Monday, 9 March 2020

Urban design, mental health and the RMA

Back to urban design and the RMA.

Last blog on the topic I looked at the economic rationale for urban design controls. Some helpful ideas were thrown up, but the issue of how to rate the scale and significance of 'effects' remains.

Time to switch tack and look at the psychological rationale for urban design. Social and mental well being are important concepts these days. These are issues to do with the ability of people to function in an urban environment. At base they are more to do with basic liveability than managing a negative spillover effect on an adjacent activity.

Cities may be bad for your mental health. One discussion puts it as follows:

The urban setting can affect people in two key ways: increasing stimuli, and stripping away of protective factors.

Overload: People who live in the city experience an increased stimulus level: density, crowding, noise, smells, sights, disarray, pollution and intensity of other inputs. Every part of the urban environment is deliberately designed to assert meanings and messages. These stimuli trigger action and thought on a latent level of awareness, and become more potent as an inability to ‘cope’ sets in. This can have the effect of overload: increasing the body's baseline levels of arousal, stress, and preparedness, but also driving people to seek relief: quiet, private spaces; over time this urge may evolve into social isolation associated with depression and anxiety, and also forms the basis of the ecological hypothesis of schizophrenia.

Erosion of protective factors: People who live in the city may find that they have less access to the factors that are protective for good mental health than those in rural areas. For example, they may have diminished access to nature, fewer opportunities to integrate exercise as part of their daily routines, and reduced leisure time as increased time is spent at work and commuting around the city. People may find themselves feeling unsafe, having less privacy, and even less sleep, due to factors like crowding, light, noise and stress. This may particularly be the case as urban dwellers may be reluctant to engage in social interactions, to avoid overstimulation, due to safety concerns, or because of the reduced likelihood of future relationships with each individual they encounter.  As these protective factors erode, people become more vulnerable to developing mental health problems.

So is urban design bad for your health?  No, if anything, urban design can help reduce the negative stimulus and improve the protective factors.

An interesting book on this topic is: Headspace. The Psychology of City Living. Dr Paul Keedwell.

As with much of environmental psychology, the basic point of the book is that us humans are not necessarily well set up to deal with urban environments, given our long evolutionary period as hunter gathers. His main point could be:

When the built environment of the city departs too much from the natural environment of our distant ancestors it becomes an instinctive, unconscious threat to our mental wellbeing.

This doesn't mean that cities should have lots of trees and open grasslands which we can roam chasing wild animals and collecting nuts and berries. Rather, it is the qualities or characteristics of the environment that we are adapted to that are important. Many of the points made about the effects of the built environment on mental well being resonate strongly with urban design ideas. Some things I found interesting:

Our homes should come with a garden or view of a green space, as we are so attuned to being in a natural environment

The survival instinct for refuge is balanced with the need to have a good view of the surrounding landscape. Living rooms should balance the two – a view out but also a refuge. Windows should be tall, but not too big, and in proportion to the walls, ceilings should not be too low. Buildings with high ceilings are inviting and inspiring.

We like some complexity and texture on the fa├žade of a home and don’t really like featurless monochrome brick with no balconies and decorative details to break up the frontage. What we find satisfying about natural landscapes is detail and variation, and look for these qualities in buildings.

The silhouette shape and overall structure of the buildings main surfaces is less important than the amount of decoration on the surface and the detail in the trim around windows and doors.

Experience suggests that the need for security, visual interest and issues of distinctive identity extend beyond the home. Good neigbourhoods have social capital and cultural capital. We are a tribal species. A sense of ownership and history is important. The more distinctive a place by virtue of its local history the more likely the local community will become attached to it, with feelings of connectedness that we all crave in order to live happy lives. A close knit neighbourhood acts as an antidote to the sometimes uncaring wider cityscape.

Being near a thriving mainstreet is crucially important, with a variety of businesses, lots of greenery, visual interest and walkable streets, not drowned out by heavy traffic

A degree of legability to a city environment is important to our sense of safety. Complexity in terms of trees and contours might give us more options for foraging and for shelter. But if we cannot immediately understand our environment we can’t do a risk assessment to make sure we are safe from predators – can we see them approaching, and can we escape easily?

These basic points are echoed in other advice, for example the following is a web site directed at mental health and urban design. See

Mental health and wellbeing is within the remit of urban planners, managers, designers and developers, so mind the GAPS:

Green places – There are important relationships between accessible green spaces and mental health and wellbeing. Access to natural settings in neighbourhoods and in the course of people’s daily routines is likely to improve and maintain mental health and wellbeing.

Active places – Positive, regular activity improves mood, wellbeing and many mental health outcomes. Embedding action opportunities from active transport to outdoor gyms into places helps integrate exercise, social interactions, and a sense of agency into daily routines.

Pro-Social places – Urban design should facilitate positive, safe and natural interactions among people and promote a sense of community, integration and belonging. This includes potentially vulnerable groups like refugees, migrants, young and older people, with multi-faceted engagement from passive observation to active participation. Creating interesting, flexible public places should involve citizens at each stage of design and development.

Safe places – A sense of safety and security is integral to people’s mental health and wellbeing. Urban dangers include traffic, getting lost, environmental pollutants, and risks posed by other people. Appropriate street lighting and surveillance, distinct landmarks, and people-centric design of residential, commercial and industry routes are important. A balanced approach is necessary: a safe environment improves accessibility but risk-averse city design can reduce action opportunities and people’s sense of agency and choice.

So what does that all tell us about urban design effects?

  1. Effects go way beyond managing adverse effects
  2. The effects of poor design can be subtle in their expression 
  3. Things like active street frontages that might be judged to be 'nice-to-have' things are actually very important
  4. It is hard to judge the scale of an effect. Either the quality is there or it is not, trying to work out what is a minor effect versus a significant effect is not easy.
  5. Cumulative effects are critical. Each little bit of the city is important.
  6. What about personal choice? People don’t have to live in or walk past a place with no green space, with poor design? But many people have limited economic means and don’t have a great amount of choice. 
None of the above sits very happily with the RMA.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

RMA reform and urban planning

Need to put down some thoughts on the RMA reforms and urban planning. Comments on the first issues and options paper put out by the RMA review group need to be in by Monday 3 February.

Apparently the panel undertaking the comprehensive review of the Resource Management Act has identified the main issues to be addressed and options for reform. Their assessment of urban planning (which I must say reads more like a grab bag of issues MFE have collected over the years) is:

Urban areas are struggling to keep pace with population growth. 

Poorly managed urban growth has also led to increasing homelessness, worsening traffic congestion, increased environmental pollution, lack of transport choice and flattening productivity growth. 

I hope this is not the sum of the analysis of what is required for a fit for purpose planning and resource management system for urban areas as they progress into the heart of the 21st century. No contemplation as to what long term pressures urban communities will face mid-century as climate change takes hold, sea levels rise, artificial intelligence becomes prevalent, population ages and capital grows faster than incomes?

The above passage from the review group’s issues and options paper is similar to a speech Minister Twyford gave last year to to the Government Economics Network (GEN) 2019 Conference.

GEN was established in 2011 to promote the better use of economics in the public sector in New Zealand. "The network aims to cater to economists and non-economists through a range of events and training opportunities focused on using economics in policy advice'.

The following are the important paragraphs from his speech.

Over the last 2 decades our housing market has experienced an accumulation of demand pressures, mainly population growth but compounded by tax settings that have encouraged a generation of investors to see rental properties as a uniquely desirable asset class.

Add to those demand pressures, abundant cheap mortgage credit, particularly after the GFC [global financial crisis that began at the end of 2007], when quantitative easing & lower interest rates saw vast amounts of low-cost capital inflating asset bubbles all over the world.

Now if our land & housing markets were elastic, and able to respond to demand, we might have seen supply ramp up.

Unfortunately those markets don’t respond well to demand.

I think there are 3 main reasons for that. 

Restrictive planning rules stop the city expanding on the fringes, creating an artificial scarcity of land, and height & density rules stop the city growing up, effectively rationing floor space.

The second factor that stops our markets responding to demand is a broken system for financing infrastructure that delays or prevents developments going ahead.

The third factor is a construction industry with low productivity and dominated by small & medium enterprises, that finds it very difficult to scale up in response to demand.

The effect of these 3 things is that we have a more or less fixed supply of land & floorspace.

It is good to see reference to things like tax settings and credit availability. But does it all come down to a problem of fixed supply of land and floorspace?  So we could put up with inefficient tax settings and lots of cheap credit so long as there was flexibility over housing production?

Sounds a bit like so long as you exercise lots, doesn’t matter how much or what you eat, drink or smoke (and the faster you exercise, the more you can consume).

