Wellington Scoop

Building out, not up

by Stephen Moore
The City Council and the Government are promoting construction of multi-storey high density housing throughout Wellington’s inner and outer suburbs as the solution to Wellington’s housing crisis both in terms of increasing supply and providing affordable housing.

However intensification comes with its own problems. It adds capacity pressure on our dilapidated sewerage pipes, creates more traffic congestion on our narrow roads – assuming Let’s Get Welly Moving doesn’t manage to pull the rabbit out of the hat – creates social ills associated with people crowded together into cramped noisy accommodation, removes private space for gardens or just chilling outdoors and not least, means the loss of the character buildings that define our city’s identity as compared to faceless cities around the world.

Instead I believe we should look to the past. In the late 1800s through early 1900s, the hills hemmed in Wellington’s development so they dug tunnels and created roads through to the other side of the hill with only picks and shovels to places like Hataitai and Miramar. They excavated a tunnel through the Northland ridgeline to Karori and filled in Evans Bay to create Cobham Drive in the 1950s to improve access to the Miramar Peninsula.

Applied to our current situation, this means we should expand Wellington’s suburbs past Hawkins Hill into South Makara and the Ohariu Valley to provide land for both affordable housing and commercial development.

Being a green fields development, services and roads and other infrastructure would be installed in advance of housing development, making construction simple and non-disruptive, as occurred in early Miramar with tram tracks running through empty land awaiting development. And being undeveloped land, it will provide affordable housing closer to the Wellington CBD for families, as occurred in the Hutt, Porirua and Wainui “nappy valley” developments of the 1950s and 60s.

Access to South Makara, Ohariu and surrounding valleys is easy. Everyone loves the south coast marine drive, so if this gorgeous road was extended to the Karori Stream and up the valley, it would not only provide access to South Makara but also provide a second access road for Karori reducing pressure on the main road in and out to the CBD plus adding resilience in case this road was blocked. At the northern end, the existing road connecting Ohariu Valley through to the Porirua tip road would be improved and widened. A new connector road via Churton Park would provide access to State Highway One. Additionally there are other existing access roads to this area that could be upgraded.

A failure to expand into Makara and Ohariu means it is probable that the Transmission Gully motorway combined with the Government’s plans to fast-track an extension of Wellington’s commuter rail network to Levin will result in more people shifting north of Wellington to be able to buy a stand-alone house and escape intensification. The consequence is increased commuting distances, the loss of Wellington ratepayers and more importantly the loss of quality farmland.

Yes this expansion will change the look of the land but I firmly believe the common good outweighs the minimal environmental impact.

Afterall if we had the ability to go back in time to the 1840s and rebuild Wellington, would we still reclaim land from the harbour for the CBD – noting most land on the harbour side of Lambton Quay, Willis Street and Manners Street is reclaimed. Or build the airport and Cobham Drive, create the Marine Drive around our coast, cut into hills to build Kelburn Park? Or would we leave Wellington undeveloped as a northern version of Picton.

Stephen Moore is a life-long Eastern suburbs resident who is concerned about Wellington’s future.


  1. Andrew, 5. August 2021, 10:06

    Sure, let’s lay waste to what green space is left around Wellington. How about we flatten some of those pesky hills, fill in some more of the harbour and cut down as many trees as possible to build some more suburban wasteland only accessible by car.

  2. Claire, 5. August 2021, 10:27

    Andrew: Busses would reach those areas also and they are close to the CBD. And the contestable infrastructure pot of gold would finance.
    Lincoln Farm and Stebbings are up for development with that fund and they are further away.

  3. K, 5. August 2021, 11:06

    This piece is constructed on the incorrect belief that spreading out the infrastructure is better/easier for the network than increasing density on existing infrastructure. The opposite is true (this isn’t an opinion, it’s civil engineering 101). Eg: having 10,000 people living in one square km is far easier/cheaper design and maintenance for an infrastructure network (3 waters/electricity/transport/services) than having that same 10,000 people living across 10 square kms. We are talking about an order of magnitude difference in costs per person.

  4. michael, 5. August 2021, 11:45

    The way it is currently going there will be dozens of wall-to-wall inner-city high-rise buildings with no nearby useable community or family green space, failing infrastructure, and no community amenities (like inner-city schools, day care, aged care facilities etc). All of which will result in unsustainable living environments followed by social and mental health problems.

