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How should we pursue good urban design?

I’m not an urban designer or an architect – economists are famously bad at that sort of thing – but I do pay attention to the way places are built. Some places work well for people, and some places don’t. That matters.

A few weeks ago, I spotted a few interesting conversations (in Transportblog and on Twitter) about how we approach urban design issues. I thought they were worth highlighting as they pointed out some important distinctions and challenges we face in pursuing good design.

First: in a response to a study on the health value of architectural features that encourage social contact (eg porches, stoops, etc) that Kent posted in a recent Sunday reading, reader TimR made an astute comment about the need to get better at measuring outcomes from urban design. Good design has a value – but it’s often misidentified or left unmeasured:

That kind of hard data around Hispanic elders’ health needs to be gathered and put squarely in front of people like the Productivity Commission.

Every time I read nonsense about the “cost of aesthetics”, this is the kind of outcome I think about – the community and health benefits that only result from deliberate design choices. I’ll bet the costs to the health care and social support systems from that 2.7x worse physical function are not insubstantial, and much higher than the cost of building those architectural features.

Built environment design is so much more than how something looks, but as a society we have debased it to an optional nicety, and claim it is entirely subjective. Reality is, when we choose to examine the evidence properly there are always rich and measurable consequences flowing from design.

In the Auckland context, it’s a problem that we stripped out _so many_ design elements from the UP. Yes, we should make planning faster + more certain; but street-frontage controls clearly have a substantial long term economic cost according to the evidence above – and that’s just one specific outcome being measured. Accumulate all the benefits of getting architecture right in an urban setting, and the cost benefits could be staggering. There’s a reason places like hospitals now focus strongly on design outcomes.

My take is that it’s essential to have basic metric-based district plan Rules that control street interfaces, because they’re the heart of private-public engagement, they’re easy to define, are low or no-cost (eg limiting fence heights, putting entrance doors in the right place), and not at all difficult to comply with. These are not esoteric high-brow aesthetic design features that require expert opinion as part of a consent! Based on the evidence above, the ideologues just shoot their own economic theory in the foot when they force these controls out.

As Tim points out, we need to distinguish between design and aesthetics, which are two very different concepts. As I understand it, good design is, first and foremost, about functionality. If it looks good but doesn’t work well, it’s not well-designed.

Another way of saying this is that good design has objective and measurable benefits, while the benefits of aesthetics are subjective, or “in the eye of the beholder”. Health outcomes are a good start – well-designed urban places tend to enable and encourage walking and cycling and encourage incidental social contact between neighbours and passers-by.

One example I’ve been thinking about recently is the Owen G Glenn Building at the University of Auckland. While it looks impressively monumental from the outside – especially from the motorway, as in the view below – it’s unpleasant to be in. Lecture halls and classrooms are hard to find, the hallways often feel like they’re closing in on you, and, paradoxically, all the common spaces feel cavernous and exposed. The building’s design provides me with a small, but occasionally decisive, inducement to stay away from talks or meetings being held there – a sign that the building is not supporting its educational mission.

view-of-oggb-from-stanley-street

Second, Twitter users and occasional Transportblog commenters Frank McRae and Stephen Davis made some interesting points about the same basic issue – how we distinguish between aesthetics and functionality. They were responding to this tweet critiquing the design of some apartments in Otahuhu:

Frank observed (fairly but a bit too acerbically) that buildings usually have a practical aim – to house people or provide space for businesses and other organisations. In that context, we should judge them on how well they meet housing needs, rather than fulfill subjective aesthetic goals:

Stephen had a more expansive take on the issue, pointing out that we need to be attentive to the overall urban context for buildings:

He goes on to observe in a series of tweets that:

At the bottom are private houses, including apartments. At the top are public buildings and spaces. Commercial in the middle.

Unless your house is a tourist attraction – maybe you lobbied to make it a “special character” area – it’s not your job to make it pretty.

a good street increases the odds of people *wanting* to make aesthetically pleasing buildings next to it, too.

I’d say the vast majority of Auckland buildings are prettier than the streets they’re on already. Better than we deserve.

As an example:

I think Stephen’s idea of a “sliding scale of responsibility” for place-making is a good one. Urban streets are the largest, most widespread, and most influential public spaces in a city. They set the context for what happens around them. If we want better urban design, and buildings that make us better off, we need to start with the street.

