Sunday, July 14, 2013

City of bites: urban design and eating in Auckland

The café culture in action
For some time now Auckland’s planners and politicians have been spending up on the central business district to attract people back to the city.  A major element of the CBD sell has been the attraction of a burgeoning café, bar, and restaurant culture. 

Well, as I said a year or so ago, it’s working:

The irony is that the new Queen Street reflects the inner city café and restaurant culture so extolled by those who promote central city revitalisation: Queen Street from Mayoral Drive north looks and smells a bit like a glorified food court, a strip of fast food joints, where inner city residents and visitors can wander up and down and grow fat.”

And now KFC wants to join the 42 fast food outlets counted by a Herald reporter on Queen Street, the heart of the CBD.  (This count excludes ethnic food shops - I have no idea what the moral or nutritional grounds were for this exclusion). 

Better design equals better eating??
How reassuring that Auckland Council is responding to this travesty of taste.  Its urban design champion Ludo Campbell-Reid said it would speak to KFC in an attempt to avoid ‘visual pollution’. 

Because evidently we’re not getting the eating culture that Mr Campbell-Reid expected or intended.  He says that there is still work to be done to see a “better mix of retail and healthy eateries”.  

"In the future, wouldn't it be amazing if there were restaurants in the middle of the street (and) the street was closed to the traffic in places? Wouldn't that be wonderful if people were able to sit outside and there would be high-end restaurants like the French Cafe, but also cheap and cheerful as well?"

Well good luck.  Let’s not let economics get in the way of good design; that way we can spend even more public money on urban design solutions to problems of public taste.

It’s all about demand and supply
It’s fine to take the nutritional high ground – and I empathise with obesity experts concerned that takeaways on Queen Street are contributing to growing waistlines. But that’s about personal taste and means, market offerings and messages, education, and perhaps even food regulation, but not urban design.  It’s about what individuals choose (and can afford) to eat.

Anyway, the proliferation of fast food cafes is not surprising.  The development of new, up-market precincts off Queen Street promoted by the Council to pander to middle class tastes has left something of a vacuum there.  Couple this with the restructuring of retailing and what is a poor Queen Street landlord to do?

Well, an obvious option is to lift yields on high value properties losing business to other precincts by intensification: subdividing and refurbishing ground floor space to increase rentals.  And it just so happens that fast food outlets (and trinket shops) can generally attract enough custom to carry the resulting small space rentals. 

And don’t forget that the Council supported this restructuring of Queens St retailing with a $43 million facelift aimed at making the street more pedestrian friendly.

And now they seem worried that it is not leading to the Auckland – or Aucklanders – that the designers evidently want.

But others seem to be more than happy with it – some lease the space out, others take up the leases, and yet others consume the goods.

Beer and burger, cocktails, coffee and desert
Coincidentally, there was a neat little advertisement placed in Canvas Magazine in the weekend Herald by “BIG Little City”.  This is the central city marketing campaign funded by Auckland's Downtown Business Association, Heart of the City.  Heart of the City is funded primarily by rates targeted on inner city properties.

The advertisement listed “191 reasons to love your city” (for city, read CBD).  It’s not a bad advertisement, and I have no problem with the BIG Little City campaign.

But here’s the interesting bit.  At least 98 of the reasons involve food or drink (or both), with plenty of pizzas, burgers, sweets and beers among them.  (The figure may be higher – I couldn’t quite work out some of the offerings).  The other reasons, incidentally, covered mainly movies and shows, beauty treatments and shopping. Nothing unique in that lot.

Selling the CBD – our very own city of bites
So how are we selling Auckland’s CBD?  Why, as a great place for a bite and a shake, or a beer.  And that’s exactly what Queen Street is offering.  It may not be to your personal taste, and it may not be particularly healthy.  But does that make the more expensive off-Queen Street bars and restaurants, their steaks, pork bellies, desserts, wines and liqueurs any more healthy or any less indulgent? 

Is that what defines Auckland?
So let’s not get too precious about our CBD.  Surely we don’t plan to design a city that excludes half the population? The 2006 Census showed that 48% of Aucklanders earned less than $30,000 a year.  (The median was $26,000). I doubt that many of them could afford the French café, or even cheap and cheerful restaurants offering al fresco dining in the middle of main street. 

And by the way, the 191 reasons to love our city apply to most largish cities in the world.  That’s okay – it’s good to remind Aucklanders, at least, that our city stacks up on measures of middle class living.  But it’s not going to sell Auckland to others.

An alternative vision
The 191 reasons aren’t going to make Auckland’s CBD stand out from the pack.  Perhaps a livelier, less indulgent, and more diverse downtown is called for (check out Wellington waterfront for an example).  Let’s have more action, assert our city of sails, indulge in our distinctive seascape and landscape, and acknowledge, embed, and celebrate our city’s Pacific and Polynesian heritage.  The real Auckland is a smorgasbord of places, people, and experiences, not just a smorgasbord.

So if we must get down to micro-planning (and I don’t think we should), let’s plan for urban spaces and amenities that are inclusive rather than aiming for a sanctuary of gentility remote from the real Auckland.

And let's recognise that cities, like eating, are a bit messy: and that we can't urban design them to order.



Matt said...

Yes indeed, great cities are a little bit messy and unplanned.
One tires of these bureaucratic "arbiters of taste"! Surely the key thing that urban designers should be interested in is urban vibrancy.
Queen St is not perfect, so what! (perfect is boring). It is vibrant and energetic, and it is not difficult to find plenty of quality eateries on it or just off it.

Mark said...

Good points
When we first did CBD strategy, we resisted all the calls for "precincts" planners love them - and they have clawed back the education qtr, but things change - as they must. The key was to lay down the framework in physical upgrades, around good design, and stand back.
When people want planned everything, I always think about Canberra!