Thursday, March 24, 2011

Desperately Seeking Submissions

The clock is running
Auckland Council issued a discussion document yesterday seeking public input into the Auckland Plan.  It sets out “ideas and initial proposals” and a series of questions.  It asks for responses by the end of May.  There will also be consultation after the plan is drafted in June. 
I’m not going to say anything about the merits of the ideas in the Document – but you might care to look at the New Zealand Herald’s initial take on it here. But I do have some thoughts on the nature of engagement with the people for whom the plan is being prepared.  Seeking submissions in response to a discussion document follows a familiar but not especially encouraging path.
Getting the public to endorse our plans
Growth management strategies are intended to promote the quality of life.  They are justified on the grounds of enhancing liveablity and strengthening communities.  Such high-sounding outcomes sit among other laudable objectives: reducing vehicle emissions and fuel consumption, improving housing affordability, increasing opportunities for walking and cycling, promoting public health, improving urban efficiency, and protecting agricultural land.
It’s hard to disagree with such outcomes.  It must be comforting for the public to read that they are all there for the taking if people will embrace policies aimed at increasing urban densities.
After all, what citizens would endorse a plan that included among its outcomes higher costs for overloaded infrastructure?  Or a lower quality of life, increased congestion, and concentrated pollution?  Or reduced mobility and congestion making it harder to get to work; or urban form that increases the prevalence of heart attacks or diabetes?
In other words, the authors of discussion documents almost inevitably contain the debate and shape its outcomes with the options and questions they present.  So when the document indicates that, say, Option B – usually the compact one –will deliver the goodies, why not just tick the box and be done with it?
The Preference Paradox
But then, why don’t all those people who ticked it go and live in smaller dwellings, closer together, and walk or catch the bus to the shops, the movies, or work if that’s what Option B is all about?  Unfortunately, while the majority might say “Yes, that’s how it should be done” only a minority translate that into their personal behaviour.
Of course, that’s a bit on an over-simplification.  Whether the favoured growth management tools of the last twenty years  – which are usually about making the city more compact – can deliver on the outcomes claimed for them is a moot point, not one I am going to go into here. 
However, there is an interesting paradox at work which frustrates those planning outcomes: what people say is not necessarily reflected in what they do[1].  And as long as people resist the rules that they seemed to support in submissions, then those rules will not even be tested.
NIMBYism is the reality
So what is it that goes wrong?  Well, we shouldn’t be surprised by a tendency to behave in ways which prioritises personal or family benefits over collective community benefits.  We are also familiar with NIMBYism – resistance to change in one’s own backyard, change which we are nevertheless happy to see others wear.  Or perhaps people tick the box in expectation that the better public transport Option B promises means that with more people taking the train they will be able to drive to work quicker.
Why don’t planners take the reality of apparently contradictory behaviours into account when they write plans or draft options?  Or why not plan for real behaviour?  Or find ways to encourage the adoption of more “socially responsible” behaviour?  Pricing comes to mind as an option, along with education. 
(To be fair, planners and policy makers do promote education as one of the tools in the toolbox, but usually adopted somewhat half-heartedly and almost always after regulation).
Are planners disengaged?
The answer may be that planners are just not very good at identifying with the community.  Planning is intrinsically patronising.  As planners, we favour prescription based on principles that are no more than abstractions or feel-good statements in the minds of the people we address them to. 
Engaging with the public in planning is frequently too structured and calculated to offer true insight into how communities work, their spontaneity, emotionalism, irrationality, inconsistency, diversity.  This shows in discussion documents which encapsulate and simplify planners’ views of how the world should work.  That’s not surprising; by definition planners premeditate, calculate, extrapolate, and prescribe.  We seek generalisations to make sense of disorder.  We dismiss the outliers and focus on the averages.  We try to reduce the chaos and dismiss the exceptions. 
That’s not to knock what planners try to do.  It is important to see and respond to patterns, distill movements , and paint the big picture.  But let’s not be surprised when the formulaic plans, the orderly maps, and the rational rules that we impose on our disorderly society don’t produce the results we hoped for.  When we get down to implementing our plans, we better have listened very carefully to what people are saying and not just to how they react to what we say.
Just occasionally we may have to think like the communities we work for; decide when to accept apparent disorder and when some bottom lines are needed; when can we allow for individualism and diversity and when collective needs (including environmental needs) should prevail.
Seeking submissions: the end point of engaging the community
This is all a long-winded way of saying that seeking submissions on options is a highly constrained if not distorted way of engaging with the community on development matters.  It will not reveal people’s preferences.  It is no basis for understanding behaviour.  And it will not tell us how people, households, and businesses will respond to our plans.
Submission-based engagement constrains dialogue, limits public input, and stifles creativity.  It plays to the articulate, active, and informed.  Responses are self-selecting, often self-serving, and unrepresentative. 
At the very best, submissions can be used to check that our draft plans reflect what the community has already said it wants or could live with.  But first those questions have to be asked.  People need to be listened to before they are quizzed.  And seeking open-ended information from communities requires entirely different methods of engagement from submission-seeking if planners (and the politicians who employ them) are going to win the trust and occasionally the compliance of the communities they serve.  

