Back in January, when my grandma’s house was being put up for sale, some relatives came over from Melbourne to help tidy up the place and have a last look at what has, for as long as I can remember, been the meeting place for our family.
The family tradition has always been to eat home-cooked meals together, but I suggested that we break with tradition and try out some of the new restaurants that have been popping up in Takapuna.
Takapuna, incidentally, seems to be learning urban lessons from Newmarket, the city centre, and places further afield. While it’s still a low-rise centre, it’s developing a little network of laneways and arcades around Hurstmere Road, each one inhabited by cafes and restaurants. (And people on foot.) Development cycles go in booms and busts, of course, but if residential development around Takapuna goes ahead, it’s likely to become increasingly vibrant in the future.
Anyway. As a result of all this, we ended up celebrating Grandma’s move in a really excellent Colombian restaurant at the 40 Hurstmere Road laneway. In this building (apologies for the overcast Google Streetview picture):
Now, you might say: This is a great example of the importance of preserving historic buildings, which all too often have a unique character that shines through with a bit of gentle renovation.
But you’d be wrong.
You see, my grandma told me a bit about the history of this building. (Apparently you learn a lot about the built environment by living in the same place for 60 years.) It was, in fact, built by one of my great-uncles as a carpet shop – hence why it’s so long and narrow and well-suited for a lane-way. And rather than being constructed in the art deco 1930s, it was built in the prosaic 1950s or 60s.
Here’s what the building looked like before being renovated into a laneway (again, picture from Streetview):
Not quite the same, is it?
This building tells us a few things about how urban environments evolve. The first is that appearances (and building ages) can be deceptive. Some old buildings are good, which means that we should think carefully about how and why to preserve them. But with all due respect to my great-uncle, many are uninspiring.
The second is that change is often good. Renovating or even demolishing existing buildings can result in a better street environment. This building is a perfect case in point. We probably wouldn’t have eaten there if it still looked like it did in the second picture. Sensible developers will be aware of that and build accordingly.
The third is that context matters. Attractive building exteriors are particularly important in a place like Hurstmere Road, which is a low-speed, pedestrian focused street. (Many people arrive by car, but they must park in a shared carpark and walk to their final destination.) In this context, people generally have time to experience and react to building frontages. If traffic speeds were higher, that wouldn’t be the case – people would simply whiz by without forming impressions of the buildings.
High-speed roads produce different buildings. They tend to be set back further from the street, because they can’t be seen if they’re closer. Facades are less important, as the details aren’t apparent at speed. Instead, signs are used to attract passing eyeballs. The result is something like this:
In other words, street environments ultimately shape incentives to build attractive buildings. (And also to provide or preserve other amenities like street trees.) So perhaps when we think about the quality of our built environment, we should think about traffic speeds first and the age of buildings later?