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Taking a fresh look at planning regulation

For a long time it seemed to me that most of our urban problems here in Auckland, as well as overseas, had arisen through a lack of planning. At first glance, it seems as though the urban sprawl and automobile dependency we suffer from has been the result of insufficient planning rules and regulations – which have been unable to stop developers from building stuff that we don’t like.

If you find yourself involved in the details of planning for any period of time, it generally comes down to feeling like a fundamental battle between those wanting tougher and tougher rules, to hopefully, finally, create better urban environments; and those who want fewer rules so they are more able to do what they want. The assumption is that fewer rules will lead to car-dependent, poor-quality, environment destroying, sprawl (like what we’ve had for most of the past 50 years), whereas more, tougher and increasingly intricately detailed rules might allow something better.

Often the battle becomes ideological and political. More regulation versus less regulation, restrictions on property rights versus freedom to do what you like with your land. Inevitably, this becomes a “Left” versus “Right” issue, with those on the left wanting more regulation to ensure desirable urban outcomes, while those on the right finding themselves rather fond of car-dependent suburbia – because it seems like a natural market outcome. Just the other day I found myself listening to Councillor Dick Quax lavishing praise on the suburbia of Pakuranga, scorning those “planners” who seem to dislike it so much.

There’s a flaw in this situation, a flaw that has resulted in me having to take a fundamental rethink about my political philosophies over the past few years. The flaw can be easily understood by simply looking at the history of Auckland, or the history of urban areas generally. Put quite simply: when we didn’t have planning rules we managed to create Ponsonby, Parnell, Devonport, Paddington in Sydney and so forth (the type of urban environments now seen as highly desirable), but when we do have planning rules we create places like Dannemora, Botany Downs, Wattle Downs, Flat Bush and, yes, Pakuranga. This type of urban outcome for example, which seems fantastic, would break just about every planning rule in the book: 

The quite amazing irony in urban planning is that the more we plan, the worse the outcomes we seem to end up with. The parking monstrosity that is Botany Downs is not the result of a lack of planning: this intersection has been planned down to the tiniest detail: that seems to be the problem!Internationally, if you look at the urban environments which seem to work best, they are often places that developed in the absence of planning: or at least in the absence of the level of planning detail that we now undertake. The heart of Paris is gloriously vibrant because of its mix of uses – resulting from most of Paris simply having one zone for most of its urban area:

“[T]he most recent Paris zoning code divides the city and surrounding greenspace into just four zones, three of which are neither residential nor commercial (those three are Zone N (Nature and Forests); Zone UV (Green Urban), i.e. parks and other public landscaped areas; Zone UGSU (Major Urban Services), i.e. train stations and rail lines, hospitals, waste treatment centers, water reservoirs, riverside ports, convention centers, and major centers of industrial distribution); the city’s houses, apartment buildings, shops, cafés, offices, and other commercial establishments thus fall within a single zone, General Urban.”

Of course Paris is highly regulated in other ways, such as its height limit and heritage protection.

The Urbanophile blog has a recent post highlighting that it’s now illegal to build the type of urban environments that we treasure most:

When then-governor Parris Glendening announced a key portion of what was to become Maryland’s path-breaking land use legislation in the 1990s, he stood in the historic district of Annapolis, where Maryland’s State House is located. He told the crowd that the best parts of downtown Annapolis – a picturesque, highly walkable and much-loved collection of 17th- and 18th-century homes, apartments, shops, civic and church buildings, restaurants and small offices just above the city’s harbor – could not have been built in the late 20th century.

Modern zoning and building codes wouldn’t allow it. There are too many uses mixed together, insufficient setbacks from the street, not enough parking, stairways that don’t meet modern building codes, streets too narrow, and so on. The implication was clear: there is something very wrong with a system of laws that has deviated so far from our intrinsic instincts that it has, perhaps unwittingly but nevertheless effectively, outlawed the very things that have made Maryland’s state capital so popular with residents and visitors.

