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:

  1. Combining all these plans will be a massive and highly complicated task, and
  2. 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.

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  1. Brilliant post Josh and I entirely agree with you re: minimum parking requirements. They simply are not necessary, period.

    What I would add to your list is reform of council’s revenue raising mechanisms. Raising transport rates based on capital values completely disadvantages high value, centrally located properties and favours low-value development on the urban periphery.

    Development contributions are also a crock of baloney – they provide absolutely no incentive for development to occur close to public transport corridors. So if you develop close to a train station, you pay the same transport development contribution as everywhere else.

    I’d also replace the MUL with a “sprawl tax” that attempted to internalise the external costs of loss of open space via a tax on greenfields development. That way you can have market led development, without the need for blunt regulatory tools like the MUL.

    1. Sprawl Tax- fantastic, much better than trying to restrict land from development, price it out of the market. Or more accurately send the real price signal.

      And another great post, admin.

      1. Exactly, set a sprawl tax based on area of development, distance from city, etc etc. Then let the market would out where the efficient boundaries of the city should be. And of course if you still get too much sprawl just increase the tax. Done and dusted – gives the benefits of smart growth with the responsiveness of market led development. Although there is still a role for master planning because developers simply do not design good street networks – mainly because it’s not in their interest. So, with the sprawl tax and a bit of street network planning the public sector could get much better outcomes …

    2. I completely agree, plus getting rid of the MUL and replacing it with a stepped development fee and associated rating cost would help to both encourage more intensification and discourage sprawl while removing one of the key arguments sprawl promoters use. If those who want sprawl complain it will be easy to just ask “why do think the rest of the city should pay more rate to subsidise you”

  2. There is currently a political Working Party on the Unitary Plan, but you would never know about it because the one chance that the Local Boards got to have representation on it, quite a few Local Board Chairs stuffed it up.

    You’ll need to do OIA’s on the Working Party presentations, agendas and minutes.

  3. This unitary plan is going to be a massive undertaking. I heard that they got rid of Policy planners when the super city was established!

    Hopefully this plan will look at Development Contributions and how they can encourage positive city growth.

    Wellington is looking at using airspace above railway stations for development. This could also be a good idea in Auckland. This would allow for railway stations to be upgraded and have sufficient numbers to have retail outlets attached. There would have to be provisions made for additional lines to go through in the future.

  4. Negative dis-incentives are never going to work. You would get vehement opposition from residents in places like Swanston, Orewa, Warkworth, Pukekohe and even Takapuna, Mt Eden, Avondale etc.. worried about property values.

    Really, the council needs to get off its bum and talk to developers. An Urban Development Authority which can provide positive incentives for developers, residents and stakeholders as well as a significant financial contribution are the only thing that is going to work. This is what WCC did in New Lynn. Theyw ent out on a limb and have a look at the quality of the station they got. Compare that to Avondale which got a standard station and very little else

  5. I would love to see that 2009 aerial photo location as it was 10 years earlier in 1999, and 20 years earlier, in 1989. I suspect the latter would be little more than two small roads intersecting in the countryside.

    1. There is 1996 and 2006 photos of the city on the GIS viewer on the council website. In 2006 you can just see this starting to develop and by 2006 it is pretty much what we see today. Unfortunately there are no photos from earlier until you get back to 1959. It is quite interesting looking at various parts of the city using this.

  6. Just astounding these developments are still occuring in the 21s century. Completely clueless. No more U.S style mega car malls please. While I agree high density housing should be allowed around train stations, I feel we need stronger protection around character areas like Mt Albert (our second oldest suburb) and environmental area like Swanson (foothills to the WAitakres). These are areas that define and distinguish Auckland.

    1. Have you looked carefully at Mt Albert? The strip of shops between the station and NN Rd are completely valueless, no heritage value at all. And this is really good as Mt Albert is just screaming out for a proper make over. No need to touch the better Edwardian strip across both NN Rd and further down the hill. I recall there was a student competition for this site that had some good results but I can’t find it no online, but basically the station should be lowered (all the way back to Woodward Ave, but that’s a roading issue) and a new strip to NN Rd with some decent scale and mixed use be built backing on to a new plaza above the station. Buses, both east/west and north/south need stops linked to station access, perhaps on a slightly widened bridge. And no new parking. Even the orientation of the site is ideal, the area would get a lift like New Lynn. Is there not a council development agency that can be involved in this sort of win/win/win scheme?

      1. Yes there is. Well, there was under the old Auckland City Council, but I think it is still around under the new regime. It was called Development with Vision with a budget of around 400 – 600 million. And you could count the number of visions it realised. Zero. And the money is untouched.

  7. I don’t think we need stronger protection, actually. The laws we have are mostly sufficient, and in many cases too strong, protecting buildings that have no particular cultural significance, other than their age. In these situations the buildings aren’t unique (they are of types that characterise tens of thousands across NZ) nor valued for their features, but have considerable problems. NZ has some of the most poorly built historic housing in the world, much of it badly constructed in the first place and of little amenity value. Meanwhile high quality (warmer, drier, more efficient) housing and commercial stock is impeded. Meanwhile, genuinely historic and unique buildings with incredible cultural or architectural significance are bowled over every year.

    People forget that cities that are more than 100 years old elsewhere in the world have amazing architecture simply because things that weren’t working were bowled over, and better things replaced them, over a long series of generations. Cities are for people, they’re not museums.

