Take what you have gathered from coincidence
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
Bob Dylan (from It’s all over now, Baby Blue 1965)
Citizens risingThe suburban rumbling is turning into a roar: the citizens are finally having their say over a plan that was never going to work for them.
Council politicians– well some of them – have been leading the charge for a compact city, but dealing with the communities directly affected has tended to fall to local board members, and to the planners. And it is the resistance that they are encountering rather than the shortcomings of the plan that might lead to a rethink, and perhaps to a plan rooted in the city’s geography and its communities rather than one built on the sand of grand visions.
Is planning the problem?Increasingly planners and planning law (the Resource Management Act) are copping the flak for unaffordable housing and an unpopular plan. Is that fair?
It’s certainly easy to target particular groups and processes, like planners and planning, when things go wrong, and polarise the dicussion. But the issues generally run deeper than that as values, beliefs and expectations become institutionalised, and once-progressive institutions become conservative. Hence, it’s hard to accept the suggestion by Bryce Julian, President of the New Zealand Planning Institute, that all that was lacking was time that the big picture painted for Auckland was fine but politicians have not allowed their planners the time to get the detail right.
Planning as doctrine rather than reason?That’s a bit of a condemnation of planning in its own right. If we don’t get the big picture right first, how can we expect the detail to fall into place? If the spatial plan is shaky, the fine grain is not going to shore it up.
It seems the Auckland spatial plan reflects planning based on broad assumptions rather than evidence (unless we count hearsay and groupthink as evidence), underwritten by proselytising on the international speaking circuit by planners and academics seeking to globalise their particular North American or European experiences, experiences that are increasingly irrelevant in terms of global urbanisation and removed from the Auckland situation.
How good was the advice?Perhaps it’s not the Auckland planners’ fault that politicians run too hard and too fast with their advice. But by not emphasising the shaky nature of the evidence for their preferred approach to Auckland’s growth, by not pointing out that after two decades of pushing by the Auckland Regional Council the compact city failed to gain traction, and by failing to warn politicians that their big picture solution was bound to be unpopular locally the planners may have fallen short.
Too little, too lateAnd the claim that the plan is based on “best analysis” is a little hard to swallow. As late as 21 May, just ten days before submissions on the Draft Unitary Plan close, the Council requested expressions of interestfor a study on the costs of growth – to be finished in six weeks.
The objectives for that study are not reassuring. It appears to be about finding some evidence to underwrite “a view”.
For some time there has been a view, supported by Council’s Transport, Water and Wastewater CCOs, that it is more costly to service development at or beyond the urban edge of Auckland than it is to service development within it. There is some evidence supporting the view on development location in international studies but no specific work has been done for Auckland. In addition there is growing acceptance that different dwelling types place different demands on infrastructure.
Methodologically it’s a worry as well. While it’s good that the importance of marginal costing is recognised (it wasn’t in the analysis behind the 1999 Auckland Regional Growth Strategy), the approach appears a little naïve:
The Auckland Cost of Growth Study will examine the respective costs of new development at inner and outer urban locations. The study will assess the marginal cost of development of one new dwelling in a particular location compared to another. This will be supported by an agreed standard dwelling unit measure.
Urban development (and housing) costs vary substantially according to the scale of development from place to place, its timing relative to construction of new infrastructure or the rehabilitation of old, densities, construction design and materials, site qualities, whether in green-fields or brown, proximity to work, distribution of community, recreational, and social amenities, and so on. How meaningful can a single “standard dwelling unit” be under these circumstances?
It cannot be done.Information on the relative costs and performance of different forms of development should be undertaken at the outset of a planning exercise, not when the ink is all but dry. It requires input from civil engineers, infrastructure operators, and development professionals as well as competent economists. And that’s before we even begin to think about externalities.
Coming now, this study looks like a catch up job. And what happens to the unitary plan if the results do not support the model being promoted by the council and its planners?
Can we generalise on the costs of growth?I’m reluctant to draw on precedents. However, I have reviewed a number of studies of the economics of urbanisation across New Zealand and Australia that may have usefully informed the study brief.
Here are some general conclusions from the review:
· Costs, where they fall and when do vary from place to place. Hence, any claims to general rules of thumb or generic cost differences are fallacious.
· Savings may accrue from higher densities and shorter travel distances, but their magnitude and the capacity to achieve them tend to be overstated given the role of other factors.
· Cost relationships are not generally linear. This means there may be economic advantages moving from densities of 10 dwellings per hectare to 20. But the benefit of moving beyond that is open to question given that diseconomies set in as densities continue to increase. More complicated urban design, more expensive structures, greater congestion, and a jump in transit spending compound costs beyond certain density thresholds, although where those thresholds fall varies from place to place.
· The costs of density may be higher in brownfield sites where they require land consolidation and rehabilitation and expensive retrofitting of infrastructure, including roads and underground services.
· Unsurprisingly, the best urban design outcomes may be achieved in greenfield sites, although modest gains can also be made within existing suburbs.
More to the point, the review confirms a lack of conclusive evidence of the relative benefits of building up or out. It depends on how you do it, and where. It’s unlikely that a six week study of the comparative costs of a standard dwelling unit will prop up the unitary plan.
Getting beyond principles to practiceStarting with an unrealistic and largely doctrinaire grand plan was never the way ahead for Auckland.
Options need to be explored and costed, from the ground up. And if that’s just too hard, then a much more flexible approach is called for to planning, not one that tries to lock down an untested, unpopular, and generally inappropriate view of what’s best for Auckland. That’s something Auckland politicians and planners have been reluctant to accept, even though the success of any urban strategy depends ultimately on how acceptable it is to the market – which includes today’s as well as tomorrow’s residents.