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Design Review: Volume 2, Issue 4 (December-January 1949-50)

Urban Development — A condensed reprint of a paper read to the New Zealand Branch, Town Planning Institute, 4th May, 1949

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Urban Development
A condensed reprint of a paper read to the New Zealand Branch, Town Planning Institute, 4th May, 1949,

If the present rates of population growth and house building in Auckland were maintained, the net housing shortage will be overcome within four or five years.

This may be great news to many people but considered in relation to the over-all question of healthy urban development it may be associated with the beginnings of municipal bankruptcy and economic and social decline.

This is a startling paradox!

What are the reasons?

The Urban Drift

New Zealand is now possibly the third most urbanised country in the world. About two thirds of the Dominion population live in cities or towns. In the North Island well over one third of the population lives in the two main centres, Auckland and Wellington. This great concentration has come about in two ways: firstly by an “urban drift” in general from the open country to the towns and secondly by a concurrent shift from the smaller townnships to the larger cities.

These are staggering figures, beating many of the continental urban concentrations after a mere 100 years, and we must ask ourselves whether the form and quality of our urban development is equal to the terrific demands that must necessarily be made on it under these circumstances.

A critical examination of our towns and cities generally shows firstly an inner area (the “old” part) somewhat dilapidated and scruffy with undeveloped and badly developed land, waste land, traffic congestion and yet with a large portion of the area devoted to streets unnecessary for access or for traffic and useless for any other purpose; secondly, the outer area sprawling in an atmosphere neither urban nor rural, neither town nor country where ribbon development, generally of houses, stretches well beyond what should ever be the true urban area.

The impression is clearly one of an incoherent and an ill-defined urban pattern that appears to have few of the truly desirable urban qualities and yet manifests no compensating rural characteristics. On this diseased core we graft more and more fresh building because our population is steadily increasing still. As there seems to be all-round agreement that the population increase in itself is a healthy and desirable feature, we must do something to improve the urban conditions into which are inevitably born about two thirds of the young generation.

There is no doubt that our physical environment influences our human existence and while the town planner directly influences the physical form only, indirectly he inevitably provides, or attempts to provide for a better urban life.

An inner area somewhat dilapidated and scruffy, with undeveloped and badly developed land.

An inner area somewhat dilapidated and scruffy, with undeveloped and badly developed land.

Decline and Decadence of City Centres

So much for the pattern evolved in the past. What of the development of the last few years and that taking place today?

Due to restrictions of wartime and the shortage of the post-war years, about the last 10 years altogether, building development has been confined almost exclusively to housing. Virtually no redevelopment or replacement has taken place, that is, practically all the new building has taken place on newly developed land on the outskirts of the towns where land is supposedly cheaper and all the older and more decadent quarters have been left in use. Consequently, the building industry has been organised to build almost exclusively single, one-storey houses and that accounts for the fast rate of building and the prospect of overtaking the net housing shortage in a few years with which we started our story. (“Net shortage” means the difference between page break the number of “family” or “household” units and that of dwelling units but does not include dwelling units required to replace obsolescent structures.)

The outer area sprawling in an atmosphere neither urban nor rural, where ribbon development stretches well beyond what should ever be the true urban area.

The outer area sprawling in an atmosphere neither urban nor rural, where ribbon development stretches well beyond what should ever be the true urban area.

At the same time it produces further sprawl on the outer fringes of the cities. If this type of development is continued beyond the next five years when the net shortage has been satisfied it would then represent replacement of derelict accommodation but in the wrong place. It would, in fact, cause a shift of large numbers of people annually from the old decadent centres of the cities to the outskirts without any provision for the rehabilitation of the vacated areas. That would seal the doom of our city centres for good. Even today local bodies in the outer areas have reaped a false sense of prosperous growth while in actual fact some of the worst features of our present urban conglomerations are accentuated and exaggerated.

The engineer and economist must judge this sprawling form a great hindrance to satisfactory urban life with their crowded buildings, congested streets, inadequate open spaces and well nigh intolerable expenditure on widely strung out engineering and transport services. From a social point of view also, there is an atmosphere of disintegration, a lack of coherence of definition and meaning.

