This is the second post in an ongoing series on the politics and economic of zoning reform. The first part looked at the costs, benefits, and distributional impacts of reforming urban planning rules to enable more development. This part takes a more specific look at the most recent reform to Auckland’s planning system: the Unitary Plan.
Now that the hearings are over, the submitters have been heard, and the politicians have voted, it’s worth asking: What have we gotten from the Unitary Plan? Does it take us in a useful direction, and to what degree?
In order to give a coherent answer to this question, I’m going to have to simplify matters. The UP does a lot to regulate development and local environmental issues – addressing everything from air quality to zoning for factors. But it has the strongest effects are on the city’s housing market. The UP shapes how much housing can be built, where it can be built, and how easy it is to get permission to build it.
Consequently, I’m going to focus on the impact of the Unitary Plan on people’s ability to build more homes in the city. Zoning capacity isn’t the only thing that matters, but it’s important. Cities that have “downzoned” severely, like Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s, typically experience rising housing prices, while cities that “upzone” significantly, like Tokyo in the 1990s, tend to have an easier time keeping prices under control.
The great down-zoning of LA (Morrow, 2013)
In order to estimate the UP’s impact on Auckland’s capacity to build more homes, I’m going to draw upon “capacity for growth” modelling produced by Auckland Council and subsequently updated throughout the hearings process. As changes to the modelling methodology make a like-for-like comparison a bit difficult, I’m going to have to piece together the overall results.
The 2012 Capacity for Growth Study estimated the number of homes that could be built under the legacy zoning rules that were put in place prior to Auckland Council amalgamation. The modellers estimated a measure of “plan-enabled capacity” – i.e. the total quantity of housing that could be built within the city if everyone (re)developed their site to the maximum permitted under the zoning rules.
This is obviously an implausible scenario, as many people won’t choose to redevelop, at least for a while. So the results are best thought of as a theoretical upper bound rather than a realistic estimate of what would happen in practice. As we’ll see, this was addressed in subsequent modelling undertaken during the hearings.
With that caveat in mind, the modellers found that the legacy zoning rules allowed between 250,000 and 345,000 additional dwellings to be built in Auckland. The lower number reflects the maximum capacity for infill development, while the higher number reflects the maximum capacity for redeveloping residential sites.
The 2013 Capacity for Growth Study used the same methodology to assess the version of the UP that was notified by Auckland Council after consultation on the plan. This showed that the notified UP had only made incremental increases to infill and redevelopment capacity within the city.
The modellers found that the legacy zoning rules allowed between 258,000 and 417,000 additional dwellings to be built in Auckland. The lower number reflects infill capacity, while the higher figure reflects redevelopment capacity. However, it also noted future greenfield areas with capacity for around 90,000 additional dwellings.
Taking the greenfield areas into account, the notified UP would have delivered a 39-47% increase in capacity for housing, relative to the legacy zoning. That difference is shown in the following diagram. Essentially, the Unitary Plan as originally conceived would have been at most an incremental improvement.
Things get a bit more complex when comparing between the notified UP and the final version of the UP that was recommended by the Independent Hearings Panel and approved (with minor tweaks) by Auckland Council. The modelling methodology changed in the course of the hearings, with the focus shifting from “plan-enabled” capacity to “commercially feasible” capacity. In effect, a new model was built to filter out sites that wouldn’t be profitable to develop.
The result was the final numbers presented in the Independent Hearings Panel’s report (and covered, somewhat hyperbolically, by the Spinoff) are lower – but considerably more realistic – than the figures reported in the Capacity for Growth Studies.
You can see that in the following chart. The commercially feasible capacity enabled by the notified UP is 213,000 additional dwellings – only 42% of the full plan-enabled capacity.
The key thing in this chart is the change between the notified UP and the final UP. Feasible capacity has increased from 213,000 to 422,000 dwellings, or a 98% increase. Most of the increase in capacity comes from within existing residential zones, thanks to rezoning and changes to zoning rules to allow people to build more dwellings on the same amount of land.
So if we squint a bit, we can put these estimates together to get a rough picture of the overall outcome:
- The notified UP increased plan-enabled capacity by 39-47% relative to the legacy plans
- The final UP increased feasible capacity by 98% relative to the notified UP
- This implies that the final UP has increased the zoning envelope by around 175-190%, relative to the legacy plans (i.e. 1.98*1.39 to 1.98*1.47).
Equivalently, if we assume that only around 42% of the plan-enabled capacity under the legacy zoning plans would be commercially feasible (a similar ratio to the notified UP), we can put together the following chart:
Is this sufficient? Time will tell. Getting housing, transport, and place-making right for Auckland doesn’t end with a planning rulebook. But the final UP is undoubtedly a large step away from the broken status quo.
As this is a series on the economics and politics of zoning reform, I want to close with a few simple observations that arise from the quantitative analysis in this post.
- The incremental changes observed between the legacy plans and the notified UP reflect the outcome of a political process. Council put out a draft plan for consultation, and then pulled back a lot of the changes in response to criticism.
- The considerably larger changes between the notified UP and the final UP arose from a technical process – the independent hearings.
- Although the IHP recommended, councillors decided. The final UP was voted up by many of the same councillors who had pulled back to a more conservative position three years before.
This in turn raises two questions that I will revisit in future posts in this series. First, why did the political process deliver a more conservative outcome than the technical process? And second, what changed between 2013 and 2016 to obtain a different outcome from the council votes on the plan?
