Metamorphosis: The Return of the City

The Auckland City Centre is entering a phase of profound change. The rest of this decade it’ll be undergoing a more extensive and disruptive renovation than your average Ponsonby villa. The designers and financiers are at work and the men and machines are are about to start. The caterpillar is entering that difficult and mysterious chrysalis phase; what kind of butterfly will emerge?

Some of the probable additions to AKL’s skyline [image: Luke Elliot]

If even half of what is proposed gets underway almost every aspect of the centre city will be different.

The Skyline

Precinct Property’s 500 million dollar total rebuild of the Downtown centre and a new 36 storey commercial tower is confrmed to start next year. The 39 storey St James apartment tower is also all go [with the re-opening of the ground floor to the public soon]. An apartment tower on Albert and Swanson has begun. There are a huge number of residential towers seriously close to launching some of which are 50+ floors. These are on Victoria St, Customs St, Commerce St, Greys Ave and more. The biggest of them all Elliot Towers is rumoured to underway next year. Mansons have bought the current herald site and said to looking at residential there. On the same block 125 Queen St is finally getting refurbished bringing much needed new commercial space in the city [+ about 1000 new inner city workers]. Of course the Convention Centre and its associated hotel will start too. Waterfront Auckland have announced new mid rise apartment developments and a new hotel beginning as well. This list is not by any means exhaustive. Auckland is now a builders’ boom town. And it will resemble nothing other than an enormous sand pit for the next few years.

The Street

Regardless of the forms of these buildings they are going to have profound impacts at street level; flooding the footpaths with people, stimulating more and more retail and especially hospitality services. Add to this the disruption of the works themselves, for example later this year the first stage of the CRL is going to start. Digging up everything from Britomart through Downtown, up Albert St to Wyndam St. If the proposed Light Rail system goes ahead that will mean the [no doubt staged] digging up of the whole length of Queen St and other places, Dominion Rd, Wynyard Quarter. Street space is becoming more and more contested. Driving in the city is going to get increasingly pointless, most will avoid it. But unlike last century that won’t mean people won’t come to the city. One, because it’s become so attractive with unique retail offers, unrivalled entertainment attractions, and a fat concentration of jobs. Two, because people are discovering how good the improving Transit options are becoming, so why bother driving. And three, because increasing numbers are already there; it’s where they live anyway.

And that Transit boom is going to continue, or even accelerate. Britomart throughput is now running at 35 000 people daily, when planned it wasn’t even expected to reach 20 000 until 2021 [see below; the blue line is still growing at that angle; it is now literally off the chart]:

Britomart Projection Numbers Graph

Why is this happening? A lot of people in wider Auckland still think the city is unappealing or unimportant. Aren’t we spreading new housing out at the edges? Aren’t new businesses building near the suburbs in those business parks? Well ironically one of the reasons so much growth and investment is happening in City Centre is because those same people, the ones that prefer their suburban neighbourhoods to the city, don’t want any change near them. The City Centre is one of the few places that it is possible to add new dwellings or offices at scale, and because it is a very constrained area with high land value this can only be done with tall buildings. The more suburban people refuse to have growth near them the more, in a growing city, investment has to concentrate where it can, and in Auckland that means downtown.

Auckland's first electric  tram 1902

Auckland’s first electric tram 1902

Auckland is still spreading outwards and businesses are growing in suburban centres, but these areas are not appealing or appropriate for all people and all businesses, and nor are they sufficient; the City Centre is growing by both these metrics too, and at a greater pace. The 2013 census showed that AKL city is the fastest accelerating place to live in the entire country, growing at over 48% between 2006-2013, and currently the city is experiencing a new shortage of office space and an interesting reshaping of the retail market. The education sector is also still strong there, with Auckland Uni consolidating to its now three Central City sites and building more inner city student accommodation. City growth is strong and broadly based: residential, commercial, retail, and institutional.

There are risks and opportunities in this but what is certain, outside of a sudden economic collapse, is that the City Centre will be a completely different place in a few years, in form, and in terms of how it will operate. And the signs are promising that what we are heading to is an almost unrecognisably better city at street level than it has been in living memory.

What is happening is simply that it is returning to being a city of people. Ten of thousands of new inner city residents, thousands of new visitors in thousands of additional hotel beds each night, hundreds of thousands of workers and learners arriving daily from all over the wider city each day too. All shopping, eating, drinking, and playing within the ring of the motorway collar. Auckland is moving from being one of the dullest and most lifeless conurbations in the world to offering a new level of intensity and activity. Well that is certainly the possibility in front of us now.

