Living differently in a modern city

I’ve often thought, as I’ve looked along wide suburban streets with no people in them, that if we took from the houses all the front lawns or grassy berms, which are virtually unused apart from being mown every week or two, and amalgamated them, we would have far more parks than we have now. Or maybe community food producing spaces like Te Rito Gardens and the food forest we’re developing in Pukerua Bay. That would give us more space to gather as communities, more places for our kids to play together safely, and provide oases of green to break up the monotony of many of our streets.

That’s a big thing for someone trained in landscaping and garden design to say. Getting rid of the inviting front yard, with the welcoming path that leads visitors to the house entrance, and the shrubs that provide a buffer between the house and the road, particularly in a suburban area, really goes against the grain. Waikato Times columnist Nicola Martin discussed different city living in a column a few weeks ago (Kiwis and Nimbyism when it comes to living in high-rise, high-density developments). The thing that struck me the most was her statement that 95 per cent of the people of the Norwegian capital, Olso, live no more than 300 metres from a green space. How many of us can say that?

But, it wouldn’t be easy to convince councils to create more of these green spaces. Grass needs to be mown, gardens need to be weeded, trees and shubs need pruning, and rubbish needs to be picked up. Currently, residents do that for free on their own land or the council’s road berm, and councils would not be keen to ask them to pay for that through their rates if the council became responsible for maintaining many more parks.

This is not just a planning change; it’s a big cultural change. Many of us are still wedded to the quarter acre paradise, our own detached home on a section with room for a vege garden, space to park the boat trailer and both cars, and room for the kids to run around or ride their bikes. However, with land such a large component of the price of a residential section (60 per cent on average across the country and 70 per cent in Auckland) for many of us, that is becoming a luxury we struggle to afford.

But there’s a cost to not having spaces to gather in. Communities like Pukerua Bay, where I have lived for 30 years, expose how what appear to be close communities can be fractured by their structure (in our case, State Highway 1 cutting the village in half) and lack of common spaces. Pukerua Bay has what seems to be a fairly tight community, but once you dig into it, you discover that it is almost entirely based around our local school and kindergarten. At any time, they have 150–200 families with children attending. However, we have more than 700 households in Pukerua Bay. If you don’t have young children, then you aren’t part of that kindy/school community. Once your children leave primary school, that community starts to drift away and all you are left with is some smaller, established friend groups. The only reason I know so many younger families here is because I have stayed involving in running the local junior soccer club for the past 14 years. Without that, I would know virtually none of them.

Loneliness is one of our fastest growing social problems, particularly as society ages, and the way communities are designed to keep people apart will continue to make this a growing problem. We can see how many elderly people, who may have been quite isolated when living in their own self-contained homes, suddenly find themselves part of a community of new friends and acquaintances when they sell up and move to a retirement village. There is a strong cultural urge for privacy in New Zealand pākehā society, and I don’t think the influence of other cultures, particularly Māori and Pacific, has reduced that by much.

We can start to break down this isolating privacy and make a change to closer communities. However, tackling this isn’t something that local councils can do on their own, and we shouldn’t expect them to. The problems don’t belong to them; they belong to all of us, so it’s something we all should be involved in. And the beauty of it is that it can include everyone and anyone — from the youngest children to the oldest people in our communities. Just like a real family.

Campaign speech

We had our second-to-last ‘meet the candidates’ community meeting tonight in Paremata. We got three to five minutes to talk at each one. If you weren’t able to get along to any of them, here’s my campaign stump speech.

Tēnā koutou katoa. Ko Iain MacLean ahau.

What sort of community do you want to live in?

Infrastructure and how much it costs is critically important. But that’s only part of what council does. It also helps build communities.

I’m focused on three, closely related areas. The first is sustainable development.

I want all our communities — new and existing — to work well for everyone. Porirua’s population is expected to grow by about 50 per cent over the next 30 years. And many of these people will be living in the northern growth area, between Pukerua Bay and Plimmerton/Camborne, as well as in Porirua east.

This growth is going to affect all of us and have huge impacts on our environment, the surrounding communities and infrastructure, and ratepayers — that’s most of us — will pay many of the bills. Growth can create opportunities, but it needs to be affordable.

And it needs to be sustainable — socially and economically — and environmentally, so we can protect precious places like Taupō Swamp and the inlet, and not contribute to climate change.

We need to reduce the impacts on local traffic, and ensure we all have good access to high quality public transport, and services such as new schools.

My second focus area is strong communities.

Our Village Planning Programme has seen an explosion in community democracy, and we’ve gone from four residents associations to 14. We can expand on that incredible growth.

