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

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Mai Tai roundup

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Mike's photo of an umbrella sculpture at Hadyn's Tiki Bar partyI was right when I said that the Mai Tai is even more unfashionable than the mojito: how else to explain the barman at Chow who said he hadn't made one in seven years, or the bartender at the Southern Cross who grumped that "in twelve years behind a bar, I've never heard anyone order a Mai Tai"? Of course, the other explanation is that too many of our bar staff are shamefully unfamiliar with one of the world's classic cocktails, one that dates back to 1944.

The other difficulty is that the Mai Tai now lives a double life: while the true Mai Tai is very strong and has no juice but lime juice, it seems that most people think of it as a long, sweet and fruity cocktail, dominated by citrus and pineapple juices and with the merest hint of rum. Not that that's necessarily a bad drink, and Hummingbird's version, for example, involved lots of freshly muddled lime and orange slices and was very tasty. The Mai Tai is the Gareth Farr of cocktails: complex and serious, yet with an outrageously camp alter ego. Maybe we need a specific name to remove the confusion, and call the non-fruity version a "classic Mai Tai" or "Trader Vic's Mai Tai".

The bars I visited fell into four camps: those who made the classic version; those who made fruity ones; those who knew what to do but lacked the ingredients; and those that had no clue whatsoever. In some cases, it was a bit of a lottery, since on my first attempt at Matterhorn I got a bland pineappley concoction, but the second time was perfect.

The good stuff was served up at Mighty Mighty, Plate, Chameleon, Dockside and of course Imbibe. Presentation tended towards the minimal, though the glassware was all over the place: old-fashioned, Martini, highball and hurricane glasses. Special mention goes to Imbibe for not only delivering great flavour but serving it in a pineapple, though that was at a certain Tiki Bar party so on most nights you'll probably get it served in a jam jar.

Of the fruity versions, Hummingbird's was probably the best because of the fresh fruit, and because you could taste the spirits. Monsoon Poon's was similar, but with less flavour. Harem's was predictably eccentric, served in a giant Margarita glass, and included such non-standard ingredients as apricot brandy and grenadine among a fruity smorgasbord of juices. St John's was probably the worst, and despite the bartender's confidence it seemed to be just rum & pineapple juice!

Suprisingly, two of Wellington's better cocktail bars lacked the ingredients. Hawthorn Lounge and Tupelo both had no orgeat, and Tupelo was also out of fresh limes. While not exactly rare, orgeat syrup could be regarded as a specialist ingredient, so its absence can be forgiven. But for a cocktail bar to be out of fresh limes in summer is really a bit of a disaster.

There are a lot of bars around, that while not exactly counting as "cocktail bars", have a cocktail list and a reasonable top shelf, so one might expect them to handle a classic cocktail such as the Mai Tai. In many of these places, the bartenders didn't know how to make one, but with a bit of prompting delivered surprisingly good results. The Southern Cross, Ernesto, Electric Avenue and (surprisingly) Chow all needed some instructions and some substitution of ingredients (Amaretto for orgeat, Cointreau or Grand Marnier for curaçao), but came up with results that, while far from canonical, were very drinkable. Jet and The Last Supper Club are two places with definite pretentions towards cocktail bar status, but the blank stares from inexperienced bartenders were warning signs, so I walked out with my thirst and wallet intact.

My conclusion: Caveat imbibor. If you want a classic Mai Tai, say so. Even specialist cocktail bars cannot be relied upon, and your best bet is to look for a place that not only has it on their menu but lists the correct ingredients. The closest I've come in Wellington to the proper Trader Vic's experience was at Matterhorn, Mighty Mighty and Imbibe, with the last being the only one to combine a serious drink with a playful garnish. But there is hope. After taking my order, one of the Matterhorn bartenders turned to the other and remarked "We've been getting a lot of Mai Tai requests recently". The Mai Tai momentum is building, so can the Tiki Bar revolution be far away?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Kumutoto in toto

The latest edition of On the Waterfront announces that a design brief has been prepared for the buildings at sites 8, 9 and 10 at Kumutoto. There has been a design brief for the whole area (436 kB PDF) since 2002, but this will specify more detail about these particular buildings and their uses. The indicative heights and footprints have not changed: Site 8 (north of the Meridian building) will be about 4 storeys; Site 9 (north of Shed 13) will range between 3 and 5 storeys (probably 5 storeys at the north end and 3 storeys at the south) and Site 10 (opposite the monolithic NZ Post building) can go up to 6 storeys.

Proposed new building locations at KumutotoThe brief will be released publicly in a few weeks' time, but in the meantime the key instructions that will go out to architects are that the winning designs must:
  • demonstrate virtuoso design;
  • be attractive, robust and highly interactive with their surroundings;
  • enhance public space and complement heritage structures;
  • be a state-of-the-art sustainable design;
  • use high quality materials;
  • be contemporary but reflect local culture;
  • have spaces which are high quality, flexible and adaptable; and
  • be technically, financially and politically feasible.
Given the lacklustre efforts by central government, and what private developers have been attempting elsewhere in the city, a process that insists upon "virtuoso design" can only be applauded. I don't think we'll be getting anything as sculptural as the proposed Waitangi Precinct buildings, but if the results are as good as the Meridian building is shaping up to be, we should get some very appealing new buildings.

As to what these buildings will house, so far we only know that "The new buildings will have a range of uses and could include recreational, retail, commercial, residential and institutional use. Generally, the uses need to support a safe waterfront and 24-hour use." However, I'd like to suggest one particular ground floor use for Site 10, which has by far the largest site area. Since I've heard that my suggested under-the-motorway location for an indoor sports centre isn't going to happen, how about the ground floor of Site 10 as a replacement for Shed 1?

The site is larger than the portion of Shed 1 used for indoor sports, so it should allow room for a couple of courts plus circulation, changing facilities and perhaps some retail. The ceiling height will need to be higher than the 6m allowed for by the design brief, but not by much: the existing sports sheds have trusses at 8.9m, netball needs a minimum of 8.3m and indoor football 6.1m. That could be achieved by either a slightly reduced stud height for the floors above it (currently assumed to be 4.2m) or a couple of extra metres in overall height. Some would object to that, but given the bulk of its neighbour across the road, it won't be too noticeable.

The location won't be as handy to some city workers as Queens Wharf, being about 5 minutes' walk further north, but this will actually be better for a lot of people. Looking at the number of workers within walking distance (the red dots are workers from the 2001 census and blue dots show new or proposed buildings, as in my earlier analysis), it seems that Site 10 will be more convenient for anyone north of Johnston St, which may soon be the majority of Wellington office workers. The indoor stadium will be great for competitive basketball and netball, but far from viable for lunchtime sport.