What do you make of these figures?
AT have now put the SMART study documents on their site, here. There’s a lot to review there and this post is not a look at the whole report and its conclusions, but rather is a response to the problem of the length of time this project is likely to take whatever mode is selected.
All of the proposals in the report are capital intensive, without any currently identified funding source, and the timing of the RT route looks likely to be complicated by the Airport’s development plans, particularly those for the second runway, so there is a good case for looking at interim improvements for Airport/RTN interconnection while these bigger decisions are being resolved. I am focussing on the airport because of its fast growth is clearly a major generator of increased traffic congestion for the whole Mangere area.
First some background from the report. Just setting aside travellers for a moment, what about the workforce at and around the Airport, what are their current patterns?:
So we can see in the above data from the 2013 census that the key connection for workers is east to Manukau area, followed by that to the centre. Furthermore that employee movement is still quite peaky, despite the airport itself obviously being a 24 hour operation:
So what opportunities are there for a quick and relatively low cost connection between the Airport and the current RTN, particularly with the above information in mind, that could be built while the full Mangere/Airport RT route is being developed, whatever the mode? The first and obvious point is that there is already, right now, great service on the spine of the Southern Line relatively close to the Airport, particularly to the City Centre, but also south and across to Manukau City. Where the red and blue lines overlap there are services every five minutes at peak. So there seems to be a clear opportunity to improve connection east from the Airport for its own catchment while that also will connect, via the rail system, the City Centre and anyone who can access a train station.
Currently the connection between rail system and the Airport is very poor, as anyone -like me- who has used it will tell you.
The 380 via Papatoetoe station is not a viable option because of three problems [the longer and slower route to Onehunga is even worse, as well leading to an equally low frequency train]:
- Low frequency: 1/2 hourly service
- Slow route; the 380 has no priority on its route so therefore is subject to both delay and unreliability caused by other traffic [I have been on this bus stuck in traffic for tens of minutes]
- The Station/Bus physical connection at Papatoetoe does little to encourage the transfer.
So why not investigate a dedicated shuttle between the even closer Puhinui Station and the Airport on a minimum 10 minute frequency with dedicated lanes on Puhinui Rd and improved passenger interchange at the station, complete with lifts for people with luggage, and all weather cover? Puhinui is currently timetabled at 33-35 minutes from Britomart [this should improve with current work] with a train leaving every 5 mins at the peaks, exactly when traffic congestion is at is most disruptive. With bus lanes on Puhinui Rd the journey to the terminals would be a reliable 10 mins. Including an average wait time of 5 mins that’s a perfectly satisfactory 50 minute journey from Britomart to the Airport. Because this journey time is reliable and not subject to congestion and avoids the time and cost of parking at the Airport it should be competitive enough for a good proportion of travellers and workers. As shown below, there is space to build an interchange and turning space to the west [Airport] side of the station, this would need to be of interchange standard.
The Puhinui Rd/20B road and bridge are due to be upgraded or duplicated soon in the on-going work to increase general traffic access to the Airport [what you feed grows] surely it would be wise to actually include dedicated transit lanes on a bridge in Auckland for once? This is a future RTN route, the route is flat and unconstrained by buildings; these are good practical and cost arguments for bringing this section forward. Shoulder lanes, or better, a dedicated busway and bridge, LRT ready, would be real ‘future-proofing’ [a phrase it is hard not to be cynical about in Auckland as it generally means doing less than nothing in practice].
With this service then it would be viable and essential to brand both the shuttle bus service at the terminals and the Southern and Eastern line services, both of which, with no changes to how they currently run, then become true Airport services.
Of course the transfer is less ideal than a system that takes you on one seat right into the Terminal either as a flyer or an employee there, however we know many travellers currently transfer from their cars to various bus shuttles in order to get cheaper parking, and surely many workers would be happy to not to have to battle increasing congestion with a reliable and cost effective alternative. In other words by optimising the bus connection we will further unlock the value of investments recently made in the rail system. It probably makes sense on those grounds alone.
This should not be seen as instead of a north/south pan Mangere RTN, but it would surely make a good start, especially as this is the route for the future Botany-Manukau City-Airport RTN. So it would be even better if it continued to the new interchange at Manukau City, and then on to Botany and AMETI. And ensuring all hard infrastructure is built to be efficiently upgradeable to Light Rail in the longer term. Improving eastern connectivity is completely compatible with the northern Mangere routes discussed in the study, and indeed the current Airbus service, so arguably is an even more urgent direction to improve. There is no duplication in sorting this connection out first.
Incidentally this map clearly shows the other areas lacking RTN coverage: the Northwest and Upper Harbour, and the Isthmus and Mangere….
Which is exactly what AT have on their future RTN maps, but far too far into the future in my view. This is still based on last century’s thinking where every road is widened first, leading to the inevitable dysfunction and only then do we try to relieve this adding quality RT alternatives.
To summarise: we already have a high quality Rapid Transit service almost all the way to the airport, it seems to me that the addition of a high quality connection between these points would be a very useful first move in improving connectivity in this important area, especially if taken at least to Manukau City too, and as soon as possible.
Today the Auckland Transport Board have their latest meeting and I’ve taken a look through the reports to pull out the interesting bits.
