As the waters recede through choked and overloaded stormwater infrastructure, debates have opened up over the city’s future pattern of development

People had never seen so much of Auckland underwater. 

And last month’s sudden submersion of many of the city’s suburbs came just as the city was poised to embark on a very different kind of transformation – a new suite of housing laws, expected to soon allow for greater densification.

Auckland was struggling even before the historic flooding
Auckland’s weekend up shit creek

The rejigging of residential zoning laws in Auckland has been a heated arena for debate. At first glance, the main arguments seem diametrically opposed: increasing the affordability and accessibility of the city versus a desire to preserve the special character of picturesque suburbs.

But after Auckland’s unrivalled week of wet weather, councillors like Mike Lee and Christine Fletcher are calling for an independent audit into the infrastructure capacity of Auckland’s suburbs before they are opened up to fresh development.

Both councillors have been sceptical of the intensification that would be allowed following changes to zoning laws mandated by central Government.

As it stands, the plan change restricts development in areas prone to natural hazards, like coastal erosion, flooding and land instability.

Council documents advise that new housing overlays should “encourage development to occur outside of the floodplain where possible”.

That would be in contrast to the previous Unitary Plan, which pushed development into many of the areas that flooded badly last month. For many West Aucklanders, pushing water out of their homes with a broom wasn’t a novelty.

But there are other solutions being floated – councillors like Julie Fairey have spoken to Newsroom’s The Detail about the ‘sponge city approach’ – uncovering natural streams and planting vegetation to absorb the water.

She’s long been an advocate for the importance of good stormwater infrastructure.

“A lot of people don’t think about stormwater infrastructure until their home is flooded,” she said prophetically during her council campaign last year at an event at a Mount Albert community centre.

Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa ward councillor Julie Fairey prophesises on the campaign trail last year. Photo: Matthew Scott

Now businesses just across the street from that location are wondering if they’ll ever be able to get back on their feet after sustained hammering by the last two week’s of rain.

The disaster has had every politician reaching for what they see as the best solution for what many fear will recur in Auckland’s future.

For Lee and Fletcher, they’ve returned to their apprehension about what they see as the potential for relatively unchecked development in the city.

Wake-up call

Lee said he believes both Mayor Wayne Brown and many councillors are on side with a rethink on Plan Change 78.

“I think the real concern coming through even before the great flood was the cost of necessary infrastructure, stormwater in particular,” he said. “The significance of this has really been sheeted home over the last 10 days.”

Lee cited issues with drains near his own ward that had exacerbated the impact of the deluge.

“I talked to one homeowner in Meola Road today who had water pouring down from the street down his drive and under his front door. The street drain outside his property was filled with grit and at the top of the hill at the corner of Point Chevalier Road the street catch pit is filled with so much rubbish and dirt so at first glance I thought it had been covered in asphalt,” he said.

“This by no means a new concern.”

He said the water levels seen across the city last month were evidence of a lack of investment in infrastructure by both Auckland Council and central government.

“The essential need for billions of dollars of infrastructure, especially storm water management has been until now fecklessly ignored by central government and Auckland Council determined to cram in more and more properties into the city,” he said. 

“This is a wake up call from Mother Nature.”

NIWA research has shown extreme weather events have occurred four to five times more frequently in the past decade. It seems the safe money is on expecting the heavy rains to fall on Auckland again at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Fairey – councillor for the badly hit Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa ward – said she would support an audit so long as it didn’t get in the way of making some urgent changes.

“I think the idea of an audit is interesting but I think we already know what we should be doing better and we need to do it,” she said. “Part of that is actually voting for the money that will deliver those projects.”

What kind of projects are those?

Fairey said stormwater infrastructure is about more than the 6000 km of pipes that lie under the feet of Aucklanders.

Other factors like the gutters of private homes, berms being used as parking spaces and how much of any given property comprises concrete all play a part in Auckland’s ‘sponginess’.

“Council has underinvested not just in those bigger projects, but also small scale – think about recycling, imagine if we had a similar approach where we said here’s a couple of things each house can do,” she said.

When it comes to intensification, she said we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the stormwater.

She pointed to areas like Stonefields and Hobsonville Point, where denser developments received comparatively little flooding compared to Fairey’s home patch – the flood-hit neighbourhoods of Waikowhai, Wesley and Sandringham.

“When we do it at scale, we actually do OK,” she said. “The problem is more where we’ve got a lot of infill housing – some of it not recent, as recent builds have more requirements.”

She said in the long-term, mindful intensification could see less of the city covered in concrete, allowing the amassing water to drain away more quickly.

“It’s very easy to point at intensification as the villain here,” she said. “But ultimately if you’re intensifying, then the opportunity there is to actually go up a little bit and out less. So as a city we’d be covering less land… and the idea that you’re able to live closer to what you need means you may not need a car, meaning you may not need a driveway.”

The buried rivers of Tāmaki Makaurau

As many learned last month, the 6000 km of pipes and natural drainage weren’t able to cope with the lakes and rivers that near-instantly appeared around the region.

North of the Harbour Bridge in Northcote, the historic footprint of the Awataha Stream leaves the town centre and surrounding suburb vulnerable to flooding.

Recent projects to bring the stream back to the surface and transform Greenslade Reserve into a stormwater detention park helped the area cope with the deluge, but according to Auckland Council the new infrastructure was “tested to the max”.

Auckland Council waterways planning manager Scott Speed said bringing the Awataha Stream to the surface allowed flood water to be channeled along the stream bed, rather than through private property.

“Having the water flow through an open channel provides much greater capacity than the older piped network,” he said. “And, in this instance, it had the added benefit of keeping the parts of the older pipe in place, diverting a portion of the higher flood flows back into the pipe to provide even more flood capacity.”

But in other parts of the city, houses and roads being placed over wetlands have left people’s homes in particularly flood-prone areas, and the stormwater infrastructure struggles to keep up.

Auckland Council data shows the Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa ward was badly hit in the storm, with 483 homes either red or yellow-stickered as of Tuesday morning.

That means people are either prohibited from entering the property due to safety concerns, or access is restricted for essential purposes for a limited time.

There are 1,855 homes in that state across the region, suggesting around a quarter of the damage that has been assessed so far was in the central Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa ward – an area with about 10 percent of the region’s total population.

Ward councillor Christine Fletcher has been out in the thick of that damage. She recounted the anxieties of business owners in Mt Albert who haven’t yet been able to reopen following that fateful Friday.

“People feel so frightened,” she said. “It’s one of the worst-hit areas but I don’t think it’s just us here in Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa. It’s a region-wide event.”

She said it should be seen as an opportunity to stop and assess the existing infrastructure.

“Once the water table goes down and it’s all settled down, there’s still an underlying problem. It strikes me as mad that we don’t put a moratorium on plan changes,” she said. “I think it’s [for] all of these people that we do some kind of audit.”

She stressed the need for it to be an independent audit, to stop making it being a political issue.

But the intensification of Auckland has already become a highly politicised issue on a local level, and it might be hard to put that genie back in the bottle.

Much of the argument has hinged on whether or not Auckland is growing. 

The city’s population fell for the first time following the pandemic. Before that there were 20 years of relatively steady growth at an average of 1.8 percent each year.

That dip was minor – just over a thousand people – but it was enough to make people question just how populated Auckland’s future is set to be.

Auckland Council planning documents show projections of Auckland hitting two million early next decade, and then continuing to grow.

But those were from before the pandemic.

This year’s census will provide a clearer picture of how many people are calling the city home, but until then there is ambiguity over just how much bigger the country’s biggest city is going to get.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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