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Resource material › Building Sustainable Urban Communities › 2. Barriers and implementation difficulties in sustainable urban development in New Zealand

(Building Sustainable Urban Communities - discussion document)

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Several New Zealand local authorities (or their property development companies (1) and one central government subsidiary (2) are working on large-scale redevelopment and greenfields projects in urban areas. Some private developers and not-for-profit organisations have also looked at undertaking larger-scale projects.

Together, these projects illustrate the sort of barriers and implementation difficulties that can prevent existing organisations from being able to deliver large-scale sustainable urban development projects.

The barriers and implementation difficulties identified to date are:

a. Capacity and capability issues in all levels of government and the development industry

Sustainable urban design and development is a specialised field, rapidly changing and developing. Achieving a common understanding of sustainable urban development in New Zealand and delivering it is likely to be difficult — either because the skills and experience are not available here, or because they are thinly spread across the country.

b. Limited co-ordination of national, regional and local planning and implementation for large-scale urban development

Large-scale urban development can only be achieved by many parties working together. Central, regional and local government have different roles. Complementary planning, programming (including budgeting) and implementation processes are needed to make sure these are aligned. Each form of government operates at a different scale, so this seems to happen only in a limited way at present.

c. Ineffective integration between land use and transport planning; and transport, utility and other service providers
  • Sustainable urban areas rely on effective infrastructure and access to services to support economic, environmental, social and cultural wellbeing. Infrastructure and service providers include:
  • utility operators — telephone, internet, electricity, gas, water, wastewater disposal, etc.
  • local and/or central government — roads and railways, street lighting, stormwater disposal, public transport services, reserves, open space, libraries, community and recreational facilities, refuse collection and disposal
  • central government — public health, police, fire, education facilities and programmes, economic and community development, etc.

Providers have their own priorities, asset management requirements, timing issues and investment decision points. All must be actively involved in planning and developing any urban areas to ensure that:
  • the right infrastructure and community facilities are put in the right place at the right time, and are big enough to cope with the expected population/use
  • residents and visitors can access the right services at the right time — and at a reasonable price.

d. Difficulties in funding urban development projects

Urban development requires significant amounts of funding in the early stages before income streams from development or land sales become established. This funding is needed to:

  • buy property
  • comprehensively design the area and pay for infrastructure provision
  • re-package land, and either build new buildings or market the land and development rights to potential developers.
  • This ‘start-up capital’ can be significant. Many parties have expressed concern about how to raise these funds when there are higher priorities for spending on core services. The level of risk is also difficult to quantify given the longer-term nature of the projects.
  • Other funding difficulties include:
  • determining who should pay for urban development (including infrastructure and services) and how/when it should be paid for
  • finding ways to allocate the costs of public-good elements of a development, such as providing affordable housing or public transport.

e. Difficulties assembling useful parcels of land from fragmented groups of properties, or in buying and/or ensuring appropriate development of strategic sites

Land assembly can be particularly difficult when redeveloping existing neighbourhoods and town centres. Most existing urban areas are in land parcels of differing sizes, ownership and uses. Projects need enough land in common ownership so a developer (or a group of owners working together) can:

  • make significant changes to urban form to create large-scale, purpose-designed, higher-density mixed-use development. This would include new roading patterns, linkages to rail, public spaces and infrastructure.
  • realise economies of scale
  • re-package and redevelop the land and assets to improve their utilisation or performance and increase their public/private value. This would apply particularly to public land and assets.
  • Possible development areas may also have strategic sites that could unlock the area’s full potential because of their location (e.g. near a railway station), size (e.g. large supermarket or carparks), or use (e.g. disused or under-utilised industrial land).
  • Acquiring these sites or getting the agreement of all owners to their redevelopment can be difficult.

f. The length and nature of planning and development control processes

A key factor in the economics of development projects is being unable to control costs due to planning uncertainties and process delays. Developer uncertainty is increased by the length of some processes and the number of chances for opponents to relitigate decisions during the planning and development control process.

g. Limits to achieving social outcomes and public benefits (such as affordable housing) through market mechanisms

Some suburbs/social housing areas are due for redevelopment, either to provide new housing to support nearby business development, or because the existing stock needs to be refurbished or replaced. These areas may have poorer reputations, leading to relatively low house and land prices. This makes it difficult for investors to profit from improvements and reinvest in further development that provides both public and private benefits. In other areas, existing urban development is largely piecemeal and too small to give enough leverage to achieve wider public benefits.

h. Public resistance to urban intensification

Intensification has generated some public resistance and negative media coverage. It is not clear whether this is due to consumer preference or poor experience with specific examples. Intensification works well if it is well designed, in keeping with the character and quality of an area, well located and accessible to a range of services and activities.

Many of these barriers and difficulties are likely to be worse in complex or strategically important projects. Complex or strategically important projects are large-scale, have multiple ownership, and/or are sites of major infrastructural or other investment (e.g. rail, programmes to deal with high social needs). Complexity may also occur where projects are next to another local authority area or span local authority boundaries. This has implications for the type of approach required to address these matters.

  • What is slowing down, preventing, or reducing the quality of sustainable urban development? Please give examples.
  • What can be done to deal with these barriers?

What’s happening now?

A number of urban design case studies on larger-scale developments have been published by the Ministry for the Environment as part of the New Zealand Urban Design Protocol. Follow the links on the website to find case studies on projects such as:


1. For example, Tomorrow’s Manukau Properties Limited and Waitakere Properties Limited
2. The Hobsonville Land Company

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