Distances to Shed 1 and Site 10Since it'll be a brand new building, it should be possible to avoid the problems with Shed 1. Ground floor windows could admit natural light, while providing active edges and a sense of space. A café at the southern end would get late afternoon sun and some harbour views, and if it's the right sort of place (a coffee and juice bar during the day, a relaxed pub in the evening, and perhaps a brunch café at the weekend) it could attract sporty types, workers from the nearby offices and general passers-by. It would complement the commercial, residential and cultural activities elsewhere in Kumutoto, and the centre might even make a good space for a weekend market.

There are of course a lot of other considerations, such as services and access for the floors above and for any underground carparking, but I think they should be surmountable. The potential owners of the building would no doubt want the highest return from their investment, but I don't think this location will be quite as attractive a retail destination as sites 7, 8 and 9, so perhaps a recreational facility such as this (or perhaps an ice rink?) would be the best way to guarantee an active edge to the building. It would also be a gesture of good faith to current users of Shed 1, acknowledging that while a closed shed is not the best use of the sun and views on the Outer T, indoor sports deserve a place in the central city.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

All carnivalled out

Well, that was one hell of a party. There was even a bit of politics after all, after it was announced that Falun Dafa had been banned from the parade, and in the end they turned up anyway. There were even some rare and wondrous apparitions during the parade: actual buses!

As for transgression of political, ideological and legal authority, it's clear that no-one really cared about the liquor ban (though one policeman politely turned down offers of a swig of cheap Riesling from one bystander), and in some cases public decency laws also went literally out the window - if you were anywhere near the Floriditas balcony just before the parade you'll know what I'm talking about. Look love, this isn't Mardi Gras, you don't get any beads for doing that here.

There are no photos of that incident up on Flickr, though it's presumably just a matter of time. Meanwhile, there are plenty of photos tagged cubastreetcarnival or cubastcarnival (don't you just love folksonomies?) to enjoy, and here are some of my own photos from they daylight hours.

Cuber Street: cardboard renditions of local buildings at the Cuba St Carnival"Cuber" Street: cardboard renditions of local buildings at the Kids' Zone.

crowds spilling over from the Swan Lane area during the Mint Chicks' gig at the Cuba St CarnivalBlowing bubbles: crowds spilling over from Swan Lane during the Mint Chicks' gig.

Ferris wheel at Te Aro park during Cuba St CarnivalFerris wheel at Te Aro park.

Ukelele Orchestra fans looking for a good viewing position duringthe Cuba St CarnivalUkelele Orchestra fans looking for a good viewing position.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Reading between the headlines

As some of my readers have pointed out to me, there have been a few public announcements recently that may not be entirely what they seem.

The release of the Big Cities Quality of Life Survey was the occasion for a very self-congratulatory media release from Wellington City Council, headed "Wellington Simply the Best, Survey Reveals". Wellingtonians certainly do seem to be relatively happy with their city, but some of the comparisons are fairly meaningless. For example, "Wellington ranks highest among the cities in terms of people feeling safe in their homes during the day (99%) and at night (96%)", but the difference is so minimal as to be laughable: Christchurch achieves 98% and 96% respectively. Some of the results are indeed worth crowing about, such as definitely having a city that looks and feels good to us:

Graph of 'pride in look & feel' across NZ citiesThat graph comes from page of the very comprehensive full report (11.4MB PDF), which is definitely worth reading if you want to get past the spin from the various interested parties. As another example, according to the press release: "One area of concern highlighted in the survey is graffiti, with 58% of Wellingtonians interviewed considering it to be a problem, up from 42% in 2004. Mayor Prendergast says the Council plans to tackle this problem by funding a 'flying squad' to clean up graffiti quickly." You can just imagine the hordes of taggers and street artists yelling "Leg it, it's the Sweeney!". But as the report shows (page 295), Wellington has almost the lowest level of concern about graffiti, just above North Shore and Lower Hutt on 56%, and much less than the cross-city average of 70%. Hey! Council! Leave our stencils alone!


The coverage of funding for social housing may not have been exactly misleading, but a casual observer might have gained the impression that this would be new investment in increasing housing stock, rather than patching up the existing flats to make them actually suitable for human beings. The council appears quite munificent at first, until you realise that some councillors had been pushing hard to sell off the social housing, and then one starts to wonder whether the whole thing might be more about the government giving in to council blackmail: "pay up, or the flats get it".

As it turns out, some of the buildings may not be just upgraded but demolished and rebuilt. Hmm, I wonder whether they might run into heritage issues with that: what if the Arlington apartments in Mt Cook get listed as a notable example of early Ath? And if they do they do rebuild, let's hope that some of it is done as high-density medium-rise buildings along real public streets, not cheap & nasty towers set in useless and alienating "estates".


Finally, I'm trying to work out just what this media release from the regional council actually means. "GW to invest in regional flood protection & public transport" - sounds great! So does the news that they're trying to respond to "the strong messages received through our community consultation processes for a greater investment to be made on flood protection measures and also on regional public transport". So how much new investment is going towards public transport? There's a table further on that shows transport rates increasing from $32.8m in 06/07 to $35.9m in 07/08: a rise of 9.4%. But that's only a $3m increase, which is peanuts in this context, and while this does seem to be an increase on what was previously planned, will it actually be new investment?

Another part of the release, clearly aimed more at mollifying ratepayers than improving public transport, states that "if recent diesel prices increases are overlooked, the planned investment increase in regional transport is also less than the current rate of inflation." If that means what I think it means, they're not even keeping up with running costs, let alone making "greater investment" in public transport. I'll be quite happy to be proved wrong, but at the moment that looks like a very misleading headline, and the regional council is still persisting with its tired old "roads first" policy.


Perspective of proposed Q on Taranaki apartmentsAnd finally, not picking on the councils for a change, how about these apartments being advertised for sale? Yes, they're in the very same god-awful twin lumps that I've been pleased to announce have not been given consent and probably never will. The agents are confidently telling prospective buyers that construction will start in July this year, and that there will be no risks involved in getting consent, and according to their site they've already sold 60 of the 228 studio apartments. Not only is this an appallingly unimaginative design, but it's a non-complying activity and as I've recently double-checked, the council's planners and urban designers are against it. The urban design team does actually get a say in developments that breach the district plan, and going around selling these non-existing apartments when there is no approval is hardly going to endear them to the council. Mind you, the property company involved does have a bit of a reputation.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Cuba St Carnival, (c) Steve Thompson, from http://www.cubacarnival.org.nz/gallery/22.htmlIt's going to be huge, of course. This weekend's Cuba St Carnival is set to be the biggest yet, with some unmissable acts on the Main Stage and even the Courtenay Place bars getting in on the act. The open-ended consent means that its future is secure, and you can get there by bus for only $1 (assuming that there are any drivers available). Some of us are getting very excited indeed about the weekend, and with luck even the weather might come to the party.

