Not everyone loves cities. This from travel writer Paul Theroux: “Cities look like monstrous cemeteries to me, the buildings like brooding tombstones. I feel lonely and lost in the litup necropolis, nauseated by the traffic fumes, disgusted by the food smells, puzzled by the faces and the banal frenzy.”
I was reminded of this by a letter to the Herald a couple of months ago. The writer complained about the new houses springing up around Auckland looking like over-scale sentry boxes pushed together, edging along streets barely spacious enough for cars, let alone decent sized trees.
Her view is clearly at odds with the one most of us have as a way forward for the development of our cities, and yet she does have a point. The intensive effort from the urban design community into the Unitary Plan in Auckland, which is now set to enable the vision she abhors, was necessarily restricted to a desirable built-form on private land. The Unitary Plan is a prescribed instrument of the RMA; it could not have been otherwise. The other supporting elements of the ‘quality compact city’ vision from the Auckland Plan were set aside while we grappled with the Unitary Plan beast.
But we now need to focus on these supporting (or arguably fundamental) elements, and the top two in my book are public open space and public transport. The quality compact city will fail if there’s no space for kids to play, for a big tree to grow, and when people have no realistic chance of reducing the number of cars in their household.
Getting this right takes money – lots of it – and while local governments of late have generally understood the needs of cities, the central governments assuredly have not. It’s therefore encouraging to read the recently released final report from the Productivity Commission on Better Urban Planning. It says “working well, cities are engines of economic prosperity”. Quite a change from the ‘cities are just a drag on the agricultural economy’ sentiment of the last fifty years.
The report’s central theme is to create a new planning system to replace the RMA, and make a clear distinction between the management of the natural and built environments. It dwells extensively on marrying the provision of infrastructure (presumably including public transport) with urban development, and new funding mechanisms to achieve this. In doing so, it raises some ideas such as road-pricing, capturing the private land-value uplift resulting from public infrastructure investment for public good, and allowing local government to, in effect, sell increases in development rights. These are well-understood concepts in other parts of the world, but they’ve been summarily dismissed by central governments here up to now.
Urban design gets a mention (on page 440!), where the Commission, after some predictably negative comments around the arbitrary and inconsistent application of urban design rules, notes that:
“Urban design assessments can be a valuable tool for enhancing the amenity of public spaces if they:
• involve developers and designers in a collaborative process to find the best solution;
• are proportionate in scope to the public amenity being considered;
• take proper account of costs and benefits of alternative design proposals; and
• produce realistic and practical outcomes.”
But is a report from the Productivity Commission bold and powerful enough to achieve the required changes? Infrastructure NZ believes not: “Although the Commission identifies [the] issues, it does not propose a fully developed set of recommendations to address them.” Infrastructure NZ calls for a Royal Commission into the whole planning / infrastructure system. “Much more fundamental change is required to enable effective urban development and regional growth. We need a system where national, regional and local plans are aligned. Regions must be able to plan for growth, have the necessary funding to enable timely investments and be able to work effectively with central government, business, iwi and local communities.”
In the last days of the Clark-led Labour government, the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance was set up, and the excellent Building Sustainable Urban Communities report (2008) was published. The Key-led National government, to its credit, followed through with the Royal Commission’s recommendations (mostly), but failed to get on board the wider citybuilding agenda. Now, almost a decade later, with an English-led government and a general election coming around, are we going to waste even more years talking about this? Time now for some lobbying?
Another government-backed report, currently out for submissions, is from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, concerning the proposed Urban Development Authorities.