Cities: Plan A

By Andy Kenworthy

Photo / Herald Graphic
Photo / Herald Graphic

The Draft Auckland Unitary Plan has just been released as the blueprint for making Auckland "the world's most liveable city". Andy Kenworthy takes a look inside to find out what that really means, and how the future Auckland might look if the dream is realised.

When the Powers That Be combined eight councils into the new Auckland 'super' Council in 2010 it brought together $32 billion in assets, a $3b annual budget and 8,000 staff. What the Auckland Council chooses to do with them in the coming decades will be instrumental in shaping the way the city develops and could define the quality of life for more than two million New Zealanders. The starting point for Auckland is by no means a bad one. By worldwide standards this is an affluent city with good amenities enhanced by its stunning natural surroundings. And since the creation of the Supercity, Auckland's standing on global liveability indices has improved, moving into the top 10 cities in all three of the most widely recognised international quality of life surveys. Auckland is currently 10th in the latest Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Liveability Report, 9th in Monocle magazine's Most Liveable Cities Index and 3rd in the Mercer Quality of Living Survey. This means that Auckland is a good place to be, but could it be better, indeed truly great.

Three years into the new approach and it appears that grappling with such a massive transition is still limiting the Council's performance in some respects. In a recent report on the Council, Auditor-General Lyn Provost acknowledged that a lot of progress had been made, but that hard work, patience and goodwill remain the order of the day. She said:

"The Council still needs to do significant work to understand and standardise the differing policies, regulations, service expectations and performance it has inherited from the former councils. Because of its size, the Council will wrestle to communicate internally effectively. It will also struggle to be responsive and agile for its communities and the users of its services."

The Plan itself also acknowledges the scale of some of the challenges ahead. "Our major utility services, such as wastewater and electricity transmission lines, and part of our transport network, are nearing capacity," it says. Clearly, there are plenty of important decisions to be made and a great deal riding on making the right ones.

Managing growth
This is the 'big ticket item' in the plan, as it will shape the Council's approach on much of the rest, and the area in which the plan is the most definitive and clear on the line the council is planning to take. It is estimated that the population of Auckland will grow by up to one million people in the next 30 years, which equates to 600 people a week.

There are two main options to respond to this: let the city sprawl out further, or snuggle us all up a bit tighter. The Council has gone for the latter. The Plan states: "Compact cities can play an important role in economic growth. Areas which are densely populated are often more productive and innovative, and attract more people, capital and activity."

The argument is that this will reduce the housing footprint and free up more affordable options. Affordability is one of the Council's top priorities, with the idea being to provide a broad range of housing types to meet income levels, as well as age, household size and cultural needs.?Higher density living also reduces the pressure on transport links and susceptibility to fuel price increases, as each neighbourhood can be designed to have as many amenities as possible within walking distance.? But some argue that higher population concentration could lead to increased air pollution and higher building costs as awkward ex-industrial sites are converted for housing and restricting city expansion will inevitably push up land prices.

Housing Minister Nick Smith for one has expressed his frustrations with what he called the stranglehold of the existing Metropolitan Urban Limit, which attempts to define a maximum extent of the Auckland's urban area. Both Smith and the Prime Minister have expressed a desire to free up large areas of farmland on the outskirts of the city for housing development.?In fact the Council has already extended the potential limits of the city with the new Rural Urban Boundary (RUB), which will define the maximum area of urban development by 2040, taking in Pukekohe, Drury South Karaka and Paerata in the south, Whenuapai and Kumeu-Huapai in the west and Warkworth and Silverdale West to the north.

The council's plans would see 60 to 70 per cent of new housing contained within the current built-up area, with some of the remaining in the RUB. This would also include an increase in medium-density housing, with

the encouragement of semi-detached or low-rise apartment blocks. 'Mixed Use Zones' are proposed, typically located around centres and along frequent public transport corridors and major road corridors. Where these are next to the city centre, metropolitan centres and larger town centres, buildings up to six storeys in height would be permitted. In other areas where the zone applies, buildings up to four storeys would be allowed.

Best practice: Vancouver
Fellow top-10 liveable city Vancouver (below) has already experienced the rapid pace of growth predicted for Auckland, adding one million more people to its population within the last 30 years. Regional planning to increase density, combined with policies to encourage walking and cycling have been underway since the 1990s.

