Four Topics from 2020 (and a New Year’s Resolution)

We're at the close of 2020 – a year in which days and weeks dragged on forever, and months flashed by in the blink of an eye.

After too many months of sometimes-daily check-ins, asking each other “Are you okay?”, “How’s it going?”, “What do you need?”, and “Where to from here?” another deep-dive into prognostication and reflection is the last thing anyone wants. Instead, we’ll quickly share four topics that this year brought into sharp focus, and that we suspect will continue to guide our thinking in the next.

It’s been a buzz-word for a while, but 2020 certainly put it to the test. And, overall, we did pretty well. Looking after each other, being kind, modifying our expectations and appreciating the good stuff got us through a tough year with our sanity intact and our economy in rapid recovery.

The big reveal to some was how resilient the natural world is – as the six weeks from late March to early May brought a brief glimpse of the positive impact reduced human activity has on the environment. Equally, we gained a new appreciation for the effect the natural world has on us – as having the opportunity to walk and cycle more often opened our eyes to the benefits of interaction with nature as part of our own well-being.

It was fortunate that New Zealand’s lockdown took place in an uncommonly warm and dry April. Had it been rainy and cold July, most of us wouldn’t have finished it with a smile and a clean bill of health. It’s an accepted fact that we have a housing shortage – but it’s not just quantity (a reported shortfall of 30,500 in Auckland alone) it’s quality.

‘Improving Housing’ was a topic at the recent Building Nations Symposium; and the New Zealand Government recognises a very strong interdependency between health, education, and housing. Investment in improving housing quality – by providing social housing and upgrading sub-par existing homes – was correlated to improvements in health and education outcomes.

Having a safe, warm, dry place to live is the difference between surviving and thriving. If New Zealand’s post-COVID goal is to “Build Back Better”, then surely housing must be a priority. Government will release a Public Housing Plan for consultation in 2021, and we’re interested to see what it entails.

Integrated infrastructure:
Integrate: verb: to combine two or more things to create a whole.
Infrastructure: noun: the basic physical and organisational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.

Can anyone remember a time we weren’t having regular debates about the inefficient and fragmented nature of New Zealand’s regulatory structure? The ironic thing is – each one of the conflicting policies that have created systemic inertia began with the desire to achieve a positive outcome – within its own patch. Somewhere along the way, an understanding of the inter-connected-ness of our relatively small piece of the planet was left behind.

This is a short article, so we’ll not get into the ins-and-outs of integrated spatial planning. Instead, consider two recent inspiring examples: the accomplishments of the “Team of Five Million” working together toward a common purpose; and the recognition of the Whanganui River (Te Awa Tupua) as a single, indivisible entity.

Pre-2017, the Te Awa Tupua was (according to the legal system) a patchwork of legally separate elements, each managed by different guidelines. Unsurprisingly, without cohesive guardianship/management, the river grew increasingly degraded. Now, viewed as a single 290km-long being (with the protection provided by ‘personhood’), outcomes are improving.

No one is suggesting that the National Grid or the Transport Network need legal personhood; but surely recognizing that roads, telecommunications, power and other services are interconnected national systems and should be treated as such, is a good idea. Those systems – along with our natural resources – are the blocks with which we will “Build Back Better”.

We need to decide what “Better” means – sooner, rather than later – then all get on the same page and get it done. Which leads us to the Team of Five Million’s next challenge…

Climate Change:
This time last year, we picked Climate Change to be THE big issue. Although it was pushed off the headlines by a microscopic organism, it didn’t go away.

Supporting resilience and sustainability, ‘living greener’ and reducing consumption were practices we all had to take on board during lockdown. And they’re mindful habits that we need to continue – as individuals, as organisations and as a nation.

The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions during this year of COVID gives us some idea of the scale of change in behavior we will need to make year-on-year to reach our climate change targets by 2030.

Just as Mātauranga Māori has, over the past two decades, become an integral part of what we do as planners, designers and ecologists; we envision Climate Change impact assessments becoming equally ingrained and essential.

We have been taking steps to reduce the carbon footprint of our own business, and as a multi-disciplinary consultancy we are uniquely positioned to provide thoughtful advice and holistic solutions to our clients.

As a bold resolution for 2021, Boffa Miskell will be viewing all our projects through the lens of climate change, finding ways to reduce or mitigate any undesirable impacts of what we do, and ensuring we help clients toward more sustainable outcomes.

17 December 2020