Stuart’s 100 #56: More Dignity for Daily Users

56 More Dignity for Daily Users

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What if there was a moment of civic dignity outside the Auckland District Court?

The Auckland District Court on the corner of Albert and Kingston Streets is I think at last count the busiest courthouse in New Zealand. At a guess people coming and going through the doors on an average day would likely number in the thousands.

Busyness aside it must be one of the most disappointing public buildings in Auckland.

The space around the building is so cramped. As a consequence the building has a very poor street presence, as well as a lack of basic dignity for people coming and going. This is particularly so for those who need to wait around before or after court appearances. In this respect the contrast with the Auckland High Court sitting supremely up on Waterloo Quadrant couldn’t be more different.

That said the original design of the court building itself did make a few gestures towards being an important public building, such as the coat of arms and the distinctive stained glass artwork that forms the corner entrance canopy, designed by American-New Zealand artist Holly Sanford.  This must be one of the earlier attempts at weaving a bi-cultural story into a public building in New Zealand. I imagine it is rarely appreciated given it is best appreciated from a moving vehicle or standing across the street on the narrow footpath against the edge of the retaining wall.

These things could be easily addressed through redesigning not only the streets (particularly Kingston Street which is crying out for shared space as part of the Federal Street laneway circuit), but also through altering the way the building relates to the street edge to make for a more hospitable and welcoming environment. These things might seem modest, but they lift the daily dignity of how we use and move about the city.

This is how public buildings with important civic functions were designed in the past. Wouldn’t Auckland be better off if our government departments and institutions gave a little more back to the city?

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The cramped and cluttered entrance outside the Auckland District Court

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Daily comings and goings at the courthouse support a row of cafes and food outlets across Kingston Street, which is crying out for shared space as part of the Federal Street laneway circuit

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The Albert Street building edge could be turned into a more hospitable stepped seating edge that utilises the space of the upper podium behind the column line

 

Stuart Houghton 2014

Stuart’s 100 #55: Broadening the place-making dialogue

55: Broadening the place-making dialogue

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What if the place-making could take care of itself?

Place-making as a term has become not only a ubiquitous mots du jour amongst those responsible for planning, designing and managing our cities but also an increasingly sophisticated and highly organised, controlled and managed city activity. It is increasingly being enacted by a broad collective of paid professionals that may include planners, designers, artists and other creatives, event and project managers, publicists, risk advisors, traffic management,  planners and various local government officials amongst many, many others.

Here in Auckland efforts have been led largely by the efforts of Council-controlled organisation Waterfront Auckland at the Wynyard Quarter and elsewhere across the waterfront, by Cooper and Co (private developers and long term landlords of the Britomart Precinct), as well as the Heart of the City business association through their Big Little City campaign and wider events portfolio. The physical infrastructure of place-making is being supported by significant resources and outreach to Aucklanders through both mainstream and social media. Those Aucklanders who work, live or regularly visit the city centre will have noticed the difference, and have become accustomed to an ever growing range of events and offerings that seek to activate the public spaces of the waterfront and city.

These efforts are without doubt commendable and have been instrumental in forging new connections between Aucklanders and their city centre and waterfront, highlighting the transformational change and new dynamic that is occurring in public life and urban renewal more generally. Aucklanders are learning to love their central city; to want to be there, even though they may have no reason to.

This approach to the development and management of the public realm has become so successful that place making and, more generally, the need for ‘activation’, are starting to become not only the leading catch cries but the major driving force in public space development in this city.

Where is all this leading us?

Already within the design professions it often seems we are heading towards a dumbed-down understanding and dialogue around the role of public space that appears to regard it as merely a blank canvas or empty stage that must be activated. The consensus view is that if a space isn’t activated, it cannot be successful. And, increasingly, if you don’t have a comprehensive place-making programme in place, how can you be sure that this activation will occur? Even people themselves start to be regarded as something to be managed, programmed and activated to ensure a successful public place.

We need to be comfortable with the idea that a healthy city is a diverse, dynamic, messy and unpredictable place. It should be capable of supporting public life that is organic and unscripted, spontaneous, inclusive and fundamentally democratic. The city must be a place for all; a place that allows for difference, tolerates messiness and imperfection and encompasses the widest range of possible uses and users.

