Ian Munro


3rd International Urban Design Conference – 13 September 2010 – In a highly original take on a very difficult issue, one of the speakers at the 3rd International Urban Design Conference in Canberra last month included New Zealand planner Ian Munro, who wanted to make an “ethical argument” for centres-based residential intensification.

Mr Munro, who manages the Urbanism Plus office, says that despite all best intentions, the centres based policies are failing badly. Where apartments do get built near great transport nodes they tend to be priced for an elite buyer. It could be time to take a cold hard look at what’s going on and get ready for some much tougher decisions. Read this edited transcript for a challenging take on one of planning’s most intransigent problems.

I’m a member of the small – but I guess irritatingly fun – New Zealand contingent. And over the last day or so – while a lot of this conference has been Australia-centric – it’s been quite clear to me that the clear majority of what’s been said is directly relevant to New Zealand’s urban conditions as well. Hopefully this talk, which is based primarily on New Zealand experiences [will show] there’s a reciprocity and you’ll take away some points from this that you might find relevant in your day-to-day work.

We’re all familiar with centre-based intensification or strategies. I’m not proposing to focus on our major CBDs in this talk. I’m really going to be talking more about the lower density, local suburban-type town centres – typified by the one-storey, two-storey type main streets, detached suburban catchments, eight to 15 dwellings to the hectare-type style. And what growth strategies in New Zealand commonly argue for is this incremental-type approach to intensification, largely because we don’t want to upset the locals too much by – heaven forbid – [suggesting] sustainability actually involves changing anything too much.

What these strategies commonly contain is an emphasis on shifting away from detached housing towards terraced units, low-rise apartments – three storeys, maybe four storeys, and some places up to more like five, six storeys – in the bigger suburban centres. I’m very much looking at transition, again for that eight to 15 units a hectare, more like 15 to 40 units per hectare. And certainly I’d agree [with comments made earlier] that 25 is really the bottom-line minimum if we’re serious about walkable, sustainable and self-contained.

You’ll see … lots of retention of the pitched roof, harking back to a domestic kind of dwellings. We don’t want it to be too threatening for people … I think I’ve seen a lot of documents coming out of Australia that have this as well.

Just so you understand my agenda, I’m in the camp that strongly agrees with what I think is the quite overwhelming evidence and support of centre-based intensification and the efficiencies that are available for it. So – as much as what I’m about to say might get a bit critical of what we’re doing to date – I’m actually a fan of it. I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to attack it from some ideological grounding point.

Just a sample from one of New Zealand’s district plans. This is from Christchurch city in the South Island. Blah, blah, blah, all familiar stuff, consolidation, the most sustainable way forward, most efficient, least adverse effects, etc, etc. And I don’t propose to challenge that, I agree with it wholeheartedly. This is just a quick snapshot from the greater Christchurch urban development strategy. Just so you know, it’s the major city of New Zealand’s South Island.

Out to 2040, 60 per cent of new growth is to be accommodated through intensification in nodes and key corridors. And this is another one, North Shore City. This is in the North Island now, one of the jurisdictions in the Auckland region. A bit more ambitious: 65 per cent of growth to 2040 in centres, another 15 per cent in corridors, that’s 80 per cent intensification target here. So we’re certainly not holding back, that’s for sure.

So how are we doing? Well, we might as well start with the Auckland Regional Growth Strategy because it’s simply the oldest one in New Zealand. It encompasses the region which currently comprises Auckland City in the middle, Waitakere City out west, North Shore City and Manukau to the south. In a few months it’s all going to be amalgamated into one big jurisdiction called Auckland City, a so-called Supercentre, or Super Shitty, depending on your point of view on these things. It’s really open to speculation at the moment.

