The Art of the Planner

With the NZPI Annual Conference taking place this week in Wellington, urban planning briefly finds itself in the limelight. To celebrate, the ADM takes a look at the ‘art’ of  planning.

When I decided to commit four years of my life to a planning degree, my parents didn’t quite jump for joy.  For some time they not-so-secretly harboured hopes that I would change my mind and do a law degree instead. As the years have gone by though, I’ve successfully managed to convince them of the value planning has to a city – or at least get them to concede that it wasn’t a waste of my education.

I do notice, however, that their eyes glaze over when I describe the likes of ‘rules’, ‘assessment criteria’ or ‘mitigation’.  I suspect the majority of eyes out there do the same. With Auckland in the midst of a much-talked about housing crisis, it seems timely to reflect on what planning achieves, and how best practice in this field benefits the future shape of our city.

The ‘art’ of the planner relates to focusing on an end goal that delivers a positive outcome for all: developers, homeowners and occupiers, the community, and, perhaps most importantly, the environment we depend on. This may seem to fly in the face of what appear to be tedious processes and arbitrary rules, but remember that planners are like the gate keepers: their job is to protect against the disaster of unmitigated development and urban sprawl. To make a difference and create a better future is why most of us entered into the profession in the first place.

This is no small feat though, and the path can often be laden with difficulties, such as conflicting specialist advice, the need to understand unique site constraints, pressure from developers to increase development yield, and often tight time frames. Therefore the art of planning is in smoothly manoeuvring through the planning systems in place and using our judgement to shape a successful outcome.

The ‘art’ of planning requires smooth manouvering through planning systems to shape successful outcomes


When asked the question of what a planner does, I give this response: “A planner is to a city, what an architect is to a building”.

This is, of course, a generalisation, but it helps give people a basic understanding of our role. Planners in New Zealand will generally work for either a local government (or government agency such as Auckland Transport) or private company. These companies range from small-scale planning consultancies to large, multinational engineering organisations.

Local government planners are responsible for writing planning policy and processing resource consent applications, while planners in the private sector are responsible for preparing and submitting resource consent applications on behalf of developers. On occasion, local governments will consult specialists to assist with the preparation of policy or the processing of consent applications.

The work of a planner, particularly with regards to the preparation and processing of resource consents, is largely influenced by the Resource Management Act (RMA). The RMA is New Zealand’s main piece of legislation that sets out how we should manage our environment. The effects of a development on the environment are often the primary consideration in the processing of its consent.

Planning might not be glamorous exactly, yet it is the planners who write the policies and rules upon which our cities rise or fall. We work closely with architects, urban designers and engineers, though often don’t receive the same public recognition for successful projects. That isn’t to say there aren’t well-known planners – you may have heard of Le Corbusier, Ebenezer Howard or Jane Jacobs, superstars within our profession – but even they aren’t as well-known as Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry or Norman Foster.

Much of our work is carried out ‘behind the scenes’, visualising and shaping the future urban growth and character of a city. The most recent example of this is the Auckland Unitary Plan, New Zealand’s most comprehensive local development planning document to date. The plan was not without a lot of opposition, however change was necessary if Auckland is to continue to grow and become an increasingly functional and liveable city for its residents and visitors.

Under the Resource Management Act (RMA), planners must take into account the effects of a development on the environment


As I’m sure is the case with many Auckland families, hardly a week goes by without a dinner-table discussion about  Auckland house prices, and what it means to live in this city going forward.

For my parents of the baby-boomer generation, the proliferation of real estate listings for new and off-the-plan terraced homes and/or apartments is a marvel in itself. This wider choice of housing signals a change in how Aucklanders will live.

While many of these conversations end up meandering into a variety of personal opinions and theoretical musings over whether a particular new development will be a good one to live in, or  worth buying into (using imaginary money we may not have), the developments we are discussing are the very tangible end result of a planner’s hard work.

The true litmus test is the success of what planning achieves – the actual outcome of development. This is the most accessible way the public can measure its value. If the developments that are the subject of our dinner table conversations become sustainable communities, in which the residents enjoy living in and feel connected to, we can say our job as planners was a job well done.

The litmus test – do residents enjoy living in new developments?


Interested in learning more about planning, or looking to embark on a project of your own? The ADM’s Unitary Plan Guide has everything you need to know about the Unitary Plan, as well as guidance on design statements and illustrated checklists outlining how to apply the rules to your project.

, ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply