Sunday, April 16, 2017

Phil McDermott: Breaking Through and Moving on: Beginnings of a New Plan for Auckland


The Break Through
After years of pushing the compact city fallacy and ignoring the obvious approach to solving Auckland’s particular growth problems, the city and its planners have at last begun to water down their dearly held but doomed compact city plan.  
The New Zealand Herald revealed that “the council's planning committee will consider a report to allow for 120,000 new homes at six main locations in the north, north-west and south of the city.” A range of smaller rural settlements has also been identified for further development, spread over 130km from north to south. 
While only 30% of the assumed requirement for 400,000 dwellings is targeted for the “mini-cities”, the appetite for new greenfield, peri-urban settlement won’t stop there.  After all, there is only so much that can be crammed into the current urban area, especially in central Auckland. without destroying its appeal.  Apartments in the suburbs, the latest battlefield for entrenched urban planning, is least popular of all options.
We’re not there yet, but momentum is gathering for moving Auckland into a sustainable future. 
Breaking with the past makes sense
The ground has been giving for a while now.  The conceit of planning by projection is clear as migration figures deviate wildly from the analysts’ assumptions.  The estimates of housing supply underlying the Unitary Plan are demonstrably spurious.  The impacts of intensification on air and water quality and nature in the city are now coming to be realised.  And the impact on council finances as it aims to retrofit under-capacity infrastructure and pours money into transit threaten the City’s credit rating and the pockets of its citizens.
The advantages
I have been documenting the short comings of a compact city plan somewhat tediously since my report on the proposal to the Auckland Regional Council in 1999.  So, to change my tack, here are some advantages of the new direction towards satellite cities and settlements.  It provides:
·      The opportunity to develop attractive, affordable 21st century settlements, with emphasis on diversity, mobility, mixed activity, and balance – all so much easier to achieve in green fields compared with retrofitting existing services, congesting the suburbs, and squeezing housing into compromised brownfield or mixed use sites;

·      Better access to nature, greenspace, clean air, cycleways and trails, and recreational amenities;

·      Consequently, better health – an antidote for the urban epidemic of obesity;

·      Greater opportunities for self-reliance (detached, terrace, and duplex houses provide safe play space for toddlers and food growing opportunities) and more time to enjoy it;

·      Pressure off traffic congestion in the urban area;

·      Protection and restoration of community life –an alternative to the transience and anomie of apartment living;

·      A chance to focus on quality development in existing suburbs and on sustaining what makes Auckland an attractive place to live in and visit; quiet streets, healthy treescapes, generous parks and play spaces, bungalows and gardens, ease of movement, local shops and services, and a sense of place.

·      Urban form better suited to limiting the impact of extremeevents (mainly associated with climate change, but there is an increase in fretting over Auckland’s volcanic field), reducing over-concentration of resources, people and infrastructure, and an improved capacity to recover from disasters with dispersed development.
The provisos
Will all these good things come to pass?  Here are four provisos we need to consider as we allow our “pearls on a string” to expand:
(1)  Ensure that the mini cities have adequate commercial and employment land and in doing so avoid applying 20th century views of what should be where on that land, and how densely it should be occupied.  Just set some standards to manage conflicting uses, protect the environment, mandate minimum levels of amenity, and let the investment happen;

(2)  Ensure that mini-cities are well-connected, to each other, to the main urban area, and to key economic nodes (including port and airport).  Corridors need to be generous to allow for diverse traffic, transport modes, and growth;

(3)  Planners need to back off saying what should happen where and when, and instead say what is required before development can proceed.  This will allow demand to influence the timing of investment.  It will lower the speculative gains and land banking that coercive planning and orchestrating development sequences foster. 

(4)  Treat these as greenfield opportunities in the widest sense: encourage innovation in design, infrastructure, and investment to achieve more cost effective delivery, allow for new funding instruments, and reduce demands on public finances.
So what can the Council offer?
Many years of resistance to peri-urban growth suggest that planners are not necessarily the people to determine when this the proposed development might take place, or even to design it.  Instead, the Council needs the skills to negotiate delivery packages with investors and developers, and to provide oversight, and authority. 
And Wither Auckland Council?
Finally, while I find this development a justification for the many critical pieces I have written about Auckland’s planning in the past, I will indulge in one more observation.  Marry the mini-cities approach with the push for Urban DevelopmentAuthorities and we can begin to peel back the institutional onion that is Auckland Council.
So here’s a thought.  The mini-cities could be subject to development under an Urban Development Authority.  This should involve some community representation.  And when the development task is over, perhaps they could assume the managerial and regulatory role of a local authority.  
Sure, I was wrong when I gave the new, consolidated (or overweight) Auckland City just five years.  It’s still with us.  But maybe it’s time we acknowledged the short-comings and costs of a super city.  And if the region’s future does lie in Council Controlled Organisations and special purpose authorities to fulfil its functions, perhaps it’s time to at least shrink it down to fulfil basic funding, purchasing, high order spatial planning, and regulatory functions. 

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