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.

Auckland’s Place Premium

In a recent post I graphically represented the land values throughout the Auckland city centre as a function of their “frontage value” which generated some surprising results. The exercise revealed a place premium associated with real estate located in the lower Queen Street valley. Besides being physically central, is it also highly accessible with small blocks, a concentration of intersections, a multiplicity of transport options and a topography that naturally puts people in close contact with each other, essentially, the structural ingredients of good urbanism.

Street Frontage Value: From Green (Low) to Red (High)

The low value around the motorway was something I expected since the street grid is clipped and local places are no longer connected to surrounding areas and thus have a reduced place value. Of course the physical conditions of noise and traffic also repel human activities and further contribute to lowered land values.

Most interesting to me is how severely property values drop off away from Queen Street, in particular on the western side of the city. To use the convenient collar metaphor, it looks as if the city is being strangled and oxygen is only getting to one part of the brain. Part of this is likely caused by the motorway itself, but it is compounded by the local facilitation of the motorway– essentially the mini-motorways– of Hobson, Nelson, and Fanshawe Streets (to name but a few).

Here’s a cross section look at the land values I mapped previously. Note the extremity of the values drop-off on the western side, from a high of 12 down to 4, only over three or four short city blocks. Also, note the consistent drop-off in values on the eastern side. It makes sense that if the centre maintains a real estate premium, than values would fall away further from it. It would be useful to compare this property value “fade” with other cities to determine if this is typical of a city centre this size. What if the motorway wasn’t strangling the city, would land values be higher further away from the centre?

Cross section of land values across Auckland’s city centre

There have been many ideas proposed to span the motorway via caps and bridges. Besides being excessively costly they would have to be implemented in numerous places to be effective. Also, on the perimeter we are dealing with reduced land values, mostly due to the motorway, but also since by definition edges can’t be centres, and the centre is where the highest land values are.

Below is the same diagram with a line drawn on the eastern side of the city centre to track the property value decline. This line was mirrored onto the western side. The green area, in my opinion, is the greatest opportunity. While no doubt some of the drop-off is due to the physical topography, far more is a function of an anti-urban street network and neglected public realm. The great news is that the City Centre Masterplan has proposed to remedy this situation by two-waying Hobson and Nelson Street, and by bringing  the western side of the city closer to the Queen Street valley via a green boulevard, among other things.

Comparing land values on either side of Queen St

The other massive opportunity of course is the City Rail Link (CRL). By inserting stations into low land value areas, there would be the effect of raising property values with “tent poles.” The land values of the stations would be directly influenced by their new found proximity to the most valuable land in the city.

To recap, there remains a place premium in the lower Queen St valley due to its central location and its high level of local and regional connectivity. Property values are highly influenced by proximity to this premium location as witnessed in the above charts. Public realm improvements that remove barriers of access to the centre, such as the one-way street couplet system, will raise land values by bringing parts of the city closer to the centre, and the CRL will effectively put places right next to the highest land values, thereby spreading land values across the city centre and beyond.


Give us our Waterfront

Most people who visit the Wynyard quarter love the development that has occurred there so far. It is very different to how we have developed things in the past and a lot more emphasis has been put on pedestrians and how it ties in to the water. It has quickly become one of stars in Auckland and that is only set to continue as the redevelopment of the area carries on. The development isn’t just a favourite with the locals as it has now won numerous awards with the latest just the other day beating out a host of other international cities to claim a top waterfront development award.

Now if you are winning awards like this it is probably a good indication that you are on the right track and also suggests that extending the development as far as possible is probably a good idea. Well even before this award, Waterfront Auckland and the council were quick to realise the success and smartly decided to try and emulate it further down the waterfront and so in the City Centre Master Plan (CCMP) called for Quay St to be turned into a boulevard. It was also mentioned in the Waterfront Plan.The CCMP and Waterfront Plan went out for consultation at the same time as the Auckland Plan allowing anyone who wanted to to give feedback.

I think that turning Quay St from a 6 lane almost de facto motorway into a more pedestrian friendly zone while still retaining some space for cars is a pretty good compromise. Of course now, months after the consultation finished various elected officials of the eastern suburbs are now up in arms about the plan. Their key issue seems to be just how unfair it will be that they can no longer drive to the ferry terminal. The Herald today reports:

Anger has erupted over plans to turn Quay St into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard within three years – and the greatest upset has been caused by what critics say was lack of public consultation.

But Waterfront Auckland says it kept the community well informed about the “exciting project” and it “couldn’t have done more” consultation.

Waterfront Auckland’s plans, revealed in the Herald on Friday, could result in more crossing points, a wider footpath taking in a lane of traffic or two and opening up parts of the red fence to improve to the water’s edge.

The first stage – from the Viaduct to Britomart – is due to be finished by 2016.

But critics of the project say the Tamaki Drive Master Plan hasn’t been taken into account, the traffic plan is “just nuts” and the local board most negatively affected by the proposal was not consulted.

Tamaki MP Simon O’Connor said he was disappointed by the plan, which he said would take cars off the street in the name of beautification.

“This is a surprising development that does not appear to have been thought out …

It seems to be motived more by ideology than practicality.”

Mr O’Connor said Waterfront Auckland was pinning its hopes on the “unfunded, yet to be built rail loop and a new ferry service”.

Auckland councillor Cameron Brewer said the suggestion that Quay St was not a busy road outside rush hour was “just pie in the sky”.

“This is a critical piece of transport infrastructure that carries over 30,000 cars a day. Taking out lanes and directing more traffic down the likes of Customs St is just nuts.”

This is an absolutely stupid argument. For starters 30,000 vehicles a day don’t need 6 lanes of traffic and there are many two lane roads that handle much more than that. Hell Dominion Rd carries about that same number of vehicles with only two lanes, one of which is a bus lane for a large part of the day. What’s more there are a number of other routes that these vehicles could use and very few places you can actually drive to that you can’t get to by other routes. There are still heaps of trucks going to and from the port using Quay St even though less than a decade ago we spent hundreds of millions upgrading Grafton Gully and providing direct connections from there to the North Shore specifically to get them off Quay St. There are also a number of improvements that could be made to other city streets that could be used to help spread that traffic out.

At the end of the day despite claiming the opposite, the arguments from Simon O’Connor and Cameron Brewer seem to be the ones based on ideolgy, they seem to be beholden to the notion that we must put cars ahead of people. It is people that make places interesting and lively and attractive. It is people that spend money and it is people that we should be building this city for. The recent improvements from things like Wynyard and the shared spaces have been outstanding successes and the best thing we can do is to continue these kinds of developments. The waterfront is to valuable for us cut off, all in the name of saving 5 seconds when driving and I suspect the economic benefits of improving it would vastly outweigh the impact to any vehicle movements. Its about time that these idiots go out of their cars and had a look at is happening in the city as even international press are starting to acknowledge the cities improving urban style.