The shape of our towns: new direction

Spread out or high-density? What shape should suburbs be? How best to give everyone good places to live? A new National Policy Statement aims to help… consultation is open


Why you should care about “urban development capacity”

We at Talk Wellington get pretty exercised about the shape of our towns, because it’s really important.

Get it wrong, and you make it incredibly hard to do good things we need: reduce emissions; be healthier; build stronger communities; enable ordinary people to live a good life.

Councils are responsible for setting the conditions and making the investments that enable markets to deliver us good homes and services, and enable us – as consumers of urban environments – to live rich, engaged lives. To have good wellbeing, if you like.

Growth is a double-edged sword… more people means lots more scope for goodness (see Further Reading for some good analysis). But growth can also be done really badly, worsening people’s quality of life and massively increasing the cost to the environment and society.

Getting it roughly right is councils’ core business.

Councils are already supposed to deliver “sustainable management” of resources under the RMA. They’re already supposed to provide for wellbeing under the Local Government Act. Councils are already supposed to do spatial planning (like creating growth strategies (e.g. Porirua’s, or the Bay of Plenty’s)) that join up thinking and planning about what humans do and where and why, so our towns and districts change trends in a good direction.

But generally speaking, urban planning for growth has not covered councils in glory.

What’s clear is that councils have the burden of all this responsibility with little of the resourcing to do it (NZ has very centralised spending control in OECD terms, meaning most of the cash taken off citizens by government is spent by central bodies not regional or local ones).

What’s also clear is that many councils do a crappy job of things, because they can’t afford and/or are poor work environments for skilled people and/or have poor institutional functionality. Oh, and Because Democracy: many elements of good planning are hotly resisted by otherwise sensible citizens and their councillors.

So how do we make sure they do a good job of it?

an “inevitable product” of population growth?

National Policy Statements: who the what now?

The Ministry for the Environment puts out National Policy Statements (NPSs) on all sorts of topics where they want to use the RMA powers to direct councils’ operations. The aim is that they help councils do a better job of managing the costs and benefits that different activities have on the environment, society, the economy.

The most famous are probably the NPS-FM (Freshwater Management) for freshwater quality , recently the NPS on Forestry (timely… after the slash floods).

Their impact is debated: councils have a statutory obligation to adhere to them, but often choose to fail because it’s hard, and complex, and because their ratepayers and councillors don’t like the cost or implications of succeeding. (Exhibit A: urban water quality – see section 8 of the Porirua Whaitua plan [pdf]).

And, crucially, they don’t come with extra money or people to help.

But we gotta have NPSes and NESes because without, there’s no clarity about what’s basically good practice.

An NPS on More People In Towns

Now there’s a draft NPS on Urban Development out for discussion. It’s targeted at the cities growing the fastest but applies to all metropolitan (big cityish) places. It’s supposed to help with the gnarly issues of what we called “simple maths”, like …

How should cities approach providing more places for more people to live?

How should they influence transport, different landuses (industrial, commercial, residential, mixed use, parks, reserves…), the location of services like schools, shopping, medical centres?

What’s good practice, and what’s not?

It’s so so fresh (10am today!) that we haven’t read it properly yet and will be looking to smart folks like the Resource Management Law Association, the NZ Planning Institute, the NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities, Motu for some good takes.

But a few good things have already caught our eye:

  • removing minimum parking requirements – HUZZAH! Good riddance
  • upzoning (more density, more variety of use) from city centres out 1.5km – HUZZAH! Better accessibility! (see Further Reading on upzoning)
  • upzoning areas within 800m of frequent transport (more density, more variety of use within walking distance of frequent trains and buses) – HUZZAH! Better mobility and accessibility!

We’ll hopefully start good, well-informed, thoughtful public conversations about how each of our towns will accommodate more people in ways that create net benefit for all. We’ll hopefully not have the toxicity and awfulness that Auckland had around its Unitary Plan and its attempts to enable more people to live within the central city.

So watch this space – and watch for people going “BUT THE PARKING!” and watch for YIMBY and NIMBY attitudes showing through.

(Hot tip: The Wellington Conversations are happening and they’ll be a great forum for doing this better than Auckland… get amongst it!)

If you’ve seen some thoughtful reviews of the NPS-UDC let us know – pop it in the comments. If you have your own, let us know!


Further reading:


Image credits:

  • Banner – Brendon Harre
  • Kid doing sums – multiple sources on the internet
  • Parking lot – AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

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