Whatever happened to designing spaces that can simply become just great places to be? Places to just inhabit, to dwell and spend time not money; that provide respite from activity even. What about public spaces that are unprogrammed places of encounter, exploration, wander and wonderment? Surely we should be interested in providing public places that can support spontaneity, unscripted and unstructured play and activity as much as that of the organised kind?

Our understanding of what makes successful public places can’t be limited to cappuccino urbanism or the city as a recreational playground. The real place-making project for Auckland needs to go further than keeping people occupied of a sunny Sunday afternoon. It needs to be about transforming our public spaces of all kinds and right across this city into lived-in places that are loved and cared for by Aucklanders of all persuasions as they go about their everyday lives in this increasingly diverse big little city.

City life is fundamentally a shared collective existence. Provide public places that take care of this, and the place making takes care of itself.

This post is an abridged version of an essay  I wrote in 2013 for X-Section Magazine, published by the Unitec School of Landscape Architecture (http://x-sectionmagazine.blogspot.co.nz/p/2013-placemaking.html). The 2014 edition of X-Section is forthcoming.

 

Stuart Houghton 2014

How we treat pedestrians

This image has been doing the rounds on Twitter a lot recently as it so brilliantly shows how we treat pedestrians in so many of our streets. It comes from Daniel Sauter from Urban Mobility Research who was recently in the country to speak at the 2Walkandcycle conference as well as doing an IPENZ talk in Auckland.

Our Streets

As for cycling, that’s catered for somewhere on that vertical wall.

Te Ara Mua – Future Streets

Auckland Transport are currently consulting on what could be quite a transformative project for the people living around the Mangere Town centre through what is effectively a series of traffic calming measures and improved connections that looks to make it safer and easier to walk or cycle around the area. Known as known as Te Ara Mua – Future Streets, the changes are part of a wider research project being conducted by a number of different organisations on how to design our streets better and highlight the economic benefits of safer roads. The research is being funded by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) while Auckland Transport are paying for the physical changes to the streets. Once complete and assuming the changes are a success the research has the potential to really help in changing the focus of how our streets are developed.

The research also builds on previous research by some of the same organisations on what they call Self Explaining Roads (SER). An area wide trial in Point England had impressive results and saw the introduction of traffic calming measures including the removal of centre lines on some roads. One of the outcomes from the Pt England trial was a dramatic improvement in the speed of drivers. Prior to the changes both local streets and larger collector roads saw some travelling at over 80km/h. After the changes you can see the speeds travelled are in a much narrower and lower band, especially for local roads.

Self Explaining Roads - Pt England speed changes

For the Te Ara Mua – Future Streets project the area being looked at is below and is a bit of an island being bordered by motorways on its sides and busy arterials to the north and south. It also happens to be one of the most dangerous in Auckland with it ranking 4th out of 275 Auckland communities for fatal and serious crashes.

Future Streets Area

By and large the changes that are being suggested are good, although it does seem like they could go a little further in some places. Below is an example of some of the kinds of changes that will be made.

Arterial Roads – Bader Dr and Massey Rd/Kirkbride Rd (Purple)

The focus seems to be on the installation of more pedestrian crossings (some of which will be controlled by lights) and cycle lanes. Below is an example of how Bader Dr might changed.

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Where I think they could go further would be to look at using Dutch style roundabouts with cycle lanes around the roundabout such as from this post.

Roundabout

Collector Roads – Mascot Ave and Orly Rd/Thomas Rd (yellow)

These roads are likely to see the most change and overall the aim is to reduce speeds through pedestrian crossings, cycle lanes, speed tables and better bus stops. I particularly like how they are suggesting carrying on the cycle lanes behind the bus stops rather than just ending them at the bus stop like AT typically do in other places.

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The artist impressions even show protected cycle lanes which would be great if it happens.

