I had an interesting meeting at work last week, where we laughed about the fact that urban planning has for so long been about “colouring in” maps – into one zone or another. Somewhat ironically, later on in the meeting we were back in the situation of colouring in maps, but I’ll leave that aside for now. While this post is mainly about urban planning, and how I think we generally do it exceedingly poorly, you can’t detach land-use planning from transportation matters, and the fact that we do urban planning so poorly certainly contributes to poor transportation outcomes as well (although it does not absolve us from getting transportation planning right, which is a pretty common excuse).

For a start, I think it’s important to look at what I think are the two greatest ironies of urban planning. The first comes from the history of urban planning, which developed in the late 19th century as something of an ‘urban code’ to help avoid terrible situations where you had polluting factories next to houses. The irony is that, 125 or so years later, we’re still obsessing about strongly separating business uses from residential uses – even though there’s barely any heavy industry left in cities like Auckland. Urban planning also sought to overcome the 19th century problem of over-crowding, by introducing rules which prevented or minimised the chance of over-crowding. Today, once again we have the irony of most of our planning rules dictating “minimum site areas” per residential unit along with a myriad of other rules that promote a tiny house in the middle of a giant section, and make life pretty difficult for anything else. This happens at the same time our regional planning documents are imploring higher urban densities – particularly in growth nodes. The irony is that we’re fighting 19th century battles against over-crowding and dirty industry in the 21st century when we actually need higher densities and more mixed-use developments.

The second irony is that, as we’ve planned more and more over the past 100 years or so, the outcomes seem to be worse and worse. Ask most urban planners what they think are the ‘better’ parts of Auckland and it’s highly likely you’ll be pointed to the older suburbs. The very same suburbs with under-width streets, houses supposedly too close together, houses definitely too close to the street, no off-street parking and so forth. It is a great irony that the harder we try to get good urban outcomes, the poorer the results seem to be. Once again, it doesn’t help that most of the planning rules seem to contradict the higher-order policies and objectives.

A lot of the problem, in my opinion comes down to the concept of zoning. The RMA was actually supposed to get rid of zoning – focusing on the environmental effects of an activity rather than providing a list of OK activities for each zone – as was previously the case under the repealed Town and Country Planning Act. However, each and every council couldn’t quite get their head around how to plan urban areas without zoning, and as a result we end up with a situation where we are stuck with zoning once again. Here’s a typical District Plan map (Manukau City Council in this example): The pink areas are business zoned land, the “off-white” is for residential uses, the yellow is schools, motorways and other designations while the green is for parks. The purple is a bit of a special zone for the Manukau Institute of Technology. The point is that each bit of land is clearly one thing or another – either zoned for business or residential or something else. Goodness knows the hoops one would have to jump through in order to do a mixed use development with shops on the ground floor, offices above that and then apartments above that again. You’d probably trigger about a million different resource consents.

Now I’m not just picking on Manukau City Council here – literally everyone’s just as bad. Auckland City Council has a “Business Mixed Use” zone, which certainly envisages residential developments within it – but somewhat strangely as part of the process of creating this zone, Auckland City Council made residential developments more difficult in other Business zones. And the mixed-use zone is reasonably sparse around the city.

Single-use developments, by which I mean massive tracts of housing without any shops or massive tracts of business activities without any housing, is one of the most tell-tale signs of auto-dependent urban sprawl. People are too far away from where they need to go, so therefore they drive instead of walking. Furthermore, the low densities that typify this kind of development can make it more difficult (but certainly not impossible) to provide high quality public transport, so therefore they drive even more. Because zoning clearly states that a piece of land is for either this use or that use (but very rarely both), fundamentally I think that zoning encourages urban sprawl and works against our higher-order policies that hope to create a more compact, less automobile-dependent, city.

But what alternatives are there? Clearly we want to impose restrictions on what can and cannot be built in certain parts of the city. Some of those 19th century problems that we obsess over still have the potential to be problematic – like skyscrapers being built in the middle of otherwise low-rise suburbia (yes I’m looking at you Herne Bay towers), heritage housing being destroyed, inadequate open space being provided, sunlight being blocked and so forth. We probably also don’t really want trucking companies locating next door to too many people’s houses if we can avoid it too.

My idea is that we can still have something resembling a “zone” – but instead of saying “residential goes here” it might say “this is a growth area” or “this is a traditional town centre so be a bit careful” or “this is an area of heritage residential housing so be very careful what you do”. A key difference between this and the existing zoning system is that¬†these zones could overlap. You could have one edge of your “standard housing area” overlap with your “business area” or a growth node – which would allow higher development densities. The outcome might be something like this (I’ve used Kingsland as an example as it has a range of uses). The area in yellow is generally heritage housing, the areas in red are town centres (Kingsland in the middle and Morningside to the west) and the area in green is generally light-industrial with plenty of development potential for higher densities. Something like this would reflect the range of (sometimes contradictory) aims that we might have for Kingsland: that we want to keep its distinctive heritage housing, we want to make it a vibrant shopping area (and retain an architectural cohesiveness to the town centre) but also we want to provide for some serious intensification as it’s an inner-city suburb with excellent public transport connections.

