Artist’s impressions do a lot of work in city-building. Those colourful images in consultation material – with people-like-us carefully drawn or photoshopped in – help us see how change might look and feel.
Sometimes, the impressions accidentally highlight a problem with the design. Sometimes, they’re all we have to cling to when a promising project sits in limbo for years and years. They’re a functional version of IRL tactical urbanism – not quite the real thing, but a highly useful communication tool, and worth a thousand words.
And of course, it’s especially satisfying when a project is completed and looks “just like the render.”
And then there are the aspirational, inspirational, and frankly fantastic images that tap into a much deeper visionary well… “Our cities should take greater inspiration from art.”
36. Our cities should take greater inspiration from art pic.twitter.com/hNCvEJLNoZ
— scoot! (@ScootFoundation) July 7, 2021
Enter artist Chris Dews, aka Dewsy. A painting of his mysteriously appeared on the Auckland Harbour Bridge a couple of weeks ago, heralding an art show at the more usual sort of place you see paintings, Monster Valley on Karangahape Road.
I popped in on the last day of the show, and serendipitously bumped into the artist himself. For the last few years, he’d devoted himself to painting landscapes. At the beginning of this year, he returned to Tāmaki Makaurau after an epic sailing trip from Doubtful Sound to Nelson, full of visions of coastal waters teeming with life.
And then something shifted. Back in the city, landscapes felt “beautiful but boring…I wanted to do something to make people think.” He looked at the city with fresh eyes, and imagined that natural vitality in the urban context. What would it look and feel like? He began with a verdant vision of the heart of the city, seen through the gates on the waterfront: a not-so-secret garden.
The vision grew and grew. Albert Park with vegetable plots watered by springs and providing an oasis for unhoused people to learn to garden. Rainbow’s End covered with vines. Grafton Gully pulsing with hydrodynamic waves for surfing into town, while buses and bikes sailed overhead on new bridges.
Some of the paintings overlap with reality: a native nursery on the slopes of Maungawhau actually exists, as part of the Tupuna Maunga Authority’s work to recloak the volcanic tihi in greenery. A vision of aerial night-cafes in Western Springs feels like something Motat or the Zoo might be dreaming up as we speak. A waka navigating a waterway through Myers Park: a dream, or a sign?
One painting in particular has ignited great curiosity: a heroic image of a revitalised Wai Horotiu flowing down Queen Street (an appealing notion that bubbles up as constantly as the spring itself). It was shared by Councillor Chris Darby as a metaphor for light rail, and lauded by Simon Wilson in the Herald as an example of bold visions besting timid ideas: “an Auckland that might never be but is utterly worth imagining.”
Recreating the Waihorotiu stream that once flowed down the Queen St valley, has been on my mind for a few years. Artist Chris Dews has got me thinking of how we could imagine light rail gliding down Queen in a blue and green environment. pic.twitter.com/nAglweuFxQ
— Chris DARBY (@DarbyatCouncil) July 4, 2021
Visions help lead us towards futures – so it’s useful to inquire what visions dance through the heads of our leaders. Did a Peter Siddell painting of charming Mt Eden villas hanging in the main Council chamber shape the recent discussion on housing zones, for example?
Fittingly, Chris Dews will be presenting his work in this same chamber – at an upcoming meeting of council’s Planning Committee on Thursday 5 August, 10am, at the Auckland Town Hall. (These meetings are livestreamed and general business is open to the public).
Chris is open to suggestions for other visions to bring to life. Check out his Instagram, drop him an email, or come to a live painting and open conversation at 22 Emily Place, Thursday 22 July, 5.30-7.30pm, to openly discuss how we can see a brighter future for Auckland.
And here’s the artist’s statement from the exhibition, in the form of an open letter to the mayor…
An Open Letter and Invitation from Chris Dews to Mayor Phil Goff
Dear Mayor Goff – kindness is coming your way!
“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.” — Pamela Haines
In your 2018 “Vision for Auckland” Statement you said – “In the longer term, Auckland needs to be a city that encourages the best and brightest New Zealanders to stay in this country and attract the skilled people, entrepreneurs and investments our city and country needs.”
Thanks to COVID 19, that vision has been accelerated and all our best and brightest Kiwis are now home, but it may not be for long. Despite Auckland being voted the most livable city in the world recently, this is really only true if you are already wealthy. Then it is of course absolutely amazing. For most of us, the cost of housing, transport and food is more than we can actually afford and our week to week existence is difficult to say the least.
My exhibition is all about the kind of city that would inspire both the best and the brightest of kiwis to want to stay, but to also be a city that is healing our issues of homelessnes, transport poverty (which is why there is such a congregation of homelessness in the CBD) and enough healthy food in people’s bodies to truly nourish them.
Recently I caught up with a few of my homeless friends from Morningside/Kingsland and I was completely astonished to hear what they had to say… “Kindness is coming back Chris! We can feel it in the streets!”
We all know that change must start from the ground up, and kindness is coming your way too, Phil Goff. You have a very difficult job. I am one of many people in Auckland who would like to constructively help create a beautiful and inspiring city. Together we can truly heal our people, creating well-being at every level of social strata.
Are you aware of the vTaiwan online platforms that the Taiwanese government is using to shape social policy? We need to do this here too. It would be the quickest and easiest way for the voice and intelligence of the people of Auckland to be heard. And we need to hear the voice of Ngā Mana Whenua loud and clear. Their understanding of the world as an integrated system of relationships is exactly what we need to bring health to our city, avert climate change and heal the unjust division of resources between the rich and the poor. I’m not saying that everyone has to have the same rewards in life, but everyone deserves food, shelter, safety and the opportunity to heal from the damage that is created by poverty.
The work being done on our streets putting in cycle lanes and bus lanes simply doesn’t go far enough. We need to completely change the psychology of our city so that cycling and other active modes of transport are what is naturally preferred. This also supports the health of our people and is the cheapest form of travel. Thus my paintings of cycleways in the sky – weather protected, safe from traffic, no hills. Someone living in West Auckland could commute to university in 20 minutes for free on one of these cycle lanes.
Or the pedestrianised greening of our streets through establishing urban farms, where our currently homeless neighbours could find community, learn to care for themselves and finally be provided with truly healthy nutrition on a daily basis.
Let’s bring back our Queen St River – Waihorotiu. Let’s bring her back to the light through Myers Park and Aotea Square and then bring her all the way down the middle of Queen St. There is already so much concrete. Queen St would become a famous attraction if pedestrianising meant that each side of the street was a beautiful boulevard with outdoor dining overlooking a beautiful stream canal. The pedestrian crossings could be criss-crossed over bridges and the buses could have bridges perpendicular to the flow of the stream.
It could be done, it would make Queen St one of the most beautiful in the world.
Please come to my exhibition, I and my friends would like to have further conversation with you on these matters.
“When we awaken to the enormity of our crisis and the magnitude of our loss, often the first response is crushing despair. Yet on the other side of despair is fullness and an urgency to live life beautifully. We can choose a different world – the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible.” – Charles Eisenstein