Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Urban design effects and the RMA 3

More on urban design effects and the RMA. I'm trying to work may way through some sort of urban design 'effects' rating system.

So far I have tried to understand what a rating system needs to do;  how rating effects contributes to procedural and substantive decisions under the RMA. Now the meaty part – what are urban design effects in terms of the RMA? Lots to work through here.

Looking at how RMA plans 'codify' urban design may not be the best place to start at trying to understand urban design effects. RMA plans tend to pick up on a sub-set of urban design. But equally many urban design texts and guides can be so wide ranging as to their definition of urban design that trying to work out what an effect is, is not easy.

So I need to take a different tack.

Somethings to address are:

  • Is urban design normative or positive?
  • If positive, then in what way does urban design affect the environment? 
  • Are urban design effects a positive or negative externality?
  • Urban planning versus urban design?
  • Whither the 7cs of the NZ Urban Design protocol?

Normative or positive?

Why start here? Perhaps the most basic assumption to be made is that urban design effects can be reliably, objectively measured in someway. Is urban design  just a bunch of ideas as to how the built environment should be, with those ideas varying from urban designer to urban designer? Positive statements must be able to be tested and proved or disproved. Normative  statements are opinion based, so they cannot be proved or disproved. Normative statements do not really help with constructing a robust rating system.

Having the word 'design' in urban design lends urban design towards the normative end of the spectrum. Design suggests a creative endeavour, perhaps something aimed at making a 'bit of a splash'.  The other interpretation of 'design' is the sense of something of standard form or function that is shaped or moulded to fit specific circumstances.

I think urban design is increasingly grounded in research and observation. It may have started out as a bunch of thoughts and guesses about the interaction of people with built environments, but things have moved on. There is the 2005 MfE report on the value of urban design. This is still a good report. People like the old UK CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) referred to the benefits of urban design as providing ‘value’ in terms of things like:

Exchange value: parts of the built environment can be traded;
Use value: the built environment impacts on the activities that go on there;
Image value: the identity and meaning of built environment projects, good or bad;
Social value: the built environment supports or undermines social relations;
Environmental value: the built environment supports or undermines environmental resources;
Cultural value: the built environment has cultural significance.

More recently M Carmona in a paper called: “Place value: place quality and its impact on health, social, economic and environmental outcomes” (note 1) suggests that a different way of thinking about urban design benefits  is more straightforwardly the degree to which the different qualities of the built environment impact, either positively or negatively, on different public policy goals. Things like public health, public safety and promoting social interaction are all basic public  ‘goods’ or services that economies and communities need for them to operate successfully. Urban design and the built environment can and does influence the nature and extent of relationships between people and these public goods. The built environment might get in the way of a positive relationship, it can also accentuate a negative relationship. The built environment can also enhance these relationships.

After reviewing over 200 studies on the links between the built environment and public policy goals Carmona concludes that there are strong links between built environments and health and safety, as well as supporting economic exchange and improving the environment.

Now that is all well and good, but it might be said that urban design is not a proven set of facts or theories about how the built environment affects safety, for example. There is no theory in the sense that we can say with certainty: do x and y will result. It is not possible to be so assured as to the link between cause and effect. The above studies show a correlation between good and bad urban design and many positive and negative outcomes. But is there a causal link?

After all human beings are involved. Someone penned the following thought:

As I walk I react to the scale of a building in relation to the scales of others and to that of my own body. In all their proportionate interrelationships, heightening my awareness of self in space. To make my way toward my destination I draw geographic inferences and impose cognitive maps that orientate myself in, and make sense of, the structures through which I move, Drawn and reassured by the vitality on the street, I come out to join that urban commerce and thereby contribute to my own presence to the city’s life. The landscape features I pass become meaningful to me through their capacity to express cultural references, whether local or foreign. Any my determination to continue walking depends on how well the landscape responds to my flagging strength, my desire for shelter, my need for rest, and my wavering curiosity. 

Carmona contends that it has been found that urban design is at least in part pseudo-scientific. This does not mean that urban design rests on a ‘foundation of nonsense’, but a foundation of untested hypotheses, or individual scientific findings that are not scientifically incorporated into the urban design corpus of knowledge.

That urban design can be classed as ‘pseudo scientific’ is not fatal. Jayne Jacobs ends Death and Life of Great American Cities with a chapter on how cities are systems of organised complexity. As such they cannot be analysed by standard scientific techniques (two variable problems). There are many variables in cities which interact and interrelate, many of which are not subject to proven theories of cause and effect.  It is more a matter of likelihoods and probabilities.

She explains some tactics to analyse organised complexity:
  • Detail – identify a specific factor and then painstakingly learn its intricate relationships and interconnections. Then move onto another factor
  • Look for leverage – seek ‘unaverage’ clues involving very small quantities which reveal the way larger and more common quantities operate
  • Processes – cities are always evolving – there is no equilibrium, so any activity or building or space must be placed in some sort of continuum or timeline. Focus on the catalysts that arrest one phase and start another
  • Work inductively – reason from the specific to the general.  This helps to avoid seeing cities in the abstract. 
Urban design does concentrate on details, like where the front door is. It does refer to both the exceptional and the normal. Urban design looks at the urban environment not in the abstract, but in specifics.

But is the lack of a scientific base to the understanding of urban design effects an issue? In a world of evidence driven policy, then maybe and maybe not.

Maybe not because much of resource management is about dealing with predictions and uncertainties as to future effects in the absence of complete knowledge. As we all know there is a huge area of opinion and judgement involved in many areas of urban planning and resource management.  Here, probabilities of claimed effects are important. How certain are the links between cause and effect of many urban amenity concerns?

This has been called post-normal science. This is where people involved in unresolved issues hold strong positions based on their values, and the science is complex, incomplete and uncertain. Diverse meanings and understandings of risks and trade-offs dominate.

In a similar vein, given uncertainties, an Environment Court judge has suggested that the probabilities of effects be considered in terms of:
Confidence in facts
Likelihood of predictions.

