The linear city and other science fictions

Last week, urban designer lecturers Dushko Bogunovich and Matthew Bradbury published an article on their vision for transforming Auckland into a “linear city”:

Instead, we suggest a linear, city-region that follows the opportunities and respects the constraints in the landscape. Its central spine would connect many nodes of density, functioning as centres of commerce and production, with high-rise living. There could be 20-odd nodes between Whangarei and Hamilton.

This is what we call the “working city”. In contrast – the “lifestyle city” would be situated on the glorious east coast. We see it as part of the larger “NZ Riviera”, stretching from Whangarei to Whakatane. Here, the world-renowned qualities of Auckland’s superb suburban lifestyle would mature to the level where Auckland would truly become the “world’s lifestyle capital”.

New infrastructure technologies, such as localised sewerage and water systems, super-efficient solar panels, internet and electric cars, mean that any new urban settlement is not necessarily reliant on expensive centralised infrastructure systems. We no longer have to get our power from the South Island or by burning fossil fuel, and we don’t have to drive two hours to work.

If this sounds a bit like science fiction, that’s because it literally is science fiction. The ur-form for the linear city – and its most complete expression – is a 1975 utopian science fiction novel by Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia.

Ecotopia imagined an environmental utopia in a future US West Coast that had seceded from the rest of the country. Urban space and economic life have been upended: the new nation has pursued radical decentralisation and sustainable living.

Bogunovich and Bradbury don’t go as far as Callenbach in calling for an end to investment capital, radical downsizing of central government, and a ban on all cars, but they do harp on many of the same themes when it comes to transport and urban form. In the book, for example, San Francisco has been downsized to a mere village, its population spread out into “minicities” on rapid transit lines:

the great concentrations of people in San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and even the smaller metropolitan areas began to disperse somewhat. New minicities sprung up in favorable locations, with their own linkage necklaces of transit lines: Napa, on its winding, Seine-like river, at last pollution-free; Carquinez-Martinez, stretching out along rolling hills dropping down to the Strait; and others throughout the country.

Bogunovich and Bradbury echo Callenbach’s language when they speak of a central transit spine connecting “many [small] nodes of density”. It’s a seductive idea. But, as public transport guru Jarrett Walker pointed out in his review of Ecotopia, it’s an intrinsically unworkable one from a transport perspective:

A gleaming high speed rail system delivers his hero through a transbay tube to an intimate, shrinking village called San Francisco. But real transbay tunnels and high speed rail require major cities to create the demand around their stations. Those cities need the big infrastructure of power and water and transit. That infrastructure may sometimes require cutting down some trees, accepting the impacts of a dam, building densely where somebody already lives, or creating space for efficient movement on a street that could otherwise have been a park, a creek, a kiosk, a gathering place.

The contradictory, fantastical nature of Bogunovich and Bradbury’s vision becomes even more apparent when we consider the real-world examples they cite for Auckland to follow. These places, they argue, combine a low-density linear form with highly efficient rapid transit and natural amenities:

Frankfurt is a famous example of a super-efficient city that consists of more than 70 local authorities. It prides itself on its inclusion of agriculture into the metropolitan fabric, its first class, evenly distributed, recreational green open spaces, and international airport amidst a forest, which serves three major cities.

Other famous models of successful, decentralised and polycentric development are metropolitan Munich and the urban region of the Ruhr. Both cover large areas, include plentiful open spaces, and have managed to contain urban sprawl in the form of a coherent polycentric pattern.

Let’s take a look at these places. Here’s a map of the Ruhr region. According to Wikipedia, the region is home to 8.5 million people – over five times as many as in Auckland. From end to end, the main urban corridor – from Duisberg to Dortmund – is around 80 kilometres long. That’s about the same as the distance from Pukekohe to Silverdale.

So if we wanted Auckland to be more like the Ruhr, we would have to increase the population of urban Auckland fivefold. That’s a level of intensification far, far beyond anything contemplated in the Unitary Plan.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

We run into similar problems with Frankfurt and Munich, which are roughly comparable in population to Auckland but considerably denser. Charting Transport has helpfully published comparative data on population-weighted densities in Australian and European cities. (Population-weighted density is the most accurate measure of density – it measures the density of the neighbourhood the average resident lives in.) According to that data, Frankfurt is twice as dense as Melbourne, and Munich is almost three times as dense. (Auckland and Melbourne have pretty similar densities.)

