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1 Introduction

This New Zealand Urban Design Protocol (Urban Design Protocol) is part of the Government's Sustainable Development Programme of Action. The Urban Design Protocol is a key deliverable of the 'Sustainable Cities' action area, which seeks to make our cities healthy, safe and attractive places where business, social and cultural life can flourish.

It supports and builds on a range of government strategies for improving our urban environments that encompass economic growth and innovation, transport, housing, regional development, social development, health, disability, and culture and heritage (see Appendix 1).

The principal audiences for the Urban Design Protocol are urban decision-makers in government, property developers and investors, and professionals working in the built environment, including planners, architects, landscape architects, surveyors, transport planners, and engineers. The purpose of the Protocol is to signal the Government's commitment to quality urban design, to start debate and raise awareness of urban design across the country, to improve the exchange of learning and information, and to initiate a programme of actions to result in quality urban design.

The Urban Design Protocol is supported by Urban Design Case Studies that show practical examples of successful urban design; an Urban Design Toolkit that provides a compendium of tools and mechanisms to help create quality urban design; a Summary of Urban Design Research, covering current research in New Zealand on urban design and urban environments; and a Value Case, which shows evidence of the link between quality urban design and economic, environmental, social and cultural value (see Section 4).

The Urban Design Protocol will be implemented through the actions of its signatories, through leadership by government, and through raising wider awareness of the value of quality urban design. By endorsing the Protocol, signatories are indicating their commitment to the pursuit of quality urban design that will result in benefits, both to the signatory and the wider community.

What is a protocol?

A protocol is a formal undertaking between signatories. Parties to a protocol agree to support and demonstrate the principles outlined in the document and to make demonstrable progress towards achieving its vision. A protocol is an agreement and has no force in law.

What is urban design?

Urban design is concerned with the design of the buildings, places, spaces and networks that make up our towns and cities, and the ways people use them. It ranges in scale from a metropolitan region, city or town down to a street, public space or even a single building. Urban design is concerned not just with appearances and built form but with the environmental, economic, social and cultural consequences of design. It is an approach that draws together many different sectors and professions, and it includes both the process of decision-making as well as the outcomes of design.

What is the value of urban design?

Quality urban design is important for everybody because our lives are connected through our common built environment. We all live and work in buildings, and use streets, public spaces, transport systems, and other forms of urban infrastructure. Quality urban design creates places that work and places that we use and value.

Urban design has economic, environmental, cultural and social dimensions. Increasingly we are recognising the economic importance of our towns and cities to the national economy. Quality of infrastructure and quality of life are key factors in creating successful towns and cities. Urban design can have significant positive effects on both. Quality urban design also increases economic value with higher returns on investment, reduced management and maintenance costs, more productive workplaces, and enhanced image and prestige.

Quality urban design values and protects the cultural identity and heritage of our towns and cities and provides for creativity. It reinforces New Zealand's distinctive identity. Quality urban design also adds social, environmental and cultural benefits by creating well connected, inclusive and accessible places, and by delivering the mix of houses, uses and facilities that we need. It can enhance safety, reduce crime and fear of crime and enhance energy efficiency. Quality urban design can provide us with more and better opportunities for physical activity, resulting in improved physical and social wellbeing.

Quality urban design produces benefits at a city-wide level as well as at the scale of neighbourhoods and individual buildings or spaces. For example, a well designed transport network integrated with land use improves accessibility and mobility, contributes to a better quality of life, encourages healthier lifestyles, uses less non-renewable energy, and contributes to improved economic performance.

A well designed building and adjacent spaces produce higher capital values and rental returns, lower long term maintenance costs, increased productivity from its occupants, better security and less crime and fear of crime, and increased civic pride.

The benefits of quality urban design accrue to businesses through increased productivity and prestige; to communities in improved urban environments and safer, healthier places; and to developers and investors in better returns on investment.

Research has found no evidence that quality urban design necessarily increases development costs. Indeed good design is fundamental to achieving value for money, because it creates functional, productive, robust and attractive environments. Design costs are typically a very small proportion of whole life costs (less than 0.5 percent), yet design choices have a significant impact on construction and operating costs and on the wider community.

The Value Case (see Section 4) contains our research and examples that support this.

Urban settlement in New Zealand

Urban settlement in New Zealand has occurred relatively recently, especially when compared to Europe and Asia. Our first urban areas were Maori settlements sited strategically to take advantage of a natural food source or an easily defended position. Patterns of previous Maori settlement and the relationship of tangata whenua with the land remain important aspects of urban design.

The colonial pattern of European settlement has strongly influenced the development of our towns and cities. It is no accident that most of our towns and cities are located on or near the coast, as a sheltered harbour was a prerequisite for access by coastal transport before the development of the road and rail networks.