In one conception, there is a fixed supply of land. No more land is being created within 5kms of the city centre, for example. Planning is never a fast process. It needs to be forward looking and involve mediating many interests. So the criticisms of fixed supply and slow response always have a degree of truth to them, but these criticisms have limited analytical power to them. For example, housing consents in Auckland are now at an all time high (and house prices are going up again).

A broken system of financing infrastructure - apart, that is, from the $12 billion that the government has just found?

A focus on inadequate supply of housing and over coming NIMBYs tends to miss the underlying forces and pressures.

What if demand for housing as an asset is outstripping demand for housing as a place to live? In the industrial city of the 19th and 20th centuries, land was a factor of production. Along with labour and capital, keeping costs of land down was important. Come the 21st century and land is an asset, not a factor of production. Keeping asset prices high is now the objective of capital, while keeping wages low is much easier in a globalised world with rapid advancements in technology and weakly organised labour. How do urban areas respond to ever rising land values, but stagnating incomes?

How do we respond to the gentrification of inner suburbs - the best location for redevelopment and more intensive housing.  They do lend character and are the home to a bunch of foot loose knowledge workers who apparently are so important to our future prospects. Yet a bunch of other people get locked out due to the resulting prices. 

Mental health is a big issue these days. Plenty of evidence that people who live in urban areas are at greater risk of mental health problems. Plenty of studies that also say that people need access to green space, that a sense of equity, of being part of a neighbourhood and a sense of safety are all important to their mental health. Folk need some stability and certainty over their immediate environment.

What about ‘Nordic planning’? Being like the Danes or Swedes is supposed to be good for a country's economic health. What about their planning system? The BBC reported it this way in 2019:

“In the Nordics, there has long been an emphasis on people in urban life, and putting them at the centre,” explains David Pinder, a professor of urban studies at Roskilde University in Denmark. Planners have prioritised liveability, sustainability, mobility and citizens’ empowerment – ideals manifest in green parks, well-lit public spaces, strong transport networks and accessible local facilities for children and the elderly.

In the Nordics, there has long been an emphasis on people in urban life, and putting them at the centre. There’s also been emphasis on building more equal societies, he says, an aim accompanied by “a strong discipline of participation” which encourages decision-makers to think about diverse groups when planning new urban areas and include them directly in discussions.

Of course plenty of criticism that Nordic planning is struggling as much as other places with issues of housing and affordability, but you wonder if the emphasis on liveability and equality provides a better starting place to tackle the issues, than our fixation supply.

But at a broader level, if urban areas are seen as a complex private-public partnership where a well functioning public realm is critical to many ‘private’ outcomes, while well designed development is critical to the quality of the public realm then urban management becomes much more of a two-way ‘back and forth’, rather than just ‘good housekeeping’. It is also about how to shift around the deck chairs in response to a number of issues: "If things are going to be constrained over here, then how is development to be supported and encouraged over there?"

Easy to point out some problems, harder to think of solutions. Moreover, any possible framework for urban planning needs to work in a way that is compatible with wider resource management aspirations.

Here are a few thoughts from an urban planning point of view.

Separate environmental and urban planning acts? 

While attractive from a conceptual point of view this option is unlikely to be politically unacceptable:  The ‘bottomliners’ (those who support a stronger environmental bottomline approach) will be worried that a stand alone urban planning act will open the door for bottom lines to be undermined or over ridden. The urban expansionists will be worried that a separate environmental act will see bottomlines drawn all over the place without consideration of the impacts on land and development markets.

The issue of ‘bottomlines’ versus a ‘balanced approach’ seems to go back a long way. Under the old wise use and management of resources objective of the Town and Country Planning Act, the criticism was that environmental issues always got traded off for short term economic gains (“we will get onto the environment once we have sorted out a few housing and transport issues first”). The RMA tried to rectify this by splitting responsibility between regional and local councils  with regional councils being the environmental guardians while local councils got on and did stuff, within the limits set. That didn’t work very well. The regional councils were either seen to be too zealous (Auckland) or too weak (the rest) when it came to environmental protection. Neither criticism is really valid, but the point is that splitting responsibility added to debate, discussion and friction. The more recent move has been to put the two things together (Unitary Plans), place a time constraint on the process to force some decision making and give the job to someone who is impartial (Independent Hearings Panels). 

Putting things together and trying to speed things up may work if there is a clearer set of principles to work within. So this leads onto the question of should Part 5 of the RMA be reworked?

Re work Section 5 / Part 2 of the RMA to better reflect urban issues and outcomes? 

Many folk don’t like the idea of rewriting Part 2, as this will likely see years of litigation as to what it all means. Rather, just focus on speeding things up (its implementation of the RMA that is important, not the Act’s principles is the usual call), or alternatively adding a few more things into the pot by way of National Policy Statements.  But isn’t it time to have a good look at the different decision making involved in natural resource management versus managing urban environments.

The RMA reform issues and options paper suggests that greater recognition should  be given to the benefits of urban growth and development - that rather than see growth or change as a cost, see it as a benefit. This is a shift away from a managing negative spillovers type approach to more of a cost-benefit type approach. But it feels like a 'gaffer tape' response to a perceived problem - too much focus on the negative, so add some positive - rather than a comprehensive review. 

EDS take a similar approach. They suggest that Part 2 be re written to among other things, set out - subject to a clear statement of bottom lines -  that there needs to be greater recognition of the benefits of environmentally sustainable resource use (including considerations of good urban design). The benefits of environmentally sustainable social and economic development, including infrastructure, affordable housing, and a quality urban environment would need to be taken into account.

Not too sure if their suggestions go far enough.

Should the Act set out three sets of principles: one for the stewardship of natural resources, another for the management of urban resources and the third how these two outcomes should be integrated?

Here is one go:

The purpose of this Act is to promote the stewardship of natural resources and the management of physical (rural and urban) environments in an integrated and sustainable way.

For natural resources this means, where necessary, limiting their use, development, and enabling their protection in a way, or at a rate, which achieves the following: 

  • Sustains the potential of natural resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; 
  • Takes into account the finite characteristics of non renewable resources ;
  • Safeguards the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems including their enhancements and restoration where that capacity is degraded; and
  • Avoids, remedys or mitigates any significant adverse effects of activities on the natural environment.

For physical (rural and urban ) environments this means managing the use, development, and protection of  activities and developments in these environments  in a way, or at a rate, which addresses and takes into account:

  • Increasing opportunities and choices for peoples and communities to provide for the foreseeable  living, working,  social, cultural and recreational  needs;
  • Maintaining and enhancing the quality of the public components of these environments;
  • Promoting safe, inclusive and affordable communities;
  • Ensuring efficient and equitable provision of infrastructure; 


  • promoting the stewardship of natural resources. 

Well ok, not brilliant, but I think it is time that we all had a go.

Putting it together 

Trying to find the right framework to put together in an integrated way the two arms of stewardship and co- management of urban environments is the tricky point.

I think one (unitary) plan for a region, or at least a group of related settlements and resources within a sub region is a good idea and should be mandated.  Taking a regional or at least sub regional view helps make trade offs between bottomlines and providing for activities.

Spatial plans are seen as one technique, but spatial plans are no more or less than any other type of plan. Thinking spatially certainly helps highlight tensions and trade offs to be made. However if the plan just becomes a long shopping list of aspirations, not a well resolved set of intentions, then that is not much help. Equally, not much use if infrastructure providers (including central government) don’t buy into the process. Government never really brought into the Auckland Plan.

What about time frames - how far to look out when making plans? This is a point raised by EDS, reflecting the point that rather than look long term, many pressures mean that planning often ends up reinforcing short term thinking.   The foreseeable needs of future generations is already in the Act, but something a bit meatier would help on both the protection and development side of the equation. The 100 year reference in the NZCPS to coastal hazards is helpful. The NPS-UDC has pushed out urban planning horizons to 30 years.

So a third set of principles. In achieving sustainable and integrated stewardship of natural resources and management of physical environments the following are relevant;
  • Setting bottomlines needs to take into account the consequences for accommodating growth and development and may require adjustments to other settings so as to reduce flow on impacts
  • Recognising that rural and urban environments constantly change and adapt and that it is managing the transitions that are critical, rather than achieving an end state
  • Recognising the potential for use and development to restore and enhance natural heritage and improve social wellbeing;
  • Taking a regional view of issues and responses
  • Taking a long term view of effects and consequences 
  • Ensuring that the benefits and costs of using and developing natural and physical resources are fairly shared between people and communities now and in the future.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Urban design and the RMA (4)

Urban design: the economic approach to defining effects

I'm on a one person mission to better define urban design effects under the RMA. So far I have:
  1. discussed effects ratings and their purpose under the RMA
  2. tried to develop an 'effects equation'
  3. asked: is urban design normative or positive?
Now the obligatory economic rationale for intervention relating to urban design outcomes. Having some understanding of the rationale for intervention is obviously important in developing a framework for managing that intervention. Many people like the idea of some sort of 'market failure' as being the basis for intervention.