Firstly and surprisingly the agenda for the closed session is surprisingly bare. The only non-regular item is Tamaki Regeneration Project – funding and governance agreement.
The main business report seems to have a bit in it to cover. As always, this is based on the order they appear in the report.
Supergold – at the time of writing the report, AT say they had almost 105k cards loaded with SuperGold concessions (both the blue and gold ones), up from 45k in May. A recent press release also stated that now 97% of SuperGold trips were taking using HOP cards. The map below shows where paper tickets were still being issued
Urban Redevelopment – AT say give a brief overview of some of the work they’re doing to work with Panuku Development Auckland.
Key priorities at this stage include:
- Takapuna – Ongoing input into options for development of AT parking sites, and identification of short and long term public transport infrastructure requirements.
- Manukau – Ongoing input into the Manukau Framework Plan currently under development. This document will identify potential streetscape upgrades, and potential sites for redevelopment including parking sites.
- Onehunga – Analysis being undertaken on the potential impact of East-West Connections and Airport-Mangere rail on future development proposals.
- Henderson – Early stages of high level visioning. The AT focus is on providing for train station expansion requirements associated with CRL operations, and on any implications of street network proposals including on level crossings.
Northwest Busway – They have selected Aurecon to develop the Indicative Business Case for the NW Busway between the City Centre and Westgate and is due to be completed by April 2017.
Harbour Crossing (AWHC) – Their work on the future RTN options as part of AWHC now includes prototype designs for several RTN modes
Tertiary Student Travel Survey – AT conducted their biennial survey and covered 2,108 interviews at campus’ across Auckland.
The surveys show that there has been a significant growth of students using public transport since 2014. Total public transport main mode travel to campus has increased from 41% to 48% and non-car travel has increased from 60% to 63%. Student attitudes towards public transport are strongly positive and nearly all students have an AT HOP card. Price and overcrowding are now seen as the biggest barriers for increasing use. Use of AT sources of information (e.g. journey planner) have significantly fallen since 2014 as the use of google maps for transport information has grown. Attitudes and use of public transport are similar across all CBD/City Fringe campuses and suburban campuses. MIT Manukau students are highly represented in train statistics.
Lincoln Rd – AT lodged a Notice of Requirement to widen Lincoln Rd. Notification is expected in September.
Albany Highway – The upgrade of Albany Highway north of the motorway has been going on for some time but AT now expect it to be completed in October, well ahead of what was in the contract.
Glen Innes to Tamaki Dr Shared Path – Section 1 from Merton Road to St Johns Road is expected to be completed by the end of September, Section 2 to Meadowbank Station and Section 3 to Orakei are expected to have resource consent completed soon with Section 3 due to start construction in October.
Newmarket Crossing (Sarawia St) – As expected the Cowie St Residents Association have appealed the consent to the Environment Court. AT now expect a likely decision on this in March/April 2017 although based on other projects like Skypath, that seems optimistic. In the past, AT have said that the opening of the Parnell Station is dependent on the Sarawia St crossing being removed.
Bike thefts – AT say they’re working with the police and our friends at Bike Auckland to address bike theft which has been increasing as cycling becomes more popular. This will include extra CCTV cameras and an education campaign.
Manukau Rd Transit Lane – The new transit lane is saving buses and T3 cars 4-5 minutes during the morning peak and has increased the people movement efficiency of the corridor by 10% – and based on anecdotal reports, that’s still with a lot of single occupant vehicles being driven in the lane.
New Bus Lanes – AT claim they are planning to deliver 19.1km of bus lanes this financial year and the first of the physical works were due to start by the end of August – but I’m not sure where. One of the lanes being added will be Gt North Rd at Waterview which is being done in conjunction with the Waterview project and expected to start construction in September and be finished by March 2017. An indication of some of what is being worked on is below.
New Bus Network – Things are on track to go live with the South Auckland network on 30 October. Tenders for West Auckland are being assessed still while the tender for the Central and East networks have gone out.
Station Gates – Designs are complete for electronic gates to be installed at Henderson, Manurewa and Papatoetoe. They don’t say when they might be installed though.
Train performance – More work to speed up trains is being planned and includes line speed, interlocking and signalling works. The report says this is for a new recast timetable in March/April 2017. Previously they’d suggested a new timetable was due in February so it appears this has slipped.
There is a separate paper about HOP which deserves its own post and will be going up at midday.
Is there anything else you’ve seen in the reports you’ve found interesting?
At 5pm on Friday the Unitary Plan was officially notified with this notice appearing in the NZ Herald.
The documents that were made available at 5pm included the final version of the plan the Council finished agreeing to earlier in the week. Also available from then were the minutes from that council meeting and so while we wait to see if there are any appeals, I trawled through the minutes to see which way the Mayor and Councillors voted on key issues and tried to put that information into a table. This includes both votes where a division was called and the Mayor and Councillors individually stated their position and votes where the resolution was passed but someone wanted their dissent noted.
A couple on notes about the tables.
- While most of it was fairly straight forward to follow, it can get a bit confusing when some votes are delayed or especially in the case of item 6.14.1 (which covers the zoning maps) it can be hard to follow who was at the table, who wasn’t and who couldn’t participate due to conflicts of interest.
- I don’t intend on posting all of the results as some of them are fairly boring technical matters where everyone agreed so I’ll just focus on a few key areas. You can click on the images for a bigger version.