But maybe the lack of a strong theory that has stood up to scrutiny (not be falsified) is an issue, mostly because of the human behaviour aspect of urban design.  The social aspect of  built environment effects may mean that adverse urban design effects need to get to a ‘significant level’ (whatever that is) before management and mitigation of them can kick in. Should the bar for action be a bit higher than for effects on the natural environment, for example?

Note 1: http://placealliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2018-June-12-Journal-of-Urban-Design-Place-value-place-quality-and-its-impact_MC.pdf

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Effects, urban design and the RMA: 2

I'm on a (one person) quest to better define urban design effects as part of RMA processes. I have started by looking at how effects might be defined, before looking at urban design effects. I ended my first post on the topic with the following effects 'equation':

The scale of an effect is a combination of:

Persistence of effect * magnitude of effect * extent of the effect * probability of the effect * consequence to receiving environment * possible mitigation (reduction) * plan weighting.

I am not sold on the above equation, but it is a start.

If you think the above is a bit complex, then look at the following. This is from Department of Conservation’s guidance on policy 13 of the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement (which in turn is drawn from a regional policy statement).

The following guidance aims to help with determining the extent to which an adverse effect is ‘significant’.

Status of resources: The importance of the area—locally and regionally. (Effects on rare or limited resources are usually considered more significant than impacts on common or abundant resources).

Proportion of resource affected/area of influence: The size of the area affected by the activity will often influence the degree of impact (i.e. affecting a large area will generally be significant). Affecting a large proportion of a limited area or resource will tend to be significant.

Persistence of effect: The duration and frequency of effect (for example, longterm or recurring effects as permanent or long-term changes are usually more significant than temporary ones. The ability of the resource to recover after the activities are complete is related to this effect).

Sensitivity of resources: The effect on the area and its sensitivity to change. (Impacts to sensitive resources are usually more significant than impacts to those that are relatively resilient to impacts). Reversibility or irreversibility: Whether the effect is reversible or irreversible.

Irreversibility will generally be more significant (depending also on nature and scale), and reversibility the converse.

Probability of effect: The likelihood of an adverse effect resulting from the activity. Unforeseen effects can be more significant than anticipated effects. (Adopting a precautionary approach may reduce the likelihood of adverse effects occurring).

Cumulative effects: The accumulation of impacts over time and space resulting from the combination of effects from one activity/development or the combination of effects from a number of activities. Cumulative effects can be greater in significance than any individual effect from an activity (for example, loss of multiple important sites).

Degree of change: The character and degree of modification, damage, loss or destruction that will result from the activity. Activities that result in a high degree of change are generally more significant.

Magnitude of effect: The scale and extent of possible effects caused by an activity (for example on the number of sites affected, on spatial distribution etc). Activities that have a large magnitude of effect are generally more significant.

I think this list can be re arranged to match my equation, as follows:

DM rating
Persistence of effect:
Proportion of resource affected/area of influence
Probability of effect
Degree of change
Sensitivity of resource
Possible mitigation

Plan weighting
Status of resources:

The DoC list doesn’t have mitigation in it. It does have cumulative effects in it. More on that below.

As another example, Environmental Impact Assessment (which is where the idea of Assessment of Environmental Effects comes from) can have a fairly complex list of things to look at when considering impacts. For example:

Characteristics of Impact:
the extent of the impact (geographical area and size of the affected population);
transfrontier impact;
magnitude and complexity of impact;
probability of impact;
duration, frequency and reversibility of the impact.

Transfrontier impacts refers to whether the impact crosses country borders or other boundaries.

Again some similarities come through in terms of the dimensions of an effect.

Once the components of effects has been considered, how do you express the product of the equation? I wonder if the scale for urban design effects should be related to people’s reactions to or acceptance of change to an urban environment, given that cities are all about people, but also constant flux and change. For example, effects are:

1. Not discernible
2. Negligible
3. Tolerable
4. Undesirable
5. Detrimental
6. Intolerable.

These might be described as follows:

Overall rating
Not discernible 
Within the normal range of effects / rate of change as currently experienced, generally not perceptible
Effect may be noticed against 'background levels', but would be so small or unimportant as to be not be worth addressing. It would not change day to day activities in any material way
Effect would be noticed and may change behaviour / routines, but within the ability of people to adapt. The effect may be bearable
Effect would be noticeable and negatively 
impact on people’s day to day routines. It would be objectionable or unpleasant. The effect might be able to be mitigated or potentially traded off for other much bigger benefits
Effect would be visible and be felt. It would be harmful or damaging. People would need to be take deliberate action to avoid the effect which would reduce the overall utility of the environment to support urban activities
Level of effect is excessive and would negatively impact on a wide range of people and lead onto other spill over effects that cannot be managed. The effect would be calamitous and destructive to an urban environment.

The above categories of effects can be related back to the threshold / procedural tests of the RMA as follows:

Degree of ‘minorism’
Degree of significance
Not discernible
Less than minor


More than minor


Significant, but maybe 'tradeable'??

Significant, best avoided

Significant, avoid

Having said all that, I am not convinced that the above deals with the issue of small, incremental changes to urban areas. Many urban design matters involve small scale changes to the built environment, and most often are not changes to a highly valued environment. One tall fence on the front boundary of a 'normal' residential site might not seem so bad, a whole street of high fences is a problem, but getting from one to many high front fences usually involves numerous small steps. Is the first tall fence an 'unbearable' effect?

As a different example, the area or number of people affected may be relatively small, with only a minor portion of an urban area subject to the effect. A formula which talks about nature and extent of change might imply that changes that affect 100s of hectares are much more important than changes that affect one or two sites. As a result the small changes should get a low 'relative' impact rating.  But of course only one in twenty cases may affect 100  hectares, but 19 may affect 5 sites,

This is the cumulative effects issue; an issue which goes round and round without resolution.

One guide says that cumulative effects become significant when these impacts on the environment:
• “occur so frequently in time or so densely in space that they cannot be assimilated or
• combine with effects of other activities in a synergistic manner” .

In other words, cumulative effects may be additive (accumulate) or synergistic (amplify other effects). Someone has also pointed out that cumulative effects could also be neutralizing (the effects cancel each other out). The issue with accumulative effects can be their frequency.