Other measures have included the creation of 'lane way' houses, essentially in-fill homes on existing sites, to increase housing density.?Now the most densely populated city in Canada, its development approach has been cited as a model for the world and has even created its own term. 'Vancouverism' is characterised by mixed-use developments, typically with a medium-height, commercial base and narrow, high-rise residential towers to accommodate high populations and to preserve view corridors and recreational open spaces.

Creating a transport network
Auckland's transport 'network' is, let's face it, laughable. We have a stunted railway line with a couple of minor offshoots, none of which connect to the international airport, and a novelty tram that does little circles of some rejuvenating seafront industrial areas at a pace slower than you can jog. Everything else relies on a few major roads and a whole lot of patience.

Independent research commissioned by The New Zealand Transport Agency and released last month estimates the cost of congestion in Auckland, taking into account the difference between the cost of a 'free flowing' system and the situation at peak times, at $1.25b per year.

The draft Plan states that: "Building a resilient transport network, around a more compact urban form, will contribute to our success as an international city that attracts migrants, businesses and tourists."

One expression of this aspiration is the Council's 'Southern Initiative', which includes proposals to improve public transport from Otara and Mangere in the north to Papakura in the south. The Council's previously published City Masterplan also outlined its vision for a new City Rail Link, incorporating public transport stations at Karangahape Road, Newton and Aotea Quarter. There is also a key strategy for connecting the 'Key Fringe' areas of Three Lamps, Ponsonby, Arch Hill, Newton, Grafton, Newmarket, Parnell and Devonport with the CBD, via a comprehensive set of new and existing walking, cycling, bus, rail and ferry routes.

To save space for offices, shops and homes and to encourage the use of public transport the Plan also proposes to remove the requirement for developments in and around metropolitan, town, and local centres to provide car parking. A maximum limit would be set on the amount of parking provided for offices, and special parking spaces would be allocated for car-sharing, small cars, hybrid vehicles and motorcycles. Cycling would be further encouraged by the provision of free, secure, covered cycle parks and some activities and developments would be required to provide cycle parking and changing facilities.

Best practice: Amsterdam
Amsterdam has some of the best-integrated public transport options in the world. The airport is combined with a train station offering both national and international connections. The city's traffic and transport policy is specifically designed to improve accessibility and quality of life, with 16 tramlines, four metro lines and another new line and extended loop around the city currently underway.

All unnecessary car-based traffic is restricted by planning decisions, parking fees and access restrictions, while bicycle use is promoted for all distances less than 10 km. There are about 700,000 bicycles in the city and cycling accounts for 38% of all journeys.

Sustainable buildings
The Unitary Plan also creates rules to ensure all new development containing five or more dwellings and large­-scale office and industrial buildings are sustainably designed and built. This would mean that all large­-scale office and industrial buildings would need to obtain a 5-star rating using the Green Star assessment tools developed by the New Zealand Green Building Council.

This awards points for the use of sustainable building materials, high indoor air quality, energy and water efficiency and a wide range of other sustainable features. Any new development containing five or more dwellings would need to achieve a 6-star rating from the Homestar scheme, which also recognises compact design. The rules also set minimum standards for temperature and moisture control within the buildings.

Best practice: London
One possible future for sustainable housing could be something like The Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in Hackbridge, London (left). Built in 2002 BedZED includes 82 homes and 1,405 square metres of workspace.

The experimental development incorporates solar panels, a tree-waste cogeneration plant, triple-glazed windows orientated to make best use of the sun, rainwater recycling, water and energy efficient appliances and building materials selected for their low impact on the environment. Residents are also encouraged to make use of a car-pooling scheme and to grow their own vegetables in allotments in a nearby field.

While some of the key facilities have not functioned as designed, the resulting homes have shown a 25% reduction in electricity use and a 50% drop in water use when compared to the average home in the area, and residents' car use was only one third of the national average.

Clean Water
After this summer's drought few will be surprised to read that: "Current demand for water already equals or exceeds availability in some surface water bodies and aquifers in Auckland. Projected future growth is expected to increase competition for freshwater."

According to the last State of Auckland Region Report produced by the council in 2010, water quality on most measures at most sites was either stable or improving between 1995 and 2005. But there is clearly still work to do, as the report also noted that fresh water quality is poor in streams, wetlands, vulnerable aquifers and lakes.