There’s also a fascinating discussion on the Pedestrian Observations blog about this debate, or more specifically about the question of whether urban regulation will always result in worse outcomes  which much of this blog post so far has been suggesting. I probably wouldn’t go that far at all, because I think there is always the “tragedy of the commons” issue which requires urban regulation: to ensure that logically self-interested behaviour doesn’t spoil it for the rest of us, but there’s a useful lesson in this debate – which is:

It’s not the extent to which we regulate that matters, it’s what and how we regulate.

Just as Botany town centre is a clearly planned outcome, so are more successful urban outcomes like New York City (its street grid is hardly organic), central Paris (same for its street pattern and height limit) and Vancouver (once again a very clear grid and some strong urban design focus). The difference relates to the matter of what was regulated and how it was done.

I tend to think that good planning will strike the best balance between what to regulate and what not to regulate. It will also sort out ways in which to ensure that what we choose to regulate is done effectively. The problem with our current planning rules mainly relates to the first issue: what we choose to regulate (and what we don’t), although the way in which we regulate is also a problem at times (often our planning rules specifically try to create the exact form of urban development our higher level strategies want to prevent). We focus on regulating things like activities (whether a building is used for residential, offices, restaurants and so forth) and development details (building setbacks, yard sizes, parking requirements etc.) even though these are things which can be changed relatively easily; but at the same time we effectively leave to the market more long-term urban interventions like where the streets will go.

So while fundamentally you would think that planning can be most useful by taking the “big picture view” that each individual development is, of course, unable to keep in mind, what we actually have is a whole pile of unnecessary regulation of the details but a complete lack of oversight when it comes to matters like street network design, leading to outcomes like this: This area is basically doomed to auto-dependency forever due to its horrifically unconnected street network. It’s impossible to effectively service by bus, the long and indirect routes discourage walking and cycling and the lack of connectivity makes it highly unlikely anything other than houses will ever be constructed here. Sure, planning rules were applied to ensure that each house provided two off-street parking spaces, had strictly enforce height-to-boundary controls, a backyard of particular size and dimensions, side-yards of at least a certain width, the list goes on. But where it mattered most, in taking the big picture overview of this area and ensuring it’s future-proofed to adapt and evolve over time, you couldn’t get a bigger failure – because in the end the street network wasn’t really planned, it was simply left to the developer.

Overall, I think we probably regulate a bit too much when it comes to planning. A lot of better outcomes could be achieved through setting a minimal number of baseline requirements (maximum height and site coverage restrictions in the suburbs for example) and then leaving the details over to the developers – with a number of ‘expectations’ for you want to see in that area. But at the higher level, when analysing how whole areas are going to work and making enormously significant decisions over matters such as where the streets go, we probably need a bit more regulation – to ensure ongoing adaptability and to ensure we can run public transport through the area. I think if we took such an approach we would be far more likely to end up with better urban outcomes – and also make it far easier for developers to do business, without having to work around a million highly detailed and often contradictory planning rules and regulations.

11 comments to Taking a fresh look at planning regulation

  • George D

    Yes.

    It’s easy to forget that in a city (say) 800 years old, many more buildings have been demolished than are currently extant. What remains are the shining examples of form and function. There is a ‘but’ here however; they had the time to work through these. In current urbanisation, things are happening far too quickly for this to occur naturally. What we instead see is low density, then infill, then more compact form and apartments where zoning allows.

    It’s a big field, and one I don’t yet have time to consider properly.

  • Hey. Nice article. I think that some crowded streets are charming for tourists, no for citizens. It’s simple that everyone want to move faster from one place to another. Road system planned in every detail is simple and effective but ugly. Every man who is blocked in a jam, don’t think about it.

  • Topcat

    Planning or the planning system is not really the problem. Its the simple fact that pollies and our top public servants are incapable of making decisions.

