Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The ins and outs of spatial planning - options for Auckland

If coming up with a single spatial plan to provide harmoniously and comprehensively for regional land use and infrastructure was easy, it would have been done already.  The 1999 Auckland Regional Growth Strategy was a start.  Unfortunately it generated a lot of friction between regional and local councils as it was transformed from a “work in progress”, reflecting the uncertainty felt by its original authors (a forum of trans-Auckland councillors), into a blueprint with which to strait jacket the region and stifle local initiative.
The region’s councils had another go at cooperation after "the One Plan for Auckland" was recommended by the Metropolitan Auckland Project in 2006.  They started by agreeing on priorities and projects, this time aiming for the big plan to evolve out of manageable steps .
The Auckland Transition Agency, however, has decided that a single spatial plan, incorporating all the elements of a regional strategy and district plans, can be delivered in a single hit.  This is to be done quickly, to inform the new single city’s 2012 Long Term Council Community Plan.  However, given the widespread expectation that the single plan will produce peace, harmony, and order as Auckland moves ahead, this timetable may be just a little optimistic. 
Quite apart from the prospect that expectations for a single spatial plan may be overblown, there are some thorny issues that need addressing, if not resolving, before a credible plan can be prepared.  We raise two of them here.
(1) What will happen to the Metropolitan Urban Limits?
These have been seen as a source of salvation, containing the city and saving the countryside; or as a source of ruin, driving up land prices and driving down affordability and investment.  For better or worse, this is a tool that has a major, formative impact on Auckland's urban form.
So what do we do with the metropolitan urban limits now?  Do we expand them to reflect the expansive nature of our new city?  Or tighten them up in the iron grip of a single council, leaving the bulk of the city's new territory rural?  Or, do simply extend them here and there as demand, expediency, and circumstances dictate?  
Here’s an idea.  What if the edges of the city were actually designed by reference to the physical geography of the region, its cultures, heritage and prospects?  Or even by thinking about how to provide for what people like about living in Auckland, including easy access to countryside and coast?
Auckland is a long, narrow region.  Much of it is peninsula indented with estuaries and creeks, cut off by ranges and coastlines.  This provides constraints and opportunities.  In response to our geography, to the constrained nature of the CBD and the isthmus, and perhaps to past infrastructure failures , business and households have already decentralised to more amenable and affordable surroundings . 
Perhaps this is a clue as to how we might ensure a sustainable, resilient, and attractive city, one which appeals to residents as well as planners.  Maybe Auckland’s future lies to the north and south, rather than concertinaed in the middle. 

Let's think seriously about the alternatives.
It could, for example, be based on a string of stand-alone settlements connected to a strong arterial corridor formed by highway and railway.  Such settlements could have a definitive  rural edges if that’s what their residents want, and busy, human-scale centres.  Wellsford, Warkworth, Orewa, Dairy Flat, Riverhead, Coatesville, Helensville, and Waimauku in the north and west are all potential candidates.  So are Drury, Takanini, Tuakau, Pokeno and probably more in the south.  
Rather than stacking apartments along corridors and around centres designed for smaller numbers and a different age, we could use imaginative design to populate interconnected towns of perhaps 20,000 residents each in the hinterland, and a few more in rural villages. 
Urban villages can play a strong part, too.  They would sit within the metropolitan area, each with its own distinct centre, with local services and employment close to where people want to live, improved local walkways and public space, and efficient corridors connecting them.
Much of the framework for a polycentric future already exists in current infrastructure, commercial centres, community networks, employment, and residents' preferences.  We simply have to decide whether we want to strengthen it or submerge it. 
Strengthening would mean highlighting the separation of places so that throughout and beyond the metropolitan area we can move between character-filled and distinctive neighbourhoods which offer a high degree of local amenity and self-sufficiency for their residents.  Green spaces could become a feature of our landscape, rather than simply defaulting to urban areas in waiting and the planting of ever diminishing back yards and city parks.
Submerging would mean filling the gaps in our present pattern until we simply share one big homogeneous built-up area, knowing where we are by referring to public transport maps.
Either way, a a polycentric future has not featured among the options for Auckland's spatial planning in the past.  Whether this is better for the environment, the economy, or the community, and in what format, is yet to be tested.  But these options involve quite different ways of living and justify rigorous comparison before any one is elevated over the others.
As another alternative, we could revisit some of the ideas of an earlier generation of planners, more concerned with form than density.  They looked at the prospects for entirely new cities, one possibly to the southeast and another to the northwest. 

