One of the pitfalls of looking at transport and urban planning matters on a daily basis is that you can sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. For want of a better phrase, it definitely is possible to “lose sight of the forest for the trees”. It is also possible to be overly negative at times – highlighting what’s still wrong rather than how much things have improved. An excellent article in today’s NZ Herald – about the progress being made on improving Auckland’s city centre – provides a really handy reminder about how far things have come in the past few years.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, it starts off by talking about a city centre that Auckland should very much be looking to emulate – Melbourne:

The power of urban landscapes to affect our mood is well-documented. So environmental psychologists won’t be surprised to hear that when I moved to Melbourne almost two years ago, I had to pinch myself. The laneways, the plazas, the bumbling old trams shunting through wide, boutique-lined shops; paved pavilions, quirky sculptures, dynamic, tasteful gallery buildings and events centres. Wherever I turned, I was in my element.

In the not too distant past Melbourne’s CBD was a declining, uninviting place to go. While lots of people worked there, there was no real reason to travel into the city centre outside office hours. Over the past 20 years this has dramatically changed. An interesting thing to ponder is the impact of Melbourne’s city rail loop and their tram system on this revitalisation and whether that shows a path forwards for Auckland in the future.

But turning back to Auckland, and the author is pleasantly surprised to see that similar improvements are starting to happen here too:

Because it seems that while my back was turned, Auckland was, er, kicked into action by the impending 2011 Rugby World Cup. And entire quarters of the city have either been made over already, or are well on their way. The waterfront has fancy new structures I’ve never seen before, and men in hard hats are all over the show, making way for trams and restaurant strips and park areas.

Not to mention the transformation of regular old streets into pedestrian-friendly spaces, many unrecognisable. Who knew?

The shared streets projects are possibly one of the most exciting initiatives happening anywhere in Auckland at the moment. Darby Street seems to work well, but I think the concept is really going to shine once Fort Street and Elliott Street open in the next few months. Much thought is now going into looking at the next batch of streets to improve: whether that be Queen Street or something more modest like High Street.

The article highlights a number of improvements going on around Wynyard Quarter – much of which I must admit I haven’t followed in great detail in recent times as it’s a bit outside where I normally travel:

Our first stop is Wynyard Quarter, the 35ha block of land I’ve only ever known as a desolate and somewhat mysterious expanse of port activity, between the Viaduct Harbour and Westhaven Marina. In fact, it’s a bit startling to find it’s now a series of interconnected public spaces I’m genuinely excited to spend time in. Like Jellicoe St, home to the Auckland Seafood Market and formerly a semi-industrial road. No more: in just over two months, it’ll be a cobblestoned and native tree-lined boulevard and a foodies’ dream, with markets lining its fancy edges. And just to make that proposition even better, two lovely old 1920s trams will operate a 15-minute and 1.5km clockwise circuit along Jellicoe, Halsey, Gaunt and Daldy streets. Touchingly, that first ride will mark the first time in more than 50 years trams will have run on Auckland streets. Even the muddy, virgin tracks have an air of anticipation.

I have long thought that Wynyard Quarter presents Auckland with a once-ever golden opportunity to create something truly awesome. But its success will depend enormously on how well it is “stitched together” with the rest of the central city – because Fanshawe Street and the water mean it’s largely an isolated island. The last thing we would want is for it to either fail because it’s too isolated, or for it to become a new attraction area that simply sucks everything away from the rest of the city centre. Somehow Wynyard Quarter needs to complement and support the remainder of the CBD, and I think good transport and pedestrian connections are critical to making this happen – hence the dire need to extend the Wynyard Tramway to Britomart.

The article also talks a bit more about the shared spaces and the upgrade to Aotea Square:

But it’s not just the waterfront that’s changed. As we head away from the water, I catch glimpses of Auckland’s new series of “shared spaces”, an urban landscaping practice also used in Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. Interestingly, merging the footpath with the road to put people first and create more vibrant city sectors actually makes roads safer, too. Which means Elliot, Darby, Lorne, O’Connell and Fort streets now have it made.

As does Aotea Square. Last time I looked, it was a slightly shabby square shared by bored-looking workers ( including me) and pigeons. Suddenly, it’s a smooth, paved expanse flanked by well-landscaped gardens. What’s more, the Aotea Centre’s been polished, with a cafe and bar – Box – on its terrace.