Te-Ara-Mua-Future-Streets-protected cycle lane

Local Roads (Red)

Again the intention is to slow traffic and make the roads safer for people to be on. This is time it appears to be through narrowing the lanes in addition to speed tables. Speed tables would be at the entrances to local roads to help encourage slower speeds. Below is an example of what’s proposed for Friesian Dr

Te-Ara-Mua-Future-Streets-Friesian-DriveThere’s quite a bit more being done than what I’ve described however you can find out all the details about the project here (if you can get in). I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

Queen Street and the Santa Parade

The annual Santa Parade is coming up is just under 3 weeks on Sunday 30 November. This is the one-day a year when families and children are really welcome in our CBD.

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Image: www.santaparade.co.nz

As part of this Queen Street, Albert Street and many surrounding streets are closed, supposedly from 12pm to 4pm. The parade itself goes from 2pm to 3.30pm. Families are encouraged to head down to Aotea Square after the parade where Santa’s Party keeps the festivities going with a stage set up.

Parade Map

parade map

Before and after the parade people are allowed the much too rare pleasure of walking along Queen Street freely, and the volume of people attending means huge numbers of people are in the streets before and after the parade.

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Santa Parade 2013: Queen Street, soon after the parade passes

However rather than encouraging people to stay around the organisers, council and the police want to rush everyone off the street as soon as possible and get the roads open to traffic.

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Santa Parade 2013: Clear away, cars must be let free!

Police cars with lights and sirens crawl down Queen St, and police officers yell at everyone to get off the road with their loudspeakers. Really a very unpleasant end to what should be a happy day.

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Santa Parade 2013: The police officer in his car is yelling at the crowds through his loud hailer.

By doing this the police are actually endangering people, as huge numbers of people are forced into narrow footpaths. This shows an extremely warped sense of priorities. The entire point of this seems to be to open the street to cars as quickly as possible. Last year the area outside Aotea Square was open to traffic less than 30 minutes after the parade finished passing. This is especially bizzare as 100’s of families were heading this way to go to Santa’s Party.

 

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Santa Parade 2013: Very soon after the parade passes, dreary normality resumes. Note the volumes of people on the footpath.

An obvious thing to do would be to keep Queen St closed all afternoon, and have some sort of street festival. The Federal Street party on Friday was a huge success, although very much an adult focussed event. The afternoon of the Santa Parade would be a great day to run a family and Christmas themed street party. The traffic management costs are already largely covered by the parade, so the extra cost should be minimal.

It may be too late to do a properly organised street party this year. However there is no reason at all why the authorities should rush to open Queen Street. How about leaving it closed until 6pm or 7pm, and allow the crowds to stroll and shop. A few entertainers and characters could easily be added to give the street a bit more life.

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Santa Parade 2013: ready made crowd for a street festival

A separate issue that comes up is in regards to transport. The Santa Parade has a long held tradition whereby parking in council buildings is free for the day. This seems perverse when the organisers are warning of traffic chaos. Why not use the revenue and make major public transport services to the event free instead?

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Santa Parade 2013: Northern Express post Santa Parade. Huge queue caused by manual payments.

A few extra services would probably be handy too, as Sunday timetables are still stuck in the dark ages for every public transport service apart from the Northern Express and Links. Last year the trains were actually free, although Auckland Transport did not even advertise this in advance! The only special public transport that was organised last year was the Northern Express, and this was done well as usual. However the need for people to pay one at a time while in a very long queue meant that boarding was very slow. Making the services free would make them much more efficient.

So how about it Auckland Council and Auckland Transport. By turning the parade into a street party, and providing free public transport, the Santa Parade would be cemented as the premier free day out for Auckland families.

Stuart’s 100 #51: La Rambla Reina?

51: La Rambla Reina?

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What if Queen Street could feel like Auckland’s answer to La Rambla?

Despite its tatty $2 shop reputation, Queen Street has been quietly undergoing a significant urban renaissance over the last seven or eight years. This dates back to the $40million plus streetscape upgrade which saw much of the on-street parking removed, all bus services except the Inner Link and Airbus relocated out, widening and decluttering of footpaths, new high quality flagstone paving, street furniture, lighting, the now signature nikau palms and not the least, the double-phasing of the much-loved Barne’s Dance crossings. Importantly, allowance was also made by the former Auckland City Council for additional opex expenditure to maintain this significant investment including much higher spec street cleaners operating on a daily cleaning and maintenance schedule.

