Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sustaining the Suburbs

Save our suburbs, save our cities
The proposition is simple, if not overwhelming.  If we want sustainable cities – however you define “sustainable” – we had better put some effort into the quality of suburban life.  We need to get over denigrating suburbs as sprawl.  That simply ducks the issue of where and how most people spend most of their time.  We need to moderate a preoccupation with promoting CBD and big centre lifestyles.  Those are places that people want visit, but not necessarily where they want to live.

Come back Jane, our suburbs need you
It’s fifty years now since Jane Jacobs’ landmark book about saving North American cities from themselves.  She argued against the prevailing push for urban renewal as displacing communities and destroying street life with motorways, car parks, and bland commercial development.  Jacobs’ writing and her activism inspired a resistance credited with saving inner city villages, helping retain the human character of large cities, and inspiring a generation of urban designers and planners. 

There is no doubt that the Jacobs message took hold in New Zealand.  It’s become compelling since the crash of ‘87 slowed down the razing of inner city blocks and marked the beginning of the end of the white collar CBD.  Hanging on to what we've got is one way to stop the hollowing out.

Unfortunately, today’s call for central city mega projects on which to stake a claim to an international presence and the push for large scale CBD residential development on which to stake a claim to environmental stewardship run the risk of reversing the gains to inner city life.  High rise apartments, tracts of high density housing, and grandiose civic plans risk undermining the essence of the central city in the same way as urban renewal and freeways once did.
But that’s not what this posting is about.  The reality is that the bulk of our populations live in the suburbs; the suburbs that are growing the most; and that’s where we need to promote the capacity for people to live fulfilling lives.  That’s where today we need to promote street life and be wary of the threats posed by the new urbanists and their grand plans for intensification.

Most people still live in the suburbs
Its obvious that most people still live a suburban life.  But that doesn't seem to be appreciated by the people who plan our cities today, even as the number of suburban residents keeps growing.
Look at the three metropolitan areas in New Zealand, not big by international standards, but nevertheless reflecting an entrenched trend in the developed world – a move to decentralise.  The numbers say it all. 

Over the last 14 years population growth has been totally dominated by the suburbs.  In Auckland, the inner city accounted for only 6% of a 326,000 person increase.  In other words, 305,000 opted to live in the suburbs and beyond, compared with 21,000 in the central city.  In Christchurch, the CBD accounted for just 1% of population growth and the rest of the inner city 2%.  Wellington, the capital city with a distinctively constrained setting did much better, but a revitalised CBD still accounted for just 10% of population growth. [1]

Population Growth in the Central City: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, 1996-2010

Source: Statistics New Zealand

And they still favour the outer suburbs
Let’s break this down a little further.  Greater Christchurch Urban Development Strategy Partners ( came up with a plan for consolidating the city.  This includes policies promoting central city living or living around established commercial centres and development contained largely within metropolitan limits.  Well, we can see the warning signs for this sort of thinking from the very small share of recent growth in the inner city.  It seems that the new plan is set to fly in the face of recent experience.   
And if we divide Christchurch's suburbs into three groups (inner, outer, and periphery) we find the decentralising tendency that it is set against is even stronger . [2]

Population Growth in Christchurch Suburbs, 1996-2010

The peripheral suburbs on the city fringes have led growth rates, while the outer suburbs have led absolute growth.  (That’s if we overlook the fact that the small towns in Christchurch’s hinterland left out of this analysis have grown at even faster rates, with the adjoining districts two of the fastest three growth areas in New Zealand).
Does it make sense to stem this pressure?  Not if we want the cities to continue to grow, because the majority of people clearly favour suburban living, and that’s where the greatest capacity for accommodating them lies. 

So while it’s exciting to record rapid growth rates of population gain in our inner cities, policy makers really need to make sure we are doing the right thing by our suburbs. 

Places to live ...
This may mean, for example, ensuring that we don’t sacrifice too many of the green spaces to high density housing: our suburbs also need to breathe.  If we want to lift densities, then terraced units and the occasional low rise apartment may be all we need.  They are probably the most easily achieved forms of intensification in areas where consolidating sites is notoriously difficult and where existing residents will fight to preserve existing character. 

