May 30, 2014 Urban design
If we love our new city, why are we encouraged to sneer at every plan for its development?
How good to learn they’re going to build apartments on the Number 2 ground at Eden Park. That’s exactly what we need lots of: medium-sized blocks close to the central city, staggered back from the road, preserving lots of green space around them, right by a train station and on major bus routes too. It’s good town planning, a good realisation of the vision of the Unitary Plan.
Downsides? Sure. We lose a green space. As it happens, that whole Eden Park block was supposed to be extensively landscaped before the Rugby World Cup, although park board chair John Waller warned in 2010 that if the funding wasn’t sufficient, landscaping would be the first casualty. And so it happened: the land around Eden Park couldn’t be more barren if they tried. Landscaping should have been the last thing cut from the budget, not the first.
The Number 2 ground is grass, but it’s not pleasant green space. It looks and feels like the backside of something, which is what it is. Putting apartments there — and landscaping the grounds properly — is a great idea, and moving cricket to beautiful Western Springs is too.
Maybe you disagree. Fair enough — there will never be a plan we all like. The difficulty we have around all this, though, is not so much in getting agreement as in having a useful debate. And a big reason for this is that the Eden Park proposal, like most, was revealed to us by the Herald in yet another of its breathless “look what that dreadful mayor has cooked up for us now” stories.
What is it with the Herald and urban planning? It seems it doesn’t matter what the proposal is, if the mayor or council or council officials are in favour of something, the Herald is against. It happened again last month, with the proposal for Precinct Properties to be sold public land at Queen Elizabeth Square, in front of Britomart station (pictured above), as part of the wider plans to develop the whole Quay St/Customs St area. Of course the proposal deserves debate, but it doesn’t deserve to be written off before the debate has even started.
We’re building a better city in Auckland, and one of the things we desperately need is better conversations about how to do it. Take that Precinct proposal. The council and a developer will together transform an unpleasant landscape right by the city’s waterfront gateway, with outcomes that include: efficient tunnelling for the City Rail Link under property owned by Precinct, revitalisation of retail activity, the creation of more enticing open spaces for the public, improved traffic flows, the restoration of a historic street, better access to the waterfront and the ferry terminal complex, the rationalisation of bus parking…
Some of those goals are urgent, and most of the structures are now in place for them to be met — while reducing at least some of the burden facing ratepayers. This is the public and private sectors working together for the greater good. It can be done, and we already know this in Auckland because the model is sitting right next door in Britomart, where developer Cooper and Co has worked with the council to profoundly transform that precinct.
It is Auckland’s very good fortune that Precinct Properties has learned from Cooper and resolved to raise its own game. And they’re not the only developers thinking like this. Everyone knows there’s an exciting transformation under way in this city, and it’s easy to point to all sorts of things — restaurants, shops, public spaces, buildings, streetscapes, parks and walkways on the waterfront — as evidence for it. But the heavy lifting — the big structural changes to how we use the city — is not done with street planting and new boutiques. The really vital work happens in two areas: transportation, and precinct development. The dreams of the developers are critical.
That’s why the Queen Elizabeth Square proposal is so important: it establishes a model for how we can progress. Yes, we need to ensure our council does not squander the public good for private profit. We need to discuss, often and openly, what we think the parameters should be for public/private deals. But there’s no reason to approach every deal as if it’s a rort to be exposed or an outrage to be shouted down.
Janette Sadik-Khan came to town at the end of May. The former New York transportation commissioner reminded upwards of 1000 people in Aotea Centre that for the first time in history, over half the world’s population lives in cities. Over the next 40 years, she added, that’s expected to rise to 70 per cent.
In this country, as we know, almost all the population growth is occurring in Auckland. The New Zealand heartland, in other words, is now the suburbs. (That’s a notion Steve Braunias explores this issue.) And, in the suburbs as in the central city, we’re going to have a whole lot of developments like Eden Park and Queen Elizabeth Square. We don’t need them to be stopped. We need them to be good.
“Density is destiny,” said Sadik-Khan. “The more dense you are, the more successful you’re going to be.” And, she added, “Creating a fantastic city to live in is an economic development goal.”
Auckland Transport (AT) boss Lester Levy spoke at that meeting too. In 10 years’ time, he said, the transport system in this city “will look nothing like what it is today”. Much more public transport, he meant, but also a very different style to a lot of our streets. Efficient traffic flows complemented by safe bike lanes, extensive pedestrianisation: treating streets as public spaces we like to be in.
That’s the theory underpinning the Precinct plan, and it’s also a goal the Eden Park plan should be aiming for.
AT is required to provide the council with a Statement of Intent, an SOI. This year, said Levy, the SOI will be different: it will be called their Statement of Imagination. I’m really looking forward to that.
Photo: Patrick Reynolds