Commonly, the basic rationale for a degree of public control over buildings and development relates to managing negative externalities. This is where MfE's helpful report on the Value of Urban Design starts. There are negative externalities of poor design. These affect the public realm, as well as adjacent sites.

Negative externalities occur when production and/or consumption of goods (such as buildings) impose external costs on third parties outside of the market for which no appropriate compensation is paid. This causes social costs to exceed private costs. But we have to be very careful how we define these externalities. Is the effect of an ugly building beside a nice building a negative externality? Or is it just part of urban life?

Rather than being a negative thing, is urban design just about good things (including positive externalities), and by implication things where there maybe a financial incentive for designers and developers to add good things into their designs, in which case there is no need for public intervention?

If urban design is all just human behaviour, then won't people vote with their feet, avoiding areas that are poorly designed and flocking to areas and places that are well designed, and from  this process of selection,  their money and buying power. As such, is there an incentive for developers and businesses to promote good design?  By why so much bad design if there is so much value to be extracted by good design? Is it that people have a high tolerance of bad design?

The MfE report on urban design also mentioned inconsistent time preferences. Developers may have shorter time horizons (higher 'discount rates') than the community as a whole (e.g. short-term profit to developers versus long-term health benefits to society). This means that the market will tend to provide a level of urban design than is not socially optimal.

These points provide a helpful starting place. But somehow urban design is more complex than this. While concerns about poor quality design on a next door site driving down property values is a common basis for communities to call for urban design, to me the real issue relates to the importance urban design plays in supporting a functional public realm. The importance of the public realm to well functioning cities seems under recognised in most urban economic analysis. The public realm is not a tradeable good, it has a value but no price. It is not subject to the laws of demand and supply.

Many of the dis-benefits of poor design are less tangible social, environmental or well being impacts affecting a range of parties, over a long period of time. They tend to be second order effects (if there is such a term). Adverse effects of bad design are often  incremental and cumulative, they are not necessarily all obvious 'blots on the landscape'.

If we take Jayne Jacobs and her prescriptions in The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a starting point, then we have the following four basic ingredients to generate (in her words) urban vitality:

1. The district must serve more than one primary use, and preferably more than two.
2. Most street blocks must be short.
3. Buildings must be mingled in their age, condition, and required economic yield.
4. A dense concentration of people.

I think it is reasonable to say that the third and fourth conditions are enabled conditions, in that there are characteristics that need to be allowed for and encouraged. The third condition does not mean heritage protection, although that may be a component. I think what Jacobs  meant was that redevelopment should be an incremental, even scattered process, not a concentrated or cataclysmic process (as was much public urban regeneration schemes of the day). In contrast, short blocks and mixed uses are not necessarily elements that are always provided.

Jayne Jacobs did not stop with the four characteristics. She also (famously) referred to the need for ‘eyes on the street”.  To her, vital, safe streets had the following elements:

"First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.

Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.

And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.”

So I think we can translate these ingredients into the following core urban design elements:
1. The nature and extent of the public realm network
2. The range of activities that border that network (the density and mix of uses)
3. The quality of the public private interface of that network.

If we look at these ingredients in turn, then a somewhat more complex rationale emerges as to the reason for intervention.

Public network

The nature and extent of the public realm network is important to functioning of urban areas. Cities need lots of routes and linkages.  Short, interconnected street blocks help with walkability and access to public transport and local services. They promote health and well being through active transport. They generate street-based activity which helps with a sense of safety and 'connectedness' .

Jayne Jacob’s principle of short blocks is the common urban design principle of promoting connectivity and permeability. The UN-Habitat’s Global Urban Observatories Unit report on Streets as Public Spaces and Drivers of Urban Prosperity argues that streets should be counted as public space alongside leafy parks and landscaped plazas. Together, they should make up 45 to 50 percent of a city’s land area, with 30 to 35 percent of the area occupied by streets and 15 to 20 percent open space. “If less than 30 percent of the land of the city is dedicated to the street pattern, it’s a huge error,” Beside the economic value of streets on the land market, streets have an economic and social value related to productivity, infrastructure, quality of life and social inclusion.

The argument for intervention around the network is that as land increases in value, then there is a tendency for less of that land to be devoted to public space. In economic terms, this conception of the public realm could be thought of as an inferior good. A normal good is a good that is in greater demand as incomes rise. An inferior good sees the opposite outcome – demand shrinks as incomes rise. In a city, as incomes and land values rise, there is an incentive for development to provide less and less public space as this has a bigger and bigger cost. Furthermore, the value added by streets to the value of plots and buildings are not well factored in the land market. Neither real estate developers nor land owners are willing to appreciate the economic value of streets against its social value.

In this conception, the street should not be considered as an inferior good, rather the street should be considered as a normal economic good if not a superior good that should be allocated more share in the expansion of cities.

Mixed Uses

Diversity of activities along the main routes of the public network is crucial to urban outcomes. Here you might think that a removal of single use zonings would enable and allow for diversity of activities to flourish. There is no need to mount a case to intervene to support mixed uses and diversity of activities.  But why are mixed uses so rare in cities, especially the bits built post war?
Jacobs noted that diversity tended to destroy itself, particularly as one use becomes dominant and bids up rents to the point where other uses flee.  This results in a single-use office district, restaurant strip, etc. Density and diversity of activities can also be related to the diversity of the building stock. Mixed uses need a range of cheap and expensive premises that are big and small. Mixed uses also often take a while to get established. A catchment of people needs to be built up first, then the service-based activities start to flourish, but short term time horizons mean that developers may favour the residential phase.

One of Jacob’s cures for self destruction of diversity was to zone large areas for diversity. However this is not in the sense of requiring a set mix of activities. Rather it was first to zone for a diversity of building stock. This is in terms of building ages and building sizes.  She cites the example of a park having lower buildings on one side to let in sun, but also to offer a choice compared to taller buildings on other sides. This in turn creates opportunities for different types of mixed uses. Elsewhere she mentions the importance of having many old buildings to provide cheaper space for new activities to get established. She acknowledged that maintaining a diversity of building stock would require some sort of financial acknowledgement. Hence perhaps why the idea never took hold. It also requires some form of gradual process of redevelopment of an area, not a ‘catastrophic’ replacement of buildings (and hence her call for a mix of old and new buildings).

The other cure was to have lots of opportunities for mixed uses to locate in a city. If one neighbourhood sees a lose of diversity, then provided the displaced activities had somewhere else to go to, then the city as a whole does not see a negative effect.

Whether the self destruction of diversity provides a rationale for intervention is difficult to say. One study (The Impact of Mixed Land Use on Firms An empirical investigation on commercial property transactions, Francis Ostermeijer July 2016) suggests that in a rational market, one would expect that firms involved in mixed land use patterns are likely to relocate until the marginal benefits and costs of relocation are equal. This implies a degree of natural mixing. "In reality however, this rationality assumption may not hold. It is perhaps more likely that there will be a sub optimal provision of mixed land uses. Therefore, land use regulation may be warranted in order to encourage a balanced mix of uses in order to maximise the net social benefits from mixed land uses".

For example, from a developer and landowner’s perspective, horizontal mixed land uses are preferable to vertical mixed land uses. This may be because the positive externalities from a diverse composition of land uses on a street such as pedestrian safety, higher aggregate demand and a better distribution of demand may not outweigh the costs imposed on individual activities in a mixed use building due to concerns over less privacy, increased security risks, less prestige and greater uncertainty of leasing of space when in a vertical mixed use situation.

Another way to look at the issue of under supply of mixed uses is that they are a merit good. A merit good is a good where consumption of the good generates an external benefit to others, from which society gains, but that benefit is unlikely to be known or recognised at the point of consumption. Given that decisions to consume are driven by self-interest, it is unlikely that this external benefit will be taken into account when the consumer of a merit good evaluates its worth. As a result merit goods are often  relative to their wider benefit.

So maybe there is a rationale for seeking mixed uses. But is that rationale based on finding an incentive or some form of support for greater provision of mixed uses, rather than a sanction?

