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.