Good things take time and in the seven or eight years since this major disruption and change it is easy to forget how far we have come. Queen Street retail is currently experiencing very dynamic and wide-ranging change as leases end, landlords upgrade spaces and new and established retailers locate and relocate and try new things.

Meanwhile, pedestrian numbers have increased hugely, reflecting the big growth in employment numbers, city centre residents and visitors over this time. As well as this big influx in pedestrian numbers, general traffic in Queen Street is far lower than before the upgrade. This means, at present that in any given block of Queen Street between Customs Street and Aotea Square, there is an average of around 45,000 – 60,000 pedestrians per day and just 7500 vehicles per day in any one block.

These changes all add up to a street that is not only far more pleasant than it was before but with pedestrian foot traffic that ensures it truly functions as the principal pedestrian backbone and main thoroughfare of the city. It is by far both the fastest and most pleasant way to get anywhere around the city by foot before branching off to the east or west to one’s destination.

On the back of this there seems to be a growing appetite for more far-reaching change. Opinions seem mixed on this. Priorities may be better placed elsewhere and the time for this might not be just yet – perhaps lets allow Queen Street to continue to evolve and flourish off the back of the investment – but in the future it seems there is good scope to make further changes to Queen Street to become a more people-centric place and pedestrian spine at the heart of the city.

Queen Street could become Auckland’s very own answer to Barcelona’s La Rambla – a river of heaving humanity that builds in energy as it flows from the Karangahape Road ridgeline down to the sea. On the best sunny summer days, or the (irregular) occasions where we get to close it off to traffic, it often feels a little like this already. But it could be like this all the time. A truly memorable city street we could be all proud of. Wouldn’t that make for a better Auckland?

Queen St during Diwali October 2014

Queen St during Diwali October 2014

Stuart Houghton 2014

Removing centrelines

Removing centrelines can be done easily when carriageways are resurfaced, with an immediate saving in capital and ongoing maintenance costs. – Manual for Streets 2

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Why kids don’t walk to school (Golflands, Auckland)

Interesting research was recently published on how removing (or not reinstating) centre lines reduces vehicle speeds. This is a similar conclusion to research conducted in the States over 10 years ago, but perhaps with a different imprimatur and accent this study may be more useful in the New Zealand setting.

The study by Transport for London measured three residential streets: Seven Sisters Road, Harringey (Streetview), Wickham Road, Croydon (Streetview), and Brighton Road, Coulsdon (Streetview). The streets all have a medium density residential context and appear to have a modest role in the transport network  including some bus and bike facilities.  I’m guessing that there are over 7,000 cars a day on these streets.

As an aside, it’s interesting to see how different the streets and network structure is here compared to Auckland. It’s hard to think of a direct local comparison for these streets. It is much easier to compare our streets to North American cities like Calgary, Seattle, and San Diego.

So back to the study. After removing the centre lines (in cases striped medians, yuck) the following results were measured.

after

Wow. So roughly speaking by removing the centrelines the vehicle speeds have dropped about 5 kph. Critically, this vehicle speed range is where stopping distances are significantly longer and accident severity becomes increasingly life threatening so even modest speed reduction is significant.

The psychology of the results is discussed briefly, but somewhat inconclusively- “getting into the minds of drivers is not easy”.

A theory is that centre lines and hatching can provide a psychological sense of confidence to drivers that no vehicles will encroach on ‘their’ side of the road. There can also be a tendency for some drivers to position their vehicles close to a white line regardless of the traffic conditions, believing it is their ‘right’ to be in this position. Centre line removal introduces an element of uncertainty which is reflected in lower speeds.

The study doesn’t stop there. Using a control site on a different section of Wickham Road they compared the results to a status quo resurfacing project. The resurfacing project alone increased vehicle speeds by 7.2 kph. This is due to the fact that drivers have more confidence since road surface irregularities are removed and bright new lanes are added. The researchers concluded that for resurfacing projects the speed reduction value should be adjusted for that difference, resulting in an absolute change listed below.

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Removing centrelines along residential streets in particular during resurfacing projects slows vehicles more than 10kph.  This is something that should be investigated further in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, below is a residential street in Mt Eden/Balmoral.  Like the first photo above this one runs in front of a school. I don’t know what the double stripes mean (I got my drivers license from a Wheetbix box), but it seems to be suggesting that cars can overtake?

