The Productivity Commission has put out a paper calling for submissions on Urban Planning, here. It’s a very wide ranging, going right back to first principles where they have discovered that:

Yet even among planners, there appears to be no agreed definition of “planning” or “urban planning”, and writers have struggled with whether a definition can be provided.

Despite this lack of theoretical certainty I think we all know urban planning when we see it, or perhaps more accurately its outcomes. Pleasingly the paper begins with a short history of Petone which is used to illustrate the accretive and accidental nature of city forming:


  1. The changing nature of urban areas

    Urban areas are dynamic, complex places. Land uses and neighbourhoods can change dramatically in response to economic, technological and demographic forces.

    One example of this evolution comes from Easterly, Freschi and Pennings (2015), who explored how a single stretch of a New York City street changed over four centuries of development. Easterly, Freschi and Pennings concluded that it is “difficult for prescriptive planners to anticipate changes in comparative advantage, and it is easy for regulations to stifle creative destruction and to create misallocation.” (p. 1)

    The town of Petone in Lower Hutt illustrates the diversity of influences that shape urban areas. [Below] provides an outline of its history, although inevitably many important details and events are overlooked. The transition of Petone – from a Māori village, to the intended site of a major colonial settlement, to a working-class industrial area, a run-down town, at various times a retail destination, and a desirable residential neighbourhood – show how unpredictable the evolution of our urban areas can be.

Given this surely accurate observation, shouldn’t any attempts at controlling the form of our cities in fact shy away from control but instead aim for incentivisation? Won’t nudging the direction of individual impulses be likely to be more effective that prescriptive programmes? And much less likely to result in unwanted unintended consequences, like out of control dwelling inflation. After all it appears that even the most egregious of city ordinances are well meant, no matter how much damage they do either indirectly or to other aims. And city building is full of contradictory impulses; for example nothing allows more retention [if not preservation] of older building than economic stagnation, yet surely it is fair to say there are few if any councils that would consciously pursue policies of economic ruin in order to bolster their worthy desire to preserve their city’s built fabric?

Another example is the whole history of auto-priority of the last 60 years across the developed world; so often expensive road and parking infrastructure was built with the very aim of reviving or maintaining the economic life of places, yes these investments simply reinforced their decline and unsuitability of these places for the brave new world of driving focussed city. For example Auckland’s City Centre only really began to recover from the flight of the motorway/sprawl era once Minimum Parking Regs were inverted- replaced with Maximums instead. Thereby nudging development and use of the city towards walkable proximate-focussed more intense land use. In fact MPRs must rank very high up the list of the most destructive yet well meant influences on city development, see this disastrous example from the sadly much governance-abused city of Christchurch; so prioritising ease of parking that the actual destination become untenable and disappears. Mandated parking oversupply is a form of urban self-harm so ubiquitous in mediocre conurbations that it’s become invisible: it’s the teenage cutting of city-management.

The question next becomes what scale of nudge is required to incentivise more productive city building and city using; nudge or shove? Denmark for example, has a 180% tax on new cars and one the highest bicycle usage rates in the world. These two things are surely not unrelated [see here for context, however]. Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong all have the most widespread and financially successful urban, and in Japan’s case, inter city, Transit networks and all also have significant barriers to car ownership and use, as well as planning rules that enable more efficient land use. See here.

Here is the ProdComm’s quick history of the urban development of Petone:

The evolution of Petone

Prior to European settlement there was a large Te Āti Awa Pa at Pito-one. The New Zealand Company’s surveyor, Captain William Mein Smith chose the Heretaunga (Hutt) river valley for the site of their planned settlement “Britannia”, and the Company ships began arriving in January 1840. Relations between Māori and the settlers were positive in large part due to the hospitality and mana of local chief Te Puni. The grid street plan drawn up in England was soon abandoned. In March the river flooded the settlement, and a fire and earthquake followed in May. Britannia was largely abandoned by the end of 1840, with the settlers having moved to Pipitea/Thorndon, which Colonel Wakefield had long favoured for the settlement.

In 1847 there were probably no more than 20 settler households left, and it remained almost wholly deserted until 1875. The land was poor quality for grazing, and the Hutt River flooded at least annually. Pito-one Pa, with a population of 136, remained the largest and best-fortified pa in the Wellington area. In 1855 a major earthquake lifted the area, draining a portion of the lower valley.