The qualities we should strive for in urban life are difficult to assess and more difficult still to plan and provide for. The essence of the problem is to concentrate people close enough together to get social integration and urban correlation and still provide adequate room for movement and recreation. Then some spatial sense and order to the whole could well emerge.

The economics of badly sprawling development have become clear but apart from the difficulties and costs of transportation and services, the sheer page 78 monotony of a seemingly endless urban spread cannot fail to depress and to prevent a sense of community. Lewis Mumford in City Development says:

“Ultimately, every well-administered municipality, in order to save itself from bankruptcy and hopeless arrears, must offset the tendency towards suburban growth by taking substantial measures towards its own renovation. Not merely must the municipality discourage such uneconomic growth by resisting premature subdivision, by withholding assent from ill-advised express highways, bridges, or tunnels that open up cheap land outside the municipality's area of control: what is much more important is that it will seek to make the city itself permanently attractive as a human home by slum clearance, large-scale housing, neighbourhood planning, and park development. On any priority schedule for cities, these things come first; and other municipal improvements are acceptable only to the extent that they directly further the movement towards urban rehabilitation.”

New Zealand Conditions

In New Zealand particularly, urban planning involves no decanting of population, no reduction of density, with new towns serving as receptacles of the resultant “overspill” as the English call it. Rather does it involve compaction, filling up and the attainment of an urban entity out of the all too loosely sprawling structure. We are faced with the use of both an urban fence or rural zoning (greenbelts) to prevent sprawl and the positive encouragement to redevelopment and urban rehabilitation in the old parts of the towns. They must go hand in hand and one will be largely ineffective without the other.

Obviously then we cannot continue for ever to concentrate on building up more and more land with single cottages miles from the centre, on constructing miles upon miles of new roads destroying valuable farm and market gardening land, miles upon miles of water and drain pipes, miles upon miles of tram and train tracks; we cannot continue to sink more and more money into even greater fleets of buses—while the very same facilities exist only half-used in the inner parts of the cities. To continue this trend is uneconomical and must lead toward municipal bankruptcy.

Rehabilitation of our central urban areas is the only answer but what are the basic facts and figures supporting such a policy?

We must start investigations immediately because it will take some years to prepare detailed plans and a further time lag will occur before the building industry has readjusted its organisation from small house construction to large scale developments. It is anticipated that by that time the material supply position for cement and steel may be more favourable.

Auckland: A Test Case

Here is shortly summarised the example of Auckland conditions:

In Auckland much of the development during the last ten years has been in outlying areas while more central areas and considerable numbers of unbuilt on lots in fully serviced areas remain unused.

The building industry has been organised to build increasing numbers of dwellings—predominantly single unit houses—until it is, in Auckland, building annually almost twice the number of houses required to house the annual population increase.

Yet on the other side of the ledger we find the following:

The percentage of households comprising either one or two persons is at the least 30% of the total households and is probably considerably more than that.

The last census in Auckland in 1945 showed that 7% of the total number of private dwellings were occupied by a single person only; fully 24% were occupied by two persons (not necessarily related). A further 24% of dwellings housed three persons (not necessarily all a biological family).

No more than 50% of households can be assumed to consist of families with children of school age and under. While no provision is made for small flats for single persons, pensioners, bachelor students, young marrieds, or retired people on a modern hygienic and comfortable standard, there are in fact over 15,000 apartment house and boarding-house dwellers in the City of Auckland alone with well over 20,000 in the whole of the wider metropolitan area.

Altogether it appears that in Auckland at least 40% of the total families are units of one or two persons only, neglecting all those one and two person families living in private dwellings housing three or more people.

Park-like Surroundings

Fuller investigation seems to be required into this question, but at this stage I would be rash enough to make a preliminary estimate in round figures of the living accommodation requirements as follows:
1 person families10%
2 person families30%
3 person families25%
4 person families20%
5 and more person families15%

It will be seen that in the urban area there is a variety of family or household type and size presumably there is room for a variety of type and size of living accommodation. Such variety could cover single unit houses, group houses, terraces and flats with, I think, advantage to the population as a whole.

