Sacred planning

ImageAll planning needs to begin by recognising what is sacred, suggests Tony Watkins.



The most significant outcome of the new Auckland Council, during its first year of existence, is to be the development of a new “spatial plan”. The brief for this anticipates going back to first principles and re-thinking those assumptions which underlie our planning processes. This is not a job for planning bureaucrats. They have little experience of thinking creatively and we can be certain that they will only advocate traditional failures such as a static planning process which paralyses a dynamic world. Nor is rethinking a job for our problem-solving politicians. Negative thinking only spawns infighting over competing grand-gesture solutions, each seeking for both immortality and votes. If charismatic leadership is needed then the task, as usual, is over to you and me.



A good first move might be a plan which sees the city as sacred. This is not a new idea but rather one which has been forgotten by our materialistic world. Seeing the Auckland volcanoes as sacred, for example, has immediate ritual consequences. The Victorians went up mountains to celebrate a wedding, or another community event, in a symbolic kiosk, and then they went down again to live out their lives in the suburbs. If this sounds biblical it is only because people have been doing it for thousands of years. Moses did not see Mount Sinai as real estate.

In the same way when a community sees the coastline as sacred there are immediate practical consequences. You do not dump sand from somewhere else onto a sacred site, or change the “image” to something more like Bermuda, because that is a favourite holiday destination. The foreshore and seabed debate could be quickly resolved if everyone agreed that some things in life are sacred.

Unfortunately changing our way of thinking is not easy. The leaky home syndrome, for example, has been generated by the myth that homes need to keep the water out. For all the millions of dollars spent on repairs and lawyers no one seems to have realised that buildings need to let the water out. Yet every tramper had this sorted out long ago. Put on a vinyl raincoat in a storm and very soon the inside of your parka will be wetter than the outside. It would be foolish to add insulation to the inside as very soon the insulation would be sodden and just another burden for the tramper to carry. Gortex changed all that. With a coat which could breathe the moisture could escape and your woolly jumper stayed dry. In the same way houses need a skin which breathes. If we changed the myth we could stop building homes certain to rot and fall apart because of all the moisture inside the house. We would also need to change our language. We say “leaky” because we believe we need to seal our homes, while at the same time putting warning labels on plastic bags to alert people to their potential to kill anyone foolish enough to put their head inside.

The challenge for Auckland is to see life itself as sacred. Once that change is made the rest of the planning process becomes concerned with the details. We do not sell our children and yet we have no hesitation about selling our houses or our land. Why should we sell our stories, our memories, and our heritage? Again we will need to change our language to reflect this new way of seeing. “”Developers” should be known simply as “destroyers” for that is what they are. They do not develop anything. We do not need them. They buy and sell our birthright for a mess of potage, leaving the rest of us to clean up the mess.

The traditional desire to distinguish between sacred and secular was driven on the one hand by the capture of “sacred” by the institutional church and on the other hand by a struggle for power between church and state. This era however has passed us by, and with the world facing environmental catastrophe the time has come for some fundamental re-thinking. The brief for the new Auckland Council has asked the right questions. It is up to us to provide the right answers.


First published in Tui Motu, March 2011