Auckland is in a perpetual cycle of growth and change, and right now its residents are demanding more variety in housing options. How will the city keep up?
Life is a complex set of calculations – who we spend our time with, where we decide to live, what we do for work, how we get around – and as our lives change, so too do these calculations.
That has certainly been the case for Eli Rivera. In 2009, she moved into a rental apartment with her partner, but after a few years, she says, “we eventually got to that stage of life when we thought we probably needed to sort ourselves out”. So in 2015, they purchased an apartment in the same building.
“We loved Kingsland and we loved the building. It was perfect for a young couple with no kids, and it’s still perfect for a not-so-young couple with two young kids. But as the kids get older we’ve realised we need more space, especially after the August lockdown.”
Those life calculations become more complex when you decide to move to another area. Rivera says the ideal scenario is “to stay in Kingsland and keep the kids in the same school, to keep the commutes the same”. So now they’ve decided to look for a townhouse.
The family doesn’t need a big lawn and doesn’t want the hassle of maintaining a garden, but they have options. For Megan Tyler, Auckland Council’s chief of strategy, that was exactly what the council hoped to provide when they released the Auckland Unitary Plan in 2016 – to open up more of the city to higher-density housing, and to give Aucklanders more housing choices in the process.
The house always wins
Tyler grew up in West Auckland and now lives a bit closer to the city centre, in the fast-growing suburb of Point Chevalier. She has worked in planning and strategy roles in local government for over 20 years and, in her eyes, the most obvious change to the city over that time is the variety of housing that’s now available.
“You have really small apartments, really big apartments, terraced houses. More choice means Auckland becomes a city where people are comfortable, they enjoy living here and they have opportunities.
”Affordability is a cloud that still hangs over the city, just as it does in most other popular international cities, but providing more options at different price points is an important part of the process to improve that, Tyler says.
The long and the short of it
Despite causing significant disruption to Aucklanders’ lives, Tyler doesn’t believe the interruptive force of Covid-19 will change much in terms of the city’s long-term population growth. As Mark Ritson wrote recently, “the boring brown line of continuity is not necessarily flat”. Ecommerce, cinema attendance, searches for men’s suits and Zoom’s stock price are all back on their pre-pandemic trajectories in the UK and US.
Similarly, despite the Covid blip, Auckland’s population is still expected to reach two million in a couple of decades. And the “big, complex, compounding issues” we’re facing, like climate change, water, affordability and infrastructure, not to mention central government issues like education and health, aren’t likely to be resolved quickly. And so for Auckland Council, the work is ongoing.
“You have to plan now for a long-term future, even though you don’t know what it is. And you might not always get it right, but having a clear direction enables decisions to be made on what Auckland needs to be for its people. Not just those who are here now, but those who will live here in the future.”
Public transport patronage was also tracking way above predictions before Covid derailed everything. Tyler expects that too will soon revert back to its previous trajectory.
“People might say, “Why would you invest in that now when everyone’s working from home?” But now is the time to go hard on that. We want more people to be in a position to use public transport because it takes them to the places they want to go.”
Providing a fast, reliable and affordable public transport network is the best way to increase use, just as providing better, safer cycleways and good cycling infrastructure is the best way to increase the number of bikes on our roads. Induced demand works for new lanes on motorways just as it does for other forms of transport, but all of this requires investment and, in many cases, a change of priorities.
Rivera is lucky enough to live and work in Kingsland and while she still drives a car for school drop-offs, she would consider buying a cargo e-bike if there were separated cycleways. “If I had one of those I could probably take the kids to school and get to work in half the time,” she says.
Jules Older lives with his wife Effen in a Mount Albert apartment building consisting of 32 one-and two-bedroom rental units. The dual citizens of Aotearoa and the US moved to Auckland from San Francisco in August 2020 in response to the cocktail of “Trump, Covid and climate-change-related forest fires”, and he says it was one of the best decisions they’ve ever made.
In addition to San Francisco, Older has lived in rural Vermont, urban New York and coastal Dunedin. Despite their disparity, he says, one similarity all these places share is that plenty of residents complain that their city doesn’t work.
“That’s universal. But in my experience Auckland works very well.”
He does worry about the continuing expansion on the fringes and the fact you could “probably travel across three small European countries” in the time it takes for some people to get to work, but the “allergic reaction” many New Zealanders seemed to have to apartment living in the past is nowhere near as severe now.
