Sunday, October 31, 2010

Paris in the Antipodes

Is Auckland’s spatial plan already drafted?
The new Chief Planning Officer has revealed his vision for Auckland in an interview with Bernard Orsman in the New Zealand Herald.  Dr Blakely is promising “dialogue with Aucklanders to develop a ‘high-level and strategic’ plan”.  However, he has apparently already adopted as a starting point that the city will have to accommodate an extra 600,000 people by 2031 .  This projection reflects assumptions about such things as fertility, mortality, residential preferences and, most of all, migration. 
Assuming that these will prevail over the next thirty years is a bold basis for vision building. Is it one which would emerge from “dialogue with Aucklanders” though?
Of course, there is a circular argument here. The spatial plan could have a significant impact on how rapidly Auckland’s population grows, especially through its impact on that most volatile of demographic drivers, migration.  Will it make Auckland a more attractive place to live?
Here Dr Blakely introduces a further vision: the city “cannot keep spreading outwards indefinitely, but needs to improve the quality of urban intensification”.  He even suggests what this might look like:  There is no reason, he says, why Auckland cannot follow cities such as Paris, with low-cost, high-quality medium-density housing”.
Which Paris?
Like many others lucky enough to have got there, I love Paris, the largest tourist destination in the world. But I live in Auckland.  And the two are a world apart.
While it is not clear whether Dr Blakely is referring to the entire metropolitan area – the Ile de France, comprising eight departments and the city of Paris – or just the City, with its 20 locally elected mayors accountable to the Mayor of Paris. THe distinction is important. 
The metropolitan area has close to 12 million people at a density of around 975 people per square kilometre.  Paris City has a little over 2 million at a density of over 20,800 people per square kilometre.  I am not sure that Aucklanders would aspire to either. [1]
In any case, history and geography don’t lend themselves to such a comparison. Paris, built on a plain, has 2,000+ years on us for a start.
Lessons from Paris?
Interestingly, though, its modern history is one of decentralisation and declining densities.
Paris was remodelled in the mid 19th century at the time of the second republic.  Visionary p
refect Baron Haussmann oversaw the demolition of the crowded medieval settlement of perhaps 1,000,000 people on the banks of the Seine, and its replacement with the wide, radiating boulevards, parks, public spaces, and medium-rise architecture that make the City of Paris what it is today.  It is a light, open city, designed for street living, but one which has proven itself capable of catering for the age of mass private and public transport.
The 20th century saw the next noteable phase of Parisian urbanisation, the rapid extension of the metropolitan area beyond the City.  The City's population peaked in the early 1930s at around 2.9m people, but has declined, by 25% or 730,000 people by 2005.   In contrast, the balance of the urban area expanded by 5.2m.[2]  This saw the absorption of surrounding settlements and the development of leafy, low density suburbs facilitated by the extension of public transport, especially the metro, and freeways. 
The ageing of some of the early town centres in the inner ring suburbs has seen a different dynamic emerge in the 21st century. This is where medium to high rise apartments were erected late in the previous century to house poorer communities, especially immigrant communities. Because they have been consigned to ageing centres in this way, their residents are often remote from work opportunities.  Consequently, poverty has become concentrated in high density. older inner suburbs outside the central city, suburbs which in 2005 became the new setting for urban riots in Paris.
Let’s hope this is not a parallel that arises if Auckland chooses to focus high density housing in ageing suburbs or centres.  Much more imagination is called for both to reinvigorate these areas and to house our expanding population.
Lessons from Auckland
Perhaps there are lessons to be learnt from Paris. 
But let’s first acknowledge the history and geography of our own city before adopting prescriptions from others.  Auckland is a built on an isthmus.  It is 150km from north to south, less than 5km across at its narrowest point.  It is constrained by harbours, estuaries and creeks, by hills and ranges.  
This geography shaped the early city, with the bulk of 19th century development on an isthmus within an isthmus, the old Auckland City.  Extension along the Great South Road was driven first by a colonial commitment to subjugating disaffected indigenous people, and subsequently alienating and cultivating their fertile lands.  This southern orientation was extended by Auckland’s role first as an export port for the food and materials produced by the new colony, and then in the 20th century as the principal point of entry for imports and, consequently, for manufacturing import substitutes and distributing them to the rest of the country.
Orientation to the south was reinforced for the most of Auckland’s history by the barrier of Waitemata Harbour.  Settlement on the North Shore was confined to the nautical town of Devonport, parts of the East Coast Bays accessible by boat, and the resorts of Browns Bay,  Orewa, and Waiwera.  Only after the Second World War did serious settlement on the North Shore begin and only after construction of the Auckland Harbour Bridge did that trickle turn into a flood.  At that point, Auckland began to realise its potential as a linear city, one which might evolve around State Highway 1 into a series of linked centres each offering easy access to country and coast
The essence of Auckland
Most obviously, though, Auckland, is a maritime city, its appeal, its edges, and its possibilities heavily influenced by the sea. Many of its people have travelled over the sea, and continue to do so, to arrive and settle somewhere remote, mild of climate, and intrinsically attractive. They have brought with them diverse cultures.   They have come to a region with a history of outdoor living. 
Perhaps all that has to change, but in changing it, we need to be sensitive to where we are coming from as well as where we are going to.  We will not be able to replicate Parisian street life on an Auckland map.  We may, however, be able to retain and extend the qualities of suburban open space, build the character of urban villages, and avoid the alienation and dislocation that arises from imposing a new model over the old.
Start with who we are and what we’ve got
Let’s start our spatial planning with an appreciation of where we have come from, and of the values that evolve in an environment where urbanisation has been shaped by a geography, history and culture quite removed from those of cities elsewhere. 
We can learn from overseas experience, but we do not have to emulate it. For the moment, we may have heard more than enough from Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Brisbane and Paris.  Me too-ism and echoes of other cities are not what will make this a more attractive place to live. We need more than dialogue around received wisdoms.  It is time to look and listen to what will work for Auckland. 

[1] Of course, density is, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder.  How urban boundaries are determined, what water bodies and parks are included, where edges are drawn – via administrative boundaries in the above figures but it could be according to contiguous development –all make a difference. Based on continuous and contiguous urban areas, the Demographia analysis places metropolitan Paris’ density at 3,300 and Auckland’s at 2,200 people per square kilometre.
[2] Based on

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