Friday, November 19, 2010

Auckland Spatial Plan – Part 2: What would I do?

A sideline view
In my previous blog I expressed a concern about over-inflating the spatial plan for Auckland – promoting it as the panacea for the region’s ills.  Equally, a deterministic an approach that seeks to enforce behavioural conformity by mapping a particular urban form onto the region is unlikely to be successful.
It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and criticise, though.  What if I had responsibility for designing a spatial plan for Auckland?  Fortunately, I don’t.  But without accountability it’s easy to offer advice.  So here goes.
Can we limit prescription?
I liked Ree Anderson’s light handed approach, one that focuses on function rather than form, and priorities rather than comprehensiveness.  That’s the approach I would like to follow, one starting with how places within the region work and recognises relationships among them. This is along the lines of the network model applied to Zurich over the years, which Shane commended to us.
In keeping with this approach, let’s limit prescription. Let’s develop a framework within which people and organisations can be creative in addressing the environmental, economic, and community issues they will face.
How?  Well, I accept there do have to be bottom lines to start with, no go areas around which the plan can be developed. Then we need to address how infrastructure and land-use might evolve to support whatever growth Auckland experiences, and, finally, think about turning the whole thing into a framework for reducing uncertainty and resolving growth issues as they arise. 
We still need bottom lines
The bottom lines are the immutable, non-debatable features the community wants preserved. They will be given weight by being defined sparingly. Beyond volcanic cones, ranges, estuaries, wetlands, and shorelines they might relate to regional parks and open spaces (a town belt would be good), cultural heritage, iconic structures, critical infrastructure, and hazard avoidance.  Many of them we know about already.  Others will emerge from listening to the community. 
We cannot afford to overdo them, though, because we should be prepared to spend what it takes to secure, enhance, and preserve our bottom lines.  Relying on regulation is an inferior option.  If we cannot afford it, it may not be a bottom line that we can justify.
Make sure our infrastructure is affordable
Infrastructure is critical to community, economy, and environment.  Network services such as electricity and gas, water supply, wastewater, and drainage need to be integrated to deliver on all three fronts.  Like the transport network, they must meet the diverse demands of business and residential communities within a constrained physical – and fiscal – environment. 
The spatial plan is the place to pin down the key trunk services and their possible extensions.  It is also the place in the spatial plan to highlight the region’s critical infrastructure lifelines.
Beyond that, though, we need not rush the detail or commit to unproven investment.  The real key with infrastructure is its efficiency.  Does a major commitment lead to a commercial return?  If not, does it generate sufficient benefit to justify public expenditure?  The alternative is monumentalism – extravagant infrastructure spending for dubious returns. 
If the demand for major investment does not materialise the outcome will be lower aggregate productivity.  Over-capacity or redundant public projects add to the fiscal deficit, create structural distortions, and undermine economic performance.  The larger a project and the more imprecise the rationale, the more suspicious we should be. 
So let’s be sparing in what new commitments are written in and ensure that ill-justified works are not imposed on Auckland simply by inclusion within the Spatial Plan. Significant initiatives should be subject to the disciplines of rigorous evaluation both in their own right and as part of an informed view of how Auckland might develop.
And how might Auckland develop?
Envisioning the future
Ree Anderson suggested differentiating between things that work for individual places and Auckland-wide themes.  The vision should be discriminatory, but founded on realistic priorities and not a vague wishlist.
I’m a technician, not a visionary.  So I go to observation and measurement as my starting point.  Let’s first map where people live and where they work, socialise, and play today.  What’s here now will dominate Auckland’s activity patterns over the next thirty years.  And what people are doing today should provide some guidance as to land use needs tomorrow. 
But we should also look hard at emerging values and behaviours. We should think about inter-generational change in needs, tastes, and attitudes. We need to look and listen to diverse views to expand insights about the future and avoid extrapolating the limits implicit in our own knowledge.
We will find that distinctive communities and settlements are already being carved out within Auckland.  The spatial plan may have to provide for an emergent localism, and avoid submerging community character with a preoccupation with densities rather than people and places.
The emergence of distinct communities raises interesting land use possibilities in terms of encouraging – and allowing – people to meet future needs in a series of urban and ex-urban villages each with its own character. 
Acknowledging the limits to our knowledge of the future
Of course, we also have to explore options for accommodating population and employment growth.  Any detailed forecast of either is bound to be wrong. That has been the recent experience. Instead, projections should be undertaken to ensure that we maintain options, rather than to fool us into closing options down because we think we know now all there is to know about the future.
Better to stick with principles and leave choices to be made by future decision-makers rather than to anticipate particular outcomes built on current behaviours and knowledge.
So where will we develop?
There is a contrast between centralised and decentralised settlement, and the current thinking presumes that the former will – or should – prevail over the latter.  But perhaps we should avoid policies that promote one over the other. We have been slow in Auckland to acknowledge the reality and challenge of simultaneous concentration and decentralisation.  We need to cater for both.
Decentralised development need not depend on expanding the urban edge, though, the option implicitly favoured by present policies.   It might occur instead through the growth of distinctive centres along major transport corridors within and beyond the current Metropolitan Urban Limit. 
The spatial plan cannot necessarily pick where ex-urban centres will be or how they will evolve over the next thirty years. It might try to signal some of the more obvious candidates – Pokeno and Drury in the south perhaps, Warkworth and Wellsford in the north, Waimauku in the west and Beachlands in the east.  Beyond that, it can simply set out the conditions under which new, efficient, and attractive settlements might emerge and be linked.  Fortunately, Auckland’s new governance structure has increased settlement options within what has become a large unitary authority.
The role of the spatial plan, then, might be to set out the conditions under which different land uses might proceed, rather than to say what can or should happen, and where. 
What sort of plan? The physical framework
Bottom lines, urban villages, outlying centres, lifeline infrastructure, and land use principles can be tied together in the spatial plan, not as an exhaustive overlay of zones but as a framework around which the city can evolve.  The plan might provide for a string of centres across a strong linear transport network, a range of villages within the existing urban fabric, separated by leafy suburbs and parks, an iconic CBD as the meeting place of Auckland’s peoples and cultures, and harbourside, and the infrastructure needed to support these diverse places.  
The keys, though, will be the linkages between functional centres, not the boundaries between zones, and the principles which might be observed in the interstices rather than rules stitched into a map.  The plan should almost certainly identify those special bits of Auckland where we are prepared to meet the cost of avoiding change.  Equally, though, it should highlight the extensive areas that remain from which the changing needs of a city of growing communities might be met in the future.  
The plan can be flexible rather than exhaustive, at least in the first instance, indicative rather than definitive, informed by principles rather than prejudice, and transparent in terms of where the costs and benefits of its elements fall.
It should leave the detail open, subject to continuing development in light of the circumstances, preferences, the means, and the views of the day.   
Opting for simplicity and structure in the spatial plan might well provide the best way for the council can meet its 2012 deadline.  And keeping the plan general but informed might be just enough to satisfy diverse interests and expectations without making commitments that prove problematic down the track.

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