NZGS/IAG Conference – Urban Geography Was Great Fun But I Felt Extremely Let Down By NZ Geography. NZ Also has a wider problem!

Planning  too dominant


Yesterday I was at the New Zealand Geographical Society and Institute of Australian Geographers Conference at my old university – the University of Auckland. The event in Bi-annual and was good to meet fellow Geographers here and from across the Tasman.

I sat in the Urban Geography study group listening to very high quality abstracts and research findings on all things Urban Geography ranging from transport, Rent Gaps, Feminist critiques of World space, Indigenous Geography – in Australia to how Geography as a discipline gets itself out there to the wider public domain. We lost a few speakers for various reasons other wise at the end of the day I took about 15 pages worth of notes on the various topics.


Before I delve into the two big areas Australian and New Zealand Geographers have rich opportunities to work on I am going to convey my disappointment in New Zealand Geography. I must have been either the only or one other New Zealand Geographer in the room in otherwise was the Urban Geography study group made up of Australians and guests from further afield. This meant while conversations could happen being outnumbers 10-1 means information exchange (this was very apparent with Transport and Indigenous Urban Geographies) was not able to really hit full power. Sydney can offer Auckland a lot of Urban Geographic information on how to deliver Metro Lines (Light or Heavy Rail) and avoid the pitfalls of Rent Gap and the negative consequences of people displacement while New Zealand would be able to assist the First Peoples of Australia in driving the reformatting of the Planning System to take into account Cultural Impacts not only on physical space but social spaces and people as well (our Planning requires Cultural Impact Assessments while Auckland Council is required to do Maori Impact Statements per the Local Government Act (Auckland) 2009 and has the Independent Maori Statutory Board to oversee this. But with the imbalance of Geographers in the room that information exchange was in my opinion hindered from the New Zealand side.

As for Planning and Planners dominating this space in New Zealand (in Australia Geographers do) I will get on to this a little bit later on given a very important Panel discussion on Planning today at the Conference. Also as I write this post a deep piece of irony on the Critique of Planning has just popped up and technically blends into the first information exchange.


Sydney, Sydney Metro and Rent Gaps

Sydney Metro (the construction of new Heavy and Light Rail) and its consequences on Sydney was the first information exchange – where I also ended up taking a bucket load of notes. Sydney is in the middle of building a Metro Line which is a mix of heavy and light rail from the west to Sydney City Centre. Sydney and the New South Wales State Government (aka their Planning Ministry) are not only building a transit line but also undertaking mass urban development or renewal along the corridor (sound familiar yet with Auckland – might want to see this: Thousands of new state homes planned in Mangere, near Auckland Airport). In one section of the corridor which I believe is between Bankstown to Sydneham the State Government wants to add 35,000 new residents – again sounding familiar with Auckland with the Herald article I linked earlier and with Transform Manukau possibly housing 100,000 new residents due to very close proximity to the Manukau Transport Interchange.

Sydney also received an unsolicited bid from a Financial firm to build Martin Place Station (a key station in the Metro build – much like Aotea Station would be with the City Rail Link or Manukau Transport Interchange would be for the Southern Airport Line) in return for urban development opportunities. Again this is like the Superfund wanting to finance the Northern Airport Line (they have not asked to do urban development yet). But where things fall over is with this unsolicited bid for Martin Place Station and what the Financial firm wants in return to do the urban development.

This is where Rent Gap comes in and its consequences of Social Displacement. The Financial firm in building Martin Place Station will want to extract maximum return on their investment via the urban development over and around the station. In doing this they have going to the NSW Planning Ministry to see relaxation of Planning Rules (again familiar here as our Minister for Urban Development seeks to relax Height and Density Limits on areas around a transit station) to allow for development that would normally WELL EXCEED the Planning regulation (again the same with Auckland or more to the point Manukau as the 18 storey height limit would get removed – finally!). This has gone an annoyed the Mayor of Sydney – Clover Moore and there are concerned existing residents and businesses could be forced out (via mass gentrification) whether it be White Flight or People of Colour.

To facilitate the Martin Place Station development the State Government could use its coercive powers to stigmatise the area (or create obsolence if the area is industrial or light commercial as we have in the norther reaches of Transform Manukau) which would facilitate existing people being forced out. It has happened before as People of Colour were stigmatised and then forced out of City Centres to allow gentrification into elite White Spaces.

With this knowledge from Geographers in Sydney there are a lot of lessons that can be learned here and negative social consequences avoided as both Airport Lines are built – given both Airport Lines go through culturally diverse but economically less fortunate areas. However, given the Mangere housing development (which is in walking distance of the Northern Airport Line) it seems our Government is taking lessons from Sydney on board and will make sure existing residents are facilitated and supported.

That said Sydney has a lot of knowledge from Sydney Metro to offer Auckland with our two Airport Lines  and this would be Part One of a Geography knowledge exchange we and Australia should do!