Quality of the public private interface

The public realm is more than just the network of public streets or areas of public open space. The public realm extends to the buildings, activities and private spaces that front onto these areas. The quality and functionality of public spaces is very dependent upon what fronts them; how buildings interact with public spaces. No amount of flash landscape design can lift a street or public space if it is surrounded by dull buildings.  The public realm can also be described as the spaces within a site that the public can access without having to ask permission, such as laneways. But it is the areas owned by the public which are critical to the social and economic success of cities. Nice buildings fronting a street or open space does not automatically mean that the road or open space will deliver benefits. People using the space generate the value.

The public realm of a city is a ‘public good’. Public goods are goods that have the following characteristics:

Non-rivalry: This means that when a good is consumed, it doesn’t reduce the amount available for others.
Non-excludability: This occurs when it is not possible to provide a good without it being possible for others to enjoy.

You can quibble if a road or open space is non rivalrous. At some point, one more person added to a street or open space may make that place overcrowded or congested. Technically a road or open space is a quasi public good.

The problem with public goods (quasi or not) is that they have a free rider problem. This means that it is not possible to prevent anyone from enjoying the good, once it has been provided. Normally this creates a problem of payment and overuse:  there is no incentive for people to pay for the good because they can consume it without paying for it. People can over consume public resources – the tragedy of the commons.

The public-private interface is a bit different. It is not about the over use of the public road or public space.  Rather there can be a natural tendency for private development to ‘sponge off’ a high quality public realm, rather than contribute to that realm.  For example, I will erect a larger fence across the front of my property to keep me safe and private, but I will still wander down the road in the evenings enjoying looking at the various front gardens and feeling safe because of the passive surveillance offered by all the housing which has windows to rooms that overlook the street.

Back  to effects rating

Back to the question of an effects rating. What does the above tell me about urban design and effects? That it is not straight forward? That is hardly a revelation.

The above provides a framework by which effects could be organised or grouped, but does it help with determining the magnitude or persistence of the effect? Is my effects equation up to the task? Perhaps not.

What the above does suggest is that rather than be some sort of  minor to major negative externality rating, any urban design rating framework needs to be more focused on the support or not for a well functioning public realm.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Making better trade offs

I'm trying to spend a bit of time thinking about the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of RMA decision making – how is it different from ‘normal’ decision making? Now that a fundamental reform of the RMA is on the cards, it is timely to think about these things.

In my last blog on the topic, I got a bit lost in the detail of off-site car parking demands from an intensive housing development in a Special Character Area.  This was an attempt at a case study into how to make RMA decisions that are not big dramatic changes to an urban environment, rather small scale stuff.

While getting lost, some useful things came to mind. These include:
  • The many competing demands and issues involved in most urban environments. 
  • Many of these issues and demands quickly grow out of being mitigation type issues to ones of access to public resources and equitable sharing of the costs and benefits of growth and change
  • RMA decision making can reinforce the immediate 'obvious' issues, but down play the longer term or more systemic issues. This can be counterproductive
  • The steady push for benefits to be weighed up against costs is shifting the framework for decision making away from mitigation to more of an overall assessment
  • The lack of guidance in plans, beyond bottom line type issues, as to how to weight the various benefits and costs. 
Perhaps the two most distinctive aspects of RMA decision making (in urban environments at least), compared to other decision making, is time and small changes. Planning is supposed to be forward looking and consider possible changes over a long period of time. Time frames extend beyond current generations. How do we account for time, especially where it means current generations forgoing something for the benefit of a future generation? Urban planning deals with big picture matters which are often implemented, or affected, by many small steps and changes. How do we relate these small steps back to the big picture?

Strategic planning is supposed to meet both needs - look long term and sit day-to-day changes in a bigger picture. The Environmental Defence Society's review of the RMA (note 1) calls for a renewed effort on the strategic planning front. They suggest a Future Generations Act to provide an overarching strategic framework for the whole resource management system, with a common set of high level principles. A Future Generations Act would provide a statutory basis for strategic and spatial planning at a national and regional level. The Issues report on the RMA reforms (note 2) raises the same idea - should strategic planning get more support? I made the same comment in my post on the review of the National Policy Statement on Urban Development.

I wonder, however, given the lack of real traction to date with strategic planning, whether it is time to rethink how we address the links between today and tomorrow and between the micro and the macro? If some sort of strategic planning overlay is not going to provide a ruler against which to judge costs and benefits over time and to help make lots of small decisions, then what is?

First up, the Environmental Defence Society in their earlier working reports on the review of the RMA (note 3) suggests a clearer distinction between bottom line environmental decision making and decision making involving choices between different outcomes would help.  They see the potential for two different forms of plans (and decision making). One form would be protection focused, setting non-negotiable bottomlines; the other more stewardship focused, setting out processes and principles for balancing different outcomes (making trade offs) when bottom-lines are not transgressed.

You might say that what the EDS want to do is take Section 6 out of the RMA and elevate the matters covered so that they clearly sit above other issues, and are not subject to some sort of Part 2 ‘wash up’ that may see Section 6 matters traded off for other outcomes. This may be a sensible idea for the long term protection of important natural resources, but where does it leave most day to day urban decision-making?

Effects from off-site car parking demands are definitely in the making trade off camp of decision making, and managing areas of special character is also (although not doubt some would like to put it into the non negotiable bottom-lines category – protecting historic heritage for example). Setting that aside, is there any pointers in the Society’s review as to how to better make trade off decisions?

The EDS report doesn't really say much about how to make better choices and decisions where bottom lines are not involved, apart from the call for more directive strategic planning. There are some useful comments in their earlier discussion of  the RMA (note 2):
  • A different normative direction than that currently provided for in the RMA may help, a focus on wellbeings more generally, for example, seems appropriate. 
  • Providing decision making institutions with a clear set of matters to consider, and (more importantly) policies outlining a clear sense of the relationships between them.
  • Greater use of independent institutions as advisors or decision-makers when making trade-offs (eg Planning Commission or Independent Hearings Panels).
  • Greater use of accountable institutions to make value-based decisions (eg reduce the role of the Environment Court).
The last two points – who makes the decisions - are a choice (trade off) to be made! I'm not too sure if the last two points head in the same direction - greater use of both independents and accountable institutions?

The first point in the EDS list resonates with urban environments and things like urban amenity and urban design.  The RMA reform options paper also suggests a wider focus to urban decision making - not just looking at protection or mitigation of adverse effects, but also the benefits of growth and development.  But does this extend to issues of equitable access to urban resources, not just efficiency of markets? Is mental health (good or poor) both a benefit and cost of urban environments?

It feels like that trade offs are seen to be a simple choice between a bit more growth and a bit less amenity, or a bit less change and a bit less capacity.

The second point in the EDS list is helpful. If costs and benefits are to be weighed up, then plans will need to better identify what should be counted on both sides of the equation. At the moment plans tend to focus on the costs to be addressed, not so much the benefits. Benefits will need to measured with the same degree of scrutiny applied to adverse effects. But with this comes the risk of plans picking out the nice, short term 'benefits' (kind of like an urban sugar rush), but leaving out the benefits that come from hard work.

More direction on which outcomes predominate in certain situations would also help.  My car parking case study highlights the tensions between managing off-street parking, residential character and wide compact city strategies. While the plan highlights these issues, it doesn’t help much with making the call between them.

However both Issues paper don't really explore how to make effective decisions under a wider ambit. Looking at costs, benefits and trade offs doesn't make plan making any easier or decision making any quicker. In fact it makes it sound much harder. If decision making is going to get more complex and strategic planning not smooth the path, then should more attention  be placed on how people make decisions, and developing a set of principles that help to overcome common weaknesses?

For example, the difference between bottom lines and trade offs can be described as compensatory and non-compensatory decision making. In compensatory decision making there is (supposed to be) a critical examination of costs and benefits. The benefits need to outweigh the costs, with the benefits ‘compensating’ for the costs.  Non compensatory decision making tends to bases decisions on one critical factor. If that factor is achieved (or not achieved), then the option is selected (or discarded).

Interestingly, compensatory and non-compensatory strategies require different amounts of cognitive effort, with compensatory strategies requiring more mental effort than non-compensatory strategies.  Non-compensatory decision making tends to shortcut or simplify the compensatory process by applying heuristics to quickly evaluate the alternatives with minimal effort. Non-compensatory decision rules can allow faster decisions with (sometimes) acceptable reduction of accuracy. But not always.

This means that when making trade-offs, it can be easy to slip from compensatory approaches into non-compensatory decision making mode, especially if there are a complex range of matters to take into account.

Other problems arise with people intuitively placing more weight on costs than benefits, under or over estimating risks, discounting future costs and benefits and relying upon what they see and are familiar with as reference points.

This is where plans become important in helping to keep decision making 'on-track', especially as planning has a strong element of time to it (needs of future generations), and of juggling local and wider impacts, all of which tend to complicate decision-making.