- The outcomes as to whether a vote was good or bad is based on my judgment call based on what we’ve discussed in the past or the result that will make it easier to deliver more housing. On some votes you may disagree with how I’ve scored it.
- Green = Good, Red = Bad, C = Conflict of Interest and blank means they weren’t at the table.
- I’ve only included a small explanation of the items voted on but have also included the page number the vote appeared on in the minutes should you wish to scroll through to see more information.
First up a number of hot topics including heritage and viewshafts
Here are some of the items related to the City Centre and business zones. We were supporters of deleting the minimum dwelling sizes so most Councillors get marked down for voting to keep them.
And here are some of the residential zones. One odd observation is that Cameron Brewer supported keeping minimum dwelling sizes in the City Centre but opposed keeping them in the general residential zones.
There are obviously a lot more votes and as mentioned, many are fairly boring.
One of the reasons for pulling the data together was also to see which Councillors were the most or least supportive. The graph below counts the total number of red boxes from the tables above and the rest of the results. As you can see there was clearly one Councillor whose name came up more than others. To be fair not all votes are necessarily equal, especially some of the dissents which can be for fairly minor things but I think it is interesting none the less.
What do you think of the results?
This is the first part in an open-ended series on the economics and politics of zoning reform. The Unitary Plan decision means that Auckland’s urban planning framework is set for the short to medium term – albeit with inevitable appeals and changes. But the issues we’ve been grappling with over the past few years – i.e. how, where, and why to adjust the rulebook – will keep coming back. A growing city must also be a continually changing city, and zoning decisions can either help or hinder that.
A good starting point for thinking about the economics and politics of zoning reform is to ask: What are the costs and benefits of allowing more housing to be developed? And how are these costs and benefits distributed?
I investigated these questions in a conference paper at this year’s New Zealand Association of Economists. Without getting into the numbers, we can identify three main effects:
First, the benefits of new housing primarily accrue to people who are newly entering the housing market. For instance, young people trying to buy or rent a home benefit from there being more homes, as it means they can get better housing or cheaper housing. Equivalently, restrictions on new housing development mainly impose costs on people who don’t already own homes. When the supply of housing is restricted, then they face a choice between paying more for housing that meets their needs, living in substandard or crowded housing, or leaving the city entirely.
Second, the costs – adverse effects – of new development are location- and context-dependent. The distributional impacts – who is affected? – can also vary quite a lot. For instance, a new subdivision on the city fringe probably wouldn’t shade anyone’s home or block its view, but it might worsen water quality or biodiversity. And, given the dysfunctional way we build new suburbs, it will definitely increase traffic congestion.
By contrast, redevelopment and infill within the city will tend to have fewer environmental impacts – it’s already a city! – but there are more neighbours who may be affected by the various nuisances associated with development, like having new buildings casting shade on adjacent properties or more people parking on “their” street. People don’t like change very much… but they can easily adjust to different “status quo” scenarios.
For instance, consider Ponsonby. It would all be horribly illegal under today’s zoning codes. Lot sizes too small, buildings too close to each other and taking up too much of the lot, no parking, etc, etc. If you tried to get houses like these consented today, especially in an existing suburb, you’d be refused in about three seconds flat. But because they’ve been there for decades, people see them as something that should be protected – present-day zoning code be damned!
Third, enabling housing development can allow cities to grow larger and in a more economically efficient pattern – leading to enhanced agglomeration economies. The benefits of increased productivity and greater consumer choice accrue broadly to most people in the city, or potentially even to the entire country. (Taxes paid in Auckland pay for retirements in Tauranga!)
Conversely, evidence from overseas cities suggests that restricting housing supply can result in large economic costs as a result of the misallocation of workers throughout space. For instance:
- In the US, Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti found that high housing costs have discouraged people from getting jobs in high-productivity cities – in particular New York, San Francisco, and San Jose. If those cities had allowed more homes to be built over the past three decades – which would have entailed more intensive development – the US economy would now be 9.7% larger than it actually is, with commensurate gains in income.
- In the Netherlands, Wouter Vermeulen and Jos van Ommeren found that housing supply, not productivity or availability of jobs, has driven cities’ growth. Rather than moving to locations with abundant high-income jobs, people move to places with more homes – again, with a cost to overall economic outcomes.
As Matt Yglesias observed, agglomeration economies benefit workers with different skills… provided that they can afford to locate in high-productivity cities:
…just as factories served as economic anchors for regions, today’s big industries produce broader local prosperity.
Here are some examples from the San Francisco area:
The problem is that for most residents of these places, the higher cost of living erodes the benefits of higher pay.
So how does all this add up? There are two answers. The first is that the benefits of urban development tend to outweigh the costs… provided that it isn’t happening in a totally dysfunctional way, like paving over the habits of endangered birds or building astonishingly unredeemable eyesores. In other words, the benefits for people who are getting housed, plus increased agglomeration economies, outweigh the costs from negative social or environmental impacts. So from the perspective of long-run social wellbeing, zoning that enables more development seems like a good idea.
The second answer is that the distributional impacts tend to determine the politics of zoning. As economist William Fischel observed, local governments tend to be dominated by “homevoters” who are mainly worried about risks to their property values and quality of life. In this context, the fact that enabling urban development mostly has benefits for new entrants to the housing market – i.e. young people and people moving into the city from elsewhere – is pretty important.
