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Growing NZ cities eat up fertile land – but housing and food production can co-exist, Shannon Davis says

Public Policy / opinion
Growing NZ cities eat up fertile land – but housing and food production can co-exist, Shannon Davis says
Donald Royds, CC BY-SA.

By Shannon Davis*

Auckland Council recently voted to decrease the amount of city fringe land available for development, citing flood risks and infrastructure costs.

Meanwhile in Christchurch, plans for an 850-home development north of the city have been rejected because of the area’s “existing rural nature and the lack of public transport and local jobs”.

Cities around the world face a similar dilemma: population growth and housing shortages mean urban expansion often encroaches on rural productive land.

Fertile soil is one of the reasons why many cites were originally set up in certain sites, but now the loss of these food-producing landscapes to urban growth is widely recognised as a concern to local food security.

The edges of cities – the “peri-urban” zone – are critically important for urban resilience. Apart from food, they supply ecosystem services such as flood and stormwater mitigation, cooling and climate regulation, carbon storage, waste treatment and recreation.

It could be said that the conversion of peri-urban agricultural land for urban expansion unwittingly undermines the very life support on which city dwellers depend.

Our research explores possible solutions that allow food production and housing to co-exist within peri-urban zones.

The housing-agriculture conundrum

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the competition for land for either housing or food production within the peri-urban zone is intense. Local and regional councils have to attempt to mediate between two recently gazetted national policy statements that seem at odds.

The 2020 National Policy Statement for Urban Development requires councils to remove barriers to urban expansion, both up and out. The 2022 National Policy Statement on Highly Productive Land requires councils to avoid urban encroachment and protect highly productive land for agriculture.

A recent Ministry for the Environment report states:

The area of highly productive land that was unavailable for agriculture (because it had a house on it) increased by 54% from 2002 to 2019.

Rows of new houses being built on productive farm land.
This drone image shows a farm in Rolleston awaiting further suburban conversion, with roads starting and stopping on either side of the farm. Donald Royds, CC BY-SA.

Urban resilience and food production

Peri-urban zones have an important role in supplying locally produced food. This helps reduce transport emissions to meet New Zealand’s emissions reduction targets. But there is a growing disconnect between where New Zealand’s food is produced and where the majority of New Zealanders live.

The dominant approach to urban growth is through greenfield development (building on undeveloped land), and this ultimately compromises the productive land belt around many cities and settlements. This can result in the irreversible loss of some of our most fertile soils.

Multiple factors affect where food can be produced within the peri-urban zone. This includes policy, land value, soil versatility, natural resources such as water and, increasingly, the level of “reverse sensitivity” – a term used to describe, in this instance, the impacts of newer land uses (such as housing) on prior activities (agriculture) in mixed-use areas.

Planning policy often fails to keep up with changes in housing markets, agricultural practice and lifestyle choices. This then results in reactive planning approaches, putting high-value soil and other land suitable for food production at continued risk of development and fragmentation.

This is compounded by public and political pressures that can lead to tensions between food producers and their residential neighbours.

Combined land use

Our team has surveyed households and food producers living and operating within the peri-urban zone of Ōtautahi Christchurch to better understand the issues. We also wanted to explore opportunities arising from food production and housing co-existing within peri-urban zones.

Based on the views of surveyed participants, we developed five land-use design concepts, which were then evaluated by participants during a public workshop.

Of these five options, a multi-functional green belt (below) was most favoured. This green belt is a publicly accessible buffer between urban areas and conventional farms, including public open spaces, community gardens, sports fields, walking tracks, native plantings, stormwater management zones and playgrounds.

A graphic showing a multi-function green belt between residential and rural lands.
The green belt between houses and farms provides many uses, including playgrounds and community gardens. Shannon Davis and Hanley Chen, CC BY-SA.

Other scenarios included different options of either separating or integrating urban and rural land uses.

What did peri-urban residents and food producers say?

Our research reveals that residents like having food-producing landscapes close to where they live. More than 60% of respondents felt “extremely positive” and 32% “mostly positive” towards these landscapes.

One of our key findings suggests residents were mostly happy to accept the day-to-day nuisances of farm operations, but they wanted their household to benefit by being able to access food produced locally.

Food producers expressed more neutral feelings towards operating in the peri-urban zone. For them, being close to their potential customers, as well as benefiting from urban infrastructure such as high-speed internet, was important.

But our survey also highlights that peri-urban residents are concerned about possible negative impacts of nearby intensive farming, and producers fear facing complaints from their urban neighbours. Both groups called for greater agricultural literacy for urban New Zealanders.

Integrating people and production

How should we prioritise peri-urban food production alongside strategic urban expansion?

The loss of agricultural land to urban development, the disconnect between local farms and their urban markets, and the recent drive to create more sustainable infrastructure within and around cities, have all engendered planning and urban design programmes that aim to protect and reconnect cities with their food.

