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Speech: Future Challenges Of Urban Sustainability

New Zealand Planning Institute Conference
4.30pm, 18 May 2000, Christchurch Convention Centre

Address by Hon Marian Hobbs
Minister for the Environment

Future Challenges Of Urban Sustainability


Thank you for the opportunity to address your conference. I am delighted to be here in my former hometown of Christchurch addressing the Planning Institute’s first conference of the twenty-first century.

The theme of your conference is “Welcome to the Future”. Before I discuss what I think this means in the urban context I would like to take you back 150 years to the scene that greeted the first European settlers to Christchurch. What a shock they must have had.

Flax covered swamps, bush clad hills, abundant pukeko and a small number of scattered Maori settlements. This must have been a far cry from the dream they had been sold by one of New Zealand’s first planners, and father of Christchurch, Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Wakefield had a very clear vision of what he wanted Christchurch to be. It was to be a Church of England settlement. With the help of John Godley and the Canterbury Association, he planned the settlement in every detail. He carefully selected immigrants of different class and profession - preferably members of the Church of England, and he set out streets, squares and reserves with mathematical precision. How simple it must have all seemed from England. Alas, he did not account for the nature of the site or for the human nature of the settlers.

When the first settlers arrived little infrastructure existed. Roads were non-existent, little dry land was available and there were certainly no water or waste disposal systems in place. The immigrants therefore had to deviate from Wakefield’s carefully laid out plan. They settled on the high ground – often close to the rivers that doubled as transport routes and waste disposal systems. They also had to set about overcoming the environmental problems they faced. The most pressing problem was waste disposal – Christchurch had become known as one of the dysentery capitals of the world due to its low-lying nature.

This story must have been repeated in many places around New Zealand as settlers faced a very different reality from the one they had expected.

One hundred and fifty years on, and many of the original environmental problems have been overcome. Our urban areas are now, in general, pleasant and enjoyable places to live. In the year 2000, our towns and cities are home to 85% of all New Zealanders.

But overcoming some of the original environmental problems has led to new problems such as the loss of our natural heritage and the destruction of Maori links with their ancestral lands, water, and places for mahinga kai. Christchurch is only now beginning to realise the richness of its waterways and wetlands. I commend the Christchurch City Council’s Water Service Unit for its leadership in this area.

The success of urban areas has also led to new environmental problems on scales that are unfamiliar to us.

Have you ever tried to get to the airport from downtown Auckland in rush hour traffic? Not a pastime I would recommend. The perennial problem of Christchurch’s winter air pollution also comes quickly to mind. Ever increasing mountains of waste have to be disposed of in our urban areas and many of the dumps we have been using are simply not up to scratch.
Residents and visitors are becoming increasingly frustrated with the problems they are encountering and are very concerned about how their health may be affected. Our present ways of dealing with these problems are no longer proving effective.

I believe we are now at a turning point. It is time we took stock of the problems we face in urban areas and the ways we are dealing with them. What are the roles of the community, central and local government in addressing these issues? What is your role as a planner? “Welcome to the Future”.

One thing that I am sure of is that a master plan carefully drawn up in England, or in council civic offices, by a team of elite planners will not solve the problems associated with urban sustainability unless everyone is brought on board. Imposing someone’s views of utopia on others just does not work. Wakefield learnt that lesson.

I am strongly of the view that all sectors of the community including local, regional and central government have a part to play in developing and implementing sustainable solutions. But no one group has an absolute mandate for urban sustainability and neither should they; it is just too big and too complex. We need to work together.
And we need to speak the same language. The more concrete and grounded that language is the better everyone in the community understands it.

The urban problems we face are complex. They do not fit nicely into one box, but merge seamlessly between environmental, social and economic realms. This was graphically illustrated in a recent hearing on the draft Christchurch Air Plan. The Committee found that it could not ignore the financial and health implications of banning open fires and coal. Some people feared worse health effects would result if residents could not afford to replace their open fire with alternative sources of heating. As a result the Committee recommended that a compulsory measure for people to replace open fires was only possible if accompanied by financial support for them to do so.

Urban sustainability is about making links. This is true both for urban areas experiencing rapid growth and those experiencing a decline. Agenda 21, it seems to me, offers a useful action plan to link the environment, economy and society together.

At the end of April, I was in New York at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. I was impressed to see the energy that people were putting in to working out the big messages for Rio+10 – that is, the 10th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit. Rio was all about sustainable development and Agenda 21. We will be thinking hard at central government level, but we also need input from others at the grass roots, about how well New Zealand has done in making progress towards sustainable development. My provisional view is that we have moved forward since Rio, but not far or fast enough. As the Ministry for the Environment advised me when I first came to office, some of our big environmental problems have if anything got bigger in recent years – we are just not making enough progress. The same has been true on the social front – which is why we have launched such critical initiatives as “Closing the Gaps” to reduce the inequalities that exist between Maori and pakeha in this country.

