Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Peter was originally published in November 2016.

I’m not an urban designer or an architect – economists are famously bad at that sort of thing – but I do pay attention to the way places are built. Some places work well for people, and some places don’t. That matters.

A few weeks ago, I spotted a few interesting conversations (in Transportblog and on Twitter) about how we approach urban design issues. I thought they were worth highlighting as they pointed out some important distinctions and challenges we face in pursuing good design.

First: in a response to a study on the health value of architectural features that encourage social contact (eg porches, stoops, etc) that Kent posted in a recent Sunday reading, reader TimR made an astute comment about the need to get better at measuring outcomes from urban design. Good design has a value – but it’s often misidentified or left unmeasured:

That kind of hard data around Hispanic elders’ health needs to be gathered and put squarely in front of people like the Productivity Commission.

Every time I read nonsense about the “cost of aesthetics”, this is the kind of outcome I think about – the community and health benefits that only result from deliberate design choices. I’ll bet the costs to the health care and social support systems from that 2.7x worse physical function are not insubstantial, and much higher than the cost of building those architectural features.

Built environment design is so much more than how something looks, but as a society we have debased it to an optional nicety, and claim it is entirely subjective. Reality is, when we choose to examine the evidence properly there are always rich and measurable consequences flowing from design.

In the Auckland context, it’s a problem that we stripped out _so many_ design elements from the UP. Yes, we should make planning faster + more certain; but street-frontage controls clearly have a substantial long term economic cost according to the evidence above – and that’s just one specific outcome being measured. Accumulate all the benefits of getting architecture right in an urban setting, and the cost benefits could be staggering. There’s a reason places like hospitals now focus strongly on design outcomes.

My take is that it’s essential to have basic metric-based district plan Rules that control street interfaces, because they’re the heart of private-public engagement, they’re easy to define, are low or no-cost (eg limiting fence heights, putting entrance doors in the right place), and not at all difficult to comply with. These are not esoteric high-brow aesthetic design features that require expert opinion as part of a consent! Based on the evidence above, the ideologues just shoot their own economic theory in the foot when they force these controls out.

As Tim points out, we need to distinguish between design and aesthetics, which are two very different concepts. As I understand it, good design is, first and foremost, about functionality. If it looks good but doesn’t work well, it’s not well-designed.

Another way of saying this is that good design has objective and measurable benefits, while the benefits of aesthetics are subjective, or “in the eye of the beholder”. Health outcomes are a good start – well-designed urban places tend to enable and encourage walking and cycling and encourage incidental social contact between neighbours and passers-by.

One example I’ve been thinking about recently is the Owen G Glenn Building at the University of Auckland. While it looks impressively monumental from the outside – especially from the motorway, as in the view below – it’s unpleasant to be in. Lecture halls and classrooms are hard to find, the hallways often feel like they’re closing in on you, and, paradoxically, all the common spaces feel cavernous and exposed. The building’s design provides me with a small, but occasionally decisive, inducement to stay away from talks or meetings being held there – a sign that the building is not supporting its educational mission.


Second, Twitter users and occasional Transportblog commenters Frank McRae and Stephen Davis made some interesting points about the same basic issue – how we distinguish between aesthetics and functionality. They were responding to this tweet critiquing the design of some apartments in Otahuhu:

Frank observed (fairly but a bit too acerbically) that buildings usually have a practical aim – to house people or provide space for businesses and other organisations. In that context, we should judge them on how well they meet housing needs, rather than fulfill subjective aesthetic goals:

Stephen had a more expansive take on the issue, pointing out that we need to be attentive to the overall urban context for buildings:

He goes on to observe in a series of tweets that:

At the bottom are private houses, including apartments. At the top are public buildings and spaces. Commercial in the middle.

Unless your house is a tourist attraction – maybe you lobbied to make it a “special character” area – it’s not your job to make it pretty.

a good street increases the odds of people *wanting* to make aesthetically pleasing buildings next to it, too.

I’d say the vast majority of Auckland buildings are prettier than the streets they’re on already. Better than we deserve.

As an example:

I think Stephen’s idea of a “sliding scale of responsibility” for place-making is a good one. Urban streets are the largest, most widespread, and most influential public spaces in a city. They set the context for what happens around them. If we want better urban design, and buildings that make us better off, we need to start with the street.

What do you think about the value of urban design?

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  1. As a planner, i am immensely glad we removed many of the clunky design based rules from the Unitary Plan. Good design forms the foundation of each zones objectives and policies, and not rules, which allows for way more flexibility, knowing that no two sites are the same.

    You are never going to get award winning architecture on every project, but most projects my firm deals with do end up going involving good design. The key is to find good, practical architects and organised, pragmatic consultants.

    1. So why then is planning in Auckland such as dismal failure? Where are those good practical architects and organised pragmatic consultants? All gone overseas to greener pastures?

  2. As well as architecture you can’t ignore the use of landscaping and plantings. I suspect the Otahuhu apartments would look very different with leaves on the trees and some plantings in front of the fences.
    The Maison in Takapuna, a boxy structure, enhanced by attrative plantings and a sought after location to live.

    Aesthetically appealing or not?

  3. So, you can say for decent objective reasons that modern architecture sucks. No surprise.

    And that apartment building, it is the fence, and the orientation. That looks like the back of that building. What was that about putting the point about entrance doors in the right place? I think people walking past will subconsciously pick up on the fact that the designers didn’t want the front door anywhere near where they are right now — not good.

    There is of course our unwritten law about putting apartments in crappy settings. Note the commercial land use in the background of that picture.

    In cities which function more like, well, a city, a street corner is valuable space, and you may see things like a shop or a pub on the ground floor of that corner. Here we get a metal fence and a building which is not even flush with the street level.

    Generally the value of the public space is negative. People defend against it. Be it with 1.8m walls, or by buying a truck instead of an SUV if they can afford it. So why indeed would any developer bother with making a building look good?

  4. “we need to start with the street”

    So true. I’ve watched as houses have been prettied up, with pergolas and shell paths, lovely gardens of panels of lawn in concrete boxes, and carefully arranged sprayed perennials within trimmed box hedges. Aesthetically pleasing, and so incredibly dysfunctional:

    Mainly because they’re behind new high walls and fences that, as Roeland says, “defend” the space from the street. The walls also block visibility so cars emerging from these hidden oases create a hazard for anyone on the footpath. Not that there are many anymore. Deserted streets that only have people walking on them at school pick up time – and they’re just walking to the car!

    So yeah, beautiful architecture is worth diddly squat when the underlying urban processes have been ripped to shreds and the suburb is used as a dormitory, accessible only by car.

  5. Interesting how little the focus of this discussion changed between 2016 and 2019. It’s still all about the looks and the usefulness. Form and functionality. In the meantime – in fact, in the last three years – it has dawned even on the mainstream media, the general public discourse and the government that we’ve got a climate emergency on this planet of ours. And that cities, apart from being the principal culprits because of their insatiable metabolism, will also be the main victims in the warmer world. One would expect that by now the discussion about ‘how we should pursue good urban design’ would move from aesthetics and ‘place-making’ to ecology and security-building. But somehow we’re stuck in this idea that cities are for our pleasure and profit and that ‘more cycling, walking and PT’ will take care of the ‘sustainability agenda’. I’ll be a rude awakening as we go prettifying our streets, while ignoring our growing dependence on what’s under them – our vulnerable, over-centralised, energy-intensive, carbon-emitting urban infrastructure.

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