You hear it everywhere: New Zealand cities, especially Auckland, are sprawling out of control and we must all start living closer together. It's not only folklore that density is destiny; it's the official policy of Auckland Council and cities across the country. 'Grown-up' cities like New York are dense, and we must become like them, the story goes.
But this story has problems.
Auckland is already denser than New York, and most American and Australian cities. The 1.6 million people in Manhattan may live cheek-by-jowl, but not the other 20 million inhabiting the wider urban area.
The world's densest cities are either really poor (the top five are in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan), or were built centuries ago when everybody was poor (think London).
As my friend and urban geographer Wendell Cox shows in his Evolving Urban Form series, cities actually get less dense over time. When people get richer they spread out and enjoy the space, mainly because they can afford better transport. Densification policies are against the tide.
Further, New Zealand is so far only about 0.7 per cent urbanised. If you take a drive around our beautiful country, one thing you will not notice is a shortage of farmland.
And expanding cities do not cause traffic jams – quite the opposite. Densification forces more people to drive in the same space, a recipe for congestion. Of course the hope is that everybody will stop driving if only we get dense enough, but the urban geographers who study these things tell us it just ain't true.
What about lifestyle? I am not personally opposed to apartment living. I've lived in six cities and two countries, from a lifestyle block 10 k’s out of Whangarei to an apartment out the back of K Rd. Most of my adulthood has been lived downtown, but I don't want to force it on others.
That's partly thanks to experience. I once moved into a new apartment in Canada and, thinking about street parties in our subdivision years ago, I told my workmates I planned to put a note under my neighbours' doors inviting them over for a wine one night. They told me that was just totally weird. I never met my neighbours except for occasionally passing in the lift. There's something about living closer together that, paradoxically, makes people defend what space they have. I started to understand why the people who study these things report higher levels of depression in apartment blocks.
Yet planners still present the apartment as king, typified by Auckland Council's recent singling out of central suburbs for intensification, to the dismay of long-time residents. All the while, Council refuses to budge on the city's rural-urban boundary, outside which no houses may be built, strangling supply of new land for housing.
We're actually building fewer homes than in 1974, under a supposedly pro-development government. The resultant housing squeeze has, according to the Salvation Army, forced 38,000 residents out of Auckland over six years.
It's ridiculous, but let me finish with a prediction.
Cars will get even better in the next few decades than we've ever imagined. They will be electric, self-driving, on-demand, and shared, meaning they'll be more like driverless taxis than something you have to necessarily own.
How will people respond to these developments? Exactly how Londoners responded to the Tube and all people have responded to advances in transport technology: they'll want to live further out, getting more space to themselves for the same commute time.
That is, of course, if the planners let them.
The electorate is already starting to flex its muscles and will be sending a clear message to the UP-starts at the forthcoming election that they really don’t like their out-of-date central planning.