As economists like to say, the incentives facing local government voters aren’t well aligned with long-run social wellbeing. To current voters, zoning reform isn’t necessarily an appealing proposition. It appears to create uncertainty for their neighbourhood and property values, while principally benefitting other people.
This is a very understandable view for individuals to hold, but it’s not awesome for society as a whole. If cities and economies don’t change, they wither and die, creating vast human misery in the process. In order to prevent that from happening – i.e. to keep people from crowding into unsanitary accommodation or going homeless – we need to be willing to reform our zoning policies.
In the subsequent posts in this series, I’m going to take a look at what that might look like. In the first instance, I want to focus on the institutional arrangements that enable reform, considering issues like:
- The trade-off between localised and centralised decision-making
- The good and bad in New Zealand’s legislative framework
- The role of analysis and evidence in planning decisions
- The role of social norms in encouraging (or discouraging) people to plan for future generations.
As always, leave your views in the comments.
So they did it, the council actually passed a reasonably good Unitary Plan, a feat that just six months ago seemed so unlikely. This represents a fairly historic moment for Auckland as for the first time, the region will have a single set of planning rules that enable the city to grow and are also aligned with the policies and goals of the region.
The Unitary Plan would easily be the largest planning exercise in New Zealand’s history, representing around four years of work for the council, the public and the Independent Hearings Panel (IHP). While planning matters can often seem fairly dull, documents like the Unitary Plan have such far reaching implications that getting a decent plan as a base to build off was important and it appears that the council has largely done that. It also means any future work can focus on smoothing out some of the remaining rough edges rather than having to make wholesale fixes.
One quite notable feature at this end of debate on the Unitary Plan has been the lack of opposition to it from groups like Auckland 2040 who have fought the plan all the way along. It now appears that their opposition to the plan peaked in February. Perhaps it was the optics of fighting against enabling housing in the middle of a housing crisis, perhaps it was because their leader – Richard Burton – was overseas or perhaps it was just they realised was pretty good.
Councillors started debating the recommendations from the IHP and the council officer’s responses to those recommendations on Wednesday and positively they seemed to do it in decent humour, something that can’t be said for all council debates. The meeting had budgeted to take till this coming Thursday but in a fairly surprising move the Councillors were able to move through the agenda relatively well and most of the thorny issues were wrapped up by Friday leaving the last few issues till today.
Over the last four years, some Councillors have been fantastic and perhaps none deserves larger praise than Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse who has guided the process all the way along. A number of other Councillors have also been strong supporters all the way through.
Interestingly during this most recent debate another surprise hero emerged and it was none other than Dick Quax who had many wondering if they had woken up in an alternate universe. He argued and voted positively on many of the topics up for discussion and I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering why its taken so long to see this side of him. Conversely the single worst performer was Mike Lee who opposed almost all measures to provide more housing, voting against them time after time.
A week ago we highlighted some of the key issues the council officers did/didn’t agree with the IHP and recommended the council change or reject them. I had hoped to break down and analyse the various votes but unfortunately the minutes containing the voting records aren’t available yet (and I didn’t have the time to trawl through the hours upon hours of video from the meeting). At a high level they:
- Deleted the Sites and Places of Value to the Mana Whenua overlay
- Deleted the blanket pre-1944 heritage overlay, the special character and overlay still exists though.
- Rejected the watering down of language around ensuring land-use transport integration.
- Agreed to shift the Rural Urban Boundary to the District Plan, enabling it to be changed via private plan changes.
- Agreed to remove the requirement for a minimum number of “affordable” dwellings in a development.
- Lowered the number of dwellings that can be built on a site as of right, above which requires a resource consent, from four to two.
- Feared the shoebox and voted to keep minimum dwelling sizes.
- Doubled the height limit in Newmarket to 72.5m
- Agreed with the recommended zoning, with a few exceptions, this includes at some last minute hot spots at Okura and Crater Hill
- Didn’t agree with the IHP or the officers and removed the minimum parking requirements for retail from centres. This was a surprise and fantastic outcome
The final Unitary Plan will be formally notified on Friday and there will be a window of 20 working days for limited appeals. I suspect one of the most likely appeals will be from the large retailers to try and reinstate the IHPs position of keeping minimum parking requirements in centres for retail businesses – something the retailers argued for at the hearings panel but which is primarily about making it harder for small businesses to compete with them.
Thank you to everyone, who has helped advocate alongside us for a good Unitary Plan, especially our friends at Generation Zero who have put in a huge amount of hard work in support of a better city.
Thank you also to the all of the council staff who have worked so hard to make this plan a reality. They deserve a celebration for effort they’ve put in but of course if they do there’ll be the usual negative voices complaining about spending ratepayers money.
Lastly, well done and thank you to the Mayor and Councillors for finally passing the plan. With better rules in place it also means the focus for improving housing also now shifts back to the government.
The demolition of the Downtown Centre for the start of the CRL and the replacement of this 1960s structure by Precinct Properties’ Commercial Bay office and retail development is an important moment for Auckland on many levels.
Along with the obvious boon of the actual beginning of the CRL there is also something deeply symbolic here. The entire conception of the previous building was anti-urban, it was a suburban mall stuck right in the heart of the city. I have always been struck by the semiotics of this backwards invasion; instead of the usual order of things, where a smaller centre tries to present its developments as a new sophistication by reference to a bigger more glamorous centre, this whole building seemed to represent an inversion of this idea; determinedly aiming to be nothing more than a little bit of Lynn Mall in the city.