“That’s definitely changing and it’s changing a lot faster than expected. Well-designed, well-maintained buildings – like the one we live in – are taking the stigma out of it.”
It’s also changing because it’s more convenient, more interesting and, in many cases, more affordable to live in an apartment in a central suburb.
Tyler thinks there will be even greater demand for high-density housing from young people and immigrants in the coming years. And rather than it all happening on the outskirts, a lot more of it is likely to happen right in the heart of things: the Council’s proposal to rezone homes in some of Auckland’s special character areas means areas which are close to transport, recreation, jobs and shopping will also have more and better housing options.
With a bus stop on their doorstep, a train station up the road and no parking on site, Older says they just share one car with their daughter who lives nearby. Caution around Covid has reduced their public transport usage (and their interaction with the city), but he sees that as a blip – and while the self-proclaimed do-gooder knows public transport reduces his environmental impact, using it is mostly down to the fact that it’s reliable, easy and, thanks to their Gold Cards, free.
All together now
When you live in a smaller home, public spaces, common spaces and “third places” – settings for socialising and recreation outside of homes and workplaces – become even more important, both Rivera and Older agree.
Rivera’s family spends a lot of time at Nixon Park and their current apartment has a shared pool. For Older, the communal space on the fifth floor of their building is available to all residents and makes their apartment feel a lot bigger.
“One of the things I love about apartment living is that you have a built-in community,” Older says.
Rivera says it feels like Auckland is moving past its awkward teenage phase and into adulthood and one of the main benefits of that transition for her is the maturing of the food scene – as a California native who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, she’s especially excited about the current rise in good, authentic Mexican options.
From the dumpling houses to the Vietnamese restaurants to the bakery next door, Older also loves the variety of food in Mount Albert – and loves that it’s all within walking distance.
Being a person of colour and having kids of colour, Rivera appreciates the multiculturalism of Auckland in other ways, too – whether it’s the focus on te reo Māori at her son’s school or the range of ethnicities in their classroom.
NIMBYs tend to get a lot of attention with their impassioned “pull up the drawbridge”-style reactions to proposed changes to the city. But Rivera’s outlook exudes big YIMBY energy. “I’ve lived in the city for so long that I’m not afraid of buildings going up – I actually get excited about it.”
When a new building went up alongside her family’s apartment recently, they were prepared for it. “it offers some good people watching opportunities,” she laughs, taking care to confirm that she doesn’t own any binoculars.
Tragedy of the commons
Despite generally good intentions, humans are reasonably selfish, short-term creatures – and organisations like councils often need to work hard to override our selfish, short term impulses (and to convince us that they’re making the right calls on our behalf).
Tyler acknowledges that there are a range of views as to whether Auckland Council is on the right track and “whether the decisions being made will take us further, push us back or keep us standing still”. But she says that the clear political direction since Auckland Council’s inception in 2010 has allowed them to make the necessary decisions to try and create a quality, accessible city.
“I genuinely welcome all views and I welcome challenges on the work that council does. All change is difficult and I understand and respect those views, but I would unashamedly continue to look wider and more long-term than maybe some sectors or individuals, which may be looking at themselves or their areas of interest. We need to think about generations that aren’t here yet and about the kind of place we want Auckland to be.”
The requirements of a council under the Local Government Act are about the four wellbeings: environmental, cultural, economic and social. The hard financial numbers are easier to measure – and to criticise – but increasingly, this holistic view is what Tyler says Auckland Council’s decisions are based on. And when you realise how decisions made a long time ago are being felt now, it becomes easier to understand why major public projects like the City Rail Link or the Central Interceptor are so important.
Adapt or die
Cities are complex organisms – “always moving and shifting”, Tyler says. Some cities dealt with their intensification issues over 100 years ago, before personal cars and inefficient suburban sprawl began their ascent. For Auckland, we’re a bit late to the game, but it’s happening now. Unwinding some of those earlier decisions and changing the culture takes time and creates tension, but she’s confident Auckland can tick all four of those wellbeing boxes in the future if we have a bit more aspiration.
“I will always remain positive about Auckland. It’s an amazing city and we can all see the improvements that have been made already. But in the next decade or so, the question Auckland has to ask itself is are we going for it or not?”
For her, that’s a much easier calculation.