Arrested development

Magazine Layout

[Urban Planning]

We can’t build our cities on red tape

There’s no shortage of opinion about new developments in our cities—letters to the editor are filled with condemnation for new buildings and vitriol for the planning system. What I find most frustrating are buildings—both commercial and residential—that meet regulatory standards but do nothing to enhance the lives of their inhabitants, offer even less to the community and are short-sighted in their contribution to the development of the city.

At a time when we have more legislation around building than ever before, why are so many new developments so crap?

The reasons are complex but broadly stem from a shift to a planning system based on legal principles rather than spatial ones.

Since the introduction of the Resource Management Act (RMA) in 1991, development has become an increasingly litigious affair. The planning process can take years and outcomes are often compromised. Consequently, planning has become more about interpreting policy and preparing a case for consent than about engaging in the dynamics of city-making.

The RMA provides a single integrated framework for the sustainable management of all natural and physical resources in this country. While it could potentially be a very visionary piece of legislation, it is held back by defensive terminology. References to “mitigating adverse effects” and ensuring any and all affected people are consulted prompted one wry Australian colleague to observe that the RMA is all about protecting paddocks while involving as many people as possible in the process.

Cynicism aside, much of the criticism of the act has been about increased costs and prolonged time frames for development. Most of the amendments so far have been aimed at streamlining processes rather than refining purpose—little has been said about either the tenor of the act or about putting principle into practice within the legislative hierarchy.

The tenets of the RMA are implemented through district plans, which are written and monitored by territorial authorities. It has always struck me as odd how bereft of drawings these documents are. I would have assumed that a plan for a city would contain sketches and drawings that demonstrate the way development should be carried out. Instead, most district plans are vast texts couched in defensive terms. Perhaps because of this, they place an emphasis on quantitative rather than qualitative values that are applied in blanket fashion, with little regard to the unique characteristics of different places.

For example, a property in Auckland City’s business zone 2 will have the same development criteria whether the site is in Remuera or Glen Innes. Similarly, in Wellington you’ll find houses in Kelburn and Strathmore Park are both regulated by outer residential rules. This approach ignores the nuances of place—the topography, the landscape, the success or otherwise of the existing built form, the social or economic setting.

In some centres, character overlays and town centre plans are being used in an attempt to acknowledge the specifics of place, but this layering of regulations just increases the complexity and doesn’t address the development of the area in spatial terms. Urban design panels provide a more holistic assessment of schemes but their recommendations don’t carry any statutory weight, so a proposal with a favourable assessment from an urban design panel may still be declined consent because it falls slightly short on, say, parking space numbers or traffic counts.

Another problem with the current system is that there’s no understanding about how different regulations work together—a resulting building may comply, but is it a commercially viable proposition? This is frustrating for developers and does little to encourage good design.

The implications for subdivisions are even worse. Regulations don’t consider the relationship between the subdividing of land (plot shape, street and block pattern) and the development rules for houses. The result is suburbs where houses have little usable outdoor space, no opportunity to plant large trees and scant privacy between dwellings, to name but a few of the problems.

Current regulations haven’t been created with a visionary objective in mind. Rather, they are the result of a defensive position to protect the status quo. This may be a reasonable approach to managing rural areas but it’s not an appropriate strategy for new, rapidly growing cities.

So, what to do?

Phase two of the National Government–led RMA review is currently underway and it aims to tackle more complex issues, including the failure of the act to acknowledge urban areas or the process of urban design. This would be a good opportunity to balance the clauses about protection with terms that convey our aspirations for our physical environments. We need to introduce the concept of quality to the planning system.

At district plan level, there needs to be a better understanding of the cumulative effect of regulations when applied to specific sites, and the net effect of these regulations on a location. The present approach will never achieve this. A better alternative would be to use spatial structure planning and building envelopes to map out the framework for the spatial development of an area. This would provide a more meaningful understanding of how development might take place and give greater confidence to developers on how to progress a project.

Last, we need to bring urban design direction and evaluation to the fore, so our cities can start to become more than the sum of their parts.

Natasha Markham is an architect and urban designer

Originally published in Idealog magazine #30, page 108

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