Opinion: Regulating aesthetics

Daniel Shao, Auckland Regional Committee Member and Development Manager, Woolworths NZ shares his opinion on addressing urban design through the planning process.

Addressing urban design through the planning process

Urban design can influence the quality of the urban environment and people’s interactions within it. Good quality urban design shapes the identity of a place, improves people’s health and wellbeing, facilitates social interactions, and promotes civic pride.

Today, urban design issues are often at the forefront of resource consent applications for major, and sometimes minor development proposals. However, the inability of planners and plans to clearly articulate what constitutes good design is a major cause of frustration. Consequently, the subjectivity of urban design has become one of the more controversial topics in planning processes today.

A common criticism of urban design is that regulators should not interfere with matters of aesthetics, or “taste”. But is it appropriate for councils to routinely approve mediocre designs, or should the resource consent process be seen as an opportunity to negotiate the best possible design outcome for every proposal?

Justification for Urban Design Intervention

The support for addressing urban design issues through the planning process is more in the nature of an evolution rather than a revolution and draws heavily from the lessons learned over the past three decades of plan implementation under the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA).

The RMA’s focus on the biophysical environment, and its minimal reference to the urban environment, has led to a popular misconception that resource management is not concerned with urban issues. As a result, earlier district plans rarely proactively planned for issues such as managing growth or improving the quality of the built environment. Notably, the Auckland City Council effectively adopted a laissez-faire approach to regulating developments in the CBD. Its district plan allowed the first wave of inner-city apartment developments to occur with minimal interference from planners. This led to developments that have been popularised by the media as “shoe-box apartments”.

Recognising that the quality of the built environment cannot be left to market forces alone, Auckland City Council responded by introducing urban design assessment criteria and residential amenity standards for apartment developments in the CBD. These have since been expanded to capture a much wider range of development types and across a variety of zones.

Over the past decade, it has become common practice for new developments of any significance to trigger the need for a resource consent, irrespective of compliance with standards, so that the design aspects of a proposed development can be scrutinised against the relevant urban design policies and criteria.

Pitfalls of Regulating Urban Design

Rules and standards exist to guide development, but it is accepted that these will not always be appropriate in every instance. Discretion in the resource consent process acts as the link between planning aspirations and individual applications. The exercise of discretion allows the particular characteristics of a site or a proposal to be factored into planning decisions, providing an opportunity to depart from standards in justified circumstances.

However, where there are no clear standards to guide the design of a scheme, and everything is “subject to assessment” against a set of mostly aspirational and sometimes competing criteria, the outcome becomes uncertain, and the process can become frustrating for the applicant.

The quality of decisions is dependent on the clarity of policies and the competence of professionals who interpret them. Problems arise when the regulators overstep their bounds when exercising discretion. Planners and urban designers (in their regulatory capacity) are often criticised for imposing what appears to be their personal values upon applicants under the guise of “requests for further information” and other mechanisms to frustrate or undermine proposals that are not consistent with those values.

A key challenge for councils when drafting urban design policies and criteria is to provide as much certainty as possible to developers and communities in terms of what can or cannot occur, while allowing the exercise of targeted discretionary powers in specified circumstances to facilitate innovative outcomes.

Beyond Regulations

It is important to recognise that there are legal and practical limitations in effecting changes through regulations. Enlightened and motivated developers are the key enablers of change and their buy-in are necessary to realise urban design aspirations. The best time to influence a proposed development is well before it has been submitted for resource consent.

Education, incentives, and partnerships are some of the other tools that are available to complement the regulatory “stick” to influence urban design outcomes. Understanding when and how to use these other tools effectively is often complex. However, that does not mean that we should automatically resort to the “easier” option of using regulations to fix all our problems.

Daniel Shao

Development Manager, Woolworths NZ

Daniel recently joined Woolworths NZ as a Development Manager. In this role, he is responsible for the development of new supermarkets, including sourcing sites and managing the design, consenting and delivery processes. Daniel is a member of Property Council’s Auckland Regional Committee.

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