Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

High life

In a comment on last week's post about the Croxley Mills apartments, David asked why there isn't more high-density housing in New Zealand, even compared to his home town of Darwin:
Do Kiwis just not want to live in city centers, or do they not want to live in high rise blocks, or is there some regulatory intervention happening to make it hard to develop and live in big apartment buildings?
I think that there's no single answer, and also that the situation is changing, especially in Wellington. Regulation may have been an issue a few decades ago, but it doesn't seem to be the case now. It seems to me that if anything, the Wellington City Council has been more than happy to grant consents to buildings that are over the District Plan limits (and if anyone reading this has experience in designing or developing high rises in Wellington and disagrees, I'd be interested to hear otherwise).

Wellington did go through a spate of residential high-rise construction after WWII, leaving a mixed legacy in terms of architectural quality and urban design, but in general there was little in the way of "inner city apartment living" until the late 80s. We still have no really tall residential towers (like the 33-storey block planned for Darwin): of our 50 tallest buildings, only a handful are residential.

So why is that? I think the answer includes geographic, economic, historical and cultural factors. Though Wellington's topography has tended to make it the exception, New Zealand's cities have been surrounded by ample cheap land, so why go to the expense of building up? Unlike Europe or the American East, most of New Zealand's urbanisation has occurred after the advent of the car: with apologies to Oscar Wilde, one could say that New Zealand went from rurality to suburbia without urbanity in between. And culturally, most New Zealanders are descended from ancestors who either lived in kainga or emigrated from Europe, often specifically to escape high-density city life. The "quarter-acre pavlova paradise" is part of Pakeha mythology.

But much of this is changing. Cheap land is no longer the norm, and cheap oil may be over for good. Our cities have been around long enough now to have their own cultures and economies, rather than being rural service centres, and CBDs now have more entertainment than in the post-war generation (why bother living close to town in the days of six o'clock closing?). Our cultural makeup is changing, too, and most NZ apartments are palatial by Hong Kong standards, so perhaps some of the new immigrants can teach us something about compact living.

But I believe our main challenge in the move to higher-density cities is not a dearth of high rises, but a lack of medium-rise (3-6 storey), medium density housing on the city fringes. With the exception of parts of Mt Victoria, The Terrace and Thorndon, Wellington (like most NZ cities) has tended to go straight from CBD to suburbia. We haven't had extensive areas of recognisably urban residential districts, like London's Georgian terraces or New York's brownstones. Attractive, well-designed neighbourhoods at that sort of density are crucial if we're to encourage families (not just young singles and empty-nesters) to live close to the city. The only other living thing that I want in my apartment is cheese, but most people will still want to be close to plants, pets and children, and that's difficult on the 30th storey.

Unfortunately, there's a limit to how much we can increase the density of our inner suburbs without compromising their historic character. Some of the objectors to infill may just be Nimby's worried about diluting their property values, but some of the developers' efforts make no pretense about being about anything other than quick, cheap profit. So if we're to fight urban sprawl, Wellington might need more high-rise apartments in the CBD and Te Aro. And in case you think that I'm a fan of skyscrapers, have a look at these guys!


At 9:19 am, November 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

I'm the skyscraper guy your talking about, lol. Well i'm not as big a skyscraper nut as some on that forum, I try and balance my environmental side with my love of the (tall)urban.
I love your blog by the way, great to read someone who has similar thoguhts to me! A rarity indeed. As a town planning student your comments are indeed refreshing.


At 7:18 pm, November 24, 2005, Blogger David said...

Thanks for the comprehensive reply, Tom. But my home town is Wellington, I just live in Australia.

There is a reasonable population living in the CBD here these days, and it is growing. Even the military help out, with a couple of 10-ish story blocks across the road from me. The question now with the 33 floor block is whether this is going to turn us in to the Gold Coast. I object to Surfers, but mainly because the high rises are strung out along the beach, cast shadow across the beach by mid afternoon, and because of the tacky tourist nature of the place. If we can have a high rise skyline concentrated on our CBD, which sits on a rocky bit of land jutting out in to the harbour but without beaches, then I'm in favour.

I'd be in favour in Wellington, as well, and can't for the life of me see why the rail yards take up a couple of sq km of land when you could cover it with apartment blocks with absolutely brilliant views. All without disturbing anything even remotely heritage related.


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