But the point is, it’s been there since 1999, and it didn’t just come out of nowhere in 1999. A lot of the policies and underlying principles were quite well embedded in the years before this. So it’s not entirely new. In the mid-2000s there was a chance to say, “Well, how are we actually going here?” So there was quite a comprehensive review. And one of the conclusions was, “Gee whiz, we’ve done really well at aligning everything to say the right stuff. But somehow it’s just not really happening.” And they used politically careful words like “it’s particularly challenging” which to me is a bit of a code for “we don’t really know what we’re doing as a regional”.

This was again a very familiar story: Although everyone likes the idea of sustainability, it turns out no one actually wants to pay the price in their neighbourhood.

This is what we are meant to get, but don’t

And so where are we going? I’ll show you this too. The plan here for the region is 70 per cent of intensification by 2050, and its nodes and corridors. So 70 per cent of growth to 2050, and that projection was about 1.2 million in 1999, to a shade over about 2 million by 2050.

So what’s actually happening? The target is 70 per cent. Well, as of 2007, 16 per cent of growth was actually going in those identified centres and corridors. A bit of a way to go yet. Fourteen per cent greenfield. The remaining 70 per cent were in other locations, predominantly residential, and all in the middle of suburbs … It was identified quite critically as the worst of both worlds: you get none of the seclusion or open space of a true suburb; you get none of the access to services that you get in the true dense environment.

This is Auckland City’s version of its own strategy, its areas of change. This is its own growth management strategy of 2003. Since superseded by another framework that’s a little bit better. But you see here the usual 800 metre radius circles. Don’t worry about the colours, that’s just an indicator of how run down the infrastructure is, and then how much money it’s going to take to fix, and that all means how much time it’s going to be before you can go there.

But the point is, one would like to start seeing growth intensifying in these area. What’s actually happening? Well, what’s happening is something quite different. Growth’s doing this. This is a very specialised piece of GIS data. What it shows, it maps the variance and property value in streets from the highest value and the lowest value. It’s an indicator of the stability of values. So this bit of red here, it’s not saying that the house costs as much as that bit of red there, it’s saying relativistically there’s very moderate variation between values.

When we get down to the orange and yellow here, what you start seeing is that’s where the greatest value between the cheapest house on the street and the most expensive house on the street. It’s an indicator of people going in, amalgamating titles and seriously intensifying and making big returns based on land value. Quite a different story to this.

And so why might that be the case? Well, one of the issues that we’re starting to see now is we’re beginning to really run into problems with this whole notion of a walkable catchment, and the 800 metre radius circle that they’re all using, and it seems likely to be here as well.

If you’re more of a Swissaholic workman here like me, you’ll probably power round town at about two metres a second, perpetually angry at all the slow people around you. But if you’re a bit more normal – and I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say most of you are – you probably walk more like 1.5 metres a second. If you’re burdened with some shopping bags – because of course the idea of walking to your town centre is you tend to walk back with something unless you eat everything at the supermarket after you buy it – you might walk at more like 1.2 metres a second.

Our less-abled young children, elderly, they tend to ambulate a little bit less, even further, about  1 metre a second. And of course, let’s not forget our friendly cycle brigade. They’re more like 4 metres and more a second, which is a separate debate.

Interesting to think, though, we’ve had a lot of discussion in this conference about our ageing population, about accessibility, inclusive design, etc, etc, and that tells us something about this walkable catchment, because it’s not just some imaginary thing. It was always benchmarked on this idea of a 10 minute more or less type walk. The 800 metre catchment, it assumes you’re walking 1.3 metres from end to end, which is 1.5 metres, and you get a minute to stop at intersections in between, because it’s not a continuous walk, is it?

But if we were talking about a walkable catchment based on 10 minutes for an elderly or disabled population, you’re talking more like 600 metres in 10 minutes maximum, probably more like 500 metres once you take into account all your intersections.

