Tuesday, June 21, 2011

After the quake: old new town solution for new overspill problem

Post war London, England 1970s Canterbury, New Zealand?
In 1974 central planners came up with the idea that development of the small rural service centre, Rolleston, 25km from the CBD, as a “new town” would help accommodate the growth of Christchurch City.  Not long living in the UK at the time, I had looked closely at the new towns north and east of London and argued that the initiative was unjustified.

The post-war new towns in South East England were intended to take up some of the growth pressures on London, containing its expansion and relieving the highly stressed housing situation in the capital.  The new towns were intended to cater for London's overspill, but to be as self-sufficient in employment terms as possible.  There was also a commitment to a “mixed social class”, a reaction against the social problems associated with large, undifferentiated working class housing estates in London.  [1]

The new towns were built around long-standing garden city principles, but to a young kiwi did not appear particularly attractive.  To my mind, it made little sense to transfer the concept to Christchurch, with its more modest growth and scale, different housing and lifestyles, wide open spaces, mountain vistas, and ready access to the coast.  

Rolleston Vistas
(Images, Steve Busson)
It was already committed through various planning documents to moderating growth on the edges.  In the Port Hills there is a natural green buffer to the south while the Waimakariri River flood plain forms a natural boundary to the north. 

Rolleston new town was a solution in search of a problem.  It did not go ahead. 

But that was then
It did not stop Rolleston growing in its own right, especially over the past fifteen years, nor the other rural towns of Canterbury.  Consequently the districts surrounding Christchurch City, Waimakariri and Selwyn, have been among the country’s fastest growing in recent times, a reflection of the attraction of their small towns for people seeking an affordable lifestyle, a sense of community, and the convenience of proximity to Christchurch City.
Perhaps now is the time to revisit the idea of coordinated growth focused on these small settlements close to Christchurch, or even in greenfield sites that offer better prospects of geological stability than the city’s ruptured and traumatised eastern suburbs.

Can east move west?
Any such solution cannot be simply mandated and imposed on the suffering communities east of the Christchurch CBD today: if people displaced by the earthquakes of the past nine months are to stay in and around the city, they need to have a say in where and what sort of community they might move to.  The sort of wholesale dislocation they face may require the powers and capacity of central government to initiate and facilitate solutions, but the community has to be central to any relocation exercise.  And perhaps whole community solutions are required, not sot hat they prevent individuals from taking their own measures, but which enable communities to work together to find solutions that they may share. 

What I am suggesting is the transfer of communities -- groups of households -- into the 21st century equivalent of the new town west of Christchurch.

The institutional framework may have be revamped for the purpose – the Earthquake Commission, the insurance companies, government agencies, even the banks working together to best discharge their individual and joint liabilities and responsibilities; while the people and professionals work together to shape the city of the future.  There may be an opportunity to work together to create an affordable and very liveable alternative.
The township alternative
I have already suggested that Christchurch’s best shot may be decentralised intensification, suburbs focused on human scale community centres, linked by wide avenues or boulevards.  Add to this mix subtly worked new towns or villages, not of the scale of a Crawley, Basildon, or Stevenage in southeast England, but something fitting the Canterbury landscape and Christchurch people. 

Such developments bring with them real lifestyle advantages in an attractive physical setting.   This is what the similarly attractive shire of Margaret River in Western Australia is doing with its town site and rural hamlet strategies; establishing a human scale, low impact alternative to extensive urbanisation in a popular growth area.  It is doing this, interestingly, with the help of Auckland-based Common Ground urban designers.
Tying it together the Curitiba way
We can add to this vision.  Away from the eastern suburbs the garden city survives around its avenues, as attractive as ever.  Its suburban and town centres are likely to play a bigger role, though, with employment and retailing potentially dispersed throughout the city even more in the future than in the past.

That is not to detract from the CBD.  Christchurch has a commitment to rebuilding its CBD as the heart of the region.  This may be in a moderate density, medium-rise manner (and let’s face it, high rise building in Christchurch has been the exception in the past, and will be a lot harder to justify in the future). 

What we will have to think about, though, is how to tie the CBD back to more self-sufficient neighbourhoods, and to growing satellite villages and townships.  Sam Coutts drew our attention to what Curitiba has achieved.  This is a sustainable city built around wide boulevards that provide green corridors and capacity for a variety of transport modes (the city relies heavily on bus transit), green spaces and extensive parks and gardens to manage and contain floods and cater for a population living in relatively high density housing, and efficiently networked services.  Even though Curitiba is bigger than Christchurch (with a population approaching 2,000,000), it offers ideas and inspiration about what can be achieved in a sustainable 21st century city located  ina dynamic physical environment. 
This is now
I sometime wonder whether as it has grown, urban planning in places like New Zealand, with advanced urbanisation, maturing cities, modest growth, and reasonable levels of wealth and income, has had too little to do.  In seeking out problems to solve it has concentrated increasingly on process and minutiae (in the name of growth management, perhaps?) 

But today Christchurch has real problems, and they are big ones.  It is time to rise above the detail, to cut through undue process, and to act with a combination of vision and conviction.  Now the public and private sectors, citizens and their institutions need to put practical solutions in place.  There do not even appear to be many options to debate.  Going west, the 1974 solution, may just be the one Christchurch has to adopt in 2011.

