The Recipe for Unlivable Cities in New Zealand


The Auckland Council’s great vision is to make Auckland one of the world’s most livable cities. Yet the outcome of its currently proposed plans will be a city which is second best for most Aucklanders.

Some 60% to 80% of residents of New World cities state a clear preference for a single family home with its own backyard. In Victoria state, where Melbourne is located, 70% of the population, for example, preferred a single family home according to one government study. There have been similar findings from US based groups like the National Association of Realtors.

Yet even when this is acknowledged, many in the media, taking their clue from planners and urban theorists, seek to change this reality.  The May 9 issue of the NZ Herald carried a story titled “The Dying Backyard Dream” tells us “Many Auckland suburbs will become home to high-rise apartment blocks with the quarter acre dream (1,000 sq m) reserved for the privileged few.”

This fairly represents the intended outcomes of Council’s Spatial Plan as outlined in the discussion paper “Auckland Unleashed”.  But if this new vision is realized how can Auckland be a “liveable city” for all those residents who are unable to realize their preference for a low-density suburban home? Instead, they must “learn to accept” life in “terrace houses, duplexes, courtyard houses, maisonettes, and 4 -5 storey apartment buildings”.

When working-class and middle-class households find they are priced out of the market for the housing of their choice, they will simply move to some other location, here or overseas. This has long been the case with British migrants to places like New Zealand and now people from China and the diaspora countries, currently the largest source of new immigrants.

Yet these households provide the core labour force for the productive sectors, and for the manufacturing sector in particular. For some reason engineers and scientists tend to place more emphasis on home life and work life balance than financiers, and other members of the “creative classes”. (i.e. those who are creative with other people’s money). Hence, in the Bay Area, engineers and scientists gravitated to suburban Silicon Valley while the “creative classes” gravitated to downtown San Francisco.

The New Geography team have documented the recent changes in the diverse states of the U.S. using the data from the 2010 U.S. Census. Their findings deserve careful study if we want to provide livable cities for the mass of New Zealanders, rather than for a wealthy elite.  In the U.S., according to the most recent Census, middle class people and companies have moved to Texas and the Southeast, because these areas are business-friendly, have low housing costs, reasonable taxation, and regulatory environments that encourage industrial expansion.

This suggests it may be time to propose urban visions that are more humane for the vast majority by rejecting intensification and concentration in favor of the more adaptable and resilient environment of more dispersed cities and suburbs.  A key advantage of smaller dispersed cities such as Raleigh, Austin, San Antonio and Indianapolis, is their more affordable housing means up to four out of five households can afford their preference for a suburban house with a backyard.

The densifiers insist that dispersal increases commuting times and yet the average commute in low-density urban areas like Salt Lake City and Kansas City is slightly above twenty minutes. (Aucklanders should be so lucky).  If the aim is economic growth and job creation, the transport system must provide genuine mobility throughout the entire labour market of the metropolitan area, not just to the central business district.

Auckland’s Spatial Planners should take note of this recent research, and Christchurch leaders should seize the opportunity to be the Number One City in New Zealand if they don’t.
A major source of evidence in support of Unleashing Auckland is the ARC’s “Future Housing Demand Study” which assumes that Auckland’s density must increase to develop a healthy and growing urban economy. Unfortunately these assumptions are not supported by any evidence from the rest of the New World. In fact, forced densification is as often as not a   recipe for failure.

The Auckland urban area is already the second densest in the New World and the street network was never designed to cope with such high densities. Rather than reducing congestion, doubling the density on a given street increases the vehicle trips on that street by at least 70 – 90%. How can such densification reduce congestion?

These surveys of housing preference also tell us that the growing number of smaller households will not NEED three bedrooms, and hence will not prefer them. Such inferences ignore the growth in the spatial demands of home occupations, home arts and crafts, telecommuting, and the need for spare rooms to accommodate visiting friends and relatives – not to mention a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff. Even single people will buy a three bedroom house to guarantee long term salability and value. The rooms soon fill it up.

Aging couples are presumed to want to be rid of their backyard “burden”. Yet we are a nation of gardeners, and retirees are some of the keenest gardeners of all. It’s a healthy hobby.

