As the planet continues to cook, extreme weather events like those we experienced over the last two weeks are set to become more frequent. How we plan our cities to mitigate the risks of climate change will inevitably be more salient going forward, and that will only increase over time.

Sadly, Councillor Lee (despite being conspicuously absent throughout the weather even) has teamed up with Councillor Fletcher to politicise the floods, in an early attempt to hijack this conversation to stop housing development in the richer “special character” areas of the city.

Two Auckland councillors are calling on the Government and National to rethink their plans for greater intensification after the city’s infrastructure shortcomings were exposed in the flood disaster.

Despite the pair having been among the most opposed Councillors to the Unitary Plan, Fletcher is lamenting:

“We must stop those who are determined to foist more and more housing in Auckland, well in excess of the provisions of the Auckland Unitary Plan. Their plans are flawed. Auckland cannot cope now.”

The unfortunate reality for advocates of this theory is:

  1. Recently intensified parts of the city fared better than most in the recent flooding
  2. The path forward for water-proofing the city involves building a lot more housing on top of other housing, not on top of bare land (or, god forbid, on flood plains)
  3. Much of the existing Unitary Plan is permissive to intensive housing in flood-prone areas, while the changes mostly affect drier suburbs

It’s silly to say but important to note: neither more people nor more houses in an area will make it rain more. What does affect flooding is whether stormwater is managed on-site or left to be “run-off”.

Fortunately, the Enabling Housing Supply Act does not get rid of stormwater management rules. All new residential developments under the MDRS will have to include a landscaped area no less than 20% of the site.

More importantly, changing the default rules from permitting 2 stories everywhere to 3 stories will mean that up to 50% less land area will be required to meet both the city’s historic housing deficit and future growth needs.

Of course, new housing should not be built in flood-prone areas. But as the National Party’s housing spokesperson Chris Bishop notes in the Herald article, the legislation explicitly allows for exemptions to the ‘three over three’ direction in places subject to a range of natural hazards:

“The bipartisan Housing Supply Act provides councils with the power to exclude areas from further development if they are prone to a natural hazard, such as in an identified flood flow path. The responsibility is on councils to use the powers they were given to ensure intensification is only occurring in places where it is safe to do so,”

This is a good step, but doesn’t go far enough. Flood-prone areas are poor locations for residential development of any density. Council (likely needing support from central government) should rapidly roll out a plan to purchase land with houses damaged by the recent floods, to turn it into stormwater-resilient parks similar to Te Auaunga.

This would work to provide financial support to affected communities (avoiding the decade of insurer litigation as seen after the Christchurch earthquakes), while also preparing us for the next storm, and providing local amenity for the residents of the area.

Of course, avoiding building in gullies is necessary but not sufficient for adaptation. Water will continue to roll down hills and through any structures that happen to be in the way. We can fight this with rainwater gardens and effective drainage, but it is likely that our best efforts will always fall short of keeping everyone dry.

In this situation, our historic approach to urban planning (that is, paving over every inch of the city with homogenous 1- and 2-storey suburbia) leaves every home in the city vulnerable to flooding. In contrast, a city of apartment buildings would only see ground-floor units severely affected.

But in any situation, the changing climate now demands that we need vastly more stormwater investment. From a planning perspective, what matters is how we can shape the coming intensification to get the most of out of that investment.

As with all horizontal infrastructure, more people living somewhere equals more taxpayers and ratepayers across whom to spread the cost of infrastructure – and at the same time, compact cities allow us to serve more people with the same piece of infrastructure. This combination is why extremely populated and compact cities such as Tokyo can build such grand stormwater infrastructure.

In fact, Watercare’s core funding comes from both development contributions and water rates. More development bringing more people will necessitate more water infrastructure funding. There isn’t a trade-off between intensification and stormwater protection, it’s all or nothing.

Header image: Part of the Te Auaunga/ Oakley Creek Restoration Project through Wesley/ Mt Roskill, where the awa has been re-naturalised to reduce flooding impacts and improve ecological outcomes.  

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  1. One apartment building with 50 units has one roof and 2 or 3 storm water downpipes.
    50 separate houses on a much larger area of land will have 50 total downpipes and will require about 50 times as much stormwater infrastructure.
    Intensification reduces emissions.

    1. Unfortunately we aren’t building many apartments, there seems to be a lot more knocking down one house and building 6. That will have a bigger roof area (although still less than 6 single story houses) and less permeable area. Although I am not convinced that permeable area counts for much when its bucketing down, very little of that water would have had a chance to soak into people’s lawns.

      1. “We aren’t building many apartments”.

        Uhmmmm not held up by the facts – read through some of the articles in recent years on here. Apartment consents went massively up after the Unitary Plan, and will do more so with greater intensification allowed. The fact that we aren’t seeing that many around in our streets is because construction time-lags consents, which time-lag changes in rules. Plus, a century of not tending to build apartments creating our extremely “suburban only” Auckland.

        Don’t look at what’s there now to make a call on what is going to be there. That is affected by the conditions (economical, land availability, planning, people’s opinions) we have now. Not by what we – or Mike Lee – did in the past.

