Wellington Scoop

The best density?

by Benoit Pette
The Wellington City Council is today debating the Spatial Plan – how Wellington can accommodate the 50,000 to 80,000 more residents expected in years to come. The vote will decide where and by how much higher new buildings should be built in Wellington.

In plain English: should buildings as high as 8 storeys be allowed in Kilbirnie, Newtown, Berhampore, Johnsonville?

This discussion is driven by new government regulations in an effort to address the housing crisis. Wellington being overall environmentally conscious, the discussion will also try to consider climate change: with a compact city, people would need fewer cars, opening the door to less carbon emissions.

While everyone agrees the issues are very real and the intentions are good, is high density the right answer? Are 8 storeys an ok solution?

high density houses

High density buildings have been built in cities around the world, and it is relatively easy to picture how they would look in Wellington. But clusters of high density buildings can be dull, soulless, and seen as dormitories where people live by default, not by choice. They tend to attract demographics from the same socio economic groups, instead of the goal they’re supposed to achieve: creating a diverse, vibrant community where families of different backgrounds and income levels can live together. They can become a fortress for the wealthy, or ghettos for low-income families.

Either way, new high rise buildings will have a big impact on existing residents. Some of them, who’ve worked their whole life to create a nest for themselves, might find such a jump in density difficult to cope with. Others, like new home buyers with kids, would be dealt a very different set of cards. Is it the right solution to replace a few single-family homes with high density units?

Like in Nature, the right answer lies where there is balance, a plan that works for everyone. Medium density buildings have a much greater chance of becoming a place where people choose to live, without alienating the existing residential fabrics. With enough of them, widely spread, the housing crisis could find a solution, and cost of living might finally come down. Supported by a green transport infrastructure, intertwined with significant environmental features (bush and parks making a minimum of 20% of land area), these new buildings could even present the opportunity to attract more biodiversity in the city, blurring the boundary between Nature and the place where people live. This utopia has a greater chance with medium density housing than with concrete jungles. It is this we must try to build, aiming at the wellbeing of today’s generations and those to come.

The choice the Council is about to make, following only one round of consultation ( Planning for Growth, 2019 ) aims to ensure everyone has a place to live as we prepare for many new Wellingtonians. But by focusing on “putting a roof over people’s heads” without considering wellbeing is taking the risk of creating chicken battery farms, an outcome no one wants, neither existing residents nor newcomers.

Read also
Council adopts plan, after two generations of support for character areas


  1. Toni, 6. August 2020, 9:32

    If the council are going to vote on the spatial plan today – what are the public meant to be consulting on, as won’t it be a done deal?

  2. Conor, 6. August 2020, 10:33

    Very little is proposed to be zoned 8 storeys, a few blocks in each centre. Far more is zoned medium density like your pretty pic. Even then very little of the eastern suburbs are even zoned for that.

  3. Andy Foster, 8. August 2020, 8:11

    Hi Benoit – very good article as always. Quality and good design will be essential. Your point about integrating nature I strongly agree with. That’s good for us, and definitely good for nature. I have made that point to our planners particularly thinking about the need for bird corridors to help them cross urban areas between the Green Belt.

    Toni – Council’s vote this week was to approve the start of consultation, so now it is an opportunity for people to think about and respond to the draft plan. I will be personally walking a fair few streets to look at them in detail, and will look forward to hearing people’s well considered thoughts. There are many elements to consider – providing capacity for more people, reducing housing unaffordability, supporting transport sustainability (for all the debate about transport projects the most important determinant of transport choice is urban form), all while protecting the characteristics we most love about our city.

    We’ve signalled this is coming for a long time. We have had a general urban containment and intensification approach since the early 1990s, and that’s been key to the constant increase in the proportion of Wellingtonians walking, biking and using public transport. That’s obviously good for reducing emissions per capita. Last year we consulted on ‘up vs out’ and Wellingtonians strongly told us that intensification rather than expansion was the way to go. That was certainly a climate change aware response. Our biggest challenge there is actually in other parts of the region and other parts of the country where low density car dependent development is the norm.

    Reinforcing our long standing approach, Government’s National Policy Statement on Urban Development released last month has required – and I stress required – Councils to provide for greater intensity in some areas (eg ‘within walkable distance’of edge of CBD, major metropolitan areas, and railway stations)

    Following this consultation we then intend to move to consultation on a new District Plan which will be done in two stages – a non statutory stage (aim is to release that in the first quarter of next year) and a statutory notification (end of next year).

    Please do get involved at all stages. There will be a wide variety of views. I am encouraged that so far the discussion has been thoughtful, and that is good. This is about shaping our city together, and considering what our fellow citizens have to say. Ultimately the District Plan should be our collective plan, and something that is respected as owned by the people of Wellington.

    Kind regards, Andy

  4. Pam, 8. August 2020, 21:27

    What is the goal here?
    Generations of extremely high immigration by OED standards, have seen health care, infrastructure and housing struggling to cope with demand. We have witnessed increasing loss of fertile land to housing and degradation of waterways from multiple pressures. NZ needs a debate on population growth strategy, otherwise we risk living in conditions that many sought to leave when they migrated to NZ. High density housing will likely mean loss of easy access to the outdoors, little option of growing any kai, increased risk of easy transmission of infectious diseases, and for many loss of sun and natural lighting. Body corporate fees for apartment dwellers often bear little relationship to owners’ ability to pay, the buildings usually built by property developers have frequently proved to be defective with expensive remediation required.

  5. Benoit Pette, 10. August 2020, 16:57

    Toni. This vote was to start the consultation process indeed. However, the option chosen during last year’s consultation was very specific – the limit for Kilbirnie was 6 storeys. This was then overwritten by NPS-UD which raised the limit to 8 storeys, raising the question: why bother with consultation? This is captured here. It seems the Council is getting pressures from left, right and center, and it remains to be seen how much the public truly have a say.
    Conor. This article was, hopefully, a consideration of how the city should aim to look for existing residents and future ones, not particularly focusing on any suburb. I’m hoping it has demonstrated that the best density is gentle, regardless of the burb, regardless of the city.
    Andy. Thanks. What will be key is how the council will bake the minimum design requirements allowing for increased density while maintaining what is so special about Wellington. A simple “go up” will not be sufficient to satisfy all criteria, especially with all the risks attached to high density model.
    Pam. You’ve outlined very compelling examples of why high density buildings are so risk prone to failure. The only way forward is gentle density, so that it remains gentle on people.