New Zealand is going through this heady phase of arterial road upgrades. We’re often seeing now pedestrian crossing signals with delays of somewhere between a minute and a minute and a half, which has the effect of torpedoing your walkable catchment in many respects. Because, funnily enough, the area of a circle, every doubling of the radius quadruples the area. So the implication is that if we’re thinking about walkable catchments to help us accommodate growth, we really need walkable catchments to be walkable for as much as possible, because that’s where all the fun is. Four hundred metres only gives you 50 hectares. That’s a quarter of what you get at 800 metres.

There’s nothing more exciting than a case study, is there, so let’s do one. This is Auckland’s Regional Growth Strategy again. This is a planned sub-regional centre in Albany. Here’s what it looks like, it’s the greenfield one, should be pretty easy. Let’s see. Well, we can start with our 800 metre circle, fantastic. Two hundred hectares and all that. It’s been identified in regional and council strategies as ideally accommodating about 6000 households to 2040.

When you actually look at what you can actually walk, you’ve already lost a third of that catchment. It’s down to 122 hectares. We don’t tend to put houses on roads either, so we should take all that stuff out. Now we’re down to 75 hectares. We’ve already lost two-thirds of our theoretical growth bonanza. We’ve also given approval to a whole bunch of stuff recently. So now we’re down to 33 hectares.

So just to give you a flavour for what’s happening in this bustling sub-regional centre, we have car-based large format retail, car-based large format retail, car-based large format retail. City car-based large retail office, car-based large format retail. There’s also a bunch of land that’s had development consents approved for, and that one would hope comes about and gets fulfilled. That encouragingly includes 1500 of our 6000 household targets. So now we only need 4500 households, but we’ve only got 23 hectares left.

So we’re now talking about 10 per cent of our original theoretical catchment.

And let’s just see what else has been approved here. This is an interesting site, because this is one of the bits of land that was hoped to be the residential bonanza: no height limit, go for your life, 20-storey tower. What’s been approved there? More car-based large format retail on that site. That was the best and most high value use we could squeeze on there.

We’ve also got a bunch of land that one can’t put residential on even if one wanted to because a mixed-use centre of course has a lot of other things going on. So what one is left with is 14.5 hectares of vacant land that you could put houses on. That’s 7 per cent of that starting 200 hectare catchment. And we’re going to have no trouble getting all this stuff in.

Based on current trends, we know not all of that would be put aside for residential. In fact, not even any of it might be. There’s discussions going on with the local council for yet more, believe it or not, large format car retail. Don’t ask me where the catchment for it is. I think they must be flying in from the South Island for god’s sake to see to them.

Maybe this is necessary…

But the point is, 14.5 hectares, it’s not all going to go for residential. And once we start looking at residential buildings, the problem with people is that they like things like outlook and daylight. And that tends to have some significant implications on the building forms you can actually extend and make sellable, attractive, desirable. Because we’re not just trying to squeeze people in like sardines. The idea is we can promote it as a lifestyle choice that can be compete with the ubiquitous suburban lot. And that means that in reality you’re often only going to get 50 per cent at best residential floor space site coverage.

And of that building, you have circulation space which people don’t tend to live in either.

I’ll just jump to the end instead of going through a bunch of deeply nerdy calculations. But what it means is that even if you were wildly optimistic, it’s hard to see Albany squeezing in more than 4000 households to 2039. That’s a 2000 household shortfall. And that was the easy centre. Existing centres are far more constrained, far harder. So what happens with a growth strategy predicated on not zoning greenfield land because we’re going to get everyone in centres, but falls over to the tune of 30 per cent. What does that do to house prices, when there’s already an increasingly growing lobby of landowners at the fringe bleating against centres-based intensification as being anti-affordable. We’re actually risking giving it to them on a silver plate by undermining our own strategy. So I’d ask some questions about that.

We know it’s not just that either. And so this is quite interesting, and I wouldn’t criticise Adam and Simon’s work. I agree with all their conclusions, but they made that remark about that local shop needing at least about 25 households a hectare. That was again based on getting all of your 400 metre circle, 50 hectares. In reality you’ll probably only have 35 to 40 hectares, which means the actual density suddenly bumps up to more like 30, 35 a hectare.

