Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Urban Eye: the Inner City "Bypass"

A misnomer and a mistake.

Urbanism -4
It's hard to think of anything more anti-urban than this: to push a bulldozer through a unique, lively inner-city community in order to save commuters a few minutes. Homes, shops, bars, workshops and community gardens will be driven out in the name of traffic.

The very fact that it's called a "bypass" shows that to the traffic planners, this sort of neighbourhood is invisible. There are no office blocks or expensive homes here, so it might as well be empty land, a convenient way to bypass the "real" city. But in fact this neighbourhood exemplifies many of the qualities that real cities should enjoy: diversity, multifunctionality, connectedness and a sense of community. There's a mindset that envisions a city as nothing but a CBD and suburbs with efficient roads between them, and when confronted with the chaotic, quirky reality of upper Te Aro it can see nothing but a bunch of hippies in run-down buildings getting in the way of progress.

The only thing that prevents me from giving this a -5 for urbanism is that it's currently not very high density. That's to be expected, though, given that the district dates back to a time of cottages and shacks. That is part of what makes this a unique urban enclave, and why it will be such a loss.

Aesthetics -3
Transit have dotted their maps and renderings with lots of trees, greenswards and "heritage gardens", in an attempt to counter the negative perception of bypasses, but the fact remains that there will be more asphalt than there was before.

Some will see the relocation and renovation of the heritage buildings as a visual improvement, but anyone who appreciates diversity will realise that the sanitised version will have little of the lived-in appeal of the real thing.

Environment -4
Thanks to ongoing pressure from anti-bypass groups, Transit have at least been forced into putting in a cycleway, but this is just window dressing. There may be some truth in their claim that there will be less pollution due to less idling at intersections, but this misses the main issue: that congestion is not due to a lack of roads, but to an excess of cars.

Transit bizarrely claim that the bypass won't induce more traffic, saying that "capacity restrictions around the central business district, and at The Terrace and Mount Victoria tunnels" will constrain the amount of traffic in the area. If that is the case, and the traffic capacity won't be increased, how will Wellington see any of the economic benefits that the Land Transport Action Group claims are being delayed by congestion? Induced traffic is a well-known phenomenon around the world (and was acknowledged by Transfund's Independent Peer Review in 2001). If the congestion is so frustrating for drivers, then some who currently avoid the area or seek alternatives will get back in their cars once the bypass is ready, soon clogging up those other bottlenecks. It's a vicious circle.

Social -3
It's astonishing that Transit have the temerity to claim that it will "breathe life into Te Aro". They must be blind to the diverse range of unique shops and community groups in Upper Cuba Street; either that or they equate "life" with "increasing property values".

We're supposed to be thankful that they will be moving, renovating and selling the heritage buildings in the path of the road. Remember what Jane Jacobs said: "Cities need ... plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings. If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction." (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p187-188). Transit will retain the cosmetic shell, the gables and finials that heritage buffs love, but replace a feisty, creative community with an expensively sterile "heritage village".

The irony is that it's the threat of the bypass that has allowed this area to become interesting. If land values hadn't been depressed by the spectre of demolition, it would long since have become like the rest of southern Te Aro (replaced by car dealers or low-rise offices) or like Thorndon (the cottages renovated within an inch of their lives and inhabited by wealthy professionals). In either case it would have lost its uniqueness and ragged charm, and a lot of creative people would have been driven out.

So, in the (what now appears to be highly unlikely) case that the bypass is scrapped, what could be done to avoid gentrification? I'm sure that Transit believe that it's their right to sell their (deliberately run-down) properties to the highest bidder, but perhaps there's a compromise. There are a few patches of unused land, and some other opportunities for infill, and these could be developed for medium density (3-6 storey) housing and commercial purposes. This could be lucrative enough to subsidise the transfer (for a nominal sum) of currently inhabited buildings to a trust or housing association formed by current tenants. Overseas, such associations have been successful at maintaining and improving districts while working for their mutual interests and preventing rapacious speculation.