If plans are to better help decision makers decide how different ‘effects’ should be traded off, then are there some things plans could do better. These include:

1. The need to set decision making trigger points, for example at what point do effects (positive and negative) start to significantly interact and potential impinge outcomes associated with other resources and outcomes?
2. Better understanding the nature and scale of consequences for urban environments, positive and negative, short lived or permanent.
3. Pre-determining weight or importance. Language is important and there needs to be more of a graduation of weight between a simple dichotomy between minor/more than minor.
4. Setting a framework to address time and cumulative effects.

Having said all that, I don't think this is the end of the story. There needs to be a whole new layer added to urban planning about equity of urban environments. More on that in the future





Thursday, 3 October 2019

Wondering about the NPS-UD

Some slightly more structured thoughts on the draft National Policy Statement for Urban Development. Sorry again, another long post.

Given that:

  • fundamental reforms of the RMA have been announced;
  • the current NPS-UDC has yet to be fully embedded in planning documents;
  • there is a lack of alignment with the proposed NPS on highly productive land; 
  • a proposed national climate change adaptation strategy is soon to be prepared; 
  • there is a lack of any incentive for participants in urban development (developers, councils and residents) to change their behaviour and
  • the poorly drafted content of the NPS-UD;

There seems little point to the revised NPS.

In particular, there seems little point in progressing a revised NPS aimed at urban development ahead of the RMA reforms. The Government proposes that the RMA review focus on the ways the RMA interacts with other key legislation such as the:

  • Local Government Act 2002 
  • Land Transport Management Act 2003 
  • Climate Change Response Act, to be amended by the Zero Carbon Amendment Bill. 

The scope includes spatial planning which has the potential to make better and more strategic decisions about urban development and infrastructure over longer time frames.

A string of reports and analysis have continually highlighted that the fundamental issues facing urban environments extend well beyond the ambit of the proposed NPS-UD.  Issues associated with the funding and integration of infrastructure and responding to long run pressures like climate change are much more important to address.

What is needed is a fundamental resetting of incentives and constraints facing councils and communities, rather than further admonishments.

I also note that key policies on urban expansion (leap frog development) that may be included in the NPS-UD have not been drafted. Any policies relating to out of sequence urban expansion need to be formulated and tested through submissions. They should not, as a matter of natural justice, be included in an operative NPS-UD without this step.

Focus on major urban centres

The proposed NPS-UD suggests targeting the most directive policies to largest and fastest growing urban environments. To this end the concept of major urban centres is introduced.

There remains merit in targeting policies at fast growing urban areas, even if they are small in size. Fast growth puts pressure on plans and planning.  For example, Wanaka faces the same growth pressures as Queenstown. Cromwell is experiencing spill over growth from both areas and is facing equally hard choices.

There is no certainty that the major centres listed will remain fast growing into the future, yet the directive policies remain tied to these areas. Equally, there is a range of fast growing secondary centres that need some ‘encouragement’ to plan for growth on a collaborative basis. Examples are the Nelson-Tasman area and Napier-Hastings. These areas have similar growth rates to Hamilton or Tauranga, and may well be of similar size in 20 or 30 years time.

These ‘emergent’ urban centres are ones that will benefit most from early, comprehensive and forward looking spatial planning.  Unless there is a legislative direction to do so, then joint spatial planning is likely to be piecemeal.

At the other end of the scale, the definition of urban environments needs to be amended to prescribe a time period and to clarify the meaning of ‘concentrated’ to help determine where the cut off point for the NPS lies, for example:

Urban environment means an area of land containing, or intended to contain within the next 30 years, a concentrated single settlement or group of settlements which share physical services and infrastructure, of 10,000 people or more and any associated business land, irrespective of local authority or statistical boundaries.

Future development strategies (FDSs)

With the reduction in emphasis on ensuring sufficient ‘capacity’ through the new title of the Policy Statement  – NPS-UD- the purpose of Future Development Strategies needs to be reconsidered. The discussion document refers to spatial planning as being the intended direction for urban  planning. If that is the case, then the FDS policies should provide an appropriate structure. There seems little point to amend FDSs ‘as a step towards an integrated spatial planning framework’, when more fundamental reforms are around the corner.

Given that there have been constant calls for spatial planning to take a more central role in urban planning, there are a range of precedents to work from. For example the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance proposed a spatial plan with statutory weight that:

  • set an overarching strategic direction for the Auckland region;
  • integrated and aligned all decision making and planning;
  • would ensure implementation through the council’s plans and CCOs; and
  • facilitates the coordination of all actors involved in delivering the agreed strategic direction.

The matters set out in Seciton79 (3) and (4) of the  Local Government (Auckland Council) Act 2009 remain relevant:

(3) For the purposes of subsection (2), the spatial plan will—
(a) set a strategic direction for Auckland and its communities that integrates social, economic, environmental, and cultural objectives; and
(b) outline a high-level development strategy that will achieve that direction and those objectives; and
(c) enable coherent and co-ordinated decision making by the Auckland Council (as the spatial planning agency) and other parties to determine the future location and timing of critical infrastructure, services, and investment within Auckland in accordance with the strategy; and
(d) provide a basis for aligning the implementation plans, regulatory plans, and funding programmes of the Auckland Council.

(4) The spatial plan must—
(a) recognise and describe Auckland’s role in New Zealand; and
(b) visually illustrate how Auckland may develop in the future, including how growth may be sequenced and how infrastructure may be provided; and
(c) provide an evidential base to support decision making for Auckland, including evidence of trends, opportunities, and constraints within Auckland; and
(d) identify the existing and future location and mix of—
(i) residential, business, rural production, and industrial activities within specific geographic areas within Auckland; and
(ii) critical infrastructure, services, and investment within Auckland (including, for example, services relating to cultural and social infrastructure, transport, open space, water supply, wastewater, and stormwater, and services managed by network utility operators); and 
(e) identify nationally and regionally significant—
(i) recreational areas and open-space areas within Auckland; and
(ii) ecological areas within Auckland that should be protected from development; and
(iii) environmental constraints on development within Auckland (for example, flood-prone or unstable land); and
(iv) landscapes, areas of historic heritage value, and natural features within Auckland; and
(f) Identify policies, priorities, land allocations, and programmes and investments to implement the strategic direction and specify how resources will be provided to implement the strategic direction.

This seems a reasonable list. A requirement to provide some form of feasible development capacity could easily be incorporated into the above.

Having said that, without some form of reference and/or linkage to NZTA’s investment programme, and/or other centrally directed infrastructure like Kiwirail and educational and health services, then preparation and implementation of FDS is seriously weakened.

As spelled out in a Cabinet paper from 2009 on urban planning:

Because the planning framework comprises various pieces of legislation and is subject to various legal purposes, processes and criteria, there are no mechanisms to agree and then implement a consistent strategic direction across all plans and decision making. The problem is threefold.

First, no mechanism currently exists for agreeing a long-term, strategic direction for a region that takes account of the range of issues relevant to managing growth (e.g. affordable housing, infrastructure, supply and demand of business land) and integrates across broad objectives. While Council’s can voluntarily set an overarching strategic direction there would be no compulsion, or guarantee of what the scope of the direction would be.

Second, there is limited ability for the Councils to implement a strategic direction consistently through its plans and decision making. This is because there are currently no legislative linkages between any agreed strategic direction and the council’s plans.

Third, there is also no effective mechanism for engaging with and informing to give greater certainty to other parties (e.g. central government, the private sector, infrastructure providers) about the likely shape of future development. Therefore there is no basis upon which to target and agree the type, scale, timing or location of investment decisions, so as to better coordinate activities that are critical for delivering the strategic direction.

Until these issues are addressed, there seems little benefit from the changes proposed to the NPS. The 2009 reforms for Auckland did not make the Auckland Spatial Plan the dominant plan, as envisaged. The issues of legislative links, appeal rights, and the overall shape of the planning framework in the long-term was deferred to the then ‘urban work stream of Phase Two of the resource management reform process that is underway’. That process was never completed.

History would appear to about to repeat itself as issues of infrastructure funding and financing start to dog the implementation of urban redevelopment and the desire to speed up urban expansion.

National level direction about the features of a quality urban environment

The proposed objective and policies associated with ‘quality urban environments’ are not fit for purpose. The proposed qualities set out in Objective O2 are functions of urban areas, not qualities.

The quality of the urban environment (covering the built and natural environments) is critical to the long term success of urban areas and with this, society’s response to long running issues like mental health, obesity, crime and safety, as well as productivity and economic transformation. To reduce quality to a list of functions is a serious miss understanding of urban systems and how they work.

