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Return of the walking city

..The City is never complete, never at rest. Thousands of witting and unwitting acts every day alter its lines in ways that are perceptible only over a certain stretch of time. -Spiro Kostof


Looking south along Queen Street from corner of Customs Street showing the Waitemata Hotel (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1-W519)

I was inspired by Patrick’s recent transit dividend post where he documented the laneways around the Pacific and Matt’s people buy stuff and wanted to look a little closer at the things happening on the street which to me are fascinating and representative of a highly dynamic urban ecosystem. In particular, over the last year I believe I have witnessed Auckland’s return as a walking city. Recall that before Auckland was conventionally considered a “car city”, it was a streetcar city, a walking city, and a water city, and of course many combinations of these all, and somewhere in there an airport city and PT city.

Melbourne Laneway (source: Patrick Reynolds)

Melbourne’s famous laneways are a fantastic story. They are symbolic of an urban transformation that the city has undergone over the last 20 years. Especially interesting to me is that these laneways weren’t built into the modern block structure. Instead they were introduced over the years by what urban scholar Arnis Siksna argues is an largely predictable process to provide better performance. Siksna studied (pdf) cities across North America and Australia and concluded that areas with high intensity of pedestrian traffic performed best with a short block system (a “pedestrian mesh”) of between 50-70m. Melbourne, like many other Australian cities, was designed with much larger block sizes closer to 200m. He documents that over time these over-sized blocks are predictably broken down, through “successive uncoordinated actions of individuals”, to facilitate a more efficient land pattern, one that provides better circulation patterns and more potential lot frontages.

Modifications to original block layout of Melbourne, Modified from Siksna (1996)

Auckland also has many examples of areas with short blocks,  laneways, and arcades on some of the larger blocks. The real transformation in Auckland  is occurring at the street frontage level- with the emergence of micro retail. While Melbourne’s laneway system developed over decades, this retail transformation and adaptation is occurring over night.

People rule: slow traffic, short crossing waits (20-30 secs.), frequent transport

There are several major shifts which have spurred this phenomenon. First, and most important, is the accommodation of pedestrians. This has been done through major signal timing and street crossing improvements, slower traffic speeds, and increased pedestrian mobility via a web of new shared space laneways.  Second, is the increase concentration of pedestrians using the street as a conduit to and from public transport. And finally, the challenging urban retail environment itself has been adapting to the competition from both web-based and more suburban retail models.

According to Heart of the City there are over 25,000 people walking along Queen Street every day. If you have been downtown recently no doubt you have experienced the days with thousands of people walking shoulder to shoulder on footpaths while cars trickle down Queen Street. In one of my previous posts I suggested that streets are a platform for exchange, and nestled in a highly connected (laneways, short blocks, layers of transportation) create the most valuable real estate.

Retailers “plugging in” to the value of the street, Auckland

There couldn’t be a better example of the free market “plugging” into the value of the street, remember People Buy Things Not Cars. Using a scientific metaphor the micro retail trend, like it’s international counterpart the foodcart, is capitalising on the value of the street by increasing its surface-to-area ratio. Here’s wikipedia:

An increased surface area to volume ratio also means increased exposure to the environment. The many tentacles of jellyfish and anemones provide increased surface area for the acquisition of food. Greater surface area allows more of the surrounding water to be sifted for nutrients.

And how does a property owner increase surface area? In Melbourne, they broke down large blocks. While this was described as providing an efficiency for movement,  I’m sure the business owners weren’t so altruistic, instead they were more likely attempting to “acquire their food”. In Auckland, it’s more of an effective increase of surface area by finely breaking down the store front space. Here’s what businesses looks like trying to plug in the value of the street. This crepery (below) measures 105 cm across its front. Most other shops are about 3 metres. At that dimension we are entering the domain of Venice, Italy store fronts which have a typical dimension of 3 metres. Yes, that Venice that is a car free city.

Pedestrian scale, Auckland (photos: Scot Bathgate)

As prominent urban designer Jan Gehl notes:

When buildings are narrow, the street length is shortened, the walking distances are reduced, and street life is enhanced.