What do you think about the value of urban design?

61 comments to How should we pursue good urban design?

  • Katy

    It’s hugely important! Ugly apartment buildings with tiny windows and no aesthetic appeal may fill an urgent need for housing, but they will not remain desirable in the future and thus will lose value, creating a large divide between desirable/undesirable housing. People deserve to feel proud of their dwellings. Humans respond to aesthetics, we know that! This is what fuels tourism and desirability of cities. Architects are trained to learn about beauty in design. It doesn’t have to be over the top! Just look at the affordable housing design in the Netherlands, it proves that warm, affordable, attractive apartments can be built. It would not take a lot to make these new apartments more visually appealing – this is laziness on the part of the developer and is leaving a hideous legacy around Auckland. Everyone deserves better than what is being built. There is a reason why for centuries architects and builders have put in the effort to make dwellings attractive and decorative. Thatched cottages were built for farm labourers. Victorian and Edwardian housing featured generous windows and decorative touches. Villas and bungalows were made so attractive people now pay ridiculous prices for them! So why are we dropping the ball now?

    • Nick R

      Funny you say that, in the 60s and 70s bungalows were considered hideous, poorly designed cheap crap and bowled down on masse to be replaced with “well designed architectural homes”. I guess it depends on your perspective.

      • Katy

        It’s true that matters of aesthetics can depend on your perspective. However I would say that there is a general level of tolerance that most people have for good design that the above apartments don’t meet, and will never meet. I would also argue that apartment developers have a greater responsibility to create better looking architecture than this given that a) the buildings will be harder to bowl in the future given that there are multiple owners inside each building and b) apartment buildings are larger and more visible than single houses.

        • Sailor Boy

          Funny, from my mum’s place I can only see bungalows and stucco houses, they’re hideous.

        • Nick R

          Well I consider that apartment good design. It looks solid, well proportioned and functional. It’s got some differentiation on the facade without being ornate or fussy. It fronts the street well for something with residental at ground level, and sure its got some fairly ugly fencing but it is in an industrial area of Otahuhu to arguably that’s perfect for the context.

          And I’m sure it’s quite apt to the task, the apartments all have plenty of windows and balconies, and I assume they have functional space, good bathrooms and kitchens, wardrobes etc. My bungalow on the other hand has a ridiculous pokey kitchen, a cramed bathroom, no wardrobes or cupboards to speak of and the toilet is a shed cubicle that comes off the porch.

          • Stefan

            I have lived in that apartment building. Size and function wise it was fine, two bedroom unit and brand-new at the time that I lived there. but it wasn’t great for sleeping because the neighbours talked until 2 or 3 AM and you couldn’t get much sleep.. Then they installed a garage door that went up and down when cars went in and out which meant you got woken up every time a car went in or out. I hope apartments are much better than that these days. Glad I don’t live in apartments anymore.

          • Peter Nunns

            I do think noise insulation within buildings is really important, especially for apartments and units. This is something that is often done pretty badly. Probably an area where the building code should prod along developers, as it’s difficult to assess this from a quick visit when renting or buying.

            Note that most of the serious noise issues in Auckland arise from road operations. If you’re on an arterial road, you probably get a lot of road noise regardless of whether you’re in a house or apartment.

          • I’ve heard plenty of complaints about apartments and the “paper wall” effect:

            – “I can hear everything my neighbour does on the toilet”
            – “My neighbour wakes me up when he browses his wardrobe”
            – See the comment about the apartment building above (chatty neighbours, garage door).
            – In case of the buildings with the exterior hallways another issue is people chatting in the hallways: usually your bedroom is going to front on that hallway, and sleeping with the windows closed is a bad habit in a small apartment. This is another disadvantage of exterior hallways.

            Traffic noise is an issue in the CBD, mainly due to our lame government / council, and being the only place in town with nice wide one-way highways. As a consequence, the things which wake you up at night are:
            – people who come to those huge streets late in the evening to race their stupid “tuned” cars around. (meaning they just put a loud exhaust on a crappy old car). I can’t think of any downsides of outlawing both the crappy exhaust part, and the racing around at night part.
            – Motorcycles, see above. There’s no reason to allow 130 dB of exhaust noise.
            – cops with their sirens, probably tricky to avoid.
            Most traffic, including buses and most trucks, is not loud enough to be bothersome.

