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Speech to Green Building Council

Building smarter, greener cities

It will be clear to anyone who has been watching the public debate on the housing crisis that housing in New Zealand is sadly far from being economically sustainable when Auckland has the fourth most unaffordable housing in the world, and the market teeters on the edge of a bust.

It is far from being socially sustainable when the city’s traditionally affordable suburbs are being hoovered up by speculators and home ownership rates are dropping fast, while we see a surge in homelessness.

And as for environmental sustainability, there has been some progress in recent years.

The Green Building Council deserves kudos for pushing forward the sustainability agenda in relation to buildings. It has, along with the public health community, shifted people’s thinking about energy efficiency, and warm, dry homes.

But there is a long way to go.

It’s a fascinating time right now if you are interested in urban issues and the built environment.

Issues like homelessness, warm dry homes, urban land economics, public transport, urban growth, architectural and urban design, are being publicly debated like never before.

In Auckland fixing an out of control housing market, and the gridlock on the roads, are the two big pressing tasks.

These problems highlight a poor quality built environment, and the failure in Auckland’s case to manage urban growth well.

They are telling us we need to re-think the city.

We need to start building smarter, greener cities.

Environmentalism for the last half century has mostly been a way of protecting the natural environment from the effects of development.

Now we need a new environmentalism that can change the way we live in cities. That can lighten our footprint on the planet while helping us build more prosperous communities that are better for people.

It’s not about stopping development or building less. It’s about building more and smarter.

We have to do this, for two reasons.

First, urbanisation is fact of life.  It is a global transformation that started around 1800 and will finish around 2100. People are choosing to live close to each other rather than close to the land. 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2015. In New Zealand 84% of us already live in cities.

Second, there are some looming threats and opportunities that should focus our minds.

There are two main threats: climate change, and the consequences of failing to properly allow for urban growth.

Luckily there are some great opportunities.

Growth itself generates the chance to build differently, and invest in new ways of doing things.

When we build 100,000 new affordable homes as we will do once we’ve changed the Government, those homes will meet design standards for sustainability.

Disruptive technologies and new business and economic models will solve many of our most pressing challenges if we are bold enough to embrace them.

And luckily history is a thing of the past. Today’s millennials don’t all aspire to a quarter acre in the suburbs and a car-based lifestyle. Their values and lifestyle aspirations will drive change.

 

I want to set out three big areas of reform.

The first is that we must decarbonise our cities by the middle of the century as part of the global effort to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero beyond 2050.

Climate change is a threat to our species and our planet. In the short to medium term it is a threat to our prosperity if the people who buy our products no longer see us as environmentally responsible.

70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from cities. With transport 99% dependent on fossil fuels, and the sector producing 17% of our emissions, this is low hanging fruit.

And here’s where technology comes in.

The Government should be doing all it can to encourage the take up of electric vehicles.

Most Kiwis buy their cars second hand. So to drive change we must fuel the second hand market for EVs. Government and commercial fleets are the sensible place to start.

Here’s how it could work. There are around 17,000 cars in the government fleet.  If the government started ‘walking-the-walk’ and had an opt-out policy for electric vehicles that might give us 15,000 electric cars in the government fleet. Let’s say they are on a 3 year lease agreement, then head to the second hand market for another 5 years, after 8 years there could be 40,000 electric cars in NZ simply as a result of government action.

It’s not just about electric cars - E-bikes and E-buses will over time make a big difference to emissions.

Getting more people off the motorways onto electric commuter rail will help as well.

Reducing carbon by replacing fossil fuel with low-carbon energy sources has to be the priority.  That is why electric vehicles are a no brainer.

And it is why interestingly the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment says solar won’t help reduce emissions.

Solar panels are most effective in summer, but it is in winter when the carbon dioxide emissions from generating electricity are at their highest.

Energy efficient buildings – both commercial and residential - will also go a long way to reducing energy demand and carbon emissions.  The Green Building Council’s rating tools are important here.

Setting modern standards for heating, ventilation and insulation for all rental properties would help a great deal too – that’s our policy. It would cut carbon emissions, and prevent many of the 50,000 children being hospitalised every year for respiratory and infectious diseases associated with cold damp homes.

There are other things we can do.