The Plan proposes a host of regulatory measures to maintain water quality standards by controlling demand, erosion, run-off, and wastewater flows. It also envisages and hopes for even greater tangata whenua participation in water management issues in the years to come.

Another proposed aim is the retention of the natural profile and course of all rivers or streams, keeping riparian vegetation and fish passage wherever possible and taking action to avoid sediment build up. This would be achieved partly by prohibiting development on, under or over lakes, rivers and streams unless there is no viable alternative and effectively banning any material extraction from lakes, streams and wetlands, except where it is required to enhance the ecological value of the feature or provide public access. Livestock would also be permanently excluded from watercourses to prevent damage to bank areas, soil erosion and water pollution.

The provision of water and wastewater services to people throughout the Auckland region is now the responsibility of Watercare. Wholly owned by the council, the company supplies around 370 million litres of drinking water to the people of Auckland and treats around 350 million litres of wastewater and trade waste. Its 2012 annual report stated that it was managing assets valued at $7.8 billion and was generated $373 million in revenue a year. Its key target in addition to meeting the region's water demand is to reduce that demand by 15% on 2004 levels by 2025.This would decrease pressure on its own systems and on the region's environment as a whole, and will include maintaining water metering across the region as well as working with the government on new guidelines to minimise water use in homes and businesses. The Plan also allows for the use of carefully treated 'biosolids' as agricultural fertiliser, an approach which is gaining ground around the world as means of effectively recycling sewage sludge to reduce the financial cost and environmental risks of disposing of it in landfill.

Best practice: the Thames
In 1957 the River Thames in London was so polluted that it was declared biologically dead, with little or no life able to survive in its noxious whirls. A survey a year later at Tower Bridge found no fish in the river. It is now said to be the cleanest it has been for 150 years and is one of the cleanest rivers to pass through a city in the world.

Millions has been spent on upgrading and expanding water treatment works to deal with the city's waste and strict legislation now prohibits the dumping of polluted effluent into the river. At the same time more than 400 wildlife habitats have been deliberately created and work has begun on 're-naturalising' tributaries and streams that had been encased in tunnels or culverts to prevent flooding in the 1960s and 70s.

The European Water Framework Directive now stipulates that by 2015 all of Britain's rivers must meet its criteria for good ecological quality. At present only a quarter of the rivers in the country meet the target, which means the work continues. For example, London has a US$3.6 billion 'super sewer' in the pipeline that would prevent untreated sewage from periodically spilling into the Thames during rainstorms.

The Thames

Maintaining Biodiversity
When people think of Auckland and diversity they may have in mind the colourful denizens of K-Road rather than the wildlife that flourishes between the buildings and roads of our largest city. But the Council's plans and its Indigenous Biodiversity Strategy include a renewed focus on keeping the city green and connecting it with the countryside around it.

Probably one of the most visible aspects of this will be moves to protect trees and other vegetation deemed important for the health of the city's streets and parks, in stark contrast to government measures to remove this kind of protection nationwide. There will also be a commitment to use the least toxic and volatile sprays for weed control and increased restriction on the unnecessary use of vehicles on the region's beaches.

Conservation Zones will also be identified with specific measures to restrict development and enhance the local ecology as well as Rural Conservation Zones with similar regulations that would cover areas such as the Waitakere Ranges.

Best practice: Hanover
Hannover was named as the German Capital of Biodiversity in a project led by German NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe and funded by the European Community in 2011, and authorities there have made biodiversity a basic goal in the current urban development process. The result is an extraordinary number of action plans: rivers are reconstructed and maintained in a natural way, the municipal forest is certified as sustainably managed by the Forest Stewardship Council and a separate programme even enhances the deadwood in the forest for use as natural habitat for insects.

Areas of city parks have been set aside to grow wild. There are also schemes to create ponds and small woods, protect wild farm herbs, increase organic farming and reactivate rare plant species in 118 sites around the city. The authorities are also expounding the virtues of all this to the public with new educational programmes and facilities, including a 32-metre wooden interactive 'Forest Experience Tower opened in 2009.

See how the Plan will impact on energy production, energy resilience and low carbon, and waste management here.

Have your say in Auckland's future: The council wants to know what Aucklanders think.?Until May 31, Aucklanders will be able to view the draft e-plan to see what it says about their property and neighbourhood. Visit to find out more about what the plan will mean for Auckland, then join in the conversation, have your say and help shape the way the city grows.

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