Photography Meek Zuiderwyk
Auckland Council’s design champion Ludo Campbell-Reid has a lot of passion but less actual power. Can he use his influence to make the city better?
The lobby of Auckland Council’s Albert Street headquarters is like a 1980s pastiche of an imagined future. The former ASB headquarters features an angular, backlit reception desk in front of a veined marble wall and triangular ceiling lights reflected in the highly polished stone floor. Waiting there for Auckland’s design champion, urban designer Ludo Campbell-Reid, I imagine him way, way up this bureaucratic temple as a Wizard of Oz pulling levers, yelling across the room, and orchestrating the life of the Auckland Design Office that he heads.
When he emerges from the lifts, he is instantly recognisable: short and fit (he’s a competitive rower); his head shaved so close he could probably out-slipstream a dolphin. He’s dressed like the ex-Londoner he is: sports jacket; casual slacks; expensive-looking suede shoes; a business shirt tailored just enough to make the most of his stocky torso. His bustling physicality makes “design champion” seem more a kind of pugilistic status than a position of advocacy. Which is, quite possibly, just how he needs to be.
Our interview is conducted as we walk around some of Campbell-Reid’s greatest successes in his decade at the council: the shared spaces in Elliott, Fort and O’Connell Streets, where the streets become footpaths that pedestrians share with cars. It’s hard to remember what a radical move this was in a car-obsessed city, and the payoff has been big, with pedestrian traffic more than doubling in most of these areas, and spending on food, drink and at retail outlets soaring. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though, with the mediocre conversion of Federal Street – which could have been the jewel in the crown – attracting plenty of criticism. Campbell-Reid acknowledges its shortcomings, saying that it’s a “shit street…it’s surrounded by emergency exits, fire escapes,” but promises that “with time, it will be amazing”.
Changes like this – as well as the transformation of Wynyard Quarter, the addition of the Lightpath, and more – haven’t gone unnoticed, with international surveys by Mercer, The Economist Intelligence Unit, and Monocle magazine routinely putting Auckland in the top 20 most liveable cities in the world.
This vision of vibrant urbanity is a far cry from the Auckland Campbell-Reid moved to with his wife and two children in 2006. Back then, he says, it was almost a laughing stock in urban design terms, a place where “people would ridicule us for our [lack of] planning, our architecture, our design, our future thinking.” Now, he says perceptions are changing; the public is starting to buy into what he describes as a “streets revolution, whereby the people of Auckland reclaim their city from the private car”.
Campbell-Reid’s enthusiasm for Auckland’s potential oscillates between passion and near-religious zeal. He seems to speak in a mix of TEDx cliches (“We should be selling our brainpower to the world. We are the first country to wake up on a new day. How about that as a business advantage?”), David Brent-like truisms (“Cities are all about people…”, “It’s both art and science…”, “If you create a liveable city, or improve a city, you make it better. By making it better you therefore make it more desirable…”), and genuinely exciting propositions for the future of Auckland.
He’s equal parts planner, preacher and snake oil peddler, which may be the result of the fact that his role is largely advisory, and his team’s designs are subject to the vagaries of democratic process. It’s his job to convince the real decision makers – the mayor, councillors, Auckland Transport, Ports of Auckland – that good design matters.
As we walk down Wellesley Street, he proudly points out recent planning successes: the massive construction site for central Auckland’s City Rail Link train station, which will create “a fountain of people pumping out of the ground”, and Griffiths Garden, the pop-up garden – with vegetable beds and a fridge with free food – that the Design Office created across the road from it. As we cross Queen Street, he says smarter syncing of the traffic lights now allows more than double the number of pedestrian crossings it did a decade ago.
“Well-designed streets are vibrant, safe, beautiful,” he says, as we reach the Auckland Art Gallery. “Badly designed streets are dangerous, from a pedestrian point of view – ugly, dark, uneventful, boring places where there’s no commerce happening.” Auckland’s urban design approach, you see, is also an economic strategy. “We need a global story, because we’re competing for a global asset,” he says. “It’s called people. Smart people, intelligent people, entrepreneurial people. They could go anywhere in the world. There are many cool cities. So why come here?”
The place desired by many. In the Google era, urban design – particularly the kind practised in Pacific Rim cities like Sydney, San Francisco, Vancouver and Auckland – isn’t just a way to make public space greener, safer and more accessible. The theory is that if we build pretty spaces around our natural harbour assets, brainy new companies will move here, incomes will increase and, presto, all of us will win. So what, I ask, will success look like? “I suppose it’s the transformation of the place,” he says. “It’s both the heart and the head. How do you feel? How do I value how you feel? Do you like this space? Do you feel happy in this space? There’s a lot more data around the world now about the value of happiness, the value of beauty, the value of green trees, wider pavements.” These values, he says, shouldn’t be the preserve of the central city alone. That’s why his Design Office is also focused on projects across the city.
