Joel Cayford: Unitary Plan must recognise importance of neighbours

Increased density and apartment living is part and parcel of delivering the Unitary Plan's vision of a compact and sustainable Auckland. Photo / Janna Dixon
Increased density and apartment living is part and parcel of delivering the Unitary Plan's vision of a compact and sustainable Auckland. Photo / Janna Dixon

Auckland Council's draft Unitary Plan is under attack as people engage with its implications for their backyards and neighbourhoods. The question confronting city planners and councillors should be how to fix the plan, rather than walking away from it in an election year.

Intensification is at the heart of it.

Increased density and apartment living is part and parcel of delivering the Unitary Plan's vision of a compact and sustainable Auckland.

The Unitary Plan is described as the implementation tool to make that vision a reality on the ground. On the same ground where Auckland's existing communities and neighbourhoods live today, and have lived for the past 100 years. Therein lies part of the problem.

Another part of the problem is that the council, developers and home owners are governed by planning legislation enacted in 1991 in a political climate that favoured a market economy, and rejected state intervention or regulation of private property rights.

The Resource Management Act (RMA) was intended to ensure a speedy, developer-friendly process, and put as few obstacles as possible in the way of development, while paying some attention to the idea of sustainability.

However, the RMA is silent on neighbourhoods, does not mention urban form, and is not interested in what makes a community. It implicitly assumes these sorts of matters will be managed by the market economy.

With its emphasis on enabling the development rights of private property owners the draft Unitary Plan is consistent with the RMA. It is clear about maximum allowable heights for housing in the different residential zones. It is clear about setbacks from neighbouring properties. It is clear about what private property owners can do as of right on their land - especially when they buy a couple of adjacent properties.

That is the message that emerges loud and clear. Permitted building heights, minimum lot sizes, density entitlements. Music to developers' ears.

It should come as no surprise that existing residents, neighbourhoods and communities are responding, now they can hear it too. They understand it. It affects them. They are taking action.

But many people are responding positively to another part of the compact city message. Generation Zero welcomes the vision of affordable inner-city apartment living. Active retired couples welcome the idea of a secure lock-it-and-leave-it style home in a community setting without the need to look after a private lawn and garden. New settlers are coming from cities where medium density living is the norm.

Auckland's quarter-acre pavlova-paradise development pattern is not for everybody, and it's not affordable for everybody now as increasing population brings increased economic activity and higher land value per hectare.

But it is an enduring vernacular urban form of housing and settlement that is a big part of the Kiwi dream. It's about talking to agreeable neighbours over the fence, borrowing tools, sharing recipes. The RMA and the Unitary Plan are silent on such things but I would argue these freedoms are at least as important to existing residential property owners as their private property development rights.

Councillors and planners need to recognise the scale of urban change that is embedded in Auckland's compact city vision, and appreciate the extent of cultural change that will be required for it to be implemented.

And the approach to implementation of intensification needs to change from a simplistic city-wide zoning approach to a much more targeted neighbourhood by neighbourhood approach, where specific plan changes are promulgated once community buy-in has been obtained.

Joel Cayford is an independent urban planner and former city and regional councillor.

- NZ Herald

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