Auckland has had boom times before, and each of these leave a near permanent mark on the built fabric of the city [the Timespanner blog has examples in great detail].  So it matters profoundly what we add to the city this time. We are at the beginning of the opportunity to correct the mistakes of the postwar outward boom that came with such a high cost for the older parts of the city. By forcing the parts of the city built on an earlier infrastructure model to adapt to a car only system we rendered them unappealing and underperforming, and the old city very nearly did not survive this era. Only the persistence of some institutions, particularly the Universities, enabled it to hang on as well as it did. The car as an organising device is ideal for social patterns with a high degree of distance and dispersal. It is essentially anti-urban in its ability to eat distance but at the price of its inefficient use of space; it constantly fights against the logic of human concentration that cities rely on to thrive. It not only thrives on dispersal, it also enforces it.

Queen St 1960s

Queen St 1960s

But now the wheel has turned and cities everywhere are booming on the back a of model much more like the earlier one [see here for example: Seven cities going car-free]. This old-new model is built on the understanding that people in numbers both already present in the city and arriving on spatially efficient Transit systems providing the economic and social concentration necessary for urban vitality and success.

This seems likely to lead to a situation more or less observable in many cities world-wide where there is an intense and highly walkable and Transit served centre surrounded by largely auto-dependent suburbs. Melbourne, for example, is increasingly taking this form. And, interestingly the abrupt physical severance of Auckland’s motorway collar might just make ours one of the more starkly contrasting places to develop along these lines. A real mullet city: one made up of two distinct patterns.

Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014

Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014

Frankly I think this is fine, it could make for the best of both worlds. Those who want to live with the space and green of the suburbs can continue to do so but are also able to dip into a vibrant city for work, education, or especially entertainment, on efficient electric Transit, ferries, and buses when that suits. A vibrant core of vital commercial and cultural intensity sustained by those who choose to live in the middle of it 24/7. The intensity of this core plus any other growing Metro Centres [will Albany really become intense? Manukau City?] meaning the sprawl isn’t limitless and the countryside not pushed so far away that it is inaccessible. Auckland as Goldilocks; not all one thing or the other; neither all suburb nor all city. People will use or ignore which ever parts they want, and soon members of the same households will be able to indulge their different tastes without some having to leave the country.

What are the threats to this vision? Well we do actually have to build the Transit, this means completing the CRL soon as is possible, and ideally replacing a good chunk of the buses with higher capacity and more appealing Light Rail. To connect these two halves; the success of both the centre and the region it serves depend on it. But also we have deliver a much better public realm on the streets and especially at the water’s edge. We have to retain and enhance the smaller scale older street systems to contrast with the coming towers, like we have at Britomart and O’Connell St. All these moves require leadership and commitment and an acceptance that the process of getting there will be contested and difficult.

I have no fear that people in the wider city won’t be happy to choose to leave their cars at home for some journeys, especially into the city, then jump back into them for others across the wider city or out of town. After all it’s happening already. This is not then a bold prediction, merely the extrapolation of current trends. And it is the trend that tells us more about the future than the status quo. More of this:

CBD Transport Change

than this

CPO Lower Queen St 1960s

CPO Lower Queen St 1960s

or this

AKL m'ways 70s

AKL Grafton Gully 70s

Guest Post: Rail and the City

*This is a guest post by regular reader and occasional contributor, Warren Sanderson.

rail in the city

Book Review

RAIL AND THE CITY – Shrinking Our Carbon Footprint While Reimagining Urban Space

Roxanne Warren

Unlike Paul Mees‘ book ‘Transport for Suburbia’ which deals in depth, among other things, with what went so terribly wrong with Auckland’s transport planning in the second half of last century, Roxanne Warren does not mention New Zealand once. Her book is almost totally focused on the transport problems of the United States but she does refer frequently to Europe and Japan where transport policy has been handled so much better.

But don’t let the concentration on US problems put you off. This is a great read for anyone who is unhappy with what auto dependency does to the liveability of our cities and especially here in Auckland.

I like the organisation of this book. It has a preface in a tight precis form plan which sets out exactly what it is going to say and then chapter by chapter gets on with it, in a fluid and engaging style. And there are extensive references at the back of the book.

I enjoyed particularly her comment on the basic reasons for rail’s practicality and popularity, including the operational, aesthetic and permanence advantages for the city. This includes standard surface rail or light rail. Furthermore a public preference for rail has been revealed in surveys and generally attributed to a smoother and faster ride and to rail’s permanent presence – a preference that has been reflected in increased property values around stations.

