Friday, April 27, 2012

All at Sea – Port Plan for Auckland

Critical Infrastructure at a critical location
Ports of Auckland Ltd (POAL) operates a substantial general cargo port and container terminal on the edge of Auckland’s CBD.   It occupies a critical site adjacent to  commercial, recreational, and residential zones.  Its future development will have a major impact on the city centre by way of land use options, traffic flows, harbour and harbour-side-based recreation and tourism, and the quality of central city life.

Rob Campbell’s concerns
It was disturbing, then, to read recently resigned Board member Rob Campbell’s view of the port’s future on Bob Dey’s Property Report website, especially in light of controversies about  port operations and plans.

As I read it, Campbell is saying that corporate plans for the port are really about more of the same – a harbour edge transport operation which does little to recognise the value of the site or consider how the company might increase efficiencies and returns by greater specialisation.  He calls for radical change: incremental gains in productivity are not enough.

He argues that POAL is not pursuing the gains that might come from exploring the use of surplus or lower cost capacity elsewhere.   This would take a quantum shift in thinking, though, including a willingness to cooperate with other northern ports (Tauranga and Northland).

The sector is due for a major shakeup in New Zealand if for no other reason than the uncertainty that  substantial long term increase in fuel prices create around future trade and shipping arrangements.  Our ports have to be able to respond.  Not only  that; our economy and the economies of our trading partners are undergoing transformations which are bound to impact on trade flows in ways that are difficult to predict.

The Productivity Commission’s focus: governance issues
Against this background of uncertainty the Productivity Commission in its International Freight Services Inquiry highlighted the difficulties in port management and development arising from current governance arrangements.  Local council control confuses purpose and direction, and prejudices governance in a commercial environment through the presence and expectations of elected representatives.  

This effect has been seen in Auckland where a prolonged industrial dispute has seen councillors taking partisan stands and where one of the most contentious issues in the Auckland Council’s Draft Spatial Plan was the proposed inclusion of a planned a 250m extension of reclamation by the port, since removed.

Revolutionary change – saving sectors
I have been involved in two sectors that underwent revolutionary changes to stay above water.  Both involved new players moving the ground from under conservative (and dominant) incumbents.

The New Zealand slaughtering and meat processing industry had to experience plant closures and company collapses to move from being a highly seasonal, over-capitalised, and non-viable industry to one that could compete internationally.  Long-standing work practises, fixed management thinking, and remote ownership prejudiced its ability to respond  to the trade upheavals that followed Britain’s move into the EEC in the 1970s.  It took new entrants with new ways of doing things to save it from crippling rigidities built on past success and current complacency.

In aviation, the beliefs of major western airlines that they were as streamlined and integrated as they could be and of  airlines in emerging nations that they could compete using the same management model but paying lower wages were turned over by a new breed of low cost carriers. Southwest pioneered the model in the US in the 1970s but it was not until the last 15 years that the LCC has really taken off. RyanAir and easyJet led the way in Europe in the 1990s. Air Asia has changed thinking about how airlines should operate in the developing world since then.  

These and their emulators re-invented the operational, management, and capital structures of aviation, forcing change on those traditional carriers that survived.  They have changed the way the public travels and have managed to restore a semblance of profitability to a sector in which that has been all too rare.

The Ports of Auckland Plan: back to the future?
The port industry in New Zealand may need a similar revolution.   I  looked for signs of revolutionary thinking in the POAL 2009 Development Plan.  All I could see is a commitment to more of the same.

The  analysis of future demand is central to any understanding of what the port expects to be doing, and how it might be doing it in the future. But there is no such analysis.  Instead, there is an extrapolation of TEU (20 foot container equivalent units) throughput and a conversion of this projection into capacity requirement.  A compounding 8% growth rate in TEUs handled from 1989 to 2007 was adjusted down to 5% as “a slightly more conservative long term growth rate” and used to project demand from 2008 to 2040.

This is anything but conservative   
When I looked at tonnage growth using the Statistics NZ Infoshare cargo figures from 1989 to 2010 I actually got a 4% growth rate, which raises a question over which figures to use.  However, anomalies in the historical figures fade into the background when we consider the impact of 5% compounding growth over thirty years: a four to five fold gain in container throughput. 

This raw projection begs a lot of questions about New Zealand’s changing trade profile.  That’s not the immediate subject of this blog.  Suffice to say, few commentators or policy makers are likely to see a fulfilling future as one built on exponential growth in trade volumes.