Council should empower all our communities so they can build on their strengths, based on principles of social equity and equal opportunities for everybody. And we need to give all our young people more say about the future of their communities, and get them involved in creating the communities they want.

My third focus area is a healthy environment.

It’s under stress — and growth and climate change will make it worse.

Council has the power to do a lot of good here. It can choose sustainable and low carbon options in its work, and take strong action to protect our environment. This includes working with rural landowners and developers to support them to reduce the environmental impacts of farming and forestry, and residential developments. Householders need to play their part in this, too.

I’m encouraged by the proposed district plan, which seems to be on the right track with this.

The erosion we’ve already seen around our coast recently is only going to get worse with sea level rise, and we need to prepare for the impacts of climate change. That’s going to be one of the most important functions of future councils.

We all know how high our rates are. Prudent management of the council’s finances is essential, and you will hear many suggestions for that tonight. But tweaking our current budget won’t tackle the big issue of how we pay for growth.

Our current system of funding local government, with its heavy reliance on a property tax, won’t cope with the high growth we are experiencing in Porirua, and it needs to change.

The government is looking at this now — in a small way through the Productivity Commission — and we have to strongly support any opportunity for real reform, and work with others in the sector to make it happen.

I’ve been involved in our Pukerua Bay community for many years, and I’ve been the chair of the Residents Association for the past nine.

I’ve been a strong advocate for our community with the city and regional councils, and the likes of NZTA and KiwiRail. The people in these organisations generally like working with me — not because I’m a pushover, but because I am have established good, productive, working relationships with them and focus on the solutions, rather than the problems.

I’ve seen council up close from working there, and I know being effective takes a team effort.

That’s how I have worked for Pukerua Bay for many years. And that’s how I would work on council, for the good of all our local communities.

Pauatahanui Inlet Guardians’ survey

The Guardians of Pauatahanui Inlet asked candidates about their priorities for the inlet. This is what I told them I would focus on.

What are the challenges facing the inlet?

The inlet is facing multiple challenges from the impacts of development in the catchments, both existing and planned. The large earthworks from Transmission Gully, existing subdivisions in Whitby/Pauatahanui, and farming activities all add to the burden on the inlet. There has been plenty of research by Regional Council and others into the impacts human activites are having. Sediment buildup is clogging the harbour and harming the ecosystems and creatures that live there, and destroying biodiversity.

The poor state of much of our wastewater and stormwater infrastucture means the harbour and inlet regularly suffer pollution in heavy rain.

The topography of Porirua means most of the planned urban and industrial development is in harbour catchments, and it all present a risk to the health of the harbour.

What are your priorities for the inlet?

Reduce sedimentation and stormwater runoff from earthworks and developments.
Reduce impact of farming (stock effluent and other landuse activities) and forestry on waterways that feed into the harbour.

Minimise impact of roading and transport activities (e.g. heavy metals and fuel discharges from vehicles, etc) running into harbour. Good road design to prevent harm caused by vehicles.

What would you do about these challenges and priorities if you’re elected?

There are rules and plans galore around the harbour. Everyone agrees that we need to take action to protect and improve the state of the harbour and Pauatahanui Inlet.

Stormwater and wastewater infrastucture needs to be upgraded urgently. Council has allocated funding in the LTP, and it’s crucial it sticks to these intentions.

We need public education on how residents can protect the harbour, with simple steps we can all take to help clean it up.

Ensure the proposed District Plan includes strict enough measures to minimise the impact of development.

Work closely with Regional Council so both councils support each other’s monitoring and compliance of activities in harbour catchments. Support implementation of Porirua Whaitua committee recommendations into regional plans and strategies.

Work with rural landowners to help them minimise the impacts of their activities on the harbour and catchments.

Ensure council allocates longterm funding for remediation and protection activities.

Common Climate Network survey

Here are the answers I provided to the Common Climate Network survey of candidates on climate change (one of several surveys on climate change).

Vision for future in one tweet

(If you were looking back at the decisions the council made about climate change, what would you like to say in a tweet?)
We had made sure that new developments were climate change resilient and reduced emissions, council had chosen low emission operational options, and we had minimised the impact of sea level rise on coastal communities.

Inclusive transition

Transition to low carbon economy
Council has a responsibility to be aware of the consequences of its policy decisions and actions on climate change. PCC will soon prepare a climate change response strategy, which it will include in its next long term plan. This would be a suitable place for the council to be involved in groups working across the economy and community regarding training and infrastructure that supports or enables a low carbon economy. It can use its procurement policies to support businesses working like this. However, individual business opportunities should be left to the market to take advantage of.