The last chapter deals with the question of climate change and the desirability of shrinking the very large footprint that we are placing on the earth. While always keen to reduce a personal footprint, I find it hard to get worked up about the science of climate change. What astounded me however, was the idiocy of the US tax cum subsidy set–up as outlined. Fossil fuel have benefited from a full century of subsidies and the oil industry in particular receives generous tax breaks at every stage of the processes of exploration and extraction. Ditto for corn ethanol i.e. food for our cars rather than for people. These subsidies create market distortions that encourage wasteful consumption and undercut the position of clean energy, while effectively exacerbating climate change.

The author points out that regardless of general resistance to change, population increases and migratory trends toward cities, thus increasing congestion in cities, is making ever more obvious the need for a more rational use of urban space and for more compact and sustainable forms of mobility, namely, walking, cycling and transit. She reports that the common wisdom that has it, that only ‘progressives’ (read lefties) favour the support of public transport which denies the movement of prominent conservatives in support of passenger rail transport for the reasons she cites in Chapter 3.

I believe that MOT/NZTA/AT should not employ anybody who has not read this book by a deadline date of 30 April this year. Why? Books like this were not around when many of the older hands commenced work. We need big changes in our transport policies and the government and these three institutions are charged with operating in our best interest. Yes, change is needed……………and fast. This is an excellent read.

Finally, about the author. Roxanne Warren is an architect and principal partner in Roxanne Warren Architects in New York. Her prior experience included a period with I M Pei and Partners but since 1999 she has dedicated her time increasingly to advocacy of Vision 42 which is a proposal for ‘River to River’ low floor light rail in a landscaped auto-free 42nd Street, New York.

Rail chart

42nd St LRT route

Warren Sanderson 2015

Photo of the Day: Vulcan Lane

Following on from this morning’s post on some of the central city Victorian streets I thought a little look back would be useful; so here is Vulcan Lane just before the City Council bravely excluded cars from it in 1968, as a result of a campaign by retailers in the area keen to improve its appeal as a shopping destination. Coming up for 50 years ago!

Vulcan Lane 1968

Vulcan Lane 1968

From the Sir George Grey Special Collections at the Auckland Library. There’s also this excellent blog post with more images and further history including how it got its very cool name. Tracking the story of the street is to follow fashions in street design through the 20th century. In the 20s there were calls for widening, then one-waying, and finally in 1964 27 retailers petitioned the Council to close it to traffic. $13,000 was voted for this in 1967:

Vulcan Lane

Plenty of ‘foremen’ on the job.

Even further back; upper Vulcan Lane in 1919, a lovely sterograph image [hauntingly like a De Chirco painting]:

Upper Vulcan Lane 1919

Upper Vulcan Lane 1919

 

Downtown Shared Streets: Complete the Network

Polemic:

The existing central city Shared Streets are clearly an overwhelming success, particularly on the east side where they are starting to form a coherent network. The most recent addition, O’Connell St, has the advantage of connecting to the long-pedestrianised Vulcan Lane. In fact it appears that the reverse might be more accurate: the newly vibrant O’Connell St looks like it is dragging life and trade up into the top half of Vulcan, the part that has long been much quieter than the section between High and Queen.

SHARED SPACES_6243

From O’Connell towards the top of Vulcan Lane

 

SHARED SPACES_6625

O’Connell

To the north the Fort Lane/Fort St/Jean Batten Pl network has been completely transformative; drawing a new flow of people up from the Bus, Train, and Ferry Stations and new attractions of Britomart – only for the Shortland St/High St traffic barrier to interrupt this natural movement.

Jean Batten

Jean Batten

HIGH ST_7381

Lower Shortland

HIGH ST_7131

High St through to Fort Lane

However the novelty of the Shared Streets in a city that has spent half a century building itself on an auto-priority model is still too much for some drivers, and getting it through to this group that it’s time to change away from an expectation of a parking space right outside their destination in the central city still requires work. This is true especially as this expectation is already illusory, and simply leads to pointless circling hoping for that dream parking space: a poor outcome multiplied.

