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

O’Connell St shared space is wonderful, but

Over the weekend the latest shared space in the city was completed, on O’Connell Street. This joins the growing network of shared spaces with Lorne Street, Elliott St, Darby St, Fort St and the also recently completed Federal Street. I would argue that O’Connell Street is the best one yet. The new paved look beautifully matches the scale of the street and period buildings. The street is also all activated frontages with no parking buildings that cause issues on some of the other spaces at peak times.

OC1

O’Connell Street on late Sunday afternoon

 

OC3

A great feature is that all of the benches have little historic stories in the street. Several focussed on how the area was viewed negatively for so long. Another bench notes how the street was widened by 50% in the 1920’s, with buildings from the 1840’s demolished for this to occur. However this can party explain the wonderful character of the street.

 

OC5

O’Connell St on Monday lunchtime

 

Even though the street had been a construction site for 6 months until a few days ago, the street was buzzing with people yesterday lunchtime. A couple of cafes on the street had already set up tables on the street, and I’m sure more will follow. People we also sitting on the benches reading or otherwise relaxing. Overall had a wonderful atmosphere.

For a comparison, this is what O’Connell Street looked like at the start of the year.

O'Connell St

 

A contributing reason for the great atmosphere was that workers were still touching up a few small things, therefore street was still closed to general traffic. However as soon as barriers were removed even briefly, people drove through, and straight away someone was taking advantage of the free parking on offer. I understand later in the afternoon the street was fully opened for general traffic and there were some issues with cars driving too fast.

OC7

It is worthwhile pointing out that their are no vehicles entrances on the street, and no carparks. Therefore the only reason cars need to be on the street is for deliveries, which certainly are essential.

OC8

This sign from the end of the street makes clear that deliveries should occur between 6am and 11am. So therefore after 11am their are no reasons for cars to be on the street at all. So we really need to ask the question as to why general traffic is allowed at all. The only use is as a rat-run, or for people circling around looking for parking, both pointless activities. So why not shut the street from 11am everyday, or even better have bollards to allow deliveries only between 6am and 11am, so no general traffic is allowed at all. This will not mean any money has been wasted, but will allow the full potential of the space to be used everyday.

 

Ben Hamilton-Baillie/Auckland Shared Streets

This is an interesting video of Ben Hamilton-Baillie at the recent Congress for the New Urbanism conference (CNU22). Hamilton-Baillie one of the leaders of the progressive street design movement explains how the street delivers the purpose the city- economic exchange, social exchange, and cultural expression, or “money, sex and art” as he quotably sums it up. He describes the progression of the urban street from a condition where things moved very slowly, people moved carefully along and across the street-  to today, where everything is over engineered, and highly regimented and segregated. This dramatic change occurred with the  introduction of the automobile and enabled by modernist design philosophies (Le Corbusier, CIAM) and technical proponents (Colin Buchanan).  This led to the orchestrated surrender of our streets to the automobile (as described here).

At 26:00 Hamilton Baille describes the biggest problem with street design being the confusion between the utility of roads/highway and public realm. Highways are highly regulated, singular focused, and predictable, while the public realm (ie streets) serve a multitude of uses, are constantly changing, and require eye contact and other human cognitive skills. Combining the two results in a Frankenstein environment where people are caged off (or worse relegated to overpasses), signs regulate the most basic movements, and traffic movement is stifled. This environment works badly for both traffic and  the public realm. This is very similar to the Strongtowns concept of STROADS, which describes the horrible outcome when the function of roads and streets is blurred.

It is amazing the receptiveness that he gets in this forum. With regard to shared streets this is one of the many areas where Auckland is  a global leader amongst new world cities. Today it’s hard to imagine how these were ever built. Was there a traffic signal technology conference in Canberra during the week they were approved?

A few months back Google Streetview introduced a feature many people called the “Wayback Machine” which allows users to toggle back in time through their collection of images. I’ve grabbed a couple before and afters below.

Fort Street Before and After

Fort Street, Auckland – Before and After (Google Streetview)

Fort Lane Before and After

Fort Lane Before and After

For people interested in shared streets or think that the Auckland CBD is still riddled with of $2 and tacky tourists shops, take a tour of these streets:

Elliott Street 

Darby St (for some reason you can only see the after of Darby here)

Lorne St

Fort St

Fort Lane.