An artist’s impression of the planned Parramatta Light Rail at Church St, Parramatta. Source: The Daily Telegraph

Indigenous Affairs and Planning

Yesterday I heard Linda Kennedy about how Aborigines have been disadvantaged and actively stigmatised (and still are) in all things urban developments. The Australian planning system makes some recognition on physical First People’s sites but there is no real legal mechanism to protect them as urban development can continue often unabated and in a case presented yesterday on top of a burial ground. If this was tried here there would be protests and strikes in the streets.

However, in recognition of our own Colonial shortfalls our Planning system is by no means perfect as we are seeing with the Fletchers development on culturally sensitive grounds in Mangere. That said our Planning has advanced (at least in Auckland) where Cultural and Maori Impact Statements are required to be produced to show that our First Peoples would not be disadvantaged by urban development. By Cultural Impact Statements this means assessments into our Maori would be negatively or positively affected by a development. The Statements however, do not apply to physical areas but also social spaces – the People, communities and traditions. When the Auckland Council and its Committees meet you will see on the Agenda’s Maori Impact Statements on all items produced to go before the Councillors. Again these Statements assess Maori reactions to the impacts a Council policy decision would make. It is also where we would see Treaty of Waitangi First Right of Refusal claims publicly pop us as well. This is because under the Resettlement Process Council or Crown Land when being developed or sold must be offered back to local Iwi first before a development or policy can proceed. We also have the Independent Maori Statutory Board who oversee Maori affairs at Auckland Council and are protected through an Act of Parliament. The IMSB carry two votes at all Committees except the Governing Body of Auckland Council and was seen as a some what crude compromise to separate Maori Ward seats that exist at Central/Parliament level.

Again the mechanisms mentioned above are no means perfect especially after our shocking Colonial history. However, at least we are making attempts for redress and that our Planning system actively engaged with our First Peoples – something Australia does not have and was heard when Linda presented her talk yesterday.

This is where New Zealand could offer a Geography knowledge exchange to Australia in driving reforms to their planning systems so that Cultural Impacts are better resourced and informative so that we do not see the case of Planning allowing developments to happen on very sensitive Aboriginal sites and social spaces willy nilly.


Planning and Planners dominate in what is essentially the Geography sphere

In Australia Geography will often dominate its own Sphere and have heavy influences into planning. That said we could offer them assistance with getting Spatial Plans written up that help recognise and protect social functions within a City space. In New Zealand we have the opposite in that Planning dominates the Geography sphere and we end up in rather interesting pickles. Today there is a Panel on the ‘Improving the Architecture of Decision Making – that promotes or prohibits intensification’ – the project I help do preliminary research and data gathering which lead to the big Primary Research project interviewing participants in the Planning system and how it either stinks or is good. Given it is Academic Geographers and Planners doing this panel to other Academic Geographers and Planners what will come out of the 90 minute session will be extremely interesting.

If it is anything like what I discovered two major faults will show up:

  1. We silo Academic Planners, Policy Planners and Consenting Planners meaning none talk to each other and we get all sorts of things that inherently conflict against each and each of the silos
  2. Planning is more engaged in legal business with Lawyers and the Environment Court rather than what it is meant to be doing – effects base management for the benefit of the community (hence why you don’t build residential in the middle of a heavy industrial complex)

Digging do further it basically ended in a situation where we have a rather big mess that has translated into poor physical and social spaces and interactions inside an urban environment (see: Urban Geography, Urban Planning, Urban Design and Engineering: We are in a Mess Folks). Or rather Planning (which is at least in the Northern Hemisphere a sub discipline of Geography) has been separated away from its parent – Geography and has tried to enter what is Geography’s sphere of influence. This means Planning has entered the space that was curated by its Parent meaning we have people and system ill-equipped to handle that Sphere – the Geography sphere. The ultimate consequence? The two faults mentioned above, the problem is Planning is now more legal than people and environment (which is what Geography is – people and environment) and the mess I mentioned in the link above.

The solution is to remove Planning out of the Parent’s space – out of Geography’s space and go back to what it was meant to do – Effects based management through land use. The Spatial Development of towns and cities, the people and the social and physical environments are the realm of Geographers – this is what we do. Yes we will have influence into the Planning sub discipline through academic research and advocacy – because we don’t want things screwed up. Essentially Geography creates the framework aka a Spatial Plan for planners, urban designers and engineers to operate within on a proactive manner (so we don’t screw up requiring expensive fixes) or critically reviewing past and current situations (such as the research work I helped in) so we don’t screw up and make the same mistake in the future.