To really reinforce that these key city streets are not appropriate for the same level of private vehicle access as suburban ones, in my view, it is necessary is to spread the typology further, and to join it up into a natural network of Shared and Pedestrian-only streets of high civility. My hunch is that the ‘network effect’, where the value of a thing is multiplied by its connection to more of its kind, the sum being more powerful than the parts, is just as applicable here as in say a Transit system or a road network. This is hardly surprising as even though the driver may experience these streets as a restriction, to that same person once out of their vehicle, they are a liberation. Therefore the understanding of this being an especially privileged place for people will be reinforced through its completeness; and it will both attract more pedestrians and encourage those over-optimistic drivers to just park a little sooner and join the walkers.  As of course the only way to enter the buildings on these Victorian streets and to shop, consult, or socialise is on foot, as a pedestrian.  So here I’m co-opting the motorway boosters’ slogan: It’s time to complete the network.

SHARED SPACES_6786

O’Connell St

This observation is all the more powerful when we consider that the beginning is the hardest time for these places: the small number of scattered examples have to live in a world still totally drenched in vehicles, where drivers are used to virtually complete access to any horizontal surface as a matter of course, and with a natural right to dominate all other uses. Join these these examples up and watch their success multiply off the scale.

Programme:

First a simple tweak: To optimise the functionality of  the new O’Connell St Shared Street, all that is probably needed is a reversal of the one way flow on Courthouse Lane to uphill, and make the western section of Chancery St one way towards Courthouse Lane. This maintains the same vehicle access to the street network here for deliveries and the Metropolis Building, while no longer pouring vehicles into the top of O’Connell St which simply incentivises its use as a rat run. Additionally, the planned pedestrianisation of the little Freyberg Pl Shared Space can’t come soon enough.

Clearly now High St is overdue to be added to the existing Shared Street network [see images to follow]. With that then comes the obvious move to join up these Shared Streets with Jean Batten and Fort St by adding lower Shortland St from just below Fields Lane to Queen St to the network. Currently lower Shortland St is part of the unnecessary Queen St rat-run for far too many vehicles, in particular private vehicles; in other words, drivers with no destination on these busy streets but rather using this very core of our city – our busiest and most valuable pedestrian streets – as a vehicle short cut.

Vehicle dodgeball on lower Shortland and High

Vehicle dodgeball on lower Shortland and High

And to really make all this work, Centre City Integration must grasp the moment and remove general traffic on Queen St from Customs St to Wellesley St. Leaving it for pedestrians and Transit, just like Bourke St in Melbourne. As is promised to us in the City Centre Master Plan with this seductive image:

queen-st-tram

Queen St, City Centre Master Plan

MELBOURNE_9150

Bourke St, Melbourne

But do we really have to wait for Light Rail for this to happen, can’t it work with buses first? In fact if we’re going to be digging up some part of the street for the tracks wouldn’t it make sense to get the traffic out first? Certainly the City Link would operate much more efficiently, and imagine the improvements to cross town traffic and pedestrians through the removal of those turning cycles at each intersection?  It would probably in fact improve East/West traffic flow on Customs, Victoria, Wellesley, and Mayoral. The few vehicle entrances on Shortland St are all at the top of the hill and there should be no encouragement for drivers using these to go down the hill to enter the Queen St valley street network. And the best way to achieve this is simply to remove Queen St from the general traffic network. There is, after all, not a single vehicle entrance off this spine, only pedestrian ones. It will still be needed for Transit and delivery and emergency access; but no private car ever needs to be there.

The control [specified times?] of delivery and trade vehicles [too easy for these to get general parking wavers- even without specific projects] and the rights of taxis are  interesting issues in which I can see value of various positions. But one thing I think is absolutely obvious; the rights of the private car user to these streets is the lowest priority because they are the source of least benefit and the greatest dis-benefit. It is their numbers that squeeze out people, delay service and emergency vehicles, and occupy valuable space that otherwise can be better used for transactions both economic and social.

There are literally dozens of parking buildings just away from these streets up either side of the valley and the richest abundance of public transport options anywhere in the entire nation. Furthermore very few fridges are sold here, and indeed any purchase that is bulkier than a book, a frock, or a belly-full can surely be delivered. Most transactions appear to be inter-human, and many sales consumed on the spot, or at least are not much more difficult to carry than a suit or a pair of shoes.

Like the other recent improvements to our city – better train, bus, and ferry services, and new cycleways – these Shared Spaces will only continue to improve, to add more value, as their improvements are embedded and extended. Or, to express this idea negatively, the Shared Streets will never be more traffic afflicted and compromised than they are now, while they are more surrounded by auto-priority ones. The same as the core Rapid Transit network will only continue to improve as more services and connections with other layers of the system develop. The Network Effect.

Shared and pedestrianised streets now, left, and a complete network, right.