  5. Andrew, 5. August 2021, 13:09

    Neither wall-to-wall city high rise nor suburban sprawl as far as the eye can see are desirable. It’s time to acknowledge that the Wellington area cannot sustain any more growth. For the sake of the environment and the people who live in it, this drive for non-stop growth must stop.

  6. Darko Petrovic, 5. August 2021, 14:37

    Are you proposing urban sprawl at a time when urban renewal and intensification is seen as an evidence-based approach to tackling both the housing crisis and soaring infrastructure costs? I’m happy that the council approved the draft plan to support this in Wellington City.

  7. Ross, 5. August 2021, 15:56

    Like you, I am a believer in developing new suburbs instead of imposing high rise as the only option. You talked about specific ‘character buildings’, but I believe it is the ordinary suburban areas and the home-and-garden environment which define the character of our city that people value most. It has been that way throughout our history. There is a role for high rise, mostly young people starting out or older people wanting a city lifestyle, but WCC wanting to force everybody into a “vibrant high rise cafe society” is an anathema to me and most of us.

    The idea that there is no space available is ridiculous. Just look at a Google Earth view of Wellington. The problem now and in the last 20 years is only WCC’s lack of motivation and effort to make land available. You talked about the ‘nappy valley’ developments of the 1960s but suburban housing is still what most people want, after then development moved to Tawa, eastern Porirua, Waikanae and the Hutt Valley instead of around the city because WCC wasn’t interested.

    The infrastructure cost issue raised by one respondent is totally wrong. The cost of infrastructure is hugely more expensive in developed areas than greenfield sites. Compare running new pipes in a field with new pipes down Lambton Quay, or a new road compared with widening Willis St for two extra lanes bus lanes. The total picture is much more complex, but there is no reason to start with preconceived notions to suit the solution you want.

  8. Mike Mellor, 5. August 2021, 16:52

    Ross: “Compare running new pipes in a field with new pipes down Lambton Quay, or a new road compared with widening Willis St for two extra lanes bus lanes” – yes, of course in both cases the latter will cost more. But they will serve many more people, so the cost per person will be much less (not just Civil Engineering 101, as K says above, but also Economics 101). And there aren’t the costs of buying the land, either.

  9. Henry Filth, 5. August 2021, 17:32

    I’m not entirely convinced that central Wellington has enough free/open/green space to support the proposed population.

  10. Jimmy, 5. August 2021, 17:52

    The lengths people go to avoid having anything change in their inner-city cushions is exceptional. Wellington.Scoop seems to be supporting the anti-density/spatial crowd in their recent opinion articles.

    Suburb sprawl is the worst of all options, it’s highly unsustainable and the comment about infrastructure is incorrect. Its cheaper to upgrade existing pipes/power/PT then install new ones. Sprawl relies heavily on private transport meaning a greater increase for roading, more CO2 output and a reduction in green space. Nothing in the article even mentions public transport. The motorway is already jam-packed in rush hour – as is the road from Karori. Transmission Gully won’t help with this. Buses are useless if the road is full of cars.

    All this because certain people don’t want the old house down the road replaced with an apartment block. Density is critical in ensuring our cities become sustainable with less reliance on the private car and the ability to being able to walk/cycle to the CBD/entertainment/retain districts.

    Yes, the spatial plan and the proposed growth of the city needs careful consideration in regards to sufficient inner-city green space and the effect of taller buildings on their surroundings But sprawl is not the answer at all!

  11. TrevorH, 5. August 2021, 19:14

    No one in their right mind would buy an apartment in Wellington. The earthquake threat, costly seismic code revisions, leaky buildings, noise at all hours and neighbours cooking up P, forget it. Why develop the inner suburbs further?

  12. Claire, 5. August 2021, 21:43

    Jimmy and Mike: the WcC is proposing Stebbings and Lincoln Farm for the infrastructure fund. So they are not adverse to spreading out. It would be common sense 101 to go with different types of housing alongside good transport links, to give people a choice.People also have a choice whether to sell to developers, who will have buy a number of sites as they are quite small in the already-dense inner suburbs. It’s all going to be very slow going.

  13. Tui, 5. August 2021, 22:48

    Are you proposing also building a waste water treatment plant out in this new sprawl suburb?
    If not then your shiny new pipes will still pump back into the existing system and require replacements downstream anyway won’t they?

    And with regards to the complaints of wall to wall apartments with no green space, I agree we need to do more to provide for the well being of the inner city community, more parks, playgrounds and community facilities.

