Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Crossing the urban-rural divide

The edge – always in transition
The urban-rural divide preoccupies planners and politicians.  It is where city and country meet.  It is where countervailing forces create an area in permanent transition.  It is not an area easily defined, but is marked by its distinctive mix of activities and a continuously  changing landscape . 
Here traditional investment in rural enterprise may decline in anticipation of future urbanisation.  Or, rural production is compromised by pressures from urban people and their needs, while the physical environment is reshaped by urban expectations. 
Conversely, the urban-rural edge may be where extensive farming gives way to intensive horticulture to satisfy city consumers.  Or urban capital dabbles in new forms of production, displacing the old.  Where urban refugees stimulate demand for services to replace those lost as a result of declining traditional activity.  And where rural conservation may be championed by urban interests.
The result of all this is not the new and brash dislodging the old and valuable, as the more conservative planners would have us believe.  It is more about the inevitably changing and often contested nature of rural activity in the shadow of the city.
Governing beyond the urban edge
While a city’s hinterland may have some characteristics considered urban, and while urban refugees boost rural population , the character of the divide is definitely not urban.  I have argued already that governance of urban and rural areas should differ to reflect their  different needs and values. 
It was illogical for the architects of Auckland’s new city to lump 14,680ha of rural land onto 1,630ha of urban land.  An extensive area of a mainly rural nature should not be governed by predominantly metropolitan politicians, managed by predominantly metropolitan managers, or planned by predominantly metropolitan planners.
In this posting I confront the argument that because the urban area depends on services delivered from the rural area they should be administered as one. 
Crossing the boundaries
The reliance of a metropolitan area on its hinterland for food, water, waste disposal, and recreation doesn’t justify governing them as one.  Cross-boundary issues – issues that affect parties on both sides of the divide – can be dealt with by means other than amalgamation. 
Rural hinterlands have always accommodated urban infrastructure.  And with corporatised services, there is even less need for producers to sit within the same administrative boundaries as users. 
Drawing water from the Waikato River, for example, does not mean that Auckland Council should have authority over local government in the Waikato region.  Similarly, waste disposal often takes place across boundaries. Catchment and drainage issues across jurisdictions can be readily handled by collaboration, especially as the technical capacity for monitoring and management improve. 
What about recreation?
City dwellers make use of the surrounding countryside for recreation.  But does this justify placing country and coast within the same administrative boundaries as a densely settled urban area?
Rural communities the world over cater for day visitors .  Hopefully, they take good care of the local environment and local community in doing so.  There is a good incentive .  The visitor industry provides income and employment that complements other rural business.  It supports commercial and community services that might not otherwise survive. 
Planning in these areas can ensure that their appeal is not undermined by a degraded environment.  There is no need for city boundaries to swallow our rural playgrounds to achieve that, though. 
Anyway, Aucklanders’ recreation impacts stretch well beyond even the new boundaries.  Was it considered that the holiday destinations of Coromandel or the Bay of Islands should be included in the city on these grounds?  Course not.  So the rural the playground argument does not justify Auckland’s exaggerated boundaries.
Are they really Auckland’s regional parks?
What about responsibility for regional parks?  Aucklanders have funded regional parks scattered widely across the rural hinterland, a legacy of the Auckland Regional Council.  Most are well removed from the urban area.  The Hunua and Waitakere ranges alone provide 34,600ha of reserve land (50km south and 25km west of the CBD respectively).  They include protected and restricted water catchments, significant bushland areas, and recreational facilities. 
If we place the water catchment reserves aside aside, rural areas still account for 79% of the balance of 4,900ha of regional parks.  Unfortunately, most are remote and hard to get to.  40% by area are north of the metropolitan edge.  The seven parks north of Orewa average 90-km from the CBD.
The parkland focused on the Firth of Thames (18% of the total), to the east, is not a lot more accessible, with five parks there an average of 70km from the CBD.
What were they thinking?
Despite a policy of containing urban development to reduce travel demand, the ARC invested heavily in remote, car-dependent parks.  Where is the consistency in that?

