There has been a lot of talk over the past few months about the “Auckland Spatial Plan” and more recently about the City Centre Master Plan. Both these documents are undoubtedly important in defining goals for Auckland as a whole or for the city centre, highlighting important projects, discussing how funding might be acquired for various important projects and generally setting out an important vision for what Auckland should be like in 30 years: whether that vision be for the entire Auckland region (in the case of the spatial plan) or for the city centre (in the case of the City Centre Master Plan). However, there’s a third very important document that will be developed over the next year or so – a document that is perhaps even more influential in terms of setting out how the city will grow and change into the future. That document is the Auckland Unitary Plan.
The Unitary Plan is effectively a replacement for all the current District Plans that guide development in each of the respective former council areas. It is a source of great frustration that the city effectively has a whole bunch of different sets of rules outlining what development can and cannot occur, up to what intensity and with what controls are in place. Added to the District Plans of all the former councils (and Auckland City Council alone had three completely independent District Plans – so they were certainly numerous) we also have a whole pile of regional plans, which were administered by the ARC, and a Regional Policy Statement which sets out the big picture regional guidelines that should follow through in the District Plans. I’m sure from reading all this two things become obvious:
- Combining all these plans will be a massive and highly complicated task, and
- Getting the Unitary Plan right will be critically important, because if we have one set of rules throughout the whole region they’d better work well.
I tend to take the view that the Unitary Plan is an absolutely golden opportunity to completely reinvent how land-use planning it done in Auckland. I hope that the Council doesn’t simply roll over existing provisions with a little bit of fiddling – but rather completely starts again. This is because planning in Auckland is completely and utterly broken. Try to build a Ponsonby these days with narrow streets, houses close to each other and close to the street, no off-street parking and so forth and you don’t have a hope in hell of getting resource consent. Try to build a soulless Dannemora and the planning rules are unlikely to be a problem at all. Massively wide and pedestrian unfriendly roads are actively encouraged, so are as many off-street carparks as possible, so are massively oversized standalone houses on lots of a size that’s really more suitable to terraced housing. Soul-destroying car-dominated ‘town centres’ like Botany, Manukau City and Albany do not exist despite our planning rules, they exist entirely because of our planning rules. It’s actively encouraged to build this: Building a walkable town centre like Mt Eden or Ponsonby Road would be impossible these days – largely due to the stupidity if requiring huge numbers of parking spaces for every new development.
It beggars belief that our planning system actively prohibits building more residential areas like Ponsonby and more town centres like Mt Eden Village; yet actively encourages soulless residential areas like Dannemora, and horrific shopping areas like Botany. The system is fundamentally broken and needs to be rethought in a completely comprehensive fashion. The Unitary Plan is perhaps a once in a generation opportunity to reinvent planning in Auckland.
For this reason I am likely to make a large number of posts on the Unitary Plan over the next while – as it’s initially in development and then as it goes through the public consultation process of submissions and inevitable environment court appeals. I think what we really need are intelligent conversations about exactly how we can get our planning system to support the type of city that it seems our big picture documents want: one that’s more compact, pedestrian friendly, economically efficient, sustainable and integrated. I certainly don’t have all the answers yet, but I do have some general ideas that could be worth exploring further in relation to how a future Unitary Plan could better support more sustainable transport.
- Perhaps the most important rule we can change is very simple: just get rid of minimum parking requirements. Leave it up to individual owners and developers to decide how much parking they want to provide: I’m sure if they perceive there’s a market importance on providing parking then they’ll provide it – if they would rather spend some of that money on encouraging people to use other transport modes then great. The point being we shouldn’t force building owners to provide what is effectively a massive subsidy to people who drive.
- Around our railway stations – particularly on the Western Line (which will be brought within a very quick trip of downtown once the City Rail Link project is built), we should significantly upzone to allow more development potential. Of course care will need to be taken to ensure this does not come at the detriment of character areas, but it seems entirely feasible to see massively more development potential provided around Newton, Morningside, Mt Albert, Avondale and New Lynn – and probably further out too.
- We should develop an effective incentive scheme for developments that reduce auto-dependency. If a developer is prepared to contribute to upgrading a bus stop or interchange – or provide a lower than usual amount of off-street parking, why not reward them by allowing them to build an extra floor or two? In areas where we want more development (ie. around the train stations and along high-frequency bus routes) perhaps landowners could effectively ‘purchase’ additional development rights off areas where we don’t want too much development due to heritage or other environmental reasons.
- New developments should be required to have a highly connected street-pattern that supports efficient public transport provision. How an area will be served by public transport should be a fundamental consideration in assessing its design.
- All commercial buildings should be required to have their parking hidden from view behind the buildings (that’s if they want to provide any). Botany Town Centre (shown in the image above) wouldn’t be half as bad if its buildings fronted the roads and the carpark was hidden around the back of the place. Newer small-scale shopping areas have none of the character of traditional town centres, largely because they always place parking at the front of their sites.
- Narrow streets should be encouraged in residential areas.
- All high traffic generating activities (like shopping malls) should be required to be located within 400m of a Rapid Transit station (either the rail network or a busway station).
I’m sure there are many others. Suggestions are most welcome – it’s critical we get this right and we need to start thinking about it now.