Where is the leadership for Auckland's high-density living future?

by The Listener / 12 August, 2016
There’s a good reason that home renovation show The Block is a reality TV competition today.
Ngati Whatua’s impressive Whai Rawa housing and marae.
Ngati Whatua’s impressive Whai Rawa housing and marae.


Yesterday The Block-style home renovation would have been just what one’s forebears did in their spare time, only without the drama and team T-shirts. Our time as a “quarter acre paradise” is over, and at least for the average family in our biggest city, houses with decent sections are the stuff of Lotto daydreams.

New Zealanders are urgently having to confront profound and sometimes painful changes in their lifestyle expectations – and as the squabbling in the wake of Auckland’s Unitary Plan proposals once again discloses, our civic and political leaders are not helping to make this process positive.

Given Auckland’s higher-density future, apartment living will become the norm for many. Our leaders must show us what there is to embrace about this – not simply tell us to lump it.

Granted this is not an easy sell.

Ngati Whatua’s impressive Whai Rawa housing and marae.
Ngati Whatua’s impressive Whai Rawa housing and marae.


An anthropological study of New Zealanders by global consulting firm Practica Group found our predominant characteristic as Kiwis is love of the land. Our drive to be outdoors, in our own space and in the wider natural environment, is overarching and quite distinctive from other nationalities’. Australians, by contrast, see the outdoors as a hazardous place.

Our deep regard for the land is underpinned by land-centred Maori culture, to which has been added the immigrant aspiration for uncrowded space and nature.

But what has also been imported is the Englishman’s “My home is my castle” mentality. Bluntly, this is no longer an ethos we can usefully cherish. We have to find new ways to enjoy our outdoors and satisfy both our creative Block-ish urges and our need for privacy in a higher-density environment.

What would help here is some vision. It’s only in recent decades we lived in big houses. The imported trend to McMansions is relatively new. So how can we grow to again enjoy small homes? Our leaders should be selling us on the virtues of lower-maintenance – and low-housework – residences, which allow more time for our beloved outdoor leisure. From being a nation of mortgage slaves, we must begin to imagine a future of more modest mortgages and rents, with more time to explore both our own outdoors and those offshore.

At present, however, all Aucklanders can see is grim yet expensive medium-rise blocks jammed, non-notifiably, up against each other, with few compensatory outdoor spaces and an indifference to aesthetic cohesion.

Yet there are imaginative solutions. At Bastion Point, Ngati Whatua’s Whai Rawa has had success with a long-term lease model, developing 30 medium-density affordable but high-quality homes for hapu members. Designed with flexible spaces for multi-generational living, this welcome initiative is, importantly, centred around a big shared lawn.

Ngati Whatua’s impressive Whai Rawa housing and marae.
Ngati Whatua’s impressive Whai Rawa housing and marae.


We need to be talking more about com­munal gardens – a beloved feature of populous cities such as London and New York. These need not just be parks. Maungaturoto is planting a “food forest”.

We should also acknowledge that while anxiety at the Unitary Plan’s disregard for minimum size rules is not misplaced, for those without families a phase in “shoebox” accommodation can be a perfect staging post. There’s a rise in ingeniously designed micro-homes, some even portable, which councils have been too slow to accommodate.

But every city needs its character and heritage. It’s simply not good enough to be told they’re now unaffordable luxuries. Auckland Council’s rethink of the Unitary Plan’s downgrade of heritage and cultural protection is the right step. The new quick-builds need not be leafless, lifeless people-storage racks.

It doesn’t help that a slew of self-promotionally inclined types have buckled themselves to the process and made unhelpful comments. Auckland Regional Chamber of Commerce chief Michael Barnett said, “Aucklanders are going to have to get over themselves.” Economist Shamubeel Eaqub, campaigning for the Unitary Plan on a corporate website, dismisses those raising character and heritage considerations as “heartless”. He might ask those living in decaying, crime-ridden estates in Britain what mass-produced cheap housing can do to a family’s heart.

When Pete Seeger sang in the 1960s about “little boxes made of ticky-tacky”, he little dreamt that would one day seem aspirational. But unless those charged with carrying out densification can co-opt Aucklanders to make it a positive mission, people will retain an understandably low expectation of little stacked shoeboxes made of ticky-tacky.

WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF APARTMENT LIVING? Email or comment.

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