Life in the 'burbs without a car

Published on 27/09/2021 at 3:57 pm.

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We designed our city suburbs to protect people from air pollution – and ended up doing the opposite. Despite advice that urban sprawl is bad for cities and the climate, we’re still building outwards. Olivia Wannan asks how we can we turn our satellite suburbs around.

Aucklander Hannah Spyksma is dedicated to her low-carbon commute. The 32-year-old spends nearly three hours every weekday on the bus and train between her home on the Hibiscus Coast and work.

Still, she feels guilty about the five-minute drive to the bus station: “I’d like to bike the leg of that journey, but there’s no infrastructure to really support it.”

It’d be quicker to drive the whole thing, of course, but Spyksma sacrifices her time to keep her emissions footprint down. “I wish I didn’t have to spend so much time hauling myself across the city each day.”

Ideally, she and her partner would live in an inner-city apartment, within walking distance of work. “We’ve kind of been pushed to the outskirts of the city because of house prices,” she explains.

Spyksma’s predicament isn’t unusual: to feed growing housing demand, satellite suburbs are springing up on the outskirts of our biggest cities. Controversial developments like one at Drury, 35 kilometres south of Auckland, are baking in long commutes. Before long, Drury could house as many people as Napier.

Suburbs for cars

But these satellite ‘burbs are being built on outdated ideas, says University of Waikato environmental planning professor Iain White​. Our cities are designed on division: areas for work, industrial activity, shopping, play and living.

Take the daily commute (which most Kiwis do in their cars). This made sense when many workers headed to smokey, noisy factories. “The historical rise of the suburbs was rich people insulating themselves [from pollution],” he says.

Now, more than 1.5 million jobs are in offices and facilities – which can peacefully coexist with well-built houses. Manufacturing employs around 235,000 of us.

Yet we still commute, ironically creating lots of greenhouse gas and air pollution in our travels. One study found Wellington residents in the outlying suburbs of Paparangi, Woodridge and Horokiwi had nearly seven times the annual transport emissions of people living in the central city.

Unsurprisingly, our footprints vary depending what’s on our doorsteps: the suburb of Tawa is further away from the central city, but, thanks to electric train lines, residents have a smaller transport footprint than those in Paparangi, Woodridge and Horokiwi (which only have bus services).

The three train stations to be built near Drury will help but the weekday commute is one battle in a larger war. Drivers spend plenty of weeknights and weekends in cars as well, racking up more than 3600km in an average year travelling to the shops and social activities, compared to 1300km heading to work.

Trendy forebears

Amusingly, future-proof urban spaces reflect the designs favoured by the Victorians. In the residential areas of European cities – and even older areas such as Wellington’s Mount Vic or Remuera in Auckland – houses are often mixed with small supermarkets, stores and cafés. If you’re after a bottle of milk or a coffee, the nearest one is often a few minutes’ walk away.

This is a legacy of how communities were built during the Victorian era, shaped by the dominant modes of transport of the day: walking and public transport. Notably, there was little town planning.

Now, our suburbs are a sea of residential zoning, with a concentrated shopping zone in the centre, typically a car journey away.

To recreate the leafy cornerside café enjoyed in Remuera or put an office in a newer suburb, a potential owner would likely need to go through the headache of the resource consent process. White says town planning in Aotearoa revved up in the 1950s, as car ownership began a long, sustained rise. “Our view of land was shaped around that.”

Successful densification doesn’t necessarily form a ring around the CBD, crushing beloved historic neighbourhoods. An assessment of Auckland found the city’s carbon footprint would fall by 55 per cent in 2030 if the city promoted public transport and put its new housing in areas near employment hubs, from the North Shore to southern Auckland.

For indepth reading of this article is available at Stuff. This article was originally published on 22 September 2021

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