In 1874 the Wellington-Wairarapa train line opened. A large railway workshop was built in Petone. That same year a butcher, James Gear, began to purchase and lease land around the Petone foreshore for a slaughterhouse. It was attractive for the cheap flat land, proximity to the harbour and railway line, and the small size of the local population to be offended by the waste and smell of the facility. In 1883 the company built a 380m long wharf, demolished in 1901. A large wool mill was established in 1886.

Petone grew rapidly, and was gazetted as a town in 1881. A series of factories and breweries were built. Schools, churches, newspapers, sports and social clubs were established in the 1880s, many of which survive today.

A local farmer, Edwin Jackson, sold portions of his land piecemeal with unsurveyed rights- of-way. The result was that by 1885 there was local concern that Jackson Street was an embarrassing series of dog-legs, of varying width along its length. Jackson Street was extended when the land was bought by the borough solicitor on behalf of the Crown in 1888. Blood and offal went straight into the harbour, attracting sharks, so Jackson built a swimming bath near the waterfront. Plans for a gasworks were abandoned in 1897, and the land that had been earmarked for this use was purchased by the council as a recreation ground. But the council declined to buy Jackson’s baths, and a ratepayers poll in 1901 also decided against a purchase, so they were closed.

By the early 1900s Jackson Street was the hub of Hutt Valley commercial activity, with notable stores such as McKenzies, McDuffs and Liebezeits. The Grand Theatre opened in 1916. But Jackson Street’s haphazard alignment was still a problem and between 1927 and 1938 the council widened and straightened Jackson Street, with buildings shifted back on rails or demolished.

New Zealand’s earliest state houses were built in Patrick Street from 1906, although they were sold in the 1930s. Council chambers were built in 1903 and a town clock in 1913. A new wharf was constructed in 1907. Industrialisation continued: Lever Brothers factory opened in 1919, Sunlight Factory in 1924, and a number of car plants in the 1920s and 1930s. Three out of every four cars in New Zealand were said to come from Petone up until the 1950s. The town produced many successful sportspeople and the Petone Rugby Club numerous All Blacks.

Petone, by local standards, was densely populated and heavily industrialised, ugly, grimy, lively and close-knit, more like an English industrial town than a New Zealand one. (Butterworth, 1988, p. 13)

But from the 1950s the area began to decline, as some industries closed and residents moved to the new suburbs of the Hutt Valley. A number of state housing flats were built from the 1950s to the 1970s on the eastern part of Jackson Street. The Borough Council designated an area north of Jackson Street as an industrial zone, and

[t]he result of this was that no one was allowed to improve their properties, which meant many fell into disrepair and were sold off to developers. It was impossible for young Petone people to get a loan to buy property in their hometown so many left for Wainuiomata or Upper Hutt. The town become a place of rented properties owned by absentee landlords. By the mid seventies and eighties Jackson Street was pretty much derelict. (Johnston, 2015, pp. 93-95)

The Council proposed building a ring road around central Jackson Street, to create a mall in the centre of town at a cost of $10 million and the demolition of 80 houses. But significant local opposition stopped the project, and many councillors were voted out.

Petone wharf took its last cargo in 1976. The Gear meatworks closed in 1981. Long- established stores closed and the council chambers were demolished in 1986. Deregulation of the New Zealand economy resulted in many of the remaining factories closing. Developers who were demolishing and rebuilding in Wellington regarded Jackson Street as a place of little commercial potential, so its old buildings were left untended. In turn, “this stagnation ironically preserved the historic CBD as a desirable social and economic centre” (Johnston, 2015, p. 177). Petone recovered in the 1990s as industrial land uses gave way to big box retailing in the west of Jackson Street. Petone again became a retail destination, and this benefited the smaller shops along Jackson Street. A burgeoning bar, café, gallery, and retail sector followed. In 1996 the Historic Places Trust recognised Jackson Street as an Historic Area, but this had no regulatory force. There were a number of battles between local heritage groups, developers and the council over the next decade.

The “character homes” of Petone and its proximity and transport links to Wellington made Petone a desirable residential neighbourhood. A number of apartments were built or converted, consistent with council design guidelines. In 2014 it was announced that many of the state housing flats on the eastern part of Jackson Street were to be demolished, but the Patrick Street cottages survive and are protected. The Grand Theatre, which closed in 1964, was used as an electrical shop, furniture business, and in the 1990s was converted to an apartment complex with boutique shops below. Today, the site of the Gear meatworks is a supermarket, and Petone wharf is a popular fishing location, with fewer sharks than in the past.

