Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What were they thinking? A plan built on sand

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense
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 rising
The 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 late
And the claim that the plan is based on “best analysis from the global marketplace” 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 interest for 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[1].

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 na├»ve:

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 practice
Starting 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.




Andrew D Atkin said...

Great post. And I would like to repeat your link (for others, in case they don't click on it) because it's the first I've seen of you on video:


...Even if the cost of sprawling was greater than densification it should not, in itself, prop up the unitary plan. It should only prop up a plan to equitably distribute costs, so no-one is unfairly subsidising another. You can't argue to outlaw one product just because it's more expensive than another. It's the consumers decision.

Phil McDermott said...

Thanks, Andrew. The key is that the bulk of any additional costs (even the private costs)are met by households that may simply accept that higher recurring costs (commuting, for example) are acceptable if the cost of entering the housing market or the benefits of additional space for family (and for recreation, gardening, clean air, etc.) justify them.

Given that young households tend to expect incomes to grow over time this is totally rational for them. Presumably with carbon pricing a large share of the externalities of any additional transport demand (the main component of any assessed difference in costs between higher and lower density settlement) will be reflected in the fares paid for public transport or the costs of private motoring, so will be factored into the decision to accept higher recurring costs as the price of more affordable or higher quality housing.

A. Hooper said...

Phil, are you basically opposed to allowing more intensive development in certain areas of Auckland? On what basis do you think the market for apartments and inner city living should be artificially restricted by current limits when clearly the biggest demand for housing is around the inner suburbs, high prices notwithstanding?

Why rush to allow even more sprawl without allowing intensification time to work first? How will the motorways cope? Who will pay to build the schools, fire stations, libraries, etc?

Phil McDermott said...

Thanks for your comment and concern, but no, A Hooper, I am not opposed to allowing more intensive development in certain parts of Auckland.

Its simply a matter of balance and choice. There are not a lot of areas where we can build quality units and apartments that are affordable on brownfield sites. Putting aside luxury waterfront apartments, medium and high rises in the CBD tend to house transitory households, and few families. That's fine, but its a limited market, and a really weak model for future development.

Too much of a focus in our plans on intensifying other town centres and arterial roads will end up with both failing: road capacity diminished as congestion increases and town centres less capable of meeting the needs of their catchments because of overbuilding, crowding, congestion, etc. And the cost of retrofitting and rebuilding ageing infrastructure of limited capacity in areas that already heavily developed will be prohibitive in many cases, and a lot more expensive (and potentially less efficient) than new infrastructure in greenfields. The cost of community centres, recreational facilities, schools, and new employment centres is likely to be competitive if not cheaper in greenfields, also, especially given more affordable land than in built up areas that might be attractive for apartment living.

I've argued elsewhere for a more measured and rational approach to suburban intensification, and to the benefits of satellite settlements on the Auckland spine, all of which could increase the city's average residential density.

In fact, the best in efficient (sustainable) urban design might be achieved in greenfield sites. Hobsonville and Flat Bush are such opportunities within the urban limits. But that's not enough The current model, though, just encourages sprawl by occasionally allowing development on the edge of the city by pushing out the limits (think Hingaia) even as it fills in the green spaces elsewhere within those limits.

My preference is to allow more opportunities and choice elsewhere, with the main aim of regulation being to set and enforce the environmental standards that should be met in individual developments rather than trying to use the plan to enforce a region-wide blueprint based on some generic and still unproven model of ever-increasing intensification of the Auckland Isthmus and surrounds.

On these grounds, its good to see Swanson back on the table as a result of the growing resistance to a plan which so heavily favours intensification of existing areas. Let's hope there will be plenty of other initiatives that add to rather than detract from diversity and choice. The plan might be better enabling innovation and variation (including terraces, low rise apartments and perhaps even high rises in favoured localities), rather than seeking to impose a predetermined pattern of apartment living on selected centres and suburbs.

Mark said...

A. Hooper - Not sure about your comment about artificially restricted current limits. Looking at Eden tce/Mt Eden/Kingsland/Morningside - there is already ample apartment zoned land for next 40years on current up take.

Old Ak City, did Business 4 zone changes and then Mixed Business zone for apartments etc in Kingsland/Morningside and other places throughout Auckland. Kingsland is a great example of a perfect area for apartments, and is very popular with those living in the couple that have been built. They've been good quality ones, due to location/price.

The point though is that the strip from the rail station to Eden Tce, has been available to build apartments for 10-12 years and two have been built. The existing land is low value commercial (even car yards), so could easily be developed when demand is there. On current take up, supply there would last for 30-40years. If there was unsatisfied demand for apartments, we'd also be seeing price rises - which we're not, which suggests an apartment market supply/demand in balance.

In the end someone must put their own money and risk into a development - and they only do that when there is demand to satisfy. Council can re-zone as much as they like, but that's the reality.