For the visual learners, here’s a randomly selected neighbourhood several kilometres from the Frankfurt city centre. Observe how this kind of medium density would be totally illegal under existing Auckland planning rules:

Frankfurt neighbourhood

So rather than making the case for a sprawled “linear city”, Frankfurt, Munich, and the Ruhr illustrate Jarrett Walker’s point that population density is necessary to obtain efficiencies in infrastructure provision, including well-utilised rapid transit. Those cities have developed intensively where there is demand to do so, especially in inner-city suburbs. As data on infrastructure costs for low- and high-density developments in Auckland shows, this can save money:

CIE and Arup Auckland infrastructure costs by density

Bogunovich and Bradbury’s problems in distinguishing between science fiction and reality get worse when they start discussing Auckland’s existing urban form and infrastructure. They argue that:

Being located on a land-bridge, Auckland has mainly grown in the northern and southern directions. After 100 years of growth and amalgamation, it has grown into a linear conurbation some 70km long. By 2040 it could be 150km long. This is not bad news; linear cities are famously efficient.

Are they really? As Bogunovich and Bradbury concede, Auckland already has a relatively linear urban form. If this does indeed improve efficiency, shouldn’t we already be reaping the benefits in terms of lower house prices and more efficient transport outcomes?

Or, to put it another way, isn’t continuing to do the same thing and hoping for a different outcome the very definition of insanity?

In response to this concern, Bogunovich and Bradbury say that they want to continue doing the same thing – urban expansion into nodes up and down State Highway 1 – but differently in an unspecified way:

Growth is already happening along this corridor anyway – witness the boom in Te Rapa, Pokeno, Silverdale and Warkworth. However, this development is haphazard, exacerbating traditional urban sprawl and commuting distances. It also relies too much on expensive and vulnerable infrastructure.

This is also very problematic: they don’t provide any specific explanation of how their linear city would differ from the one that actually exists. This has serious cost implications. As Auckland Council found when devising a “Future Urban Land Supply Strategy” last year, urban expansion is expensive. They are expecting network infrastructure costs to rise to $100,000-$200,000 per dwelling for greenfield development.

In Bogunovich and Bradbury’s vision, “distributed, small scale, clean, green and smart infrastructure” would bring down these costs. This, again, echoes the science fiction world of Ecotopia. But without details – or better yet, costed and implementable plans – “technology will transform the way we live!” is an empty slogan. It means nothing.

Their discussion of the transport and labour market implications of a 150-kilometre long linear city “that extends at least from Wellsford and Helensville to Pokeno and Orere Point” is equally unsatisfying. They state that considerable horizontal expansion will lead to lower, not higher, transport costs: “we don’t have to drive two hours to work”.

For this to work, it would require people in the outer nodes to work locally, rather than commuting to other areas of the city. That would represent a significant change from the way that Auckland (and every other large city) works. At present, people who live further out commute longer distances, on average:

Trip Length residential 2013

Previous attempts to decentralise the city have not changed this pattern, because it is intrinsic to the way that urban labour markets work. As former World Bank urban researcher Alain Bertaud observes, normal cities involve people commuting between a lot of different points, which enables the agglomeration economies that make cities work. An “urban village” model, in which everybody commutes short distances to the nearest “node”, occurs in planners’ dreams but never in real life:

Bertaud urban structure graph

This isn’t to say that Bogunovich and Bradbury’s ideas are all bad. Given Auckland’s geographical constraints, there is a good case to build a better rapid transit network focused on key corridors with high demand. That’s exactly what Transportblog has proposed in its Congestion Free Network, and it’s what Auckland Transport is planning to build:

AT Rapid Transit Network 2015-2045

Enabling more housing in areas that have good transport accessibility is also a good idea. In fact, that is exactly what the Unitary Plan’s Regional Policy Statement says should happen:

2. Enable higher residential densities and the efficient use of land in neighbourhoods:

a. within and around centres and within moderate walking distances from the city, metropolitan, town and local centres

b. in areas close to the frequent public transport routes and facilities

c. in close proximity to existing or proposed large open spaces, community facilities, education and healthcare facilities

d. adequately serviced by existing physical infrastructure or where infrastructure can be efficiently upgraded.

But, as I’ve explained above, the vision of Auckland as an exclusively “linear city” simply isn’t grounded in reality. It may be fine as science fiction, but it would fail in practice.

In fact, the examples chosen by Bogunovich and Bradbury make that very clear. Auckland’s low-density, linear urban form has led to our current housing affordability and transport problems. The German cities, which are much more densely populated, have been more successful in avoiding those problems. Emulating them would mean allowing more mid-rise housing to be constructed near the centre, not less!

Volunteers wanted: Auckland public life survey

Takutai Square, Britomart, Winter solstice 2014.

Takutai Square, Britomart, Winter solstice 2014.

Five years ago Gehl Architects enlisted a team of volunteers to document public life across the city centre. The work culminated in a summary report (1, 2) and a great Auckland Conversation event.

