Whilst I like to think of myself as a “public transport advocate”, in my ‘day job’ I’m a planner. This has influenced the angle to which I view transportation matters, and as I have explained before, has really determined many of my opinions on transport. But leaving aside transport for a moment, it’s also interesting to think about why I got into planning, and where I wish land-use planning could be different – in much the same way that I wish transportation policies and priorities could be different.
I remember when I have a job interview for my very first job as a planner I got asked the question “why do you want to be a planner?” Quite an interesting question, and the answer I had to it was fairly simple: “to try and make Auckland a better city”. Having grown up here and had a rather unhealthy interest in the structure of the city from a fairly early age, it had generally always fascinated me what parts of the city I liked, what parts I disliked, and so forth. Interestingly enough, after reading a variety of planning books, writing a rather long thesis on the topic and having a great number of discussions, my opinions have rather changed over time (I used to be quite a big fan of McMansions).
As my knowledge of Auckland, and of urban planning, has improved over the last few years, a rather large question has continued to pop up in my mind. I did talk about it to quite a big extent in my thesis, and it also shows up in many good books on urban planning. The question is this: “why is it that the more effort we seem to put into planning for good urban outcomes, the results seem to be ever-worse urban outcomes?” This “paradox” can also be described as “why do we keep building crap?” When all our urban planning textbooks talk about creating vibrant, mixed-use, interesting and sustainable neighbourhoods, why is it that Auckland’s most recent subdivisions look like this?:
If one was to look at Auckland and try to work out the most ‘interesting’ suburbs, the most vibrant places, the areas where it seems like people want to be, they really do seem to be parts of the city that were built a long time ago. Interestingly enough, they generally seem to be parts of the city that were built before we started planning everything to the last detail, parts of the city built before the Resource Management Act or even before the Town and Country Planning Act (the legislation which preceded the RMA). In fact, if one was to appear rather uncharitable, it could be argued that all this planning has just made things worse.
And yet this is not for lack of trying. In fact, planners try incredibly hard to attempt to ensure that things don’t turn out badly (note this is different to trying to make things turn out well). I was recently peripherally involved in the final details of the Long Bay Structure Plan, on Auckland’s North Shore. This structure plan, which is basically a chapter of the District Plan, runs to well over 100 pages in length, and has an interim environment court decision that is 357 pages in length. Now clearly it’s too early to tell whether this structure plan will result in a development that is interesting, vibrant and so forth (as well as ensuring its adverse environmental effects are as minimal as possible), but on recent trends one would imagine it will end up being another soulless “anywhere-ville” like most of the rest of Auckland that has been built in the last 20-30 years (with the worst bit being that things seem to be getting worse, not better). But that’s not really the point. The point is that we genuinely do try really hard to come up with good outcomes, but for some reason we seem to fail abysmally over and over again.
I suppose an easy comeback to what I have been saying so far is “just because you don’t like what has been built recently, doesn’t mean that other people don’t like it”. And I guess that’s true to some extent – as obviously people buy houses in Flat Bush, Dannemora, Wattle Downs, Wainoni and all those other suburbs I just described as soulless. But my response to that argument would be that it’s not only me that’s saying this stuff – it’s mainstream planning literature, it’s seemingly what every planner around says, and so forth. Furthermore, it’s not like people have just started saying this stuff recently. Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which is one of the most well-known and respected planning texts of the 20th century (published in 1961 originally) says this (talking about what planners have done to ‘improve’ cities):
…look at what we’ve built with the first several billion. Low-income projects that become worse centres of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centres that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centres that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering places than others. Commercial centres that are lackluster imitations of standardised suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.
Clearly there are some differences between 1960s USA and 2009 Auckland, but I find it fascinating that for nearly 50 years now it has been clear in the minds of planners that what we’re doing isn’t working. Fortunately Auckland has escaped the worst of the ‘urban-blight’ that has affected the inner parts of many American cities, but I think in other ways we have gone through something quite similar – the massive building of urban areas that haven’t really turned out to be particularly good neighbourhoods. And yet we still plan them. And yet we still build them. What’s going on?
In my thesis, I looked at this paradox in terms of an urban sprawl versus urban intensification debate. Auckland’s planners have been concerned about the city’s sprawl for many decades now, and since 1999′s Regional Growth Strategy have had a specific strategy to ‘work towards’ as an alternative to the sprawl development that has dominated Auckland’s growth over the years. And yet sprawl still happens, with the only thing holding it back being the Metropolitan Urban Limits, which themselves are probably greatly under threat because of the effect they have on house prices (unsurprisingly, if you cut back on the supply of land for housing, but don’t make it easy enough for people to intensify, house prices will go up as housing supply goes down). The reason for this paradox, I suggested, was a sort of “collective action problem” where sprawl was individually nice for each of us – the big house, the big garage and so forth – but collectively messed things up, through congestion, high servicing costs and the loss of countryside.
Perhaps that is somewhat the case. However, when driving around Flat Bush it is a little hard to believe that even individually what has been created is some sort of excellent outcome. In other words, it’s a bit hard to believe that people would enjoy living a million miles from anywhere with incredibly poor transport connections, not having a dairy or any other shop within a 20, let along 5, minute walk from home and having the only green space nearby being a stormwater pond. I mean really, is the picture below likely to be anyone’s ‘paradise’:
House prices tend to indicate that creating a ‘sense of community’ and being within walking distance of a range of amenities does count for something, with the higher prices in Auckland’s inner areas not just being the result of a shorter commute to work. So if people want to live in interesting, vibrant and varied suburbs with destinations within walking distance, if our planning strategies and plans also favour such outcomes, what’s going wrong here? Once again I return to the basic question – why are we continuing to build crap neighbourhoods?
I have a few more ideas myself about the answer(s) to this question, and they very much involve transportation matters. But I’m curious to hear what others think.