Time to stop playing catch up with our city planning

November 29, 2021

While other global cities have found ways to adapt to the demands of modern life, our main centres here in NZ remain shaped by the fairly binary premise of maintaining a geographic disconnect between home and work; one that that historically prioritised nine-and-five car access between the two points for dad, while mum managed the suburban home and 2.4 kids.

Where we live influences – and without progress, limits – how we live. And so in a world that is now so joyously non-binary, changes to the way our cities function are now long overdue.

One of the recurring themes of our Future Cities events we held earlier this year in Wellington and Auckland was the notion that COVID hadn’t brought about change, it had simply accelerated it. All of a sudden, the future is right here upon us, and we need to start making the overdue changes that will support us through today’s world and prepare us for tomorrow’s.

It’s become a common trope to say that in the future we will live in Smart Cities. But the irony of Smart Cities is that they don’t build themselves. Rather they require us to put politicking and short-term self-interest aside to ensure the environments we live in are both sustainable and resilient.

To borrow a phrase from Property Council CEO Leonie Freeman, this will demand collective impact.

Over the next decade we expect the population of Auckland to swell by 12%. To provide some scale, this will see it absorb almost the entirety of Wellington’s current population over this time.

But it’s not just a numbers game, nor is it just about fixing the generic housing crisis, for which the silver bullet solution search has become something of a media obsession. Rather, and rather boringly, it’s about ensuring land use responds to our current and future needs and is supported by infrastructure that allows us to lower our environmental impact.

We need to make changes and choices that prioritise convenience, not expedience. And this cuts across our entire property spectrum.

One of the changes accelerated by Covid has been the headwind faced by traditional retail, as we gravitate towards the convenience of E and now Q (Quick) Commerce. At the heart of the Q commerce model is having logistics and warehousing facilities located close enough to suburban centres to effect one-hour deliveries.

We know we’re going to need significantly more logistics space, but to do this we potentially take up the space for much needed new standalone homes. So, what do we prioritise? The wants of our current population or the needs of our future?

The good news is that we don’t have to sacrifice one for the other; we just need to make smarter choices around the type of new homes we’re building and recognise that one size no longer fits all. Within the housing continuum there are two specific asset classes that I believe are key to the sustainability of our cities. The first of these is the retirement village sector.

New Zealand’s population is ageing – and with our senior citizens staying fit, healthy and active for longer, our research has flagged a looming shortfall in retirement village accommodation. To my mind, it’s vital that our village operators are encouraged to develop the type of villages that appeal to our new ‘young old’ as without these, the continuum will grind to a slow crawl.

Catering largely for those at the other end of the age spectrum, the emergence of the Build to Rent (BTR) sector is of equal if not greater importance. So much of our cities’ rental stock are repurposed Pavlova Paradises, that are not only ill-suited to tenants’ needs but are holding up progress, quarter acre by quarter acre. BTR will enable development at pace of a housing solution fitted to contemporary tastes and needs.

However, even if we get the land balance right and build enough of the right buildings for the right purpose in the right places, the sustainability of the model will rely on the resilience of the infrastructure that supports them.

Reports of the demise of our biggest cities’ supporting infrastructure require no exaggeration. Our utilities seem regularly stretched to breaking point, as highlighted last year when we were prevented from using our hoses through a typical Auckland winter, we’ve just lived through the wettest drought in history. If we’re only hanging on now, how we’re going to cope when we ratchet up the pressure 10% is anyone’s guess.

Modern, functioning infrastructure is the enabler of development. No one doubts that the volume of investment needed to address the shortcomings isn’t significant, but the thing is – and I claim no ownership of this idea, rather it was volunteered by Sam Stubbs at our Future Cities Wellington event – in KiwiSaver we have the perfect mechanism to fund the infrastructure we need to sustain our own futures. From an investment perspective, our power supplies and sewage pipes are safe, tollable assets, providing consistent returns (from our consistent returns) over generations.

But it’s not just the lack of investment in the infrastructure we can’t see that could hold us back. One of the highlights of Future Cities for me was being challenged to look at our cities through someone else’s eyes.

As a CBD-commuter, my civic frustrations are generally limited to the volume of traffic slowing me down. But Women in Urbanism’s Emma McInnes explained how this actually makes me one of the lucky ones, as our public transport systems continue to prioritise getting workers from A to B, rather than supporting the alphabetical tour that characterises the day of a parent or caregiver. The same goes for creating walking and cycling paths that make all their users feel safe doing so.

These are some of the problems we need to solve if we want to create the cities we not only want, but viewed through the prism of climate change, the cities we need. As we’ve seen with recent news coverage, floods and fires are no respecters of city boundaries. If we just focus on making our cities resilient to climate change, rather than making sustainable changes of our own, then we’ll be forever playing catch up. And that’s a game we can never win.

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