The Wellington Regional Strategy Report also assumes the need for intensification, and also presumes “need” determines “preference” as in:

The eventual decrease in two-parent families will have implications in terms of reducing demand for larger dwellings on larger sections, resulting in a surplus of this stock.

So larger dwellings must be getting cheaper. Sorry, they are not.

The report also presumes that ordinary folk just don’t know what they are doing when they make their choices. Researchers find that people actually make their trade-offs very well – especially the trade-off between travel times and distances, and price and amenity.

Evidently, the early development of Silicon Valley was a dreadful error because“ … having centrally located and compact form of residential development provide greater benefits to the city than lower density forms.” But what would those scientists and engineers know? They built the world’s premier technology region in the suburbs, just as had been done a half century earlier in Los Angeles or in scores of other tech belts scattered from Austin, TX to the outer rings of London, Paris and Tokyo.

The report also claims a “large proportion of retirees are currently moving to Kapiti Coast, which indicates there is an insufficient housing supply in other locations to meet their needs.” Maybe these retirees have actually chosen to live on the Kapiti Coast, an area of smaller, low density development sixty kilometers from Wellington, because they prefer it. Many people would share their choice. Similarly, who speaks for the children who lose the freedom to enjoy spontaneous outdoor play, and to benefit from a free-ranging life?

There is nothing wrong with medium and high-density living for those who make a free choice within a functioning and affordable market. Councils should be maximizing our freedom to choose by focusing on general affordability. They must start by reducing the cost of land by freeing up supply.

Owen McShane is Director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies, New Zealand.

Photo by Pat Scullion

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Think beyond the functionalist perspective...

You said Kansas City has a low commute time and you praised how wonderful that is.
-I am from Philadelphia, but have gone to school in Kansas City for 3 years so far. Your portrayal is a little off. KC has very low commuting times, Yes. The average commuting time is 17 minutes, but that is 17 minutes roughly equaling out to 17 miles of driving. so the average person spends about 1.5 gallons of gas (roughly 5.7 liters) just to go to work everyday. This is very bad for the environment, but it also makes Kansas City pretty much suck! Everyone who I go to school w/ in Kansas City would NEVER want to live in the city. They hate it because the only way to get around in the city is via car. Everything is so far apart that you have to drive for everything and that is why many people in Kansas City are trying to make the city stop the suburban style development. Kansas City also is hyper-segregated (meaning if you are in a white neighborhood you will basically see a bunch of huge houses and ONLY white people and if you are in a racial minority neighborhood you will basically see a very run-down area and only African Americans or Hispanic folks. Why is this? Because when Kansas City (and basically all the rest of the country suburbanized (as you suggest Auckland should)) they left behind anyone who couldn't afford to move out of the city and now the city has very little tax revenue and lots of expenses because most of the people in the city are low income.

Another thing: My girlfriend is at school in Auckland and she believes that the people are very friendly and that there is a lot more community than here in America. Don't look at the numbers in the US and say how great it is or that suburban communities will get you a sense of community. In America most people live in sprawling suburbs. Most people also believe that there is an extreme lack of community. I can guarantee you that if New Zealand becomes more and more suburbanized that your country will begin to lose touch with your fellow countrymen. In America I have lived all across the country I can say from experience that 80-90% of people do not even know who their neighbor is in the newer suburbs.

good points, but-

Mr. McShane makes a compelling argument, but I would like to challenge him on two points:

1) Where does environmental and energy responsibility fit into this? Encouraging suburban growth only reinforces dependence on a car culture that relies on Middle Eastern oil. And what happens when we have another peak-oil scenario, probably not far off? Does the author feel any need to look past what's cheapest in the near term (i.e. suburban land) to macro issues in the long run? And what about the physical and aesthetic consequences of gobbling up acres upon acres of open space for suburban housing, along with the requisite strip malls and such - especially in a small and beautiful country like NZ? For these reasons, I submit that the suburban living arrangement represents "New World" short-term thinking at its worst. Yes, Mr. McShane - sometimes the cheapest solution is not the best one.

2) Inter-U.S. migration from the northeast (where I live) to areas such as Texas are driven more by unions, high taxes, and an anti-business climate, than a desire for more space. For decades, if not centuries, families have lived very happily in the suburbs of NYC, Boston, Philadelphia, etc., where contrary to popular belief, there is a fine amount of space. Please do not confuse correlation with causality.

