Urban planner Rachel de Lambert is dreaming big for Auckland

Places for people

She’s played a central role in shaping public spaces all over New Zealand. Now landscape architect and urban planner Rachel de Lambert is dreaming big for Auckland – at the new convention centre, Cornwall Park, Manukau City and more. The city’s main problem? “We forgot in a planning sense that cities should be primarily about people,” she says.

Without fanfare or ego, Rachel de Lambert has been a key player in some of Auckland’s most significant infrastructure projects over the last 30 years. She’s a partner at environmental planning and design consultancy Boffa Miskell and knows a thing or two about this city. Despite an urban environment littered with past mistakes, she’s refreshingly upbeat about the city’s potential.

BIANCA ZANDER: Let’s start with that enormous building beside TVNZ. What are some of the challenges in your role as director of urban design on the New Zealand International Convention Centre (NZICC), currently under construction?

RACHEL DE LAMBERT: That’s one of the hardest pieces of urban block in Auckland, and the NZICC is a very different kind of convention centre [the project is being designed by Warren & Mahoney in association with Moller Architects and Woods Bagot with input from de Lambert’s firm, Boffa Miskell]. It’s an urban city convention centre. Most centres are heroic in that they are on a river or waterfront for postcard images and then they’ll have a massive great big backside that nobody ever notices, where all the truck docks and all the ugly stuff is. Well, this project is between Hobson, Nelson and Wellesley streets, with TVNZ on the northern side. There is no backside. And all its street frontages are not the best in a pedestrian/public realm. We’ve made them hugely better, but they’re always going to be big routes for vehicular traffic.

So you built a pedestrian laneway through the middle and an air bridge linking it to SkyCity?
We are creating a place that Aucklanders will go because it’s got great dumplings or coffee or a wine bar, and it catches afternoon sunlight. We really want convention delegates to explore and spend their money in the city, not just have a waterfront experience. Council’s concern was that the air bridge would basically suck everybody off the street, and you wouldn’t get all the pedestrians and the hubbub. We had pedestrian modelling done to prove the increase in pedestrians from the NZICC in this part of the city will be about 2000 people or more. It’s going to add way more life and energy to the city than any detraction the air bridge will have.

Why are we playing catch-up with this whole concept of a designed city?
You mean, how did it get so bad? We forgot in a planning sense that cities should primarily be about people. Our roads got too big. Where we provide car parking was all about the convenience of the people shopping and the retailer’s perception that a car park outside the front door was the only way they’d get anybody to buy anything. Auckland is no different to many cities around the world, in fact now we’re doing a lot better than many cities in retrofitting the city back. If you think about the process cities went through with people shifting out into the suburbs, they became places of work that hollowed out at night. Even into the 1980s, Auckland city was seen as a very unsafe place to be in the evening.

What then are the key opportunities for Auckland at this moment of growth and change?
Auckland’s really hit that critical mass, with a real range of urban life. The Unitary Plan focusses on compact urban form but also on growth, on expansion. How do we continue to intensify and have more density in the right places in the city, but also how do we get some of those suburban centres to grow and intensify in a way that they feed off the public transport linkages and create really good communities? We need to get the right mix of density and opportunity for work in those places as well, so we’re not just setting up more dormitory suburbs to feed the city, [but] we’re actually creating a diversified city where people work closer to where they live.

You’ve created a public domain manual for Manukau City. Now there’s an unloved place.
It was the motorway-based city centre in the south, and it’s never really taken off. There’s practically no residential catchment around it. There’s been this perceived blighted poorer neighbourhood [with] concentrations of state housing, but there are great opportunities to bring back decent residential intensification. The Puhinui Stream is a wonderful open space corridor between the regional Botanic Gardens and the city centre and then off out to the west coast. There are things of amenity. Good bones, but none of the critical mass and momentum. These things take time, they’re incremental, require a lot of thought, planning, then suddenly hit certain points where it feels like things just sort of happen. Britomart, for example, now has that critical mass and everybody knows about it but it’s been 15 years in the making.

Mega malls have a lot to answer for in terms of emptying out suburban town centres. I am an anti-mall person. It’s an unfortunate component of our culture. We’ve created these monochromatic retail experiences that are malls – nobody lives there, you don’t interact with them in your normal life, you drive to them. It’s the American model. New Lynn was the first mall in New Zealand. In early photos, it was exciting, you could think you were in America, and it has been a real problem. It was a planning approach of the time to separate things out to make them cleaner and safer. You shopped here and worked there and lived somewhere else. The best way is to still look to retrofit the malls to mean they become multidimensional in their character. Sylvia Park, through the Unitary Plan, has the ability to build residential and office [space] as well. If they’ve got transport links, we should be looking to build residential intensification around them.

You’ve been involved in the Tāmaki regeneration around Glen Innes. Now there’s a town centre with great bones.
Once that intensification happens – which is basically a two-thirds uplift in population density – then the town centre is absolutely going to take off as a new kind of rebuilt sort of place. That Glen Innes centre and mall is still very fine-grained, it’s not owned by a single operator. We’ve looked at lots of really interesting creative, locally based social enterprise as part of the whole regeneration, so it’s not just about building more buildings. We’re looking to find ways to assist the community to take that step up into employment, or to using their creativity, their own skill sets to actually advance their own lot in life. You can fund into it workspace that people can use free of charge for a year to get a business started, or have a commercial buddy to help give you business and creative advice.

You’ve looked after Cornwall Park for 30 years. Wonderful place. Hard to get to – unless you drive in…
One of my Auckland Transport beefs is that they don’t provide transport to public amenities like parks. We’ve had conversations with Auckland Transport about connecting public transport to Cornwall Park, and we’ve got a really bold long-term, audacious plan about taking the cars out of the centre of the park. There’s 17 hectares of asphalt in the park at the moment and, yes, there will still be cars, probably, but any car parking we want to take to the perimeter. We’ll need some form of transport within the park, but it’s likely to be autonomous vehicles: Soft-wheeled, driverless, linked-up little vehicles, if you can’t walk anymore or are elderly.

As urbanism takes off, we’re going to have to learn to use parks better. New immigrants to Auckland are wise to this already. You live in New York and take a deckchair and newspaper and eat lunch or spend a day in the park. I’ve never seen people do that, but now, Cornwall Park does get used like that. You go to where the barbecues are on a busy summer weekend day and people are there bright and early staking out their patch. They are there for a day, an extended family thing. I love sitting in Mission Bay watching all the other cultures that are now living in Auckland using that little beach and promenade and eating ice cream and fish n’ chips, and all of those things, in a really urbane way.

What are the key risks facing the city – for example, letting cars dominate?
That’s the risk. Politically, it’s good times for Auckland at the moment. Everybody’s supporting investment in more public transport and I think that’s important, but the council needs to continue to invest in quality public realm. There’s a threat that projects like city light rail aren’t sufficiently funded to ensure public amenity and quality of delivery. They’re public infrastructure projects and they’re very expensive. You can’t just say, actually we couldn’t afford to give you a really good station – we’ve just given you a bog-standard station, because it’s more important that you get your train running.

If you think of the great metros of the world – Paris, Moscow, New York – and even the new urban stations in Sydney, the investment in architecture and public space as part of the new station is really important.