This may provide a real opportunity for applying ideas related to new urbanism, so much easier achieved in greenfields than through retrofitting.  Smaller cities lend themselves to greater efficiency and movement and foster local self-sufficiency.  In Auckland they could be designed with a sensitivity towards stunning local environments.  They have the capacity to create a greater sense of community than simply stacking apartments and offices around suburban and town centres across an urban canvas engineered for another era. 

Those old centres remain important, but refurbishment and redevelopment -- place making -- may best be achieved without the pressure to trample heritage by transforming them into continuous mini-metropolises.
In Sydney today yet another alternative is being floated: the possibility of encouraging future populations to move into the secondary cities, something that has already happened for a growing number of former Aucklanders heading for provincial centres. 

Sea and tree change is not simply an indulgence of the retired, it is becoming a real option across the board, with benefits to the households moving while easing the pressure – just a little so far – on the metropolitan areas they leave behind.  If we are really serious about thinking through the options, our spatial plan may have to deal the surrounding regions into play.
(2) What about the Central Business District?
What of our oldest and biggest centre, the CBD?  This is a bit of a puzzle.  The CBD has become the focus of attention, the assumed centre of the spatial plan.  It is certainly the centrepiece for visitors and business.  But is it the centre of Auckland life, or Aucklanders' lives, when the region is already decentralising?   

Take transport planning, for example.  Plans for public transport in particular continue to focus on getting people in and out of the CBD at peak work hours.  Yet how important is the CBD commercially?  It’s certainly not where most Aucklanders work, 81,200 out of a regional total of 621,000 in 2009.  This was 13.1% of the total, compared with 13.8% in 2000 (see diagram).  The equivalent figures in 2009 were 32% in Wellington and 18% in Christchurch.
Employment in the Auckland CBD, 2000-2009

In any case, the role of the CBD is changing.  It remains important in a number of key areas.  It still houses a quarter of the region’s hospitality employment and 7.5% of its retailing.  Both shares are falling, though.  Traditional strongholds such as financial and professional services have weakened.  Education has held its own thanks to a strong tertiary sector, and employment in arts and recreation has grown relative to the rest of the region.  But, clearly, the Auckland CBD is not the dominant job centre that it once was. 
And why should it be?  A strong metropolitan area needs to be built on strong communities and successful business.  In Auckland communities are diverse and dispersed, and clustered around a series of secondary centres.  It is in these urban hearths that different groups meet their day-to-day and week-to-week needs.  The CBD for them is only for occasional visits. 
Of course the CBD remains important as a visitor destination, as the symbolic centre of the region, and, in  Auckland’s case, the core of tertiary education.  A downtown port also reflects its historical legacy as an industrial centre, otherwise long gone.

But, how far should we continue to focus on an area which is potentially one of the least resilient parts of the city, with congested and aging infrastructure, and perhaps -- reclaimed from a swamp on the harbour edge -- may be most vulnerable to natural disasters? 
In thinking about a new city, the Royal Commission promoted the link between the CBD and the waterfront as a centrepiece of its ideas about Auckland's layout.  This emphasis has been carried through into the structure of the new council.  It is also where the government is playing its own hand most obviously with the new Waterfront Development Agency including central government representatives.
But, it is not where the majority of Aucklanders live, work and play.  For them, Auckland is about the surrounding suburbs, centres, and amenities.  This reality raises a whole lot more questions about Auckland's internal form than allowed under the current emphasis on the centrality of the CBD to key planning. 

It seems important that whatever urban form prevails and in whatever direction the city develops – and whatever future state is promoted in the spatial plan -- as much or more commitment is made to the secondary city centres, to suburban and town centres, to the villages and townships of metropolitan Auckland as to the CBD.

So what does this mean for a spatial plan?
In the final analysis, Auckland's future form is largely determined by what is here now.  But how we provide for the next decade or two will have a big impact on the quality of life.  And the choices and their consequences are not to be taken lightly. 

Harmony may not be achievable and conflict inevitable.  Despite this, we owe it to ourselves and future Aucklanders to make sure that all the options are given due and realistic consideration.  Past -- and current -- prejudices may not be our best guide to where we go from here.

1 comment:

MikeR said...

At the risk of opening my mouth and revealing a simplistic mind, the polycentric future that will inevitably feature in some citizen-driven future of Auckland's spatial planning is totally at odds with the desperate needs of a few multinationals keen to get corporate hands on three-quarters of the single-city income.

While one of the single-minded mayoral candidates banks on police security to gag a brighter candidate, preventing her sharing an intelligent commentary in His public superforum, we merely-human citizens are left to get on with creating villages as best we can in our preferred locations, adopting more Independent forms.