New ideas for attractive communities

22:40, Feb 25 2014

Suppose you won Lotto. Wouldn't you love to build a dream house?

For many Kiwis, winning Lotto would seem to be the only way to afford a house, at least in Auckland or Christchurch. We need a new approach.

Last week, the Government announced it was seeking proposals to build up to 750 townhouses and apartments in Christchurch's eastern frame.

It's a bold move designed to bring life into the centre, which is looking increasingly bleak and desolate.

It could work - but would require a big boost, and is only part of a solution to the twin problems of housing affordability and the uncertain future of Christchurch.

The Government is also calling for plans for about 275 "affordable" homes in Hornby. Meanwhile, the Christchurch City Council is backing six medium-density housing projects around Christchurch.


They are part of the curious-sounding Lurp, or Land Use Recovery Plan.

What "affordable" means is debatable: Prices mentioned of between $350,000 and $500,000 are between eight and 10 times an average salary.

Survey group Demographia reckons that to be affordable, homes should cost no more than two or three times the average salary - as they used to in this country and still do in some places, including parts of the United States.

Yes, building costs have risen, but the biggest component is the cost of land, which given New Zealand's abundant supply for a tiny population is patently ridiculous.

Nevertheless, alternative designs can help create more affordable and attractive communities in which to live. Here's what I would do:

Modify zoning laws. They are outmoded. New developments should comprise not just houses, but shops, businesses, and amenities. Build real communities.

Ditch planning regulations. Enforcing a rigid box-ticking approach to housing limits options and stifles creativity. For example, regulations insist on ample space for cars and restrict how far you can build up to a boundary.

Instead, introduce broad goals such as resilience, livability, aesthetics, and energy efficiency.

Build eco-villages. Architects and designers from around the world submitted 58 entries for the Christchurch City Council's Breathe! urban village competition last year (an indication that the council can embrace new ideas). Just one, by an Italian-New Zealand consortium, will go ahead, although nothing has happened yet on the central-city site next to Latimer Square.

Why not give other projects the green light - not just in the central city but on other sites, too?

For more inspiration, look at Earthsong, a co-housing initiative at Waitakere in Auckland; or at other projects by architects and designers in New Zealand and overseas.

Co-housing and cluster housing are popular in Europe and the United States. Designs can be flexible - there is no one fixed plan - but features typically include:

No high fences or boxed-in sections. In a conventional subdivision, developers carve up the land into a series of wide streets, front lawns, and grid-shaped sections. They can look bleak and soulless. Residents wall themselves off from their neighbours behind impregnable-looking fences.

The alternative is to design the community as a whole. Advantages are economic (through economies of scale), social, environmental, and aesthetic.

Efficient use of space. Grassed berms and front lawns serve no practical purpose.

Cluster and co-housing is more like a traditional village. It is theoretically possible to build more dwellings on the same space, although you could use extra space for other purposes instead.

Reduced priority for cars. Instead of insisting that every dwelling has a double garage and space for extra parking, vehicles are parked in one area. They don't dominate.

This makes houses more compact and cheaper.

Shared gardens and landscaping. Everyone gets to enjoy a large garden and grow and harvest fruit and vegetables.

By making landscaping an integral part of the whole development, rather than treating it as an afterthought, the built environment looks more attractive.

Community facilities. Apart from fruit trees and vegetable gardens, these may include tennis courts, swimming pool, and gym, barbecue areas, and a "common house", where everyone can meet up or entertain visitors.

Privacy is important and respected, too.

Mixed safe communities. As the proportion of older people in our society increases, "ageing in place" provides the opportunity for everyone to belong in the community. Buildings are designed to be accessible.

Eco-friendly and energy-efficient design. Incorporating solar technology and reducing the energy demand of housing, together with water management, is just commonsense, saving both dollars and the environment.

Alternative financing. Developing a subdivision as a group, by owning a share in the development, is an interesting alternative.

Short or long-term rental accommodation would appeal to many and could boost income for the community.

Would you like to live in an eco-village?

If enough people say yes, who knows, it might just happen.

The Press