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December 2018: A Traveler's Perspective on Housing Affordability


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by David Baker, FAIA, LEED AP

December 2019

My travels this year took me to Auckland, Oslo, and Stockholm—three remarkable cities that enjoy an enviable quality of life. When dipping into another city, the bird's-eye view allows you to appreciate the positives without getting too distracted by the details. You marvel at the seamless transit, people-friendly streets, and absence of public suffering, without tuning into the nuances.

Still at each stop I was reminded that every city has a housing crisis. Is there an opportunity to learn from their responses? Here are some impressions and brief reflections on those visits.

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Auckland's skyline in February. Image: David Baker

Click any image for a more extensive slideshow from David Baker's travels.

 

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

Auckland in February is an urban paradise. Although much of the architecture is unremarkable, the city feels welcoming and alive. Life unfolds in lovely residential neighborhoods connected by mixed-use streets and transit. People flock to the downtown network of pedestrian-prioritized lane ways (alleys) activated by restaurants, shops, services, and places to hang out. Beaches, ferry excursions, and urban hikes are a short bus ride from the city center.

Aucklanders take advantage of an urban network of lane ways. Image: David Baker

I was there to speak before the Property Council of New Zealand, and the day’s focus was the challenge of housing affordability. The overarching themes were familiar: calls to reduce red tape without compromising quality; an emphasis on pairing housing and infrastructure, in particular public transportation; and an embrace of more efficient methods of delivering housing (modular construction was my topic). However, efforts there were energized by a newly elected government willing to make some bold moves.

Skyscrapers in the CBD overlook Britomart, a retail and entertainment district rising around the renovated, multimodal station. Conical skylights illuminate the train platform below. Image: David Baker

There was a lot of discussion about new Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which formally opened this fall, and KiwiBuild, HUD’s ambitious program for bolstering affordable housing supplies for first-time buyers. Among KiwiBuild’s strategies: pre-buying units to expedite financing of new private development. I was struck by the openness to public-private partnerships and by the assumption that the public sector would provide significant resources (e.g. land and investment) to addressing the challenge.

Protected pathways for pedestrians and cyclists are transforming how people get around Auckland. Image: David Baker

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Restaurants, shops, apartments, and public space at Aker Brygge in Oslo. Image: David Baker

 

OSLO, NORWAY

On the other side of the world, Oslo also is an urban paradise with an active agenda of best practices that most cities only dream about. We rode bikes along the waterfront, took the subway directly to natural parkland with hiking and cross-country skiing trails, and walked each day along the Aker River parkway.

Ruined by industry in the 1970s, the Aker River (more of a large creek, really) has been environmentally restored and today is Oslo’s “green lung,” lined by parks and historic industrial buildings adapted for offices, light industry, shops, and eateries. It’s a tremendous public asset.

The Aker River parkway runs through the heart of the city. Image: David Baker

The National Architecture Museum’s exhibit on housing told a less utopian story. Since 2000, Oslo’s population has grown by 166,000 (a 30% increase) while adding only 46,000 new homes. In 1996, the price of an average home was just twice the average annual income; today the cost is seven times the average income. And the inflation of land prices—fueled by demand— undermines efforts to reduce production costs by streamlining the design and construction process.

The premise of "House Viewing," an exhibition at the National Architecture Museum in Oslo. Image: David Baker

Fjord City, a far-reaching waterfront redevelopment project currently unfolding, is adding thousands of new housing units as well as an economy- and lifestyle-boosting mix of other uses. The centerpiece is Snøhetta’s opera house, with its irresistible roofscape open space, but the economic engine is high-intensity, mixed-use development, such as the Barcode Project rising near the central station. While redevelopment on this scale has its inevitable critics, this kind of density is one of the most effective measures for reducing carbon production. Meeting these goals will significantly transform our cities, and they require thoughtful planning and massive investment.

The Oslo Opera House by Snohetta is a centerpiece of Fjord City, an ambitious waterfront redevelopment project. Image: David Baker

Oslo didn’t hold back: Barcode is an aggressively dense urban place with porous walkable blocks, ambitious architecture (for better and for worse), and a complete program including jobs, housing, retail, recreation, schools, daycare, and transit. It’s a work in progress, and too soon to know exactly how it will “grown in” with open space and ground-level uses, but I felt optimistic that it would become a desirable place to live and work.

Barcode, part of Oslo's Fjord City waterfront redevelopment project, has added hundreds of new housing units to the central station area. Planners say the city needs to add 6,500 units per year through 2030 to keep pace with demand. Image: David Baker

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It's easy to forget that Stockholm is bustling capital city of nearly one million people. Image: Yosh Asato

 

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

It’s hard not to be swept away by Stockholm’s grandeur, and after a four-day bike tour through Sweden’s countryside (on an unbelievable system of bike lanes and dedicated bike paths), the capital city felt like pure luxury—beautiful neighborhoods, a bounty of markets and restaurants, and yes, amazing transit. Yet all this urban vitality has tipped the balance on affordable housing: Between 2007 and 2014 the waiting list for rent-controlled housing in Stockholm doubled to a staggering half-million people, according to reports.

Like other countries, Sweden is looking to modular construction to speed new housing to market, and given the country’s design chops, smart manufacturing, and abundant forest lands, it was no surprise to see the sophistication of their operations.

Lindbacks, a global leader in factory-built housing, doubled its production with its highly automated "super factory" in Pitea, Sweden. Image: David Baker

I visited Lindbäcks’ new state-of-the-art factory in Pitea, near the arctic circle, an enterprise that telegraphs the company’s focus on people, productivity, and quality. In addition to doubling the company’s output, the new factory enables Lindbäcks to tackle more complex projects, including buildings as tall as 16 stories.

