Queenstown must look to Europe

There is an elephant lurking in the room that is Queenstown's housing crisis, despite this week's well-received announcements by Housing Minister Phil Twyford.

Mr Twyford announced Home- Start and Welcome Home Loan house-price caps for the district would increase by $100,000 to $600,000 for existing homes, and by the same amount to $650,000 for new builds.

He also announced a $24 million interest-free loan from the $1billion Housing Infrastructure Fund for infrastructure enabling new housing at Ladies' Mile. The loan will accelerate the building of 1100 houses on the land by up to six years.

That announcement came on top of the $52million announced last month for loans to build infrastructure enabling 900 new homes near Frankton and 950 homes in Kingston.

The Government is certainly pulling its available levers to help what is a bona fide Queenstown housing crisis. But helping the region's planners and builders do more of what they are already doing may not be enough.

Demand for housing in Queenstown has increased at a rate any planning authority in the world would struggle to keep up with, and this in a region hemmed in by mountains, lakes and rivers. Like the rest of New Zealand, it is also devoid of the centuries of ongoing civic infrastructure seen elsewhere in the world, meaning everything from sewers to schools must be planned and built from scratch.

It is a tough situation and is being tackled earnestly at a local and national level. But that lumbering creature in the room needs to be addressed.

It is, in short, our national greed for open spaces. Open spaces around our detached dwellings. Open spaces between our wide roads and our wide footpaths. Space to park cars on the side of the road, space to park cars in front of new sprawling shopping centres, on land the region seemingly cannot afford to waste.

It seems strange we hear more and more about the excessive cost of land in Queenstown yet new developments, when viewed from the air, seem like giant road and parking lots, garnished with landscaping and only sprinkled with mostly low-rise buildings.

Such a cavalier approach to a resource as precious and finite as land may be excusable in some areas. In Auckland, an ongoing refrain is that the city's housing shortage could be solved by simply spreading its suburban boundaries ever-further into that region's wide and rolling hinterland. That is not a long-term option for Queenstown.

In fact, nor is it a long-term option for the rest of the country. In a few hundred years, New Zealand's population has risen from a few hundred thousand to close to 5million. With births outstripping deaths and the country a constant magnet for immigrants, that growth will likely continue at pace.

At some point, New Zealand will house 10million people, then 20million. Constant lateral growth, combined with treating land like it is a low-value resource, is simply unsustainable.

That may be a proverbial can to be kicked down the road for many New Zealand towns; not so for Queenstown. Considerably denser urban developments, or a halt to growth, will soon be the only options the region has left.

Much of Europe has battled overcrowding and town planning for centuries. Its response has been a clinically efficient use of space, where buildings take precedence over car parks, berms and backyards.

Instead, public transport replaces the car and communal open spaces, like the quintessential European town square, become community focal points - places to play, stroll, sit and soak in the sun.

It is something we have not done in New Zealand. We must, and Queenstown must be at the vanguard. If not, the area's land will soon run out and the elephant in the room will be too big to shift.

 

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