A year ago my husband and I were living in a small apartment in Auckland’s city centre. We only stayed there for six months before moving back out to suburbia, but I learned a lot during that time.

1. Small can be beautiful

My apartment had a floor area of just 31 m², including a mezzanine sleeping area with a rather low ceiling (only my shortest friends could stand up straight without hitting their heads). But the high ceiling and full-height windows in the main living area made the room feel much more spacious than many of the other tiny apartments we viewed while flat-hunting.

The local news often contains scaremongering about “shoebox” apartments in the city. Apparently no one would ever want to live in a small apartment, and the thousands of people who currently do must be living in serious deprivation. In an effort to prevent any more “shoebox” apartments from being built, Auckland’s proposed Unitary Plan states that new studio apartments in the city must have a floor area of at least 30 m² plus an 8 m² balcony, while one bedroom apartments have to be at least 40 m² plus an 8 m² balcony. I’m not sure which category our apartment would fall into—the bed was in a loft area above the main living area, which isn’t strictly a separate room—but either way I was amused to realise our awesome apartment in a heritage building couldn’t be built today for fear of small spaces.

Here are some of the things I loved about living in a small apartment:

  • Cleaning the house took about 5 minutes.
  • It was warm and cozy — especially great during the cooler months.
  • Our power bills were tiny.
  • It was impossible to lose anything in the apartment when there were literally only one or two places where things could possibly be.
  • I couldn’t buy things unless I was really sure I wanted them, because there was very little space in the house to put new stuff. (Some people might see that as a double-edged sword, but it can certainly help curb spending).

In fact, since moving back into a proper house in the suburbs I’ve struggled with just how big our current place is (even though, with a floor area of around 120 m², this house is still considered small by modern New Zealand standards!) The place feels achingly large for two people. Even for a family of three of four, I can no longer comprehend what one is meant to do with all the extra space.

Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. There were some aspects of apartment-living that would have been much easier in a larger space, but our biggest problems were due to poor design rather than a simple shortage of floor area, which brings me to my next point…

2. Good design is essential

Design is key to making a small space functional as well as aesthetically attractive. The high ceiling in our apartment made it feel more spacious than it was, but there were other areas that could have been improved:

(i) Storage is your friend

Our apartment had very little built-in storage. The result was awkward piles of spare bedding, books and bottles in the corners of our mezzanine, and a “closet” consisting of a clothes rack and small chest of drawers in the kitchen/dining/living area, which just didn’t look that great.

(ii) Tiny kitchens make it harder to cook and live sustainably

We’re used to cooking full meals from scratch, so living without a full-size kitchen and fridge-freezer was a pain in the arse. We typically had to commandeer every flat surface for food preparation, and then play fridge tetris to fit our leftovers in. We also had larger grocery bills (and more food packaging) because we couldn’t buy anything in bulk and we resorted to purchasing pre-prepared food more often than usual.

The other issue arising from our small kitchen and lack of outdoor space was that we couldn’t compost any of our food waste. For the last five years I’ve lived with a worm farm (or sometimes even two), but there was nowhere in our small apartment to keep anything like that. Having to put all our food scraps in the rubbish was particularly painful for me.

(iii) Sharp corners don’t belong at head height

In an ideal world this point wouldn’t need stating at all. Unfortunately, things like kitchen cupboards, rangehoods, and even shower heads often present hard, sharp edges at head height. For unknown reasons, random ceiling outcrops above the bed were also added to the mix in our apartment… (Seriously, I have a permanent lump on my skull from the whack I got while making the bed on our first night there)

So, well-designed homes should avoid sharp corners at head height, particularly in areas that are used on a daily basis, like above the kitchen sink or bed. It’s also worth considering that if a home may at some point contain young children, “head height” suddenly encompasses a much wider range of spaces, including door handles and table corners!

City living isn’t just about apartment living; it’s also about life in an urban environment. And guess what?

3. Living in the city is super convenient

Almost everything I needed was available within a ten minute walk—work, gym, supermarkets, shopping, cafes, restaurants, library, parks—and, if I ever needed to go further afield, all the buses, trains, and ferries to the rest of Auckland were sitting at my doorstep.

I also had a beautifully landscaped, low-maintenance, big backyard (otherwise known as St Patrick’s Square), and an even bigger front yard full of salty sea-spray goodness (otherwise known as the Auckland waterfront). Who could ask for more?

Wynyard Crossing

Te Wero Bridge, Wynyard Crossing by Mrogex (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

8 thoughts on “Things I learnt from city living

  1. I agree with you entirely. Small living spaces should be encouraged, as long as we are able to design it in such a way that it can be practical too. I’ve seen there are a lot more furnishings that fit into a small space, can be made invisible when not in use or double as storage, so I expect we will be moving into smaller spaces. It’s about time!

    • Yes, I like to think the tiny house movement is helping things along by making small, clever, space-efficient furnishings and layouts more common. While I probably couldn’t live in a home quite that tiny permanently, (for one thing, where would I put my library?) I’m hopeful that more small, well-designed spaces will be available in the near future.

  2. I am totally with you on both one and two, and make me feel rather kindly towards my little flat! Sadly, no 3 doesn’t apply so much for me, as living in London still means loads of things are far away! But lovely piece, and vive la small!

    • Haha to be fair I am overselling the location a wee bit 😉 Most of my friends and family don’t live near good public transport so it wasn’t that easy for me to visit them. And Auckland’s beautiful regional parks, bush walks and wild beaches are difficult to access without a car too. But years living without a car have taught me to structure my life around the places I can reach by bus or foot, and I can reach a lot more from the heart of the city than I can from the suburbs!

      • It’s the thought of being close to work that I’m jealous of (strange priorities, much?)! If I walk, it’s an hour and 15 mins, or bus is 45 on a good day. I would LOVE to live within sensible walking distance, but not being a gazillionaire means that ain’t never gonna happen!

      • Very sensible priorities, actually! People can spend so much time travelling to work, and if you’re going there and back again 5 days a week it makes sense to try to reduce that. I do really miss being walking distance from work. Though interestingly, I found the 5 minute walk wasn’t long enough for me! I’d prefer a 15-30 minute walk (with a bus option for had weather) so I can enjoy the walk and get a bit of mental distance from work.

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