This post is about:
- How spillovers from the Auckland boom are driving growth in nearby regions.
- The opportunities for these communities to benefit more from this economic change.
- The central role of inter-regional transport infrastructure for reviving small towns and enabling their residents to take part in the bigger urban economies.
- How the centres of Hamilton and Tauranga can compete better with attractive walkable mixed use cores through a proactive urbanising strategy.
Hamilton is ideally placed for strong growth. It is at the centre of the busiest part of the country with over half the nation’s population within reach. It is surrounded by highly productive pastoral farm land. It is connected directly to the country’s two biggest ports by road and rail. It is even rated the most resilient NZ city in terms of vulnerability to natural disasters; distant from major faults, well above sea level and away from coasts. It sits powerfully on the hinge of the Golden Triangle; a nominal subregion containing half the country’s population and generating half the country’s GDP. A commanding position on our greatest river, as you would expect of a town that began as a military garrison.
Of course it’s always been there, so what has changed? The really significant shift in Hamilton’s fortunes is what has become of its big sister up the road. Auckland is around 10 times as big, it entirely dominates the Golden Triangle; by far the biggest chunk of that 50% of the nation’s GDP is generated in the Big Smoke (38/50). Auckland is home to some 1.61m souls to Hamilton’s 161k, and Tauranga’s 128k (Council areas, 2016, here). And critically Auckland is exhibiting all the usual successful city stresses and strains. It is tightly geographically constrained, land and dwelling prices are both rising in a frightening way as a result. Transport networks are clogging, accessing staff can be a problem for employers. In short Auckland is behaving exactly like a city, not the provincial town it used to be, but a highly contested intense conurbation with all the opportunities, excitements, pressures and problems that comes with that form.
This inevitably leads to spillovers. People look to solve the problems of dwelling cost in the big city and see that they can live much more cheaply in nearby towns, firms can find staff and land at lower cost elsewhere too. Both these conditions are clearly in evidence: real estate prices have shot up in the Waikato, especially close to Auckland, and new industrial land is opening up in Hamilton, promising just these advantages. But both these solutions face the same problem, the former arbitrage is only successful if you can still earn in the big city, and the firm relocating to a cheaper base still wants to access the big city market and skills. Clearly this problem needs transport solutions.
So far the only solution underway for this been the massive investment in the Waikato Expressway, the duplication of State Highway 1 through the Waikato. This does speed road freight and car users through the verdant farmland and Waikato River swamps toward Auckland, but of course has the problem of simply delivering these vehicles onto the already congested Auckland road network. Condemning these very users as well the growing Auckland population and businesses to delays and uncertainty in travel time. This is not a long term solution.
So a complementary system that avoids this congestion and offers an alternative would clearly be of value. Freight already has the rail option, and we think it is time that people did too. We have outlined our ideas for this here: Regional Rapid Rail.
This is only further supported by recent announcements of major developments in the Waikato, particularly those involving Tainui, like this huge industrial and residential project at Ruakura close to the city centre and the University on the east side of the river. Described in the Herald:
“Hamilton is also an ideal business location due to being relatively close to international shipping ports, Auckland International Airport, and the growing number of manufacturing, health, education, freight and logistics companies now based in the Waikato. It’s less expensive to do business here compared to Auckland with employers able to tap into a growing youth population. The city is forecast to see a population growth of 74,600 residents – a 50 per cent growth – between 2013 and 2043, which would see Hamilton reach a total population of 224,800.
“With land in Hamilton being less expensive than Auckland and the fact that the city has low natural hazard risks for disasters like earthquakes or volcanic activity, Ruakura Port will tick a lot of boxes for potential tenants.”
Smith says the massive project will be “a game changer” for the Waikato and potentially for Auckland and other areas of the country – offering greater scale and efficiency for importers and exporters to move cargoes as sustainably as possible.
“With Ruakura’s rail system allowing many of the shipping containers to be transported by train, the current congestion on roads in Auckland and the Waikato can be expected to be alleviated.
“At capacity, it is expected that Ruakura will process 1 million TEU [twenty-foot equivalent unit] shipping containers per year. Ports of Auckland and Tauranga combined currently process about two million TEU per year.”
So clearly the freight industry has seen the opportunity in Hamilton’s position and the semi-dormant resource our existing rail network. This must surely lead to further investment into rail lines in this region which will also support the opportunity to add passenger services to the system.
As well as enabling people to move within the Golden Triangle without taking part in or adding to traffic congestion, revived Regional Rapid Rail can also have a positive effect on the economies and vitality small towns on its route and this is something I will visit in another post (Real Satellite Towns). Here I want to focus on the potential impacts on the Hamilton City Centre, a place with a great deal of promise. All transport infrastructure alters the form of the places it serves, and this is even more so when other policy supports these impacts. There are good signs of positive change there already, but there is so much more that can be done, particularly to exploit the boon of the Auckland spillover.
