New Zealanders have spoken. They want less congestion, cleaner water, cheaper housing, and a clear focus on climate change when it comes to urban planning. One body has the task to develop a direction to achieve this over the next 30 years. Can it do it? asks business editor Nikki Mandow

In 1807, the city officials of New York had a visionary idea: to design a layout for Manhattan Island which would cater for potential population growth for the next 50 years, maybe 100 years. 

At the time, only 10 percent of the island was built on, so officials were taking a punt on future growth. But the idea was that infrastructure – roads, buildings, pipes, and transport networks – wouldn’t randomly spread out as people moved to New York and land was sold and developed; there would be an efficient, effective, pre-ordained structure.

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The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, four years in the making, put in place the rectangular grid street plan that defines Manhattan to this day. It has been called “the single most important document in New York City’s development”. 

What those far-sighted officials put in place 200 years ago would underpin the city’s growth for decades. 

The New York Commissioners’ plan of 1811. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Geoff Cooper, general manager of strategy for the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission – Te Waihanga, thinks a lot about those visionary officials of New York City as he ponders his organisation’s somewhat daunting remit – to “develop a 30-year infrastructure strategy to provide decision makers with a basis for bold reform and policy change, informed by independent, evidence-based analysis”.

This strategy will look ahead to 2050, and consider how infrastructure will support “environmental, social, cultural and economic wellbeing for New Zealanders”. 

Cooper, who has worked for the US Treasury and Federal Reserve, as well as being chief economist for Auckland Council and PwC, is part of a team trying to work out how to ensure we are designing infrastructure systems which meet the needs of New Zealand not only in 2021, but also in 2051, 2071, maybe even 2121.

And to make sure that infrastructure is resilient to the stresses and challenges of the next 30, 50 or 100 years. 

Challenges like climate change, a carbon zero economy, technological advances, demographic change, resilience to natural or other disasters, and improved partnership with Māori. 

Geoff Cooper says we need to think about infrastructure in an integrated way, not in silos. Photo: Supplied

Last week, Te Waihanga published its consultation document He Tūāpapa ki te Ora – the most recent stage in a process to develop the country’s 30-year Infrastructure Strategy, a strategy which should be delivered to Infrastructure Minister Grant Robertson as a draft in September and finalised in March next year.

Like the 1811 plan for New York, it could potentially be the single most important document for New Zealand’s development in a generation.

No pressure.

Action areas, not specific sectors

Cooper says the critical thing about the strategy is it focuses on overarching issues – “enabling competitive cities”, for example, rather than looking at individual sectors like water or roading.

That’s because to solve present and future problems we have to think about infrastructure in an integrated way, not in silos, he says.

Take climate change mitigation, for example. That’s a problem that stretches across multiple infrastructure sectors, from housing, to transport, energy, and education and health infrastructure. Even waste. We need to deal with all of them together to meet our Carbon Zero targets.

The same with the housing problem. There’s no point building a lot of homes unless the roads, telecommunications, power lines, schools and hospitals, and water pipes are all connected up.

Solving the housing problem is about roads, schools, pipes, and power and telco wires – not just homes. Photo: John Sefton

“The Government has identified certain processes that aren’t working, and infrastructure has been implicated in them.

“There’s a really important role to be thinking about how the infrastructure system is responding and is responsive to the needs of everyday Kiwis.

“The role of Te Waihanga is trying to break down roadblocks.”

Cooper says we used to do things better in the 1950s to 1970s – building houses and connecting infrastructure. As our cities and our population have grown and problems like climate change have come to the fore, everything has got more complicated, but government has been more hands-off and there has been a lack of long term planning.

A worldwide problem

Well-known US city planning expert, Professor Shlomo Angel from New York University’s Urban Expansion programme says the problem New Zealand is facing is far from rare.

“Failing to anticipate urban expansion and prepare for it, doesn’t prevent it, it just produces disorderly urban expansion. 

