Medium-Density Housing – Should We Be Worried?

The leafy suburbs of Otautahi Christchurch apprehensively await their fate. Long-standing buildings sit uneasily on their foundations, mature trees quiver in the winter breezes and expansive lawns fear an invasion. Residents wonder about upheavals to come. There is a sense of unease, like the feeling you have when you know a storm is coming your way but you can’t quite see it yet. The feeling that life as you know it is about to change but you’re not really sure how, or even why it needs to.

Building On The Flat

We may be drawing on a hint of narrative license here, but the sentiment is true. Low density suburban areas across our city are in for a shake-up and the storm that’s about to hit is called the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Act. Not something that rolls off the tongue easily, so let’s just refer to it as Medium Density Housing, or MDH for short. This legislation has come out of The National Policy Statement on Urban Development 2020 (NPS-UD), in which the Government (with cross-party support), directed councils in the five main centres to allow increased numbers of dwellings to be built within existing city limits. No more urban sprawl thank you very much!

So, what does it all mean? A draft plan change was released for consultation in April-May of this year. To those of us familiar with interpreting District Plan documents, the new rules are surprisingly straightforward. In essence they will allow the following to occur across most of suburban Christchurch, including hill properties;

  • Development of up to three homes of up to 12 metres maximum height on a single residential property, without a resource consent.
  • 50% maximum building site coverage.
  • Recession plane controls taken from 4 metres above the property boundary and at a 60° angle.
  • Building setback 1.5 metres from the front (road) boundary and 1 metre from side and rear boundaries.
  • Reduced requirements for outdoor living space and landscaping areas.

The final draft is due for release in August and whilst some tweaks can be expected, the main thrust of the document is unlikely to change radically. Add to the mix the zero on-site carparking requirement (a subtle rule change enacted earlier this year) it’s not hard to imagine that over time, this new District Plan will be ruthlessly effective in achieving the Government’s aims of higher residential density.

Should we be worried then? Well, it’s still very early days but I think the answer is most definitely yes. History has shown us that good design outcomes do not result from words-based rule systems. District Plans attempt to provide a minimum standard of amenity to residents, a bit like the Building Code sets minimum construction standards for buildings. Neither result in good design, at best they prevent really bad design, which is hardly aspirational. We can already see the built results of MDH developments in the inner suburbs and, in a sea of mediocrity, the good ones can be really difficult to find.

Previously, with low density suburban neighbourhoods, the scope for individuals making design decisions that severely affected other people without their agreement, was somewhat limited. This all changes with the new MDH rules. For example, a three-storey, three unit townhouse development can legitimately be constructed 1.5m off your northern boundary. This will severely affect sun, outlook and general quality of life. In fact, winter sunshine will likely become a fond and distant memory for your quaint 1920’s bungalow.

It’s not all doom and gloom however. The shift change is definitely required, we absolutely need to be less wasteful of land and create more affordable housing solutions. We have an opportunity to really influence the living typology for the future of suburban Otautahi, to find an appropriate way of building MDH for the people of this city, one that does not destroy the amenity that presently exists in the suburbs. To be successful, the new typology must offer positives for residents and neighbours alike. Here are some suggestions for things that we can stop & other things we can start, to help improve the quality of our built environment.


  • Building MDH solutions that appeal to the broadest possible market range. This results is housing stock ill-suited to many people.
  • Treating minimum standards as design instructions.
  • Doing what everyone else is doing. Humans need variety.
  • Building garages for motor vehicles, it’s a waste of money.
  • Cutting down trees because it’s easier to start with a blank slate.
  • Developing productive green-field land for low density housing. We are certainly not short of existing land opportunities within the city.
  • Viewing shoe boxes as an appropriate model for residential housing.


  • Putting people first. Make people the reason for every design decision, be they a future owner, occupant, neighbour, visitor or simply passers-by.
  • Providing solutions for a range of occupants at different ages & stages in life. Allow for a variety of budgets, aspirations, mobility & need.
  • Giving appropriate weight to the value of good design and the engaging of design experts, knowledgeable in their field.
  • Considering household pets as part of the family unit.
  • Raising the standard on the thermal envelope. Build to the best insulation standard you possibly can.
  • Building with longevity at front-of-mind. Better still, refurbish an existing structure and give it a new lease of life.
  • Incorporating green space at every opportunity. Work with existing trees and site features wherever possible.

Putting the focus on good design solutions need not cost any more than mediocre ones. By investing time & effort into the planning stages, the results will offer a meaningful & desirable pay-off for every occupant throughout the life of that building. We have the ability to positively affect people’s lives on a daily basis for years to come! If we focus on good design outcomes as the number one priority, then MDH has the potential to significantly reduce housing inequity, improve neighbourhoods & communities and contribute positively to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Apart from the obvious benefits for new developments, the rule changes also present possibilities for existing property owners. Less restrictive planning rules mean more flexibility for house additions and alterations. For example, extending the existing footprint or adding an upper floor will be easier, even building a separate dwelling for extended family will now be possible without a resource consent. These changes remove the potential for neighbours to scuttle your plans for finicky reasons and will help improve living opportunities for all.

With the proposed plan change just around the corner, we are at a pivotal moment in the development of our city. We can choose how this will play out and we can influence outcomes, but only through active participation and ultimately by putting people first – everytime, not just sometimes. Good design should be all about improving our world without negatively affecting other people or the planet as a whole. Make good design our goal – everytime!