Auckland, New Zealand's Housing Crisis

Housing Intensification – Friend or Foe?

During a conversation this morning with a senior New Zealand police officer, the topic of housing security arose. He highlighted many issues, one of which is the increasing frequency of teenagers from reasonable neighbourhoods causing trouble in public spaces, misusing their vehicles, and showing a general disregard for authority – a problem often unbeknownst to their presumed affluent parents. This led me to ponder the impact of our residential environments on societal health and behaviours.

The old property investment adage, ‘buy the worst house on the best street’, still holds some truth. However, it does not entirely shield us from societal issues like bored, mischievous youths. This raises the question: can we design our homes and communities to be safer and healthier?

The challenge becomes more complex when we consider housing intensification. A recent UK government-funded study illuminated the potential pitfalls of this approach, showing that cramming as many homes into as small an area as possible often does more harm than good.

In my observation, only about 20% of the new housing developments over the last decade have successfully balanced medium to high-density housing with adequate privacy, recreational space, and basic amenities. One significant casualty of housing intensification is often sufficient off-street parking, forcing residents to walk long distances from their cars to their homes, a journey made even more arduous in bad weather. The lack of recreational areas, parks, local stores, and adequate public transport leads me to ask: are we creating communities or just housing estates? Furthermore, when we pack these houses so close together, the fire risk to neighbouring properties undoubtedly increases. If you’ve ever seen how quickly a timber-framed house fire engulfs itself, you’ll know this is a significant risk that our planners should not overlook.

You could also argue that many are paying first class airfares for economy class seats.

Noise pollution and disputes among neighbours also impact mental health. Surprisingly, our planning policies might be exacerbating a problem that some governments are spending billions to solve.

Consider air travel as an analogy. Who enjoys the discomfort of a long-haul economy flight? Similarly, housing intensification often results in residents feeling ‘packed in like sardines’, leading to stress and diminished quality of life. You could also argue that many are paying first class airfares for economy class seats, such is the cost of building today in most countries.

A friend in Auckland recently expressed concern about his neighbour’s plan to demolish a single-family home and replace it with as many multi-storey units as the council would allow. His worries about his privacy, reduced view, lack of neighbour parking, and property value are all valid concerns in my opinion.

So, who benefits from housing intensification? Is it an appropriate solution for a country like New Zealand, with a relatively small population concentrated in a few densely populated hubs, despite having a landmass comparable to the UK – yet only 7% of the population?

Some might argue that people have no option but to buy these intensified and expensive homes. However, another option could be to buy a better house in a less populated suburb and commute to work. A robust public transportation system could make this feasible, alleviating pressure on densely populated areas like Auckland.

When I lived in the UK, I used to commute up to 2 hours (sometimes more) each way to work. This would be rare in most countries even today. I used various forms of public transport that allowed me to work or read a book to pass the hours away. It was a small sacrifice to live in a really lovely place that I could afford. It was also a life choice that may not suit all, but in my opinion, it was the better choice. So, while housing intensification may appear to be a quick fix for housing crises, we must consider the long-term impacts on societal wellbeing and mental health. We need to think more holistically about our housing strategies, prioritising not just the quantity of homes, but also the quality of life they offer. I truly believe there are much better options available; we just need to see the bigger picture.