    • RJ

      In Japan it seems to be the norm and people do not mind

  • helgaarlington

    I agree. ‘Loving’ a city is a prerequisite for all sorts of things including tourism… and aesthetic appeal / urban design is a huge part of that. When I arrived here many years ago the things I loved were Grafton Bridge, the huge trees in AlbertPark, and the beautiful decorated older buildings in Queen St like Smith & Caughey. Later, during the mirror building era and with nothing for me on the street, I came to feel unwelcome in the city. Now, the city streets welcome me again. This push-pull undoubtedly has economic consequences as well, I suggest, as mental health ones.

  • Harriet Gale

    NACTO Global Street Guide says that around 80% of a Cities Public Space is it’s streets.

    The lack of design standards for streets in my opinion is a major problem.

  • We either do practical function and skip the aesthetics (so utilitarian) or go aesthetics and skip the form and function right out the door (yep that Owen Glenn Building and somewhat ironically our rail stations with lack of shelter.

    I certainly remember that debate with Ludo over the Otahuhu apartments and how the debate initially skewered to the latter of aesthetics over function. Somewhat ironically given Otahuhu has its heavy industrial complex nearby the aesthetics form of those apartments match the area rather well.

    It might be just me but I will usually tend towards practical function before pure aesthetics (it shows up in my Cities Skylines cities) but that does not mean we go butt ugly right off the bat.

    A sliding scale as Stephen suggested would be a great start for Ludo as well as Panuku given they have big projects like Transform Manukau and Unlock Takapuna (both Metropolitan Centres). But also as Peter is mentioning at the end the urban design aspect in both form/function and aesthetics starts at the street level.

    Two examples:
    https://voakl.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/20161114174805_1.jpg
    and
    https://voakl.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/20161114174653_1.jpg

    Okay these two places would not win awards for aesthetics in urban design but in terms of form and function it would be a contender. Overall the two areas run a street grid pattern (including pedestrian malls, cycle boulevards and ring roads with LRT) will connected to the transit system linking up residential and commercial areas (form and function). Aesthetically the aesthetic stuff (so iconic if you want to call it that) is more centralised near the large transport interchange in the middle.

    So that sliding scale at a virtual level.

    • Katy

      But why does it have to be a choice?

      • Subjectivity
        What you might call aesthetically pleasing I might call a load of utter crap.

        Thus from an urban Geography point of view unless I was going to go for something iconic I tend to favour practical/form – utilitarian (which again does not have to be ugly).

        • Cavalcante

          An architect, urban designer, traffic engineer and value engineer will design a ‘utilitarian’ space very differently. Trick is applying the right professional to the right project.

      • Frank McRae

        “But why does it have to be a choice?”

        Because in the real world trade-offs need to be made. Because sometimes individually worthwhile objectives conflict with each other and a choice needs to be made. Some aspects of good urban design may not have a cost (financial or otherwise) but most do.

        Taking Ludo’s example of the apartments in Otahuhu I can’t see how design improvements could be made for zero cost given that the objection seems to be to the lower quality building materials. More expensive materials would make the apartments less affordable. Is that a a worthwhile trade-off? Depending on your values it might be but that doesn’t make it free.

        • As software blogger Joel Spolsky noted, good design can add value faster than cost. And unfortunately there’s a strong tendency to skip exactly this step — some thought into the design of houses and apartments.

          Take these apartments. A problem in apartments is usually how to get enough light to all rooms. So I’m always a bit baffled to see blank walls on apartment buildings, especially facing the street. Look at the grey wall on that image above. What I imagine happened here is every floor has 9 identical apartments, with the one on the left facing to the left instead towards the photographer. And obviously the other 8 apartments can’t have windows on the sides, so the sideways one will present a blank wall to the street.

          How expensive is it to add windows in that wall? How expensive is it to design a somewhat bigger apartment for that corner, taking advantage of the fact that it has 2 exterior walls? Is having a different floorplan for those apartments really going to blow the budget?

          And that lack of any design effort results in houses and apartments which are almost as expensive as well-designed ones would be, provide only a fraction of the value. The apartments surely will be habitable, but that’s where all ambition ends.

