Striking a balance with high density housing

Julie-Ann Ross shares her thoughts on  high density housing.

The concept of high density housing tends to induce a mix of extreme responses and it’s easy to understand why. High density housing has a reputation internationally, and more recently here in New Zealand, for increased crime, anti-social behaviour, overcrowding and sub-standard living conditions. That’s a lot of ingrained prejudice towards a concept that, if done right, could be one solution to the housing and affordability crisis in New Zealand.

Some of New Zealand’s early ventures into medium housing have been recognised by the Ministry for the Environment as examples of best practice medium density urban design. However, a report in the New Zealand Herald and the Urban Design Review in November 2019 tells a very different story. It details increased crime that is blamed on poor design features including rear lanes that make it easier for criminals to break in, networks of narrow streets that cause issues for emergency services and overgrown trees that obscure streetlights and make security a challenge.

Internationally, there are thousands of medium and high density housing developments that get a bad rap for falling short. Higher density housing conjures up images of busy cities, with units stacked and packed like sardines, contributing to poor long-term health and well-being. On a visit to Singapore last year, I saw countless rows of identical high-rise apartment buildings with hundreds of occupants. I can’t comment on the overall well-being of those who live there, but I do know these apartments wouldn’t be held up as an exemplar for high density housing.

However, despite higher density’s reputation, I don’t think it should be written off just yet. There are good examples New Zealand developers could follow, such as the Nightingale Housing project in Melbourne. When done well, higher density housing can support better and cheaper public transport; it has been found to encourage stronger community relationships and interactions; it can be more sustainable and affordable; and will go some way to reducing urban sprawl. Urban sprawl cannot continue, and intensification can unlock much needed housing supply.

What the negativity does suggest is that creating a higher density community requires clever design, research, long-term thinking and a commitment to both public and shared spaces to ensure housing is useable, safe and sustainable.

Learning lessons from here and abroad is one way we can create better higher density communities that have a greater chance of success. High density housing must be driven by the desire for healthier outcomes for all New Zealanders. And communities must take the lead, as the developer-driven model can focus far too much on profits and returns for shareholders at the expense of the outcome for occupants.

Not rushing the design phase is of utmost importance, as is researching and understanding the needs of the communities that will be housed in these developments now and into the future.

Ultimately, we need to endeavour to understand the complete life cycle of the development and what is required from the design, materials, location and everything in between to guarantee success. This means architects, architectural designers and developers need to consider a multitude of factors. They need to find out what is happening in the broader community, details of local shops, cafes, transport links and the location of health/community and educational facilities. They must also consider how to ensure there is a mix of users. For denser housing to work well, it needs to be home to young families, professionals and retirees and there needs to be different housing types to cater for individual and group needs. This will enhance the community, decrease isolation and increase neighbourhood satisfaction.

Interestingly, so far the response to our Medium to High Density Housing   Summit (held in April 2020) has been mixed. We recently shared news of our summit on social media and comments included “why would anyone pay for less house?” through to “ask yourself if you were to live in one, how would you like it? Concrete, glass plus more tar-sealing heating up our cities!”. These comments don’t shock us, but they are surprising when we are discussing a possible solution to New Zealand’s biggest housing issues.

I do know that it will be fascinating to explore the ways some of the leading minds in architecture, development and urban planning suggest we create successful high density housing that steers clear of the pitfalls that we have seen abroad and, unfortunately, at home.

Julie-Ann Ross is Chair of the Architectural Designers New Zealand (ADNZ) Board