Personally I’m not sure whether the redevelopment of Aotea Square got things quite right, although there’s absolutely no doubt it has been vastly improved. I can’t quite understand the reasoning behind making people walk up steps from Queen Street and then to have them walk down steps immediately – the artificial hill seems to do little but block visual connections between the square and Queen Street. But maybe that’s just me. There’s also of course the huge missed opportunity of not linking Aotea Square with Myers Park (imagine that, having an inner city park right next to your main civic square, but then doing everything you can to make the link between the two as horrible as possible – quite an achievement).

But anyway, I will stop moaning. The point of the article is well made: things are really improving in Auckland’s CBD. The Rugby World Cup has been a catalyst for much of this work – perhaps long-term that will be the true value of the tournament for Auckland, but a lot of the improvements also seem to be a result of a maturing of the city, as well as the hard work of people like urban design champion Ludo Campbell-Reid. Let’s hope the City Centre Masterplan continues this good work and takes things even further.

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  1. Good post Josh, our CBD is improving. She didn’t even write too much about Britomart which I think is the biggest improvement of all, or for that matter the redevelopment of Vic park markets. It’s good to see something positive acknowledging the improvement. I get sick of talking to people who have not been near the CBD for years and write it off. Admittidly there is still a way to go but it is happening.

    If, in the next few years we can get the convention centre built, Hobson and Nelson two wayed and hopefully Rhubarb Lane built then the CBD will be well on it’s way.

  2. I agree WRT Aotea square’s link to Myers park, I was involved with a design workshop on the square a few years ago and many in the room pushed for this – not quite sure why it do not eventuate. The real issue I think with the square is that it is not well “edged”. Other than the town hall the current building stock is architecturally weak (or in the case of the IMAX complex simply suffering from an identity crises – it really doesn’t know what it wants to be). Most successful public squares elsewhere around the world are great because of whats around it – not necessarily what’s in it.
    One component I do however think council should have high on their priority list (yet have seen/heard nothing of) is an urgent upgrade of the covered pedestrian link from Aotea square along the post office building (I think its called Bledisloe house) as this is in dire need of TLC and can ultimately link the square with an upgraded Elliott street. I also believe it has a very high pedestrian count – more reason to get it overhauled.

    1. Hopefully once Q Theatre opens they can look at doing something with that carpark behind the classic and the Q. It seems a bit stupid to have a carpark there when 100 metres away is one of the biggest ones in Auckland.

      Bledisloe walkway could make quite a cool laneway. Remove the roof over it, or at least raise it up and make it something spectacular. Then open the up the side of the metro building and redevelop the post office into a bar/restaurant. Considering this area is the heart of Auckland’s theatre and entertainment district it has really few options for eating close by.

    2. I know for sure that the Ludo C.R. Team is working on that Bledisloe horrible gallery, heard it in a conference sometimes. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was removed one of these weeks. I mean, they have to walk under it every day to go to work…

  3. Yes I tend to agree, Auckland is heading in the right direction and much has been achieved in the last ten years. But the momentum needs to build; we need to expand the areas of pedestrian priority and reduce space for cars, while preserving and/or improving access for public transport.

  4. I was just thinking about Myers the other day, inspired by this positive Eye on Auckland post about Britomart’s squares. Myers is a huge opportunity, yet is a neglected jewel, disconnected from all of its environment, on every side. This is of course most so on the Aotea Square side, and misses a huge opportunity to open up the city again. It’s only on hot afternoons that the park comes alive.

    I think more seating around the city would improve things, cheaply. I was also pleased to see lower speed limits – 30kph is more than enough on inner city streets.

    And of course, better connections from out east. A full quarter of the city is excluded from easy access (but this will change, if the Eastern MRT link is built).

  5. A key to improving the pleasure and utility of Aotea Square in my view is the rebirth of the St James and the reclaiming of the Queen St. If the divide of Queen St can be breached and Lorne St pulled through the St James foyer that will drag the booming library and new Art Gallery into inclusion with the still somewhat tentative arts precinct…. and will surely lift the tenancies on Queen St which are currently tatty. Reaching up to the lungs of Myers park is important too. AC had better get a wriggle on with this or Bob Harvey will tempt all the new action down to his Tank Farm….