Changing Housing Demands

McShane provides incomplete analysis of these issues. Location preferences are changing in ways that increase demand for housing in more accessible, multi-modal neighborhoods (Litman 2009). Communities have many good reasons to support smart growth development reforms.

Yes, surveys indicates that, all else being equal, most households prefer single-family homes, but many will choose more compact housing options (small-lot single-family, or multi-family such as townhouses and condos) for improved accessibility to jobs and services, or financial savings (NAR 2011). For example, a market survey found that Calgary households would shift from single-family suburban homes to urban townhouses if they could save an average of $130 per month (Hunt 2001), a premium comparable in magnitude to the public service cost savings of more compact development (Blais 2010). A U.S. Federal Reserve Board study found that each 10% fuel price increase leads to a 10% decrease in demand for homes in locations with longer average commute relative to locations closer to jobs (Molloy and Shan 2011). This indicates that many households prefer compact housing if their location provided better access (reduced travel time and vehicle costs), and financial savings from more efficient (i.e., cost-based) development and utility fees.

The market segment that prefers large-lot housing (families with children) is a stagnant portion of households; the growth is in young singles and couples, and senior households due to older marriages and longer lifespans, and these segments tend to prefer smaller lot and multi-family housing. During the next two decades many existing large-lot suburban houses will enter the market as Baby Boomers downsize, so the current supply of such housing is sufficient to meet demand for the foreseeable future: most of the growth in demand will be for housing in more compact, multi-modal neighborhoods (Chernikoff and Yoon 2010; ULI 2009).

McShane provides selective and incomplete evidence. For example, yes, commute durations are lower in smaller cities, but within cities more central locations tend to reduce commute times and the total amount of time people spend driving (Cortright 2010). Citing migration from the Northeast to Texas as proof that households prefer sprawl ignores other migrations, for example, from the rural mid-West to coastal cities which demonstrate preference for urban living.

Smart growth provides a number of economic, social and environmental benefits, including infrastructure cost savings, consumer savings, improved accessibility for non-drivers, increased traffic safety and health, habitat preservation (Litman 2006). Many smart growth reforms (reduced and more flexible parking requirements, allowing more housing types, reduced development and utility fees for more compact development, more investment in alternative modes) improve consumer options. There are many reasons that individual consumers and communities should favor smart growth development over continued sprawl.

For information see:

Pamela Blais (2010) "Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl," UBC Press (

Helen Chernikoff and Al Yoon (2010), "Smart Money in Real Estate Is on Smart Growth," ABC News; at

Joe Cortright (2010), "Driven Apart: How Sprawl is Lengthening Our Commutes and Why Misleading Mobility Measures are Making Things Worse," CEOs for Cities (; at

John D. Hunt (2001), “A Stated Preference Analysis of Sensitivities to Elements of Transportation and Urban Form,” Transportation Research Record 1780, TRB (, pp. 76-86; at

Todd Litman (2006), "Understanding Smart Growth Savings," VTPI (; at

Todd Litman (2009), "Where We Want To Be: Home Location Preferences And Their Implications For Smart Growth," Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

Raven Molloy and Hui Shan (2011), "The Effect of Gasoline Prices on Household Location," Federal Reserve Board; at

NAR (2011), 2011 Community Preference Survey: What Americans Are Looking For When Deciding Where To Live, National Association of Realtors; at

Arthur C. Nelson (2009), "The New Urbanity: The Rise of a New America," University of Utah Metropolitan Research Center; summary at Also see The Next $40 Trillion: Texas Trends (

ULI (2009), "Emerging Trends in Real Estate," Urban Land Institute (; at

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (, an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems.

More on changing housing (and amenity) demands

I think the slowing growth of families in the new world and antipodes is pretty well understood. It is certainly cited widely in the drive for smaller residences in more central locations.

We have to be careful of comparisons across borders, but I suspect how this is going to pan out in New Zealand is similar to what will happen elsewhere. For example, recent projections of the New Zealand population by the NZ statistics department suggest that between 2006 and 2026 the number of single person households will grow by 42%, couples households by 54%; one parent plus children households by 12%, and two parent families with children will fall by 10%.