[1]               Of course, that goes for the planners and policy-makers, too, many of whom live on or beyond the city edge (or enjoy coastal second homes) while prescribing intensification for the average citizen.


Mark said...

I haven't had a chance to go through in detail yet - but previous plans lacked a proper analysis of key current drivers. eg how much land does business need? what type of land? where are future growth in businesses going to come from? type/needs etc

Planners usually have no real world commercial experience, and few ways of researching it. They tend to concentrate on what they know ie residential life and cbd office work.

The population won't grow if jobs don't grow.

They also don’t seem to understand the issue around the aging community. Key to this document should be a very good understanding of what the retirement industry intends to do. Will they build low rise 3ha fringe type retirement centres? Or will they do inner suburb apartments/medical? what are the economic constraints on them? eg land building cost in apartment areas.

And lot of "growth" can be accommodated without bowling suburban properties, by getting single retired people out of 4 bedroom bungalows and into apartments in their own suburbs.....

Re Nimbyism - that is a simple way people have been attacked for protecting their residential amenity and property rights. And is the last resort for the unprepared planner.....

Finally what's the real issue? if we're already 5th most liveable city, what's the point in saying we're going to be more "liveable" - what really is the marginal benefit of getting to no. 1? and at what cost. And why emulate the housing supply of much lower cities? wouldn't that drop us down that scale?

I agree planners should identify trends and support them where appropriate - but they won't "create" anything.

Their growth plans often target the poor, ie west or south. Ak city did that with Panmure. Brown is protecting South Auckland now, but they don't target the Shore/East Auckland......(based on media summaries)

Consultation from Council's is always a sham. consultation at the end of preparing a document is just "explaining"

Phil McDermott said...

I haven't been though the document in any detail yet, either, although from what I see its the same old same old ...
The world is changing around us though, and I would expect to see a drift back towards higher density living in some quarers. Unfortunately, the plannnig we have had for the past decade or so may not cater so well for that, though. When peak oil and ageing really bite the question will be which suburbs will be transformed and how, not how many people are going to live in or around the CBD and secondary targets. I'm not sure how well the plan provides for that (e.g., what about the Hibiscus Coast?) and could easily compound the problem of mis-specifying future public transport needs through pouring public money into rail with its focus on the CBD (just 12% of the region's employment)and the inflexibility and limited reach of fixed lines.

I think you are right about NIMBYism: people do have a right to protect their property rights and amenity expectations. Plans(and compensation) need to be compelling to justify whoelsale transformation of people's neighbourhoods - and lives.

Mark said...

I agree the world is changing. Including employment patterns and technology.

I primarily work from home, and generally use phone conferencing for meetings (allows me to multi-task while others drone on:) )

hence life-style will become more important.

Everyone targets the well educated/productive employees IT/science etc etc - what are their drivers? They are an international commodity, and will generally earn international level financial rewards.

I suspect if you looked at these people, they would put education for their children as the top priority. Then work challenge/interest/lifestyle.

