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Creating communities, not demolishing old homes

by Roland Sapsford
Some thirty years ago, faced with urban sprawl and an exploding volume of traffic, parents who were too scared to let their children walk or cycle alone and the lack of quality housing, people around the globe asked if a different future was possible for cities.

From this came new urbanism, the idea that we could learn something from the walkable, medium density neighbourhoods of the past, the ones with strong local hearts and a sense of community.

Human relationships are stronger when people have a connection to the landscape and its stories as they walk through it. People deserve a sense of community, they deserve a home, and they need to feel some agency over what happens in their community.

Density done well is desirable – it’s a key learning from the new urbanism. Another lesson from the new urbanism is that density alone isn’t enough, and density done badly erodes cities and breeds inequity every bit as much as sprawl does.

Someone said to me the other day that people who oppose these changes are just old rich white people protecting their wealth. “Middle class capture” is a slogan from the 80s and 90s; people talked about how deregulation would stop the greedy middle classes hoarding privilege and create opportunities for those on low incomes. How did that go?

The idea that our heritage and character areas are hotbeds of privilege does not stand scrutiny – our city’s character areas are not the wealthiest, people who live there don’t have the highest incomes and anyone who thinks Newtown is dominated by old, rich, white people lives in a parallel universe.

The Wellington City Council’s Planning for Growth [1] removes character protection from 7 times as much land as even the planners think is necessary because they think uptake will be patchy. The idea that developers will cherry-pick sites for profit is baked into the proposals.

What will happen? Well, building apartments in inner Wellington initially drove out people on low incomes rather than housing them. In the 90s, it was the poor who were forced out of Te Aro.

The first eight-storey apartments in Newtown will be luxury dwellings shading much poorer people in rental properties to the immediate south.

These are the authentic evidence-based truths behinds the slogans and soundbites.

Housing is a human right. If we really care about housing people we need a focussed and genuine attempt to build homes for people in ways that also support communities.

To do that, we need to create new homes rather than demolish existing ones. Focus on vacant houses, and commercial buildings, then vacant/parking only land, then poor quality low-rise commercial buildings rather than character areas. You may be surprised to know that in all the work that has been done leading up to today, there is no inventory of these.

How? Use targeted incentives. Maintain the heritage and character protections [2]. Use the next five years to work with communities to identify how they might grow and intensify. Recognise people’s experience of their community matters, and work with them. Engage mana whenua and ensure their stories and interests are given voice and daylight. Talk about climate change and water. Build up an idea of how to house more people well in a way that strengthens community. This is the hard work of genuine democracy.

At the moment we have more community input into the design of Aro Valley and Newtown community centres, than Planning for Growth offers these communities about their future.

Character and heritage are not luxuries, they are dry labels for people’s sense of connection to community and landscape and the ability to read stories in our surroundings. They are part of the foundations of a resilient and just Wellington in a changing climate, not a barrier to creating one.

The council’s proposals are for the most drastic change to our lived environment in the last 100 years.

The Copenhagens, Amsterdams and other cities lauded by Planning for Growth have very strong planning controls, heavy protection of heritage and character and large public housing programmes. In many ways they point in the opposite direction to Planning for Growth.

I hope councillors might pause and ask a broader range of people: is there another way? What about Planning for People?

At least I hope councillors will give the citizens of Wellington more time, better information and real tools to start pointing to a better way. Ngā mihi katoa.

Roland Sapsford, who lives in the Aro Valley, made this submission to city councillors about their Planning for Growth [3] proposal.