Shared and pedestrianised streets now, left, and a complete network, right.

Now that looks like a real shoppers’ and diners’ paradise; an actual Heart of the City, a zone that can be marketed as having a real point of difference from either suburban big box retail or the motorised strips of Newmarket and Ponsonby. But still, those notoriously conservative creatures, retailers, probably won’t get it till it’s done.

O’Connell v High, Feb 2015:

SHARED SPACES_6885

HIGH ST_7079

O'CONNELL ST_7701

HIGH ST_7221

SHARED SPACES_6655

Earlier posts on High St:

On the Victoria Street end; how to deal with the parking building traffic.

On some retailers’ determination that their only customers are cars.

The great intensive street pattern of the area so damaged in the 1980s and the previous debate about O’Connell St.

HIGH ST_7665

Celebrating recent Auckland Cycling and Walking projects

 

This is a sort of ‘Photo of the Day’ post to follow Matt’s one this morning: The day in question being last Friday 30th of Jan. Thankfully I was able to get back to the city from work in the South Island just in time to ride to the Ministerial Cycleways Announcement on the abandoned CMJ off-ramp. See here for how promising is the repurposing of this symbol of urban motorway-era overbuild into something useful.

As I observed in the post linked to above it’s surprisingly pleasant on the ramp, you’re largely above the traffic. Here’s a pic with a photo-op on bikes for Transport Minister Simon Bridges, Mayor Len Brown, and AT Chair Lester Levy going on in the distance.

CYCLEWAY LAUNCH_5372

And the backdrop? Three current and three soon-to-be apartment buildings. Left to right; Urba on Howe street, a new build, two existing blocks, the old Telecom office about to be converted, another 80/90s office building of considerable ordinariness under conversion, and another existing one. Hundreds of new dwellings in easy walk or ride to K Rd, Ponsonby, and of course the city.

CYCLEWAY LAUNCH_5376

I had a good chat with new transport minister Bridges, to be continued, he was very relaxed and out of a suit unlike his poor officials [background]. Those elegant cuffed wrists holding the phone belong to city Urban Design Champion Ludo Campbell-Reid who will be very important in making sure that NZTA’s traffic engineers don’t get away with insisting on some sort of massive cage along the sides of this route out of panic about what humans might do in their motorway corridor.

A balance between ensuring safety and creating a great environment is key here. It is important that the physical detail of this conversion treat riding and walking as normal activities that do not require the kind of defensive constructions that hurtling along in tin boxes at 100 kph do. It is already a fun and secure place to ride and walk. And even though its as close as we are likely to get to an elevated Highline in Auckland I don’t think it needs to be fussily guilded. I like experiencing the tough motorway engineering on foot or bike; there’s something a little transgressive about it. Sightlines need to be clear and the width is great, and practical for reducing conflicts on a shared path. For the route see Matt’s previous post.

The only cost of any consequence is a short bridge at the southern end of the ramp opposite South St connecting through to the bottom of East Street then up to K Rd in one direction, and Canada St, and the Grafton Gully and North Western cycleways in the other. Yay. The architects of the Pt Resolution Bridge [now called Monk MacKenzie] are on the design team so we have high hopes for a beautiful structure here.

Breaking! Just got the ok on Twitter from NZTA to share these:

CANADA ST BRIDGE_01

CANADA ST BRIDGE_02

Stunning. But interestingly only views from the motorway users’ perspective, and no one appearing to be using it… hopefully there are some equally developed views for above. You can see the bridge sweeps past South St to link with Canada St and the bottom of East St. Therefore directly to the Grafton Gully and Northwestern Cycleways more than to K Rd.

Talking of beautiful pedestrian/cycling bridges after the function I rode on to see the new one between the Grafton Gully cycleway and the path between Elam/Whitaker Pl and Symonds St:

Grafton Cycleway bridge_01

And what a lovely sensuous and sinewy thing it is too. Structural engineering practice Novare were the lead designers.

Grafton Cycleway bridge_02

From there I headed down to the city via O’Connell St. Of course it would be much better if there was also a route through the Wellesley St underpass. There is available space at the northern end which is currently only occupied by desultory planting. This would mean that pedestrians and riders wouldn’t have to go up and across Symonds St to get to and the from the city and the cycleway. It is hard to imagine how this connection isn’t a priority for AT/AC?

