There is no ‘town planning’ anymore

For some unknown reason I have been hosting and presenting to monthly delegations of Chinese “officials” who manage and run cities of between 2-6 million people from all over China.  I get the sense we were found by a google search.  Anyway we now have a snappy presentation and everyone seems happy.

It is comical watching as groups of 6 officials – CEO’s and infrastructure managers wonder in with an interpreter and a hostess and are given an hour long presentation on how our magnificent city works.  They want to know about waste from the kerbside to the dump, they want to know about rates and how infrastructure is managed and funded.  The Q and A time is fascinating for both parties.  Their eyes light up when I explain how Watercare manages the water and wastewater network and how each house has a meter and receives a monthly invoice for both water in and water out, charged at different rates.  They ask me, “But why in Christchurch is the water free?”, I have to explain it is not free but bundled in the rates, which does not help with conservation or efficient management.

I also discuss how development occurs in Auckland taking them through the district plan, plan change and resource consent process.  This is where it gets interesting for me.  They seem perplexed that there is no overall master planning, high level location of roads and parks and infrastructure with a guide on the number of people expected so you can plan schools and shopping centres and transport routes and major infrastructure requirements.  I explain that we have not had that sort of centralised planning for 30 plus years.  Their response is they are not the developer of the units or apartments but provide that higher level planning so they whole town or city is thought out and planned in a sensible way.

It got me thinking.  We are doing a lot of “green field” subdivision consents in places like Karaka (35 +km from the CBD), where all you can see are ten acre blocks and the skytower is but a needle in the far horizon.  These sites, prime for Auckland’s expansion are accessed by country roads with no footpaths or shops and one motorway access point.  There are expectations the area could accommodate 20,000 people.  Each site is being developed independent of the other with the locations of parks and pump stations up for grabs in a haphazard way.  The densities are going to be around 1 house per 300m2 with no real planning for public transport or school locations or neighbourhood shops.  There is simply no overall masterplan which will mean more of the same – more congestion and more pressure on services and no sense of community or “heart”.

If every area in Auckland is developed in such a way that we are merely putting a roof over people’s heads, what will this mean for all the services that these people require? Will everyone have to drive to Papakura to get their hair cut? Or pick up some extra milk from the nearest dairy? “Hun, I’m just popping down to the dairy to get some more milk, I’ll see you in 30 minutes…” It would literally take you that long to battle the traffic due to the single lane on-ramp. Obviously this is an exaggeration but the simple things we take for granted could well be overlooked in our mad rush to build as many new houses as possible.

But wasn’t the Auckland Unitary Plan meant to control all of these types of things? Well no. The Unitary Plan controls zoning and the rules around typology etc. A master plan would usually say this suburb needs to have three petrol stations but each of them have to be this far apart, and next to one of them needs to be a walk way to a park that was on the same street as a flower shop. Based on my experience that type of full master planning is the last thing we want Council doing.

However I see real merit in providing an overview which links up all the matters many of us take for granted.  Those matters which help create the communities we live in within the town we live in and then within the city and region we live in. We want streets that link and corner parks and walkways that provide a link to the area.  What we want is well thought out communities, sensible early intervention, not a mish mash of never ending but faceless subdivisions reminiscent of the identical pastel houses found in the 1990 film ‘Edward Scissorhands’.

The pastel and bland suburb in which Edward Scissor hands is set.

If you think about, say Remuera or even more fine grain the Benson Rd shops, there is a town centre and a network of parks and interlinked walking tracks and schools surrounded by residential development of various densities.  Schools, churches and the more modern service stations and childcare centres are located in places to support the community.  Plunket, the local football or cricket club take up space on reserve or public open space and it all works pretty well.  Let me tell you none of this happened by accident.  There was planning at a city level, to set this basic arrangement out, with the house builders and developers filling the land in with built form and infrastructure as required.

Once the roads are laid and the houses built there will be no change for 50 plus years and no real thought will have been made for all the things we take for granted.  More needs to be done to ensure that we are not simply spreading the Auckland Housing crisis and letting it morph into the Auckland services, utilities and traffic crisis. Because given the current consenting and building rate the up-date and expansion to arterial roads and motorways are falling well behind. Gridlock is looking to be our destiny.

Alas, I cannot see the necessary intervention AKA ‘town planning’ making a comeback any time soon.

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