But how much is it really in the spirit of "carnival"? After all, the carnival tradition has a much more anarchic, subversive and almost dangerous flavour, and it should be a time when inhibitions are discarded and social hierarchies are turned on their heads. There will no doubt be some of that, but I wonder whether any political floats will make it to this year's illuminated night parade? This particular carnival has its origins in the Upper Cuba St Carnival, which was not just about having a good time but was "a community celebration with a strong spirit of resistance to the inner city 'bypass' and other attacks on the community". As some have said, "A 'non-political carnival' is no carnival at all".

Cuba St Carnival 2007 - mapThere will no doubt be some uninhibited drunken revelry, though if last night's Orientation toga parties around upper Willis St are anything to go by, some people don't need a carnival as an excuse for that. There will be some lavishly skimpy outfits and quasi-nudity on the floats, but it'll be fairly tame compared to a proper carnival (warning: link contents not entirely SFW). But there's one way in which established hierarchies will indeed be overthrown: as the long list of road closures shows, King Car will be dethroned for a few hours, and the streets returned to the people as a site for community enjoyment. Make the most of this short time, enjoy the sight of Courtenay Place and Swan Lane full of people rather than cars, and perhaps wonder whether we could ever make that a permanent change.

Right, that all seemed dourly political, but I know it's going to be a hell of a weekend. I love the fact that it's become a catalyst and focal point for all sorts of other parties and events, such as the Notting Hill-inspired soundclash at Thistle Hall, Trash at Good Luck (a fundraiser for Clinton Smiley) and of course the "unofficial" after-party that will take over Edward St for some late-late mayhem. So: eat, drink, take photos, stay up late, be merry, dress up, dance like a bitch and enjoy a car-free slice of Te Aro for a few hours.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Shop talk

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Retail continues to thrive in Wellington, and thanks to a few recent and upcoming openings there are now virtually no vacancies on the Golden Mile or Featherston St, with a few exceptions at the northern end. Here's a quick roundup of some of the changes, workingly roughly from south to north.

Inside Butlers Chocolate Cafe, WellingtonLast weekend, Butlers Chocolate Cafe opened in the long-empty building that once hosted Kopi. It's something quite new for Wellington, but even if you've never seen one of the other stores in the chain, it has a definite franchise feel about it. All that shiny brass, buttery faux-classical woodwork and bright lighting works against any intimacy that the tiny space might have generated. The plasma screen with slow-motion loops of their products and branding completes the shopping mall ambience. Nevertheless, their chocolates do taste good, and while I wouldn't rave about the coffee, their range of hot chocolates sound like they'll be very tempting when the temperatures start to fall.

A little further up Willis St, the corner of Mercer St will soon be getting an Adidas store. According to an article in yesterday's Dominion Post, this will not be a "sports performance outlet" like the one in Auckland, but "a heritage outlet - concentrating on fashion, rediscovering the products of the 1970s and 80s and tweaking them for the 21st century". In other words, more Run DMC than actual running.

Bucks of Wellington, Lambton QuayThe space in the Old Bank Arcade vacated by Vodafone when they moved to their sleek new store across the road has recently re-opened as Bucks of Wellington. Some of the iconography (deer heads and model ships) hints at Rodd & Gunn outdoorsy masculinity, but that's clearly an ironic pose since the stock is much more about men's designer streetwear in a vaguely Area 51 or Good as Gold sense. Perfect for any Lambton Quay workers who might think that what this end of town has been missing is an opportunity to spend $125 on a Space Invaders T-shirt.

Site of new Untouched World store in WellingtonJust off the Golden Mile, that strange little building on the corner of Featherston and Brandon Streets will soon be opening as the Wellington branch of Christchurch-based merino clothing empire Untouched World. While it may not include a Pacific Rim restaurant like its flagship store, they have a reputation for innovative design and a wide-ranging approach to retail (how many clothing manufacturers have an artist in residence?), so it could be a space to watch.

A little further away, S.O.S. has opened near Latitude 41 on Queens Wharf. It's a bit hard to categorise (mostly takeaway sandwiches and drinks, but with hints of dairy or newsagent), but it's good to see one of the spaces that had become ground floor offices being returned to retail use. The old Queens Wharf retail centre was an unmitigated disaster, of course, but that's hardly suprising when the planned 31-storey office tower and apartments next door never materialised. With the Meridian building now only months away, the associated boost in daytime population should make retail even more viable in the Queens Wharf and Kumutoto areas.

Back on Lambton Quay, the big change is the imminent opening of Borders, which some people have been hanging out for for a while. The shelves have been installed, and just looking from the other side of the street at the enormous first floor area gives a good idea of how vast this shop will be.

The former Askew site on Midland Park is also set to reopen, this time as the second branch of t leaf T . There's no word yet on whether it will be strictly retail like the Dukes Arcade shop, or whether they'll also be serving tea to sit-down customers. From the sounds of things, the lack of proper tea service in Wellington cafés (the Chaps would not be impressed) means that there's a gap in the market for a specialist tea shop.

Kinetic Design, Bowen St WellingtonThe retail market changes quite markedly once you get north of here. South of Stout St, it looks like there's only a single street-level space for lease (the Mainly Tramping shop in Manners St) on the entire Golden Mile. Between here and the Beehive there are several large vacant spaces, though only one seems to be visibly for lease: the former home of Lambton Magazines, which closed quite suddenly late last year. There's been a lot of shuffling around here, with shops sometimes moving just a few metres along the street. One of these was Quay Computers, whose former premises around the corner in Bowen St have just been taken over by Kinetic Design, a retailer that seems to specialise in knockoffs of pieces inspired by classic modernist furniture. Barcelona chairs for about $1500? Shhh, no-one tell Peter Bromhead!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Courtroom drama

According to yesterday's Dominion Post, "Architects [are] in uproar over [the] Supreme Court building". What, all of them? Well, if you combine that article with one from last November, a total of three architectural lecturers have actually said they oppose the design, and another has spoken out against the process. I'm not close enough to the architectural community to know whether that's the general consensus, but I don't think that it quite constitutes an uproar.

My first and second thoughts on the design were vaguely positive, but I have to admit I'm less so now. I don't agree with Judi Keith-Brown that it's "quite horrible and a real lemon", or with Peter Cresswell that it's "supreme crap": it's just a bit underwhelming for what should be a building of national importance. It would actually make a very pleasant suburban library, of the sort that Warren and Mahoney are getting a name for, or a small low-rise commercial building with considerably more élan than usual. It would sit very nicely in Wanganui, and as someone once pointed out to me, something remarkably similar already does. But it doesn't say "Supreme Court" to me.