Better still may be judicious development of greenfield sites, where we can boost densities by applying the principles of Smart Growth without destroying what people value about what went before, without overloading existing facilities and infrastructure, creating attractive public and private realms, and potentially enhancing rather than trashing biodiversity, water and air quality.

Places to work ...
We will also need to promote neighbourhood centres to ensure that they can accommodate diverse activities and services, that they are easy to get to and get around, well appointed and vibrant.  They may even become the focus of modest park and ride facilities, the framework around which flexible public transport within and beyond the neighbourhood can best be delivered. 
It may be timely to review what in our planning provisions force people to make regular cross-city journeys to work, and whether this can be changed through more decentralised employment. 

Places to play ...
While local centres are becoming the focus of community and neighbourhood commerce and culture, suburban parks and gardens will also have a role to play.  We need good spaces close to the majority of homes for sport and recreation, and safe local places for families and children to gather.   

We might more actively protect some of the informal spaces in our suburbs, and take a broad view of what constitutes heritage in doing so.  We may have to protect landscapes and structures because they are iconic in local areas, not because we believe they may have national or international significance.  Where they don’t exist, we may even have to create the landmarks, the parks and town belts, and the structures that reinforce local identity and culture.
Strong suburbs for a strong CBD
By allowing more things to happen in the suburbs without overloading them with bland residential development or tracts of mixed use that fall between urban design stools, we have an opportunity to advance the planners’ live-work-play mantra, and to enhance the sustainability of our cities. 

Ultimately, it is the quality of day-to-day life in a city and its capacity to attract and hold skilled and motivated people that will determine its prosperity.  And it is those people and that prosperity that will underwrite the health of the CBD.  Without strong suburbs, we cannot sustain a strong CBD.

[1]            For this exercise, the following council areas were counted, Kapiti, Porirua, Upper and Lower Hutt, and Wellington City.
[2]           This classification omits the largely rural Banks Peninsula which is quite separate from the metropolitan area.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why compact cities aren't so smart

More advocacy for a compact city
I was interested to read the views of Rick Boven of the New Zealand Institute about central and local government needing to resolve their differences about the future of Auckland.  Well, they have worked on that since the establishment of GUEDO in 2005 (now the Auckland Policy Office). 

But that’s not what the article was really about.  Under the pretext of calling for “new ways of working together” Rick promotes urban containment and greater train travel for Auckland’s future. Well, we’ve heard all that before.
What Rick may have noticed by way of differences is not a failure of cooperation, but growing realisation that the old prescription for a compact Auckland is not working.  And while it may pain me to say so, in this instance the centre may be looking ahead, while the city continues to look to the past.  Any differences, Rick, arise from diverging views, not from a failure to work together.

Fallacies and frailties
And in this case I’m on the side of the centre.

I’ve picked away at the frailties of urban consolidation planning previously.  I can’t put it all together in one blog. But consider the following propositions about the compact city:
  • A focus on centralisation guarantees congestion;
  • A focus on centralisation reduces green space and concentrates urban pollution;
  • Consolidation prejudices old infrastructure, increasing overload and the risk of failure;
  • A focus on rail transit escalates costs, reduces flexibility, and caters for only a minority of trips among even those (relatively few) households that have ready access to it;
  • A focus on rail transit commits us to developing unattractive brownfield sites with high remediation costs if we intend to increase residential densities nearby;
  • A commitment to centralisation and higher densities increases vulnerability to extreme climatic events, rising sea levels, and other natural disasters;
  • Medium to high density living is socially flawed, as it is associated with transience, increased urban crime, diminished quality of life, and loss of a sense of community, especially for households in middle to lower income brackets (and, ultimately, razing of failed apartment blocks);
  • The market does not favour medium to high density housing unless well located, well appointed, and therefore out of the price range of most households;
  • Refurbishment and restoration of inner city suburbs for higher density living leads to gentrification that displaces lower income households;
  • Mixed use developments reduce the amount and push up the price of land for business while lowering the quality of life of residents;
  • Limiting new business land and expecting to take up new employment by increasing densities on existing sites forces up business costs, reducing the attractiveness of investment and competitiveness of business.
None of this makes compact city policies look very smart.