A key principle of Agenda 21 is community participation. I understand that community and iwi participation has been the main topic of your discussions today. No doubt there was plenty of lively discussion.

Community participation, and by that I mean the community in its widest sense, is the cornerstone of democracy. I believe participation is also a key ingredient in developing strategies to overcome urban problems. If the community does not have a common vision or buy into the strategies then urban problems will continue. The traffic will get worse, the waste volume will grow, energy use will increase and the levels of amenity we enjoy will decline. We need the community to help work up ideas and visions and to help turn visions and strategies into reality.

But for people to have the energy to do this, they need to trust and to understand the processes. Environment Canterbury told me that only 45 per cent of those polled understood that council's decision-making role in water, air quality and urban issues.

We need to look at creative ways of achieving the vision. Too often, I think, regulation has been used to force reluctant communities to change. Regulation has its place but co-operative approaches have to be given a shot first. I commend the subsidy scheme that Christchurch City is operating to encourage people to convert from polluting forms of home heating.

I would like to say here that I believe most decisions about urban management are best made at a local level with community input. Local government is in a central position to respond to its local constituency. It has to weigh up competing interests. A range of environmental values has to be considered.

When making decisions about the form of a city, for example, a local authority has to recognise and provide for the matters of national importance set out in section 6 of the Resource Management Act. But it also has to balance matters such as protecting soils and related ecosystems, amenity values and the efficiency of transport networks. Environmental constraints such as the potential for flooding, land stability issues or the consequences of pushing development onto more erodible land may also have to be taken into account. These are difficult judgements to make and sometimes trade-offs have to be made. I strongly believe though that decisions are more robust when councils involve their local communities.
The competing problems need to be put before the community in a manner which involves them in reaching a decision that they can all (or most) live with.
The Resource Management Act is not the only means available to local government to establish and make balancing decisions among competing issues and values. I acknowledge the Resource Management Act has its place. However, I think it has been somewhat overused.
It has become the repository for all problems, whether it is a suitable means of addressing them or not. We sometimes need to look outside the strict boundaries of the Resource Management Act to more cross-sectoral approaches.

This type of approach is not new in New Zealand. The Auckland Growth Forum is the type of partnership model that I think has the potential to tackle the problems we face. The Forum still has a long way to go but I believe it is already proving to be a better way of conducting the strategic debate needed than relying on litigation to deal with differences.

Local government needs to communicate visions, goals and strategies that have evolved from communities – not impose strategies on them. Once local government has facilitated the development of a vision and strategies then they need to work with their community, infrastructure providers and private sector developers to make it happen.
And here is where we reach the nitty-gritty. No matter what strategy, what vision, what goal – each decision on infrastructure will involve a number of choices. These choices and their consequences need to be articulated clearly and explored with the community. It is where planning has become undone. The council thinks it has approval for a strategy until it converts that strategy into concrete proposals – and discovers that the strategy may have been built on people's different interpretations of abstract language.

It is interesting to note that in Christchurch developers undertake over 80% of housing development. I suspect that the same situation applies in other cities. Developers, to my mind, are key players local government should be talking with to understand the drivers of urban development and to make strategies work. The transport sector is another key group that has an enormous influence on the shape and direction of urban areas.

Once again this type of approach is not new. A number of authorities in Auckland and closer to here, the Waimakariri District Council, view their role in this way. We need, however, to extend this strategic planning approach so that it becomes the core function of every council’s business.

Planners, I believe, play an important role in developing and supporting this type of approach.

One of the key challenges I see for planners is to develop an ability to identify links and move out of the comfort zone of prescribed roles and responsibilities. Planners need to enhance the skills that assist communities to articulate their visions. You need to also venture out into unfamiliar territory if you want to understand what actually drives urban development. I urge you to explore transport planning, real estate, and health among other disciplines. On the other hand, don’t be dismayed or threatened by others venturing into your territory. We each need to understand where others are coming from and how we can best coordinate our efforts. For some this may mean burying hatchets and moving on from bitter litigation battles.

I have not forgotten the role of central government. As Minister for the Environment I am aware that central government has an important part to play in complementing and supporting the efforts of local government and the community. I see the partnership between central and local government as an important one. I want to see it developed further. In my mind this is a partnership between equals.

Each level of government is best suited to dealing with particular aspects of urban problems. Central government is able to shape institutional structures and systems, including regulatory frameworks such as the Local Government Act, Rating Powers Act and the Resource Management Act. Furthermore, it is better placed to address some of the issues common to all urban areas, for example, emission standards for vehicles entering the national fleet and the provision of public transport subsidies. The Government is also able to shape pricing regimes and provide public goods such as research relevant to urban areas.