    In Auckland, we have studies, guidelines, frameworks, taskforces, zones, rules and plans for Africa. Getting anybody to act on them and go against what is an extremely risk free market is another matter. Our pollies and planners in NZ are all talk and no action.

  • Stu Donovan

    Great post – I particularly like how you end by emphasising the distinction between planning “form” versus “details”. In NZ planners have tended to invest overwhelming amounts of energy on the latter – with things such as minimum parking requirements, building height limits, set-backs, floor-to-area ratios etc etc.

    But few planners step back and look at the wider urban structure: Especially how the street network integrates with the areas around it. And the degree to which it provides access for public transport, walking, and cycling (in all cases costs that are not borne by the developer).

    Not that you can blame them: Our regulatory environment (especially District Plans) emphasise details, not form. So they are really just following the “book” as it were. I truly believe that the planning profession needs to grow some balls, as it were, and front up to the fact that so many of our current rules are so wrong in so many ways.

    Once the planning profession has confronted its own ego, then it can get down to the business of fixing the problems we have caused over the last 50 years. As you note, that means different regulations, rather than no regulations.

  • Geoff Houtman

    Great post. Lot’s of good questions and ideas for the DAP.

    This quote from one of the comments on the “Old Urbanist” link both backs up something that has been expressed here before and talks very much to the current “Auckland vs Joyce” war.

    “A look at the jobs+housing density of DC area neighborhoods shows that traditional historical neighborhoods often have higher density than newer neighborhoods with taller buildings.

    Much of this has to do with excessive amounts of land devoted to automobiles in newer neighborhoods and edge cities – very wide streets, surface parking, parking decks, and so on. Also, the suburban mindset tends to persist in the form of large setbacks, berms, buffers, etc., as regulations enforce a tower-in-the-park ideal.”

    Cars or people right?

  • chris

    I think that while there’s no doubt that the ‘wrong’ things are being regulated, the fundamental problem may be as much to do with the Resource Management Act. Its in the title – the purpose is to manage use the resources. Whereas the UK’s Town and Country Planning Act sets up to plan the use of resources, and places a requirement to act upon people. The NZ system merely proscribes ( in ever-increasing detail ) what cannot be done, rather than stating what the desired outcome is and placing this obligation on the developer.

  • TimR

    “It’s not the extent to which we regulate that matters, it’s what and how we regulate.”

    I think a notable sub-question to the last point is about social context – “who” as well as what & how.
    It seems that too much Planning talks about people but does not behave as if people are a factor.

    Huge reality gaps appear when we undertake “Planning” in our market-led condition when identify objectives and write rules without recognising:

    – how the process of change really affects (and supports) people
    – who actually delivers change
    – how they enact change
    – what the barriers are -between people- to creating change
    – the importance of obtaining “buy-in” to a scenario of change (more than just token legislative consultation)

  • TimR

    …whoops. Not good with HTML tags, apologies for shouting.
    :-)

  • I place a lot of blame at the feet of the RMA. If you look at the worst urban outcomes we have created, they have occured under the RMA. While the TCPA also focussed on presriptive rules, I think the key difference was you either complied, or you needed a planning permit. Once you needed a planning permit, common sense and professionals applying their judgement, was the assessment that was undertaken.

    Under the RMA, you need a resource consent, you subtract the “permitted baseline” (i.e all the other permitted standards) and argue over the remainder.

    While I fully agree that some of the outcomes that planners have been seeking are perverse, the system has a large role in deciding the poor outcomes that we get given its focus on “effects being minor” – read, lets aim for mediocrity, rather than excellence in our cities.

  • Very nice article, thought I must say that the picture of all that “free” parking makes the boldest statement.

  • Sorry for the mistake, the above. ;-) I forgot to change the language – it happens

    @ Scott: I agree with you fully. If not who would manage the system design space, especially parking. Someone has to fall upon each other dirty work.

    Looking at pictures parking system, I’m very impressed. Designed systemically, appears to meet the needs of technically parked.

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