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Better Urban Planning?

  • 24 May 2017
  • Author: Graeme Scott
  • Number of views: 118
Better Urban Planning?
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; an&

A Simple Plan?

  • 2 August 2016
  • Author: Graeme Scott
  • Number of views: 1195
A Simple Plan?
The Auckland Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel’s recommendations to Auckland Council are clear, and as simple as they could be following the two-plus years of submissions/mediations/expert conferences and hearings involving almost everyone in Auckland’s design and planning community.  

Gone are the peripheral concerns around matters that are, or should be, dealt with by other regulations, such as dwelling and room sizes, ceiling heights, window sizes and insulation standards which, in the Panel’s view, are Building Code matters.  Arguments around socially aspirational outcomes (affordable housing, universal access) have been swept aside. The much debated rural-urban-boundary, following agreement by our national politicians that it’s a bad idea, has been predictably neutralised as an issue, although it’s still there in name.  Gone are the so-called urban design rules on such matters as garage door setbacks, windows to the street and front fence heights.  Requirements for parking on private land are, thankfully, mostly gone.

So, a simple plan; a plan that is, as they say, focussed on outcomes and integrated both vertically and horizontally.  By way of example, in the residential rules (the main area of my involvement), the outlook requirements from habitable rooms are now common to all the main zones, and I never did understand why, in the originally proposed plan, the mixed housing zones had yards and height-in-relation-to boundary-controls, while the terrace house and apartment zone had stepped setback dimensions to achieve much the same end.  All these zones now have a common set of rules, covering such matters as coverage, building separation, outdoor living and fences.

The Panel has taken the Auckland Plan very seriously, and has modelled their recommended plan on the principles set out in the 2010 document.  But more than that, it has actually delivered on the compact city vision, with almost 60% of the planned 422,000 dwellings over the next 30 years to be located inside the 2010 Metropolitan Urban Limit.  Some of the increase in the planned numbers above the originally proposed 212,000 came from mediated changes to the zone rules during the hearings process (it went up to around 296,000 as a result), but the huge increase to the present number appears to be largely a result of applying the zones differently on the maps.  Density around centres and transport corridors has been emphasised.

So this is the good news, but the other part of the Auckland Plan’s vision for the quality compact urban form is the “quality” part, and this is where the recommended plan encounters some difficulty.  While “recognising that the need to achieve a quality design is increasingly important as the scale of development increases”, the Panel’s report goes on to say “good design is based on principles rather than rules. Mere reference to good design or the listing of preferred design principles is ill-suited to a regulatory framework which imposes binary ‘grant/decline’ outcomes. Discretionary decision-making must be exercised on the basis of relevant and clear objectives, policies and assessment criteria rather than on subjective preferences”.

Auckland Council’s brave attempt to start to address this issue through the mandatory provision of Design Statements has been ruled out as being costly and ineffective, but there’s little on offer as a replacement, and no mention of peer design review which has proved so successful at Hobsonville Point, for instance.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect an RMA plan to deliver


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