But there's more. If we think about the demographic segments driving the rapid expansion of the couples and singles household numbers, we find that just 10% are young adults (aged 20 to 29). These are the people who typically gravitate to the inner suburbs and city centre. They are generally are starting out on the housing or career ladder, or finishing education, or just hanging out. They probably have not formed family households yet. The market research says access to work, school, or play -- or all three -- is important to them and they are prepared to trade off space in the house to get this.

But they are just a small component of future demand. In some of our cities the projections suggest that this cohort is even going to contract over the next decade or so.

Then there’s the empty nesters, say 50 to 65 years. They make up 28% of our projected couples/singles group. But even more significant is the group we can refer to as early or active retired (say, 65 to 79 years. They make up 46% of our projected singles and couples cohorts. So these two groups are where the bulk of housing growth we have to plan for is coming from.

And the market research suggests some interesting things: these people quite like staying put. They have an attachment to their (suburban) houses and neighbourhoods. Without the kids at home they can make use of a couple of spare rooms for hobbies. They may have friends stay over (remember, these people are a lot more on the go than their parents were at the same age). They may like having the kids and grandkids stay over as well. (I sometimes struggle with that one!)

Whatever, they're not rushing off to the central city to work or play - they can go there when they want to for shows or silver service restaurants, but they don’t have to put up with 24/7 traffic, noise and through-the-wall neighbours to take advantage of the good side of the CBD. And they've got plenty of other stuff to do.

They don’t need public transit to go to work, either, and they can walk to the neighbourhood centre a lot of the time for a beer or a coffee. If transport costs get too high, they may just have to spend more time around the home, in the garden, the workshop, or meeting with friends.

So we may have to find ways to cater for this dominant growth group in their own neighbourhoods. When they want to go somewhere it will be for recreation, social trips, health care maybe, or family events. Not much of that will be by public transport, especially if we continue to focus our PT on the CBD and major employment centres.

If people are going to downsize their housing as they get older, it’s going to happen “close to home”. These are the new challenges that urban intensification will need to face.

As for the older retired, well in New Zealand the the 80+ group make up around 16% of projected growth in couples and singles according to 2026. (They become a bit more imprtant after that.

They may be heading for retirement villages, care communities, and the like, although who knows how fit and active eighty year olds will be in 20 years time. I’m picking that they will be crowding our golf courses among other things.

It’s interesting in New Zealand, at least, that the commercial providers of planned, medium density developments and retirement villages have largely opted for the suburbs and city fringes. They aim to cater for older people close to their home communities. They even design the villages to give the feel of the traditional suburban community (plus nursing care).

Perhaps planners need to learn from them. Its certainly got to be more constructive than projecting our own experience and preferences onto quite different future populations.

More On Changing Housing Demands

Thank you for your comments.

I think you confuse the issue by suggesting that the only two housing options are 10,000 square meter lots and high-rise apartments. The densification you criticize includes a combination of small-lot single-family, townhouses and garden apartments with ground-floor access, and low-rise apartments. That a significant portion of new housing units consists of higher density housing does not eliminate the large existing stock of larger-lot housing.

Your figures indicate that, as here in North America, the portion of households with children is projected to be flat or decline, with most growth in younger adults and seniors groups. This suggests that demand for large-lot single-family will be flat. I think you overly simplify the issue by concluding that all middle-age households and most seniors will want to live in large-lot homes. Some do, but many want to downsize into townhouses and apartments, particularly if such housing is within an attractive, mixed-use community. I therefore agree with you that one of the most important responses to market demands is to develop more compact, mixed-use town centers with diverse housing types (what we call "urban villages") in suburbs. This is one of the key concepts of smart growth.

I disagree that smart growth policies are necessarily harmful to lower-income people or create "unlivable" cities. They can provide substantial savings and benefits that are particularly helpful to physically, economically and socially disadvantaged people. These policies improve livability by increasing non-drivers' accessibility, by reducing household transport costs, by improving walking and cycling conditions and the quality of the public realm, and by increasing public fitness and health.

I agree that the planned, private developments demonstrate the value of good planning and design. Smart growth public policies, which encourage compact, mixed, multi-modal development, are the way for existing communities with fragmented property ownership to reap these benefits.

High quality public transit (rail or bus rapid transit) plays an important role in such development. It provides a catalyst for those compact, mixed-use, walkable suburban town centers. Residents of such transit-oriented communities tend to own fewer vehicles, drive less and rely more on alternative modes (walking, cycling and public transit) than they would in automobile-dependent locations. This provides substantial savings and benefits.

