Local Government Magazine

Smart Solutions Planning

With councils deep in the throes of their 2018-28 long term plans, Patricia Moore asked four specialists how planning processes are changing and how local authorities and their communities could benefit.

Spare a thought for council planners confronted by issues around population growth and decline, implementing legislation, emerging technologies, and natural resources – to name a few.

Growing Concerns

David Spencer
David Spencer

Ask David Spencer, principal consultant arborist at Arborlab, about planning issues and he cites tree rules, extreme weather and budgets. “A major concern is differing opinions on tree rules for councils and external planners, particularly around pruning and trees in new developments.”
Lack of unifying agreed standards often leads to contention he says. “I believe there’s a need for central government to create a New Zealand Standard that’s adopted across the country.”David says work on a Wellington development was stopped because it was occurring under the drip-line of a heritage Norfolk pine.
Council was concerned about damage to the tree’s roots. Arborlab suggested an alternative measurement system – as per UK and Australian standards – that was accepted and allowed construction to continue. To date, the tree has shown no detrimental effects.David says problems can also arise when Significant Natural Areas are not accurately identified. Similarly, problems occur when lack of experience of use of cheap GIS technology leads to areas being wrongly identified as significant.
“Planners need to apply environmental context, judgement and value, when doing assessments. There’s also a need
to consider maintenance when changing use of open spaces,”
he says.
“Areas may become very difficult or expensive to maintain. With park asset bases increasing but operations budgets remaining static or decreasing, councils can find they’re unable to maintain these assets.”
Nick Williamson, senior planning consultant at Align.

According to Nick Williamson, a senior planning consultant at Align, speeding up council decision-making processes could well relieve some of the pressure. “It doesn’t need to be this way,” he says.

“Right now, councils are developing their 2018-2028 Long Term Plans. Within that same timeframe – by 2022 – Elon Musk plans to deliver the first cargo mission to Mars.”

Nick says councils need to be a lot more entrepreneurial when it comes to planning. He suggests councils could adopt lean business and more agile approaches to service delivery. “Even complex policies and services can be developed very quickly.”

He cites the Google Ventures five-day design sprint process to build prototype products or services, and then test the solutions. “The same methodology can be used by local government.”

Jared Thomas, WSP Opus research manager, behavioural sciences.

For Jared Thomas, WSP Opus research manager, behavioural sciences, a key issue for planners is understanding how people will live and move in future communities.

“This puts pressure on council planners and engineers to conceive and set standards for designing and enabling multi-modal corridors in district plans, and decide how they might assess and achieve different infrastructure that provides for safe, enjoyable journeys whether we walk, roll or ride.”

He says councils need better information on how people travel now, and how they would like to live and travel in future.

“These insights help prepare for the needs of future generations. Ultimately, this makes it easier to deliver more aspirational and meaningful planning.”

He cites the construction of He Ara Kotahi Manawatu River Bridge in Palmerston North as a good example.

“Community feedback heavily influenced a design that achieves efficient walk-cycle commuter links, opens up a range of recreational opportunities, achieves traffic calming, activates the river’s edge and informs the community about place-specific tangata whenua and natural heritage.”

“The use of web-based technology is providing the opportunity for a smoother interaction with the planning system.”

Jared says evolving technologies are assisting planners to achieve smarter outcomes.

“An example of technology that’s been supported by forward-thinking councils and the Transport Agency, is the WSP Opus instrumented bike that’s been ridden, for diagnostic purposes, in urban and rural environments across the Greater Wellington Region, examining thousands of interactions with vehicles that share the road.”

He says with riders on the network currently hitting the panic button every 22 minutes, the data accrued reveals the importance of better planning for this group.

Meanwhile Isovist director Jonathan Richards adds that RMA planning is a complex area that can prove difficult to navigate.

“However, the use of web-based technology is providing the opportunity for a smoother interaction with the planning system.

“It is offering benefits such as improved accessibility to information; reduced print costs for councils; transparency of the planning process through improved public access to decision-making processes; and by reducing the number of basic enquiries council staff deal with, freeing up planning resources.”

Jonathan says IsoPlan, a regional and district plan tool, enables users to search for rules relating solely to their property and specific activities on that property, such as consents for fences.

“Instead of wading through hundreds of pages to find these details the information is accessible through a couple of mouse clicks.”

Members of the Arborlab team monitoring and supervising works under the drip line.

Isovist works collaboratively with councils to develop and tweak their products, then shares those improvements with other council clients. Jonathan says recent work with New Plymouth District Council is a case in point.

“The project aimed to provide a web-based district plan and submissions system and involved a major overhaul of the design of our products. User experience input provided by New Plymouth improved the look and feel, making the products much simpler to use.”

The online platform has been recognised as a leading ePlanning tool and is the winner of a number of industry awards.

But beware of treating symptoms rather than digging further into the problem, says Align’s Nick Williamson. “Throwing technology at an issue isn’t usually a fix but using technology to inform the process is critical.

“The design process relies on identifying your assumptions then measuring how your prototyped solution works when tested in a real-world environment.”

And, in noting there are a lot of platforms enabling councils to collect and publish data, Nick suggests adopting an ‘open by default’ approach. Councils, he suggests, could take a leaf out of the Google Maps book and ask users to update data.

“Be open, honest and ask for help. It’s a great way to build trust with a community.”

• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. mch@xtra.co.nz

This article was first published in the June 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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