Critics of the council-led drive toward a compact city concept will chortle at this: “There is a strong base of evidence in support of the unitary plan’s strategic policy approach of providing for growth in a quality compact urban form. It builds on a long series of work undertaken by the council & the legacy councils, including the work that informs the Auckland Plan development strategy. A compact urban form is an established international model for providing for growth.”
The statement came mid-December in the Auckland Council summary of its position on the regional policy statement on urban growth, presented by lead legal counsel Heather Ash.
The pre-Christmas sessions before the independent panel hearing submissions on the Auckland unitary plan were about providing for capacity in a quality compact urban form, development capacity and supply of land for urban development, rural & coastal towns & villages, and the structure plan requirements for future urban-zoned greenfield & brownfield land.
Exhortation to a belief is one thing. Evidence to underpin that belief is another, and council evidence to substantiate the claim of a “strong base of evidence” has been consistently hard to come by. That’s why the argument in favour of the compact city has struggled to win universal approval – not because a few people in prominent positions have refused to listen.
After writing that quote from Ms Ash, I spent the next 2 days trawling through documents to prove my point wrong, and in search of substantiation for 2 essential features of the compact-city concept: reasons to sway homebuyers away from suburban standalone houses and into apartments or townhouses, and verification that a rural:urban boundary will be flexible and aid the trend toward a compact city without causing further land price escalation.
After that trawl through an exorbitant number of planning documents I’ve reached a few tentative conclusions (tentative because I may have missed some significant pointers):
- There is some evidence to support the compact-city concept
- The panel received evidence demonstrating how both the rural:urban boundary and the compact city concept would work
- Much of the criticism of the council’s work on these topics fell well short of being adequate rebuttal
- The critics’ chortle will be short-lived – if some monumental changes occur.
Those changes to transform Auckland for the better will require a serious budget by Auckland Council for improved amenities around the region – the very items proposed to be slashed in the 2015 council budget and for much of the next decade are the items needed to support intensification.
The council will also need to ensure supporting infrastructure for the special housing areas is in place, which in turn is likely to require a concerted joint review of infrastructure funding by the council & the Government.
And, most importantly, the council must be able to hold up examples of apartment & townhouse developments that show suburbanites can get more for less – more than a shoebox-worth of quality space by paying less than the price of their suburban home, but with an expectation that the value will at least be sustained.
In her summary of the council position on urban growth, Ms Ash said the council faced technical challenges in undertaking a single overall comprehensive economic assessment and had, instead, assessed component parts.
In a general statement (one of those which led to my search for substantiation), she told the panel: “The benefits of a quality compact urban form for Auckland outweigh its costs when compared with a more dispersed urban form. The benefits include greater agglomeration effects, network efficiency gains, travel efficiency, community benefits & less environmental impacts.”
She said Auckland Transport was one council organisation which could therefore focus its investment on public transport, walking & cycling network, along with completion of the road network, in the existing metropolitan area.
Auckland Transport supported the compact form, as did Watercare Services Ltd & the council’s stormwater department. Among their reasons: “The costs of providing significant infrastructure in greenfields can be more expensive than in brownfields. A quality compact urban form enables the cost of critical infrastructure & its ongoing maintenance to be shared across more people, lowering the overall cost/head.”
Ms Ash said critics hadn’t assessed alternative options to the same degree that the proposed unitary plan quality compact urban form had been assessed.
On the vexed question of the urban growth boundary – on which a number of critics attacked the council evidence – Ms Ash said the proposed rural:urban boundary “represents a fundamental shift in the management of Auckland’s greenfield growth when compared to the metropolitan urban limits in the operative regional policy statement.
“Given that location of the rural:urban boundary is intended to be permanent once the boundary work is complete, and that at present there is about 10,800ha of future urban-zoned and within the boundary, there is no need to include provisions in the regional policy statement setting out criteria for its extension.”
Ms Ash said it would be crucial to maintain a constant stream of unconstrained development capacity (land ready to subdivide if not to build, plus redevelopment options) to accommodate a minimum of 5 years’ growth.
Developers said this would be an unsatisfactorily short-horizon supply pipeline which would increase costs because of uncertainty and could encourage landbanking speculation. However, Ms Ash said the development capacity would be added to through council & privately initiated plan changes, as well as new iterations of the unitary plan at 10-yearly intervals.
She suggested pushing off, to the zoning segment of the submissions process, any debate on whether the council assessment of available land for development would translate into enough developable land to accommodate an extra million people in 400,000 more homes in a 30-year timeframe.
The unitary plan series:
This is the second article for an immediate series of articles on the overarching policy, how or whether urban & rural uses ought to be separated, how proposed zoning ought to be applied or whether the proposals are appropriate.
Somewhere down the track I may venture my own opinions, but for this series I am essentially a messenger packaging up ideas from a vast array of submissions. On the way through, though, I will also question them.
There are 3 articles today, essentially outlining positions. Tomorrow’s trio of articles will be meatier. I expect the series to run for several days.
Links: Unitary plan addendum, rural:urban boundary
Unitary plan section 32 report
Capacity for growth studies
Darroch for Centre for Housing Research Aotearoa NZ, 2010 housing market assessment
Articles in the series:
UP1: The PAUP, the MUL, the RUB, the RPS & the LRP – the what-the?
UP2: Council tells panel the evidence backs compact city, and new urban boundary will work
UP3: Paper on preferred form an important backgrounder
UP4: Fairgray doesn’t fix on the far horizon, but says million new Aucklanders will fit in
UP5: Rule changes would shorten land supply and discourage new villages
UP6: McDermott argues for better ways than compact city to accommodate growth
UP7: Burton sees the antithesis of good planning, but says the compact city can work
UP8: Crucial question: Who will control land release?
Attribution: Hearings, submissions, supporting documents.