Source: Butterworth, 1988; Johnston, 1999, 2009, 2015.

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  1. Good to see a thorough ‘first principles’ review of the urban planning system in NZ. Unfortunately the profession itself seems incapable of critical self reflection and usually meets criticism with suspicious hostility.

      1. I found their reports in the past ideologically blinkered to the point that they weren’t worth reading but the stuff they have done on urban planning in the past year has been much better. It’s probably worth reading instead of dismissing it outright as an “ideological creature”.

        1. I read the Productivity Commission on covenants and planning in their earlier report. Not convinced they know what they are talking about, or have any grasp on planning. Only have a narrow economic lens.

          That it has a statement that there is no one definition of planning is a bad start. You first need to say planning for what. Friedman in Planning in the Public Demand (1987) identifies four traditional planning approaches – planning as social reform, planning as policy analysis, planning as social learning, planning as social mobilisation. And discusses planning as a form of scientific management.

          Which approach is the Productivity Commission looking at?

          And does it recognise the planning required by the various Town and Country Planning Acts and different planning under the Resource Management Act?

          Or will it just go down the usual ideological neoliberal road in its study?

  2. Interesting. Just poking around on Google Street view and suspect that Jackson street would have been much more interesting if they had not ‘fixed’ the alignment and widened the road (I presume to allow for increases in cars occurring at that time).

    Town planning is one of those things I suspect most of us don’t understand (though everything I know is via SimCity) ;-).

    Always struck me as extraordinary that planning often seems to consists of restricting industry/commercial to some areas (historically places near transport and water, where people often want to live as well), then planning for low density residential suburbs far away. The obvious disconnect being that roads (and pretty much only roads) are planned to connect people from one to the other.

    Would have thought a lot of people given the chance would want to live within walking distance of work? Or set up small work places near where they live (as several artist friends have done).

    In the past with large (and potentially toxic) industries like car assembly plants or freezing works, I could understand the approach, but with many industries becoming cleaner, seems little reason to not allow good quality mixed use buildings rather than use zone hammers. As simulated by SimCity of course; once the coal powered stations are replaced with solar, then sim people are happy to live close to power stations.
    (currently writing this post from a software firm based in a lowish density, mostly residential suburb of Northcote).

  3. I don’t think you can credit parking maximums for reviving the CBD. The CBD started to get busy again and so parking maximums were needed.

    1. Chickens and eggs: The city centre would still be firmly in the shitter without the introduction of maximums. The cost burden on the tertiary institutions that led the return to the centre that minimums would have meant would simply have meant they couldn’t have and wouldn’t have grown so fast or perhaps at all.

      It would have meant both a city ruining tax on the public tertiary sector and business ruining halt to the growth of the private language schools. The business model of the later was to exploit second rate older city office buildings that had few other takers, this in turn led to the inner city apartment boom, and therefore the soaking up of more otherwise low value sites along the motorway blighted Hobson/Nelson ridge [of course these are not great buildings but that is a separate issue].

      1. The removal of minimums would have had a much bigger effect than the introduction of maximums. The maximums are set so high that they’d hardly ever bind anyway and a developer doesn’t have an incentive to provide a huge amount of parking given how expensive it is to build and how high rents are for usable floorspace.

        1. Yes, in general the simple removal of minimums is all that is needed, and look; less red tape! Frankly I was appalled at the fiddly way the planners dealt with MPRs in the PAUP; busy busy endless subtle shifts of mins and maxes all over town. So many variations you have to be a card carrying communist to get the hierarchy. A cynic might think they were looking for work; for every project would have to hire a planner just to work out what parking supply was being demanded by the city.

        2. “The maximums are set so high that they’d hardly ever bind anyway” Frank I am not sure where you got that idea. The maximum is 1 space per 200sqm on type 2 roads and 1 per 150sqm on type 3 (no parking at all on type 1). These bind in every case. Even the ARC had to apply for a dispensation for their building in Pitt St from a rule they promoted.

          1. Ok you’re right they probably do bind at 1: 200 msq. I was thinking of the residential maximums which are much more generous.

          2. “Even the ARC had to apply for dispensation from parking rules they had promoted”

            Oh the irony. Do as I say, not as I do?

  4. I just read the list of people involved in the Productivity commission study. Not one urban planner. Another study by economists of something they just don’t get. Is it 1984 all over again?

    1. Yes I do fear that the ProdComm is an echo-chamber of very dry economists; yet that document is pretty good in my view; broad.

