New Zealand needs a revolution in land use planning

With all of the talk about housing going on, I find it somewhat surprising that no one has attempted to look at the idea of apartment living more closely. Given the lack of flat land in some urban areas and issues that go with reclaimed land, the current trend towards big single story houses and needless landscaping, and the development of infrastructure with more of this wastage in mind, strikes me as absurd.

I personally find the word revolution too emotionally and politically charged to use as a general rule. However there is coming a time in land use planning where it might be the most suitable way of describing the growing need to change how we approach land use planning.

The quarter acre dream is dead. If not it should be. The expansive suburbia ideals of the 1950’s and 1960’s need to be exited from planning. With our limited space, and geographical challenges such as the narrow isthmus in Auckland or the long corridor zones of Wellington, it is simply not realistic to continue to pursue. In its place we need to be prepared to go vertical with residential complexes, have communal vegetable patches in order to teach future generations about self sufficiency.

Planning law needs to become substantially more accommodating to apartment complexes. Too often politicians favour loosening up land zoning changes, such as changing industrial zoning to residential when it needs a substantial clean up first or zoning an area at high risk from flooding to something that permits intensive development. The current thinking  In doing so, the theorem around public transport will hopefully change so that cars have a less of a role in private transport. The idea that if you build where ever the roading network will simply follow suit and everyone can drive themselves, needs to go. Smart cities integrate with bus networks, and – where possible – railway networks.

Is the urban area a rough blob shape with a clearly defined centre? If so, a ring and radial network of roads and railways may work best. It looks like a bike wheel with the radial routes being the spokes, and the ring routes being the rim and so forth. In New Zealand the best example would have been pre-earthquake Christchurch. Globally Tokyo and Moscow provide good examples of such planning theory. This theory worked well prior to the earthquakes of 2010-11, where Christchurch’s bus network looked much like the model described. It might still work in the future if certainty about the reconstruction of the city centre can be obtained.

In the case of Auckland, urban sprawl and a growing motorway network with no real vision other than build more motorways is becoming an increasing problem. I was quite shocked in 1998 to see hectares of land disappearing under new commercial development displacing farms or fruit or vegetable growing businesses. The scale of the development, and the lack of regard that seemed to be given towards issues such as storm water run off, infrastructure and so forth.

I do not know how or when this revolution will start or what form it should take, but it plain to me that the status quo is not working.

When geomorphology and human existence collide

As a natural hazards postgraduate, and one with a natural interest in geomorophological processes, I have been talking to people about their perceptions of the changes wrought by the Waiau earthquake of 14 November 2016. It has been a topic of conversation that people have generally readily participated in.

From these conversations I have deduced that a lot of people – both elected officials trying to sound positive in the face of adversity, and people not really understanding the hidden geomorphological process – do not understand the scale of the changes wrought. There are perceptions that somehow the road and railways will reopen again shortly. There are perceptions that the landslide dam hazard will last only a few weeks and then everything will be back to normal, that rivers will flow like they had before the earthquakes. Unfortunately that is not going to be the case.

One of the numerous effects that the landslide damming of these rivers will have is to change the ecology of them. Some of the smaller landslides will not affect the rivers in the long term, as the river will carve out a channel around the toe of the landslide, which in turn will be washed away or stabilize as a permanent feature. Larger landslides however may semi-permanently dam the rivers whose catchment they occurred in, so that the ecology downstream and how people use the river as a resource change too. The largest landslides will completely dam rivers, leading to one of two outcomes:

  1. The river stablizes, and water is able to safely drain into the river without undermining the dam
  2. A potentially catastrophic dam burst event where the dam fails and a large volume of water potentially in the 000’s m³s-¹ occurs

Following and during the latter outcome, a large amount of sediment will be deposited in a very short time, which will completely relay the layout of the riverbed channels. With channels that were occupied now suddenly buried, that means the water may start flowing down old channels that might not have been occupied since before European settlement. Rivers in Kaikoura and Hurunui Districts are affected by landslides, a list of which can be seen on the Environment Canterbury website:


In the short term with summer coming on and these rivers being popular for fishing, canoeing/kayaking, boating, but also supplying irrigation water to farms and drinking water to a number of small towns, the availability of water could be severely impaired because of the reduced flows. In many small towns where rivers provide recreational opportunities that are the livelihoods of local businesses, the combination of severe flash flood hazards from landslide dams and river levels being too low for jet boat tours, and so forth a lean summer might await. There is also a risk that some of the smaller dams may fail in this time causing short sharp flash flood events where anyone and any property on the affected river bed would be in immediate danger.

