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.  


Andrew D Atkin said...

I haven't read this post yet, but I look forward to doing so.

Just wanted to say I think it's always a good idea to post suggested alternatives, because it shows people that business as ususal is not the only other way, and it's intrinsically interesting so it gets attention, I believe.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a good idea to post suggested alternatives, but... I must say that the merits of those alternatives for city & town planning mentioned are ought to be discussed meaningfully.

It is also important to look into the facts first, then analyse the pros and cons of suggested alternatives properly so people like me are better informed about the current realities of political dynamics that have an impact on socio-economic stability.

I am not a friend of those alternatives for city & town planning as mentioned above: it is just unfair to people who currently live in a particular city like, say, Auckland (New Zealand), especially low-income ones.

It is not until meaningful discussions are taking place to tackle the real issues affecting both urban and rural areas around the world currently. It is no time for daydreaming for such alternatives. It is time to take action and forget the animosity over the so-called "smart growth" philosophy. Better roll up the sleeves, ladies and gentlemen, because change can be a little more different than the what those alternatives suggest.

Mr. McDermott, please read the questions as carefully as possible:

1) How much the actual costs of the urban & rural planning alternatives?

2) How many people live and work in a city or suburb or rural town?

3) Do you realise how important the true merits of safer personal and public mobility are?

... more question are coming up next.

Phil McDermott said...

Thanks for your comments, Anonymous.
I agree with you that we need to analyse systematically the costs and benefits of alternative forms of urban development and consider who carries them. I have not calculated the costs of the alternatives for Aucklansd (I have been involved in it for other places, though). It's not easy but it should be done as best we can and in the open.

Certainly a prescription for urban form which influences how people might live should not be based on "group think" by a select group of planners behind closed doors, many of whom live in conditions quite remote from those they are imposing on others.

Your questions:

(1)I am familiar with the costing exercise behind plans for a compact city for Auckland (done in the 1990s) and can say it was flawed on several grounds, one of which was that it took average rather than marginal costs, which hide the differences. It did not take into account where people might work, or even allow for the land needed to employ them. It did not fully cost the impact of upgrading and expanding old infrastructure, disruption and congestion. It did not consider the displacement costs on poor communities that have to give way to gentrification. And so on.

We cannot get all the costs right, of course, because we cannot predict the future. But we can at least get the debate out in the open.

(2) I have talked about where people live and work in other postings.

(3) Personal safety and security and accessiblity top the list when people are choosing where to live. With a compact city model, those places become much more expensive, which means they become the prerogative of people who are better off.

I would like to give more detail, but its a blog, not a book. I will try to keep the information coming in future postings, and provide some answers to your questions.
Phil McDermott

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is understandable to examine the true pros and cons of urban planning alternatives.

And, Mr. Phil McDermott, maybe you should look more closely at the estimated full costs of undertaking urban redevelopment project in terms of social and economic aspects.

Can you give me more of the actual proof soon?

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Correction: It should have said that "the estimated full costs of undertaking urban redevelopment projects in terms of social and economic aspects".

I hope your blog deserves more time to explain to the general public, including those living and working in Auckland, about the true merits of city and town planning in the world today.

Thank you again, Mr. Phil McDermott.

Andrew D Atkin said...

Anonymous: I personally want to live in a little sunny house with lots of trees and plants and a vegetable patch and NO traffic noise (or very little), with reasonable access to the city.

I would be happy to pay my own way for the lifestyle I want (minus artificial cost inflations) just so long as someone doesn't tell me I have to justify how I live on some abstract measure of "social cost", or the idea of "economic cost" maybe relating to me spending too much time sniffing flowers as opposed to producing and consuming.

My point is we need to be very careful how we define and relate to those social and economic costs, because behind it all is the greater issue of just letting the "market" live the way it wants to live.

Mark said...

Anon and Andrew
People will generally live the way they want to live.
They also bear/pay most of the costs one way or another. I choose to live in an expensive inner suburb, pay higher mortgage cost but lower transportation costs.

And new infrastructure eg waste/stormwater, is always cheaper than retrofits.

Centralised "planning" has a poor success rate in matching people's needs.

there are also interesting social dynamics at play - the 20th century saw the move away from high density inner city slums, out to the suburbs. And really started to create the middle class, and create a better quality of live. Also jobs moved out as well. With changing patterns in employment eg more service jobs/technology for remote working, the jobs will be even more flexible in their ability to locate to where people are.

