A view from new Britomart bar and restaurant Ostro that seems to perfectly express the contradictory current phase in Auckland City’s development.
What a great scene:
Sitting here amidst the sophistication of the latest addition to the our reborn downtown with all the perfectly prepared kai moana you could want, reassuringly expensive wines from every viticultured corner of the country, the cruise liners slipping around North Head, and the sculptural forms of the gantry cranes lined up and waiting patiently in the late afternoon sun like a row of giant robotic footmen, it is hard not to marvel at how lovely Auckland can be and at how far it has come recently.
Britomart is surely the best example of a Transport Orientated Development around, showing not just what can be achieved by coordinating land use and Transit investment well, but also just what a great resource there is in our urban centres if only we redevelop them properly. Central Auckland is really beginning to show extraordinary promise for what quite recently was an very dreary place, and it is not difficult to predict that these improvements are only going to accelerate over the years ahead. It’s like we’ve suddenly discovered that the city is by the sea.
With the successes of Britomart, both the train station itself and the redevelopment of the commercial buildings above; the Shared Spaces, which now surely will spread [not least down into the Britomart block itself]; and the first phases of Wynyard Quarter, the quality of Auckland’s City Centre is poised to explode in vitality, desirability, and productivity.
The next phase should be even more dramatic: The transformation of big city streets into more interesting and specialised uses; Victoria hosting a Linear Park on half its width uniting the two parks on either side of the city, Victoria and Albert; Wellesley a Transit corridor, efficiently bringing thousands of bus riders into the heart of the city: Queen and Quay, downscaling and becoming more pedestrian and place focussed [Quay also an important cycle route], Fanshaw and Customs moving ever more people both in more efficient bus systems and, like Mayoral, focussing of carrying general traffic across town.
Along with the big build at Wynyard, the city will also get new towers at Downtown and on the corner of Victoria and Albert, along with the apartment building boom that is already underway all over the city.
This is no guess about the future but rather the continuation of what has already begun; the latest census revealed that central Auckland’s residential population grew 46.5% between 2006-13 by far the greatest growth in the whole country. Vacant commercial floor space is drying up and demand is rising. Like all over the western world, inner city living and working is not just back, it’s hot. Auckland is already surfing the urbanising zeitgiest well.
Interestingly both the the new towers mentioned above will sit on top of the City Rail Link that in 2015 will begin to be constructed at least for the section below the new Downtown Centre. And as is clear from the growth listed above that the city will urgently need this resource in order to bring, circulate, and disperse back out to the city’s extremities all the people that will work, live, and recreate in this transforming city.
Because if there is one uniting theme to all of this improvement it is the increase in the numbers of people entering the City without a corresponding increase in the numbers of cars- if not their actual decrease. All the growth in number of those entering the Central City this century has been on the improved Transit systems, especially rail and the buses of the Northern Busway, but also ferries and cycling and walking. This has to continue if not accelerate, because the place quality improvements require a reduction in the domination of place by vehicles, or at least are impossible to achieve while the city is swamped in cars. Essentially there is a very simple equation observable in urban renewal:
More People + Fewer Cars = Better City
So in order to achieve this the city needs to be attractive and accessible to people and efficient and productive for business. How are these aims best achieved at the planning and investment level? It seems very clear all across the world that there are three investments that have proven to consistently achieve these outcomes in urban development, whether it’s London, or, Barcelona, or Shanghai, or Amsterdam, or Portland, or Bilboa, or Sydney or Brisbane, or Wellington or where-ever, these are every city’s best best:
- repurposed mixed use Waterfronts with
- dynamic Public Spaces and Activities served by
- high quality Public Transit + Walking + Cycling amenity
The last to efficiently bring and circulate large numbers of people in ways that do not adversely affect place, in fact ideally enhance it, the second to attract, entertain, and retain residents, workers, and businesses, and the first because the whole new venture is so much more desirable and therefore valuable if it’s by the sea, a lake, or along a river, making the investment much more likely to be viable. But the essential component is that these all have to come together in a centre in order for the attractions and vitality to double up on themselves, for these improvements to agglomerate.*
[*There are three other investments that cities often try to use as springboards for improvement but that all have much more fraught outcomes around the world: Casinos, Stadia, and Convention Centres, and all have a common theme; they usually have the same big blank walled city-blocking form, intermittent use, and internalised programmes- and are often built on an auto-dependent model with vast parking garages and motorway like access routes right up to them; both highly anti-urban place ruining systems.]