Many current development policies (generous minimum parking requirements, restrictions on compact multi-family housing, under-investments in walking, cycling and public transit) are based on outdated assumptions that everybody wants to live in large-lot homes in automobile-dependent suburbs. Reforming these policies allows consumers to choose the housing options that best meet their needs.

For more information see:

Pamela Blais (2010) "Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl," UBC Press (

Todd Litman (2006), "Smart Growth Policy Reforms," Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

Todd Litman (2009), "Where We Want To Be: Home Location Preferences And Their Implications For Smart Growth," Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

SGN (2002 and 2004), "Getting To Smart Growth: 100 Policies for Implementation," and "Getting to Smart Growth II: 100 More Policies for Implementation," Smart Growth Network ( and International City/County Management Association (

USEPA (2009), "Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Urban and Suburban Zoning Codes," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (; at

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (, an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems.

Even more on changing housing demands

No, Todd, I don't think I was confused, simply writing about change at the margins. But I do reject an over-simplified approach in planning that uses an apparent reduction in average household size to promote a compact, centralised city agenda.

My point is that there are diverse types and preferences among those smaller households - one size will not fit all. And, of course, I was generalising. We do know that there is diversity already in the dominant stock of single family households and, yes, we do have families living in low rise apartments or, more commoly, terraces; some as a result of gentrification, others because they are caught in an affordablity trap, and so on. And we also have a large number of two personm households who still favour their detached home and garden in the suburbs.

I am not sure that I was critcising smart growth, either. It's where we do it that counts, and I think we might just about agree that in the future a lot more needs to take place in the suburbs. I would go further, over the urban edge and into exurbia. Greenfield sites lend themselves to smart growth.

The trick may well then be to create green transport corridors that tie together polycentric cities, cater for modal diversity, including forms and options that may be quite different to the fixed transit we are familiar with today, have a low environmental impact, enable greater modal choice, and reflect a greater diversity of destinations outside the walkable or bikeable local neighbourhoods.

More On Changing Housing Demands

Yes, it is important to recognize that consumer demands are diverse, and provide appropriate housing and transport options.

Your original blog claims that more compact future development will lead to "unlivable" cities, so I do think you are criticizing smart growth as it is usually defined. I agree that smart growth can include a combination of infill within existing urbanized area and more compact, accessible, mixed, multi-modal development at the urban fringe, creating true poly-centric regions complete communities connected by high quality public transit. That is why I support rail and BRT systems that use stations as catalysts for town centers and urban villages. Exurban development does not usually provide such benefits. According to the most recent research on land use impacts on travel activity (Ewing and Cervero 2010; CARB 2010), regional accessibility has the greatest impact on per capita vehicle travel of any land use factor, indicating that people who live in exurban locations will drive significantly more annual miles, and bear associated costs, compared with living in more central locations.

There are two additional factors that should be considered when evaluating whether more compact development really creates "unlivable" cities and harms lower-income households as your blog claims.

First, we need to determine what portion of consumers' preference for low-density locations reflects the physical attributes of large-lot housing, and what portion reflects associated social factors such as perceived security, status and economic stability. To the degree it is the later, it will be possible to satisfy those demands with more compact, smart growth development.

Second, we need to understand the demand curve for large lots, taking into account time and money costs. Yes, people often say they want large-lot single-family homes, but many are willing to accept more compact alternatives in exchange for significant time and money savings. With better options and more efficient pricing, lower-income households can enjoy savings and benefits not currently available. For example, reduced parking requirements, more diverse housing options (e.g., townhouses and secondary suites), reduced development and utility fees for more compact development, and improved affordable modes (better walking, cycling and public transit services) can benefit any household, but are particularly valued by those with low incomes or members who cannot drive. As a result, smart growth can help achieve social equity objectives.

For information see:

CARB (2010 and 2011), "Impacts of Transportation and Land Use-Related Policies," California Air Resources Board (

Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero (2010), “Travel and the Built Environment: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 76, No. 3, Summer, pp. 265-294; at

Todd Litman (2004c), "Understanding Smart Growth Savings: What We Know About Public Infrastructure and Service Cost Savings," Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (, an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems.