When I was a kid, I lived in a beautiful big house in a small-ish village in Sussex. Looking out of the windows at the front of the house, there was the front garden and driveway - then the road - and then open fields, with (as I recall) sheep grazing peacefully.
When I was about 12, the greedy farmer sold the land to an even greedier property developer. Over the course of a year or so, the tranquil field was transformed into a housing estate. Google Maps tells me that there are no fewer than three named roads, now, where those sheep should be, with the entrance virtually opposite our former house. I daresay it's a pleasant enough estate, but I never explored it much - I couldn't forgive it for destroying my view.
That's the way most building happens, in England. Some obscenely rich person or company buys a ridiculous amount of land, builds a huge swathe of houses, then sells them off individually, at - if they're even half-way competent - a profit that has to be seen to be believed. In pre-industrial times, it was the aristocracy (for whom, much of the time, "having too much money" was quite literally their biggest problem); in the 19th century, factory owners (who needed somewhere for their workers to live); in the 20th century, professional developers (or the government).
The effects are variable, but on the whole it works well. The population density of England is huge - if it were a US state, it would be second in overcrowding only to New Jersey - but most people live in reasonable housing, with reasonable privacy and good access to amenities. And that, I now realise, is because the houses were built en masse. It's quite possible to put 20 houses on an acre of land, each with its own tiny garden, such that each one is overlooked on only one side (if that) - if you're the only one doing the building.
But that's not the way it happens down here. When pakeha settlers came to New Zealand in earnest, the land was parcelled out in lots, with each landholder in charge of building on their own patch. At the time, that must have felt like a liberating idea. A century or so on, however, the drawbacks are showing.
Most of the early settlers in Auckland - the 'Fencibles of the 1840s - built their houses on quarter-acre "sections". Pretty soon it was clear that this was too generous, and section sizes came down steadily; in central Auckland today, it's very rare to see a section offered that's much more than 400 square metres (one-tenth of an acre). And each time the "standard" section size comes down, people on larger sections have subdivided their land and built new houses, according to their own whims and bank balance, wherever they could fit them in.
It is, in a word, a mess.
Take, for instance, this place in Ellerslie, which we looked over a few weeks ago. Nice garden, decent area - but the whole of Ellerslie has similar privacy issues, and they're getting worse by the week. If these houses had been built all together as a two-storey terrace, or as duplexed pairs, they would have ended up with larger gardens, larger floor space and better privacy. But because they're each built standalone, they all overlook one another.
And the worst of it is that expectations have migrated steadily downwards, so now, even when developers do have a lot of land, they simply don't seem to notice the idea of privacy. Consider this pleasant house in rich Remuera. "Perfectly private" says the estate agent - which is an outright lie, unless you're willing to keep every blind closed 24/7.
Auckland has less than half the population density of London; but it's vastly overcrowded - just because it's ludicrously inefficient.
That's freedom for you.