Pushing for alternatives
The current council vision is for Auckland to be the world’s most liveable city.  Well, we won’t achieve that by “me-too” urban consolidation.  Don’t forget, in the corporate world consolidation is a defensive strategy, associated with stagnation not growth, holding the line, not forging ahead.

A better answer may be to take advantage of our distinctive physical environment and make sure that our urban form complements and takes advantage of it as we move ahead.

Here are some very broad ideas.
Allow decentralisation to continue.  It’s happening, don’t fight it.  Provide for it.  That means ensuring that people can meet most of their needs close to where they live.  A sustainable city won’t work without sustainable suburbs.  These should be at the heart of our plans.  And some of them might just have to spill over the urban limits.  Now there’s a real opportunity to practice some innovative urban design.

Let the city breathe:   We want a CBD which stands out among cities.  Well, by promoting sustainable suburbs we can lay off simply playing with structures and instead seize the opportunity to restore a green (and blue) heart to our city.  A timid but worthy start was made to Queen Street with the (re)introduction of Nikau palms, but we can go a lot further than that.  Barry Lett had great idea for the radical conversion of mid-Queen Street and Myers Park into an urban garden.  What a great place to visit!
If we take the pressure off forcing housing into the CBD, among other things, we could do a lot more of that.  We could think seriously about creating a pedestrian precinct the length of Queen Street. I would also push for my hot spots to be green – and forge walkways and cycle ways among them.  We could better Integrate the CBD with the quality areas around it.  On the harbour front we need to find ways to cross Quay Street, for example, to merge water and land.  We might start by taking note of Lambton Harbour in Wellington, and how it blends hard and soft surfaces, restores the harbour edge, and creates a place for all people. 

Develop Smart Sub-Urbs:  Forget Jane Jacobs’ nostalgia for the lost American city.  Those images belong to another age and another place.  Our life, our cultures, and our communities are in the suburbs.  Let’s ensure that strong communities can develop and thrive around urban villages and suburban centres throughout Auckland. 
If we are serious about sustainability, the suburbs are where it must happen. Here we can deliver smart urban design, strengthen social relationships, and provide capacity for improving the quality of life at all levels.  It’s also at a sub-regional if not suburban level that labour markets operate most efficiently, and employment opportunities might best be promoted.

And while we’re at it, we need to make sure that the suburbs are well interconnected by generous arterial corridors. This call for some difficult retrofitting.  It may mean reviewing how we use motor-ways; thinking more creatively about buses and bus-ways; and getting over an all-consuming desire to focus everything on the CBD, turning it into a giant interchange instead of a great destination.

Launch the Satellites: Some of the best places to live in Auckland are beyond the bounds.  We seem so desperate to cling to urban limits that we ignore the fact that people like Auckland because of what lies beyond them. Let’s see if we can encourage smart growth in places like Warkworth, Bombay, Pokeno, Wellsford and Drury, Beachlands, Pukekohe, and others.  Let our rural villages prosper, too. These are all places where we could do some exciting planning and design.  And let’s make sure that we have wide, green corridors linking them, corridors that can cater for whatever modes of transport the future might throw at them – electric cars, light rail, and the like.

There’s more, but I’m over my word limit.  If nothing else, let’s lift the discourse so that our ideas begin to match our aspirations.  The last thing we need to do, Rick, is to get together to recycle the old stuff.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Where do the children play?

   Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air
                              But will you keep building higher, till there’s no room up there
Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry
                    Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?
Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam (1970)

Are compact cities healthy cities?
One argument for compact cities is that they are good for our health.  The New Zealand Public Health Advisory Committee in 2008, for example, cited four principles for healthy urban planning based on the density of development: urban regeneration; compact growth; focused decentralisation; and linear concentration.  The aim is less time in cars and more use of active transport.

One objective of Auckland’s Regional Growth Strategy, with its emphasis on CBD and centre-focused residential growth is “safe and healthy communities”.  But how far can that be achieved through residential intensification?  Does regulating for a compact city work for everyone?  Everywhere? 
Kids and consolidation
Research by Penelope Carroll and Karen Witten of Massey University, summarised here and in a recent article in The Aucklander, highlights the disadvantages for children in the inner city. 