Elevations of the proposed NZ Supreme CourtMy objections are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Keith-Brown's: she says it's too big, but I believe it's too timid and deferential to the old building, and it needs to respond much more boldly to Lambton Quay and the Beehive. I think I can see where W&M were coming from by designing the courtroom itself as a sculptural ovoid clad in rich materials, but surrounded by a transparent rectangular box so that it fits the urban grid. But the ovoid is too small, and the box not transparent enough due to the heavy copper screen, so that from most angles it appears that the most interesting parts would disappear from public view, leaving the impression of a tame and conventional building. As for the park: it was always intended to be temporary, and as I said nearly a year ago when the site was announced, it has never been particularly good. Besides, with its proximity to Parliament grounds, the Government Building gardens and the forecourts of Rutherford House and the Railway Station, this is a part of town that doesn't lack for green space.

Where I do agree wholeheartedly with the objections is that this should have been the subject of a competition. A Supreme Court isn't just a courtroom and judges' chambers, but a national symbol. A competition, possibly international, would have made it less likely for the process to be dominated by the judges and the Historic Places Trust. This design will result in a decent building, but the purpose and the location call for something much more.

Monday, February 19, 2007

No Go Wellington

Where is When Infratil took over Stagecoach Wellington, I was cautiously optimistic: after all, who wouldn't prefer our buses to be owned by a local company rather than a multinational with an atrocious industrial relations reputation? The service was rebranded Go Wellington and got a bright new livery; they sponsored the Cuba St Carnival and promised us smart cards and extra services. What we got was chaos, angst, blame, embarrassment and recriminations.

It's all supposed to have been caused by a botched new rostering system, but one has to wonder: what about the recent industrial action? What about Infratil's threats to get out of the local market if the regulatory system isn't to their liking? Is this part of the sort of brinksmanship and infighting that saw the fate of the trolleybuses go to the (ahem) wire? I haven't the energy or the inside knowledge to speculate, but it's pretty clear who suffers: us.

If that's not enough, we're so short of trains that we're raiding the museums for replacements. With the half-finished bypass still in a confusing limbo, it may be too early to blame it for recent traffic congestion as some have done, but it hardly looks like $40m well spent at the moment. It's flattering when visitors from other parts of New Zealand say things like "public transport that actually works! Wellington feels like a proper city: the sort they have in other countries", but it really looks like we're throwing away our geographic advantages and the investments of previous generations.

I can't offer any solutions for the short-term cockups, but one thing's for sure: the Regional Council needs to stop setting insipid goals about "convincing commuters to get out of their cars" while spending all their money on new roads. Commuters already want to get out of their cars and onto trains and buses: the problem is that there aren't any.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Neues Bauen

Model from Neues Bauen exhibitionStarting this Wednesday, the School of Architecture will be hosting a travelling exhibition of seminal modern architecture. Neues Bauen International 1927|2002 highlights some of the most influential works by architects such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. There's more information and images available on the website of the Institute for Cultural Relations.

While it would be rash to put it in the same league as such architectural icons, the Wellington region's most recent "Neues Bauen" shows distinct modernist sensibilities. The New Dowse (sorry, TheNewDowse) is not strictly a new building, but it's a significant extension and restructuring of the original, and from what I could make out among the crowds at its opening yesterday, it seems highly successful. There's perhaps a hint of Koolhaas in all the outsized supergraphics and contrasting slick and humble materials, but at heart it's still strictly modernist, like all the best Hutt buildings. On a fine day, the bright yellow paint shines through the open panels of Simon Morris' algorithmically perforated Rainscreen and vibrates against the sky, but I can't help but think that with the panels closed on a cold winter's day, it will feel more like a hostile steel bunker.

TheNewDowse on opening dayDespite that, and the fact that it's too much to expect one revamped building to bring a civic heart to the scattered mess of Lower Hutt Central, I really liked it for its combination of unapologetically rigorous forms and playfully applied decoration. I'd like to say more about the actual contents, but it was hard to see or hear much on the day, and the Droog Design exhibition was roped off from the milling hordes, but it'll certainly be worth a return visit.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mystery bar number 55

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It took a while to get the exact name, but the previous mystery bar was Plate at the recently opened Holiday Inn. I don't know about you, but for me the brand "Holiday Inn" conjures up images of dingy brown carpets and noisy wood-veneered ice-makers in the corridors, not sleek design and good cocktails. But Wellington's one is supposed to be the prototype for a rebranding and move upmarket for the chain, and they've gone to great lengths to change their image. That includes a restaurant and bar designed by Tom Skyring of Dine and Mikano fame (though I have it on good authority that his input amounted to a few sketches, with most of the work done by the good people at Studio of Pacific Architecture) and bar training by the staff at Hawthorn Lounge. That all seems to have paid off, though it remains to be seen whether locals can get over the brand and the less-than-intimate lobby to realise that there's a really rather good new bar and restaurant on the corner of Featherston and Whitmore streets.

Mystery bar #55 - tables and wallBy contrast, today's mystery bar doesn't seem to have gone to any special effort to bring in design talent or top-notch mixology. Oh, it's certainly been designed, but there are no fancy Verner Panton chandeliers here, mate: just a vague attempt to make it look like a shearing shed with some wooden beams and corrugated iron. And although they were advertising an upcoming cocktail night, it appeared that you'd have to make your own. Besides, Speights would do just fine for most of the customers.

There's a big smokers' area, but other than that, light and sunshine are not its strong points, and windows are a rarity. The rural theme only goes so far (you wouldn't find rows of pokies, neon beer ads and a giant screen playing Nickelback in many shearing sheds), and overall it's a bit of a mishmash. That confusion extends to the name, which might even conjure up yuppie associations in contrast to the staunch "Balcultha tribe" iconography. But its longevity shows that it must have a strong and loyal following.

Mystery bar #55 - pool table and pokies

Party weekend

If you've waded your way through all the serious urban planning and transport stuff I've written this week, you'll be ready for some relaxation and looking forward to the weekend. You may have already read the fair Martha's listing of fairs, carnivals and festivals that are on the way, and this weekend is especially busy, since on Saturday you'll have to choose between the Big Bang at the freshly renovated Dowse and the Fricnic at Frank Kitts Park. I never thought I'd say this, but I think the Hutt wins out on this one: sorry Fricnic, but you don't have a brand-new Athfields building to perve at.

