Monday, February 14, 2011

Hey, city planners, there is no silver bullet

Encarta: Silver bullet – a magical solution to a problem
Malling Queen St
Interesting article in Monday’s NZ Herald by Brian Rudman.  Making Queen Street into a pedestrian friendly mall won’t fix the tired hick town look, he says.  I agree.  And, as he also says, we have just finished spending $43+ million giving it a makeover, of sorts.  What did that achieve?  Are visitor numbers up?  Have landlords spruced up their facades?  Are retailers reporting more sales?  It’s still a canyon, admittedly with some new pavers and trees. 
But really, the idea that we can resuscitate the Golden Mile and create a place for promenading or a 1.5 km boulevard for shopping - or perhaps even both – is a nonsense.  It’s out of touch.  That’s not how we do it nowadays.  We can promenade in parks or on the water’s edge.  And we can shop in malls or the town centres  and villages that are beginning to breathe again, where we can park our cars and get so much more bought in a single visit.
Anyway, the city is no longer just about shopping.  It’s about recreation and entertainment, culture and  people, meeting and eating, looking and being looked at, and maybe a little indulgent retail therapy here and there.
Shooting up Main Street
There is no silver bullet for fixing up Main Street, or for making a gee whiz central city around it (along it?).  It’s nice to have the hired guns ride in to tell us how they cleaned up the last town or two.  Let’s give them a respectful hearing. But they don’t live here, and we don’t live there.  We don’t need to swallow the Next Big Idea lock stock and barrel.
Queen Street is no longer the heart of Auckland, although it’s still an important artery.  It is no longer what defines us or the city, and hasn’t been for a long time now.  It’s had its day, although it still has a useful role to play.
Hot Spotting
What might really make a difference to Auckland are the distinctive bits, the real hot spots.  We have a burgeoning civic and cultural centre stretching from the Art Gallery, through the Library (yes) the Town Hall, to Aotea Square, the Civic Theatre, and the Edge.  We could work on tying that lot together a bit better and pumping new life into it.  Make it easier to traverse.  Some street art and signage perhaps.  More activity.  An artists’ display area.  An ethnic foods precinct.  An artisans’ corner.  Let the people in and go with their ideas so that the centre never sleeps.  After all, this is the heart of our multi-culture.
And Karangahape Rd; there’s a place of character with its own distinctive subculture.  Perhaps it would be more so if we had alternative to the slog up Queens St by connecting our cultural hearth at Aotea Square with our other half via Myers Park and St Kevin’s Arcade.
And Quay St, another place where people could spend a lot more time as we open up the waterfront.  Especially if we don’t ruin it by turning Queens Wharf into an Occasional Event Centre. We have to think a bit more about how to get people across from the Britomart Transport Terminal, though, and take a more expansive view of where the people’s waterfront might begin and end and what we might do to get more of them there more of the time.  
And then there’s the Viaduct Basin.  We seem to have built it to hide it (shame that).  Let’s exploit that now, and keep it that way – Auckland’s little downtown secret and big surprise, a seafarers’ (and party goers’) delight, tucked just around the corner.  A centre of global yachting, and a destination out on its own. 

And we might even end up with something decent in the Beaumont Quarter (if we can keep its character).  And we’ve got Ponsonby Rd, Kelly Tarltons, and Mission Bay.  So Auckland’s already got the hot spots, although presumably could do with more.  (I often think we need to create a place for our kids in the city; where could we do that, and how?  And I don’t just mean movie theatres and internet cafes.
Streets doing what streets are meant to do
All Queen St does is join some of these spots together.  And that’s okay, although maybe it could be done with more panache.
The message is – think in nodes and links.  Because as the hot spots get hotter, more people will wander up and down the old dame, and other streets, between them.  Slick landlords or retailers on the corridors between the hot spots will be doing what they can to capture the passers by – and that is what will jazz the streets up.  
Look at what happened to Willis St, Manners St and even the newly funky Chews Lane in Wellington when the notion of the Golden Mile was finally put to rest in the capital.  And Wellington has plenty of hot spots – the government centre, Lambton Harbour and Queens Wharf, Courtney Place, Cuba Mall – each a hub of attraction and activity, jointly leading to a nice job of sprucing up, if not transforming, the links between them.
Get the hot spots humming 

So if we want to make Auckland something distictive let’s put our planning and design– and public money, if we must – into the hot spots; build on our strengths, and let the links look after themselves.  We don’t have to do it all at once.  We don’t need a Master Plan -- or even a roaming gun for hire -- to tell us what to do.  A series of small projects, a nudge here and there, and a vision of the central city as a series of places rather than as a map might help.  Urban design might say something about our pasts, our presents, and our futures.  That means its good to improvise and build as we go.  Its not a magical solutoin, but it could be fun.
If it means reducing cars in key parts of the city, that’s fine, too.  Just do it subtly.  Longer pedestrian phases on intersections is an easy start.  More shuttle buses would help.  Reducing lanes, increasing parking charges.  There are plenty of ways without throwing our money at more bricks and mortar.
Auckland – a city of hot spots.  And hopefully, in due course, some quirky byways between them.
But don’t pretend that the big ideas, the big hits will deliver.  Marshall your ammunition – pick your targets carefully, and pick them off as time, money, and inspiration allow.  But forget the silver bullet.

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