Andrew Bydder: Planners eroding public choice

OPINION: The late great legendary architect Sir Ian Athfield famously said in 1987: "Planners and local authorities are stupid. Absolutely stupid! They have these rules and they're not worth a tin of s---. They're rules for rules' sake. They don't have any validity. They're changed all the time. So the clever and competent in the architectural profession are the ones that know the rules instead of being clever and competent architectural designers." (quote lifted from Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand).

Our earliest towns began in England before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. The New Zealand Company was marketing settlements to potential colonists and hired the best town planners in London to draw up grids of streets without having ever seen the country. Unlucky arrivals discovered their allocated sections were in swamps or on cliffs. Not a good start.

By the 1870s, our cities were a mess and slums were rife with diseases like typhoid. Town planning reared again under the guise of public health. A survey showed inner-city houses were damp and overcrowded (sounds familiar). Sewers and clean drinking water were introduced, but the driving force behind the plan was landowners wanting to clean up the streets by forcing the poor out.
At the start of the 20th century, the fashion for town planning was the Garden City. Low-density housing was set in park-like surroundings and cul-de-sacs were introduced to encourage social interaction. Strangely, current planners have decided cul-de-sacs are bad.

A Town Planning Act was created in 1926. It required functional zones and a statutory board would vet developments. The latest buzzword - mixed-use development - is against zones. Back then, New Zealand was looking further afield for inspiration, and the Garden City was ditched in favour of the postcard styling of Canberra and Washington, DC.

After World War II, state housing took off (flash forward to KiwiBuild). The grid pattern was ditched in favour of curving streets to break the monotony. Te Ara notes "community centres were built to be the hub of social life. These were not as successful as the planners had hoped: people preferred to socialise with neighbours or at home."

A new Town Planning Act was passed in 1956, recognising the general failure of the first one and introducing more regulation around zones. Urban sprawl took off as the population grew, primarily because of the quarter-acre section. The social engineers of planners hoped that the backyard would be used for growing vegetables. That rarely happened, but our cities are still suffering the consequences of low density. Planners tried to combat sprawl with green belts to contain the growth, but that failed, too.

The next theory to be tried was the satellite city, with decentralised urban growth. Porirua was the only planned one, but state housing dominated and it became a welfare suburb (another lesson for KiwiBuild). The focus on housing provisions meant the other social infrastructure – sports facilities, kindergartens and shopping centres – lagged behind. Te Ara notes "this led critics to slam government planners for creating dysfunctional communities." Another satellite city proposed for Rolleston was dropped.

The car drove change in the latter half of the century. Auckland planners first looked at suburban railways, but decided the low population density required a road-based solution. Motorways took off. Planning historian and author Ben Schrader writes: "Protest over motorway construction marked a turning point in public perceptions of planning. Critics claimed that in their quest to make cities more rational and efficient, planners had left people out of their plans and deadened city life."

A new Town and Country Planning Act in 1977 showed the failure of government planners by making councils responsible for their own schemes. This was a disaster, and by the mid-80s, Schrader says "planning's matrix or rules and regulations … had weakened private property rights and hindered economic growth" and "critics now argued planning was too bureaucratic." The issues were controls on:
* Where people could live and work
* The height and shape of new buildings
* Building densities
* The types of activities permitted on properties
* The degree to which owners could modify properties
That act was ditched in 1991 with the introduction of the Resource Management Act (RMA). Te Ara states: "The ethos was [performance] rather than regulatory. As long as there was no environmental harm, people should be largely free to build as they like … Liberalisation of zoning regulations had encouraged a growth of a vibrant urban café culture and a return to inner-city living."

But the RMA is still administered by council planners. History reveals that the planning bureaucracy has never understood how cities evolve and is as much a victim of fashionable theories as the average teenager. The problems faced by urban environments are the products of planners' interventions. The RMA was controversial, often difficult, occasionally adversarial, but still a step in the right direction. It gave the public the opportunity to come up with solutions. Unfortunately it seems this was too much for some planners and over the last decade, they have reintroduced every control from 1987 – and then some.

We are going backwards and I think Sir Ian would be disappointed.

* Andrew Bydder is spokesman for the Hamilton Residents & Ratepayers Association and an architect. 


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