  14. Ralf, 6. August 2021, 9:02

    Lol, here comes “common sense”. We should not look to solutions which have been discredited now by evidence. Sure it is expensive to repair pipes, but building a greenfield with new pipes is just kicking the can down the road and burdening our children. Also I doubt it is much cheaper. I live in an area where 500m of pipe is for about 1000 people, I guess you live in an area where 500m of pipe is for maybe 100 people (if we are lucky). While the impact of repairing a pipe is higher, the construction cost itself is way way less.

    On every metric a greenfield out in the suburbs is bad. It makes only limited economic sense (sure, it is growth, but less growth then with intensification). It makes negative sense from a traffic perspective. More cars from further afield driving into town (or more busses, note that a low density greenfield development will not allow mass transit and even busses will be low frequency and unattractive, so everyone will drive).
    Also heard about climate change? And that both the government and the city council have declared a climate emergency? So this solution is like saying with the Covid Emergency, let’s have a mass prayers indoors to make it go away. Ok, sure both the government and the council are ignoring the emergency, still, there is only so much you can force through before voters rebel (the obvious reason that it was declared in the first place was to placate voters to show that politicians take it “seriously”).

  15. Wendy, 6. August 2021, 13:03

    A major problem facing the inner-city is the space required for new parks/green spaces and community amenities? Where is it?
    The inner-city (Wellington Central/Te Aro) is now the biggest “suburb” in Wellington in terms of population, on the smallest area of land.
    A WCC report shows that, in accordance with WHO requirements, there is a current need for useable green space equal to 10 Te Aro Parks (or 56 tennis courts) for the current residents, which is not happening. So how do they expect to fill the city with dozens more high rise apartments when they can’t provide the necessary useable green spaces for the current inner city population, and that doesn’t include the space needed for additional community facilities required for the proposed huge increase in population (schools, day care, aged care, medical centres, etc etc).

  16. Claire, 6. August 2021, 14:44

    Wendy: I agree people need green space for mental health, also to avoid heat islands as the temperature rises. I think some commenters are reading from a textbook and don’t consider all aspects. Community is a big one also. Anything over 5 storeys is isolating on the upper floors. We would be better off going lower and having an excellent PT system.

  17. Julienz, 6. August 2021, 15:35

    What is better? People driving 92km down Transmission Gully from Levin where new subdivisions are popping on the promise of a one hour commute to the Wellington CBD; a 37km commute from Birchville in Upper Hutt; or 16km trip from Ohariu Valley. There are eco options of roof water, composting toilets, solar panels which have potential to decentralise the infrastructure. There is a train from Johnsonville which WCC seems to believe is under-utilised. And Ohariu Valley is currently lifestyle blocks which is the least dense residential option there is and which produce nothing. Ohariu could be used for housing rather than housing taking out prime horticultural land in Horowhenua. Ohariu is not perfect but it is a lot better than a lot of the alternatives that are going to happen no matter what WCC dictates.

  18. John K, 6. August 2021, 16:17

    I agree with Stephen, that’s why he and his family should be picking up those picks and shovels and digging that tunnel. Don’t worry about OSH or money. You can do it for like 1 dollar a day. Just like the good ole days.

  19. Stephen Moore, 6. August 2021, 16:34

    I am pleased with the discussion here and there has been more support than I expected. Of course within the word limit I could not cover all aspects of this proposal such as how public transport would work and waste water and green space for healthy living – so it was good to to see them mentioned.

    For those people citing Civil engineering 101 and phydo economics as a rational against expansion because intensification is cheaper, well if that were true we would not have the issues we currently do unless these people are saying we have incompetent WCC officials and councillors. And if it is so expensive to put new infrastructure in – how did they do it in the 1880s …

    The aspect of my plan I didn’t see commented on was the benefits of the a loop road connecting Ohariu to Makara to Karori to the South Coast. Providing a alternative route to the West of Hawkins Hill would provide Wellington with a massive improvement to our resilience in case of disaster and our main roads were blocked (as occurred recently) as well as reducing congestion.

  20. Ms Green, 6. August 2021, 17:39

    Ohariu Valley and Makara farmland has many paper roads that the public has a right to walk on and use. The potential for this area to be a recreational park bordering on the Skyline outer town Belt is enormous. These paper roads should be protected and the maps showing them available to all. But a loop road connecting Ohariu to Makara would be stupid and costly and not dissimilar to the north west connector which the Council proposed through Otari Wilton etc about 40 years ago.

