What is in New Zealand’s Future?
Earlier this year I was asked by Penguin Random to contribute to a book speculating about New Zealand’s future, and now it’s out:
There’s a fantastic range of writers/speculators, including Dame Anne Salmond writing brilliantly about the natural world, Rod Oram on Climate Change, Leonie Freeman on housing. Others on the future of technology and employment, Jacinta Ruru on Maori and our collective future. A brace of Jarrods, and so much more:
I wrote about Cities, Streets, and Transport, and well you can judge for yourself, as the publishers have kindly allowed me to reproduce it here, in parts, so here’s a taste, more to follow. Or, you know, you could get the book and enjoy all writers…
IS THIS THE FUTURE FOR OUR CITY STREETS?
A GREAT SPATIAL MIXING IS UNDER WAY: the suburbs are urbanising, getting fuller and more varied, adding more opportunities to work and remain there, and, where this is most successful, developing greater local character. Our city centres are humanising — becoming more pleasant, leafier, varied, filling with residents again — as they, too, expand upwards. The separate and monotonous character of each place that developed into an extreme during the last century is being complicated and unwound.
Supporting this, vehicles everywhere are electrifying: bikes, cars, buses, trains, ferries, even airplanes. Everything will automate (ditto — well, except the bikes). Everything will be shared, certainly all those vehicles, but particularly places, and especially the streets. Walking, biking, scootering will boom. The e-bike is the transformational vehicle of the moment.
The busy peopled city street replacing the fuming traffic-jammed road is at the heart of the solutions to the great environmental, economic, and social challenges of our age. The cities, and the parts of each city, that make this change best and fastest will thrive, and those that cling to the twentieth-century driving and sprawling pattern will stall.
We look back on the condition of Victorian city streets, all coal smoke and horseshit, carts and chaos, and marvel. It was really like that? Then in the early twentieth century, right up till after the end of World War II, it was different again; these same streets we know today were filled with people in old-style hats and coats, busy with jangly electric trams and just the occasional horse and cart. But now also a few, just a few, of those new-fangled cars. That change must have felt profound; it certainly would have smelt profoundly different.
Then very quickly after the uprooting of the tram tracks that marked every city or town of scale up to the 1950s, the current pattern of vehicle traffic domination — exhaust smoke, engine noise and pedestrian danger — totally took over. All streets became roads, and all belonged to the internal combustion engine.
This should tell us that our cities, even though the present may feel so concrete and permanent, are always changing. The rhythm of this change is not constant, however: both technology and society move on in a subtle interplay, largely incrementally, sometimes more suddenly. So, flipping this exercise, looking forward: what can we see?
It’s clear that our city streets, especially our city centre streets, are about to change profoundly again. We are at the beginning of the process of reversing the last big move; cars and trucks will be but guests instead of masters in this world. Those that are admitted will be silent, non-emitting electric machines, and will be in an environment entirely dominated by people.
Auckland will lead this street-level revolution, in a very unlikely turn of events for those used to the last half-century in this city; a more car-drowned and charmless place is hard to imagine.1 Our biggest city’s sheer size and strong growth rate have flipped it into a new state through the inescapable spatial logic of urban economics: the old sleepy, overgrown provincial town is dead. And although Auckland is now anomalous with not only its own past but also every other place in the country, changes there will help speed similar shifts in our other cities, simply by showing us all that different ways are possible, and work so well.
Below I will largely discuss the urban transformation coming in Auckland because there it is so marked and so clearly under way; but this is also happening elsewhere across the nation. And, while all our cities have their own specific conditions and directions, they will not be immune to the social and technological imperatives of this century.
Form follows transport
The whole Queen Street valley will be car-free, plied only by emergency and delivery and service vehicles, the latter at set times. (Most deliveries in city centres will be by e-cargo bike.) Tens of thousands of people will arrive and depart every hour by underground electric rail, by surface light rail, by ferry at the harbour’s edge, by 100 per cent electric buses, by bikes (both powered and not), and on foot.