Mai Tai in a pienapple - from ImbibeTonight's pretty busy too, with at least three gigs that the Texture people are drooling over. But the big one will be tomorrow night, with a Mai-Tai-tastic Tiki party down at Imbibe. The new owners there have already been tending towards tikiness, but this will take it to the next level, with music, decor and drinks (in pineapples!) all conspiring to transport you to a tropical island paradise. And if you pop over to the Wellingtonista and let the chief Tiki-fiend Hadyn know, he may be able to get you on the Extra Special Cocktail List. It's not a permanent tiki bar yet, but it's a step (or at least a drunken stagger) in the right direction.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Reviewing the review

Map of Wellington's Central AreaI've been wondering what happened to the Central Area Review since submissions closed on it last November. It turns out that after receiving 90 formal submissions, the council is now asking for more feedback: in effect, submissions on the submissions. You have until the 12th of March to make your views known, then a formal hearing of submissions will be held before the middle of the year, followed by a commissioners' decision which has to be ratified by the full Council. The same applies to some other district plan changes, such as the Urban Development Area & Structure Plans and the Heritage Provisions. The timeframe seems painfully drawn out, and although it's apparently standard practice for district plan changes, the more cynical among us might wonder whether it's designed to allow developers to get in now and build things that wouldn't be allowed under the new plans.

Trawling through reams of policies, rules, guidelines and submissions can seem like a daunting task, but if you read them carefully the submissions can be quite revealing. Sure, much of it is quite predictable: the heritage mavens want every piece of timber that's survived a few decades to be preserved in aspic, while the developers scream "how dare you infringe my private property rights by not letting me tear down historic buildings and shade the public spaces?!" However, some of the submissions (363kB PDF) might be a first hint as to what people have in mind for their properties, so let's look at a few of the more interesting ones.

It's easy to assume that any property owner objecting to heritage provisions must be a rapacious developer, but objections also came from Wellington Wesley Parish (#88), the St James Theatre Charitable Trust (#20) and Downstage Theatre (#23). The church might want to modify their hall or built on their vacant land, while "the site behind the St James Theatre is an asset held in trust for the future viability and development of the St James Theatre and the Opera House". I take this as meaning that whether or not the trust has any concrete plans to develop that site, the development potential of a site is an asset in itself and might be used as collateral to keep the trust going. That's possibly a sign to be cautious and not read too much into any of these submissions: an objection to development limits may not indicate any actual intent to develop.

Changes to Willis/Ghuznee intersection after the bypassMany residents of St Peters Apartments at 192 Willis St (see submission #25) object to the post-bypass rezoning of the motorway tunnel entrance and Ghuznee St intersection as Central Area with a height limit of 27 metres, and want the land developed as park space instead. It looks like the space will be neither, though, since Transit insists that the land will still be needed for roading and emergency access, with a bit of token landscaping around the edges ("parsley around the pig"). I'd like to think that Transit could still get their emergency access and yet create a useful public area there: a paved plaza could provide space for an open air weekend market once the one further up Willis St succumbs to the inevitable development. The recent removal of planting along Ghuznee St is presumably just to allow for insertion of a turning lane there, so we shouldn't read too much into that.

Two submitters take quite different positions on the vacant land adjacent to other parts of the bypass. Roland Sapsford (#80) asks for "land adjacent to the bypass be zoned to encourage lowscale development in keeping with the heritage character of the area", while Steve Dunn (#70) wants "all edges of the bypass from Arthur Street to the tunnel that are not currently built on" to be zoned Open Space". I have to side with Roland on this one: one of the things I hate about Karo Drive is its bleak, open, suburban feeling, and I agree with a commenter that "it still looks like a fresh scar". Defining the edges with low- to mid-rise (2-4 storey) buildings would do much more to integrate it into the urban fabric than creating more parks, which in any case would be too small to be of much real use.

Burnt-out remains of Footscray Ave cottageDr Marko Kljakovic (#26) was concerned about "the financial implications of reducing building heights" and wanted the removal of "the Footscray Ave cottages located on 65-69 Abel Smith St, Te Aro from the proposed Cuba Street Heritage Area." You may remember that Dr Kljakovic was recently seriously injured in an explosion and fire that destroyed one of those very cottages, after using a candle to see his way through a house full of paint thinners at 10pm on a Sunday night.

The Warehouse Ltd (#75) wants twice as much parking as the plan allows, and seems worried by the restrictions on signage. That's worth bearing in mind now that they're looking for a new central city location.

Some submitters (#73, #50, #30) don't like sunlight protection and heritage status for Courtenay Place because that will limit what they can do with their buildings, including those that house Molly Malone's, Espressoholic and Chow. Three submissions (#58-60) all wanted 264-266, 244-250, 236-242, 257-259, 267-273, 275-283 Cuba St and 45 Abel Smith St, in other words pretty much everything south of Fidels, all removed from the Cuba St heritage area. Another objector (#21) wanted the existing maximum heights retained on a range of Te Aro properties, including the homes of Fidels, Illicit and Miss Demeanour (who is already worried about rent rises). While none of these submissions may indicate any specific intention to redevelop, they sound rather suspicious and will give most Wellingtonians another reason to support the new plan!

On submitter (#70) wanted noise limits for "electronic sound systems" in public spaces reduced from 75dBA to 10dBA! For comparison, a typewriter or normal conversation is 70dB, a fridge is 50dB and a mosquito buzzes at 40dB. The man obviously has some kind of super powers if 10dB is going to keep him awake.

Most property owners and developers objected to any loss of buildable volume, but Museum Hotel Properties (#43) in particular wanted to retain a building mass factor of 100%, and also wanted to "define Public Environment to exclude loss of amenity to adjacent building owners or strata title owners." Can we assume that they have plans to build right up to the property edge somewhere and block another building's windows?

The Ministry for Culture & Heritage (#39) says that the plan "should recognise that a National War Memorial Park is proposed for the land in Buckle St between Taranaki St and Tory/Tasman Sts and that the above provisions need to accommodate the creation of the proposed park." That certainly confirms what I wrote earlier about the site.

Progressive Enterprises Ltd (#67, owners of Foodtown, Woolworths and Countdown) wanted the rules "amended to better accommodate and recognise the appropriate provision of large format retail within the Central Area and the relevant operational and other characteristics of large format retail." None of those businesses currently operate in the Central Area, so could this be a hint? Their rivals Foodstuffs Ltd (#19, owners of New World) specifically asked for "the flexible implementation of the display window/active building edge standards when existing buildings that do not have display windows are being adapted for new uses". This seems like a clear reference to their intended conversion of the old A-mart building into a Duffy & Finns liquor superstore. They earlier announced that they were working with the council to "produce the very best design concept", but since blank walls along a central city street is not exactly "the very best design concept", this seems just a tiny bit of a contradiction.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Back on track: fixing the strategy

As you can see on the countdown in my sidebar, this Friday is the deadline for submissions on the Wellington Regional Land Transport Strategy and Regional Passenger Transport Plan. These could be among the most important decisions made for the future of the Wellington region, and I believe they're getting it terribly wrong. I've written at length before about the shortcomings of these strategies and the madness of spending 90% of new capacity investment on roads, so I won't repeat the arguments here.