So having a top education system available to them is key. May not matter whether public or private.

But this is where we can get conflicted policy - with intensification around Grammar, we've seen the rolls expand drastically, and a lot of parents have gone off the school.

On the Nimby front - re-zoning is not going to be pretty. Developers will pick off what they can - whack up 3-4 floors. The house next store is then devalued. the planners use nice artwork showing a constant form. But in reality it may take 20years of mess/downgraded amenity for many, until that is realised.

the other paradox is affordability. If you restrict/ration land, prices rise. Unless you have exceptional economic growth they become unaffordable, and we end up with poor quality as the compromise.

I've always argued first examples of intensification shouldn't be Panmure but Remuera!

Andrew Atkin said...

Lots of good points in this post thank you Phil.

I think planners need to base their research/plans primarily on the question "How do you want to live" as opposed to "How do want everyone else to live".

It would be a much more honest (and effective) form of demand-responsive planning, I believe.

Anonymous said...

I often get the impression that commentators believe that decisions that politicians make are the direct result of proposals that planners recommend. In my opinion, more often than not, politicians pick the bones out of informed decision making and leave a sort of half mess that the planners involved in the process then get blamed for. Many planners, myself included, believe intensification should be enabled where accessibility is high, good amenity and views are available and where land values support it. However, many politicians believe that intensifying in these areas, while a reasonable idea, will only upset their most supportive constituents with a risk that they would have them out on their arse in 3 years. Conversely, politicians sometimes believe they can "assist" poorer communities by intensifying them in terms of high density housing and related investment.

Phil McDermott said...

I work to model of decision making that sees councillors/governors as the people we elect to make decisions in the public interest (or int he interest of the corporation they govern in the private sector) based on imperfect information.

There are three broad sources of information that councillors need to respond to: (1) the wishes of the community at large (consultation, engagement, lobbying), (2) managerial knowledge (of the law, finance, charter, organisational capacity, etc) which will constrain what can be done; and experts (planners, enginers, scientists of various sorts).

The latter group rarely agrees on the hard issues (as you know from the Environment Court) and none of them have a monopoly on wisdom, let alone "the truth".

The councillors are faced with a difficult balancing act, then. Hopefully, they can work through this and make decisions by listening carefully, discussing openly, and deliberating responsibly -- together. Collective bodies generally achieve a level of wisdom that individuals don't.

Unfortunately, some elected members(although not as many as in the past) believe they are there to exercise their prejudices or represent a particular viewpoint rather than to make informed decisions.

Their task can be made easier (1) if there are clear lines of delegation which mean they are not distracted by areas in which they do not need to be involved (i.e., more straightforward, routine decisions or implementation of decisions already made); and (2) if they are presented with choices which reflect, perhaps, the diversity of community wants and needs, differences in expert views, and simply the uncertainty that planning and policy must deal with; and (3) if they are informed by some collective ideology (including various shades of left or right)which provides some consistency of direction and effectively simplifies decision making.

Whether or not the decisions made are the "right" ones we can only really gauge by hindsight - hence I favour conservative decisions when, for example, large sums of money are involved, large sections of the community will be impacted, or environmental risks are large.

As a planner myself, and having been involved in giving a bit of advice over the years (and having to implement very little of it!) my view is that we inform decisions to the best of our professional and analytical ability and our knowledge, but cannot assume that we would make better decisions than those we inform!

And as far as intensification goes, we all too often try to provide a neat package with all the loose ends tied off when the world (and particular the consumers of housing) does not work like that.

But I very much agree with your notion of enabling (rather than enforcing) and promoting intensification where the amenity values and views justify it. Unfortunately, the experience is that higher density housing cannot often be justified financially on such sites: it is too expensive for the majority of the market except for very high value harbourside apartments). Cost is why we end up so often with inferior apartments on inferior (often brownfield) sites.

From a physical point of view, medium-rise apartments lining the waterfront (Waterfront Drive, East Coast Bays) below the cliff edge would make a lot of sense - more people enjoying Auckland's real amenity values. I can't see it happening in a hurry.