• Eric Pyle is the chief executive of the New Zealand Walking Access Commission.
Many New Zealand cities and towns are experiencing significant population growth and our country's population is growing at the fastest rate in about 40 years. According to Statistics New Zealand, the net gain from migration in the 12 months to October 31, 2016 was 70,282 - higher than the record hit in the previous year.
Auckland's population grew by an estimated 44,400 people or 2.8 per cent in 2016, making it the fastest growing region in the country. Our largest city accounted for 46 per cent of all the population growth in New Zealand and at current rates, it will reach 2 million people in less than a decade.
To date, we have not been good as a nation at planning for walking and cycling access in our urban communities. The results are plain to see - obesity, traffic congestion and fewer children walking or cycling to school. This has a negative effect on society by creating barriers to community connectedness and healthier citizens.
In recent years, the failure to provide effective access has started to be recognised by communities, councils, researchers and government transport planners. But retrofitting walking and cycling access into the urban form is very expensive.
With the expansion of Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and other urban centres around New Zealand, there is a real opportunity to incorporate walking and cycling access into new urban developments. Doing so would help us avoid expensive retrofitting of access into suburbs in the future.
The question is how to design walking, cycling and in some cases access for horses into new urban development? New Zealand has little experience in this.
Groups championing access need support to turn their ideas into reality.
In Matakana, north of Auckland, 11 groups are working together to develop a trails network plan that could extend to more than 100km of trails.
In Clevedon, a group is also developing ambitious trail plans.
In Queenstown, a community-led initiative is promoting trails both in and around the Wakatipu Basin.
These groups realise that urban development is inevitable and that trails need to be designed as part of urban planning and subdivision design.
The results are plain to see - obesity, traffic congestion and fewer children walking or cycling to school.
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In Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and further south in Queenstown and Christchurch, councils are actively supporting trail development initiatives, which is great to see.
But we need a stronger focus on urban design, particularly at the national level. Government agencies need to reconsider the degree of focus given to access in policy relating to urban development, planning and infrastructure.
This includes support for district planning policies, New Zealand Transport Agency policies, as well as national policy statements under the Resource Management Act.
The earlier access is considered as an essential part of urban planning and development and better, it will result in healthier New Zealanders and better connected communities.
And much lower costs will result from not having to retrofit cycling and walking access into urban design.
It's important to act now. Future generations will thank us for designing this access into the fabric of new urban development.