Sunday, October 30, 2011

Auckland Draft Plan: Flying in the Face of Common Sense?

What Aucklanders Want
At last, a clear statement about the flawed nature of the draft Auckland Spatial Plan. It was on the leader page of the New Zealand Herald on Saturday, too.  Thanks, John Roughan, for pointing out the plan is to deliver what Aucklanders don’t need and don’t want.  Read it, and pass it on.  Perhaps send it in to Auckland Council as your submission on their plan. 
The article focuses on the plan’s fixation with rail and how it looks as if the plan is about creating a city to justify the transport system planners want, not what Auckland needs. 
But the problem of pushing a planning fad runs deeper than that.
Is not what the Council wants
Why do we need to transform one of the most liveable cities in the world into a compact city, something out of 1960s London or Chicago, or 1980s Portland. If young families or retiring baby-boomers have little housing choice other than medium density living in the CBD, around ageing commercial centres, and along busy arterial roads will they be celebrating living in Auckland?  And if what we’ve had so far by way of residential intensification is what we can expect in the future, there's a good chance they will be in poky apartments and shonky buildings with minimum public space, surrounded by traffic 24/7. 
Is this why we live in Auckland?  I know that if I want to live in a city apartment or central terrace, then it will be back to Sydney for me, or (if I was younger and ambitious) perhaps Singapore, or London, or New York.
But no, my family, me, and plenty of others prefer Auckland’s suburbs or exurbs, places close to, on, or beyond the urban edge.  Here we are not too far from a coast of variety and beauty, and a countryside of farms and villages, bush, birds, and hills.  Or suburbs and their parks and reserves, where the housing is varied, and people are enjoying the renaissance of small centres.  And where it is as easy to get into the countryside as the central city.
Why won’t the compact city just go away?
From the 1980s on Auckland Regional Council tried to contain Auckland.  Despite enlisting a string of international cheerleaders to push it and getting the idea endorsed in local government legislation in 2004, the Council acknowledged in a 2007 review of the Regional Growth Strategy (Growing Smarter) that it wasn’t working.  Sure, people were living in smaller houses (maybe because their choices were narrowing or households were getting smaller), but -- surprise, surprise -- not where the planners wanted them to. 
The medicine, they decided, needed to be stronger.  And stronger measures to enforce their ideas seem to be what the Draft Spatial Plan is administering, moving from medication to straitjacket. Even if the new Rural Urban Boundary (RUB) is a little more expansive than the former Metropolitan Urban Limit, the draft plan holds even less prospect of breaking out than there was with the MUL.
Doubling up
The plan calls for a tripling of the central city residential population – and density – and for 75% of the city’s entire growth between now and 2041 to be within the RUB.  This gives rise to around 40% increase in residential densities across the city. 
But of course, it won’t happen right across the city.  So where?  You’re neighourhood?  Well, if not, then everyone else will just have to put up with a bit more density and a little less open space.
In fact, there are likely to be large parts of Auckland where housing densities have to double.  Because land for housing will be at a premium, that just may be at the cost of green space and sunlight.  And you don’t need a social science degree or planning qualification to work out that this is least likely to happen on the leafy eastern slopes or in our pleasant coastal suburbs.
So why aren’t we shouting from the rooftops (while we can still see the view)?
This is a radical plan, heralding a transformation that few Aucklanders are likely to embrace.  So why so few submissions (143 at the last published count) on something so fundamental? The Mayor blamed this on our preoccupation with the World Rugby Cup. 
Maybe, but it’s more likely to be because the Draft Plan is dense, complicated and confusing.
Can we really discuss this document?
For a start, its 250 pages long, which most of us have to download.  It has four sections plus thirteen chapters.  It is largely bereft of analysis but does contains an avalanche of tags: one vision, six outcomes, eleven strategic directions and their core components, a four part high level development strategy, six principles, and five transformations.  And then there’s 52 targets, 47 priorities, 96 directives(!), and 232 actions – look at the table below.
Plus a Central City Master Plan with its own strategic direction, transformational moves, challenges, opportunities, and delivery.
What a busy council we will have when this lot goes through!

