How should we pursue good urban design?

I’m not an urban designer or an architect – economists are famously bad at that sort of thing – but I do pay attention to the way places are built. Some places work well for people, and some places don’t. That matters.

A few weeks ago, I spotted a few interesting conversations (in Transportblog and on Twitter) about how we approach urban design issues. I thought they were worth highlighting as they pointed out some important distinctions and challenges we face in pursuing good design.

First: in a response to a study on the health value of architectural features that encourage social contact (eg porches, stoops, etc) that Kent posted in a recent Sunday reading, reader TimR made an astute comment about the need to get better at measuring outcomes from urban design. Good design has a value – but it’s often misidentified or left unmeasured:

That kind of hard data around Hispanic elders’ health needs to be gathered and put squarely in front of people like the Productivity Commission.

Every time I read nonsense about the “cost of aesthetics”, this is the kind of outcome I think about – the community and health benefits that only result from deliberate design choices. I’ll bet the costs to the health care and social support systems from that 2.7x worse physical function are not insubstantial, and much higher than the cost of building those architectural features.

Built environment design is so much more than how something looks, but as a society we have debased it to an optional nicety, and claim it is entirely subjective. Reality is, when we choose to examine the evidence properly there are always rich and measurable consequences flowing from design.

In the Auckland context, it’s a problem that we stripped out _so many_ design elements from the UP. Yes, we should make planning faster + more certain; but street-frontage controls clearly have a substantial long term economic cost according to the evidence above – and that’s just one specific outcome being measured. Accumulate all the benefits of getting architecture right in an urban setting, and the cost benefits could be staggering. There’s a reason places like hospitals now focus strongly on design outcomes.

My take is that it’s essential to have basic metric-based district plan Rules that control street interfaces, because they’re the heart of private-public engagement, they’re easy to define, are low or no-cost (eg limiting fence heights, putting entrance doors in the right place), and not at all difficult to comply with. These are not esoteric high-brow aesthetic design features that require expert opinion as part of a consent! Based on the evidence above, the ideologues just shoot their own economic theory in the foot when they force these controls out.

As Tim points out, we need to distinguish between design and aesthetics, which are two very different concepts. As I understand it, good design is, first and foremost, about functionality. If it looks good but doesn’t work well, it’s not well-designed.

Another way of saying this is that good design has objective and measurable benefits, while the benefits of aesthetics are subjective, or “in the eye of the beholder”. Health outcomes are a good start – well-designed urban places tend to enable and encourage walking and cycling and encourage incidental social contact between neighbours and passers-by.

One example I’ve been thinking about recently is the Owen G Glenn Building at the University of Auckland. While it looks impressively monumental from the outside – especially from the motorway, as in the view below – it’s unpleasant to be in. Lecture halls and classrooms are hard to find, the hallways often feel like they’re closing in on you, and, paradoxically, all the common spaces feel cavernous and exposed. The building’s design provides me with a small, but occasionally decisive, inducement to stay away from talks or meetings being held there – a sign that the building is not supporting its educational mission.


Second, Twitter users and occasional Transportblog commenters Frank McRae and Stephen Davis made some interesting points about the same basic issue – how we distinguish between aesthetics and functionality. They were responding to this tweet critiquing the design of some apartments in Otahuhu:

Frank observed (fairly but a bit too acerbically) that buildings usually have a practical aim – to house people or provide space for businesses and other organisations. In that context, we should judge them on how well they meet housing needs, rather than fulfill subjective aesthetic goals:

Stephen had a more expansive take on the issue, pointing out that we need to be attentive to the overall urban context for buildings:

He goes on to observe in a series of tweets that:

At the bottom are private houses, including apartments. At the top are public buildings and spaces. Commercial in the middle.

Unless your house is a tourist attraction – maybe you lobbied to make it a “special character” area – it’s not your job to make it pretty.

a good street increases the odds of people *wanting* to make aesthetically pleasing buildings next to it, too.

I’d say the vast majority of Auckland buildings are prettier than the streets they’re on already. Better than we deserve.

As an example:

I think Stephen’s idea of a “sliding scale of responsibility” for place-making is a good one. Urban streets are the largest, most widespread, and most influential public spaces in a city. They set the context for what happens around them. If we want better urban design, and buildings that make us better off, we need to start with the street.

What do you think about the value of urban design?

The plans for Albert St after the CRL

The City Rail Link is now under construction and will see most of Albert St dug up in the process of building the cut and cover tunnels. That presents Auckland Transport with a great opportunity on what is effectively a blank slate to reinstate it to a much higher standard than exists now. The Auckland City Centre Advisory Board (ACCAB) have endorsed spending $20 million from the City Centre Targeted Rate towards doing just that. A presentation to the ACCAB last week showed their latest design. But there are some major concerns about the design from the council and their comments suggest the CRL team have been operating too much in a silo.

Albert St has a bit of space to work with and as is 27.4m wide from Quay St through to Wellesley St, although that is narrowed by the lanes on the two blocks south of Wyndham St. At the same time there’s a lot to fit in there, especially as once the CRL is finished it will likely see a lot more people walking along it. It has also historically been the main route for buses from the western side of the city and while the CRL will reduce the need for some buses, the slots freed up will be needed for more services, especially from the Northwest as that area continues to develop.

So the first big issue that is raised in the presentation is the need to accommodate buses. There are two basic options discussed, inline bus stops where the bus stop is within the lane and offline bus stops where the stop is beside the lane so that it doesn’t block it, allowing for more buses to use the route. AT say the capacity of an inline bus stop is about 53 buses an hour while offline bus stops are limited by the number of stops that can be added. The trade-off is of course space.


AT say the predictions for bus numbers mean offline bus stops are needed along the corridor. That of course will impact on how wide footpaths will be. I’m not sure what the LRT scenario refers to.