So it is clear both that Auckland is largely on the right track and that there are enormous challenges ahead. Wynyard Quarter is not being built in the best order, in the way that Britomart has been: Ideally you built at least the bones of the High Quality Transit system first, Wynyard is going to quickly have to get better and more permanent Transit systems in place as the building sites currently used as car parks start to get built on and these will at least at first have to be bus systems- the only near term way of moving high volumes of people- and surely they will have to get those buses working in a trainlike way, ie with stations more than stops, while working towards upgrading some bus routes to a modern light rail system.
The problem of funding the City Rail Link needs to be addressed in 2014, which on the one hand means either changing the government or changing the government’s mind, as well as working out an efficient way for the Council to fund its share of the capital cost too. Increasingly I think this could be around a PPP for the three new stations as there will be changes in land value to be captured there.
Then there is the related issue of the accommodating hundreds of buses in the city, the CRL will in time limit the need to endlessly grow the numbers of buses on city streets but even once it’s open there will still be a need for a lot of buses in the city, especially from the North Shore. Hopefully the new plans for concentrating these onto specific routes and speeding their passage through the city will be done well and make a huge difference. But also I think it’s vital that the quality of the buses themselves are improved, that they aren’t walled off with blocking advertising and that their exhaust and noise standards are improved radically, ideally that emissions are eliminated all together. Therefore the electrification of all our urban transport systems should be a matter of higher priority. Electricity is, after all, our great local resource and so much better for the increasingly contested city streets for everyone.
All of which brings us back to the image:
Also clearly visible here are hundreds and hundreds of new cars, well at least new to NZ , freshly off-loaded and ready for our streets and roads. So if [leaving aside the issue of whether this is the best use of these warves], as I predict, these vehicles will increasingly be less and less welcome on the streets of the City Centre then where are they headed? Out to the suburbs and the exurbs I suppose; the more dispersed the living the more ideal the car becomes. Auckland is becoming a Mullet City. It is surely getting more and more bi-level like the famous westie haircut: Increasingly urbane, more European in form, more walkable, ridable and lively in the centre. But still largely auto-dependent, low rise, dispersed and spread out, more American-new-city in form, the further out you go.
To some degree this is inevitable, and is in the very nature of cities, but I hope this doesn’t become too extreme, Auckland could develop a number of great and happily more intense metropolitan centres. So I hope it’s more blurred than this, but the latest version of the Draft Unitary Plan doesn’t inspire confidence. Councillors facing reelection and a vocal anti-change lobby greatly reduced the areas that can enjoy the great gift of the city; the ‘power of nearness’, intensity, and if it stays like this then growth and intensity will be concentrated into just a few areas, and in particular the Centre. This will reinforce a contrasting bi-level city. This form is increasingly apparent globally as The Great Inversion unfolds and City Centres and Inner Suburbs become more desirable and therefore expensive, and as this partly reflects differences in transport value of place, or relative inaccessibility, so the provision of affordable transport options throughout the wider city is critical to ameliorating this tendency [the existing reach of the rail network will become increasingly valuable for equalising access; especially after it is more essential to Auckland once the CRL is operational and the New Bus Network is integrated with it with new interchange stations].
But then there are many ways the suburbs can improve. Auckland’s older tram built suburbs are already relatively dense, are pleasantly leafy and walkable [remnant pathways linking through to old tram stops are sign of this], and have enough old shops and mixed commercial parts to give them great bones. Many simply need improvements in Transit service and cycling amenity to become really good; work for the rest of this decade. Then if we can get the Unitary Plan to allow some decent mixed use density in the centres that serve these suburbs many may find their own neighbourhood pretty well has everything they need as well as being well connected to the big City and other Centres. The newer further out sprawl-burbs are more difficult to bring into this century, but simply calming residential streets and serving those missing modes will go along way to repairing those urban form monocultures.
All of this is to say that 2013 has been great for Auckland’s urban quality and I’m confident 2014 will see this accelerate. So thanks for visiting the site and have a wonderful summer: In the City or as far away as you can get [a perfect use for our cars]…