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The figures show that areas at present ripe for redevelopment, if redeveloped in the most logical way, could accommodate their present inhabitants under vastly improved conditions and in addition provide for the net housing shortage of the city thereby avoiding the further costly outward sprawl described earlier. Such a scheme would involve the building of a number of blocks of flats and the raising of population densities in suitable areas. Does that inevitably present a bad feature?

If for instance, single person and two person households only were housed in flats and units—they could be built in spacious parks with abundance of sunlight and air, recreation areas and tree-shaded walks. And yet, as said above, with a much higher population density than was accommodated on the same area previous to such redevelopment, when buildings were crowded and insanitary.

Higher Densities Not Detrimental

Population densities are not necessarily a measure of the quality of living standards in an area and arbitrarily quoted figures can be misleading.

A few figures taken at random in Auckland show that densities bear no true relation to the quality of the respective living standards.

While for instance the relatively high densities of some decadent areas in Auckland (30 to 70 people per acre) may be considered as the cause of the slum conditions, there are other derelict areas with no more than 25 persons per acre. On the other hand there are up to 300 persons per acre in some of the best modern blocks of flats recently built in Auckland.

Therefore, for future development, net residential densities consistent with our conditions and with satisfactory open development may be:


Single unit houses—up to 20 persons per acre.


Group and terrace housing up to 30 or 40 persons per acre.


Flatted development (3 storey up to 50 or 60 persons per acre.


Flatted development (7 or 8 storey) up to 100 or 120 persons per acre.

Provided areas are planned comprehensively and not as small individual sites, these densities can provide pleasant living conditions through a variety of housing types.

Co-operative Action Needed

The need for and the difficulties of the decadent areas are well known. Where rehabilitation of decadent and near uncontrolled outward spread continues and redevelopment of older areas lags behind, these areas become municipal liabilities, the multiplicity of ownerships and land holdings discourages any attempts by private individuals to carry out any new building development, and in any case, the holdings are usually of such a small area that rebuilding of individual sites is neither economic nor desirable. It seems to be almost universally recognised today that the tasks of rehabilitation and redevelopment of blighted areas cannot be undertaken by private enterprise alone. Only with co-operative action by National and Local page 80 page 81 government can the necessary steps be taken.

One aspect of the overall economics of redevelopment may be illustrated by an example in Auckland where two properties having the same potentialities, and both having at present fundamentally the same services, return in rates,

Area A (old decadent housing)

  • — approx. £70 per annum per acre.

Area B (new flatted development)

  • — approx. £1200 per annum per acre. (on a rating system based upon rental values).

Heading in the Wrong Direction

I have covered very briefly, only some of the background of this aspect of urban planning, but I feel there is no doubt that sound urban growth must involve progressive rebuilding rather than continuously expanding such urban growth. In New Zealand, with almost all our older development in “impermanent” materials and with considerable areas in the larger cities either at, or approaching the stage of their first rebuilding, realisation of that fact is particularly important.

The most imperative demands of a planning scheme in an urban area such as that comprising greater Auckland would be:

1. Designation of desirable population densities for all parts of the urban area based on factors of municipal economics.

2. Analysis of type and size of dwelling units required to meet the housing requireemnts of all sections of the population.

3. Definition of the limits of the urban area based on future expected population.

4. Cessation of all subdivision and development for urban purposes in areas outside the defined boundaries.

5. The correlation of the remainder of the fundamental aspects of urban development; commercial and industrial location, communications, transportation, etc., into a fully considered overall plan.

Essentially, the basic statistical data as to our requirements are available; the necessary legislative powers are available; a housing authority (a Government Department) is already building 25% of all the dwelling units built per year; thus the means of providing for an orderly, efficient and economic urban structure are at our disposal. But we continue heading in the opposite direction.

If it is conceded that a reversal, or at least a partial modification of our present policy is essential, then it must be borne in mind that the first tentative planning on a new approach must precede development by years. This paper was intended, not as an answer in itself to this problem, but was intended to suggest that the information available indicates a situation that warrants full investigation before we proceed blithely to perpetuate our present policy of urban development.

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