          Another example: most apartments in the CBD have exterior hallways and stairs. Why is that? I heard this is essentially an artefact of zoning laws. But that means, for a similar building footprint, the apartments have to be twice as deep, and for the same area only half as wide. This makes it difficult to have daylight in all rooms. It also means on one side the exterior wall faces the hallway and as a consequence, for privacy reasons you can have only small windows. Perhaps it’s cheaper to build that way (Sugartree is being built like that as we type), but it comes at a big cost in amenity.

          • Peter Nunns

            “good design can add value faster than cost”

            Agreed, but there are two particular challenges that need careful thinking:

            1. Value is a subjective thing – not everybody enjoys the same things, and it’s not clear that a one-size-fits-all design rule can accommodate all preferences.

            2. Some of the value created by exterior building design accrues to passers-by and neighbours, not inhabitants. So there are cases in which people pay for things that they don’t appreciate. This is completely fine in theory, but there are equity implications: is it appropriate to require low-income people to pay more to rent apartments so that their well-off neighbours enjoy better aesthetics?

            There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to these challenges, but we can’t brush them aside.

          • Sailor Boy

            “How expensive is it to design a somewhat bigger apartment for that corner, taking advantage of the fact that it has 2 exterior walls?”

            Probably about $100k per apartment: the $7,000 a year required to recoup that cost would have crippled me while renting.

          • Sailor Boy: Surely you mean $100k for each of the two corner apartments, assuming they’re a bit bigger, right? And even then. If you assume $3000 per m² building cost—which is expensive, $100k buys you 33m². It doesn’t make sense. This is a low-rise apartment, I wouldn’t expect this to be dramatically more expensive than 2-storey houses. What am I missing?

            And Peter: point 1 → exactly, and that’s a good reason to take the opportunity of having 2 exterior walls to build a different unit in that corner.

            point 2: I agree. Exterior design is one thing, and I don’t think a lot of people are going to be standing in front of their apartment and think “gosh…”. But design also means figuring out if you can improve the units for the people living there without increasing the cost too much. For instance a possible trade-off is having a smaller unit, but with more sound insulation. How expensive is soundproofing for new builds?

          • SDW

            re outside access on apartments, external stairwells could be excluded from floor area calculations which allowed for more units to be built on site as of right. In essence, the former District Plan actively encouraged that outcome.

    • mfwic

      I am fully in favour of putting Ludo on a sliding scale.

  • Frank McRae

    No one would say that urban design and aesthetics don’t matter. I love the quality of urban design in Europe’s great cities like Amsterdam and wish we could have more of that. But the questions are:

    1. How much weight should design / aesthetics be given in relation to other considerations like affordability?
    2. Who is responsible for providing quality urban design to a city?

    I really like Stephen’s idea of a sliding scale of responsibility for urban design with street design and public buildings at the top, and commercial second. Currently we have it exactly backwards – with the street corridor doing nothing for city amenity, large commercial buildings putting up blank walls to the public, and then small scale residential buildings being hammered by onerous design requirements.

    (Apologies to Ludo for being a little harsh in that tweet, I just really dislike snobbery towards apartments buildings).

  • Chris Werry

    Ironically the Owen Glenn building has won numerous awards:
    2008 Shortlisted for the World Architecture Festival Awards
    2008 Building and Construction Award, New Zealand Engineering Excellence Awards
    2008 Merit Award, Education and Arts Category, Property Council of New Zealand
    2009 Gold Award, Association of Consulting Engineers New Zealand (ACENZ)

    http://www.business.auckland.ac.nz/en/about/news-and-media/news/mr-2013/11/19/you-beauty-oggb-in-worlds-top-50.html

    • Ah, modern times. This is not unique to buildings.

      It’s like winning web design awards. Some guidelines:

      – text is ugly. So make it small and low contrast.
      – don’t show plain old links. Some images (or whatever) which reveal their content when moving your mouse over is much cooler.
      – use some fancy navigation widget nobody used before.

      Of course users then will barely be able to read that text, finding the right page will be a frustrating exercise of peekaboo, and nobody will find where to go on your website. But you’ll win your award.

      For the same reason, it’s a PITA to change the brightness on modern computer screens. 15 years ago that was a simple turn of a knob.

      And so on. It’s just how “design” works these days.

    • Sailor Boy

      Yeah, it looks great and has impressive engineering. It has terrible integration with other surrounding buildings and terrible internal layout, particularly in the basement levels. Two different things.

