Sunday, July 24, 2011

Owen McShane: Let's build on Auckland's brand

The Auckland Policy Office, led by the Ministry of Economic Development, has released the nine reports generated by its three-year research programme on Auckland’s social and economic development.

These reports openly challenge many of the assumptions behind the discussion document “Auckland Unleashed” and provide substantial data in support of the Ministry of Transport’s skeptical response to the current proposal for a mono-centric, high-density, public transport dependent, Auckland Council.

For example, the summary of the report “Patterns of Population Location in Auckland” says: “The last 50 years have witnessed the devolution of the city. In the late 19th or early 20th century, most cities could be characterised by a monocentric urban form, with firms clustered in a central location, normally around a port or transport hub, and residents located nearby or near public transport lines linked to the centre. But the truck and car have changed that. The availability of inexpensive means to transport goods have freed many manufacturing firms from the need to locate near their suppliers or customers, or near rail or shipping facilities, and allowed them to choose locations where land was inexpensive.”

New found freedoms

It’s a refreshing change to read a report that recognises Auckland households seized on the new-found freedoms provided by the motor car and made their own decisions about where they preferred to live, work and play. Cars, and their auto-mobility, have set us free. Naturally, central planners everywhere have resented them ever since.

The reports also recognise the simultaneous decentralisation of work. “The availability of cars enabled people to live in locations far from the central city where land was cheap, life was less crowded, and where new firms were locating. The result is the decentralised, often sprawling and seemingly unplanned modern city, frequently characterised by a polycentric form featuring many subsidiary sub-centres far from the traditional city centre.
Of course Auckland was not “unplanned.” It’s just that the people were making their own plans, just as they do in so many successful cities today.

In 1956, the Auckland urban area had a population of 400,000, of whom 255,000 (64%) lived in the central Auckland urban areas.

Fifty years later, in 2006, the Auckland urban area had a population of 1,210,000, of whom only 400,000 (33%) lived in the central Auckland urban areas.

During this great dispersal, 80% of Auckland’s increased population had chosen to live in the outer suburbs. This has been, and remains, the normal pattern of growth in cities all around the modern world.

Remarkably, the new Auckland Council wants to reverse this 50-year international trend, and even more remarkably, seems to believe it has, or should be given, the power to do so.

The nine reports have generated a list of the “five major policy implications that will inform the Auckland Plan.” The first one reads: “Development of a stronger Auckland image and brand.”

This might seem a commonplace – or even trite.

But, in reality, such an idea seems never to have entered the council’s mind.

Otherwise the proposed vision of Auckland as the super-liveable city would not be so focused on promoting intensification, restraining suburban and coastal settlements, concentrating employment and residence within the central area and building a hugely expensive rail system to serve this newly contrived, congested, and mono-centric monster.

How can these policy directions, all totally foreign to Auckland’s natural setting, and its human culture and heritage, develop “a stronger Auckland image and brand”?

Who decided to discard our brands such as “clean and green” and “the City of Sails”?

Can anyone imagine skilled immigrants being attracted to Auckland because it has trains, pavements, congestion and high-density slabs? This is what most want to leave behind.

Green and blue arcadian spaces

Surely, the best way to develop the Auckland brand is to exploit the green and blue arcadian spaces that penetrate and punctuate its existing and distinctive form. Future development should reflect the fractal nature of Auckland’s setting, its extensive rural hinterland, dramatic coastal and bush-clad edges and the desire of so many residents to live a “greener” lifestyle. The last thing our brand requires is more urban containment and its consequent congestion, pollution and over-crowding.

The council still seems convinced Auckland is a radial monocentric city in which future economic growth should be jammed into the circular central isthmus. In reality, Auckland’s natural destiny is to be a linear city, say 100km long, with a string of major and minor centres connected by fields of green overlooking seas of blue.

Auckland’s brand of Pacific green urbanism need not be beholden to a perverse Euro-envy. We don’t need to aspire to the splendid urban spaces of Sienna or Salzburg – or to the hideous concrete deserts and slabs of Halle-Neustadt, or Pyongyang, which would be our own more probable destiny.

Our brand should be about space, sea and sky; weather and vegetation; and openness. The “creative set” are leading the way.

Go to the New Zealand Heraldsite and search under “My Auckland,” the weekly feature where Aucklanders explain why they have chosen to live where they do. The sample of 81 sends a clear message about the green and blue arcadia: open space, beaches, backyards and trees. A Freemans Bay couple may worry about “apartments marching up the hill” but are delighted by their ferry trips to Devonport where they picnic on the beach.

Auckland’s present urban core would feature as a blue-green central entertainment district – and it’s well on the way.

But it would be the mid-point of a dozen or more secondary city centres supplemented by myriad towns, villages, settlements and hamlets. Their greenbelts would be at the end of the block rather than miles away in some abstract form designed for astronauts. (See Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language)

The northern “holiday highway” – with its splendid “portal to the sky” – will add to our other “holiday highways” with their own splendid views of our blue and green world, such as the Newmarket Viaduct, the Harbour Bridge, and the new Mangere Bridge. Let’s make all our highways “holiday highways” – they all add to our brand.

Unlike the present vision of Auckland – “Leashed, Constrained, Intensified and Broke” – every Aucklander could relate to this blue-green arcadian vision and respond to, and contribute to, its implementation.

So let a thousand flowers bloom.


Anonymous said...

The assumptions behind the Auckland Unleashed”discussion document are rightly being questioned. “Auckland Unleashed” may indeed be a planners paradise & when you review these discussion documents you are likely to see utopian artists impressions of streetscapes of their intensive commercial residential mixed use future for Auckland or whatever it is they call it.

If they were honest actual photos of the high denisty slabs and housing projects already along the rail lines in Auckland would be used in discussion documents and we could then ask ourselves us if we would want to live like that.

Robert said...

Owen, I would really like to agree with fact I almost feel obliged to agree with you. But regretably, even though I agree that this latest "Spatial" plan is just another planner inspired re-run of the ARC's Regional Policy and Growth Strategy, I have to confess I disagree with your utopia.
Mayor Len and his ilk will almost certainly come up with yet another fancy title once "Auckland Unleashed" has run its course...basically because 'planning' is what they do. (They would be horrified if at the end of any process folk might actually expect them to "do" anything remotely called implimentation!)
However, I do think we have settled one thing at least after 20 years of Resource that the bulk of Auckland's urban population should be contained within an urban metropolitan limit. It is not that such a policy commits us to some Mexico City style slum with massive overcrowding. Auckland is afterall one of the least densely populated metropolitan areas by world standards. We can accomodate significantly greater numbers and still retain our huge areas of parkland, beach esplanades and so on. The trick it seems is to learn how to do it in a new, non-kiwi manner. (ie not on a cheap 'n nasty basis)
Your ideas might be great in a place like Brisbane where available land is not an issue, but in NZ and in Auckland particularly, arable land is the basis of our wealth and is in extremely short supply. Allowing our urban growth to simply dribble out over the countryside is a little like sitting on the outer end of a limb of a tree and sawing it off on the inner side.
I can think of several cities I wouldn't mind living in that are far more densely populated than Auckland and which have managed to find a good balance between high rise/terrace/ and detached housing whilst also achieving a high standard of visual appearance, parks, trees etc.. And despite your well researched views I cannot believe that infrastructure would not be achieved more economically in the compact city form, than in our current form where rural villages have extremely poor standards of public hygene with no sewerage or water reticulation.
In summary if the choice is urban intensification on the past and current jerry-built basis, I might agree with your conclusions. There are however, better alternatives demonstrated in many cities like Vancouver, Bath, etc., etc..