In the medium term consents for water takes might change as the long term effects of the landslide dams starts to become clear. Rivers that might have had 15-20 cubic metres per second of flow during summer and be able to allow small takes of water for irrigation might not be able to supply that water any longer. Rivers that have landslide dams on them that are stable, may cease to flow or be reduced so much that any remaining water has to remain in the river just to enable it to perform its ecological and geomorphological functions. In the medium term it will also become clear which rivers will now start to rearrange their floodplains as the volumes of landslide debris that fell into the catchments now starts to get flushed out by floods. Heavy rainfall events causing slips and future earthquakes triggering fresh landslides will happen, potentially causing unforeseen aggradation and avulsion events to start.

The long term will see District and Regional Councils reviewing how they manage landslide dam hazards within their boundaries. They will be forced to examine the legal issues that go with land titles suddenly ending up in a river bed when, under the influence of large volumes of sediment being reworked through their systems, a river begins to avulse to a new course, possibly cutting across properties and livelihoods. Ultimately it will be councils and the central Government talking about how to fund remediation works.

The aftershock sequences might be quieter and the slow quakes in progress under New Zealand might be relieving the faults of accumulated stress. However the geomorphological changes that are coming in the next few years and even decades will affect communities and individuals alike.

Immigration: Not for the “Too Hard Basket”

A column by well known economics commentator Shamubeel Eaqub that was made public today, suggests that immigration is an uncomfortable subject to discuss. It comes at a time when immigration numbers are pushing 70,000 people and property prices in Auckland continue to sky rocket. It comes at a time of almost daily debate among politicians about what to do to fix the problem. And it suggests that nothing simple that can be done about the hot potato that everyone is passing around, but which few seem to have an idea of what to do with.

Actually there is. There is nothing wrong with discussing immigration and in the near future we will have no choice. But before we do, let us get a few things clear now:

  1. We are talking about people wanting to move to New Zealand of their own free will. This is quite different from refugees and asylum seekers, whose cases for coming to New Zealand are quite different.
  2. Every nation has to have this debate at some point and a failure to do so may have us ending up like Britain or France, with a large disgruntled immigrant population that was not planned for by central and regional authorities.
  3. And if we don’t have this discussion the changing geopolitical landscape will force us to have it before very long. So let us start it now, on terms friendly to New Zealand.

The above three points might be stating the bleeding obvious. However there is a lot of deliberate misinformation out there, that is being deliberately fed into the conversational mix to suit certain agenda’s. This is happening against a backdrop of a rare alignment of the political moons in progress – how often do such a broad range of politicians implicitly agree with New Zealand First and its leader Winston Peters that immigration is not sustainable?

Normally the Greens and the Labour Party are at pains to point out their tolerance of diversity. They talk about letting more immigrants into New Zealand, pointing to the rich kaleideoscope of ethnicities in New Zealand and their contributions to our society. But when the number of immigrants arriving each year is the population of some of our smaller cities and the building industry cannot keep pace with building houses for the existing population even their outlook is changing, albeit rather grudgingly.

Let me be honest here. I want New Zealand to remain a beacon of tolerance and diversity. Immigrants do add richly to the social and cultural fabric of our nation. They teach us as much about ourselves as we teach them and the world at large. But for New Zealand to maintain the living standards it does and still be that beacon of tolerance and diversity, immigration has to be kept to a level that our economy and environment can sustain and right now that is not happening.

Every house we build needs as a requirement of various Acts of Parliament a driveway, running water, sewerage and storm water disposal and electricity connections. Somehow that needs to be connected up to existing networks. Do we build outwards or do we go upwards to accommodate these people. All of this costs ratepayers money to maintain. The waste that comes from these households also has to be disposed of in a responsible manner and right now that is not happening.

So let us make immigration sustainable because it will be New Zealand at large and everyone living here who will end up paying if we do not. But to do that, we need to have that honest conversation.



In defence of local government

Over the last few years, New Zealanders have watched a number of changes in the area of local government profoundly changing the way our local councils work.At the same time they have contributed less to the performance of their governing councils by showing less and less interest in local government elections, and the councils performing other statutory functions. And as we come to grips with the fact that only 40% of New Zealanders voted at the recently concluded local government elections, it is perhaps time to set the record straight on their performance.

One example of New Zealanders under appreciating local government is the fact that often ratepayers have not understood what councils are doing and why the plans they put forward for public consultation are important. As a result ratepayers have failed to take the opoortunities to make submissions when councils have called for them on things as diverse as the Annual, 5 year or Long Term Council Community Plan’s. Plans for controversial infrastructure have gone ahead, not because the Council/s in question igored the public, but because the weight of public submissions made was not strong enough to deny the consents being sought.