      • HSB1 Alumnus

        Part of the charm of a building can be its lack of charm. Crowded libraries, with close-fitting shelves, overflowing books etc. are much more “academic” than the modern tilt towards open, bright spaces that may look good but most assuredly do not facilitate the types of “heads down, bums up” study that is at the heart of a library’s purpose. I almost cried when central library in Lorne St chopped half its shelves to turn itself into a sort of pseudo cafe. But I digress.

        Owen G Glenn, and its spiritual successor (in “closing in around you”) HSB are wonderful buildings. There’s something about waiting in a narrow corridor for your tutor’s office hours to start. There’s something about scuttling down a labyrinth trying to find your tutorial room. The work in a university is done in a classroom, not in the lobby or open space. If we are going to judge the design quality of university buildings, it’s really this simple:
        1. Are the academic offices roomy, comfortable, and sound-proofed?
        2. Are the classrooms and lecture halls the same?

        Every square metre taken from these purposes to put in another lawn is just a distraction from function, really.

        (However HSB is a particularly ugly beast from the outside looking in)

        • Interesting, you could say the same about cities. If you look at old city centres in Europe (the ones people find so charming) you’ll see something similar. Narrow streets, townhouses, and not a lot of m² wasted with things like berms and other kinds of green space buffers. You simply don’t need them in those centres. Open space usually comes in the form of proper parks or squares.

          Contrast this with the typical modern suburb, with the wide streets and grass berms, and more recent city centres with wide streets flanked with big buildings. Both result in a quite barren and unfriendly appearance for people.

        • Sailor Boy

          I like the crammed in feeling too. It’s the maze like nature, the complete separation from the surrounding road network and the acres (literally) of wasted space between the building and the motorway that can now problably never be used without demolishing OGGB.

        • You should look into some of what is written about “Building 20” at MIT (the real one).

          Due to Building 20’s origins as a temporary structure, researchers and other occupants felt free to modify their environment at will. As described by MIT professor Paul Penfield, “Its ‘temporary nature’ permitted its occupants to abuse it in ways that would not be tolerated in a permanent building. If you wanted to run a wire from one lab to another, you didn’t ask anybody’s permission — you just got out a screwdriver and poked a hole through the wall” … Because of its various inconveniences, Building 20 was never considered to be prime space, in spite of its location in the central campus. As a result, Building 20 served as an “incubator” for all sorts of start-up or experimental research, teaching, or student groups on a crowded campus where space was (and remains) at a premium

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_20

        • I have not had much call to bother with HSB and I have to say I am glad of that. The building is a nightmare to navigate and when I did actually have a tutorial in there a couple of years ago, the corridor was far too narrow to allow us in and the other two tutorials out. Unsurprisingly, the room itself was also pretty chocka. It’s described as a warren for a reason.

          OGGB, in contrast, is pretty easy to navigate. Now, that just be because I am in there about five days a week and have just got that used to it, but if you know that the number of the computer suites (Lab 1, 2, etc.) doesn’t line up with the room number, no worries. The offices upstairs are a little trickier but they all have maps in the lift spaces. The colour scheme is whack, though, and cavernous is a good description of the foyers downstairs (level 0). The rooms themselves are comfortable, not hot (although some say they’re too cold) and have plenty of space… a vast improvement on, say, PLT2 (science) or the back-wall engineering theatres (which are cramped and may or may not be getting ripped out). The practical trouble with OGGB is that it is used for events such that if you’re trying to be a student and you’re not in a lecture or tutorial, you’re kind of stuck. I just don’t see navigation issues. If you want serenity, OGGB offers that too via its balconies and the random garden thing behind the fale they overlook.

          In terms of the surrounding buildings (Arts 1 and 2, those random houses, the fale and, maybe, HSB)… there was a Facebook post complaining about Arts 1 and 2 a while ago for a reason (on Overheard @ University of Auckland), they’re literally nothing more than halls and rooms for tutorials and (small) lectures, plus some drama spaces I don’t know about. The visual distinctiveness is entirely appropriate given one is meant to be Business and Economics and the other is Arts. The very grey plaza area reflects OGGB’s colour scheme issues but could easily be used to reduce this on the ground area (I should note that this space is used extensively for orientation purposes).