This situation, like slip lanes, flush medians, splitter islands, and pedestrian refuges is a good example of how road design has creeped into the urban context of street design. How long would it take to identify the residential streets across the city that don’t need stripes? How much money would be saved from stopping the endless re-striping of these streets?

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Why kids don’t walk to school (Mt Eden, Auckland)

As I’ve written before, the default speed limit of 50kph on New Zealand’s streets is politely, inconsistent with international best practice, and more accurately crazy. One of the standard traffic engineering excuses for not lowering speed limits is that the design of the street influences the vehicle speed, not speed limits, so it’s not worth bothering. I get that to a point. The presence of car parking, lane widths, mature street trees, intersection density and other factors combined have a much bigger influence on travel speed than sign posts. But is there any other profession that would sit back and not actively address the serious safety issues of their own domain?

In the absence of a road rule change, narrowing lanes, adding mature trees, and tightening intersections, I am suggesting that this “do nothing” solution of removing centrelines may be something that can be done to make our neighbourhoods safer and allow more people to get around on foot and bicycle. In a subsequent post I will describe another simple proven technique to lower speeds.

Bringing the default speed of neighbourhood and urban streets to 30kph, both by design and by law, should be a high priority for the world’s most livable city.

Stuart’s 100 #50: Auckland at the Crossroads

50: Auckland at the Crossroads

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What if intersections were nice places to be?

Much has been said already on this topic on the blog.  The place qualities of intersections in Auckland have typically been destroyed where a sole focus has been placed on through traffic capacity and flow.

This matters because intersections tend to be important places for other things than just vehicular traffic. The health of a busy street or neighbourhood could be measured by the state of its intersections, and sadly, in Auckland, the vast majority of signalised intersections are in a very poor state for anything other than people passing through in cars.

Wouldn’t Auckland be a much better place if intersections could – at least in the most modest ways like providing ample room to wait on the corner and taking less time to cross to the other side – become much nicer places to be? We need some more modest and readily achievable goals; quick fixes for intersections could be one of them.

Stuart Houghton 2014

Stuart’s 100 #47: The Forgotten Triangle

48: The Forgotten Triangle

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What if the forgotten triangle behind Shortland Street was more than a parking lot?

Continuing the series on forgotten or underutilised spaces within the city, the steeply rising wedge of land between Shortland Street, Albert Park and Princes Street is certainly a stand out example of well-located land that should be valued and utilised for much more than just parking. Certainly, when one looks at historic photos of this part of the city, it is obvious that this area used to packed quite densely with a much more diverse array of buildings and activities than can be found there now.

Looking west over the Chancery Street area from the former Grand Hotel in Princes Street, 1902. (Auckland Council Heritage Images Online).

Looking west over the Chancery Street area from the former Grand Hotel in Princes Street, 1902. (Auckland Council Heritage Images Online).

It is actually quite crazy that this forgotten corner of the city has not been developed for more intensive and higher value uses, if you think about the location, just one block from both the A-grade office space of the corporate towers on Shortland Street and the high value retail of High Street, and bounded by what is a beautiful historic central city park.

The following is a simple four-point plan that is just a start to indicate how the potential of this part of the city could be reconsidered:

  • Improve the legibility, crossing opportunities and attractiveness of walking links through the area to Albert Park and the universities on the hill;
  • Develop high rise residential towers fronting Kitchener Street similar to the Metropolis tower and Precinct Apartments between Lorne and Kitchener Streets that capitalise on the outlook over the park and up high gain light, air and relative serenity above this quiet part of the city;
  • Rediscover and develop the forgotten laneways of Fields and Bacon Lanes, Chancery Lane, Bankside Street and Cruise Lane as back street extensions to the High Street District with opportunities to open out and activate the backs of Shortland Street towers into a gritty but interesting neighbourhood;
  • Make more use of the Bowen Park extension of Albert Park as a great public open space in its own right, reflecting its north-facing qualities and great views back to this part of the city skyline.

Stuart Houghton 2014

*For a bit more on this area there is this previous post -PR

Photo of the Day: Lone Commuter

Lone Commuter Passes Lines of Private Property Stored on Public Land

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