Greg Smith: Volcanoes make this city super

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Volcanoes like Rangitoto and Mt Victoria distinguish Auckland from every other major city in the world. Photo / Dean Purcell
Volcanoes like Rangitoto and Mt Victoria distinguish Auckland from every other major city in the world. Photo / Dean Purcell

The recent amalgamation of various Auckland territorial authorities has been hailed as the creation of a Super City.

While the practical outcome of this is still to be seen, the geographical reality remains that Auckland always has been a super city.

Auckland is built around two acclaimed harbours which, in itself, is unusual in world terms. The city sits on an unusual volcanic field, which has had numerous points of eruption. So the landscape has always pointed to something super.

The question now is whether this wonderful geography can still be paramount and the distinguishing factor that sets Auckland apart from other cities around the world.

Clearly the purpose of the Super City is to promote bigger and more intensified urban development. It is unlikely that this development will produce anything that sets Auckland apart from the rest of the world.

Faceless blocks of buildings will, no doubt, continue to rise in the city and spread out into the old suburbs, much the same as urbanisation anywhere. They are not likely to have any "super" signature about them.

For this city to have any "super" prospects, clear decisions need to be made about what, in the face of development, will be kept for posterity from the superb existing landscape.

As in the past, the most defining characteristics can only really be the two harbours and the volcanic field - particularly the latter as it is volcanoes like Rangitoto, North Head and Puketutu that make the harbours so attractive.

Urban development must happen around the volcanoes; they should not be smothered and beautiful views from summits should be preserved rather than blocked out. This is a challenge because in geographical terms, they are not particularly high.

Decisions need to be made now to prioritise and protect them for when developments are proposed.

Enhancing the environment during development is an important aspect of the Resource Management Act but this seldom happens. Usually the environment pays the price.

However, it is possible for this to be a reality. A good example is the recent extension of State Highway 20 at the Mt Roskill cone. Not only has an efficient motorway been constructed, but a better looking volcanic cone has resulted. In the past, great cuts were usually taken out of the cones to allow for development.

Nowadays development in the Super City needs to be seen as an opportunity for better environmental outcomes.

Volcanic viewshaft protection needs to be better understood by the public. It also needs to be stringently invoked and expanded, especially as the development of new transport corridors creates new viewshafts to the cones.

It is the fantastic views of the volcanoes over the landscape which make the city special.

At an individual, physical level, protection of the cones also has to be consistent.

It serves little purpose for Mt Victoria to have different planning rules from, say, Mt Hobson when they both have similar strong landscape and other values. This only leads to confusion for the public and disastrous loopholes.

While in an ideal world we would buy back all the developed land on and around the volcanic features, this is never going to be a reality. But where opportunities exist for strategic acquisitions, where benefits outweigh the costs, then these opportunities should be taken.

Like other important small pockets around the cones, the land on the northern face of Mt Wellington should be in this category. Its development was declined by the Environment Court, but it now remains in a sort of environmental limbo.

The volcanic features, because of the large number of them, should be what unites the city and makes it one cohesive entity. Unless this perspective is taken on board, we are likely to lose the super city we originally had and end up with a very ordinary cityscape.

Good planning work has already been done by the former Auckland Regional Council in the lead-up to the amalgamation. Their Auckland Regional Policy Statement is an excellent guide.

It recognises the value of the volcanic features for the city. The individual district plans of the former territorial authorities, especially Auckland City, also contain excellent policy and a raft of rules. Now we need to implement and strengthen this planning.

The challenge for the future is to see if our existing super city can not only survive, but actually become even more outstanding.

* Greg Smith is spokesman for the Auckland Volcanic Cones Society.

- NZ Herald

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