      2. Agree if you remember back to the week before the deluge we had very hot dry days. So the surface of your lawn which had previously being wet was baked to a hard impervious surface. Replace lawns with soak pits but then this could lead to slips.

    2. Except intensification has never been about forcing people to live in tenements. It has been about limiting the scale of the city and forcing people to develop less desirable land within the city rather than developing hills and slopes outside the existing city. Intensification as it has been pursued in Auckland caused the flooding.

      1. “Hills and slopes outside the city” – Like southwest Kumeu, to shoot more run-off down to swamp the existing riverside?
        The answers aren’t simple – whether greenfield or brownfield, all development has consequences, that need to be investigated and understood before knowing what the answer might look like.

        1. So don’t live beside a river. Or an unsupported cliff or a clay cutting that nobody bothered to retain.

          Most of the original villas where built on the higher bits or on slopes to avoid the creeks. It was intensification that followed where people squeezed houses into horse paddocks and flood plains. Then some berk who didn’t like sprawl made an urban limit that forced even more homes into dodgy areas. Left their own choices most people would have chosen a hill top or upper slope.

  2. Had Auckland Council done the sensible thing in the first place and allowed the density near the centre, they would have a much smaller area of density to provide amenity for (such as parks, playgrounds, and of course the 3 waters). Instead they did the opposite by allowing density everywhere other than near the centre, so now they have to provide those amenities ad-hoc everywhere. What a bunch of drongos.

    1. I honestly think the best and fairest planning can be done with a compass. Put the point in the city centre and draw rings out with the density getting less as it goes out. Sure you would also have to exclude some areas that are prone to disaster etc, but that can be a separate exercise.

    2. “allowed the density near the centre”

      You mean where most of Mike Lee’s councillor ward is? But our heeeeeritage character something!

  3. Councillors Lee and Fletcher are, as always, barking up the wrong tree – and in this case, completely wrong. The answer is not LESS intensification – it is MORE – and most importantly – Better Density. I would agree that covering the isthmus with a blanket of two storey high developments is a dumb idea – so the more sensible answer is to build taller, build better, denser apartment buildings, from 3 storey to 6 storey tall. That way you can have a lot more people in the same neighbourhood, but a lot less roofs. Answers here: Medium – published by Eboss.

  4. “In fact, Watercare’s core funding comes from both development contributions and water rates.” Watercare only looks after potable water and wastewater infrastructure. Stormwater infrastructure is looked after by Auckland Council Healthy Waters, which has a fraction of the budget that Watercare does.

    1. Yes Watercare has been free to continually increase their prices every year. Apparently this is part of having a super city.

      1. “Apparently this is part of having a super city.”

        It’s also part of paying for decades of under-investment and needing to pay for greenfield new infrastructure once the decisions are pulled out of the hands politicians afraid of being re-elected. I still remember all too well the bullshit like NSCC councillors telling me that we can’t invest in active modes because we are still dumping sewage onto our beaches (and then not doing anything about it either way). Chickens coming home to roost etc.

        But hey, we could be Wellington, where they don’t have to wait for stormwater events to get geysers erupting from broken pipes.

        1. And yet North Shore managed to upgrade Rosedale to cater for any amount of growth they might have experienced. To the point that Watercare then spent a fortune on a main to divert West Auckland’s crap there. NSCC managed that with lower rates and without needing to send an inflated water bill every month.

        2. Miffy, are you really taking a stand against watercare having a sustainable, adjusted, long term funding source here?

  5. “with homogenous 1- and 2-storey suburbia) leaves every home in the city vulnerable to flooding. In contrast, a city of apartment buildings would only see ground-floor units severely affected” – well that’s ok then? and given ground floor units are often designated to provide accessible accommodation for our more vulnerable and often older population is this really an ‘acceptable’ compromise?

    1. If the building has four or more floors then the building code requires it to have lifts. So every floor becomes accessible for those who need it, expanding the amount of accommodation available to them.

      1. Good point except in floods and other emergencies such as fires when lifts won’t and can’t be used… that’s why most ‘accessible accommodation’ for vulnerable people tends to be on ground floors but agree 100% about lifts generally making buildings accessible and visit-able.

        1. So simultaneously, the ground floor is flooded so people shouldn’t live there, and that ground floor needs to be accessible at all times, including while it’s flooded, to unassisted mobility impaired people? If you’re in a wheelchair (for example) then you’re not easily navigating a meter and a half of flood-water unassisted.

          Regardless the premise is flawed, there will always be a majority of the city un flooded on the ground floor of buildings. And we should maximise the amount of housing per unit of impermeable surface there, with apartments, with lifts.

  6. Sponge City is good for ‘normal’ weather conditions, but flooding is more like that sculpture in Cuba Street – basins to fill and spill.
    There are three types of rainfall to design the city for –
    Environmental (300 days of every year) – raingardens, swales, parks, bush, street trees;
    Service (60 days a year) – what should stay in the pipes and manage stream flows;
    Major Event (flood week) – managing flow paths and flood plains to survive extreme run-off.
    For major events, saturated and impermeable soils means that the surface cannot absorb water, but it can affect how it flows and where it can be stored.
    We do need to be careful to provide safe storage in the upper and middle catchments, to avoid erosion and flooding in the lower catchments.

