One of the best things that has come out of the creation of the Auckland “Super City” Council so far has been, in my opinion, the fundamental reconsideration of how Auckland should work. In documents like the Auckland Spatial Plan, the City Centre Master Plan and the forthcoming Unitary Plan, we have the opportunity to completely reanalyse the plans and policies that will guide and shape Auckland’s future. While a lack of plans and policies has never been a problem in Auckland, now that we have one Council it seems like there’s a greater opportunity than ever before to actually see much of what is talked about in these voluminous documents actually becoming reality.
In particular, I have been excited to see the significant emphasis that Auckland Council is putting on making the city centre a better place – a true heart for the entire region. More and more, it seems that there’s growing recognition at both political and officer level within the council, that the key to making the city centre work better is making it a nicer place for pedestrians – even if that comes at the cost of reducing a bit of road space. This is a fundamental shift away from decades of planning in Auckland, which has typically given 90% of its consideration to cars and about 10% consideration to people. It is no wonder that, for example, the Ministry of Transport’s review of the City Rail Link project could not begin to comprehend that it might not be a smart idea to run 200-300 buses an hour along many of the main streets in downtown Auckland.
However, transforming Auckland’s city centre will not be an easy task. We have seen decades of planning decisions that have alienated and sidelined pedestrians. Mayoral Drive slices a giant gash through the urban grain of the city centre, Hobson and Nelson Streets act like defacto motorways, Queen Street has some of the highest pedestrian counts anywhere in the country – but for some bizarre reason is still a four-lane highway. High Street provides so much space for parked cars that its pedestrians can barely fit on its narrow footpaths. Not to mention the abomination of Quay Street, slicing the city off from its greatest asset – the harbour. It’s somewhat difficult to know where to start in fixing such a giant mess – but at least it seems that we’ve finally made the decision to start somewhere (in the form of the various shared spaces that have opened recently or are under construction).
Obviously the process of transforming Auckland’s city centre will be a lengthy one. And that’s fine. Copenhagen’s city centre has taken decades to be turned from an uninviting car dominated area to the pedestrian focused highly popular downtown that it is today. Inevitably there will be a mixture of large projects and smaller ones that contribute to this transformation – from the City Rail Link down to simple things like not designing intersections in ways that actively try to kill pedestrians. While we obviously need a great looking vision for the plans to all aspire to, I think we also need to be careful to ensure that not every step along the way is enormously expensive and time-consuming. Otherwise we might not get anywhere for a long time.
A reader of this blog directed me to a series of photographic mockups that he has put together to provide some of the ‘great looking vision’ for the future of Auckland’s city centre. While these look fantastic, perhaps what I appreciate just as much is the fact that there’s a mixture of big ticket projects (like light-rail up Queen Street) and more simple things, such as a fairly basic two-waying of Hobson and Nelson streets. Let’s start with those streets first – here’s an overview of his idea: I’ve noted before how much of a big fan of protective cycle lanes I am – because they not only make cyclists safer, they critically ensure that cyclists feel safer. Here’s a before and after of what Hobson Street could look like:
As you can see the changes are fairly basic. There are no huge shifts in the curb lines, which means that costs could be kept down as services wouldn’t need to be relocated. There’s probably something of a debate over whether on-street parking of a wide median (potentially planted for a boulevard effect) is desirable, but what’s shown above could potentially be an interim solution to a more boulevard like long-term solution. They key point is that we get a two way road, we get good cycle lanes and we can do it pretty cheaply.
Turning to Queen Street, the vision for the section between Mayoral Drive and Karangahape Road is pretty exciting: Once the Wynyard Tramway has been extended to Britomart, and we start to think about light-rail as the possible long-term option for the Dominion Road situation, perhaps the obvious connection between the two is via a tramway along Queen Street. I quite like the idea of having its tracks grassed, as it introduces some nice greenery to the city centre – at least in this section of the street. Further down it might not be as appropriate. A before and after is shown below: A before and after of Queen Street next to the Civic Theatre looks pretty exciting too: Another potentially exciting corner of Auckland’s city centre is around High Street and O’Connell Street. This always seems to me to be one of the most distinctive and authentic parts of central Auckland, perhaps because its built heritage remains more intact than in most other areas, perhaps because it has a fineness to its urban scale that is generally not present elsewhere. The many smallish buildings, the narrow streets, the character. Of course, this could be further enhanced – as shown below: Credit to Cornelius Blank for allowing me to share these images.
I think we do need to dream big when it comes to transforming the city centre. But we also need to be realistic – with much of the Council’s spare cash likely to be spent on projects like the City Rail Link and possibly rail to the Airport over the next 10-20 years we need to be looking for ways to improve the city centre at relatively low cost. That’s why I like simple approaches to two-waying Hobson and Nelson street: they might have a chance of happening. Or why I like focusing improvements to pedestrian amenity on the small lanes – because they’re probably cheaper than repaving the whole of Queen Street, for example.
It would be really interesting to see what things will be like in 20 years time.