It is the accumulative form of cumulative effects which are perhaps most relevant to urban design. It is common for assessment guides to note that there are thresholds where additional (small scale) disturbance can result in significant deterioration of resources or ecosystems. Cumulative effects become apparent when such thresholds (tipping points) are breached.

But if the effect is at the start of the sequence of potential repetitions, and no threshold has been reached, then a cumulative effect has not yet technically occurred. Even if there is a clear sequence occurring, identifying the tipping point is not easy, and is often only apparent in retrospect.

Cumulative effects can be related to the concept of the "tyranny of small decisions".  Overtime, big changes can occur as a result  of many steps, each small in their individual size, time perspective, and in relation to their cumulative effect. In economic terms, the tyranny of small decisions means that a series of apparently free, individually welfare-maximizing 'purchase' decisions can so change consumer tastes and the context of subsequent choices that desirable alternatives are cumulatively and irreversibly destroyed.

There is no straight forward antidote to the tyranny of small decisions, except to say that someone needs to keep the bigger picture in mind.  But just saying that cumulative effects should be taken into account in the effects equation doesn't really help much.

Plan weighting maybe one way to address small scale, insignificant in isolation but potentially damaging additive cumulative effects. Another way to address cumulative effects may be to introduce another step into the effects equation, covering the likely prevalence or recurrence of the effect - does the effect come up often, or is a rare or unusual effect? So should the equation be:

Persistence of effect * magnitude of effect * extent of the effect * probability of the effect * likely recurrence of the effect * consequence to receiving environment * possible mitigation (reduction) * plan weighting.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Effects and Urban Design

The Goal

The following is my first tentative start (and likely to be a heroic failure of an attempt) at developing a framework around effects rating under the RMA, with reference to urban design outcomes.

I’m giving this a go as there is so much variation as to describing effects in RMA processes, let alone what is an urban design effect.

Identifying effects, their scale and consequences is at the heart of RMA processes. Whether an activity causes a big or little effect is very important. The RMA is often about future effects, which further complicates things.

I will start with the basics and build up to the main issue – what an urban design effect is and how it might be rated.  What is an urban design effect is itself a big task. Is urban design normative (how the world should be) or is it positive (this is, just the way it is?). Is urban design evidence-based or is it just a bunch of nice ideas? There are many sets of urban design principles and lots of overlap with other RMA effects (like urban amenity, landscape, transport, ecology). There is also the confusion between urban design being focused on positive things to include rather than things to ‘avoid’ or ‘mitigate’. Urban design also has a big element of human behaviour to it, well at least I think it does, which complicates cause and effect.

So rather than get lost in what is an urban design effect, I will begin with  how effects should or could be rated. Then onto urban design. The two issues – what is an urban effect and how it should be rated – are connected and not easily subdivided, but you have to start somewhere.

Examples of effects ratings

Before getting into the detail of a possible rating system, it is worthwhile looking at some examples of effects ratings.  First up is the following scale that the Quality Plan website provides:
  • Nil Effects:  No effects at all.
  • Less than Minor Adverse Effects: Adverse effects that are discernible day-to-day effects, but too small to adversely affect other persons.
  • Minor Adverse Effects: Adverse effects that are noticeable but will not cause any significant adverse impacts.
  • More than Minor Adverse Effects: Adverse effects that are noticeable that may cause an adverse impact but could be potentially mitigated or remedied.
  • Significant Adverse Effects that could be remedied or mitigated. An effect that is noticeable and will have a serious adverse impact on the environment but could potentially be mitigated or remedied.
  • Unacceptable Adverse Effects:  Extensive adverse effects that cannot be avoided, remedied or mitigated.
There are six levels of effects, from nil effect to unacceptable effects, which gives a range. This is not a bad list, but it does tend to mix up a number of things:
  • There is reference to effects that could be mitigated.  Just saying that they might be able to be mitigated doesn’t really help. Most effects can be mitigated to one extent or another. The real question is by how much and by what means. 
  • Some effects are described by the opposite – a minor effect is not a significant effect, for example. Not much help.
  • There are three types of effects hovering around the ‘minor’ threshold: less than minor; minor; more than minor. But then we skip to ‘significant’.  
  • At what point do you transition from ‘more than minor’ to ‘significant’? Is there room for moderate effects (or are they ‘more than minor’, but not ‘significant’)? 
  • The last effect – unacceptable effect - begs the question of unacceptable to whom?  
  • There is a mix between people and the environment. A less than minor effect is an effect that doesn’t affect another person? But what if the effect is an effect on the environment, not people? 
It is not surprising that there is so much confusion as to how to describe effects as the RMA and related plans use the term 'effects' in so many different ways.

What does the RMA say about effects? 

The most common references in the RMA are to ‘minor’ effects and ‘significant’ effects, for example:

Assessment of environmental effects – schedule 6:
  • an assessment of the actual or potential effect on the environment of the activity:
  • if it is likely that the activity will result in any significant adverse effect on the environment, a description of any possible alternative locations or methods for undertaking the activity.
Sec 95 -notification:
  • a person is an affected person if the consent authority decides that the activity’s adverse effects on the person are minor or more than minor (but are not less than minor).
  • activity will have or is likely to have adverse effects on the environment that are more than minor.
Section 104 Assessment of consents:
  • any actual and potential effects on the environment of allowing the activity
Section 104D non complying activities;
  • the adverse effects of the activity on the environment will be minor

There are other references. Section 142 relates to Ministerial Call In. One factor can be whether irreversible changes to an environment are being contemplated.

As others have noted, there is a distinction to be drawn from the above between threshold tests and evaluation inputs. The thresholds generally relate to process tests: ‘if that type of effect is likely to occur, then this or that process is to be followed’. The thresholds determine which process route you head down, such as for notification and non complying activities. But they don’t tell you how to make the overall assessment.

So from a procedural or threshold test point of view, any rating system needs to be able to identify what is:
Less than minor,
More than minor
In terms of
people and/or the
to help wade through the procedural issues.

But it doesn’t stop there, as once you are into the section 104 process of assessing effects of a resource consent then it is helpful to have a more graduated set of effects than just minor or significant. Section 104 just refers to effects, as does schedule 6, and Part 2.

