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The costs of our love affair with detached houses and cars - 1981 report

Last month, the OECD's most recent report on New Zealand's environmental 'performance' was released. This is the fourth OECD report on the way New Zealand manages its environment. The first, published in 1981, was one of the first 'environmental reports' ever undertaken by the OECD.

This report is a fascinating read. But a disturbing portion of its content is as relevant today as it was back in 1981 - prompting one to wonder, how much have we really learned over the intervening decades. The following description of 'urban land use and pollution control' I found particularly germane, in light of recent coverage of the ongoing pressure on most fertile soils and health effects of leaded petrol on children of the '70s and '80s.

[New Zealand's cities and towns] are characterised by extremely low density residential accommodation. The predominant house-type is a single storied detached dwelling set in its own quarter-acre (or smaller) “section”. Although this form of development seems to respond to the preferences and aspirations of the majority of New Zealand’s population, its negative impact on the environment is becoming increasingly apparent.

First, the present pattern of providing for residential needs, that of low-density suburban subdivision, consumes a large amount of land. Situated as they are in areas of greatest soil fertility, the major centres have been built out over some of the best soil in the country and are continuing in many instances to do so.

Second, the extensive blanketing of wide territories with a cover uniform residential development has deprived a number of New Zealand cities of the typical and native landscape which originally characterised their site and surrounded their early settlements...

Third, the prevalent urban settlement pattern, while responding well to the ideal of a rural lifestyle and contract with nature, is highly dependent on vehicular transportation. This has required important upgrading and widening of the urban road network, often with severe disruptive effects on the urban fabric, the subordination of pedestrian movement and cycling to the needs of motor vehicles, and disproportionate expenditure on providing for private rather than public transport. It has, in turn, exacerbated the two major urban environment problems of atmospheric pollution and noise.

Image: View of Lower Hutt, 1955. Alexander Turnbull Library, ref EP/1955/2039-F

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