In a gruelling week-long session, the Auckland Council has abandoned a great deal of the urban intensification that caused so much concern across the city when its draft "Unitary Plan" was published this year. Council members, with local board leaders in close attendance, voted to limit the density of development permitted in the "mixed housing" zones that comprise 40 per cent of residential Auckland.
In doing so they ignored an appeal from Mayor Len Brown not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater". But the "baby" was hard to identify in this slew of urban planning. The planners' aim, strongly supported by the mayor, is to engineer a more compact city rather than permit more urban sprawl. That purpose was well known before the draft Unitary Plan appeared but most people supposed the more dense development would be limited to residential areas near commercial centres and public transport.
The plan when it appeared was much less selective. Almost entire suburbs had been zoned for intensification.
"Mixed housing" meant multi-unit developments of up to three storeys could be built anywhere without warning or rights of neighbours to object. Visions of apartment blocks rising on the section next door caused consternation at public meetings attended by council and board members and briefed by planning staff.
Long before the council met to finalise the draft plan last week, the mayor had conceded that it would have to be revised and more graduated densities would have to be designed. But the plan that was put to council members last week had not been sufficiently refined to allay the concerns they had heard.
The planners reportedly fought hard for their principle of no density limits in the suburbs, proposing to rename the principle "flexible density", as if that made it more palatable. But even a compromise proposed by Mr Brown (no limit for sections larger than 2500 sq m) was eventually withdrawn in the face of opposition from a majority of members and boards.
Local body election year is possibly not the best time to be writing the planning regulations that will shape the city for the next 10 years but it is not a bad time either. Town planning always invokes the virtue of public consultation but seldom engages communities as avidly as it has in Auckland this year.
The decisions that have resulted are not ideal. They have made the plan ragged and inconsistent. Orewa and Browns Bay, for example, would seem perfect for high-rise or medium-rise apartments close to the sea, but their council member and local board have effectively expressed the objections of existing residents.
This is the first such plan since Auckland was given a single governing body and the "one city, one plan ..." mantra might have been taken too far. The different character of Auckland's four previous municipalities can be preserved. There is no harm in different rules prevailing where communities want them. Property developers no doubt find a single set of rules for the whole city to be more convenient, and architects like the freedom of no density limits, but residents' wishes are more important.
Residents need to be reasonable, though. Not everyone these days wants a house with lawns and garden and trees. The increasing age and ethnic diversity of Auckland, not to mention a projected extra million people, demands that room be made for different lifestyles. The designers of the draft Unitary Plan have not tried to define too closely where that room might be. The public outcry and the decisions of the council last week demand more precision. The drafters need to redraw the city in detail and, as unhappy as selected places may be, the council will need to stand by the plan.