    Urban sprawl has never been the answer. We do not even know accurately what the future population will be, nor the demographics. Wild guesses on such important matters, and stupid proposals whether they be from Government, Council, developers or individuals are not helpful, they are destructive. However, the idea of what Stephen calls “eco options” of roof water, composting toilets, solar panels, grey water re-use, permeable surfaces etc. should have been adopted long ago by the Council in every new subdivision. Huge opportunities have been missed in the extensive urban sprawl of upper Johnsonville and Churton Park etc.

  21. Claire, 6. August 2021, 18:01

    Ms Green: if urban sprawl was never the answer, where would all those people in the outer suburbs go? Truth is they wanted a section with a garden, and their own front entrances, having come from the UK where houses are jammed up in tenements in very dense fashion. So to extend out and have more space was supported for health and wealth and to be up and coming.

  22. Jimmy, 6. August 2021, 19:28

    Julie – the better option would be a 5-10min bike ride or 15-20min walk from your home to the inner city. That’s what the council is proposing and that’s the sustainable path forward – not bulldozing roads through Ohariu and being reliant on cars. Even if you catch the train from J’ville, how do you get there? The green ideas you suggest are great but are then cancelled out by the requirements to build everything new. The two greenfield areas of Stebbings and Lincoln Farm are the only real potential options for greenfield as they are in close proximity to rail/existing road – however these developments must not be the low-rise garbage that’s being built in Churton Park. But a mix of self-sufficient mix of townhouses and small homes.

    Stephen – the 1880s were a very different time so it’s nonsense to compare it. Unless of course you are willing to work with no H&S and for a couple of dollars a day? But for greenfield it’s ridiculously expensive. You need to build roads, electrical, water, waste and public services. It’s in the multi-billions – and you still have no public transportation. The city infrastructure needs to be upgraded regardless.

    Clare & Wendy – green and community spaces in the inner city are important and there are a few sites identified by the council that are earmarked for development into parks (Swan Lane, corner of Frederick). The redevelopment of the DP is also pushing for a requirement for a provision of these spaces as part of larger scale developments. There is also our lovely greenbelt in close proximity. To claim anything over 5 lvls is detrimental is baseless.

  23. Richard Keller, 6. August 2021, 19:49

    Emphasis on greenfields development (urban sprawl) is part of a general reluctance to prioritize the necessity of preserving green space, especially for food production and biodiversity. Taller and Smaller should not be viewed as undesirable but rather a step in the direction of a new concept of sustainable cities. And note that a sustainable city will be a city with a stable population. Economic growth of GDP, which usually accompanies population growth, has been gradually killing the planet for centuries and had become an historical ideological commitment maintained by our current neo-liberal global civilization.

  24. Claire, 7. August 2021, 6:02

    Population growth has been 1% in Wellington for many decades. So say 60,000 over the next thirty years. We are already building that at 2000 houses a year, so all the talk of buildings needed everywhere Is a bit ridiculous. And doesn’t have anything to do with affordability. Building all over places like Mt Victoria, an already expensive suburb, will just make things more expensive.

  25. Ray Chung, 7. August 2021, 20:30

    Stephen, I agree with you but for the primary reason that people should be given a choice of where and how to live. It’s not the city or the council’s place to dictate that people should live in high-rise apartments or in suburbs. People select what suits their lifestyle at the time that they buy and this may change as their circumstances change. There are many strong opinions on this and there are probably just as many reasons why people want to move to Wellington. I was born in Wellington and lived in the CBD as I was growing up but I now prefer to have some space and bush and trees around me.

  26. Wendy, 7. August 2021, 23:15

    Jimmy, the green belt is lovely to look at but is not viable as useable green space close to high rise apartment buildings in the inner city. Where communities can get together, where it is close by and easily accessible for parents with children in push chairs, the elderly and physically impaired, and where children can learn to ride a bike, kick a ball etc. And where it provides a green space in the middle of wall to wall buildings for people to just sit and relax in the sun.

  27. Julienz, 8. August 2021, 11:54

    Wendy, absolutely. The same applies in the outer suburbs – if we allow density with six storey apartment buildings then private gardens that currently fulfill the functions you mention will be lost. Where are the plans for pocket parks for older people to sit in nature, or flat areas for kids to learn to ride bikes, as well as halls for larger gatherings? Sports fields and hilly wilderness areas are great but as you say they are neither close enough, nor accessible enough once there, to meet the needs of many elderly, the very young or people with disabilities.

