Oram: Govt bulldozing good design

Basin of issues: the flyover risks creating dead space.
Basin of issues: the flyover risks creating dead space.

Creating thriving, liveable cities takes a rich amalgam of science and art. It is the only way we can work with huge complexity over generations.

Our current Government, however, thinks it's very simple.

All it needs to do to make Auckland housing affordable is to pave over the countryside. All it needs to do to solve Wellington's traffic problems is to throw up a flyover beside the Basin Reserve.

The Government is aggressively pushing both simplistic agendas. It is undermining Auckland's carefully crafted Unitary Plan; and it is leaning heavily on Wellington City Council to support the flyover at a council meeting next Thursday.

In both cases, the Government is bulldozing aside deep analysis, multifaceted solutions, beneficial outcomes, common sense and public desires. If it succeeds, it will blight both cities.

Auckland's full potential was on display when the council launched its draft Unitary Plan on Friday. This is the framework by which the city will fulfil the economic, social, environmental and other ambitions it articulated in its 30-year plan.

This is the first time in its history the region has had a comprehensive approach to its development. Such progress was made possible by the new governance structure. It enabled rapid and deep learning by council and stakeholders. Auckland now understands its past mistakes; and is bold about its future prospects.

Take housing: the goal is 400,000 new dwellings over 30 years, with 60 to 70 per cent in greenfield and redevelopment sites within the existing urban boundary and the rest in new greenfield sites. The aim is to ensure an average seven years of "ready to build" land supply and a 20-year forward land supply in the planning processes.

A comprehensive set of policies and programmes involving local and central government, and the private sector, will help deal with many of the raft of issues affecting housing identified by the Productivity Commission's report on the sector.

If you wonder how the Unitary Plan will influence your neighbourhood, go to the council's website http://shapeauckland.co.nz and type in your address. You will also have plenty of opportunities to attend consultations where the likes of 3-D models and other resources will help you understand how the city will improve as it develops.

All this work is based on deep local knowledge and international best practice in urban design. It applies just as much to economic development as it does to housing. For example, the council is proposing to significantly streamline approvals for business consents and to ensure an increased supply of land.

But last week Housing Minister Nick Smith charged late, combatively and irrationally into the Unitary Plan. He said the government would override the plan to open up more rural land for housing.

The government has also rejected the council's proposal to simplify and accelerate adoption of the plan by putting it into effect in principle when the final version is notified in September. This is permitted under the RMA and it would still allow for changes. It would expedite increased land supply by 2015.

Rejection, though, leaves the Government having to amend Auckland's existing plans. This would take until 2017, unless the Government legislated. Either way would be a serious grab by central government of local powers.

Yet local self-determination is crucial to housing affordability, according to research in Europe by Oliver Hartwich, executive director of the NZ Initiative, the think-tank created by the merger of the Business Roundtable and the NZ Institute. It helps explain why German-speaking countries have had minimal house-price inflation over the past 30 years, in contrast to rampant inflation in Anglo-Saxon countries (see http://bit.ly/13VFRyG).

The Government is being equally dictatorial in Wellington. Its NZ Transport Agency has laboured since 2001 on plans to improve traffic around the Basin Reserve. In 2011 it offered the public two choices: a westbound flyover 20 metres north of the reserve; or one 65m north. Eastbound traffic would still come through the city and around the Basin.

If built, the $75 million, 260m-long, 13m-wide and 6m-above-ground flyover would save six minutes on a rush hour vehicle journey between Cobham Dr and Taranaki St in 2021, the agency says.

Reporting on community consultations last year, NZTA said: "Almost all the comments on the area under the bridge ... were that it would become ‘dead space', which would encourage antisocial behaviour, graffiti and crime. There was a clear concern that the area would become a safety and security hazard."

NZTA sees the Basin Reserve as a traffic problem. It has no concept that the Basin is fundamental to the structure, function and quality of the city. Yet, a glance at a map shows that's the case.

NZTA and some city councillors say there is no cost-effective alternative to a flyover. But extensive research by Richard Reid, an Auckland architect and urban designer, of the whole urban corridor from Cobham Dr to Buckle St has shown otherwise.

His plan would remove traffic bottlenecks along the route and separate through traffic from local traffic around the Basin. It would deliver almost the same saving in journey time as the flyover. Yet the very considerable money saved would allow for a much earlier build of a second Mount Victoria tunnel and thus two lanes in each direction along the entire route.

Crucially, he has also extensively mapped the urban development and design potential along the route available if the flyover isn't built. This would significantly improve local amenities, and allow the Basin and its neighbourhood to play their linchpin roles in city life.

A recent city council report rejected Reid's proposal. But it was based on bad analysis of only the Basin Reserve component. For example, it said the flyover would be a shady place good for plants. Proper analysis of the entire route, however, would show the merits of Mr Reid's work.

At their meeting next Thursday, councillors have a choice: if they vote for the flyover, they will accelerate the city's demise; if they vote for good urban design, starting with proper analysis of Reid's plans, they will trigger its transformation.

Auckland, at the mercy of the Government, faces exactly the same choice between failure and success.

Disclosure: Rod Oram is a pro-bono adviser to Richard Reid.

Sunday Star Times