Stuart’s 100 #61: A Truly Great Tower

61: A Truly Great Tower

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What if we could have a truly great tower?

Auckland’s city centre has been progressively developed as a dense core of high-rise office towers in the mid twentieth-century model of an American Central Business District since the 1960s and 70s. The addition of the Skytower in the 1990s gave to Auckland’s skyline a degree of distinction to what would otherwise be a fairly motley and mediocre collection of high rise towers.

While today the skyline from afar looks at once international and distinctive thanks to the beautiful landscape context of harbour, coastal cliffs and volcanic cones, up close on the waterfront and moving about our city streets most towers, even the more recent ones, are pretty dismal and leave much to the imagination.

Wouldn’t it be great if with future development we could have a developer (and to give them confidence, some anchor tenants) that were committed to doing something really unique for Auckland, something that could say something about us, but that also faced out to the world and was in tune with the best of the best high rise development happening around the world.

This is challenging when we only build around one to two truly high rise towers a decade, what with the time it takes for them to get up they often appear dated and old-fashioned from the get-go. Architects usually take a lot of the public flak about these. Often this is not fair; we should be expecting much more of the landowners, developers and their tenants who are responsible for getting these things off the ground. Building tall needs to be understood as a privilege that demands not just quality from the ground up but a sense of delight and wonderment.

We can argue about what that might mean. Indeed we should argue a lot more about the merits of tall buildings. For a better Auckland deserves better tall buildings. Fingers crossed we can achieve one or two in the future.

Stuart Houghton 2014

Stuart’s 100 #59: Missing from the City Centre Series: Street Kiosks

59: Missing from the City Centre Series: Street Kiosks

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What if there were flower sellers on Queen Street?

Our city centre is really starting to burgeon with pedestrian activity and public life through the day and well into the evening, seven days a week. You know, just like a real city.

As this street life continues to gain in vibrancy, it seems a good opportunity to look at some simple things we could do that might enhance that even further.

Street kiosks are one of those things that many Kiwis comment on when returning from cities overseas.

While many of the things that street kiosks provide in cities internationally are well catered for here in other ways (e.g. street food, convenience newsagents/tobacconists stalls), flower sellers do seem like a gap that could bring a number of positive benefits to the likes of Queen Street.

Flower sellers that are there to make the most of trade with the passing footfall could be a great wee convenience for a bunch of reasons that people are in the city centre – flowers for the office, on the way to a date, meeting a friend, celebratory drinks or just passing by on the way home on the bus – that aren’t really catered for on our city centre streets currently. These sorts of things and the social interaction they promote also adds a lot of colour and vibrancy to street life. In a small way, wouldn’t realising these sorts of ideas lead to a better Auckland? What’s not to like?

Stuart Houghton 2014

The City Unbound

The current Metro Magazine has has an article by me on Auckland, its new urban nature, and surprise!: Why we need a change in transport infrastructure investment to unlock its true value.

Most here won’t be unfamiliar with the arguments but the discipline of writing for print and the general reader called for a rethink of the arguments and evidence. Also the photos aren’t bad either:

Metro- The City Unbound_800

Coincidentally I came across this brilliantly accessible piece by NSW transport academic Michelle Zeibots on the relationship between different urban transport systems and their outcomes for city efficiency:

Most people will take whichever transport option is fastest. They don’t care about the mode. If public transport is quicker they’ll catch a train or a bus, freeing up road space. If driving is quicker, they’ll jump in their car, adding to road congestion. In this way, public transport speeds determine road speeds. The upshot is that increasing public transport speeds is one of the best options available to governments and communities wanting to reduce road traffic congestion.

Emphasis added. This supports my assertion that the biggest winners from the new uptake in ridership on Auckland’s Rapid Transit Network are truck and car users.

This relationship is one of the key mechanisms that make city systems tick. It is basic microeconomics, people shifting between two different options until there is no advantage in shifting and equilibrium is found. We can see this relationship in data sets that make comparisons between international cities. Cities with faster public transport speeds generally have faster road speeds.

Yet parts of the highway complex in NSW are now talking about ‘solving congestion’ by building a third road crossing instead: required because of the traffic to be generated by the massive $11billion and more WestConnex project, proving, if ever proof were needed, that all motorways lead to are more motorways. And missed opportunities to invest in higher speeds on all modes through the spatial efficiency of Rapid Transit systems.

This paradoxical phenomenon is understood under various names as this Wiki page shows [Hat Tip to Nick], but perhaps this is as helpful for the average citizen as the Duckworth Lewis system is to the average cricket fan. Which is why I so like the way Zeibots has simplified it in the Sydney Morning Herald article above.

Anyway go out and grab a copy of the new Metro with the Jafa flavoured cover to see my version:

Metro cover_800

Stuart’s 100 #58: Four Seasons in One Year

58: Four Seasons in One Year

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What if we made more of seasonal change in Auckland?

Auckland does not, despite what many of us say, have a tropical, or sub-tropical climate, but a temperate maritime one. All the palm trees in the world could not fool permanent residents of Auckland that this city is winterless. We may have four seasons in one day, but we also have four seasons in one year. It is just that you wouldn’t often know it as you watch our gardens, parks, streets, and cityscape through the seasons.