“That makes the city less productive, less inclusive and less sustainable. Our research shows areas of expansion in cities between 1990 and 2005 are less orderly than before 1990. 

“Planners are not doing their job.”

Auckland is a case in point, Geoff Cooper says.

“We’ve built these sprawling cities with a real concentration through regulation on single dwelling housing. But for a city approaching two million people and expected to grow by another million in the next 30 years, this looks way out of place.”

Auckland is expected to grow by another million people by 2050. Single dwelling development won’t work. Photo: HUD

Sprawling cities means people spending long periods of time in their cars, and decreasing quality of life, he says. 

“The average Aucklander spends two working weeks in traffic each year,” Cooper says. “That’s time not spent with family and friends.”

Even the announcement of a $30 billion Transport Ministry spend on getting Auckland moving won’t help reduce congestion unless it is combined with wider infrastructure reform, particularly city densification – getting people living closer to work and to their family, friends and social activities.

Easy? Quite the opposite. 

Planning for an uncertain future

Densification is really hard, and very expensive. It needs a lot of retrofitted infrastructure – wastewater treatment facilities, for example, plus schools and hospitals, car parks or (better) walking, cycling or public transport options to cope with far more people living in the same area.

Most importantly it needs everyone working to a long-term plan. 

Take a broken water pipe in a central city suburb, or a coastal wastewater treatment plant coming to the end of its natural life, or a school that needs a new classroom to cater for a growing roll. Instead of just thinking about the easiest, cheapest fix for this year’s problem, the strategic solution would be looking 30 years – or even further – ahead at what that suburb might look like in the future, and what infrastructure it might need then.

Should you replace that pipe with a bigger one than is needed now? What about installing a three-storey classroom block that could cater for a 50 percent increase in students over time? Or moving the new sewage treatment plant inland so it’s not flooded if the sea level rises in 100 years?

Auckland’s newly-rebuilt Western Springs College has an “expansion zone” to cater for 50 percent roll growth. Photo: Supplied

“One of our principles is being future-focused – really looking forward. While the strategy itself is 30 years, the reality is we’re actually thinking much further ahead than that, because the asset lives of the things we are talking about could be 100 years or more,” Cooper says.

“We should be looking at how big our cities are going to get and start planning for that size today rather than having to retrofit every time the population goes up a little higher than we thought.”

That sounds obvious, but one of the reasons these long term decisions don’t get made in the real world, is they are expensive, Cooper says. 

Factoring in growth means a bigger school or hospital or a more expensive pipe network. Factoring in climate change means moving a lot of our infrastructure away from the coast, or upgrading public buildings to be more energy efficient, or to use electricity not gas for heating.

“There are high upfront costs. We need to think about how we are going to finance those costs and spread them over generations. So we can afford these things.”

One option is to start valuing and factoring in social and environmental impacts when we set the cost of our infrastructure projects. It might be pricing into a densification project the wellbeing benefits for commuters of reduced travel time, or pricing the environmental benefits of a reduction in ongoing carbon emissions into a new public transport network. 

Te Waihanga is grappling with how to price the cost-benefits of people not sitting in traffic into urban densification projects. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“We are much better at factoring in financial costs and benefits than we are at factoring in economic costs and benefits – the wider things that impact society,” Cooper says.

“We’ve touched on this in the consultation document and provide some options around how we can improve this.

“One of the options we put in there is to include the full cost of carbon in infrastructure appraisal and project selection.” 

Better use of existing assets

An important part of the 30-year infrastructure plan is looking strategically not just at new projects, but at existing assets, says Te Waihanga chief executive Ross Copland.

Is there a way of making better use of existing infrastructure, as an alternative to building something new?

Ross Copland says we have to make better use of the assets we have. Photo: Supplied

A great example of what Copland is talking about is the proposed cycleway under the Auckland Harbour bridge, he says.