But Option 3 are helping you get involved, and they've prepared a printable submission form (119kB PDF) for you to send in. If you want to use Greater Wellington's online form instead, but would like to include some of Option 3's detailed concrete suggestions, I've extracted them from the PDF and added them below so that you can paste them into the form.

. . .

I want the Council to make the following changes:
  • I want the regional council to take climate change seriously and start now to give people more climate-friendly transport options.
  • The top priority for the regional land transport strategy ought to be vastly improved rail and bus services and facilities, together with much easier and safer walking and cycling.
  • Major investment in better public transport, walking and cycling is necessary and needs to happen first, before any investment in big roading projects.
  • At least half of the planned investment in additional services and facilities over the next ten years ought to be going on public transport, walking and cycling.
  • I would like to see the following specific proposals included in the regional land transport strategy as actions to be completed in the next 10 years:
Overall Improvements
  • Purchase sufficient new, easy-to-board rail units to meet growing demand on all lines
  • Increase bus and train frequency and reliability for all services
  • introduce genuine express services on the Hutt and Kapiti rail lines
  • Increase park and ride capacity and improve access and lighting at train stations
  • Increase reliability and frequency of bus services linking to train services
  • Introduce 'taxi-train' and 'taxi-bus' tickets for late night door-to-door service
  • Provide reliable real-time information at all well-used bus and train stops
  • Introduce 'single ticket' travel so people can change services without paying more
  • Allow bicycles on trains for no charge and trial free bike/pram racks on buses
  • Increase cycle parking and storage at stations and in urban areas
  • Focus roading investment on safety improvements for all road users
  • Give pedestrians priority in inner-city areas and increase use of 30 km/hr zones
Infrastructure Investment: Kapiti
  • Build a two-way rail tunnel from Pukerua Bay to Paekakariki
  • Create a walking and cycling track on the old rail route
  • Double-track rail lines from McKay's Crossing to Waikanae
  • Extend electric rail services to Otaki
  • Introduce express passing tracks south of Plimmerton
  • Provide new stations, starting with Raumati South and Lindale
Infrastructure Investment: Hutt Valley
  • Double-track rail lines from Trentham to Timberlea, helping eliminate clashes between Wairarapa and Upper Hutt services
  • Extend the electrified service to Timberlea and then to the Wairarapa
  • Introduce express passing tracks
  • Provide a light rail connection across the Hutt Valley between Melling and Waterloo
  • Provide more and better cycleways
Infrastructure Investment: Wellington
  • Add a small amount of extra track so Kapiti and Hutt lines can continue as separate lines into the Wellington station (rather than merge at Kaiwharawhara) to help eliminate peak-time delays
  • Extend the reach of rail services by introducing a light rail link, initially between Wellington Station and Courtenay Place
  • Create a downtown check-in and airport shuttle for Wellington airport users
  • Introduce more orbital bus services so it is easier to travel directly between suburbs
  • Complete the "Great Harbour" cycle and walkway linking Lambton Harbour and Eastbourne

Monday, February 12, 2007

Density done right: Fountain Court

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In my previous examples of good medium- to high-density residential buildings, I've covered a range of styles, periods and typologies, from narrow yet detached Edwardian houses to contemporary high rise. A style that I've missed so far is one that's by no means typical, but surprisingly common in Wellington: medium-rise Art Deco apartment buildings. There are good examples scattered around the place (on The Terrace, in the Aro Valley and Mt Victoria), but one of my favourites is the Fountain Court flats at 48-54 Oriental Parade.

Fountain Court flats, Oriental Parade, WellingtonAt three storeys, it's hardly imposing, yet it gives quite a high density. The broad U-shaped plan provides light and views, yet the way that it's built right to the street edge allows for a fairly high site coverage. There's also scope for shared social spaces, in the courtyard, on the roof and in the open staircases inside, something that's missing from a lot of recent apartment blocks with their anonymous, hotel-like corridors. Even buildings with such spaces often struggle to generate any inter-apartment social life, but from what I can gather (including some very interesting parties), this is certainly a place to be sociable.

Fountain Court flats, Oriental Parade, Wellington - detail of fountain and courtyardI'm no architectural historian, and I haven't been able to find out much about its origins, but I'd say this falls towards the Moderne end of the Art Deco spectrum, since it lacks streamlining, setbacks and flamboyant detail. In fact, apart from some simple mouldings and elegant railings, it looks much more like an austere post-War Modernist building. It owes its character and appeal to the court itself, with its tiled fountain and greenery. This much more than the token light well that gets reluctantly shoved into recent apartment blocks: it's wide enough to open up to the street and views, while providing a privacy transition and giving the the building as a whole a sense of identity. While I don't think I've ever seen the fountain actually working, it gives the courtyard a focus, and although there's no "garden" as such, the plants soften the building and help screen the ground floor apartments from the street.

I've often said that one of the challenges that New Zealand faces in making a transition to more compact cities is that we lack a tradition of high-density urban living. While it's true that Wellington's inner residential neighbourhoods offer surprisingly high density by the standards of detached dwellings, we certainly have very few pre-War examples of terraced housing or apartments, and blocks like Fountain Court stand out as relatively rare.

In fact, it feels distinctly foreign, almost like something you might find in California or parts of Europe rather than in good old New Zild. A neighborhood consisting of similar examples would be unmistakably urban, without being part of the CBD, and courtyards like could this provide a range of options for shared facilities (gardens, swimming pools, tennis courts) that would make this sort of living appeal to a wider range of people. It's hard to imagine a developer spontaneously sacrificing so many lucrative square metres, but perhaps the volume restrictions in the new Central Area rules will make typologies like this more of an option in the future.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Kumutoto update

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Kumutoto, showing the tug wharf before work starts on renovations, and the Meridian building under constructionWork has begun in earnest on the public spaces at Kumutoto, and from tomorrow a section of the Tug Wharf Promenade (the name of which speaks volumes about the transition from a working port to expectations of leisure) will be closed for up to four months to allow it to be rebuilt. The Dominion Post managed to get its closure notice last week completely wrong, with the alarming news that the waterfront promenade would be closed all the way from Shed 5 to Waitangi Park. They published the correct information yesterday: as this map shows, the closure will be from just north of Shed 5 to opposite Whitmore St, and judging by the location of the barriers, initially it will still be possible to walk past the Loaded Hog.

Alternative routes around Kumutoto tug wharf promenadeWhen I last wrote about it in December, renderings of the updated public space designs weren't yet online, but there's now a page on the WWL website with a full description and images. Bear in mind that the renderings concentrate on the public spaces: they leave the Meridian building looking much blockier and blander than it will be, and don't show the yet-to-be designed Site 8 building at all. They also show a sculpture in Kumutoto Plaza, but nothing specific has been designed yet, so the images are just indicative of its general size and location.