On a factory tour with the architecture and construction management team. Image: Yosh Asato

More striking than Lindbäcks’ technological leaps was their focus on people and families. The highly automated manufacturing process lowers entry barriers for workers and the company is striving for a factory workforce that is 50-percent female. Everyone shares in the economic fruits of the company’s increased productivity. And no one is viewed as indispensable, which means that even senior managers freely partake in the country’s legendary 15 months of government-funded parental leave. During my visits to the factory and one of their construction sites in Stockholm, the positive impact of these policies was palpable.

A clean and fast subway with two-minute headways is a way of life in Stockholm. Image: David Baker

Back in Stockholm, where the city is thoughtfully tucking in new development anywhere it can, this focus on families and people has translated into a robust mobility network designed for people of all profiles, from stroller-pushing parents, to bike commuters, to seniors. It means families can live more easily without cars, commutes are seamless even for those living at the city’s outskirts, and the streets are alive with a sense of community.

A former industrial area of Stockholm is now a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood. Image: David Baker

Other reading:

Arkeselva, Oslo
Sergey Kadinsky, Hidden Waters Blog, September 23, 2016

Oslo... Unfortunately... Goes Global
Aaron Betsky, Architect, September 15, 2018

How Traveling Abroad with Kids Showed Me How to Fix U.S. Transit
Alissa Walker, Curbed, September 9, 2018

Scaling Off-Site Production in the United States: Lessons Learned from Swedish Leader Lindbäcks
Mark Trainer and Carol Galante, Terner Center for Housing Innovation, November 9, 2017

Housing in Sweden: An Overview
Mark Trainer, Terner Center for Housing Innovation, November 2017


The City with 20 Year Waiting Lists for Rental Homes
Maddy Savage, BBC Capital, May 18, 2016

This takes me back to a point made repeatedly in Auckland. It isn’t enough to simply build more housing: to build vital communities, housing must be connected to jobs by great transit. I would take this a step further and call for a stronger social safety net in terms of healthcare and government-funded family leave—something all three cities enjoy—as well as strong planning leadership on a regional and state level.

With the just-released CASA Compact, the San Francisco Bay Area’s first-ever housing plan, and legislative reforms proposed by California State Senator Scott Wiener, we are finally getting going on the “big tent” approach that’s needed to get us beyond the balkanized political battles that have stymied real progress in the past. I’m excited about the year ahead and being part of effecting some bold changes at home.

 

 

 

 



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David Baker, FAIA, LEED AP, is a founding Principal of David Baker Architects.
You can contact him here

Auckland's skyline in February. Image: David Baker

Skyscrapers in the CBD overlook Britomart, a retail and entertainment district rising around the renovated, multimodal station. Conical skylights illuminate the train platform below. Image: David Baker

Aucklanders take advantage of an urban network of lane ways. Image: David Baker

Protected pathways for pedestrians and cyclists are transforming how people get around Auckland. Image: David Baker

Streets throughout the city make room for everyone. Image: David Baker

Restaurants, shops, apartments, and public space at Aker Brygge in Oslo. Image: David Baker

The Aker River parkway runs through the heart of the city. Image: David Baker

Kulturhuset Hausmania, a cultural collective, makes its home along the river. Image: Yosh Asato

Central Oslo is a 15-minute subway ride from extensive natural parklands. Image: David Baker

The park is open year-round: In the winter, cross-country skis and snowshoes replace hiking boots and mountain bikes. Image: David Baker

One of the many lakes in the area. Image: Yosh Asato

The premise of "House Viewing," an exhibition at the National Architecture Museum in Oslo. Image: David Baker

"House Viewing" examines the influence of economic, political, and social forces on housing quality and affordability. Access to daylight, analyzed in this model, is a key criteria. Image: David Baker

The Oslo Opera House by Snohetta is a centerpiece of Fjord City, an ambitious waterfront redevelopment project. Image: David Baker

Barcode, part of Oslo's Fjord City waterfront redevelopment project, has added hundreds of new housing units to the central station area. Planners say the city needs to add 6,500 units per year through 2030 to keep pace with demand. Image: David Baker

Slender buildings, porous city blocks, and a complete mix of uses promises to make Barcode a success. Here a preschool is nested between residential buildings. Image: David Baker

Image: David Baker

Barcode is a collection of daring architecture (for better and for worse). Image: David Baker

Barcode is a collection of daring architecture (for better and for worse). Image: David Baker

Barcode is a collection of daring architecture (for better and for worse). Image: David Baker

Cultural institutions such as the Munch Museum (Estudio Herreros' bent building) are moving to Fjord City. Image: David Baker

It's easy to forget that Stockholm is bustling capital city of nearly one million people. Image: Yosh Asato

Rosendals Trädgård, an organic farm and cafe on Djurgården island, was a wonderful stop on our bike ride around the city. Image: Yosh Asato

The temporary Östermalms Saluhall is an example of inexpensive materials made beautiful. The market wasn’t bad, either! Image: Yosh Asato

Lindbacks, a global leader in factory-built housing, doubled its production with its highly automated "super factory" in Pitea, Sweden. Image: David Baker

The highly automated factory lowers barriers for all workers. Lindbäcks aims to have a factory workforce that is 50-percent women. Image: David Baker.

On a factory tour with the architecture and construction management team. Image: Yosh Asato

A clean and fast subway with two-minute headways is a way of life in Stockholm. Image: David Baker

A former industrial area of Stockholm is now a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood. Image: David Baker