Subdivision Based on the
Concepts of Eco-villages & Cohousing

By Lisa Gibellini
Resource Planner
Lattey Consultants Ltd
PO Box 370
Ph (04) 9026161
Fax (04) 9026162

Paper presented to the 14th Annual Ingenium Conference
14-17 June 2001, Rotorua



In New Zealand land development and subdivision occurs under the effects based philosophy of the Resource Management Act 1991 and Local Authority plans and policy statements. The land development industry has traditionally relied on prescribed Standards and Codes of Practice for Subdivision and Land Development. These standards and codes provide a degree of certainty for developers in the resource consent process that in many situations is required for the economic viability of a proposal. In practice, the process of obtaining subdivision consents occurs through compliance with prescriptive standards under an effects based system. To date approval of alternative designs departing from those standards and codes have not enjoyed the element of certainty provided by Codes and are considered with conservatism on a case by case basis under District Plans. The administration of the system in this manner discourages innovation and the implementation of alternative designs aimed at achieving sustainability.

This paper aims to stimulate debate regarding traditional subdivision practice and the roles and responsibilities of the engineering, surveying and planning professions in New Zealand. As a catalyst for debate this paper introduces the concepts of eco-villages and cohousing as an alternative framework for viewing subdivision and land development. To accommodate this framework as an alternative means of compliance with District Plan policies and rules a Handbook is introduced. The Handbook provides guidelines for alternative design in land development and subdivision in New Zealand. It is intended that the Handbook will be a design guide for alternatives with an educative aim to raise awareness of alternative designs and technologies. It is hoped that in time the Handbook will be adapted and adopted by District Councils as an alternative means of compliance with District Plans in a similar manner to NZS4404 and current Codes of Practice.

The driving vision behind the Handbook is that of improvement of the design of subdivision and land development in New Zealand, to aid in the evolution of subdivision and land development by encouraging creativity in the design process rather than reliance on satisfactory traditional designs. And that overall, through the development and use of documents such as the Handbook, land development and subdivision in New Zealand will make greater progress in striving towards the goal of sustainable management and in creating places for people to live that are both environmentally and socially responsive.



Enter the local subdivision designed specifically for people and the environment and be dazzled. Travel down the local roads constructed from recycled plastic porous blocks with grasses bursting from them, feel the cool breezes from the tree lined roadside swales gently trickling water down small waterfalls into ponds, hear the slow whirring of cycles in the lane next to you. Be amazed by solar powered homes glistening in the sun, smell the fresh manuka air from the linked corridors of revegetating native bush, taste the community food gardens and watch the wind in the rushes on the network of ponds and wetlands slowly recycling wastewater and greywater. Oh, and watch out, because the speed limit in this neighbourhood is 25km/h and pedestrians have right of way.

If you think this is some planner’s utopian dream, think again. This is the only viable future for subdivision and land development; this is the road we need to travel in striving towards the goal of sustainable management. This paper explores why we have been slow to take up the challenge of creating socially and environmentally responsive places for people to live. It introduces a new framework for viewing subdivision and land development using the concepts of eco-villages and cohousing. The discussion will then focus on a new system for introducing alternative designs, that of a Standards NZ Handbook currently being created, to raise awareness and encourage acceptance of innovative and alternative designs and technologies for subdivisions which embrace sustainability.

This paper is provocative and aims to stimulate debate regarding traditional subdivision practice and the roles and responsibilities of the engineering, surveying and planning professions in both Local Government and private practice in New Zealand.



Before we can hold our heads high to the "clean green New Zealand" image, protect and enjoy the wilderness areas that hold such a strong place in New Zealand culture and identity, and strive towards the goal of sustainable management(1), we must first begin to respect our home environment. Respect does not come from the introduction of legislation such as the Resource Management Act 1991. It must come from incremental changes and responses within the land development industry, Local Authorities and of New Zealanders themselves.

Land development in New Zealand is very much a market driven industry based on traditional engineering and planning standards that have been practised in the past. These standards evolved as the Kiwi dream of quarter acre sections spread across the land creating our homes, suburbs, towns and cities. They created the infrastructure we all rely on today, our roading networks, wastewater treatment systems, and stormwater disposal systems. They are as much ingrained in our culture as our unquestioned belief that New Zealand is clean and green.