We know that our market is telling us that, “Hey, these strategies are great but we can’t deliver it”. We’ve now learned that up-zoning land doesn’t actually make development easier. It just makes the land owner have a higher price expectation, and the landowner is very rarely the developer. So the developer gets more price at the end but has to pay more to get in.

We now know that you don’t make more money just because you get more units. We’re setting an observable price curve where beyond a certain density you start losing money per unit. we also know that as development intensity goes upwards, the number of people in your community that can build it dramatically goes downwards. The idea of suburban infill is so popular because pretty much everyone can get capital for it if they’ve got a section to start with. Not very many people in your community can just whip out 10 million bucks and put together some nice intensive development. In New Zealand … pretty much anything over 20 levels is funded by foreign capital.

What we start seeing is something like this. We start from the naïve proposition that as you get more units, hey, you make more money, right. But what we start seeing is something more like this: once you start getting beyond about three levels, suddenly you can’t fit any more parking at grade, so you need to start excavating or building decks, which makes each parking space cost somewhere between 10 and 20 times as much per space. Suddenly you need to get that into account. How do you take that into effect?

And what happens is, instead of it being a very linear thing … you can’t get on top of the efficiencies until you actually start dramatically increasing to more like eight, nine, 10 levels, is what we’re seeing.

The negative part here is that this four, five, six-level stuff here, the hardest to build, is exactly what our strategies say is the ideal way of intensifying some of these key centres. It’s just not plausible.

The governmental factors got to the point where it’s not accepting that this is now becoming an issue of national significance, the failure to actually achieve intensification. The building and construction sector urban taskforce 2009 did a big report and a bunch of case studies, talking to developers. Over half of them said they would not do intensification again. “ Costs, time, risks too high. We’ll go back to suburbia, thanks, and we’ll never come back.”

And so it’s not just as easy as just saying, “Hey, we’ll just chuck a few more levels on top”. It might be more fundamental to saying we have to go from three levels to more like 10 if we’re serious about making this an outcome that we can achieve in a timeframe we’re talking about.

There are some fundamental typology-related thresholds that we need to meet just to get viability. And if we want affordability, that’s on top. That’s a whole other consideration. There’s a real risk that centre-based intensification becomes a high-value niche where every house costs more than a million bucks. Paranoid pipe dream? Well, it’s already happening.

This is an indicative artistic impression of a development that’s being constructed, and another one at North Shore City’s town centre, a place called Milford. This is on an at-grade car park of a shopping centre. No site amalgamation required, no demolition of existing buildings required. This is as easy as it gets for town-centre intensification. Even though it’s only two levels, the neighbourhood was up in arms about it. The developer had a three-storey proposal that actually complied with the height limit, and they reduced it to two levels to shut the locals up. They’re selling at between $1 million and $1.3 million a pop.

And why the hell are we doing centre-based intensification? It was supposed to be a tool about trying to make things more affordable and efficient and sustainable, not about actually endorsing a kind of quasi gentrification.
Very quickly, and another dimension of this problem we’re seeing is public authority itself, and its fragmentary contradictory way of flapping its arms about. Under the NZ Local Government Act 2002, there’s an obligation to take a sustainable development approach. There’s a tool called Development Contributions. It’s not quite as advanced as the system here in Australia, but it goes along the same lines.

Ideally new growth creates demand for infrastructure; they should pay a fair share of the cost for all that infrastructure. New Zealand, I hate to say, is widely misusing those to maximise revenue because local populations like the idea of voting people in who say, “No rates rises”. What we’re seeing is a standardised household unit equivalent being used because it’s easy. Everyone pays the same share of road upgrades, everyone pays the same share of waste water, storm water, et cetera, et cetera.