Are councils perfect? Of course not. One only has to look at the outcry when Ashburton District Council said it wanted to proceed with a bottled water factory. When the public found out about the proposaly to bottle 40 billion litres of water a year, (actually not a very high rate per second) rate payers were outraged at the duplicity and the then Mayor of Ashburton District Angus McKay lost his re-election contest in the recently held local government elections.

Do councils waste money? Yes. The best of many examples I can think of is a piece of art work in the Avon River of Christchurch that best acts – in the absence of doing anything else that is useful, as a rubbish and weed collector. I to this day do not know what the thinking behind plonking it in a river was or why anyone in the council thought it would be of use. Another one, also in Christchurch that I can think of, which has been questionable at best has been the new signposts randomly spread around the Restart.

Do we need all of the local government bodies – 11 Regional Councils, 53 District Councils and 12 City Councils plus two Unitary Authorities – that we have? Possibly not. The West Coast of New Zealand has three district councils – Westland, Grey and Buller – and a Regional Council serving 40,000 people. Compared with say Waimakariri District in Canterbury, which is one of the fastest growing districts in New Zealand, and has more people than the entire West Coast put together, you might say there are too many district councils on the West Coast. But if you reduced the number there, the case could be argued for the reduction of other district councils as well.

Former Christchurch City Councillor David  Close however makes some informed comments about how the councils work – an area he misses though is the Resource Management Act, which is often criticized as being cumbersome. Yes, it is a comprehensive Act. But it replaced 50 pieces of legislation. It also has a vision of sustainability that defines how New Zealand’s environment needs to be managed in the future. Former Councillor Close also points out how the Christchurch City Council had the difficult job of reconciling building closures during the earthquakes with ensuring that they would be safe.

But a council and how it operates is really a reflection on the people and the community that elected it. If the people are disenfranchised then they will not so keenly involve themselves in council related business. And although the Mayoralty of Hamilton turned into a nine vote race, ten votes in support of the other candidate shows how bothering to do ones civic duty – contrary to what Mike Hosking will have one believe – really does work.

Mixed options for improving local government voting

With the dust having largely settled on the weekends election results, and councils getting ready for swearing in ceremonies, it has become clear that a record low turnout of voters has occurred. And given the pride New Zealand places on itself being a democratic nation, this is quite problematic.

It is true that local government elections have never been a terribly high priority for a lot of New Zealanders in terms of their participation in New Zealand democracy. However, when the second largest city in the country has four City Councillors elected unopposed, no one can refute the idea that there is a significant problem that needs to be addressed before the next local government election in 2019. More concerning, is that the percentage of voters who turned out was significantly under 50%. This happened in Christchurch where a number of councillors were re-elected unopposed. Only 39% of the eligible voters turned out. The Environment Canterbury election for seven new councillors in the first elections since Government appointed Commissioners took over in 2010 saw only 37% of voters cast recognized votes.

This cannot be allowed to continue for several reasons. First and foremost these elections are about people whose decision making will have immediate impact on ones rates, civic amenities in their area and future planning for where one lives. The reasons given in one article I read at the weekend, whilst digesting the election results had some unfortunate home truths. So, if we as a nation are going to address this issue, then what are the options?

Since the election cycle ended on Saturday, there have been calls for online voting to be introduced. Whilst this is certainly a credible option that will have rapport with younger generations who tend to be more online, it should not replace the ballot paper and polling booth approach. Not all people are connected to the internet or have a computer capable of an internet connection.

Some people have suggested that New Zealanders simply forget to vote. They point to the three week period over which people can vote and the lack of urgency because it is not on a set date or weekend that all voting has to be done, the potential is there to forget that underneath the bills are your ballot papers. So, one obvious suggestion is to shorten it to a week or weekend. This is my preferred suggestion.

Others say they simply do not care. This is probably true for most of the people who did not vote – it is simply not something that interests or concerns them so they simply ignore it. A good way then to potentially improve the numbers who see a reason for voting, is to introduce a Civics course at school, or merge it with Legal Studies, a course I did at high school. Whilst this is not a sure fire way of addressing voter turnout, it will hopefully encourage conversations about the role of democratic practices such as voting in society.

A fourth, more controversial suggestion is that New Zealand makes voting compulsory. Whilst one of the merits would be a much higher turnout, it also undermines to some extent freedom of choice. And would a box for “no confidence” be added to ballot papers for those that seriously have no confidence? I doubt it.