Tangata whenua
Council appears to have a good relationship with tangata whenua, who have opportunities for influence at the highest levels of council. Everything the council does on behalf of communities should be done in partnership with them. It should use its relationships to be empowering communities to develop their resources and strengths. Those relationships should ensure that tangata whenua are able to influence the council’s decisions and actions. This should just be part of the council’s culture and why it does things the way it does.

Pacific involvement
Council should be working closely with Pacific communities and networks so they have equal opportunities to influence decisions and get the outcomes their communities want. I think PCC generally does this, but we can always do better.

Diversity & social equity
The council’s work with different communities should not be in a top-down manner, where council is ‘in charge’ of the city and runs it in the way it thinks is best. Councils should be working with its communities to help them develop into the types of communities the members want them to be. These will differ for different communities, but the council should operate under some basic principles of social equity and universal opportunity for everyone. We’re such a diverse community here in Porirua, so it should just be a natural part of how council operates to involved everyone in its work, planning and decisions. It’s really important that the young people from right across all of our communities are involved in decision-making and community-building. Once again, I believe council needs to empower different communities to build on their strengths in order to become what they want, with the same opportunities for everyone.

Working constructively

Change can be hard and can take longer than we want. Plans, coalitions and policies are important, but to make change stick, we have to involve everyone who can bring their strengths and enthusiasm to it. A meaningful and lasting response to climate change will involve changing habits and entrenched interests that have developed over generations. Councils have to make it easy for people to ‘do the right thing’ and provide incentives for them to do so. I don’t have any vested interests beyond a desire for people and communities to work together to create the solutions that will work for them. That has to include everyone. Many people from all parts of our communities are concerned about the impacts of climate change, and want to be part of the solution. Council needs to help them find the ones that works for them. You nearly always get a better result when everyone is involved constructively.

Actions to support clean transport

We know that people in Porirua are enthusiastic public transport users. If we build park & ride opportunities, people will use them. The new developments planned for our city are excellent opportunities to develop clean transport systems based around public transport hubs (normally train stations) with feeder bus routes from nearby communities. New developments should also be build around cycling and walking as the main means for short trips (to the shops, school, public transport or visiting friends). Council should be investing in electric or hybrid cars as it replaces its fleet vehicles and removing any impediments to electric charging stations in the city. We shouldn’t be encouraging new big box retail developments that encourage people to drive long distances to go shopping in the weekends.

Energy efficiency

Energy efficiency pays for itself, and council should always default to energy efficient options. Project planning and return on investment calculations should include the long-run operating costs (with efficient options) so council doesn’t chose the cheapest initial option that costs more to run in the long-term. That might require some changes to financial policies and the way project managers operate their budgets, and I would support changes to result in long-term savings.

Waste reduction emissions

I don’t know enough about this to give a considered answer.

Urban development

I believe all future urban development should be compact and based around existing transport hubs as much as possible. More compact development can satisfy both environmental concerns and housing affordability, and help create closer and stronger communities. PCC has a growth strategy that favours compact development, but it ought to be the preferred option for all developments. However, it does assume significant population growth (50 per cent in 30 years) and that will inevitably result in more greenfields developments. All new developments must satisfy high standards of water containment and sediment run-off, and include a diverse mixture of recreation opportunities that protect vegetation and waterways as much as possible.

Governance experience

I take a very collaborative approach to getting things done, and finding solutions to issues. I’m used to working in teams, both in my jobs and in community groups I’ve been involved in. I’ve been the chair of the Pukerua Bay Residents Association for nine years, and have developed a reputation as someone who focuses on finding solutions, rather then escalating or continuing problems.

Government’s urban development intentions laudable, but funding is still a problem

There’s a lot to like about the government’s National Policy Statement on Urban Development, released yesterday. Its intentions to allow cities to grow up around city centres and transport connections take advantage of the efficiencies you can get from more compact growth. And the desire to create “high and medium density communities with good urban design and open spaces” while avoiding all the downsides of sprawl at urban margins is right on the money as far as I’m concerned.

This is exactly what we should be promoting in Porirua as the city grows. But, there are funding problems we need to deal with now.

It correctly identifies that the current planning failures include urban land markets not enabling developments to keep up with growth and ensure land is affordable (and the price of land is the killer for housing affordability), and poorly integrated transport systems that don’t reduce our dependency on travelling by car. Its objectives are good, “…ways to make our urban markets perform better by making room for growth, making sure growth pays for itself, investing in transport to drive more efficient and liveable urban forms, and ensuring healthy and active travel is more attractive.” These are all good from an environmental, social and fiscal point of view.