The centre of Hamilton has been struggling to compete with new malls on its fringes for business, in a way consistent with this pattern over the last 60+years worldwide. Free parking and easy driving plus the entirely car free all weather environment of the large mall has been an irresistible competitor, indeed as it was in Auckland too. Old main street business groups and Councils have almost always responded to this by trying to compete head on for the car bound customer, by lobbying for more and widened roads to the old cores and, especially, more and more publically subsidised parking. See this article for example.
This strategy is usually only ever partially successful, first because it plays directly to suburban malls’ greatest strength, driver convenience, and paradoxically, by enticing ever more cars onto city streets, it degrades the customer experience once out of their cars on these very streets: A car clogged downtown is not an attractor. The most enduring and successful response for old main streets is to instead seek to build a singular and un-mall like competitive advantage in what it offers the customer. Heading downtown has to find a way to return to being a thrill, being there must be a treat, and not simply a difficult to access awkward version of visiting the mall. This is what is finally fixing Auckland, and the same thing on a smaller scale can revive Hamilton too, over time, and with conscious effort.
So what does this mean in practice? It means Council and associations should work to stimulate all the things native to old urban centres and unusual in malls. This is a longer term project, and requires a consistent strategy of small steps, in partnership with the private sector, as these tend to be self-reinforcing and ultimately transformative. This means creating, attracting, and maintaining more:
- Local Residents
- Local Employment
- high quality Pubic Realm
- high quality Public Green Space
- Sports Stadia
- Palaces of Culture and Public Art
- Real Streets with activated building edges
- Car Free Access; cycleways and high quality Transit
- Transformation of parking craters into temporary and permanent uses
- Public Events
Hamilton already has a bunch of these, and there are good signs that some others are increasing, like city living, here, and the entirely sensible return to downtown of the region’s administrative organisation. These are vital as they make for customers who are already there, by far the most valuable ones, as proximity always beats mobility. But other features need work. Public Realm is a very important attractor, and this doesn’t just mean grand squares but probably more importantly pedestrian optimised streets, and whole systems of thriving street trees. There is a new adage in commercial development:
‘Public Realm is the new anchor tenant’ -Marcello Corbo, Chilean property developer.
These various factors can all be summed up by the term walkability. So for Hamilton this means: Shorter blocks, laneways, higher pedestrian priority, cyclelanes, river access, finer grained retail scale, clustering with public realm and cultural offerings, active building edges, breaking up of parking craters through temporary activation until more permanent and intensive development arrives.
Then of course there’s transport. Cycling in a flat relatively small city like Hamilton is surely an important contributor. But with that desire to connect into the wider resource of the Golden Triangle let’s also look at the opportunity that Intercity Passenger Rail could offer to focus this revival in the inner city, to help recreate a real heart to Hamilton.
Above is the city centre. The red line is the existing single track rail line currently only used for freight. It is underground from the Kmart building to the river. The Kmart building which is about to be redeveloped, as the probable location of the new Waikato Regional Council head office. The yellow square is the existing central bus station. Everywhere are oceans of at grade car parks. Adjacent is the cricket ground, within easy walk is the Waikato Stadium, the Waikato Museum, and all the hotels and restaurants of the city centre. A proposed new subsurface through-routed passenger rail line is shown in blue under Bryce St, the new development on the Kmart site could be a a real transport focussed Britomart-styleone right in the heart of downtown. Double track the rest of the surface route to serve the growing freight demand too. Already perfectly connected with all the city buses and set to turbo-charge the already underway city centre revival. This would be a game changer for the city compared to the current underserved and under-used station just visible at the extreme bottom left hand corner of the map.
This is just a quick high level overview, clearly it opens up the opportunity for much further work in both transport and urban form. Particularly the need to reassess the bus system and connections with the University to the east. Even a cursory glance at the current map suggests the system could likely benefit from a Auckland New Network type shake up:
While serious efforts to tame Auckland’s dwelling supply and cost issues hopefully will be forthcoming, it seems likely that the effects of Auckland’s relatively new-found scale and dynamism will remain for the foreseeable future, and therefore the opportunities for neighbouring towns and cities to trade on its constraints will be there to be exploited. Here is an interesting similar observation from the US. Different but similar: suggesting the way ahead for smaller places is offer enough of the new walkable big city experience mixed with small city advantages and costs.
Finally here is a short word about change, from physicist William Pollard:
‘Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable’