25 May 2013

Beware suburban rumblings

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Written by: John Roughan
Photo by: Brett Phibbs
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 25 May 2013

Aucklanders are waking up to what containment of urban sprawl really means

Coastal suburbs are zoned for higher density housing in the new plan.

Coastal suburbs are zoned for higher density housing in the new plan.

The little church basement where the Campbells Bay Community Association holds thinly attended public meetings was packed on Tuesday night. People were polite to the Auckland planners and patient with the deceptive language that planning employs.

A man at the back, English by his accent, lost his composure when it was confirmed that three-storey apartments could be built on either side of him and he would have no right to object. The rest of us absorbed the news quietly, as New Zealanders do.

Just about all our properties were zoned for this prospect on a map projected on a screen at the front of the room. Mine was in a strip designated a special environmental area, which appears to mean the trees could prevent multi-unit developments, but most were not so fortunate.

The man with the English accent declared that he was going to sell to a developer as soon as he could, in case his neighbours did so.

The two planners present looked sheepish. Both previously worked for the North Shore Council, I think. Now they service local boards for the Super City. They said they were not involved in designing the Unitary Plan but they would try to explain it.

I haven’t seen real suburban unrest before. This isn’t a “rates revolt” where people come to public meetings and sound off about an additional hundred dollars as though it matters. There is a deathly quiet about this plan.

We weren’t asked to vote on Tuesday night, just urged to send individual submissions to the council. Forms were distributed by a group organised to call for a “rethink” but our association wasn’t ready to endorse them.

Its founders are folk who believe more is to be gained in co-operation than combat. Just a month ago when the chairman circulated information on the council’s contentious metropolitan boundaries, he said he didn’t think it had much to do with Campbells Bay.

Nor did I – then.

The debate over the containment of Auckland’s sprawl appeared to be about whether the bulk of the additional population projected by 2040 could be accommodated in suburbs that have a railway station.

I’ve been criticising this notion for years, arguing that people come to Auckland primarily for its climate and coastal attractions and that planners who want to reshape the city to support public transport are swimming against the tide.

It appears planners now agree. They are not yet ready to let the city spread north of Long Bay and east along the firth, as it will inevitably, but are designating established coastal suburbs for much larger populations.

Julia Parfitt, chairwoman of the Hibiscus and Bays Local Board, told the meeting the Unitary Plan is not accompanied by additional roading or other infrastructure for a higher population.

The area’s council representative, Wayne Walker, who speaks the language of planning, said it was “not a fine-grained thing”. I think that means it was hastily drafted by bureaucrats who lacked the time or wit to do better than throw a higher density blanket over the entire city.

Council members seem as dismayed as anybody, which is odd because planning is about all they have been able to do.

At the creation of the single city the mayor and council members discovered their role was to be strictly limited. They were not to interest themselves in the operations of drains and rubbish collections and other services their voters expect. Their role was “governance”, which meant above all, planning.

Council members must feel they have done nothing else but planning for the past three years. They have had to read volumes of paper, nearly all of it containing mind-numbing bromides that nobody would dispute.

Their grand opus, the Auckland Plan, was published in richly illustrated bound volumes last year. Now its platitudes have been given practical expression in the Unitary Plan. That sort of detail is a job for staff, it seems, not elected members.

The mayor has stressed that the plan is a draft and will be changed, but it would be dangerous to rely on that. It is the careful and deliberate work of members of a profession who believe fervently in what they do.

They have been producing this sort of scheme for a blessedly powerless regional body for the past 40 years. They knew that every time a council tried to impose their desired densities on a place such as Panmure, the residents rebelled. But they persevered, convinced that urban planning should not be led by the plain preferences of ordinary people.

Nimbys, they call us. We prefer that our backyard not be overlooked and shaded by apartment blocks next door. If that is too much to ask of Auckland’s planners then I think the rumbling in the suburbs is going to become an eruption that will have its way.

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