Sidelining planners makes for poorer urban policy. Future generations will pay the price

The Auckland skyline. Image: Getty.

Modern urban planning first came about to improve industrial cities that had become unsafe, unhealthy and essentially unliveable. However, new policies in Australia and New Zealand view planning as a cause of urban problems, not a solution. Both treat urban planning as a hindrance, which supposedly slows down economic growth and is the main reason for unaffordable housing. The Conversation

But what might this approach mean for future development of Antipodean cities? While urban planning may have fallen short of its goals over recent decades, policy that marginalises urban planning exposes us to long-term social and environmental risks.

Cities in Australia and New Zealand do face particular challenges: both countries are highly urbanised, 89 per cent and 86 per cent respectively. A closer look at land use patterns and infrastructures show they are mostly suburban – closer to Houston than Hong Kong. Therefore, urban policy faces the challenge of governing suburbia.

Why did urban planning fall out of favour?

Several underlying factors explain this aversion to planning.

First, many urban areas developed under the current planning system haven’t produced a very liveable environment. It is difficult to make a case for the value of planning with few good examples. In some cases this isn’t bad planning; rather, traffic engineering has taken precedence.

Giving priority to traffic engineering has compromised planning principles in Auckland and many other cities. Image: Henry Burrows/flickr/creative commons.

Many areas of Auckland, for instance, are designed in such a way that residents have little choice but to drive everywhere. They are unsafe for children or seniors to navigate. And vast amounts of space are allocated to parking for private vehicles.

This is the cumulative result of decades of infrastructure decision-making that prioritises private vehicle movement over safer and more efficient public transport. Residents are living with the consequences of this, and current policy risks more of the same for future residents.

New shared spaces, cycle lanes and frequent transit services are a dramatic improvement. However, greater change is needed to make an impact on everyday life for those who live and work outside the city centre.

Second, delays in planning approvals are notorious for adding significant cost and uncertainty to property development. But inefficient delivery of planning services should not be confused with overly stringent planning rules.

Planning rules are intended to mitigate environmental damage and improve the quality of development. Rather than getting rid of planning, delays can be reduced through better resourcing, training and management of planning departments.

Also, approvals are only one step in delivering new housing. Fast-tracked consenting in Auckland’s special housing areas resulted in 30,000 consented dwellings, but only 1,300 new homes were built over almost three years.

This shows that other factors slow down the pace of development. These include capacity in the construction sector, local construction labour and delays due to land banking.

Putting affordability claims to the test

Poor urban planning is claimed to be the primary cause of unaffordable housing. It is said to be linked to higher house prices and lower economic performance.

Evidence to support these claims shows a correlation – but not a causal link – between the restrictiveness of planning regulations and housing affordability.

The simple correlation ignores other factors driving house prices: speculative investment behaviour, incentives for land banking, record-low mortgage rates and strong cultural biases toward home ownership.

Looking to land supply as the primary policy lever to fix this may do little to moderate house prices. It also overlooks more important causes.

Urban expansion also has implications for transport: it is expensive and inefficient to leave transport authorities playing catch-up to serve new growth areas.

The politics of growth further complicate expansion of land supply and tend to distribute new growth haphazardly. Most residents agree that cities need to allow for future growth, but deciding where this should go is contentious. Recent growth in New Zealand and Australian cities has been accommodated mostly in the city centre and at the urban fringe.

Only a small share of growth is in existing suburbs. Suburban residents (or at least a vocal contingent) often oppose new growth. This is unsurprising since intensification counters the very reason for living in the suburbs – more space and fewer people.

Regardless, urban policy needs to acknowledge the political tensions in accommodating growth.


Good planning involves citizens

National urban policy is important to manage land use and infrastructure differently in cities. Policies don’t have to be prescriptive. They can also enable local authorities to govern better with greater devolution of power and fundraising capabilities.

Scaling back urban planning is an understandable but disappointingly short-term response. In many cases planning hasn’t delivered what it promised. Measures to reduce delays and improve the quality of the built environment are needed. However, policy that simply reduces the role of planning may result in significant long-term costs.

Such an approach risks environmental damage, as well as uncoordinated land and transport development. The next generation living in our cities will pay for it.

Informed citizens are essential to support good planning and infrastructure decisions. For the general public, however, local regulations on urban planning, infrastructure and environmental quality are painfully dull. But they are also fundamental in shaping your everyday life: where you can afford to live, your daily commute, and the chance of air pollution shortening your lifespan.

For those without time to go through lengthy consultation documents and plans, local advocacy groups are leading the way to translate these concisely to the public. Auckland’s Generation Zero is a good example. This organisation is advocating for inter-generational equity and environmental sustainability in local planning and transport, with targeted campaigns on important projects and planning decisions.

Negotiating the trade-offs and politics of urban growth is always a challenge for policy, but quality public engagement is crucial to build cities that are liveable, affordable and environmentally sustainable over the long term.

Jenny McArthur is a postdoctoral research associate in the City Leadership Laboratory: Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.