[1]               Heraud B (1966) “The New Towns and London’s Housing Problem” Urban Studies, 2, 8-22

Thursday, June 9, 2011

An alternative to compacting Auckland

Envisioning an alternative

David Wilson (Director of the  Institute of Public Policy at the Auckland University of Technology, Dushko Bogunovich Associate Professor of Urban Design at Unitec Institute of Technology and I got together recently to make a submission of the Discussion Document outlining Auckland Council’s aspirations for its spatial plan.

The submission canvassed some common ground between our interests in economic development, urban design, urban form and land use.  It suggests an alternative to a prevailing vision constrained by commitment to a compact city. 
Our aim was not to provide another prescription, though, but to suggest what might happen if we start with Auckland's own geography and culture.  We wanted to create a vision that is distinctly Auckland in the 21st century rather than an aspiration simply to do better here what has already been done elsewhere. 

It’s easy to criticise the mainstream – sadly it can be too easy sometimes.  It’s not so easy to articulate an alternative.  Here’s a shortened version of our attempt.

Our submission

There are limitations to developing a compact city because of Auckland’s geography.  If we want the world’s most liveable city we should exploit the green and blue spaces that penetrate and punctuate its distinctive form.  Rather than urban containment we favour development that recognises the linear nature of Auckland’s setting, its extensive rural hinterland, dramatic coastal and bush-clad edges, and the desire of some residents and businesses to locate ‘outside the city but not too far’.  A combination of low impact development and decentralised intensification allows growth while respecting the physical setting.

Green urban form could provide entrepreneurial and economic opportunities and make Auckland more attractive. Respecting geography and committing to a green city can lead to an indigenous urbanism not beholden to Europe.  Auckland’s design should be about space, sea and sky; weather and vegetation; and openness.  We don’t need the tight, stone-paved spaces of a Siena or Salzburg.

The CBD will only be distinctive if we create more green space, and highlight our indigenous, settler, and Pacific cultures.  Public investment and design should focus on spaces of merit and accessibility.  The amazing thing about the CBD is that wherever you are, nature is there - through views and proximity to volcanoes, harbours, beaches and parks, and in constantly changing weather.

Increased living in the CBD has been driven by built form that has subtracted from urban design and city character with featureless apartment blocks either on ridges or barricading the harbour edge.  We need a design response to halt and offset this partial privatisation of our best public spaces through innovative approaches to what we’ve got left.  A quality living environment might include green, people-focused corridors separated from vehicle focused streets; pockets of parks and play; and more opportunities for street life (markets, static and performing art).  Quality and liveability should permeate the entire CBD.

The Suburbs: Let’s apply really good urban design to where most people live already and will do so for the foreseeable future.  We need sustainable suburbs developed around town centres, urban villages, quality streets, public spaces and community amenities. 

The New Urban Spaces in the northwest and south need urban design that promotes local containment: coherent urban centres, village centres, quality common spaces, alternative local transport networks (cycleways, walkways), stream and stream edge restoration, gardens and bush plantings.  They also need good local links between where people live and where they might work.  And planning should ensure that they might have the opportunity to work locally, not a 60 or more minute commute to the CBD or, more often, to the other side of the city.

Beyond the Fringe: Natural linear form conforming to Auckland’s topography is readily achievable through the growth of towns and settlements like Wellsford and Warkworth, Helensville and Huapai, Pukekohe and Pokeno.  Some of these, and more, can be allowed to grow giving more people better access to our natural environment, while taking advantage of our main road and rail corridors.

The arterial transport network should be generous in dimensions and sufficiently flexible to accommodate future advances in, for example, electric vehicles, light rail, improved bus design and performance.  Wide corridors might accommodate low impact modes (walking, mobility vehicles, cycles), segregate heavy traffic, promote greenways, and provide generous separation from housing. 

The design of this arterial network should allow for the increased flows that will eventuate with a more integrated system of northern North Island production and settlement and the expansion of Hamilton, Tauranga, and Whangarei – and smaller settlements – as joint drivers of economic development.

Our vision
The long-term shape of Auckland could be a 100 km-long 'city'.  It would retain one clear major centre – a green CBD – but there could be a dozen secondary city centres. They would lie from north to south – like pearls on the chain – along a natural central spine.  They would be urban in appearance.  They would be separated by the greens of farmland, town belts, and parks, but well connected by private and public transport.

This alternative vision builds on reality: Aucklanders live on an isthmus and that shapes our choices.  (Some live on an isthmus within an isthmus).  The completion of the western ring motorway and planned investment in the rail – if it happens -- will only reinforce the north-south development of the city, its region, and its hinterland. It is hard to imagine planning policies that could force change on this natural geography without compounding congestion and costs.
We can have a future in which settlements of various sizes (towns, villages, kainga, hamlets) all contribute to Auckland's capacity and character.   Some could accommodate 20,000 people or more with a little smart design. This would also open up greenfield potential for business land close to major arterial routes and labour markets while allowing people to live closer to the natural environment which is the mark of Auckland’s character and the key to its liveability.