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Better Urban Planning?

  • 24 May 2017
  • Author: Graeme Scott
  • Number of views: 118
  • 0 Comments
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&

The future of Placemaking and Urban Design

Brett Gawn's conversation with Local Government Magazine

  • 17 October 2016
  • Author: Brett Gawn
  • Number of views: 1092
  • 0 Comments
The future of Placemaking and Urban Design

In May this year Local Government Magazine published an article on this topic. The article is a good read and can be found here. UDF committee member, Brett Gawn contributed to this by answering the following questions posed by Mary. 

When it comes to place-making and urban design how will the role of local authorities change over the next 10 years? What can local authorities do to make the most of these changes?

Good urban design and the creation of great places within existing urban areas often requires larger sites than generally exist within one lot or contiguous ownership. To achieve a good urban design outcome requires the aggregation of a number of lots to provide scale. The private sector has difficulty in doing this. Councils and or Govt may need to consider assisting with this by facilitating the aggregation of land into larger holdings and vehicles for development of those areas. (An example of this is the Tamaki Redevelopment Company.)

Another change I believe is for Local Authorities to be able to form teams of people from their various departments to work together both within Council and with the developer’s design team to work up master-plans for these larger development sites so that when formal planning applications are lodged there are no surprises for the LA or the community. Some of the learnings from dealing with Special Housing Areas needs to become norm for Councils.

Another change that I would like to see is a more macro and risk management approach to responding to development proposals – a bit less of inefficient sweating over minor matters. This would mean that an assessment of a proposal might start with the question “is this proposal on balance a good thing for the community?” If so – can the Council staff take a facilitative approach to working with the applicant to make it happen?

Councils are likely to face more standardisation over planning codes and guidelines through amendments to the RMA and National Policy Statements that will likely include urban design criteria.


In terms of placemaking and urban design, what are the 3 big issues that local authorities will need to consider in the next 10 years?  

o What challenges will local authorities face in achieving this?  

o How can they overcome these challenges? 

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