The Price of Greenfield, the Price of Brownfield (Developments). Could Urban Geography ever solve Auckland’s Urban Dilemma?

Insights into intensification and sprawl

The Unitary Plan has come back into the spotlight this week since the report that 92% of urban development in Auckland in 2018 was in Brownfield areas (existing urban areas – a.k.a intensification). However, if you have noticed Greenfield developments (sprawl) you would not be wrong either. The Auckland and Unitary Plans allow for at least 60% of all urban development to be Brownfield and a maximum 40% to be Greenfield. The report I am referring to can be seen here: Unitary Plan Does its job: Fostering Record Breaking Building Activity in Auckland

However, as much as most of Auckland’s urban development is Brownfield we still have an Urban Development Minister insistent on removing the Rural Urban Boundary based on a very false premise that it would lower the cost of land thus development. Sadly that is not how urban development nor urban geography works at least not in the Southern Hemisphere anyway (see: Bye Bye Rural Urban Boundary and Hello Infrastructure Commission?)

Auckland Council released a long-format post into Greenfield and Brownfield developments via a Presser today which I am going to post below as a whole. I will say I also have a post from Bob Dey published a few years ago about the cost of Brownfield and Greenfield developments. The TL:DR (too long, didn’t read) was that both Brown and Greenfield developments could bear the same upfront CAPEX costs in infrastructure depending on how much retrofitting a Brownfield area needed. If your main trunk water and sewerage lines need replacement and a new transit station or line need to be built to support a Brownfield development it can end up as costly of building the same sized development in a Greenfield area. So one has to be wary of this verses that costs however, in general Greenfield development do present higher externality costs to the human and physical environments. But as another however, (and why Urban Geography is NEVER straight forward) sprawl still needs to occur if industry is to be supported (see: Is Urban Sprawl Organic?)

The Auckland Council insight:

Insights: greenfield development that works for Auckland

Published: 28 February 2019

Developing greenfield land is eye-wateringly expensive, requiring a staged approach to ensure adequate funding.

Auckland has a housing shortfall and despite the Unitary Plan zoning allowing for more than one million new dwellings in existing (brownfield) urban residential areas, pressure to develop previously undeveloped (greenfield) land is strong.

However, there are huge infrastructure costs in opening up greenfield land, which are routinely ignored by many proponents of large-scale greenfield development, says Auckland Council Chief Economist David Norman.

Auckland’s housing shortfall is at least 46,000 dwellings as a result of exceptional population growth and few new dwellings being built in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Only in late 2018 did annual new dwelling consents begin to balance with population growth, and it has yet to eat into the shortfall.

The Unitary Plan, which became largely operative in November 2016, rezoned the city to allow for one million additional dwellings – almost twice as many dwellings as currently exist in Auckland. Recent consenting data shows that this is working, with more than 90 per cent of dwellings being consented within Auckland’s Rural Urban Boundary.

Yet critics argue that this is a planning response from an ideological council opposed to greenfield growth. This ignores pragmatic reasons for favouring a compact city, not least of which is that developing greenfield land is eye-wateringly expensive and requires a staged approach to ensure adequate funding.

The separate Future Urban Land Supply Strategy allows for the staged development of around 140,000 greenfield dwellings over 30 years, with an estimated cost of council-provided infrastructure and central government-funded transport infrastructure at $21 billion (or about $140,000 per dwelling). Developers typically contribute less than one third of this cost through development contributions and infrastructure growth charges, with the rest subsidised by the ratepayer and the taxpayer.

“Developing greenfield land is eye-wateringly expensive, requiring a staged approach to ensure adequate funding,” Auckland Council Chief Economist David Norman.

There is also little discussion of the negative consequences of expansive growth, including reduced financial viability of public transport relative to compact development (which means higher transport costs for everyone), increased congestion (and more carbon emissions), and sub-optimal use of existing infrastructure.

In reality, the more housing we can get close to jobs, existing public transport and other amenities, the better, as travel times are reduced and existing infrastructure is better utilised.

Yet central and local government face constant pressure to accelerate the delivery of infrastructure in greenfield areas, with big subsidies to land owners. The rationale is that this infrastructure will help ‘live-zone’ more land and thus speed up the delivery of housing. When the council expresses concern at this approach that would require much larger rates increases, this is usually labelled as ‘anti-growth’ ideology. In reality, it is the absence of funding, and an acknowledgement that it is unreasonable for existing ratepayers to pay for windfall gains to land owners.

Simply zoning for more development (upzoning) with the promise of coming infrastructure, yields significant relative land value gains to the owners of upzoned land, without necessarily delivering much more housing.

Where is the win for Auckland in this? There must be some requirement on developers to actually deliver the land to the retail market if they are benefiting from accelerated infrastructure provision. If central and local government commit to accelerate greenfield infrastructure at a developer’s request, the developer agreement should require the land to be sold on the retail market within a set time of the infrastructure being provided.

Towards a better model

An exciting improvement on the status-quo is the new Milldale development, where central government and Auckland Council have stumped up more than $80 million to deliver infrastructure sooner than would otherwise be the case. It will enable more than 8,000 new homes, with infrastructure expedited by a targeted rate-like infrastructure levy.

Targeted rates have many advantages over development contributions. They can be levied immediately, provide certainty over when the costs for infrastructure will be recouped, and provide some incentive to the landowner to bring land to market sooner.

In short, infrastructure is expensive, and the staging of greenfield growth is inescapable. If we want more actual housing delivered, a requirement to deliver land to the retail market within a strict timeframe must be applied to developer agreements. Only then can central and local government confidently provide infrastructure knowing that it will be used to support real housing growth in the short to medium-term.

Chief Economist David Norman’s full Economic Quarterly for February can be read here.

Source: Our Auckland

In the end it is the quality of urban development that will decide how it benefits and costs the City. Good mixed-used developments will usually deliver greater benefits than a mass of single use developments – which end up costing us (transport, time and environment).

Macdougal St in Greenwich Village, New York. Chaotic and vibrant, with everything you need is close by. This is a Complete Neighbourhood. Source: Strong Towns

2 thoughts on “The Price of Greenfield, the Price of Brownfield (Developments). Could Urban Geography ever solve Auckland’s Urban Dilemma?

  1. The reason Auckland housing has the problems it does is neatly summed up in this piece by David Norman, in that all his solutions are the problem.

    He states, “Developing greenfield land is eye-wateringly expensive.’ The main reason it is so, is because Council are doing it. There are many of examples of how to do better development, less expensively. These costs he talks about are only costs to the person paying them, but to someone who is being paid this, ie the council, it is revenue, and they want more of it.

    The main non value added cost is land, if land could be purchased at its true free market value, (noting that because of land restrictions, especially on the fringe, we do not have a free market for land purchase). This would leave a large amount of extra funds available for either the developer to provide better amenities and/or funds to go council for infrastructure costs, but I’m meaning value added costs, not costs that are just revenue to feed an inefficient bureaucracy.

    And you comment is Ben, ‘Sadly that is not how urban development nor urban geography works at least not in the Southern Hemisphere anyway,’ is truly sad as you state, because you state it as if it is some immutable law. The Southern Hemisphere has only 30% of the land mass and 10% of the worlds population. There are numerous examples in the North Hemisphere in particular where they have very livable environments and affordable housing.

    Auckland is a cluster ONLY because of the policies enacted by the by council, and now promoted by the likes of yourself.

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