The Unitary plan has been in effect for a year and Auckland is seeing a record number of large-scale apartments going up.
While this scale of development is addressing Auckland’s housing shortage, the question that needs to be asked is – at what cost?
Are these kinds of large-scale developments going to be socially effective and sustainable in the long term?
And does this kind of compact living create a community where people feel connected and happy?
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory, once our physiological and safety needs of shelter, food and security are met; we need human connection and a sense of belonging. Only then can we build self-esteem, pursue our talents and thrive through self-actualisation.
I would argue that a number of Auckland’s new developments are not delivering on Maslow’s third social need, which is critical to the happiness and wellbeing of our society.
What makes a city liveable?
Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design is a book written by Canadian author Charles Montgomery. It gathers insights from psychology, neuroscience, urban planning and social experiments and addresses the crisis of social disconnection in modern cities.
Happy City examines how our cities influence the way we move, behave and feel. The way we build our cities has a direct influence on our happiness as individuals and a society.
According to research, people have a limited capacity to remember faces and develop trust. In a crowded large-scale development, the chances are high that neighbours won’t know each other. People feel anonymous. This can heighten anxiety and cause people to retreat socially.
Happy City has established a formula that suggests the optimal number of households within a cluster is 15 to 20. Residents report a higher level of connection and trust with neighbours and a sense of community.
The larger residential developments should be divided into smaller clusters of households.
Happy City favours three to four-storey buildings, with common areas that cater to a smaller number of households. This reduces perceived density and feelings of crowding.
Neighbours are also more likely to interact and bond with each other when there are fewer people using the same access paths or entrances. Or when they see the same faces at the post box each day.
London has achieved some amazing social outcomes through their urban design of the terraced apartments. The layout reduces perceived density in one of the world’s biggest cities, while the balconies create a visual connection between residences and the street. Neighbours know each other and kind of know their street. This all contributes to feeling protected and safe.
In this digital age, it’s more important than ever to build housing where we feel socially connected to people.
Creating communal spaces that encourage human interaction brings residents together and fosters relationships. Developers and Architects in Australia seem to have perfected this to some extent with vegetable gardens on rooftops, cafes at ground level that open up for residents and communal spaces where residents can get together and have a barbeque.
How to meet the compact living challenge and make Auckland a ‘happy city’
If we look back at how we have performed over the last year, I would argue that 80 to 90% of the apartment developments that are available or coming online are not focusing on our social well-being. The answer to compact living is not just to build heaps of large-scale apartments.
Compact living is, of course, all very new to Kiwis so the right typology is going to take time to discover. We’re only really just learning how to design apartments and terraced houses.
The apartment units are all good sizes and they’re visually beautiful. But if living spaces and common areas are not designed to achieve good social outcomes and developments are not limited in the number of units provided, we are left with buildings that are cold and sterile with high occupancy turnover.
Only the developers benefit from these types of developments as they end up with big profits – but they are not long-term solutions for the people that have to live in them.
Having been driven by rules for so long, it’s time to start thinking out of the box and looking at Auckland’s urban transformation holistically and from all angles.
It’s our responsibility to make people feel like they’re connected as they transition into city living.
Moving forward, there needs to be more collaboration between Planners, Architects and Developers to create smaller more connected developments.
Low-rise apartments and small-scale terrace developments should be encouraged rather than large-scale (and at times high-rise) apartment developments. These developments should have communal or common areas where residents can meet and congregate. Everything from the interaction with the street, entry location to the corridors should be well thought out so residents can feel safe and connected.
We need to make sure that people can interact, socialise and ultimately be happy in the spaces that we design. Only then can we turn Auckland into the world’s most liveable city.