Segregating a city: the Politics of Zoning and the Unitary Plan

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Farr Ghar
November 18, 2016

Similar to any planning document or policy, the Unitary Plan has an impact on the social cohesion of urban inhabitants. Here we explain how it is implicitly and explicitly segregating and fragmenting the city, ripping the soul of communities apart.

Segregation; can be social and/or physical. It is the separation of groups in society often based on ethnic or socio-economic lines. It can lead to other forms of inequality and injustice that is indeed a direct consequence of zoning practices. Segregation by means of zoning practices is not a new or emerging phenomena limited to the Unitary Plan. However, since the Unitary Plan is a blanket policy imposed over a big city, it can lead to an extreme intensification of this process. To clarify the extent of the problem, we explain the meaning and complexities of these processes before unpacking how the Unitary Plan will further segregate and divide the urban fabric of Auckland.

Zoning; is the process of segregating urban areas by land use. This can be for a single or a set of activities for the different ‘practical’ purposes of that land (see figure 1 below). But these designations in the Unitary Plan – both by the number of them and the obscure language used - signify the planners' intention to conceal something. Zoning, as it is practiced within the planning system, is a political, ideological and most importantly colonial concept for controlling, policing and oppressing tightly-knit urban society. It also implies ‘[r]estrictions upon the free use of private land’ which justifies the power of police to intervene for the so called ‘public welfare’.

The zoning practiced within the urban planning and urban design discipline – and that the Unitary Plan follows – is called Euclidean zoning which perceives and represents the complex urban habitat of the people - the city - as a simplified, two dimensional and abstract map, with colours, codes, rules and symbols; mostly in a meaningless and always in a brutal fashion. The brutality of these colour-coded maps and plans is concealed within the process of representation and visualisation (the decision making processes imposing the colour of each area with an assigned use; such as the orange for Residential Zones) and the meaning that they imply. This process is a process of abstraction. Daily life, the way people commute, socialise, work and plant their back gardens, all becomes an abstract and codified map, fragmented by arbitrary lines and borders. The market and the police, all follow the abstract map of zoning to divide and control, literally. And here the fundamental brutality of segregation emerges.

In addition to the fundamental violence of ‘zoning’, the process of (re)zoning means further segregation and division. The idea of Euclidean Zoning was initially a European idea to eliminate the industrial sites from the city.  However it immediately transferred to a functional, racial and ethnic policing and legislative means practiced in the United States and other similar colonial states, and has strong ties with segregationists of the United States. Meanwhile, most of the continental and eastern cities - cities that are not based on Euclidean Zoning - are frequently labelled as ‘chaotic and disorderly’ by Anglo-American writers, which just means these cities are not chopped into meaningless zones based on race or function.

Zoning and constant (re)zoning in planning systems then, as a relatively recent Anglo-Saxon concept, tends to increase the homogeneity of communities. It does so by protecting the market, the powerful and the dominant, by eliminating the ‘others’: the unprofitable and undesirable. The result is racially, ethnically and economically homogenous zones - mostly located in those ‘leafy suburbs’ - and some peripheral (or central) areas that the artists, students and misfits will occupy. However, the ultimate aim of the process is to push the ‘others’ to the furthest point, to outer space, to non-existence and obliteration.

Here is a prime example of segregation through (re)zoning. Common sense would tell us areas around the 'centre' are suitable for 'intensification', compact living and so on. Yet, the Unitary Plan tells us the opposite. 'Common sense’ is the last resort of the planners in an ideologically driven and neoliberal city. What defines the zones of the Unitary Plan, is not even Western ‘rationality’, it is the pure ideological and socio-economic power of the privileged. Here is how it looks;

What figure 2 shows is pockets of residential areas around Auckland’s CBD, in a very close proximity of employment and social amenities. The orange coloured area is the donut of untouchable colonial residential zones around the CBD, like Ponsonby, Parnell, Grey Lynn and Mt. Eden. These areas are protected under the patriotic flag of ‘heritage’ and the protection of the New Zealand character. Interestingly, these characteristic areas are populated by single detached houses, called COLONIAL VICTORIAN VILLAS! Yes, the irony is that these colonial Victorian houses, once home to working class, mostly Pacific Island and Māori communities and now gentrified, are defining the character of the city and the country. These areas are now mostly inhabited by upper middle class and the elite including professionals, officials and politicians.

Yet, some pockets around and within these heritage areas are rezoned for intensification, which immediately signals the emergence of large scale luxury apartments, gated and fenced off from the rest of the people. These rezoned areas for intensifications are inhabited by a higher percentage of minorities and communities with lower income. The map below (figure 3) shows these smaller areas rezoned for intensification. Areas 1 and 2 are mostly occupied by state or council housing and people of colour, while areas 3 and 4 too are dominantly inhabited by low and middle income class communities, from a non-white background. Considering the increasing demand for profit within the housing market, these areas will face a fierce, implicit and occasionally explicit form of gentrification. The occupants will be evicted by the force of the market, state or sometimes the police, and they will be pushed out of the city. The untouchable residential zones will be cleansed of the ‘other’ while protecting  ‘diversity’ by establishing some fine ‘ethnic’ restaurants within their ‘town centres’, serving curry and ramen with a knife and fork.

The outcome of the Unitary Plan is that the remnants of difference and otherness will be dispersed and homogenised, so we all look the same. The rezoning is not just for the central city, it is targeting the totality of the city and its inhabitants, to abolish the undesirable and the different, to obliterate it to nothing, to a memory, to a picture of the ‘exotics’ in a hipsters’ cafe, unless the politics of zoning and rezoning is challenged, questioned and fought back.

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