Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post was first published in May 2011.
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.
A lot of the focus on an improved CBD is on physical, structural and design initiatives. And fair enough too, there’s been some good stuff.
However, I don’t think the massive benefit of the huge increase in CBD population are emphasised enough. I think there has been far too much emphasis on the aesthetic downsides of apartments in the CBD, versus their functional and place making benefits.
I’d rather have lots of ugly or mediocre apartments any day, which enable population density and all its benefits, and provide for a wider range of housing needs, over a much smaller number of beautifully designed, elite apartments.
There have been lots of seriously crap developments. Obscene 1 to 3, at least, and more on Hobson’s ridge. But the result, since then, is a CBD with a huge amount of more vibrancy, character, and economic activity then that, that existed 20 years ago. During the great power failure of early 1998?, little changed in Queen Street except, instead of the lights being turned off on the onset of darkness, the option of them being turned on was removed.