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Short-term sacrifice for long-term benefit

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There has been much discussion and analysis in recent weeks as to where the blame should lie in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle.

Politicians arguing over whose government is responsible for the obvious infrastructure deficit.  Articles written about the forestry industry’s role in worsening the impact of the storm.  Likewise calls have been made to find ways of recovering the cost of climate change impacts from those companies who have profited from the extraction and use of fossil fuels.

Reflecting on this I can’t help but consider that the problems we’re currently facing are at least in part due to our collective reluctance to listen to experts, especially when their advice requires short-term sacrifice for long-term benefit.

Politicians, at times, forget that their role is governance, and can’t help but meddle or pursue pet projects, feeling that their ‘common sense’ holds greater value than expert advice.

And as voters we don’t help, aspiring to the social services and infrastructure of wealthy European economies but at the tax levels of the U.S., we leave politicians with an impossible dilemma, encouraging short-termism in the interest of appearing to deliver something.

The obvious example at the moment is our transport infrastructure.  The Key government, unhappy that existing priorities didn’t align with their ideology, created the Roads of National Significance.  Labour, in turn, finding this a poor ideological fit, dropped several large roading projects – at the expense of continuity and a predictable pipeline – in favour of funding public transport projects.  And so it goes on.

Instead, would it not make sense to give Waka Kotahi (NZTA) a mandate to deliver a world class transport system that moves people and freight as efficiently as possible, whether that be by private or public means, by road, rail, sea, or air?  Leave the transport planning to the experts, and politicians can focus on asking the hard questions to ensure appropriate plans and targets are in place, and argue over funding levels and where the money should come from.

Likewise, had we listened to the experts on climate change, we would undoubtedly have taken considerably more action, considerably earlier than we have.  While our international reputation and leadership are more powerful than the direct impact of our emissions, one can only conjecture whether taking an expert-led, best practice approach would have resulted in more action on the global scale.

However, leading the way would have provided opportunities to develop technologies and processes that we could in turn have marketed to the rest of the world, boosting our economy, and helping to fund the cost of adaption and mitigation necessary to live with climate change.  Unfortunately those opportunities have largely passed us by, and we have now only the costs of inaction.

To bring my point back to the architecture and construction industry, the absence of experts can be felt in many of the issues facing the sector today.

At the industry level, there is no one responsible for considering the big picture, how our systems of building actually function.  So despite new materials and more stringent standards, we put a house together more or less than same way that we did 60 years ago.  Meanwhile, architects, engineers and other consultants work only on a project basis, focused on the commission immediately in front of them.

At the development or subdivision level, design experts are often involved too late, thus roads are laid out and land carved into individual titles before anyone is engaged to consider how dwellings might be arranged and other amenities provided – in short, how people will live in and use the space.

Good development master planning, with appropriate experts involved, would provide opportunities to create well connected, resilient communities, with ample housing and recreation space, but also to consider from the outset how best to manage stormwater and minimise impacts of extreme weather.

Finally, at the scale of individual houses, only a very small percentage are now designed by architects, with most being built by group housing companies.  Affordability is the biggest challenge in building individual houses, however in the interest of minimising costs and size often liveability is the trade-off.  Architects have the knowledge, training, and skillsets to find creative solutions to exactly this sort of problem, but rarely work with housing companies in NZ.  Perhaps more collaboration between these two groups is necessary to address the challenges in providing affordable, comfortable homes for our populace.

We live in the age of social media, where everyone is an armchair ‘expert’.  Add to that the kiwi DIY mentality and it’s easy to see why we dismiss too readily the real experts.  However, there is urgency to address the challenges we face, and the payoff in benefits to our society is worth it.  We have many very clever specialists in our country – it’s time to listen to what they have to say.

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About Author

Phil MacKay

Phil Mackay is Business Devolpment Manger at Hamilton-based PAUA, Procuta Associates Urban + Architecture