The dreams of our colonial ancestors for New Zealand society did not however anticipate the environmental and social challenges we are faced with today. When we look at residential subdivision today we cannot say that we have responded in any significant way to the challenge of sustainable management. The traditions of subdivision and land development are so ingrained in our culture that in practice they are seldom questioned. In fact any departure from those traditional standards often attracts unwarranted attention and conservatism from those administering the resource consent process.

Many changes have taken place in New Zealand society over the last few decades. These changes have resulted in a growing number of people holding a greater appreciation for the environment and a concern that available housing fails to meet their needs to live a more sustainable lifestyle. The accumulation of environmental problems in districts around New Zealand also points to the need for innovative design in subdivision and housing. Additional pressures are on Local Authorities in the face of growing concerns regarding the capacity and replacement of ageing wastewater treatment systems, landfills, local transport networks, and water supply services and pipelines.

In spite of the increasing demand for alternative land development the majority of planned subdivision in New Zealand fails to cater for it. This failure is a pertinent issue in New Zealand where, under the Resource Management Act 1991, we are responsible for promoting the sustainable management of natural and physical resources which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic and cultural wellbeing.

Why does subdivision and development occur with little reference to people and the environment?

There are two central reasons that explain why subdivision and land development practices in New Zealand have not evolved alongside changes in our environmental awareness. The first is the way we view subdivision and associated infrastructure. The way we understand environmental issues often serves to discourage and frustrate rather than motivate us to action. Subdivision and land development is more than an engineering exercise and the HP42 calculator does not provide us with all the solutions. Subdivision and land development involve environmental issues that reflect political and social values, ecological and cultural considerations as much as scientific facts. Engineers, surveyors and planners create the places in which we live and set up the infrastructure that is to serve us. This includes responsibilities in terms of sustainable management and how we affect the ability of future residents to interact with and make sustainable decisions about their local environment. The long lifetime of land development infrastructure and layouts mean that they will have implications for decades to come. Traditional approaches that view land development as a series of disjointed technical solutions to infrastructure, and which pay little attention to community and the environment, are not sustainable.

There is a need to take a more holistic view of subdivision and land development and approach it by aiming to design with nature and for people. In addition there is a need to provide sustainable solutions that solve more than one design issue, to take an integrated approach. By redefining the way we view subdivision and land development we can open opportunities for more creative solutions and provide ourselves with a greater chance of addressing environmental issues through an integrated approach.

The second reason why subdivision and land development occurs with little reference to people and the environment is the need to provide developers with a degree of certainty in the resource consent process. Throughout the evolution of the Resource Management Act 1991, submissions from developers and land development professionals were concerned with reducing the time delays of previous disjointed legislation and permit processes, thus providing a process which would create a degree of certainty for developers. Although it is arguable as to whether this was achieved, or even if it is desirable in an effects based approach, the financial viability of small neighbourhood developments is often dependant on the degree of certainty of a timely and cost effective consent process.

The reference of District Plans to Codes of Practice as a means of compliance provides developers with this degree of certainty. Many of these Codes of Practice have been developed from NZS 4404:1981(2) and provide for a means of compliance for subdivision based on traditional practices. Applications for alternative designs and technologies that depart from the Code of Practice result in lengthy and costly resource consent processes that offer little certainty. In practice this system is contradictory as it represents prescriptive Codes of Practice operating under an effects based system. While providing a degree of certainty, this system discourages innovation and the creation of subdivisions that are socially and environmentally responsive. There is therefore a need for guidelines that offer objectives and desired outcomes for alternative designs and technologies embracing sustainability, but that at the same time provide flexibility in the selection of methods to achieve those objectives and outcomes. These guidelines would need to sit in parallel with Codes of Practice as an alternative means of compliance thereby enhancing the degree of certainty desired for alternative designs. This requires, at least initially, that we accept some risks and take a trial and error approach to testing these alternative designs so that we can build up experience to a level where some degree of certainty in the selection and application of alternatives can be obtained.

Eco-villages and Cohousing – An Alternative to Traditional Design?

Having explored the reasons why land development in New Zealand has been slow to shift away from traditional practices, it is necessary to examine a possible avenue for alternatives. Throughout the last few decades people have been working together to create living patterns that reduce waste and pollution and which aim to achieve communities that are self-sustaining and in harmony with the natural environment. Most of these developments have occurred in Denmark, Holland, United States and Australia, although New Zealand has a few eco-villages and cohousing developments in various stages of construction.

Otamatea Eco-village photograph from from

Eco-villages are in essence a modern attempt to live in harmony with nature and with each other. They represent a leading edge movement towards developing sustainable human settlements and provide a testing ground for new ideas, techniques and technologies that can be integrated into the mainstream.

