We’ve got to build better: Mark Todd on the urgent urban development questions following Cyclone Gabrielle

Five days after Cyclone Gabrielle tore through Aotearoa, Ockham captain Mark Todd told Q+A’s Jack Tame that decades of infrastructure neglect requires massive investment – and that the rebuild must centre around community need, not the balance sheets of land-bankers and developers.

The Sunday after the cyclone – with the nation in shock, tens of thousands still without power, the horrific images of the silt tsunami that swallowed Esk Valley etched into our souls – TVNZ’s flagship current affairs programme dedicated itself to New Zealand’s most damaging storm of modern times. Q+A assessed the relief efforts underway – and also asked some tough questions around resilience, recovery and how we could build back better.

While the past month has illustrated the folly of building on cliff tops, on flood plains, or on the ocean’s edge, it it has also raised bigger questions around sustainable development, urban sprawl v intensification – in short, how are we to live.

Urban Sprawl v Intensification ÷ Infrastructure

Q+A host Jack Tame asked Ockham’s Mark Todd if the impact of the two cyclones might prompt a rethink of Auckland’s Unitary Plan – and the National Policy Statement on Urban Development. “There are calls in Auckland for a moratorium on further intensification,” Tame said. “There are concerns that existing infrastructure cannot cope with greater density.”

“I think the two issues have been conflated,” Todd replied. “I've just finished a 117-unit development in Avondale. I've covered 3,000 square metres, pretty much 100 per cent cover. That's 28 square metres of impermeable stormwater drainage per unit. You take a similar 117 units out to a greenfields subdivision – the house itself is probably 150 square metres plus a 50 sq/m driveway, and hectares of roading that's gone through.

“For each house built in a greenfields environment, it’s in the order of 30 to 40 times more impermeable coverage that goes down to our rivers, lakes, and seas.

“I think the real message here is not to put a moratorium on urban regeneration – it's to make those substantial investments in Three Waters that our urban environment has been lacking for the last three generations.

“We've just got to get better at urban intensification and not stop it.”

Mark Todd on Q&A

Mark Todd on Q&A

Ockham captain Mark Todd says we must move away from urban policy that privilege developers over the community.

Rezoning for people, not landbankers

Part of the problem, Todd argued, is that our urban development has been historically driven by short-termism and self-interest.

“A lot of property development is driven by private sector interest and historical expertise in just land development. That needs to be balanced against what's good for NZ Inc..

“We need to understand that building town and cities is a collective activity, and there must be some sort of conception of what's best for that city and that community.”

Too often, Todd said, urban development has gone where the money is. And that has meant some of New Zealand's most productive, fertile – and flood-prone – land have been built upon.

“We've got similar issues [to Hawke's Bay land development in flood-prone areas] around Drury and Pukekohe where private developers are trying to push development where as a city, any normal planner wouldn't be encouraging, especially where it's some of Aotearoa's best vegetable-producing [land].

“I'm only talking about areas I know... Tauranga's having real issues with sprawl, down to Opotiki, really. I'm getting a bit stuck in [to private developers] but it is actually the tail wagging the dog, a private sector with a historical capacity to deliver housing through land exploitation.”

An infrastructure crisis

What's desperately needed – now – is a massive investment in infrastructure. New Zealand had lost the collective approach of our foremother and fathers, Todd said, and the result was plain to see. "It's appalling, the state of our infrastructure.”

“Our great-grandparents and grandparents invested in infrastructure. There was a social cohesion, some idea of civic collectivism that's been lost. It's clear since the '80s we've had a laissez-faire attitude to infrastructure – that debt or future generations will pay for it.

“This is a good opportunity to open up a conversation, in a team of five million, about a reprioritisation of a collective good over the needs of an individual, or a worldview where user pays. That's a Chicago School of Business rot that we got into in the '80s, and we're seeing the fruits of that now.”

Next steps

Host Tame asked what might a collective approach to fixing the infrastructure shortfall might entail.

“Three Water is a practical approach,” Todd argued. “We need to take it seriously. Local councils do not have the funds, [and water infrastructure] has been poorly managed.

“We need to change our political approach to how we deliver. If a city grows, particularly a city like Auckland, its funding tools to pay for the infrastructure for that growth are not increased by central government as they would be in say, Germany, where a city gets rewarded for growth.

“The opportunity is to work together - the private sector, the Crown, and local government. There's a lot of antagonism and conflict in the property development sector, primarily because there's so much money at stake, and I don't think all the voices are equally weighted. The private sector's got a lot of money, a lot of influence, they do a lot of lobbying, whereas academics and planners are often – in the current zeitgeist – described as pointy-headed or [that] they don't know what they're doing.

“There's a huge opportunity to bring people together to talk about these issues seriously, because we're quite a small, cohesive country. We should be taking a more Scandinavian approach, which is thoughtful.”

❝ This is a good opportunity to open up a conversation, in a team of five million, about a reprioritisation of a collective good over the needs of an individual, or a worldview where user pays. That's a Chicago School of Business rot that we got into in the '80s, and we're seeing the fruits of that now...❞