The difficulty with that of course is that if your household is bigger or less efficient than the average, you basically get a subsidy. If you are smaller than, or more efficient than that standard, you are paying basically a tax. The household unit is based on a typical suburban house: 2.5 people household, 10 vehicle trips a day, all that stuff. Any unit that is more efficient than that is in effect subsidising the infrastructure of less efficient suburbia.

We know, the evidence is quite overwhelming, that apartments and medium-density housing generate less car trips, require less water because they don’t have huge peak bursts of irrigating sections, etc, etc, yet they are required to pay exactly the same as the biggest, fattest three-car garage suburban house on the fringe. We’re actually making a price bat and hitting people over the head with it when they try and do intensification. And we know it’s already hard enough to make it happen.

And so what we’re seeing – and there’s other things going on as well to do with rates, etc, etc, but I don’t have time to go into them in 20 minutes – but what we’re seeing is in many cases, centres based on intensification, we’re actually asking people to behave irrationally in respect of the price signals that public authority has set up. It’s harder for you, it costs you more to go and do the thing the growth strategies are saying you should do.

There’s something really wrong with that. And this is a real kick in the guts for me. This is a lay judge saying, “Hey, there’s a conflict between the idea of free road use and all your consolidation talk, guys”. In fact, it’s like the emperor’s clothes in the fairytale. This to me was deeply offensive, that a lay judge looking at the gaping holes between these strategies for intensification actually says to our profession,

“You guys are living in a fairytale”. There’s really something wrong there. And it’s not even acknowledged in the policy. It’s one thing to say it’s an issue but maybe it’s beyond our jurisdiction. It’s just blissful ignorance. There’s not even a problem with this ongoing free use of roads: everyone can drive wherever they want, whenever they want. Yet, they’ll still choose to suffer a burden of intensification because it’s the right thing to do.

Well, you’ll be pleased to know I’m getting to my conclusions, because I’m sure this is the most depressing thing you’ve heard all conference. Strangely enough, I really enjoy giving this talk. So what does that say about my personality?

Anyway, the point is, what we’re seeing in New Zealand is that the solution for intensification that’s being prepared, sold to and endorsed by communities is demonstrably not working as we see it. It might be something that we can achieve out to 2060, 2070, great. But if so, one then has to adjust and recalibrate where people are going to go in the meantime, which isn’t really happening.

There’s very little discussion, in fact I’d go as far as saying virtually no discussion around plan B. What if we do get 30 per cent shortfall on all these growth centres? We need a play we can switch on like that to keep things moving. Is it more greenfield? Is it more centres? Do we need to somehow make growth around schools something we can switch on? Do we have to shift from a walkable catchment to a cycleable catchment, because we can make them about four times bigger, and you’ll have much more likely probability of getting the land you need to actually make it happen.

And so just to illustrate that, what you typically see are environments like this to start with. You might have a little bit of intensification that’s happened around a little main street or a park. Most of what’s going on is this low density detached suburban stuff. And what we’re seeing are growth strategies that are saying, In 30 years from now, boom, we’re going to get this. Pretty much … drop a bomb on it and rebuild it all, which we know isn’t going to happen. There’s different timeframes, different building stock. Some buildings are near the end of their life, some buildings have just been refurbished and they’ve got another 50, 60 years to go. There’s just no way this is going to happen.

And so one then has to go back and ask the question, saying, “Well, we’re serious about centre-based growth, we’re serious about the benefits it brings of sustainability advantages to the whole community, well, what does that tell us?” Do we just say,” It’s too hard? Let’s just turn it all into greenfield, because the problem’s too much,” or do we think about a different type of logic that says, “Well, maybe we accept that most things in the next 20 or 30 years ain’t going to change much.

Maybe we’ll get a bit of intensification where we can get it. But maybe if we’re serious about getting the catchment up, the density up and supporting local services, maybe there’s a couple of sacrificial lambs or big hits that we just have to accept, because in the interests of sustainability it’s the right thing to do.”