The Southern  Initiative
Auckland's Maori
Arts Culture Heritage
Auckland's Economy
Auckland's Environment
Auckland's response to Climate Change
Rural Auckland
Urban Auckland
Auckland's Housing
Auckland's Physical and Social Infrastructure
Auckland's Transport

This is hardly an effective way for a council to engage with its community. In fact, the draft includes a daunting five pages (including assorted flow charts) simply explaining how to be involved.  I wonder how many people have read them? 
But there’s more
Other reports have also been issued with or around the Draft Plan.  They should help illustrate where the plan is coming from.  So better read them, too.  Not that any are easy reading, and with the exception of the housing reports (which don’t really support the plan’s priorities anyway), the level of analysis is decidedly limited.
Here’s the list (as far as I can make out):
Residential Capacities
Policy Options for a Compact City
Technical Workstream: Housing
Auckland Unleashed: Discussion Document
Draft Economic Development Strategy
Background Paper Auckland Economic Development Strategy
Towards deriving a Central City Master plan
Total Pages

The real bite is in the Evidence Based Bibliography.  This lists 602 vaguely relevant and often obscure “reports” issued over the last decade held to inform the plan. 
What to do?
How can you make a meaningful submission on that lot?
Well, I think John Roughan got it right.  Just use a little common sense to tell them the plan is wrong.  We don’t want it.
Fiscally challenged
And I doubt that we can afford it.  The draft identifies around $31bn of known capital expenditure over the next 30 years (and flags a lot of spending it cannot provide the numbers for, much of it reliant on central government coming to the party).  And it’s not easy to follow the figures it does have.  They have a certain imprecision and don’t appear to include contingencies, or allow for the operating, maintenance, and depreciation costs the new projects will incur, so I may be underestimating them. 
Whatever the detail, this looks like a major fiscal challenge.  For what and for whom?  I have already pointed out the bias in the plan against where the overwhelming majority of people live and work (the suburbs, not the city centre). 
Its also a high risk plan, and if it fails to enhance the attractiveness of Auckland the fiscal downside will be so much the worse as there will be fewer households and businesses to fund the folly. 
Yes, a plan can be useful, just not this one
Sure, we need to align some decision making, rationalise bureaucracy, work out how to cater for growth in an orderly manner, and how we might use scarce public resources most effectively with the widest possible community benefit.  Yes, we need to boost our export in trade and services if Auckland is to be anything more than a centre of consumption (now there’s a transformation worth pursuing) but that’s about education and incentives.  We need a plan to help us deal with change.  But squeezing land use and pushing Think Big projects won't help.
City planning is about keeping costs down and connections up, the fundamentals of urban development.  This plan carries with it unnecessary costs and will threaten the local quality of life if it ever gets momentum.  We know that from the way the cost of investing in new houses and new factories has escalated in Auckland since we began toying with a compact city in the 1990s: home ownership has become that much harder, and employment performance that much weaker.
I can only echo John Roughan: save Auckland from this plan!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Central City Dreaming

Getting past the words
The Draft Auckland Plan is a daunting document – both in ambition and in presentation.  It covers a range of fields.  In what started out as a spatial planning exercise, Auckland Council boldly sets thirty year priorities for central government in areas like transport, health, and education; spells out what industry might do and how it might perform;  and promulgates its own long-term agenda in the areas of land use, urban design, and infrastructure.
So when we get past the vision, the photos, the charts, the the strategies, the principles, and directives, what does it all boil down to?
A central city manifesto
Well, in areas in which the council has direct accountability, it emerges to all intents and purposes as a central city manifesto.  A cynic might call it a bold attempt to boost inner city land values, potentially at the cost of ordinary, suburban ratepayers who will be called on to help fund its many CBD projects.
To try to pin down what the Plan really stands for, I examined the spending priorities.  Now we know these are indicative in most places, perhaps fanciful in some, but this is the best sign we have of where the Council’s priorities for us, and our children, lie. 
And when we look at where the priority area spend is targeted, it is clearly anchored to the CBD:
Priority Locations for Capital Expenditure: Draft Auckland Plan
Source: Table 12.3 Draft Auckland Plan
Of course, the further into the future we go, the more tentative this spending becomes. 
So let’s just take the first decade, 2011-2022: during this period 48% of the Council’s priority spending is targeted at the central city and water front.
Is it justified?
The area attracting the lion's share of spending, the area the Plan defines as the central city, [1] accounted for under 2% of the region’s population in 2009, although it did pick up 6% of growth in large part as a result of the boost in rental apartments in the middle of the decade.  It also accounted for 14% of Auckland’s employment and 11% of employment growth.
Turn these figures on their head: the rest of Auckland attracted 89% of population growth and 86% of job growth in the decade, but is lined up for only 52% of priority spending – much of that already committed by existing plans.  And this share falls to just a third if we add in all the figures through to 2040. 
While funding for the Council’s Southern Initiative is not pinned down in the Draft Plan and might adjust the balance slightly, that initiative focuses on strengthening children and families.  It depends largely on working with the relevant community and government agencies to meet social goals.  The Auckland Council is likely to act mainly as a civic champion for a needy community in the vacuum left by the demise of Manukau City Council.  It’s not clear what, if any, commitment to direct investment it might make in this space.
And there’s more
On the other side of the ledger, the priority projects listed do not include the $2.7bn investment planned for rail and transport improvements (which are listed instead under city-wide infrastructure improvements in Table 12.2).  These are an intrinsic part of the grand plan to revive the central city. 
Certainly these two projects are not yet funded, and may never justify funding in terms of demand, economics, or urban design.  But the fact remains that when we add them in to the mix the Draft Plan identifies close to $6bn planned by the Council for spending on the CBD over the next thirty years.  And that’s before we take account of such fundamentals as stormwater management, water supply, and wastewater infrastructure. 
It is not clear how much retrofitting will be required for these and other underground services. The recently reported  requirement for a $4.5bn spend to fix ageing stormwater infrastructure over 50 years (which is not obvious in the Plan, and does not include new capacity) represents the sort of bill that redevelopment of existing built-up areas incurs, especially in older, central areas.
How will it work?
Regardless of how we qualify the Draft Auckland Plan's numbers the bias in the vision is overwhelming.  And it is difficult to see this emphasis making Auckland a better place to live for the majority of its residents. 
The CBD is certainly improving as a place to visit as a result of investment that has gone into the waterfront, Aotea Square, and iconic events such as the Americas Cup regattas and the World Rugby Cup.  There is no doubt justification for more investment to make it even better. But there is a limit, especially if it comes at the cost of civic spending on more worthy projects that can be enjoyed by more people on a day-to-day basis, or if it unduly increases the community's exposure to high rates and charges. 