You could probably apply further layers on here – potentially breaking down your heritage housing area into sub-areas of higher and lower significance, or your growth areas into higher and lower intensities. Another useful thing is that the roads fall within the “zone”, which means that developments to the road network could be required to fit in with their surroundings to a greater extent. Perhaps the most interesting areas are those where two different areas intersect, so you end up with areas of the town centre that are within the green “growth area” – which might have more potential for large-scale redevelopment than parts of the town centre outside those areas. You could also potentially have growth areas coinciding with heritage housing areas – which would mean that whether redevelopment is appropriate would probably be decided on more of a “site by site” basis.

Obviously a council would be far more in depth when coming up with exact boundaries of the different “zones” (for want of a better word). However, the concept of being able to overlay various different “sought outcomes”, allowing a much finer grain of different development types – as an area might be allocated for either business or residential – is likely to lead to far better urban outcomes in my opinion. It’s a step forwards from the 1960s thinking of two-dimensional zoning in my opinion.

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19 comments

  1. Let me be the Devil’s Advocate and try to poke holes into your idea:

    – Overlapping zones? That will end up with an even larger set of requirements to follow, thus making development even harder.

    – Overlapping zones? That is an invitation for rules that conflict, including obsucre sub-rules that nobody ever thought about. You might have situations where you have one rule saying “you must build at least 20m high” and another “you may not have more than three stories”.

    – Boundaries: you are asking to not only redraw boundaries, you’d also have to draw in boundaries several times for a various set of requirements every time new again. A new tussle over each one (and calls to “lets just use the SAME boundaries again, OK?”).

    – Confusion. I’d see this as creating uncertainty big time. You and me might understand the logic, and even be able to read the maps (and modern electronic overlays can help too). But Joe Public (and maybe even Paul Councillor) will be lost. “What can I do here with my land?” “Oh, well, it’s a bit tricky. See, you are in the edge of this growth zone, but also heritage-controlled, and then there’s this residential area close by, and…” “So THIS is the increased supercity efficiency we were talking about?”

    In short, I think your idea is pretty complex, especially due to the overlap. Maybe too complex (even though I acknowledge that such situations already exist, just not in the same document. So in a way, your idea WOULD simplify things. But try selling it that way to somebody!)

  2. You already kinda do have overlapping zones though, with character overlays, stormwater risk overlays, aircraft noise overlays, viewshaft overlays and so forth.

    But yeah, I guess it would confuse a bit. I would probably counter-balance that by simplifying other matters though. At the moment District Plans are horribly complex, with the most important rule often being in annexure 4 of appendix 20.

  3. Our current planning system is
    a) so complex even the professionals struggle to understand /. explain it
    b) so time consuming – resulting in incredibly lengthy procedures
    c) so resource hungry – consuming vast amount of consultant and council time
    the result is millions of dollars disappearing out of the developments (reduced quality), into consultants (mainly planners and lawyers) hands. whilst one can argue its still going into our economy, our (built) environment pays the price.
    Who is benefitting from our current system?
    the public – nope – they have increasingly little say
    our built environment – nope – we can see the quality increasingly falling behind other countries
    our natural environment – nope – even that is getting eroded
    the developers – nope – the system is equally poor on them, as described above with quality paying the price

    the only people benefitting from our current system is the huge raft of consultants, mainly lawyers. I practised in the uk as an urban designer / planner for 13 years, and came across a planning lawyer about 5 times. every project i deal with here has at least 1, and they are generally running the show.
    and the irony is that only these planners / lawyers can change the system…but why would they want to?

    There is an incredibly simple system out there, and fortunately a few councils are now exploring alternatives, which i am fortunate to be working on. it has to be about using “design guidance” rather than quantitative development standards, and introducing more discretion. people immediately react and say we dont have the skills or the resources. rubbish. we currently are making the same decisions, about what is appropriate (height etc), but making them far earlier in the process, in absence of a tangible development proposal, where people cannot see what they are effectively commenting on. consequently these decisions get mired in costly and time consuming litigation. instead, make some guidelines, such as you suggest – areas of incremental change (stability), areas of encouraged growth etc, some good practice design principles (which are pretty much established), then make a decision on each proposal against these guidelines. ask the public for their opinion, but don’t call it notification as this allows unlimited appeals. consider their views, but don’t let these views hold up something because they don’t like the colour of the windows.
    this works so well in the UK, largely because it is backed up by a very quick, cheap and simple appeals process to resolve those occasions when the developer feels they have had a bad decision.
    we believe this system can work within our RMA. it just takes some effort on the local council’s part to put this in operation, but of course there will be mass hysteria on such change, even though the results could be hugely positive.

  4. I largely agree there. Councils go on and on about “design led approaches”, but you rarely see it in reality. The only place I have seen it actually happen is Mangere, where council is replacing all district plan rules with a ‘pictures based’ development code.

