Nick Smith gets spatial on design

The state of urban planning in New Zealand has been a contentious issue for sometime now, and in a recent speech to the New Zealand Planning Institute at their Auckland Spatial Plan conference, Nick Smith revealed the Government’s plans to make urban and infrastructure planning a more effective process, both nationally and in the context of Auckland’s Super City.  

Smith started his speech by discussing the Bluegreen vision — an approach, which sets a clear agenda for bringing economic and environmental considerations closer together. Environmental considerations were pointed out by Smith as being notorious for disputes, particularly in reference to the Resource Management Act (RMA). 

“The Bluegreen approach instead seeks a more collaborative approach to resource management,” said Smith. 

“We need mechanisms that integrate across land use, transport, economic and environmental decisions. We need to find win wins and design incentives to compel the behaviour we want rather than relying on rigid rules and telling people what to do. 

“This will involve designing systems that instead build long term, enduring agreements, based on sound science and evidence.”

Smith went on to discuss New Zealand’s urban setting, citing that 85 percent of the population live in urban areas, making the need to create towns and cities that achieve strong economic growth and provide for the needs of an urban population, critical. 

“The current legislative system with which we design, plan and deliver infrastructure and urban development has real problems. If the Government is to achieve its overall economic and environmental objectives these problems need to be tackled.” 

Taking a global view, Smith stressed the roles cities are increasingly playing in developing a country’s international competitiveness.  Cities are critical in attracting business, innovation, and specialised skill sets that underpin the export of goods and service. 

“Cities must also offer an attractive lifestyle, not only to attract the skilled international workers we need, but also to ensure talented Kiwis choose to stay here and drive our economy.” 

To meet all these requisites, Smith rightly said cities must be affordable and liveable. A well designed and planned city that integrates transport, land supply and housing type, he said, leads to greater choices for addressing affordability. Smith maintained that addressing the issues are a priority of the Government’s RMA reform. 

Reforms under the RMA received a fair bit of attention, including planned proposals to reform New Zealand’s system of infrastructure and urban planning. The RMA, he said, was not designed well for dealing with urban issues. 

“To illustrate this point I note that the vast majority of resource consents are around urban issues, like subdivision, like building developments, like side yard intrusions, like urban infrastructure. 

“Yet if you look at the core of part two of the RMA, there are 10 driving principles in sections five and six. Only one of these makes any reference to the urban environment and that’s the provision relating to historic heritage. 

I think we’ve got a mismatch between what the architects of the RMA thought they were designing and what actual practice is about.” 

While Smith discussed the importance of the RMA and the Local Government Act, he maintained that development and infrastructure delivery are also dependant on central Government and the private sector, as is the third Act - the Land Transport Management Act. 

The multiple nature of these acts are what has lead to confusion according to Smith. 

“These Acts set up a system that is overly complex, tricky to understand and just downright difficult to implement.  This system was not designed as a simple or effective means to plan nor provide for towns, cities and infrastructure.” 

To combat the complexity, Smith said the Government plans on reducing the number of plans required and allow for better integration across sectors such as transport and land use. 

“Currently it is difficult for councils to integrate across these plans to develop a smart and implementable strategy for development. While good practice is essential, councils and the private sector are still constrained by the confused and compliance heavy legislative system. 

“Adding to this confusing system is the fact that there are multiple players who make decisions, which determine the shape and performance of our cities.” 

Because central Government provides the bulk of funding to urban areas — like Auckland, where the central Government spends more than local government by a factor of eight to one —  Smith said the central Government needs to be clearer on its  economic and environmental goals. As a means of tackling these problems, Smith pointed to his establishment of two Technical Advisory Groups, one on Urban Planning and another on Infrastructure, both of which are tasked with providing the Government with a range of options on how to best plan and design our urban environments and infrastructure. 

Smith rounded off his speech by discussing Auckland’s spatial plan, which will see main decision-makers involved in the development of a region, collaborating to achieve a long term vision. 

“The Government expects the spatial plan to be about the creation of value, rather than just managing the impacts of growth on natural resources. 

“Spatial planning presents an opportunity to agree how best to use incentives to drive change rather than rely on rigid rules.” 

As part of the RMA reforms Smith said, the Government how spatial planning could tighten the overall urban planning system for Auckland, including reducing the number of strategic plans required by legislation. 

To compliment the spatial plan, Smith also made mention of a National Policy Statement that could set out those principles needed for a well functioning and well designed city. 

In conclusion, Smith said the Government appreciates that New Zealand’s urban and infrastructure planning does not correctly serve the needs of the urban population. 

“The Government recognises our cities and towns as drivers of our economic prosperity. Building well functioning and attractive cities is vital for our international competitiveness.”

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