    1. I don’t quite agree that Queen Street in that area is such a barrier anymore – the pedestrian phasing is reasonably okay, and we even have a median useful for pedestrians to cross, between Aotea Square and Wellesley street West section.

      Not to say it couldn’t be better, with a Sunday closure for motor vehicles to start, for example.

  6. Yes Auckland is moving ahead which is great to see. Great to see people positive about the changes too. Also other developments that may have promise are the Imperial Building (which should add life to Fort Lane) and 125 Queen St. Unfortunately 2 other developments, Mid City Markets and Queen’s Court look rather cheap and uninspired. Queen’s court is disappointing as it is across from Aotea Square which should have more distinguishing buildings surrounding it like Melbourne’s main square.

    I think the disconnect on Quay St is a priority over pedestrianising on Queen st. Connection to the water is essential making a long promenade. The plan should be to turn Queen’s wharf in to a Chicago Millenium Park. To get people there and moving through the area. A place for the people of Auckland. It’s Ok for the cruise ship terminal to be there temporarily while things are decided but it needs to go.

    Looking forward to being able to stroll up and down the North Wharf Promenade back to Queen St with not a car in sight!

  7. The lower end of Queen Street is quite good.
    I have always wondered though if the port could be moved elsewhere and that waterfront reclaimed?
    To have an operational ‘industrial’ port so close to the CBD is a bit jutting I thought.

    If there is one thing that Brisbane does really, really well it is suburban centres- Brisbane City Council has a “suburban centre improvement program” where business owners and public money come together
    to improve local ares (in Auckland this would be analogous to having somewhere like Parnell or Ponsonby improved) to make them more pedestrian friendly and “villiage like”.

    1. Yes Tauranga and Whangarei should be, will be, Auckland’s ports.

      Like the sound of the Suburban Centre Improvment Programme.

    2. I disagree with moving the ports out of central Auckland. I think buzz Auckland gets from having ships, trucks, trains, cranes, etc, all working at the ports is great.

  8. I also disagree with moving the port entirely. It generates huge parts of Auckland’s economy (directly and indirectly). What we need to do is consolidate its operations and make sure it has the least impact on the rest of the city. Reclaiming some of the CBD wharves is the right thing to do though.

    We should also be working on improving the rail system so that freight can be moved more efficiently. Putting in a 3rd and 4th rail line will be necessary sooner or later, despite the issues involved.

    1. I don’t doubt that “it is important for the economy”. I’m just saying, does it have to be located there? I think a much better use would be to return it to the people and have it as a revitalised area. Indeed this is exactly what is happening out at the Port of Brisbane – Hamilton NorthShore which is a large development of reclaimed port-land which is now being developed with units and cinemas etc.

      1. I don’t think we really need to move the port either. At present we simply do not need the land. We have enough brownfield sites in the CBD to easily cater for a few decades of growth. I also think that Auckland’s port is important to the culture of Auckland. Auckland has always been a maritime city and has been shaped by the port in ways that Brisbane was not. Besides the port is not really that intrusive except for the trucks that constantly cross Quay Street and that could be easily solved by the application of a little heavy rail.

        1. auckland is a maritime city but it’s hard to reach the sea from the city. Try walking from queen st to touch the sea. where could you?

        2. When you say “Auckland has always been a maritime city and has been shaped by the port in ways that Brisbane was not” what specifically do you mean?
          The port used to be very important to Brisbane up until around the 1970’s and 80 when port functions were moved closer to the mouth of the river and out of the CBD area.

        3. To be honest, moving the port to the mouth of the river was probably a pretty logical concept so not a huge problem, I don’t think the same can be said for Auckland as there is no logical place to move it to, all options I can think of have some pretty massive implications e.g. The Manukau is pretty shallow plus has a nasty sand bar at its entrance, all other areas remotely close to the city are fairly developed so would never get approval.

        4. Tauranga + Whangarei… it is actually pretty inefficient to drag bulk goods through the suburbs and city to Auckland Port. In fact much of NZTA’s violation of AK has been justified [and continues to be] by the ‘needs’ of the port, and especially its insistence on shoving road trains to the waterfront. Two words: Grafton Gully. I’m not saying close it, just stop trying to grow it [It’s losing out to the efficiencies of Tauranga anyway]. It looks likely that international shipping is going to rationalise down to fewer bigger ships visiting regional hubs, and that for NZ that is most likely to be Tauranga. They can keep Fergusson Wharf, I don’t think there is any better use for that reclamation, especially as we don’t need anymore stadia. The city has suffered enormously from not restricting container movements to rail to and from the port.