The discussion document recognises the wider role of urban quality and the dimensions involved, yet goes not further than saying that these wider dimensions would be noted in the preamble to the NPS.

The relationship between urban quality and urban amenity is unclear. Is the notion of ‘urban quality’ intended to replace urban amenity? The RMA doesn’t specifically mention urban quality. It does, however, define amenity values. The discussion document suggests that the NPS-UD would be used to help operationalise sec 7 of the RMA – the maintenance and enhancement of the quality of the environment. There is a significant overlap between amenity and quality and unless that overlap is clarified, then there will be substantial confusion.

If the NPS is to introduce the principle of urban environment quality, then it needs to do so in a meaningful way, for example, urban environments that:

  • encourages people to feel safe and give them a sense of stability
  • fosters a sense of community.
  • are designed so that walking, cycling and public transport are the natural and attractive options.
  • are places for people – places that are designed, built and maintained on the principle that people come first.
  • contribute to the quality of life and encourage healthy and sustainable lifestyles.
  • are places in which we want to live, work, bring up our children, and spend our leisure time.
  • are places, which promote economic success and allow people to share in rising prosperity, attracting and retaining successful businesses.

The NZ Urban Design Protocol is another attempt to define quality environments, yet the Protocol appears to be side-lined.

Proposals to clarify that amenity values are diverse and change over time

The NPS-UD proposes to add a requirement that in making planning and consent decisions, decision-makers must recognise that amenity values:

  • vary among individuals and
  • communities change over time.

How this requirement is to work in practice is not spelt out.

It is presumed that the policy is aimed at the amenity of urban environments, not rural environments.

Plans seek to provide an acceptable view on what constitutes ‘amenity’, given diverse views. While far from perfect, at least plans provide a reference point as to what constitutes amenity.  A requirement to take into account a variety of views around this reference point opens the door to competing views, both in the sense of a wider or narrower view of amenity. The clause is likely to be used by submitters claiming that the Plan’s assessment of amenity values is wrong, and that their individual views are not being taken into account. As a result, if anything the policy is likely to increase opposition to change.

The reference to communities changing over time provides no assistance, as the direction and shape of change is not known.

Rather than refer to individual tastes and changing communities, the real issue is that the bundle of amenities associated with different types of urban environments vary. Low density urban environments have a different set of amenities to those associated with high density environments. A transition occurs as one set of amenities gets replaced with another. That transition involves both the quality and design of development, as well as the nature and form of public resources in areas subject to change.

Sec 7 of the RMA requires that amenity values and the quality of the environment is maintained and enhanced over time. If the concern is that this is too often taken to mean a requirement to maintain what exists, rather than plan for a different type of urban environment, then the wording of Sec 7 of the RMA should be amended. For example:

In achieving the purpose of this Act, all persons exercising functions and powers under it, in relation to managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources, shall have particular regard to:

the provision and maintenance of the bundle of amenity values typically associated with different forms and densities of urban and rural development.

If an NPS-UD is to be advanced then the NPS could usefully start to spell out what these different amenity values could be comprised of, rather than refer to the very open ended concepts.

Provide development capacity that is both feasible and likely to be taken up

Introduction of a further qualifier as to development capacity that has to be provided (feasible and likely capacity) opens up a significant methodological issue as to what is ‘likely’.  There appears to be no definition provided as to how the term ‘likely’ is to be determined.

There is reference in the discussion document to “Likely to be built, using as a starting point information about past development in building consent data”.  Reference to past development patterns would appear to entrench these past patterns, rather than be a positive move towards understanding future needs.

The discussion document suggests that these changes will require local authorities to allow more opportunities for development in local authority plans. This requirement is intended to recognise that only a portion of the development that is enabled will actually occur.

Introduction of the word “likely to occur” along side the concept of ‘feasibility’ supports the status quo. The two terms completely fail to understand that urban development patterns and demands are shaped by a wide range of pressures and forces, many of which are miss aligned and which fail to adequately manage future risks.

If the concept of ‘likely to be taken up’ is to be used, then the concept also needs to be applied to development that is not currently feasible, but which may become feasible over time. There are many cases where development is not considered feasible on simple financial metrics, but which is likely to occur in the future.

Requiring objectives, policies, rules, and assessment criteria to enable the development anticipated by the zone description

The change would require an assessment to ensure the objectives, policies, rules, and assessment criteria set out in district plans are individually and collectively consistent with the expected development for each zone as described in the zone description.
This proposed change appears to be trivial in extent.

Policies to enable intensification in the locations where its benefits can best be achieved

P6A is an important policy.

This set of policies is perhaps the most beneficial of the amended NPS. However they need further work. The proposed objectives and policies raise a range of issues:

  • P6A provides no definition of high density, yet this is the mandatory policy
  • Does high density mean high rise?  
  • Higher densities need to be accompanied by more attention to urban design – where is the relationship to quality urban design?
  • What about development in heritage areas, special character, volcanic viewshafts? Do they still stand or does the NPS override these due to it being a national policy?
  • Are high density residential developments going to be open to submissions and appeals?
  • The areas listed in P6A where high density should be enabled cover most parts of a city - for example areas with a 'high-demand for housing". This would apply to all of Auckland, for example.

The national planning standards provide for medium density and high density residential zones. Should these terms be referenced?

Medium density residential zone means areas used predominantly for residential activities with moderate concentration and bulk of buildings, such as detached, semi-detached and terraced housing, low-rise apartments, and other compatible activities.

High density residential zone means areas used predominantly for residential activities with high concentration and bulk of buildings, such as apartments, and other compatible activities.

For much of urban New Zealand, it is the 'medium' category that needs the policy support - two and three storey town houses and flats. High density zoning makes up only a small proportion of demand.

It is unclear how the intensification policies and the associated capacities and environments are aligned with the other changes signaled in the NPS. For example:

  • The emphasis on spatial planning
  • Intensification is often not seen to be feasible or likely, in terms of the policies on development capacities
  • Many people see the resulting amenity values as being alien to their consideration of what constitutes amenity (or for that matter quality). 

High density development needs a close relationship to open spaces and community facilities to help spark demand and to address issues of urban quality and liveability.

Access to jobs and services is important, but secondary. Locations for high density development need to be co-related with public transport networks. These need to be frequent services if they are to influence travel behaviour, otherwise high density development will mean very high car dependency. There needs to be a definition of frequent, for example:

Frequent services operate at least every 15 minutes with priority measures (e.g. bus lanes and signal priority) and are less affected by road congestion than if they operated in general traffic.

High density development can, and should, take a variety of development types. Some areas in a city are more able to absorb and accommodate the resulting changes in urban form. For example are areas adjacent to centres and corridors, where there can be a logical ‘stepping up’ in development density. Some landforms lend themselves to intensive developments.

There needs to be an explicit qualifier that enablement comes with a commitment to high quality urban environments.  For example:

P6A: Enable higher-density residential development especially in areas where there is, or intended to be:

  • suitable open spaces and community facilities
  • employment opportunities and services are easily accessible by existing or planned active transport and frequent public transport networks
  • the ability to absorb a variety of development densities and heights into the urban landscape, such as areas adjacent to centres and near important corridors, or where landforms help to manage transitions 


  • avoiding areas of identified landscape value or special character or amenity that are incompatible with higher intensities of development; and
  • ensuring that the development contributes to high quality urban environments.

Policy providing for plan changes for out-of-sequence greenfield development and/or greenfield development in locations not currently identified for development

There are no specific policies proposed in relation to ‘out-of-sequence’ greenfield development. Only general statements are provided. I do not see how a binding NPS could be issued on the basis of the general statements provided.

There are two forms of out of sequence greenfields development:

  • Urban development that is signalled in a plan or strategy, and where the timing is controlled or managed in some way, but the development wishes to proceed more quickly than that indicated; or
  • Urban development that is not within an area that is signalled in any public plan as an area for expansion.

The linkage between this policy and the policies requiring or encouraging Future Development Strategies is unclear. There seems little incentive to complete a Future Development Strategy if such an enabling policy is available to be taken up at any point in time.

A fundamental issue with both scenarios is who will provide the infrastructure?  The discussion document refers to the following:

  • the full costs of out of sequence development (including on the wider network) should be met.
  • that the onus to provide infrastructure (including wider network considerations) should not fall on the local authority when not provided for by their long-term plan and/or development plan process. 

These conditions should be part of the above policy. Once land is zoned for urban development, then there is an implicit assumption that network services will be provided by public agencies. If councils (and other government agencies like NZTA and the Ministry of Education) have to face funding demands on multiple fronts, then there is the potential for significant inefficiencies in urban development.

