Special character and urban justice

Rethinking historic amenity in Aotearoa cities

SESSION: Thursday 20th April
Carolyn Hill

What is the future for “special character” in Aotearoa cities? Population growth, demographic change, cultural contestation, climate uncertainty and natural hazard risks are converging in unprecedented ways in our cities. These challenges are destabilising status quo planning regarding special character areas, urban precincts that are recognised and managed for their historic built form and amenity. New national direction is also redefining priorities: The National Policy Statement on Urban Development focuses on future (rather than existing) amenity, and the draft Natural and Built Environments Bill deletes the term “amenity” altogether, undermining the legislative basis on which the concept of special character relies. Territorial authorities’ preliminary responses to this shift are causing heated debate between those who own and live in special character areas and those struggling to meet their basic living needs.

We as planners need to be upfront that special character designations are intrinsically entangled with questions of intergenerational and cultural justice. The process of identifying historic places and conserving them “for future generations” is bound with social and spatial fragmentation between those invested in the status quo and those excluded from it. Rather than remaining embedded in under-analysed valorisation of settler colonial built form, we have the opportunity to reconsider how we conceptualise and manage urban history in Aotearoa. Drawing on contemporary examples of urban development, this paper explores approaches to historic amenity that may be more equitable and responsive to an emerging future.

Presented By

Carolyn Hill