Humanised Mid-Rise Development

Forget Hi-Rise – Focus on Mid-Rise First


Serious! High rises (those nine storeys or more in Auckland) can only be done in 11 areas in Auckland; the CBD, nine of our Metropolitan Centres and Pakuranga Town Centre. That said apart from the CBD and Manukau City Centre (with certainty) I highly doubt the other Metro Centres will be seeing any high-rise developments before 2025 unless we undertake phenomenal growth between now and then. So where should we be focusing? Our mid-rises (4-8 storeys for Auckland) that can occur in the CBD, Metropolitan Centres, our Town Centres, and the Terrace Housing and Apartment Zone. It will be our mid-rises that will take the bulk of our more intensive development in Auckland, followed by low-rises in the Mixed Housing Urban Zones, then High Rises outside of the CBD and Manukau.

So with mid-rises looking to take the bulk of the development in Auckland we need to make sure they are “humanised” – that is appropriate.

Planetizen had a good piece on mid-rises being of human scale. From Planetizen:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 – 6:00am PDT byROBERT FREEDMAN
All growing cities must find ways to develop at appropriate, transit-supporting densities without overwhelming the surrounding context. The human-scaled, mid-rise building can be a solution—but achieving a good neighbourhood “fit” is not easy.


I had the great privilege of living in Manhattan for two years in the early 1990s while I was studying and working in New York. After weeks of searching I found a small apartment in Kips Bay, on the fourth floor of a classic New York walk-up. I was drawn to the neighborhood not only because I could afford it—barely—but also because of its comfortable, human scale. After a day spent working among the glass and brick towers of Midtown—I would walk home and feel part of a neighbourhood. The scale was comfortable, the sidewalks were sunny and I could find everything I needed—from bagels and pizza to dental floss, dry cleaning, draught beer and pocket parks—all within a five-minute walk of my front door.

My building was a solid brick walk-up—like thousands of apartments from that era—built after legislation had put an end to the worst tenement housing. Though small, my place had two large, double-hung windows in the main room for light—and light-wells in the kitchen and bathroom—which provided a much needed cross-breeze in the summer. These buildings had no elevators—not because they hadn’t been invented—but rather because they were too expensive for everyday housing. Without an elevator they were typically constructed to a height of four or five (sometimes six) stories, in direct relation to how many flights of stairs people were willing to climb. Anyone who has regularly carried bags of groceries (and a bike) up four flights of stairs will attest to the upper limits of human mobility.

Like many things in the design of cities, when you let the limits of human movement dictate size and proportions, the scale begins to feel human


So a context to the rest of the article. It continues:

With very strict rules in place to protect our “stable, single-family, residential neighbourhoods,” the only place to build denser, mixed-use buildings is in our Downtown, the Centres and along the Avenues. Developers have been more than happy to continue building high-rise condominium towers wherever they are permitted, but in general, tall buildings are not allowed adjacent to neighbourhoods. We arrived at mid-rise, as a more modest form of density that both residents and developers could accept—if not embrace. It turned out that building mid-rise on the Avenues was a more difficult challenge than anticipated, and I was very eager to find ways to make it work.

Despite the city’s desire to encourage mid-rise development, the reality was that not many developers wanted to build them. When pressed they offered three main reasons. First, the cost of land is prohibitive. Toronto’s overheated real estate market, combined with small lot sizes along many Avenues, have made it increasingly difficult for developers to assemble the parcel size needed to create a viable mid-rise building (roughly 30 meters width by 30 to 50 meters depth, depending on the width of the Avenue). Second,developers argue that to gain approval for a mid-rise building involves as much, if not more, time, effort and expense as an application for a tall building—without the potential financial return. Finally, the Avenues run through or along the edges of Toronto’s single-family residential neighbourhoods. Residents of those neighbourhoods are often very concerned about how mid-rise buildings will affect them. On the commercial side, they fear that the street will become an “unwelcoming dark canyon” and that small mom-and-pop shops will be replaced by large, blank-walled banks and drug stores. On the neighbourhood side, they worry about the loss of privacy once windows and balconies loom over their back yards and shadow their gardens.

There wasn’t much we could do about the price of land, but we thought that by creating a set of comprehensive mid-rise performance standards we might strike the right balance between the concerns of both developers and adjacent residents. The developers typically want to increase the building size to achieve the density required to make the project viable—while the area residents want to scale the building back to ensure that it doesn’t overwhelm the neighbourhood character.

We assembled an urban design and planning group, headed by Lorna Day, and hired a consultant team (BMI along with ERA, Quadrangle and UMC). During the many months that we worked on the mid-rise initiative, I drew inspiration from my time in New York. When reviewing a performance standard, I often thought about whether it would help to create the same ambience I had found in my Kips Bay neighbourhood. The Mid-Rise Design Standards (Standards) contain over 30 individual standards—many of then aimed at getting three critical things right: height, step backs (front and rear) and the relationship between the building and the Avenue.

