Sunday, October 9, 2011

Owen McShane: Let’s Get Close to the Water.

In his seminal work of 1996 “The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles”, Jonathan Richmond explained that the powerful myths and symbols surrounding rail allow convictions to displace rational analysis. Once rail is adopted as a solution to urban problems any proposal that appears to promote the viability of rail will also be adopted. Unfortunately, these downstream policies are almost always destructive to the general urban economy.

 Randal O’Toole’s 2004 book “Great Rail Disasters – the Impact of Rail Transit on Urban Liveability” argues that such rail-supportive policies have damaged the larger urban economies and that contrary to the mythology, recent heavy investments in rail have reduced the urban “liveability” of New World Cities.

However, the mythology is so entrenched there is probably little point in battling it head on.

We need to find an alternative major project which will appeal to Aucklanders and which Blind Freddy’s Dog can see will make Auckland more liveable for everyone, not just the wealthy élite.

The late Les Harvey was a visionary whose wonderful sense of delight and whimsy combined with a thoroughly analytical mind when it came to people’s behaviour and preferences.

One of his gifts to Aucklanders was the Parnell Village. He could have left many more such places if the planners had let him. His application to create Parnell Village was almost rejected but we managed to work it through.

In one of his lectures to Architectural students, in the early sixties, Les pointed out that the great cities of the world had large areas of flat land, largely because most were built around river deltas with extensive alluvial plains. Wellington has the advantage of a flat area large enough to accommodate the central area’s activities, even though it is contained by steep hills.

Auckland’s “golden mile” is built in a narrow valley. As soon as pedestrians turn left or right from Queen Street they are faced with a steep climb up the hills – which is hot, sweaty work during our hot and humid summers.

He suggested that Auckland extend the early reclamations. Reclamations are naturally flat.

About ten years later, “Mayor Robbie” and I explored a paved series of steps leading down into the water, within the “Old Town” of Stockholm. We were both attending the first United Nations Human Environment Conference, 1972.

We both noticed that the incoming tide would soon be sloshing round our shoes.After a few seconds admiring the harbour views, Robbie turned to me, fixed me with his beady eye, and asked “Why can’t we enjoy this kind of experience at the bottom of Queen Street?”

I suggested that because the Auckland Harbour Board owned the waterfront, and regarded the whole area as its private domain, we would have to relocate the Port and tear down the “Red Iron Curtain”, if we were to set the people free. Robbie looked quite fired up but his political life was drawing to a close.

Since then Queens Wharf is now a multi-use development, and the America’s Cup has transformed the Viaduct Basin, and the whole Wynyard Quarter is demonstrating what could be the shape of things to come, if we could ease the constraints on land supply.

But there is still nowhere to enjoy that close intimacy with the sea that Robbie and I experienced all those years ago in Stockholm. This deprivation is not unique to Downtown. Indeed the Viaduct Basin is probably as close to the water as most Aucklanders ever get while fully clothed. If you sit down for coffee or lunch in Mission Bay, Devonport, or Orewa, you have to peer over a car-park or a road, or both, to catch a glimpse of the blue horizon.

 In most of our “seaside” areas we are then further separated from the sea by a daunting area of “public open space”.

No diners will hang over the water here. No visitors will get their feet wet as the tide comes in. The sand is a long way away.

They will, however, often get plenty of exposure to our wind and rain. If real people are to enjoy the Tank Farm area it will need town squares surrounded by restaurants and shops and small enough to allow people on one side to recognize and wave out to friends on the other.

Use Google to examine St Marks Square in Venice which provides access to the water’s edge but also provides shelter for those who wine and dine, perambulate or window shop.

The opening day of the RWC showed that Aucklanders will flock to the waterfront if they are given a reason, and have plenty of room to enjoy themselves when they get there.

So Murray McCulley should seize this opportunity, team up with Bob Harvey, and persuade the Council to remove the Port from downtown – as Sydney did years ago, first to Darling Harbour and then to Botany Bay. This will immediately release plenty of existing land and wharf area for expansion.  Then, as demand requires they should fill in most of the gaps (not the marina) by creating building platforms on deep piles to create a new “CBD Extension Zone” from Westhaven to Mechanics Bay. Private investors should fund the work and the land can be leased back to developers or public agencies as appropriate.

But make sure that “the public” truly enjoy the water – kids should be able to swim in a salt water pool, families should be able to eat in restaurants that hang out over the water, and enjoy the whole waterfront experience while wining and dining, sunbathing or fishing.

Use Google to see Doyle’s restaurant in Sydney, St Marks Square in Venice; the Woolloomooloo Wharf in Sydney, and the Piers of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

Tell our planners and urban designers to get over the “shed in the paddock” syndrome and let Aucklanders get close to the water, while being sheltered from the wind. And let Queen Street be.

Aucklanders would soon gain far more benefits from such a truly transformational project  than from the costly conceptions of rail.

And creating the Dove Myer Precinct needn’t cost the ratepayers and taxpayers a dime.

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