changing how we plan land use in the face of climate chaos

In Aotearoa (New Zealand) we have had two destructive storms less than three weeks apart. Auckland our largest city experienced 249 mm of rain in one day and then Cyclone Gabrielle struck with widespread flooding damaging infrastructure and crops across the northern North Island.

Cyclone Gabrielle’s impact in the Northern Wairoa. Image credit Kaipara District Council.

Given the increase in energy in a warming atmosphere, we can expect these “one in a hundred year” events to happen more regularly. We must now deconstruct how we have created the current context that enabled this destruction, and how we reconstruct our social architecture to create a resilient future. In this process, we can also refine how we both mitigate and adapt to global warming.

Some basic assumptions that we have developed in the industrial age have set us up for recurring crises like nine pins in a bowling alley.

  • Floodplains are good places to build infrastructure and grow crops.
  • We have to get the water off the land as quickly as possible.
  • Financial return is the dominant value of how most of our commercially grow food is grown leading to the concentration of crops in monocultural plant and animal ghettos.
  • Individuals own land and the pursuit of revenue from the land is privileged over stewardship of the biodiversity, soil, and impacts on aquifers and a functional hydrological cycle.
  • Central decision and policy makers know best.
  • Time is money.

How is this working for us?

Not so well anymore. These assumptions are no longer paying off. We will work together to recover at a huge financial and environmental cost. Just incrementing our way to the future no longer cuts it.

These two weather events have seen houses built on flood plains or near rivers and streams destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. Billions of dollars of infrastructural damage will take years to repair. Crops that have been concentrated in locations have been lost to us. For example, most kumara in Aotearoa is grown alongside the Northern Wairoa River and much of that crop is rotting underwater. The Pukekohe region, south of Auckland is a nationally important vegetable producer. During the Auckland deluge, onions that had been left on the paddocks to dry were washed onto roadways and into fencelines. In the Gisborne region, forestry waste, from pine monocultures floated downstream, at speed, to hit infrastructure like a medieval battering ram. We must also remember that the much of sediment that rushes off the land ends up in our harbours and the sea creating further ecosystem damage.

It will not be easy to redesign land use. Those pine trees have provided cheap timber and export income. And the fertile soils of the Northern Wairoa and Pukekohe have provided lots of food.

New assumptions for a climate-resilient world

Given destructive weather events are increasing in both frequency and strength rethinking land use is a priority. The centralised production systems and long food chains that worked well in the past can be replaced by much more local and distributed food systems.

To tease out the requisite assumptions, I am basing observations on where I live on the Te Tai Tokerau (Northland) Peninsula in Aotearoa. Our thin peninsula is over 300 kilometres long providing both bounty and threat from the surrounding sea, but there is ample land to grow all of the food we need.

Currently, about 50% of land use is for pasture-based farming. If you have followed this website, you will have been exposed to regenerative agriculture as a beneficial mitigator of climate disruption based on its potential to improve soils, cool the environment through transpiration, and improve ecosystem functions, such as the hydrological cycle. This is not to be confused with intensive farming that requires imported stock food, biocides, and synthetic fertilisers. We now have brilliant examples of farms transitioning to regenerative agriculture reducing their costs, maintaining production, and benefitting the environment.

Setting a goal to have all of our farms using regenerative practices is a first step. This might include retiring farms that are on exposed floodplains.

Paul Quinlan demonstrating tōtara pruning. Image credit Tane’s Tree Trust

Farms have had to get bigger and bigger to remain as “economic units”. So too the large kumara farms alongside the Northern Wairoa. In the past, Māori grew kumara throughout the North Island and in much of the South Island. For a more resilient food supply we will need to relearn how to grow kumara in other locations away from the risk of flooding.

Our orchards also tend to be concentrated on the free-draining volcanic or sandy soils, especially around Kerikeri and Whangārei, and more recently around Kaitaia. While these are generally not flood-prone, extreme localised weather events and damaging winds will pose an increased threat.

Ideally we will also migrate to perennial crops rather than annual crops that require carbon-depleting cultivation that leaves the soil exposed to the weather. We can produce tree-based oils, rather than imported vegetable oils. Another option is to develop methods for producing annual crops that mitigate potential weather risks.

Our pine monocultures might be good to provide timber and sequester carbon in the short term, but their downsides require us to rethink our timber supplies, or at least how we accommodate pines in the wider landscape. The Northland Totara Working Group is providing an alternative by developing regenerating tōtara on farms to be a high-quality, continuous canopy crop.

With our geographic location and being a thin peninsula with abundant rainfall, we can grow a range of crops. Bananas are an emerging commercial crop and are common in home gardens. Pineapples are sold at the Whangarei Growers Market and there are experiments progressing with growing coffee. We can also grow deciduous fruits, so can have a continuous and diverse year-round supply of fruit.

From this brief exploration of land use in Te Tai Tokerau we can start to develop some principles for land-use design.

  • Select animal or plant food production based on what works well for the land. (Not driven primarily by economic considerations).
  • Optimise soil health, both for production and ecosystem functioning – especially the water cycle.
  • Small family-based operations will return the land to be more of a mosaic to cushion the land from weather extremes.
  • Create a more local resilient food system and rebuild rural communities.
  • Develop a land stewardship / ownership model that doesn’t include a significant portion of debt-servicing
  • Support Māori to rebuild their collective land base. The Māori ethic of long-term land stewardship is a local example of how indigenous peoples can contribute to developing a more fit-for-purpose land use paradigm.

Rethinking the financial system to support resilient land use

The ideas above provoke financial considearions. Part two of this post will explore requisite changes to the financial system and a further exporation of what resilient communities will look like. Please comment with your thoughts.

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