Be Bold: Spatial Planning for the 21st Century

It's time for greater emphasis on comprehensive spatial planning that coordinates land use, infrastructure and environmental protection. An effects-based, site-level approach cannot bring about necessary long-term outcomes.

With a goal to achieve balance between environmental limits and cultural, social and economic ambitions, policymakers here and overseas viewed the Resource Management Act (RMA) as one of New Zealand’s most bold and ambitious pieces of legislation when it was passed in 1991.

Now 30 years later, an independent review by retired Court of Appeal Judge Tony Randerson QC recommends that the RMA should be replaced with three new pieces of legislation, namely:

  • the Natural and Built Environments Act
  • the Strategic Planning Act; and
  • the Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act.

Climate change and sea level rise are viewed as significant enough be addressed by the proposed Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act. Under the proposed Natural and Built Environments Act, all councils will have to produce a single regulatory plan that will reflect national policy directions and the regional spatial plan.

The proposed Strategic Planning Act requires regional councils to prepare spatial plans that are ‘’consistent with the purposes of the Natural and Built Environments Act, Local Government Act and Land Transport Management Act, national direction, the national adaptation plan under the Climate Change Response Act and relevant government policy statements’’.

There has been a re-emergence of spatial planning over the past two decades, at the regional scale, from a growing recognition that the effects-based, site-level approach under the RMA cannot bring about the long term outcomes sought by the community.

More recently, central government has also partnered in this process, recognising the need to align its own role in responding to growth with local and regional government.

If RMA reforms follow the recommendation of the Randerson Report, there will be an even greater emphasis on comprehensive spatial planning that coordinates land use infrastructure and environmental protection.

There are acknowledged shortcomings of the RMA in supporting the concept of Te Mana o te Taiao (health and wellbeing of the environment) in both a rural and urban context. Under the suggested reforms there is an increased commitment to the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi being an integral part of all planning and decision-making. This builds on the foundation of work already in place where tangata whenua have clearly recognised the opportunity presented by long term spatial planning to protect and enhance their cultural identity in the face of ongoing pressures of urban growth.

The explicit mandate to address a range of climate change issues through planning decisions adds a further new dimension. Along with the issues that have been top-of-mind for the past decade — like transportation choices and green corridors in our cities — there is the prospect of reimagining parts of coastal urban areas that will be unavoidably changed by erosion and inundation from sea level rise. Suburbs and neighbourhoods previously thought to be ideal for intensification or growth may no longer be appropriate — or available.

Climate change affects all other elements of spatial planning, especially as we look very long-term. Spatial plans typically work on a timeline of 30 years, but discussions around climate change and managed retreat will need to look ahead 100 years and beyond.

Closing that chronological gap in an intelligent and effective way presents an opportunity for bold, brave conversations with communities around the need address the future projected in a 100-year timeline. But, there is a valid concern that regional scale spatial planning, and a 100-year timeline, have the potential to alienate the immediate community due to complexity and scale creating a barrier to participation.

Sometimes, it’s easier to make hard decisions when a series of incremental changes are seen as steps in an agreed-upon journey to a mutually-understood destination. Communities will need to get used to a scenario-based approach to planning that introduces a realm of complexity and uncertainty. The solution may lie in the tier of spatial planning that will follow after regional scale spatial planning. These are “community plans” which are shorter term and with a narrower geographic focus.

Managed retreat, in particular, can be very controversial and difficult to accept. But as the realities and costs of climate change adaptation increase, more communities across the globe are beginning to consider a purposeful and coordinated long-term strategy.

Considerations related to climate change will affect rural areas, too. Recent policies like the NPS for Freshwater, and the proposed NPS for Indigenous Biodiversity; along with Randerson’s suggested reforms, and consumer demand for more plant based food, also indicate a coming focus on rural land use change.

This means there will be ‘rural spatial planning’ in parts of the country that are subject to hazard issues with climate change and adaption – and this is very different to urban-centric spatial planning that addresses future development issues from a housing/business/land perspective.

Over the past two decades, a responsive, rather than pro-active approach to urban expansion by councils has led to a large-scale, irreversible, incremental change in rural landscapes. The often-unplanned growth in urban or rural residential development was the cause of consumption of land well-suited to agricultural uses.

Some rural regions may not have deeply engaged with ‘spatial planning’ before. As a multi-disciplinary consultancy, Boffa Miskell views this as an exciting opportunity to leverage and integrate the environmental knowledge of ecologists and landscape planners with the strategic skills of planners and designers.

We believe that to truly Be Bold in spatial planning, there needs to be a shift in mind-set. As we move beyond the constraints of a 30-year timeline, and begin to plan on the basis of 100-year climate change scenarios, we cannot allow short-term matters like current funding and existing infrastructure encumber our thinking. A holistic regional spatial plan that includes a strategy for managed retreat cannot be contingent upon next year’s budget.

Bold thinking recognises that a framework of spatial planning creates a cascade of effects over time, and these benefits (or losses) are not confined by regional borders. Even if the government supports a move from 100-plus district plans to 14 regional plans, greater integration amongst the regions is needed if over-arching environmental issues are to be successfully addressed. The Three Waters initiative has been a case study for this, and those lessons can be applied to transport infrastructure, utility infrastructure and even housing.

There also needs to be a firm commitment to strategic allocation and planning of open space and green corridor connections as part of urban development. This needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way before the land is developed, to ensure these important active travel connections and recreation spaces form an integral part of the residential expansion. In the past the developer-driven approach often just provided for undesirable, “left-over” land as open space areas, rather than a strategic allocation of usable space that meets the need of communities.

Up until now we have danced around the edges of these complex issues. But with a new government in place, and a clear mandate for action; the increasing urgency to deal with the projected effects of climate change; and acknowledging the shortcomings of the RMA; it is time to Be Bold with our thinking and move forward… as we did 30 years ago.

Project shown: Te Kirikiri / Frankton Masterplan

For further information please contact Craig Batchelar, Matt Allott, Stuart Houghton, Jane Rennie, Tim Church or Yvonne Pflüger

19 November 2020