This concept of store front variety is one among many urban design imperatives that is often turned into a endless list of guidelines, codes and regulations. For example, buildings should be placed on the street edge, have transparent glazing, not be too wide, have a diversity of uses, etc. It is my theory that these reasonable outcomes don’t create vibrant cities, instead they are the outgrowth of them. What creates vibrant cities is the existence and especially the accommodation of people within a traditional urban street network supported by various transportation options.

Surface-to-area, maximising the value of the street. Queen Street, Auckland.

As an extreme example, imagine a property owner choosing to provide parking in front of his store which would obstruct the other 25,000 people on foot. Or imagine a property owner who would allow a large monotonous land use like a bank take up excessive store front space and create a dead space. With the return to the pedestrian city these urban design issues become moot, since no one would jeopardise their premium real estate asset which is the street frontage.

Instead, what I think will happen, and largely what is already happening, is that the city centre will becoming increasing re-scaled for people on the street. The outcome will be closer to what typically could be considered traditional, almost European-type urbanism, what has traditionally only occurred on High Street. This means increasing micro-retail uses. Also, large office uses will be wrapped internally with street-serving business. This is typically how old theatres such as the Capital on Dominion Rd address the street, by a narrow passage allowing  users into a large internal space but not wasting surface area unnecessarily.  At some point there will be undoubtedly be increasing break-down of city blocks to further access property value of the street,  just as what happened in Melbourne.

Micro retail: a dynamic and resilient urban model

The amount that the city has changed over the last year is remarkable. As someone who can’t wait for things to change, and has all but given up on formal planning, it’s exciting to see how much change is occurring on its own.  While some of it is due the impressive physical improvements of he public realm, most of it is an outgrowth of thousands upon thousands of individual choices, many of which are facilitated the provision of public transport and by simply accommodating the people that are already there.

31 comments to Return of the walking city

  • Matthew

    Why all the sepia tones? Is your camera bung?

    • obi

      I think it might be a hipster thing.

      I’m in Melbourne this week. I love the city and in the evenings I’ve done the rounds of the laneways looking for new street art. But!… I’m not convinced that the laneways really work. There are a tiny handful that are full of cafes and outdoor seating that is shady and cool in a hot Australian summer. However the overwhelming majority are evil spaces that are full of rubbish bins and rats, and smell of stale piss.

      • Matthew

        I generally don’t like Melbourne’s laneways either. If there are cafes in them because of the outside seating and the narrow space mean smokers in your face, so even walking through them is generally unpleasant. Then again I dislike the whole Melbourne CBD as I once got a job there, and worked out I couldn’t get from Spencer St station to my job in the World Trade Centre without a dozen lungfuls of tobacco so I chucked the job in after 10 weeks. Highest paid job I ever had, but it wasn’t worth putting up with a degraded, unpleasant environment for.

        With a tobacco ban in force I think they’d be great. Other than that they suck big time.

        • But then you are, we have all come to realise, uniquely obsessed with that single issue. It seems to blind you to all other factors, except perhaps woodsmoke…..

          • Matthew

            I am not alone. Why do polls consistently have a significant minority or a small majority wanting bans in public places, such as on the Golden Mile in Wellington? Why are there regular e-petitions calling for bans on public smoking? Melbourne’s laneways are horrible places to be. Queen St, Auckland is godawful as well. Queen St, Brisbane, smokefree, is a great place. For a percentage of the population cities are a place to avoid. Is the reason they avoid them preventable? Yes. Then why don’t we fix the problem. I think you lot are weird for not wholeheartedly agreeing with me. Why wouldn’t you want cities to be nicer places for EVERYBODY?

          • Hamish O

            You may not be alone in terms of the general idea, but the extent to which you hate smoke is abnormal, you should admit that.

          • Matthew

            No it isn’t abnormal at all. I am trying to stand up against the bastards who don’t think it is an injustice. I am one of the excluded ones. I kind of resent those that force me not to participate fully in modern life. I don’t go around assaulting people, so why the hell should they be allowed to? Yes I do HATE smokers, but I can’t see why any sane person wouldn’t.