The Government is serious about its role in urban sustainability and is taking action. The Prime Minister sent this message loudly and clearly when she appointed a Minister to advise her on Auckland Affairs – the Hon Judith Tizard.

I am also pleased to say that I am strongly encouraging the Ministry for the Environment to expand its work in the area of urban sustainability. I hope you will engage Ministry officials during this conference on the topic of urban sustainability and share your ideas on ways forward.

As some of you may know, Lindsay Gow (Deputy Chief Executive of the Ministry) did some work last year in the United States on urban growth management. The Ministry has published his thoughts on this topic and lessons for us from United States experience. I am pleased to announce that the publication – Curbing the Sprawl – is first being released here today. If you are interested in growth management, I commend it to you.

I would like to welcome Mr John Kari from the Twin Cities Metro Council in Minnesota to this conference. Lindsay met him in Minnesota last year and the Ministry has brought him out to New Zealand. Mr Kari is an expert in livable communities, and Lindsay felt he had a wealth of ideas that would be of interest to delegates at this conference. I am keen for the Ministry to open up constructive dialogues of this type with planners, councillors and other experts.

I would like briefly to run through four current policy initiatives that the Government is working on that will impact on urban areas. These involve:

1. Climate change
2. Energy efficiency
3. Waste management
4. Standards and Indicators

1. Climate Change

The Government recently announced its intention to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change by around mid-2002 – the time of the Rio +10 conference. This will have major implications for every sector of the economy. In particular, it will mean changes for the transport sector that is the biggest contributor to emissions of any sector in the economy. These emissions have been increasing rapidly, up 40 per cent from the 1990 level we have to return to.

Increasing the provision of public transport will be one means of reducing emissions. I intend to work with my colleague Mark Gosche, the Minister of Transport, to further investigate other means to reduce emissions. Methods we could look at include the use of bus lanes, traffic calming measures and congestion pricing; and in the urban sprawl we achieve let's balance the cost of increased traffic and increased CO2 emissions. Can the planet afford our lifestyle choices?

2. Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy is to my mind an essential component of any sustainable development strategy. The Government is presently in the process of “re-energising” the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority. We have moved the Authority from what was the Ministry of Commerce to the Ministry for the Environment. We intend to strengthen the Authority and to make it an independent Crown entity. Together with the Ministry, it will be responsible for helping develop a national energy efficiency and conservation strategy. The Government intends to ensure this strategy is a fundamental part of its energy policy and that it is used to deliver more sustainable, efficient energy outcomes.

3. Waste Management

Waste management is an area of major concern to me. The volume of waste is growing – up 82% in Auckland in the past eight years. The recently released National Landfill Census makes for some sober reading. In short, landfills are not up to the standard that either the public or the Government expects. It is time we made some hard decisions.

As Minister for the Environment, one of my top priorities is waste minimisation. I will be working closely with local authorities to develop ways to reduce the level of waste. We also need to develop ways of phasing in full cost recovery for waste management services by the year 2010.

I am also concerned at the standard of some landfill management. Some landfills need better management. If they are not upgraded or can’t be upgraded to modern standards, they should be closed.

Higher environmental standards, however, come at a cost. I recognise some communities are limited in their ability to pay for higher standards and I am therefore keen to investigate ways this burden can be lessened. One way is subsidies. The Government is about to introduce a subsidy scheme to assist small to medium communities upgrade their sewage treatment systems.

4. Standards and Indicators

The Ministry for the Environment is progressing on work to develop indicators that can be used to measure and report on the trends in the environment. Are we winning the battle? I believe information is an essential tool for any management; otherwise we are wasting our time. The Ministry is presently working on indicators of urban amenity. I anticipate this set of indicators will make an important contribution to the management of urban areas.

Work is also underway to develop some National Standards. I am looking at options to develop standards for marine bathing, and organo-chlorines. In addition, the Ambient Air Quality guidelines are being revised and I am discussing with officials the option of turning part of the guideline into a National Standard.


In conclusion I wish to leave you today with six main messages. First, urban issues are complex. They involve all levels of government and the community. Second, our past approaches have been found wanting. It is time we looked at new approaches and new ways of working. Third, I believe we need to adopt a strategic approach supported by flexible, dynamic partnerships. Fourth, I believe we should be seeking agreed outcomes and we should use our energies to solve problems together to get lasting results. Fifth, regulation should be used to underpin and support agreed outcomes, not to decide them – especially if such decisions can only be made through protracted litigation.

Finally, I wish to say that I believe strategic planning is an essential component of urban sustainability and is a core component of local democracy. But it is the way we plan that produces the communities our children and we will want to live in. But please take on this saying (adapted for this occasion):
Of the bad planner: he planned it without listening to us.
Of the good planner: she listened to our ideas.
Of the great planner: we planned this ourselves.
This is my challenge to you. “Welcome to the Future”.

Thank you.


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