Build communities, not just subdivisions

Unless we do something about urban sprawl right now, through better planning, Christchurch will become an even more congested, chaotic and expensive place to live.

Do we really want Christchurch to become another Auckland? We need to think how the city should grow. It will be up to the next city council, in tandem with the Government, to do better.

Sprawl is getting worse. If we carry on building in the same way, eventually Christchurch will spread all over the Canterbury Plains.

Twenty-five years ago, our house in the southwest, towards the base of the Port Hills, was on the city fringe. A few years before that it was farmland. Halswell was definitely rural. To the north, the city stopped at Belfast; to the west, at Yaldhurst. Now new subdivisions are pushing the city's boundaries wider.

Some people will say: So what? Why does it matter? You just have to fly over the Canterbury Plains to see how much space we have. New Zealand has only 4.5 million people, smaller than many overseas cities.

I would argue that it is precisely because of New Zealand's small population that we need to plan our towns and cities better to avoid the perils inherent in unrestrained growth. These are both economic and social.

Auckland, too, is debating whether to concentrate development within existing limits - the wish of Mayor Len Brown - or to let it spread outwards - apparently what the Government wants.

I like many parts of Auckland - its harbour, hills, leafy green streets, mild climate and lively neighbourhoods - but the city has big problems. Housing is severely unaffordable and traffic congestion can be diabolical - the legacy of decades of poor planning.

Christchurch is becoming the same. Let's try to have the best but avoid the worst aspects of New Zealand's largest city.

Even a modest rise in population requires action. People have to live somewhere and now, after the earthquakes, options in Christchurch have become more limited. Yes, we need more houses, but just letting the market decide is not good enough. Ad hoc decision-making is not the answer.

New subdivisions spring up anywhere and they all look much the same - wide streets with wide berms and single-storey houses. This use of land is grossly inefficient. Old-style subdivisions are space-hungry.

The old Town and Country Planning Act sought to create a green belt and protect class 1 soils. With the proliferation of subdivisions, good farming land is lost forever. Which is better? To use the land for housing or for sustainable, long-term economic growth, and for future generations to enjoy?

The second major impact is on infrastructure, especially transport. No consideration is given to where people work or how they get there. New subdivisions require new roads or they put more pressure on existing roads. Congestion in Christchurch is getting worse. Urban growth also stretches other facilities, such as healthcare.

Most new subdivisions look the same as 1950s-style subdivisions, designed for a nuclear family, but society has changed. New Zealand has a shortage of affordable housing designed to cater for everybody. The housing crisis is shaping up to be a major election issue.

There is an alternative: We need to build communities, not just subdivisions.

Here's how:

- Strengthen existing suburbs and communities. Build more places where people can mix and share ideas. Recreation, entertainment, business. Go local. Build new houses, eco-villages and apartments.

- Make housing flexible so people can age in place and still be part of the community. It should be affordable. A more mobile population also requires good rental options.

- Do exactly the same in new locations. Instead of building only houses, build neighbourhoods with centres, schools, shops and places to meet. Technology enables more people to work from home so they don't have to commute.

- Improve transport links, especially public transport such as rail. Canterbury is flat, so this should be a no-brainer, but it just seems too hard for governments.

Architect David Sheppard calls this hub model a "polycentric city". It consists of many independent villages, linked by green corridors. It is how London evolved.

It reminds me of Switzerland and Germany, where smaller towns and villages that have not been overrun by rampant growth still enjoy the countryside.

Creating villages or hubs may sound counter-intuitive as a way to stop sprawl, but fewer people would need to commute and it would build more resilience.

Christchurch has often been called a big country town. As the city grows, it is in danger of losing those qualities that make it special.

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