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With increasing density, good design matters

By Lisa Perry, Senior Planner, Baseline Group | Jun 30, 2023

New Zealand is more accustomed to building out, rather than up, and many New Zealanders are not comfortable with medium density in traditionally low-density suburbs, for good reason. Density done poorly can lead to detrimental outcomes on residential amenity and on the wellbeing of society’s least mobile: children, people with disabilities, the poor, and the elderly. Think developments separated from schools and shops by distance or major infrastructure (highways and railways); bulky, unattractive developments that look nothing like the surrounding neighbourhood; developments with poor access to sunlight and green space; developments where buildings dominate.

New Zealand has a lot of space to build out, and Central Government in recognizing our gift of abundant land, has introduced a raft of protective and enabling measures including the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2021 (the Amendment Act). The Amendment Act requires specified local authorities to incorporate Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS) into every relevant residential zone in their District Plan. The MDRS allows the construction of three residential units up to three storeys without needing a resource consent, the aim is to encourage development to go up, not out, protecting our land from urban sprawl. Selwyn District Council (SDC) incorporated the MDRS into their Proposed District Plan in August 2022, and these standards have legal effect.

To encourage “density done well” the Amendment Act includes policies that broadly outline what constitutes “good development” and these must also be incorporated into District Plans. One objective notes urban environments must be well-functioning, while another mentions providing a variety of housing types that respond to a neighbourhood’s planned urban built character. These policies don’t tell local authorities how to make urban environments function well or how to define a neighbourhood’s urban character. These standards provide direction by prescribing bulk and location limits, but it is up to local authorities to make the MDRS work in their communities.

There are some design and character related loose ends for local authorities to tie up including: how the development of individual parcels of land will fit into a neighbourhood’s urban character, how those developments will connect into multimodal travel options, and how to ensure developments are genuinely attractive places for people. These matters are not new, but higher density living makes it more important to get them right.

The groundwork for higher density in New Zealand has been laid, with provisions to enable “density done well”. Density done well provides more homes of greater variety, for more people, that are warmer and drier. Density done well ensures homes are built in the right places so that communities are walkable for young and old, people without cars can catch the bus, and more amenities can flourish with a larger population base to support them. Density done well improves residential amenity and supports the least mobile members of our community to lead independent and healthy lives.

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