Cue the same things Auckland is going through as we the Unitary Plan heads towards operative effect in 2016. One of the main angst points in the Unitary Plan debates was not high-rise (anyone that says high-rise was to happen outside of the CBD and those nine Metro-Centres was being deliberately misleading) but the mid rises which were more widespread through the UP. Much of the angst was unfounded as most areas that were to have mid-rises either already in existing developments or are able to support it (the Town Centres). Now I said “much ” as I can understand angst from badly designed mid rise buildings that DO have the potential to ruin an existing area’s character. In the Planetizen piece above (in bold) they have the The Mid-Rise Design Standards (Standards) contain over 30 individual standards—many of then aimed at getting three critical things right: height, step backs (front and rear) and the relationship between the building and the Avenue. Auckland has the following to ensure better quality mid rise buildings within existing urban areas:

As for land prices and the Unitary Plan being overly prescriptive with its development controls, they need to be watched otherwise we will effectively kill off the needed mid-rise developments and fuel sprawl more than what is needed as it will be easier for developers to do so.


Continuing from Planetizen:

By far the most contentious issue was height. Prior to the Guidelines there had been no definition of what constituted a mid-rise. To arrive at a definition we analyzed a number of successful mid-rise streets from around the world and found a correlation between street width and building height—a ratio of approximately 1:1 or less. The buildings are roughly as tall as the street is wide. When lined up side-by-side these buildings create a streetwall. When streetwalls face each other along both sides of an Avenue they create an “outdoor room” or defined space. It’s the proportion of that space that creates the distinct mid-rise ambience. Again, it just feels right. This realization led us to define a mid-rise building in Toronto as a building (greater than four stories) that can rise up to, but no higher than, the width of the adjacent right-of-way.

The Auckland Council Definitions for height are the following:

  1. Low-Rise: 1-3 storeys
  2. Mid-Rise: 4-8 storeys
  3. High-Rise 9 storeys or more

If you want me to cast that to the zones in the Proposed Unitary Plan the basic rule of thumb for heights are the following:

  • Low Rise 1-3 Storeys: Single Housing, Mixed Housing Suburban and Mixed Housing Urban Zones, Neighbourhood, and most Local Centres
  • Mid Rise 4-8 Storeys (height limits can vary – check height overlays in the Unitary Plan): Terrace Housing and Apartment Zone, Town Centres, Metropolitan Centres, Mixed Use Zones, Newmarket
  • High Rise 9 storeys or more: Metropolitan Centres except Newmarket, CBD, Pakuranga Town Centre

So we do have definitions of “height” set by the planners and they have been easily categorised through the zones and overlays. The Auckland Design Manual. the Zone Objective and Policies (Section Two of the Unitary Plan), and the Development Controls to the individual zones (Section Three of the Unitary Plan) have factored in the height question and the consequences from differing heights. Of course the Unitary Plan still needs a lot of refining in regards to zones, height, development controls, and urban design (although that will be more likely dealt with through the Design Manual) but hopefully the Hearings (due to start later in the year) will sort through this.


Once the Unitary Plan has sorted the stuff around mid-rises (so the Objective and Polices, and the Development Controls) our attention should be focusing to the Auckland Design Manual. In the end the ADM is designed to be a collaborative document between: designers, developers, end-users (residents and businesses), and the Council (Local Boards and the Urban Designers (planners should in my opinion be staying out of this)) on quality urban design outcomes across Auckland. It is a non statutory document unlike the Unitary Plan as I believe personally you should not be coerced but rather work collaboratively to get best desired outcomes. To make this work however, we must learn not to be so adversarial towards each other. Work together and we can get mid-rises right AND THEN we move to high-rises as they begin to take off outside the CBD and Manukau City Centre.


Finally from Planetizen

The critics who suggested that the mid-rise buildings and Avenues policies were misguided have been proven wrong. Slowly, many developers, big and small, have come to embrace them, and residents are finding that buildings they once opposed have become welcome additions to their neighbourhoods. Interestingly, one street, Sheppard Avenue West (from west of Bathurst to Dufferin Street) is well on its way to transforming from a sleepy stretch of bungaloes into a double-sided, “cheek-by-jowl” mid-rise Avenue. I took a walk the down that street a couple of weeks ago—on a frigid but sunny weekday afternoon. It felt surreal. I was in the midst of an astonishing metamorphosis. Who would have believed that in just over a decade, a suburban arterial road could emerge as an urban thoroughfare? A surprising number of people were out on the generous sidewalks, and some of the retail was starting to thrive. It felt good, but I couldn’t help making the comparison. Was it like my old New York neighbourhood? Truthfully—not really…at least not yet. But I must admit that I did feel encouraged.

This is not wishful thinking. We’re building Avenues of mid-rises, which bode very well, not just for Toronto, but also for any city trying to increase its density without losing its human scale.


If there is hope in North America there is hope here in Auckland. Lets start working together to humanise our mid-rise development so that they will be enjoyed for generations to come


The Avenues & Mid-Rise Buildings Study pdf (125 pages) from Avenues & Mid-Rise Building Study – Consultant’s Report (pdf) (20MB file)


Source for the Planetizen quotes: