Thursday, November 18, 2010

Auckland Spatial Plan – 1: A Plan for all Seasons

Resolving issues of governance, sustainability, economic development, etc, etc, etc
Building on the suggestion of an international review panel that Auckland should have just One Plan, the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance promoted the spatial plan as a unifying and integrating element for the region’s development under a single council.  The Commission commenced with the modest aim that the spatial plan would be “the starting point for the protection of Auckland’s environment and its heritage and the development of good urban design” (p199). 
However, it then set very high expectations for what the plan might achieve.
First, it suggested that the plan would “inform Auckland’s social and economic strategies, the regional policy statement and district plan developed under the Resource Management Act 1991, and specific service delivery strategies” but then it said that it should “coordinate plans for growth, economic development, and social well-being” (347).  It recommended an ambitious 30 to 50 year time frame. 
The Commission further stated that the spatial plan should:  
analyse population, households, employment, major social infrastructure, open space networks, city-shaping infrastructure of roads, rapid transit, transport services, active transport networks including pedestrians and cyclists, water, wastewater, and stormwater networks, and major energy lines. It should identify the green and ecological network of the region, and areas that should be protected from all development and their natural values enhanced. It should identify growth areas for the region to accommodate urban population, and household and economic development, specifying timing, priority, methods, and agencies involved. The plan would address sustainability, outstanding urban design, a more efficient energy future, climate-resilient development, and the creation of cohesive communities” (531).
It said what tools should be used to prepare the plan, and proposed that it be informed by existing plans and by the new council’s own vision for Auckland, presuming concordance among them.  
It said that the Plan should feed “into the funding plans for key infrastructure (public transport, water, wastewater, stormwater, community facilities)”.  It would inform and be reinforced by an infrastructure plan for the region and be a tool for setting and enforcing Metropolitan Urban Limits. 
The compact city option
Peter Winder, CEO of the now defunct Auckland Regional Council outlined his take on Auckland’s spatial plan in September this year. He illustrated the incremental expansion of the urban area in the past, and its relationship to increasing mobility and an expanded transport network.
Peter highlighted the role of urban limits in planning for growth.  Initially, they were a tool for managing urban expansion.  Generous limits were drawn up in the 1950s in association with a commitment to major road network expansion.  Among other things, they helped open the north of the region to urbanisation following the construction of the Harbour Bridge.
In the 1970s, with revised planning legislation and growing economic uncertainty, a new concern to protect New Zealand’s primary sectors saw a hardening of metropolitan limits in a bid to preserve agricultural land in the region.
The rationale shifted again under the Resource Management Act 1991 as under the influence of Smart Growth proselytisers from North America, the Metropolitan Urban Limits (MUL) took on a life of their own in the interests of "sustainability".  No longer were they simply a tool for protecting valued rural or natural areas, but now they were an instrument for containing and reshaping the urban community.
To some commentators, this has been the source of problems – high cost land and poor housing affordability, a disincentive to industrial investment, traffic congestion and air pollution.  While there has been little definitive analysis to establish their merits in Auckland, MULs have been widely adopted as an urban planning tool.
Peter suggested that options for Auckland's future revolve around the pace at which expansion continues. Under these circumstances, the MUL would remain the defining feature of the spatial plan, whether that is the intention or not.
It was certainly explicit in the Royal Commission’s own policy stance:
“One of the key tools to secure a sustainable future for Auckland is to identify appropriate boundaries for urban expansion. The spatial plan will identify locations within existing urban areas where “densification” is appropriate in order to make public transport viable. Increasing sprawl would have an undermining effect on the provision of public transport and could make improvement unaffordable. Dense cities use less energy per person than the more dispersed model. For these reasons, the MUL is a key policy and the consequent control of land use will require significant enforcement efforts”.
This line of argument raises a number of questions. Despite the assertion that denser cities use less energy per resident, the costs and benefits of enforcing higher densities remains contested.  In any case, promoting land use plans to sustain a public transport preference smacks of the tail wagging the dog, a dangerous posture when public transport requires significant subsidy and its long term energy advantages remain unproven.
In any case, good public transport can lift long-distance commuting, enabling more people to dwell further from the centre.  This is not necessarily conducive to higher densities.  And given that commuting is a diminishing share of total transport use – and that public transport is an inferior option for non-commuting travel – the resulting dispersal may increase total transport demand .  
Peter’s options for the spatial plan echo the Royal Commission's argument.  They suggest that the rate of sprawl across the urban edge might be dictated only by the extent to which development can be forced upwards, and that this is desirable on the grounds that the higher the density the slower the pace of urban sprawl and the greater the prospect for viable public transport. 
Other than promoting increased densities, though, and protecting the obvious no-go areas, there is no sense of real changes or choices in the way we might live and work in Peter’s alternative maps.  Those that can afford nothing better will be confined to medium-rise living in crowded centres, and the others will do what they can to secure a place in existing suburbs, force their way over the city edge, or pick up a high amenity apartment on a central ridge-line or on the harbour edge.
Defending the city ramparts (keeping the hordes in rather than out) to support public transport is promoted as the means to shape infrastructure, dictate how we work and live, and incidentally, slow down an undifferentiated and undistinguished vision of growth by overspill.  Is that really what Aucklanders want?
Getting Real
I have raised concerns about Auckland’s spatial plan in previous blogs.   If it is seen as a panacea for all Auckland’s challenges – governance, sustainability, urban design, resource management, economic growth, community development – as the Commission seemed to think, the plan is bound to disappoint. 
The expectation that spatial regulation will determine economic and social behaviour echoes a long-discredited environmental determinism paradigm.  Its inadequacies have been well illustrated in the tortuous process of defending the 1999 Regional Growth Strategy with its own map and boundaries, and the long struggle since in getting Policy Change 6 in place so that the Regional Policy Statement might more effectively enforce this somewhat confined view of the world.
From ideology to expediency
We actually have the chance now to be more realistic in terms of what might be achieved through a spatial plan (and its bedfellow, the unitary district plan) and more pragmatic in our approach. Rather than defend our past positions,we might allow for the complexities of community and economic development and for the uncertainties that surround the future of housing demand, where we work, and where we play.
The Council’s commitment to completing the spatial plan quickly reflects a pragmatism and recognition, among other things, that any significant initiatives it might raise will need to be reflected in the Long Term Council Community Plan.
But haste also has its risks if expediency rather than reason prevails.  It could amount to little more than a recycling of a dated compact city paradigm; or designed simply to deliver the silver bullet of infrastructure spending.  It could inadvertently set up a master plan for locking down land use; or simply promote a planners’ view of how people should be obliged to live, a plan locked into the here and now of conventional wisdom.  That's what we need to avoid.
A framework for moving forward
Ree Anderson, Manager, Regional, Community & Cultural Strategy recently presented her thoughts on spatial planning to the New Zealand Planning Institute. In quoting the Torremolinos Charter she potentially turned two decades of spatial determinism in Auckland on its head:
Spatial planning gives geographical expression to the economic, social, cultural and ecological policies of society.
She brings four key components to the fore: balanced socio-economic development, an improved quality of life, responsible management of the environment, including built environment and heritage, and a rational land-use plan.  In effect, the spatial plan should be a reflection of society’s aspirations as these might be translated into policy, and not imposed on them to reflect a particular ideology or normative view of development.
Rather than proffering maps as options for her audiences to consider, she has invited responses around three possible elements of a spatial plan:
(1)    Big budget priorities – what public investments are needed, and where?
(2)    Place-based priorities – what needs to be done for individual localities?
(3)    Region wide themes – what needs to be done to make the region as a whole work better?
The notion of building up the spatial plan from understanding the physical limits to development, the communities’ aspirations, and the emerging character of local places, and those matters that require a region-wide perspective seems preferable to seeking region-wide conformity in development within a map of boundaries.
Keeping an open mind rather than extrapolating past preconceptions and practice is more likely to enable the region to deal with uncertainty and change.  Identifying what needs to be done and how – and what sits beyond the bounds of reasonableness – is likely to be more efficient and effective than exhaustive and fixed – and inevitably imperfect – prescriptions of land uses .  Getting the bare bones together, the foundations for planning, rather than trying to lock-down the future in master plan makes a lot of sense.
I might just try to respond to Ree’s challenge in my next posting.

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