Low density suburban development characterises many New Zealand towns and cities. Often described as ‘sprawl’, suburban development is decried as being unsustainable on several grounds. In response to this, many district plans promote a more compact urban form. For decades many local authorities have been actively encouraging infill development as a means of achieving this. Drawing on international literature, this paper explores the complexity of suburbs, with a particular focus on the environmental benefits that they offer, to show that in some respects suburbs have been miscast as unsustainable. Suburban infill development in a provincial New Zealand city is then used to quantify the changes in a suburban environment as a result of infill development.
A spatial analysis comparing the layout of a suburban area between 1956 and 2010 shows how urban morphology in this location has changed over time. The potential effects of these changes are identified, particularly as they relate to the literature describing the benefits of suburban development. The planning policy affecting this suburb, as contained in the present and previous district plans, shows how policy has contributed to the current suburban form. The paper concludes by suggesting the challenge for planning is considering how to configure future suburban spaces to achieve the benefits of infill development, while at the same time avoiding any unintended or possibly overlooked adverse environmental effects that are occurring through the loss of private open space.