Especially on foot. Because this century one form of mobility that’s making a huge comeback is proximity: being there already. The Auckland city centre is the fastest-growing residential area in the nation, expanding at six times the rate of the wider city. There are now around 50,000 inner-city residents, and new apartments are rising everywhere. You can feel this presence on the pavement; space given over to vehicle traffic last century will be taken back by people in this one.
Quite soon, say by the mid-2020s, we will be able to experience this future in good chunks of the city centre. Both Victoria and Quay Street are being halved widthways to expand people space, for walking and cycling, for tree and cafe-table space. Loitering is more valuable this century than motoring. The old fume-choked and vehicle-dominated order will quickly become as foreign an idea as the thought of streets filled with horses and carts.
This is the centuries-old power of the city that got lost in the second half of last century, in the automobile-powered anti-urban sprawl era. The city is well and truly back. And the total removal of the internal combustion engine is going to transform the urban experience. It will return the human voice and the scent of the sea to dominance. Citizens will encounter new and old sounds and smells; there will be much more variety; ‘unplugged’ buskers will be effective again; food providers will advertise by their aromas again. This is the return of streets as public places, not simply as traffic funnels.
This also means there is more space for trees on every street, because as the city re-intensifies and more of the street is returned to pedestrians and bike riders, the opportunity to green the streets must be taken. We need the environmental heavy lifting that street trees perform — shade and air purification, combating the urban heat island effect — and also their glory and beauty, and the reminder of our natural selves that only a green city can provide.
Because, and in a complete inversion of thinking of the last period, one of the major drivers of urban re-intensification is the urgent need to lower the environmental burden of human living. We have to live more compactly, move around more gently, consume much less of the earth’s surface, and stop burning its buried carbon. This can be achieved only by returning to the compact city, stopping the outward spread of recent centuries, and retrofitting current suburbs with more local amenity, while decarbonising our buildings and the travel between them.2
For those living with a lovely garden in the suburbs this may seem hard to understand; isn’t that greener than living in an apartment? The problem is not at the individual level but when it scales. It is a sad fact that the environmental positives of that individually owned greenery are all undone by the massive waste that is the suburban driving commute, and by the vast, countryside-eating spread of the city that enables us all to live in such a dispersed way. One city block can house as many people as an entire small suburb, and with a much lower carbon footprint. This doesn’t mean that existing suburbs will become just like city centres, but rather that both will grow a bit more like each other; suburbs must become more mixed-use with local walkable employment and amenity, and centres must grow leafier and more appealing while getting taller and fuller. And both will be efficiently interconnected with electric rapid transit.
This transport revolution — literally another turn of the wheel, with the addition of a citywide rapid transit network and a full cycleway network to our existing and largely complete road networks — is vital not only to unclog and purify the city, but also to ensure that access to opportunity is equitably shared among all citizens. So that anyone in any part of the city has equal access to all the employment and education possibilities citywide. If all anyone needs is a train fare or a safe cycle path to access the entire city, we will have both a thriving economy and a fairer one. Richer in every sense.
Forecasting the physical landscape of transport infrastructure, the city’s hardware, is relatively easy because these budgets are already set; we largely know what our cities will be like over the next decade. I will paint this picture later, but first let’s look back on the last major transport revolution in our cities: the birth of the car-centric city after World War II. Because we can understand this pattern better if we see how we got to this point and what, specifically, we are leaving behind.
More to come…
1 Paul Mees & Jago Dodson (2001). An American Heresy: Half a century of transport planning in Auckland. Presented to NZ Geographical Society & Australian Institute of Geographers conference, University of Otago, Dunedin.
2 David Owen (2009). Green Metropolis: Why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainability. New York: Riverhead (a Penguin imprint).
3 Mees & Dodson (2001).
5 Jeff Speck (2012). Walkable City: How Downtown can save America, one step at a time. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
6 Alan Ehrenhalt (2012). The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. New York: Knopf.
7 Charles Montgomery (2013). Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.