While most of the thinking so far has been around building a separate cycleway under the existing bridge at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, the ‘existing asset’ option might be to block off one vehicle lane of the bridge and adapt it for bikes and maybe pedestrians. 

“We’ve got to have much more adult conversations”
Ross Copland

While that option might not be popular either with cyclists, who liked the idea a smart new clip-on all for themselves, or with drivers, who will be worried about losing a lane on an already bottlenecked bridge, what if you combined it with densification, so more people working in the CBD could live near the CBD? Or what if you introduced a congestion charge to reduce the amount of traffic coming into the city – another relatively cheap (for the government) solution to get people off the roads when the bridge is at its busiest?

Or both.

“We’ve got to have much more adult conversations,” Copland says.

“If we build something new, even if the end result is a reduction of carbon in the future, you’ve got the massive cost and carbon burden of the construction, and labour and noise and disruption, maybe injuries.”

The people have spoken

As part of the preparation of the He Tūāpapa ki te Ora – Infrastructure for a Better Future consultation document, Te Waihanga put out an online survey to give non-specialist New Zealanders the opportunity to have their say about what they want the country to look like for their children and grandchildren.

More than 23,500 people filled out the Aotearoa 2050 questionnaire

The survey, called Aotearoa 2050 asked about issues from congestion to climate change, water quality to waste, and sought feedback on where the biggest problems were, and what priorities were for the future. More than 23,500 people filled out the questionnaire, Copland says, with a good age-range spread, though less ethnic diversity.

The main issues people were worried about were quality of our drinking water (92 percent thought it was important or very important), recycling (92 percent), housing affordability (87 percent) and the length of time to build new transport options (88 percent).

The majority of respondents said the planet was their number one priority. They also wanted to see a better use of technology to prepare for the impacts of climate change (70 percent) and to save water (76 percent). 

A snapshot of some of the issues raised in the Aotearoa 2050 survey

“It’s a powerful way to open up the discussion and it gives us a set of 23,500 interested people who are really passionate about this and who we can talk to in the future.”

Producing real change

How does Te Waihanga, a 35-person organisation with a $14 million annual budget, hope to produce the massive strategic change needed in the often risk-averse and silo-ed ministries which make our infrastructure decisions?

Copland is optimistic.

For a start, the final recommendations will end up on the desk of Infrastructure Minister Grant Robertson, who also happens to be the number two in the Government.

It’s fortunate Infrastructure Minister Grant Robertson is also number two in Government. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Second, the commission has long term funding, and the legislation setting it up mandates a response from Government to its recommendations – they can’t sit in a drawer.

“The resolutions made will be binding, I imagine. So if Parliament says ‘Yes, we’d like recommendations one, three, five and seven, I imagine those ministers will be taking that back to their ministries and saying ‘Get on with it’.”

Third, Te Waihanga also has a role to provide advice on specific infrastructure projects – be it Auckland light rail, an MPI biosecurity facility, or the KiwRail port upgrade.  

At the same time it has to update its 30-year strategy every five years, and it is building a dashboard to collect and collate data – be it on capital expenditure or traffic flows.

“This will be the visualisation of what we are doing. We’ll look back and say, historically, this is how these indicators have tracked, we landed the strategy, you guys made a bunch of decisions and you did some things. Did that make it better or worse?”

“It’s not our intention to go around with our infrastructure baton beating people”
Ross Copland

What if some government agencies won’t play ball, just carry on making decisions the way they always have?

“We can’t force anyone to do anything. We’re not the infrastructure police; it’s not our intention to go around with our infrastructure baton beating people,” Copland says.

What if some need a teeny bit of a smack?

“Maybe just a gentle roughing up,” Copland says.

You can bet those New York commissioners in 1811 had to do the same thing.

Submissions to the 30-year plan consultation document He Tūāpapa ki te Ora are open until June 24.

Have your say here.

This is the sixth and final article in a series as part of a content partnership between Newsroom and Te Waihanga

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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