Kōrero: City planning

Whārangi 5. From motorways to the Resource Management Act

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By the early 1950s continued urban growth and the rising number of private cars had created chronic congestion in city centres and along arterial streets. In Auckland planners first suggested building suburban railways – as existed in Wellington – to relieve the problem. But in 1955 they decided Auckland’s low population density required a road-based solution. Construction soon began on a master plan of motorways across the city. The linchpin of the system was the harbour bridge, which from 1959 linked the isthmus with the North Shore.

By then all the main cities wanted motorways. Christchurch’s 1962 Master Transportation Plan included provision for northern and southern motorways, and another through Hagley Park – later stopped by protest. Wellington’s motorway was to gracefully wend its way across the city to the airport. It required cutting a path through the city’s oldest suburb and cemetery. As colonial cottages were bulldozed and early citizens disinterred, the popular idea that motorways were progressive rang hollow to many. In the end the motorway proceeded only as far as Te Aro.

Residential E

Public outrage over the destruction of parts of Thorndon for the motorway led the Wellington City Council to introduce a District Scheme change, giving greater protection to what was left. Called the Residential E Zone, and adopted in 1976, it was New Zealand’s first conservation area. Other councils followed Wellington’s lead.

Protest over motorway construction marked a turning point in public perceptions of planning. Critics claimed that in their quest to make cities more rational and efficient, planners had left people out of their plans and deadened city life.

Urban renewal

But inner-city life was not snuffed out altogether. The destruction of old neighbourhoods by motorways drew attention to that which remained. From the 1970s young, middle-class couples began buying the former slum houses and flats and refurbishing them as homes. Encouraging the process was the 1973 oil shock, which raised petrol prices and suburban commuting costs. The government also helped through housing improvement loans. While urban renewal (or gentrification) certainly gave new life to these historic areas it also displaced the poor who had formerly resided there. Many found new homes in outer suburbs.

Stupid planners

Among planners’ fiercest critics was architect Ian Athfield. In 1987 he proclaimed: ‘Planners and local authorities are stupid. Absolutely stupid! They have these rules and they’re not worth a tin of s---. They’re rules for rules’ sake. They don’t have any validity. They’re changed all the time. So the clever and competent in the [architectural] profession are the ones that know the rules instead of being clever and competent architectural designers.’1

New Act

In 1977 a new Town and Country Planning Act removed the overseeing role of central government in the preparation and management of district schemes. Henceforth councils were responsible for their own schemes, with a Planning Tribunal settling disputes. The change signaled a retreat from the interventionist approach that had characterised city planning since the 1930s Labour government.


Further change came with another Labour government in 1984. It believed planning’s matrix of rules and regulations – designed to protect the public interest – had weakened private property rights and hindered economic growth. By this time planning controlled nearly every aspect of city life, including:

  • where people could live and work
  • the height and shape of new buildings
  • building densities
  • the types of activities permitted on properties
  • the degree to which owners could modify properties.

Critics now argued planning was too bureaucratic. Architects complained that rules governing the bulk and height of buildings were so prescriptive that the nature of a building was predetermined before pencil was put to paper. Others stated that regulations preventing people working from home or opening street cafés were stifling city life. The government agreed and moved to deregulate planning and bolster private property rights.

Resource Management Act

In 1991 the Town and Country Planning Act was superseded by the Resource Management Act (RMA). It required councils to prepare new district plans to manage land use in an environmentally sustainable way. The ethos of the act was more free-market than regulatory. As long as there was no environmental harm, people should be largely free to build as they like. An Environment Court replaced the Planning Tribunal.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Brett Riley, ‘Bucking the bureaucrats,’ Listener, 24 October 1987, p. 63. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ben Schrader, 'City planning - From motorways to the Resource Management Act', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/city-planning/page-5 (accessed 21 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010, updated 26 Mar 2015