Look at the following diagram which compares visitor numbers in 2007 with the location of the 17 main parks.  Parks more than 50km away from the CBD tend to be much less patronised than the others, so may not be serving the purpose they were intended for. 

If they were intended for conservation  purposes, should the ARC should have been acquiring and running them at all?  The same goes if remote park locations were justified by an expectation that they would cater for users from outside Auckland. 
If the real priority is creating recreational and educational experiences for Aucklanders, then we need to think more seriously about developing truly urban parks and forget about acquiring large swathes of remote country and coast. 
Rethinking our countryside parks
Now that we have reformed Auckland’s governance – for better or worse – it may be time to rethink ownership and funding of non-urban parks.  In many countries national and state agencies take responsibility for major parks outside urban areas .  This can resolve issues around purpose, funding, and partisanship. 
Now that we don't have a regional council the Department of Conservation could perhaps take responsibility for acquiring significant parkland outside Auckland urban area (and elsewhere).  It would mean a reorientation of priorities and perhaps increased funding.  It recognises that the benefits of iconic parks are national rather than just regional. 
We could be even more creative.  Gary Taylor, long an advocate for coastal protection, has set up the New Zealand Coastal Trust, for example.  The aim is to provide for voluntary mechanisms and cooperation among agencies to acquire and protect significant coastal land, including areas long considered the holiday playgrounds of city dwellers.  The Karori Sanctuary Trust in Wellington is a great example of volunteerism restoring as well as preserving an important wildlife park close to the urban area, in this instance.  
Maybe we should think more about growing the involvement of civil society as a partner with government in conserving our favourite natural and recreational areas outside our cities.
The city council looking after its citizens
The reform of Auckland’s governance, even if the boundaries are flawed, provides an opportunity to rethink the governance, funding, and management of valued rural and coastal areas in the city's hinterlands.  A starting point might be clarification of the role and use of regional parks.  A finishing point might be a new agency taking over responsibility for running and expanding them.
Auckland Council can then concentrate on what needs to be done on the urban side of the divide.  This may even be an opportunity for developing a more extensive and accessible greenscape within metropolitan boundaries, rather than seeking simply to extend urban values into nearby rural areas. 


Anonymous said...

I was sent a link to your site as an example of evidence based planning - but I cannot see a stronger level of evidence in this document than in those emanating from council planners. I'd be interested to know why your views are seen as evidence based?

Phil McDermott said...

Fair question. I guess the implication that other planners don’t use evidence is a bit strong. But much of what I see as evidence in planning is little more than received knowledge with little critical analysis or consideration of context. Sometimes a host of data and documents might be cited in support of a policy, but of limited relevance to the policy it ostensibly supports, or with the steps between what it shows and the policy prescription obscure.
I try to publish opinions only in areas in which I have done original work to inform them, or where I am familiar with relevant secondary analyses (e.g., Heyward Sanders in the recent discussion of the performance of convention centres. And I did once – some time ago – look at the size distribution of conventions, and have been involved in a company conducting conferences in Asia).
On occasion, I include original data in my blogs or analysis that may be worth putting out there (e.g., analyses of Auckland economic performance or the distribution of regional parks in the rural area).
Incidentally, I have done a lot of work in peri-urban and related matters relevant to this blog, and am familiar with a reasonable amount of the relevant literature
That’s not to say that these opinions shouldn’t be tested, or contested. But there is a limit to what I can post. As it is my blogs are a bit wordy. Like this comment.

Anonymous said...

Great posts phil - how about a city shot of Wellington ?

Phil McDermott said...

Google Earth tells a story: a city contained by its geography ... where urban form and urban design have come together pretty nicely in the capital, on the waterfront, and around the town belt. Still perhaps a way to go in the arterial coastal settlements to the north but topography creates a character that even edgy development cannot destroy.

Now about planning for resilience ...