Rod Oram: What about the cities?

Rod Oram writes in his weekly column that our environmental problems in urban areas are just as intense as those in rural areas. But they are different and poorly understood, as this election campaign shows.

When cockies get angry with townies for pushing swimmable rivers, for example, they accuse townies of being hypocrites. Just look at the state of urban rivers and streams!

Right idea. Wrong target.

Many urban waterways are a mess. But they account for barely 2 percent of the nation’s rivers and streams. The problems with water are overwhelmingly rural.

But we townies are hypocrites for damaging our urban environment. We plan badly, use land wastefully, underinvest in homes, infrastructure, civic amenities and environmental systems, and devalue our landscapes, coasts and water – fresh and salt.

We criticise cockies for high nitrate levels in water. Well, our emissions of nitrogen oxides from vehicles are second only to Mexico’s in the OECD.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re failing to reap the deeper economic benefit of fast-growing urban areas. Wages are higher than in rural areas but productivity and wage growth is equally sluggish.

The reason is most of our urban economic activity comes from meeting the needs of the local population rather than producing high value, sophisticated products and services to sell to the world. Barely 15 percent of Auckland’s economic activity, for example, has such a desirable profile.

When cities work well, they are powerful hubs for productivity, job creation, and innovation. This is known as the agglomeration effect. Globally, cities account for 80% of GDP. But they also account for 70 percent of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, according to the work of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

Thus the challenge is to design, build and run cities in ways that maximise the economic benefits and minimise the environmental impact. The two work hand-in-hand, though. An attractive built-environment, which uses natural resources wisely and is well served by public transport, is a delightful place to live and work.

Our nitrogen emissions from vehicles are among the worst in the world.

Most of our cities are expanding to accommodate their growing populations. The built-up areas of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch increased by about 10 percent over 2001-13, while Hamilton (+16 percent) and Tauranga (+25 percent) grew even faster.

But we’re doing it badly, the OECD concluded in its once-a-decade report on our environmental performance, published in March.

“Overall, the urban planning system has responded poorly to the challenges and opportunities arising from urban development. The system has been a substantial barrier to increasing housing supply and providing network infrastructure in Auckland and other fast-growing cities. As such, it has contributed to rising house prices, missed benefits from agglomeration and increased environmental pressures from infrastructure bottlenecks.”

Here are three Auckland examples the OECD didn’t give but they tell powerful stories.

1. The East West Link is a new road the government wants to build to connect SH1 at Mount Wellington with SH20 at Onehunga. The length is barely 6km, much of it along the shore of the Manukau Harbour

The estimated cost is at least $1.8bn and likely to rise. Yet $2bn is the sum government, farmers and councils will spend between now and 2040 to make 90% of New Zealand rivers and lakes swimmable, Environment Minister Nick Smith announced on August 9.

So, what does $2bn buy the people of New Zealand? 6km of four-lane road interrupted by four sets of traffic lights in Auckland? Or 30,000km plus of swimmable rivers and thousands of swimmable lakes?

But the cost of the highway is far higher than $2bn. Much greater is the additional cost of the highway in terms of the damage it would inflict on Auckland’s quality of life and the city’s prospects for developing itself into a thriving, internationally renowned place to live and work.

Voters should also ask a question of themselves: how can each of us help create a distinctive New Zealand urbanism, one that matches our natural environment for capturing the imagination of people the world over?

This is the longest and best stretch of coast on the isthmus ripe for redeveloping into a waterfront, high quality residential, mixed use and recreational neighbourhood other cities would envy. But the waterfront highway would kill that opportunity.

The alternative of a substantial upgrade of Neilson St would deliver similar traffic benefits, at much lower cost, and with much greater development potential for the neighbourhood.

Some other cities understand this. For example, New York City recently announced the demolition of the Sheridan Expressway so the South Bronx could reconnect with the banks of the Bronx River. Portland, Oregon, was the pioneer in such revitalisations with its demolition of its Harbor Drive in the mid-1970s.

This week, Aidan Hill, an Onehunga resident, and I gave a submission to the Board of Inquiry on the East West Link. We included a survey capturing local residents’ highly negative response to the road proposal, analysis of the impact of the road, and some examples of best practice abroad of urban design collaboration between citizens and government on such crucial infrastructure.

2. The health of the Hauraki Gulf is declining rapidly because of the impacts of urban development and farming around it and over-exploitation of its marine life.

Sea Change, a spatial plan for turning that around, was launched last December. It was the product of four years’ collaboration by stakeholders, similar to the Land and Water Forum’s work on freshwater. It was the first marine spatial plan in New Zealand and the first in the world to integrate land and marine spatial plans.

But it’s sinking without a trace because central government and the relevant regional and district councils simply lack the legislation, initiative and imagination to begin the work of restoring the Gulf.

3. Auckland is short of at least 40,000 homes, if not more. Yet, consents for dwelling units will peak at just over 13,000 a year in 2020 then decline thereafter. By comparison, the previous peak was 12,182 in 2002.

These, and equally damning statistics on infrastructure construction, are in the government’s latest National Construction Pipeline report published a month ago.

That home-building capacity in Auckland, and indeed the country, is barely greater today than 20 years ago is a catastrophic failure by government and business. Yes, the planning system needs big changes, as the OECD identifies. But even when land is freed up, too few homes are being built because of the chronic lack of construction capacity.

For example, the 154 Special Housing Areas had mixed results. More than half of them were scrapped without any homes being built. In addition, some developers sat on the land or found ways to avoid a requirement to make a share of the homes affordable.

In this election, National and Labour have made rafts of proposals for dealing with some of these deep problems with our urban built-environments. But most of their proposals are unconvincing to varying degrees.

Most fundamentally, neither they, nor any other parties, have suggested comprehensive strategies for greatly increasing the scale, innovation, cost-effectiveness and quality of the construction sector. Without that, our built-environment will fail to keep up with population growth, which in turn will compromise our economic progress and blight our natural environment.

Likewise, they are weak on the economic development policies urban New Zealand needs to engage more fruitfully with the global economy.

While all these issues are extremely complex, a simple question brings some election clarity: Which parties seem to be the most focused on the future, the most willing to conceive new policies to deliver on it?

On that score, Labour and Greens, for all their short-comings, offer more than National.

But voters should also ask a question of themselves: how can each of us help create a distinctive New Zealand urbanism, one that matches our natural environment for capturing the imagination of people the world over?

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