Ports of Auckland Vision for its Future

So why such a conservative response?

POAL does acknowledge uncertainty around the projections which inform its assessment of expansion options.  But none of the options canvassed (see pages 11 -13 in the Plan) envisage relocation of component trades or operations, although inland ports will no doubt play a significant role in the streamlining envisaged.  Instead a combination of progressive reclamation and new stacking operations is proposed.  The need to deal with larger vessels is also acknowledged in new berth design parameters and a channel deepening programme.  

No doubt efficiencies can be imposed at the margins through investment in new equipment and changing working conditions.  But what will this achieve in the long-term?  And how relevant will it be to New Zealand’s – and Auckland’s – economy in 2030 or 2040?

POAL is proposing to cement in a development plan  which imposes a singular and historical view of its place in New Zealand trade, and in the central Auckland cityscape.  If we are to go with Rob Campbell’s analysis, productivity will be diminished because a relatively low cost activity will be expanded over high cost (reclaimed) land. 

Its  hard to understand  how such a conservative approach to development can be founded on such a bullish vision of the future. Unless we actually suspend our belief in the projection, which seems like a sensible idea.

Time for a rethink
I’m not sure that this path is one that the country or the city can afford, at least not on such an apparently thin analysis of future demand. 

So it’s a wise move by the Council to omit the planned reclamation from Auckland’s Spatial Plan.  This is something that we need to think long and hard about.  We need to expand our thinking about the physical options facing trade in the northern North Island, for a start, rethink the role of the port in downtown Auckland, and perhaps heed the Productivity Commission’s advice regarding ownership and governance of the port industry.  

Saturday, April 14, 2012

From Connection to Dispersal: Urbanisation in the 21st Century

Trade, transport and city growth
Commentators have long studied connections between cities and how these influence their development.  The city is the natural focus of trade-based theories of growth.  Exporting a surplus, based on local resources and specialisation was – and is – considered the way  to city wealth.

In this world, transport is the key to the trade portal.  The cities that dominated world trade in the 19th and 20th centuries were those best connected, initially through their ports and sea links complemented later through strong ties over the airways.  Mega-ports and airport hubs were  marks of city success. 

This blog raises the possibility that this model is changing, and we need to change our thinking about the future  of our cities with it.

Connectedness and concentration
Connectedness is a mantra for the new urbanists: through  international connection cities exploit the economies assumed to arise from ever-increasing concentration of people and business. Hence, the city seeking to make its mark globally must invest in ever increasing transport infrastructure.   Acknowledging the information age, it may add high-speed broadband to the mix and perhaps, in a symbolic move, an international convention centre.

But is this the right model for 21st century urbanisation?

Aviation – moving on
Think for a moment about what has happened in aviation.  The last decade saw a quantum shift from a model whereby a few powerful hubs concentrated movement between a few major centres from which passengers and goods could, in turn, be distributed along local spokes – by regional aircraft, train, coach or car.  Airlines based themselves overwhelmingly at these hubs.  The large, twin isle jet reigned supreme.  The Airbus A380 is the latest conveyor of that model, but most likely the last.

Because late in the 20th century there was a divergence between an ageing hub and spoke model and a growing model based on  dense networks connecting more and more cities directly. The single aisle, medium-haul jet took off.  And now the long-haul, highly efficient, medium-sized jet is further expanding this capacity to directly connect former spokes – smaller cities -- without the need to hub through major cities.

And all of this has been supported by the productivity leap brought about by the low cost airline model.  More people, more cities, more directly connected than ever before with the capacity to transform economic, political and social relations among them.  [1]

From transport to logistics
The transport sector was about moving goods from A to B as cost effectively as regulation allowed; and all too often regulation kept costs up to protect old technology and incumbent operators, whether by surface, air, or sea.  That, though, is changing as international transport is liberalised.    

And today transport is itself transforming into the business of logistics.  And logistics is about distribution – through a production chain, between producers and consumers, and among places.  Goods move seamlessly  through integrated operations that can deliver almost anything almost anywhere in a matter of days. 