Since that time there have been remarkable changes across the city. Here are a few things that stand out:

  • Shared spaces across the city
  • A resurgence of retail and hospitality offerings
  • Introduction of global flagships stores on Queen Street
  • Two urban supermarkets (how did we survive without these?)
  • Britomart Quarter (see photo above)
  • Wynyard Quarter
  • HOP ticketing
  • Massive non-car travel increases into the city
  • EMU’s and rail electrification

In addition to all these changes it seems like the city has finally achieved a critical mass of scale and concentration making it actually feel like a proper city. The streets are packed every day of the week and on weekends, events are happening all the time, and people seem to be genuinely proud of the place. This trend is unstoppable.

Importantly, while the global winds are pushing in this direction, this is not something that “just happened” (Asheville Just ‘Happened’ to Develop a Nice Downtown—or Did It?) . There has been a concerted effort, investment and leadership push that has delivered most of what we now take for granted.

This is how James Fallows describes the disconnect between what people see on the ground and how it got that way (Nice Downtowns: How Did They Get That Way):

It’s tempting, if you haven’t seen the varied stages of this process, to imagine that some cities just “naturally” have attractive and successful downtowns, and others just don’t happen to. It’s like happening to be located on a river, or not.

But in every city we’ve visited with a good downtown, we’ve heard accounts of the long, deliberate process that led to today’s result.

Auckland Council’s Auckland Design Office is working with Gehl Architects to update its research survey later this week and is looking for volunteers.

A follow up survey has been set for May 12th – 18th, 2015. To successfully deliver the survey volunteers are invited to participate in observational analysis across the city centre; counting, mapping, tracking and recording the behaviour, movement and activities of people in public spaces…


If you are interested in the urbanism, survey methods, and meeting interesting people, this is a great opportunity.


More information can be found here (pdf), or by emailing

Postcards: Street Facing Units

One of my favorite aspects of  Vancouver urban design is the way that buildings meet the street. This reminds me of classic urban neighbourhoods of New York and Philadelphia with their stoops or the humble porch of bungalows and cottages across California.

Great attention is paid to the interface between public and private realms. The tension and interaction is resolved through a variety of design patterns and features both in the vertical and horizontal plane. Individual unit access is located immediately from the footpath and private space is provided overlooking the street both from the steps and also from small porch-like terraces.

Here is an apartment building built in the 1990’s in the Downtown South neighbourhood next to the Roundhouse Community Centre. This is how people experience the street. This street, like most in the neighbourhood, take the famous Vancouver form of point and podium where the street level maintains a modest height and narrow towers extend to great heights (10 to 38 storeys) to achieve the desired neighbourhood densities while maintaining view corridors across the water.


Street facing townhouses, Roundhouse Neighbourhood, 2-story podium, 9 and 17 story towers

The ultimate height and form of the the building is not as important as how the first several stories frame and address the street. Regular, closely spaced street trees and dwelling entrances reinforce the townhouse character of the street. Landscape amenity (for lack of a better word) is provided both along the public street but also within the private boundary creating a sense of a shared public realm.

A slight elevation change brings residents a degree of authority and ownership over the street and the steps reinforce the transition from public to private space. In conjunction with low fences and landscaping, this elevation change provides clear views of the street from the townhouses but restricts direct views into the living spaces.

Increasingly this podium and point form of Vancouverism is being updated in a more mid-rise form with more consistent but lower heights across the block. Below is a very similar street level response but the building takes a more consistent mid-rise scale (8 storey). This is a new residential building on East 7th Avenue. Conveniently a small brewery has opened up across the street adding to the half dozen others in the vicinity (talk about the benefits of intensification!).

New mid-rise apartments near Broadway and Main St, Vancouver, 8 storeys. Main Street Brewery left.

Street trees play a significant role in modulating the vertical space and creating a scale that is feels comfortable along the street. Like neighbourhoods in the West End and along 7th Avenue, these mature street trees create a very subdued, almost suburban feeling.

Recently I stumbled upon research on the subject of street facing units by Elizabeth Macdonald the urban scholar famous for her co-authorship of The Bouvelard Book with Allan Jacobs. The research, Street-facing Dwelling Units and Livability: The Impacts of Emerging Building Types in Vancouver’s New High Density Neighbourhoods documented the design guidelines that shaped these outcomes and made observations about street activity, sociability and value/desirability of street facing units.

It turns out the main rules governing the interface are quite simple. While they vary a bit across the city depending on the context, they have the following key components (source: Macdonald, 2005):

  • Individual entries for all ground floor dwelling units,
  • Terraces or gardens at ground floor dwelling unit entrance,
  • Individual dwelling units must be raised 1 meter above ground level,
  • Maximum and minimum setbacks along street frontages.