Redesigning peri-urban land-use patterns to integrate housing with productive land uses has the potential to connect New Zealanders with the land while mitigating the current rural-urban dichotomy approach to planning.

Embedding mana whenua values of connectedness with the environment offers significant opportunities to nourish both the land and communities that reside within. The reintegration of mahinga kai (food-gathering sites) and māra kai (food gardens) principles would support the health and resilience of both people and the land connected to cities.

Accessible local food production is an essential component of long-term urban resilience. To achieve this, we argue that we need a new approach to peri-urban land-use planning for Aotearoa New Zealand in which landscapes for both people and production are integrated and mutually beneficial.

We are grateful for the significant contribution to this research made by Guanyu Hanley Chen and Naomi Darvill from Lincoln University, and John Blyth, Sara Hodgson and Lydia Shirely from BECA.The Conversation

*Shannon Davis, Lecturer in Landscape Planning, Lincoln University, New Zealand. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How about we focus more on growing the cities up, rather than out? Why we allowed so much of Pukekohe's prime market garden farmland to get covered by houses is beyond me, when there is so much development potential a lot closer to the city. 


"Why" Greed/corruption/ideology of a cancer cell.


Those who urged 'up', failed to understand the energy requirement of urban living - including food. They often drive EVs too; they specialise in the right answers to the wrongly-framed questions. 

How about we focus on de-growing? 

As for the article - good part of the conversation. 'How should we prioritise peri-urban food production alongside strategic urban expansion?'  

Completely - and no urban expansion at this point is 'strategic' - it's all overshoot. 



How about we rewrite headline to something along the lines of ......'another downside to an increasing population'


I have a huge amount of respect for the producers in Pukekohe, however I wouldn't want to live next to one of their paddocks. The dust at drilling and harvesting and the fortnightly spraying of insecticides and fungicides in spring and summer would make hanging out washing and sitting in the garden unpleasant. I like the idea of a greenbelt buffer between houses and agriculture but who would pay for it to be used in this way? The land is worth so much more to developers and farmers.


The land is worth so much more to d3velopers and farmers ..... therein lies 1 of the 2 major problems. It casts the land in a binary manner - farm or housing. I suspect that the value of the land has risen exponentially because it can be used for either activity, just like pastoral farming land in LIC classes 2-6 being removed from food/fibre production and planted in trees - carbon foresters have been willing to pay a substantial premium above the value that can be justified for food/fibre production.  The authors identified a number of attributes outside of the binary equation. Until the critical importance if maintaining resilient food production is regulated, housing will always be able to outbid food production.

The second is a myth that peri-urban food production will mean food supply grown closer to the urban consumer thus reducing transportcost and emissions. The supermaket duopoly has highly restrictive supply purchase arrangements now compared with 30 or 40 years ago. Mean8ng that a local grower would need a contract arrangement with a post harvest operator that has a supply contract to a supermaket chain (and that product stands a high chance of being shipped to a distribution centre - of which there are few, strategically located - then freighted back to shops.) There are no local fresh fruit and veg auction houses now. There are farmers markets (that seem to me more social recreation focused, which isn't a bad thing, just call it what is) but very few stand alone green grocers. So until there is major reform of the duopoly, little will change for the better.


With this sort thinking dominating how land resources are allocated in NZ we may as well go the whole hog and have bureaucrats come up with a 5-year master plan for every factor of production like the Soviet Union did. Or maybe we should go back to the feudal times when the land gentry attempted to avoid the consequences of reduced labour supply resulting from the plague because they wanted the socio-economic conditions (that they benefited from) to be unchanged. Ordinance of Labourers 1349 - Wikipedia

This sort of inflexible 'protection' of productive soils will have unintended consequences. Like it or not we live in a democratic capitalist society where prices signal changing trade-off between resources. Such as the decrease in the cost of solar panels meaning solar is now in many cases is the lowest cost supplier of electricity. Having too many restrictions on how land is used prevents prices from providing this beneficial signal. Like Cantabrian farmers not been able to combine farming with solar - even though there would be an improvement by moving away from intensive nitrate polluting dairy. See Offsetting Behaviour: Stupid government tricks

I am not against spatial planning that provides some direction to land use. That could include some protection of the very best elite soils, special character areas, flooding and other disaster-prone areas, etc. But spatial planning should not be an all-encompassing rigid belt around cities preventing any change in land-use. Also, spatial planning shouldn't just be a negative restrictive thing. The main rationale for spatial planning is about providing a spatial strategy for the future provision of infrastructure corridors so that cities can logically cope with demand if and when it occurs - NZ cities for instance should have contingency plans for a doubling or tripling of population. Copenhagen's still in use 1947 finger model for instance has fingers of urban development along rail corridors and the gaps between the fingers are protected green spaces - this has provided the strategy for a doubling in the size of the city. 