Photo of the Day: High St- low value use

The top of High Street is interrupted, dominated, and devalued by the double-laned exit from the Victoria St car parking building.

High St_4694

The footpath on the east side is frequently blocked by impatient drivers….

High St_4681

…while on the west side it is so narrow that the high numbers of people there are forced onto the oversized carriageway with the jammed traffic.

A classic example of the prioritisation of the driver over the walker. Some traffic engineer has greedily taken way too much of this public resource for only one type of user.

Furthermore the floods of traffic that this sadly over-expanded vehicle store generate lead to gridlock at the intersection as it is really too close to both the Queen St and Kitchener St intersections for the sudden volumes that this exit at times produces [people still tend to head out all at once].

At the very least the cars could be rationed out the exit by taking it down to one lane, but much better would be to move the exit up the hill onto Kitchener St where the entrance is.

Victoria St parking building

No problem adding an exit to this entrance here with a bit of reworking, the left hand space used to be the entrance before it was doubled. And AT would then have to sort out this intersection and its poor pedestrian phasing.

Vic park entrance

And best of all the High St ground floor could be repurposed for a human use: It’s the kind of hip industrial concrete interior that Prada love, but failing that: A pool hall, dingy nightclub, dungeon? ….. PingPong centre!

High St Big Mouth.

Anything would be better than that gapping maw and adjacent pissoir, and on the street that has pretensions to being the country’s preeminent fashion shopping strip. Well I suppose it did have those pretensions until the retailers there threw their coat hangers out of the cot and stopped it becoming a shared space, and now the action has gone elsewhere….

Note how wide those lanes are at the intersection; really they could be car width, and the rubbish truck could just hog one and a half  lanes occasionally. Until of course the car park exit is gone and High St becomes the Shared Space it obviously ought to be.

Photo of the Day: Star Site

Hard not to agree with the the agent quoted in the Herald commercial property section “that there’s no doubt this is Auckland city’s stellar building site”. The double fronted site, facing both lower Shortland St; long Auckland’s grandest commercial address, and onto the old beach front of Fort St, commanding an uninterruptable view down Commerce St to the sea, is now even more valuable because of the upgrades to the surrounding public realm. A fantastic site in a much improved downtown. But for the last 25 years it has one of the city’s more regrettable ‘parking craters‘.

This is even more the case as it is slowly getting surrounded by shared spaces [it's directly opposite O'Connell St currently being rebuilt]. Parking generates traffic movements so it is utterly mad if, as it is rumoured, the Council have consented a parking building for this site. Does one end of the Council not understand what the other is doing?  Increasing adjacent parking supply is totally inconsistent with the spread of Shared Spaces and the other public realm improvements. Instead the lower Shortland St and Fort St area should be high on the Council’s list for parking removal.

DOWNTOWN_3365

DOWNTOWN_3420

Star Building Burton Bros Te Papa Collection

Star Building, Fort St. Burton Bros Te Papa Collection

Once home to the city’s other paper, the Auckland Star, and a centre of frantic activity as each of the three daily editions of the paper were distributed directly from the ground floor presses on Fort St. The upper floors also supplied most of the drinkers at the Vulcan Lane pubs and of course the De Brett’s Corner Bar just across Shortland St. Well certainly many of the more colourful ones- editorial deadlines for even the late edition closing by 3pm meant the writers were free to pursue their own ‘research’ pretty early in the day.

Weakened by the rise of television Star owner NZ News was acquired by corporate raider Brierley Investments Ltd who demolished the the building in 1989. It has been a car park ever since, just like the Royal International site on Elliott St, and of course the ‘parking stump’ on the other side of Shortland St. Amazing that 25 years later the city still bears the scars of the carnage wrought by that regrettable phase.

What a fantastic opportunity for a really high quality new building, one big enough to repair the broken built ‘cliff face’ on both Shortland and Fort Streets but also to include a grand atrium at the Shortland St level encompassing both elevations to connect the High St and Britomart areas together. Bringing more people and business into this critical and increasingly urbane part of the Central City.

We really need the Council to fully front up to its stewardship role with its whatever any private owner proposes on important city sites like this one and the others now barren because of the earlier neglect of duty by previous City Councils, especially in the cowboy years of the 80s and 90s. They are important opportunities for the future of the city, all decisions taken on these issues have very long lasting consequences.  Parking is simply not an acceptable use for such an important site.