For the planned, but not in sequence, development scenario other relevant funding issues are the extent to which the out-of-sequence development may frustrate or slow the uptake of already planned and sequenced development, where funding is already committed. For example development sequencing may support the early establishment of a new centre or employment area. Competition form an out of sequence development may undermine the feasibility of such development with a range of social and economic consequences, including less ability to contribute to the financing the infrastructure investment already made.

For urban development that is not in an area identified for future expansion, then a more comprehensive list of criteria are needed than that set out in the draft NPS-UD. There will be significant confusion as to how the policy should be applied alongside similar policies that already exist in Regional Policy Statements.

Limiting the ability for local authorities in major urban centres to regulate the number of car parks required for development

I support moves to reduce or eliminate minimum car parking requirements.  For many commercial developments, the issue is the desire to ‘over supply’ car parking (ie car parking well in excess of minimums) relative to the capacity and sustainability of the surrounding transport network. There is rationale to allow for the imposition of maximum on-site car parking requirements.

Enabling  Urban Development
The discussion document suggests that a more directive national direction tool could remove or replace rules (or the objectives, policies and rules in the case of a planning standard) for an urban area or particular zone that may unduly limit the type and form of development that occurs.
Examples of rules that are said to potentially disable quality urban development are:

  • height, or height in relation to boundary, which limit upward development 
  • density and subdivision standards, which constrain the size of properties or numbers of houses per property
  • private outdoor space, which may not respond to the potential to leverage public or shared outdoor spaces
  • site coverage, which limits the amount of a property that can be covered by buildings 
  • minimum floor areas/apartment sizes, which reduce the variety the market can offer. 

The very narrow definition of quality urban environments discussed previously becomes apparent in this section of the discussion document.

I would support an NES or National Planning Template that sets out the actual provisions that should apply to certain forms of  development. Higher density residential development is the obvious first candidate for such a template. There is no need to get worried about reflecting local issues, if it is accepted that redevelopment to higher densities than current involves a new set of amenities being delivered, rather than an old set being maintained. A national set of criteria would be a great help. I would recommend that MfE commence preparation of such a template, and introduce specific text, rather than seek to introduce very general criteria about what should be in or out via the NPS.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Digging into the NPS for highly productive land.

The following are thoughts on the draft National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land (see note 1).

Sorry for the long post, but like a lot of RMA stuff these days, the NPS raises some fundamental issues which are not well resolved. It feels like another (much needed) 'arm' is being bolted onto the RMA, but without much thought as to how it will all work.

Problem Statement

The discussion documents statement of the problem is that the lack of clarity under the RMA on how highly productive land should be managed means the value of highly productive land for primary production is given inadequate consideration, with more weight generally given to other matters and priorities.

The fact that highly productive land is not given particular consideration in the RMA is deliberate. As the M.E. cost benefit analysis notes, comparison of land use outcomes in financial terms at a single parcel level is heavily weighted toward favouring change away from productive farming. This is because the financial returns from residential and business uses are in almost all instances greater than those from productive farm activity using highly productive land, while the value of land for countryside living is usually several times that of land used for productive farming activity. That means there is considerable incentive for current (farming) landowners to sell land, because the value of the soil resource to the individual landowner is usually far less than the potential price to be gained by selling for countryside living or urban purposes.

The RMA was  designed to enable such market-based transactions to occur without interference from public agencies, as there are no adverse effects on the environment to be managed.  It is a resource allocation issue, rather than a resource management issue. Where the RMA does stray into allocation, it is for a public resource (like water), or a resource (like the coastline) which has a strong element of public amenity to it. Productive land is not a public resource, nor is one that has other public values attached to it.

Whether the RMA should be used to address an allocation issue is not straight forward. There is an argument that market-based processes for the allocation of highly productive land between competing land uses (houses versus vegetables, for example) do not correctly reflect the costs and benefits involved. Specific factors that may lead to a miss-allocation of highly productive land appear to be:

  • Cumulative loss – the tyranny of small decisions can see incremental loss that only becomes significant over time, when it is too late and a tipping point has been passed
  • Time inconsistent preferences – short versus long term, for example the needs of future generations
  • Externalities – activities like rural-residential development generate a reverse externality in that they expect productive activities to curtail their activities
  • Incorrect pricing – for example incorrect pricing of transport infrastructure can generate excessive urban expansion
  • Poor policy – for example constraints on urban intensification which then lead to urban expansion. 
  • Future use value – future generations should have an option to use the resource at some point in the future, whether that use is known or unknown. 

Public policy theory would suggest that these issues should be tackled one-by-one. If incorrect pricing of transport systems is the issue, then the remedy is amending transport costs (road pricing). Reverse sensitivity could be addressed by some form of no complaints covenants on new rural-residential lots.  There may well be substantial benefits from tackling the unnecessary loss of productive land through measures that support and enable intensification, rather than trying to stop urban expansion.

Even so, such an approach tends towards amending matters to be taken into account when deciding whether highly productive land should be used for non-primary production, rather than stopping the loss. That is, trade offs and choices are still made on a case-by-case basis, but within an amended framework. That amended framework may tip the balance away from some conversion of productive land to urban uses, for example, but will not stop it. It may just slow it down.

The wide range of issues involved in urban expansion, including infrastructure costs, transport costs, and a host of environmental and community factors mean that productive land values get ‘lost’ in any cost/benefit or multi-criteria analysis. Typically, if highly productive land is located on the edge of an urban area, then to avoid this, new greenfields development has to be located further away from the existing urban area, imposing high transport and infrastructure costs. These costs can quickly overwhelm productive soil benefits. Flat land is always easier to develop for housing and business than hilly land.

The RMA may be one means by which these full range of costs and benefits can be more explicitly addressed, but in so doing, it does start to drag the RMA in a direction that the Act is not well set up to deal with.

Sitting behind the NPS appears to be a more fundamental concern that because of the finite nature of the productive land resource, and the uncertainty over future national and global conditions,  there needs to be some ‘bottom lines’ drawn so as to maintain options for the future. While current generations may value housing over vegetables, for example, in the future circumstances may change and vegetables will be more valuable than houses. But if this is the case there is no way to convert houses to vegetable growing land. The inability to reverse changes is different to many other land use decisions where there is a degree of 'substitution' possible, as well as ‘reversibility’.

This is the concept of ‘future use value’, ie the value in retaining the option to use an environmental resource and its services in the future. This value can also be called a “bequest value”. Future use value is related to potential, but uncertain, future resource uses. The value is likely to be small in the presence of close substitutes (for example, vegetables could be imported from somewhere else). However if there are no substitutes, then future use value may be high.

To retain options for future generations is a reasonable and justifiable value-driven decision to make, but if so, it should be explicit. This is important as a value-driven decision to ‘protect’ a specific resource needs to sit clearly within the ‘effects management’ approach of the RMA.

It is therefore important that the problem statement better define the issues and concerns, as this will lead to better policy. In particular it may be that within the overall context of managing highly productive land, that there is a graduation of policy responses. For example:

  • LUC 1 and 2: Protection in all circumstances (bottom line)
  • LUC 3:  Case by case, but within a more expanded policy framework (better trade off).

However, a better ‘trade off’ type approach may require some structural amendments to the RMA (ie a different class of activity and an alternative to section 104).

Objectives of the NPS.

There are three objectives of the proposed NPS:

Objective 1: Recognising the benefits of highly productive land;
Objective 2: Maintaining the availability of highly productive land; and
Objective 3: Protection from inappropriate subdivision, use and development.

Good drafting practice suggests that the objectives should be re-cast as outcome statements, rather than be a statement as to an action. For example Objective 1 reads:

Objective 1: Recognising the benefits of highly productive land.
To recognise and provide for the value and long-term benefits of using highly productive land for primary production.

The objective reads more like a purpose statement.

This could be re ordered so it says:

The value and long term benefits of using highly productive land for primary production are recognised and provided for.

However, there is still ambiguity in the objective. The word ‘value’ is not defined, neither is ‘long term’. Is value an economic value, an ecological value or a societal bequest type value? What happens if primary production values drop over time (think lab produced meat).

The objectives do not read like RMA objectives. The RMA does refer to intrinsic values – the underlying or inherent value of the resource.

One option may be:

The intrinsic values of highly productive land are recognised and provided for when achieving the purpose of the Act.

Intrinsic value of highly productive land could then be defined to mean the actual and potential value of the land to support a wide range of intensive agricultural, food production and ecosystem services, now and into the future.

Not all highly productive land will be used for primary production, now or in the future. I should imagine that one approach to the Policy Statement will be to say that only x percentage of highly productive land will ever actually be used for primary production, and therefore there is a surplus that should be used for urban development, rather than sit idle. Objective 2 tries to tackle this issue, with its reference to ‘availability’:

Objective 2: To maintain the availability of highly productive land for primary production for future generations.

