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.



Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Question was never "whether?" Just "when?" The Unravelling of the Auckland Plan

Getting the housing equation wrong
The failure of the Auckland Plan to reflect the simple aspirations of Aucklanders for home ownership and predominantly low-rise suburban lifestyles and promote instead the lofty compact city vision held by its planners and policy-makers made its unravelling inevitable.  And now it’s started.

Rationing land to squeeze the city upward was always going to create problems.

Given the fundamental shift in aspirations, expectations, and behaviour that implementing the Auckland plan demands, the first problem is the need for an over-blown and over-complicated rule book - the draft unitary plan - to get citizens to comply with a transformation they didn’t ask for and don’t want.
The result is, predictably, growing alarm at the proposed transformation of communities and streets to achieve high densities in an area already constricted by its coastlines, its estuaries, and its ranges.

Regulatory Risk
Another problem: the draft unitary plan introduces unknown regulatory and fiscal risks.  Despite an avalanche of material advocating higher settlement density and centralisation, there is no accessible Section 32 analysis (which the Resource Management Act requires in support of policies) confirming that crowded is good and more crowded is better.  The lack of evidence in support of a compact city is particularly telling during the limited period allowed for public consultation on the plan. 

We don't know the cost of implementing the plan, its rules and regulations, so we don’t have figures that might be weighed against purported benefits, or on which to judge how effective it might be in achieving even its authors’ hopes, and how much it will cost the community to try.  

Rhetoric won’t carry the day.  We have no idea of whether the plan will be a drag on the Auckland economy, or a boon to it.   Creating a planning framework that looks set to promote unrealistic land use options to try to compel the majority of Aucklanders to change the way they live will create conflict, though, and inflate the cost of development – and living. 
This is over-regulation: a weighty, complicated legal document which probably exceeds the council’s capacity to implement it, which will impose significant costs on the community, and is bound to have unintended consequences.  And the means, the unitary plan, look set to undermine the ends, a more liveable city.

Loss of autonomy
Another problem with the plan as conceived was the prospect that ill-founded regulation would lead to central government stepping in.  That was predictable, and now it’s happened.  There is no point in decrying the loss of community input if the government has to champion the interests of people aspiring to own homes in Auckland because council plans and procrastination have made it that much harder for them.

When the council decided to go down a prescriptive path to assert a centralised city format – one that had already struggled to gain traction over the previous two decades – informed by principles and nostalgia rather than feelings and circumstance, it lost touch with the Auckland’s diverse peoples.  It confused a singular (and high risk) vision with unity of purpose, and pre-empted a simpler plan that might better cater to the vagaries of a growing city. 

The real irony is that central government has been brought into play as a result of a heavy-handed, over-centralised approach by the local council. 

Can an accord be imposed?

Having made clear its concern over the economic and social consequences of the plan, the government has required the council to work with it in an accord to free up land for housing.  By insisting that its way was best the council has ceded control of the cornerstone of its plan.   

Addressing the supply of land for housing is well overdue, but it would have been more satisfactory if the council had been a little less dogmatic and done so in the first place.  This would have protected its credibility and autonomy.  Instead, a streamlined consenting procedure has now been established virtually by decree, a procedure that may well downplay the environmental checks and balances that an autonomous, local planning process might employ.

A Change in Direction?

This shift is fundamental to the plan.  The Accord provides for a degree of decentralisation that the draft unitary plan is written to resist.  Multiple opportunities for expansion on or beyond the fringe may be pursued under the Accord, in a number of forms, including extending existing settlements, new settlements, villages, and suburbs. 

While no ad hoc solution is straightforward, the Accord does what the unitary plan doesn’t: it enables rather than limits development.  Hopefully, creativity, design skills, and market and commercial acumen can now be brought to bear in a variety of settings and solutions – operating within sensible and justifiable environmental limits. 

What else is needed?

While accelerating the release of land for housing is critical to solving the housing crisis, by itself it’s not enough.  Moreover, it fundamentally changes the tenor of the Auckland Plan and Draft Unitary Plan, built as they are around centralisation.  The promotion of the CBD ahead of suburban living, the heavy commitment of resources to a dubious increase in the capacity of rail serving the central city, the presumption that future employment will grow most Auckland central – all these assumptions need to be revisited and revised.

That’s the nature of an integrated plan – you cannot fundamentally alter one component without changing others.

Back to the drawing board

Promoting a doctrinaire and single-minded view of what Auckland should look like in the future, and a commitment to urban form out of touch with the City’s history, its residents, and its prospects was always a high risk project.  That risk has just been magnified.

If the unitary plan is to survive, there will need to be some radical responses to the current round of consultation – and from now on a careful ear to the ground on what the government as well as the community at large has to say about some of its other provisions.