One of the latest in interactive civic engagement tools arrived this month for residents of Auckland, the most populous city in New Zealand.
Expecting an influx of some 1 million people over the next three decades, the local government anticipates that Auckland will need at least 400,000 additional housing units to accommodate the newcomers. That’s quite a lot for a city that as of last June had a population of nearly 1.4 million (and a metro area of just more than 1.5 million).
A 30-year master plan, still in the draft stage, puts forth a pretty balanced vision: Doing away with city center height limits and increasing the maximum heights allowed in other commercial centers, but also adding 140,000 units of housing to the fringe. It would also even out the divide between “large” and “small” or multi-unit homes, altering the ratio to a clean 50-50. Larger homes at present make up almost two-thirds of Auckland residences.
But the city also wants to hear from ordinary Aucklanders about where they would like to see the new housing. Enter the “shape housing simulator,” an online tool that lets citizens play around with different strategies to create their ideal city in terms of growth and density.
Dividing Auckland into five different types of areas — the city center, metropolitan centers, town centers, local centers and residential — the simulator asks users how they would change the shape of the city. Solutions, naturally, range from making Auckland extremely dense to having it sprawl. Abolish the height limit in the city center, as the plan does? Do more building in the countryside? Increasing the share of small and multi-unit housing? By playing around with the rules, users can see how the growth would spread out across the city as they try to reach the 400,000 target.
The shape housing simulator recalls other online games that cities both in the U.S. and abroad have turned to in order to get citizens engaged in the planning process. Community PlanIt, an initiative from Emerson College, took a neighborhood-based approach when it launched in Detroit, Philadelphia and elsewhere. It was more comprehensive in asking what people want to see in their communities, but it took up a lot of time to play. (This writer, at least, abandoned the game before completing the second “mission.”)
By zeroing in on a specific topic like housing, the simulator lets Aucklanders quickly and easily sound off on what they think about such issues as height limits (hello, Washington, D.C., do you need any ideas?) Those who think they’ve found a better approach than the master plan can send their proposals to the Auckland Council.