Perhaps more pointedly, the focus should be on the finite nature of the resource. This would better match the schema of the RMA, for example Section 7’s reference to any finite characteristics of natural and physical resources. For example:

Objective 2: The finite stock of land of high productive value is maintained for future generations.

Objective 3 will be the objective most tested through RMA processes. Objective 3 reads in full as:

Objective 3: Protecting from inappropriate subdivision, use and development 

To protect highly productive land from inappropriate subdivision, use and development, including by: 
• avoiding subdivision and land fragmentation that compromises the use of highly productive land for primary production; 
• avoiding uncoordinated urban expansion on highly productive land that has not been subject to a strategic planning process; and 
• avoiding and mitigating reverse sensitivity effects from sensitive and incompatible activities within and adjacent to highly productive land.

The discussion document states that Objective 3 provides direction to all decision makers to ensure highly productive soils are protected from “inappropriate” subdivision, use and development through avoiding certain types of development and adverse effects. This will help to maintain the availability of highly productive land for primary production (Objective 2).

The draft wording for Objective 3 provides an indication of what is “inappropriate”  (e.g. fragmentation, uncoordinated urban development) while leaving some flexibility for councils to determine this on a case-by-case basis. Case law has confirmed that reference to “inappropriate” within a provision means there may be appropriate development in particular circumstances.

Again good drafting would be to describe what is ‘inappropriate’  through a series of policies, rather than be determined through an objective. There are some difficulties in drafting the objective to cover off the circumstances as to what is inappropriate, for example:

  • The second leg (uncoordinated urban expansion that has not been subject to a strategic planning process) is somewhat hard to interpret. Uncoordinated development? Most urban development of any scale is coordinated by somebody. So is coordinated urban development that has not been subject to a strategic planning process ok?  Unplanned may be better than uncoordinated. 
  • The third leg’s reference to mitigation opens the door to a range of scenarios. 

If the intention is to better spell out what to achieve, rather than the broad term “incompatible subdivision use and development”, then the objective could be more pointed, for example:

Objective 3: Protecting from inappropriate subdivision, use and development 
Land of high productive value is protected from unplanned urban encroachment, and actual or potential use based on intrinsic values is not diminished by land fragmentation and reserve sensitively effects from incompatible activities.

This type of objective better accords with the ‘protective’ language of Section 6 of the RMA. But it is necessarily more directed at the specific allocation of a resource. It compares with Town and Country Planning Act:

(d) The avoidance of encroachment of urban development on, and the protection of, land having a high actual or potential value for the production of food:


Three options to better recognise and protect highly productive land are identified:

  • A National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land; 
  • National Environmental Standards for Highly Productive Land; and 
  • Amendments to the National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity 2016.

Whether the RMA is the appropriate tool to efficiently and effectively allocate resources between competing uses rather than manage resources is not questioned.

The discussion document notes that “another option considered was amending section 6 of the RMA to include the protection of highly productive land as a matter of national importance, similar to the Town and Country Planning Act 1977”.

The benefits of this approach are not discussed. Section 6 provides a ready framework for ‘matters of national importance’ to be addressed when plans are prepared and consents assessed. If a ‘bottom line’ type approach is to be taken, then amending section 6 of the RMA is the appropriate route.

The discussion document says that amendments to Part 2 of the RMA “would need to be considered over a longer timeframe as part of the wider review of the resource management system and would take many years to achieve the desired outcomes through RMA plan provisions and resource consent decisions. As such, this option was not identified as a key option at this stage but may be considered as part of future resource management reform”.

The more likely reason that Section 6 is not intended to be amended is the NPS is not seeking to impose a bottom-line, rather it is intending to provide an enhanced framework for considering trade-offs.

But stepping away from the Section 6 option introduces a range of complexities as to how plans are formulated and administered. The proliferation of national policy statements creates further confusion as to what weight they should be accorded and how they sit with regard to Part 2 and other statements.

Weight to given to National Policy Statements when preparing plans.

In theory, the requirement for plans to “give effect to” national policy statements means that national policy statements should be more than a “[list] of potentially relevant considerations, which will have varying weight in different fact situations”.

National policy statements translate the general principles in Part 2 into more specific objectives and policies, and should not require weighing up of their provisions against other matters covered by the RMA.  But if policies in national policy statements use varying language, with some policies being more prescriptive than others, then inevitably questions of weight come into play.

For example, proposed Policy 3: New urban development and growth on highly productive land states that “Urban expansion must not be located on highly productive land unless”:

a. there is a shortage of development capacity to meet demand (in accordance with the NPS-UDC methodologies and definitions); and 
b. it is demonstrated that this is the most appropriate option based on a consideration of: 
• a cost-benefit analysis that explicitly considers the long-terms costs associated with the irreversible loss of highly productive land for primary production; 
• whether the benefits (environmental, economic, social and cultural) from allowing urban expansion on highly productive land outweigh the benefits of the continued use of that land for primary production; and 
• the feasibility of alternative locations and options to provide for the required demand, including intensification of existing urban areas.

The matters set out leave open a wide range of possible outcomes, with protection of the land likely to be low on the list:

  • Urban expansion pressures occur because there is demand. The way that the NPS-UDC is crafted, there is always insufficient ‘feasible’ capacity, especially intensification. 
  • Cost benefit analysis struggles to address long term costs and benefits, let alone future use values. Discounting see future costs and benefits given lower values. There is no methodology to weigh the irreversible lost value of highly productive land for primary production.
  • Benefits to households from proximity to workplaces and services will almost always outweigh returns to primary activities from using productive land.  

At the very least, the use of term cost benefit analysis should be qualified. Multi-criteria analysis may be more appropriate to the wide range of issues involved, and the focus on judgements rather than calculations. Even so, what is being asked is a form of spatial planning, rather than resource management. Unless spatial planning outputs are somehow recognised in Section 74, then it may well be that the above policy arrives at a dead end.

Proposed Policy 6 - consideration of requests for plan changes – adds a further matter to the above list. It refers to the alignment of the request with relevant local authority statutory and non-statutory plans and policies relating to urban growth and highly productive land.

What weight is to be given to non-RMA plans?  RMA processes typically given little or no weight to plans that have not been tested via the RMA process. The criteria of whether the private plan change request aligns with relevant local authority plans and policies relating to urban growth, such as a structure plan for a particular area or a future development strategy to give effect to the NPS-UDC is supposed to provide a reason to decline the plan change. But a veto cannot be based on a document that sits outside the RMA and which may have not passed through an appropriate consultation process and/or been subject to significant scrutiny.

And what about resource consents?

The policy for assessment of resource consents is equally problematical to administer, given the overall emphasis of on the management of adverse environmental effects when assessing resource consents.

The policy provides no support for refusing consent to non-complying activities. In fact the policy would appear to rule out any form of ‘first principles’ decision that the application will generate effects that are more than ‘minor’.  Unless the loss of productive land can be identified as an effect that is more than minor, there will be little control over consents.

The policy further entrenches a case-by-case trade-offs type assessment, but without giving a high weight to the protection of highly productive soils.

Policy 7 refers to:

When considering an application for subdivision or urban expansion on highly productive land, consent authorities must have regard to: 
a. The alignment of the application with relevant local authority statutory and non-statutory plans and policies relating to urban growth and highly productive land; 
b. The extent to which the subdivision or development will impact on the existing and future use of the land for primary production; 
c. The practical and functional need for the subdivision or urban expansion to occur at that location; 
d. The potential for reverse sensitivity effects and proposed methods to avoid or mitigate potential adverse effects on, and conflicts with, lawfully established activities; and 
e. The benefits (environmental, economic, social and cultural) from the proposed activity compared to the long-term benefits that would occur from the continued or potential use of the land for primary production. 

The discussion document suggests that the intent of these policies is to ensure a simple economic argument that highly productive land is worth more as urban development does not out outweigh the benefits of the continued use of the land for primary production before any private plan changes request or resource consent application is approved.

What is being sought by the policy is a completely different assessment to that which is normally applied to resource consents.  It is an overall broad judgement type assessment of all the costs and benefits, not whether adverse effects are adequately avoided, remedied or mitigated. This type of ‘trade off’ type assessment is a major step away from current practice and will introduce a range of legal and methodological issues, none of which will be easy to resolve.

It may be more effective if the NPS (or an NES) introduced a separate set of ‘tests’ and ‘processes’ to assess the merits of proposed non-primary use of highly productive land, rather than seek to graft onto Section 104 a range of matters that do not relate very well to managing adverse effects.

Note 1: