Living differently in a modern city

I’ve often thought, as I’ve looked along wide suburban streets with no people in them, that if we took from the houses all the front lawns or grassy berms, which are virtually unused apart from being mown every week or two, and amalgamated them, we would have far more parks than we have now. Or maybe community food producing spaces like Te Rito Gardens and the food forest we’re developing in Pukerua Bay. That would give us more space to gather as communities, more places for our kids to play together safely, and provide oases of green to break up the monotony of many of our streets.

That’s a big thing for someone trained in landscaping and garden design to say. Getting rid of the inviting front yard, with the welcoming path that leads visitors to the house entrance, and the shrubs that provide a buffer between the house and the road, particularly in a suburban area, really goes against the grain. Waikato Times columnist Nicola Martin discussed different city living in a column a few weeks ago (Kiwis and Nimbyism when it comes to living in high-rise, high-density developments). The thing that struck me the most was her statement that 95 per cent of the people of the Norwegian capital, Olso, live no more than 300 metres from a green space. How many of us can say that?

But, it wouldn’t be easy to convince councils to create more of these green spaces. Grass needs to be mown, gardens need to be weeded, trees and shubs need pruning, and rubbish needs to be picked up. Currently, residents do that for free on their own land or the council’s road berm, and councils would not be keen to ask them to pay for that through their rates if the council became responsible for maintaining many more parks.

This is not just a planning change; it’s a big cultural change. Many of us are still wedded to the quarter acre paradise, our own detached home on a section with room for a vege garden, space to park the boat trailer and both cars, and room for the kids to run around or ride their bikes. However, with land such a large component of the price of a residential section (60 per cent on average across the country and 70 per cent in Auckland) for many of us, that is becoming a luxury we struggle to afford.

But there’s a cost to not having spaces to gather in. Communities like Pukerua Bay, where I have lived for 30 years, expose how what appear to be close communities can be fractured by their structure (in our case, State Highway 1 cutting the village in half) and lack of common spaces. Pukerua Bay has what seems to be a fairly tight community, but once you dig into it, you discover that it is almost entirely based around our local school and kindergarten. At any time, they have 150–200 families with children attending. However, we have more than 700 households in Pukerua Bay. If you don’t have young children, then you aren’t part of that kindy/school community. Once your children leave primary school, that community starts to drift away and all you are left with is some smaller, established friend groups. The only reason I know so many younger families here is because I have stayed involving in running the local junior soccer club for the past 14 years. Without that, I would know virtually none of them.

Loneliness is one of our fastest growing social problems, particularly as society ages, and the way communities are designed to keep people apart will continue to make this a growing problem. We can see how many elderly people, who may have been quite isolated when living in their own self-contained homes, suddenly find themselves part of a community of new friends and acquaintances when they sell up and move to a retirement village. There is a strong cultural urge for privacy in New Zealand pākehā society, and I don’t think the influence of other cultures, particularly Māori and Pacific, has reduced that by much.

We can start to break down this isolating privacy and make a change to closer communities. However, tackling this isn’t something that local councils can do on their own, and we shouldn’t expect them to. The problems don’t belong to them; they belong to all of us, so it’s something we all should be involved in. And the beauty of it is that it can include everyone and anyone — from the youngest children to the oldest people in our communities. Just like a real family.

New schools for northern ward

We need schools in new developments before existing local schools run out of room

As our population grows in Porirua, we’ll need more of the social services we expect in our city. One of them is new schools.

The Plimmerton Farm development will add another 5,000 people to that part of town, which will included a few hundred school-aged children. What schools will they go to? The surrounding primary schools — Plimmerton, St Theresa’s, Pukerua Bay and Paremata — don’t have the room to take another couple of classrooms each without giving up even more space on their grounds.

It takes the Ministry of Education two years from the time it decides to build a school until it hands the keys to the community. And it takes a few years to make the decision to build the school. So, the sooner the community can start to plan for new schools, the better. The Council has a role in this — bringing the community, Ministry of Education and other people together to start the process. So, when the community has grown to a size that it needs a new school, it has one.

Council should push urban intensification

Most of the growth we’re expecting in Porirua is in greenfields developments, however I think we should also be encouraging intensification of existing built-up areas.

When the council was developing its Growth Strategy last year, I told PCC that in a submission on the benefits of intensification versus greenfields development.

If cities can accommodate population growth at higher densities, or within existing urban areas, or both, then you need less greenfield land for new housing. Under the government’s National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity, PCC has to make available enough land for the projected growth. The availability of suitable land is an issue in the Wellington region and is a limit to growth.

Research shows that when density increases beyond a certain level, car use declines in favour of public transport, walking, and cycling. That means fewer car parks needed in commercial areas, and fewer CO2 emissions. Spreading out over greenfields developments increases the number of cars driven and the distance they’re driven, with more CO2 emissions.

If you have surplus infrastructure capacity in urbanised areas, adding more people to these areas makes more efficient use of public urban infrastructure such as the three waters, as well as “soft” infrastructure such as schools and social services.

There is less water runoff than there would be from new roads and paths in new subdivisions, which is an important issue for Porirua, where a lot of the water from new developments will go into the harbour or possibly threaten Taupō Swamp.

There is a greater choice in housing — size, style and cost — and increased security for residents, with greater opportunities for social interaction and support.

It’s also a lot cheaper. According to research from Curtin University, quoted in a presentation to a Planning Institute conference in 2013 comparing infrastructure costs (services, transport & health) for 1,000 dwellings (in $AUD):

  • Infill housing infrastructure costs = $309m
  • Expansion housing infrastructure costs = $653m

That’s more than double the price for new infrastructure in new developments. That alone must be very strong reason for council to favour more compact developments, or encouraging in-fill house in existing built up areas.

Development in already urbanised areas would play to our city’s strengths rather than spreading our resources over an ever-wider territory.

I know it’s not universally popular — not everyone wants more neighbours living closer to them — but I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages of both intensification and its alternatives.

PCC is intending to make intensification easier in the new District Plan, which is great. However, PCC needs to actively encourage intensification. The District Plan can remove barriers and restrictions, but it’s disappointing the Growth Strategy didn’t make intensification the preferred option over greenfields developments (or at least equal to it). It does assume there will be more intensification and I think PCC should look at incentives for people wanting to subdivide that would encourage them. Forget about a level playing field — it should skew the field in favour of higher density housing in existing urban areas.

For instance, the District Plan insists on two off-road car parks for every dwelling larger than 75m2, which is based on an assumption all households have two cars and don’t use other means of transport, e.g. train or bus. This means many subdivided sections will have to provide four off-road carparks, which might mean intensification is not feasible. Is that sensible around public transport hubs? If intensification is going to be encouraged around those hubs, that requirement should be relaxed to also encourage intensification.

Intensification should also be encouraged in new developments. This should be a condition of new developments because many of the benefits of intensification of existing urban areas, especially the social, housing affordability and environmental ones, can come from more intensive new developments. The first stage of Plimmerton Farm is fairly intensive, and PCC should be looking at this as a model for further developments.