          The general library’s too hot (but looks like a library, cf. Papakura Library), IC’s too full, Science is, well, there’s a new SciSpace thing somewhere (in the new building, which is like OGGB but better) and Engineering’s got an interesting and useful communal space where its cafe used to be. All of them are much easier to navigate than a maze (i.e. HSB) but I would have to say that I prefer OGGB’s lecture theatres to all of them.

    • aa

      No that’s just standard. There is no relationship between getting awards and function/ good urban design/environmentally responsible buildings. Well actually there probably is – it’s much easier to do award winning buildings if you can ignore these issues. Architecture awards are about being photogenic – WAF award judges don’t even need to visit a building to pronounce it the best.

  • I also have this feeling that we “ran out of pretty buildings” a few decades ago. So now we have to desperately “preserve” those “historic” buildings.

    A minimal amount of ambition for new buildings would go a long way. For example look at the old houses you find in Grey Lynn or Ponsonby. I thought these were originally built for working class people. And yet, look at the decorations under the roof or around pillars. They might be cheap and mass produced, but they’re there. There was some minimal effort to make things look nice to humans.

    And that is now lost.

    Another somewhat related thing is fences, ubiquitous high fences is one of the things that makes large swathes of suburbs that typical wasteland-devoid-of-human-life character. Buildings are not facing the street anymore. It’s also the problem with the apartments in that picture above. There’s just a fence facing the street. Contrast this with how those houses in Ponsonby face the street.

    But the killer issue is of course streets, streets, streets. Like, who wants to go dining in one of the fancy restaurants on that miserable highway called Ponsonby Road?

    • HSB1 Alumnus

      The question is: why do people build fences?
      I live in an “unfenced” property and regret it every day. Every time a neighbour’s dog c*aps on my lawn, or a noisy neighbour chatters past disturbing my concentration, or rubbish blows onto my front lawn, I come closer and closer to closing off that “public:private” interface with a nice, tall, strong fence. It would be nice if the sort of people who admire my willingness to expose my carefully-mowed grass to all and sundry could do something to prevent the nuisance that emerges. Here’s a deal: I’ll keep the fence away, but TB appoints a sentinel to stand outside scaring away the dogs and shooshing the noisy.

      I’m being disingenuous, but the fact is that if people were more civil, the fences would come down. Unfortunately 99% of Aucklanders seem to have the manners of the gutter.

      • Sailor Boy

        a 900mm high fence would solve all of those issues…..

        1.8 or 2.4m high fences fronting the street are extremely dangerous for pedestrians as they remove passive observation and leave driveways blind.

        • Sacha

          Living in residential Ponsonby while it was gentrified, I saw the permeable picket and wire fences with families on the front porch replaced by high solid walls with security keypads. It wrecked the social nature of those streets, as did the SUVs cluttering the footpaths.

      • Peter Nunns

        “Unfortunately 99% of Aucklanders seem to have the manners of the gutter.”

        Such terrible manners. Some people go so far as to insult 99% of the city.

        I agree with the others who suggest a shorter fence as a solution. Frankly, I’m not overjoyed by big impermeable fences.

        • HSB1 Alumnus

          I’m not sure a 900mm fence would deaden sound given the average mouth is probably 1700mm above the ground.

          Perhaps you live in a more civil area, but around my neighbourhood there is a remarkable amount of footpath and berm parking (rude), a remarkable amount of antisocial noise (rude), and on my commute to work I see perhaps 5% of the drivers obeying the road rules (both rude and illegal). I suggest you look at the Twitter “You Shall Not Path”

      • mfwic

        Lucky it only c*aps there. If it shit on your lawn you would get really annoyed.

  • Ak-Sam

    All buildings make a contribution to city amenity, whether they want to or not. If we accept utilitarian structures as the norm, then blandness prevails.

    A beautiful city is a happy, productive, globally-competitive city. If we don’t all agree to that then we have a long, hard road ahead.

