Monday, March 30, 2009

The privacy paradox

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.


Ruby Apolline said...

I love this piece. You have such an interesting mind. I never would have thought of things quite this way, but of course you must be right. Hierarchy--which I would cast here as control by a single entity or small group--does have its benefits, efficiency being one of the big ones.

vet said...

Thank you, dear Ruby. It's always a tremendous tonic to receive your compliments. The subject is one that's been fermenting in my mind for some months now. House-hunting does that to me, apparently...

Nodressrehearsal said...

Ok, I needed to translate this into numbers I could understand. If an acre is 43,560 square feet, then it could be represented by a square measuring about 209' on each side. So far, so good.

So a lot that is 1/10 of an acre, if square, would only be about 21' by 21', right? How is it possible to build a house on a lot this size?

We live in the suburbs, with a bigger than some, smaller than others sized lot, about 66' x 150'.
Are you saying our lot would be equal to at least 20 over there, or have my calculations taken a wrong turn somewhere?

All that number stuff aside, both houses look lovely.

vet said...

Ah, NDR - rookie arithmetical mistake. If an acre is 209 x 209 feet - which I'll take your word for - then 21' x 21' isn't 1/10 of an acre, it's 1/100 of an acre. 1/10 is about 66' x 66'.

Your lot would probably be about 2 lots in central Auckland - lots in the suburbs are bigger.

Nodressrehearsal said...

Thank the math godz somebody could set me straight on this. I knew it wasn't right, but my pea brain was just not gettin' there.

Whew. I tossed and turned all night, thinking you'd be standing one-legged on a postage-stamp sized plot of earth for the rest of your days.