Once into evaluation, a graduated effects rating becomes more important and useful. Of course saying that an effect is only minor or no more than minor helps in that evaluation as there is probably no need to assess the effect in any more detail.  But saying an effect is more than minor is not helpful. A consentable activity can have effects that are more than minor. It all depends.

Here is another example of effects rating, this time from landscape assessment:
  • EXTREME Total loss of the existing character, distinctive features or quality of the landscape resulting in a complete change to the landscape or outlook
  •  VERY HIGH Major change to the existing character, distinctive features or quality of the landscape or a significant reduction in the perceived amenity of the outlook 
  • HIGH Noticeable change to the existing character or distinctive features of the landscape or reduction in the perceived amenity or the addition of new but uncharacteristic features and elements 
  • MODERATE Partial change to the existing character or distinctive features of the landscape and a small reduction in the perceived amenity 
  • LOW A slight loss to the existing character, features or landscape quality 
  • VERY LOW The proposed development is barely discernible with little change to the existing character, features or landscape quality 
  • NEGLIGIBLE The proposed development is barely discernible or there are no changes to the existing character, features or landscape quality
This list has a more reasonable graduation of effects ratings, from extreme to very low. There are three effects above the moderate effect and three below. This feels logical, although you might say that it is introducing a bit of a trap in that it depends upon what is “moderate”.  I think this is called anchoring – you establish some sort of artificial reference point and everything above or below this point is good or bad, depending upon your perspective. Having said that, the words used help a bit – slight loss versus a major change, for example.

But how useful is the above list in working out what is more or less than minor, what is significant in terms of the threshold / procedural tests?

I guess you could try the following:

Extent of ‘Minorism’
Extent of Significance
More than minor
Very high
More than minor
More than minor
More than minor
More than minor

Very Low

Less than minor

Is a low effect a more than minor effect? Minor is supposed to mean  “it is not likely to matter if that effect occurs”.

Is a ‘moderate’ effect a significant effect?  Most people will say that a high effect is an effect that is more than minor and significant.  But a moderate effect – is that more than minor, but not significant?

Setting aside the threshold test issues, perhaps more importantly for the evaluative functions of the RMA, the rating leaves some questions. The rating is based on the extent of loss or change from the current environment, you might say this is the magnitude of the change. That may be appropriate for some resources (like landscapes), but it tends to emphasis the loss rather than the gain.

And what about the extent of the change, is it to just a small area or a big area?

I should imagine that in getting to a rating, then things like the ascribed value of the landscape, the extent of change and the magnitude of change are all important.

In a ‘dynamic’ urban environment, the receiving environment will always be changing. How much change is reasonable to take into account? The RMA process allows for (yet to be developed) permitted activities and unimplemented resource consents to be considered to be part of the environment. But is this too narrow?

Does the rating scale also need to work for positive effects, as well as negative effects? There seems to be a move towards more of a balancing of negatives and positives. If the scale is to work for positives, can you have an extreme positive effect?

Having said all that, a rating which goes from negligible to extreme is probably a better scale for effects assessment under section 104 than trying to conjure up a rating scale that is driven by section 104D or notification tests. However any rating system would need to show the links to those thresholds.

What is an effect?

Time to look at the RMA and its definition of “effect” and whether that helps with how to rate effects.

The following is the definition in the RMA. As we all know, it is a wide definition.

In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires, the term effect includes:
any positive or adverse effect; and
any temporary or permanent effect; and
any past, present, or future effect; and
any cumulative effect which arises over time or in combination with other effects regardless of            the scale, intensity, duration, or frequency of the effect, and also includes—
any potential effect of high probability; and
any potential effect of low probability which has a high potential impact.

Interestingly, I never really thought what the words ‘unless the context otherwise requires’ at the start of the definition mean. Are those words saying that there could be other types of effects that are not listed?

The different components of the RMA definition of effects can be expressed in a yin/yang kind of way, I guess:

Positive or negative
Temporary or permanent
Present or future
Cumulative or singular
Actual or potential.

The last binary choice – actual or potential – is not directly stated as such in the definition. The term is used in various sections, such as 104. It is a useful term though, given that the last two types of effects listed in the definition are ‘potential’ type effects, namely:

High probability
Low probability but high consequence.

These effects relate to the same quality – namely the probability that an effect may occur. Some effects are certain, some effects may be highly likely, or they may be unlikely.  Of course being unlikely may still be a big problem if the consequences are bad.

I think the probability bit of any effects assessment needs to be its own step and urban design effects assessment probably needs a stronger element of probability to it (think of the dose-response relationship in medicine: give people this amount of drug and x%  recover. Change the environment in this way with that design and 70% of people are likely to be worse off, or something like that).

Perhaps a different way of saying the same thing is the degree of certainty that the effect will eventuate. In many cases, there may be 100% certainty that the effect will occur. In other cases it may 80% or 20%.

Are urban design effects ‘future’ effects, or are they always ‘present effects’? Bit hard to know what a future effect might be. Is a future effect an effect that is delayed in its operation – does the effect only manifest itself after 5 years - a bit like climate change, carbon emitted today means warmer temperatures and seal level rises in 50 years time? A blank wall to the street is going to slowly erode the sense of amenity when walking along the street which may only become apparent in two or three years time. Alternatively, or in addition, is a future effect a lost opportunity?

If we then say that urban design effects are mostly about permanent effects that are present or future effects, then we could summarise the task as:

Urban design effect = a permanent, present or future effect to an urban environment multiplied by the probability of that effect occurring. 

But this feels a bit truncated. Does the RMA definition leave somethings out? Is the definition in the RMA up to the job, given it was developed 20 years ago and may not have given much thought to urban areas?

Three things that come to mind in an urban context are:
Systemic effects
Longevity of effects
Reversibility of effect.

Taking each of these in turn.

Systemic effects:

Cities are systems. Change one thing and something else can change somewhere else. In medical terms systemic effects have been described as:

Consequence that is either of a generalized nature or that occurs at a site distant from the point of entry of a substance. 