The founders of new towns in New Zealand sought to provide residents with the amenities perceived to be lacking in large industrial British cities. Because land was readily available and towns relatively small, many more people could aspire to suburban living in a detached house with a garden. The prevalent mode of transport had a significant impact on the pattern, size and form of our towns and cities. Suburbs initially grew around horse-drawn vehicles, but the introduction first of trams and then of private motor vehicles saw rapid suburban expansion into outer areas. Today our larger cities have extensive, low-density housing on their suburban edges with inner areas typically having a more varied mix of housing densities and uses, often laid out in a traditional grid pattern.

Our towns and cities are characterised by their distinct natural topographies and often dramatic landscape settings. For example: Auckland's volcanic cones, Rotorua's geothermal features, Wellington's faultlines and harbour, Christchurch's floodplain and mountain backdrop, and Queenstown's spectacular lake and mountains. These landscapes create the uniqueness of our urban areas but they can also dictate growth patterns and present obstacles to infrastructure development.

What can urban design do for New Zealand?

Our towns and cities are experiencing significant growth pressures, ranging from the massive population growth of Auckland and continued urban expansion in Wellington and Christchurch to growth in smaller regional towns that offer desirable lifestyle opportunities like Queenstown, Nelson and Tauranga. How we manage this growth and the quality of development will have a significant influence on the liveability and sustainability of where most New Zealanders live.

The growth issues we have to deal with include how to design better suburbs on the edge of towns and cities, how to successfully intensify in our inner suburbs, and how to design liveable apartments in city centres.

Quality urban design can help us avoid some of the problems of poorly designed low-density developments that we have experienced in the past. These problems have included: traffic congestion, unsustainable energy use, overloaded urban infrastructure, a lack of distinctive identity, social isolation, and reduced physical activity with its associated problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

In many of our cities we have seen a trend towards multi-unit developments (these accounted for 20-30 percent of all building permits approved in Auckland over the past five years). Quality urban design can help ensure multi-unit developments provide attractive, liveable and affordable options, without impacting on our heritage and distinctive identity, our privacy, or overloading our urban infrastructure.

In some of our smaller towns, we are experiencing different issues associated with stagnant or declining populations. Some of the issues we have to deal with include the declining quality of the building stock, insufficient funding base to maintain and renew urban infrastructure, and pressure to accept poor quality design to secure economic development opportunities. A proactive strategy to ensure quality urban design can help address some of these issues.

The costs of poor design fall on all of us, when we have to live or work in poorly designed buildings, when we have to use dysfunctional or unsafe public spaces, when we are cut off from essential services, and when, as property owners, businesses or ratepayers, we have to pay for long-term maintenance.

The message we can learn from overseas is that addressing these issues requires co-ordinated thinking and a more structured approach to management of our urban areas. Managing the effects of individual activities is not enough on its own, we also need to manage urban systems and their interconnections. Quality urban design is an approach that can help us achieve this.

A co-ordinated approach

Creating quality urban design requires action across a wide range of sectors, groups and professions. Professionals in all disciplines need to work together in a 'common space', as no one profession can understand the full complexity of a town or city.

Each group can make an important contribution to realising the vision.

Central government

  • Lead at a national level
  • Demonstrate quality urban design through its own development and activities
  • Co-ordinate policies and actions across whole of government
  • Develop appropriate legislation and policy guidance
  • Set appropriate national standards and policy statements
  • Promote national awareness of urban design
  • Support local government
  • Co-ordinate urban design research
  • Work with education institutes to improve urban design education

Local government

  • Lead at a regional/local level
  • Demonstrate quality urban design through its own development and activities
  • Develop appropriate statutory policies, rules and guidance
  • Manage statutory decision-making processes to ensure quality urban design outcomes
  • Promote regional/local awareness of urban design
  • Share research and 'best practice'
  • Integrate urban management
  • Work collaboratively with the private sector

Developers and investors

  • Demonstrate quality urban design in every development
  • Work collaboratively with local government
  • Involve communities in projects
  • Recognise the public interest


  • Champion quality urban design
  • Promote quality urban design to clients
  • Participate in local decision-making and design advisory processes
  • Develop and promote 'best practice' approaches and tools

Professional institutes

  • Champion quality urban design
  • Develop and promote 'best practice' approaches and tools
  • Improve skills and knowledge through education and training
  • Work collaboratively with other professional institutes

Educational institutes

  • Lead research on urban design
  • Work collaboratively with the public and private sectors
  • Participate in local decision-making and design advisory processes
  • Develop training courses to improve understanding and application of urban design

Sector organisations

  • Work with their sector to improve understanding and application of urban design
  • Advocate for quality urban design
  • Work collaboratively with the public and private sectors


  • Recognise the stewardship roles and responsibilities with urban environments
  • Demand quality urban design
  • Develop community action projects
  • Participate in community engagement forums
  • Lead proactive neighbourhood projects

Iwi and iwi authorities

  • Recognise the kaitiaki roles and responsibilities with urban environments
  • Advocate for quality urban design
  • Develop community action projects
  • Participate in community engagement forums