Everybody seems to be on the same page about more intensive urban development. The proposals are totally in line with PCC’s Growth Strategy on more compact development around transport hubs and in greenfields developments. It also suggests doing away with the restrictions on car parks in intensively developed areas, which I suggested in a recent blog — insisting on two off-road car parks for new houses larger than 75m2 is a disincentive to more compact housing.

I like that the proposed NPS extends its coverage to include the amenity, environmental and cultural aspects of development and “quality urban environments.” This can give the existing community and council better opportunities to plan for future change, and get away from the current bias towards the status quo, which represents the interests of current residents to the detriment of future residents, who don’t have a voice until after development has happened (by which time, it’s often too late or too hard to change).

I haven’t had time to analyse this NPS in detail and compare it to PCC’s 30-year Growth Strategy, but it seems to be along the same lines. However, the Growth Strategy was prepared under the 2016 National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity, which this new NPS replaces and adds to. Cities like Porirua would be required to prepare new Future Development Strategies (FDS) under the NPS. These have to set minimum bottom lines for residential development capacity and enable intensification — both of which the PCC Growth Strategy does. I hope this does not mean PCC has to prepare a whole new growth Strategy/Future Development Strategy — that would be a real waste of time, effort and money to have to redo all the work developing it last year.

However, it looks like councils would have to prepare a new FDS every three years that look out over the medium to long term. Sounds like the current Long Term Plan process, which is very time consuming — more cost for councils!

Infrastructure funding is still a problem

However, there’s still a gaping hole in this, which is paying for new infrastructure. Councils are having to pick up the tab for a lot of this, despite getting development contributions to reduce the impact on current residents. PCC’s new Development Contibutions Policy (approved by Council yesterday) is an attempt to get developers to pick up more of the cost of this. That’s only fair — they should pay the marginal cost of adding each new house to the existing networks (even if they just pass it onto the buyers).

But that doesn’t cover all the cost to the existing community. This is a huge problem for all growth councils, and central government isn’t doing enough to help. Successive governments have encourage immigration because it boosts economic growth and provides skills New Zealand hasn’t been able to provide locally. I generally support that. The government benefits through the increased income taxes and GST it receives, but councils have to pick up most of the bill for infrastructure. Central government pays for some, such as transport, but as Auckland and Wellington Councils and Greater Wellington Regional Council know, getting money from the government to fund new transport capacity is hard work.

This growth, which Porirua is now facing, needs better funding from government. The only way to do this is through a major overhaul of how local government is funded. Central government isn’t keen on doing that because it doesn’t want to share the tax booty from population growth, and existing ratepayers don’t want to pay because they don’t see why they should when many of the benefits of growth go to central government. Bernard Hickey discusses this on Newsroom.

Without major reform of local government funding, we’re just fiddling at the edges, and these good ideas will not be as effective as we need them to be. We need central government to come to the party, and local politicians to face up to the size of the problem and realise that we can’t fix the problems by ourselves (which will lead to failure if we try), or just shift the costs onto the next generation (which is completely unfair).

With Porirua’s population expected to grow by 50 percent in the next 25–30 years from developments already well into the planning phases, we need to tackle this now.

New schools for northern ward

We need schools in new developments before existing local schools run out of room

As our population grows in Porirua, we’ll need more of the social services we expect in our city. One of them is new schools.

The Plimmerton Farm development will add another 5,000 people to that part of town, which will included a few hundred school-aged children. What schools will they go to? The surrounding primary schools — Plimmerton, St Theresa’s, Pukerua Bay and Paremata — don’t have the room to take another couple of classrooms each without giving up even more space on their grounds.

It takes the Ministry of Education two years from the time it decides to build a school until it hands the keys to the community. And it takes a few years to make the decision to build the school. So, the sooner the community can start to plan for new schools, the better. The Council has a role in this — bringing the community, Ministry of Education and other people together to start the process. So, when the community has grown to a size that it needs a new school, it has one.

Council should push urban intensification

Most of the growth we’re expecting in Porirua is in greenfields developments, however I think we should also be encouraging intensification of existing built-up areas.

When the council was developing its Growth Strategy last year, I told PCC that in a submission on the benefits of intensification versus greenfields development.

If cities can accommodate population growth at higher densities, or within existing urban areas, or both, then you need less greenfield land for new housing. Under the government’s National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity, PCC has to make available enough land for the projected growth. The availability of suitable land is an issue in the Wellington region and is a limit to growth.

Research shows that when density increases beyond a certain level, car use declines in favour of public transport, walking, and cycling. That means fewer car parks needed in commercial areas, and fewer CO2 emissions. Spreading out over greenfields developments increases the number of cars driven and the distance they’re driven, with more CO2 emissions.

If you have surplus infrastructure capacity in urbanised areas, adding more people to these areas makes more efficient use of public urban infrastructure such as the three waters, as well as “soft” infrastructure such as schools and social services.

There is less water runoff than there would be from new roads and paths in new subdivisions, which is an important issue for Porirua, where a lot of the water from new developments will go into the harbour or possibly threaten Taupō Swamp.

There is a greater choice in housing — size, style and cost — and increased security for residents, with greater opportunities for social interaction and support.

It’s also a lot cheaper. According to research from Curtin University, quoted in a presentation to a Planning Institute conference in 2013 comparing infrastructure costs (services, transport & health) for 1,000 dwellings (in $AUD):

  • Infill housing infrastructure costs = $309m
  • Expansion housing infrastructure costs = $653m

That’s more than double the price for new infrastructure in new developments. That alone must be very strong reason for council to favour more compact developments, or encouraging in-fill house in existing built up areas.

Development in already urbanised areas would play to our city’s strengths rather than spreading our resources over an ever-wider territory.

I know it’s not universally popular — not everyone wants more neighbours living closer to them — but I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages of both intensification and its alternatives.

PCC is intending to make intensification easier in the new District Plan, which is great. However, PCC needs to actively encourage intensification. The District Plan can remove barriers and restrictions, but it’s disappointing the Growth Strategy didn’t make intensification the preferred option over greenfields developments (or at least equal to it). It does assume there will be more intensification and I think PCC should look at incentives for people wanting to subdivide that would encourage them. Forget about a level playing field — it should skew the field in favour of higher density housing in existing urban areas.

For instance, the District Plan insists on two off-road car parks for every dwelling larger than 75m2, which is based on an assumption all households have two cars and don’t use other means of transport, e.g. train or bus. This means many subdivided sections will have to provide four off-road carparks, which might mean intensification is not feasible. Is that sensible around public transport hubs? If intensification is going to be encouraged around those hubs, that requirement should be relaxed to also encourage intensification.

Intensification should also be encouraged in new developments. This should be a condition of new developments because many of the benefits of intensification of existing urban areas, especially the social, housing affordability and environmental ones, can come from more intensive new developments. The first stage of Plimmerton Farm is fairly intensive, and PCC should be looking at this as a model for further developments.

RMA reform looks sensible

The government announced today that it was launching a major review of the Resource Management Act. Environment Minister David Parker said that the comprehensive review of the RMA would “cut complexity and costs and better enable urban development, while also improving protection of the environment.”

The other problem the government identified is that the RMA limits the opportunities for public participation, which is absolutely fundamental to giving people a say about what happens in their neighbourhood.

There’s no doubt that the RMA has become more complex and unwieldy in the past 30 years. It’s apparently twice its original length, and all the amendments have made it more complicated without protecting the environment.

Freshwater quality is getting worse and the RMA isn’t aligned with Climate Change Response legislation.

The objectives are:

  • Removing unnecessary complexity from the RMA.
  • Strengthening environmental bottom lines, and further clarifying Part 2 (i.e. sustainable development).
  • Recognising objectives for development (including housing and urban development and infrastructure networks and projects).
  • Ensuring the system has sufficient resilience to manage risks posed by climate change and other natural hazards.
  • Considering an explicit ability to restore or enhance the natural environment.
    Aligning land use planning and regulation with infrastructure planning and funding through spatial planning.
  • Considering whether or not to separate statutory provision for land use planning and environmental protection.
  • Ensuring that the RMA aligns with the purpose and processes outlined in the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act (once passed).
  • Ensuring that Māori have a role in the resource management system.

They all seem pretty reasonable to me, particularly the stronger environmental protection. There is some comment in the information about whether local authorities need all the powers they have. Some people think the RMA gives councils too much power. However, I wouldn’t support reducing councils powers without very good reason because of their role as the community’s representative in many of these matters. In fact, Parker says amendments due soon will reverse some of the changes the previous government brought in. An important one for councils is repealing powers the Environment Minister has to make regulations that override council rules.

Anything that makes the process of approving developments smoother and better for the environment has to be good for councils in cities like Porirua that growing fast.

Given that the RMA annoys just about everyone who has anything to do with it, but in different ways, means the outcome is unlikely to please everyone. The Act is designed to find a middle path between different interests, which will still exist. Still, the fact that all the supportive comments I’ve seen today come from different groups that you wouldn’t normally expect to agree tells me the government’s onto a winner here. At least until the panel reports to the government about how it should amend the act.