Systemic effects are a bit like cumulative effects. They exist, but it is jolly hard to pin them down.  Conceptually, consideration of the magnitude and extent of an effect could take into account systemic effects. Perhaps there needs to be some explicit assessment of ‘indirect or second order effects’ arising from an activity.

Longevity of effect and reversibility are more to do with the persistence of an effect. Do some effects have a half life – does their impact decay over time to something more benign? In a city that is constantly changing, do some effects just wear off after or a while or just blend into the background?

Reversibility is also an interesting issue: urbanisation is generally irreversible. Building a tall building is irreversible, but not completely so. Changing uses tends to be reversible at some point.
While effects can be temporary or permanent, there is not much of a graduation between these two ends of the spectrum, when perhaps there should be in an urban context.

Possible effects rating equation  

What I'm thinking about is whether getting to a rating of an urban design effect (setting aside what the effect is) requires at least 7 steps, namely:

Rating equals: Persistence of effect * magnitude of effect * extent of the effect * probability of the effect * consequence to receiving environment * possible mitigation (reduction) * plan weighting.

This is my working hypothesis:
1. Persistence of effect refers to the longevity of an effect, is it permanent, or will it reduce             overtime?
2. Magnitude of effect refers to whether, to put it simply, there is a big or little effect?
3. The extent of effect refers to how much of a receiving environment is affected (large area or small area?)
4. The probability of the effect recognises that there is no certainty around, persistence, magnitude and extent of effects.
5. The existing and future receiving environment is recognition that things can change (as allowed for by the plan), as well as the sensitivity of the environment to change. This brings in consequences.
6. Possible mitigation refers to the extent to which the magnitude, extent, probability or consequences of the effect could be reduced
7. Plan weighting refers to the importance or otherwise that the plan ascribes to the effect. The plan may allow for the effect, say that significant effects have to be avoided, or effects mitigated. There is a wide range.

You may debate whether the last two steps are part of the rating. ‘Plan weighting’ is a matter for the  planner to work out. But if the plan provisions are ignored in the urban design analysis, then effects may be over or under rated.

You can also debate whether mitigation should be in there. Should effects rating be before or after mitigation? However going through a long process of rating effects, but then saying ‘while this is a nasty effect, it can be mitigated” is a bit unhelpful. By putting mitigation into the equation, it should be made more explicit as to how much of the effect can be mitigated.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Order by a bit of design?

Alain Bertaud in his book ‘Order without design - how markets shape cities’ makes the case for land values to more strongly shape city density and zoning than planning-led principles relating to compact cities or transit-oriented development.

Bertaud (along with others) contends that if land values and their associated price signals played the key role in determining density and height of development in a city, then there would be better outcomes for all. Development markets would be more efficient; more quickly responding to different demands and pressures, households and businesses would benefit from more choice.

Much of what he says has merit. The basic notion is that urban land values reflect demand to live or work in a particular area. High land values mean high demand, perhaps because of good amenities or proximity to main centres.   In areas of high land values, density and building height should be high, as developers respond to the demand and increase supply of housing and business floorspace. In areas of lower land value, building density will be lower, and pressure for further development less strong. In general, there is a land value gradient across a city, with  the highest value in the centre of the city and lowest on the edges. How high or how low land values and building density and height might be doesn’t really matter to the story. What does matter is that land values are constantly changing as population growth occurs, waves of demographic and economic changes pass through the city and infrastructure, especially transport infrastructure is developed. The city needs to adjust constantly to these changes if it is to deliver the housing and workplaces needed.

The theme of the book is in part encapsulated in the NPS on Urban Development Capacity and its notions of feasible development capacity. However the NPS is a ‘lite’ version of the concept. All the NPS wants is sufficient capacity - this could be in the form of lots of low density capacity in areas of low to moderate land values, it does not have to be more concentrated capacity in areas of high land values.

In Bertaud’s view, the planner’s role is to anticipate and feed the markets response to changing land values - inform the community about likely changes and help co-ordinate infrastructure and market responses; provide the necessary infrastructure; improve accessibility for growing areas; develop the appropriate controls to manage the externalities that arise.

In the book, planning is cast as the polar opposite to the market - socialism versus capitalism. There is no third way.

The questions I have, and which the book skirts around are:

  1. What if much of the area of higher land values is an area of recognised special character that can’t easily be redeveloped?
  2. What if parts of the city with higher land values have got ageing infrastructure which cant cope with extra density, resources are limited and the infrastructure cant be replaced in the short term?
  3. How do you anticipate land values and associated density patterns 30 or 50 years out when you are spending billions of dollars re configuring a city’s transport infrastructure, like shifting from a motorway-based to transit-based transport system?
  4. What about equity of access to and equity of supply of public infrastructure.

There are usually some simple answers to the above:

1. Save some of the heritage, but not all.

2. Prioritise and stage the renewal of infrastructure and perhaps put up with a few ‘overflows’ (exceed the capacity of infrastructure) in the interim.

3. Don’t worry about trying to anticipate market  responses too much, stick in the new transport infrastructure and ensure that there are the opportunities for the market to respond. Even better, price the use of transport infrastructure correctly.

4. Worry about equity after improving efficiency, improved efficiency should flow through to better opportunities for all - more development (and infrastructure) in areas of high value will trickle or filter down to other areas.  Once the city is operating efficiently, then there will be enough surplus to spread around to satisfy equity.

These simple answers don’t really help:

Saving some heritage but not all implies - given a rising population and other pressures in the urban system - a reassessment every 20 years or so, with the likelihood that the heritage resource will get whittled away each time there is a reassessment.

Who should get upgraded infrastructure  and who pays is complex in a city with a range of legacy issues, as well as new growth on the edge to support. User pays may help, but will not iron out all of the choices to be made about how to fix historical problems.

These days, big transport infrastructure is likely to require some form of public private partnership - the private sector part of the deal will be looking for certainty over demand and future revenue growth.  In other words, they will want a more fixed land use pattern.

Equity is getting more and more important as the pace of change in urban areas heats up and there is a starker boundary between winners and losers.

Equally the other simple answer of slowing population growth so it would be much easier to accommodate all that growth and build all those infrastructure renewals and expansions, is not very helpful.

