As a planner, a lot of my work is based around the much-maligned Resource Management Act, and various aspects of it. This piece of legislation generally finds itself being attacked on multiple fronts – whether it’s from land developers considering it as far too much “red tape” for anyone’s good, or whether it’s from environmentalists thinking that it’s far too weak in protecting the environment. Probably they’re both right, and perhaps that says that it’s doing its job not too badly.
After all, resource management and planning is all about balance. About finding the right balance between letting people “do stuff” to provide for their, and society’s, wellbeing; while at the same time ensuring that the environment is adequately protected. This balance is outlined in Section 5 of the RMA, which is the core “purpose” of that Act:
(1) The purpose of this Act is to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources.
(2) In this Act, sustainable management means managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural wellbeing and for their health and safety while—
- (a) sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; and
- (b) safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and
- (c) avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment.
While the RMA is an incredibly complex piece of legislation which (after the recent poorly named “Streamline and Simplification” amendment bill added nearly 100 pages to its length) is well over 700 pages long in print version, in the end it all comes back to this core section 5 – which outlines that everything in the Act is about finding a balance between allowing use and development while at the same time protecting the environment for future generations. To me, this means finding “win-win” situations wherever possible, and making sure that if we do have a negative in any way, that’s balanced by a positive – which is where remedying and mitigating come into play. Of course, if something in unavoidably negative then it should either be avoided, or its benefits need to be particularly significant to justify the “loss”.
As I have explained in previous posts, I think that I take this “balance” approach to my thinking about transport – and it greatly influences how I perceive the interaction between transport and the urban environment. In short, we need to get around our city to make it possible for us to “provide for our wellbeing”, but at the same time the process of moving from one place to the next has an effect on the location which you’re passing through. So there’s a balance to be struck between getting people around, and ensuring the way in which you’re getting them around doesn’t ruin the city.
I sense that there’s a growing realisation of the downside of getting the balance wrong, with too much focus on the “through-movement” and not enough focus on the effect that has on our cities. Auckland City Council’s reactions to both the Waterview Connection and State Highway 16 project make it appear as though they recognise a need to ensure that these large (and very expensive) motorway projects have their environmental effects on the local community avoided (where possible) remedied or mitigated – as shown in point (c) of the purpose of the RMA. And we’re not just talking about “natural” environmental effects like stormwater runoff, effects on vegetation and the like – we’re talking about clearly “human” effects, like the way in which motorways can divide communities, the effects on the functioning of town centres and other similar stuff.
It is not just in managing the effects of motorway projects where finding a balance between shifting people and protecting the attractiveness of our cities is necessary. In my opinion it’s about working out how that balance varies according to different places. A large city like Auckland of course needs to shift a lot of people and stuff around, but certainly we don’t want to give up all our streets to that process. In high pedestrian areas like the CBD we should be balancing much further towards the quality of the urban environment, and less towards simply shifting people through the place.
As well as ensuring that negatives are balanced by positives, as I stated above good planning and resource management is about finding the “win-win” situations. In a transport sense, that means finding out ways in which we can shift people yet at the same time do that in a way that positively impacts on the urban environment – or at the very least has a small to negligible adverse effect on the environment. Clearly, urban environments where people feel encouraged to walk and cycle are likely to be “win-win situations” to some extent, although there are limits to the distance that people are willing to walk. I have a pretty strong belief that the more we provide for private vehicles to travel through a space, the more that space is degraded – so that leaves us with looking into public transport options.
While I will admit that stacks of railway tracks most certainly aren’t beautiful, and railway lines can be just as dividing for urban communities as motorways, there’s certainly something about public transport which means that we end up “embracing” our urban environment, as opposed to the situation when people are isolated in their cars – where the result is an effective “dis-engagement” with the city. When I use public transport I walk to the bus stop, I wait at the stop with other people, I make a connection with my surrounds through my walk. Then, at the other end of my trip I wander down Queen Street before I get to work. In the evening the same is true again, I wander through the city on my way to the bus stop – engaging with the city all the time and adding (in a small way) to the place’s vibrancy.
On the other hand, someone driving from their own (potentially internal) garage to a parking building, then staying inside yet again between the parking building and their eventual workplace, followed by doing the opposite at the end of the day, simply doesn’t engage at all with the city around them. Over time, this lack of “human-scale” interactions between people and their surrounds means that the city ends up being built at a scale that is most suited to cars, rather than people, and we end up with the awful mess many parts of Auckland are in at the moment. It seems that without the interaction with their environment that people get from walking around the city, to the bus stop, to the train station, we somehow lose something, perhaps a connection with where we live, perhaps over time we also end up caring less about the area we travel through – as we’re far more isolated and ‘protected’ from it in the capsule of our cars.
This loss of interaction with the city, in my opinion, leads to the balance between shifting people through the city and keeping the city’s quality being upset – in favour of movement. Just another part of auto-dependency I suppose.