Eco-villagers use renewable energy technology, ecological building, and human scale design to reduce exploitation of natural resources, facilitate community self-reliance, and improve quality of life. They are about the creation of new settlements as well as retrofitting existing villages and urban areas. They generally consist of individual households and land with extensive common facilities of land. An eco-village is designed in harmony with its bioregion instead of the landscape being engineered to fit design plans. By thinking in terms of bioregions, sustainable settlements are planned considering water availability, the ability to treat waste, generate power, and accessibility to work places and services.

Co-housing is a term applied to describe a housing arrangement developed in Denmark, modified and improved over the last 30 years, and now adopted increasingly throughout the world. Designed and managed with resident input, co-housing combines the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of community living through provision of common facilities of both buildings and land. Co-housing developments are pedestrian only and cars are kept to the edge of the site. In essence co-housing developments are urban eco-villages, although not all cohousing developments embrace environmental sustainability.

Perspective of Earthsong Eco-neighbourhood currently under construction in Ranui Auckland from

Achieving such a sustainable community does not fit within subdivision and land development practice in New Zealand because it requires the land to be developed in conjunction with the people who intend to live there. Subdivision is not normally undertaken in this manner because it involves an extensive participatory design process with the future residents, establishing a means of community decision making and other social structures. However, by using alternative physical layouts and designs, achievements in social interaction within sites can be encouraged, even if that is not the primary intention. Design that is conducive to social interaction can encourage a sense of community, and this is advocated as an improvement on the current situation that often involves the creation of physical barriers to social interaction in our suburbs. Environmental issues are not distinct from social ones, they are mutually reinforcing. Strategies aimed at improving the environment can also improve the social life of citizens.

Eco-villages and cohousing concepts provide us with a new framework for viewing subdivision and development. They provide integrated and creative design solutions that use alternative technologies to ensure that ecological and social sustainability within a community is achievable. It is however considered that mainstream New Zealand is not yet ready for this dramatic change in practice and therefore only incremental changes in this direction are seen as realistic. What is achievable is the utilisation of some eco-village and cohousing design ideas with the aim that these can significantly improve the living environments that we currently create. To successfully learn from the concepts of eco-villages and cohousing and integrate some design ideas into mainstream practice we need more than a new framework for viewing subdivision and land development. We also need a system that supports the introduction of these alternative designs and technologies, is flexible to allow innovation, and provides a degree of certainty for developers and is supported by Local Authorities.

DZ HB 44 Subdivision for People and the Environment Handbook

The Subdivision for People and the Environment Handbook is currently being developed by Lattey Consultants Ltd(3) and SNZ(4), with funding from the MfE(5), NZIS(6) and WWF(NZ)(7). The Handbook is a proactive response to the issues discussed above. Although currently in its draft stage the Handbook will be published by Standards NZ at the end of 2001.

The Handbook provides best practice guidelines for alternative designs and technologies for subdivision and land development in New Zealand. These guidelines have drawn from the concepts of eco-villages and cohousing and are being developed in consultation with Local Authorities throughout New Zealand. The aim of the Handbook is to introduce in an incremental manner the design and technology concepts used in eco-villages and cohousing developments into mainstream subdivision practice. The Handbook provides a more integrated view of subdivision design and supporting infrastructure thus providing opportunities for more creative solutions for addressing the environmental issues associated with the way we live. As such, the Handbook adopts generally accepted minimum technical standards for critical services and promotes alternatives that meet these standards yet also embrace sustainability.

It is intended that the Handbook be used by professionals, Local Authorities, land developers and the public to aid in the creation of environmentally and socially sustainable communities. The guidelines in the Handbook form a complete design package for land development with the intention that each guideline is interconnected with the others and has the potential to solve more than one environmental design issue. The Handbook has been structured to enable the use of each guideline individually or collectively as design solutions in any proposed or existing subdivision. This provides for adoption of alternative practices in a manner and at a rate that suits the developer and Local Authority.

Subdivision for People and the Environment Design Framework

Subdivision and land development has many flow-on effects for people and communities including social, cultural and economic effects, transport choices, stormwater, wastewater and water services and waste management. To address these we need to close the loop between being responsive to the environment in our design approach, using on-site resources efficiently and creating a sense of community that will encourage the development of a local land ethic. These are the three criteria that form the design framework adopted in the Handbook, and illustrated below. The design objectives, guidelines and indicators for layout and servicing contained in the handbook are all derived from the design framework.


