Urban trees have become an increasingly heated topic over the last few years, and understandably so given how many have been lost after the previous government removed blanket protections from the RMA.
This is manifesting itself currently in Avondale in a battle between a much needed housing development and the fate of a single but significant tree.
An Auckland resident has chained himself to a crane to stop it felling a 160-year-old protected tree in the path of a major housing development.
Ockham and Marutūāhu Collective are behind the 117-unit Aroha project, and say the tree at the corner of Ash St and Great North Rd needs to go, otherwise the development will not go ahead.
But the dozens of protesters have assembled say it is one of the few remaining trees of its size and stature in urban parts of the city, and are calling on the developers to incorporate it into their design.
I’ll say upfront that I think the full picture of biodiversity, climate – and the issues with our planning processes – are much wider than can be resolved by preventing the removal of this one tree. The benefits of Ockham’s plan here: repairing our urban fabric, preventing sprawl, and reducing traffic, are too important to ignore.
This is not to say we want to see trees needlessly cut down. Trees – and particularly urban trees – provide huge value to the city and locals.
We’ve also argued before in favour of saving trees such as the Pohutukawa six at St Lukes. But we need to balance the value of the project against the value of the tree/s. In the case of the Pohutukawa six, the project was low value, to unnecessarily widen a road for imaginary traffic volumes and with little in the way of mitigation. That is quite a different situation to what we see here where the trade-off is a lot of new homes and many more new native trees being planted.
The issues are actually well summed up by the developer, Mark Todd, in this piece he wrote for Newsroom. It is of course easy to claim he’s biased. Afterall, he is the developer here. But we think he’s right. He deserves to be listened to. Frankly, he’s probably done more to show good and attractive urban development is possible in the last decade than probably anyone else.
The whole thing is well worth a read and it was hard to not just copy the entire thing.
He starts by outlining what’s happening out on the urban fringes where “the equivalent of 10 rugby fields each day are devoured as Auckland sprawls ever outwards” and that the bulldozers and diggers doing this “carve through anything in their path“.
We tell ourselves this is inevitable – that this is the price of progress. We endure ever-worsening congestion – more lanes, more cars – and arrive late and frazzled, ‘Bloody Auckland traffic’ our stock greeting shared with rolled eyes and a rueful smile.
We fudge or rationalise or simply ignore the cost of our urban sprawl – the billions of dollars for our roads and motorways, the billions of hours wasted at the wheel, the billions of tonnes of carbon emitted. And then there are the 50,000 hectares of nature that have been sliced and diced into subdivisions. Like the apocryphal frog in the pot, we keep adjusting to the new normal, not realising what we’ve lost until it’s gone forever.
It is a development model replicated in car-centric countries all over the world, one driven by a frontier mentality and underpinned by the folly that our horizons are unlimited, and we can just grow ourselves out of trouble. It’s never been less true than now.
He then gets on to the project itself.
There are four scheduled trees on the site at 1817 Great North Road and our careful design ensures the preservation of three of these. But the position of the fourth – the macrocarpa – in the north corner makes a large section of the site unusable for housing. Keeping this declining tree means we could not fulfil the Auckland Plan’s mandate and make best use of this high-amenity urban site.
The best way forward is to remove the macrocarpa. A resource consent was granted last year (with a number of conditions which we met and then some e.g., planting 21 mature native trees across the site) – non-notifiable because of the project’s alignment with the climate and housing objectives enshrined in the Auckland Plan 2050. All consents are on the public record: you will find a copy of Auckland Council’s approval on the Tree Council website.
When the protesters learnt we had permission to cut down the tree, they leapt into action. Unfortunately for us, the tree quickly became one of Auckland’s most prominent billboards, and activists have now set up camp up the tree as well as under it. The protesters say they’re aggrieved that the city’s rules allow for a scheduled tree to be removed without notification (albeit under extenuating circumstances, and only if the removal strongly supports the city’s broader environmental goals). It’s a very high bar. We cleared it.
In the meantime, various Facebook experts and self-anointed architects had a look at our plans and wondered why we couldn’t just move this, there, and that back over there; why we couldn’t work with the tree and incorporate it in our design. It’s a nice idea which we’d implement if we thought it was the right result for the site. It just isn’t.
He also relates the development to the wider issue of sprawl and our climate emergency.
When you simultaneously find yourself in a climate emergency and a housing affordability crisis that blights the future of half our country’s people, something has to give. Predictably, the nation’s powerful subdividing lobby – the land-bankers, the urban sprawlers, the suburban spreaders, the Wild Westers and greenfields gobblers – have the answer. Free Up More Land is their siren call, as if doubling down on this environmentally catastrophic path and building unaffordable Legoland houses and unending motorways is the answer.
Ockham’s vision for Auckland has always been very different. As a brownfields developer, we work within the city’s existing limits. All our recent developments – like Hypatia in Grafton, Station R and Daisy in Mt Eden, Modal and Tuatahi in Mt Albert, Set in Avondale – are on major bus routes, a quick whizz from cycleways, a short walk to a train station. The chicken-and-egg conundrum facing Auckland’s public transport – that people won’t use it until it becomes a more regular service, but it can’t become more regular until more people use it – is not terrifically difficult to solve. You build close to major public transport arteries which also happens to be where many people want to live. This is why we have championed environmentally friendly projects like Daisy in Mt Eden (New Zealand’s only 10-star energy-rated residential development) and carless projects, such as Modal in Mt Albert. Two more carless developments in Grey Lynn and Morningside are underway.
If we want to stop the real environmental tragedy from occurring we need to stop sprawling out into the countryside like we’re currently doing.
We’ve shown maps of the development areas before. This map gives a clearer picture of where canopy loss is happening:
But to prevent the sprawl, we need to both enable and build a lot more homes in the existing urban area. While most developers are building low rise and car-focused standalone houses or townhouses, Todd has been leaving space for trees, by building higher on a smaller footprint.
In this project, there will be many more trees planted than are being removed. It is also positive to see that local groups, such as the business association, have come out in support. On balance, the project has very good social and environment outcomes, and clearly the council thought so too by giving him consent to do it.
There are enormous environmental issues to be resolved in Auckland, and there’s sometimes a place for protests to get things on track: Getting the cars off the berms so the soil life and trees can thrive. Planting our barren streets so they become boulevards of trees. Allowing perimeter block housing so backyards can be merged into parks instead of fall prey to low density infill. Removing paved areas to allow the stream network to function and not flood. Reducing traffic by stopping sprawl and reallocating infrastructure to sustainable modes of travel. And much, much more.
In the context of all that needs to change, preventing a great development by focusing on a single macrocarpa tree could be seen as performative environmentalism. What I think all of this highlights is that we need to have a much wider discussion about many of these issues. We’ll continue to blog about them. We’ll keep joining up the dots between housing and trees so that their relationships with soil, asphalt, streams, car dependence and farmland is better understood.
What about Council? Will they support their own plan by demonstrating and explaining to the public that there are many environmental benefits from quality intensification, while holding firm on the rules so that developers doing it right, and doing it well, aren’t punished?