In some cases the guidelines require more detailed consideration including:

  • Articulation of building massing so that individual units are expressed in the building’s facade,
  • Specific design elements within the setback area (eg additional row of street trees as shown in images above).

Example of guidelines for ground floor direct entry units. (Source: Street-facing Dwelling Units and Livability, Elizabeth MacDonald)

Macdonald’s research consisted of surveying both residents and people walking along along the street. She found that that the regular and close spacing of front doors, ranging from between 6 to 10 meters apart, contributes to the visual interest along the street-from their individualised terrace gardens and stairs that attract the attention of passers-by.

Both residents and people on the street felt that the direct entry units provided a sense of “eyes on the street’. Personalised gardens, windows, and regular entries give the impression that people care abour the transitional public-private space along the street. And 80% of the ground floor residents felt that they paid more attention to the street activities than their neighbours on the upper levels.

Macdonald also found that the ground-floor direct access units contribute to social interaction and street-oriented activity on the street. Most of the residents use the front door as their primary method of access, though this is diluted somewhat from the direct access provided from the parking structures located underneath most buildings.

This simple formula seems to have been adopted recently in Seattle as well (which is the inspiration for the post). Seattle is experiencing a massive building boom. By some accounts as many as 25,000 units have been developed over the span of two years most of which are in central locations. Below is a photo showing the ground floor interface of a new building in Capitol Hill on Broadway, I also saw a similar technique being used in the downtown Queen Anne neighbourhood.


New perimeter block building Capitial Hill Seattle (8 storeys)

I wonder if it is possible to build like this in Auckland? Can street trees of a form, scale, regularity ever be (re) introduced along a street? Are there places that haven’t seen so carved up and compromised by the roading network that we could recreate a traditional Street-Building-Block typology where people would want to live on the street? Will the Kiwi the obsession with indoor-outdoor flow ever include the street?


Prince Charles’ 10 Principles for Urban Planning

In a 2,000-word essay in the latest issue of The Architectural Review, Prince Charles has come up with 10 “important geometric principles” for urban masterplanning. He says we need to “reconnect with traditional approaches” and said “It is time to take a more mature view” as he lays out his vision for the future of architecture and planning.

“All I am suggesting is that the new alone is not enough. We have to be mindful of the long-term consequences of what we construct in the public realm and, in its design, reclaim our humanity and our connection with nature, both of which, because of the corporate rather than human way in which our urban spaces have been designed, have come under increasing threat.”

“To counter this, I believe we have to revisit the learning that for so long has been embedded in traditional approaches to design, simply because they are so rooted in our own connection with nature’s patterns and processes. As we face so many critical challenges in the years ahead, these approaches are crying out to be brought back to the forefront of contemporary practice.”

His 10 principles are:

  1. Developments must respect the land. They should not be intrusive; they should be designed to fit within the landscape they occupy.
  2. Architecture is a language. We have to abide by the grammatical ground rules, otherwise dissonance and confusion abound. This is why a building code can be so valuable.
  3. Scale is also key. Not only should buildings relate to human proportions, they should correspond to the scale of the other buildings and elements around them. Too many of our towns have been spoiled by casually placed, oversized buildings of little distinction that carry no civic meaning.
  4. Harmony – the playing together of all parts. The look of each building should be in tune with its neighbours, which does not mean creating uniformity. Richness comes from diversity, as Nature demonstrates, but there must be coherence, which is often achieved by attention to details like the style of door cases, balconies, cornices and railings.
  5. The creation of well-designed enclosures.Rather than clusters of separate houses set at jagged angles, spaces that are bounded and enclosed by buildings are not only more visually satisfying, they encourage walking and feel safer.
  6. Materials also matter. In the UK, as elsewhere, we have become dependent upon bland, standardised building materials. There is much too much concrete, plastic cladding, aluminium, glass and steel employed, which lends a place no distinctive character. For buildings to look as if they belong, we need to draw on local building materials and regional traditional styles.
  7. Signs, lights and utilities. They can be easily overused. We should also bury as many wires as possible and limit signage. A lesson learned from Poundbury is that it is possible to rid the street of nearly all road signs by using ‘events’ like a bend, square or tree every 60-80 metres, which cause drivers to slow down naturally.
  8. The pedestrian must be at the centre of the design process. Streets must be reclaimed from the car.
  9. Density. Space is at a premium, but we do not have to resort to high-rise tower blocks which alienate and isolate. I believe there are far more communal benefits from terraces and the mansion block. You only have to consider the charm and beauty of a place like Kensington and Chelsea in London to see what I mean. It is often forgotten that this borough is the most densely populated one in London.
  10. Flexibility. Rigid, conventional planning and rules of road engineering render all the above instantly null and void, but I have found it is possible to build flexibility into schemes and I am pleased to say that many of the innovations we have tried out in the past 20 years are now reflected in national engineering guidance, such as The Manual For Streets.