All three design criteria are interconnected with one another and can be used in a manner that is mutually reinforcing. The nature of sustainable design and the environment means that many of the objectives and outcomes identified in the Handbook can be achieved by just one design solution. When this occurs it makes the design process more complex but has the greatest potential for a successful result. Any successful design process based on principles of sustainability must evolve out of an in-depth understanding of the site that the design is intended to integrate. Sustainable design is not a matter of superimposing a design on a site, rather it is creating a design that is responsive to the characteristics of the particular site.

The engineering, surveying and planning professions in New Zealand need to recognise that a new framework for viewing subdivision and land development is required so that rather than being discouraged and frustrated when faced with the complexities of sustainable design, we can open opportunities for more creative solutions and provide ourselves with a greater chance of addressing environmental issues. Eco-villagers have shown us how this can work.

In addition, eco-villagers have also shown us how to undertake development in an integrated manner that successfully brings together the many tools and new technologies for sustainable living which are now available. It is essential that land development and subdivision practice in New Zealand apply these new and alternative technology solutions along with sustainable design objectives. The Handbook is an attempt to prompt action now, to encourage utilisation of the sustainable design and technology applications used by eco-villagers, and to encourage the adoption of these alternative practices into mainstream subdivision and development in New Zealand.


The sustainability agenda is no longer one that we can choose to ignore, it is a global agenda that has ramifications in terms of our environment, our economy, and the way in which New Zealand is viewed in relation to compliance with global agendas. The near future will bring an increase in the use of new solutions that will enhance sustainability and the livability of our urban and rural environments. These new solutions will include:

This paper has acknowledged and highlighted the responsibilities of the engineering, surveying and planning professions in New Zealand in terms of creating the places in which people will live. The current barriers faced by those wishing to undertake innovative and alternative sustainable designs have been identified as the constraints posed by prescriptive traditional standards under an effects based system. A proactive approach to overcoming those barriers has been suggested by firstly changing the way that we view land development, and secondly, by providing guidelines for sustainable designs in the form of a Standards NZ Handbook. These guidelines can be used in a manner and at a rate which the developer and Local Authority is comfortable with. However what we must recognize is that we can no longer rely on traditional methods to create the communities of the future, nor to address the issues facing existing towns, suburbs and cities. To encourage innovation and the use of alternatives we need to accept some risks and take a trial and error approach to testing these alternative designs so that we can build up a level of experience to guide future sustainable decision making. If we are not willing to do this, we risk losing all those characteristics which lie at the heart of the New Zealand we all want to live in.

1. As defined in the Resource Management Act 1991.
2. NZS4404 is currently being reviewed by Standards NZ.
3. Lattey Consultants Ltd is a medium sized land development consultancy based in Waikanae and operating in the lower North Island.
4. Standards NZ
5. Ministry for the Environment, Sustainable Management Fund
6. New Zealand Institute of Surveyors
7. World Wide Fund for Nature(NZ) in association with the Tindall Foundation

Lisa Gibellini, BRS (Hons), Student Member NZPI graduated from Lincoln University in 1998 majoring in Planning. She worked for Clark Land Surveyors in Christchurch as Assistant Planner and Chainperson from 1994 to 1998 and as Resource Planner at Lattey Consultants Ltd in Waikanae since 1998. She is currently Project Manager on a joint Standards NZ and Lattey Consultants Ltd project to create a NZ Handbook for subdivision based on the concepts of Eco-villages and Cohousing. The Handbook is funded by the Ministry for the Environment, NZ Institute of Surveyors and the World Wide Fund for Nature (NZ) through the Tindall Foundation and will be published by Standards NZ at the end of 2001. The Handbook is currently nearing the end of a two month public comment round and can be viewed on Standards NZ website


Buhrs, T & Bartlett, R (1993) Environmental Policy in New Zealand : The politics of Clean & Green. Oxford University Press.

McCamant, K et al (1994) Cohousing : A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. Second Edition, Ten Speed Press, California.

Corbett, M (19[81]) A Better Places to Live:New Designs for Tomorrows Communities. [Rodale Press] USA.

Cumming, P & Francis (1999) Design for Human Settlement : Advanced Designers Course notes. Held in Auckland, January 1999.

Lattey Consultants Ltd (2001) Extracts from DZ HB 44 Subdivision for People and the Environment, Draft at 1 April 2001.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (1998) The Cities and Their People : New Zealands Urban Environment, Wellington.