Apart from the new tower element on the bridge and the removal of the low-level pontoons, the main changes in this revised design from the earlier versions are around Kumutoto Plaza and the mouth of Kumutoto stream. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the two versions (the scale might not be exactly the same), with the new version on the left and the previous one on the right.

Kumutoto plaza designs: new version (Dec 06) on the left, old on the rightThere would originally have been a grille across the stream, so that you could walk over it and look down at the water, but for a number of practical and design reasons this has been dropped in favour of a simple series of terraces stepping down to the sea. The area immediately to the north of the Meridian building gets a complex arrangement of concrete and timber platforms, thus providing sheltered seating options at many different levels. Kumutoto Plaza itself gets a different arrangement of trees and benches, and while there will still be some raised planters it looks like the small raised lawn will go. Some might miss that, but it's likely that hard surfaces would me more practical in this sort of context anyway.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Shops that pass in the night 11

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The Wellington development in upper Cuba St - nearing completionCuba Street is continuing to evolve, and some of the shifting around is due to big changes at the upper end. We're yet to see much activity around Car-O Drive, but the first retail units in The Wellington complex are just coming on line. The first retailer to move in was unsurprising, as the superette has just shifted back a couple of doors from the temporary location it used during the development. But the next move might seem unexpected: Eyeball Kicks is shifting from its Ghuznee St home.

I say that it's unexpected, because some people (including me) have worried that the shops in the new units will not be as independent, characterful or otherwise "Cuba Street" as they had been. That was partly due to the cost of the rebuilding driving up rents, and partly because of the developer's statements that the bypass would "improve" upper Cuba St: something that sounds very much like code for making it slicker and more lucrative. While "The Kick" could be described as an upmarket boutique (especially if you've thought about buying one of their limited-edition prints or collectibles), it certainly fits in with the sort of store that once inhabited the same spaces (such as Boudelicious or Hunters & Collectors). That's an encouraging sign for upper Te Aro, and it'll be interesting to see what opens in the remaining spaces, most of which appear to have been leased already.

Miss Demeanour in Cuba St - from http://www.flickr.com/photos/tremeglan/372159768/Another "very Cuba Street" shop is Miss Demeanour down at number 160. While they've no plans to leave anytime soon, the owner Jennie Woodford was quoted in the Dominion Post about the effect of rent rises, and said "If someone comes in with a really good offer I know that I will be without a livelihood. I will not be able to get somewhere else with such a good rent." Real estate agents are confident that increasing foot traffic, and hence turnover, will offset the rent rises, though I'm not so sure for some of the more specialised or marginal businesses.

The article quoted another concerned Cuba St person: "Cheap rents attract funky new businesses. These businesses give the street its reputation. With Cuba St popular, people come to experience the atmosphere created by these cool little places. What happens when high rents force them out to somewhere cheaper? We might lose our soul." Well said. Interestingly, that quote was from architect Karen Krogh, who owns the building next door to Miss Demeanour and plans to demolish it for an eight-storey apartment building. Can we take it from the quote that Krogh's dedication to Cuba St will extend to keeping the rents in the replacement retail tenancy low, and not just putting pictures of Che Guevara on the facade?

A sprawling argument

My anti-sprawl stance has come in for a bit of flak from Peter Cresswell, who says that my arguments demonstrate a "sneering mixture of envy and myth". I'll try to ignore the irony of being called "sneering" by someone who refers to "Al Bore" and calls Colin James a "dickhead", and respond to the specific points that he raises.

First, though, there's a limit to how far I can push the debate with someone who, as an extreme libertarian, makes individual freedom of choice the object of an almost religious reverence. I certainly believe that human liberty is a worthy principle, but I also believe that the decisions made by individuals are fallible, emotional, instinctive, subject to imperfect information and inflected by stories that a society tells to itself (such as "the American Dream" or "the Kiwi Way"). "Choice" is not a supreme spiritual power but the product of competing desires and calculations, and it is influenced by shared values, peer pressure and persuasion: otherwise, advertising agencies would not exist.

Humans are also not good at making decisions based upon long-term considerations (there may be an evolutionary reason for this - a hangover from uncertain times when immediate benefits were all that could be relied on). Some would argue that if people's choices lead to personal or collective disaster, then so be it; choice is the supreme virtue. But I'd have to put human wellbeing ahead of an abstract principle, and if collective responsibility (including planning and regulation, if necessary) provides better long-term results for society, then I'm for it.

With those ideological or philosophical differences, there will come a point when rational argument has run its course and we are left with irreconcilable axioms. But here goes.

First, his answer to my insistence that developers pay for the infrastructural costs of sprawl is to call for mass privatisation: "Let infrastructure be provided privately, however, with costs sheeted home to users, and this objection dissolves." But if you carry this through, what does it mean for the "affordability" of houses in new subdivisions? If every home owner has to pay the individual cost of getting his or her house hooked up to water, sewage and electricity, part of the price advantage of greenfield development would disappear. That, of course, is what the developers' contribution is supposed to partially represent, but without the radical privatisation agenda (what Richard Chappell terms "the Libertarian Utopia") that I'd suggest most New Zealanders would not wish to see. And of course, this developers' contribution is one thing that Pavletich and his buddies want to avoid.

When I question the long-term affordability of sprawl, he replies: "isn't the future affordability or unaffordability up to those who choose to live in these sprawling, car-dependent suburbs, and to invest in their own future?" This is the "relax, the market will sort it out" point of view, and it's based upon those assumptions of complete rationality and perfect information that I mentioned earlier. Never mind the consequences when those investment decisions go pear-shaped: the purity of the market is paramount. It's also based on the idea that those decisions have no consequence for anyone else, and thus should be no-one else's business. If everyone in the suburbs worked from home, then there might be something in that, but they don't. More homes further away means more cars coming into the city, which means more space taken up by motorways, "bypasses" and carparks, thus impacting on the quality of life of those who've chosen to live close to the city.

He then quotes the Washington Post on five "myths" about sprawl. For a start, as some of the commenters point out, the article contains some very dubious statistics. Also, the authors are both from the ironically-named "Reason Foundation", which likes to pitch itself as the defender of the little guy against big government, but has a very interesting collection of sponsors (including such put-upon little guys as ExxonMobil, Ford, General Motors and Shell). But let's deal with these "myths" one at a time.

"Myth" #1: Americans are addicted to driving. The article attempts to counter this by saying that cars are just a useful tool for Americans, but having a car in American suburbia is not just "useful" but so indispensable that it would have to count as a dependency. After some dodgy stats aiming to show that Europeans use cars almost as much as Americans (which will be news to anyone who has lived in London), they then go on to claim that "the key factor that affects driving habits isn't population density, public transit availability, gasoline taxes or even different attitudes. It's wealth." In other words, the all-conquering American economy has made Americans wealthy, so why wouldn't they drive?