  5. Al,
    I agree, despite a very good piece of legislation (the RMA) the NZ planning system always seems to get bogged down in disputes and appeals. The most bizarre fact is that the ultimate arbiter is an Environment Court judge who may have good judical knowledge but is not trained to deal with the social, environmental and economic effects of their decisions. Get the judgeon a good day and can get pretty much anything through (or not through).

  6. Al, you may notice that he is an “Environment Court Judge”. i.e. he is trained (and after a while) experienced at doing just what you, claim he is not. He SPECIALISES in cases dealing with “social, environmental and economic” effects.

    Of course he cannot be an actual expert at all the various subject matters under his remit. And to argue that judgement by a court (any court, no matter where in space, or when in time) can or should always be predictable is to have unreasonably high expectations of both humanity, and what is even logically possible.

  7. It’s generally agreed that the RMA makes the planning process too legalistic. The recent “streamlining and simplifying” amendment act added around 80 pages to the legislation, so I’m not quite sure how it “simplified” matters.

  8. Jarbury – one of the things I’ve never really got my head around is whether allowing people to build dwellings that take up more of a site would be bad for storm water? Is this a serious issue or are there other ways to resolve it. Or have I just got complete wrong end of stick.

  9. Lucy, what matters in that respect is the percentage of the site which is “permeable” – that is, either grass or planted up. The more permeable area there is, the less problem you have with stormwater.

    Typically, residential areas have a maximum site coverage (the house only) of around 35%, and might have a minimum permeability of around 30-40%. That leaves the rest for driveways and other paved areas.

    There are two schools of thought when it comes to stormwater. The “old-school” way is to get it to the sea as quickly as possible, the modern way is to slow it down so that contaminants can be reduced, and to involve more “soft” solutions, rather than hard engineering solutions. Higher permeability would certainly assist as a “soft solution”.

    Let’s say you have a 400 square metre section. You could have around 140m2 of that as your house – which means a 280m2 house over two levels (pretty big!) If you allowed for three levels of development in some appropriate areas, your 400m2 section could definitely start providing for a couple of units at the very least – that’s how you could improve housing affordability.

    The problem we have at the moment is that one of the basic rules of residential zones is a “minimum lot size” per unit. In Auckland City this is typically 375m2, which means that if your site is smaller than 750m2 you are only ever allowed one unit on it. Theoretically, this unit could be two levels and have site coverage of 35% – allowing up to around 520m2 of gross floor area to be developed (ie. a bloody giant house), but only ever one unit! That’s where our housing affordability problem stems from. Get rid of “minimum lot size” restrictions and focus only on building height & site coverage and you would end up with more, smaller, units.

  10. interesting. So you couldn’t build two apartments for example? Even if they only took up the same space as one house… Or two little narrow terraced houses side by side?

  11. A friend of my fathers has a flat out the back of his house he wants to put a driveway back there, put in a kitchen and bathroom in it and subdivide and sell…

    The site is only slightly under 750m2 but they won’t let him, won’t budge an inch even though nothing really is changing…

  12. Yep, you’ve got it right Al. The more discretion you give to planners and other design professionals, the less work there will be for lawyers and I would suggest the better the outcomes will be. At present all this energy goes into making sure the “correct process” is followed at the expense of what really matters – the built outcome. Who cares how well written a planning report is if the built environment is rubbish? Lawyers have introduced all sorts of concepts that undermine a proper assessment of developments – permitted baseline, existing environment etc etc.

  13. Have you been involved in the “Future Planning Framework” work Scott? It certainly seems quite good, and (if it’s carried forward by the Super City) looks like it might result in a more “design led” District Plan.

    I completely agree that there’s too much focus on correct process. I suppose the problem with land development is that there is potentially so much money at stake it’s hard to avoid getting legalistic over things when you have competing interests.

  14. Jezza, my old man has a similar issue. He is perfectly allowed to build an enormous three story house of 600m2 with nine bedrooms and six car parks in the basement… but he’s not allowed to build exactly the same devided into three three-bedroom dwellings. Simply ludicrous.

  15. That’s the number one planning rule that kills housing affordability I reckon. I used to live in half a villa on one of Auckland’s nicest streets (Wanganui Ave in Herne Bay) for a pretty cheap $375 a week rent. Splitting that villa was only possible because it happened many years ago. These days it would be illegal, eliminating affordable housing.

  16. I think so too. My Mum and Dad now live alone where six people used to live, they aren’t even allow to legally rent the downstairs level to someone, which is basically a separate two bedroom flat. If having two people ‘stuck’ in a house that can handle six or seven doesn’t affect housing affordability, I don’t know what does!

  17. I have been involved in the Future Planning framework to a limited degree. I was in the team looking at the Hobson/Newmarket Area. It seemed to me that the city planning people in the group only wanted to colour in maps and upscale density/zones without any real thought to whether the topography was suitable. Perhaps you are talking about the higher level framework documents? I think there is a drive to get into more structure planning, which I fully support.

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