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.
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 visionThe 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.