An informational world
As the capacity to transport goods went up and the cost went down, academics trying to explain the differential growth of cities appealed to a new notion that dominating the exchange of information was the new key to prosperity.  Knowledge and expertise were concentrated in key informational hubs where they became the centres of capitalist power, the hearths of globalisation.  [2]

Well that’s changing, too.  Information and expertise is becoming dispersed, knowledge ubiquitous.  This is not just about the internet – although it obviously plays a huge part.  It’s also about the explosion of personal mobility as informational cities give way to an informational world.  (It may also be about the potential for implosion as a result of over-concentration, a threat still lingering in the financial centres of the world). 

Linked cities are giving way to networked communities.

From consolidation ...
The lesson?  Those of us involved in planning the city cannot assume the same structures will prevail in the future as those we inherited from the past.  We tend to plan, though, by looking for repeat patterns, seeking generalisation, extracting principles, predicting the unpredictable.  And because infrastructure – roads, rail, ports – are large scale, expensive, and enduring they become the bones around which we construct our futures. 

Infrastructure, particularly transport infrastructure, shapes our presumptions about how the city will function and the form it will take.  Hence, urban planning is preoccupied with how to consolidate  existing structures, increasing their capacity by building up rather than out and moving to mass transit, among other things.

... to dispersal
Yet the shifts in 21st century logistics and information technology support dispersal.  And it might just be that dispersal is the key to 21st century urbanisation.

Light rail systems, dedicated bus lanes, smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles, lower housing costs, more intimate localised but inter-connected sub-urban communities, common information and mobile expertise cutting across diverse tastes,experiences, and places  – these may be the way of the future.

In the developing world where urbanisation is most rapid they may be the only way.  Here dispersal is already the dominant reality.  While urbanisation may be exemplified in a few megacities in Asia, these account for only a small part of the total.  And even they are marked by rapid peripheral expansion, with distinctive, sprawling, dense and diverse communities on the edge.  Democraticised, localised self help institutions and NGOs may be the way to improved sanitation and health care in this environment, and micro-commerce the way to sustainable prosperity. 

And in the slower-growing cities of the west, the maturing of sub-urban life, a return to lifestyle-focused localism, ageing in place, and the growing importance of community-based care point to a future in which dispersal rather than concentration could be the dominant mode of social and spatial organisation.  Central structures may still have a role, but a diminishing one.

More generally we may have to think of cities themselves as comprising networks of connections, within and across boundaries.  The stronger these networks, perhaps, the  more resilient the city.  But this does not translate to physical density.  Proximity is not the issue. Well connected, dense networks will support, if not encourage, dispersal. 

This is contrary to the currently favoured model in places like my city of origin – Auckland – but it is not at all contrary to the centre within that city that I call home.

Getting it wrong
More than ever as we try to plan for the very long-term, we need to open our minds to alternatives.   You only need to look at the list of bankrupt airlines (or in and out of Chapter 11 in the US) to appreciate the consequences of overinvesting in the current model on the assumption that it will prevail indefinitely.

[1]      See, for example, Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (2003) Low Cost Airlines in Asia Pacific: A Force for Change
           and (2009) Global Low Cost Carrier Report

[2]     E.g. Castells M (1990) The Informational City: Economic Restructuring and Urban Development Blackwell;

          Sassen S (1991) The Global City, New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton University Press

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Resurrecting the Sixties: Can We Restore High Street?