Achieving zero waste by 2040 – that’s Auckland Council’s goal - will cut greenhouse gas emissions.  Kitchen and garden waste make up half of the rubbish going into landfills and generate large quantities of methane. Rolling out kerbside organic collections will make a big difference.

Replacing the city’s 44,000 high pressure sodium street lights with LED lights will over the 20 year life of the LED lights save $32 million in energy costs.

The second area of reform is building cities that are less car-dependent.

There are a whole lot of changes, many of which are already underway, that will take us in this direction.

The current government hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that when you add more lanes to a motorway they just fill up with more cars.

If we want to fix the gridlock and have a liveable city we have to reduce car-dependency. We can do that by looking to urban form, better integrating public transport walking and cycling, and demand management.

Millennials are driving less, here and around the world. Kilometres driven has been static for the best part of a decade now. In the modern digitally connected world, owning a car is no longer the status symbol it was.

Over the next couple of decades we are going to see a massive improvement in public transport – with the City Rail Link doubling the number of trains on the network, more rapid transit busways, rail to the airport, another harbour crossing which must include rail, trams back on the isthmus after a 50 year absence, and an integrated joined-up network.

People want more walking and cycling infrastructure, and some of them are biking to work instead of driving. That will only increase.

Add to all that, Uber, car-share and other ride-sharing businesses.

New apps that give commuters access to real time information about congestion, travel times and options can influence travel choices that across the network can smooth off the worst peaks and make individual journeys more efficient and more enjoyable.

Urban form is critical.  We need to see more ambitious urban redevelopment in the city – large-scale revitalisation of communities particularly around the rail network.

We can encourage more development in the city by freeing up the restrictive controls on height and density to allow more medium density in town centres and on transport corridors.

Add all this up and there is no doubt fewer and fewer Aucklanders will feel they need to own a car just to live.

That shouldn’t surprise us. There are plenty of cities around the world who are already there.

It will make our city immensely more liveable. And it will cut one of our biggest sources of carbon emissions.

 

The third area of reform is fixing the dysfunctional housing market that is neither socially nor economically sustainable.

When there are kids as young as 11 sleeping under bushes in South Auckland, and speculators buying 46% of the houses on the market, we know something is seriously wrong.

The public debate is full of single issue advocates like the current government who insist it it is only a matter of supply.

They’d also like you to believe we are victims of our own success, and all successful cities have these problems. If this is success I’d hate to see what failure looks like.

Labour’s view is that there are several causes of the crisis, and a solution will take bold and sustained reform on a number of fronts.

We need to build more affordable homes through a massive government backed building programme.

We need to crack down on speculators.

We need to build more state houses instead of selling them off.

We need to make renting a better option by giving tenants more security of tenure and making sure all rentals are warm and dry.

But unless we fix the urban land market that has driven land costs so high and made it a permanent open season for speculators, we’ll never make home ownership affordable again.

At the heart of the problem is a restrictive planning regime based on an urban growth boundary that creates a massive price differential between land that can be developed and land that cannot. It is a magnet for land bankers.

The incremental drip feeding of new land into supply (even on the scale of 11,000 ha over 30 years as the draft Unitary Plan proposes) simply feeds the speculation.

Labour proposes a new smarter way to manage urban growth that would replace the boundary with

  • more intensive spatial planning in the growth corridors

  • setting aside areas of special value, and open spaces big and small for future parks

  • acquiring land for future roads and transit

  • and crucially, reforming the way infrastructure is financed to make sure new development fully carries the cost of its infrastructure.

In case you are wondering how this squares with my earlier call for more intensification and less car-dependence, here’s how.

The full package of reforms must include the freeing up of density and height controls that currently block medium density development in the city.

It must include ambitious urban renewal projects in the city.

And the government front-footing investment in transport links to support new development. For instance, electric rail to Pukekohe.

If we truly ensure that infrastructure costs are carried by the owners of new developments, all this will likely tilt the playing field in favour of intensification.

But more importantly it will take away the root cause of the speculative boom and bust cycle, and lower the urban land costs that are at the heart of so many problems.

So there’s our three point plan for smarter, greener cities: decarbonise our cities, build cities that are less car-dependent, and fix the failing urban land and housing markets.

I wish you well for the rest of the conference.