Maybe it’s the wrong thing to do. The point is, I’m not aware of one community in New Zealand that’s been shown any kind of discussion like this to help it make an informed decision on the reality of the issues.

And this is where in my talk I raise the question of the ethical debate. And for me it is an ethical issue for practitioners, because we’re still preparing strategies and pictures and visions like this. We’re still selling these as plausible options when they are demonstrably not. That’s an issue for us as a profession to engage with. We can’t cop out and say, “Oh, but the community didn’t want it.” This is us saying, “Well, it’s not even an option, guys. You can’t go there.”

There are issues with the use of that ubiquitous circle. And again, it’s not a criticism of the stuff Adam and Simon did because it takes a hell of a long time to map detailed isochrones and count these things up. And for illustration purposes, the circle’s usually quite good. But when we’re trying to get into the detail of the numeric side of things, we have to drill a lot deeper, yet the circle is pretty much what we see in every strategy.

I think Auckland City’s current version of its growth strategy – it’s called a Future Planning Framework – I think that makes an attempt to start using isochrones around town centres, but I think there’s a lot more work to go. But the challenge for us, and the risk for me – and I want to come and get your views on it, because naturally you’re a much bigger market than New Zealand is, and it may be more of an issue here – is that as much as professionals we’re struggling to be objective and independent and neutral, there’s a real risk that we undermine ourselves from the go, by being methodologically dogmatic, by applying the wrong tool to start with. The 200 hectare circle, it’s a myth. In reality, one 50 hectares is the most you ever get from the most connected, flat, red light, easy-to-walk area.

Well, as I say, I’m sure the rest of your day will be much more positive and fun than this. But I look forward to any questions you have. Thank you.

Questions from the audience

Question: I was really excited by the idea at the end, that what we’re talking about is a process of change management. And I’d like to hear from people on the panel about that notion of this being a process of change management, that design-led solutions are in fact often the problem; and that starting with communities and values is perhaps a way to mitigate against some of the conflict that we’ve been dealing with. It would be an exciting starting point to pick up on some of those early wins around public transport. So, what do people think about change management –not just about design?

Ian Munro: I really like the point you’re making. For me, one of the best ways to engage a community … is to say, “Right, here are the options, here’s what’s to be looked at. Now, if that’s not right for you, that’s fine. [But] you now have to identify where that road goes.”

I think getting communities … to start having discussions in themselves rather than pretending they can just say, “No, ask someone else,” is a pretty important step.

Question: What about conflict at the local level in regards to the tweaking of a roof line or adding or subtracting storeys, not about the long-term goal which we’re trying to get agreement to and support for?

Answer: I reckon that there’s an issue with the process, in the sense that every project that I work on which is talking about intensification has maybe 10 to 20 people that are against it, and maybe 5000 or 7000 people who say nothing, who are not supporting it – because supporting is a really hard thing to do. And yet we change all of our approaches because of the 10 to 20 people who are against it. I think there’s a real problem with that process, when we give the 10 to 20 people more voice than we give everybody else.

Fundamentally, the idea of democracy is that we place people in leadership positions to lead. I believe, at least in Sydney, we have a lack of leadership on this issue. And I think communicating to people, and educating people about what this issue is about, urban density issues, is important. I think probably the federal government has spent more money on educating people about the resources super profits tax in two weeks than they have spent in the last 20 years on urban issues.

The other thing is about change, is that I believe we’re about to see a tsunami of baby boomers suddenly realise that the house that they are living in does not suit their needs. And very quickly we will have NIMBYs, who have for years been saying, “Not in my back yard, I don’t want this, I don’t want this to occur,” turn into YIMDYs who say, “I want somewhere to live that’s got a lift and I can park my car in the basement.”

Question: Could you please give me an idea of what you think the best implementation method might be to achieve some of these grand objectives?

Answer: I think maybe there’s more scope for a closer interaction between the private and public sectors, and I think achieving some of the stuff that we’re talking about will rely on policy and setting minimum standards

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