The creation of the leafy suburb with improved quality of life was not driven by "planners" but by people and their own ambitions.

From where I look Planners have been trying to get the upper hand, and fulfil their wish to "control". We have seen past attempts with the high rise slums in England/parts of the US....and we know the social consequences from those.

This attempt to control, is also ultimately selective, as it can only control the poor, who have limited alternatives. The wealthy can always keep their 1/4 section, or buy a lifestyle block or move to a regional centre such as nelson/Hawkes bay etc - or overseas.

These debates do need to be fact based - and not some artist impression of what we'll get.
There will never be any "quality" developments along an above rail corridor. the same with a busy arterial roads - no amount of artist's impressions will alter that.

Anonymous said...

Some good ideas but really it's just promoting sprawl and a really big highway across Auckland in cute language. 100km city hmm might need to rethink that one, that just emphasizes the need for private transport for now and in the future which with increasing fuel prices is only going to hurt pockets and the environment.

I also have concern about them wanting to separate people and traffic in the CBD when this usually just generates dodgey walkways that are really unsafe (Beach road to Anzac Ave in the city = you will be mugged). May or Len Brown's emphasis on shared space is a much better idea in my eyes and had been really successful in town. This idea is also reinforced by Bently et al 'Responsive Environments'... AKA planning 101.

Phil McDermott said...

Thanks, anonymous. The issue of safe cities is an important one, and its not just about separation of traffic or creation of walkways. There is a lot of work going into building safety into design. Shared spaces is certainly part of that; so is ensuring the city is busy through much of the night. Good meeting places, lighting, avoiding massing buildings, diverse uses, good view shafts, etc. All of that has to be applied to the CBD as well as suburan centers.

The highway you are worried about already exists - its just a bit tight in places. And without good arterial roads, we cannot have good public transport because buses need roads to run on and are much more flexible and offer greater capacity than heavy rail. We may have to fit light rail into those same corridors one day.

But we will still have private vehicles one way or another - its only a very small minority of trips that head nto the CBD after all - and even fewer that will be dashing from one end to the other of our 100km highway.

We are talking about using what we have more effectively and by concentrating it (arterial roads, decentralised intensification) creating a city that works for a lot more people than a consolidated city focused heavily on the CBD. What we are suggesting would enable Auckland to become truly green and liveable.

June 17, 2011 6:01 PM

Sam Coutts said...

Thank you for posting this.
Phil have you seen "a convenient truth: urban solutions from curitiba"
The aforementioned movie shows how curitiba did something similar to what you are prescribing.
i agree with your article, im unsure on the cost of a project like this, but i would like to see corridors being set in place for future transport and green belts.

Andrew D Atkin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew D Atkin said...

Hi again,

I like this vision a lot. It's also common sense because it proposes to accommodate real demand.

Carrying on from your theme, I will just say I have always liked the idea of separating main roads from cul-de-sac type developments using trees and fauna. So, all main roads are bordered with, say, 20 meters of greenery - not houses. You get consistent isolation of traffic noise from residential areas, nice looking commutes, and better scenery alround. Some might think that's inefficient but it isn't...

Consuming more land but with trees surely cannot be argued to be an eco-problem, and the increased commute distance is almost irrelevant because it will not increase stop-and-go operation. Distance does not need to be costly in itself (something too many people refuse to realise!).

As for rail lines - okay, so maybe we have to have it. If so, then we must work as best we can with it. Network-based full automation cars can function as a feeder system for rail (and bus), particularly applicable for rail-supported low density developments.

Here's a good update for this developing technology:

Anonymous said...

It is very important to ordinary people like me to discuss the true merits pertaining the so-called "smart growth" because, I suspect, environmentalism remains to be a challenge to economic and social development - and it is clear for me (personally) that those who believe in liberal democracy, "libertarianism", "unhindered economic growth and social progress" and other stuff like that.

Can you give me the info about "smart gowth", Mr. McDermott? Thank you so much.

P.S.: I am so concerned about the marginalisation of the role the family, the role of institutions of traditional authority, the role of good values and cultures, etc. in the face of current situations, especially behind the impact of secularisation on a particular society, but that is another story to tell.

Honestly, we really need smart people, including those who know what a constitutional monarchy is all about, to tackle the situation facing today's society.