    Aesthetics is a fairly ‘superficial’ term. “Beauty” is more comprehensive. This doesn’t need to involve high-end materials or designs. Simple things like flower boxes under windows, or cladding that can be painted bright colours will do wonders. People create beauty in lots of small ways through social interaction and by adding their unique touch to their environment. For evidence, look at the colourful Favellas in Brasil: http://cdn.thecoolist.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/favela-painting_8.jpg

    What Auckland needs to understand is that fundamental urban design factors must be met in order for social conditions to be set on the right path. Active edges, attractive streets (with space for trees), buildings with public fronts, basic levels of space and privacy (there’s no point having windows if the blinds are drawn 24/7) and car parking that doesn’t dominate our outdoor spaces – are just a few examples. These are what us urban designers are seeking to resolve – and facing surprising resistance from many in the development sector (including some branches of Council).
    Any new building (especially multi-unit or commercial) really has no excuse not to get the basics right. If a building (like the one Ludo pictured) is free from any decoration, and does not offer any opportunity for customisation then it will always feel a bit bland. Merely ‘box for living in.’ We can do better.

    • Katy

      I completely agree with you Ak-Sam.

      “If we accept utilitarian structures as the norm, then blandness prevails.”
      “Any new building (especially multi-unit or commercial) really has no excuse not to get the basics right. If a building is free from any decoration, and does not offer any opportunity for customisation then it will always feel a bit bland. Merely ‘box for living in.’ We can do better.”

      Nail. On. Head.

    • RHarris

      Agree with you both. You both should be writing blog posts and designing Auckland to make this city a better place :).

      I see it countlessly argued that supposed “affordability” should trump good design. Both should still go hand in hand.

      • Stu Donovan

        what happens when you need to trade-off design with affordability?

        • Ak-Sam

          Good question Stu. All projects have a budget that a good designer will work within, to optimise the outcomes. The critical thing is building urban design into the project early.
          Much can be achieved with low-end materials (plywood) and surfaces (wildflowers instead of lawn). Colour costs nothing. Doing less can sometimes add amenity – eg replacing a car park with a bicycle rack.
          Urban design fundamentals can also create affordability – sunshine means less lighting and heating required. And they can add value (increase value of the investment). This is particularly important for affordable/social housing – “cheap” is not the same as “affordable.”

          A successful project needs a few key ingredients: First, an experienced developer who isn’t simply out to ‘flip’ the property ASAP. It needs a progressive Council planner (who allows some wiggle room). It needs an intelligent, innovative design team (inc engineers & builders). But, most importantly, it needs a mature market who recognises the added value in a well-designed finished product (not just buying on features, or for investment/resale).

          Generally I think that if the City increases development potential of land without increasing requirements for quality, its possible that we simply end up fattening the pockets of landowners while reducing the potential amenity of our city over time. Land is largely valued based on development potential.

          • Peter Nunns

            The problem is, it’s really difficult to regulate for all of this. For instance, council could mandate flowers and landscaping, but there would be nothing to prevent people putting in really *hideous* flowers. In fact, one-size-fits-all rules are more likely to hurt than help, as they may squeeze out beneficial non-conforming designs. For instance, the hypothetical flowerbed requirement may mean that buildings must be set back from the street, reducing the potential for active retail frontages.

            Design reviews and the like are another option, but the issue is that they can add quite a bit of uncertainty to projects. For instance, there’s always going to be a risk that the reviewers come back asking for a completely different design. That can chase people off, meaning you get no buildings at all.

            So I take your point that the best way to get better outcomes, in the long run, is a better-informed market that is constructing more buildings. The challenge with that is that outcomes from that process aren’t certain- some people are going to put up hideous buildings, and you can’t avoid that without stopping other people from putting up good buildings.

            Comes down to whether you’re more worried about Type I or Type II errors. When we’ve got a serious shortage of housing, I’m more worried about inappropriately rejecting developments. Were it not so, I think you could make the opposite case.

          • Realist

            The reason we have severely unaffordable housing is due to a lack of financial regulation – no rules to stop speculation in property, apparently no controls on international money flows/ hot money, and a lack of control on immigration to ensure steady numbers rather than boom and bust. And now this market failure is being used as an excuse to further lower the quality of the built form. Quite outrageous really.

  • 1. Do not allow anyone who is not well-versed in Architecture and/or its history to be permitted to open their mouths. 2. Assign a board of Practicing Architects to supervise and make all decisions with Carte Blanche authority.
    3. Don’t wet your pants when you first see their budget – it will come back and reward you later – it’s an investment for god’s sake. Be sensible people!