There’s definitely some worthwhile ideas in there.

h/t Dezeen

Highway Teardowns

Location of freeway, Harbor Drive, Portland

Location of former freeway, Harbor Drive, Portland

Unfortunately, while freeways did provide vehicular access to downtown, they also disrupted the existing urban grid and street system. Freeways severed local commercial activity from customers, and many once vibrant streets now stand with shuttered businesses and negligible street activity. -Mayor’s Innovation Project

It is conventional wisdom that motorways or other high capacity, limited access roads have no place in productive urban environments. Increasingly, cities across the globe are pursuing projects which attempt to mitigate the problems and re-insert a transport structure that supports local accessibility and high value land use outcomes. In addition to the famous tear out projects in Portland (above), San Francisco and Cheonggyecheon, there are also dozens of other cities that are pursuing flyover teardowns, motorway caps, freeways-to-boulevard solutions, and in cases total removals.

A recent publication by the Mayor’s Innovation Project, Rethinking the Urban Freeway (PDF) gives a nice synopsis of the rationale behind motorway removals including the opportunity costs of motorways which  “occupy valuable land without paying taxes; reduce the value of nearby properties; and reduce quality of life in nearby neighbourhoods.”

Matt’s recent post Guess where this is?  showed a stark depiction of our own transport legacy. Here’s another look at the area using a figure/foreground diagram showing the disruption of the urban fabric caused by both the CMJ motorway and the Dominion Rd Flyover.

Figure/Field Diagram, Auckland

Figure/Field Diagram, Auckland

Below is a look at the same area using a diagram to illustrate intersection density. Intersection density is a useful tool to quantify the viability and walkability of a neighbourhood. In Julie Campoli’s new book Made for Walking she uses the same technique to demonstrate that all walkable and successful neighbourhoods have a high concentration of intersections that support movement choice. The drawing shows intersections in red which allow turning options (dark red showing 3 choices,  light red 2), and the black dots depict places where intersections have been cauterized by motorway-type roads.

Not made for walking: intersections removed

Not made for walking: intersections removed

We know that land value and productivity reach extreme levels in the city centre. The CMJ and the Dominion Road Flyover have almost completely disconnected Eden Terrace from the city centre causing a radical (and unnatural) devaluation of land. So while Eden Terrace, Grafton and Freemans Bay are ‘close’ to the city, the urban transport structure defeats the advantages of proximity. The relationship between urban proximity and land value is still  based on an urban structure of ‘cityness’ which is largely influenced by walkability and accessibility to local places and services.

Here’s a look at the disurban environment of Eden Terrace. Not only is the area now disconnected from the city and its associated value but the resulting road structure tends to concentrate through traffic further isolating the remaining bits into a sort of archipelago.


Dominion Road Flyover wasteland


Dominion Road overkill

Eden Terrace, disconnected and devalued

Finally, here’s a recent video describing the progress of some tear out projects in America.

Brent Toderian on “Density Done Well”

Former City of Vancouver Chief Planner Brent Toderian was in Auckland last week and spoke at a very well attended Auckland Conversations event on a range of planning issues that Auckland has much to learn from. We will elaborate on some of the key messages for Auckland coming out of this event during the next week, but for now here’s a different presentation given by Brent back in 2012 which touches on many of the same issues:

While the Unitary Plan does enable some level of increased intensification and certainly places a far greater emphasis on requiring good urban design, the jury is probably still out on whether it truly enables the future that Auckland desperately requires.

Parklets coming to Auckland?

One of the interesting urban development’s happening in some places overseas – most notably in San Francisco – is the development of the Parklet. They are effect mini open space designed to enhance the local environment and are created in the space of one or more on-street carparks. But rather than me re-inventing the wheel, here is a description of them from the San Francisco Parklet Manual:

A parklet repurposes part of the street into a public space for people. They are intended as aesthetic enhancements to the streetscape, providing an economical solution to the need for increased public open space. Parklets provide amenities like seating, planting, bike parking, and art. While parklets are funded and maintained by neighbouring businesses, residents, and community organizations, they are publicly accessible and open to all.

The world’s first formal public parklets were initially conceived and installed in San Francisco in 2010. As of February 2013, thirty-eight parklets have been installed throughout San Francisco, and the program is being emulated in cities around the world.