          • Hamish O

            I don’t like smokers, but I don’t really hate them either. You are the only person I know who would ever leave their job or sell their house because of smoke, and that I think makes you abnormal and part of a very small minority. I would love for you to be able to participate fully in life, but it seems the only way to do this is to ban smoking all together. Although I agree with this I understand it has to happen slowly.

          • Peter M

            Oh FFS I’m sure we’ve said many many many times before that this is not a place to discuss smoking policies. Come on Matt, we really don’t want to have to ban you.

          • Careful Matt, describing everyone who doesn’t hold the same extreme views as you as insane is, well, a little bit insane.

          • Matthew

            FFS Peter people were talking about how great the laneways of Melbourne are . Someone said they didn’t think they were all that wonderful, and I shared my experience of why I don’t think they are that wonderful either. It was of direct relevance to the topic at hand. You seem to get all shirty, but really I think you only want to shut me up. This is a blog about urban issues, and smoke and urban air quality are urban issues. But it seems all you lot want to do is play trains and draw some pretty lines on maps, not actually discuss urban issues. You’re all a bit dull and limited really, making some limp-wristed slaps against the dumb as fuck Auckland intelligentsia. Give us a loop. Don’t call it a loop. Tolls, tolls, tolls, integrated ticketing. Woo Hoo.

            Sorry everyone if it really is only about pretty little lines on maps and playing Thomas the Tank Engine. We’re all coming as fast as we can to the revolution, except we’re stuck on the Outer Loop and we’re not getting there very quickly.

            Does that get me banned?

          • Hamish O

            Wow Matt, just because many of us don’t think one urban issue is as major as you think it is, we are “a bit dull and limited” and should be confined to pure transport planning only?!

      • And Obi the point about the laneways is the conversion of them from low value piss alleys to vibrant dense trading places.

        • obi

          I don’t know whether Melbourne has changed, or maybe I’m getting a bit less adventurous, or whatever. But I get a bad vibe from the Swanston St end of town at night time. The retail is pretty much lowest common denominator… fast food and the likes. There is a slightly threatening atmosphere of drunk Aussie yobs and troubled homeless people. I’m large and can handle myself, but I’m wishing that I didn’t have my SLR with me even though the point of the outting is to photograph the street art and the evening buzz. I’m mostly not enjoying popping in and out of the laneways, including the one pictured in the second photo which is dead at night time. By contrast, the south bank of the Yarra is great no matter what the hour with bars and restaurants, a fun vibe, and a lovely vehicle-free walkway.

          Is it a “vibrant dense trading place” if you have to hose it down every morning?

          But what I really want to know is: How do people know that some laneways are permitted for street art, while others aren’t? People are busy spraying during the day so it isn’t illegal. But other laneways are grafitti-free. And is there a protocol for covering up someone else’s work? The other day I saw a young woman painting over what looked like a reasonable work on a roller door. Who decides that a current work is due for replacement?

          • There are some details here:
            http://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/ForResidents/StreetCleaningandGraffiti/GraffitiStreetArt/Pages/Whatisstreetart.aspx

            Basically property owners can paint or commission works on their own property, or apply to have existing works protected. Technically the owner of the roller door calls the shots so maybe they decided it was time for a new piece. There is a graf writers code for who can do what and when, but it’s not always respected.

            I don’t think there actually is a distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ lanes, more like permitted/encouraged and discouraged. A place like Centre Place would be encouraged because the art is a tourist attraction that brings people to the shops and cafes. One like Hoiser is perhaps just ‘tolerated’ because there are very few buisinesses on that lane that would be affected either way (I don’t suppose carpark building owners care so much).

            The council does clean off graf from certain places in particular, a while ago the got a lot of flak for destroying a Banksy original.

  • bbc

    Yes I like you perspective, it’s interesting that people like Cameron Brewer who supposedly support the free market are completely opposed to and outspoken against the emergence of these micro stores.

    The area of upper Queen Street opposite the town hall will over the next year turn from being almost dead in terms of street life into one of the more dense areas one the street, with micro stores opening where the old church used to be as well as where the Queens head pub is. I also find that the opening up of basement areas such as where the New World is located will also become increasingly common as landlords seek to maximise their income. I’m pretty sure they’ll be earning a lot more from New World being there than they would be if that space had been storage or parking.