    None of this is a developers charter, but there needs to be a balance struck between competing values, and it hasn’t been reached yet.

    1. I need a copy-editor!

      Nevertheless, it’s a strange world where an old ramshackle weatherboard house nobody cares about is protected, while the Futuna Chapel remains unprotected by the law and was almost demolished.

  8. Your right. Mt Albert is just an example of things not working in town centres driving people away. No public spaces, the obsession with the St Luke’s mega mall killing town villages, the dominance of roads when there is so much public transport around, the isolation of the train station from the town centre with views of the run down backends of shops. It has so much going for it (150 year history, unitec, public transport access) it is a shame it is left in decay.

  9. Top post Josh, best in a while. It’s always been a weird paradox that at the regional level we’ve had the RGS for the last 12 years advocating new urbanism but district plans still stuck in last century encouraging the opposite. This time around the district plans need to integrate with the regional vision – you’re absolutely right.

    Agree with Stu/Patrick – have often thought that manipulating development levies and pricing the peripheral land out of the market could be a way of encouraging developers to get on board with TOD-style development.

    As an aside I think the unitary plan will be quite important in getting the government onside with the CBD rail link given that one of the govt’s ‘work ons’ was to ensure enough residential development along rail lines to justify current and future investment in the rail system. The unitary plan that Josh is advocating would ensure that this development does take place, ensuring a bigger rail catchment, more rail users, and therefore a greater need for the CBD rail link.

  10. I think another big consideration is that we need to provide more affordable housing/community housing. Perhaps the Unity Plan could include requirements around a certain percentage of each development being affordable housing (and rent it out on long term leases to ensure it remains affordable, rather than just selling it to developers who put the price up and sell it on).

    Otherwise Auckland will just continue to grow (as it is now and has been for some time) with the rich people living closer to the center in suburbs with high amenity. Meanwhile the poor people get pushed out further and further towards the periphery of the city, where transport costs are higher and it is harder for them to find work. It’s a very reasonable model if you take a pure “let the market” decide approach to economics. But I think it contributes to a highly unequal city which means high crime rates and many other societal ills.

  11. I don’t get the mall hate here. Sure, they’re a pain in the ass at the moment, but they provide pre-existing concentrations of amenities to justify installing PT hubs, and secondly, they have lots of car-parking space on which to develop them. Places like Botany have so much space you could almost redevelop the entire shopping centre on top of a transport hub in the car park without intruding on any existing shops. They’re our future PT hubs and the sooner we start getting transport to places people want to go, the better for everyone.

    1. Yes Dan, that’s my view about Botany, the only good thing is that there is plenty of space to add PT infrastructure. First the AMETI busway connecting it to Panmure, then once Manukau is connected to the Airport I think people there will see just how great it would be to take the rail line from there to Botany as well and bingo, Botany becomes a connected transport hub, with pre-existing park’n’ride and half of the South-eastern line is in too… here’s hoping…

  12. @Dan the issue with that is the urban designs of the malls and surrounding area are so appalling.
    As you can see in the photo above the shopping area is totally segregated into 4 areas. I would would doubt anyone would walk between the two as they have to cross a bleak carpark, a massive highway, maybe another highway, then another bleak carpark.
    If the design of the malls was much better integrated with the surrounding areas could be fixable over time, however if very difficult when designed like Botany above, same with Highland Park, Westgate, Albany and so on.
    The issue is I think the 4 corners have been developed totally separately, by unrelated parties.
    The Council should have got landowners to produce a town centre plan so they could co-operate and ensure the separate developments join up.
    Ideally the car-parking should have been on the outside, with building facing more towards the street.

    Thats the really frustrating things, a much better outcome could have been achieved simply by shifting about the location and orientation of the buildings and car-parking.

  13. It is always easy to yell for getting rid of the minimum parking requirements. Instead, the Auckland CBD has already got the minimum parking requirements in place for more than decades, yet we still see parking spaces/buildings everywhere (legal or illegal, being alone or as part of the buildings) over the CBD and resource consent for parking building is still granted from time to time – the latest example being the big parking building near Britomart.

    And, perhaps only those planners working for the former North Shore City Council and Manukau City Council could explain why we would end up having car-based towns such as Albany and Dannemora.

    While we may not be able to constrain the big parking providers from building carparking premise(s) at all, the new small businesses (restaurants, retails, etc) on the main shopping streets are always panalised by needing to apply for a resource consent simply because they are not able to provide 3-5 required ‘on-site’ parking spaces on the linear streets, which could cost them a fortune to engage a traffic engineer to certify that their parking shortfall will cause “no more than minor adverse effects”…while the cumulative effects of granting a number of these consents for this minor parking shortfall on the same street is hard to quantify.

    Is there any mis-match between plans and the actual daily practice? Is there anything wrong with the RMA regime/resource consent mechanism?

    It is also true that on some of these streets, the public transport service could be so poor esp after 5pm or over the weekends which mean people may not have choice but still need to go there by vehicles. (thanks for the over “CBD centric” nature of the Auckland’s PT services)…

    It appears things are much more complicated than simply getting rid of minimum parking requirements and unless we understand the logic behind this, and have a far more flexible approach in the Unitary Plan, it is unlikely that we would get it right this time.

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