Part 1

Our central cities are often shoddy, undistinguished wastelands of car parks and low intensity, low activity businesses with people pushed into long car commutes from outer suburbs causing congestion, wasting our time, productivity and family life; while disfiguring our cities with costly noisy roads, and pollution. We need to use less carbon to deal with climate change. Also our new buildings often look ugly as they are built cheap to last perhaps 20 years and not 100 years as in previous eras. Our green residential heritage suburbs are the main bright point for liveability inside our built environment but even they have some problems with neglect and under investment.   

The National/Labour/Greens (NLG) urban vision is a great idea; they want to revamp our cities to bring the people back to make our cities safe nice places for people and bikes, and they say they want to increase affordable housing. They want our cities to become more liveable.  

The law changes made by the NLG to achieve this urban vision involves specifically, specifically trashing the finite resource of our green residential heritage suburbs. By:

  • allowing buildings of 3 or 6 stories (Wellington) or more stories in some cases.
  • removing local democratic/human rights to object, common law rights, and previous legislative objection rights;
  • removing local community control of where we live and how, by empowering private outside developers to unilaterally decide where and how they want to build in our green residential heritage suburbs

The very highlights of our cities liveability are going to be deliberately trashed when the real problems of waste; our sprawling carparks and low quality low intensity retail or even semi-industrial sprawl are actually what blight our cities liveability. 

The NLG mechanism to deliver their urban vision is driven by lazy, misinformed, superficial thinking that has no chance in hell of delivering the liveable cities they claim they want. Leadership and vision is not achieved through sitting in an office change some zoning law and Resource Management laws and claim ‘hey presto utopia cities!’ 

An equivalent level of stupidity would be to say London’s affordable housing crisis is because of all the parks. Hyde Park is just passive recreation and not an efficient use of scarce space so let’s allow building on it. Because, of course London has massive investment in housing because it is used as a safe holding place for capital wealth by every tyrant, dictator, thief, and gangster billionaire elite around the world. That overseas investment is a major cause of London’s affordable housing crisis.  And New Zealand has a domestic problem of over investment in housing and I have already talked on that in Part 1. 

And think about it, our green residential heritage suburbs often aren’t really central. Think of the Auckland Rugby world cup. Overseas people were not impressed with how far it was to walk from the city to Mount Eden. In Wellington most people wouldn’t dream of walking from Newtown to town (I would). 

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And those who mock or doubt these fears of destruction of the liveability in our cities, just look at some recent developments in Wellington.  The high building on the corner of Adelaide Road and King St. The northwest corner has a very large concrete wall with a stair well on the western sunny side! But on the L shaped southeast corner, looking over the low level council pumping station, where the stair well could have gone, those windows get no direct sun. I’m sure they are very nice inside and I’m sure the Mayor likes them, but for the site it’s a very poor design for liveability. 

Another liveability trashing example in Wellington is on St Martins Square behind the service station off Taranaki street. A nice new building with lovely big western facing windows with lots of sun, but now a year or so later another building is being built about 2 or 3 metres away and completely blocking the western views and sun. The developers did this to maximise profit as they have to. (These examples show exactly what will happen because the NLG law changes will encourage and increase exactly these sort of problems.)

We can see the liveability disasters already. And the zoning approach to planning is part of the problem . Zoning separated the previously unregulated mixing of noise and dangerous activities with residential. But it pushed people out of the central cities where commercial (offices and retail with some low level semi-industrial) were given preference for access to customers.  Because most industry is now overseas more mixing can now occur.  Zoning should no longer be the primary tool for urban design.  

But the places that do currently allow for mixed use of residential and commercial often don’t do it because there is not enough push for businesses to more efficiently use their land. Many years ago the shifting of the rates burden from a simple land calculation to a ‘user’ based calculation was a stupid idea and bad urban outcomes arose from citizens paying more and business paying less. This encouraged businesses to sit on land as a capital asset that did not need to work that hard. E.g. now we get field car parks around fast food joints. Back in the 70’s central city rates were high and you went up and you used your site. e.g. it was cost effective to build car parking buildings and not have field car parks. But now in Wellington low level businesses sprawl across central city land in Te Aro. 

Shifting the rates burden back onto central city land will strongly encourage changes in land use to incorporate residential developments but this alone is not enough as conceptually zoning rules are about permission planning. It just lets a business do what they want within an area and within their means. But almost always a business is not wealthy enough to make major developments for good urban design concepts like including residential. Negative incentives like higher rates are not enough. 

So what’s the answer! Facilitate and do some ‘actual urban planning and design’. Our cities wasted areas are in our central commercial areas and these should be designed to become dynamic and active. Some overseas cities show options like shopping malls having mid-rises built over them – down the lifts and into the shops, no carbon transport, and customers on your doorstep.  

A process could be a council, e.g Wellington identifies an area like Te Aro or Kent and Cambridge Terrace, J’ville mall. Council in an extensive community engagement process could reach planning decisions like – we keep this, these sites will have buildings of this or that size, here or there. It states a build must do this and not that. It will approximately look like this or that, when finished. Here trees leading to this or that, bikes here, and cars there. Then ask who wants to build them, build which pieces – what developer/s. The land ownership can stay with the owner (the site for their existing business will remain underneath but in nice new premises). They will lose the air space above; they could become an investor in the development if they want to get some of that value. 

The design of the actual building/s and areas must be approved again with community and an architecture design school/society consent. To lift the design quality, to lift the excellence and liveability of the city.  Land owners of these sterile sites (not heritage green areas as the law currently focus’s on) must be pushed into going along with these developments. The power of government should be used to strengthen community needs being directly met, not delegating the bully build power of government to private developers so they can maximise their profit with no direct accountability for affordability or liveability. The required urban design transformation of our central cities will never be achieved by simplistic zoning and Resource Management Act changes as pushed by NLG and promoted by Kainga Ora.

I’m all for developing our cities to work better to be less carbon intensive and especially to be more liveable. But I am against naive, lazy, half developed thinking that attacks the best of the existing liveability in our cities.  And in that liveability is a small finite resource of our green residential heritage suburbs. Areas essential to a lower carbon living, cooling our cites, adsorbing excess rain, giving recreational spaces to passively wander, and reflect on our past, and what makes us special.   

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