(Almost) everything old is new again as New Zealand embraces urban regeneration

(Almost) everything old is new again as New Zealand embraces urban regeneration

By David Jones, Calibre New Zealand Urban Development Sector Leader

Urban regeneration is a comparatively recent concept in New Zealand, but the government’s decision to set up a National Housing and Urban Development Authority has put the concept firmly on the agenda.

New Zealand, like Australia, is a fairly new country in the scheme of things, compared to other places where regeneration happens a lot more, such as in Europe and the US. Consequently, the need for it has not been so prevalent in the past.

When I moved from the United Kingdom to New Zealand the first time 12 years ago, the word regeneration was rarely used. Fast forward to now and I feel there’s a much stronger understanding of the word and acceptance that regenerating communities and cities is much more needed.

What we’re seeing is that as cities mature and communities grow, people move and, consequently, places change. As a result, they need reinvention and renewal, especially when they’re not in a prime location in the city.

Traditionally, regeneration areas have been on the edge of the CBD or city centre, and they’ve been the areas that have needed regeneration first. But things have moved on globally in regeneration areas. It’s much more holistic now, and it can be employed in residential districts or suburbs, or even some city centres that have hollowed out.

I think what we’re seeing in New Zealand particularly, is that as growth happens in places like Auckland and, to a lesser extent, Wellington, that places are being left behind and there is a growing need for the public sector to intervene and support those places to grow and or regenerate. There is greater disparity between the “haves” and “have nots”.

The danger of ignoring the need for regeneration in those areas is that some communities will be left further behind. They will become more disaffected and people in those communities won’t benefit from the opportunities that others might.

The importance of an holistic approach

Regeneration isn’t just about the physical space, it’s also about the social, cultural, economic and educational opportunities of the communities that live or interact in those locations. If you don’t provide opportunities for some people who may not have the same opportunities as everybody else, then you can get a two-speed economy, a two-speed city, or even a two-speed community.

In order to make this work, stakeholders from government and the private sector are required to come together. Holistic regeneration is very much about a partnership across the public and private sector. Often that emerges in the form of a company or a joint venture of some description with the remit of regenerating a space or place.

In England we’ve seen urban development corporations and urban regeneration companies that have been established in waves by the UK government since the early 80s. In Australia, development authorities are also prevalent and have been for some time. But here we’ve not really seen that approach until the government recently announced that it’s going to set up a National Housing and Urban Development Authority.

It’s important that the private sector is also involved in urban regeneration projects. The public sector is partly motivated by stimulating investment from the private sector to areas they may not otherwise go. Often, because of the location of these places, the private sector seldom takes the lead. It needs public investment to stimulate or create a catalyst to regenerate a particular area or areas.

Why urban regeneration is so important?

Situations where communities require urgent regeneration result from a combination of factors including age, neglect and simply as a result of demographic growth and change. It is very complex. There can be many different reasons why regeneration is needed or places start to fall behind or need support. It’s different the world over and in every community. There can be different needs within one city or in one district.

In New Zealand we’re seeing that perhaps some of the catalysts for regeneration are long term under-investment in infrastructure across the country. New Zealand Government has recognised this and attempted to address through investments in major road and rail initiatives in places or need like Auckland, Waikato and increasingly Wellington. The need to reinvest in earthquake effected communities post the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes are evident. Now the Government is even talking of establishing an Infrastructure Commission to take over all responsibility and control of such investments.

I think there’s also been a difficult relationship between community stakeholders and the public sector, so the planning regime is not necessarily seen in a positive light. We all hear the demands by the development community to repeal the Resource Management Act so it is more pro-development and makes land more easily available for development.

I appreciate there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. New Zealand has a two-speed economy. Just in terms of geography, there is the booming Auckland CBD in the north, which is moving at a pace that the rest of the country can hardly keep up with. Auckland has experienced significant housing pressure and many people are leaving the city to cash in on housing price growth.

The government has recognised the need to intervene, which is why it has decided to create a Housing and Urban Development Authority. This agency is tasked to have a broad “Ministry of Public Works” remit that will allow it to invest heavily not only in housing but the public infrastructure that’s required to bring forward development in Auckland as well as other parts of the country.