But then it comes from that peculiar age in the history of city making; the second half of the 20thC, when, uniquely, dispersal and edge took over from concentration and centre as the formula for commercial success. See here for a fascinatingly detailed history of this development by architect Malcolm Smith, it is clear from this that it was extremely hard in those times to make such a location work, the city centre had just lost its mojo. To see how this came to be so in what now is so obviously such a valuable location, it is important to understand the historical context in which this development took place. This is well summarised on Auckland’s Wikipedia page (source).
The relocation of industries to outlying suburbs became especially pronounced in the 1950s, partly due to incentives made by council planners to create industrial areas in Penrose and Rosebank Road (amongst others) and thus rid the inner city area of noise, pollution and heavy traffic. This was mirrored by the development of suburban shopping malls (the first being LynnMall in 1963)which enticed retailers to vacate the inner city as well. Attempts by the council to halt this pattern by constructing numerous public car parking buildings met with varying success. The rise of suburban supermarket and mall shopping that was created in places such as Pakuranga from 1965 onwards has been added to by the appearance of Big Box retailers in places such as Botany and the North Shore.
It really is a perfect example of this zeitgeist, from its introverted retail pattern [blank walls to the street; its formation it actually consumed a city street], car parking orientation [Downtown parking building and airbridge], clunky sub-modernist massing, right down to the hideous 70s baby-kaka colour scheme.
And now, it is my contention, its demise is also a perfect expression of the new zeitgeist; the return of the city. The inversion of the pattern in play at the time of its creation.
Which, as the name suggests, is simply a return to the timeless urban pattern of the preeminence of proximity and concentration: Where the centre is by definition the busiest and most valuable retail and commercial precinct. A pattern that would be recognisable to city inhabitants throughout all ages and nations, and is only worth emphasising here because everybody adult today has grown up under the opposite, and anomalous, pattern. So what is in fact abnormal and inverted in the long history of urban settlement is strangely conventional and may even seem natural.
This explains the confused incomprehension of people like Herald writer John Roughan, a deeply committed 20th Century dweller who just can’t get to grips with this return to the natural urban order of things this century in Auckland, with the city reshaping itself again on urban terms, building proper city kit like underground rail and the volume of pedestrians pushing out the car from city streets. As opposed to the suburban auto-privileging order he is comfortable with. This is the pattern of the mid-late 20th century in Auckland; the good old days of auto-dominated yet unpeopled city streets, a commuter city completely unlived in, and dead at nights and on weekends; everyone having fled to the haven of the suburbs. So he confuses the vibrancy of crowded city pavements and new construction with some sort of disorder:
Meanwhile, the heart of Auckland looks like a body in the first phase of drastic surgery. It lies stunned, wan, with opened wounds and heavy bandaging.
Whereas to city lovers the scale and ubiquity of construction currently underway in the city is exhilarating and full of promise*. Auckland now has something of the energy of early 20th century North American cities; alive with commerce, construction, and crowds. Rather than the plodding predictability of the old provincial town that Roughan seems to be yearning for.
This kind of confusion and conflict is to be expected in times of significant change that it is clear that Auckland and many other cities are experiencing now. The bewilderment and anger of some older people at the [largely misunderstood] Unitary Plan is another sign of this: people tend to react fearfully when much of what they always assumed would be permanent and unchallenged starts to melt away. Views formed decades ago can calcify and to see their concrete expression demolished can provoke emotional reaction.
So we can expect more lashing out and confused editorials by those unable or unwilling to move with the times, because I am pretty certain this is a powerful and irresistible trend, as shown by the scale of work, over $10 billion of new construction underway or about to be in Auckland City along the CRL route. As powerful in fact as the last time our city conformed to international trends and profoundly altered its form and movement systems: yup that’s right, when we went all in for motorways, suburban living, and dispersed shopping malls.
Auckland Star April 1973
We are just changing horses again, and this time back to a normal urban pattern based on a hierarchy of concentration, but as with all evolutions or even revolutions, they still take place in the context of what went before. So Roughan’s sacred suburbia, with its rituals of weekend car washing, lawn mowing, and BBQs, will still exist, and in fact can still be the enveloping context for many people’s entire Auckland experience if they so desire. The wheel turns, but also rolls forward, building on the old, as well as replacing it. Just as buildings of earlier phases of Auckland’s history, particularly from its most urban period in the first half of the 20th Century, can (thankfully) still be seen in these photographs, so will the monuments of the second half of last century persist, the motorways, the malls, the parking buildings, the stubby towers, but the new emphasis is increasingly now elsewhere.
Only I would contend that this time we are being much less destructive than before; we are not dismantling the motorway system, or even running it down, although we will stop adding to it; importantly this is unlike what happened to the tram network and passenger rail during the motorway/sprawl era.
This change may be a shock to people like Roughan, but it really is more evolutionary than revolutionary, additional not substitutive.
All palaces are temporary.
*= which isn’t to say that every change is ideal, see here for a critique of the public space issues at Commercial Bay: Are we getting the Public Space…
We are now onto Day 3 on the Unitary Plan process.
On now is the last major topic which is zoning. This includes Rural Urban Boundary changes, including contentious areas like Okura. There are also ‘catch-all’ votes to accept the panel zoning in the South, West, North, Rodney and Central. After that there is just technical amendments and votes on designations to be done.