Witten and Carroll suggest that traffic volumes, strangers on the street, and lack of outdoor play space mean that children in central city environments are likely to be confined indoors.  And that raises the disadvantages of high density dwellings: insufficient space, internal noise, lack of natural light, lack of privacy, inadequate parking, inadequate indoor play space, and the potentially hazardous nature of balconies.  Poor health outcomes is a major concern.

A key issue for children in compact parts of the compact city is lack of opportunity for outdoor activity.  Heavily trafficked streets are not good for bike riding, or even walking alone.  Auckland’s centre is devoid of segregated cycleways or play areas.  Getting to school or the park is a major mission, and may well need a car trip. 

Even the Auckland Domain, a splendid sprawling park on the CBD fringe, is surrounded by high intensity streets, remote from most central apartments, and is hardly child-friendly.  The much smaller Victoria Park is similarly difficult to access, isolated by major arterial roads.  Albert Park is about the only central green space of note, but this is a throughway between university and town, not an ideal area for children to play. 

Auckland CBD Green Space
Perhaps the well-being of children is not a major issue here, because only around 600 (aged under 15) lived in the CBD in 2006.  But it was up 130% over a decade.  And they do count.

Anyway, the limits of central city living for children – and families – flag more general issues:
  • The need to think seriously about how we cater for families in higher density living generally, in the CBD, in other centres, and in suburbs targeted for intensification;
  • How we provide safe, public green space, areas for play, and ease of movement in high density, mixed use environments; and
  • Just how healthy is the inner city residential for living generally?
CBD living – not so healthy?
The factors potentially stressing children in the CBD impact on adults too.  Research for Auckland City in 2003 (CBD Metadata Analysis by No Doubt Research) suggested dissatisfaction with inner city apartment living came from a diminished sense of security and safety, noise nuisance, small units, absence of outdoor living spaces, and lack of a sense of community. 

In the absence of outdoor recreation space adult residents may get some exercise in the burgeoning gymnasium sector (for between $1,000 and $2,500 a year).  But for many recreational and social activities a car is a necessity.  Simply to take advantage of the key benefits cited for living in Auckland – access to outdoor recreation opportunities, organised sports, beaches, bush and countryside – residential Intensification around centres means more time- and fuel-consuming car trips.

On top of a lack of open useable space the latest State of the Region Report documents the heaviest concentration of air pollutants in and around central Auckland, hardly a healthy living environment.
Central Auckland Haze

 Source: Auckland Regional Council, State of the Region, 2010

Community in the central city
Research by Larry Murphy of the University of Auckland (“Third-wave gentrification in New Zealand: the case of Auckland” Urban Studies 2008, Volume 45) described different communities in the CBD: the well-to-do with their spacious harbour edge apartments (and quite possibly a second home – a beach cottage or lifestyle block – outside the city); the student-dominated quarter to the east; and the low income population to the west.  Families may end up in the latter area, in cramped apartments in featureless apartment blocks, simply for reasons of affordability.

These are transient populations, some 52% of residents in the Central East and Central West Census Area Units had been in their current dwellings for less than a year in 2006.  This compares with 23% in Auckland as a whole.  These particularly high residential mobility figures contradict any suggestion that high density living might create a strong sense of community cohesion.
Okay for some, for some of the time
The CBD works for some people.  The proliferation of downtown bars and entertainment caters particularly for the young and well-to-do.  Gentrification of the harbour-edge works for the professional couple, the wealthy, and out-of-towners.  But the central city is not right for middle or low income households, or families. 

Two key ingredients of a compact city strategy are increasing residential densities and boosting inner city living.  But these raise health and equity issues.  At the least, they call for investment in the quantity and quality of public space in areas targeted for intensification, making potentially big demands on the public purse given the value of land in the CBD and other commercial centres. 

We may just have to acknowledge the benefits of suburban living for some time to come.  And seek opportunities for sustainable development that don’t oblige less well-off families to dwell in small apartments and featureless blocks around busy commercial areas for lack of affordable alternatives.