  7. Local partisan behaviour of Councillors is out of order. They can express the concerns of local people, but they should listen to all the people in their wards before offering their concerns. It is worrying that they will be voting on budgets and Plan Change reviews. They should be lobbying for subject experts to advise them on what can work for their constituents.

    1. Subject matter experts and those who respect their expertise is such a tiny subsection of the electorate politicians see no value in courting their expertise. Better to invest effort in amplifying “I reckons” and “what everyone knows”. More votes there, sadly.

    2. Good comments, Streetguy. These Councillors are indeed out of order. In the crises we face, misinformation like this from Councillors undermines a healthy public discussion and leads the populace and other Councillors to believing and voting in a way that poorly serves current and future generations. It therefore hinders the Council from adhering to the local government act.

      I believe Democracy Services should be advising the Council officers / CE to publicly refute what the Councillors have said.

      1. The royal commission on Auckland local govt recommended some councillors be elected across the whole region to remove that parochialism in decision-making. Axed by The Nats and Act in developing the actual law, of course.

        Problem if it had been done is you’d need big money like Mayoral campaigns spend.

        How do we reconcile those?

        1. That does seem like one possible mechanism for slight improvement… but it poses the problem you’ve raised. It also doesn’t go far enough.

          As I am wont to do, I think having a citizens’ assembly on the topic would be useful. Imagine 120 people chosen by sortition, spending 3 or 4 weekends in a year becoming fully informed on the latest knowledge about democratic reform and electoral systems, including how democratic and electoral reform can be used to reduce barriers to systems change at a pace and scale that will serve youth and future generations.

          Avenues to explore include:
          – mechanisms of accountability,
          – mechanisms for giving those who *wish* to live in an area (but who are excluded through a legacy of poor planning) the right to vote for the local politicians in that area
          – voting age lowered to 16, plus parents’ votes for children under 16
          – votes weighted according to how many more years someone of your age would (on average) be expected to live.

        2. You think? 🙂

          What I was told at a lecture about deliberative democracy is that time and time again the public have shown themselves to be absolutely capable of nuanced, informed decision-making when they get the opportunity to really upskill.

          It’s not the complexity that means we don’t always make good decisions; it’s that there are so many different issues to put the effort into understanding. But each individual one is usually very interesting. This is why sharing that task amongst us is worthwhile.

          In some systems, after a citizens’ assembly, the population then get a vote and can choose whether they go with the assembly’s recommendation or go with their own decision. Many respect the time that others have put into the process and vote according to the assembly’s recommendation even if it isn’t what they would’ve instinctively thought.

        3. I hugely disagree with parents being able to cast votes on behalf of kids under 16. Not only does it reward people who have huge families at the expense of diminished democratic rights for others, but it also dehumanises kids to the extent that they are merely extensions of their parents – and given the issues with our urban environment refusing to see or acknowledge the needs of children vs. adults, I generally think that’s going to lead to poor outcomes.

          Personally I would allow areas to ‘opt in’ to reduced intensification through a vote at local government time, but I would make it clear that it will trigger a stonking 500% or so uplift in overall rates for their area so that the services they have access to can be rolled out to places that do take on more density.

          Give them a choice, but also make them aware that it comes with a cost that someone has to bear.

  8. Lots of good points in the article and comments. One frustrating thing though about current intensification rules is that if the existing zoning doesn’t require any landscaping eg. commercial, then when you put in apartments you can cover the entire site with concrete pretty much. Breaches to outlook rules, height to boundary, multiple cars crossing the pavement of a high street to get in the parking bit etc are not uncommon. If you are a kid growing up in an apartment you don’t get out much according to local research. This is a shame. A recent survey of the city centre suggested only 8% of nearly 1000 respondents thought the city was a good place to raise children, down from about a quarter in 2016. 16% of those who actually had kids in the city centre did not think it a good place to raise children. It does not have to be that way if pedestrian safety and ensuring easy access to green spaces became BAU. It would be fantastic if planning rules enabled perimeter block housing or sufficient usable greenspace, even roof gardens, and more capture of water but at the moment this only seems to happen in large new developments, either greenfield or large parcels of land in the suburbs. If we could ensure that all new residential developments worked with nature (for the everyday, service, and emergency settings) that would be brilliant and deliver wellbeing as well as resilience. It is frustrating that once again the conversation about building better has become one between infinite growth and holding things as they were forever. A more nuanced approach would be very welcome.

    1. Yes, quite.

      And this is a problem of all current regulations, in particular those that create lower density environments, as they lead to more pedestrian safety issues than those creating intensification.

      In other words, “One frustrating thing about current planning rules is that…” is a better way to phrase it, since we don’t want to pick on intensification as the problem. This is just poor planning.

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