Friday, 9 February 2007

Message to planners: "Don't fence me in!"

Most of the planners in New Zealand's major cities have imposed what's called a Metropolitan Urban Limit around the cities. This is sometimes called an 'urban fence,' inside which development proceeds (in theory) according to the planners' whims, and (in reality) to the extent that developers and builders can get around these whims and get something done.

Outside the urban fence, development only proceeds to the extent that land-owners outside the fence can dodge the planners' desire to make a rural museum of the area surrounding the cities, and to the extent that developers who have built up land banks around the city can encourage their chums on council to relax the zoning, or to release the urban fence just a little. You might call this a sort of 'informal' public-private partnership. (Ask around, for instance, about how the car yards of Henderson were re-zoned from rural and who benefited most from the re-zoning; and -- more recently -- ask yourself who the major beneficiaries were of the recent relaxation of controls around Botany, Flat Bush and Albany.)

In Auckland, the Auckland Regional Council (ARC) rigorously police this fence, even to the extent of taking other councils to court for attempting to overturn it. As I noted a few months ago, even Auckland's mayors have now realised this urban fence might have some role to play in limiting the supply of houses, and this helping to make houses more unaffordable in NZ cities than in less constrained cities elsewhere. Said the mayors in a joint press release:
Mayors of Manukau and Waitakere say the region's master plan for growth is throttling economic opportunities in their cities and needs an urgent overhaul. When it was introduced in 1999, the Auckland Regional Council's regional growth strategy [which set in place the present Metropolitan Urban Limits] was hailed as the answer to managing the effects of growth such as in urban sprawl...
... The shortage of land for housing was pushing prices sky-high and making it difficult for young people to get homes.
Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey said he also wanted a review of the strategy to be completed as soon as possible.
He was impatient about the lack of progress in having potential new development areas at Westgate, Whenuapai and Hobsonville brought inside the metropolitan urban limit and made available.
"Anyone that is in local government is frustrated by long delays, procrastination and the inability to see the big picture - not by this council but by regulatory officialdom that stifles growth and prosperity."
Let me remind you, this is Bob Harvey -- Bob Harvey! -- and his fellow mayors talking about relaxing the urban limits, and talking about "growth and prosperity" being stifled by "regulatory officialdom."

Things have to be pretty bloody obvious for people like Bob Harvey to notice them, and to come out in favour of "growth and prosperity" over "regulatory officialdom."

Not so fast however, replied ARC chairman Mike Lee a few weeks back. Over the past five years, says Lee, "Auckland councils have released 1000ha of land for development." Ten-thousand hectares! Gee thanks, Mike. At 500 square metres per unit (which applies on average through much of Auckland's metropolitan area), this represents land for just 4,000 new houses per year (and this figure ignores the roads, parks, shopping areas, service centres and workplaces that will be built to accompany these new houses). This land has been "released" by councils by the simple expedient of relaxing the urban fence in areas deemed appropriate by planners, which simply means rezoning land which is otherwise idle -- land which individuals own who are restricted by these regulations as to what they can do on their own land.

Four thousand new houses doesn't go far when as the ARC's own website concedes, fifty people every day are moving to the region --that's "one person every 29 minutes" (or nearly 20,000 per year). And those new houses are built according to the planners' so-called 'smart growth' dogma: laid out in row-upon-row of regulated sameness, just as the planner ordered.

The sameness and the sprawl that many people object to in our present-day suburbia are in large part due to the regulatory measures that the anti-sprawlists themselves favour. Specifically, the "carpet sprawl" that would have few explicit defenders is created by the very 'Smart Growth' policies considered so progressive by so many planners. Owen McShane explained the process in a recent presentation (pdf), of which this the briefest of excerpts:
Smart Growth delivers Carpet-Sprawl because even the most rigorous Smart Growth city eventually has to extend its Metropolitan Urban Limit (MUL) to provide more land for residential, commercial and industrial use.
In recent weeks the Mayors of both Waitakere City and Manukau City have pleaded for extensions to their MULs. Even Smart Growth planners acknowledge these “adjustments” will be necessary from time to time.
The sequence of events is as follows:
• The MUL is initially set to allow for the next period of growth to take place within the existing “urban form”.
• Eventually this enclosed area fills to the point where there is essentially no zoned land left for further growth or it has become so expensive that no one can afford to use it.
• In the meantime many activities have simply leap-frogged into territory outside the Smart Growth planners’ jurisdiction, which is why Northland Region is now growing so rapidly.
• Open space inside the MUL is sacrificed to high density carpet development to “save” open space outside the MUL.
• At some point the situation becomes intolerable and the people and their representatives demand an extension of the MUL to enclose some piece of surrounding rural land.
• Once this “bulge” is made legal then development and intensification begins again until the new “bulge” is also full of high density carpet development and some relief is allowed in some other part of the city.
Obviously, as this process is repeated the city expands into the rural area as medium or high density “carpet sprawl.” The only difference from the post-war sprawl is that there will be a greater variety of housing types because the market demand is more varied and regulations covering section sizes and housing types have been relaxed since the sixties, and the overall density will be higher.
I'd be interested in hearing from supporters of planning, zoning and so-called 'Smart Growth' how they feel about producing the very thing they say they oppose.

LINKS: Some Auckland mayors realise ring-fencing the city is 'unsustainable' - Not PC East Germany in East Auckland - Not PC
Alternatives to Smart Growth - Owen McShane [15-page PDF]

RELATED: Sustainability,
Housing, Urban Design, Politics-NZ, Auckland, RMA


  1. Is this your reply to WellUrban?

  2. Anonymous, you asked, "Is this your reply to WellUrban?"

    Nope. That's coming. :-)


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