How Auckland’s confronting the bubble: from an urban planning perspective

When asked about the Auckland planning landscape, it’s usually closely followed by “when will the city’s ‘bubble’ burst?”

First, it’s important to recognise the major factors impacting and influencing growth in the city.

Auckland has become increasingly urban and dynamic, and with a life of its own the city is difficult to comprehend, constrain or shape. Auckland now stretches to Warkworth (some 60km to the north), and a similar distance to Pokeno in the south. Combined with a population of almost 1.7 million, this not only makes travelling hard but puts pressure on everything else.

The current housing shortfall is projected at 25,000 dwellings, with Auckland needing 14,000 dwellings per year just to keep up with population growth (around 30,000 per annum). The infrastructure shortfall to facilitate this growth is expected to fall anywhere between $7-15 billion. Ironically, as the city grows, the added urban amenities and increased job opportunities attract more residents resulting in induced demand.

How do you plan and design in such a pressured and continually evolving environment?

Effecting change on any city of scale is hard and takes time. The implementation of the Auckland Unitary Plan has been dramatic and profoundly impacted the city’s psyche. It’s changed the planning perception from restricting development to not only enable it, but facilitate it. The plan reduces the provisions for vehicles and provides far greater flexibility in deliverability.

An unanticipated impact of the plan is that while (like all zoning) it gives certainty to developers and infrastructure engineers as to potential outcomes, the inflationary impact on land values can undermine the viability to deliver the outcomes the zones seek. Coupled with relatively high construction prices, this has made intensive development somewhat risky.

While significant development value has been discussed by Council, the uptake is not at the forecasted levels, and housing has become increasingly unaffordable. What we can learn from Auckland is that less is more – lower baseline thresholds for zones, offset by simpler plans with a clear focus on enabling intensive development in key locations. This enables targeted infrastructure spending and value-capture opportunities which are critical to help meet the capital investment required.

In order to create ‘added value’, quality urban design has become increasingly important, specifically the cornerstone concept of ‘placemaking’. This concept suggests that creating places which are physically distinct and have their own identity through built form or landscape attributes, can shape additional value.

As Auckland seeks to intensify within its urban boundaries, it will not occur at anticipated rates. The opportunity to shape and reinforce edges between neighbourhoods to create added value and increased provision is almost impossible to create. Development at the edge (Greenfields) becomes the only viable growth option for the city. Attempts to deliver desirable Greenfields to date have been ineffectual or counter-productive. However, Greenfield development done well presents a credible and desirable pathway for Auckland (and other urban centres).

The recent announcement of ‘new towns’ by Minister Phil Twyford, the evolution of the Urban Development Authority legislation by the National Government, and moves by planners towards value-add and value-capture planning strategies point to better, more innovative thinking and bode well for the future.

While Auckland continues to confront the challenges of its own growth, other cities and towns around New Zealand should take note of the relative successes and failures the city has experienced. Start shaping planning strategies that create value for residents, enable inherent affordability and most importantly, shape places that are distinct and attractive in their own right.