Parklets enhance our neighbourhoods by adding beauty and whimsy to the City’s streets. They reflect the diversity and creativity of the people and organizations who sponsor and design them. They also reflect the City’s commitment to encouraging walking and biking, creating great streets, and strengthening our communities.

Parklets catalyse vitality and activity in the city’s commercial districts. They support local business communities by encouraging pedestrians to linger. Parklets can serve as neighbourhood anchors and destination points—providing spaces for neighbours to gather and get to know one another. Collectively, parklets broaden the potential for the public realm to engage and delight while adding much needed open space to our commercial corridors.

But rather than explain what they are in words, here are some examples from the Parklet Manual although a quick search of Google finds a huge variety of them.


Many cities and communities are finding these parklets extremely valuable and I imagine they are really helping to break down the perception from many business people that having space for cars is the most important use of land outside their businesses.

Well the great news is we may be seeing parklets developed here in Auckland. The Kingsland Business Society and the Albert-Eden Local board are holding a competition for students or recent graduates to come up with a design for the area for the footpath area for the Sandringham Rd/New North Rd corner and alongside the Trinity Church Hall. A parklet is one of the options that could be developed, here is the press release:

San Francisco style ‘parklet’ proposed for Kingsland gateway

The trendy inner city suburb of Kingsland could soon be adopting one of the more distinctive design features of the San Francisco streetscape – the parklet.

Seen as a respite from busy urban roads, the parklet offers a mini oasis of calm, usually with seats and plants, and can be used to differentiate one area from another.

Kingsland Business Society manager Christine Foley saw the popularity of parklets on a recent trip to San Francisco. “It was great to see how much locals used even the smallest of spaces” she said. “I am very enthusiastic about what this could do for our urban areas.”

A new Urban Design Competition just launched in Kingsland is looking for a plan to redevelop the entrance to Kingsland village at the corner of Sandringham Road and New North Road and a parklet could be ideal.

The competition focuses on the pavement area outside the Trinity Church Hall on the corner of Sandringham Road and New North Road.

The brief is to design a gateway demarcation and “people place” where the transition of land use occurs going into the village.

Entries are expected to feature distinctive plantings and there is the possibility of parking curb extensions.

Entrants in the competition must be currently enrolled in a design or arts course at Unitec, or the School of Architecture & Planning at the University of Auckland or be a graduate landscape architect with less than three years since graduating.

The winning design will receive a cash prize of $600 and the opportunity for the plan to be further developed, subject to funding and feasibility.

Competition entries will exhibited in Kingsland’s Trinity Church Hall during the Auckland Heritage Festival from late September to early October.

A full design brief for the competition can be found on

So if you are a student and are interested in putting an in an entry, the details are here and there is a site briefing next week to go along to.

SITE BRIEFING 4pm Tuesday 3 September at Trinity Church, Cnr Sandringham/New North Rds.  Albert-Eden Local Board representative, Project Consultant and Competition Registrar in attendance.  For more info tel 379 5553

Another great aspect of this project is that it appears the free left turn out of Sandringham Rd is being removed

Sandringham Rd-New North Rd intersection

Back to parklets, they are something that I suspect would work well in many of our town centres, particularly those in and around the city centre. Another way to think of them is that they provide parking for non-motorised transport modes. Not only this but they can they help provide more public open space without the costly and disruptive process of buying and knocking down buildings while they can also help businesses by encouraging more visitors. They can provide other important functions too – like suggested in the competition above – by helping to inform drivers they are entering into or travelling through a different location and encouraging them to slow down. Of course this doesn’t mean that they will be right for every situation or that we should replace all of our on-street carparks with them but they definitely could be a useful tool.

Urban Revolution

“..the revolutionary rhetoric of Modernism passed a death sentence on the street.”– Stephen Marshall, Streets and Patterns

Bits of remaining urban fabric- Great North Road

Bits of remaining urban fabric- Great North Road

I lobbed a few easy questions at the end of my last post:

“What has happened to Great North Road that makes is so low scoring in this analysis and so seemingly low value on the ground?”

One correct answer, as many suggested, is that Great North Road is affected by motorway severance thus leading to reduced network connectivity. The other answer, one that is not depicted in the simple network analysis, is that the actual accessibility conditions on the ground seriously limit local trips and these two structural conditions work in tandem to yield a disurban environment. Below is a look at Great North Road, pre-motorway. It has a fingerprint very similar to Ponsonby Road or Queen Street where buildings are clustered at intersections along the edge of the street where the real estate value was located.


Great North Road, 1940. Maximising street access.