The largely evergreen-ness of Auckland reflects our native flora and that is an important defining characteristic of the New Zealand landscape. But at a finer grain, in our city parks, residential streets, and private gardens, we are sometimes missing out on some of the small delights of life with an insistence on nothing but greenery all year round.

Current dogma dictates that is pretty much impossible for the public sector to plant exotic flowering trees and plants in Auckland.  So perhaps it is up to residents, in front and back gardens and balconies everywhere, to embrace a new blossoming of Auckland life?! We often hear calls for more colour in Auckland, more flowering plants would go a long way to answering that call.

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

Photo of the Day: Australians are smarter than us…

Well in this case anyway.  Here is a suburban rail station in Melbourne, a train, a dog [for Stu], and a new apartment building going up in the background. Right next to the station. Someone got the planning regulations and building incentives right. Now that we are most of the way through upgrading the passenger service on Auckland’s rail network shouldn’t we be aligning land use up with this new opportunity? It would be a mistake to only have intensive dwelling options in the City Centre, particularly as land is cheaper out along the rail corridors, so these dwellings would be both more affordable and extremely well connected.

MELBOURNE_8991

Follow the rail corridors on this map [hotter the colour the higher the value, grey means not residential, yet]… looks like a huge opportunity for a City Development Agency to me. And older centres like Papatoetoe, say, could do with an injection of construction and new residents.

Auckland Residential Land Values per sqm 2014

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

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

20 by 2017?

14 - Sep AK Patronage table

Latest figures from AT: September 2014

In March this year I wrote a post called 20 by 2020 assessing the Prime Minister’s challenge for rail ridership in Auckland to do be heading to 20 million passengers pa by what I understood to be 2020 to justify a partial investment in the CRL by the report .From a PwC Patronage Report  I have found what he said:

“We will consider an earlier start date if it becomes clear that Auckland’s CBD employment and rail patronage growth hit thresholds faster than current rates of growth suggest. 

Which is a fairly ambiguous sentence. Here’s how the kind folks at the MoT interpret that:

“MoT interprets the rail patronage target as meaning that “patronage will reach 20 million trips a year around 2018″

PwC then tabulate this as follows:

PwC CRL targets summary

 

So 13.5% average growth is all that is needed to meet the MoT’s pretty sharp 2018 interpretation of this barrier. And it looks like we’re on the way more for the 2017 rate. Here’s what I wrote in March:

So where are we at now? Ridership at the end of June 2013 was almost exactly 10 mil: Less than a year later and it is now 11 mil. 3 months to go and already 10% growth. To reach 20 mil by 2020 a rate of 10.4% is sufficient.

Oh how things change. Just six months further on and we’ve already hit 12 million. Rail ridership is running at around 16% – 21% pa [As is the Northern Express- Rapid Transit Investment works]. If this can be sustained over the next few years things will become rather awkward for those relying on this particular hurdle to delay the government’s commitment to Auckland. The magic of compounding growth means that this kind of rate leads to a rough doubling of the figure in just four years. From 10 million in 2013 to 20 million in 2017 or thereabouts.

Is that growth likely to continue, on grounds other than mere extrapolation? Well here’s what I wrote back in March. Events since have not made a fool of me yet:

OK, I can hear the cynics out there saying that you can’t just extrapolate ridership growth from one year out indefinitely and that is indeed true, almost as absurd as assuming traffic growth will leap upwards from a flat line; well almost. So we must ask are there good reasons to believe that ridership growth will continue at this rate? Well no, but there are three good reasons to be confident that it will in fact accelerate from this year even more strongly;

1. The vastly more attractive, higher capacity, and able to be more frequently run New Trains

2. The new integrated ticketing and fares system

3. The New Bus Network that is focussed on coordinating with the Rail Network to help speed and improve many journeys, from new transfer stations like the recently completed Panmure, New Lynn, and coming Mangere and Otahuhu.

Interestingly 18% has been the average growth rate ever since the Council built Britomart Station back in 2003. It’s probably then a number those well paid and highly numerate apparatchiks at the MoT can reliably hang their hats on. From the previous post:
We should also remember that rail ridership has grown by some 400% since the opening of Britomart [annualised: 18% pa, so this has been a consistent grower since even simple improvements were added to what was a completely under invested in system. Build it and they will indeed come.

It is also worth noting that no motorway network shows or is required to show anything like a 10% demand growth in order to get even 50% funding from government. In fact the government had to invent an abstract and novel category of road -The Road of National Significance- in order to get around the low traffic demands all over the nation and overcome their often appallingly low business cases. For example traffic demand in and around Wellington is going backwards, actually falling, but NZTA can’t stop drawing lines down every fault-line for new motorways there. How about 10% demand growth hurdles for investment all transport systems?

And because every post needs plenty of images and because this never gets old, here’s the Perth story, the one we are most clearly going to emulate, in fact are emulating, here in Auckland once we can get the tarmac out the eyes of those who control our money:

 

 

perth-patronage

Stuart’s 100 #47: Water in Public Spaces

47: Water in Public Spaces

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What if we made more of water in our public spaces?

Sometimes it is the simple things. People flock to water in public spaces. We need more of it in this city. And in more exciting, dramatic and interactive forms.

Fountains, Rio Madrid project, Madrid

Fountains, Rio Madrid project, Madrid

Ducks at The Louvre, Paris