For a long time it seemed to me that most of our urban problems here in Auckland, as well as overseas, had arisen through a lack of planning. At first glance, it seems as though the urban sprawl and automobile dependency we suffer from has been the result of insufficient planning rules and regulations – which have been unable to stop developers from building stuff that we don’t like.
If you find yourself involved in the details of planning for any period of time, it generally comes down to feeling like a fundamental battle between those wanting tougher and tougher rules, to hopefully, finally, create better urban environments; and those who want fewer rules so they are more able to do what they want. The assumption is that fewer rules will lead to car-dependent, poor-quality, environment destroying, sprawl (like what we’ve had for most of the past 50 years), whereas more, tougher and increasingly intricately detailed rules might allow something better.
Often the battle becomes ideological and political. More regulation versus less regulation, restrictions on property rights versus freedom to do what you like with your land. Inevitably, this becomes a “Left” versus “Right” issue, with those on the left wanting more regulation to ensure desirable urban outcomes, while those on the right finding themselves rather fond of car-dependent suburbia – because it seems like a natural market outcome. Just the other day I found myself listening to Councillor Dick Quax lavishing praise on the suburbia of Pakuranga, scorning those “planners” who seem to dislike it so much.
There’s a flaw in this situation, a flaw that has resulted in me having to take a fundamental rethink about my political philosophies over the past few years. The flaw can be easily understood by simply looking at the history of Auckland, or the history of urban areas generally. Put quite simply: when we didn’t have planning rules we managed to create Ponsonby, Parnell, Devonport, Paddington in Sydney and so forth (the type of urban environments now seen as highly desirable), but when we do have planning rules we create places like Dannemora, Botany Downs, Wattle Downs, Flat Bush and, yes, Pakuranga. This type of urban outcome for example, which seems fantastic, would break just about every planning rule in the book:
The quite amazing irony in urban planning is that the more we plan, the worse the outcomes we seem to end up with. The parking monstrosity that is Botany Downs is not the result of a lack of planning: this intersection has been planned down to the tiniest detail: that seems to be the problem!Internationally, if you look at the urban environments which seem to work best, they are often places that developed in the absence of planning: or at least in the absence of the level of planning detail that we now undertake. The heart of Paris is gloriously vibrant because of its mix of uses – resulting from most of Paris simply having one zone for most of its urban area:
“[T]he most recent Paris zoning code divides the city and surrounding greenspace into just four zones, three of which are neither residential nor commercial (those three are Zone N (Nature and Forests); Zone UV (Green Urban), i.e. parks and other public landscaped areas; Zone UGSU (Major Urban Services), i.e. train stations and rail lines, hospitals, waste treatment centers, water reservoirs, riverside ports, convention centers, and major centers of industrial distribution); the city’s houses, apartment buildings, shops, cafés, offices, and other commercial establishments thus fall within a single zone, General Urban.”
Of course Paris is highly regulated in other ways, such as its height limit and heritage protection.
When then-governor Parris Glendening announced a key portion of what was to become Maryland’s path-breaking land use legislation in the 1990s, he stood in the historic district of Annapolis, where Maryland’s State House is located. He told the crowd that the best parts of downtown Annapolis – a picturesque, highly walkable and much-loved collection of 17th- and 18th-century homes, apartments, shops, civic and church buildings, restaurants and small offices just above the city’s harbor – could not have been built in the late 20th century.
Modern zoning and building codes wouldn’t allow it. There are too many uses mixed together, insufficient setbacks from the street, not enough parking, stairways that don’t meet modern building codes, streets too narrow, and so on. The implication was clear: there is something very wrong with a system of laws that has deviated so far from our intrinsic instincts that it has, perhaps unwittingly but nevertheless effectively, outlawed the very things that have made Maryland’s state capital so popular with residents and visitors.
There’s also a fascinating discussion on the Pedestrian Observations blog about this debate, or more specifically about the question of whether urban regulation will always result in worse outcomes which much of this blog post so far has been suggesting. I probably wouldn’t go that far at all, because I think there is always the “tragedy of the commons” issue which requires urban regulation: to ensure that logically self-interested behaviour doesn’t spoil it for the rest of us, but there’s a useful lesson in this debate – which is:
It’s not the extent to which we regulate that matters, it’s what and how we regulate.
Just as Botany town centre is a clearly planned outcome, so are more successful urban outcomes like New York City (its street grid is hardly organic), central Paris (same for its street pattern and height limit) and Vancouver (once again a very clear grid and some strong urban design focus). The difference relates to the matter of what was regulated and how it was done.
I tend to think that good planning will strike the best balance between what to regulate and what not to regulate. It will also sort out ways in which to ensure that what we choose to regulate is done effectively. The problem with our current planning rules mainly relates to the first issue: what we choose to regulate (and what we don’t), although the way in which we regulate is also a problem at times (often our planning rules specifically try to create the exact form of urban development our higher level strategies want to prevent). We focus on regulating things like activities (whether a building is used for residential, offices, restaurants and so forth) and development details (building setbacks, yard sizes, parking requirements etc.) even though these are things which can be changed relatively easily; but at the same time we effectively leave to the market more long-term urban interventions like where the streets will go.
So while fundamentally you would think that planning can be most useful by taking the “big picture view” that each individual development is, of course, unable to keep in mind, what we actually have is a whole pile of unnecessary regulation of the details but a complete lack of oversight when it comes to matters like street network design, leading to outcomes like this: This area is basically doomed to auto-dependency forever due to its horrifically unconnected street network. It’s impossible to effectively service by bus, the long and indirect routes discourage walking and cycling and the lack of connectivity makes it highly unlikely anything other than houses will ever be constructed here. Sure, planning rules were applied to ensure that each house provided two off-street parking spaces, had strictly enforce height-to-boundary controls, a backyard of particular size and dimensions, side-yards of at least a certain width, the list goes on. But where it mattered most, in taking the big picture overview of this area and ensuring it’s future-proofed to adapt and evolve over time, you couldn’t get a bigger failure – because in the end the street network wasn’t really planned, it was simply left to the developer.
Overall, I think we probably regulate a bit too much when it comes to planning. A lot of better outcomes could be achieved through setting a minimal number of baseline requirements (maximum height and site coverage restrictions in the suburbs for example) and then leaving the details over to the developers – with a number of ‘expectations’ for you want to see in that area. But at the higher level, when analysing how whole areas are going to work and making enormously significant decisions over matters such as where the streets go, we probably need a bit more regulation – to ensure ongoing adaptability and to ensure we can run public transport through the area. I think if we took such an approach we would be far more likely to end up with better urban outcomes – and also make it far easier for developers to do business, without having to work around a million highly detailed and often contradictory planning rules and regulations.