          This would mean we could get access back to more of the waterfront as well serve passenger shipping better….. And reduce the number of massive trucks in the city, and reduce the amount of expensive and ecologically destructive interventions on the harbour seafloor.

          The real problem is POAL’s continued profitability…can that be maintained?

  9. BrisUrban, where else would you put a deepwater port on the Auckland isthmus? I could consider the idea if I thought it was feasible or possible…

  10. It seems sensible to me to consider that any future growth in container facilities should happen at Tauranga and Whangarei (with rail link) so that: 1. The Rangitoto Channel doesn’t need to be massively dredged for new big ships and 2. We can gradually take the older wharves for new roles, including public access. It seems likely to me, recent decisions notwithstanding, that Capt. Cook wharf would be a good site for new cruise facilities. Of course we own POAL and want it to succeed, but not to the detriment of the city. But Tauranga already has a rail based inland port in AK and can serve the city well as well as being well placed to export from the whole hinterland of the north island.

    1. In the near term the obvious solution is to consolidate port activities on the container terminal to the east, leaving Queens and Cook and the other little one to be opened up as civic waterfront.
      One of the things I liked about the ARC stadium proposal is that it would sit on the edge of Fergusson Wharf creating a boundary between the public waterfront and the working port. Perhaps if the berthage on that side is no longer needed (can large ships dock there anyway?) we could still develop that edge of the container terminal to ‘bookend’ the public waterfront.

      In the long term moving the whole operation to Puhinui Reserve by the airport may be a possibility. Sure this would involve dredging a large channel but then again the do need to periodically dredge out the one past Rangitoto. The spoils of dredging the bar and channel could be used to reclaim some of the shallows for the port itself. That site would have excellent rail and road links plus close proximity to the idustrial areas of southern Auckland. Perhaps once Wynyard is built out and our revitalised, rail tunneled CBD is booming along they will start to consider the financial and strategic value of the current port land.

      1. Yeah there’s plenty of time for Ferguson… who knows perhaps we will find a need for a big barrier type building like a stadium [could always replace the horrible Vector Arena], but there’s no need to invent a new port on the Manukau, way way too shallow, Whangarei is a natural deep water port handy to shipping lanes, just needs the rail line extended and upgraded [$200m-$300m?] and Tauranga is functioning well as NZ’s main hub so with a supported and efficient freight rail network those two ports will serve the North Island well, with Auckland as an ancillary option.

      2. Nick, that simply isn’t possible, at least without a huge and continuous dredging program. Incredible amounts of sand and silt move through the Manukau Harbour entrance, such that a chart more than a couple of years old is downright unusable. You’d have to take very large amounts out, every week, continually. The month you stopped your port would become unusable again. Other large scale engineering projects which are more feasible are; demolishing Port Waikato and turning the entrance to the Waikato River into a deep water port, diverting the Waikato river through Waiuku and using the river flow to flush the Manukau entrance, and creating the 1908 Waitemata-Manukau canal (which is still designated in law!).

  11. Personally I think the only viable alternative site for a Port is somewhere out near Maraetai. Good luck ever making that happen though. And you’d need to massively improve rail and road access.

    1. We’re going to have Auckland Port for at least a few decades. However, it need not dominate like it does. We need to do a better job of opening the city to both its beautiful harbours…

        1. Seeing that most of the import goods (and a good chunk of the exports, despite what detractors say) go through Auckland, it would be bloody weird to go send it all to Tauranga, and then truck it up here (yes, TRUCK it, because those who believe we will get a big inter-city rail freight renaissance by shifting ports to Tauranga – sorry, you are dreaming in my view).

          I want to keep the ports here. They bring in lots of money to invest into our city in areas that aren’t “profitable” when looked at on an accountant’s sheet (but are direly neede), they add vibrancy in a way that another park or apartment estate cannot ever add – and they were there first, so it is for the developers and urban designers to find out how to coexist well with the ports – rather than just fob them off somewhere else!

        2. Well said Ingolfson, it would be like ripping up train lines to put apartments in. Nobody would ever suggest that here, would they 😉

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