Sunday, October 30, 2011

Auckland Draft Plan: Flying in the Face of Common Sense?

What Aucklanders Want
At last, a clear statement about the flawed nature of the draft Auckland Spatial Plan. It was on the leader page of the New Zealand Herald on Saturday, too.  Thanks, John Roughan, for pointing out the plan is to deliver what Aucklanders don’t need and don’t want.  Read it, and pass it on.  Perhaps send it in to Auckland Council as your submission on their plan. 
The article focuses on the plan’s fixation with rail and how it looks as if the plan is about creating a city to justify the transport system planners want, not what Auckland needs. 
But the problem of pushing a planning fad runs deeper than that.
Is not what the Council wants
Why do we need to transform one of the most liveable cities in the world into a compact city, something out of 1960s London or Chicago, or 1980s Portland. If young families or retiring baby-boomers have little housing choice other than medium density living in the CBD, around ageing commercial centres, and along busy arterial roads will they be celebrating living in Auckland?  And if what we’ve had so far by way of residential intensification is what we can expect in the future, there's a good chance they will be in poky apartments and shonky buildings with minimum public space, surrounded by traffic 24/7. 
Is this why we live in Auckland?  I know that if I want to live in a city apartment or central terrace, then it will be back to Sydney for me, or (if I was younger and ambitious) perhaps Singapore, or London, or New York.
But no, my family, me, and plenty of others prefer Auckland’s suburbs or exurbs, places close to, on, or beyond the urban edge.  Here we are not too far from a coast of variety and beauty, and a countryside of farms and villages, bush, birds, and hills.  Or suburbs and their parks and reserves, where the housing is varied, and people are enjoying the renaissance of small centres.  And where it is as easy to get into the countryside as the central city.
Why won’t the compact city just go away?
From the 1980s on Auckland Regional Council tried to contain Auckland.  Despite enlisting a string of international cheerleaders to push it and getting the idea endorsed in local government legislation in 2004, the Council acknowledged in a 2007 review of the Regional Growth Strategy (Growing Smarter) that it wasn’t working.  Sure, people were living in smaller houses (maybe because their choices were narrowing or households were getting smaller), but -- surprise, surprise -- not where the planners wanted them to. 
The medicine, they decided, needed to be stronger.  And stronger measures to enforce their ideas seem to be what the Draft Spatial Plan is administering, moving from medication to straitjacket. Even if the new Rural Urban Boundary (RUB) is a little more expansive than the former Metropolitan Urban Limit, the draft plan holds even less prospect of breaking out than there was with the MUL.
Doubling up
The plan calls for a tripling of the central city residential population – and density – and for 75% of the city’s entire growth between now and 2041 to be within the RUB.  This gives rise to around 40% increase in residential densities across the city. 
But of course, it won’t happen right across the city.  So where?  You’re neighourhood?  Well, if not, then everyone else will just have to put up with a bit more density and a little less open space.
In fact, there are likely to be large parts of Auckland where housing densities have to double.  Because land for housing will be at a premium, that just may be at the cost of green space and sunlight.  And you don’t need a social science degree or planning qualification to work out that this is least likely to happen on the leafy eastern slopes or in our pleasant coastal suburbs.
So why aren’t we shouting from the rooftops (while we can still see the view)?
This is a radical plan, heralding a transformation that few Aucklanders are likely to embrace.  So why so few submissions (143 at the last published count) on something so fundamental? The Mayor blamed this on our preoccupation with the World Rugby Cup. 
Maybe, but it’s more likely to be because the Draft Plan is dense, complicated and confusing.
Can we really discuss this document?
For a start, its 250 pages long, which most of us have to download.  It has four sections plus thirteen chapters.  It is largely bereft of analysis but does contains an avalanche of tags: one vision, six outcomes, eleven strategic directions and their core components, a four part high level development strategy, six principles, and five transformations.  And then there’s 52 targets, 47 priorities, 96 directives(!), and 232 actions – look at the table below.
Plus a Central City Master Plan with its own strategic direction, transformational moves, challenges, opportunities, and delivery.
What a busy council we will have when this lot goes through!