So while Jane Jacobs argues for the  necessity of short blocks, if not so much for their physical properties (which are also important- see Portland’s smalls blocks designed to increase real estate value by providing more corners), but mostly since they allow a variety of movement modes and choices, something not available any more on Great North Road nor along most other corridors in Auckland.

The discussion from the last post inspired me to dig up some of my previous work examining the urban form changes in Auckland’s first ring suburbs.

In Auckland, like virtually all large western cities, there was a concerted effort, sometimes explicit, to disperse the intensity the city centre to the suburbs. This was facilitated by the motorway system and just about every other transportation investment and policy decision. Below are the results of that policy on the ground throughout Eden Terrace. In addition to the motorway, the severance of the ancillary road system like the Dominion Rd Flyover also contributed to radically transform and degrade local neighbourhoods.

1959 figure-field diagram. Eden Terrace was one of the many first ring surburbs conveniently located adjacent to the CBD and with access facilitated by trams. Large building footprints are located near the railroad.

1959 figure-field diagram. Eden Terrace was one of the many first ring surburbs conveniently located adjacent to the CBD and with access facilitated by streetcars. Large building footprints are located near the railroad.

2011 figure-field diagram. The completion of Ian MacKinnon Drive joins with the original Dominion Road flyover to significantly transform a traditional first-ring suburb. The original street network is obliterated by the formation of a highway-like facility. The urban form is aslo radically changed from residential and rail based industry to large scale warehousing and automobile based industries.

2011 figure-field diagram. The completion of Ian MacKinnon Drive joins with the original Dominion Road flyover to significantly transform a traditional first-ring suburb. The original street network is obliterated by the formation of a highway-like facility. The urban form is also radically changed from residential and rail based industry to large scale warehousing and automobile based industries.

Here is a different view of the outcome of this ‘disurban’ experiment as calculated by surface parking and asphalt- a good indicator of anti-urban environments.

Neighbourhood transition: Grey Lynn, Auckland. Surface parking indicated in black.

Neighbourhood transition: Grey Lynn, Auckland. Surface parking indicated in black.

So in addition to the severance or barrier environment of the motorway, the local street conditions of Great North Road and Dominion Road Extension have helped to atomise the value of the city (accessibility, proximity, and convenience) across the landscape. In the next few posts I’ll be taking a closer look at some of these streets from the ground level.

Broadway Junction Development

Thanks to SolR in my post yesterday the possible closing of Sarawia St we have some more information what may happen with the area above the Newmarket railway junction. We saw a different design for it earlier this year but not much other information about the project. But it seems that things are kicking up a gear with the developers saying construction is planned to kick off early next year with the development completed by 2015. While the architecture might not appeal to everyone’s tastes, I think it is a great example of the kind of development we need to be thinking about for our town centres around the region Auckland. By building over the junction it makes great use of a site that otherwise can only serve one purpose. One of the best things thought is that it appears to also provide a new connection to the Newmarket train station which would bring more of the Newmarket area within easy walking distance of the station. Looking from Broadway, here’s roughly what things look like now:

And here is what things will look like if this gets built:

The development will be quite mixed including retail, office space, apartments and a hotel along a pedestrian plaza. I guess my biggest concern is that pedestrians wanting to access the station have to walk along what appears to be a narrow walkway at the back of the development. It would be nice to have seen that key pedestrian area and shops could have extended all the way to where the station access was.

If this lives up to the hype the developers have put into their presentation, it could be an outstanding example of the kind of urban developments want to see around the region so hopefully they can get this off the ground.

Return of the walking city

..The City is never complete, never at rest. Thousands of witting and unwitting acts every day alter its lines in ways that are perceptible only over a certain stretch of time. -Spiro Kostof

Looking south along Queen Street from corner of Customs Street showing the Waitemata Hotel (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1-W519)

I was inspired by Patrick’s recent transit dividend post where he documented the laneways around the Pacific and Matt’s people buy stuff and wanted to look a little closer at the things happening on the street which to me are fascinating and representative of a highly dynamic urban ecosystem. In particular, over the last year I believe I have witnessed Auckland’s return as a walking city. Recall that before Auckland was conventionally considered a “car city”, it was a streetcar city, a walking city, and a water city, and of course many combinations of these all, and somewhere in there an airport city and PT city.

Melbourne Laneway (source: Patrick Reynolds)

Melbourne’s famous laneways are a fantastic story. They are symbolic of an urban transformation that the city has undergone over the last 20 years. Especially interesting to me is that these laneways weren’t built into the modern block structure. Instead they were introduced over the years by what urban scholar Arnis Siksna argues is an largely predictable process to provide better performance. Siksna studied (pdf) cities across North America and Australia and concluded that areas with high intensity of pedestrian traffic performed best with a short block system (a “pedestrian mesh”) of between 50-70m. Melbourne, like many other Australian cities, was designed with much larger block sizes closer to 200m. He documents that over time these over-sized blocks are predictably broken down, through “successive uncoordinated actions of individuals”, to facilitate a more efficient land pattern, one that provides better circulation patterns and more potential lot frontages.

Modifications to original block layout of Melbourne, Modified from Siksna (1996)

Auckland also has many examples of areas with short blocks,  laneways, and arcades on some of the larger blocks. The real transformation in Auckland  is occurring at the street frontage level- with the emergence of micro retail. While Melbourne’s laneway system developed over decades, this retail transformation and adaptation is occurring over night.

People rule: slow traffic, short crossing waits (20-30 secs.), frequent transport

There are several major shifts which have spurred this phenomenon. First, and most important, is the accommodation of pedestrians. This has been done through major signal timing and street crossing improvements, slower traffic speeds, and increased pedestrian mobility via a web of new shared space laneways.  Second, is the increase concentration of pedestrians using the street as a conduit to and from public transport. And finally, the challenging urban retail environment itself has been adapting to the competition from both web-based and more suburban retail models.

According to Heart of the City there are over 25,000 people walking along Queen Street every day. If you have been downtown recently no doubt you have experienced the days with thousands of people walking shoulder to shoulder on footpaths while cars trickle down Queen Street. In one of my previous posts I suggested that streets are a platform for exchange, and nestled in a highly connected (laneways, short blocks, layers of transportation) create the most valuable real estate.

Retailers “plugging in” to the value of the street, Auckland

There couldn’t be a better example of the free market “plugging” into the value of the street, remember People Buy Things Not Cars. Using a scientific metaphor the micro retail trend, like it’s international counterpart the foodcart, is capitalising on the value of the street by increasing its surface-to-area ratio. Here’s wikipedia:

An increased surface area to volume ratio also means increased exposure to the environment. The many tentacles of jellyfish and anemones provide increased surface area for the acquisition of food. Greater surface area allows more of the surrounding water to be sifted for nutrients.

And how does a property owner increase surface area? In Melbourne, they broke down large blocks. While this was described as providing an efficiency for movement,  I’m sure the business owners weren’t so altruistic, instead they were more likely attempting to “acquire their food”. In Auckland, it’s more of an effective increase of surface area by finely breaking down the store front space. Here’s what businesses looks like trying to plug in the value of the street. This crepery (below) measures 105 cm across its front. Most other shops are about 3 metres. At that dimension we are entering the domain of Venice, Italy store fronts which have a typical dimension of 3 metres. Yes, that Venice that is a car free city.

Pedestrian scale, Auckland (photos: Scot Bathgate)

As prominent urban designer Jan Gehl notes:

When buildings are narrow, the street length is shortened, the walking distances are reduced, and street life is enhanced.

This concept of store front variety is one among many urban design imperatives that is often turned into a endless list of guidelines, codes and regulations. For example, buildings should be placed on the street edge, have transparent glazing, not be too wide, have a diversity of uses, etc. It is my theory that these reasonable outcomes don’t create vibrant cities, instead they are the outgrowth of them. What creates vibrant cities is the existence and especially the accommodation of people within a traditional urban street network supported by various transportation options.

Surface-to-area, maximising the value of the street. Queen Street, Auckland.

As an extreme example, imagine a property owner choosing to provide parking in front of his store which would obstruct the other 25,000 people on foot. Or imagine a property owner who would allow a large monotonous land use like a bank take up excessive store front space and create a dead space. With the return to the pedestrian city these urban design issues become moot, since no one would jeopardise their premium real estate asset which is the street frontage.

Instead, what I think will happen, and largely what is already happening, is that the city centre will becoming increasing re-scaled for people on the street. The outcome will be closer to what typically could be considered traditional, almost European-type urbanism, what has traditionally only occurred on High Street. This means increasing micro-retail uses. Also, large office uses will be wrapped internally with street-serving business. This is typically how old theatres such as the Capital on Dominion Rd address the street, by a narrow passage allowing  users into a large internal space but not wasting surface area unnecessarily.  At some point there will be undoubtedly be increasing break-down of city blocks to further access property value of the street,  just as what happened in Melbourne.

Micro retail: a dynamic and resilient urban model

The amount that the city has changed over the last year is remarkable. As someone who can’t wait for things to change, and has all but given up on formal planning, it’s exciting to see how much change is occurring on its own.  While some of it is due the impressive physical improvements of he public realm, most of it is an outgrowth of thousands upon thousands of individual choices, many of which are facilitated the provision of public transport and by simply accommodating the people that are already there.