Māori have a whakataukī, or proverb: “Whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua.” “Humanity may disappear, but the land remains.” It expresses the deep connection Māori feel with Papatuanuku, the earth mother. They see themselves as kaitiaki, guardians of the land.
How we treat the land and what we use it for is now under intense scrutiny. Urban sprawl vs urban intensification? I would argue that neither approach is perfect. We need to think differently—and the solutions are not that difficult.
House prices have eased but are still absurdly high. Can we ever make them affordable again, especially for first-home buyers? How can we make houses healthier? Cold, damp homes are one of the reasons why New Zealand has the worst rate of childhood asthma in the developed world. How can we make houses more resilient and environmentally friendly? Climate change is here now, and we must gear up for more extreme and frequent severe weather events.
Before we delve more deeply into these questions, consider this: Where would you like to live? What makes it special? A Chinese landscaper wrote that if you really enjoy your surroundings, you will always feel at ease without the need to travel so much.
What kind of communities do we want? Where will people work? How about transport and infrastructure, cultural amenities, and recreational opportunities?
The present Labour government is firmly backing urban density. Make cities denser. Protect rural land from housing. The National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land, which comes into effect on 17 October, will “enhance protection for highly productive land from inappropriate subdivision, use, and development,” the Ministry for Primary Industries says on its website.
“About 15 per cent of New Zealand’s land is categorised as highly productive. That means it’s the country’s most fertile and versatile land. Since 2002, 35,000 hectares of highly productive land have been carved up for urban or rural residential development. The biggest land losses have been in the areas around Auckland and Christchurch. Once the land is built on, it can no longer be used for traditional forms of food and fibre production.”
While some market gardeners are delighted, not everybody agrees that farming is the best use of land—especially dairy. Environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot says New Zealand uses a vast and wasteful amount of land for food production.
In his latest book, Regenesis: How to Feed the World Without Devouring the Planet, Monbiot argues that alternatives are needed. “I’ve come to see land use as the most important of all environmental metrics,” Monbiot told RNZ’s Kim Hill.
Not that Monbiot believes more land should just be given over to housing; protecting wild habitats is essential. But perspective is needed.
“The entire urban area occupied by humanity is 1 per cent of the planet’s land,” he says.
The most heat, however, has been generated by the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Act, passed in late 2021, and the National Policy Statement on Urban Development, also last year. The changes allow the building of up to three-storey houses throughout New Zealand’s main cities, overriding local councils. Opposition has been fierce.
“Our primary concern is the relentless push by the central government forcing intensification zoning that is completely unnecessary in the light of existing plans delivering on intensification,” says Michael Kampkes, an Auckland mayoral candidate and founder of Citizens Against the Housing Act 2021.
“This needlessly forces intensification on every suburb in every big city. Of prime concern was the sweeping aside of height to boundary and build ratios that had existed for decades that make our suburbs what they are today, suburbs millions around the globe aspire to live in. This will destroy the fabric of our cities as these 12-metre structures—three dwellings—built one metre off neighbours’ boundaries are pepper-potted throughout our suburbs, ruining the amenity—theft of sunlight, privacy, and peace and quiet—of all their neighbours’ homes. This will also devalue the homes affected.”
Kampkes says he wants to see intensification done well. “While the Unitary Plan is not perfect, we support it, as it has ample scope for intensification around urban hubs and arterial routes.
“We have a housing affordability issue. The critical solution is to bring our over-inflated housing market down to realistic levels and have plans to avoid speculative housing booms. The housing shortage was created by excessive immigration levels not matched by building capacity and infrastructure development. With supply and demand out of kilter and loose money supply, house prices skyrocketed…