Targets
Priorities
Directives
Actions
People
8
3
8
31
The Southern  Initiative
6
2
17
Auckland's Maori
6
5
5
18
Arts Culture Heritage
6
4
9
28
Auckland's Economy
5
5
14
17
Auckland's Environment
7
4
14
34
Auckland's response to Climate Change
2
2
3
11
Rural Auckland
2
2
5
13
Urban Auckland
4
4
8
15
Auckland's Housing
5
8
19
Auckland's Physical and Social Infrastructure
7
3
10
20
Auckland's Transport
5
4
10
9
Total
52
47
96
232


This is hardly an effective way for a council to engage with its community. In fact, the draft includes a daunting five pages (including assorted flow charts) simply explaining how to be involved.  I wonder how many people have read them? 
But there’s more
Other reports have also been issued with or around the Draft Plan.  They should help illustrate where the plan is coming from.  So better read them, too.  Not that any are easy reading, and with the exception of the housing reports (which don’t really support the plan’s priorities anyway), the level of analysis is decidedly limited.
Here’s the list (as far as I can make out):
                Reports
Pages
Residential Capacities
42
Policy Options for a Compact City
10
Technical Workstream: Housing
73
Auckland Unleashed: Discussion Document
228
Draft Economic Development Strategy
108
Background Paper Auckland Economic Development Strategy
133
Towards deriving a Central City Master plan
15
Total Pages
854

The real bite is in the Evidence Based Bibliography.  This lists 602 vaguely relevant and often obscure “reports” issued over the last decade held to inform the plan. 
What to do?
How can you make a meaningful submission on that lot?
Well, I think John Roughan got it right.  Just use a little common sense to tell them the plan is wrong.  We don’t want it.
Fiscally challenged
And I doubt that we can afford it.  The draft identifies around $31bn of known capital expenditure over the next 30 years (and flags a lot of spending it cannot provide the numbers for, much of it reliant on central government coming to the party).  And it’s not easy to follow the figures it does have.  They have a certain imprecision and don’t appear to include contingencies, or allow for the operating, maintenance, and depreciation costs the new projects will incur, so I may be underestimating them. 
Whatever the detail, this looks like a major fiscal challenge.  For what and for whom?  I have already pointed out the bias in the plan against where the overwhelming majority of people live and work (the suburbs, not the city centre). 
Its also a high risk plan, and if it fails to enhance the attractiveness of Auckland the fiscal downside will be so much the worse as there will be fewer households and businesses to fund the folly. 
Yes, a plan can be useful, just not this one
Sure, we need to align some decision making, rationalise bureaucracy, work out how to cater for growth in an orderly manner, and how we might use scarce public resources most effectively with the widest possible community benefit.  Yes, we need to boost our export in trade and services if Auckland is to be anything more than a centre of consumption (now there’s a transformation worth pursuing) but that’s about education and incentives.  We need a plan to help us deal with change.  But squeezing land use and pushing Think Big projects won't help.
City planning is about keeping costs down and connections up, the fundamentals of urban development.  This plan carries with it unnecessary costs and will threaten the local quality of life if it ever gets momentum.  We know that from the way the cost of investing in new houses and new factories has escalated in Auckland since we began toying with a compact city in the 1990s: home ownership has become that much harder, and employment performance that much weaker.
I can only echo John Roughan: save Auckland from this plan!

2 comments:

Andrew Atkin said...

Great post Phil,

Maybe you could write one for the NZ Herald too? We can't get enough of them!

Anonymous said...

Enjoy this blog - makes a lot of sense. What chance the council and planners will take heed of submissions that refute the CBD centric compact city ideology direction of the plan?
Cheers J