Can we regulate a return to the past?
The Chairman of Auckland Council's Business Advisory Panel, Cameron Brewer, is concerned about the impact of “shoebox shops” on the quality of Auckland’s Queen Street.  Queen St is considered the traditional heart of the city’s CBD.  Mr Brewer criticises the transformation of retailing going on there, and suggests mandating minimum shop sizes to counter it.
Waitemata Local Board member, Christopher Dempsey suggests that the city plan should provide for small, medium and large shops.  Ludo Campbell-Reid, the council urban design champion, is “determined to see the revival of the high street occur in Auckland”.
A revival may well be possible for Queen St, but it’s unlikely to see a return to the halcyon days of central city retailing.  Nostalgia is a slight foundation for planning the city centre’s much touted transformation.
Wanting it both ways
Anyway, it may just be that our planning has actually accentuated the changes we are seeing in land use on Queen Street.  And it’s hard to see how we can regulate to reverse that effect. 
The proliferation of small apartments on the western ridge of the CBD, the promotion of student accommodation to the east, big dollars spent on developing Queen Street’s footpaths have all helped create strip shopping to meet the needs and wants of the young and the restless.
And the rehabilitation of the harbour-side is playing its part.  New offices lining Fanshawe Street and the relocation of the ASB headquarters to the Wynyard precinct are signs of things to come. 
Take a lift in those older Queen Street buildings. The proliferation of shoebox offices is part of the changes to Queen Street as well. As the large corporates move out, or downsize (or otherwise disappear) subdivision of office space follows.  Don’t expect this to help retain the street level activity of the past.
The reality
The Queen Street canyon has had its day as a centre of employment and retailing even as the council promotes CBD fringe development (including transit-oriented developments planned to prop up an inter city rail loop).
Mind you, on the logic that new transport centres will reinvigorate areas Queen Street should have been given a boost by the redevelopment of the old Post Office site as a major inter-modal transport hub.  Yet even this major civic development has done little obvious to boost the fortunes of the Street, to lift its retail presence or increase employment. 
Catering for the Café culture
The irony is that the new Queen Street reflects the inner city café and restaurant culture so extolled by those who promote central city revitalisation: Queen Street from Mayoral Drive north looks and smells a bit like a glorified food court, a strip of fast food joints, where inner city residents and visitors can wander up and down and grow fat. 
This is simply a stand up variant of the more upmarket bars, cafes and restaurants found increasingly harbour-side, or on the Ponsonby and Parnell ridges.
Point of no return
These changes – progress --all act against a return to the high street of yesteryear.  So do more generic changes in retailing and consumption.  The productivity advantages of locating retailing closer to the consumer, in malls, neighbourhood centres, and reborn suburban strips; advances in production and logistics that underpin bulk retailing and now support direct sales through web-based channels; changes in what households consume; the greater frequency of shopping and eating out; and the declining share of employment in central cities – these all contribute to an increasingly diverse and dispersed retail milieu. 
And it is interesting that the greatest growth in eating out is happening in the suburbs, again covering the full range from take-outs through to fine dining.  (Some 82% of employment growth in  the food and beverage sector took place outside the CBD between 2001 and 2011).
It’s a long time since Queen Street was the Golden Mile of Auckland retailing (or eating).  The department and variety stores – with one notable exception – are long-gone. The record and book stores are yielding to web-based consumption, displaced by tourist trinkets and the increasingly ubiquitous 7/11.  In fact, over half the retail employment growth in the CBD as a whole was in food stores between 2001 and 2011. Reversing that tide would seem to be contrary to the idea that more people should live in the CBD. 
Shoebox retailing – a sign of the times?
No longer a retail destination, Queen Street is today a thoroughfare, a place where some people work, some shop, and most pass through.  It is no longer a shopping destination: the best the retailer can do is grab some small change from passers-by.  The most economic option under these circumstances may be shoebox retailing – that works in most cities with large inner city populations.  Quality retailing is almost invariably off-centre. 
So intensively subdividing ground floor retail space on Queen Street makes economic sense.  Requiring landlords to do otherwise by rules in plans doesn’t; and risks creating a central city wasteland of empty premises.
Playing to strengths
What should  prop up property values in the CBD generally will be ensuring that those places that are attractive continue to be so.  If that happens, a healthy CBD will spill over into Queen Street.
The best prospect for Auckland’s CBD may lie in the strategic re-orientation taking place east-west alongside the harbour rather than promoting outmoded views of the Queen Street canyon.  It means highlighting a few public spaces; and creating one or two quite exceptional precincts.  We gave had a go at the Ferry Terminal and Princess Wharf; at the Viaduct Basin; and now the Wynyard Quarter.  The Chancery Quarter – incidentally an incipient up-market fashion centre of international standing – and High Street also provide quality and quirky spaces of respite and character.
Realism rules
But we can overdo it.  Auckland is a city of just 1.5 million, and the vast majority of those people live much closer to suburban and sub-regional shopping centres than the CBD.  They can get to them easily, and combine trip purposes to save time and money.  The CBD is about entertainment, recreation and perhaps accessing specialist services: within the CBD Queen St is just a means of getting from A to B.  
Perhaps there’s not a lot that Mr Brewer, Mr Dempsey, Mr Ludo Campbell or even the Mayor can do to reverse current trends, especially as they already reflect city objectives and plans.  There’s no realistic way that we can regulate quality back into Queen Street. And we should not risk shifting scarce resources and limited expertise from those places that are working to try to redevelop those that we think aren’t. 
If we can lift just a few key parts of the CBD well beyond the ordinary, then we can expect Queen Street to prosper in its own way.  But don’t expect to go tripping down the High Street of the past.