The upgrade of Albert St will happen in two phases. The section north of Wyndham St (C2) will be build following the completion of the current works – which extend that far – while the section south of Wyndham St (C3) will happen after the main works, that include the Aotea Station, are complete.

The design for the C2 works are shown below and are more advanced than the C3 works later in the post.



The Lower Albert St section (north of Customs St) will be bus only.


There aren’t any detailed images for the section between Customs and Wolfe St but it appears the classic traffic engineers have got hold of the plans with dedicated right turn lanes and either bus stops or car parking narrowing down the footpaths.

Between Wolfe and Swanson St things get wider again and includes the addition of a number of trees.


Here’s a visualisation of the street here. The presentation talks about a number of the environmental and design features included.


Between Swanson and Wyndham the footpaths narrow again to accommodate the offline bus stops in each direction.

Next up is the section south of Wyndham, the C3 section which contains the challenges such as the split level lanes on the eastern side.


There are some good things happening here with one of the biggest being the lane that accesses Durham St West. I believe the historic Bluestone wall is actually being moved as part of the CRL project as is needed to create space for the tunnels. That has the benefit of allowing for a wider footpath up at the road level which AT’s plans suggest will be between 2.71m and 2.94m in width, currently it’s only about 1.7m wide. AT’s plans also seem to make it safer to cross to that footpath with raised tables. In addition, the two carpark bridges will be removed so they won’t be spewing cars out onto that footpath. An image of the narrowed lane suggests it could be a shared space too.


The drawing showing just north of Victoria St shows one potential issue though with ventilation for the tracks being built into the footpath, which itself is not all that wide. These could potentially be quite large and unpleasant for pedestrians and is a bigger issue given the constrained nature of this section of road.


On the other side of the Victoria St intersection there is the issue with the planned NDG porte cochere that I raised recently.


In the image above you can also see the space in the middle of the street, this is planned to be for skylights into the station. There will be seven in total referencing Matariki.

The section to Wellesley shows the eastern side next to the Crowne Plaza will be made much better for pedestrians although will still be narrow at the southern end thanks to the service lane exit and the dedicated right hand turn pocket. It’s not clear why this turning pocket is even there given how busy this area is bound to be with people.


Mayoral Dr outside of the main station entrance remains virtually unchanged.

The last part of this presentation to cover is Victoria St and it’s here where things get really concerning. The drawings show fairly narrow footpaths on the southern side for what will be one of the busiest people part of the city and it seems that has happened in the madness to try and accommodate four lanes of traffic. This is very much a case of cars being put before people.


Even worse is it appears AT are completely ignoring the formally adopted City Centre Master Plan which calls for Victoria St to become a linear park linking Albert Park and Victoria Park, the Governments Urban Cycleway Programme which shows Victoria St as a key east-west route and even their own internal studies on space allocation – which is shown below.

CEWT Victoria St

Hell even AT’s formal visualisations of the station entrance show this, as do these plans.

Aotea Station - Victoria Entrance

Given the plans presented to the ACCAB are meant to be the most recent it is very concerning.

Below are the proposed widths of the roads mentioned above.


The presentation notes feedback from the council and an internal AT review was expected to be due back before the ACCAB meeting. As such the Council’s Design Review Panel report is also included in the meeting agenda and it is extremely critical of the designs the CRL team have come up with. The report covers in a fair amount of detail the council’s views on the design and includes some fairly concerning comments, including that the CRL team have been working in a silo over the design.

Albert Street- between Wyndham and Quay Streets- has been through a rigorous design process, informed by a consulted Reference Design (ADO, 2014-15) and Detailed Design (Boffa Miskell, 2015). However, the current design developed since October 2015 has been developed without consultation external to CRL and AT Metro. The current design is a remnant of the former Detailed Design- but lacks design cohesion with long indented bus bays, turn lanes and an imbalanced single block of street trees.


However, of much greater concern for the Panel is the pending approval of the C3 Reference Design in the next month. C3 for Albert Street includes the section between Wyndham and Mayoral which was not investigated in Reference Design and Detailed Design process, nor sufficiently consulted. The structure of the C3 contract is a $1.6bn design-build, limiting Council’s ability to inform the streetscape design.

This is significant as this scope includes the two eastern side slip-lanes, the median skylight features, footpath train station vent structures, Crowne Plaza access and direct interface with two major developers, NDG and Sky City. However, of greatest concern is the interface design with Aotea Station and its resulting effects on the pedestrian space on Victoria Street and Wellesley Street. The plans depicted at the panel review are the first Auckland Council has seen the implications of AT’s preference for Victoria Street as a four-lane street. This is not a view supported in the 2012 City Centre Masterplan which is the council family and politically endorsed plan for the city that should be referenced by CRL. For instance the implications of shifting the Aotea Station closer to NDG requires further study. The 4 southeast “pinch point” at the Wellesley Street intersection is currently the city centre’s most dangerous. The Panel is not comfortable with the resolution depicted in the current design.

As mentioned, there is a lot more detail in the report. Overall they summarise their feedback as:

Despite an initially bold and collaborative design process, the current Albert Street design reviewed by CPDRP is underwhelming and requires effort to get back on track to avoid returning to the austere and utilitarian condition where the street started. Furthermore the design falls short on achieving many of the project objectives as presented in the briefing report.


The minutes of the meeting note:

  • the CRL Project Director noted there will be plenty of opportunity next year (2017), once the Auckland City Centre Advisory Board has reconvened, to address any concerns in the public realm design, under both the C2 and C3 contracts
  • the CRL Project Director invited the board to have 2 representatives to attend the monthly CRL urban realm steering meetings

That doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence that AT will actually make any improvements.

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.