Later, as if to emphasise this point, he stops me in the middle of Victoria Street to look west and imagine a sweeping green space all the way up and over the hill, a scheme that’s recently emerged from the Design Office. “Auckland’s Central Park,” he proclaims, “an extraordinary opportunity to build a new central, green lung, which links Albert Park all the way through to Victoria Park.”
He has other grand dreams, a waterfront stadium among them. He thought the original proposal for a Queen’s Wharf stadium for the 2011 Rugby World Cup “was going to be a game-changer for the waterfront,” and now thinks a revitalised scheme could be part of a strategy to get beyond the port’s red fence, bring 80,000 people at a time into town, and become a big piece in Auckland’s global branding jigsaw. In Phil Goff, he now has a mayor who has at least paid lip service to the idea.
The ports, of course, have been standing in the way. Campbell-Reid says opening the ports to public use was “a no-go conversation for years”. The 2016 Port Future Strategy was the first time moving the port was seriously considered (Campbell-Reid personally favours a move to the Firth of Thames), but he already has a list of everything the freed-up waterfront land could be used for: not just a stadium but great architecture, affordable housing, hospitals, ferries, swimming pools, a university in a Guggenheim-esque building, he suggests, getting more and more excited, from where New Zealand could export all that “brainpower”.
It’s all a bit breathless and scattergun, a product both of Campbell-Reid’s natural hyperactivity and the limitations of his ability to affect real change on his own. He flings out a lot – a lot – of ideas, from the great to the downright corny. His outspoken nature has rubbed some people at council up the wrong way, but surely a design champion gets to be opinionated?
But as we walk back up Queen Street, I can’t see much evidence of sexy new tech businesses lifting local incomes. I see international students pouring out of mediocre private training establishments, parallel importers selling cheap perfume, kebab kiosks, and international brand-stores like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Topshop – and, beyond the central city, an insufficient supply of affordable housing.
By the end of our two hours together, I’m yet to be convinced we’re on the road to urban salvation, but Campbell-Reid does everything he can to make me think it’s possible. I can question him on a lot of things, but not his unshakeable faith
The five Auckland things Ludo Campbell-Reid is most excited about.
The Commercial Bay development
“The public sector can never do urban transformation alone. It needs a strong partnership with private sector, which can bring very unique innovation and expertise to city development. The Commercial Bay development by Precinct Properties [designed by Warren & Mahoney]is a billion-dollar development project that will have as important an impact as the redevelopment of Britomart by Cooper & Co. Currently underway and due for completion by 2022, once complete it will combine with the redevelopment of Wynyard Quarter and transform our public realm, retail and commercial offering to exceed that of our competitors in Sydney and Melbourne. The harbour-edge shop window of our city will become truly global.”
Victoria Street Linear Park
“Stretching from the beautiful Albert Park on the east side of the city to Victoria Park in the west will be one of Auckland’s most iconic urban walking experiences. Turning a six-lane arterial road into a wide east-west pedestrian spine will provide extra open space to support a combined inner-city residential and business population that is set to double from over 120,000 currently to over 250,000 during the next 20 years.”
“Auckland’s true sense of Super City ‘regional oneness’ will only be solidified by stronger physical and psychological connections to all parts of the region. With future rail connections to the North Shore being hotly debated, Skypath (a shared cycling and walking path innovatively designed to be slung under the bridge deck like a wasp’s nest) is a smart-city urban retrofit initiative which cleverly utilises existing infrastructure and signals the future vision. Once completed, cycling over the Auckland Harbour Bridge will become one of the top 10 ‘must do’ tourist activities.”
Pedestrian laneway circuit
“If you build motorways and roads you attract more cars, so we thought, what better way to attract more people than to build a motorway for people? The pedestrian laneway circuit will become Auckland’s central-city ‘Las Ramblas’ [the famous Barcelona boulevard] and will connect up our highly successful shared spaces programme into a complete pedestrian network. This circuit will be the place where pedestrians, commerce and public life will flourish. The laneway circuit will also become the foreplay to a pedestrianised car-free central city of the future.
A transit revolution
Both the City Rail Link and Light Rail Transit are regional economic game-changers for Auckland. We cannot claim to be an internationally competitive global city without them. In terms of the CRL, it will double the efficiency of the entire Auckland rail network, reducing travel times from the Western and Southern lines, and combined with LRT will pave the way for a transit-orientated form of urban development where jumping on the train across the city region as a whole becomes easier and more cost-effective than jumping in the car.”