More detailed property information on this and nearby even larger site at 28 Customs St in this NBR article both are on the market.

Photograph [undated] by the Burton Bros of Dunedin, from Te Papa’s online collection.

JSK in AKL

Last night we hosted Janette Sadik-Khan, the woman who transformed New York City’s notoriously contested streets as Mayor Bloomberg’s Transportation Commissioner 2007-13. We are extremely grateful that she found  time on her four day visit to Auckland to share her wisdom and experience with us advocates.

JSK_1044

Despite arriving at 5am that morning JSK and her team gave us all a great deal of attention and engagement [colleague Seth Solomonow said of the flight: "why'd y'all have to be so far away?"]. JSK still works with Michael Bloomberg at his new not-for-profit post-Mayoral agency Bloomberg Associates. Here is the opening line their mission statement:

Bloomberg Associates, an international consulting service founded by Michael R. Bloomberg as a philanthropic venture, helps city governments improve the quality of life of their citizens.

So the first recommendation from JSK last night is that Mayor Brown contact ex-Mayor Bloomberg to see how Auckland get to see a whole lot more of JSK and here team to help improve our city in more detail.

Other soundbites from the night include:

  • Changing the Streetscape and adding to the movement options can hugely improve the economic vitality of the whole city as well as individual areas.
  • You have to try out radical changes to the streetscape cheaply, quickly, and temporarily.
  • Don’t just do part of what’s needed; be bold keep it cheap and temporary so whole areas can be done together.
  • Be prepared change it, or even change it back to how it was, if it isn’t working.
  • If half the city doesn’t hate what you’re doing you probably aren’t doing anything.

She also said the reason she made it a priority to meet with us was that groups like ours in NY had been hugely influential in enabling change. Particularly streetsblog, a clear role model for transportblog.

Also it was just a great night down at Imperial Lane:

JSK_1041

We are now looking forward to her presentation at Auckland Conversations on Monday. And thanks to the Auckland Conversations team for hosting her visit, and in particular lending her to us for the evening.

Photo of the Day: Euskotren Tranbia

As well as the Metro and an excellent bus system -Bilbobus- Bilbao also has a small tram system. Running CAF built Urbos 1 Light Rail vehicles, the route covers different sections of the city to the faster and longer reaching Metro, offering a highly visible distributor from a couple of Metro stations it connects with to important destinations like the Guggenheim Museum. It runs both on the city streets and on dedicated and grassed corridors by the river. The Quay side has a wide promenade and cycleways on both banks. The revitalisation of Bilbao is built on the back of investment in high quality public realm with thorough attention to Transit and Walking and Cycling networks. The Guggenheim Museum is really the icing on the cake of this rebirth, not the starting point.

SPAIN_7052

SPAIN_7053

SPAIN_7083

SPAIN_7086

SPAIN_7329

Photographs by Patrick Reynolds.

Federal St Shared Space update

The O’Connell St shared space is now getting started however relatively quietly many people forget about the other shared space currently being developed in Federal St between Wellesley St and Victoria St. Work has been going on for some months now and so here are some photos I took of the progress about a week ago.

The pavers are down at the southern end of the street although part of that has been blocked off for storage of construction materials and equipment.

Federal St Shared Space March 14

Further North (past the black fence in the image above) you can see the pavers have been completed on one half of the street up to roughly the porte cochere for the casino.

Federal St Shared Space March 14 2

Shared spaces work well in improving the quality of a street for pedestrians but won’t work if those streets are still flooded with cars. As such there are a couple of things that I’m worried about with this shared space. There are underground carpark entrances for Skycity, and the former ASB tower (now owned by council) along with the porte cochere for both Sky City Grand and the casino itself. Here’s the ramps into the Skycity carpark that have the potential to spew traffic onto the street. There’s actually quite a decent amount of space there so I wonder if Skycity could pull out the ramps and activate the street with retail/hospitality.

Federal St Shared Space March 14 3

And where the ramp exits with the corresponding exit from the council building.

Federal St Shared Space March 14 4

The porte cochere to the Skycity Grand Hotel always seemed filled with vehicles. I can see there being issues with people and especially taxi’s using the rest of shared space as a carpark or waiting area.

Federal St Shared Space March 14 5

Overall there’s some good progress that’s been made but there are a number of concerns I have and I guess only time will tell how well it turns out.