But that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Wouldn't that mean that in a given city, public transport usage would drop off with personal income? As I showed earlier, that's certainly not the case in Wellington, where well-off people are just as likely to take the bus, and even more likely to use trains, as people on lower incomes. The parts of Wellington from where people drive to work are not the rich suburbs, but low-density ones (like Paparangi, Grenada and Churton Park) far from the public transport corridors.

"Myth" #2: Public transit can reduce traffic congestion. According to the article, even "tripl[ing] the size of [America's] transit system and fill[ing] it with riders ... would not 'notably reduce' rush-hour congestion, primarily because transit would continue to account for only a small percentage of commuting trips". But of course, if you start from the tiny base of most American cities, there's a long way to go. In Wellington, where public transport already makes up a significant proportion of CBD commuter trips (largely because it doesn't sprawl that much), it is possible to reduce congestion. From 2005 to 2006, the number of cars entering the CBD at rush hour decreased by 9%. That may not sound like much, but remember that one of the arguments for the bypass was that it should reduce waterfront traffic by only about half that, and that a few percentage points can make the difference between free-flowing traffic and jams. Over the same period when those 3000 or so cars per morning were removed from the city, public transport morning ridership increased by over 5000 people, so I think it's fair to say that the reduction was due to a shift to transit. Now, of course, with rising fares, easing petrol prices and a transit system that was pushed beyond its capacity, it seems we've missed this particular opportunity to make that a permanent shift, but it shows that public transport can make a difference.

"Myth" #3: We can cut air pollution only if we stop driving. Apparently, cleaner cars will save the day. We certainly should be aiming for better emissions standards, and it seems a little ironic that the pro-market Reason Foundation should trumpet the benefits of government clean air regulations that I don't think their sponsors would have been too keen on. Reducing driving may not be the "only" way to reduce air pollution (notice the straw man?), but it certainly helps.

"Myth" #4: We're paving over America. In a NZ context, Cresswell puts it thus: "If all of NZ's 1,471,476 existing households were to be rebuilt on an acre of land ... we'd all fit in an area less than one-quarter the size of the Waikato". As I mentioned earlier, that might be okay if we never left our little quasi-rural fastnesses. The issue is not how much land is available in New Zealand, but how much is available close to where people work. Housing all of Auckland's current population at that density would take twice its current area, without even allowing for workspaces, industry or shared public space (a concept that I presume is anathema to proper libertarians). They claim that building on environmentally valuable land is not on their agenda, so with Auckland forced to squeeze out between those and the sea, those at the far edges would have to put up with very, very long commutes.

"Myth" #5: We can't deal with global warming unless we stop driving. Another straw man there: reducing transport-related emissions is one important part of the response, but no-one says it should be the only one. It's interesting to see Cresswell state that "livestock are a greater 'threat' to the planet than our cars", given the apoplectic response of his Libertarianz friends to the so-called "fart tax". He then goes on to take what I call "the Peter Brown line": "even if you take seriously the alarmism of the warmists, that's not going to stop everyone driving, particularly not the drivers in China and India who are just going to go right on getting rich and driving more". I take that to mean that because NZ as a whole is only a small producer of greenhouse gases, it's up to bigger countries to do something about it.

That makes as much sense as saying that because, say, everyone with a first name of "Peter" only produces a small percentage of gases between them, they can't make a difference. Every gram of carbon dioxide matters, no matter where or by whom it's produced. And because we start from a much higher base, each of us can make more of a difference that someone in the developing world. For instance, driving 25km each way every day in a large car can generate well over a tonne of CO2 in a year. That's more than a person in many developing countries generates through all his or her activities, not just transport.

He ends with the classic libertarian argument: "the only thing to do is ensure that price signals here reflect the true realities, and leave people free to choose." That, of course, presupposes that people have a choice, and in the far-flung outposts of suburbia there is currently little option besides driving. When petrol prices went up last year, those people were no doubt envious of others living within walking distance of good public transport. That's why I argue that cities require an element of planning ahead, regardless of the short-term decisions made by individuals: urban form and infrastructure can't just change overnight in response to "price signals", but take years to implement. It's not like switching brands of toothpaste.

And finally, we come to the argument that started it all: "What the anti-sprawlists are doing with their restrictions on development is making housing unaffordable for every first-home buyer, and pushing up rent and mortage payments for everyone else." Part of my problem with this argument is that it equates "living" with "housing": what's the point of a cheaper house if the cost of getting there outweighs the saving? This study (2.3MB PDF) shows that a more a metropolitan area sprawls, the more its residents have to pay for transport. In some of these areas (including Houston, Atlanta and Kansas City) households spend more on transport than on shelter. Within metropolitan areas (the word "cities" doesn't seem appropriate), residents of outer suburbs pay almost twice as much as those living closer in, and places with fewer public transport choices have the highest transportation expenditures. Some lenders in the US are now taking advantage of this by offering "Location Efficient Mortgages", allowing people to buy more expensive homes in locations where they won't need to rely solely on cars, because they'll have more available income.

The argument also relies on the idea that greenfield land is cheap to buy and develop. But one of the reasons that rural land is cheap is that zoning restricts what you can do with it! The moment that the zoning comes off, the value will shoot up and its "affordability" will diminish.

Rod Oram also pointed out in the Sunday Star Times something that I alluded to earlier: the more expensive cities are also the most successful and desirable ones. That could mean that when a city is a good place to live, it attracts new residents and thus drives up prices. Or, those cities that offer "affordable" housing through sprawl become so unattractive that they slide down the quality of life scale, not just for those buying cheaply but for everyone. Do we really want to make our cities horrible places to live in a vain attempt to make housing cheaper?

Of course, choice is always going to play a vital role in where people live, but as I've said, the factors behind any individual's choice are varied and complex. That's part of the reason that WellUrban is what it is: by celebrating the richness of urban life, I hope to go some small way towards countering any anti-urban prejudices that linger on from the days when cities were rife with crime, cholera and pollution. By pointing out good examples of high-density housing, I try to counter the perception that the only alternative to suburbia is ugly concrete boxes. I don't (usually) rant on about the evils of suburbia, or tell people that they should live more closely just because it's good for their health or the environment: I want to show that compact cities are great places to live.

Attitudes are changing, as are household sizes, ethnic composition and transport costs, and in time living in a medium- to high-density mixed-use nieghbourhood will become a lifestyle choice for more and more people. But in the meantime, a combination of tradition, "quarter-acre paradise" mythology, advertising, politics, misinformation and a lack of imagination on the part of developers will continue to restrict what the "market" wants and is provided with. To prevent that short-term market causing long-term damage to the environment and our cities, some planning and regulation is required.