Bertaud  does identify the heritage issue. He  says that protecting the character of central Paris may be OK, so long as people understand the costs. Otherwise you get the feeling that unless the city has a UNESCO world heritage area, then heritage protection is troublesome.

What he doesn't tackle is how to compensate for an inner city being protected, where that protection is justified. If the area of highest land values cannot increase in density, then that density needs to be shifted to somewhere else. That shifting implies more growth elsewhere than might otherwise be the case, and more growth than land values might suggest. That extra density needs infrastructure to support and enable it, with more investment ahead of growth.

The importance of pricing infrastructure features in the book. Correctly pricing the use of transport infrastructure is important, and there is an argument that until pricing is sorted out, then planning has a role in shaping land use patterns. Even with correct pricing, shifting transport modes usually involves shifting growth from one corridor to another (motorway corridors to transit corridors) over a long period of time. There needs to be some certainty over the scale and pace of growth in the new corridor to justify the expenditure, and not too much growth along the ‘old’ corridor in the interim.   

Perhaps an even bigger issue lurking in the book which is kind of acknowledged but not addressed is the extent of change implied. Bertaud refers to  changing exogenous forces which are constantly modifying urban land uses. He says these forces (he doesn't mention them but they could be sudden surges in migration, economic shocks, financialization of urban land markets and financial booms and busts) are getting more numerous and their effects more volatile. These shocks raise the issue of ‘everlasting uncertainty and agitation’. He says that changes to land use and the spatial concentration of employment can be alarming for workers and residents. However rather than resist change (which will delay the benefits of change), urban dwellers should embrace it.  

For the city, the economic shifts in the 1980s from protected industries to an ‘open’ economy could be said to be a similar transition to changes needed in the city. Zoning should not protect areas from change (like import tariffs protected industry sectors), rather zoning should enable change. That sounds OK, but the analogy misses the point that there are a range of tools used to help workers deal with changing work patterns that arise from an open economy:

Employment contracts can provide some restraint to knee jerk reactions. There is often redundancy to be paid out, as well as a notice period

There is, in theory at least, publicly funded re education to help workers learn new skills

Support for a long transition period (unemployment benefit)

Long term needs like the costs of retirement are covered by the state, taking some of the pressure off when jobs change.

Perhaps a bit more tangential, but in theory at least, a state run education and health system should mean that there is no 'penalty' to people moving within or between cities in search of better jobs. At a macro level, there is the Reserve Bank to help dampen changes in inflation rates and if need be, use tools like quantitative easing in times of recession.

All up, you may say that there is some support to ease the transition process. This is the third way - not protectionism, not exposure to the full force of free markets, but rather the path of preparing people for change, managing risks and giving a helping hand.

Is there an urban planning equivalent to the third way? First up, while workers may put up with changing workplaces, change in the neighbourhood raises a whole bunch of different, value driven issues. Second, change usually means a step up the density and value ladder.

What typically ‘gives’ in a process of change and transition in an existing urban area?

  • Prices can go up (or down) quickly
  • Loss of heritage / local landmarks
  • Reduction in the rental stock
  • Displacement of lower income households
  • Loss of older, cheaper workplaces.
  • Loss of diversity of activities.

There can be some pluses, like more convenience shops and the setting up of the beloved neighbourhood cafe of urban designers. If there are other places in an urban area for displaced business and households can go to, then change might not be such a problem. But increasingly, market processes seem to see a closing down of choice and diversity rather than an opening up. Market processes also seem to be much more volatile. How to respond to these pressures needs more of a look than a simple dichotomy between more market and less planning.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Round three: On site parking and RMA decision making

Back to on-site car parking and a housing development in an inner city, 'character' suburb.

This is as an exercise in decision making,  but I must admit I'm beginning to wonder why I ever started the exercise.  I'm trying to work out what the 'effects' are of a largish housing development in an inner city area that will provide limited on-site car parking. The site is located in an area of special character housing, where on-street parking spaces are scarce.

I'm trying to run off first principles in decision making.

So far (see blog 11 November 2018) I have tried to identify what car parking effects (consequences) are being generated by the development. Effects identified are:
  1. Number of extra cars in the neighbourhood = 22
  2. Number of extra cars looking for kerb side parking = 13
  3. Reduction in cars in the region due to inner city location compared to if dwellings were located on the edge of the region = 4
  4. Higher rates of public transport use (around a 15 percentage point increase) and lower vehicle kilometres travelled (perhaps 20% less) compared to if dwellings were located elsewhere
  5. Increased pressure on existing residents in the area to find street parking spaces and hence more pressure to accommodate cars on site, possibly affecting special character values of the environment. 
  6. There may be increased demand for car sharing type services, if parking gets harder to find and so people decide to get by with fewer cars.
  7. Additional number of houses accommodated on the development site due to less on-site parking = 2. 
In my last blog on the subject, I added the last effect (relating to housing supply), but now I'm not too sure if this is a 'car parking' effect. But I think I will keep it in for now.

The local receiving environment for these effects could be said to be 'sensitive to pressures' - there are heritage buildings, while there is not much on-street parking available.

As previously noted, these are the absolute effects of the development, not effects relative to what might otherwise happen on the site. There is no 'counterfactual' as such; no alternative option against which to consider the effects against. All I have done is said 'what is likely to occur'?  This may be a bit short sighted as something will happen on the site.

Decision making always involves trade offs and choices to be made. Ideally consequences (effects) are weighted in terms of importance to help make these trade offs.  So now its time to try to work out the significance of the effects, with significance to be identified by looking at the Auckland Unitary Plan. Does the plan say some effects are not relevant, for example? For relevant effects, does the plan say that some effects are more important than others? Does the plan provide any kind of weighting?

But quite how to assess the significance of a car parking ‘shortfall’ is not straightforward. The Auckland Unitary Plan is a bit ambivalent about why on-site car parking needs to be managed. Is it a transport issue or an urban form issue? And if a transport issue, is it about supporting walking and cycling, public transport and reducing congestion; or is it about who gets to enjoy some free on-street parking? The plan kinds of swings between the different issues without being terribly helpful as to which is more important.

