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

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Urbanism Down Under: in review, part 4

This is the fourth and final section of my report on the Urbanism Down Under conference (see also parts one, two and three).

Session D1: Urban Strategies included two talks of direct interest to Wellingtonians. Graeme Spargo talked about the Wellington Regional Strategy project, which brings together all nine local authorities in the Wellington Region to create a framework for growth in both an economic and spatial sense. He pointed out that while Wellington still has the highest GDP per capita of any region in the country, and has recently has had the fastest GDP growth, that growth is now slowing. While I have reservations about the reference to GDP (focusing solely upon GDP growth can promote unsustainable development at the expense of environmental and social wellbeing), I'm keen to see a stronger and broader economic base for Wellington, so it was interesting to hear about what is holding us back.

We're very strong on research (at CRIs and universities), but not good at converting that into value, which is partly due to lack of good connections to markets and distributions. There was the inevitable talk about the Western Corridor, and mention was made of the various machinations between port-related companies (Toll, Fonterra, CentrePort and P&O Nedlloyd). International air links are a clear weakness (as someone who's had to fly Wellington-London and back six times in a year, I can heartily agree), so the runway extension and expected arrival of 787 services will be welcome. I was also glad to hear the call to further support and make the most of our existing rail investment, including the encouragement of Transit-oriented developments.

Ernst Zollner and Paul Kos from the WCC then spoke more specifically about the council's urban development strategy (still in preparation), which will be a spatial strategy to guide the growth and change of the city over the next 50 years. Wellington can expect population growth of about 35,000 in the next 25 years, and a further 15,000 in the 25 years after that: this is a manageable growth rate, but there is still a challenge to ensure that this growth builds upon our good existing urban form.

Of these extra 50,000 people, 32,000 are expected to settle in a relatively compact "spine" that extends from Johnsonville via the CBD and hospital to the airport. This will require a continuation of high density residential development, with an expanded CBD that could extend from Kaiwharrawharra to Newtown. It's thus fortunate that household sizes are decreasing, which creates more demand for medium- and high-density housing, allowing the minimisation of greenfield development. The WRS website contains a lot of technical reports with all the details on demographic projections and housing.

This scenario is not without its challenges, of course. A laissez-faire approach to apartment development and suburban infill can lead to the sort of cheap and nasty disasters that give high density urbanism a bad name in some quarters, so there has to be some mechanism for coordinating high-quality design. Quality transport along the spine is a must, and my ears pricked up when I heard the phrase "high quality public transport". Is this a hint that it's time to go for a strategy like the Greens' Ride the Wind package, including a light rail link from Johnsonville to the airport? The report by Urbanista (among the consultants' reports on the WRS website) seems to think so:
Light rail is another option which while costly will add value to the city, will be able to leverage higher density employment and residential development and potentially could be an important urban and economic icon for Wellington and one of its key marketing tools.
It's not such a utopian concept, especially when one factors in the economic benefits from enabling better land use along the route, and considers that most of the metropolitan areas in the USA are introducing or expanding transit systems.

In all, I found this an exciting session, as it demonstrates the opportunity we have to extrapolate Wellington's existing strengths (such as density, walkability and vitality). We still need the vision and the political will to fund high quality public infrastructure, apply sustainable building principles and encourage high design quality in private developments; but if we do it right we can grow from a really good little city into a truly great world-class city.


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