      Though it is reminiscent of the fleg committee sans a single visual professional.

      1. Economists are prone to a type of imperialism into every other field of social science. The problem is their models are really simplistic and always output the same advice. It is kind of like slicing ham so thin it doesn’t look, taste or small like ham anymore but technically it still is. The economist then concludes “there is no point in ham”. Watch this space for a similar conclusion regarding planning.

        1. You mean as opposed to the planning professions imperialism into the rights of property owners? I know which imperialist I am backing here! You just have to read the front section on “what is planning?” There ain’t nothing they don’t want to get their grubby hands on.

          1. At least that is what planners are trained for. They only impact on people’s property rights to the extent that the political system wants them to. As part of their training they are exposed to the basic conflict of one persons rights versus the impact of their externalities. Economists get sweet FA education on externalities. We read about Arthur Pigou and rabbits and learn to solve the maths of the price model when externalities are present and that is about it. No wonder they assume them away in almost every analysis. Maybe that is ok for financial markets but the whole field of planning exists simply because externalities exist.

          2. Planners wouldn’t know an externality if they tripped over it. Or, perhaps more accurately, they have an extremely high false positive rate when it comes to identifying externalities. They are completely indifferent to whether or not their policies deal with an externality or not (let alone whether it is pecuniary or technological). Eg I was listening to the radio on Saturday and on there was a planner explaining how they were trying to avoid development occurring on good agricultural land. Also balconies, stud heights etc etc. And that doesn’t even begin to to have on all the wonderful things planners want to do with the Auckland plan.

          3. At least planners try. Economists just assume externalities away.
            The MUL is to blame for housing on grade 1 land. If we didn’t have a MUL then the market would value land at its opportunity cost. ie houses would be built on lower grade land. But you cant get that approved so the price of land increased to the point where grade 1 soil get used instead. Just because it is near a rail line they approve it. What a waste.

          4. They try too hard! It’s their MUL!

            It’s like the lady swallowing the spider to catch the fly or Wesley Mouch trying to freeze the economy.

          5. “Economists just assume externalities away.”

            When I looked up the term “externalities” in Google Scholar, I got back 362,000 results. Based on a casual examination of the first few pages of results, I would expect that the overwhelming majority of those papers were written by economists and published in economics journals.

            So I’m not sure why you think economists don’t understand externalities.

            Furthermore, it’s worth making a very fundamental observation: cities are economic entities. They come into being to serve economic needs – principally, the requirement for proximity between firms, workers, and customers – and they succeed or fail insofar as they continue to serve those needs efficiently.

            In my experience, urban planning puts far too much weight on aesthetics – or rather, the vaguely-stated aesthetic preferences of a small, unrepresentative group of submitters and busybodies – and too little weight on economic efficiency. That seems to miss the point.

          6. Equally, cities are social entities which exist to fulfil social needs and economists often focus too much on “economic efficiency” — or, rather, economic efficiency as defined primarily by a small, unrepresentative group of rich old white men…

            (Or, what mfwic said.)

  5. Petone retail struggled for a bit when people started flocking to the nearby mall at queensgate but nowadays lower hutts cbd is dead (queensgate is a particularly hideous shopping mall imo) and petones main st is popular again.

  6. As a Wellingtonian, I’ve often found Petone horrendously underdeveloped, it’s absolutely prime for massive upwards redevelopment. Of course, when I mention this to other Wellingtonians they tend to say “But there’s not enough parking” or “The traffic is bad enough as it is”.

    The challenge from here on in is finding the best ways to repurpose our existing urban areas, and get maximum economic and social bang for buck – Council and Government have to lead the way, and then allow the market to be guided to those outcomes. It’s absolutely achievable.

    1. Some decent tod at petone, waterloo, melling, ngauranga, jvill, tawa, redwood, porirua, kenepuru, pram maybe.

      Replace some of those huge carparks with apartment buildings. My gut feeling is that apartments at the station would provide a similar number of transit riders to what the (free) carparks ever did.

    2. I think Petone is over-developed. The whole area is built on jelly that will wobble like Mexico City did in a decent quake. Second the Tsunami threat is not so much a large wave from outside the harbour as much as a sloshing of the harbour itself like water in a big bowl. Third when a souwester comes in the harbour entrance there is nowhere worse to be. The only saving grace is the big Mitre 10.

      1. Wouldn’t that imply development of the “Please build something to replace the existing stuff that will fall down, submerge, catch on fire and electrocute everyone” variety might become feasible?