Note: the following is not a full analysis of the Unitary Plan's provisions. No responsibility taken if I have missed something important.

First up, I have decided to avoid the front part of the plan and the higher level regional policies. They are relevant to any assessment, but I want to start at the detailed level (and then work up, if possible).

Chapter E27 of the Unitary Plan deals with transport infrastructure and is most relevant to assessing the effects of a parking shortfall.

The most two relevant objectives against which proposals relating to on-site parking should be tested against appear to be as follows:

E27.2 (3) Parking and loading supports urban growth and the quality compact urban form. 

E27.2 (4) The provision of safe and efficient parking, loading and access is commensurate with the character, scale and intensity of the zone.

You might take it from the above that parking needs to be tied back to urban form, amenity and character, rather than who gets first dibs on any on-street parking spaces, or worries about congestion.

This makes sense in the context of this specific case. Residential special character areas are environments where there is often limited on-site parking. The villas and bungalows in the character areas were built when cars did not exist, or car ownership rates were very low.  It is a feature of these areas that streets are not dominated by large garages or extensive on-site open parking and turning areas. And neither should they be.

Does the reference to character and intensity of the zone in Objective 4 mean that if the site in question was developed as 4 or 5 mock villas (rather than the 19 unit development proposed), then no on-site parks would be ok, as that is the character of the area? Develop the site more intensively, then on-site parking is needed to mitigate the effects on the public street parking resource of that extra density? On the other side of the coin of areas not having much on-site parking is that the street parking resource is well used. If villa and bungalow owners cant park on the street close to their home, will that create pressure for them to shoe horn some parking onto their site, with adverse consequences for character and amenity? Quite possibly.

So does the plan acknowledge that minimum car parking  should or should not be pushed in special character areas?

We need to work our way through the relevant policies. First up, policy E27.3.(3). This says:

(3) Manage the number, location and type of parking and loading spaces, including bicycle parking and associated end-of-trip facilities to support all of the following: 
(a) the safe, efficient and effective operation of the transport network; 
(b) the use of more sustainable transport options including public transport, cycling and walking;
 (c) the functional and operational requirements of activities; 
(d) the efficient use of land; 
(e) the recognition of different activities having different trip characteristics; and 
(f) the efficient use of on-street parking. 

Not much about special character areas here. Perhaps urban design and urban form issues come under the term 'functional requirements of activities'? Having said that, the policy feels like it is a transport-related policy: on-site parking is needed to keep the roads flowing, or perhaps there should be no or limited parking to promote public transport.

But is the function of on-site parking requirements to lessen demands on the street parking resource in an area?  This is what existing residents tend to get most worried about. The efficient use of on-street parking is stated as a reason, but what is efficient? Is it really trying to say the equitable use of on-street parking spaces?

Perhaps more importantly, the policy says that you need to to do all of (a) to (f). It is not just a matter of picking out (f). So one summary might be that impacts on street parking is only one, relatively minor matter to take into account when thinking about impacts of on-site parking. When you think about, this is reasonable.

Let's move on. Next up is Policy E27.3.(7). This looks a bit more promising as it refers to ‘flexible’ on-site parking:

(7) Provide for flexible on-site parking by not limiting or requiring parking for subdivision, use and development (excluding office) in the Centre Fringe Office Control area, Residential – Terrace Housing and Apartment Buildings Zone and Residential – Mixed Housing Urban Zone (studio and one bedroom dwellings). 

The site I am using in my case study kind of fits with the intention of this policy. It is an inner city site.  However the site does not exactly match the areas listed: the site is not in the city fringe office control area, nor the Residential Terrace Housing and Apartment Building zone (although there is some of that zoning across the road, nearby). Interestingly in the Mixed Housing Urban zone small units (studios, one bedroom units) do not need any on-site parking.

This policy seems to say that it is up to the activities in these areas to sort out their street parking issues - don't ask Auckland Transport to try to work out who gets what on-street park. If activities don’t want to provide on-site parking, that is up to them, and if that means lots of competition for on-road spaces between existing residents, businesses,  commuter, and visitors, well they will just have to work through it themselves. Its an  ‘your-on-your-own’ type policy.

Then there is Policy E27.3(8):

(8) Require all other subdivision, use and development to provide a minimum level of on-site parking in recognition of the more limited alternatives to private vehicle travel unless it can be demonstrated that a lesser amount of on-site parking is needed for a particular site or proposal or the provision of on-site parking would be inconsistent with the protection of Historic Heritage or Special Character overlays. 

I think the site falls under this policy as it is not covered by the areas listed in Policy 7. But here there is a bit of  a mix up of outcomes. The policy says that a minimum level of parking is required in recognition of the more limited alternatives to private vehicle travel. But that is a bit odd, given that the site is close to two busy bus routes and close to shops and activities. It is just across the road from Terrace Housing and Apartment Building zone which enjoys the same level of public transport accessibility as the subject site and where no on-site parking is needed.

Anyway, maybe that doesn’t matter so much, as the policy goes on to say that having on-site parking could be inconsistent with the protection of special character overlays. Back to the urban form issue, not the transport issue. So that is helpful, but then you do need to ‘demonstrate’ that a lesser amount of on-site car parking would not be inconsistent with special character. It is not a given that you can get by with fewer car parks. Nevertheless, the policy opens a door to character and amenity.

Now, time to turn to the rules.

Two rules apply, as far as I can tell.

First up, Table E27.6.2.4 Parking rates - area 2, activity T44. This rule says for sites in special character areas that are less than 500 sqm in area, then no on-site car parking is required.

Perfect, This rule recognises that requiring on-site parking can harm amenity and character of the special character areas. It recognises the existing environment of these areas as being one where there never was on-site parking to start with. Overtime people have added parking pads and garages, but they are a ‘fit in where you can’ type exercise.

But the site in the case study is greater than 500 sqm in area, so the rule does not apply. Instead the rules of the underlying zoning apply - in this case the Single House zone which requires 1 site per dwelling, not matter what the size of the dwelling (studio or 5 bedrooms).

Why on larger sites in the special character area do you need to provide one park per dwelling, but on smaller sites you don't need to worry?