  28. Joe Black, 8. August 2021, 17:54

    The government should decentralise the government department head offices around the country so that the population growth in Wellington is held at zero. Wellington carries a high earthquake risk that cannot be mitigated unless you are willing to base isolate every building and home. Any major main fault line earthquake in Wellington will make Christchurch look like a walk in the park. It is not strategic, holistic or resilient to continue to allow Wellington’s growth.

  29. Joolzz, 8. August 2021, 22:30

    The Germans have got this density housing thing down to a fine art. My ex-brother in law and his kids live in one of these developments and they are great! Lots of cul de sacs coming off a small village centre, so safe for the kids to play outside. The blocks of housing are 3 storeys + a basement, with a small front and rear garden. There are several ‘flats’ per block. Parking is on the street. It’s on a first come-first served basis, but there’s enough, even for 2-car families. Whizzing through the German countryside by train, I was amazed at how much green space they still have. We have got to go up, rather than out. There’s no other way.

  30. Claire, 8. August 2021, 23:14

    Joolzz that sounds like good design. And only three storeys would be acceptable to most people. In fact you can build up to three storeys in Newtown now. You need a consent to demolish but most owners would get that. And yes there is some devt here. But it’s three storey in amongst one storey. Not six as proposed.

  31. Marko, 9. August 2021, 7:52
  32. Julienz, 9. August 2021, 12:08

    Marko – as did Newtown, Oriental Pde, Hutt Rd, Churton Park, Island Bay, Hataitai, and Wadestown. So what is your point?

  33. Jimmy, 9. August 2021, 12:55

    Clair – There is a difference in the three levels in Germany/Europe to what is currently allowable in Newtown. Once you add the basement (often half above ground), roof space + the higher floor to ceilings you will have a similar height to a 4-5 storey building here. Having the same stud height as one of the typical European row-house would be great – but it would require the relaxation of height limits to allow this to be implemented. Most of those type of housing is suburbia not the inner city areas – where the typologies change to being closer to the uniform 6-8 storeys.

    Wendy – fair point, but this isn’t a reason to steer away from higher density. It just means that the revised District Plan needs to make requirements for green/community spaces for developments. The Urban Habitat Collective development on Adelaide Road is a good example of how high-rise and shared space can be combined. Similarly the Nightingale Housing Projects in Melbourne are good examples of where good-design meets higher density. Theses are hugely popular and are being built in neighborhoods similar to Newtown.

  34. Wendy, 9. August 2021, 14:36

    Jimmy, I am not against vertical streets in the city at all, but it must be density done well. This means we need strict criteria to put people first and ensure that sustainable living environments are built. Currently this is not happening because it is about profit not people. And this is unlikely to change until the new District Plan is in legally place, which will be years away.

    Meanwhile, as much as we would all love to see great design creating sustainable living environments, unfortunately under existing statutes WCC has very limited power or oversight to mandate sustainable design and green spaces etc, so we can expect more of the current dismal results, as developers rush to build wherever they can. And, given the government’s focus to force through densification in the city as fast as possible, with little regard for social amenities or environmental factors, we can expect a future of increasing social and mental health issues.

  35. IanS, 12. August 2021, 8:33

    So if the rail line to Palmerston North is double tracked and an hourly passenger service instituted, would you support the development of satellite villages attached to the towns north of Wellington? Could we accept restrictions on private land to stop new housing developments on “good growing land”? So where should we locate the employment locations north of Wellington?

  36. greenwelly, 12. August 2021, 9:20

    IanS – double tracking to Palmy is a $ Billion + project. It will entail at least 3 significant new river bridges (Waikanae, Otaki, Manawatu) + numerous others, + it will require solving N/S junction which is an estimated $2-300 million tunnel or major slope stabilisation… then there would be the call for electrification. Even if Kiwirail/NZTA had the money, it would be better spent completing electrification and curve straightening between Hamilton and Auckland, and then electrifying the line to Tauranga.

  37. Claire, 12. August 2021, 9:25

    Ian. Yes trains should be more regular and faster. Then all the good folk living up the coast can whiz into Wellington for work or play. No cars needed.
    Yes we should have restrictions on the better land. There is room for higher rise in the Levin-Otaki main streets near the rail.