Palmerston North Project

Challenging Sustainability Palmerston North Project

The Context

The gradual whittling away of productive farmland to lifestyle subdivisions has been an issue of longstanding concern in New Zealand. A range of factors, such as market demand, urban growth and the demographic structure of farming have combined to accelerate both the pace and extent of residential development in traditionally agricultural areas. Urban and rural communities place different sets of values on land-use, and councils are increasingly looking to policy solutions that can balance the demand for rural living with the desire to retain the agricultural potential of rural land. In this context the Palmerston North City Council (PNCC) has been developing a Rural-Residential Landuse Strategy with the aim of addressing these development issues within an integrated framework.

The Project

The purpose of the project was to understand the key drivers of rural-residential subdivision within Palmerston North’s rural hinterland. This involved a series of in-depth interviews with a range of rural producers around the issue of landuse and subdivision. The interviews aimed to understand decisions to subdivide, or not, within the context of both the farm household and farm business.

The Participants

The project brought together a wide range of people. It involved planners from the PNCC, academics and students from Massey University’s Planning, Sociology and Agricommerce programmes, city councillors, real estate and development professionals, a number of lifestylers and smallholders, as well as the farmers themselves.

The Challenge

The research, whose preliminary findings been presented to the PNCC in a preliminary report, Drivers of Change: Farmer Experiences and Perceptions of Subdivision, uncovered a tangled mix of economic and non-economic values influencing subdivision decisions. Many farmers explained that they had been compelled to subdivide by external economic factors, and lamented the perceived negative impacts of residential development on agricultural communities. For others, subdivision was enacted to pay debt or invest in farm development, and had allowed them to maintain or grow their business. In the long term, however, despite a pervasive concern about the impacts of rural-residential subdivision on agriculture, in the absence of a viable farm succession plan, many reserved subdivision as a future farm exit strategy.

The challenge uncovered by the research was the complex moral economy of subdivision which mixed together economic and non-economic values about land. Decisions are closely tied to the economic value of the land, but also to the particular socio-spatial contexts within which rural producers are situated. These findings suggest that policy making needs to be cognisant of the land and its capacities, but cannot be reduced simply to this factor. We need to be acutely aware of the changing aspirations, values and obligations through which land is created as a dynamic resource, and which policy making needs to response to in order to help fashion sustainable communities.