    • Frank McRae

      4. Live in a fantasy world where costs don’t matter and design /aesthetics always outweigh every other consideration

      • SDW

        I have come across some well versed, practising architects who decried having cycle parking located near the entrance of ‘their’ building because cycles attached to stands “look messy”. As such, I don’t have confidence that your plans would result in better design.

      • A fantasy world – yes! Like Paris from 1600 to 1870s – when they built a monument to mankind and to the city as a concept that still stands today and demonstrates Fantasy World Thinking. Of course, in our “realistic” world of today we can’t afford such thoughts.

        • Peter Nunns

          Paris is nice, sure. But don’t forget that Paris as we know it was deliberately engineered by Baron Haussmann, the agent of an authoritarian state, through compulsory acquisition and dispossession of existing inhabitants. The wide boulevards were all cut through existing neighbourhoods, often resulting in the eviction of poor residents to the city outskirts, and the mandatory building designs were considerably different from what came before (cheaper brick or wood rather than limestone). While there have been some lasting benefits, the human costs were high.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haussmann%27s_renovation_of_Paris

          • Realist

            Isnt that a little dramatic? If people are compensated for the land and inconvenience, but this brings around a greater good whats the issue here?

  • The concrete brutal that afflicts so many of our new buildings is awful, and is turning Auckland into anywhere. Yes esthetics are personal, but does anybody except the professionally deluded actually _like_ them?

    I strongly support design guidelines such as those of Paris. Even use of colour and not allowing blank concrete facings would help, but surely we can do better.

    • Sailor Boy

      “not allowing blank concrete facings would help,” – empty sites are pretty ugly and that’s the alternative. Blank concrete walls are a fact of life when you develop right to your boundary.

      What are Paris’ design guidelines like? The only reason their building seem to tie in to the street and to each other so well is that literally half the city was compulsorily acquired for development.

  • Stephen Davis

    I’d like to elaborate a bit on the “sliding scale of responsibility” I’m advocating. There’s definitely a place for some regulation and supervision to produce good aesthetic and design outcomes, even if it costs more. Especially for those things where it doesn’t cost more.

    But there are trade-offs and so where we should set that balance depends on a lot of things – context, scale, the purpose of the building or space, the number of people affected.

    But from the point of view of the government, one thing should have the largest impact – ownership. It’s (relatively) easy for the government to insist that things they pay for are well designed. It’s much harder to design regulations to make the private sector do something they don’t want to do.

    So let’s start with our streets, and parks, and public buildings. As a bonus, having a better-looking public context will encourage smaller neighbouring private-sector developments to up their game as well. For our regulations, it’s highrises and malls and large-floorplate offices and retail frontages in town centres that are key, rather than a low-rise apartment building in the suburban back streets.

  • Realist

    As with anything there are core principles that can be applied to any area of human endeavour and cities, and making them beautiful, is no different.

    Why would we not want beautiful buildings when we like beautiful furniture, beautiful cars, beauty in nature?

    Do economists always want cost to prevail over everything else?

    • Peter Nunns

      This economist mainly wants people to stop bringing up stupid straw-man arguments like “economists only care about costs”.

      Read the title of the post again. It was “How should we pursue good urban design?”, not “Should we?”

    • Sailor Boy

      I drive a 2001 (old model) Suzuki Swift, living proof that humans care at least as much about cost as beauty and that a something is better than 0 beautiful somethings the vast majority of the time.

      • Realist

        What gets confused here is urban design and architecture. It is the latter that needs serious work in NZ.

        Yes a part of the success of places like Paris is the coherence of the streets created by planning rules, including the mansard roofs. But it is also the quality of the architecture that uplifts peoples spirits and completes the space.

        NZ suffers from a lot of cheaply built, and quite frankly ugly buildings. Yes the assessment of building quality or beauty may be “subjective” but it is incredibly important that we undertake this task if we want a city we can be proud of.

  • Bryce P

    Those functional apartments are better for Auckland than the brand new, stand alone houses being built in Riverhead right now. Beauty is subjective and can be based on how and why something looks like it does. The functionality and location of these apartments make them far more desirable to me.

  • TimR

    Thanks Peter, and good to see another healthy debate on TB. I’m tempted to jump in, but it can wait for another day.

    In the meantime, I’ll leave this timely observation on how the quality of aesthetics often signal deeper issues…
    https://twitter.com/pv_reynolds/status/798662402006913024

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