I guess the idea is that on larger sites there are usually some options to add in car parking in a way that does not completely stuff up special character. But perhaps not. If new buildings are two or three storeys to fit in with surrounding character, then basement parking is unlikely. Surface parking areas could be grouped into ‘courts’ but large areas of asphalt are not really 'special character'. Neither are rows of garages.

If we go back to the development of the Unitary Plan, is there any evidence as to why there is a rule allowing small sites to not have on-site parking, but bigger sites to provide one car parking space per dwelling? This is from the Council's evidence:

A submission has been received outlining the effects that garages and car-parking can have on special character areas. The Special Character (heritage) case team is proposing to amend the underlying zone minimum car parking requirements to help retain or enhance special/historic character values. The approach that has been discussed with the Special Character team is to not have a parking requirement (i.e. no minimum) for Special Character sites less than a certain site area to support the outcome of maintaining and enhancing the coherency and special streetscape character of the historic parts of Auckland. From a transport planning perspective, much of the special character overlay is located in areas around centres and therefore this approach is unlikely to result in any significant concern.

The above para kind of explains how the plan provisions were developed. It doesn't really say why larger sites in the special character areas should have on-site parking. The point about most special character areas being located around centres applies to big and small sites. I think what happened was at some point the urban form objective got overtaken by a transport objective (or perhaps more correctly a transport worry that the street parking might get quite well used and Auckland Transport might get asked to try to sort out the problem).

This not the end of the story. It is possible to apply for a reduction of on-site parking requirements for larger sites. But what matters are assessed when considering such applications? Are they urban form issues or transport issues?

The Unitary Plan has to state what matters the Council will take into account when considering applications to reduce parking (as in this case, a reduction is a restricted discretionary activity). The plan says the following are the matters to be considered:

The Council will restrict its discretion to the following matters when assessing a restricted discretionary resource consent application.

(6) any activity or development which provides fewer than the required minimum number of parking spaces under Standard E27.6.2(1): 
(a) adequacy for the site and the proposal; 
(b) effects on adjacent activities, on urban form outcomes as identified in the relevant Business Zone and on the adjoining transport network; and 
(c) availability and suitability of alternative parking supply and management arrangements.

This is a very confusing list. It is not clear at all where special character issue fit in, if at all.  The list seems to mostly be about transport effects, not urban form effects. There is reference in (b) to urban form effects in relation to Business areas. It may be possible to refer to another section of the plan (general rules) to drag in special character issues, but this is not clear.

Neither is it clear if demands on kerb side parking is a relevant matter.  Effects on the adjoining transport network can be considered, whatever that is. The word ‘network’ implies traffic generation being the worry, rather than parking. I presume 'alternative parking arrangements'  means arrangements to lease other parking spaces in the wider area.

Oddly, when you look further on into what assessment criteria are used to assess applications to reduce on-site parking,  then special character issues do pop up, as follows:

E27.8.2. Assessment criteria 5 (f):
if a character overlay applies to the site, the extent to which the provision of a minimum car parking requirement would detrimentally affect the character and features of the area or site identified by the overlay.

Taking on board all of the above, is it reasonable to make the following assumptions about the relevance and importance of the effects previously identified?

Relevance of effect – is the effect relevant to the assessment of effects?
Importance of effect / weight to be applied to the assessment of the effect
Number of extra cars in the neighbourhood = 22

Some relevance– the plan is  concerned with the overall  busyness of an area, and does seek to promote alternatives. However there is no cap on car use, for example.
Not much weight to be given to this effect. There does not seem to be strong link between less on-site parking and fewer cars in a residential area, compared to car parking in retail areas, for example
Number of extra cars looking for kerb side parking spaces = 13

Moderate – the plan does refer to efficient use of kerb side parking spaces
Some importance to be given to this effect. That is, the scale and magnitude of the effect could be considered as being ‘significant”?  
Reduction in number of cars in the region due to inner city location compared to if dwellings were located on the edge of the region = 4

Limited – the plan refers to compact urban growth, so maybe there is a connection with regional growth issues, but the link in tenuous.
Not much weight to be given to this effect
Higher rates of public transport use (around a 15 percentage point increase) and lower vehicle kilometres travelled (perhaps 20% less) compared to if dwellings were located elsewhere

Some relevance. The plan does identify density near public transport as being beneficial, while parking should be managed to promote public transport use
Some weight to be given, but the assessment would probably be not too much weight. The plan is kind of neutral on the actual outcome of more use of public transport
Increased pressure on existing residents in the area to find street parking spaces and hence more pressure to accommodate cars on site, possibly affecting special character values of the environment. 

Moderate relevance
Reasonable weight to be given to this effect. The plan seeks to maintain the amenities of heritage areas and reduce pressure for the unsympathetic redevelopment of sites to incorporate car parking
There may be increased demand for car sharing type services, if parking gets harder to find and so people decide to get by with fewer cars. 

Limited – the plan is not big on mode splits, car ownership and rates of use of cars
Low significance
More houses built due to less space taken up on site by surface parking = 2
Moderate relevance. The plan does refer to compact urban growth and perhaps the National Policy Statement on Urban Capacity is important
Little weight. The plan does not identify special character areas as an appropriate place  for lots more dwellings (despite being inner city and there being high demand)

So what is the summary assessment? Not too sure myself. A couple of things stand out:

1. Considering whether an effect is appropriate in the circumstances, is sufficiently mitigated or needs further mitigation is not straight forward. The above seems a long way away from some sort of negative spillover to be controlled by a simple standard. The process quickly develops into a cost/benefit type analysis. But causal links between effects and consequences (costs and benefits) are not easy to determine. Will more on-street parking really see the loss of special character?

2. The Plan kind of reinforces some effects but not others. In this case, it seems like impacts on special character is important, as well as demands on kerb side parking. Put another way, the plan tends to reinforce the most obvious effects, it does not really emphasize wider effects and benefits like housing supply, traffic generation, public transport and the like, although these are noted. Perhaps in this case, this is the right way to go, but in other situations, is there a trap in plans reinforcing the obvious, immediate effects, and not the systemic effects (when part of the purpose of planning is to lessen the the focus on short term effects and emphasis the long term effects?)