An example of this is being played out at the moment and also reflects what I brought over below:



From Urban Geography, Urban Planning, Urban Design and Engineering: We are in a Mess Folks

Thus if we adopt what Flyt and I would approach a City matrix it would go something a bit like this:

  1. Urban Geography at the top: First up would be your spatial development, its variations and how we would want the City to be. By its very nature Urban Geography (or Geography as a whole) puts the physical and human geographies (also the main two sub disciplines of Geography) first thus when it comes to spatial developments itself those previous geographies come to the fore. Effectively using the limitations and opportunities presented by the physical and human geographies in a set area how do I want my urban place and environment to evolve. Note I said evolve not build. Build is something as an Urban Geographer I am not overly “fussed with” as I have urban planners and designers who are more nuanced for this kind of stuff.
    1. If this was done in Cities Skylines I take my map and go this is how I want my City to evolve and these are the parameters the physical and human geographies present me. Thus I take broad brush strokes on where I want things roughly taking into account the evolution of the City.
    2. At this level it is the only time I would be dabbling with engineering matters – that is my inter-regional road, road, shipping and air connections. What are my inter-regional transport connections and how will they influence the spatial development and evolution of my City.  This is bearing in mind Form rather than Function takes priority so those connections will need to be conscious of place making. Manukau City Centre is a classic example of this with its rich inter-regional connections and its surrounding industrial complexes influencing its Form.
  2. Next up is Urban Planning and macro-level Urban Design.
    1. With the spatial development road map laid out it now comes to the Planners to begin stage 1 of the execution – the placement of the zones and with urban designers mapping out the placement of the civic infrastructure (parks). Typically for a City to get going and capitalise on the inter-regional transport connections you start with industry zoning then residential and finally commercial. As a side note this is why South Auckland is functioning well in its continued urban evolution and West Auckland is not. This is because the South built itself around industry (that includes farming) followed by residential to service that industry then the commercial to service both. West Auckland seems to be doing the reverse by doing the commercial first (Westgate) then the residential (Hobsonville Point) and then industry as an afterthought – and subsequently I wonder why State Highway 16 is bunged each day…. Planners along with the Engineers will also need to map out the bulk infrastructure (water, waste-water) and storm water. Planners will also need to prepare the intra-city transport routes and hubs for the engineers to build as well. In Auckland and Cities Skylines this would be the Unitary Plan.
    2. Urban Design: Urban Design comes in at this stage of the game as place making starts right away once the zones and the infrastructure mapped out. You are thinking why urban design now when the roads and pipes are not down yet. Remember how I said form over function? I am looking at place making over just movement and yes this also includes place making with industry. This is because if you dont start you place making straight away even your industrial complexes end up in a mess making it harder for transport to serve them well. Also given developments do tend to cluster around transport routes and hubs (passenger and freight) urban design also becomes paramount if we are to support the spatial development and urban evolution of the City. In Cities Skylines this is parks and transport hub placements (note: give game mechanics I will need basic (main) intra city road and rail down first to allow placements of parks and transport hubs, a city would be similar to this aspect).
  3. Engineering: I have the maps, I have the zones, I have some basic road and rail, I have parks and I have transport hubs. Now to back this all up and this is where engineering comes in. To build the arteries and veins that will support the spatial development of the City and its constant evolution. Please note: Engineers will always be involved with geo-technical matters right through the process as things like peat soils and hills will (in this instance) give physical geography limitations to what we can develop there. Notice how I said build and not design the City and its support mechanisms – this is constant with what Flyt said and I strongly believe in. In Cities Skylines this is the pipe and plant build and wider road placements (the stuff that frustrates me and is time-consuming the most).


And that is the matrix I would use when it comes to the spatial development and evolution of our urban areas. Because right now we have a reverse where engineers are designing and clashing out with the planners and urban designers while the Urban Geographers are left out in the cold entirely. It is also why things right now are in the literal crap with deaths and injuries happening in our city that can be so easily avoided. All because we have let function come before form. Movement before people.


Macdougal St in Greenwich Village, New York. Chaotic and vibrant, with everything you need is close by. This is a Complete Neighbourhood.
Source: Strong Towns

Finally communication

I applaud my Australian Geographer counterparts for an active drive in disseminating academic information out into the public realm – through podcasting and the media. I listened in on the Podcast session yesterday and that was extremely informative in how Australian Geography reaches out to the people. This is something New Zealand lacks although we do use writing. The problem is that conveying Geographic information to the public and having those dialogues is still in its very infant stage here. We still focus too much on academic journals which the public can not access and not enough focus using the 4th and 5th Estates to disseminate that knowledge to the wider population. What good is knowledge is if it is locked away in some journal in some Ivory Tower – the answer is is it is no good and the public are getting a crap return on their social investments – into the Universities and academia!


Yesterday was a good day and I enjoyed it (apart from the lunch). Lots of knowledge was exchanged and produced with opportunities presented for further exchanges at the Conference. Today’s main panel on the Planning System should be real interesting with Geographers having a crack at it.


Speaking at Council