precedents is required. These fuel resistance against higher-than-we’re-used-to density, and the potential for a neighbourhood to reach its full potential becomes thwarted.
Most disappointingly, the bad versions result in poor wellbeing outcomes for the residents of those homes. This is inequity.
The team involved with facilitation, design and delivery needs to actively educate and upskill itself, understanding what makes medium density work and what undermines its success.
Encourage community buy-in
We can help community buy-in over time with positive messaging and good precedents offered alongside meaningful engagement in the design and development process. Nudging towards higher densities helps it feel less scary – starting with small sites, staging development to build up to the big stuff.
Frustratingly hard to do at scale
Many of our district plans aren’t geared for medium density, and engineering codes of practice are full of standard details that just don’t fit.
Rules around minimum lot sizes, maximum numbers of units accessed by laneways and requirements for privately held communal open space in developments that don’t really need it are not helpful. There to preserve privacy, open space and suburban character, they work to undermine variety, walkability and other good outcomes medium density can deliver.
Avoiding terrible outcomes isn’t the same as achieving good ones. The results instead are homogeneous streetscapes, wasteful use of land, limited diversity in house typologies, car dependency and extra cost either to the developer or on the price tag of the house. This all contributes to monocultural neighbourhoods when what we need is the opposite.
As our district plans go through their update process throughout the motu, my hope is that new residential rules don’t just allow but encourage higher densities where it makes sense to use our land more efficiently.
Unique design and delivery challenges
Even when the rules are on your side, medium-density development comes with unique design and delivery challenges. We need to be place-based about it and insist on good design at all scales. Everything in context – liveability balanced with compact size, community needs balanced with private ones, architecture that varies but is cohesive, landscape with amenity and ecological value.
Collaboration critical to success
It can be both complex and complicated. Collaboration across disciplines and between the public and private sector is critical to success. When all parties involved realise this, not only is the process smooth running and enjoyable, but the built outcome is a better one.
Doing density well
Luckily, Kiwis relish a challenge, and the opportunities to improve wellbeing for both planet and people make the hard mahi worthwhile.
Vary house typologies
Medium density can – and should – be achieved with a variety of house typologies to opportunities to facilitate diversity of community. It can also mean people able to live in the same neighbourhood longer by transitioning through typologies, strengthening community and sense of belonging.
Vital to this is the ability to secure finance for something other than stand-alone homes, especially for first-home buyers – a major blocker in the past but slowly improving.
Consider amenities as infrastructure
Streets and parks associated with compact urban development have crucial roles in stormwater management, biodiversity, access to nature, social interaction, play and active mobility.
In a medium-density context, amenity is infrastructure and required up front – as unquestionable in its delivery as water and power. While there’s a significant cost outlay, the city could ultimately make money with more ratepayers in a consolidated area.
Everything close to home
Doing density well means delivering it with mixed-use development and creating opportunities to leave the car behind. Having more homes near and within our town centres is key to their vitality. Critical mass of population can also mean thriving local business and more-viable community facilities in our suburbs.
Ensuring everything a person needs to live well is close to their home, and associating density with irresistibly safe, enjoyable public open spaces and pedestrian and cycle networks, leads to good social, environmental and economic outcomes.
Diversity of housing for better future
Lower-density living suits many people and has a place in the overall diversity of homes that we need. However, if we’re to address issues like our carbon emissions, mental health, housing affordability and the regeneration of our town centres, it cannot be all there is or all there continues to be.
High-quality, highly liveable compact urban living should be a common goal – it’s for a common good.
Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.