New Zealand’s cities could soon join a host of metropolises worldwide in changing laws to relax building restrictions, with the aim of increasing density and making neighbourhoods more walkable.
The country’s lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would allow buildings of up to three storeys – sizeable in a country known for its suburban sprawl – to be easily constructed beyond city centres. It would also allow for councils to abolish minimum car-parking requirements, which currently dictate that buildings must include off-street parking, even if they are in walkable or transit-rich neighbourhoods.
Both laws are similar to those recently passed in Minneapolis and Buffalo. In 2019, Minneapolis became the first large city in the US to end single-family zoning: a rule that prohibited the construction of apartments and duplexes in many urban neighbourhoods. And in 2017, Buffalo was the first major US metropolis to bid farewell to minimum parking requirements.
Such moves are generally good for cities; they create more walkable neighbourhoods and engender diverse housing stock, thereby introducing a range of different price points for renters and buyers. That said, they do present some challenges.
Relaxing laws could lead to the excessive demolition of established housing stock – the sort that defines neighbourhoods – in favour of cheaper (and uglier) mass housing. It could also mean the demolition of mature trees to make way for bigger buildings with larger footprints, leading to barren neighbourhoods that are hotter and less appealing to walk in than their leafy counterparts.
As such, it’s important that cities and government officials – whether in New Zealand, the US or elsewhere – don’t take their eyes off the ultimate goal: creating vibrant neighbourhoods where many people want to live, work and play. Relaxing planning-permission rules while finding ways to protect what is ultimately good about these neighbourhoods – mature trees and characterful homes – would be a great place to start.