The other half of the equation is that some communities are struggling. There are places like Tamaki in East Auckland, which has been identified as an area that needs to be supported and capitalise on its location in close proximity to Auckland’s economic centre. More recently East Porirua has been put forward as a place needing specific attention.

Tamaki has a higher than average level of Pacific Island and Maori community. It’s relatively close to Auckland’s CBD, but it’s not got the affluence of other areas of the city. School attendance rates are low and it is a consistently transient community. There aren’t the skill levels for the people to benefit from the opportunities that Auckland offers to those who have the right skills, background and education. The community has been unable to take advantage of the opportunities that are literally passing by their door.

Bringing everyone on board

In my experience, there have been a few common factors among areas that have been successfully regenerated. One is that the public sector has taken a leading role in regenerating those communities and engaging them.

Regeneration is not simply the physical plan. Rather, the physical plan is the backdrop to a holistic strategy that includes economic, social, educational and cultural plans.

It’s important to engage and attract the private sector to create jobs and invest in ‘new’ communities. The public sector needs to take the lead on, but very much with an eye to attracting private investment to follow closely behind.

In addition to partnering with the private sector, success is contingent on continuous, transparent and open-minded community engagement. After all – isn’t regeneration about helping make our communities more vibrant, healthy and accessible?

Change is already underway

Homes Land Communities (HLC) has shown that positive change can be achieved as they have demonstrated at Hobsonville in West Auckland. HLC capitalised on the public sector defence estate owned land at Hobsonville to create an attractive community, with thousands of houses built and occupied. The Housing and Urban Development Authority hopes to roll out that model with a wider remit to HLC, and with a few more tools at its disposal. The challenge will be taking this model into an already established residential area or on true “brownfield” land.

The creation of the Housing and Urban Development Authority following legislation being passed in 2019, will be a major change in itself. HLC and its parent company, Housing New Zealand, look likely to be amalgamated into the new agency, along with the KiwiBuild Unit of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. If they achieve what they’ve set out to achieve, it’ll be in place by 2020.

But while there are pockets of intervention happening across New Zealand, they are just that – pockets. We have also seen intervention by Council owned agencies like Panuku in Auckland that are working in partnership with HLC on schemes, such as Northcote on the North Shore of Auckland. We are also seeing fledging independent housing associations being created like Accessible Properties for New Zealand who have extensive ownership in certain locales, such as Tauranga.

Urban regeneration is not something that has been addressed in a significant way by the public sector in New Zealand but the signal presented by the government has the potential to change that.

Challenges still lie ahead

Urban regeneration is often seen as something that’s done unto the community rather than in partnership with them. The Housing and Urban Development Authority is proposed to have its own planning powers and that’s quite a controversial move.

In the UK, back in the ‘80s the government set up Urban Development Corporations with planning powers usurping those of the local authority. A particularly extreme example was in Merseyside where the left wing controlled City Council came into direct opposition of the right leaning Thatcher led Tory Government’s Merseyside Development Corporation. It took a long time for those wounds to be healed, and perhaps long-term it slowed down redevelopment and regeneration of Liverpool by 15 years or more. Following strong investment by the private sector, the land between the Mersey riverfront and the city centre has changed beyond recognition, and for the better. It is important to ensure the centrally controlled agency gets local buy in and support, especially when Council’s ‘powers’ are curtailed.

Another challenge is that urban regeneration often happens in communities where there are often multiple landowners. That means land assembly is invariably very difficult and can be a long and tortured process. Essentially this translates to the need to have power of compulsory purchase, or at least the threat of it. The New Zealand Government is suggesting that a Public Works Act be used as the basis for regeneration schemes which would provide the Housing and Urban Development Authority the powers it needs for significant land assembly.

A positive future

Regeneration offers New Zealand, its cities and communities an opportunity to become the ‘jewel of the south pacific’ in terms of livability. Regeneration can be a catalyst to major change in areas and facilitate housing renewal and development that allows for densification, attract private investment and done right, present opportunities for local people.

As a development professional I’d like to think that I, and the rest of the team at Calibre, have a role to play. We can work alongside the public sector to set the vision and corral the public and private sectors to stimulate regeneration across New Zealand.

I feel positive about the future of urban regeneration in New Zealand. The Government’s decision to establish the Housing and Urban Development Authority is a really strong move. I for one will be supportive and do whatever I can to ensure the new Housing and Urban Development Authority is successful.


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