Photograph of Pukekohe from the air showing some of the rural land and homes around the high density residential areas and town (Photo: interest.co.nz)

Pukekohe’s fertile land is being swallowed by urban sprawl

Will Pukekohe continue to be a food bowl for Auckland and New Zealand, or yet another victim of the Super City’s metropolitan sprawl? Stephen Forbes for interest.co.nz looks at the small rural town at the frontline of the battle between sustainable development and urban encroachment.

The ongoing importance of Pukekohe and the need to preserve it was highlighted in the Auckland Council’s recently released Climate Action Framework. It goes out for consultation next month and states:

“The Pukekohe hub comprises 4,359 hectares of some of New Zealand’s most fertile and productive soils. Fruit and vegetable production contribute $1.2 billion to Auckland’s economy. The hub generates $327 million, which is 26% of NZ’s total domestic value of vegetable production.

“From 2002 to 2016, vegetable-growing land across the country was reduced by 30%. Land like the hub faces increasing threats like urban sprawl. The future of the hub is important for Auckland. With a forgiving and temperate climate and proximity to essential transport routes, the hub is well-positioned to supply year-round vegetables to help feed Auckland’s growing demand for fresh food.”

But the horticultural value of the area seems to be on track for a head-on collision with the Auckland Council’s wider plan for the area, which sees Pukekohe’s growth as part of the solution to the city’s burgeoning population.

Urban development and future growth

The council’s Planning Committee has recommended the sale of a number of properties in and around the Pukekohe town centre that are owned by the Auckland Council, Panuku and Auckland Transport for redevelopment. It also approved the Unlock Pukekohe High Level Project Plan and Panuku’s role in the urban regeneration project.

The Draft Pukekohe-Paerata Structure Plan released in April states:

“The Auckland Plan 2050 (Auckland Plan) signals that Auckland’s population could grow by another 720,000 people to reach 2.4 million people over the next 30 years. This growth is an opportunity for Auckland as a catalyst for cultural and economic success.

“The Auckland Plan identifies Pukekohe as a “satellite town” with the potential to accommodate up to 14,000 additional dwellings. The Auckland Unitary Plan Operative in Part (Auckland Unitary Plan) has zoned 1,262 hectares (gross) around Pukekohe-Paerata as Future Urban Zone – a transitional zone (refer to Map 2 below). The development of the Future Urban zoned land in Pukekohe-Paerata is part of the solution to the growth challenge.”

According to Auckland Council Pukekohe’s population is projected to grow from 23,600 people (2013 Census) to over 50,000 people by 2040.

The council says this will require upgrades to water, wastewater, stormwater and transport infrastructure. While plans are already in place to electrify the Auckland rail network between Papakura and Pukekohe and improvements to the road network to deal with increased capacity.

“The dark-brown granular soils at Pukekohe have been used for market gardening for many years. They are derived from weathered volcanic rocks. Their very strong structure allows them to be repeatedly cultivated without much physical deterioration.” Les Molloy, Soils in the New Zealand landscape: the living mantle. Lincoln: New Zealand Society of Soil Science, 1988, plate 14.1
Photograph by Quentin Christie © New Zealand Society of Soil Science

Environmental tensions

Auckland Council’s chief sustainability officer John Mauro says it does highlight the obvious tensions between development on the one hand and the need to maintain a source of horticulture and food for the city on the other.

Mauro helped to author the council’s Climate Action Framework. “Pukekohe is a bit of a gem and it has some of the best soils in the country,” he says. “So I think it is a concern, and I have said many times before, that when it comes to land use urban sprawl doesn’t work – for the environment, for people, for infrastructure, or for rates. Greenfields developments just commit people to a lot of time in their cars.”

That’s a position shared by the council’s Environment and Community Committee chairwoman Penny Hulse. She says Pukekohe is an important source of food for the entire country, not just Auckland, and it’s important that it isn’t lost to the Super City’s endless urban sprawl.

Hulse says she has been reassured by Panuku that the development won’t carry over into adjoining horticultural areas, but she still has some concerns about growing development in the area.

“It’s critical not just for Auckland, but New Zealand,” she says. “The worry I have is in the rush to build houses we’ve lost sight of some of the key issues.

“We’ve got to hold a line and not just allow the city to spread all the way to Hamilton. The bottom line is we need houses, but we also need food security for New Zealand and the Auckland region.”

Past decisions and protections

Auckland deputy mayor and Franklin Ward councillor Bill Cashmore says some of the land-use issues in the area are the result of historical decisions by the now defunct Franklin District Council, as well as Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan which came into effect in 2016.

“There has been some existing blocks subdivided on the hills above Pukekohe and the landholders had the rights to do that. But all of the productive soils to the west [of Pukekohe] have been protected.”

He says most of the areas earmarked for development are in East Pukekohe, Paerata and Drury. While Cashmore says Panuku’s work centres on increasing the amount of residential, retail and commercial space in and around the existing town centre.

“However, under the Resource Management Act (RMA) someone can still apply for a plan change or resource consent and they can apply to change the zoning from rural to urban, but under the Auckland policy statement it says that should be discouraged.”

But Cashmore concedes that Pukekohe was identified as part of the city’s future land supply under the council’s Unitary Plan.

Metropolitan pressures

The property sales by Auckland Council, Panuku and Auckland Transport to allow for the redevelopment of Pukekohe town centre are expected to be signed off by the council later this month.

And while Panuku’s regeneration project isn’t going to spell the end of horticulture in Pukekohe, increased development in the area means the ongoing threat of Auckland’s urban sprawl is very real.

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A joint report by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ titled Environment Aotearoa 2019, released in April, highlights many of the same problems Pukekohe’s facing.

“The growth of urban centres has led to land fragmentation and threatens the limited supply of versatile land near Auckland and other regional centres. Our urban areas are spreading – the area of urban land increased by 10% between 1996 and 2012, especially around Auckland, Waikato, and Canterbury.

“Our versatile land and high-class soils are gradually being lost to urban growth, making them unavailable for growing food. The loss of versatile land is happening at the same time as our food production system is under pressure to increase production without increasing its effect on the environment. This loss can force growers onto more marginal land that is naturally less productive and requires more inputs, like fertiliser.”


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