30 May 2013

Dr Ann Bartos & John Mauro: Learn from other cities

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Photo: Natalie Slade
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 30 May 2013

Tomorrow is the deadline for submissions on Auckland’s controversial draft Unitary Plan. Today, a would-be mayor, a resident and two planning experts put their views on what Aucklanders need and want, here’s are the perspectives of experts Dr Ann Bartos & John Mauro.

Auckland City.

Auckland City.

Fresh from a walk in the Waitakere Ranges, we sit at our favourite cafe among the neighbourhood’s shops, flats, homes and parks, marvelling at what Auckland has to offer – and at our good fortune to call it home. The up-and-coming liveability reminds us of where we migrated from – in many respects, it could easily be Seattle.

We know there’s a feisty community conversation about the draft Unitary Plan, some of it reasoned discourse, some of it more impassioned and seemingly based on fear of the other.

What we have noticed is that some of this has been distracting us from playing the long-game and leads the well-intended Aucklander into a false reality of an “us” versus “them”. It doesn’t need to be this way. For the important outcomes at stake and community-wide benefits, we need to get back on track.

We have no desire to be know-it-all Yanks – and it would be preposterous to assert that Seattle is a global over-achiever in liveability. But at this critical point, it might be useful to look to a city like Seattle (similar density, population, topography, and other things) that has navigated land-use reforms successfully.

The heart and soul of Seattle are its urban villages, surrounded by world-class parks and water, connected by transport choices and humming with streetside cafes and gathering places. Seattle’s an economic engine, a leader in sustainability and a hub for culture and creativity. It could easily be Auckland.

Seattle has taught us while the process might be uncomfortable, there’s more for everyone to gain in developing a co-ordinated set of common-sense land-use regulations. Three relevant issues that Seattle has skilfully navigated and that Auckland should consider include:

• Untangle the discussion about population growth and design. What’s the difference? An increase in residents doesn’t automatically translate into embarrassing urban design. In fact, the draft Unitary Plan seeks the best way to accommodate growth without trading off Auckland’s valuable heritage, neighbourhood character and vital green space-something Seattle’s done fairly well. Good urban design enhances liveability. The challenge is to think just as hard about what we do want than what we don’t want.

• Consider the benefits of more people. What’s to gain? Yes, we all like our space. But it’s well known that both productivity and wages rise with density. A well-designed urban space becomes not just a place to shovel additions to our society (immigrants like us), but a creative, connected and diverse space to trade ideas, make progress, innovate and better society as a whole. Of course, all this requires excellent and thoughtful design.

• Contemplate the price-tag. What’s to lose? There’s really no getting around it: sprawl drains all wallets. Ratepayers get the bill and it’ll be far more expensive the further out we build. Sure, rural land is cheaper at the moment, but it’s a false promise: extending costly amenities like transport, sewerage, water, power, police, schools and hospitals will cost far more. And think of the opportunity costs; we could be wisely investing our rates in improving existing infrastructure. We believe the irony to the current discussion is that the draft Unitary Plan is not nearly aggressive enough in its rural/urban balance; its target is a reduction in the current urban development trend, actually calling for increased sprawl. No sprawling city will ever win the world’s liveability title.

What’s Seattle got by navigating these three issues? As the No 5 city for good jobs (Forbes), the No 2 best city to live (Bloomberg Business Week) and the No 1 most liked city in the US (Public Policy Polling), Seattle is at the forefront of liveable, economically vibrant, neighbourhood-focused US cities. Of course, it’s a work in progress.

Clearly, the draft Unitary Plan needs a whole raft of community input and some changes; it’s heartening that so many people care enough to get involved. But let’s not lose sight of the prize here: no less than a better, more prosperous and more liveable Auckland for everyone.

We challenge each one of us to elevate the discourse and keep our eyes on that prize.

In fact, someday we hope to visit Seattle, bringing with us a suitcase of all sorts of good innovations and successes from Auckland.

Dr Ann Bartos is a lecturer in the School of Environment at the University of Auckland. John Mauro is a transportation and land-use consultant, formerly director of Policy, Planning and Government Affairs for Cascade, a Seattle-based NGO.


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