The CBD pre-eminence bestowed by the Plan shows limited appreciation of where most Aucklanders live, work, and play, and what might be required to make our suburbs more attractive
A high risk vision?
A key driver of the Plan's great CBD expectations is anticipation of an unprecedented population boost.  Chapter 8 of the Draft suggests that between 2006 and 2040 the population in the central city could increase by 340%, from 23,000 to 78,000.  This lies between 14% and 18% of projected region-wide growth, quite a turn-around.
It also raises some interesting issues. 
For a start, there are no strong grounds to expect Aucklanders to embrace the increase in housing densities that would result, from around 20 to over 70 households per hectare (more or less, depending on average household size), especially given the environmental and social issues such a strategy raises in an intensively developed area of mixed use. 
Second, there are real question marks over the capacity to deliver at a reasonable cost the 25,000 to 30,000 new dwellings implied in an environment where land assembly and remediation costs are high; infrastructure is constrained, ageing, and expensive; planning and consenting are traditionally tortuous; where dependence on medium density housing will push up construction costs; and where there is also an expectation for a revival in employment numbers. 
Third, it raises real questions over the resulting conflicts between the requirements of residents – for space, security, and residential ambience – and visitors.  The latter comprise a large student population, office, hospitality, and service workers, and visitors to recreational and cultural facilities, all of whom make quite different demands on the built environment.  And this is an area where there were already 86,000 employees in 2009 (although that was down 4% on 2007).

Fourth, it concentrates even more people and activity in a part of Auckland that is most vulnerable to the impacts of natural hazards, with a concentration of ageing commercial buildings at risk from earthquake activity, a significant area of reclaimed land prone to liquefaction, and low lying areas, including key arterial routes and lifelines, subject to storm surge flooding or even tsunami-based inundation.  While the probability of these events is low, the relative impact of any one of them will be high in the central city. 

How far, then, are the risks factored into the Draft Plan prescription: the risks of market resistance, commercial failure, economic inefficiency, land use conflict, and the impact of extreme events?
At least it’s a draft
In trying to create a CBD that might be all things to all people the Draft Plan may fall between stools.  Visionary planning certainly calls for imagination, but imagination tempered by clarity of means and ends, and a little more than a small dash of realism. 

The CBD can be a great place, but that need not be at the expense of heartland Auckland.  And if we do not maintain the attraction of our suburban spaces, and make it easy for people to meet their work and lifestyle aspirations we may not get the growth required to support plans for the city as a whole, let alone to support the resources this council plans to pour into the CBD.
The Draft Plan is a useful snapshot of what the politicians and advisors want – now it’s time to take seriously what the people are likely to prefer, and what they might be able to afford, and shape our civic spending plans accordingly. 

[1] Auckland Central, East and West, Freeman’s Bay and Newton Census Area Units.  The latter two are traditionally excluded from definition of the CBD, but are included to bring the 2006 population estimate up to the Plan figure of 23,000 people.