This morning so far:
- Residential rules have passed. Officer proposals to shift land use consent requirements from 5 to 3 dwellings were passed without debate.
- The zoning for the South, West and Rodney has already passed, though a few exceptions where office changes voted on.
- The council rejected the panel’s zoning for Crater Hill 10 – 9. This opens this up for Environment Court appeal.
- The Council accepted the zoning for a Clevedon Waterways Development that the staff reccomended to be turned down.
We are now onto day 2 of the marathon Auckland Council Governing Body meeting that is voting on the recommendations of the Independent Hearings Panel on the Unitary Plan.
The meeting is currently on a lunch break and will resume at 1.10pm. Check back at various points this afternoon, as I am planning to update this post after key votes occur.
For a rundown of yesterdays proceedings see yesterdays post, as well as reports in The Spinoff and Radio New Zealand.
Key issues this morning including the Rural Urban boundary, mangroves and various Regional Policy Statement issues.
Major decisions made this today so far include:
- Accepting the panels recommendation to shift the Rural Urban boundary from the Regional Level to the District Level, which makes it possible for private developers to propose changes. See coverage from the herald here. Council officers claimed that protections in the policies will help ensure growth is well managed.
- A more restrictive approach for removing mangroves
- Recommendations on Ports of Auckland rules accepted
- Fascinating debate over minimum apartment sizes. Council officers suggested reinstating a minimum size of 35m2 in the city centre zone. Cathy Casey & Linda Cooper called for minimum sizes, & made arguments that everyone should have the room for a pet. Dick Quax, Arthur Anae and Penny Webster made good arguments in favour of not having minimum sizes. They noted that people could make their own decisions, and some would want to live in micro apartments of 20 -30 m2, noting that the city centre allows for a range of different lifestyle choices. In the end the motion to reinstate minimum apartment sizes was passed 17 – 3, with Dick Quax, APenny Webster & George Wood as dissenting voices. However the officers did note that applicants could apply for a Resource Consent to go lower and show the apartment was designed well.
Issues for discussion this afternoon include residential rules (minimum apartment sizes outside the CBD & resource consent thresholds), design standards & assessments and potentially residential zoning if time permits.
This is a repost of an article I wrote last December explaining why I’m optimistic about housing affordability in Auckland – and New Zealand’s ability to solve problems in general. I think my optimism has held up reasonably well. Since then, New Zealand’s conversation on housing affordability and urban planning has matured in some important ways – crystallising in the response to the Independent Hearings Panel’s recommendations on the Auckland Unitary Plan.
As Toby Manhire observed, “the most remarkable thing is the response… on the whole it’s been incredibly positive”. Reasonable people could have reservations about aspects of the IHP’s recommendations, but most of the views I’ve seen recognise that the finished plan is a good step forward to solving the housing challenges the city faces.
Meanwhile, the UK has voted to Brexit the EU and a large share of Americans – possibly even a majority if we’re unlucky – are planning on voting for Trump. So New Zealand seems to be ahead of the curve on pragmatic problem-solving. Yay!
What’s the problem?
Housing is expensive in New Zealand, especially in Auckland, where median house prices have increased fivefold since the early 1990s (in nominal terms). Roughly half of this increase has occurred in the last four years, which is causing quite a bit of concern:
Housing markets are complex – prices are influenced by both demand-side and supply-side variables. As a result, it can be difficult to tell a single, simple story about why prices have gone up or down in any given year. Take the recent rise in Auckland house prices. Some people argue that it’s a financial bubble (a demand-side explanation); others blame high migration (demand) or distortionary tax policies (demand); and others cite inflexible planning rules (a supply-side explanation) or low construction productivity (supply).
Although short-term dynamics can be mysterious, elasticity of housing supply is the main long-term driver of housing market outcomes in a growing city. The easier it is to build new dwellings in the right places in response to increased demand, the less upward pressure there will be on prices.
The empirical evidence suggests that housing supply in Auckland is slightly inelastic – somewhere in the range of 0.7 to 0.9. This isn’t horrible, but nor is it sufficient to get housing supply in balance with demand.
Severe geographic constraints – Auckland’s harbours and steep hillsides – appear to be an underlying driver of the city’s inelastic housing supply. In this context, settling for average urban planning policies means getting a limited supply of housing and high prices. Consequently, we have to make it much easier to use scarce land efficiently. That means reforming our approach to planning regulations. In the past, we adopted land-hungry policies like minimum parking requirements or severe building height limits without thinking through their ill effects. That has costs, and we need to do better.
Auckland is not the only city coping with high housing prices and a lack of supply – you see similar problems in places like London, New York, San Francisco, and Sydney. However, I would bet that New Zealand will do a better job sorting out its housing affordability issues than other places. In fact, I am betting on it! I’m renting in Auckland, which means that I bear all of the downside and none of the upside of spiraling housing prices.
There are three reasons for my optimism:
1. Our proven track record of policy reform
Let’s start with a pat on the back. Having lived in New Zealand, the United States, and Nigeria, I’d say that Kiwis are, by and large, pretty reasonable when it comes to public policy. We’re not very corrupt, which removes one major source of inefficiency. We generally recognise that as a small, distant trade-exposed country we can’t afford to do things inefficiently. And, due to New Zealand’s small size, there’s usually no need to over-complicate things.