O'CONNELL_5419

O’Connell St is insanely improved; fantastic work by AC + AT. A huge success; peopled, busy, new sales being made and life being lived on the street. Previously it was just parking and vehicles circulating looking for parking. Still needs a tweak to reduce the rat-running, a good start would be to review the street pattern to the south [uphill], I propose reversing the one-way to up hill rather than down, as it currently funnels vehicles into O’Connell. Reversing this pattern would retain the same level of vehicle access to the surrounding buildings but direct movement towards the streets with higher vehicle priority. The aim should be for only delivery or emergency vehicles with destinations actually on O’Connell to be there. How it was:

O'Connell St

From there I went to check out Waterfront Auckland’s new [not yet officially opened] boardwalk. Fantastic:

Westhaven Boardwalk_01

Wide, elegant, graceful: great work WA. Another of those projects that makes you wonder what took us so long….?

Westhaven Boardwalk_02

And obviously, in the words of the Grandfather of Soul James Brown; it’s now time to “Take It To the Bridge”

After all who can disagree with Brown, especially about what’s cool.

In fact all the good things in this post make me feel very optimistic about the progress on the great task of fixing our potentially great city after decades of damage and neglect through the auto-age. So much so that I have to also agree with Brown here on the Ed Sullivan show in 1966 , so about Auckland’s progress:

“I Feel Good!”

Herald praises Shared Spaces

There’s a good editorial in the Herald today about how the shared spaces have been a success.

Big bold ideas that turn out badly receive plenty of critical attention, those that turn out well tend not to receive the attention they deserve.

A big bold idea for the movement of people and traffic in Auckland’s central business district is working so well that we already take it for granted.

Walking or driving slowly in some of the side streets we hardly notice that pedestrians and vehicles are mingling without a problem.

Yet five years ago when the former Auckland City Council’s urban design group manager, Ludo Campbell-Reid, suggested turning the narrow streets into “shared space”, the idea was daringly radical.

It stepped outside the endless debate between those who wanted to close the streets to traffic and the business owners who feared a loss of access for suppliers and customers. We could have both, said Mr Campbell-Reid.

By doing away with footpaths, kerbs and parking spaces and paving the whole corridor in a way that was inviting for pedestrians but not smooth for cars, the city could favour foot traffic without barring vehicles completely.

It was “pro-pedestrian but not anti-car”, he said. To those who feared it would cause confusion or worse when cars and walkers were on the same path, he said relax, people would work it out.

So they have. Drivers who need or want to use those streets go slowly when pedestrians are there and the pedestrians move out of their way with hardly a thought.

It works naturally, unremarkably. Like all good solutions it seems so obvious that it goes without saying.

I love the shared spaces and can’t wait for more to be developed but they aren’t perfect. I personally would like to see the spaces be less linear using trees and/or others solid objects to force drivers to be even more cautious.

Most drivers who do use them drive appropriately but still some don’t understand, this seems particularly the case with many courier drivers who show no regard to pedestrians and will fly past them at speed – some even telling people to “get off the road”. AT could probably do more work in this area to help educate drivers.

OC5

Yet despite these few incidents and as mentioned most interactions are positive and as far as I’m aware there hasn’t been anyone injured on a shared space yet – although as the editorial points out, when it does happen the naysayers will be out in force.

Even now, those who had the courage to introduce shared streets probably break out in a sweat at times when they consider that sooner or later an accident is likely to happen. They know that if ever someone is injured by an inattentive or angry driver in one of these streets, there will be those who decry them.

But they have been operating without a serious mishap for nearly four years.

They close out the piece perfectly, highlighting that Federal St is poor thanks to the copious car park access points and giving a big serve to High St which has a few retailers actively fighting to keep carparking (that’s likely primarily used by them not their customers)

Not everything has been a runaway success.

Federal St shows that shared space alone is not always enough to make a place pleasant. Despite popular dining spots, entrances to SkyCity’s hotels and car parks make the street uninviting.

It is not beyond question, however, that it could yet develop into something much more attractive.

Either way, shared space is an improvement on parked cars and “rat-run” traffic in narrow alleys. Elliott, Fort and O’Connell streets are particularly good.

When will High St wake up?

It’s great to see the Herald highlighting this although it would have also been great if they could have also highlighted that most of these shared spaces have been great for business too.

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

59: Missing from the City Centre Series: Street Kiosks

Day_59

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

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

56 More Dignity for Daily Users

Day_56

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?

District Court 1

The cramped and cluttered entrance outside the Auckland District Court

Kingston St

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

District Court 2

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

Day_55

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

Stuart’s 100 #51: La Rambla Reina?

51: La Rambla Reina?

Day_51

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