Me and an Ecan Councilor adapted the Copenhagen model in a recent submission to the Greater Christchurch Partnership about how spatial planning could positively protect rail corridors to help future proof the city. Protecting Greater Christchurch’s Rail Corridors | by Brendon Harre | Medium

P.S the location of market gardens in most cases are the consequence of cities existing not the other way around. As towns and cities have changed over the centuries (grown, declined, shifted location etc.) so have the location of their market gardens. 


'This sort of inflexible 'protection' of productive soils will have unintended consequences. Like it or not we live in a democratic capitalist society where prices signal changing trade-off between resources.'

Bollocks, Brendon. Money is keystroked into existence; much more that there is planetary underwrite. If you want to believe - because that's what it is: believe - that such a remote measuring device can solve things, perchance you might like to explain the global inaction on Climate?

I'll tell you the b.---dy reason: there is no other source of energy that even comes close. I know; I've lived renewably (in all facets; energy, food, shelter) for a very long time - you get orders of magnitude less done. Compare that to your 'solar is cheaper'. I don't understand how you can't see how disjointed that is. Of course there have to be rules - with overpopulation comes competition; or would you rather war(s)?

Because that's the alternative. Markets schmarkets


Between the above post and this one, I watched this:…

I suggest you watch it. Brendon, before you advocate further for controlling people's futures. Can I suggest you owe them that? 

Particularly minutes 108/9/10....   


With that very limited conceptualisation of spatial planning, how do councils plan for and fund infrastructure?
If Developer X wants to do a massive unanticipated greenfield development in Location Y, they might be able to fund the infrastructure in the development itself but there will usually be big flow-on impacts for council beyond the development. That inevitably means cancelling or deferring funding planned for existing communities. Hardly fair, or sound. This is essentially what has happened in Drury.

There’s more than enough opportunity within our existing urban areas to provide the housing we need. With a much lower burden on ratepayers.


Can I suggest that it's not 'funding', that is the issue; it's guaranteeing the ability to maintain? 

A reduced supply of fossil feedstock, growing global competition for same, a war or several - and bitumen? Plastic? So roads and pipes? So the stuff brought in and removed by both? (All touched on in the above link). Local Authorities have a duty of care, to look ahead as far as they claim infrastructure should service (say 50 years, as per housing). None of them can guarantee the physical maintenance of suburbia, nor the supply/servicing of same, in 2083. 

The trouble is that they're not even thinking beyond 2025; nor are the current iteration of The Infrastructure Commission. And there is zero point in building something unmaintainable. Take the time to watch that link, HM - I'd be interested in your take...


Good to see you got the obligatory 'Embedding mana whenua values of connectedness with the environment offers,' to cover of your funding requirements. 

Fringe expansion worldwide is that every city, irrespective of the idealogy, expands from the center out. The Irony is, that a lot of that is caused by ideologies that restrict the out because it causes all land within the boundary to be a price multiple many more times higher than it needs to be.

Causing people that are looking for affordability to be pushed to the city fringe, and beyond.

Compact cities also like to add any expansion (which they still do in spite of their ideology and name) from the last fringe connections, rather than allow development to jump beyond the elite soils, wetlands etc. to further cheaper, more suited land to build on.

These extra costs also mean two working partners are needed and the lack of space and definitely the lack of time to produce much of your own food at your doorstep.

It is easy to protect the likes of elite zones. Just put it under the equivalent of a QEII covenant. This will stop it from being redeveloped and peg the price at its economic rural land value. And then anyone living beside it will know forever and a day it will be retained like that.

Christchurch is a great example of having crops and glasshouses close in on land that is not suited for development, yet many developers were able to develop land totally unsuitable for development because they were able to raise the price to cover their costs of turning marshlands into sections. In jurisdictions with truly affordable housing, developers could never get away with this cost-plus rentier monopolistic approach.

Earthquakes stopped this stupidly, yet there are already calls to redevelop on earthquake-prone land.

If we had proper land use policies that allowed a truly free market response, then the market would require the developer to provide the facilities and amenities. The planners would work for the developers and be market-driven, not the bureaucracy of Govt. giving us the poor quality and higher prices that we now have.



most cities are sited where they are , because of ports or other transport links . I can't think of one that is there because of the fertile land immediately surrounding it , maybe Hastings , maybe Hamilton???


Cities all start as one or a few houses. Telegraph Road is the song. 

Then they expand to overrun the surrounding resource-base. Some are nodes which have merged as the expand into each other. It is important to remember this; cities are a recent format, and they are not a 'given'. The few which have survived long-term, have a history of external resource-sucking (London being a classic). 

We are likely to see a major exodus from cities, as fossil energy availability declines. Most of the parasitic 'jobs' will no longer be in demand. Those sites which made the most sense in pre-fossil-energy times, will likely do so again.