Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Planning Imperative

Urban designer Garth Falconer identifies a lot of the problems in post-quake Christchurch. But he misses, I think, the bigger point.

First, the good stuff. Falconer rightly notes that downtown Christchurch remains similar to a bomb-site. We were there during some actual bombing a few weeks ago, when they blew up the former police station. He rightly worries whether there could be enough business demand for downtown high-end offices with everyone having moved out to the burbs. And he's very right that CERA has failed.

But he's wrong on one small issue and one big one.

On the small side, he says that residential housing in Christchurch is limited to the East by the sea. This is true, but only in the trivial sense. There is plenty of land available for housing in the east, but the infrastructure is a disaster.

Until August of last year, we lived firmly in the East - in South New Brighton. Imagine an arm where you've put on a tourniquet tight enough that it'll go gangrenous and die, but it can still move around a bit for now. The fingers don't quite know the whole score but they know they don't like what's going on. That's the east side of Christchurch. The gangrene has set in. It's not all like that, but enough of it is that the area as a whole feels pretty doomed.

The city's economic centre of gravity has shifted substantially westward, and lengthier commutes along wrecked and depressing streets appeal to few. Every time Council prioritises downtown cycleways over fixing east side bridges, they tighten that tourniquet just a little bit more. It's pretty easy to then get into self-reinforcing downward spirals: economically active people move out West to where the jobs are, and those who are left make it harder to attract either economically active people or new businesses to the area. Maybe there's still a chance to anchor something good around the Brighton Mall, but it's grim. Our house, fresh from a really rather good opt-out earthquake repair, still took months to sell and finally sold for a bit under rateable value - in the midst of a Christchurch housing crisis. Plenty of demand on the east side for lower tier housing, but not so much for places a few notches up the scale.

But that's the minor point.

Bigger picture, Falconer blames poor design - that Council and central government didn't have the right plan. He recommends (as one option) five-level residential buildings with downstairs retail. But that sort of thing was already in one of the many downtown plans - I think it had a seven-story limit. The problem rather was that for want of the perfect plan, Council, CERA and the CCDU held everything up downtown until everybody realised they needed to move the heck out of the zone of central control. They made the best the enemy of the good enough, and Falconer reckons the problem was that the plan just wasn't best-enough. Further, he complains about how the retail development is going to be too expensive for most businesses without noting that this is a direct result of the planners' efforts: they deliberately sought to restrict downtown land availability to push up prices and set design requirements to prevent lower-rent developments.

The lesson of Christchurch isn't the importance of getting the plan right; it's rather that, sometimes, you do far better with a very light planning touch. Quickly announce where key facilities will be placed so that private developers can decide where to move; facilitate lots of public information about who has decided to rebuild where so that the next folks down the line can plan around it (if you're putting up a hotel, maybe I want to put a bar nearby); make it easy for developers to make contact with land owners to facilitate site accumulation for larger projects; and, commit to what infrastructure's going to be provided really early on so that you don't have nonsense like tearing down newly rebuilt buildings because government's just decided to make Manchester Street 9 meters wider. And for the love of all that's holy light a fire under your consenting office that approvals be granted quickly and there be no regime uncertainty.

The problem wasn't that they chose the wrong plan for Sim City; it's rather that the planners figured they were playing Sim City.


  1. I'd pay 4x purchase price for a Island that's free and clear of encumbrances of Greek sovereignty and I know several groups that would to, but you'd want a letter from Turkey at the same time saying they will make no claim.


  2. They also forgot that they needed a "meatball rebuild": http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.co.nz/2014/04/meatball-surgery-and-disaster-recovery.html

  3. Yes, I laughed at this when I read it in the paper--after correctly identifying the problem, his solution is to advocate more of what caused the problem in the first place.

    I almost stopped reading at "Christchurch needs an inspiring, integrating, resourceful and challenging focus on design.", but his dismissive comment about my current, still-temporary, domicile (Parklea Ave) made it worth continuing. Interestingly, my neighbours--and there are a lot of them--all seem very happy with where they're living. They must be part of the 38%.

    On one thing everybody now seems to agree though--CERA has been a disaster.

  4. Just mind-boggling that they've been trying this approach for 4+ years of failure, and the plan is to keep right on doing it.

    I'm actually dreading wandering about the CBD when we visit in August. I expect it to be insanely depressing.

  5. Head out to New Brighton if you want depressing.

  6. There's a fundamental difference in outlook here between the planners and the economists. I've never had a conversation with a planner where I felt that they understood the world as I saw it, or were even sympathetic to the problems that I raised. I once asked a planner what planning was all about, to which she responded darkly "control". I queried what happens when the person who has that control doesn't know what they're doing, and she said that if that happens, you're stuffed.

    In short, if you're a free market economists, urban planners are the enemy, without any exaggeration. Always have been.

  7. Couple of thoughts on why the Left insist inequality is a worsening problem even when the data says it isn't.
    1. Too many assume it is a worsening problem under a centre-Right government and not enough people are so willing to look at the data to hold anyone contradicting the data to account.
    2. If the rich aren't getting richer at the expense of the poor the Left has no reason to exist. This is core narrative. So the Left will insist despite all evidence because the question is electorally significant. Lying is cheaper than agreeing, at least while only a few point are pointing to the data. So keep pointing!