    3. Wellingtonians are the most defensive people in the world about their city. Everything about it is JUST FINE the way it is and they resist all change. Compare this to Aucklanders, who all believe that their city is an embarrassing craphole, and yet still resist all change.

  7. Some of the non-planning planning options in the report look down right scary. While I am not a big fan of some of the ultra-restrictive controls that the current system provides, a ‘do it through the courts’ approach seems to be much more evil (and will ultimately enable the rich to protect high-amenity areas from development, while poor areas will be clogged with factories). A good review. I suspect it will come up with some fancy mechanism to align the LGA, RMA and LTMA together, but fundamentally say the RMA approach is good with some (further) tinkers. My big hope is it recognises that having the three key planning statutes being looked after by different government departments (DIA, MfE, MoT) is part of the root cause of the problem. Merging the relevant bits together (+MBIE housing) might be the best long-term solution (Ministry for Urban Development…., but needing a better acronym than MUD).

  8. Similar experiences in my current home, Seattle. All of the desirable neighborhoods are historic and have a wide mix of building types: single family homes on large lots, tiny lots, townhouses, brick five story apartment buildings built right up to the street, with shops down stairs, so on. The thing is none of it was planned it all happened before zoning came into effect. There is definitely something to be said for allowing near unrestricted development – people who own land should be allowed to maximize its use, so long as within reason they don’t negatively impact someone else’s use of their land (e.g. building a smelter that spews pollution onto neighbors properties).

    How to get people back onboard with this really simple idea though… I don’t know.

    1. It’s not quite true to say it wasn’t planned, you still had someone planning streets, buildings, blocks and neighborhoods. Sure it was in the absence of strict zoning, but those cities were still planned (but often on a much finer scale).

      Also I think you’ll find that Seattle was extensively master planned after the great fire, to the extent of planning a whole new street grid and even a new street level 12 feet higher than the previous one!

  9. In a similar vein to Petone, Wellington proper has gone from perceptions of being Canberra or Brussels with wharves, to something taking more after Portland or Seattle or San Fran.

    Any bold reform of planning law would be meaningless, unless it puts the rentier class that’s gaining from property bubbles in its place. We’re looking at you, Crs Krum, Quax, Brewer & co.

  10. *unpopular opinion*
    Planners probably should be suspicious of moves to define planning, as planners have adopted too many causes (environmental, social, cultural, etc) to justify their rules and regulations.

    Since both the public and the politicians see planning as overly restrictive and inefficient, many of these causes will have to be dropped, and will inevitably hurt the planners that have worked on them.

    A panel of dry economists will have little sympathy for planning to prevent obesity or climate change, especially if planners can’t come up with a key role for the planning profession.

  11. Although in reading the document it does not look like they are “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, there seems to be a never ending undercurrent of neoliberal economics in NZ. It was this very philosophy in the Act that has led to most of the problems the commission is now responding to. Funny that. The RMA was purposely set up to do away with planning and yet now the government is surprised that:

    – Local government has not forward planned business and residential land needs
    – Has not installed the infrastructure needed that support those growth areas
    – Has created an uncertain, cumbersome system that increases delays and compliance costs.

    1. No business would do away with a forward plan and “just see what happens” so why is that acceptable for something as important as our cities?

      That is not to say our planning system doesnt need an overhaul. The focus should be on:

      – strong national policy setting out the aims we have for our cities
      – administrative approach to notification of resource consents to do away with the painful arguments of who should and shouldnt be notified
      – a focus back on policy outcomes not “effects” which never consider cumulative impacts
      – removal of cost recovery model of councils. Planning regulation should be substantially funded by ratepayers who benefit from regulation of land

  12. The role of government is not simply to respond to the wishes of the people; that way lies the tyranny of the majority.

    The role of government is to shape the people; that is statesmanship.

    Planning regulations have to start first-and-foremost from the goals of the government. Do they wish to retain the rural character of New Zealand, ala France with their small-farmers? Do they wish to prioritise economic growth above all social and cultural goals? Do they wish to spread population out, or concentrate it, or something inbetween?

    It seems to me that many of the planning problems we encounter emerge simply because we are not applying sufficient sticks and carrots. People here say it is fine to incentivise and affect behaviour, then from the same mouth say New Zealand cannot incentivise rural/smalltown development but must merely respond to the overweening demand in Auckland.

    All I know is this: parts of New Zealand are dying. Parts are cancerous (Auckland). You can’t just reinforce success and let the rest rot away

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