Policymaking anywhere will always be subject to cognitive and professional biases – people screw things up, and sometimes it takes a while to sort it out – but New Zealanders don’t seem want totally irrational or insane policies. Unlike the US, say:
Possibly as a consequence, New Zealand has a record of reforming policies that aren’t working, either incrementally or in one go. The classic example of this is in trade policy. From the 1930s to the 1980s, the New Zealand government oversaw an extensive set of import controls. Te Ara describes this policy:
Faced with declining export returns and a foreign exchange crisis, a Labour-led government introduced foreign exchange controls and import licensing regulations in 1938. The regulations prohibited the import of any goods except under licence or where exempted.
Importers had to apply to government for both an import licence and the foreign exchange needed for purchases. The quota – the amount that could be imported with a licence – was set on the basis of imports the previous year.
Just as restrictions on the efficient use of land produce windfall gains for landowners while foisting large costs on renters and new home-buyers, import licensing created fortunes for some manufacturers while making most consumers worse off. As a consequence, after experimenting with some liberalisation of trade policy in the 1970s and 1980s, the remaining import controls were swept away in the late 1980s.
Recent changes in transport policy also demonstrate our ability to reform bad policies. Over the last decade, there have been some important, although undoubtedly incremental, moves to reform our inefficient monomodal urban transport system.
For example, last year I reviewed a 2010 research research report on deficiencies in NZ’s public transport planning and operations – and was surprised to find that almost all of its recommendations are being implemented in Auckland, Christchurch, and other places. Since 2010, Auckland has:
- Established a public agency (AT) that can plan and deliver a PT network and supporting infrastructure
- Developed and begun implementing a frequent, connected network that satisfies best practice network design principles
- Reformed bus contract models
- Implemented integrated ticketing (and soon, integrated fares)
- Started to build bus interchanges and bus lanes.
This is a big deal, but it’s hardly the only story in town. How about the fact that central and local governments are now coming to the party on urban cycleways? For the first time ever, significant investments are going towards one of New Zealand’s “missing modes”.
We now have an opportunity to take the same approach to urban planning – reform what isn’t working and get better outcomes.
2. The structure of our governments
The current structure of New Zealand’s governments makes it easier to implement reforms and make them stick. We have two key advantages in this area that offer a smoother path to policy reform.
First, New Zealand’s government has a unitary structure rather than a federal one. This means that most powers are concentrated in central government rather than distributed among multiple layers of government. Political centralisation certainly isn’t all good – in the past it’s often led to a perverse situation in which urban transport policy is being designed by rural politicians.
But in this case, it makes policy changes much easier. If central government were to, say, issue a National Policy Statement on urban development or rewrite sections of the Resource Management Act (which governs the development and implementation of urban planning rules), it would lead to changes in the way that local governments regulate. That option isn’t usually available in federal systems.
Because any proposal to liberalise planning rules inevitably creates controversy at local body election time, central government involvement can potentially assist in getting important changes over the line.
Second, the creation of the unified Auckland Council ensures that all growth tradeoffs – and the negative consequences of preventing growth – are internalised within a single council. Gone are the days when councils could simply refuse to zone for growth and assume that it would become someone else’s problem instead. Now a single council is responsible for sorting the region’s problems out.
You can see the results in the Unitary Plan – a document that’s not perfect (no plan is!) but which takes some important steps forward. For example, it removes MPRs from the centre zones, which are intended to accommodate a mix of business and residential uses, cuts back minimum lot sizes throughout much of the city, and creates some midrise residential zones.
Amalgamation does come at a potential cost to Tiebout competition, in which adjacent councils compete for growth. But I suspect that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. As the San Francisco Bay Area shows, local government fragmentation doesn’t necessarily result in more housing supply – the Bay Area has 93 local governments but building permits have still been falling since the 1970s.
New Zealand’s unitary government structure and the creation of a consolidated Auckland Council create the potential for “virtuous cycles” in which local and central government egg each other on to improve urban planning regulations and processes. To date, this has led to things like the Special Housing Areas, which aims to ease consenting in selected areas, and the Unitary Plan hearings process, which is intended to review the plan and allow it to be implemented faster.
The hearings process, in particular, has encouraged Auckland Council to think carefully about its proposed zoning rules. For example, following instructions from the hearings panel, the council is considering rezoning some areas to enable more housing. This is an important step towards recovering from the ill effects of past down-zoning.
3. The political agenda
Lastly, housing affordability has hit the political radar at a national level. There is an increasing consensus that reforms to urban planning rules are a key part of the solution. The latest Productivity Commission report on using land for housing outlined some key policy changes, and politicians from several major parties have subsequently endorsed a number of these recommendations. For example:
In other words, there is likely to be cross-party support for sensible reforms to urban planning that build on the good work that’s already been done by central and local government.
Globally speaking, it’s somewhat unique – and fortuitous – to have so much attention placed on urban planning issues at both a local and central government level. For example, in the US, a few economists in the Obama administration are starting to talk about the drawbacks of overly restrictive planning regulations. But President Obama has very little ability to influence zoning in San Francisco or New York.
New Zealand is different. We are generally willing to reform policies that aren’t working for us, we’ve got government structures that can facilitate that reform, and our elected representatives are paying attention to the problems and potential solutions. Those seem like good reasons for optimism!