    • Stu Donovan

      Good point re: basements – there’s some considerable untapped floor space potential tied up in low value car-parks. Also agree with you that the area around Civic will blossom over time – be nice if the St James redevelopment could get moving, that’s a real lost opportunity at the moment.

  • Patrick Reynolds

    Great post Kent very exciting to watch organic ‘bottom up’ change following so quickly on the heals of the ‘top down’ work the Council has been doing. More breeds more. Brewer couldn’t be more wrong on this, and it seems pretty well everything he touches… is he just being oppositional, ie is it just politics? Or is he really that blind’ to what a city is and what success and improvement looks like?

    • Stu Donovan

      It’s hard to fathom Cameron’s logic on many issues. I suspect it’s because he tries too hard to make issues into political statements, e.g. his attempt to caste the proliferation of small shops as somehow being the Mayor’s fault and/or responsibility. As an outsider it seems like Cameron is way too full of himself, which in turn means that his ego gets in the way of logical thinking.

      Christine Fletcher is a much better Mayoral candidate, if you’re looking for someone from the centre-right.

      • SteveC

        there’s a mindset that emphasises big business and ignores the fact that many people are employed in SMEs, if you mention “builder” to people with this mindset, they think Fletchers (not Christine) rather than Fred Bloggs Builder who employs two guys who work with him. Some of the flash shops down the bottom of Queen St cater for up market shoppers, but the majority of daytime retail trade on the street probably comes from worker in the area

  • SteveC

    “As someone who can’t wait for things to change, and has all but given up on formal planning, it’s exciting to see how much change is occurring on its own.”

    There are immense limitations on what planning can (and indeed is intended to) achieve, planning sets the parameters for activities but has no power whatsoever to make it happen. Queen St is not like a mall, where the owner develops and decides who may and may not be a tenant, so it does change in response to circumstances and that is the unexpected delight of “High Street” shopping.

    So in this instance planning hasn’t failed, rather your expectations of planning were misplaced.

    One interesting effect of Queen St I found when working in the Civic Building was people’s aversion to walking and consequent small geographic range. I would happily walk to Marbecks and back in a lunchtime, but many expressed surprise as they considered that to be an overlong walk.

  • Nick R

    I note that up on the corner of Queen and Rutland by the churro place and the kebab stand, an ATM has been removed and is in the process of being replaced with a hot dog shop.

    Someone obviously has faith in foot traffic in Auckland to replace a money machine with a fast food restaurant.

    On that note, what would it take to allow street food vendors in our fair city? ( I assume the steamed bun guy gets away by operating off private property?) I’m thinking along the back of the St James, in front of the library we could have a semi permanent hawker market. There’s nothing lie a fresh Char Kway Teow knocked up in a wok in front of your eyes, or a freshly grilled bratwurst in a long bun muched on a street corner.

    • bbc

      There’s frequently that Fritz’s Wiener food cart place down on the waterfront frying up sausages, and Auckland Uni always had a portable coffee cart. In the US it’s really common for vans to be food stands and they drive around and park out the front of office blocks – more suited to those parts of Auckland that aren’t as well served as downtown foodwise.

      • Nick R

        And the taco truck on Elliot St among others. They are all good, I’d just like to see a semi-permanent market of them in one place to liven up one of the quieter shared spaces. Hell, stick it in Aotea Square even!

        • The ‘Beach Road canopy’ concept in the CC Master Plan has developed along similar thinking – idea seems to be to liven up the space along the Scene Apartments frontage with shelter for kiosks and the like. .

    • Liz

      That carpark on the corner of Rutland and Lorne St (is it still there?) could be turned into a space for seating, maybe with stalls along the sides by the buildings.

  • Luke C

    Yes I have wondered about more street side food stalls too. They are very common in European cities, Vienna especially has them everywhere along any road that has a decent footpath, next to most tram stops too. I had wondered if misguided council regulations were stopping them. Clerly they should be regulated, but regulated to be encouraged in suitable places, not regulated out of existence.

  • Daniel A

    This reminds me of one of my favorite online videos: http://www.snotr.com/video/4547/San_Francisco_in_1905

    It is awesome, spontaneous order, why can’t we return to that! Hayek was right.

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